The high season starts around the time my favourite volunteers leave, a record ten now staying here, which eventually climbs to 14 staying over a duration of five weeks. Great progress is achieved and everyone loves the space. Jungle trails are built on the new and surrounding islands and the options seem limitless. The internet is mostly fantastic and I conclude that, during the day, the children are in school while the parents are fishing, leaving the tower entirely to myself with internet speeds crushing those found in more populated areas. It is only until around 4:30pm, when the children get out of school, that the speed slows down, probably because so many are facebook and youtubing. But it speeds up again after 11pm and I often find myself doing my most internet heavy work between 1 and 4am – thank goodness for my sporadic sleeping schedule. I am pleasantly surprised to discover that, during this high season of a few months, at least one third of my income is generated from my local operations, giving me hope that I may finally retire from my 20+ year career as a translator.
Volunteer learning how to open a coconut.
However, after the village captain comes back to my camp that first evening to discuss “business”, my favourite volunteers visit him the next day in order to enquire about buying some fresh fish. They remark that he is not so enthusiastic and more or less shooed them away. Perhaps he wanted me to reimburse him for the work him and his two brothers contributed while clearing out some of the jungle, or perhaps I offended him in some way as we polished off the brandy, as I do not recall going to sleep. Furthermore, after a full month, I was brought a sheet of paper with all capital letters screaming that the village is very upset I have been showering next to the waterwell.
Making a trail up the mountain, our beach below background to the right.
Before making my move here, Ben informed me the water is not drinkable, so I continued as I had been showering on the last island. Perhaps the villagers are upset because I pour the little bucket of water down my shorts, massaging my balls clean while they kneel on the ground washing their laundry. I promptly inform them it is not a problem and our relations improve, but overall a sour feeling hangs in the air. I ask them about music and am told there isn’t a problem (or rather that they prefer it), and ask them again several months later, when only a few in the village express it has been too loud at night. Some of the villagers remain friendly while others frown scowling as they pass by without looking at me.
I establish the best relations with Elsie (who needed the village’s consent to move there), the wife of Ben’s cousin, who I presume is staying for free on the property I am supposed to be developing. Her English is the strongest, she is the nicest, and it is her who had to write that screaming letter for the angry villagers. My guests and I buy cigarettes, junk food and what little they have in their little store, while one of the other villagers is upset we do not buy from her. Perhaps the frowning scowls are from villagers who are envious yet do not have the initiative to offer us something themselves, or are intimidated and shy.
But when I think about it, since I first came to this area and lived in the local town for two months before starting my island projects, I was told many times by the locals that foreigners are very rare in these parts and that I am the first long termer. I started inviting people through couchsurfing, eventually volunteers through two other websites, and soon enough I become famous in the area for bringing in tourists and revenue. In Coron I’ve been told I am referred to there as “the guy on that island”. Meanwhile, in Sibaltan (where I lived for two months before coming to this area), I am referred to as Redhorse Man (from the days when I used to drink that beer before discovering that it was doing horrible things to my body).
But if foreigners truly were extremely rare before I had arrived, and since the locals on the present island of Dimancal don’t make the 40 minute boatride to San Miguel very often, I imagine I could easily be the first foreigner any of them have ever met. And what a crazy loony at that! A 50+ year old male who is often by himself, on the computer all day (when not performing odd gardening work), and happy to sleep outside on a thin mattress under the clear skies.
Because of the unease in the air, I’ll mostly send nice female volunteers as ambassadors to enquire about fish and what not, to show them that us foreigners are not monsters. After five months though, considering all the fish, fresh coconuts and junk food we have bought from them, not to mention the occasional emergency boatride back to San Miguel, our relations seems cordial enough. We’ve invited them to some parties, I turned the volume down a few notches, but they have never invited me to any of their raving diesel-powered karaoke parties on the occasional weekend. No worries though, as I am quite content with my solitude once another wave of guests has passed through.
The humble beginnings of our kitchen.
As with the other project, Ben has built us a big hut and coconut leaf outhouse, to provide us with more comfort. In spite of not wanting to infringe on the locals, I consider moving into the big hut in order to protect my electronics from the rain and to lock up everything whenever I am gone, but after hearing the distant pig squeals, rooster crows and children screaming at every odd hour, my desire to move there quickly abates, including the thought to rent out the attic space to paying guests. My marketing angle is for a rural experience without the rural noise, as I am sure most people coming here want to escape the tourist mayhem and enjoy some peace and quite on a paradise beach. And even with the record 14 of us staying here over a period of 5 weeks, a peaceful paradise can still be enjoyed. Sitting around the campfire at night and playing music amongst like-minded, rainbow gathering type people.
Around this time I decide to write to my good buddy back in Bulgaria, instructing him to send me my most important belongings, having officially decided to make the big move here and focus on the permanent. My prized acoustic Canadian guitar, electric keyboard, bugle (great for welcoming new guests as they approach the shore on boat, kind wake-up calls for those who want to witness another beautiful sunrise as a full moon slowly retires amidst brightly lit twighlight, or as a final trumpet sound once guests depart), bass guitar, some sentimental items, and the most important – my 1400W stereo with four 50W speakers and a 200W subwoofer. It is time to crank up the party.
New hut built for us in village by Ben and his crew.
Around this time I have also increased the daily food charge to 250p (about $6). I have found the volunteers to be rather wasteful, occasionally breaking my tools, and overall a drain on my energy. This increased charge nullifies my own food costs and, with larger groups, I can even earn some coin. I also start selling my beers at a profit, hence subsidising this greatest part of my budget. The volunteers do the cooking and cleaning, and although some have complained that I have it a bit too easy, I explain that managing their arrival, the occasional local boat tour, bringing in food and all the other responsibilities wears me thin. At this new arrangement the exercise is worthwhile for me, and if someone is not happy with it, a departure boat can easily be arranged for them. Over the past year a few volunteers have truly exasperated me, during which time I have been busy tweaking the invite letter to avoid further unpleasantries. I have become quite intolerant to lazy people and freeloaders in general, and have become more picky who I accept into my home.
My belongings are already on the way when my Bulgarian friend, who I had helped into the world of translation, suddenly writes that he received a large enough project to finance a visit, since he has long enviously followed my progress in this temperate climate. The timing seems uncanny, as I imagine he will make it in time to pick up my shipment from the Coron post office, because the packages will be quite bulky for that small and perpetually crammed little office and it will be difficult for me to retrieve them (arriving volunteers usually pick up my ebay purchases on their way here). I make the rare trip to San Miguel to meet and help him once he disembarks onto the pier. I show him all the sites and we meet all my friends during his one month stay here, he loves the place, but without an interesting mission as I have, he quickly finds himself bored and moves on to busier pasture in Puerto Princesa, where he hopes to find a female companion. Since he left, we’ve emailed a few times and decided he could spearhead his own camping operation on his return.
New, shady cover for my workstation and somewhere for guests to hide from the hot sun.
Now equipped with a proper sound system, and the sound-activated disco lights I purchased from ebay and which illuminate in various flickering colours the big, main tree of the base camp, I feel my operations are a few notches more serious. At one point during the 14 person peak my 51st birthday rolls by, and what more perfect gift than a massively rolled joint which the Brazilian kitesurfers had been dragging across three Asian borders before landing on my little island paradise. Because Benji expressed hurt I had not invited him, we decide on a second party the following evening, followed by a third, as many volunteers had left while others replaced them. Not long afterwards we are celebrating another a guest’s birthday when I remember I still have some fireworks left over from the Christmas party on Pical. Back then Arcenas the captain firmly instructed me they are illegal and forbade me to fire them up.
As things have been developing nicely on many fronts, I also develop relations with the manager of a neighbouring island. During one of my daily trips to San Miguel when I was waiting for a boat to Coron in order to fix my inverter, the manager, Fabian, was interviewing a young girl for a position at his resort. After the interview we talked for about an hour, him explaining to me that she is actually much better than the average interviewee (I told him I wouldn’t hire her with a ten foot pole). Fabian manages the Ariara Resort, located on an island next to us that the British owner purchased for a very modest one million pesos (about $22,000). Now he rents out rooms for at least $700 a night only to exclusive guests who rent the entire island as a group and where the likes of Tony Blair have stayed.
Building a bamboo table in a tent area we walled off from the local trail.
One Sunday my only volunteer, a South African, and I decide to journey to Ariara island to discuss business and have a meal at Fabian’s fancy restaurant. We paddle over in my new banca boat, drag it up on the beach and look for the manager. Eventually we meet and he explains to me that this is no island to simply drop by for a meal any time someone likes, that it is entirely exclusive, and that he is very busy making preparations for a group of guests due to arrive in about a week for Christmas. I mention that perhaps some of his guests might be interested in kitesurfing, we exchange phone numbers and he escorts me back to my boat.
I tell this story to many of my guests, who pay at most 300p for tent space (1% of his price) and that we essentially offer the same paradise retreat but for markedly different prices. Although I do notice, as he escorts us back to our boat, that his beach does not have a single seashell or seaweed on it (I presume having 25 employees might play a role in that) and that his beach is groomed flat and combed through with soft, curvy lines mimicking the waves of the ocean. He doesn’t appear very impressed as we walk barefoot back to the banca and drag it back into the ocean, scarring his fancy artwork with another unappealing gash.
The couple who painted my little banca, still not as fancy as Fabian’s speedboat for mini yacht.
However, over the next month or two, as I use my Sundays to grab the banca and a volunteer in order to explore and build jungle paths on other islands, I discover that the Brit also owns property on two other nearby islands, possibly one entire island. For the five months that I’ve been here I have been trying to get an arriving volunteer to swing by the town hall in Princesa, on their way here, but to no avail. That is apparently where I can find the contact details to the owner of the property I am developing. Apparently a Belgian. And the contact details of the owner of the property at the end of the beach. Would love to develop both of them.
Since I am in such a precarious situation, I decide to text Fabian to discuss the possibility of developing some of the property on the other islands. He later explains he was quite surprised that the owner expressed interest, simply because he is paying for a caretaker to stay there and watch the property, but who is never there anyway. At least I could provide him with some additional revenue, no matter how minute that might be compared to the revenues from his resort.
Fabian agrees for my visit, and I head out another Sunday, this time with a long haired beauty who for a week has been expressing a great desire for icecream. I had already taken her the week before to the island across our way and where the Brit owns some property. On our way, shortly before leaving shore, she swings around abruptly and causes the little banca to instantly sink. We drag it back to shore to bail out the water and try again. The boat is ideal for a single person only, while guests who rent it often find themselves submerged in water shortly offshore.
New parallel bars to help me get back into shape.
This next Sunday we paddle our way to the fancy resort, although the waves are significant. Not to mention that a strip between our islands gets waves and wind directly from the open ocean. Since someone had stolen one of our paddles and I customarily hold one of my big, beloved beers in my hand, I suggest that she start with the paddling until I finish it. She struggles valiantly against the strong current and swells while I focus on sipping and maintaining balance. Once I’m done with my beer, almost at the resort, I suggest to switch with my panting volunteer, but we are already quite offshore and it is a struggle against the strong current to get to their pier. Once again she performs one of her abrupt body swings and we find ourselves neck high in bobbing waters.
My shipmate building something on the new hanging chair.
Now, as part of my intention of only inviting birds of my own feather, at one point I started to explain the conditions here, ending my lengthy explanation with the question: “Are you prepared to live with Tarzan?” Many volunteers would respond: “Yes I do, I love Tarzan!” As we bob frantically far off from shore trying to figure out how to resolve the situation (on a previous occasion I found it impossible to scoop out the water as the large waves instantly drowned our bailing efforts), off in the distance we hear the buzz of a gas engine and notice an inflatable speedboat making its way towards us. With a blond and cleancut German propped up on the bow, a faithful employee behind him steering, my shipmate instantly proclaims: “James Bond meets Tarzan!”
He saves us from our predicament, drags me back to shore (she found instant refuge in his fancy boat), serves us both icecream and me ice cold beer (all gratis, of course), we talk business and conclude the discussions can continue once the owner arrives in June.