It’s a testament to how much I love my new flat that I was actually excited to go home to it after my three weeks in Italy and Austria; my first trip to Europe since 2019. Usually I’d already be depressed on the plane ride home, and then I’d get even sadder upon settling back into my bedroom in my parents’ house. It used to take me a while to unpack my suitcase because a part of me still wanted to hold on to the idea of being away, and I’d always have this sense of ‘I wish I were anywhere else,’ which really meant ‘I wish I were back in Berlin instead.’
I think what I enjoyed most about my summers away from home was the freedom. Initially it was the freedom of anonymity, of being away from Manila in a place where no one knew who I was and no one cared. It was the most liberating feeling, especially for someone who grew up sheltered, from a family background that taught her early on to be hyper-aware of herself. In Manila, I had a curfew until I was 28. In Berlin, I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and no one was ever watching.
Then I realised it was also the freedom of being alone in my own space. I’m an introvert and a homebody at heart; I loved having a place that was just mine, if only for a little while. I loved the ‘tedium’ of cooking and cleaning; I never actually thought it was particularly tedious. I still really enjoy going to the supermarket and doing the dishes. I loved knowing I could close the door behind me and just switch off.
For the first time in my life, I have that in Manila now, too.
I moved into my own flat — finally — at the end of February this year after a long and challenging renovation process, and it really is such a dream home. I always knew I wanted to write about the process upon its completion. It’s about 97% of the way, I figure that’s close enough.
If you’re reading this, then you probably already know I really enjoy telling an absurdly long-winded story, so you also already know what to expect, haha.
And I know a bunch of you have been waiting for the photos, so maybe scroll to the end for that.
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
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
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.
Every 27 to 29 years or so, the planet Saturn will have made a complete revolution around the Sun, placing it in the same position that it was in when you were born. This is called Saturn Return — a tumultuous time in your life when you start to get existential crises, when major upheavals begin happening all at once, disrupting the life you were already living, that you thought you were happy with. It will make you doubt yourself. It will force you to reassess every single choice you’ve ever made over the years, everything that’s turned you into the person you are today, and make you wonder if you might have gone wrong somewhere.
Saturn Return will put you through mental and emotional hell, and after this approximately three-year period, there are two ways you can come out of it.
The first possibility is that soldiering through so many trials will cement your current path, whatever that path is. Making it through the struggle is what proves to you beyond the shadow of a doubt that this is who you are, this is what you want to do, this is your life. And this certainty, this clarity, this comfort, you fought hard for it, and it’s what will light the fire in you that will keep you going. You were right all along, so you can throw yourself completely into your life, confident in that knowledge.
Because in contrast, the second possibility is that all of the questioning and self-doubt will bring you to the realization that you don’t want the life you’re living anymore. The person you are now isn’t the person you want to be — it’s the person you thought you wanted to be. The dreams you used to dream aren’t the same any longer. And this is understandably terrifying because you’ve spent the better part of your youth working towards becoming who you are, only to discover that it doesn’t feel right, and you don’t know what does.
All you know for sure is that you need a change. You’re on the brink of 30, and instead of finding security like you thought you would, everything has fallen apart. Suddenly you have to figure out who you’re supposed to be. And then you have to put that person together somehow.