Going wild — and offline — in the South China Sea


Boat captain Delbert surveys the scenery from atop the bow near Palawan, Philippines. (Jillian Keenan/For The Washington Post)
June 14, 2013

“Eat a lot while you still can,” our guide said, shrugging casually. “We were going to buy more fish for tomorrow in that last village, but they didn’t have any. So we’re out.”

“Who do we kill for food first?” one man joked. “The American?” We all laughed. No discussion necessary: As the only American on the trip, I was outnumbered. Obviously I’d be the first to go.

Details: Palawan, Philippines


So I cracked open another beer, resigned myself to my fate and gazed at the distant green islands in the mesmerizingly blue South China Sea that surrounded me. If I was about to be cannibalized by a horde of hungry tourists, this would be a pretty spectacular place to go.

On most trips, an announcement that the food had run out might provoke some concern. On Tao Philippines’ five-day boat trip from El Nido to Coron in the western Philippines, though, minor crises were just part of the fun.

So the next day, after the inevitable suggestions that we simply live on beer and rum for the rest of the trip, a French tourist threw a fishing line into the water and finally reeled in a tuna. Crouching on the deck of the boat, sunburned and glistening with sweat, we cut the fish into pieces and ate it raw with tiny calamansi limes. (It was — and I don’t say this lightly — one of the best meals of my life.)

Then we sailed to a tiny tropical island, hacked palm fronds and coconuts apart with machetes, and used the pieces to build a bonfire on the long white beach.

Okay, so it wasn’t quite “Lord of the Flies” or “Survivor.” But we were very far from Manhattan.

Of boats and bikinis

In recent years, travel bloggers have hailed Palawan Island in the western Philippines as Asia’s new “final frontier,” tempting tourists away from better-known destinations in Thailand and Bali. The island’s coastline, more than 1,242 miles,boasts some of the most beautiful white-sand beaches in the world. In fact, rumor has it that Alex Garland, author of “The Beach,” actually lived on Palawan while writing his best-selling novel about a group of tourists who discover the world’s most perfect secret cove.

But even more breathtaking than Palawan itself (if that’s possible) are the tiny, sparsely inhabited islands sprinkled across the South China Sea between Palawan and the northern island of Coron. And the only way to see those is by boat.

Tao Expeditions’ multi-day trips appeal to travelers who want to drop off the grid and indulge in a temporary Robinson Crusoe fantasy on remote tropical islands without a single resort or restaurant in sight. (“We do not guarantee that you will have a nice relaxing time. Barking dogs. Crowing Roosters. Mosquito bites. Jellyfish stings,” the Tao Web site declares. “We love it.”)

For five days, 12 other tourists and I, along with our guide and crew of three, would sail from island to island on a small outrigger boat, sleep on beaches, and buy our food from local fishermen and villages along the way. There would be no itinerary. There would be no WiFi. There would be no cellphone signal. Most alarmingly, there would be no Twitter.

“If you break your leg, get used to it, because there’s no hospital,” a Tao employee warned us in a pre-trip briefing. “So don’t break your leg.”

Here’s the thing: I’m not an island person. Or an ocean person. In fact, I swim so infrequently that I’d already arrived in the Philippines before I realized that my swimsuit, a sensible purple and black one-piece that I’d ruefully purchased for a friend’s birthday party the year before, was partially moth-eaten after months of neglect. So — after a short flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, and a six-hour van ride north along a bumpy, half-paved road to the small town of El Nido — I needed to buy a new one.

It was a daunting prospect.

Ever since childhood, a combination of modesty and self-consciousness has steered me away from bikinis. But in El Nido, I was trapped. There are no ATMs in town, and my cash budget hadn’t anticipated this purchase, so I had to shop at one of the only stores that would accept credit cards. It sold bikinis. No, scratch that. It sold only tiny, barely-there bikinis.

When I picked up one with a purple and blue flower design, a brightly colored gecko fell from the folds of the fabric. It looked at me, blinking and indignant at being forced out of its comfort zone. I sympathized.

The next morning, when we sailed north from El Nido, that bikini was neglectfully squashed in the bottom of my backpack.

If my new swim suit was scary, though, the prospect of five days without Internet was even more alarming. I’m 26. I Google, Facebook, e-mail and tweet in the same insatiable way that I drink water and breathe air. To be totally honest, I have such a difficult time going offline that the night before my 23-hour flight from New York to Asia, I left my long-suffering fiance a total of 17 separate messages outlining how he should respond to certain hypothetical e-mails that might appear in my inbox while I was mid-flight.

Clearly, I needed a technological detox. Purposely marooned in the South China Sea, I reasoned, I might break my leg. I might become a last-resort dinner for my fellow castaways. Like Tom Hanks, I might scream “Wilson” at a volleyball. I might even have to wear a two-piece swimsuit. But I wouldn’t be able to refresh my e-mail account 400 times a day. It seemed like a step in the right direction.

In the cockpit

The transformative influence of the Philippines works quickly. Within hours of our setting sail, the bikini became my skin, and I stopped caring (honestly!) what might be happening online. All that tension just went away.

Life on the boat quickly settled into a languid routine of snorkeling, eating, relaxing on the blue-and-white wooden deck and exploring tiny islands. Every evening, we set up camp on a beach and spent the night talking, singing or reading by torchlight. (Okay, okay, I was the only person in the group not traveling as a couple. So maybe the others weren’t reading at night.)

On the fourth day, we stopped at a small island village, only to discover that a festival was being held that afternoon. While the other tourists stayed near the beach to watch a basketball game, I wandered off. I wove between small thatched houses, admiring the colorful political campaign posters that decorated the walls, until a tiny smiling girl appeared. Like a magical rabbit from a fantasy novel, she beckoned me to follow her. I did.

“What’s your name?” I asked. She didn’t understand me, and giggled. I smiled, and we turned a corner. A huge crowd had formed around a small ring. People were shouting, laughing and climbing trees to get better views of the event. The little girl had brought me to a cockfight.

“Cockfighting is to the Philippines what baseball is to the USA or rugby is to New Zealand,” my Lonely Planet guidebook matter-of-factly explained. “Western tourists complain about the practice, but they don’t get much sympathy from Filipinos, who just smile and wonder what all the fuss is about.”

The other tourists from the boat had already mixed in with the crowd of spectators on the far side of the ring, but I’d shown up too late to join them (and I wasn’t particularly eager to have a front-row view of the bloody event, anyway). Instead, I climbed a tree, settled onto one of the branches and turned my camera onto the crowd.

It seemed as if the whole village was there. The two roosters were outfitted with short knives strapped to their legs and pushed together into the ring, and it was all over in less than a minute. Both roosters died. (The “winner” died second.)

After the fight, the guide told me that local governments take a portion of the gambling proceeds to fund development projects.

Back on the boat, I saw Kathrin, a 29-year-old graphic designer from Switzerland, gazing quietly at the water. I sat down next to her. As the island gradually disappeared in front of us, children ran back and forth on the beach, waving and shouting goodbye. Kathrin and I waved back at them.

“So what’d you think of the cockfight?” I asked.

“I just feel so much—” she paused, thinking. “I don’t know the word to describe it.”

The solution to everything

There was something about those five days on the boat that unleashed the wilder, more untamed versions of us all. Men and women who in real life spend our days in offices or cubicles suddenly swam with floppy white jellyfish and watched roosters fight to the death as if we did those things every day in Frankfurt or Lyon.

My hair, which I normally straighten, had relaxed back into its natural mess of tangled curls. My skin had turned into a Picasso-like maze of tan lines, sunburns, inexplicable bruises and long scratches from where I’d swum into a cliff or, in characteristic gracelessness, fallen off the boat into the water. My body looked like a map of the Philippines.

I loved it.

Our beach camp on the penultimate night was equipped with a generator — not for charging our phones, but to power the ancient karaoke machine that had been improbably set up inside an open-air hut. Late into the night, we tourists, the Filipino crewmembers and a few locals gathered around it to drink beer and rum and sing love songs in Tagalog, English and a handful of other languages. For a second, as I watched our tiny United Nations drunkenly bleating “Bohemian Rhapsody” from an island speck in the middle of the ocean, that moment of harmony felt like the solution to all the world’s problems.

I’ve changed back into myself now, more or less. My hair is straight again, those scratches and jellyfish stings have faded away, and my Internet addiction has returned with a vengeance.

But my new bikini is carefully folded away in a drawer. I decided to hang on to it. I’ll need it next time. And besides, it makes me feel so much —

There isn’t a word to describe it.

Keenan is a freelance writer in New York.

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