Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Paradise Found

Captain Lito! Former pirate, gunrunner, cigarette smuggler, dynamite fisherman, Manila airport electrician—and now, captain of the Aurora II of Tao Expeditions! Oh yes, El Capitan Lito led us safely through the ethereal islands of Palawan, Philippines on a five day magical journey that started in Coron, famous for its wreck dives, and ended in El Nido, the source of inspiration for the author of “The Beach.”

Even if I dreamt up paradise, I’m not sure it would compare to this trip. There were twelve of us passengers aboard (an assortment of Americans, Brits, Aussies and Nordic folk), five crew, Captain Lito, our trip leader ZaZa, and a seadog named Tiger (aptly named for her grey-brown stripes). ZaZa began the trip with an orientation in which she told us to chill out, relax, and not ask her what time it was or what we would be doing for the rest of the day. The philosophy of Tao trips is pretty existential—live in the moment, appreciate the beauty in the water and on the horizon, and stop worrying about what comes next. We were also told that if we were not already nice friendly people, now was the time to become so. We’d be sharing close quarters.

After her gruff but oddly appealing welcome, and once we had purchased our alcohol supplies (beer and local Tanduay rum) plus mixers (mango juice and the tiny, sweet-tart local limes called ‘calamasci’ limes), we boarded ship. At the back of the boat was the kitchen that would be providing us with delectable food for the next five days, and in between this area and the bow were the captain’s area in the middle (we steered clear) and shaded benches for lounging up front. Up top were two lounge chairs with ample space for two and a flat deck for sunbathing (or in this blazing sun, preparing for lobster metamorphosis). Fresh water, iced tea and cushions were always provided, but other than that, the crew pretty much left us to our own devices to laze about, read and gaze at the endless views as they navigated the seas for us and got busy in the kitchen.

The next five days were truly, without exaggeration, mind-blowing. From our first snorkel—a wreck teaming with brightly-colored schools of fish, alien-looking coral reef and bathtub-warm water—to our first meal—fresh ahi steaks (caught by Jimmy, one of the deck hands), green papaya and coconut meat slaw, sticky rice and fresh mango—to our first base camp—a picture-perfect island ringed by a white sand beach dotted with palm trees drooping their wings into the sea—it felt like paradise. Our first night the crew converted the wooden dining tables into ‘beds’ by covering them with mattresses, sheets and pillows and stringing up mosquito nets. Very simple, but effective. After bucket showers, pineapple rum sundowners and a delicious feast, we fell asleep to the sounds of waves lapping at the shore (and our companions enjoying more fruity rum), and woke up to sunrise, and a breakfast of banana blossom fritters, fried eggs and fresh fruit. The crew kayaked us back to the boat and our adventure continued.

I could write endlessly about the gorgeous views—a seemingly never-ending supply of islands fit for a Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Crusoe style ‘marooned on a tropical island’ type scenario—as well as the magical snorkeling and the fresh, scrumptious cooking, but the photos speak for themselves. Throughout the course of those five days, we braved a torrential downpour to help ZaZa transport building supplies to a remote village that Tao is helping to build a day care center; we hiked to a waterfall and freshwater plunge pool; we tasted a variety of wonderful local fish (my favorite was called ‘sweetlips’, aptly named for its lipstick-pucker lips) and tropical fruits (jackfruit curry was exceptional); we snorkeled until I turned into a human prune; we visited a coconut farm and drank fresh coconut water with a straw stuck in it; we slept in huts and felt raindrops dripping through the banana-leaf thatched roof; we kayaked through a azure blue lagoon ringed by cathedral-like soaring cliff walls that commanded a respectful silence; and we spent our last night on an island near El Nido that made the photos I’ve seen of Halong Bay, Vietnam pale in comparison. This island was so stunning it almost made my eyes hurt—a tan sandy beach that jutted up to dark craggy rock, which rose dramatically to mountainous heights, the tops of which were carpeted with a forest of lush, verdant trees, vines and mossy undergrowth. Along these cliff faces, birds nested, and we were told that local village men risked their lives to harvest these nests for the Chinese market and Asian diners’ palate for birds’ nest soup. To me, it looked fantastical and wild enough to be straight out of the jungley landscape described so vividly in “The Life of Pi.”

That last night we were treated to massages on the beach by local village ladies, the aforementioned jackfruit curry (tender and almost like artichoke meat but better), and stories of shipwreck survivals and fishing adventures by Captain Lito. When we left the boat the next day and said our goodbyes, I felt that pang of sadness and sense of loss you feel when something truly great—something so unique and special—has ended. I hope we go back on Tao Expedition again someday, but I’m not sure another trip will ever capture the sense of mutual wonder and awe that we felt as we glided through paradise for five extraordinary days.

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