Jillian Keenan • Washington Post,

Totally unplugged in the South China Sea

  • Article by: Jillian Keenan
  • Washington Post
  • June 28, 2013 - 1:45 PM

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

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

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

On Tao Philippines’ five-day boat trip from El Nido to Coron in the western Philippines, though, a minor crisis like this was just part of the fun.

The next day, after the inevitable suggestions that we simply live on beer and rum for the rest of the trip, a French tourist threw a fishing line into the water and finally reeled in a tuna. Crouching on the deck of the boat, sunburned and glistening with sweat, we cut the fish into pieces and ate it raw with tiny calamansi limes.

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

OK, so it wasn’t quite “Lord of the Flies” or “Survivor.” But we were very far from New York City.

In recent years, travel bloggers have hailed Palawan Island in the western Philippines as Asia’s new “final frontier,” tempting tourists away from better-known destinations in Thailand and Bali. The island’s coastline, more than 1,242 miles, boasts some of the world’s most beautiful white-sand beaches.

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

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

For five days, 12 other tourists and I, along with our guide and crew of three, would sail from island to island on a small outrigger boat, sleep on beaches, and buy our food from local fishermen and villages along the way. There would be no itinerary. There would be no Wi-Fi. There would be no cellphone signal. Most alarmingly, there would be no Twitter. At 26, I’m the type to refresh my e-mail account 400 times a day. This seemed like it would be the technological detox I needed.

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

Here’s the thing: I’m not an island person. Or an ocean person. I swim so infrequently that I’d already arrived in the Philippines before I realized that my swimsuit, a sensible purple and black one-piece, was partially moth-eaten. So, after a short flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, and a six-hour van ride north along a bumpy, half-paved road to the small town of El Nido, I found a store that sold bikinis — tiny, barely there bikinis.

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

Life on the boat quickly settled into a languid routine of snorkeling, eating, relaxing on the wooden deck and exploring tiny islands. Every evening, we set up camp on a beach and spent the night talking, singing or reading by torchlight.

Exploring village life

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

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

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

The other tourists from the boat had already mixed in with the crowd of spectators on the far side of the ring. It seemed as if the whole village was there. The two roosters were outfitted with short knives strapped to their legs and pushed together into the ring, and it was all over in less than a minute. Both roosters died. (The “winner” died second.)

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

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

I loved it.

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

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

But my new bikini is carefully folded away in a drawer. I decided to hang on to it. I’ll need it next time.

© 2018 Star Tribune