Mariglo Laririt welcomes us at El Nido Airport in Palawan and after the initial introductions, proceeds to inspect our footwear, worried about the muddy, slippery path to her home at the foot of a mountain. A typhoon just swept through the province and brought with it pouring rain.
“Are those Havaianas?” she asks the photographer’s assistant. “And yours?” She turns to me, looking at my rubber slip-ons before deciding that they'll do. “If you can’t make it, I can have someone carry you to the house,” she said. I began to laugh at the image in my head, me being carried like a dead log by a stranger, but realized she was serious. “No, really,” she said.
Laririt is the sustainability director at Ten Knots Development Corporation, the landholding company of those beautiful El Nido Resorts – Miniloc Island Resort , Lagen Island Resort, and Pangulasian Island Resort, as well as Apulit Island Resort in Taytay, Palawan. I was to interview her and get a glimpse of what island life is like.
Laririt's job allows her and her family the enviable position of living and working in perhaps one of the Philippines' most stunning beach destinations, home to an amazing number of virgin islands and a rich ecosystem.
Back in the late 1900s she and husband Angelo ditched their jobs as university teachers, packed their bags and took their two babies to the backwaters of a tiny town in northeastern Palawan. “I was tired of the politics of the university,” Laririt said. For five years, she and Angelo taught biology and zoology at the University of the Philippines.
It was time to set their sight elsewhere.
Elsewhere turned out to be El Nido. The new job? Resort bioloigist for Miniloc Island Resort, which was then run by forward-thinking Japanese businessmen who were keen on developing their holdings in an environmentally sustainable way. In the beginning, Laririt would shuttle to El Nido and back to Manila a few times each week. But they were punishing commutes. Her bosses then asked her to move to the pretty little town of El Nido, where they would furnish her with a home cum office.
“You have to imagine El Nido in 1999,” she said. In the town, power was only from 4pm to 12 midnight. There was no cellphone reception. The lone calling center was a small room where people stood in line, listening to the conversation of the person before them. Outside the town, “it was nothing, darkness,” she said.
Relocating 400km away from Manila, across straits and seas, with no hospitals (even now El Nido only has a rural health center) and to take on a “very absurd-sounding job of resort biologist” seemed a little crazy, but it was also an opportunity to examine marine life for real instead of observing it in jars.
Despite the initial reservations, their life in El Nido, started to fall into place. Her husband Angelo worked for a local NGO, which taught fishermen and their wives about ecology; while she spent her days in her ‘office’ – bobbing in the waters of Palawan and speeding by outrigger boat to Miniloc Resort, some 30 minutes away, to take an inventory of the trees and the wildlife.
No-frills island life suited them. It was, the couple figured out, going to be their “experimental year”. By the time their year came to a close, Laririt had begun training the resort staff in much the same subjects her husband was teaching—the importance of the environment. The environmental programmes she had helped set up put El Nido Resorts in a good place. In 2015, the resort was named Most Responsible Tourism Operator at the World Travel Awards. Other awards include the Environmental Leadership Award from WWF Philippines and an award for Environmental Education at the Pacific Asia Travel Association Gold Awards.
Back in 1999, El Nido had gotten under their skin and when their year was up, instead of going back to Manila to enroll their daughter in a private school, they decided to stay and build a school. “We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into! This was 2000. If we knew half of what we were going to go through, we wouldn’t have pushed through.”
The Laririt's brain project, a school called Potter’s Place – “God being the potter, molding, molding” – opened in a thatched hut the company boatman had lent Laririt in exchange for refurbishing the place. After hiring a teacher from the University of the Philippines to teach their first kindergarten class and a campaign to get the community excited about the new school, she waited for enrollees to pour in. “We had two. Two children! So that was an eye-opener for us. Here we were, having such high hopes! We wanted to save the world.”
But they soldiered on, shuttling kids from remote barangays to school in a Volkswagen that served as a school bus. The place had no decent road system so it was always a struggle. Each school year saw changes. They added another gradeschool class and hired new teachers to ensure continuity. Angelo quit his NGO job and worked on the school full time, becoming its director. He took a crash course in diesel mechanics in order to run and repair the generators they had acquired. He taught himself electrical and plumbing work.
Some of the skills the couple learned have been put to good use in the home they eventually built on the slopes of a mountain, just a few minutes walk past rows of freshly-painted classrooms.
The Laririt's house, built in 2007, is shaped like an inverted U and sits on a rise surrounded by forest. The front of the house has wooden decking and sliding doors allowing plenty of light and bringing the outdoors in. You hear the wind, bird sounds, bees, and butterflies flutter in and out. The seasons are marked by different bird calls and the fruit that grows on the trees.
Laririt’s favorite spot at home is the dining table where she likes to drink her coffee and sneak in some work. It is also where she joins Angelo for breakfast after she’s had her daily 5am run because she wants to meet the sun just as it’s rising. During summer, she can be up as early as 5:30am because days start early in El Nido. Then it’s off to office work in town or in the resort and then a series of meetings. She tries to end her day at 6pm but this is not often possible.
These days, Laririt travels almost every other week to Manila, where their children are now at university. "Both are very busy with their lives, we'd be happy to get a message or a call every other day," she said. While in the city, she buys muesli cereal, but that's just about it. “We’re very conscious about food miles. We try to source our food locally, it's also another advocacy of ours.”
Their lovely El Nido house, which has taken a beating from past typhoons Yolanda and Lando is up for renovation. Their school, Potter’s Place, is now an established brand in Palawan.
Originally published in InFlight Traveller December 2010 to January 2011. Updated November 2015