It was five months of misery, which I managed to overcome in my usual adaptive way, but it was also a fun time of making lots of pockets in the jungle for the 30 tents I had accumulated over time. I look forward to being ready for the upcoming high season, as in the past I’ve been approached a few times by larger groups but could not accommodate them. With a few large groups of paying guests, I can start to recoup my extensive investments into tents and other material, now officially in the hole by 140,000p, which is about $3,000.
One of the new pockets by beachfront.
But misery loves company and it has been amusing watching how the little children volunteers whine and complain about the conditions, or how they struggle to start a fire in the wind and rain so that they can have their precious cup of coffee in the morning.
When I first started the volunteer program, I introduced myself as Tarzan, and asked the applicants in my standard response letter, “Are you prepared to live with Tarzan?”, listing some of my habits which I thought might be too objectionable to some. Many wrote back enthusiastic responses, saying they love Tarzan, but it is a different matter between watching him on a Hollywood set and living in the conditions he is used to.
Rewards of brutal conditions.
With newly arriving guests, one of the first things I would teach them is how to start a fire and cook on it. Rip off a healthy batch of dry coconut leaves, twist them into a strip piled perpendicular to the wind, hold the match in just the right place while fluffing up the leaves just enough to let a light breeze pass through, and throw on the thick metal pot as soon as the fire is raging. Not such an easy task, actually, but nice to watch how the volunteers would teach new arrivals, including how to open coconuts and all other organic manners of survival on the edge of a jungle. I even thought I could write up a certificate for those who are interested and which shows they passed the trials of living with a barbarian and learning all these nature skills. They could post it on their facebook wall in pride, it would act as a further marketing tool, and build “brand loyalty”.
After experiencing all sorts of excuses why a volunteer cannot put in a measly hour of work per day, because it is either too hot, too rainy, too many bugs and so forth, I invented the term prissy cosmopolitan pussy. Perhaps I have just gotten used to living like Tarzan, but I find it increasingly humorous watching guests arriving from the land of square geometry and struggling to adjust to a fractal environment. I will cite a most recent example.
Sometimes they even catch the food!
A Polish couple and two Italian beauties arrived at the same time, bringing our camp up to an attendance of five. They arrived late and when it was pouring rain, so I lodged them up in the big hut’s loft and asked Elsie to cook us up fish and rice in her sheltered little home. It felt good to be among a new group of people, after a long period of living solo, so I sacrificed a 1L bottle of local brandy. I also opened a new package of mosquito netting I had recently purchased from ebay, we sparked up a fire in the hut, and overall I’d say they were satisfied with their first day.
The next day they slumbered into some semblance of movement by around 11am, while I was busy pounding away at the computer. A second day without any work, they originally planned to stay a couple of weeks, and I suggested they work two hours for each of the next two days so that they do not have to pay accommodation for the first two nights. All four of them worked as a good team for the next two days and accomplished quite a lot, but decided they had enough and want to leave back to civilisation.
Barbarians making bread on the fire.
But one thing I noticed was that the Pole was typically macho, demanding to do all male things like make and tend the fire, always pandering over the females if they are okay and commandeering them what they should do. I thought the two Italian girls might be modern feminists, one of them with long dreadlocks, but they seemed instead to readily accept their new roles as little creatures requiring constant tending. After the fourth day of work he finally came to me, apologising that they will be leaving the next day, citing intolerable conditions and “all the cockroaches”. “And what about the cockroaches?”, I responded. “Are the girls terrified of the possible pitter patter of little feet across their noses as they try to sleep in their tents?” Apparently so. Honestly, cockroaches don’t bite but are good janitors, cleaning up all the crumbs us human giants leave behind. And I really don’t think there are that many here, although I do see them from time to time. Reminds me of that German volunteer who with such surety stated that an entire tupperware of fish and rice must be thrown out because it is “infested with ants”. I took a look and only found one single little black ant crawling around in the rice. It’s not like the ant is a fly which may have crawled over a pile of shit. They are clean animals and janitors, like the cockroach. Tarzan can only roll his eyes at the pussies. But generally, most guests don’t mind washing the dishes like the locals do, which is in the ocean without soap and a bit of beach sand to scrub it clean. After all, the salt in the ocean is a disinfectant, where soap is not. The quality of soap separates grease from water. After a meal of rice and veggies, the plates are hardly greasy, yet the conditioned cosmopolitan expresses discomfort when taken out of its usual routine of obsessively peeling every carrot and potato, even though locals don’t use pesticides and they are organic (the peel might store most of the pesticides, but also the nutrients and vitamins. It is a root, afterall, absorbing water to its core, so peeling is practically useless).
At this time Ben asked me to come down to Sibaltan with him to take pictures of a new hut he is building there. It can be one of the places guests stay during an island hopping tour. Because the four prissies were taking a boat to San Miguel, I joined them and partied with them and Benji for a few nights before heading off with Ben. There was also a festival in town, so the timing worked out well. But because of the festival the town switched its hours of diesel electrical generator operation from noon to midnight to 6pm to 6am. I did not expect this and thus did not bring the small battery with me and with which I could operate my internet. Not being able to work, the next morning I asked the Italian girls if they wanted to go for a walk with me to the beach. The Pole was still dead from the night before (Benji can be lethal!), but the girls both said it was too hot. What, 32C is too hot for a walk? They spent the next days mostly in their room reading, leaving only to smoke cigarettes out on the balcony or to wander somewhere for a meal while they waited for the next ferry out of town. I had a great walk and swam back, and came back to town from Sibaltan three days later – they were still there. I guess we’re just different kinds of tourists.
Troubles with the locals
Another annoyance for Tarzan has been Rona, the wife of the neighbouring community’s captain. Perhaps she thinks she is the queen of England with such a pomp position, but she has been a thorn in my side ever since my arrival. When I first came I had a Filipino guest and used the opportunity to translate to the village about all the ways they could make money: sell us fish and coconuts, take us on island hopping tours or fishing trips, make local crafts from seashells, and other means. I noticed how she grinned snidely at the other villagers as I proposed my concept to them. Soon enough she demanded that Elsie increase her beer price to 110 up from the 100 pesos I offered her, even though I can get it in town for 65. Needless to say, I never bought beer from Elsie again and she lost a lot of income over the past year. Elsie apologised and said it is because Rona is jealous and made her increase her price. I have found envy and petty jealousy a common feature among Filipinos. Is it possible that Rona was pocketing the extra 10p, being the queen of the village that she is? Along the way Rona even sold me some fish, with the same grin on her face, but which we later found inedible. It was so unfresh even the dogs wouldn’t eat it after it was cooked. There were other instances too.
In an effort to raise the comfort level, some very useful solar charged led lightbulbs.
Fast forward to the present, Rodel, a new and best friend I now made in the village, received a commission with his brother to cut down five coconut trees for construction wood. For about five days they were busy with their chainsaw in the jungle, cutting the hard wood up into perfect planks to carry the heavy strips to shore and load up on their boat to take elsewhere.
When they were done and as I was walking one day along the trail to the back of the property, I noticed the remains of their work: the leftover round parts of the trunk stacked up and unused. I asked Rodel if I can use it for construction, he consulted with his brother and said it was okay. I had a couple of muscular volunteers at the time and the three of us managed to bring in a sizeable pile to the beach.
Italian kayakers drop by along their 2000km journey around Palawan.
About two weeks later I received an sms from both Elsie and Rodel that the village queen is extremely upset that I have taken this liberty and that I must give her 2,500p. I explained that Rodel had given me permission, that half the wood in my construction pile is of bamboo that has washed up onto the beach (each morning I like to walk down to the end of the beach while brushing my teeth and bring back what scraps I find), but if she wants the coconut tree slices, she is welcome to them.
However, it so happened, just around this time I finally obtained a telephone number through which I hoped to get into contact with the property owner. I had been asking incoming volunteers to drop by the townhall in Puerto Princesa on their way here, but after a year of that failing, I decided to try to bribe them by writing that the one hour’s worth of work against several hours of work in camp. This was successful and two French girls secured a number for me.
View from the island’s mountain after clearing out a jungle trail with some volunteers.
I waited about two weeks to call, psychologically preparing myself for this very important engagement, and also for a day when it will be sunny enough to properly charge my phone and put me into a cheery and positive mood.
I called the woman and she gave me a number to the local “land assessor” I must call. She asked me who I was and when I told her she said, “Aaaah, Karel!” I’m pretty sure everyone in this area already knows about me. It was getting late in the day though, so I decided I will call the new number in the next few days, once I’m psychologically propped up again.
However, the next day, as I was working on a job, a boat shows up on my beach, one person stays behind to tend the boat while a second zig zags his way to the left and right along the beach in a hurried manner. Eventually he starts to approach me. I have been going through my mind over the past year how I would respond if one day the property owner started approaching me while I sat in my little paradise workstation. In my head I must have practiced my response and speech a thousand times. Right away I crawled out from under my mosquito netting and met the person half way with extended hand. We exchange niceties and he introduced himself as the property’s caretaker (I assume that the woman I called yesterday informed him of my presence).
The property’s caretaker.
I explain my predicament, how originally I intended to develop on Ben’s property, how the locals lied to me regarding the location of Ben’s property, how Ben showed up after a month of development and informed me that I am in the wrong place but that if I keep it to only tents and do not build anything permanent, it should be okay. I escorted the caretaker throughout all my work, along the little trails in the jungle connecting the various camping spots, describing my solar electrical set up and how about 95% of the guests so far have been volunteers, all the while behind me he would mutter, “Very nice, very nice.”
After our little tour he seems quite satisfied, goes back to town to bring back the contract with the landowner, emphasising with his finger on the clause that he has authority to throw anyone off the property, collects several months worth of environmental taxes as backrent for the past year (essentially a bribe), and convinces me to give him as many boat tours as possible to keep our relations smooth. Yes, technically another bribe, but I happily accept in exchange for an increased sense of security. He also promises to help bring in bamboo and other construction material, and gives me official permission to start working on my hut.
I must say that this new leaf that has turned is a great relief for me. He even discloses that the owner is an Italian living and owning a hotel in Puerto Princesa, that he purchased this property some ten years ago, and that he does not have the capital to develop it according to his dreams. More security for me! But he is trying to sell it for some 300,000 Euro, so the final nail is not in the coffin yet!