One evening I was sipping a cold brew at the Marbers in El Nido pondering whether the old cliché is really true, whether it’s really just the people and not the places, or is there more to it…
Right next to me was a random guy in his early thirties and a drunkish couple at the other end of the bar who seemed uncertain whether to order another rum sprinkled with coke or stagger off to have a bite somewhere. And possibly try to have sex, knowing they will fail miserably. Behind me, the sun had just set and the warm breeze coming from the beach was bringing humid air which was condensing on the bottle of San Mig Pilsen. Somewhere, a dog was barking, children were screaming, glasses were clattering, a banca was coming back into harbour. A calm Philippine evening.
I was waiting for my friends Eugene, or Evgenii, a Ukrainian expat from Odessa, and his wife, Tamara, who makes the best cheesecake on the whole Palawan, to show up for our unscheduled evening drink and chat. Both of them are chemical engineers (probably comes in handy in the ingredient-scarce El Nido) and Eugene has a degree in economics as well. As much as I enjoyed our long conversations about politics and language, about history of Ukraine and disenchantment from the ideals people were once willing to give their life for, I always sensed pride in their talks about Ukraine seasoned with sorrow and longing for one’s homeland, one which is irretrievably lost in the memories of simpler and happier times.
So, while I was waiting for Eugene to show up, the guy next to me ordered some Wiener schnitzel and we started chatting about how incredibly difficult it is to get a steak around here. Luckily, kuya Norton, the main chef in Marbers, could make whatever one desired – just provide him with enough time to get the right ingredients and his meals would pass any blind test for their famous original counterparts. It turned out that my collocutor, Dennis, was a coast guard in El Nido and since the weather was windy, I was complaining how hard it is to get to some of the nicer beaches around. At that moment he offered me unlimited access to his private beach, a mere 20 minutes banca ride from El Nido. Oh boy, was I excited! I’ve never been on a private beach before (in Croatia, all beaches are maritime domain)!
The next morning Eugene, Tamara and I went to the market early to get the fresh fish and produce for our gastro beach adventure, but alas! – there was not a gram of beef or pork to buy in the whole El Nido! Well, necessity being the mother of invention, we bought some chicken and congratulated ourselves on resourcefulness. We did however find a great fresh 1 kg yellowfin tuna and 2.5 kg threadfin salmon. Some herbs, spices, plates and cutlery, rice, water in three aggregate states (liquid, solid and melon), beer, rum, charcoal … and we were on our way to Marbers to have coffee before embarking our trusted banca.
Bancas are the Philippine version of an outrigger canoe – which is a canoe with two stabilizers that go parallel with it. Such a simple solution resulting in immense stability. Having limited experience with traditional European fishing boats, I was petrified with some of the waves we encountered, but the fragile banca just stormed through as if they were ripples in the bathtub. Well, not exactly (everybody did get wet from the splashes), but pretty much close to it – nobody had to clutch the railing or anything similar. It made me fill with awe and pride of human ingenuity – the local people needed centuries to perfect a means to get the fish from the dangerous and powerful Pacific ocean, and they managed to conquer it in such an elegant and material-efficient way. I couldn’t help thinking that the Western way of thinking would be building an ever bigger boat (think of Titanic) for big waves, trying to be stronger than Poseidon, break through… Whereas this fragile vessel was cheerfully sliding up and down the mighty water hills like a jolly bee Filipino nimbly dancing through the mangrove forest. Sometimes beauty and immense experience condensed into simple items around us shines through and makes us well up. Or me, at least.
Did you ever imagine how Robinson Crusoe felt stranded on the uninhabited island? This is exactly how it looked and felt like when our banca left us on the Cadlao Island. Besides the fact that we had food. And water. And company. And our banca was coming to pick us up in the evening. Hopefully. Everything else was exactly the same – pristine white sands, turquoise crystal clear water full of corals and tropical fish, black volcano rock cliffs behind us and greenery growing from every possible crevice. Paradise. I think we all just stood there for the first 20 minutes in silence, grasping this beautiful nature. Then we opened beers.
Half an hour later everybody was a busybody, trying to contribute to the upcoming lunch. The guys were searching for firewood, the girls were chopping up food and the kids were snorkeling and sunbathing. Gender stereotypes par excellence. We forgot our roles that we used to take in the civilised society – a clerk, a salesman, a teacher… and started building new identities – the chef, the sous chef, the firewood scout. Our Boy Scout skills from what felt like another life finally came to good use – we were doing something with our hands in fresh air in the most beautiful beach in the world. It felt awesome. Just to make things more complicated, it was raining quite heavily couple of days before so all the firewood was still wet and we forgot the paper to start the fire so we quickly started collecting dry moss-like roots hanging from the cliff. After an hour of smoking and choking and blowing and crying – the dry palm branch with paperlike leaves did the trick and the fire was pleasantly crackling. Proud boy scouts were waiting for their well deserved firestarter badge.
While Eugene was keeping the fire alive, Tamara prepared the old faithful kazan, a cauldron-like cooking pot that every respectable Ukranian never leaves the house without. Meanwhile, Eugene was growing slightly impatient since the amount of dry firewood was diminishing and Roman (called RumAnd Coke, you can only guess why) and Igor were still not back from their scavenging mission. Finally, as Eugene was putting the last log on the burning embers, there they were, coming out of the grove in the best Laurel-and-Hardy manner, pulling half a log of hardwood the size of a hog. Eugene silently lit up another cigarette.
Half way through the plov, the atmosphere started to grow tense, many a calorie got spent on swimming and roaming around and everybody was hungry. The fire setback delayed lunch and you could sense the static electricity in the air. Is it a coincidence that hungry and angry are such similar words? I stepped back from the “kitchen” and watched Eugene and Tamara dance around the kazan in a Macbethian fashion, adding secret spices and finishing touches, bickering in a way only true soulmates know how to.
The scale of a dragon, a wolf’s tooth, a witch’s mummified flesh, the gullet and stomach of a ravenous shark, a root of hemlock that was dug up in the dark, a Jew’s liver, a goat’s bile, some twigs of yew that were broken off during a lunar eclipse, a Turk’s nose, a Tartar’s lips, the finger of a baby that was strangled as a prostitute gave birth to it in a ditch. (WS)
Finally we all gathered around the dish like wise men around the new born king and someone said: „Finally, where are the plates?“ Seriously? Looks were passed around trying to pinpoint the culprit but none was found – we all shared the guilt. They were left together with the cutlery at Marbers. Dayum. Mother necessity got us scattered again, like crabs along the beach looking for something useful and pretty soon we all came back with flat pieces of corals, empty shells and clams we could use for spoons. A quick dishwashing with the best cleaning powder there is – white sand – made me remember that up to the mid 60-s there were wheelbarrowers roaming the streets of Croatian cities shouting and selling white sand for washing cooking pots. Something like old-school detergent which was physically, by abrasion, not chemically, cleaning the dishes at the same time keeping the environment unaffected.
At that moment I felt happy that we had forgotten the plastic plates and cutlery. They were utterly redundant. We were eating super tasty plov from coral plates using clams. Does it get any better than that? Yes it does – if you have a grill and 3 kilo of fresh fish!
As our tummies got fuller, our blood sugar levels higher and our plates emptier – our serotonin and dopamine followed. One of the reasons I love cooking is that I believe that food makes people happy. How many times was the only reason you got into an argument the fact you had an empty stomach? It might not solve all of the world’s problems, but looking at a domino effect theory, good food and a full stomach can prevent a lot of bad things happening. Especially because after a proper lunch, all you can think about is a power nap. So we slumbered underneath the palm trees.
This is how this wonderful day stayed etched in my mind. A bunch of people enjoying each other’s company on a paradise beach. Nothing more, nothing less. Just people being people, and places being places.