“I could take you to Port Barton.”
Apo’s characteristic accent made it sound like Fort Parton, like a lisp that instead affects Ps, Fs, and Bs. For native Tagalog speakers these letters seem to be randomly interchangeable, in a way that makes it clear they can’t hear any difference.
By now the sun had long since set and the bonfire in front of us was hissing as itinerant raindrops occasionally found an ember. We had finished our first day of island hopping and had been chatting about where Steph and I would go after our time in El Nido.
“I could do it for, maybe 7000 pesos. We would go to a village that no tourists visit, see a volcano, a waterfall. Very beautiful.”
The price was definitely too high. I told him we’d been thinking of taking the ferry, or maybe a mini-van. I told him the price of the ferry—less than half of his own—and he thought for a bit, clearly doing the math in his head.
“Maybe 4000 pesos? I will bring food for the meals too.”
I considered his offer for a moment, and said I thought it sounded reasonable, but that I’d have to talk it over with Steph before I could let him know.
We shook hands and I strolled through the night to find Steph. In truth, his offer wasn’t so much more than the ferry would cost, and the prospect of stopping in a remote village on the way that few others had ever seen was intriguing. After some quick mental calculations we decided to take a chance and go with Apo. He had been a good guide through our day of island hopping, taking us to spots he thought we would enjoy, and there was something about him that we just instinctively liked.
When I let him know we were interested and that we wanted to leave the day after we got back to El Nido, his face lit up with joy. Clearly excited that we were taking him up on his offer, he immediately set about planning the journey. We had already learned he was quick to smile, and he was all grins at the prospect of our trip. When we disembarked in El Nido, he laid out the itinerary and clapped his hands together before taking off to gather supplies. We’d meet the next morning at The Alternative and head towards a little village called Banbanan at the halfway point between Port Barton and El Nido. We reasoned that the extra cost of our trip to Port Barton would pay off in experiences, and hoped the stop at the village we’d never heard of would prove to be a worthwhile diversion. We had just learned paying a little more for an experience could be immensely worthwhile and wanted to keep our momentum.
The next morning, we stepped onto Apo’s bangka boat at 6:35 and settled onto our little bench seat that had been covered with lifejackets to make for a cushier ride. Apo used a long bamboo pole to push the boat away from the shore and started the engine with a chug and a roar. He’d clearly been awake for a while and was filled with energy and eagerness to get started. The little boat glided out across the mirror-flat waters of the Bacuit Archipelago, followed only by the echo of our engine off the limestone cliffs. Fishermen waved and stared curiously as we slipped by, cutting through the mist of the early morning.
Once we were firmly in open water and El Nido was well behind us, Apo came forward and handed me a creased and worn map of Palawan that was practically falling apart at the seams. He pointed to El Nido, then to Port Barton, and then finally to a tiny dot under the word “Banbanan.” The words were so small they were almost unreadable, but they were there nonetheless, at the end of a long inlet into the interior of Palawan. He left me with the map and went back to the rear of the boat while I tried to figure out how far we had come. We didn’t bother to speak, as nothing short of shouting could be heard over the constant chug of the pump-boat’s engine. All around us the limestone karsts dotted the flat water, and for a little while we felt like the only people on the whole planet.
The sun soared far overhead in an impossibly large sky. We kept under the shade of the bangka’s tarpaulin roof and shielded our eyes against the glare off the water. To our left a giant peak rose out of the interior of the main island, clad in a thick tapestry of vibrant green jungle, its summit buried in a cascade of clouds flowing like a river inland from the sea. Our boat made a wide, easy loop around the mountain and entered the inlet that lead to Banbanan. We passed a gigantic fuel ship moored in the middle of the passage, seemingly abandoned and slowly rusting in the harsh sun, blooms of oxide blotting out letters in its Japanese name.
After an hour we came to an island ringed by fishing boats and stilt houses. Built from bamboo and sheets of scrap tin and burlap bags, most of the village looked as though it would be scoured from the Earth in even the lightest storm. All around the island stalks of bamboo stuck out of the water, calling out shoals and sandbars and as we glided though the forest of markers we passed a silent island and empty fishing boats. For a moment I thought perhaps we had arrived at Banbanan, but Apo steadily piloted us onward. The waterway beyond the village split into a complicated maze of small islands and dead ends, with only the occasional stilt house or small village breaking the wall of jungle on either shore.
As we rounded the edge of yet another deserted island a small village came into view. Approximately 20 huts crowded a small crescent of rocky shoreline. A tangle a fishing boats, net and bamboo piers jutted out into the water and a few more buildings crept inland, disappearing into the dense, ubiquitous jungle. As we approached, Apo killed the engine and the bangka glided the last few yards towards a pier on the near side of the beach. A man on the dock waited to catch our mooring rope.
“This is the house of my brother. He will watch your things while we are off the boat.” For a moment Apo gazed at nothing and then turned back to us. “I have lied to you, I am sorry.”
“The owner of the Alternative, Becky, is my sister.”
It was clear he was upset about not telling us this, and wanted it off his chest.
We took a moment to think about Apo’s revelation. For the past three days Apo had been referring to Becky as his boss, and the Alternative’s owner, but never mentioned she was a relative, let alone his sister. However, we couldn’t think of any negative consequences, and the scale of his duplicity was fairly minor, so we decided to shrug it off and not worry about something that wouldn’t affect our trip in any real way. Apo was visibly relieved when we told him it didn’t matter to us, and that we just wanted to have the best trip possible.
“This is my village, my family lives here. I used to live here too. That is why I brought you here. I hope you like it!”
Apo helped us off the boat and introduced us to his brother, Exodus, while another man came up and greeted Apo. He was introduced as Apo’s brother-in-law, Alan. Apo quickly explained that, despite Alan’s crippled right arm, he was strong and very healthy, stronger even than Apo himself. Apparently Alan had been born with the defect, and while he was obviously embarrassed by it, he was no martyr. Apo clearly didn’t think Alan had anything to be ashamed of, nor did he believe there was any reason to pity Alan, and I found myself touched by the simple human decency Apo so easily dispensed. The four of us walked down the dock into the village.
To say Banbanan was ramshackle is putting it mildly. The huts were mostly built over the water, many with small docks that housed pigsties and fish pens. Bangka boats were everywhere, moored to docks, pulled up on the beach and upside-down behind houses. The houses themselves were usually no more than one or two rooms, made mostly of bamboo, driftwood and found materials: burlap, tin, old signs and some concrete blocks. A narrow concrete walking path ran down the middle of the village, branching into smaller offshoots to go up the hill to the school, or continue down the shore towards more houses and the general store. Leaky hosepipes formed small, oozing puddles near the walkway and every third or fourth house had a thin electric cable running through a window to power a fan or the occasional TV. Every home seemed to have a stray dog or perhaps some chickens, and drowsy locals paused to look up as we walked by, usually in the middle of cleaning something in large, shallow plastic tubs.
Despite the obvious poverty and humble conditions, people seemed to be generally in good spirits. Every so often we’d pick up a few stray children with nothing better to do; they would follow our procession for a short distance before getting bored and returning the way they came. For us, Banbanan had an odd charm: it possessed a friendly, open feeling and we got none of the accusatory “not from around here” stares that could be expected from such an isolated place.
That’s not to say we didn’t get stared at. It’s simply that the stares were of disbelief. Apo told us that in his 30 years as a tour guide, he had only brought 7 people to Banbanan before us. Looking around, this was easy to believe. Apo may as well have guided two unicorns into the harbor, if the reactions of the villagers were any indication of how many tourists this town had seen. We walked through the village towards the interior of the island and after a few missed turns and a shortcut through a patch of bushes and palm trees, we stopped at a small farm.
“This is the farm of my brother, Exodus. He grows the vegetables for The Alternative.”
We looked around the little farm, while Exodus and Apo gathered fresh eggplant, chilies and beans for our lunch. We chatted for a bit in the shade of some palm trees, as Apo, Alan and Exodus made up for lost time.
Apo looked at the sun and thought for a moment. “It’s getting late, if you want we can stay the night here. I will give you dinner and breakfast, for free. We will get to Port Barton very late if we leave today. You can stay at the house of my mother-in-law.”
We quickly agreed, having no fixed plans for Port Barton, and Apo said we would have our lunch and then a hike through the jungle.
From Exodus’s farm we set off across rice fields and through shallow streams occupied by content carabao (water buffalo) towards Apo’s home. As we stepped out of the jungle and into the paddy-lands, we stopped short. The paddies were full of freshly planted rice, vibrant yellow-green hemmed by the checkerboard of gray mud walkways. The fields stretched out into the distance, flecked with the white backs of graceful wading birds and the occasional stray carabao. To the south a mountain burst out of the jungle and climbed high into the midday sky. The rice fields of Banbanan were idyllic and stunningly peaceful.
Apo’s house was a ten-minute walk from the village. Set back from the paddies in a grove of coconut palms, it was little more than a raised platform under a nipa roof. The floor of the kitchen was dirt and the house itself had no windows or doors, only woven bamboo screens that could be set in place if needed. The bathroom was anywhere behind the house that looked promising and slightly private. A hose behind the kitchen continuously spat ice-cold water into a small pool full of contentedly quacking ducks and dirty cookware. Grunting pigs sprawled out beneath a nearby tree, occasionally chewing on old coconut husks, hoping to find some meat. Two mangy stray dogs huddled under the house to escape the heat, and looked on us hopefully as we approached.
When we arrived we were greeted by his mother-in-law, her grandson, and yet another brother-in-law. We sat down in the shade of an ancient tree at a well-polished wooden table and waited as Apo prepared our lunch. He promised his special chicken adobo, which, based on the lunch he prepared for us on our camping trip, we were eagerly looking forward to.
Dishes slowly started to make their way out to the table. One by one, their number slowly increased, all of them overflowing with food. We looked around, expecting that there would be more people joining us, because there was no way all this food was for just the few of us. As we waited, no one else appeared, and it became clear that this feast had been set in our honor. That people who were so clearly living a life of meager subsistence would so gladly present such a feast for us was humbling and made us feel more than a little guilty. They needed that food so much more than we did, and yet they freely gave as much as they could with no thought of quid pro quo. We were honored guests and it was that simple. We ate as much as we could, saving the rest for later.
Apo had promised us a trip to a waterfall. Or perhaps a pool. It was unclear because his accent made the words “falls” and “pools” sound much the same, and after asking him to clarify several times we gave up, and hoped our luck with waterfalls had changed. Our hike would take us deep into the hills, where neither Apo nor Alan had been before, and Apo speculated that even fewer tourists had been to the falls/pools than to Banabanan. As we walked across rice paddies and around grazing carabao, Apo chatted idly with us about his life.
“My father was very religious. He named me Apocalypse, my brothers Exodus and Jerusalem. He came to it late, which is why my sister is named Becky—she is the oldest.”
I said the name Jerusalem sounded familiar, and asked if we had met him. I had tried to learn a few names on the night we were camping and that was a hard one to miss.
“Yes,” he said, clearly surprised that I had picked up a name from that night. “Becky employs almost 40 people; many are from here.”
He told us of his daughter, going to school in Manila, and his wife who lives in the city with her: “I don’t want to live in Manila. I love El Nido, and I love giving tours on the boat. I have a friend who could get me a job in the city where I would make more money, but I am happy here. I love what I do, it’s paradise here, and how many people can say they work in Paradise? Why would I leave?”
The waterfall did in fact turn out to be little more than an extremely cold swimming hole amidst some small rapids in a fast moving river, but after our sweaty jungle trek, the swim was a perfect ending to 90-minute hike. As we were swimming, Apo told us that his dream is to one day own his own boat, as the boat we came here on was rented. His goal is to save around $2000US to buy the boat and then eventually rent it to someone else so he can retire. On days when Apo takes people out to tour the bay, he makes about 250 pesos, or six dollars, the majority of which he sends to his family in Manila. This is about triple the wage someone in Banbanan makes in a day weaving bamboo mats; earlier Apo had pointed out a man doing just that, explaining that the man would make 80 pesos if sold them, but they would go for much more when they were re-sold in El Nido.
We explored the cascading river a bit more and then headed back to Apo’s house for dinner. On our way back we stopped at a farm and had some fresh coconuts to quench our thirst. Apo and Alan chatted with the owner and his family while we savored the fresh buko juice and ate the tender white meat with a spoon. Feeling full after two coconuts each, we watched a puppy alternately chase and be chased by a rooster and marveled at the easy generosity of those around us as everyone steadfastly refused any sort of payment for the delicious coconuts. It was clear that we were guests here, not tourists, which was not a role we were used to as travelers.
Back at Apo’s house, we waited for dinner, passing the time chatting with Apo and his brother Exodus over cups of three-in-one (instant coffee, with extra cream and sugar of course). We had been overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of Apo and his family, and how easily they welcomed us into their homes and lives. The lunch they gave us was enough food to feed them for a week, and we were sitting waiting for a dinner that would surely be much the same. It was hard to believe that not only did they seem glad to give us everything they could, but that it never crossed their minds that we could pay them for it. In fact, Exodus expressed regret that Apo hadn’t told him we were coming, because then they could have done something really special for us. Short of a parade through the village on the back of a carabao and the key to the city, we were at a loss as to what more we could possibly ask of these people (though we were promised carabao rides on our next visit).
After dinner the conversation turned to the United States and its unique relationship with the Philippines. All through our time in the Philippines it had been odd and refreshing to find that most people were excited to learn I am from the US. Here it was no different and we learned that, not only is the Philippines’ national hero an American (Gen. Douglas MacArthur) but that the US flag appears prominently on the old 100 peso note, which is simply astonishing. Exodus mourned the old days, lamenting that the communists ran the US out of the Philippines. He said that when the US was in the Philippines everything was better—wages, education, roads, and the grade of goods available for purchase. Now they sit in the shadow of China and wonder if the US will back them if China becomes aggressive, expressing genuine dismay at the thought of being left behind by the US.
“We are a small country, we don’t have much. Who will stand and fight for us if the US does not? We cannot do it on our own.” His pained glance was enough to make me feel both patriotic and ashamed. Exodus looked out into the night with a thoughtful swish of his coffee cup. “But we are glad you are here. We love America and want you to come here.”
Our bellies almost as full as our hearts, we climbed up onto the bamboo picnic table that would be our bed and listened to the absolute stillness of the night. Apo had hung a mosquito net from the tree above our table-bed and went to get a blanket so as to sleep on top of the dinner table next to us.
“Goodnight, my friends.”
The next morning we set off for Port Barton with an extra passenger. Apo told us that Alan had never been to Port Barton and wanted to come along to see the town; in truth, Alan had never left Banbanan before, though we did not know that at the time. As we headed out of the harbor Alan gave Banbanan a lingering glance and then tossed a dragline behind the boat in hopes of catching his dinner.
The bulk of the six-hour ride passed uneventfully, the four of us enjoying the still waters and the breeze of the morning. As we approached Port Barton we spotted a tremendous rainstorm moving through the bay. Apo tentatively tried to sail through the trailing edge of the storm, but the curtain of rain split the air like a razor and as soon as we passed its threshold the force of the gale was too great and we were forced to turn around to wait for it to move further out to sea, joining the school of other bangka boats skimming the edge of the storm, awaiting its passage.
We landed on the beach in the afternoon, in the cool after the rain, and searched for a place to stay. Apo insisted on carrying our bags and helped us find a room. As he prepared to retire to his boat we invited him and Alan to meet us for dinner (on us), since they had caught no fish, and to allow us to say a proper farewell.
We went to the restaurant after sunset, once we had roused Apo from a nap in his boat. The four of us ate our meal slowly, savoring what we knew would be some of our last moments together for a very long time. We had already vowed to return, with Apo promising to take us up to Coron in similar style, but no one knew when that would be and we were all loathe to extinguish the camaraderie we’d so quickly built. We had all long since forgotten that we had paid to take this journey, and when Apo finally brought up the matter of money it was with a palpable reluctance.
After dinner we stepped out into the night and dragged our feet some more. Alan headed back to the boat, clearly feeling shy. He hadn’t finished his meal because of nerves, as Apo told us that this had been Alan’s first meal in an actual restaurant and it was all a bit overwhelming for him. Astonished, we said we had wished we’d known, we would have encouraged him to go whole hog, though in our hearts we all knew Alan was far too modest to do anything other than order the least expensive item on the menu and save half for later, as he did.
“Don’t be offended if we don’t say thank you—here saying thank you means you think you won’t see the person again, and you won’t have a chance to repay their kindness. But we will see each other again, so I will not say goodbye. See you soon.”
Apo gave us each a hug, lit a cigarette, and walked down the beach towards his boat.
Every now and then someone asks me why we’re taking this trip, what we hope to get out of a year, or two (or however long we manage to stay lost). The easiest answers are always trite: to see the world, to see its wonders and learn about new places and cultures, to eat good food everywhere and understand a new way of life. People don’t usually have the attention span for a story like this one; they have their own trip or life to think about, and there is no short answer that satisfies me.
I travel because of people like Apocalypse Casi. I travel because, just when I start to think something is one way, someone I meet can show me another. I travel because it reminds me to be humble and open, and I think that makes me a better, and perhaps even a more interesting person. Every place has something to teach us and anyone can surprise you with what they know that you do not.
Why do I travel? I used to think it was so I could see the world and all the places it contains. But now I think that when you get right down to it, places can draw you in, but they’ll never really capture you the way another human being can. So now I know, and I guess you do too, that I travel to meet people because they are what ultimately make my world both bigger and smaller all at once.