I knew that the small piece of land I left behind was somewhere at the back of the public school. A teenage boy on a motorcycle offered me a lift; I declined. I wanted to follow the route from memory.
I was expecting to see it occupied by poor villagers who might have already put up their bahay kubos (huts), taking advantage of my long absence. My friends had warned me to brace myself for unexpected problems.
On this island that was once called the last frontier, land is a commodity people would fight for, or die for; land that is an issue as volatile as politics; land that one must have because of the jewel of water surrounding the stick shaped province of Palawan.
Particularly in El Nido near the island’s tip, with its geological wonder of limestone towers sprouting on the breadth of the bay, land is almost as good as gold. In fact, not so far from my humble plot, an enormous ecotourism estate will soon rise.
One of the country’s real estate giants, Ayala Corporation, has acquired 325 hectares starting from the airport, which is also its property as is the small airline that flies tourists patronizing upscale island resorts that made El Nido famous.
In the beginning of the tourism industry here, those resorts–Miniloc and Lagen–were the gods of the paradise. Luxury was the premium on these small islands that gave the best of nature: clear turquoise water; rare species of flora and fauna; endemic birds and swifts’ nests that could fetch a fortune and for which El Nido was named.
The poblacion on the mainland was a sleepy community hugging the bay, where one could easily point to the market, the church, the school, the bakery, the post office, the municipal hall. It was a tiny pocket against the backdrop of the limestone cliffs.
I recall foreigners walking on the hot and narrow, dusty streets almost stripped of their clothing. There was a Swiss vagabond (or perhaps a German) who had set up a kiosk, selling used books in different European languages, no doubt for the lost travelers who had made it all the way to El Nido.
There were two kinds of visitors then: those who were brave enough to take the nine-hour back-breaking bus ride from Palawan’s capital of Puerto Princesa; and those who could afford the exorbitant plane fare for a turbo-prop flying in from Manila, expressly for the comfort of the guests staying in Miniloc or Lagen.
It is faster now to drive up from Puerto Princesa because of a newly built road, in effect turning El Nido into a veritable tourist mecca all year round. Seeing it again after all these years, I lost my point of reference: It has become a labyrinth of alleys and side streets filled with pensions and eateries.
There are hotels more than two stories high, which was unthinkable before. The street gutters are clogged like sewers, and one should be careful dipping into the sea from the beach–as we used to–because it has gone mucky from the sediments. A few go far in their kayaks for a dip.
At about every corner, there are signs offering boat tours to clusters of islands, classified as A, B, C, and also D. For a price of Php 1,200 (about $25) per passenger in a motorized outrigger, one can state their preference for island hopping. Expect a somewhat quickie tour though: take a dip; take selfies; and then on to the next one.
In the old days seldom did the boats take visitors to the small or big lagoons, where one could take their time swimming, snorkeling, or simply basking under the sun. Today traffic in Bacuit Bay is frenzied; if one wants a leisurely soak in the water, it’s be better to hire a private boat with a guide who knows the islands.
I stayed far from the town, in a quiet and secluded resort off the Lio airport. For an entire week, the El Nido Cove Resort (also purchased by Ayala) was my home. I complained about the food, but the staff was patient. And always at the end of each humid, hectic day, the bartender Joey was there, ready to serve a glass of mango shake.
From here our guide, Jolly, from the Asian Conservation Foundation, would take us to the Dilumacad island, otherwise known as Helicopter Island because it is shaped like one. He knew just where to keep us away from the tour groupies. He would be the first to point out to us huge sea turtles swimming in the mirror-like water.
On the way to a secret lagoon, gray reef egrets, so breathtaking, flanked us. And as we swam, an orange stork-billed kingfisher swooped down to catch our attention, before perching on a crooked branch high up on the limestone, watching us. On both Miniloc and Lagen, flocks of the endemic Palawan hornbills flew from side to side.
Palawan’s colors are the serene blue and green blending in the waves. The only battle waged here is against the mosquitoes or the sand mites called “niknik”; beware of them and be armed with insect-repellants. The reward from this island is either the most gorgeous sunrise or sunset, or both.
I remember that it was the spell of the sunset far out in the village that made me buy the land large enough to build a nipa hut, dig a well and plant a vegetable garden. I had left before I could start the garden and I had lost hope about a future here. But there it was still waiting for me.
The caretaker somehow felt that despite my neglect, I would come back. Even for the sake of curiosity. He has been looking after the land all this time. He has refused to sell the hard wood from inquiring buyers, leaving the skeletal frames to disintegrate. He didn’t count the years. He just waited.
I gave him permission to build a simple thatched hut for his son; somewhere at the back of my mind I might find use for the land later again. The new ecotourism enclave that might be built in three or five years would be nearby. Who knows how the neighborhood might change?
I thought about that on my last night, a barbecue night at the boutique hotel misnamed Spin Hostel, a notch higher for the backpackers, and managed by a former longtime employee of the El Nido resorts. Friends at the table knew Palawan like the palm of their hands. I had abandoned it once, but with my piece of land still there, it has a way of beckoning.