As I pack up the contents of my house, ready and waiting for an impending move, reaching from just a couple of shelves and a few clothes, I reflect on my recent trip to the Philippines. The 50 boxes of ‘stuff’ that I’ve packed up ready to move into a bigger house (where I will no doubt collect more ‘stuff’) probably contains items that many people we encountered won’t know even exist, let alone would never own.
In the villages we were visiting, the locals live off the land and the sea, in the calm tranquil surroundings of deserted islands with only each other for company. Men fish, women weave, and the children, sadly, play with the plastic waste washed up on their beautiful white beaches.
Some might call this paradise… others might find it difficult to comprehend not living with daily communication to the outside world; no phones, internet or the materialistic commodities that we have become accustomed to in Western society. Are these people who are living a sustainable and minimalistic lifestyle, ‘under-privileged’ just because they don’t own the latest mobile phone and only have one pair of shoes? Who are we to decide who is and isn’t underprivileged? Every person we met was well-fed, healthy, happy and they spoke at least one more language than I do!
My trip to the Philippines wasn’t your typical 5-star hotel resort experience; it was an experience of a lifetime; and one I feel worthy of sharing. Here is a taster of my 5 days in Palawan… and an introduction to the fabulous work of the Tao Foundation.
Arriving in the Philippines
Looking through the windows of the twin prop plane that carried us from Manila to El Nido, I stared down at the hundreds of fish farms that were dotted around just a handful of the 7,641 islands that make up the archipelago of the Philippines. I naturally wondered how sustainable they were… were they controlled waters or just a free for all? Sadly, and as suspected, the waters are exploited and overfished, leaving a country employing 1.6 million people in the fishing industry at risk. We later found out that the use of methods such as dynamite and cyanide fishing has massively contributed to the decline of fish stocks and destroyed coral reefs. But with the country being so reliant on fishing, and people living ‘hand-to-mouth’ off the sea, do they understand that what they are doing is wrong?
Well that’s where Tao Foundation comes in. In 2006, two men formed a nomadic group of adventurers, business planners, boatmen, young fisherman and builders to develop a social enterprise with island communities as partners. Today, Tao is a community of over 200 islanders working with passion and a sense of pride, welcoming worldly travellers from all over the globe to offer a raw experience of undiscovered islands. This sums up our trip perfectly.
Arriving at our sea view hotel after dark, we sadly missed what would have been a beautiful sunset, but from our roof top bar, we got a sense of what the view was going to be like the next morning. And we weren’t disappointed.
Our First Taste of Paradise
We travelled a short distance to the port where our boat – a 74-foot traditional ‘Paraw’, native to the Philippines – was waiting for us. However, this paraw was like no other in the whole of the archipelago. A life-long dream; it was hand made by our captain ‘Hinhay’ in 2011, purely from wood, with exception of a few parts (such as the sails and engine!) , much of it made from bamboo. This would be our home, 23 guests and 8 crew, during the long journeys at sea for five days (accompanied by the most important traveller, Hinhay’s dog Mi Amor).
This trip is not for everyone… in the briefing attended the night before we departed, we were encouraged to have a digital detox and switch off our phones. With very few places receiving mobile signal and certainly no WiFi, I couldn’t wait to ditch the tech for a few precious days.
We all had an idea of what our living quarters would be like, but it’s not until we left the boat and swam to shore for our first night, did we get our first glimpse. With manual flushed toilets and a scoop of water from a bucket as your daily shower, we really were stripping back to basics.
Yes, the facilities were raw to say the least, but we were sleeping on a raised bamboo hut on the beach with nothing but a mosquito net and a canopy of palm leaves separating us from what must be one of the brightest and clearest star-filled skies on the planet; and THAT made it all worth it. Come to think of it, so did the food!
Dining by the Sea
With breakfast, lunch and dinner being cooked and served by the crew, either from the compact kitchen at the back of the boat or at a workstation under head-torch light on shore, every day was a new mouth-watering experience of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, or bananas served about 20 different ways – these guys really need to publish a Banana recipe book! On our final morning, the crew collected 20+ coconuts from the beach, filtered the water off and served it on the side with oatmeal and sticky sweet potato inside the coconut shell. How much fresher can you get?!
TAO Centre Camp and Farm
On Day 2, we stayed at the TAO Centre Camp and Farm. This is where it all happens… men and women are trained as chefs and taught to farm and fish. Women are taught to weave, make crafts and natural soaps and trained as massage therapists (which all the guests are treated to on their arrival). They are ALL taught about the environment and how to care for it.
A seven course dining experience
That evening, at their main Base Camp, the chefs prepared us a seven course meal ‘open kitchen’ style, all made from local, organic produce – almost all of which was from their own farm within view of where we sat. It was probably the freshest food I’d ever eaten and looked beautiful!
They insist on only using 100% organic products in their showers (which is a flowing stream and a scoop) to avoid the chemicals leaking into their water supply. Their whole ethos is built on being self-sustaining; teaching all the villages in the region to be the same.
During one of our long days at sea, I had the chance to chat to our captain and ask him when he last saw a whale. “Two years ago,” he answered. Shaking my head in disbelief, I asked him what he thought had caused the biggest decline in marine life in the 30+ years he’s been sailing; expecting him to say ‘plastic’. Except he said it was in the 1980s in the Cold War when the USA conducted 66 nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean. He recalls memories of dead whales on the surface of the ocean, and many more in their skeleton form washed up on beaches. Although that may have had a massive impact, he’d also acknowledged that plastic has contributed to that steady decline over more recent years.
Our final night was spent on a more populated island (with at least 20 residents!) and it was the only dry landing of the trip; albeit we had to walk along a rickety hand-made jetty in the dark to reach our camp. Oh, the irony… as we walked towards a communal ‘plunge’ pool – which could easily pass as an infinity pool – it reminded me of the previous week when we were staring up the infinity pool at the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore; 200 metres high. I think I preferred this one…
Finally, coming to my personal mission on this trip. I wanted to take something; gifts to the villagers as a thank you for allowing me to experience their way of life, but I wanted to find out what the islanders really needed – not what I assumed they would want.
A few emails later, I was all set. I would be taking a suitcase of reusable, plastic-free sanitary packs for the women on the islands, made by Binti International – a charity which is on a mission to give every women dignity during their period. Hygienic sanitary products are not easily accessible or affordable, even for the least remote islands. Most women use often dirty rags which is very unhygienic and can severely increase the risk of cervical cancer.
During the course of our five day trip, I successfully delivered thirty of these packs into the female villagers, who by the look on their faces, were extremely grateful.
We disembarked at dusk at the port of Coron, we said our goodbyes to our fellow travellers and to Mi Amor the dog, who went around the whole boat, jumping up at all of the explorers to hug their legs as a farewell! I’ve never met such an intuitive dog…
In summary, I’d highly recommend experiencing this trip but don’t expect any materialist luxuries here. Your luxuries are the freshly prepared feasts, the sparkling aqua water, the white deserted beaches and being given the chance to recharge and experience life, a lot slower. Leave the make-up bag and the jewellery at home, you won’t need it and trust me, you won’t miss it!
So as I exchange on my new house and move to the beauty of the South Downs, it’s decided; I’m naming my new home… Tao House.
If you’d like to see more photos from my trip, visit my Flickr page.
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