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Buying Sea Shells on the Philippine Sea Shore

This is the first article in a four-part series, “Living on a Philippine Island” by Tanja Bulatovic.

“What the hell am I doing here?” I wondered, as I struggled to fall asleep in the tree house. It was pitch-black. There was no electricity on the island and no sound to be heard, other than a party of tropical tree rats fighting for territory next to my mattress on the floor.

I was the only foreigner on a remote island north of Manila and I was there on a mission. Less than three weeks prior to this event, my husband Fabrice and I had met a French guy near St.Tropez who was looking for someone to oversee his shell import/export business in the Philippines. Apparently his son had done the job in the past, but the young lad had spent most of his time smoking the happy weed and consequently never got any work done. We saw this as a perfect new opportunity and we believe in pursuing opportunities when they come our way.

In addition, the timing was perfect. Fabrice and I had often entertained the thought of semi-retirement in some tropical paradise. Summer would be spent in Europe. Come winter, we’d dreamt of running off to our second home in the tropics, thereby avoiding the cold altogether. Evidently, we are not winter people. Give me beach, coconut water, fish, rice and a bamboo shack with a knockout view and I’m a happy girl. (An Internet connection wouldn’t go astray either, but you can’t have everything).

Needless to say, with this new circumstance, we were well on our way to realizing our dream when at the last minute Fabrice was offered a contract to work in the Middle East for the next three months. Suddenly, our fantasy of living in paradise was shattered…well, almost, where it not for an unexpected distortion in my mind. “I’ll go by myself”, I declared. After all, I was ready for a new adventure and I felt that this was it. The final clincher was a two second ‘Google Images’ browse, which clearly indicated that the beaches in the Philippines rivalled the worlds best, looking totally like the postcard-beaches in the Caribbean. Plus, the country was cheaper than Thailand and Bali. I couldn’t believe my luck. Heaven, at a fraction of the price. Two weeks later, I packed for Manila.

The ultimate goal (albeit vague) was to rent a cheap house on some tropical island, buy the shells and ship the containers back to France. The whole routine would take up to 3 or 4 months of the year, leaving plenty of time free to contemplate love, life and the universe. Once the shells were sold in France (wholesale), I would receive my commission, which was only a shade above the cost of purchase, but it didn’t matter. The aim here was lifestyle. And if I could make enough money to survive in paradise, it was all I needed. Best of all, Fabrice would join me in a few months (cut to 2 people running towards each other in slow motion on an exotic beach. He lifts her up, whirls her around and they finally embrace after their long and torturous separation). Whatever, you get my drift but you have to admit, the dream seemed viable. And when passion and freedom are your priority, why not dream big?

Morally speaking, I was assured this was a perfectly legal practice. The Philippines are one of the major players in the world of shells, which are essentially discarded protective outer cases of molluscs. Dead products the islanders collected and sold, in order to buy necessities. That being the case, I was helping to support the island community, which admittedly made me feel rather warm and fuzzy in thinking that I’d also found a humanitarian purpose within my resolve.

Next, I was to meet my chaperone at a hotel in Manila. He was a relative of the buyer’s wife and a shell pro who possessed a buyer’s licence. Hence, I didn’t need to worry about business visas and other red-tape documents. I was simply the middle woman.

Jet lag be damned, Joe, my chaperone buzzed me at 5 am sharp from the hotel foyer. He wasn’t alone. His ‘cousin’ Jerry had decided to come along for the ride. They threw my bags in the back of the shiny new 4-wheel drive and we headed in the direction of Mauban – 4 hours north of Manila. Once there, we were to take a boat to the privately owned paradise I envisioned being my future home.

The island known as ‘Cagbalete’ is a well-kept Filipino secret. The secluded idyll is still relatively unknown to western travellers and I suspect the locals would rather keep it that way. Located off the coast of Mauban, it’s also referred to as the Boracay of Mauban. The islands lush ecosystem hosts a vast variety of bird and marine life and during low tide, which happens twice per day, the dry area stretches up to a kilometer out to sea.

Just when I thought I was about to drop dead from jet lag and dehydration, the boat pulled up at the waterfront of the tiny fishing village. Trudging through the shantytown, hordes of curious, smiling faces came out to greet us along the way to our destination – ‘Pansacola Beach Resort’ – a fancy name for a handful of bamboo huts scattered along the beach.

“Which one’s my room?” I snapped. Jerry, the cousin nodded, smiled, nodded some more and then pointed to a tree. “There” he said, “It is the best one”. Yes, indeed, I thought, and perhaps it could have been, except there were no walls, only wooden steps leading to a platform in a tree. Aside from a foam mattress on the floor, there were no other furnishings and no place to store my things. What’s more, considering I had no walls, it was impossible to get changed except in the communal, half-open shower with stunted walls and a wide gap between the walls and the roof – for stargazing perhaps. “Don’t worry, safe”, he reassured me. “You leave everything here. Nobody will take”.

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Funny thing was, I’d been waving the great flag of adventure and freedom for years and suddenly I was faced with a situation that was completely alien to me. I was in the middle of nowhere, living in a tree and about to start a new business I had no idea about. And for the first time in years, I was alone. There were no layers left to peel back and literally no doors to close. If you’ve ever questioned your own oddball decisions in the pursuit of the dream, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Despite all that, I guess the thing to remember is this: When we say no to the banality of life, all that stuff comes with the territory.

But hey, let’s get back on track here. Being the only foreigner staying at the resort also had its pluses. For one, I had my own private chef who managed to sell me a gallon of coconut oil for my skin before she even thought about cooking lunch – which on the day consisted of squid in coconut milk, fresh tuna, a vegetable salad, a ton of rice and ‘leche flan’ for dessert. Later that afternoon, I walked a whole 5 meters to the waters edge and indulged in my first dip in the (28°C) turquoise colored Pacific Ocean. Utopian dreams in a new found secret paradise.

I love everything about the Philippines. The humidity, the food, the people, the hustle, the sweat and the stink of it. I feel at home in the tropics. Not for everyone, I know. One person’s idea of paradise in another’s idea of hell. Click here to continue reading “Buying Sea Shells on the Philippine Sea Shore.”

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