Tao (or, Human)
Introduction (or, “travelists”)
The word “travel” is tagged over 222 million times on Instagram. “Tourism” on the other hand, has just 17 million. Put another way, for every tourist on Instagram there are 13 travellers.
Tao guests probably, are neither traveller nor tourist, but if pushed you might say they could be called travelists. True pure-spirit travellers might reasonably question such a label, but try tell anyone who’s spent 5 days staring at their own shit while they try to flush it down by ladling sea water directly into the toilet bowl on a swaying boat that they are a tourist and you’ll likely earn yourself an all too vivid description of the full 2-minute battle they had that time they left a floater, trying to push it down by forcefully pouring the water while at the same time praying to all that’s merciful to avoid splash-back.
Tao — meaning “Human” — is unlike any trip I’ve been on. A 5-day tour of the islands of Palawan — which Google will tell you is an archipelagic province of the Philippines — about one hour’s flight from Manila (meaning you’re likely to spend (much) longer in the taxi getting to the airport than on the flight to the islands).
The daily routine involves: Eating; visiting paradise islands; relaxing on the boat; eating; snorkelling; reading; eating; swimming; eating and sleeping in a bamboo hut on some other paradise island. But to call it luxurious would be heroically optimistic. These islands are some of the most remote in the Philippines, and you’ll need at least a week to catch up on all the sleep lost to early morning hens and late night jungle animals; and to heal the various skin abrasions you accumulate- never mind the Instagram uploads.
But this shouldn’t be a surprise; the website is actually at pains to emphasise all this. There are two good reasons for this:
1) To give you fair warning that you’ll get bitten, or stung, or cut, or rained on, or seasick, or food sick, or sunburnt, or sleep deprived (or all the above); all the while dealing with the aforementioned toilet issue, and confronting the fact that you’ll be stuck with a bunch of total strangers in a very confined space for 5 days.
2) To filter out the dickheads.
The Boat (or, Home)
Having no maritime experience whatsoever I am entirely unqualified to describe the boat in any sort of meaningful way. But the following are my landman's observations: It was based on traditional local design, meaning it had no keel. The design allows fishermen to navigate the shallow coral waters, which a deep keel wouldn’t permit. Two outriggers (essentially floating bicycle stabilisers, running parallel to the boat) provide stability instead.
Power was sourced from two recommissioned engines, which, judging by the car-like clutch pedals and gearstick used to control them, were probably cannibalised, (like pretty much every mechanised vehicle in the Philippines), from something else. The boat’s wheel was actually a steering wheel, recycled from a Suzuki. In the pilot house there were no maps, GPS or radar. The most sophisticated piece of hardware was an old but very beautiful nautical compass.
The captain reminded me of my grandad, who if he saw you playing with his workshop tools, was as likely to scold you for playing with a sharp axe as he was to teach you how to use it properly. So, mostly I watched the captan from afar. When arriving at an island, he would examine, with deep professional concern, the water all around, which to me really looked like very deep and unthreatening sea. After seeing him do this several times, I came to the conclusion I had no idea what he was looking for, but I was very glad it was him, and not me, who was looking for it.
Dodo was one of the younger crew-members and was an absolute buzzer. His easy skill was a pleasure to watch. One time, in probably the heaviest weather we had (where one outrigger would be underwater and its counterpart would be literally metres in the air; the boat pendulum-ing between the two) my hat flew off and landed about 5 metres in the wake of the boat. I stumbled the length of the boat trying to reassure everyone that it was “grand” and “not to worry”, and that it was madness to try to rescue a hat in the middle of a tropical storm. But they were having none of it and flew into action, as if it had been me that had been blown overboard.
Dodo and and his buddy Rex jumped into one of the open-top kayaks and pounded into the heaving waves, an enormous swell toppling them almost immediately. Despite having his head entirely submerged, Dodo managed to keep his lit cigarette above water and smoked his way through the whole operation, returning triumphantly with both cigarette and hat intact.
On another occasion, three of the crew were lying on an outrigger, waiting to catch a floating buoy. The boat was moving fast and it was tricky to pluck the submerged rope from the water. They all missed their grab, except Dodo, who ran along the outrigger, tight rope style, and dove, fully clothed, between two connecting spars. With the boat’s rope in one hand, and avoiding hitting his head against the various bits of fast moving wood around him, he managed to grab the moored rope, and — still underwater — performed what was very clearly a complex knot, and then — at the last second, just before the boat sailed beyond his reach; his submerged body now fully horizontal with one hand behind him clutching the rope — he stretched to grasp the last grain of wood from the very end edge of the outrigger — so that the captain wouldn’t even have to touch the throttle, let alone stop and turn the boat around — before finally coming back up to breathe again. I had a bird’s eye view of all this and there was absolutely no irony in my cheer when he emerged from this spectacular performance, bowing in sheepish acknowledgment of his colleagues’ rapturous appreciation of a job well done.
Food (or, you think you know bananas?)
The sheer deliciousness of the meals would be impossible to explain without communing directly with your taste buds, but they involved things and combinations of things I had never before experienced and everything was fresh in the sense that it had been picked from a farm, pulled form a tree, or plucked from the sea that same day.
We weren’t allowed eat before N’toy, the chef, had walked us through each dish. Each description was almost universally followed by the sound of several European languages getting butchered by gurgles of salivary delight.
But bananas: I’ve been a student for far too long not to know the quiet, humble value of the banana. Excellent bang for your buck, decent taste,(admittedly) questionable texture, but all-in-all a stalwart of the sustained carbohydrate release food group. I thought I’d seen it all when it came to bananas. I was wrong.
Never again will I eat a banana without reverence for the variety and culinary dexterity with which it can be put to use. Like Bubba Gump Shrimp, we were treated to an exhaustive array of dishes, of which just some highlights were: Caramelized banana; deep-fried savoury banana; deep-fried sweet banana; banana ketchup (somehow still red); banana crumble and (most impressive) banana burgers. These latter were so good I refused to believe they were even a distant counsin of the banana genus, until, having demanded to see their origin, a crew member casually picked up a chunky, purplish flower and explained we were eating the shredded flower of the banana tree.
In the middle of the trip, guests are brought to the Tao farm. It’s here they cooked us a seven-course meal, which was genuinely one of the best of my life. The local women’s association were also employed to give massages, which are so good that more than one person reported falling asleep. Unfortunately, my back was far too sunburnt to even consider getting one (10 days later I continued to shed enough skin to make a Python proud).
The farm is the the emotional crux of the trip, where the story of Tao is explained — and here briefly recounted: Jack and Eddie, a Brit and a Filipino (not sure which one’s which) waited tables in London, cobbling together enough tips to go and get lost amongst the Palawan islands; over 10 years later they have 150 staff directly employed, plus that again in indirect employment (fishermen or families who’s boats or land they rent etc.) They have also created a foundation where they build schools in local villages and educate locals about how they can diversify away from dwindling fish stocks to more sustainable food supplies.
There were far more details to the story, which due too little sleep, too much sun and genuine emotion, made, me at least, well-up with a sense of pride about all the good that this company does. If it’s all true (and there is absolutely no reason to think otherwise) then Eddie and Jack must be some of the soundest guys on the planet.
Having your pig and eating it (or, Stupid Westerners)
A piglet was swum on board to be slaughtered. Curiosity quickly gave way to alarm as the travelists realised we would be the proximate cause of its death.
“We say in Spain, not in the eye, then not in the heart”, said one of the Spanish girls. What was surprising was how many people seemed agree, preferring to just not thinking about it, and it ended up being just myself and my brother who accepted the invitation to watch the slaughter.
What really got me though, was that having talked about how good it will be to eat, some people started petting the pig, with what seemed like sincere sympathy. I was reminded of this a few days later when I read an article where an English farmer thanked firefighters for saving her piglets by dropping off a batch of freshly made organic sausages to the fire station 6 months later.
In the battle of hearts versus bellies, for most the belly seemed to win. But in order to pre-empt any guilt that may inconvenience the enjoyability of the ribs later on, people continued to protest, thought the arguments seemed to ring more and more hollow as the bellies started to get hungry.
The crew wanted us to kill it, but there was no way I was going to even condsider doing that. So while I was prepared to watch it get killed, I wasn’t able to take responsibility to do it myself, which pretty much puts me in the same boat as everybody else, ethics-wise.
It wasn’t nice. The pig knew what was happening and once they had it lying on the table it screamed (not squealed)- much louder and more terrified than anything I was expecting. It struggled with everything it had, willing itself to stay alive. I involuntarily imagined myself in a similar position and realised I wouldn’t be doing anything much different -the great divide constructed between ourselves and animals feeling not very wide at all at that moment.
They turned it around, so that its back was facing me, and felt out the route that would bring the knife to the heart the fastest. It struggled hard and as the knife went closer, I saw it literally shit itself in fear. The knife was driven cleanly, but the pig fought on, its screams harrowingly getting caught on the blood and the knife. After about 15 seconds its blood had drained out and the last vestiges of life faded away into several minutes of haunting muscle spasms.
The first thing they did was to remove the hair, which I realised was so we could eat crackling. It seemed impossibly cold-hearted, but it was shocking how the lack of hair changed the living pig into a sac of meat, and later as the pig roasted over a fire, I watched it transform from a dead thing into golden brown, greasy goodness. That the pork roasting on the coals was the same entity as the pig that had fought so hard for its life was a clear intellectual fact for me, but the emotional link between the two was unbelievably difficult to retain.
The debates at the dinner table were predictable and had predictable outcomes: People got weirdly defensive; some left the table in anger; the Nazis were brought up.
We all know, in the abstract, that pork comes from pigs. And we know — and are sad — that they must die. But that’s in the abstract; seeing it in the flesh is a whole other ball game-here it’s the details, not the fact of killing that matter.
It’s hard to know what to make of it all. It was the first time I saw the reality of where our food comes from, but then I also bought a packet of ham for my lunch the other day, only realising what I’d done after I’d left the supermarket. Our pig was killed in the most humane way, it’s chilling to think of the factory process that produces watery sandwich ham.
Snorkelling (or, can fish implode?)
If you thought the islands were good, the corals really take the biscuit. But fish act differently than they do on nature documentaties. On TV, fish always seem to swim horizontally, always at exactly the right depth to get all their jobs done. Turns out this isn’t always the case, and I can confirm that fish do change depths to complete those more hard-to-read chores.
Which, of course, raises the question of whether fish have some sort of internal pressure gauge, and whether a fish could theoretically implode, like a sinking submarine, if, the pressure gauge was left out of some poor baby fish’s hardware (according to deepseanews.com on the whole this doesn’t happen, for reasons my Leaving Certificate biology course didn’t cover (something about cell membranes and enzymes), but some arbitrarily choosen facts from that website are: 1) Deep sea animals don’t have swim bladders (a mechanism which holds air, allowing fish to stay at the depth they want, and which I never had heard of before, but think is pretty fucking cool); 2) Penguins basically shut everything down except their brain and heart when doing deep-sea dives; 3) If you try to retrieve a “particularly gelatinously, red sea cucumber” from the deep ocean floor, it usually explodes into a “thick red Kool-Aid” when you bring it up to lower pressures. So, not sure about implosions, but explosions apparently are a thing.)
The other thing you notice is that underwater collisions are a lot more common than you’d expect, and if you’re anyway like me, you’ll find the idea of two fish being unable to find enough space in the entire ocean to avoid bumbling into each other both preposterous and hilarious in equal measure.
(Manila, or The Truman Show meets Sim City)
Manila’s metropolitian area contains more people than most European countries, and is simply monstrous. The two areas I visited were Intramourous, the old town, and Bonifacio Global City (BGC), where along with the mega-rich Filipinos and expats, my brother lives.
While intramuraus has lots of poverty, it’s also a thriving place. It’s a grim, hard place, to be sure, but everywhere it seems like people are building, carrying, lifting or selling. Everyone’s enterprising to make a buck, and it’s working: In real time you can see the accumulation of capital, as people earn enough to buy a fridge to sell colder drinks, or a couple of faded plastic chairs for customers to sit outside their shack, and from there invest again. Admittedly I was only there for a few hours, but the sense is things are changing, fast. The “creative destruction” of capitalism at its most fertile and in this soup of activity and potential.
It’s the compelling simplicity of capitalism that makes it so hard to argue against; the only system we’ve created that enables personal motivation and talent to be harnessed not just for individual gain but also for societal benefit.
But the place is still desperately poor and it was amongst all this poverty and keen personal awareness of the lucky ticket I had in the lottery of birth, that I found myself picking my way through what were basically slums, carrying — of all things — an iced coffee — from fucking Starbucks. Me, irrevocably downgraded from travelist to the very worst kind of tourist.
But if Intramurous is poor, Bonifacio Global City is positively post-apocalyptic. It’s a mixture of London’s Canary Warf and the kind of dystopian city that a 14-year-old might create. It has all the constituent elements to make it a functioning place— but nothing that adult human beings need, like atmosphere, or community- or space to just, like, be. The place filled me with the kind of cold existential dread that you would feel if the Soviet Union had tried to create Disney Land.
Admittedly, I had a great time there. The expat community, supplemented with some great locals, warmly welcomed me. It was there I also tasted the best popcorn of my life, which involved chorizo, cheese, butter and something spicy. It was crack-cocaine for hungry drunk people and would certainly be banned as a Class-A drug in Europe.
The Islands (or, is this real life?)
The astonishing beauty of the islands makes you realise why phrases like “knock your socks off” exist — and that’s really the best I can do to describe how good they were. The attempts of us mere travelists to articulate the colours quickly became like saying a word 20 times in quick succession: The words “amazing” and “incredible” lost all meaning after about the first two hours and for the rest of the five days we mostly just looked in quiet appreciation.
The are so good in fact, you can’t help feeling like it’s all kind of been built for you, to enjoy it in an economic consumption kind of way, until you realise this literally is a desert island — and a paradise; and you realise that those are real coconut trees; that those bamboo huts are for people to sleep in; that that family who’ve wandered over to say “hi” to the crew really do live here; that water really can be that blue in real life; that places like this somehow still do exist; that this is real and that somehow life has contrived for you to be here, standing knee deep in warm water, your feet sinking into soft sand and the sun on your face.