The Philippines, the world’s second-largest archipelago next to Indonesia, is speckled with hundreds of islands boasting pristine beaches, cross-cultured cuisine, and friendly people wearing content smiles. The wide variety of islands encompass an illustrious array of different languages and topographies that make the Philippines a destination that travelers find themselves revisiting over and over again.
Beaches with driftwood that ornament the sugar-like sand lightly sparkle from the sun. The water is a sapphire blue that melts into the afternoon sky making the horizon vanish. There is only one set of footprints in the sand that lead directly to a village just beyond the barrier-bitten black volcanic rocks. No, this is not bustling Boracay, the destination most well renowned in the Philippines, but Negros, an island located in the central Visayas.
A ferry from Cebu city, the major travel hub in the Visayas, can connect you with the port city of Dumaguete, the self-proclaimed “most friendly city in The Philippines.” Dumaguete is home to the first Protestant university in the country, Silliman University, and incorporates the exemplary fiesta vibe that seems to resonate throughout the rest of the Visayas. The pace in Dumaguete is leisurely, even for a city in the Philippines, and a great port of entry to the rest of Negros Oriental.
A five-hour bus ride northwest from Dumaguete along coastline and through rice paddies will bring you to Sipalay, the home of secluded Sugar Beach. However, your journey has only made it to the start of the last leg at this point. From Sipalay you must rent a “trike” — a motorcycle with a side car — to ride over a rickety wooden bridge. From there, small motor boats must be hired to take you and your belongings around the peninsula of Sugar Beach. If you are lucky enough to catch the night sky, the boat ride will be illuminated by globs of fireflies clenched to mangroves and the occasional shooting star plummeting through the stainless sky. The hum of crackled karaoke and chatter breaks through the silent night as the boat passes a small village. The beach looks like a black void completely barren of lights. None of the hotels on Sugar Beach break the forest line.
Sugar Beach is a castaway’s haven, offering a small selection of palm-roofed bungalows, driftwood villas, and sand-carpeted bars a stone’s throw from the Sulu Sea. Beach-washed European proprietors claim the four main accommodations on Sugar Beach. Jogi, a willing castaway from Germany, remembers the days when travelers would wash up on the shores and set up tents under the thatched roof that has now become his restaurant and bar. “I started the construction on Sulu Sunset in January of 2000,” Jogi remembers. “When the restaurant was finished, I, my family, and the staff slept in tents.”
All of his employees are locals from the neighboring villages around Sugar Beach. “That was the time we cooked and ate where the bar is now. Of course, we had to run generators at the time,” Jogi continues. “Germans need cold beer.”
The bungalows, chairs, and tables are all built from the surrounding coconut trees and bamboo stalks. If it rains, you’ll find that coconut-based items from the restaurant will be limited because the trees will be too wet to climb.
By the end of 2000, Jogi had built four bungalows with the help of his family, staff, and fellow German cohort, Oliver, a backpacker who discovered Jogi through a pension house in Sipalay. He ended up staying two weeks to help Jogi with odds and ends. “Oliver continued his trip to Palawan and told every backpacker in the whole of Palawan Island about my place.” After the word got out, Jogi’s four bungalows periodically began filling up. But, if travelers can’t find a place to sleep during the high seasons of January and February, they’re always welcome to pitch a tent.
* * *
Beached fishing boats sway in the sand as the gentle tide glides them with the pace of the evening current. The sand turns a shade of red as villager’s gaze on to the sunset. Day trips picnicking on the beach are very much a part of Philippine culture. The English literacy rate in the country is over 90%, making it very easy to communicate here compared to many other parts of Asia.
Fifteen minutes by foot from the northern point of Sugar Beach lays a beach facing east towards the sunset, barricaded by jagged volcanic rock on both sides. As I sit, a shadowy figure emerges from the damp jungle behind me, spilling onto the sunlit sand. Doubts grow in my mind as to whether I have arrived on his private property or insulted him by taking pictures of what appears to be a village beyond the brush.
“Hello friend,” the young man says, greeting me with a smile wide enough to knock the blue baseball cap off his head. “Do you need a room?” He offers. “You can stay here in my village . . . we can also cook some fish for you.”
* * *
The sound of the sea slowly dissipate behind the squawks of chickens and the snorting of giant pigs. A proud fighting cock takes center, perched upon a six-foot stick puffing up his belly in anticipation of new visitors. The territorial beast belts a boisterous coo, provoking a contender in the distance with all the charm of a prize fighter in his prime. Baby chicks roam freely with babies from the village next to the local store. Stapled on a wire frame are various bags of snacks sandwiched between cans of corn beef hash and small bags of vegetables. The blue walls of the store stand perpendicular from a bamboo bench where a mother breastfeeds her newborn baby in the shade.
Nene, my new friend, guides me towards his house, a small structure at the end of the dirt path pressed up against a calm river. His village helps ferry visitors from the mainland to the peninsula of Sugar Beach, a journey that takes about five minutes during daylight. The leaf awning shelters a small group of people from the torturous afternoon sun. Three girls in white school uniforms are serenading themselves with an over-amplified karaoke machine attached to a television set. There is a comfort in their willingness to disregard any timid tendencies for sake of song and new friends. The microphone is passed around like a peace pipe. Like many other nations in Asia, Karaoke is both a pastime and a way of life. An act of reverence and childish congeniality all at once — a conundrum that allures foreigners first with awkward anticipation, then with courteous courtship.
Nene did not get the opportunity to go the college and, like most of his family, he will likely join the fishing business. Yet, despite the apparent gap in our two worlds, I am eagerly welcomed into his home to enjoy the catch of the day: a grilled fish dinner prepared by his mother. The kitchen lies just behind the karaoke machine around an inclined bend dipping into the water below. The wood-burning stove is sizzling with the sweet aroma of adobo sauce, a soy based blend of garlic and spice that is a staple of the Philippines. The stove rests upon the same brickwork pattern of dark cement blocks as the house. The interior walls match the exterior and the nipa leaf roof is placed over the foundation like an awkward jigsaw puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit.
As I bask in the fragrance of the sautéed fish and the harmonious hospitality of my surroundings, it’s not hard to appreciate the allure of the Philippines. Jovial curiosity and inquiring eyes search me, piercing my peripheral vision with the smile of humans who are truly happy in a paradise they call home. A castaway is never alone in the company of a Filipino. As Nene starts up the crackling karaoke box as an interlude during dinner, the moon begins to reflect off of the clear water, illuminating his face with a spotlight. This particular patch of sand is his home. The words of the song drift off the screen and into the empty night, drawing neighbors and family members down the dirt path to Nene’s hut by the water. Boats float by carrying new travelers past the village. He eagerly beckons for me to take center stage.
Back up the beach, Jogi is snapping open another bottle of San Miguel. The girls behind the bar offer me a menu, trotting towards the bar with a bashful giddiness in every beat of their subtle steps. They recognize me from my off-key rendition of “New York, New York” the night before. The hit had apparently not gone unnoticed.
A week on Sugar Beach has slipped by, providing enough time for these friends to turn into family. The 70 or so somewhat familiar villagers and travel companions I have accumulated blend in with the more alien faces of fresh forlorn travelers sloshing up against the shores. Weary from the daylong excursion, they stumble off the bobbing ship into the earthy sand amongst a group of complacent companions. Welcome to our paradise. Welcome to our home.