Photojournalism Near & Far

Island Hopping in the Philippines

Through a series of coffee shop conversations, I networked my way to a Filipina living in Seattle. She recently started her own coffee company and was splitting her time between the capital city Manila and America’s Pacific Northwest. Exhibiting quite a bit of pride for her homeland, she was happy to share recommendations for traveling throughout the 7,200+ island nation. During our meal, she shared a story about the Tao Philippines travel company citing high praise from her friends back home. While I’m usually quite skeptical of these businesses (overpriced, cliche, corrosive to the communities, etc.), she made a good case for Tao’s ethical business practices and positive impact on the surrounding community. After a little bit of research, I decided Tao (pronounced ta-oh) was indeed an outlier and booked a 5-day island hopping excursion off the coast of Northern Palawan.

Fast forward a couple months and I officially landed in the Philippines. After a short stay in Manila to adjust my circadian rhythm, I traveled to Busuanga Island for my first full week of exploration. Beginning in Coron and finishing in El Nido, Tao’s voyage takes 20 “mindful” travelers (there’s an application process) on a 5-day voyage between farms, villages, reefs, and secluded beaches. At times, you have to haul gear, quell seasickness, assist with meal prep, and perform other practical needs for the benefit of all. Essentially, you must agree to lifting a few fingers–this isn’t a cruise. The eight staff onboard work hard to provide an authentic taste of Filipino culture, fare, and recreation. The team consists of a guide, captain, chef, mechanic, barman, and a few young men in training.

Natives of the Palawan Islands, our captain and crew were extremely knowledgeable of weather conditions, geological formations, and folk lore.

As I soon learned, Tao is doing so much more than hauling tourists between islands. Over the past decade, Tao and it’s employees have collaborated with local island communities to provide them work, training, school buildings, and post-typhoon recovery assistance. (Typhoon Yolanda, the second deadliest to ever hit the Philippines, ripped through these islands in 2013 killing 6,300 people and amassing $2B worth of damage). Their staff hires and trains local men and women in carpentry, construction, cooking, massage, essential oil making, and farming. The local workers receive employment, financial gains, and the ability to take skills back to their respective communities, much of which was unavailable before Tao made these investments.

Their island headquarters, known as the Tao Farm, is a permaculture community in which they grow crops, raise animals, train chefs, teach workshops, and house tourists like me. Their island kitchen is a beautiful bamboo and concrete structure where Ann, the head chef, creates magical dishes made with the catch of the day and locally supplied shellfish. It’s complete with a wood-burning stove and thirty-person bar. We enjoyed everything from freshly baked coconut water bread and pumpkin omelettes to pork shoulder and fried eggs in turmeric. One of our traveling partners concocted his own banana flambé to close out the evening. Quite the spread for such a remote region of the world!

Fellow travelers assist our farm chef with the creation of that evening’s meal.

Furthering their legitimacy and philanthropic efforts, Tao obtained both a business and foundation license, the latter allows them to receive grants and charitable donations from the government and individuals in which they use to improve the lives of local communities. Tao has also leased a few islands to construct huts and shelters for their customers and provide opportunities for locals to sell their goods. Seemingly, the challenge is raising the peoples’ standard of living without making them largely dependent on a constant stream of visitors. A contentious issue no doubt, but I’m comforted by the fact that locals are learning empowering and transferable skills. The total trip was approximately US $550 for five days, all-inclusive except for alcohol which I purchased onboard the boat for a negligible amount. As far as international excursions go, that is quite affordable. You could pre-load an RFID wristband which eliminated the cumbersome task of exchanging coins and bills on the boat. In the company’s interest, I imagine it increases the amount you spend as the consumer psychologically detaches themselves from physical currency. In all fairness, beers were about $0.80, so I wasn’t complaining.

Local islanders designed and built these simple but extremely robust huts at the Tao farm basecamp.

My fellow travelers were mostly 25-35 year-old college educated professionals from Westernized nations such as France, Australia, and Israel among others. There was even a woman who graduated from the University of Michigan. The vast majority were couples which maintained a pretty even male-to-female ratio. Learning everyone’s name took at least two days, but happened fairly organically. Everyone on board (both crew and tourists) were kind, friendly, and willing to pitch-in when needed. There were so many backgrounds and perspectives, you wanted to get to know everyone out of pure intrigue. We spent our afternoons at sea snorkeling, fishing, eating lunch, beaching, reading, and hanging out. I explored coral reefs in New Zealand earlier this year, but the Filipino reefs easily put it to shame. The colors of flora and fauna were far more diverse in this tropical oasis than anything I saw north of Auckland. The boat brought us to a variety of sights including shipwrecks and manta ray habitats. I tried learning how to free dive and expand the pressure in my ears, but that turned out more difficult than I thought.

The air temperatures oscillated between 75-95 and mosquitoes were present, but hardly deterred from the experience. Dogs and cats roamed each of the islands we visited (they are quite numerous throughout the Philippines). We saw some sun, but lots of rain during the afternoons and at night. The Philippines is damp in October–there’s no avoiding it. Although most of the voyage was within view of land, we crossed two straits which took hours at a time. The seas were rough in places so ginger root and motion sickness drugs were handed out to those in need. We played games, discussed our lives back home, shared laughs, ate together, and drank together for 4 nights. No tweets, no pings, no texts, no phone calls, no scrolling–people just talked to each other the old-fashioned way. The social dynamics were exciting to me. We were an incubator of close and repeated contact, forced to co-exist and enjoy each other’s company. Many of us swapped travel stories about visiting each others’ home countries. Two people were convinced they met in a Russian bar four years prior.

After each day at sea, we retired to Tao base camps (huts and shelters) where our dinner and next day’s breakfast was consumed. Tao provided sheets, a pillow, thin pad, and mosquito nets all crafted by the local women’s association. The shelters were made of bamboo, palm fronds, and nylon fishing wire–only three materials. Despite their simplicity, they kept us dry during the rainy nights and cool when the breeze kicked up. After a few years of tourist feedback, Tao finally installed western toilets (instead of crouching eastern-styled toilets), however toilet paper is still discarded in a nearby trash can. The sewage system is quite primitive and still requires a bucket flush. To assist with the flushing, there is collected rainwater and a pail in every outhouse. Our evenings consisted of a basic cold water bucket shower–which was amazingly refreshing after a day of sun and saltwater. And it used a remarkably small amount of water compared to your 15 minute hot water shower back home. For 5 days and 4 nights, this was our island lifestyle.

The first day of our journey ended with clear skies and an incredible sunset. Our vessel, the Emerson 7, is a refurbished fishing boat in which Tao purchased a few years back.

How about that cuisine? Well, lemme tell you. Collectively, I spent a month in the Philippines, and I can hands down say that Tao food was the best. Ann, the Tao Head Chef, trains and evaluates each boat chef for three years before they serve excursion participants. The fish, rice, salad, veggies, oysters, sweets and treats were out of this world. For instance, our final breakfast consisted of oatmeal, banana jam, mango, and farm honey, all served in a empty coconut, and a side of coconut water to boot. The fruits were chopped down only moments before breakfast, drained of their sweet water, and served. It doesn’t get much fresher than that. I also learned how ridiculously difficult it is to actually get water out of those things. The markings on each coconut in the photo below were made with a machete-looking tool.

We also had the privilege of visiting a local village on one of our days at sea. It was here I had the most conflicting thoughts. The western world met extreme poverty. I brought my camera to snap a couple photos of chickens and the basketball game, but anything else felt intrusive. Their local leaders work with Tao and have agreed to our visits, but it still made me uncomfortable. For the majority of our two-hour landing, I played basketball with fellow travelers and local teenagers which was enjoyable. The community we visited is lucky to have access to a freshwater spring, but their living conditions are very, very basic–virtually unimaginable to the poorest 10% of Americans. It’s a healthy reminder of the incredible bounty I have in the United States–the ability to purchase $45,000 cars on credit, decorate 4,000 square foot homes with fabric from around the world, and befriend voice-recognition devices that tell me whether or not I should bring my umbrella to work today. It’s important to reflect on that vast inequality and sift through the non-sense in search of what really matters to you. Many of these experiences have only confirmed my decision to consume less material goods than I used to, focus on community and a few important hobbies, and strive to impact those around me to make similar choices. What a gift to have such options, yet a waste to chase them all.

Playing a pick-up game of basketball with local children during our layover at a small fishing community.

By the fifth and final day, people were pretty beat. We were wet, tired, catching colds, yet still smiling. Sailing away from our final base camp, the weather broke for our trip to El Nido. After finding our respective accommodations (and taking a hot shower), we all met the crew for a restaurant meal in downtown El Nido. It was complete with karaoke and dancing the evening away–a perfect ending to an eventful and enjoyable experience. For the following three days, I stayed in El Nido to rest, read, and enjoy the white sandy beaches. Although day tours from El Nido are immensely popular, heading back out on the sea was the last thing I needed after Tao . The town was small enough that you could bump into fellow Tao travelers at the beach, ATM, or laundry mat–it was a nice feeling. However, it wasn’t meant to last. With each passing day, our 20-person crew dwindled until only a handful remained. Some set off to Laos or Bangkok, others to the next Filipino island. That’s part of traveling–people come and people go.

For one fleeting moment, small tastes of Israel, Germany, the Philippines, Australia, and everywhere in between came together. Like a spark, our small community ignited and dissipated. Looking back, the whole experience felt so visceral. Pressed for time, you get to know people more intimately–and perhaps more importantly, you learn to look past obvious differences. After all, nearly everything is enjoyable; you’re on an island-hopping adventure. Each day is novel and stimulating. It’s easy to forget, but critical to remember that these experience can be recreated regardless of where you live or how you pass your time. There are little pockets of adventure and community hiding in everywhere. All said and done, I’m really glad I took the advice of my friend in Seattle. She was right, Tao provides a great service while positively impacting the community at large. As I later learned, tao means “human” in tagalog, one of the Philippines most common dialects.

The entire crew, seated at the bow of the Emerson 7. There were Germans working in China, a French couple on a round-the-world adventure, a few Aussies taking a long holiday from work, and three Israeli couples on their honeymoon.

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