As I sat in the small boat at about 8 in the morning, paddling the dingy forward, my “guide,” Carabao Island-native Willy Mendoza, signaled to pull on my swimming goggles. The skinny canoe was not much longer than a ping-pong table and thinner than a kayak but balanced with two beams that extended out like wings.
About 40 meters offshore, Willy and I had just cast a lengthy fishing net across the ocean floor in a massive semicircular path. Our first fishing attempt of the day — my first ever in this manner — would be wildly successful.
One of Willy’s sons dove off the boat first, and I watched him as he flapped his arms and legs, smacking the water. Willy instructed that Parker (another American boy I was traveling with) and I do the same. I pulled down my goggles and slid down off the boat. After a deep breath, I sank under, and understood the simple, yet effective, fishing tactic that the Mendoza family had mastered for years.
Beneath the surface, I watched through the clear water as Willy and his oldest son, Christian, frightened fish in every direction. The sounds of kicking legs and arms splashing scared fish, and by working together, the father and son maneuvered a handful of fish toward the net, which would eventually catch their gills.
That was only the first attempt. For the next 20 minutes, Parker and I joined in, kicking, splashing, breathing and repeating. The sea floor was lined with starfish, coral and sea grass, and above it swam fish of all sizes and colors. We caught them all until we had enough stuck in the net to come back to the boat.
Back in the canoe, we pulled in the net, untangling each fish and throwing it in a bucket.
“When net gets heavy, stop,” Willy told me.
Willy’s English was limited, but I understood. Whenever the net began to feel heavy, it was usually caught on the coral on the ocean floor. This happened often, and when it did, one of the Filipinos put on wooden flippers and swam down to the floor to untangle it.
I watched from just below the surface as they dove down, sometimes holding their breath for 45 seconds at a time, fiddling away at the thin wires to release the net from the coral.
We continued pulling the net in until we finally hauled up the rock attached to one end that anchored it in place.
About 20 fish in total. In my whole life of rod-and-bait fishing, I had never caught half that number. Twice more we cast the net, scared fish into it and pulled it in to find our method was equally successful.
After getting back to shore, we brought in the bucket full of fish, and for the remainder of the day that comprised our lunch and dinner. Fish, chicken and rice were the most common. Willy’s wife prepared a type of fresh sashimi, taking bits of the raw fish and sticking them in lime juice to kill bacteria. We also ate octopus, pork, clams and squid with black ink still on it.
Our catch, along with other chicken and pork they raised near their home, would feed Willy, his wife, and their seven kids for two days, and then they would untangle the net and fish again.
Such is life on Carabao, a remote island far away on its own in the Philippines. With a population of just more than 10,000, “isolated” is an understatement of its location. Parker and I made up two of about seven tourists on the island that week. During the summer it gets a little busier, but there are few traces of Western influence.
There is one hospital, but it has no doctors. Electricity shuts off at 8:00 p.m. every night, and for most of the island’s population, the sunset means the day is over.
We had met Willy the day before. After kayaking for about 30 minutes, Parker and I came across a beach where kids were playing. As we paddled to shore, the kids waved and we said hello and we saw Willy laying out the net on his front lawn. We introduced ourselves, and he graciously offered us coconuts, which he chopped open right before us, and invited us to sit down.
“Are you going fishing?” we asked.
“8 a.m. tomorrow,” Willy replied.
He welcomed us to come along, and we returned promptly the next morning. While net-fishing far away in the Philippines felt like a day activity for me, it was just part of the routine for the Mendozas, and many others that live in Carabao.
After lunch, we motorbiked over to the chicken fights for the afternoon. At least 100 people, all men, were watching and betting. Along with cliff jumping, snorkeling and exploring bat caves, three days in Carabao were filled with incredible memories. But what has stuck with me the most was our last meal with Willy later than night.
As we sat with Willy for dinner, just as the electricity went out, we asked him about his home.
He told us he had built it himself, 23 years ago, when he was in his early 20s. In front of the house, a lawn led to the water. Out back, a paddy was filled with chickens, cats and a dog. To the side, a canopy covered the dinner table.
The static of an old box television could be heard from outside, and walking up the concrete steps to the door, we briefly looked inside his four-room home. About the size of an average high-school classroom, the floors were made of concrete and stone. I remember only four bamboo beds — no mattresses, pillows, sheets or anything. Just flat bamboo beds.
I’d met so many people that day. From Willy’s family and friends to strangers in the town and at the chicken fight, and they all had greeted me so kindly. Willy’s family, all nine of them, fed me and showed me a day in their lives.
My entire day was filled with a spontaneous agenda I couldn’t have anywhere else in the world, but for Willy, it was a regular Thursday, and he was so happy the whole time. From morning to evening, he smiled, and we laughed at dinner. And in his home, this small home, on these four bamboo beds, lived nine people. The oldest, Willy, was 46, and the youngest child, a daughter, was not yet 2 years old.
It was so different. Four bamboo beds rested on concrete floors, and the only light came from a battery flashlight they used to show me and Parker around. It was uncomfortable, and odd, to be honest. Spending a whole day with someone, seeing them as so happy and joyful and then learning the conditions they live in are so drastically different.
So I just looked, because I didn’t know what else to do.
I don’t think I’ll ever see Willy again, and I don’t know if I’ll ever go to Philippines again, but I’ll always be grateful to the Mendoza family for the incredible, and different, experience they gave to me.
The next morning, I woke up on my bed — mattress, sheets and a pillow — and Parker and I boated back to meet the rest of our group that hadn’t followed us to Carabao.