Tao Expedition, Philippines
A year ago my brother was telling me about a trip he had planned. Five days going around remote islands, sleeping in huts, and roughing out mosquitoes, jelly fish and no electricity in the Phillipines. I’ll be honest it sounded like my worst nightmare. I wished him luck and deep down thought he was nuts.
So how did I find myself here, one day before, in a little hotel in Coron, doing the exact same trip as him?
We sat there in our initial meeting all with the same anticipated fear and excitement in our eyes, twenty-three of us, about to embark on an adventure of a lifetime. The beautiful thing from the start was how different we all were, coming from all walks of life, speaking over eight different languages all sharing a moment in our lives, together, embracing the unknown.
So here’s how our beautiful experience panned out.
The TAO expedition was incredible. Jef, (who for the rest of the trip was called JEF with one F) the leader of our trip, shared with us his passion for Tao, born into it after his brother was brought in as one of the founders of this incredible organisation. Tao started after two men Eddie and Jack one from the Philippines and the other from the UK, embarked on an adventure sailing through the Palawan islands. Together they set up Tao as a social enterprise.
Tao offers a five day boat tour between Coron, El Nido and the hundreds of remote islands in between, for travellers who are looking for adventure and are willing to journey without any luxury (that includes no hot showers and no wifi and very basic sleeping accommodation and toilet setup). It started as a small project and now employs 250 people, of whom the majority lives on the remote islands in North Palawan. The employees work as camp guards and are responsible for the maintenance of the 13 base camps. These camps are located on islands of sugar white sand where weary travellers relax and stay overnight.
Arriving in our first remote island we all set up our little mosquito nets and thin mattresses smiling and accepting this new lifestyle. Waking up to the sound of nothing but crashing waves on a sandy beach and children giggling from the neighbourhood as they head to school was incredible. I learnt that the Tao foundation has opened up a couple of kindergartens on the islands through the funds raised by people attending the expedition. The kindness of the people on all the islands we set foot on astounded me, and the smiles and laughter of the children is something that left a deep impression on me.
It was difficult to believe that just a few years earlier, typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms in recorded history, tore across this region, leaving 8,000 people dead or missing and four million displaced. By the time it hit Palawan, in the south-west Philippines, its force had waned, but small island communities were devastated.
Gradually, people here have been putting their lives back together, with Tao Philippines at the forefront of the mission to deliver aid to the area. Today, there is little evidence of any damage in the region – though thousands are still waiting for new homes in the worst-hit areas, such as Tacloban and Guiuan, in the east of the country.
We would spend the next few days getting to know everyone on the boat, laughing, playing cards, swimming, snorkelling, meeting the locals, bargaining for our evening meals, catching fish off the side of the boat, not worrying about a care in the world, and never for one minute picking up our phones. In being remote, and disconnecting from the world, we slowly found connectivity between us, and none of us missed a single minute of technology.
None of us worried about what was happening in the world outside our little boat, while we had all the language barriers, we all spoke the same language. We celebrated our Belgian friend’s 70th birthday, sang songs, told stories, embraced our new toilet, made decisions as a team and never for one minute with all our differences did we not get along.
On one of the islands, which was quite bare, I noticed a few children playing with a very run down basketball net. They spent hours playing in front of it pretending to throw a ball as they slam dunked every shot never missing the ring. I asked Jef what had happened to their ball, and he said they didn’t have one. I couldn’t imagine growing up and playing games without something so basic, as a ball. But yet, they were happy and content, and played hours on end together. I asked Jef if it would be possible to buy them a ball when we reached El Nido and for him to bring it to the boys when he returned. He said it was possible and as he explained it to the children, the smile that burst across their faces is something I will not forget.
Usually when I travel, I always feel like tourism in some way takes away from the community and it saddens me to know I might have been part of that. But for once, I left a place knowing I was part of something bigger, a TAO community that left a positive impact on communities in the area and this feeling was incredible.
On the last day as we made our way to el nIdo pier, I wondered how I had ever even worried about this trip and all I wanted was for the trip to be starting again and not to have to go back to reality.
With the pier and bustling town in site, none of us wanted to leave the boat, infectious smiles of our beautiful crew, and our incredible newly founded TAO family.