The Essential Nature of Islands

Is to attract (specifically to draw my wandering kayak to the Philippine archipelago). And to beguile (specifically me).

Paul Theroux

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I liked the look of Palawan on a map — the sausagey shape of it, the way it linked Indonesia to the Philippines, its great distance away, its apparent insignificance, its only one town-dot of any size, its fringe of a thousand scattered islands, some in the Sulu Sea, the rest in the South China Sea, the whole place nearer to Borneo than to its own mainland. All this stirred me: It had just the right profile to be a great place for kayaking.

My ideal in travel is you show up and head for the bush, because most cities are snake pits. In the bush there is always somewhere to pitch your tent.

But I knew nothing about Palawan and even the guidebooks were pretty unhelpful. All my ignorance made me want to travel there and hop those islands. Then, whenever I talked about it, people said, “Don’t go,” because the very mention of the Philippines brings to the narrow mind images of dog-eaters and cockfights, urban blight and rural poverty, and Mrs. Marcos’s ridiculous collection of shoes — a place where the visitor industry consists mainly of sex tours and money launderers and decaying old white men looking for doe-eyed Filipinas to marry or else willing catamites in Manila, and of course the furtive visits of European branches of Pedophiles Sans Frontiˆres.

The Philippine general election loomed. Campaigning — so I was told — involved high-caliber cross fire, the supporters of one candidate raking the opposition in a bloody enfilade of horrific gunplay. It was a country of ferry disasters and kiddie porn and government thievery on a grand scale. In other respects it was what Ireland had been in the 19th century, a producer of menial workers for the world. Name almost any country and there were Filipinos in it, minding its children and mopping its floors. The Philippines was a place that people fled; so why would anyone want to go there?

Some of this was incontestable, and yet I remained curious. Palawan looked like what it had obviously once been, a land bridge, and I could just imagine the fauna and flora that had tumbled across it. With three weeks free I had it in my head to disappear and go paddling my folding kayak somewhere I had never been.

It did not concern me much that in Hawaii toothy comedians made whole careers out of mimicking the Filipino accent and the funny names and the dog-stew business. Oddly enough, almost the first person I met in Manila was a man named Booby. “An Australian said to me that my name means ‘poolish,’ but my farents give me this name!”

Booby had a dog recipe. Everyone had one. Just for the record, Dog Stew: “Don’t get a dalmatian! Too expensive! Find an aso kalye — street dog — chop him up and morrinate in 7-Up. If you can’t find 7-Up use Sprite. It takes the smell off. Then drain. Morrinate again in soy sauce and calamansi lemon for one hour. Drain again. Fry the drained aso in garlic, onion, and potato. Add tomato sauce and pineapple chunks. Stew for one hour or more. Oh, and before removing it add cheese and wait until it is melted. Serve with rum or strong alcohol, and a pockage of crockers.”

But the stereotypes seemed to slip away after Manila and — to skip ahead a bit — I had a wonderful time. I camped on empty islands and went up rivers and saw snakes in trees and had my tent butted by monitor lizards, and in seaside villages everyone complimented me on my tattoos, and I had several proposals of marriage. I teamed up with a man named Acong — Acong was his palayaw, or nickname, as Booby was Eduardo’s. Filipino friendliness is often expressed in this way; a nickname makes you approachable.

Acong told me, “I am a native. I am a Tagbanua. When I was a small child there were only natives here.” He said, “There were so many fish in the lagoons that we killed them by standing and shooting arrows.” And: “The rivers were deep when I was a boy, but they started to cut trees and the mud came. And now it is shallow.” And: “Most of these people you see in Palawan are not natives. They come from Visaya and Luzon.”

He ate dogs, he ate monkeys and monitor lizards, he ate snakes. He loved wild pigs because they tasted so much better than village pigs. He was 40 and looked 60. He knew why. “My face is old because my life is hard.” Also his wife had run off three years before and left him to look after his four-year-old. He did not call her a perfidious bitch. He just shrugged and said, “I don’t know where she is.” He lived in a coastal village. He lamented the changes on Palawan: the loggers, the illegal fishers, the loss of trees and fish. “When I was a small boy …” he would begin. It was only 30-odd years ago but Palawan was an Eden then, so he said.

I was camped on a little island in the middle of Pagdanan Bay on Palawan’s west coast, six or seven miles out of Port Barton, and Acong and I met almost every day for a week. We paddled along the coast and up the hot, airless rivers, he in his bangkß with the double outrigger and I in my kayak. We looked for beehives and monitor lizards and monkeys and snakes — of which there were many, coiled in tree branches. Every now and then Acong would call out, “So, what do you think of my place?”

He meant this coast of Palawan, the whole of it.

I said truthfully that it was one of the best places I had ever been.

But all of that was ahead of me when I landed in Manila, the pleasure of island hopping and camping and congratulating myself that I had come.

The shape of Palawan had fascinated the Spanish too: so long and slender they called it Paragua, because it was shaped like a rolled umbrella. The etymologies of the word Palawan, also the name of one of the indigenous peoples, are various. It means “heroic warrior” in Malay, suggesting a lost mythology. A mountain spine runs down the middle. “Few paved roads,” my guidebook said. That was promising. “Thinly populated.” Even better. “Thousands of uninhabited offshore islands.” That was what did it for me. I set off with some hot-weather clothes, camping equipment, snorkeling gear, and my Klepper single.

I happened to be in Hawaii, an 11-hour flight to Manila. I stopped for the night in the Philippine capital — snake pit — and flew the next day to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan. Strung along one long street of pawnshops and grocery stores and offices, the town was dusty and full of election posters. But no matter: The gunplay (29 voters dead so far) was primarily on Mindanao, across the Sulu Sea. On Palawan, as far as I could see, an election meant flapping posters and free T-shirts with slogans.

The prettily named Puerto Princesa was surprisingly tidy. Instead of cars there were motorized tricycles, part motorbike, part ricksha, 20 U.S. cents a ride. The market was vast and dark and full of dried cuttlefish and wild honey and the cashews that with rice and bananas are one of the island’s cash crops. I had arrived on a Friday — men were praying at the mosque and a mixed crowd at the cathedral sat listening to a priest holding a bilingual service, reading from John, the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The large, youthful congregation looked hungrily hopeful. Walking on I saw a small neglected marker: “A grim reminder of the realities of war.” It went on to say that in December 1944, just in front of the cathedral, soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army forced 154 American prisoners of war into a tunnel, poured gasoline on them, and set them alight; 143 died, 11 escaped. The survivors’ names and hometowns were listed on the plaque.

That massacre and much else in Palawan — its dusty simplicity, its empty mountains, its inaccessible villages, and its indigenous creation myths about the Weaver of the World — made it seem a ghostly place. I had not been there long before I began thinking that there was nowhere else I would rather be and that its air of being haunted only added to my pleasure.

The hauntedness was not merely an aspect of its ambiguous past, its being on the old Spanish and Chinese trade route, the refuge of pirates and scene of wartime cruelty. Off the map and rich in resources, Palawan was the site of a great deal of ecological plunder as well. It was famous for its splendid hardwood forests of mahogany, ipil, narra, and amagong, prized for furniture. The waters were full of fish, and many pods of dugongs — sea cows.

In the 1930s, British loggers began clear-cutting the west coast and giving English names to bays and harbors and islands. Facing west from Port Barton, almost every island and headland you see has an English name, the loggers’ nicknames incorporated onto the American charts. After the Spanish-American War, American administrators and missionaries settled on Palawan. One of their enduring legacies is the large rural prison at Iwahig, about 15 miles west of Puerto Princesa. Several buildings, put up in the 1920s, still stand, including an elegant recreation hall. I rode up on a motorcycle and spent a day there marveling at what enlightened prison management can achieve. Prisoners mix with visitors, and I was shown around by Luis, who was serving seven years on a drug smuggling charge. “A whole jeepney full!” He introduced me to his fellow inmates, all heavily tattooed.

“‘To Trust a Woman Is Death,'” I read aloud from one man’s arm. “You think that’s true, Amado?”

“In my life, yes, Joe.”

The word Sputnik was tattooed on Amado’s belly. Sputnik was a prison protection mob Amado himself had started 29 years ago, when he was imprisoned for murder.

Iwahig, with its 1,500 incarcerated “colonists,” is completely self-sufficient in food. Some revenue is earned by inmates making souvenirs — carvings, walking sticks, furniture — that are sold in Puerto Princesa. Many prisoners are lifers or long-termers — multiple murderers, armed robbers, drug dealers — and some of these, 30 at least, live with their families, their children playing on the parade ground while their inmate-fathers work in the fields. The inmates have not lost their sense of humor. When I passed one work gang on my motorcycle, they called out, “Daddy! Daddy!” — joking that I was their American GI father — and laughed.

After the war swept through Palawan, and the Japanese, and the chaos, more loggers came, most of them illegal, denuding the mountains and driving the indigenous people deeper into the forest. Drought and misery and overfishing in the rest of the Philippines meant an influx of migrants. I saw these people along the coast and at the edges of many islands. “Officially these villages do not exist,” a Dutch geographer told me. “They are not on any census.” They were people from the populous and desperate parts of the Philippines, where marine stocks had been depleted, Luzon, Negros, Mindanao. Fishing people, they created instant villages where the waters teemed with fish.

“They say, ‘When the fish are gone we will leave and go where the fish are,'” said Yasmin Arquiza, editor of the environmental magazine Bandillo ng Palawan. “They always assume there will be another place to go.” When times are tough, some hard-pressed village families pass the hat and stump up an airfare, and one of the young, strong, unmarried girls is chosen to go abroad — to Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, wherever there is work — and send much of her salary back home. But mostly when times get tough, the migrants follow the fish.

It seemed in fact that everyone with status or power or money on Palawan came from somewhere else. Yasmin was from Mindanao. And Puerto Princesa’s mayor, Ed Hagedorn, who was just about to be reelected for his third three-year term, was born on Luzon. The two had little else in common. For her investigative journalism, Yasmin had been the object of the mayor’s scorn, which he had bestowed on her in a open letter to the local newspaper. A self-confessed crook known to have boasted of his shady past, Hagedorn was out campaigning when I arrived. I sought him out immediately.

“Do you know Fernando Poe?” he asked.

“In West Africa?” I said, thinking he meant the island Fernando Po. “Never been there.”

“Fernando Poe the actor,” the mayor said. “He starred in my life story.”

Hagedorn, the movie, dramatized the colorful life of this reformed gun-toting gambling lord. The Bruce Willis of Filipino cinema, Poe bore very little resemblance to Hagedorn, a small, solid man with a chattering laugh, whose head seemed much too large for his body. He talked fast in the growly voice of a chain-smoker.

“I was a bad boy,” he laughed. “I was a mother’s worst fear. I grew up with guns. I hadn’t even reformed when I got married!”

He admitted to gunplay and gambling and confrontations with the military. (“Because they crossed my path. Some died. I never ran away from trouble — but I changed!”) He said he had never been involved in illegal logging, or illegal fishing, or the slaughter of sea cows, but he knew a great deal about these activities. Anyway, he had had a conversion (the high point of the biopic), and the story was that he used his criminally acquired fortune as the controller of an island-wide lotto game called Juedeng to finance his mayoral campaign. The classic example of a poacher turned gamekeeper, Hadegorn was as voluble describing his love of guns as he was about his new career as a green.

“When I took over as mayor there was no law or order,” he told me. “Palawan was a microcosm of the Philippines — economic grief and environmental grief. Illegal logging, gambling, fishing, squatting.” Sea cows were being killed for their oil and their meat, forests were being chainsawed into oblivion, fish were vanishing from the coastal waters, and migrant villages were mushrooming.

In his telling, it was Mayor Hagedorn who single-handedly turned this situation around. With his violent past, he said, “I was not afraid to tackle it. Take the illegal fishermen. We had 2,000 apprehensions in the first year alone.” Others tell a different story and say that Hagedorn is reaping the credit for many people’s efforts, including the charismatic Governor Socrates (who would also be reelected); but the fact is that a place that was going to eco-hell had begun to improve.

For a chance to paddle my boat and go camping while I was in Puerto Princesa, I took a ricksha piled high with my equipment about ten miles north to the Honda Bay boat dock at Santa Lourdes Pier. There I found a boatman, who took me to Pandan Island, where there is a tiny village. I stayed for a few days in my tent, set up my boat, and snorkeled and kayaked my way around the bay islands. Every reef I saw showed signs of serious wreckage — massive collapsed coral walls, the litter of broken antlers and blasted-open brain coral. A broken reef has the look of a boneyard, some chunks leveled by dynamite, others killed with poison.

You hear the words illegal fishing and you think of nets with small interstices, the snatching of protected species, the encroachment on preserves. You don’t think of cyanide or dynamite or shiploads of abused boys living in semislavery, hundreds of them, spending every waking hour in the water smashing the reefs with scrap metal attached to rubber tubes and heavy poles to drive fish into nets. But that’s what occurs here.

Then there is the poison. Diners-out in Hong Kong enjoy choosing their main course by pointing out a fat fish gliding through a restaurant aquarium. Until the 1993 five-year ban on the export of live fish, many of these creatures came from Palawan. Fishermen squirt a cyanide mixture on the coral reef, and when the dazed fish float to the surface they are scooped up and shipped out gasping in barrels. The reef dies. If no cyanide is handy, there’s also the fish-stunning cocktail of air-freshener and so-called urinal candy. But we won’t go into that.

Mayor Hagedorn had set up a “Baywatch” program for monitoring illegal fishing — one of the sentry posts was nearby on Honda Bay’s Snake Island — but with so many miles of unpoliced coast, it was impossible to eliminate the use of dynamite or scrap metal or poison entirely.

And then there’s the threat from tourism. “Palawan is underdeveloped,” Yasmin Arquiza told me. “Ironically, that’s why it’s so nice.” She feared that Palawan would, as she put it, “become a playground for the rich.” Part of it already has: Pamalican Island, one of the northern outliers, already boasts the Amanpulo Resort — one of these trophy hotels that is half obscenity, half joke. The $475 a night is more than most Filipinos earn in three months. Another oversize and unpromising resort is going up on the island of Arrecife in Honda Bay, and I went there in an outrigger pump-boat, bluffed my way through security as “Dr. Theroux,” and made notes on the ridiculous overdevelopment.

So tourism may not be the answer to Palawan’s problems, but it does have an upside: It was partly to attract tourism that Palawan’s politicians went green. It is almost unimaginable that a country with old-growth forests and a small manufacturing base and limited resources would agree to stop logging for the sake of the environment; and it is something that far more prosperous — and forested — countries (the United States, Canada, Brazil, the Congo) would never consider. But that is what the Philippines did when it passed a Palawan logging ban in 1992 — a ban that earned the country several well-deserved awards from the UN, which the mayor fondly listed for me.

Three major timber concessions were given less than a year to wrap up their business. The largest was not far from Acong’s village, at the town of San Vicente, north of Port Barton. While the silted-up estuaries remain, the area’s essential habitat has been preserved, and it is possible to see monkeys and pigs and bearcats and the Palawan peacock-pheasant and many other birds — the red-headed tree babbler, the white-throated bulbul, the shama, the flycatchers — among the tall trees.

That was where I was headed, up to port Barton and Pagdanan Bay for10 days of kayaking. My route from Puerto Princesa had taken me through mountain passes across the island’s spine to the little harbor of Sabang, where boats take off for Port Barton and almost anywhere on the western coast, the boatmen trading Palawan’s execrable roads for smooth runs between harbors. I preferred the west coast over the reputedly pirate-ridden southern province, but the exquisite cluster of islands outside the northern port of El Nido are equally empty and perfect for paddling.

From Sabang, it was a short trip by outrigger up the coast to Port Barton, where I stocked up on provisions in the small settlement’s several grocery stores and hopped in my boat. Pagdanan Bay is large enough to contain 20 islands and islets, among them the huge Boayan in the northwest, with a number of empty beaches to camp on. Many of the islands are deserted, some privately owned (“No Trespassing”), others settled by migrants.

One of the advantages of camping in the hot season on Palawan — it was late April and had not rained since December — was that out on the bay mosquitoes were almost nonexistent. But the heat was terrific — in the high nineties most days, in the high eighties at night. I estimated that I would need four or more liters of water on paddling days, and as no fresh water was available on the empty islands, I went ashore or back to Port Barton every few days to fill up.

Setting out in the yellow-pink of the tropical dawn I paddled through still air thick with gnats, the mirror of the sea a flawless reflection of deep green mainland and high outer islands and rocky islets that had no names. There was hardly any wind until mid-morning, and I crossed a sea so smooth in air so silent that the only sound was the chuckle of the bow wave and the rattle of passing kingfishers. The winds were predictable in my first week, freshening through the morning and blowing hard in the afternoon. By mid-afternoon I was supine in the shade of a palm grove, reading Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and studying the chart for tomorrow’s destination. There was always another island.

The shock of my second week of paddling was the sight of ink-black clouds, the first of the monsoon, looming in the afternoon. The air and water were deranged: The day went dark, there were cannonades of thunder, and often a spatter of windblown rain and a very stiff wind from an odd and vacillating direction. One day the wind veered from west to east. Another I was caught unprepared and had to surf my kayak through three- and four-foot waves to the nearest island. When I didn’t see any fishermen, I took it as a sign to stay ashore.

Most days, though, the sun was the strongest I have ever known over a sea, invariably burning down from a clear sky, dazzling on the water and shriveling the leaves on land. The sun was like a weight on my head and shoulders, and I calculated my island crossings in liters per mile. The reward for thrashing through the water on these hot clear days was the sight of a green sea turtle craning its neck or the flight of a dozen flying fish strafing my bow. Now and then I noticed the swift shadow of a ray flashing just below the surface of the water, startling the fish.

Paddling one day about ten miles southwest to a headland, I caught sight of an island that had been hidden from my campsite — a new hump of rock where I saw a sandy beach and some huts. A Germanic-looking man in a green bathing suit stood on the beach to welcome me. “Hi,” he said and grabbed my bow line and helped pull my boat to shore.

“Nice kayak,” he said. It was salt-smeared and wet from the long haul from the headland. “Isn’t that the kind of boat Paul Theroux paddled in his travels around the Pacific?”

Being cautious, I said, “You read that book?”

“Oh, yeah. Great book.”

This happens now and then — more often in a remote place like Palawan than in places closer to home.

“I wrote it.”

“Cut the shit.”

Pretty soon we were sitting under a palm tree, swapping traveler’s tales. He was Charlie Kregle and had left a good job in Chicago three years before to ramble around the world. Such was the state of the stock market that even when he was traveling third-class on an Indonesian ferry or an overcrowded jeepney on Mindanao, he had been earning steadily.

Like the stories of many independent travelers I had met, his were vastly more colorful and complex than most I had read: He had traveled in Brazil and Southeast Asia. He had crossed Africa, walking much of the way. His life had been on the line many times, and he had experienced the worst of travel, which is not danger but weeks of excruciatingly inconvenient delay. I liked his judgments on places, epitomized by his summary of Equatorial Guinea: “Great place. Anarchic, though. Not ready for prime time.” He traveled on a shoestring, and from time to time, when he was in a place that sold newspapers, he checked the stock quotes and saw that he was worth much more than the last time he had looked.

He laughed when I told him I knew nothing about the stock market and had no investments.

“What about your 401(k)?”


“Why?” he said. “Are you planning to die soon?”

Coming from a young man in a bathing suit living in a hut on a small island off Palawan, a man whose entire earthly goods fit into a modest-size rucksack, this investment sarcasm seemed odd. A little while later, still interrogating him, I asked him to tell me the most amazing thing that had happened to him in the Philippines and he looked at me and my boat and said, “This!”

It was the next day that i met acong. i paddled back from Kregle’s island around mid-afternoon the day before, but an offshore wind had sprung up and it took me almost four hours to get back to my tent. In the morning I was surprised to see a woman holding a yellow umbrella seated in a canoe paddled by three men. The canoe glided onto what I thought of as my beach, and the woman got out, her umbrella upright and stately as she proceeded down the beach. That was how I discovered that I shared this island with a small hidden village.

Looking for a new island, I ran across Acong. He was fishing on the reef, and with his shirt wrapped and folded neatly around his head against the heat, he looked like an Egyptian sitting cross-legged in his canoe. He had learned English at school but had dropped out “in elementary.” He used his boat for fishing and for transporting the rattan and coconuts he collected to use as currency. It was too small for taking people out to the islands.

“Those people are from the Visayas,” he said of the village on my island. He said it with a trace of bitterness, because it was nonregulated immigration. Many Palawe±os told me that squatting was the cause of many land disputes. Yasmin Arquiza had said, “Tribal people here had no homestead patents.” Instead of awarding land titles to protect them, the government merely gave them priority when it handed out concessions for rattan and almaciga, or copal, a resin used in varnish. The indigenous people had rights to the concession and could earn from it.

I told Acong that I was looking for a new campsite on an empty island, and he pointed me to the perfect spot — a hidden cove, a sandy beach, a coral reef that had not been dynamited or poisoned. In the coming days, I followed Acong’s narrow outrigger through shallow water and up silted-up rivers and around the jutting coral heads of the remote parts of the great bay.

We traveled up the Togdunan, a narrow tributary of the Darapiton, the largest river emptying into the bay. The rivers were muddy, narrow, humid, buggy, and the deeper we went the more shadowy they became, overhung with a tunnel of boughs. In itself the inconvenience of such branches is minor, but coiled on many of these branches were snakes, thick yellow-and-black five-footers Acong called binturan. Strung across other branches were spiderwebs with hairy, deep-green, claw-shaped spiders clinging at the level of my face.

“The snakes will not trouble you if you do not trouble them,” Acong said.

After a few miles on the tributary we came to an obstruction — a tree lying across the river. Acong was surprised and cautioned: It was not the custom for the people here to block the rivers. It was well known that the Tagbanua and Pala’wan and Batak peoples had no traditional concept of land ownership. Like many indigenous people they did not buy or sell land, because they could not separate themselves from the land: It would be perverse to sell it, something like an amputation. This barrier was a grotesque novelty, obviously brought about by all the encroachment and the new settlers.

“We could slide our boats over the log,” I said. But I was just needling him, to see what he would say.

“No. We stop here.”

Even though these people were of his own language group, he felt it was a bad idea to go farther. We might be misunderstood.

On the way back Acong told me about the loggers, and how ships from Japan had been moored for years just offshore to pick up the big apitung logs, and how the logging coincided with the mud and the rivers and river-mouths were not deep anymore.

He told me about the word banua, which interested me with its similarities to the Fiji word vanua, “land” (as in Vanua Levu, the name of Fiji’s second-largest island). Banua meant “land,” Acong said; Tagbanua, “people of the land.” I had made it a habit to compile word lists whenever I was in a remote Pacific place, to assess the linguistic relationships among islanders who dispersed the Austronesian language over thousands of nautical miles and thousands of years. I asked Acong the words for various numbers and for big, small, dog, fish, canoe, house, moon, water, and so forth; and I discovered that many Tagbanua words were cognate with ones from Sulawesi, and others straight from Malay — ikan, for “fish,” lima for “five,” and mata for “eye” (as in Mata Hari, “Eye of the Day”).

Some days, when it was much too hot to go paddling, there was little else to do except sit under a palm tree and interrogate Acong and his extended family. These people were settled, but some Tagbanua in the north were nomadic.

The other indigenous people of Palawan lived in the interior — the Batak on the slopes of the central mountain chain, the Palawan people farther south. One guidebook reports, “The Tau’t Batu in the south of Palawan were only discovered in 1978.” This story of the Stone People (and batu for “stone” is another Malay cognate) is not quite true. It is fact that these people keep to themselves and live in caves and in a bowl-shaped valley on the slopes of Palawan’s highest peak, 6,839-foot Mount Mantalingajan. But this recent first contact was one of several hoaxes attributed to a minister in the Marcos regime, one “Manda” Elizalde, who, the story goes, tried to gain international prominence by pretending to discover hidden (“Stone Age”) peoples in the Philippine hinterland. The Tasaday People near Lake Sebu in south Mindanao were another of his “discoveries”. This can be put down to a Filipino variation of Munchausen syndrome, attention-seeking by the retailing of tall stories.

But it is indisputable that many indigenous people on Palawan still subsist by traditional means — hunting wild pigs with spears and blowguns, feasting on flying squirrels, and snaring fish in lovely woven traps. And they lament the day that Palawan’s resources began to be stripped away by non-Palawe±os, its fish to Japanese factory ships and canneries and Hong Kong restaurant aquariums, its trees to chairs and chopsticks.

Palawan had been on the brink of devastation. Its fall had been arrested. Much of the island was still wild, and I prayed that it would remain so. In the course of 10 days’ paddling I made a circuit of a dozen Pagdanan islands and camped on three of them, island-hopping northwest to the largest one, Boayan. It was on my return, one very hot night, on the uninhabited Double Island that I found myself lying in my mosquito-net tent, the moon bathing the island and the treetops I could see in a lunar fluorescence. There was no wind. I had achieved the ultimate in fresh-air fiendishness. I was flat on my back. I thought, I am a monkey, and — lying there fulfilled, content, stark naked, alone — I was happy.

But I also thought, It is in the remote and vulnerable places like Palawan that you understand the effect of the wealthier world’s cynical hunt for lumber and fish. It is reassuring to know that Palawan has begun to understand how rich it is.