I was sipping rum with mango and pineapple juice when Paul
told me the news. “Twenty people were kidnapped from
a resort on Palawan today,” he reported. “But
don’t worry – Dennis has a gun.”
Dennis was the co-owner of the only resort on the island
in the Philippines where we were staying, North Pandan Island.
There were no TVs or phones on Pandan,
and newspapers came several days late, but the news spread
quickly among the resort’s guests. Contingency plans
for a kidnapping attempt ranged from grabbing SCUBA gear from
the dive shop and heading into the sea, to scrambling over
the trail to Spanish Nose on the far side of the island.
But let me back up.
My then-boyfriend (now husband) Bryan and I had landed in
Manila several weeks earlier. After spending a year teaching
English in Taiwan, where conformity is prized, the exuberant
individualism of the Philippines was refreshing. Brightly
colored Jeepneys – a sort of half-jeep, half converted
lowrider bus –showcased signs like “Big Boy”
and sported Playboy stickers alongside Madonnas. Random signs
along the highway proclaimed “Go Go Philippines!”
or “SMB – Summer Means Beer,” an ad for
San Miguel Beer, the national beer of the Philippines.
Getting to North Pandan Island was challenging but fun. We
had been exploring the northern section of Mindoro Island
and had to charter a banca, or pumpboat, to take us to Abra
de Ilog since there are no roads between there and Puerto
Galera. The owner of the boat was Lodi, a hilarious local
who announced as we boarded, “Like your home! You are
my father, you are my mother and I am your son.” Lodi
ended up dropping us off on a deserted beach and telling us
to walk around the island to the town where a bus would take
us to Sablayan. It took a tremendous leap of faith to get
off the boat, but sure enough, after about 15 minutes we emerged
onto a crowded beach, where amused locals urged us, in English,
to go swimming before cracking jokes in Tagalog, the local
The four-hour bus ride to Sablayan involved several river
crossings where young people hooted and hollered and older
women laughed and winked at us. In Sablayan, we chartered
a barely watertight boat to take us on a short trip to North
The place was low-key – a backpacker’s paradise.
We splurged for a $20 bungalow on the beach, then copied the
other island residents and put away our shoes. I took a saltwater
shower, then doused myself with freshwater from the bucket
provided. It was over dinner in the open-air dining hall that
Paul, a retired Naval officer who supplemented his income
by taking Japanese tourists on Hawaiian dive trips to feed
hot dogs to tropical fish, told us about the abductions on
nearby Palawan Island.
Paul’s escape plan was to grab his dive gear and head
out. “There’s no way they’d stop to pick
me up,” he reasoned. After he wandered off to the bar,
Bryan told me we should run into the jungle if we heard voices
in the night. I told him I didn’t want the money we’d
saved working in Taiwan to be used for ransom and that we
should consider leaving.
We didn’t, but within a few days, all of the other
guests did. It was late May, and the tourist low season runs
from June to October, but we couldn’t help but feel
the kidnapping threat had something to do with the departures.
One way or another, it was a great place to have to ourselves.
Days were spent swimming and diving. There are more than
500 types of coral in the Philippines, and I only could identify
three of them, so the coral gardens looked like food: crispy
noodles, caramel corn, cabbage, fungus. Lionfish hung like
ornaments in a hollow log, and anemone fish darted at our
masks. One day we surprised an ancient turtle. “They’re
from another time, those turtles,” Anya, a resident
dive instructor, said afterward in a thick German accent.
“They always look at you like, ‘What are you doing
here, you tourist?’”
Evening clouds provided a brilliant backdrop for the sunsets.
Bryan and I would walk around the island until we could see
the sun dropping into the ocean while yellow flashes in the
core of a pink thundercloud sparked lavender tentacles of
lightning. Before dinner, we’d drink a few beers with
some resident Filipinos, who taught me some Tagalog –
“mabuhay” means “thank you,” and “mahal”
At night, the fireflies came out with the stars – which
included the Southern Cross and the Big Dipper – as
Estrada, a lizard that lives in the thatch roof of the bar,
clucked over the crooning of Tom Jones, a Filipino favorite.
We’d swim in the dark water and watch bioluminescence
swirl around our moving limbs before slipping under the mosquito
nets for deep sleep.
For some reason, I stopped worrying about being kidnapped.
– Jen Reeder