travel: the tao of prom­ise

Re­vive flag­ging spir­its by re­viv­ing an­cient sail­ing tra­di­tions in the Philip­pines.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CONTENTS - By Dun­can For­gan

a ter­ri­ble scream punc­tures the still trop­i­cal night. The sound is all the more jar­ring given its con­text. We are on our sec­ond night of a sail­ing ex­pe­di­tion around one of the most beau­ti­ful parts of one of the last fron­tiers in South­east Asia, the Philip­pine province of Palawan. So far, the trip has been as har­mo­nious as an ex­pertly drilled choir. Not any more.

As I ap­proach the source of the noise, a tum­ble­down shack shrouded by tow­er­ing co­conut palms, things get even more wor­ry­ing. The tiny build­ing glows a sa­tanic shade of red, and I see fore­bod­ing shapes mak­ing fren­zied move­ments within through the small, stained win­dows.

Steel­ing my­self with an ad­di­tional shot of Tan­d­uay Rum—a po­tent lu­bri­cant ideal for stress­ful sit­u­a­tions such as th­ese—i make my way through the door and come face to face with my dis­cor­dant neme­sis. Creep­ing gin­gerly into the main room, I spy one of our group’s fe­male mem­bers glee­fully mur­der­ing “Can’t Buy Me Love” by The Bea­tles as the rest of our col­lec­tive and the crew mug er­rat­i­cally in drunken sup­port.

Closer in­spec­tion of the song­book at this, pos­si­bly the most re­mote karaoke bar in the Philip­pines, re­veals plenty of hoary old chest­nuts by the likes of ’70s soft rock spe­cial­ists like Bread and Amer­ica.

There’s noth­ing by The Pogues or The Clash, how­ever, which is a shame, as th­ese are the mu­si­cal ref­er­ence points most in keep­ing with the ethos of our hosts for the trip, Tao Philip­pines.

Yo ho ho and a bot­tle of... Like the afore­men­tioned mu­si­cal col­lec­tives, the band of broth­ers (and a cou­ple of honorary sis­ters) who make up the Tao fam­ily have more than a mod­icum of rebel cred­i­bil­ity. Led by best mates Jack Footit, an English­man, and Ed­die Brock, a Fil­ipino, who founded the com­pany in 2005 as a means of ferrying their friends around the re­mote is­lands that lie be­tween Coron and El Nido in the north­ern reaches of Palawan, Tao is a far cry from your av­er­age tour op­er­a­tor.

In­stead of medi­ocre food, voy­agers get a daily chang­ing menu that com­bines the ocean’s bounty with the sim­ple yet ef­fec­tive tenets of Fil­ipino cui­sine. In­stead of pre­dictable itin­er­ar­ies, the guides go to which­ever gor­geous sand­bar or hid­den la­goon fits their whim. And in­stead of treat­ing tourists like cat­tle to be milked mer­ci­lessly, the guys bring guests into the bo­som of their col­lec­tive, en­sur­ing that ev­ery last nuance of the trip, whether it be hors­ing around in the boat’s kitchen or scream­ing like a ban­shee in an iso­lated karaoke bar, is im­bued with com­mu­nal joie de vivre.

It’s an in­tox­i­cat­ing brew—en­hanced even more by the fact that it all takes place in one of the most amaz­ing spots on the planet.

Stretch­ing from its north­ern tip near the is­land of Min­doro all the way down to the tip of Bor­neo, Palawan is known ro­man­ti­cally as the “Land of the Prom­ise”. It has cer­tainly be­come a place of en­tic­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for a grow­ing contingent of trav­ellers se­duced by news of roughly 1,780 is­lands and islets clad in vir­gin rain­for­est, and fringed by sugar-white sandy beaches.

bat­ten down the hatches At first, Footit and Brock used rented boats and tem­po­rary crew to ferry friends and select oth­ers around, but word of their odysseys soon spread among trav­ellers ea­ger to get off the re­gion’s well­stamped “ba­nana pan­cake” tourist trail.

A 72-foot bangka (tra­di­tional fish­ing boat) named Aurora was pur­chased, a re­li­able pool of boat per­son­nel was se­cured through a com­bi­na­tion of trial and er­ror and happy ac­ci­dent, and the busi­ness started to ex­pand.

From th­ese hum­ble begin­nings, Tao has grown to be­come one of the big­gest tourism suc­cess sto­ries in the Philip­pines. The com­pany now has five boats in­clud­ing the Balatik, the new­est and most am­bi­tious ad­di­tion to the fleet and the one on which we are sail­ing, and trips sell out months in ad­vance.

Five-day Tao ex­pe­di­tions—an in­vig­o­rat­ing blend of so­cially aware eco-tourism, laid-back loung­ing and ram­bunc­tious rum-fuelled even­ings at re­mote beach camps—have be­come a favourite of dis­cern­ing vis­i­tors look­ing to dis­cover for them­selves one of the few re­main­ing un­de­vel­oped tracts of beach par­adise in the re­gion.

I’m blown away by the ex­pe­ri­ence from the start. Hav­ing been based in big Asian cities for five years, Manila’s gru­elling blend of traf­fic and noise of­fers lit­tle in the way of nov­elty fac­tor, and the fresh sea breeze that hits me when I get to Coron Town is a tonic. The “ad­ven­tur­ers wanted” sign on the wall out­side Tao HQ is another promis­ing in­di­ca­tor that the next few days will of­fer timely respite from Asia’s ur­ban ca­coph­ony.

So it proves. We make an open­ing day pit stop at Bar­racuda Lake—a beau­ti­ful ex­panse of emer­ald wa­ter pop­u­lar with the large contingent of divers who visit Coron—but af­ter that, it’s just the deep blue sea, var­i­ous small fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties and us.

Days take on a pleas­antly shape­less hue. Tao

Philip­pines’ trips cover the 200 or so is­lands in the Li­na­pacan ar­chi­pel­ago be­tween Coron and El Nido, 150km to the south­west, so there’s plenty of un­charted ter­ri­tory to ex­plore. Ev­ery morn­ing, our guide Zaza pulls out a bat­tered map marked with cof­fee stains, and we plan a route over break­fast.

It is a thrill to get an idea of the ge­og­ra­phy of this largely un­charted area. Such is the stun­ning na­ture of the scenery, how­ever, you could de­cide a route with­out any detri­men­tal ef­fect by stick­ing pins in the map blind­folded.

Over the next week, we an­chor off var­i­ous sand­bars and beaches of dazzling white, and swim and snorkel for hours in crys­tal clear wa­ters, jump from wa­ter­falls into deep for­est pools and meet with the com­mu­ni­ties for whom Tao pro­vide for with a num­ber of so­cial projects.

all hands on deck The phi­los­o­phy of giv­ing some­thing back to the fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties in north­ern Palawan is cen­tral to the Tao creed. In 2007, two years af­ter start­ing the com­pany, Footit and Brock set up Tao So­cial Wel­fare Projects. De­clin­ing to give di­rect fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to vil­lagers—“hand­ing over money causes com­pli­ca­tions,” Brock says—tao in­stead fo­cuses on mean­ing­ful ini­tia­tives in the fields of ed­u­ca­tion, nu­tri­tion, con­tra­cep­tion and med­i­cal help. The com­pany has built schools and day-care cen­tres, funded col­lege and high school places for tal­ented young­sters, and sup­ports food pro­grammes to tackle mal­nour­ish­ment among young chil­dren in the more im­pov­er­ished parts of north­ern Palawan.

As well as pro­vid­ing real and tan­gi­ble as­sis­tance to com­mu­ni­ties, Tao is com­mit­ted to help­ing pro­mote tra­di­tional and sus­tain­able ways of fish­ing in the area. Balatik, the ship on which we are sail­ing, is the most am­bi­tious man­i­fes­ta­tion of th­ese ef­forts.

The Balatik is a paraw, a dou­ble out­rig­ger sail­ing boat na­tive to the Philip­pines. Use of the boats has been in steep de­cline since the ’70s due to the wide avail­abil­ity of en­gines. As a re­sult, lo­cal knowl­edge of sail­ing, nat­u­ral nav­i­ga­tion and paraw build­ing has largely dis­ap­peared.

As a way of rekin­dling the proud tra­di­tion of sail­ing in Palawan, Footit and Brock, along with Palawan sailor Gener Paduga, de­cided to build a large-scale paraw. Util­is­ing the skills of master car­pen­ters and har­ness­ing the de­sign knowl­edge of boat his­to­ri­ans, the project took more than two years, and the re­sult was the Balatik, the largest known paraw in the Philip­pines to­day.

“A re­turn to sail­ing makes sense,” Brock says. “Our marine en­vi­ron­ment is un­der threat and fuel prices are ris­ing. Learn­ing to sail again will help Palawenos es­cape depen­dence on gaso­line and diesel while, at the same time, fos­ter­ing a deeper un­der­stand­ing and re­spect for the ocean.”

The fin­ished prod­uct is cer­tainly a thing of beauty. The solid wood el­e­ments of the struc­ture are in­dica­tive of the crafts­man­ship in­volved, and the way the white sails bil­low in the trop­i­cal breeze as the ship pi­lots a course over the turquoise ocean is a stir­ring sight to be­hold.

Young men and the sea On one of our daily ports of call on dry land, I hike up through lush veg­e­ta­tion to a rocky out­crop. From the van­tage point, the Balatik, re­splen­dent in its moor­ing atop the bril­liant blue wa­ter, looks as mag­nif­i­cent as the sur­round­ing scenery.

Ac­tiv­ity-packed days are not re­ally what the ex­pe­di­tions are all about, how­ever. Much of the time is spent laz­ing on the sun deck shar­ing tales with other mem­bers of the group, or sim­ply zon­ing out and en­joy­ing the front row view of some of the world’s most spec­tac­u­lar seascapes.

Even­ings are equally amenable. Gi­ant meals of fresh bar­be­cued fish and side dishes sup­ply the bal­last, while rum and beer pro­vide the lu­bri­cant for sev­eral mem­o­rable con­ver­sa­tions. The ba­sic sleep­ing ar­range­ments, mean­while—mostly just sin­gle mat­tresses and a mos­quito net—might not be the last word in lux­ury, but the sooth­ing sound of lap­ping waves and chirrup­ing crea­tures in the trop­i­cal night are as ef­fec­tive a re­lax­ant as any duck-feather filled du­vet.

Trop­i­cal travel fan­tasies come to life nu­mer­ous times a day dur­ing the ex­pe­di­tion, but they are es­pe­cially vivid as the light starts to fade and the sun melts like a dis­solv­ing lozenge into the ocean. On our fi­nal evening as cast­aways, we are treated to a bar­be­cue at “Tao Vil­lage”, a clutch of rustic wooden build­ings on the is­land of Cad­lao in the karst­stud­ded won­der­land that is Bacuit Bay near El Nido. From the wa­ter, the crew emerge clutch­ing crates laden with gi­ant shiny fish and ice-en­cased bot­tles of San Miguel beer. On dry land, torches con­structed from empty bot­tles of the Philip­pines’ favourite lager point the way to a palm-shrouded clear­ing where the evening’s meal is be­ing pre­pared next to a long wooden ta­ble sur­rounded by ex­plor­ers from var­i­ous corners of the globe. One mus­cu­lar boat­man is cleav­ing hunks from a rosyred suck­ling pig, freshly sal­vaged from the spit. Another is dish­ing out serv­ings of gi­nataang pa­paya (young pa­paya cooked with co­conut milk) un­der the un­watch­ful eyes of a col­lec­tion of an­i­mal skulls. In the midst of the trav­ellers, mean­while, Footit is hold­ing court over glasses of Tan­d­uay Rum, as the mon­key draped around his shoul­ders at­tempts to thwart his con­ver­sa­tional ef­forts by claw­ing him re­peat­edly in the eye.

It’s a scene that might find its lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent some­where be­tween The Beach, Alex Gar­land’s mod­ern back­packer clas­sic, and Peter Pan.“the Lost Boys, I like that bet­ter,” laughs the simiantot­ing English­man, when I put the JM Bar­rie com­par­i­son to him. “The Beach ended badly, so I think we’d rather be the boys that never grew up. When we started, we were just do­ing some­thing that we wanted to do, but we seem to have struck a nerve.”

By the time we head to­wards our fi­nal stop at El Nido town, none of us want to get off the boat. As Balatik drifts to­wards the beach, how­ever, the fa­mil­iar sound of a karaoke bar crank­ing into ac­tion perks up the spir­its. Money can’t buy you love maybe, and it cer­tainly can’t buy you an ac­cept­able singing voice, but in the case of Tao, it can buy you a com­pletely unique travel ex­pe­ri­ence.

pre­vi­ous spread The paraw sail­boat docks in Cad­lao La­goon, El Nido.


A fish­er­man’s house on Daro­co­ton Is­land, north­ern Palawan.

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Cap­tain Gener Paduga fishes off the back of the paraw.

right Good food, clear skies, great com­pany. What’s not to like?

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The paraw sail­boat docks at the en­trance to the Big La­goon, El Nido.

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