The high season is a success

Since my connection with the caretaker, my situation has felt much more certain. I no longer feel like such an outsider of a village on the verge of pulling out their pitchforks, but someone with possible clout. It went from someone who could be charged by the locals for collecting bamboo washed up onto the beach, to someone who is in contact with the owner of a property they traverse in order to get to the island’s only water supply. And I made sure to mention that when our relations seemed strained.

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The beginnings of my humble hut.

But according to my initial spirit of wanting to maintain good community relations, which is also mandatory for future successful business, I found more effective ways of shmoozing their favour, such as:

  • sending nice guests, preferably female, to request fish or coconuts from the locals, so that they can see foreigners are not monsters, or at least not the madman I am;
  • a popular bonus has been to sell their local brandy at cost so they do not need to go all the way to town;
  • buying them ebay presents, such as inflatable water dinosaurs for their children or solar powered Christmas and other lights. After setting up two in the big community hut, they inadvertently changed my settings to flashing disco mode;
  • picking up supplies for them in Coron, such as 12v led lights and deep cycle batteries they now use for squid fishing at night instead of their stinky, loud and gas guzzling generators;
  • lending them money, such as to Elsie who had her second baby and the doctor advised for an ultrasound. Since then I have become the regular island bank, payable back in coconuts and fish etc., written down on pieces of paper instead of dealing with currency, which they never seem to have any of anyway (getting change on the thousands I get out of the atm is almost impossible in this entire region).

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Due to popular demand finally managed to get a harpoon, for $100 used from a German tourist passing through. Together with my fishing rod, lures and banca paddle boat, some guests will certainly be pleased.

The nice thing about the Christmas lights, as I discovered one dark evening as we were arriving late from another Coron shopping trip, it gives you a welcoming feeling of home as you approach the blinking and lit up beach from a distance. Like a bustling metropolis sprawled out along a paradise beach, waiting for you to join the party.

Although relations have improved overall with the locals, other problems have surfaced.

For example, by the end of the rainy season, during the full moon of November and December, and a little bit of January, the waves reached so high up on the beach that they added more than half a metre of sand, completely burying our campfire and sucking away two of the massive logs that surrounded it for sitting. We managed to roll up some replacements, but instead of unearthing the two remaining logs that were now buried, I decided to shovel out the sand to turn it into a campfire “pit”. It’s actually quite cozy down there now, leaning against the logs with the sand outside the pit flush with the top of the logs. Another reason for this approach is to show people the possible effects of global warming. Talking about it and seeing the effects while sitting in it are two different matters.

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Above, the campfire place is half buried, but once the full moon arrived in a few days it was completely buried. The beach is now flush with the property area, having risen almost a metre. Hope it won’t be the same next year!

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Another annoyance has been the chickens and cocks. Always venturing into my kitchen while I work on my computer, just around the bush. Cackling away, knowing I do not like them making their mess (digging up all the leaves in search of worms and bugs for food), until I purchased myself a few sling shots from ebay. I even offer guests the bribe of a beer if they score. But somehow the little buggers always seem so sharp and evasive. Managed to only get them twice, once right in the butthole, but they hopped off with almost no regard, cackling in a way that sounds like open chuckling. I realised that this must be where the word “cocky” comes from.

But small fry in annoyance when compared to the previous rainy season. And to prepare myself for that, especially now that I received official authorisation from the property caretaker, I began building my own hut. I’m sure you can imagine that living in a tent for a couple of years can get rather old. No electricity to keep the laptop running while watching movies or working in bed, no big fan during hot stagnant nights, and the other many discomforts.

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Took about 4 days to clear out the dense innards of these prickly trees to make room for my hammock lounge area behind my hut, but was quickly appreciated by this Lithuanian volunteer.

In typical grandiose fashion I masterminded a two story “hut scraper”, complete with terrace, wide open windows, removeable seethrough plastic windows, and bamboo walls which could drop down from the ceiling during the typhoon season or for when I need to go away for a while – this hut should promise to make my stay here much more pleasant. I will move inside the stereo system, set up more Christmas lights and store everything else on the ground floor, greatly increasing my security.

On the other hand, my motivation does sometimes waver as I build this hut hurriedly before the upcoming rainy season, imagining that the Italian owner has managed to sell the property and forcing me to leave just as I tighten the last screw or bolt in the last LED light.

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Speaking of increasing the comfort level, following several complaints by boyfriends of female guests, I have started building a shower. I don’t know if it is because the girls feel their boyfriends wont love them anymore because their hair is no longer shiny, or they feel a need to completely remove salt from the surface of their bodies in order to have slippery sex at night, but it will be on the verge of luxurious. Collecting rainfall, a bucket above a barrel used to filter the well water, and a complete shower and nozzle system with its own filtering mechanism. Should definitely give the place a facelift once done. The runoff can also irrigate the future garden, boosting the camp’s organic image.

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The beginnings of the shower, a blue barrel I one day found washed up on the beach, which will be propped up on stilts while plugged into the below showerhead. Gotta up the comfort level!

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And since a lot of the volunteer work has already been completed, I have started to shift towards beautification, and now even marketing, whether it is writing an article about their stay, or instagram tips.

It has been nice watching the place develop organically as the volunteers are given more freedom. Even the guests have expressed interest in helping out, sometimes contributing more than the volunteers.

One great visit was by Hugo from Malaysia. A Brit whose job is to manage millions of dollars of monthly purchases for a major distribution company there. So stressed out and high strung, when he saw my camp on airbnb he decided he HAS to come here. First guest who sent $300 in advance without almost any discussion.

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His big project was to make a trap for all the crabs, octopus and barracuda lurking in amongst the coral reefs. It was a fun project to haul out his home-made contraption, balancing it on my frail banca paddle boat as we fought against the relentless onslaught of incoming waves.

It was great partying with him in San Mig over Christmas and New Years, and we even had a perfect brainstorm once back on the island, cranking the music and staring out from the beach. There across from us was Bolina Island, where I send occasional guests to “run naked on their own deserted island”. While we both enjoyed the deep house music, I remarked how the big fat beach on that island could accommodate 300 ravers, and thus was born the Linapacan Music Festival, which I think will be a great way to put this lovely area on the tourist map.

Another nice quality of paying guests is I collect cash for simply entertaining and taking care of them. With enough guests, my food is paid for, and so can my greatest budget expenditure: beer. I had 3 Finnish guys passing through who managed to polish off 60 1L bottles in only five days. Wooohooo! For every two they drink, I get one paid for! But they drank my stock dry and you can imagine what sour faces the four of us wore before we managed to replenish our stock with a special boat trip. It was certainly an interesting sensation to just breath, eat, drink and talk for free while your wallet grows slowly fatter. Until you have to thin it slightly by going to the bank, which in my case is a hole in the ground.

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Some of the guests were rather exotic, who just showed up on my beach unexpectedly in their kayak, inflatable longboard, or four Russians who beached up on shore in their slow, powered inflatable raft (above pic). All three of these visits were on a mission to circumnavigate the 2,000km distance around Palawan. Although they did express some concern for the southern tip, where pirates are known for kidnapping and extortion, or where there are 6m long sea crocodiles. The skinny Italian’s 2m longboard, complete with inlayed compass and various compartments, certainly did look impressive, but I presume that those big critters can swim a lot faster. He visited for only one night and was off early the next morning, when it was cold, dark and showering miserably, in order that he could keep up with his rigid 8 hour schedule a day. I did not envy him as I waved him off into the horizon.

Besides things going well on the campsite, February actually bringing in enough earnings to cover all costs, the boat tours were really picking up well. Starting around October they were actually pulling in enough revenues that I did not have to translate, at all. For the first time in 25 years. It was a great relief and I enjoyed developing a website to help automate many of the tasks, because it was starting to consume a major part of my time. I was able to survive this way for a full six months, but now that the dry season is coming to an end and the slow season has started, I hope that I will not have to return to translation, also because it takes at least two months to receive payment as opposed to the immediate payment I have grown accustomed to with the boat tours. This may lead to a dangerous cash shortage.

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Part of the beautification and organisational process, marking the various
camping sections from A to F and giving them individual names.

Therefore, I’d say I have finally entered a nice cruising period, where food is cooked for me, the place remains tidy, and I more carefully select volunteers and guests. Just today I guided one guest to the top of the second mountain. It has been a long time since I walked to the very end of the beach, but I noticed how much of the sand had been dragged away and replaced by immense boulders and logs. That could have a major impact on the property’s value, since that was the nicest section of beach. We’ll see if the sea continues to eat away at the beach, potentially extending my stay. Now I just need to scrape it through this next low season.

Scraping through the next low season in comfort and style

The low season is for a reason, because it is the rainy season. And with the rain the swamp in the back of the property fills up, bringing with it the mosquitoes and all the other bugs. The air can become quite stagnant and wet at night, rather uncomfortable as I lay sweating in bed in the hot air of the tent, irritated by little yellow slippery beach bugs drawn into the tent by the light of my laptop as I try to enjoy a movie.

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But with my own hut in the making for the past six months, I just managed to get enough of it done that I could officially move into it just as the weather changed. Until then I slept as I always do during the dry season, which is outside under the stars, a cool breeze often making the sleep just perfect.

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Making “Sawali slabs” to string up into position.

Into my hut I move my latest purchase – the best mattress that Coron offers. It’s time to up the comfort level. But somehow I have fallen out with the caretaker as he no longer responds to my text messages, without an explanation. I had already paid him in advance for some Sawali, which is interlaced bamboo strips used for hut walls. My existing Sawali ran out and I have not yet been able to weather proof the top floor, where I now sleep. Sometimes the wind picks up at night as it rains, that pouring at such angles that my new bed can get completely soaked in a manner of minutes. I remedy this by opening up one of the big sun shades and cuddling up protected under that umbrella. Or if it really starts to pour, reluctantly crawl back into the dreaded tent.

I scrounge together some savings and manage to buy a few more rolls of Sawali. I have finally moved the solar panel with electricity into the hut, so now I can watch movies or work in bed, one of my favourite workstations. Now living on the second floor, the dreaded slimy yellow beach bugs can’t reach me, and overall the bugs and mosquitoes are fewer. But the remainder have been dealt with by good mosquito netting around my bed and new workstation, and a battery operated fan to blow away the little black ones which get through the usual netting.

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Sawali slab tied up into place with mosquito netting over fanciest mattress. From the ceiling hangs framed windows which can be put into place according to need (front and right of workstation – always need beautiful view!).

One potential downfall has been the loss of my main volunteering account, at Workaway. One girl complained about the environmental tax and caretaker fee, but it is actually a welcome break, because the constant flow of volunteers have truly been taxing. The locals are less than pleased though because it means lower sales in fish, coconuts and local boat tours.

Since the big boat tours have dried up, I have been forced to go back to translating. I now spend my days on the occasional translation job, in peace and quiet mostly on my own, with the occasional volunteer passing through for a longer period, since I am now more strict concerning their minimum stay. If not translating then I continue working on my hut, patching up this and that as I find various leaks when the rain pellets me from different angles.

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The new workstation with rolling blinder (nicest coloured bedsheet) to block out the setting sun, framed window left up to the right during the rainy season. To see more pics of the hut’s progress, check out its album on our facebook page.

And work hard I must, for my cousin from the UK has announced that she plans to visit Vancouver, the home of both my mother and sister, in April of next year. I have been strictly instructed that I simply MUST attend this rare reunion. By that time I should have my hut completed and able to lock up everything tight for an extended departure. Which I might make an annual routine during the six month rainy season – depends on how my comfort/discomfort level pans out during this experimental period. Perhaps the following year I will try fruit picking in Australia.

And because there are so fewer volunteers and paying guests, I have been using the free time to work on promotion, most recently in the form of converting the big hut into a home (with its own solar power, lights and dining picnic table), to give the site an overall facelift and finally post it on booking.com, agoda and many other sites. I imagine it could get quite busy by the next high season, in conjunction with the boat tours again. But one thorn remains: now that I’ve fallen out with the caretaker, how precarious is my position here?

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First sunset enjoyed from new workstation.

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Finally met the property’s caretaker!

It was five months of misery, which I managed to overcome in my usual adaptive way, but it was also a fun time of making lots of pockets in the jungle for the 30 tents I had accumulated over time. I look forward to being ready for the upcoming high season, as in the past I’ve been approached a few times by larger groups but could not accommodate them. With a few large groups of paying guests, I can start to recoup my extensive investments into tents and other material, now officially in the hole by 140,000p, which is about $3,000.

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One of the new pockets by beachfront.

But misery loves company and it has been amusing watching how the little children volunteers whine and complain about the conditions, or how they struggle to start a fire in the wind and rain so that they can have their precious cup of coffee in the morning.

When I first started the volunteer program, I introduced myself as Tarzan, and asked the applicants in my standard response letter, “Are you prepared to live with Tarzan?”, listing some of my habits which I thought might be too objectionable to some. Many wrote back enthusiastic responses, saying they love Tarzan, but it is a different matter between watching him on a Hollywood set and living in the conditions he is used to.

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Rewards of brutal conditions.

With newly arriving guests, one of the first things I would teach them is how to start a fire and cook on it. Rip off a healthy batch of dry coconut leaves, twist them into a strip piled perpendicular to the wind, hold the match in just the right place while fluffing up the leaves just enough to let a light breeze pass through, and throw on the thick metal pot as soon as the fire is raging. Not such an easy task, actually, but nice to watch how the volunteers would teach new arrivals, including how to open coconuts and all other organic manners of survival on the edge of a jungle. I even thought I could write up a certificate for those who are interested and which shows they passed the trials of living with a barbarian and learning all these nature skills. They could post it on their facebook wall in pride, it would act as a further marketing tool, and build “brand loyalty”.

After experiencing all sorts of excuses why a volunteer cannot put in a measly hour of work per day, because it is either too hot, too rainy, too many bugs and so forth, I invented the term prissy cosmopolitan pussy. Perhaps I have just gotten used to living like Tarzan, but I find it increasingly humorous watching guests arriving from the land of square geometry and struggling to adjust to a fractal environment. I will cite a most recent example.

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Sometimes they even catch the food!

A Polish couple and two Italian beauties arrived at the same time, bringing our camp up to an attendance of five. They arrived late and when it was pouring rain, so I lodged them up in the big hut’s loft and asked Elsie to cook us up fish and rice in her sheltered little home. It felt good to be among a new group of people, after a long period of living solo, so I sacrificed a 1L bottle of local brandy. I also opened a new package of mosquito netting I had recently purchased from ebay, we sparked up a fire in the hut, and overall I’d say they were satisfied with their first day.

The next day they slumbered into some semblance of movement by around 11am, while I was busy pounding away at the computer. A second day without any work, they originally planned to stay a couple of weeks, and I suggested they work two hours for each of the next two days so that they do not have to pay accommodation for the first two nights. All four of them worked as a good team for the next two days and accomplished quite a lot, but decided they had enough and want to leave back to civilisation.

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Barbarians making bread on the fire.

But one thing I noticed was that the Pole was typically macho, demanding to do all male things like make and tend the fire, always pandering over the females if they are okay and commandeering them what they should do. I thought the two Italian girls might be modern feminists, one of them with long dreadlocks, but they seemed instead to readily accept their new roles as little creatures requiring constant tending. After the fourth day of work he finally came to me, apologising that they will be leaving the next day, citing intolerable conditions and “all the cockroaches”. “And what about the cockroaches?”, I responded. “Are the girls terrified of the possible pitter patter of little feet across their noses as they try to sleep in their tents?” Apparently so. Honestly, cockroaches don’t bite but are good janitors, cleaning up all the crumbs us human giants leave behind. And I really don’t think there are that many here, although I do see them from time to time. Reminds me of that German volunteer who with such surety stated that an entire tupperware of fish and rice must be thrown out because it is “infested with ants”. I took a look and only found one single little black ant crawling around in the rice. It’s not like the ant is a fly which may have crawled over a pile of shit. They are clean animals and janitors, like the cockroach. Tarzan can only roll his eyes at the pussies. But generally, most guests don’t mind washing the dishes like the locals do, which is in the ocean without soap and a bit of beach sand to scrub it clean. After all, the salt in the ocean is a disinfectant, where soap is not. The quality of soap separates grease from water. After a meal of rice and veggies, the plates are hardly greasy, yet the conditioned cosmopolitan expresses discomfort when taken out of its usual routine of obsessively peeling every carrot and potato, even though locals don’t use pesticides and they are organic (the peel might store most of the pesticides, but also the nutrients and vitamins. It is a root, afterall, absorbing water to its core, so peeling is practically useless).

boat-tours-philippines-20161203_131220At this time Ben asked me to come down to Sibaltan with him to take pictures of a new hut he is building there. It can be one of the places guests stay during an island hopping tour. Because the four prissies were taking a boat to San Miguel, I joined them and partied with them and Benji for a few nights before heading off with Ben. There was also a festival in town, so the timing worked out well. But because of the festival the town switched its hours of diesel electrical generator operation from noon to midnight to 6pm to 6am. I did not expect this and thus did not bring the small battery with me and with which I could operate my internet. Not being able to work, the next morning I asked the Italian girls if they wanted to go for a walk with me to the beach. The Pole was still dead from the night before (Benji can be lethal!), but the girls both said it was too hot. What, 32C is too hot for a walk? They spent the next days mostly in their room reading, leaving only to smoke cigarettes out on the balcony or to wander somewhere for a meal while they waited for the next ferry out of town. I had a great walk and swam back, and came back to town from Sibaltan three days later – they were still there. I guess we’re just different kinds of tourists.

Troubles with the locals

Another annoyance for Tarzan has been Rona, the wife of the neighbouring community’s captain. Perhaps she thinks she is the queen of England with such a pomp position, but she has been a thorn in my side ever since my arrival. When I first came I had a Filipino guest and used the opportunity to translate to the village about all the ways they could make money: sell us fish and coconuts, take us on island hopping tours or fishing trips, make local crafts from seashells, and other means. I noticed how she grinned snidely at the other villagers as I proposed my concept to them. Soon enough she demanded that Elsie increase her beer price to 110 up from the 100 pesos I offered her, even though I can get it in town for 65. Needless to say, I never bought beer from Elsie again and she lost a lot of income over the past year. Elsie apologised and said it is because Rona is jealous and made her increase her price. I have found envy and petty jealousy a common feature among Filipinos. Is it possible that Rona was pocketing the extra 10p, being the queen of the village that she is? Along the way Rona even sold me some fish, with the same grin on her face, but which we later found inedible. It was so unfresh even the dogs wouldn’t eat it after it was cooked. There were other instances too.

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In an effort to raise the comfort level, some very useful solar charged led lightbulbs.

Fast forward to the present, Rodel, a new and best friend I now made in the village, received a commission with his brother to cut down five coconut trees for construction wood. For about five days they were busy with their chainsaw in the jungle, cutting the hard wood up into perfect planks to carry the heavy strips to shore and load up on their boat to take elsewhere.

When they were done and as I was walking one day along the trail to the back of the property, I noticed the remains of their work: the leftover round parts of the trunk stacked up and unused. I asked Rodel if I can use it for construction, he consulted with his brother and said it was okay. I had a couple of muscular volunteers at the time and the three of us managed to bring in a sizeable pile to the beach.

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Italian kayakers drop by along their 2000km journey around Palawan.

About two weeks later I received an sms from both Elsie and Rodel that the village queen is extremely upset that I have taken this liberty and that I must give her 2,500p. I explained that Rodel had given me permission, that half the wood in my construction pile is of bamboo that has washed up onto the beach (each morning I like to walk down to the end of the beach while brushing my teeth and bring back what scraps I find), but if she wants the coconut tree slices, she is welcome to them.

However, it so happened, just around this time I finally obtained a telephone number through which I hoped to get into contact with the property owner. I had been asking incoming volunteers to drop by the townhall in Puerto Princesa on their way here, but after a year of that failing, I decided to try to bribe them by writing that the one hour’s worth of work against several hours of work in camp. This was successful and two French girls secured a number for me.

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View from the island’s mountain after clearing out a jungle trail with some volunteers.

I waited about two weeks to call, psychologically preparing myself for this very important engagement, and also for a day when it will be sunny enough to properly charge my phone and put me into a cheery and positive mood.

I called the woman and she gave me a number to the local “land assessor” I must call. She asked me who I was and when I told her she said, “Aaaah, Karel!” I’m pretty sure everyone in this area already knows about me. It was getting late in the day though, so I decided I will call the new number in the next few days, once I’m psychologically propped up again.

However, the next day, as I was working on a job, a boat shows up on my beach, one person stays behind to tend the boat while a second zig zags his way to the left and right along the beach in a hurried manner. Eventually he starts to approach me. I have been going through my mind over the past year how I would respond if one day the property owner started approaching me while I sat in my little paradise workstation. In my head I must have practiced my response and speech a thousand times. Right away I crawled out from under my mosquito netting and met the person half way with extended hand. We exchange niceties and he introduced himself as the property’s caretaker (I assume that the woman I called yesterday informed him of my presence).

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The property’s caretaker.

I explain my predicament, how originally I intended to develop on Ben’s property, how the locals lied to me regarding the location of Ben’s property, how Ben showed up after a month of development and informed me that I am in the wrong place but that if I keep it to only tents and do not build anything permanent, it should be okay. I escorted the caretaker throughout all my work, along the little trails in the jungle connecting the various camping spots, describing my solar electrical set up and how about 95% of the guests so far have been volunteers, all the while behind me he would mutter, “Very nice, very nice.”

After our little tour he seems quite satisfied, goes back to town to bring back the contract with the landowner, emphasising with his finger on the clause that he has authority to throw anyone off the property, collects several months worth of environmental taxes as backrent for the past year (essentially a bribe), and convinces me to give him as many boat tours as possible to keep our relations smooth. Yes, technically another bribe, but I happily accept in exchange for an increased sense of security. He also promises to help bring in bamboo and other construction material, and gives me official permission to start working on my hut.

I must say that this new leaf that has turned is a great relief for me. He even discloses that the owner is an Italian living and owning a hotel in Puerto Princesa, that he purchased this property some ten years ago, and that he does not have the capital to develop it according to his dreams. More security for me! But he is trying to sell it for some 300,000 Euro, so the final nail is not in the coffin yet!

Back to Table of Contents The high season is a success
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D tent spots (Dimancal)

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At one of the posts framing the entrance to the D area.
Our guests often have fun beautifying our camp in different ways. 

D1 on beachfront

On the immediate left as soon as you pass through the gates above. A smaller tent snuggled in the shade, 600p for one person or 800p for two. Room for a hammock (we have many) just to the left of the tent.

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View of the beach and the two trees next to the tent from which you can hang a hammock.

D2

A little spot very close to shore but with no view, 400-600p.

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D3

Walking further inland past that, there is an open space for several tents, a little campfire spot, and a path leading back to C or one to the other D spots (this view facing back to the beach):

D6

D7 and D8

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A nice quiet space in the very back, can easily take two or more tents, room for two hammocks as shown here. 5-700p for the first tent and 4-600p for every other. Has its own fireplace as shown in picture below.

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Nice quiet path leading off to the spot. Good for people who want more privacy. Place has nice energy and the best one inland.

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Crossfit Personal Trainer on Beach

The following video is of a friend of mine who will be staying with me for three months (perhaps longer, on and off) and who is a certified personal trainer and crossfit specialist on the beach. He filled up basketballs of various sizes with sand to create medicine balls, uses thick heavy fisherman (battle) ropes he found on the beach, an old truck tire, used 5L water bottles hanging from bamboo for barbells and other creative ideas to create intensive 5-10 minute workouts on the beach. The soft fluffy sand makes it an ideal workout for the ankles. In the big hut he has set up an exercise workstation using various gadgets he brought with him from the west. Then of course there are my own bamboo gymnastics rings, parallel bars and workout station which can be utilised as well. And once you’ve built up a decent sweat and gotten yourself in better shape in a manner of minutes, nothing better than to splash and cool down in the ocean only meters away!

 

Some technical crossfit terms and exercises you will learn from him:

  • battle rope – many exercises, like dragging along the beach, flaring, rippling and tug of war
  • farmer’s walk – with two buckets of sand which you carry along the beach on your tip toes (for example), and then carry back. The weights can be set differently (different amount of sand) so that you get a different workout on your way back.
  • medicine ball exercises – ab workouts, explosive workouts, different throwing exercises
  • tracter tire flipping
  • pull up variations – in the big hut hanging from the bamboo cross beams, using resistant bands which can assist all exercises, or medicine balls for added weight
  • suspension fitness – similar to gymnastics rings, but the height can be easily adjusted to create all sorts of exercises in different positions
  • squat rack – using bamboo with water bottles for weights
  • dumbbells – made from bamboo and coconuts filled with sand
  • fartlek training – Swedish type of cardiovascular exercise
  • HIIT (high intensity interval training) – short period, high intensity short burst exercises in between short breaks of varying lengths

Followed by a lovely splash in the ocean!

Five months of rain, typhoons, bugs and misery

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The delux tent purposefully flattened to protect it from getting ruined,
behind a temporary wall of 
coconut leaves.

Letter to mom about Ben, June 10

That’s the owner of the property I’m supposed to be developing. He dropped by the other day, bringing in more bamboo so that I can continue with construction (mostly tables and little things, since I do not have permission for the property I’m actually on to build anything, let alone even be here), came to check out my progress, asked to confirm that I had indeed been here for over a year, and then burst out a little laughter, finding it funny that I can live in this “state”, meaning in a tent and out in the open.

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New coconut leaf outhouse

He has already built two big huts and coconut leaf outhouses for us (one on each of the properties I have developed) and obviously wants us to be comfortable. I send his hotel a fair amount of business and he sees the potential here that I do, so it reminded me of you and your “I cannot believe my 51 year old son is sleeping on the ground”… Makes me giggle. On the other hand, I live in paradise right on the beach. I honestly find very little value in owning a car (unless I live in it and it gives me freedom, or I really need it for some reason) and a house and tiled floors and all these creature comforts which to me seem to have more value to people who use them as status symbols in their competition against other people in society. I really find no value in any of that and love my little workstation in the shade with its lovely paradise view, and the constant temperature all year long, and the ability to walk a few steps to cool down in the ocean any time I want, have interesting people from all over the world passing through (and that I carefully screen to be birds of my own feather), and then the opportunity to develop this project and work with my hands occasionally. In fact, yesterday, after my one volunteer had left and I was left to myself, I was contemplating the possibility of eventually getting bored here and wanting to go somewhere else, but I really cannot think of a better place than where I am now and would like to get into the trenches for a 10-20 year operation while starting a family, just to add a legacy and interesting chapter in my life. Anyway, just thought I’d send you an update 🙂

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Finally got my tent up after half a year of virtually no rain,
with mosquito netting around my new, protected workstation.

Letter to mom update – rainy season and zillion bugs

Further to my previous, often-sounding positive email about my paradise living, think you might find this one funny and contrary. So it has started raining and everything is starting to rapidly bloom, the big fat jungle green leaves bursting from every dry stick protruding from the ground. boat-tours-el-nido-coron-20160813_075557I have started replanting bushes from the new veggie garden to other targeted areas, beautifying the place overall and rather enjoy the work. Love how everything is bursting green and it gives the place a lot more juicy and snugly character. I experimented with various leftover seeds (haven’t dared yet to experiment with all the packaged seeds volunteers have brought in from abroad over the past year) and so far the only one which has taken root is pumpkin, which seems to have exploded like a monster. Never really liked pumpkin, but the local variety tastes like sweet potato and is quite nice. The seeds can be dried in the sun and are quite tasty as a snack or can be thrown into salads etc. And learned from the internet that the leaves and female flowers can be eaten. I think even the shell, if I remember correctly. Hopefully I wont get sick of it, but will be nice once we actually start going organic. I planted one pumpkin’s worth of seeds and looks like I’ll have a massive garden. If picked when ripe enough and the shell is very hard, apparently it can also last months in the cool shade. Unfortunately, with rain comes tons of bugs. Zillions of flies relentlessly pitter pattering along my back and skin as I try to focus on my work, bugs of all dimensions which swarm the lights at night in their different seasons, horseflies, and yes, tons of mosquitos. It turns out that the recess of land at the back of the property is turning into a marsh – I always wondered what google maps meant by some “lake” there. Decided I will put a mosquito net around my workstation, so now my fantastic paradise view will become foggy and hazy.

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Giving some of the shoreline a bit of a haircut.

I’m sure guests won’t be so impressed during this season, although I have found some natural remedy comprising of cheap blue mouthwash, stale beer and epson salts which is supposed to work real good at keeping them away from a sprayed area for months, so am trying to order that in to give it a try. The mosquito net I draped over my tent so that I could keep the door open isn’t working very well, it can get hot at night in the tent even with the door open, the air is getting very still so I’m having to dip in the ocean many times a day, leaving a salty film on my skin. It seems even if I wash myself with the wellwater at the end of the day I feel a thick slimy film on my body by morning – the rainy season has raised the water table and the water in the well is very brown, I am assuming from an iron runoff from the rocky soil. So I dont sweat up my bed I’ll often take a dip in the very shallow night waters to cool myself down.

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Volunteer grinning and bearing it.

Then of course the typhoon season will come for about two weeks and hopefully not rip apart my tents, and apparently it can get very wavy during this time, so I may have to make the trek to the other side of the island when getting supplies sent in, since the boat wont be able to stop on my side. That could seriously threaten beer consumption. All in all, many would probably be complaining non-stop and I can just imagine how this would be impossibly uninteresting for any woman I aspire to start a family with. Fortunately I have the years of treeplanting behind me and have learned to tolerate the most extreme conditions. Certainly not something for everyone’s palate. If I could only find out who the owner is and hopefully get his permission, then I could build my dream hut and be much more comfortable. But still it is so beautiful here that it makes it all worthwhile for me, and I enjoy the development work. I had been complaining for ten years on the road that I sit too much in front of the computer and don’t have much else to work on, so this is perfect for me. If I could build it up and make money as a kitesurfing instructor, that would be absolutely perfect.

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Nice British couple working on a new spot about 50m from shore.
Good shelter from the wind, but too many mosquitos and eventually they moved closer to shore.

Other Annoyances

Like the bugs, sometimes I think there are little devils in my life that tinker with my electronics and snicker away while they pump up the irritation level to a massive degree. Or like somehow my paradise must be yin yang compensated with technical annoyances, to bring some balance to my universe. And I’m often grateful that I have such a broad range of technical knowledge, because I cannot imagine that most people would survive under these conditions. Same with the truck I lived in Europe for five years.

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I started slinking my way through the jungle like a ninja, seeking out new camping spots.
This one took a fair amount of work to poke a path connecting to the beach.

I’ll give yesterday as an example and what inspired me to write this letter. As I wrote elsewhere, I’ve been having a horrible time with smartphones. I need one to be able to respond quickly by text messages, for guests arriving or boatmen when arranging tours. It is also good to check email and work when I am away from the computer, and sometimes I can use it as a wifi hotspot if I am having problems with my regular router, so quite an important device. One I had purchased, another fake unbeknownst to me, irritated me so much in so many ways I was relieved to finally replace it. But in the nearest Filipino town all they had was some brand named Cherry, a local production. Their highest end product at more than a hundred bucks and with a whopping 3 day warrantee lasted all of two months.

So I finally decided to buy real quality from the internet, a Samsung S3 at about the same price. Started raining after six months of complete dry the day it arrived in the mail, I was unprepared, slept in a completely wet tent the whole night and the next day the device no longer worked, after I spent about 4 hours excitedly setting it up the previous day. Which has forced me to go back to the irritating one, that has a crack in the bottom right corner of the screen, making it frustratingly difficult to press such things as the spacebar, the OK button and so forth. It is also incredibly slow, doesn’t work as a hotspot, is 4G but because the local tower is 3G it falls down to 2G and offers incredibly slow internet, and I have to be very careful with it, otherwise it will easily turn off, or the menu items start acting up due to the crack, such that I am forced to restart it. But when I do that the battery often does not connect properly, so I’m forced to take the battery out, lick it and fiddle with it about five times before I get the blasted thing working.

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New big area past the entrance shown in picture above. Good for groups, big tree in the center, surrounded by smaller trees of the same type with big fat leaves and creating a nice canopy and shaded area.

Meanwhile, my debit card expired and a new one is on its way, but probably at the Coron post office, where I send all my ebay purchases. Since I can’t really leave here (3 hour boat ride one way), I wait until an arriving volunteer can pick it up or one of my boatmen makes the trip to the town. This means that I cannot transfer credit to my sim card online. Yesterday the credit ran out on my internet sim card so I had to climb up the tree, where the router and antenna are, so I could stick the second sim card into the shitty phone, struggle with it five times to get it working, to transfer funds from one sim to the other. I climb back up the tree to put in the other sim card, but once I climb back down it is not working. I find myself climbing back up at least another four times until I figure out it was a connection problem, meanwhile my cat decides this is a fun game and weaves between my legs high up in the tree, adding to the annoyance.

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Hammock high up in tree where I have my router and antenna background center near the top of the photo. Rather precarious work with cat weaving between my feet.

I decided recently that I will start stocking up on things, going into redundant mode. It seems that one of my 1gig external harddrives snapped recently, losing tons of films I have been picking up from people passing through. So I bought two more and hope to start making double backups of everything. A new, waterproof Samsung S5 is on its way, so I’ll still have this shitty one as a backup. Already have something like 5 inverters, which convert the 12V to 120 or 220 and without which I cannot charge my computer or do any work, and slowly thinking of a backup battery for the solar, since my first one is starting to get weak.

They are talking about upgrading the local tower to 4g, in which case I’ll upgrade my router as well and use the old one as a backup. Will have to ponder about some sort of backup for my computer, without which I would lose a LOT of money not being able to work until it is replaced and set up. So far the MAC Airbook is performing nicely, but sand has been sneaking under the keyboard and has been slowly acting up. It’s been three years now and these devices seem to be built with ticking time bombs, so better start planning.

Of course, we can add to that other annoyances such as the new rain and mosquitoes which forces me to close up the tent at night and in which it gets hot, so I lay there sweating. I’ll sneak out around 2am once the tide gets high enough so I can lay in the water and cool down. I put a mosquito net under a shelter and over a waterproof mat, but the wind tends to blow that off and lets in tons of mosquitoes, and yesterday I hung up a new tent/mosquito net hammock, so experimenting with different ways to make myself more comfortable. FINALLY have electricity in the tent, but with the new, cloudy weather, electricity is becoming a bit of a problem, in which case I’ll switch to gardening work for a few hours a day to compensate. There are a ton of other little things which would certainly drive the average person batty and convince them to quickly give up on the entire operation. Fortunately for me, my 7 summers experience treeplanting has taught me how to turn my mind off to discomforts. Turning it on again so that the positive points make up for the bad. What a dream it would be to have everything backed up and redundant, and enough income from my operations here not to have such a reliance on the computer and therefore fewer technical problems to exasperate me.

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View from up in the big tree looking down at the roof of my workstation.

I cannot imagine what could be so annoying about teaching others to kite or wind surf, but maybe we’ll see! That would also be a nice way to get back into shape, because without sports over the past ten years while traveling on the road, it has been hard to motivate myself. Just climbing the tree last night as many times as I did have left my thighs cramped and burning this morning!

Synopsis after five months of discomfort

The mosquito net around my workstation and over my tent works well enough keeping out the mosquitos and annoying flies, but there are these very small flies which you can barely see but which seem to inject their entire bodies’ worth of saliva to leave behind large, itchy pimples. Creeping into the tent at night, when the air is still and hot as I lie sweating on my thin mattress, scratching all over, there came a point when I seriously planned to abandon the project, at least during the rainy season. Typhoons occasionally pass through, flattening or ripping apart my tents, the horizontal rain pummels all attempts at weatherproofing my tent, leaving me inside wet and miserable.

Since it is low season and few guests and volunteers passing through anyway, I decide I could remedy the situation by spending half the year in something like El Nido, living in comfort with a hot shower, and practicing my viola with the many bands playing every night there. I send a text to Ben asking about leaving all my stuff securely in his hotel, or perhaps I could spearhead the operations he plans to build in Sibaltan, where he also owns some property.

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View from my favourite pub in Coron, one of the towns
I was considering escaping to during the rainy “winter”.

However, in his typical way, no response from him and I find success in utilising some mosquito coils some volunteers brought in on their own initiative. At around 1am, when I usually wake up in a pool of sweat, I get into a routine of strolling naked down to the end of the beach, where the water is the clearest, and soak for a while to cool down my body. Then I might work on the computer until around 5am, when the internet is fastest.

I have finally put up the expensive tarp I imported from the US as a roof over the kitchen, and from the marsh in the back of the property I have brought in buckets of clay to build a wind shelter for the kitchen fire. Some volunteers have even built a nipa roof over this second fireplace.

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New big green tarp up over the kitchen with a new table and some shelves made from coconut tree scraps laying in the jungle after some locals cut some down for construction wood.

I have also built a second table for the kitchen, more shelving, and about as many spots in the jungle for the 30 tents I have purchased from ebay over the last year. On my last shopping trip to Coron I bought another 20m of cheap tarp and more mattresses, successfully weatherproofing my own tent and leaving plenty extra to weatherproof the other tents.

When on my own I generally make a big salad for lunch and pay a local to bring me cooked fish and rice in the evenings. When guests or volunteers are here I help out in the kitchen but generally leave the exasperating challenge of starting a fire in the wind and rain up to them. They enjoy the challenge, but are usually happy to cut their visit short and leave me to myself again.

As with this time last year, it has become cloudier and rainier, more typhoons have been passing through, and it has become increasingly difficult to charge up my computer, cutting into my income potential. But the rainy season is almost over and I look forward to another half year of sunshine, clear skies, ample energy, and sleeping outside under the stars without a single bug to bother me.

All in all I’d say I actually enjoy the rainy season more, because I love to watch the jungle come alive with exploding green. How boring life would be without seasons, or if it were perfect all the time. Seasons give a person something to look forward to, and a welcome change. The good news is that I managed to convince a couple of volunteers to visit the town hall in Princesa in order to enquire about contact details to the property owners. They gave me a number to a local official I should call. I have procrastinated for two weeks, psychologically preparing myself for a very important conversation while weathering the tail end of another exasperating season. The leaves have already started falling in anticipation of the upcoming dry stretch, but I pick them up joyfully as I look forward to hosting another round of busy season and meditate on how I will sell my dreams to the property owners.

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Mud shelter against the wind in kitchen campfire, mud brought in by half bucket loads from marsh in back of property. Had to wade in swamp water knee deep and shovel quickly to keep the mosquitoes off me!

Back to Table of Contents Finally met property’s caretaker!
Back to Table of Contents

 

Five months of development

The high season starts around the time my favourite volunteers leave, a record ten now staying here, which eventually climbs to 14 staying over a duration of five weeks. Great progress is achieved and everyone loves the space. Jungle trails are built on the new and surrounding islands and the options seem limitless. The internet is mostly fantastic and I conclude that, during the day, the children are in school while the parents are fishing, leaving the tower entirely to myself with internet speeds crushing those found in more populated areas. It is only until around 4:30pm, when the children get out of school, that the speed slows down, probably because so many are facebook and youtubing. But it speeds up again after 11pm and I often find myself doing my most internet heavy work between 1 and 4am – thank goodness for my sporadic sleeping schedule. I am pleasantly surprised to discover that, during this high season of a few months, at least one third of my income is generated from my local operations, giving me hope that I may finally retire from my 20+ year career as a translator.

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Volunteer learning how to open a coconut.

However, after the village captain comes back to my camp that first evening to discuss “business”, my favourite volunteers visit him the next day in order to enquire about buying some fresh fish. They remark that he is not so enthusiastic and more or less shooed them away. Perhaps he wanted me to reimburse him for the work him and his two brothers contributed while clearing out some of the jungle, or perhaps I offended him in some way as we polished off the brandy, as I do not recall going to sleep. Furthermore, after a full month, I was brought a sheet of paper with all capital letters screaming that the village is very upset I have been showering next to the waterwell.

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Making a trail up the mountain, our beach below background to the right.

Before making my move here, Ben informed me the water is not drinkable, so I continued as I had been showering on the last island. Perhaps the villagers are upset because I pour the little bucket of water down my shorts, massaging my balls clean while they kneel on the ground washing their laundry. I promptly inform them it is not a problem and our relations improve, but overall a sour feeling hangs in the air. I ask them about music and am told there isn’t a problem (or rather that they prefer it), and ask them again several months later, when only a few in the village express it has been too loud at night. Some of the villagers remain friendly while others frown scowling as they pass by without looking at me.

I establish the best relations with Elsie (who needed the village’s consent to move there), the wife of Ben’s cousin, who I presume is staying for free on the property I am supposed to be developing. Her English is the strongest, she is the nicest, and it is her who had to write that screaming letter for the angry villagers. My guests and I buy cigarettes, junk food and what little they have in their little store, while one of the other villagers is upset we do not buy from her. Perhaps the frowning scowls are from villagers who are envious yet do not have the initiative to offer us something themselves, or are intimidated and shy.

But when I think about it, since I first came to this area and lived in the local town for two months before starting my island projects, I was told many times by the locals that foreigners are very rare in these parts and that I am the first long termer. I started inviting people through couchsurfing, eventually volunteers through two other websites, and soon enough I become famous in the area for bringing in tourists and revenue. In Coron I’ve been told I am referred to there as “the guy on that island”. Meanwhile, in Sibaltan (where I lived for two months before coming to this area), I am referred to as Redhorse Man (from the days when I used to drink that beer before discovering that it was doing horrible things to my body).

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But if foreigners truly were extremely rare before I had arrived, and since the locals on the present island of Dimancal don’t make the 40 minute boatride to San Miguel very often, I imagine I could easily be the first foreigner any of them have ever met. And what a crazy loony at that! A 50+ year old male who is often by himself, on the computer all day (when not performing odd gardening work), and happy to sleep outside on a thin mattress under the clear skies.

Because of the unease in the air, I’ll mostly send nice female volunteers as ambassadors to enquire about fish and what not, to show them that us foreigners are not monsters. After five months though, considering all the fish, fresh coconuts and junk food we have bought from them, not to mention the occasional emergency boatride back to San Miguel, our relations seems cordial enough. We’ve invited them to some parties, I turned the volume down a few notches, but they have never invited me to any of their raving diesel-powered karaoke parties on the occasional weekend. No worries though, as I am quite content with my solitude once another wave of guests has passed through.

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The humble beginnings of our kitchen.

As with the other project, Ben has built us a big hut and coconut leaf outhouse, to provide us with more comfort. In spite of not wanting to infringe on the locals, I consider moving into the big hut in order to protect my electronics from the rain and to lock up everything whenever I am gone, but after hearing the distant pig squeals, rooster crows and children screaming at every odd hour, my desire to move there quickly abates, including the thought to rent out the attic space to paying guests. My marketing angle is for a rural experience without the rural noise, as I am sure most people coming here want to escape the tourist mayhem and enjoy some peace and quite on a paradise beach. And even with the record 14 of us staying here over a period of 5 weeks, a peaceful paradise can still be enjoyed. Sitting around the campfire at night and playing music amongst like-minded, rainbow gathering type people.

Around this time I decide to write to my good buddy back in Bulgaria, instructing him to send me my most important belongings, having officially decided to make the big move here and focus on the permanent. My prized acoustic Canadian guitar, electric keyboard, bugle (great for welcoming new guests as they approach the shore on boat, kind wake-up calls for those who want to witness another beautiful sunrise as a full moon slowly retires amidst brightly lit twighlight, or as a final trumpet sound once guests depart), bass guitar, some sentimental items, and the most important – my 1400W stereo with four 50W speakers and a 200W subwoofer. It is time to crank up the party.

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New hut built for us in village by Ben and his crew.

Around this time I have also increased the daily food charge to 250p (about $6). I have found the volunteers to be rather wasteful, occasionally breaking my tools, and overall a drain on my energy. This increased charge nullifies my own food costs and, with larger groups, I can even earn some coin. I also start selling my beers at a profit, hence subsidising this greatest part of my budget. The volunteers do the cooking and cleaning, and although some have complained that I have it a bit too easy, I explain that managing their arrival, the occasional local boat tour, bringing in food and all the other responsibilities wears me thin. At this new arrangement the exercise is worthwhile for me, and if someone is not happy with it, a departure boat can easily be arranged for them. Over the past year a few volunteers have truly exasperated me, during which time I have been busy tweaking the invite letter to avoid further unpleasantries. I have become quite intolerant to lazy people and freeloaders in general, and have become more picky who I accept into my home.

My belongings are already on the way when my Bulgarian friend, who I had helped into the world of translation, suddenly writes that he received a large enough project to finance a visit, since he has long enviously followed my progress in this temperate climate. The timing seems uncanny, as I imagine he will make it in time to pick up my shipment from the Coron post office, because the packages will be quite bulky for that small and perpetually crammed little office and it will be difficult for me to retrieve them (arriving volunteers usually pick up my ebay purchases on their way here). I make the rare trip to San Miguel to meet and help him once he disembarks onto the pier. I show him all the sites and we meet all my friends during his one month stay here, he loves the place, but without an interesting mission as I have, he quickly finds himself bored and moves on to busier pasture in Puerto Princesa, where he hopes to find a female companion. Since he left, we’ve emailed a few times and decided he could spearhead his own camping operation on his return.

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New, shady cover for my workstation and somewhere for guests to hide from the hot sun.

Now equipped with a proper sound system, and the sound-activated disco lights I purchased from ebay and which illuminate in various flickering colours the big, main tree of the base camp, I feel my operations are a few notches more serious. At one point during the 14 person peak my 51st birthday rolls by, and what more perfect gift than a massively rolled joint which the Brazilian kitesurfers had been dragging across three Asian borders before landing on my little island paradise. Because Benji expressed hurt I had not invited him, we decide on a second party the following evening, followed by a third, as many volunteers had left while others replaced them. Not long afterwards we are celebrating another a guest’s birthday when I remember I still have some fireworks left over from the Christmas party on Pical. Back then Arcenas the captain firmly instructed me they are illegal and forbade me to fire them up.

As things have been developing nicely on many fronts, I also develop relations with the manager of a neighbouring island. During one of my daily trips to San Miguel when I was waiting for a boat to Coron in order to fix my inverter, the manager, Fabian, was interviewing a young girl for a position at his resort. After the interview we talked for about an hour, him explaining to me that she is actually much better than the average interviewee (I told him I wouldn’t hire her with a ten foot pole). Fabian manages the Ariara Resort, located on an island next to us that the British owner purchased for a very modest one million pesos (about $22,000). Now he rents out rooms for at least $700 a night only to exclusive guests who rent the entire island as a group and where the likes of Tony Blair have stayed.

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Building a bamboo table in a tent area we walled off from the local trail.

One Sunday my only volunteer, a South African, and I decide to journey to Ariara island to discuss business and have a meal at Fabian’s fancy restaurant. We paddle over in my new banca boat, drag it up on the beach and look for the manager. Eventually we meet and he explains to me that this is no island to simply drop by for a meal any time someone likes, that it is entirely exclusive, and that he is very busy making preparations for a group of guests due to arrive in about a week for Christmas. I mention that perhaps some of his guests might be interested in kitesurfing, we exchange phone numbers and he escorts me back to my boat.

I tell this story to many of my guests, who pay at most 300p for tent space (1% of his price) and that we essentially offer the same paradise retreat but for markedly different prices. Although I do notice, as he escorts us back to our boat, that his beach does not have a single seashell or seaweed on it (I presume having 25 employees might play a role in that) and that his beach is groomed flat and combed through with soft, curvy lines mimicking the waves of the ocean. He doesn’t appear very impressed as we walk barefoot back to the banca and drag it back into the ocean, scarring his fancy artwork with another unappealing gash.

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The couple who painted my little banca, still not as fancy as Fabian’s speedboat for mini yacht.

However, over the next month or two, as I use my Sundays to grab the banca and a volunteer in order to explore and build jungle paths on other islands, I discover that the Brit also owns property on two other nearby islands, possibly one entire island. For the five months that I’ve been here I have been trying to get an arriving volunteer to swing by the town hall in Princesa, on their way here, but to no avail. That is apparently where I can find the contact details to the owner of the property I am developing. Apparently a Belgian. And the contact details of the owner of the property at the end of the beach. Would love to develop both of them.

Since I am in such a precarious situation, I decide to text Fabian to discuss the possibility of developing some of the property on the other islands. He later explains he was quite surprised that the owner expressed interest, simply because he is paying for a caretaker to stay there and watch the property, but who is never there anyway. At least I could provide him with some additional revenue, no matter how minute that might be compared to the revenues from his resort.

Fabian agrees for my visit, and I head out another Sunday, this time with a long haired beauty who for a week has been expressing a great desire for icecream. I had already taken her the week before to the island across our way and where the Brit owns some property. On our way, shortly before leaving shore, she swings around abruptly and causes the little banca to instantly sink. We drag it back to shore to bail out the water and try again. The boat is ideal for a single person only, while guests who rent it often find themselves submerged in water shortly offshore.

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New parallel bars to help me get back into shape.

This next Sunday we paddle our way to the fancy resort, although the waves are significant. Not to mention that a strip between our islands gets waves and wind directly from the open ocean. Since someone had stolen one of our paddles and I customarily hold one of my big, beloved beers in my hand, I suggest that she start with the paddling until I finish it. She struggles valiantly against the strong current and swells while I focus on sipping and maintaining balance. Once I’m done with my beer, almost at the resort, I suggest to switch with my panting volunteer, but we are already quite offshore and it is a struggle against the strong current to get to their pier. Once again she performs one of her abrupt body swings and we find ourselves neck high in bobbing waters.

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My shipmate building something on the new hanging chair.

Now, as part of my intention of only inviting birds of my own feather, at one point I started to explain the conditions here, ending my lengthy explanation with the question: “Are you prepared to live with Tarzan?” Many volunteers would respond: “Yes I do, I love Tarzan!” As we bob frantically far off from shore trying to figure out how to resolve the situation (on a previous occasion I found it impossible to scoop out the water as the large waves instantly drowned our bailing efforts), off in the distance we hear the buzz of a gas engine and notice an inflatable speedboat making its way towards us. With a blond and cleancut German propped up on the bow, a faithful employee behind him steering, my shipmate instantly proclaims: “James Bond meets Tarzan!”

He saves us from our predicament, drags me back to shore (she found instant refuge in his fancy boat), serves us both icecream and me ice cold beer (all gratis, of course), we talk business and conclude the discussions can continue once the owner arrives in June.

Back to Table of Contents Five months of rain, typhoons, bugs and misery
Back to Table of Contents

Successful kitesurfing at last!

A few kitesurfers pass through and assess the conditions and my equipment. Although a great deal for less than $500 for two (usually they are a thousand a pop), it turns out my kitesurfing kits are from 2001, well before the extensive advances in harness safety. The kites are good, although many of the valves are missing the part which prevents air from leaking once pumped up. Since the kites need to be pumped up tight in order to work properly, I order some used parts from ebay.

The first surfing guest scopes out the island and explains it is not a good one, on either side of it. The beaches are too narrow, meaning there is too much danger of being flown into the trees, ripping up the sails in the process.

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Brazilian couple trying out the wind on the other side of the island. 

The second surfers are a Brazilian couple who come to a similar conclusion, mostly in that the wind is not strong enough to lift up their kite. By this time I have contemplated trying out a few other islands in the area, after examining the map and my first surfer guest pointing out a few possibilities exposed to the open ocean. A group of us accompany the Brazilians to a couple of islands across the way and are pleasantly surprised to learn that the conditions are perfect. The Brazilians are ecstatic about breaking virgin turf and spend a few hours cutting across the waters without another soul to interfere. The sailing ship of Tao Expeditions turns up randomly and serves as an excellent backdrop. Ben actually joins us for this event and expresses great happiness to witness what I have been selling all this time – he finally sees the great potential in my overall plans.

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Surfing in front of Tao’s original sailboat.

A few weeks later another surfer guest arrives but the winds are now strong enough to launch from both sides of our island (excellent news). We decide to go back to one of the Brazilians’ islands, where the beach is very wide, fluffy and soft, so she can give me a beginner’s course. After all, the future success of my camp hinges on there being a trainer here, and it could serve as a good source of income for me.

She explains to me some basic principles, such as how the lines are aligned, where the danger spots are and how to release the safety mechanism on her new, 9m kite (mine are 12 and 14m and can be potentially dangerous in these rugged winds). Having won sailing competitions during my youth, I grasp the concept quickly and soon enough have the kite high in the sky and under confident control.

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Exploring the wide, fluffy beach of Bolina Island.

She then instructs me to bring the sail over to my right, towards the trees and away from the shoreline. In an instant the kite drops down into the danger zone (downwind) and I am swept up off my feet and flying through the air (I was practicing while standing on the beach). My instincts are good and I keep my eyes glued to the kite while I’m rotated upside down and occasionally dropped down to the beach on my back. My eyes remain fixed on the kite in this new position, my head sometimes missing the odd massive seashell as I am dragged across the beach, until I finally bring the kite back under control out of the power zone. At the start of the training she asked if I wanted to wear a helmet, to which I sneered. Thank goodness for my extensive gymnastics and aikido training, giving me the balance and focus to bring the kite back under control, but I cautioned her: next time she decides to train someone, she should force them to practice playing with the safety release mechanism, until it becomes instinctive. In the moment when I was swept up off the ground I completely forgot about this while focusing on the kite, nor was I remotely aware of my back scratching up as I bounced and scraped my way towards the end of the beach and almost dragged out into the open ocean. Once back up on my feet, the crew worriedly runs over asking if I am okay. My trainer gives me a high five and said “job well done”. I then spend about half an hour body surfing in the water with good control of the kite, but my ears start hurting from the water gushing in and I am getting tired in general, so I pack it in for the day and hope to continue my training, preferably with my own gear, the next time an experienced surfer passes through.

 

Back to Table of Contents Five months of development
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Some ventures off the island

Before I started these island development projects, the idea came to me to start an island hopping enterprise. A country of 7,107 islands, about a thousand of which are in my area alone. A calm area and more affluent part of the country, with honest folks, little crime and no typhoons. The dream was to explore them myself, equipped with portable solar panels (I expected none or next to no electricity in the villages I planned to visit, but was told there is a mobile signal everywhere), and fill in a database of contact numbers to local fishermen who could take guests to their next destination, while teaching the new homestays how to properly service them. A truly rural experience, with a map users can click on as they plan their route from one island village to the next. Once they made payment, the website would send them all the details and contact information along the path they selected.

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Will update pic when I get back to camp, but purchased three of these from a forest ranger in the US who made these himself for his own needs and then started to sell them online. 60W each, folds up into very compact and light units, waterproof and pretty durable.

But since I stumbled on my own island project, which I considered much more interesting, I decided to make the island hopping a side venture, even though it has generated significantly more income than from paying guests visiting my paradise. But it was something I could easily manage through the internet and a text message to the various boat operators.

I was invited on a few trips with my main boat operator, Benji, but better safe than sorry and I began to slowly accumulate others. One such tour I had organised was for a Japanese girl and her boyfriend. Since it was such a small crew, I decided on trying out, for the first time, Henkey’s larger boat. But because I haven’t used him yet for such a service and because I felt it needed some supervision and training, I decided to join them, to make sure everything ran smoothly.

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One of Henkey’s boats, laden from one of my big fat moves to the new island.

This coincided with two female German volunteers who were on their way, and one Italian paying guest (who was so gracious as to bring, on my request, deluxe parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar, which I greedily devoured myself). They were headed up from the same direction, so I came to an agreement with the Japanese couple for us to join them to reduce their costs. But when the crew arrived in their larger boat, the Japanese girl was aghast that it was too small and worried about the big waves. Meanwhile, on my request, she had brought a new battery-operated drill from Japan, to replace the one that was stolen from Patoyo before I moved to the new island, but on opening the package I learned they use a 110V system in Japan. This will require the purchase of yet another inverter (due to my paranoia, I now own about 5). They told me I can keep the deposit and went back to El Nido, so me, the Italian and the two Germans had a slightly discounted boat tour back to the island.

I boarded Henkey’s boat with his crew of three (son, daughter and her husband) and we made our way southbound to pick them up. We waited in San Fernando for the usual Filipino delay, during which time the local coast guard gleaned me of information, and once he found out my boat crew had no permit for such a service, I secretly whispered to them to make their way south to Sibaltan, where I will direct my new guests once their bus arrives.

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More party mayhem in Pical.

We launch the tour and the first stop, as part of my suggested itinerary, is Pical, where I had the usual pleasure to party with Arcenas again. It was a great party, but the crew were not interested in joining while the wife moaned and groaned that she could not wait to get back home to breastfeed her baby.

I’ve always had a great time in Pical and with Arcenas who, like Benji his good friend, loves the local brandy. It just so happened to be Christmas and an appreciated diversion from my lonesome self back on my island.

I brought my African drum to the festivities and was seated next to Arcenas, the village’s captain, at the head table. Rather boring for the first few hours as everyone in the village took turns going up on stage to give a speech or entertain the other guests in a language we did not understand, but eventually the DJ disco man turned on his performance and the rest hit the dance floor.

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Due to all the business I have been sending him, Arcenas’s
massive operations is expanding and spilling over onto the beachfront property.

As usual, when I have my drum and a few shots of brandy, I sink into rhythmic meditation and fraternise with the locals until around four in the morning, when a scuffle breaks out. Seems the atmosphere has been overly electric and one boy is jealous of another. The little scuffle quickly breaks out into an all out brawl, almost. With my martial arts training and significant size advantage, I choose to sit idly at my table, not budging an inch. When all of a sudden, Arcenas, the village captain and the tallest and largest of them all (my height I’d say), appears in his gleaming white pajamas brandishing a metal pole. Swinging it from side to side like a sword and hollering out commands in Tagalog.

The air stands still for a moment, as he gazes intently from person to person. Eventually his eyes hit mine as I sat there calmly, watching the show, he gives me a nod, continues his surveillance of the rest of the clan, tells the DJ to shut it down and we all go off to bed.

The next day the boat crew asks us what the plan is, but when I tell them, the daughter groans, “Another island??” They do not seem to understand my business objectives.

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Camping out with the Italian dude and German girls on Takling.

We arrive to Calibangbangan, near to Takling island (where we intend to camp overnight), and do some business in terms of looking for a place where future guests can tank up on restaurant food and explore the mainland before retiring for the evening on the island. After all, the whole point of such a tour is to provide variety. To rush straight to Takling, a completely deserted island, can result in a totally boring evening.

We try a few places in calabingbangbong but all the locals we approach are worried they do not have a permit to serve tourists. At 30,000p a year for such a permit (about $700), it is not a worthwhile venture for them. Even though I find a great tree on the shore with a shady hut and large table which could easily be served by the private home adjoining it, the owners look at us like aliens and decline my invitation for future business.

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Takling

On Takling we make the usual campfire on paradise beach, to which I bring my musical instruments while the daughter groans to the side on the beach, waiting for the dreaded experience to be over. After Takling there is one other island I want to stop by, but since I fell asleep on the boat, the crew took the opportunity to b-line their way straight home – and karaoke it is again for the evening.

On another occasion, I had three girls struggling to get to my island from Coron. I ask Henkey a few times if he would be interested in picking them up, offering 7,000p (about $140), which is a fair deal for his sized boat. He and his son agree, but when we arrived at his house, lunch becomes a priority and Filipino time takes precedence. Eventually, I confront them and point out that time is running short and that, if they really want to take the task, they should have left several hours ago. At which point they change their minds and decline the offer.

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Holding some bizarre, prehistoric animal in front of Henkey’s house
while a neighbour’s eagle pet watches precariously in the background.

The third time I try to use his service for these extended boat tours, his son shows up three hours late in his small boat (we agreed he would always use their bigger, safer boat for these extended journeys), by which time my guests decide to abandon the wait and go for lunch. Once he finds them they explain they are not ready to go, but after lunch they find him cooking rice and not ready to depart for another hour and a half. Once the “tour” launches, he passes all the stops I instructed him about and makes a b-line straight for his home. When the guests ask if they can see some other beaches in the area, Mark, the son, tries to charge extra. Once at his home, when the guests ask what there is to do in the area, he replies “nothing,” and walks away.

It seems that many locals, as do many Asians in general, perceive foreigners as walking ATM machines and have no clue about providing a service in exchange for the payment. I consider Henkey and his family great people and my close friends, but business is something separate and I have had to boycott their service until we can sit down so I can explain, again, how it works, and they reimburse the last guests for his catastrophic service.

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Local boys serenading to the German girls in Pical.

Problems have arisen with other providers as well, as they collude with one another to incrementally increase their price every time I send them new guests. So I play them against one another, possibly bring in a third party, and starve them into submission. I know that the prices I offer are fair and that they are only acting out of short-sighted greed. This becomes another front in my battles to make my intensions here successful.

Back to Table of Contents Successfull kitesurfing at last!
Back to Table of Contents

Owner Who What?

I make it to the new lot, the volunteers absolutely love it, and soon enough several more volunteers arrive from different parts of the world to bring our working crew up to a record number of 10. Some leave, more arrive, local boat tours are taken, and in two weeks this revolving door of faithful labourers accomplishes quite a lot.

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Lot of jungle cleared, construction of first bamboo table started.
Check out the moon action!

Before arriving, on my initial test run, I asked the locals where Ben’s property begins and ends. They specifically earmarked two big trees on the shore. Big trees are nice, and I quickly developed grandiose ideas of putting the solar system up in one of them, with hammock hanging in the branches, electronics in waterproof tree fort, the angle of the solar panel adjustable by strings. I can finally rejuvenate my childhood dream of building structures in big trees.

We carve out little pockets from the jungle, mostly deweeding and removing some of the more aggressive fauna, and the new project takes a nice shape – contrary to the previous one, which was stripped clean by the tending caretaker of anything other than coconut trees. Not to mention that it is nice not to have to struggle with a caretaker, who suffered a stroke and gets into his immovable routine of burning any fauna, leaving ugly black marks in the soil.

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Formation of my new workstation and central lounge area.
Remind you of a famous French painting?

As usual, the interaction between the sun, moon and ocean occasionally brings up heaps of dead corals onto the beach. As I carve out private little pockets of space in the jungle with their connecting paths, I resume my decoration hobby of lining the pathways with contrasting coloured shells. In this process I am also removing the sharp corals from the flat section offshore – about a 100m stretch before it hits the reef and the plateau descends into the deep, where colourful, living corals abound and the occasional large turtle frolics.

boat-tours-philippines-el-nido-coron-IMG_20151209_163512This will make it easier to walk out in shallow tide and carry in supplies from arriving boatloads. Overall, I am satisfied with our progress, some of the volunteers even setting up a rudimentary volleyball court in the abundant beach sand. We have even established good relations with the locals, pulling out the guitar, viola and jambe to jam with them the second night we are there. Beers and bottles of hard alcohol shared, the atmosphere seems rife with enthusiasm.

During this busy two week period one of the volunteers is Filipino, so I grab the opportunity to address the locals and translate all my thoughts on different ways they can make some extra income from my revolving guests, whether they be volunteers or paying. They set up a local store to provide my suggested basics of beer, cigarettes, lighters and chocolate fudgee bars (an acknowledged and immediate addiction of all volunteers so far). During our initial jam session meeting, the captain of the little community followed me to our development after the party was over to discuss some business while polishing off the last of the booze. At one point I asked him who owns the property on the other side of me, to which he responded with that ethereal way of theirs (similar to the Bulgarians with their shaking heads) by raising his eyebrows and puckering his lips slightly with open mouth. This I have presumed to mean yes, or that the three leading brothers of this little community own the entire glorious lot behind me. However, as their original declaration of where Ben’s property is located, this too turns out to be a complete lie. But develop I continue and can now consider myself a squatting nomad, with 24 tents and self-sustaining system ready to uproot and resettle at the slightest whim.

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Endless beach all to ourselves!

But before I learn it is not true I explore the lengthy beach and discover wonderful pockets which can be developed, imagining family sized huts with mini huts for the children, or for small groups of friends. The possibilities have magnified manifold. I even learn that the section of beach on the southern tip of the island (an ideal launching point for kitesurfers who want to weave their way against the wind to the wavier and windier side of the island) was once inhabited by a Japanese family who hired the locals to farm the waters for oysters. They raped the local area of pearls and, once rich, packed up their belongings and left. That stretch of beach, therefore, is already mostly cleared and prepared for development, the occasional pile of oyster shells not a great nuisance.

All in all then, everything seems to be on the up and up and extremely positive. I’ve developed a nice relationship with the locals, and feel safer by the fact that there is no community of people on the other side of me, and hence no reason for locals to be passing by my development, eyeing with envy “all the things that I have”. After about a week of settling into the new place, all sorts of objects, such as my battery operated power drill or binoculars, have manifested themselves as missing. Seems the islanders of my previous project smelt a sinking ship and helped themselves to some more goodies during my hectic move.

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German volunteer making a swing to sit on.

But such petty thefts should no longer be a problem, the locals have begun building tables to accommodate my guests with lunches and dinners, they provide us with an ample supply of seafood at every request, and everything seems peachy happy dreamy, until Ben shows up one day for inspection and says, “Dude, you’re not even building on my property.” Seems the locals didn’t want me developing right next to their little jungle huts, and neither would I want to, due to lack of space or the fact that such a location is hardly ideal to build my dream resort. Especially after hearing the screaming pigs, crowing roosters and crying babies in the distance. Ben tells me that it should be okay as long as I don’t build anything permanent and stick to tents only. I therefore change my tack and decide to become entirely nomadic. Able to pack up everything at the slightest notice, ordering in tarps from ebay and constructing makeshift structures with the local bamboo I have already discovered.

Once again, I am left dangling in one of my typical, precarious situations, waiting for an owner to pop up one day demanding an explanation. I shall continue developing as I have, minus any dreams of building permanent structures, and hope that my humble work of beautification and deweeding of the jungle, with an offer of the usual 50/50 profit share, will serve as a suitable selling point when I do meet the owner. No one knows who the owners are and I have tried so far in vain to get an arriving volunteer to visit the Town Hall’s cadastre office in Puerto Princesa, but let the adventure continue!

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Beginnings of the second camp, further down the beach.

Back to Table of Contents Some ventures off the island
Back to Table of Contents

Heading Back to the Island

Laden with my new round of construction shopping, we cram ourselves into a single tricycle and make our way to the pier. We unload the goods, haul them past the gate, and I stand there with the volunteers holding two giant pieces of plywood when I remember that dogs often sniff the baggage before passengers load the boat. I also remember that I still have a few grams of green in my front shorts pocket and that possession is subject to a life sentence in this country. I whisper to them my predicament, wondering what to do, when a guard comes up from behind me, taps me on the shoulders, and says, “Cargo bay”, pointing to the second gate. I presume this is one of my usual Jedi mind tricks and I carry the two pieces of plywood to the second gate, as such circumventing the waiting lounge. Once my friends catch up to me, sure enough, they say their bags were sniffed by dogs at the lounge exit.

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Little hotel I stayed at on the nearby island of Culion.

Back on the island I am disappointed to find the plot empty, the volunteers I left behind to tend the place long gone, while three others who came before the first couple left were tired of the relentless wind and left the island as well. Furthermore, before I had departed to Coron, I started to reinforce my own tent against the brutal wind, but since an unexpected boat became available, I sent the couple a text message with instructions how to complete the reinforcement job. On arrival though, not only did I not see any work done while I was gone and the kitchen in a total mess, but the last corner of my tent still exposed to the wind was now ripped to shreds, the rip continuing along the back of the tent to leave a gaping, flapping window for all to peer inside from the main footpath running right next to it. I had pleaded them to finish the reinforcement job (all of 5 seconds worth, once the glue had settled) for fear that my viola might get wet. On returning, I see my viola case wide open through the new, flapping window. Fortunately, nothing was taken by the locals, which includes my $400 GoPro camera laying on my bed in plain site.

On my suggestion, the two new volunteers set up their sleeping quarters in the back of the property, behind a row of jungle trees and in an area the previous volunteers began to clear out. With barely any wind back there, we set up a nice campfire spot under the open sky, leveled the ground and made a small bar table. It turns out to be a lovely space and I can see renewed hope for the property, although any venture past the jungle tree wall towards the shoreline or the main hut becomes an exasperating experience against the relentless wind. The daily trudge over the mountain ridge to the other side of the island, where we like to go to Henkey’s grocery store for lunch, becomes a tiring routine.

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New tent spot in the back.

The new volunteers become my favourite so far, more than compensating for the previous disaster (now my second worst), and I excite them with the prospect of moving to the new island, or at least exploring it. Got tired of waiting for Ben the owner to take us, so I hire Alvin instead. The island is not the one I remembered, but much better than Patoyo, considering the strong mobile signal (and hence high speed internet), better beach, bearable wind, and calm enough waves to land a boat directly on shore. I receive approval from Ben to make the move and the next day we are back again, this time with shovel, axe, machete and vigorous enthusiasm. I ask the locals where Ben’s property is located and they earmark a section between two big trees.

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Middle of beach section the locals picked out for me.

We start clearing out the weeds and raw jungle, the volunteers are ecstatic about the new location, and three of the locals even join us for a very productive first day. Later in the evening we decide to venture to the village, hearing some music off in the distance. We join their party, I get my guitar, drum and other instruments, and we have a great bonding session. At the end of the evening, Christopher, the village’s captain, walks back with me to our new camp so that we can polish off the rest of the brandy. I question him about the rest of the beach on the other side of our camp from his village and he responds in that special Filipino way which I presume to mean, “That is ours.” So wonderful news indeed.

The volunteers had been excited about beautifying the new campfire spot at the back of the previous property, but find this new project even more exciting and decide to extend their stay another week. It will be tough work though, since the entire property is totally overgrown with jungle, not regularly cleaned out by its caretaker as was the previous project. Then again, that could make things more interesting, as I instruct them which plants and trees to keep and which parts to clear out. It will give the new property more character, as opposed to the monoculture of coconut trees on the previous one.

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Having spent more than three hours clearing out a small area just large enough for three tents, we bob our way back to Patoyo and wait for suitable weather conditions to haul off the rest of my stuff. The continual wind onslaught is producing relentless, crashing waves such that all the boats from my side of the island have sought refuge on the other. Henkey though agrees to take us, out of the blue, citing that the waves have subsided enough but that it will have to be to the third beach – a rather long walk but not the impossible trudge over the mountain ridge.

We wait until the two volunteers are back from their snorkeling excursion, load into his boat with his daughter and two sons and spend the next hour or so lugging what we can across the kilometre stretch of three beaches. Fortunately, the volunteers had already begun to pack in the morning, so all there is to do is the main hut and my own belongings. Bringing a few baskets and boxes from Henkey, I scramble to fill them up as fast as possible while the other tents are emptied, taken down and everything generally conglomerated in the main hut. By now darkness has fallen and we decide to set sail, taking up Henkey’s offer to sleep over at his place. Inevitably, the generator is turned on and it becomes another long evening of karaoke.

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Henkey’s grandson napping on living room floor as
the adults roar karaoke around him.

The next morning I’m rather nervous about half my belongings exposed for all to see in the main hut and suggest that Henkey take the first load with the volunteers to the island while I walk back over the ridge and finish packing. We contemplate that it is quite possible none of the tents are in the first load and I suggest to the volunteers that they buy a big bottle of local brandy to befriend and snuggle up with some of the island locals for the evening. I come back to camp and discover that, in the darkness, I had left one of my most important items, the tool chest for construction, exposed on top of one of the baskets, but now with missing power drill – one of my most important items. Hopefully it will surface elsewhere [nope, gone it was].

I spend the day cleaning up the place and strapping everything together to make the long haul to the third beach easier. I realise there is still a lot left, including a stack of bamboo, coconut branches and roofing from coconut leaves. My plan is to leave the place for volunteers or paying guests who come equipped with their own tent. They can buy a cheap metal pot in town and donate it for the cause. This is ideal for cooking on an open fire. I also leave one of my tents, its poles rusted and broken preventing me from disassembling it anyway. It is patchable and a humble beginning for “the auxillary project”.

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Some construction bamboo waiting for delivery at Henkey’s house.

Henkey informs me that the volunteers have been delivered with the first load to the new location and that he will come to pick me up by 3pm. That is relieving news, for I feared that the waves might pick up and we’d end up sleeping separately in disarray. As per Filipino time, Henkey shows up shortly after 4 and we scramble to haul over the second load, but the waves start picking up and we have to leave before we can manage to bring the last of it – three stacks of bamboo, coconut branches and roofing. Not a bad job though, and I figure Henkey can take the last of it once some volunteers or guests decide to venture there solo.

In fact, Henkey expressed some concern he is helping me to leave the island and can no longer look forward to our visits every day, new faces from around the world and occasional escort to town for shopping or internet. But I assure him that I will still be sending people to his island, since it is definitely an adventure and so much to explore there, that I will be sending him customers for local island hopping tours, or that local tours I organise with other operators will be given instructions to visit his shop for lunch. After all, he lives in a lovely little community in a rural setting with the same pigs, ducks, chickens and naked children as my side of Patoyo, making it a delectable stop on such tours. Not to mention that his prices are ridiculously low, his cooking from fresh seafood fantastic, and I have yet to convince him not to give away his jugs of fresh coconut water for free. I also plan to use his larger boat for tours between Coron and El Nido, so continued revenues in the pipeline are guaranteed for all, regardless of my move.

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Henkey jammin’ on new guitar as volunteers get settled in on new property.

We manage to break through the crashing waves off of the third beach while local onlookers wave us off, and I spend another night in his cozy little kitchen, wondering how the volunteers are faring in the new location. No karaoke this time but the whole family and then some (the only house in the community with generator running) turn out, some peering through the window from outside his little living room, to watch a Jackie Chan movie.

Back to Table of Contents Owner Who What?
Back to Table of Contents