Philippines Digital Detox: No Phone, No Bathrooms, Plenty of Stars

Stargazing takes on a whole new dimension in the remote islands of the Philippines.
Stargazing takes on a whole new dimension in the remote islands of the Philippines.

The Philippines, Robinson Crusoe style

By Zarina Hora

My husband and I booked a sailing expedition in the Philippines on a boat without running water or flushing toilets.

Paraw- a traditional, Filipino Sailboat. Zarina Hora photos.
Paraw- a traditional, Filipino Sailboat. Zarina Hora photos.

But I wasn’t going to let a little pesky detail like running water get in my way of a possible adventure. We found a unique company that does expeditions on a native Filipino, wooden sailboat called a Paraw.

What better way to explore the hundreds of islands that the Philippines has to offer? The expedition would take us from El Nido to Coron, in Palawan. Palawan is a remote archipelagic province in between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea.

Before we left, my husband warned me, “remember, this is a beach vacation. You have to relax.” Full disclosure: sometimes beach vacations with unstructured time and without a list of things to do scare me.

The captain of the boat with his Jack Russell terrier.
The captain of the boat with his Jack Russell terrier.

This is probably because I’m an attorney and live my life on the billable hour. My time is accounted for up to the minute. Literally. There is an unfortunate status symbol in always being “busy” even if the busyness is self-created and unnecessary.

It almost seems that in my world, people who work longer hours are perceived be more important and successful.

I wholeheartedly think this is not a healthy way to live and long ago realized the importance of vacations so I travel any chance I can.

Yet, I knew I would have a hard time unwinding and turning off my monkey brain…or so I thought.

Getting there

When I told people we were going to the Philippines, everyone asked, “Why?”

Sailing past one of the many cliffs in the Philippines remote islands.
Sailing past one of the many cliffs in the Philippines remote islands.

Well, the Philippines has one of the world’s largest archipelagos making it the ultimate place for SCUBA, snorkeling and walking on beaches where you may not run into anyone for miles.

It’s been said that the Philipines is what Thailand must have been like twenty years ago because it is still largely untouched by mass development. Tall limestone cliffs without tall, skyscraper hotels. Cheap. Rugged. Pristine. Leo’s scene from the movie, The Beach, paled in comparison to Palawan.

The bathroom.
The bathroom.

Although infinitely worth it, getting to Palawan is not easy. After you fly into Manila, you have to take a 40-seater plane that takes off from a random, isolated part of the Manilla Airport.

Their boarding passes were made out of wood. The plane was late but I enjoyed pineapple and Filipino soft cookies while I waited. We then landed on an island that had a grassy, sandy path for a runway.

From there, it was a tuk-tuk followed by a two-hour van ride to the city of El Nido. The van was 40 minutes late and crowded with native islanders and backpackers. We barely fit. Amazingly, along the route, the driver attached two more removable seats to the end of one of the van rows and picked up another three people from unmarked bus stops on the side of the road.

It was a full day of Planes, Trains…er tuk-tuks, and Automobiles for everyone and I could smell the sweat coming off the bodies next to me. Although the plane and van were late and wasted my “precious” time, I wasn’t shaken.

We were about to play Robinson Crusoe for the next 5 days.

Island Time

The sailboat spanned 75 feet and was made out of rickety wood. Our Captain’s head was framed with a halo of dreadlocks. He brought his dog Amo, a spunky Jack Russell, along for the trip.

I envied our captain from the start because he obviously didn’t see the need to value time as much as I did.

I enjoy my job but when you think about it, it was ludicrous that I account for my time on an hourly basis when this guy just sails and lets the weather and sea currents determine his daily plans.

It was clear from the first moment we got on the sailboat that we were on island time, where time is more of a suggestion than a strict rule. Forget about the billable hour– we didn’t even really consider the normal hour.

No one had a watch, there were no clocks and I didn’t check my phone once because I couldn’t be bothered to use my solar charger. There was no strict agenda or itinerary. This wasn’t a tour.

This was a complete digital detox to some of the most remote islands of the World. Time was determined by the sunrise, sunset and the crowing of roosters. And to my surprise, I found myself completely ok with that.

The Captain and crew steered the ship based on a loose itinerary with no time enforcement of when we needed to meet up after we explored and swam. We all intuitively knew when it was time to take off to the next spot. We spent days sailing to island after island; exploring sea caves, lagoons, and reefs.

The water would change from deep emerald green to midnight blue, to clear turquoise depending on the depth, like a mood ring. Except the only moods available were fun, relaxation and adventure.

Our Accommodations

One of the many remote beaches so easy to access with the small boat.
One of the many remote beaches so easy to access with the small boat.

At night, we would anchor and sleep on beaches in open air huts set in rocks or trees, with zero privacy. The huts were nothing more than a roof made out of banana leaves and bamboo.

We were instructed on how to properly hang up mosquito nets. We were truly living the life of the Swiss Family Robinson. No emails. No clients. No billing. No problem!

Some nights we slept set up camp in sparsely populated fishing villages. Kids curiously would peak out of their huts and give you gummy grins with missing teeth.

I took my shower at one of these villages by pulling up a bucket of water from a communal well and dumping it over my head. No flat ironing my hair on this trip.

Most nights were spent on deserted beaches. There were outdoor showers made of bamboo leaves. There was a big water drum that collected rain and a tiny water bucket.

You used the smaller bucket to scoop water out of the tank and showered with rocks under your feet and stars overhead. If you want to feel at one with nature, try showering outside in the nude.

A makeshift bedroom on a beach for the night.
A makeshift bedroom on a beach for the night.

The bathroom situation was a little less romantic. There was a bucket flush toilet on the boat that was simple but always clean. A bucket flush is where you pour a bucket of water quickly down the toilet and the force of the water “flushes” everything down.

The bathrooms in the base camps had no sinks and no running water. Essentially, the bathroom was a toilet bowl placed on top of a hole and were also flushed by using a bucket.

Oddly, the toilets had no seats- just the porcelain bowls. Flashback to those times when I would stumble into the bathroom at home in the middle of the night and fall into the toilet as a result of my husband leaving the seat up.

Why toilet bowls with the seats taken off, I’ll never know.

The highlight of our expedition was swimming at midnight when the water was lit with bioluminescent algae. Everyone else was sleeping and my husband and I took a swim where the moon was barely shining. When we waved our arms beneath the water everything would light up because of the special glow in the dark algae.

Seeing the Milky Way

I floated on my back surrounded by neon light and saw the Milky Way for the first time. Was I in a movie? If you want to feel alive- go swimming in the ocean at night.

As someone who needs to usually know what the next step and is afraid of unknowns, swimming when you can’t see what is beneath your feet or what looms out in the distance is not something you’d think I would be up for. But it was one of the most romantic, relaxing moments in my life.

What was about Palawan and this expedition that made it so easy to forget about schedules, deadlines and time? For what seemed like the first time in ages, relaxation came easy to me and the idea of living my life on a strict schedule seemed foreign.

Like a renewed person, I realized that time is best measured by just being in the present. Or perhaps I didn’t really become a new person. Perhaps it just took limestone cliffs and a sailboat without a clock, to remind me of who I am.

Zarina Hora

Zarina Hora treks, tuk-tuks, and tours around the world as much as possible. She is an attorney by day and a writer and comedic improviser by night. She resides in Long Beach, CA.

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