Attack Decay Sustain Release, Photographs

This must be the place

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 PhilippinesCamp 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.

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Journal

Time may change me

Sometimes my depressive phases are really obvious, but sometimes they creep up on me slowly and I don’t realise I’m in them until I assess the state of my room. I really like having things neat and organised, so it starts to become painfully clear to me that something is actually wrong when everything is a mess.

When my purses are piling up on the couch, along with press kits and other stuff that’s been sent to me; when there’s no space for my laptop on my desk because it’s covered in old receipts, junk mail, and all manner of things that really don’t belong there (six tubes of lipstick and five pairs of sunglasses, really?); when my makeup brushes haven’t been washed in weeks and my dresser looks like I tried to channel my inner Pollock with makeup products. Something is wrong.

But I’m at that point in my life with clinical depression where I mostly know how to handle it, and know how to pull myself back into regular function — a skill I’m grateful to have learned. And for me, part of that is cleaning up my space. I feel like the space surrounding you is reflective of what’s going on inside you. I need to clean in order to decompress and declutter my own mind and emotions. And I find it is much easier to motivate myself when I’m in an organised space. So I clean.

It’s something I also like to do close to the end of the year; a clean slate to herald a fresh start. I know New Year is no different from any other day ending and another one beginning, but these rituals are more for the mind than they are for anything else. There is so much power in symbolism.

My room was a mess, and the year is ending, so this go round, I hit two birds with one stone.


I always find things I forgot about in the process of cleaning, and one of the things I came across this time was my Traveller’s Notebook — my bullet journal. I’ve been trying to keep one since late 2016, but I never quite manage to make it through an entire year despite my best efforts. I think that’s probably because I’m a freelance writer working from home. I don’t really do much that necessitates writing things down, even if it is only in list form. And for the longest time, I wasn’t even writing, so I was just sad, funemployed, and living in pyjamas; the last thing I needed at the time was a reminder of how utterly useless I was as a human being, in the form of a very empty agenda notebook.

I think I might try again this year. Things feel different. In a good way.

The Midori Traveller’s Notebook is beloved for how customisable it is. You fill the empty leather cover with the inserts you feel are relevant to your needs. Mine has a grid notebook insert that I use for bullet journalling (three months per insert, then I switch to a new one), a plastic zip pocket in which I keep my writing tools, a cardboard folder for inserting papers that I feel like I need to keep, a ruled notebook insert for evergreen things like important lists and recipes, and a plain notebook insert for notes, meeting minutes, and scratch.

On the very first page of the ruled notebook, I found this list I actually forgot about, that I wrote at the end of 2017:

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Attack Decay Sustain Release

The ghost of you

Published on 2 November 2019 in the Philippine STAR.


For all that Halloween is my favourite holiday, I have never been a fan of horror. When forced to watch horror films or series, I unapologetically spend the entire duration with my hands over my eyes. I scream along with every audio cue even though I can’t even see the jump scares; a waste of money at the cinema, a source of amusement during the Netflix segment of Netflix and chill. I don’t care how good The Haunting of Hill House is. I am not watching it.

But hot on the heels of All Hallows’ Eve and All Souls Day, I’ve been thinking a lot about ghosts. Real ghosts, the kinds of ghosts that truly haunt you.

Haunting, by definition isn’t actually necessarily scary. Haunting is about frequency. You refer to a place as a haunt when you’re there often. Haunting is a recurring manifestation, it’s something that keeps appearing to you. But also, haunting is about persistence and presence, perhaps a little unwelcome or unwanted.

What are the things that haunt us? How are we haunted?

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