Siaton, Negros Oriental—Michael Prader, a retired artist from Austria, was travelling in Asia in search of the simple life when he heard about the Philippines where “even people in the villages speak English.”
His journey brought him to the Tambobo Bay, a beautiful cove in the quiet town of Siaton in Negros Oriental. With an extensive mangrove forest and a rich marine life, it is an ecological sanctuary situated at the southern end of Negros island, almost facing the Sulu Sea.
He totally fell in love with the place that he lost no time renting a bamboo house to start building his dream boat.
That was 10 years ago.
Now building a second sailboat, Michael, 60, is just one of the many foreign travelers who have found a safe haven in Tambobo and have chosen to live in boats moored in the bay’s still waters.
With the majestic Mt. Talinis and the Cuernos de Negros mountain range for backdrop, it is not surprising that many world travelers have found a home in Tambobo Bay. Schooners, sloops, catboats, sunfish (a type of sailboat), catamarans, ketches and yawls—name it, they can be found in Tambobo.
So comfortable and enchanting is the place that some sailors, finding the exotic girls of their dreams, have settled down and raised a family.
Cruisers are particularly attracted to the cove, an hour’s travel from the capital city of Dumaguete, because it shelters their boats from typhoons.
Tambobo has at least 30 boats at the bay.
Michael said he enjoyed living in the bay, where locals were also friendly and helpful.
Jobs for locals
He said foreigners got along well with the locals in Tambobo.
“Foreigners hire the local people who do not seem to have a chance to find jobs elsewhere,” he said, noting that they hire local carpenters in building or repairing their vessels.
Nemesio Avellano, who comes from Valencia, Negros Oriental, has decided to settle in Bonbonon because of the work opportunity. Although he specializes in building houses, he said the “Yachties,” as the foreigners are called, patiently guide him in boat building or repair.
The Yachties also tell the vendors what food they like to eat and how they want it cooked.
Arlene Palallos, owner of Arlene & Boy’s Café, was in her 20s when she paddled her small banca from yacht to yacht, selling bananas from a bilao (winnowing basket).
She became friends with her customers who went to her parents’ hut to be served guisadong munggo (sautéed mung beans). The Yachties then invited her to their boats for salads and sandwiches.
They asked if she could prepare meals, like in a restaurant, where they could come to buy food and drinks. They even told her how they wanted their bread made.
From her share in the sale of her mother’s property, Palallos bought a refrigerator and built a bamboo dock where foreigners could moor their dinghies and head straight into her little restaurant.
Giving from the heart
She also recalled her customers chipping in to pay for the surgery of her brother who figured in a motorbike accident.
“They also give financial advice; I know they want us to improve our lifestyle, and not only to eat once a day; they always give from their hearts,” she said.
The Yachties also reach out to the children through several learning programs.
American Diane Pool, 63, has initiated a Saturday school program called the One Candle Schoolhouse, where children learned writing, computer skills, the art of self-expression and life skills such as budgeting.
Now, it has evolved into Bright Lights Community Learning Initiative, a community-based, extracurricular school, with campuses in Bonbonon and in another barangay, Siit.
Couple aboard Pilar
Diane, a graphic artist-designer, and her husband Bill, a forensic geologist in the United States, arrived in Tambobo Bay in 2000 on board a 35-foot Atkins sailboat called “Pilar,” which was named after the heroine in Hemingway’s “For whom the Bell Tolls.”
It took them nine years to launch Pilar and seven more before they left San Francisco, California, in 1991 to see the world. Asked why it took them so long to build Pilar, they said it was because they put more importance to the process of building it together than just sailing it and reaching the goal.
In their sailing adventures, they were able to visit the remote islands of Mangareva, Caroline Island and Kapingamarangi, to name a few. It was while on the Solomon Islands that they learned about Tambobo from other cruisers.
“We were attracted to Tambobo immediately because there are not a lot of places in the world that are safe for boats; even expensive when there’s a marina,” Diane said.
“Here in Tambobo, we can leave our boats because it’s safe. This is not a tourist thing like in the Caribbean or Hawaii; we see Tambobo as our little paradise.”
It turned out to be an extended stay for them in Tambobo. They eventually acquired a small space along the shore which became a studio and workshop.
Like Michael, Diane said she and her husband were enjoying the simple life, including the sheer pleasure of having time to read a book.
One local even asked Diane how the Yachties live and if they have a table in their boat.
Life in a boat
Pilar has a two-cylinder engine, which runs an average of 24 hours on 27 gallons of fuel for 100 nautical miles at five knots. It has berths for four people to sleep on, a toilet and bath, a galley with a sink, an oven, a stove fueled by wood, and a canning machine, 90 gallons of water that could last her a month and a storage for everything.
They have a table but no refrigerator, electric fans, hot water or GPS. “Bill and I are dinosaurs,” Diane jested.
Upon their arrival in Tambobo in 2000, Diane offered to teach one child how to read on weekends. “Then many came,” and the One Candle Schoolhouse was born.
The couple taught the children to translate English storybooks into Cebuano or weave an original story based on a picture storybook.
Bill built a carpentry shop, and began teaching locals how to repair and build boats.
At first, they had kids aged 5 to 15 years. They would take them to the market to teach them how to budget money; each would be given some amount to buy ingredients for a recipe they were going to cook.
They would also take the kids for a tour of Dumaguete. “We took them to the bookstore, an Internet cafe, an art show along the boulevard, and took them for a ride on the escalator at the local store.”
Other cruisers volunteered to teach the children sailing, pottery or painting or donate good-quality musical instruments.
Others would drive their motorbikes from their home in Dumaguete or Valencia to Tambobo twice a week to teach the children literature or computer applications like Photoshop and Excel.
“I feel good simply being with the local residents of Tambobo because I feel that we’re all connected, and that we can help each other to get better together,” Diane said. “Being in a community like Tambobo puts depth in my life.”
When Bill fell ill in 2009, Diane was at a loss. He passed away in the United States later, succumbing to cancer and leaving behind Diane, Pilar and the schoolhouse.
Diane decided to return to Tambobo because she knew the children needed her. She also missed basking in the beauty of nature from her sailboat. In her homeland, Diane said she felt more alone among thousands of people.
“But here in this small community of Tambobo—although I now live alone on the boat—there’s life starting in the early morning as you wake up to see neighbors sweeping their beachfront.”
Diane has continued the advocacy she and Bill started together. The learning center thrives through donors and with the help of friends who have either pledged support or volunteered time to teach the young and promising minds in Tambobo.
The centers have become a place of learning as well as a place for sharing and volunteerism.
Diane still lives on Pilar, keeping her hope of sailing her again. But for now, Tambobo is home.