As late afternoon approached, our captain Carias and guide Felix steered the bangka – Crosswind II – towards a tiny beach. The requisite palm trees stood sentinel a little back from a shoreline littered with leaves. But they needn’t have troubled themselves. A pack of scruffy mongrels, clearly considering the beach’s sanctity their responsibility, tore towards us as Felix and Carias tethered the boat securely and passed us our bags – not giving up their vociferous anti-welcome until a tousle-haired man emerged waving lazily from one of the shacks and called them off.
After our first of three days of languorous hopping between the islands of the Bacuit archipelago – each as beautiful and as different from the last as the shells that now filled the sea-salt-stiff pockets of my shorts – I was completely disoriented, with no sense of where we were in relation to our starting point of the small town of El Nido.
Felix turned me back to face the seafront and pointed his left hand at a diagonal. “There. See, we have come round in a circle. Here we are on the mainland.” The idea that Palawan, itself one of the 7000-odd islands that make up the Philippines, was ‘mainland’ made me smile. For nineteen-year-old Felix, who had never been further than Palawan’s capital Puerta Princesa, this was as mainland as things got.
But never had a person been more perfectly adapted to their environment than Felix. Earlier in the day, he had dived from the moving boat straight into the water and swum fifty metres in pursuit of a blowaway T-shirt. He had scaled the craggy interiors of caves, seeming to balance on rocks the size of a coin with only fingertips and toes, and laughing at our clumsy attempts to follow. “I wanna be a billionaire,” he sang on loop all day, as he coaxed the bangka’s engine back to life or did hand-stands on the beach.
We set ourselves up in one of the nipa huts, the grinning boys adorning each of our camp-bed pillows with an orchid. Afterwards, they drew furrows in the sand with their fingertips and raced tiny hermit crabs, each encouraging his with shrill whistles, the winner rewarded with a swig of Tanduay rum. Or maybe it was the loser. It was hard to tell.
The darkness was sudden and complete. We ate our feast – crabs the boys had bought in a village earlier, served with rice, tangy, calamansi-enlivened salad and tropical fruits – by the light of one flickering paraffin lamp and our head-torch. Afterwards, our hands were sticky with crab-juice and, we would discover in the daylight, covered with tiny cuts from hacking into the shells with our spoons.
We sat in the quiet, sipping San Miguel beers and watching Felix – who had appropriated the head torch – whittle away at palm leaves to make beautiful origami-style creations of birds and crickets, affixing them to long strips of leaf so that they bobbed and hovered like the real things. The fireflies glimmered by with flashes of surprisingly electric green.
The night was surreal. My dreams were only slightly stranger. I kept being woken by the dogs wandering in and out, taking shelter from what sounded like torrential rain – but the next morning the beach was dry. Still, the wind that had begun to pick up towards the end of the scorching previous day was now making its presence felt in earnest, and every now and then, a spattering of rain drops speckled the sand. We swung on the hammocks, wearing raincoats over swimming gear, and watching the grey peaks that detained us gather on the surface of the water. Crosswind II rocked on the waves, her outriggers plunging improbably deep in the foam.
Thinking, perhaps, that we were eager to be off, Felix leant against the beams of one of the huts and nonchalantly regaled us with tales of shipwrecks and drownings. Only a few weeks before, a group he had been leading had to swim to safety after their boat sank. The passengers were all fine, but the bags were lost.
In the hammock, a palm-leaf fish swam aimlessly in front of my nose. Itineraries and schedules seemed remote. Reality belonged to someone else.
I woke to hear my name being called. One of the dogs was curled up asleep beside me. The water was calmer; the sunlight glittered wanly on its surface. The boys were loading up the bangka and hundreds more islands awaited us. I felt a pang of regret that had nothing to do with morbid fears of a watery death.
“I wanna be a billionaire,” Felix sang, as he offered me a hand back onto the boat. But I suspect he knew he already had it all.