Into TGL: The Smallest of Small Towns

February 1, 2017

Ben Pablo

Tigman, Aborlan, Palawan, Philippines

(The Smallest of Small Towns is part of a multi-story series documenting the author’s visit between November to December 2016.)

Tucked away on the Eastern coast of one of The Philippines’ over 7,000 islands is a town called Tigman. The little-known fishing village on the less touristy half of Palawan takes its name from a kind of shell that used to be plentiful on the shore, long before there was electricity in these parts. Situated a few kilometers off the highway, past emerald green rice fields, the one-handed count of street signs begins where the cement ends. The main avenue is a dirt road that leads straight to the beach—a cove of light brown sand lined with wooden huts, fishing boats, and coconut trees. When this corner of the Sulu Sea is calmest, the waves are so silent that one’s more likely to hear the distant sputtering of a two-stroke engine.

Roughly 1,800 souls call this tropical paradise home, and everybody knows everybody here. Daily life among these 450 or so households is simple and uneventful. Apart from fisherfolk having to rise early, the rest of the village moves on island time. There’s a primary school, a basketball court, and a tiny chapel, all on the same roundabout where karaoke can often be heard echoing through the evening air—the quintessential Filipino experience in all its glory even on the smallest stage.

Then and Now

The Tagbanwa indigenous people are said to have been the first settlers in Tigman, but were soon replaced as a majority by migrants from Cuyo Island shortly after World War 2. The exodus caused by fear of conflict and growing populations throughout Palawan and neighboring islands prompted many to head to this region, which had plenty of space ripe for the taking. While peace was easily found in this part of the island, the settlers still endured years of neglect from the national government punctuated by the Marcos dictatorship, with development only coming to this part of the island in the form of roads, radios, and motorized trikes in the late 80s to early 90s.

Today, it’s still rare to see four-wheeled vehicles around Tigman, but it wasn’t always this quiet. Ruins of beach resorts that operated over the last two decades are still present on the shorefront. Before the provincial government paved the way North and unveiled the jewel of El Nido to the world, this no-name town drew its fair share of tourists. It’s rumored that these sands once even hosted a celebrity wedding, and that fishermen earned supplementary income from running private boat tours to nearby islands. Looking at the beach today, walking among little more than fish baskets and mongrel pawprints, it’s difficult to picture the glamour of champagne toasts and sunset soirees. What wasn’t that long ago now feels like a different lifetime, short-lived like the fragrance of the town’s perfumed guests.

Community Life

When the compass of tourism pointed upward, the resorts closed their doors, and Tigman reclaimed its anonymity as one of probably thousands of fishing villages across the archipelago. But unlike the tourists that came and went, the locals stood their ground. Grandpa Ompo was one of them. Now 84, he’s lived in Tigman nearly all his years, and recalls what life was like back in the day: “We used to walk eight kilometers one-way to buy matches. The children walked eight too, to go to school and back.” Today it takes less than two hours to drive to the provincial capital Puerto Princesa, which hosts an international airport and several shopping malls. There are foam parties right across the Capitol building, a female-run craft beer brewery, and posters advertising Bleu Cheese Hamburgers and Sunday Roast. Back in Grandpa Ompo’s day, there weren’t even barbed wire fences. There wasn’t any need for them. “The property you could call your own stretched as far as you could tend the grass,” he says.

Grandpa Ompo wore many hats—he was Tigman’s resident tailor, a boat-builder, and of course a fisherman. Today he spends his time looking out from his beachfront property, and on a sunny December afternoon, his balcony’s dusty floorboards bare the weight of his tales. His grandchildren now have families of their own, and are as happy as he is that his generation’s values haven’t been lost. They’re proud of how the people of their humble village still support each other. Those with larger tracts of land employ workers to tend their coconut groves. Help pull the boat in and lend a hand with the catch, and you’ll get your share of fish. No one needs to go hungry. It’s the way things have always been here.

Living on the Outside

Tourists who visit El Nido will probably hear of Palawan’s catchy nickname as “The Philippines’ Last Frontier.” Unfortunately, island-hopping tours and happy hour on umbrella drinks will reveal little about what it truly means to live on the fringes of a developing country. While progress has trickled slowest into places like Tigman, the resiliency that its residents have always had still runs on hope, and the small town bought into the message of change promised by newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte. “Our sentiment here is that we’ve always felt left out by those (presidents) from Manila and Greater Luzon,” says Town Captain Andy. The former Davao Mayor’s portrait as an outsider in national politics turned out to be an easy sale.

Unfortunately, the glitz of every expensive campaign season fizzles out quickly on the local level. People in Tigman and its neighboring villages expect little from those in power, re-elected or otherwise. Party politics and corruption scandals may be business as usual in Manila and big cities like Cebu, but the ineptitude of governance ripples, and the strongest waves crash on these shores. Captain Andy’s office is one of the few air-conditioned rooms in town, and here he talks about his plans, starting with clearing out roadways in the farthest reaches of the village. A bible sits on his desk, an old typewriter out front, and a chalkboard calendar on the wall behind him, empty and dated two months late.

“We have WWF helping us preserve nearby reefs. We’re hopeful tourists can come back at some point,” he says. “We’re also working on a bat sanctuary.” The environmental efforts are a breath of fresh air, but there’s much work to be done. There’s no garbage collection here, and villagers still bury and burn their rubbish. But slowly, they’re being educated about doing the right things. Segregated bins can now be found in the classrooms. There’s no cyanide or dynamite fishing either. While the government’s reach may fall short of places like this, the people stay fighting the good fight as stewards of the place they call home.

On the Horizon

Small towns like Tigman may feel forgotten, but how can we truly forget them when they’re all around us? When their simplicity is exactly what weaves the tapestry of these more than 7,000 islands? The uneventfulness of their everyday catch filling markets with fish, their care for their coastline keeping seas clean, their fiesta spirit keeping traditions alive.

While many outsiders who visit this place may see little more than what it lacks in luxuries and conveniences, the well-travelled eye can find much joy and hope under the slatted shade of its coconut trees. When the sea is silent, listen harder. Hear the laughter of schoolchildren eager to learn. That sputtering motorbike engine in the distance taking the world’s hardest working nurses to a hospital with no running water. And as the seasons change and new troubles come, remember the values that multiple generations here have held on to, and trust that they’ll persist. That good people will always stand together, unbreakable, even in the smallest of small towns.

Ben Pablo

Filipino writer who calls the road home, eager to tell the stories of the world—from sea to summit, small towns to big cities, cultures old and new. Enjoys drinking IPAs while watching his favorite sports teams lose. Contributor at Lost at E Minor. Minimalist.

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