El Nido: The Last Frontier

Or, Peter Pan, Wendy and the Lost Boys in the Philippines

HE LOOKED TO BE 16, but in fact Jayson was 23, the father of two little kids, one of whom scraped a toy car along linoleum tiles in a one-story home about 10 minutes walking, or 5 minutes by tricycle, from the town center of El Nido, Philippines.

Jayson, our boat tour guide, was missing. He had gone to town to buy groceries. His assistant, Jericho, who looked 14 years old but was probably much older, beckoned us to sit on the porch of Jayson’s home. I stepped over a muddy puddle and sat on a chair made of polished bamboo stalks. Maps and pictures showing the same corporate Tours A, B and C advertised in every other shop window in the town were tacked to the wall outside. But we here we were, invited and welcomed to Jayson’s private home while his 2-year-old girl giggled and played peekaboo with us through the window. A long upright pin on the table outside speared a stack of receipts for the family business, El Nido Midnight Sun Island Tours.

Jayson pulled up on his motorbike and lugged over a large styrofoam box packed with ingredients for our lunch. It was part of the day tour package. We walked down to the beach. There was no pier or dock, and I realized too late that I shouldn’t have worn my blue-gray maxi dress. I bunched up the hem of my dress, wadded it under my armpit and waded out to the boat, where I lunged for the step ladder. It was day three of our stay in what has been described on tourist sites as the Philippines’ “last frontier,” one of the country’s most pristine government-protected natural resource areas. We would be taking official Tour C, a loop of hidden beaches, the Matinloc Shrine and an island shaped like a helicopter.

I stripped off the dress the instant I got onboard. In the morning, I had chose to wear it instead of a T-shirt and shorts because the sun had burned my shoulders and legs over the last two days. Small price to pay for perfect weather.

EL NIDO AND ITS SURROUNDING pocket of islands on Palawan have recently gained prominence as one of the Philippines’ best examples of its biodiversity and mix ecosystems. Largely unknown until the late 1990s, when the Philippine government designated the area as a specially-protected natural resource and began requiring tourists to pay a special fee to support the conservation of the habitat, El Nido has since become a haven for divers and foreigners wanting to escape from tourist traps.

The islands were breathtaking in their scope. I couldn’t stop gaping at the scenery before me, seduced by the uneven geography of the limestone cliffs towering above coral reefs, lagoons and secret beaches you could reach only by swimming through a crevice hardly larger than a person. But beside the wonder of the natural landscape, there was also the sad evidence of human neglect. Trash and broken glass littered the beach next to an abandoned building on one of the islands. It looked as if a college frat party had thrown a rush event and then left. Cans and paper were tangled in the brush along the trail and in one area, the garbage spanned the size of a basketball court.

It was easy to pretend we were someone else among the remote islands of El Nido. This is where James Bond washes up ashore, where his body in tattered clothes slides onto the wet sand, face-down. This is where he, after suffering defeat at the hands of Dr. Whoever villain, wakes up with amnesia, forgets his entire past, and takes up a beautiful native girlfriend. We were ship-wrecked pirates. We were Indiana Jones, climbing steps carved from rock formations under trees crawling with ants that bit your skin. We were archaeologists exploring the ruins of the Matinloc shrine in honor of the Virgin Mary and an abandoned building with metal-framed beds still in the rooms, wires hanging out of the ceiling and trash strewn in bundles along the floor. A few of us dared to find a way to the roof, just to snap the panoramic view.

“This is unreal!” my friend, Peter Pan, shouted from the rooftop. The Boy Who Didn’t Want to Grow Up.

In one secluded cove, one of the favorite local hangouts of our Filipino boat crew of three teenagers, a large coral protrusion curled up in a balled-up fist, looking like it was about to sock you with its callused knuckles. A pool of striped fish danced around our legs. A shy blue starfish hid under the shade of a reef. One by one, the teenagers flung themselves off the bow of the boat in backflips. But then they took us to their ultimate lair, a ridge of limestone razors. We climbed 30 feet up cone-shaped rocks, that punctured nicks in our sandals. The boys had laid a textbook-sized wooden plank at the edge, and my feet and knees wobbled for ages on that flimsy board. And then, knowing there was no way but down, suddenly my legs steadied, a peace dropped in me, and I launched forward, free-falling above water glinting in a thousand fractals, then crashing into a bed of sunlit glitter.

Up until this time, I was a snorkeling virgin. No one had warned me about sea urchins. Once, on my way back to the boat, my foot landed on what felt like needles. The pain from the sea urchin spikes in the arch of my right foot was so intense that I irrationally thought I would need an amputation. The boys laughed. It was a common thing, to have sea urchin feet. Jayson put a metal bowl of hot water next to my feet. I stuck my foot in it for five seconds, the longest I could withstand before the pain turned to fire. Nearby, the three boys jump-started the boat the way they always did, by two people swiftly yanking a rope looped around the engine. I put on my long blue-gray dress, forgetting the pain in my foot, and shimmied to the bow of the boat. As the boat lurched on the waves, the wind tossed my crunchy sea-salted hair and rippled through my Wendy gown, and I flew.

IF HE COULD TRAVEL anywhere he wanted, he would go to Canada, Jayson told us. We looked at each other. Canada? So he could see snow, Jayson said. He had never seen snow, and he had never been beyond the Philippines, and he wanted to go somewhere so cold he could see the fog of his own breath. He told us this on a day when he wore a banana yellow “I ❤ NY” T-shirt.

Jayson’s father, Ildefonso Dalumpines, was born in Mindanao. In 1985, his father escaped from the wars, Jayson says. At the time, Moro Muslims were fighting Philippine armies and Filipino Christian militias in a series of bloody and gruesome armed conflicts. Dalumpines sought refuge in El Nido, where he became a man of the seas, captain of his own boat. He began giving island hopping tours to tourists and established a reputation built on honesty and a professionalism, if at times charmingly over-polite. (He liked to address people as “sir” in emails.) We sadly didn’t meet Dalumpines during our trip; he was away on business in the larger Palawan city of Puerto Princesa. His days were certainly full. He oversaw the family business while pastoring two Christian churches in El Nido. Jayson, the oldest of six children, usually took over when his father wasn’t around. He’s helped his father for the last four years, one day maybe becoming a boat captain, too.

Jayson and the teenagers were good cooks. They patiently roasted chicken wings and whole fish on a small barbecue at the back of the boat while we snorkeled and turned brown in the sun. On one of the days, the boys carried a small white table to shore and laid it under a canopy made of thatched palm tree fronds. I wiped the sand from the blue tablecloth and dug in to a salad of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes that had been misted in vinaigrette and sprinkled with shaved black peppercorns. The food was fresh and simple, and there was too much of it. We couldn’t finish the giant plate of white rice. I poured a soy sauce mixture of red onions, tomatoes and Thai limes over chunks of smoky white fish. Bees darted at the ripe mango halves and bananas in our hands.

While we ate, the teenagers stayed on the boat and the long bamboo rails attached to the sides looked like the long legs of a water spider. The boys sometimes crawled over the beams and used long bamboo poles to push our boat away from shore. When we entered lagoons and shallower waters, the teenagers liked to let down the anchor so that they could follow us into the island’s secret places.

They also liked cheesy 80s music, which thumped from a speaker on the boat. The Lost Boys sang along to an old European disco hit that had once been popular with Cantonese and Vietnamese listeners. Now they brought it alive again, off-tune and loud here out on the water.

Do it, we’ll still do it night and day

You’re my all-time lover

Do it, we’ll still do it anyway

Like there is no other

Touch by touch, you’re my all-time lover

Skin to skin, come under my cover…

BACK IN TOWN, in El Nido, a mist settled over the dotted lights of power-generated hotels, torches in the sand and glass bottles lit at the end like Molotov cocktails to serve as makeshift candles. Life seemed easy-going. Slow. Every day we woke up to the rumble of motorbikes and a rooster, who we dubbed Big Red and crowed at 5 a.m. A corner cafe took its time serving stir-fries and egg salad sandwiches to our table, and middle-aged, darkly-tanned men waiting in shaded alleys called out to tourists, trying to sell a tricycle ride. Posters advertised cock fights, and the TV showed the killings. We flicked through the channels. “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” was playing, and Luke Skywalker spoke in Tagalog.

On our last day, we gave our snorkeling gear to Jayson, knowing he and the boys would put it to practical use during their boat tours. Later, as we sipped wine against the backdrop of another spectacular sunset silhouetted by distant island mountains, Jayson drove up the dirt path on his motorbike with his whole family in tow. He stopped the bike briefly to smile at us, and I waved, slowly, goodbye.