Saturday, May 02, 2009

Who You Barely Know and Their Private Islands

Sometimes, it's all about who you know. Other times, it's all about who you barely know and who he knew in college.

It was the third time I had met Edge when he picked me up at the airport at 4:30 a.m. (I didn't even recognize him at first). We went to his family's home in Manila where his family's cook had huge plates of bacon and rice waiting for breakfast. There, I met his DJ friends (and one producer) - Rebecca from Manchester, England, Ari from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Marine from Marseille, France and his daughter, a lively, very grown-up ten year old named Zoe.

The family driver took us to the airport that morning, and we - with our UN assortment of passports - boarded a small plane for Coron - a small beach town with the only airport in the Palawan Islands. Edge's college friend, Daniel, met us at the airport there with his driver. They took us to Daniel's rooster farm for a typical Filippino lunch (no roosters on the menu), then all of us, plus Daniel's entourage - the boat man, the boat man's assistant, the cook and the cook's assistant - got on a boat and we made the hour and a half journey out to one of Daniel's family's private islands, Malcapuya.

Daniel's family owns six of the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines, and how his father became an island owner is a good story. Back in 1973, when there was no airport in Palawan, Daniel's father, Ed, was passing through and missed the boat (only one boat per week) back to Puerta Princessa, where he was supposed to conduct some business. A man who had dreamed about living a Robinson Crusoe existence his whole life, Ed took advantage of the week, hired a boat and began to explore the islands. When he got to Malcapuya, he fell in love. He found the owner and asked if he could buy the island. He could; he bought it for about $200 - the price of a new car in the Philippines in 1973. There was another tiny island within view of Palawan, and that one was for sale, too - for $2. That's where it all started.

As for where it is going, it is going somewhere big. Currently, there is a rustic house with many beds (where we slept), many bamboo huts, an outdoor kitchen, and a caretaker's accommodations (to flush the toilet you have to scoop water out of a bucket). Within three years, the island will host ten villas and a swimming pool; a bigger island within sight of Malcapuya will host a hotel with 100 rooms to make it a mini Boracay - currently the resort capital of the islands. So, once again, I have beat the crowds to a destination that will be gone within a few years. (Oh, and not to worry, says Daniel, the little island will stay as is...)

Except there are crowds on Malcapuya... sometimes. I got up early to swim and to read in a hammock on the beach (are you recognizing the recurring theme of my year...?) and looked out to see a huge cruise ship coming toward the island. I asked Daniel about it and he said, oh, once per week, 200 guests from this cruise ship stop on the island for lunch, and they will be here within an hour. So that's why I saw a young boy stringing about fifty chickens on a stick for roasting, and why we saw the boat man and assistant carrying so many plastic chairs in.

So when the tourists disembarked and overtook our isolation, no problem, we - as in Edge's entourage, Daniel's entourage and a very big-lipped fish and some sashimi (better than tuna, Daniel kept telling us, and it was) -just got back on our boat and went to Daniel's family's island #3 for a bit of snorkeling. As we snorkeled, the cooks hiked up the island to a grilling station and grilled the big-lipped fish and mixed up a sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, onions and tomatoes. The sashimi was laid out and whenever we wanted, we just wandered into the bamboo hut and ripped a bit of the tender flesh from this delicious fish with a community fork.

This is something I became accustomed to during the three days on the island - chafing dishes appearing out of nowhere, filled with deep fried calamari, steamed crabs, grilled prawns, diced pork chops and grilled fish. At one point, during an island-hopping day, between exploring the remains of a WWII Japanese gun boat and soaking in some natural hot springs, we emerged with snorkels to find a table set up in the middle of the boat with five chafing dishes. It was like having a gourmet cruiseline buffet following us wherever we went.
And every morning we were greeted with the question, would you like some fresh juice? Mango or orange? And those chafing dishes would appear, filled with corned beef hash, eggs, rice and dried fish. The Lonely Planet did not lie: Filippinos eat and eat and eat.
And they are friendly, and they are happy. The greeting for women is "Hello, maum," - always accompanied with a huge smile. Vietnamese people tend to wait for you to smile first, but Filippinos, well, they embrace with a smile, no hesitation. Even back in Manila, every heavily-armed guard smiled a friendly greeting.

So after three days on an island and two days in very modern Manila - where Edge was kind enough to make sure we knocked all of the food I wanted to try off of a list I got from a blog reader who is living in Saigon but who is from the Philippines - I am spoiled, spoiled, spoiled. And now - the best part is that I now know people - really generous, gracious, cool people, who shared all of this with me. And one of them just happens to own six islands in the Philippines.
And all of this- a birthday gift. It's a gift to top all birthday gifts, thanks to my good friend Audrey Alice (who just met Edge, who had this friend from college...)


Mungo said...

Wow! I want an island! Can I have one?

Marjie said...

I will have to check with Daniel to confirm, but I think that island prices have gone up a bit since 1973. I will get back to you.

Michelle said...

That sounds like it was the MOST amazing trip you've had. Mmm, to have yummy chafing dishes following you around, filled with culinary delights - does it get any better than that?? I want a friend who knew someone from college who's family happens to own a few islands . . .

Anonymous said...

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooHHHHHHHHHHHHh MYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOdness freakin gracious! You did it again-you truly did it again! You have the BEST KARMA OF ANYBODY I KNOW WOMAN! That blog entry was absolutely EPIC!!! (i feel i have used those exact words before!)
you must buy a lotto ticket in every place you go-2009 is your year girl!

Amy T. said...

"The boat man's assistant."
Why is that my favorite detail?

(food, beach, more food, fish, ... but the poetry here is something about that small man...)

Brian Bowker said...

Have you read any of the Harry Potter books? Your description of the chafing dishes appearing full of food sounds like the magical spread that appears in the Great Hall in those books. Are you sure you weren't in Narnia or something?

And I've just decided; You can get me an island for my birthday present too. That will be just fine.