Published on 17 November 2019 in the Philippine STAR. Most photos by Terence Angsioco and Raúl Cerezo, with a beautiful moonrise by Nicolas Geysens and a few of my own (or Valerie’s, haha).
The right place keeps finding me at exactly the right time.
When I confirmed my attendance to a friend and business partner’s super random 30th birthday weekend at Tao Philippines’ Camp Ngey Ngey in 2017, I had no idea that it would change my life. I was two months fresh off a devastating breakup, my plans to move to Berlin (that I’d been working on for half a year) went up in flames, and I was stuck in the Philippines with no idea what I would do next. So I told myself then that what I would do was to say yes to everything that came my way and see if anything stuck.
I wanted to find something — anything — that would help me reconnect with the Philippines and find a place here again. I wanted to find a reason to love it. I figured the odds of finding that something grew significantly the more I put myself out there and tried new things, met new people, and got myself into interesting and unlikely situations. A weekend on a private island in Coron sounded like just the thing to tick all three boxes.
Truly, there is nothing to write about Tao Philippines and its trailblazing founders Edi Agamos Brock and Jack Foottit that hasn’t already been written over the years since it was founded in 2006. It’s what tourism should be — a real immersion into the life, culture, and community of the places that you visit, a social enterprise that gives back to those same communities and helps them flourish and grow. An incredible journey, the authentic experience of a lifetime.
At least that’s what I’ve been told by my friends who have been on one of their expeditions. I’ve known Edi and Jack since I met them in a Berlin club in 2016 and I still haven’t been on one. (Perhaps 2020 is finally my year.)
But if the Camp Ngey Ngey experience is anything to go by, the expeditions must be truly special. Because I say this often, but I really believe that Camp Ngey Ngey saved my life.
I’ve written these exact words before, but since they’re still true, I’ll write them again: I don’t know what it is about Camp Ngey Ngey that makes it so amazing, and I don’t think I’d be able to explain the magic of it if I tried.
It’s the closest thing Tao has to a resort, but the furthest thing from a resort that there could possibly be. Guests sleep in bamboo huts called tuka huts that are equipped with a mattress, a pillow, mosquito netting, and lights and an overhead electric fan that only switch on when the power on the island switches on — from (I think) 5 p.m. to 8 in the morning, maybe sunrise. Showers and toilets are shared by everyone, and you have to bring your own towel.
Meals are served by the Lost Boys of Tao three times a day in the Ngey Kusina, family-style. You’ll know it’s time to eat because one of them will blow a shell horn to call everyone to gather, and you will come running because it’s some of the best island food you’ll ever eat. Catch-of-the-day, homegrown vegetables freshly harvested from the Tao Farm; we’ve been going back to Ngey Ngey every year since 2017 and we always look forward to the food. (My favourite: the freshest fish filleted into sashimi right in front of us, an appetizer.)
Tao’s structures never stick out or look out of place on the island; they only serve to enhance its natural beauty. Everything is built sustainably, with an aesthetic that feels natural and random, as though it just gradually happened over time. Which is exactly the case.
Apart from mealtimes and the parties that we throw in the evenings (a special privilege since we’re fortunate enough to be allowed to book the whole island), island time is free time. Some people will lounge on the beach, some will snorkel, kayak, or paddleboard, some will play a game of beach volleyball (and sometimes the Lost Boys of Tao join in — the wonderful humans of Tao become our lifelong friends, too), some play chess by the bar or gather in the Kusina to play card games or board games, some read books in the hammocks under the awnings of the Yoly House (one of the spaces on the island where people gather).
There is no WiFi and the cellular signal isn’t spectacular, so people inevitably end up gathering in different permutations and actually get to know each other, have real conversations. Hardly anyone is touching a phone, except maybe to take a photo or play some music. Everyone is disconnected from the real world and from their regular lives, and the island serves to connect them to each other, to nature, and to themselves. It is so simple, really, but that’s what makes it so special.
When I first went there in 2017, I was friends with maybe two or three of the 35 or so people that my friend Mikhail invited for his birthday. I was acquainted with perhaps several more, but didn’t know them very well. Everyone else was a stranger. We left Ngey Ngey three days later as real friends, taking that island bond back to Metro Manila. And we went back later that same year to throw a Halloween party on the island, cementing that bond even further.
I went from having nothing holding me to the Philippines, to suddenly having so much love and light in my life, and I really feel like the island gave that to me. It made me love my life in this country again, something I never thought would happen. I keep saying this to people, and it sounds really woo-woo, but I believe that the island just knows. If you set foot on it with an open mind and an open heart, it will recognize that and give you all the things you didn’t know you were looking for. It always seems to understand just what I need every time I visit, and it delivers its gifts in abundance with such generosity.
If you go there and take nothing back from the experience, it’s probably because you were unworthy of it. I think the island can tell.
It’s 2019 and I still see almost all of the friends I made on the island on a weekly basis. They have become permanent fixtures in my life, and I am so grateful. We’ve returned to Ngey Ngey thrice since that first trip, with our most recent visit just two weeks ago; arguably the most special one yet.
Fifty people from all over the world flew in for all sorts of reasons. Many flew in to attend the fake wedding we were throwing for our friends Jess and Sam — they were married two months previous in Sardegna and uninvited all of us, so we wanted to throw them a wedding that we could all attend. Some were friends of friends who’d heard about the island and wanted to experience it for themselves. Some were friends who finally managed to score an invitation this year. But most of us had already been there before, and would never miss an opportunity to go back.
As with every visit, our guests who were DJs (UNKNWN’s Mikhail Schemm and Emel Rowe, Elephant’s Adrianne Flores, and Arnold van Opstal) blessed us with fantastic music from sunset to sunrise every evening. This year’s main event was a crazy Halloween party, like we did in 2017, with some truly spectacular — and hilarious! — costumes that lit up the dance floor.
But it was the wedding on Sunday afternoon that highlighted the island’s real magic. It just seemed right, to celebrate a union in the place that brought most of us together in the first place. It felt like coming full circle — a celebration, not just of Jess and Sam’s love, but of all our love for each other.
It wasn’t a real wedding, of course — it was presided over by a completely unqualified Mikhail dressed in a custom TOQA ‘tropical high priest’ robe, brandishing a giant wooden spoon — but it certainly felt real. From the pagoda decorated by the bridesmaids, to the live guitar performed by one of the bride’s best friends from Italy, to the vows that were written by the couple’s friends (one that got a lot of laughs, that English Sam had to reluctantly swear to Italian Jess: “I promise to support Italy whenever they play against England”), to the final, real vows from the couple themselves, it was personal, funny, heartfelt, and full of love and affection. It was everything a wedding should be.
And after the brief ceremony, we all looked out towards the horizon at Ngey Ngey’s wedding gift: a beautiful rainbow.
Ngey Ngey will always be one of my favourite places in the world. Sometimes I wonder if the way I feel for it is something unique to me. Maybe I just have too many feelings. Maybe I’m just extra sentimental. But every time those of us who have been there talk about the place, the feelings are all the same. The circumstances may be different. But the way the island has moved us all is universal.
I’m already planning our trip in 2020. I’m beginning to think once a year isn’t enough. I can’t wait.