The Heaven and Hell of the Philippines
The decision to try a new destination en route to Southeast Asia yields rude awakenings and newfound friends. A feature from our September 2010 issue
Cruising in the Philippines isn't easy. Example: Only February is considered to be (almost) hurricane-free. The Philippines is an adventurous, death-defying destination. But a wrathful Mother Nature is only part of the problem. Government corruption is rampant. Social justice either doesn't exist or is sold to the highest bidder. Crime is everywhere: Pickpockets bump into each other while attempting to rip you off. Nothing is quite as simple as it seems in the Philippines. It's easy to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time-and just as easy, as well, to discover earthly delights. We did both. Almost immediately.
I like to sail-where to isn't terribly important to me. Thus my wife, Carolyn, and I have worked out a nice division of labor over the last four decades of cruising together: If I can say "Let's go!" whenever I want to, she can pick our next destination.
This works perfectly for us because I'm a sailor who likes to travel and Carolyn is a traveler who likes to sail. Or, to put it another way, the voyage is my destination, while the landfall is her main focus.
And we'd just spent a year cruising in the waters surrounding tiny, pristine, and nearly deserted Pacific islands. So Carolyn felt that we needed a cultural change of pace. "Let's return to Southeast Asia," she said, "where we can afford both the rice and the water!"
"Fine," I said, "but let's not retrace our steps through Indonesia. Let's go through Micronesia and the Philippines.
"Agreed," she said.
So that was our basic float plan. But then, in Yap, an island in the Federated States of Micronesia, we happened to bump into an old friend, David Willard, of the British yacht Celtic Caper. We'd previously met David in the Maldives, Chagos, and Mayotte during our Indian Ocean days. We had a lot in common, namely, that we were repeat offenders: He was on his third circumnavigation, and we were on our second. But David had spent a lot of quality time in the Philippines, and he immediately dissuaded us from visiting the northern Manila area. He suggested that we instead visit the island of Leyte because, he said, it was "the closest thing to paradise on Earth."
"But isn't that in the Mindanao group?" I asked. "Where in 2001 the Moro pirates kidnapped an entire resort and beheaded an American?"
"No," he said. "Leyte is north of Mindanao. No problem!"
One of the secrets of successful cruising is to be flexible. Sure, it's fine to make plans-if you don't follow them. We've learned to go with the flow. If the wind-actual or political-veers, so do we.
"OK!" I said. "Leyte it is!"
It only took a week to cover the 1,000 miles of ocean between Yap and the Philippines. We could've done it faster, but I declined to crank up the engine-even when our boat speed dropped below three knots. At the outset, we had light winds, but they gradually built and veered northward as we approached the 7,000 islands that make up the country.
I had a good, sensible plan: Sail into the huge mouth of Surigao Strait and heave to for the night. Unfortunately, by this point we had reinforced trades of 28 knots with squalls gusting into the high 30s. The current was, to put it mildly, fair: We were hitting 10.2 knots during long, squiggly surfs as we approached Suluan Island. That was nice, sure, but I shuddered to think about what would occur when the tide changed.
As I said, I'd intended to sail up to the mouth of Surigao Strait and heave to until dawn. But heaving to in such massive seas-especially after the tidal current turned and humped them up even more-wasn't ideal, so I decided to duck into the 15-mile-wide pass and search for a lee before the tide turned and we were unable to make any progress toward Maasin, Leyte. Thus we found ourselves unexpectedly screaming down the rollers of Surigao Strait in the middle of a pitch-black night while trying to find some shelter after a hard week at sea.
I eventually found calmer water along the western shore of Dinagat Island and ran off under bare poles. This reduced our speed to a mere 6 knots, which was still far faster than I wanted to go. I kept steering southward with one eye on my radar and the other peering into the night ink ahead.
All and all, we ended up about 40 miles south of where we'd expected to heave to. True to my long-term promise, I didn't enter a strange harbor at night. Instead, I bided my time until dawn and waited until an enticing bay flashed by-and jibed into it on the spur of the moment. It was to be too deep for anchoring, so we powered into nearby Tagabaka Cove to find suitably shallow water.
We waved at the local fisherman. They didn't wave back. In fact, they did nothing save gape at us as if we were an apparition. This surprised me. The Philippines aren't as busy with yachts as, say, Thailand, but still, cruising sailboats aren't exactly unfamiliar.
Why no wave? No smile? No nutt'n?
People here acted as if they'd never seen a yacht. In fact, they acted as if they'd never expected to see one! It was strange, very strange. We'd heard that the Filipino people were among the friendliest in the world-and yet these people weren't just unfriendly. They were, well, sullen.
"It's as if nobody wants to smile at us or wave to us or be nice to us," I joked with Carolyn, "because, you know, they have to kill us later in the evening!"
And since we hadn't cleared in yet and this wasn't an official port of entry, we couldn't go ashore to ingratiate ourselves. So we just tried to be nice to the gathering, gawking fishermen until weariness finally over came us and we fell into our bunks.
When I awoke, my wife/navigator/lover of 38 years and more than 100,000 miles was already reading her Lonely Planet guidebook. "Tell me about this place," I said as I stirred my strong, black Tongan coffee.
"I'm trying," she said, "but I've searched and searched the whole Visayan section and can't seem to find it. Maasin is there, sure, but no Dinagat."
"Try the index," I said, and the next thing I heard from her was a woosh of inhaled air and silence. "Well?" I said. "Cat got your tongue?"
"Mindanao," she said.
"Mindanao what?" I said.
"We're in Mindanao," she said.
I won't go into all the historical detail of why Muslim Mindanao has chafed for centuries under Christian Filipino rule, but it has-since the 13th century. In fact, this is the spiritual birthplace of the modern suicide bomber: For centuries, Mindanao would send "suicide swordsmen" into crowds of milling Christians to hack away until killed. Let's put it another way: Mindanao still has a well-deserved worldwide reputation for being "yacht unfriendly." Don't get me wrong: I'm not anti-Islamic. We've spent delightful years cruising in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Maldives.
"We couldn't really be in Mindanao, could we?" Carolyn said.
"Don't joke," I chided her.
"This island is clearly labeled 'Dinagat' on the chart, 'a small island off the coast of Mindanao and part of the Mindanao group,'" she said glumly, and then pointed straight out the companionway. "In fact, that large bluish island right there is, well, Mindanao!"
It took awhile for it to soak in. When I wake up after a deep sleep, I'm sorta slow. But I soon realized that she wasn't kidding. It was true. That's part of the problem with using modern electronic charts: They're great at zooming in for vivid inshore detail but lousy at zooming out for the big picture. We'd already violated the one rule of cruising in the Philippines: Avoid strife-torn Mindanao, home of the Moro pirates.
"This is the stupidest thing I've ever done," I blurted.
"Actually, Fatty, it isn't," Carolyn said without missing a beat, and looking me right in the eye. "You've done lots of other far stupider things, just not lately."
Ah, the clever wench, she knew there was no time for me to rebut!
Carolyn said this at 1022 and by 1030 Wild Card, our modest, 38-foot S&S-designed sloop, had herself fireballing out of the harbor at hull speed, while her anchor was still dripping with thick clumps of Moro mud. The tide was wrong. It was raining. The seas were huge. We weren't properly stowed.
"The hell with it!" I giggled and savagely punched Wild Card's bow straight into a large, bounding roller that swept our entire foredeck. Then I said gleefully to Carolyn, "Safe at sea again!"
That was our first taste of the Philippines-a bitter one. And, understandably, it made us a tad paranoid.
So did all the pirate watchtowers that dotted the coast at every village and atop every headland; for centuries, the Moro pirates regularly raided Philippine towns. Any hearty survivors were then carried off and sold as durable slaves. Just the mention of "Moro pirates" strikes terror into many modern Filipinos; in fact, they're still threatened with them as "boogie men" during childhood. I try to ignore such grim, violent histories but it isn't easy, especially when the watchtowers are still standing silent sentry.
Two days later, we anchored off Maasin at dusk. By the time we got Wild Card squared away, it was pitch black. Normally, we'd just wait until dawn to go ashore, but Carolyn wanted to wash away her fear with a cold beer-and what Carolyn wants, Carolyn gets.
As I mentioned, it was a dark night. We soon found ourselves in the dinghy searching for a place to come ashore off the town. But the squatter shacks were dense-we couldn't see anywhere to land. Then a small beach appeared, crammed with local fishing craft. I beached our dinghy and immediately the hair on the back of my head stood up in silent alarm. Sleeping bodies-some from inside the canoes and some from the fly-infested sand itself-started rising up like weightless ghosts. They were men; toothless, shirtless, shoeless, dirty men.
The smell of rotting fish made me want to gag. There was no electric light, only a faint sliver of moon to see by, and they slowly milled around us, silently circling like sharks. I didn't know what to do. I could push Carolyn rudely back into the dinghy and attempt to escape before they could attack, but it seemed too late for that. I didn't have a clear, quick path back to sea. We were surrounded.
Suddenly, the largest one stood before me. He brought up his arms. I flinched. Then his iron arms wound around me and tightened into a fierce grip of the heartiest friendship.
"Don't worry!" he said. "We are brothers of the sea! Our home is your home. We always take good care of our passing yachties. We will watch your dinghy and keep an eye on your anchored vessel. While we sleep, you will do the same for us. There are no thieves here-we drown 'em! No one will hurt you or your woman.
They were the men of the Tao Gama, a brotherhood of dirt poor but proud Filipino fishermen. "Our brotherhood isn't against anyone or anything. It's just for us," explained their leader, Sumaya. "As individuals, we're vulnerable, but we have strength as a group. We pool our fish, our labor, and our collective money. We're all for one and one for all. If one of us gets sick, no matter-he still gets his fair share of our catch. We've vowed that it will be so. We've sworn it so. With blood. We're not just friends, we're brothers. Brothers of the sea. Brothers of the Tao Gama!"
They lived rough lives in a warren of squatters shacks shoved haphazardly between the high-water mark and the main road. Their ramshackle living quarters might have been pictured in a tourist training film of what not to do and where not to go. There were a million dark nooks and crannies where knife-wielding assassins could easily hide in the shadows, ready to shove your dying body into the next odoriferous hovel.
The transit from beach to road was directly through a dozen shacks packed with humanity, each filled with dozing bodies, snoring daughters, sleeping mothers, napping wives, laughing girlfriends, and crying babies, not to mention strutting roosters, stray dogs, earless cats, and the ever-present grunting and rutting pigs!
At first, transiting this area scared me, but I was soon utterly enthralled. Nobody acted the least concerned that a foreigner had suddenly appeared in the living room. Anyone who was eating immediately lifted his or her bowl of food in sincere offering. I don't think I ever passed through without turning down at least one meal of rice and fish scales, if nothing else. No matter what little they had, upon sight of me, they'd offer it.
"Coffee, Fatty?" They'd say. Or "We're cooking up some pig intestines. Come back with Carolyn in an hour!"
The oldest man was named Ben Morie. He was brown as a nut, small in stature, and had huge bat-wing ears, and yet he presented a regal, commanding presence. He was also in his late 70s, and he'd regale us with stories of World War II and how nice the Japanese were to him during the occupation. His English was horrible-but he proudly sang the song "Born Free" with perfect diction in a lovely, loud, shack-quaking voice.
"Excellent!" I said when he first sang it for me. "Beautiful, Ben!"
From then on, every time we'd see each other, we'd burst into a Broadway-musical duet singing and dancing our way into the hearts of all concerned. (OK, a few did run off holding their ears in agony!)
Glen was the youngest full-fledged fisherman-and fascinated by my Casio Sea Pathfinder wristwatch. "How does it know that the tide is high?" He'd ask. "What is barometric pressure? It can't really have a compass inside of it, can it? What do the beeps mean? What tells it the moon will soon be full?"
Bing Bing was their hero: The physically fit man had saved dozens of lives during a recent local landslide that had instantaneously buried 2,000 unlucky souls. Bing Bing had dug up the dying with his bare, bleeding hands "until the bones of his fingers showed through," said his friend Ulding in awe.
While members of the Tao Gama fished in a variety of ways aboard a wide range of watercraft, they were collectively exploring a completely new method of catching fish. It required lots of teamwork, much physical stamina-and considerable danger. Yoyoy gathered the materials needed. Ciobard carved the wooden spear guns. Dono fashioned the swimming fins out of discarded plywood. Rico collected the inner tubes. Aping was in charge of, well, charging!
Here's how it worked: they'd sleep all day, rise, eat, then drink among themselves a gallon of tuba, a bubbling brown coconut beer that looks and tastes like, well, never mind! Then they'd line up on the beach and don their homemade snorkel equipment, carved wooden goggles, plywood fins, and tree-limb spear guns. Once in the water, they'd trail a truck inner tube slung with a canvas bag in which to keep their catch.
The spear gun was custom carved to be fired with only one hand because the other held a crude but effective waterproofed motorcycle battery with a switchable halogen spotlight strapped to it. In the dark of night and amid the dirty swirling waters of the busy, traffic-filled commercial harbor, they'd dive down, swim along the bottom, and switch on the lamp. The moment a fish appeared to see what was going on, they'd shoot it between the eyes. Evidently, it worked, although I've never heard of anyone anywhere nocturnally spear fishing in such a strange manner; their evolving method was sort of a Tao Gama exclusive, I guess.
"But don't you get run over by other vessels?" I asked. "Don't you get entangled in discarded fishing line and bashed senseless into the frothing rocks?"
"Yes," shrugged Edgar sadly, but then he brightened up. "But not too often!"
It's difficult to convey how nice, kind, and solicitous they were to us. Every time Carolyn returned alone, they'd carry her heavily laden bags. Then they'd launch and hold the dinghy steady for her. They'd always tell us where to shop for the best prices, often sending us across town to save three or four important pesos, the approximate equivalent of a dime.
They never once-on any level-asked for anything.
"Friends!" They'd say when I questioned why they were being so nice. "Brothers! Why, you almost Tao Gama now!"
Of course, we felt obliged to give as well as take. We'd often bring back candy for the kids, bakery goods for the old folks, and strong intoxicants for the fisherman. (A bottle of strong rum costs the equivalent of 38 cents!)
Soon I was helping them fabricate their dive gear-my, how they loved modern epoxy! We had a couple of spare masks aboard Wild Card which I donated, and they immediately punched out the plastic lens and traded a fish for a custom-cut glass one. My plastic shoes were getting old, and I carry spares, so I gave my used pair to the group as well. Rico ended up with them. He was extremely proud to now be the only one with store-bought shoes. How he was selected for such a high honor we could never discover.
To pay us back, they brought us to see Mama Mary, a local Catholic shrine, as well as the stunning Monte Cueva, a large Catholic church in a huge, water-dripping mountain cave.
In the end, I wanted to do something extra special for them. What they wanted most was to go as a group to the Sunday cockfights. So be it.
Frankly, I thought I'd be more grossed out. I have no love of blood sports. I'm an admitted wimp; I go on deck when Carolyn loudly chops up a chicken for dinner. But the boys of the Tao Gama enjoyed the cockfight immensely, and I didn't see anything happen that Frank Perdue hasn't done a million times.
Toward the end of our visit, I gave them an autographed copy of a book I'd written. They immediately sealed it inside of several plastic bags and nailed it proudly to the side of their dining area. They never opened it, but I've noticed that people who can't read often respect books more than those who can.
At the conclusion of our daylong farewell party, I stood up and delivered a speech about international hospitality and universal good manners. I told them the plain, simple, unvarnished truth: that we'd been to virtually every prestigious yacht club in the world-from Sardina to London to New York to New Zealand-and nowhere was I more warmly, more graciously welcomed than right here in Maasin, on Leyte, in the Philippines.
I thought they might think I was exaggerating a tad, but they didn't.
Sumaya, their leader, stood up slowly. As the wild cheers of good-bye went up he said, "Well, Fatty, I'm sure those other places are all well and good but, hey, they ain't Tao Gama, are they?"
The Pacific behind them for now, Cap'n Fatty and Carolyn Goodlander are exploring the Mediterranean aboard Wild Card