BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Monday, March 19, 2012

Notes from Paradise

Iris in paradise: footloose and cell phone-free 
By Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) Updated March 18, 2012 12:00 AM  

On a clear February morning, under a glistening yellow sun and an emerald blue sky, I boarded Aurora, a 72-foot wooden boat, from the northern Palawan island of Coron.

It was the beginning of a once-in-a lifetime, weeklong adventure into some of the most remote islands in this part of the province.

With 20 other travelers from different corners of the world – two French guys, a young Swede, a newly married German couple, a number of Australians, an American, a Korean and the all-Filipino boat crew, 

I surrendered to the adventure and bade my daily routine of deadlines, emails and Blackberry messages goodbye. Even the early morning cappuccino ritual had to go.

There’s no lack of warnings from the organizer of the trip, Tao Philippines, a group that offers bespoke remote island expeditions between Coron and El Nido, a journey of roughly 150 kilometers.

“Our expeditions are not for everyone. We emphasize that this is not a tour. We have no set route or itinerary. We leave port after breakfast on the first day and arrive before nightfall in the destination port on the last day. What happens in between is up to you,” Tao Philippines said on its website.

Set up by Eddie Brocks, a half-Filipino who hails from the northern Philippines, and his British buddy Jack Foottit, Tao Philippines takes travelers to unchartered territories, places off the beaten track.

The expeditions go to the Linapacan group of islands, a group of 200 islands on the 150-kilometer route between El Nido and Coron in Palawan.

The group of islands,as Tao described it, is an “undiscovered paradise which hides hundreds of white sand beaches lapping with aqua marine water, a wild landscape of coconut forests and thick wild jungle, pristine coral reefs teeming with sea life.”

The night before we boarded the boat, our expedition leader, a sun-tanned woman named Zaza, said in a briefing at the rustic Tao office in Coron that the success of the journey largely depends on us.

“It can be life-changing,” Zaza said enigmatically, her sun-roasted hair rolled up nonchalantly, revealing what seemed to me a celestial tattoo on her nape.

Before the briefing ended, Zaza closed with a seemingly noncommittal stance from Tao. “Hey, remember guys, you signed up for this.”

Hearing her words, I thought twice. Thrice or even four times. I wondered how I would survive living on the boat for five days with no idea where we would be going.

I thought there was still time to back out, to just stay in Coron and settle for the safe and typical island-hopping tours offered by the hundreds of fishermen-turned-tourist guides.

But in my twenties some years ago, I had been a regular of Palawan doing those manicured island-hopping trips. I would board a chartered plane from Manila, land in El Nido and get ferried off to a private island resort. I would enjoy the usual activities that tourists around the world die for: snorkeling and enjoying Palawan’s coral reefs; doing beginner dives; kayaking; feasting on seafood or simply bathing in the scorching sun and getting my skin tanned.

I thought I’d try something different.

“It could be a life-changing trip,” Zaza’s words echoed in my mind.

True enough, the adventure proved to be a real one, in every sense of the word.

For five days, I was in real paradise – not the manicured kind but a universe of pristine white sand beaches, the most remote and untouched islands I’ve ever set foot on and a seemingly eternal stretch of turquoise color sea.

The breeze is crisp and the sun, a constant gentle kiss.

Tao Philippines did not disappoint when it promised to bring us to islands where there are no tourists except Tao travelers.

On the first day of the expedition, we traveled for hours before putting down anchor on a small island with no electricity, no running water, no tourists, no guesthouses or air-conditioned rooms; just huts on stilts, crystal clear water and sugary pink sand.

It was our first “base camp” as Zaza called it. We would be spending the night here. Travelers get to choose between tents or mattresses with clean sheets and mosquito nets. We would bring nothing except the things we would need for the night. Our hulking backpacks stayed inside the boat.

We put our stuff in our small dry sacks because we would either swim to the shore or wade through the water, depending on the tide. Forget about mobile phones, Blackberrys or iPads. There’s no signal in this corner of the world.

We arrived just as the sun was saying goodbye. And before I could get off the boat, I froze at the breathtaking view of the crimson sun disappearing into the horizon, leaving a glitter of what seemed like a million diamond studs on the deep blue sea.

On this island, we could do whatever our pleasure was, as long as we were “home” by dinner.
Foreign travelers who craved for the beach wasted no time getting wet. They swam, they kayaked, they snorkeled and yeah, truth be told, they played in the water like children left alone in paradise.

Some played beach volleyball while others climbed a small hill on the back of the island to catch the last few seconds of the setting sun.

In between the play and dinner, we just gathered around the dinner table, sipping ice-cold beer and a concoction of pineapple juice and rum. We were all on cloud 9, savoring paradise under a moonlit sky.

Dinner, served on a wooden table surrounded by bamboo torches, was a gastronomic pleasure of grilled fish and vegetable salad.

After dinner, the all-Filipino crew led by Zaza – Marlon, Adrian, Chance – joined the guests in a long night of music. Chance, a regular performer in one of the bars in El Nido, played the bongo drums and the guitar, which he always brings during expeditions.

Music, booze, a smorgasbord of seafood and good company, plus sun, sea, sand or moonlit skies and never-ending laughter and banter – all this in Paradise. And it would go on over the next five days. We went from one remote island to another, inside local fishing villages and small community-run day care centers supported by Tao Philippines.

The typical day starts with breakfast in the base camps. Some early risers braved the cold waters for a morning swim even before drinking coffee and then packed away their tents just before breakfast is served or immediately after.

Each base camp is unique. One village is enclosed in an idyllic lake while another remote island is home to a community of fishermen.

There’s no turning back once we’ve left a base camp. The expedition goes on to another destination. In between, the boat docks in one, two or three small far-flung islands for the travelers to jump off and enjoy shipwreck or coral reef dives. We saw hidden lagoons and waterfalls and on some days, the braver souls jumped off cliffs, ripping through the waters down below.

On some afternoons, in between the swims and the island hops, we simply lounged on the top deck of Aurora, bathing under the sun.

There’s no lack of gastronomic pleasures on board the boat. Grilled fish, sautéed prawns, fresh vegetables, crabs, salads and unlimited rice satisfied our palates the whole time. In between meals, we had brewed coffee, fruits, native delights and ice-cold beer.

I always looked forward to dinner when we often ate beside the campfire, under a moonlit sky. After eating, we drank our ice-cold booze and exchange stories from our faraway homes. It was just us, some villagers and the all-Filipino crew. Our laughter and banter echoed in the night along with the sound of crickets and the rhythm of the waves.

The last base camp, just 20 minutes away from El Nido mainland, is one of the homes of Tao Philippines. Here, women from the nearby fishing village treated us to a night of massage. It is one of the livelihood projects of Tao Philippines.

In the morning, we sailed again and spent the last afternoon in a secret beach, a paradise enclosed and totally hidden from the open sea. The water is a magnificent shade of electric blue, lined on one side by pristine white sand.

Here, I lazed on a decrepit sundeck chair and closed my eyes. I wanted to savor the last moments of the expedition. Now if only I could dream of Einstein’s Dreams, bend the time and stay in this moment of pure island bliss.