As we sailed toward the towering clouds, like vast floating islands, dark misty columns of rain below, the choppy sea began to heave, sending the bow of the Aurora Lakbay skyward, and the outriggers smacking down against the waves on the decent. The wind picked up and rain began to lance across the deck and faces of my shipmates, sending us all scurrying for scant cover. Squeezing into the back of the small galley, lunch was under way, green mangoes being sliced, coconuts grated down for milk, and, as the boat rocked and dipped, water washing across the floor from one open door to the other, the cook, Toto, in flip flops and a sleeveless tee, flung fresh chicken into a giant wok, when another heave of the boat sent hot oil splashing up out of the vessel onto to stove top and floor. “Hey!” Toto shouted, and sticking his head out the door, yelled something rude in Tagalog at the captain, Lito, and the crew in the galley all cracked up.
An hour earlier as I stepped out of the head, I had to quickly jump back in again as blood spurted across the deck at my feet. Poking my head out, I saw Ollie working a butcher knife through the bent back neck of a chicken; its feet weakly pedaling the air, blood dripping into the sea. As I squeezed around the door, and out of the way, Toto brought out another sleeping chicken, and repeated the process, head bent back (or neck possibly broken?), a jab and twist maneuver with the knife, and the arterial spurt slowly pulsing into a dribble, streaming into the sea behind the boat. The night before, Ollie had theatrically demonstrated with a local rooster the trick to putting a chicken to sleep, tucking the head under the wing and rocking it around in slow circles. I’m fairly certain that his little dance, and extra mumbo-jumbo were unnecessary, but what do I know about chickens.
And now it was those chickens that Toto struggled to keep in the pan as the stormy sea bounced the boat about.
It was day five of our excursion, island hopping through the Sulu Sea, from Coron to El Nido, in Palawan, Philippines. It had rained daily since we departed, but the gentle shower that cooled the white sands at sundown on the first day, had gradually intensified into fierce downpours, and now, this squall found us in the midst of the roughest crossing so far, through the turbulent channel between Linapacan Island and our final destination, El Nido.
Our laughing expedition leader Ollie lead Aurora Lakbay’s crew of eight, plus one sea dog, and one shaky-legged puppy, as they dragged the 24 of us, from 8 different countries, across the turquoise waters to deserted sandbars, to pristine snorkeling spots, and to palm frosted islands where we would sleep in nipa huts on the beach. It is truly all the tropical paradise one could dream of.
As we would anchor in yet another gorgeous bay, Ollie would yell, “Okay! Snorkeling! Japanese ship wreck, very nice.” Or a coral garden, or sunken barge, or multitude of fishes.
Tao Philippines—or Typhoon Expedition, Ollie liked to say with a grin as we sailed toward yet another dark bundle of clouds on the horizon—runs these singular, one of a kind 5 day, 4 night expeditions between Coron and El Nido, or vice versa, for a surprisingly affordable 21000 PHP. The other option would be to take a slow ferry, or fly between the islands, but the journey itself is the point. The base camps are rough and basic—thin mattresses draped in mosquito net, and cold bucket showers, the water possibly brackish—but as the days pass, your heart calms to the lap of the waves, your eyes squint far into the vast horizon, and your feet learn the rhythm of the sea as it pushes the boat to a new, exciting shore. Perhaps I just have the sea in my blood, this a small tribute to my father’s journeys around the Pacific 40 years prior.
There is a special place in my heart for the crew, young skinny Filipino guys filled with infectious joy, even in the midst of work, running with agile toes along the outriggers to hang laundry while pushing each other and laughing, or doing flips off the boat, and joking as they worked together to haul in the anchor. Their legitimate enjoyment of their work—which essentially was us—made the expedition so much more than a simple tour, as we were literally all in the same boat.
Ollie kept us ever entertained, in addition to directing us to snorkeling here and swimming there, he gamely assisted the guys in their wishes to build a bonfire on the beach, rain be damned, demonstrated the best technique to machete open a coconut, and just how much rhum to add, performed silly card tricks, lead karaoke and volleyball games, and generally acted a sort of camp counselor for our gaggle of sunburned, slightly buzzed adults. In quieter moments, he shared about his life—wife and two children living outside of Coron, his past as a fisherman, and the rigors of that life.
Toto kept us well fed in lots of fresh fish and rice—“Pilipino Power!” Ollie would assert gleefully every time—green mango salads, coconut curries with pumpkin and other local vegetables, squash flower omelets, and one day, an audacious banquet of crab. There had even been discussion of procuring a live pig for roasting lechon, but with no pigs available, we settled for a brace of local skinny chickens, which were now simmering in the wok.
The lunch that day, perhaps because of the theatrics involved, was the best by far, leaving a smile on my face as we finally sailed into El Nido harbor, with its vast sheltering karst mountains jutting around the tiny town. That night, the group of us, after hot(ish) showers and clean(ish) clothes, met up for one last dinner at Art Café in El Nido, which dissolved into polishing off leftover tequila, impromptu live band karaoke, and cheerful goodbyes as people went their separate ways into the drizzling night.
Honestly, this has been a difficult post to write, because how could I precisely capture such a collection of small perfect moments, in a perfect place, if perhaps not a perfect time (I mean, I’ve got nothing against a little rain, but do yourself a favor and book during a dryer month than June). I suppose I’ll leave you with this:
A few days later, I ran into Ollie, Toto, and Adrian in town, a little hungover, they professed, too much partying before they left on another expedition—“Typhoon!” Ollie inserted—the following morning. We shared a few jokes, and I went on my way, and as I walked down the street I was taken aback by the heaviness in my heart, a sudden sadness that I would not be leaving with them in the morning.
Who knew I’d be so melancholy about a bunch of drunken foreigners and a silly group of Filipino sailors on a tiny wet boat?