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.

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