The Tao Philippines expedition: A week is all you’ll need

Philline Donggay
Going off the beaten path to see islands that aren't normally on a tourist's radar – how fun can that be?

MANILA, Philippines – It was around this time two years ago when an email sent by my gay boyfriend revealed a link to a New York Times article about an island expedition in the Philippines. Everything that came after reading, were journeys of internal turmoil rotating primarily on this thought: “How could a New Yorker, an American, discover such an expedition, in my own country, before I could!?” 

EXPLORERS WANTED. All photos by Philline Donggay

For many years, I’ve had the self-perception that when it comes to the Philippines, I’m well-traveled. I fittingly therefore accumulated enough reasons, and gigs, to rationalize a redundant increase in carbon footprint, planning a return to Palawan, where the expedition is based. The last time I was in the country’s final frontier, I was with a now ex-boyfriend, and new Palawan memories were appropriately called for.

Tao – stands for ‘Man’ in Filipino, stands for the Raul Manglapus oratorical piece I won a prize for in grade school, stands for expensive expedition in my own country – all selling points. I paid the online deposit and was set out for a promising adventure. Or maybe not.

Start of the journey

We were stuck on the boat, in that clammy, sticky, tropical seaside weather that was curable only with cold beer. The first hour was ok; and so was the second and the third. The half-day passed, and despite the cervezas most of us so-called explorers were sporting to match our tan-friendly outfits, there was a color of idiocy that came creeping into the panorama.

It turns out the expedition boat’s license has missed out on the renewal date and the Captain who earlier at the briefing announced he was in control, was not. Being the only Filipino expedition member (who spoke), I was getting several requests for translationary clarifications to accent-impaired update statements. Happy to be of help, but “when is this adventure going to start?” I wondered.

That night we were brought to our first island, not by the fancy two-story boat we were at for the day, but in two batches, on smaller, less noteworthy types of sea transport. After a healthy dinner, we got complimentary full body massages at the lounge chairs under the shadows of limestone mountains in the moonlit night sky—we were easy.

My lady masseuse tells me she is wife to one of the fishermen from the surrounding islands and was given training by Tao to provide massage services to Tao’s guests. She was shy at first to touch other people’s bodies, she tells me. But, in characteristic Filipino, she got better at it very fast and now looked forward to the conversations with her clients. It was a happy ending, her story at least, and I slept peacefully in my tent because of it.

Early the next day, I wake up to the cliché sound of the waves. With my camera on hand, I stepped out of my tent but what I saw was so far from cliché, I will not use up words to describe it. 

FROM A DISTANCE.

To make matters more idyllic, the morning beach walk I had was capped with Kevin and I doing sun salutations by the shore; Kenza with her gorgeous Moroccan hair and French accent leading, and Kevin, with his sunny California authoritative perkiness, though unsuccessfully, pep-talking the graceful out of my movements.

I was alive in a screensaver.

The Filipino-ness of it all

Breakfast was served well, in preparation for the announcement that the coast guard still had not granted our boat permission to sail. There was that added plot of certain tour competitions jealous of Tao’s success enough to pull strings to mess up our trip. This was going to be special.

As we set out for the day’s trekking activity, I got invited to the special Swiss clique of Deidre and Esther, ran with their Swiss standards and their Swiss expectations. I found myself apologizing for the Filipino-ness of the entire situation, but did not let it ruin the day. There were enough reasons for ruin as it turned out. 

TREKKERS.

We were told it was ok to wear slippers for the trek. “Yeah if I had calloused feet thicker than your head!” I wanted to tell the captain 3 hours later.

Not only was I afraid of breaking the expensive flip flops I got for Christmas 3 years earlier, I was also afraid of breaking my neck falling into the deep ravines of the steep limestone hills we had resolved to climb over, realizing too late to go back. And no one did go back, but that’s a whole other mini-adventure in itself.

All the dangerous negotiations up and down steep hills in flimsy footwear were more than worthy of the surfing waves that beheld us at the destination shore; a Beach Boys song played in my head on cue.

Post body surfing games, sans boards, 3 smaller fishing boats picked us up, in lieu of the despised return trek. I was charmed by our pilot-fisherman, as I typically am charmed by ordinary-looking characters who appear in the middle of the movie and turn out to be the hero at the end. He wasn’t all that but he did save us from sharks. Yes sharks! We didn’t see them, but if a local fisherman tells you there are sharks in the water, you would believe him.

In the middle of the trip back, our tiny one-oar fishing boat with holes in it, ran out of gasoline. Natalie, half of the first pair of German sisters in the group, offered to swim to shore to get help – this was the moment when the ‘sharks’ conversation came up.

As we struggled to scoop out the water that was quickly filling our tiny boat, some of us choosing to pack the air with mixed anxious and/or comical laughter, Mr Fisherman was negotiating with another boat for a swig of gasoline to get us moving.

By the time we got to shore, I couldn’t shake off the “cosmic” joke feeling. That sensation was overshadowed after lunch, joining the Londoners, Barry, Jennie and Kemi for a swim and doing our share of promulgating the Alex Garland Palawan rumor.

So there’s Leo di Caprio and that popular Beach movie with an even popular age-defining soundtrack – that film was based on the book of the same title written by Englishman Garland about the time he spent in Palawan; not in Phuket where the film was shot, but in freaking Palawan!

Why do I get so pumped up at the thought of being on the scene of a pop culture movie or book reference? Why does anyone? Well that giddiness saved the day and was the perfect prelude to our evenings of rum and beer, guitar-playing, and random island karaoke singing around the bonfire – we were living out our own movie scenes.

ISLAND NIGHTS

Exotic

Salvation, not that we needed it anymore, came late afternoon when our large fancy boat docked to shore. Her name is Buhay which means “Life.” Everyone sprang to new “buhay” when she arrived.

HER NAME IS BUHAY.

A final look around the island was in order; bidding it good-bye as we sailed into the sunset. 

ONE OF THEM IMPRESSIVE SUNSETS.

By this time, we had remembered each other’s names and had noted the couples, the sisters, the singles, the interested singles, the exotic crewmen.

I remember this group dynamic with much fondness, particularly that part of the exotic, sexy, sunburnt, with 6-packs crew men, as in my wretched logic, this spelled a sense of balance for the sexes, perhaps via a long overdue win for feminism.

Many many scenes were worthy of deeper analysis, if only the distilleries were not well represented in our island nights, clouding our judgments and memories unknowingly, sometimes willingly, forever. Someone, somewhere in the northern latitudes has just given birth to a Eurasian child proudly made in the Tropics – now there’s two less lonely, and one more beautiful third-culture kid in the world.

The days went by in curious depths, some hours made shallow by the emptiness of a horizon we had come to love at first but became sick of  several hours later, when the sunset views, emerald islets, and pearl farms grew old in just minutes.

LAZY EXPEDITION DAYS.


Pitching tents, drawing water from the wells, showering on pedestals, walking on foot around our island host, made way for deeper interactions not only with islanders but also with each other. Some serene moments punctured by the loudness of the crew, who were “performing” for us – they knew we were watching and they liked it.

Running aground a coral reef, (there goes ocean conservation!) was an effed-up moment redeemed only by a fish catch: one glorious fish catch of a gleaming 50-pound pewter-colored swordfish. Nobody minded going pescetarian for the meals following that catch, the variety of superb dishes that gift from the seas took care of. 

POSHLY PESCETARIAN. Photo by M. Dolega

Anti-tourism charity

Like most travels I have chosen to make, I came to Tao for the promise of anti-tourism; the real experience of being present in the location, interacting with locals, and not simply observing residents from the safe side of the tempered glass windows of a moving tour bus; taking part in the setting and not merely fulfilling a bourgeois guidebook’s list of monuments and shrines to visit. 

Tao proved to be revolutionary in it’s representation of the complex and polarized industry of modern travel. The boats took the place of the tour bus and we had the spontaneity of a menu that was dependent on the day’s catch or the stopover island’s offerings. We had the opportunity to come to the kitchen and be of assistance to the culinary preparations for our little gang of temporary sea gypsies. These were all enough to legitimately call the trip an expedition and us, explorers.

Pampered explorers but explorers just the same, we swam in crystal clear blue waters, had snorkeling session at sites of centuries-old sunken ships, in between, writing on our journals, flipping through the pages of the novels we dashed to fit into our backpacks, clicking away on our camera shutters, seeking to find the meaning of this primal need to find new experiences; planning on offsets and remunerations for such a privilege.

We didn’t need to look too far: one island we were brought to, was adopted by Tao for the villagers’ children to be educated at Tao-paid classrooms by Tao-paid teachers. Another island had residents supported by Tao to tend to an organic farm that was fertilized by organic wastes that come from Tao boats and Tao villages. The farm provides rice, fruits and vegetables for Tao guests. Tao had plenty sustainability practices that impressed my greenie genes. 

ORGANIC FARM.

No more, no less

One day, this kind of expedition will be deemed pretentious, maybe even righteous, and, yes, eventually banal, as is customary in the cycle of what was once hip and new. But as to the exploration and adventure, I got everything I never knew I always wanted, and with less emissions! Whether the mishaps, the triumphs, the meaningful interactions were designed by Tao, by Mercury in retrograde, or by the greater architect of the bigger universe, it was now irrelevant.

“If you’re ever in San Francisco, give us a ring,” said Heather after I gave her and husband Chris gift ideas for her Filipino stepmother whom they were seeing in Taipei, a week after we leave Palawan. I got lovely warm good-bye hugs from everyone, exchanging short expressions of gratitude, praise and intents to meet again, some more sincere than others, but sincere nevertheless.

My social media sessions now enriched with new knowledge of the British Air Force, the Polish world of advertising and how a French guy proposes to his lover; fragments of the Scandinavian hipster subculture, European Millenials crossing hemispheres in search of preferred seasons for play; snippets of a German girl’s life in the Middle East, a German girl’s life down under and a German girl’s life as the adoptive mother of a Filipino boy.

We had one week to start a community bound together by shared experiences made unique by Tao. Its remarkable setting that was the Philippines’ Palawan islands added to the quality Salmagundi that we, as a group turned out to be.

NO MORE, NO LESS.

It was around this time a year ago; and all we needed was a week, no more, no less. – Rappler.com