Editor's Pick

The Odyssey

A land dweller, a speedboat, and 80 nautical miles to go.

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“The coast guard has banned all boats from sailing out today.” Within minutes, the sky had shifted through the gradients from dismal to morose. The sea, whitecaps sharp against black, roared and crashed menacingly against the coastline. From the safety of my bamboo hut, I watched all this unfold like someone who just realized they were sitting in the wrong theater and wasn’t allowed to leave. It was the third day of our weeklong sea crossing through Palawan and we were still in San Fernando, on the northeast coast of El Nido. At that moment, a savory aroma peeled my attention towards a steaming plate of squid ink seafood pasta that had just arrived. I smiled gratefully at Ismael, our host and gracious bestower of comfort food, as he sat with us to discuss the changing course of our travel itinerary. “There is a low pressure area right where the Sulu Sea and West Philippine Sea converge, near the Linapacan group of islands,” he shook his head ruefully. “It would be too dangerous for you to cross.”
 
At this point, there were a million scenarios that were far less comfortable than spending another day in a private bamboo villa with a beachfront view. I looked over at GRID’s executive editor, Paco Guerrero, who was deeply immersed in his meal. It was his third day of ordering Bicol Express—extra spicy as requested—and from the looks of it, he didn’t seem to mind the extension if only for another day of that same dish. Since GRID teams are rarely ever spoiled on assignments (ask our features editor about the taste of bat), it seemed only wise to savor these moments of comfort while it lasted.

As with other coastal regions in the country that are subject to forces known as amihan and habagat, the residents of El Nido have learned to manage expectations through the years. “Welcome to Palawan, welcome to island life,” they often say, tongue-in-cheek. In these parts, one must learn to expect the unexpected—and be comfortable with it. You can’t let the frustration get to you, even when things do get frustrating. Beneath the dazzling headlines on island hopping tour posters is a subtle disclaimer: weather dependent. Judith Distal, the charming owner of one of the longest running cafés in El Nido Town, remembers the frantic frenzy that would fall upon tour operators like herself before a coast guard was officially assigned in El Nido in 2014. “Before, when it would start to rain hard, we would scramble and wonder, ‘What should we do?’ We were at the mercy of the little information that we had. We had very weak internet yet we had to make our own weather forecast. It was so much responsibility. Things have definitely improved since then. But, like everywhere else, there is still so much that could be better.”

The following day, we received news that the Coast Guard had finally lifted the ban of all boats from sailing out to sea. It was safe to finally proceed with our journey north towards the Linapacan group of islands. A fiery sliver of light began to slice through the sky as we reached the shores of Corong Corong beach, the designated jump-off point some 1.5 kilometers from El Nido town. Some members of our crew had arrived early and were already waiting in the makeshift shed that overlooked the harbor. Joaquin, a freediving instructor from Palawan Divers, had agreed to join the trip and lend the team some dive gear. Pinay, our friend from Isla Expeditions and host in Linapacan, greeted us with a thermos of coffee and some steamed bananas. “We are just waiting for the tide to rise a bit more so our boat can easily glide out,” she reported, gesturing towards the shoreline, where several boats were moored.

And there it was. Gleaming, iridescent, pure and spotless as the driven—a white speedboat stood out in stark contrast against the other larger, brightly painted boats with mounted outriggers. For the purposes of this trip, we needed a boat that could circumnavigate the bays and straits between islands, and seaworthy enough to cross 80 nautical miles within two days. Montri and Geronimo of Skipper Charters, an El Nido-based operator with its own boat manufacturing arm, promised theirs could go all the way to Coron in less, with island stops in between.
 
The sun was high at 7am by the time our boat captain, Chanley, and his assistant, Sam, signaled for us to get on the boat. The waters were relatively calm and flat as we waded our way towards the boat, with pants rolled thigh-high and dry bags clutched at chest level. Compared to all other modes of transportation, the process of embarking onto a floating, unsteady watercraft demands a certain level of focus, balance, and poise—or at the very least, the mere presence of mind not to slip and fall into the water. This boat had a short ladder, meant to ease the process of climbing from the foot-deep water and over the hull. Nevertheless, there is always an outstretched hand ready to help—in this case, Sam’s—which I grip gratefully and hold on to until I’ve managed to get both feet and the rest of my bearings inside the bobbing boat.

Once we were all aboard, everyone hurried to find their spots. The seating arrangement of this particular boat was different from the conventional banca, and other speedboats that usually just have two rows of seats, with the driver taking the wheel at the helm. This one provided seats across all parts of the boat—the front area serving as an open, shared cushioned seat in lieu of a front deck—thus allowing passengers to move around, face each other and huddle throughout the ride. Except for the driver’s booth, a narrow cubicle that required whoever was behind the wheel to stand. Located at the center of the vessel, it was also the only area with some sort of roof and shade. Joaquin, Paco, and Montri rode shotgun, while Geronimo, Chanley, and Sam took their positions by the wheel. As Pinay and I settled ourselves in the rear seats, I caught a strong whiff of what smelled like gasoline, and noticed the two large drums beside me. As if reading my thoughts, Geronimo called out an important reminder: “This is going to be a no smoking ride.” And with that, he started the engine, which sounded much like a car’s, and slowly steered the boat offshore. As the boat picked up speed, so did the whirl of water that trailed behind us; the coastline gradually fading from view.

Born and raised in Palawan, Chanley and Sam have spent their entire lives near the water. They were fishermen when Montri and Geronimo recruited them to join Skipper Charters, upon the recommendation of other boatmen in El Nido. They were no older than twenty-five, their skin resembling a type of smooth leather that had been scrubbed and worn and burnt in the sun. Both seemed shy and spoke quietly; their eyes never quite meeting your gaze and constantly had a distant look that seemed to be always searching, always scanning into the distance—not unlike the trancelike gaze that one might have after several hours of staring out at sea. Every now and then, as we rode past island after island each one slightly distinct from the other but all eventually disappearing behind us—they would point to the waters, spotting various species of pelagic fish. I would always be a moment too late, either too wrapped up in my own thoughts or distracted by the surface patterns of a passing rock formation. They were patient and amused by my questions, which I surmise seemed considerably ridiculous to the sea-educated. How would you know where to go without a map? What are those buoys floating around for? How far is a nautical mile? Are stripes really part of a seaman’s dress code?
 
Such basic but valuable skills are crucial in the technical training one must undergo in order to be a licensed seafarer, in addition to proper and safe ship handling, safety and survival techniques, fire prevention, and first aid. In the recent years, rules and certifications have certainly become more stringent, following a law that officially mandated the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) to prescribe standards and enforce regulations on matters concerning Philippine waters. The Republic Act 10635 was passed on March 13, 2014 in an effort to comply with global industry standards of training, certification, and watch keeping for seafarers. It was also passed shortly after the country nearly made it to the European Union’s blacklist of countries for maritime recruitment. With over 400,000 registered seafarers in the Philippines, the sector contributes an annual estimated gain of $5 billion to the country’s economy. Despite all these changes, Geronimo feels that there’s still more that could improve. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, especially in terms of awareness. Even the small things that really matter—like not dropping anchors on corals or not throwing trash out into the sea just because there’s no one really out there guarding you.”
Minutes, half an hour an entire hour passed—I could no longer tell. Out in the middle of the water—unless, of course, you were monitoring your timepiece, it seemed virtually impossible for the infrequent sea traveler like myself to have a visual reference from which to denote the time. Eventually, the chatter subsided as it grew tiring to maintain a speaking volume above the boat engine. Islands would appear sparingly and far in between. The sun burned more intensely with each passing moment, as the winds blew stronger, leaving your face cool and damp and salty. Sitting back (or laying down, depending on one’s position in the boat), I found myself following a certain rhythm—from the boat, the water, the meditative hum of the motor against the waves, or a coalescence of it all—making it irresistible not to reach far back and retreat in the deepest corners of my mind. It was the only way to get through the swelling itch of restlessness.
 
Geronimo stood behind the wheel, gradually gathering speed. He announced that we were finally nearing Linapacan and that we had only been traveling for a little over an hour, so we were making good time. Rousing myself to stay awake, the ride certainly felt way longer than an hour. We noticed several small fishing bancas scattered across the sea. “They are fishing for octopus,” said Pinay. “They are not allowed to catch a lot, so if they are able to find one or two, it’s a good day.” Such fishing boats are not permitted to carry passengers, just as vessels used for tours are prohibited from fishing. (Also, a boat that is registered as pleasure craft is strictly for personal use and not authorized for paid tours.)

Soon, the roar of the boat softened to a murmur, our cue that we had finally reached Linapacan’s waters—or “the world’s clearest waters to swim in,” according to the Internet. We scrambled to grab our gear: fins, masks, snorkel tubes. Joaquin, the only advanced diver on the team, was already in the water. One by one, they all plunged in. I remained on the boat, wrestling with my fins, then the mask, then the fins again. Cursing under my breath, I found myself seriously regretting that I did not possess a genuine fear of water, that I had learned how to swim when I was just five—that I had absolutely no excuse not to dive in. I was stalling, hesitating, and overthinking the fact that I was stalling and hesitating. For the life of me I could not grasp why I was holding back, why the mere sight of the glittering waters did not trigger an impulse to jump in the way a child might dive into a box filled with sand. What is it about the open sea that intimidates us so much? Out here, miles away from our comfort zones, we are suddenly confronted by the stark reality of our own vulnerability—the distance between our feet and the sea floor, the depth of everything we do not know, the sheer chance of death. Beyond fear or discomfort, it is this challenge to relinquish any notion—and illusion—of control that is the most disconcerting and utterly terrifying for the regular land-dweller such as myself. Out in the middle of nothing but water, we are reminded of just how small we are—how we are at the mercy of the sea, albeit the fact that we’ve managed to conquer everything else on this planet. (I did eventually jump in, not long before everyone was done and ready for lunch.)

A world without traffic; exploring the depths of Linapacan.

Linapacan is composed of ten barangays, spread out across 52 islands with a population of about 15,000 people. The main town, San Miguel, serves as a nexus of provisions for the surrounding towns. From El Nido, a regular boat tour would take more than six hours at the least. Our speedboat made it in less than two. After lunch, we proceeded to sail out again, with Chanley and Sam navigating through the sea. They pointed towards an island, which had an actual port for several fishing boats. As we moored alongside a jetty, a sign that read “Bulawit” came into view. (The barangay is officially referred to as New Colaylayan.) We treaded cautiously—not in defense but with a sheepish awareness that we were outsiders—our senses piqued at the sights, sounds, and smell of our surroundings. The quiet vibe felt more relaxed than barren, the way home feels on a Sunday afternoon as the household indulges in siesta. The walls of these buildings revealed life, the sort that bustles amid animated flurry when the fishing boats arrive or when a Catholic saint has a feast day marked on the calendar.

In a barangay of 37 households, everyone knows everyone. A group of children called me over and let me in on the rules of their game. They showed off their pet pigs, furry and spotted, resting beside furry and spotted dogs. They pointed out their mothers and grandmothers, immersed in chatter as they hung their laundry out to dry under the sun. The sight of an unfinished boat caught my attention, its wooden surface still raw and naked. A young boy informed me that his father had been building it over the last few months. “Bakit hindi kayo lumalangoy sa dagat ngayon?” I asked him, upon realizing that here was another seaside town without local residents indulging in the water. The boy shrugged, “Malalim kasi. At mas gusto namin maghabulan.” Considering that we are islanders surrounded by more water than land, I wonder if perhaps we are less the water folk that we like to think we are.
 
Back at the pier, Chanley was calling us back to the boat; the sky had turned into a menacing shade.“What an intriguing town,” I said to Paco, looking back at the faded walls of red and aquamarine. He nodded. “It is like a beautiful and interesting girl who simply won’t tell you anything about herself.”
 
Upon reaching our camp site on Ginto Island, we huddled in conversation as the rain droned on. “Here’s what’s good about having no signal,” Montri pointed out. “Back home, we would all just be on our phones. Not talking, not really here.” Suddenly, Paco grabbed his camera and rushed towards the shoreline. “Damn, when God shows up, She really puts on a show.” And there it was. The rain had cleared, and reaching across the opposite ends of the horizon was a perfect rainbow. Seconds, minutes, half an hour passed. We all sat quietly, caught in a state of sheer awe, knowing that a moment like this could never be packaged, scheduled, or purchased. Maybe, if you’re lucky, it chooses you.
The next morning, we lingered around the campsite: We sat around; had one cup, then two cups, of coffee; dozed off on the hammocks that hung close to the shore. It was close to noon by the time we roused ourselves to get on the boat, wherein we would sail out north towards Busuanga Island.
 
The ride through the crossing was rough; the waters were choppy as the swells grew by the minute. Along the way, we stopped over a few more islands, such as Caseledan to inspect the ruins of a 17th century Spanish fort that had once been used as a lookout for pirates and invaders.
 
This is usually the part of a journey when the strains of being in transit starts to take a toll. Over the next hour and a half, the boat was silent. Some of us had dozed off, which wasn’t easy when you were bouncing over choppy waves or getting splashed every now and then.
 
I was somewhere in the middle of a meditative lull and the onset of vertigo when my ears perked at what sounded like music. Sure enough, Paco had connected his device to the speedboat’s sound system and Dave Matthews Band’s, “Where Are You Going” was pouring through the speakers.

FROM TOP:

Stylish meets natural at Spin Designer Hostel;

In Santeria, another quaint resort;

A blanket of stars on Ginto Island;

Morning Yoga at Qi Palawan Resort.

This was not another love affair with Palawan. We reached the end of our journey, after which, we all returned to our regular lives, just like all the others who come to explore its islands and appraise the clarity of its waters. Nothing crazy or dramatic happened; no life-threatening encounters in the open sea or serious challenges on our survival abilities, albeit the weather concerns at the start of the trip. I did not radically transform into an avid water enthusiast, like a prodigal child of the sea. Yet on the rare occasion that I am buoyant and in eye contact with a fat snapper, I’ve learned to recognize that the overwhelming feeling that threatens to make my heart explode isn’t fear—but more likely a rolled muddle of awe, gratitude and the sheer joy of being alive.
 
On this trip, we had managed to form connections with places and people by crossing the one thing that divides us as well as unites us: water. Surfacing from this journey, I can’t help but wonder what our society would be like if our relationship with water was very, very different. These journeys, these moments, these encounters help us remember that the places we explore are, importantly, places that people call home.
 
 

Originally published in Volume 1.