Driftwood ornaments the sugar-brown sand like a natural beach chair. The water today is a kind of sapphire blue, which mysteriously melts into the afternoon horizon. There is only one set of footprints in the sand that lead directly to a village just beyond the barrier-bitten black volcanic rocks, those of a tropical lizard. No, this is not Boracay, the most well-renowned destintion in the Philippines, but Sugar Beach, Sipalay, just south on the island of Negros in the Central Visayas.
A ferry from Cebu city, the major travel hub in the Visayas, can connect you with the port city of Dumaguete, the self-proclaimed ‘most friendly city in The Philippines.’ Dumaguete is home to the first Protestant university in the country, Silliman University, and incorporates the exemplary fiesta vibe that seems to resonate throughout the rest of the Visayas. The pace in Dumaguete is leisurely, even for a city in the Philippines, and a great port of entry to the rest of Negros Oriental.
A five-hour bus ride northwest of Dumaguete through coastline and rice paddies will bring you to Sipalay, the home of the secluded Sugar Beach. However, your journey has only made it to the start of the last leg at this point. From Sipalay you must rent a trike, a motorcycle with a welded side car, to ride over a rickety wooden bridge. From there, small motor boats can be hired to take you and your belongings around the peninsula of Sugar Beach. If you are lucky enough to catch the night sky, the boat ride will be illuminated by globs of fireflies clenched to mangroves and the occasional shooting star plummeting through the stainless sky.
The hum of crackled karaoke and chatter breaks are the only sounds that break through the silent night as the boat passes a small village. The beach looks like a black void, completely barren of lights. None of the hotels on Sugar Beach break the forest line.
Sugar Beach is a castaway’s haven, offering a small selection of nipa palm bungalows, driftwood villas, and sand-carpeted bars a few meters from the Sulu Sea. Beach-washed European proprietors claim the four main accommodations on Sugar Beach. Jogi, a willing castaway from Germany, remembers the days when travelers would come up on the shores and set up tents under the giant nipa palm leaf roof that has now become his restaurant and bar. “I started the construction on Sulu Sunset in January 2000,” Jogi remembers. “When the restaurant was finished, me, my whole family, and the staff slept in tents.”
All of his employees are locals from the neighboring villages behind and around Sugar Beach. “That was the time we cooked and ate where the bar is now. Of course, we had to run generators at this time,” Jogi continues. “Germans need cold beer.”
The bungalows, chairs, and tables are all built from the surrounding coconut trees and bamboo stalks. If it rains you’ll find that coconut-based items from the restaurant menu will be unavailable because the trees will be too wet to climb.
By the end of 2000, Jogi had built 4 bungalows with the help of his family, staff and fellow German cohort, Oliver — a backpacker who had heard of Jogi through a pension house in Sipalay and ended up staying two weeks to help Jogi with odds and ends. “Oliver continued his trip to Palawan and told every backpacker in the whole of Palawan Island about my place.” After the word got out, Jogi’s four bungalows periodically began losing vacancy. When a raft of new visitors begins to overflow on Sugar Beach during its high seasons of January and February, he was pleasantly surprised.
If you visit on high season, not to worry: Jogi still allows travelers to pitch up a tent.
Beached fishing boats sway in the sand as the gentle tide glides them with the pace of the evening current. The sugar brown sand turns a shade of red as villager’s gaze on to the sunset, ending their day trip. Picnicking at the beach is very much a part of Philippine culture. And on these secluded shores, an amicable ambiance gives travelers an opportunity to intermingle with Filipinos. The Philippines has a 92.6% English literacy rate (CIA Word Fact Book), which makes it very easy to communicate here compared to most countries in Asia, furthering the level of interaction made possible.
Fifteen minutes by foot south from the northern point of Sugar Beach lays a beach barricaded by jagged volcanic rock on both sides, facing east towards the sunset. A shadowy figure swathes through the damp jungle behind me, emerging onto the sunlit sand. Doubts grow in my mind as to whether I have arrived on his private property or insulted him by taking pictures of what appears to be a village beyond the brush.
“Hello friend,” the young man greets me with a smile wide enough to knock the blue baseball cap off his head. “Do you need a room? You can stay here in my village… we can also cook some fish for you.”
Nene did not get the opportunity to go the college and like most of his family will fall into the fishing industry, but the growing amount of tourists seem to have generated some young entrepreneurial spirit within him. I am eagerly welcomed to his home to enjoy the catch of the day — a homemade grilled fish dinner prepared by his mother. The kitchen lies just behind the karaoke machine around an inclined bend dipping into the water below.
When we arrive, the wood burning stove is sizzling with the sweet aroma of adobo sauce, a soy based blend of garlic and spice which is considered the staple of cuisine in the Philippines. The stove rests upon the same brick-work pattern of dark cement blocks as the house. The interior walls match the exterior and the nipa leaf roof is placed over the foundation like an awkward jigsaw puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit.
As I bask in the fragrance of the sautéed fish and the harmonious hospitality of my surroundings, I realize it is not hard to appreciate the allure of the Philippines. Jovial curiosity and inquiring eyes circumference me, piercing my peripheral vision with the smile of people who are truly happy in a paradise they call home, no matter the economic conditions.A castaway is never alone in the company of a Filipino.
As Nene starts up the crackling karaoke box to interlude the dinner, the moon begins to reflect off of the clear water, illuminating his face with a spotlight. This particular patch of sand is his home. Though the ambience is more like an anecdote from the Jungle Book, our companionship seems to transcend these boundaries, making this Mowgli a particularly tangible tale. The words of the song drift off the screen into the empty night, drawing neighbors and family members down the dirt path to Nene’s hut by the water. Boats float by carrying new travelers past the village, giving them their own musical welcome to Sugar Beach. Nene eagerly beckons for me to take center stage — or anyone who would care to sing a song.
The next day, back up the beach beneath the nipa leaf roof, Jogi is snapping open another bottle of San Miguel. The girl a the restaurant offer me a menu, trotting towards the bar with a bashful giddiness in every beat of their subtle steps.
They recognize me from my off-key Sinatra ballad to New York, New York last nigh at Nene’s hut. The hit had apparently not gone unnoticed. A week on Sugar Beach has slipped by providing enough time for these friends to turn into family. The 70 somewhat familiar villagers and travel companions I have accumulated blend with the more alien faces of fresh and forlorn travelers now arriving on the shores. Weary from the daylong excursion, they stumble off the bobbing ship into the earthy sand. Nene greets with along with some friends. The smiles they’re wearing seem to say in an almost instantaneous manner that could only be perceived as Filippino – ‘Welcome to our paradise.’