Chapter 3: The Lightness of Meeting an Old Romantic Tagbanwa Couple

Our boat threaded the stillness of the sea under gloomy skies and over calm waters to a place not frequented by tourists. Passing through tiny islands dominated by edgy limestone cliffs, which our boatman Russell points out as some of the perilous path leading to hidden lakes, where the Tagbanua tribe gathers their supply for the birds' nest trade. I imagined what it would be like to be transported back to the 1950s, but instead of going to Coron Island, we are going to the mysterious Asmat region of Papua New Guinea.

While no one will ever know what happened to the young member of the Rockefeller clan who mysteriously vanished in the Asmat region in 1961, one thing is certain: the Tagbanua people are not feared or isolated from the outside world, even decades before. As Coron Island grows larger in my view, I feel like an intruder in their world. I reminded myself that we were not there to document their way of life as if it were entertainment fodder or a NatGeo feature. What we really want to do here is interact with some of the locals and learn a few things. Little did we know, a romantic story, far more touching than most John Cusack, Sandra Bullock, and Kim-Gerard movies combined, would be made known to us a couple of hours later. 

Lauren Denoga

We arrived at a house painted blue that stood out among the greenery after wading through knee-deep streams and into Tagbanua's quiet community. Lauren calls it a "Coron Mariachi House." A few small houses behind it, we met an elderly couple who introduced themselves as Salong and Salome. Salong is the younger brother of Rodolfo Aguilar I, the Tagbanua tribe's current tribal leader.

Mang Salong's features are highlighted by the deep lines on his face, and the cataract on his eyes is immediately noticeable. To the untrained eye, he appears frail and old, but once he begins speaking, it is clear that his spirit and mind have not slowed down in the least. We noticed a tattoo on Nanay Salome's shoulder and inquired as to when she got it. She told us that it was Mang Salong who inked her many years ago as a symbol of their love for each other.

Lauren Denoga

According to their story, they met many years after the war and were married through a fix marriage. They had four children over the years, all of whom died at a young age due to malaria. I couldn't help but shake my head when I heard that the tragedies that befell them occurred more than 20 years ago, and that they could have been avoided today, now that medical care is available even on the island of Coron.

Gretchen Filart and Mujee Gonzales

All I see around their house are symbols of simplicity. I feel a little out of place parading around their neighborhood with a DSLR camera around my neck. It certainly appears that outsiders like us are inhabiting their modest lifestyle with unwarranted modernization hinges.

Koryn Iledan

Mang Salong also informed us of a minor conflict between factions of their tribe. Since the Tagbanwa tribe of Coron Island was granted jurisdiction and management of more than 22,000 hectares of land as accorded by the Ancestral Domain Law of 1998, misunderstandings about how each place should be managed began to emerge among tribe members.

Lauren Denoga

While I believe they are entitled to claim ownership of their land. Again, I suspect we are the source of the problem; outsiders who frolic on their land, posing for photos and treating it as a vacation destination. Unaware that it is a sacred site for the Tagbanua people, and by opening this site to us, certain issues arise as a result of mass tourism.

Levy Amosin

On the other hand, the fees collected from the tourist spots that dot the Coron archipelago can significantly help the local economy. I hope that certain individuals, whether members of their tribe, or even some LGU units, can assist them in resolving their differences so that the funds are distributed equally among the members of their community. In turn, basic services including health care to combat diseases such as malaria and a clean water system can be laid out.

Lauren Denoga

Our visit was eye-opening. It caused me to reconsider 'tourism' as a two-way street. You must not only please visitors, but you must also nurture local communities and protect their economic interests and natural resources. Each of us should begin to associate it with the communities that were already existing and thriving in their own simple ways. It may appear Jurassic to us on the outside, but what if we removed our material comforts and put ourselves in their shoes? Then consider whether you could survive a month, a year, or a lifetime. We are well aware that we cannot.

Celine Murillo

We had the ability to assist them through small jobs and the income generated by the tourism industry, but it is critical that we also respect their way of life, culture, and traditions. As we said our goodbyes to Salong and Salome, I realized how much I admired their simple way of life and how much I wanted to return to this island.

Lauren Denoga

We come across other island residents as we walk back to our boat. Russell, our guide, introduced us to his mother, who also lives on the island but is not of Tagbanua descent. Outsiders have been welcomed as part of the communities throughout Busuanga and Coron, resulting in both Tagbanuas and non Tagbanuas live in harmony.

We also met with the barangay leaders, who politely declined our request to speak with them. Knowing how the tide of modernity and the tourism industry have somehow stepped on their sacred ground, we completely understand why some of them do not want to talk to us. I just hope that in the near future, we can all find a way to strike a balance in order for their community to thrive without having to sacrifice the sacredness of their land to the outsiders who usually arrive in hordes aboard a boat with flashing cameras and holiday-makers' smiles.

Ron and Monette arrived at our boat minutes before us, while Lauren and I took our precious time walking along the stream, getting our feet wet, admiring the forested path, and, most importantly, feeling like younger versions of Salong and Salome.