Roel Robles had been on Pagasa Island for less than a week when he found himself wondering, with something like despair: Is it possible for one white-beached, palm-studded place to be both heaven and hell, paradise and prison?
“When you first get there, you see this little island resort,” said the 30-year-old sergeant in the Philippine National Police. “Then after about five days, something snaps. You begin telling yourself, ‘I have to get out of here -- now, today.’ ”
Pagasa plays tricks with your mind.
Its few dozen inhabitants can walk around the pint-sized perimeter in 30 minutes. From its highest point, nine feet above sea level, they gaze out at turquoise seas all around.
It’s a stunning view. But it’s the same view, day after day.
For the government in Manila, however, all that matters is that it’s a Philippine view.
Pagasa may be a 75-acre speck of sand and rock, but that hasn’t stopped a swarm of countries from battling over the hundreds of specks of sand and rock that make up the Spratlys, which may be the most disputed island chain on Earth.
So, in 2002, the Philippines decided to establish a small colony of hardy civilian settlers on the island, augmenting the two dozen military workers who earn special “loneliness pay” to live on the far-off spot -- and bolstering its claim that possession is nine-tenths of the law.
The result is sort of “Cast Away” meets Plymouth Rock.
In a nation where half the 90 million residents endure grinding poverty, Pagasa volunteers get free food and housing and guaranteed work. But there’s also guaranteed boredom. Many who inhabit Pagasa consider the calendar their worst enemy. Others mark off time on the wall like stir-crazy convicts.
With a main port named Loneliness Bay, the island can take such a psychological toll that one inhabitant stabbed himself just to escape it. Another hanged himself two days after he arrived.
“The happiest day on Pagasa is when the boat comes to take you off,” said Robles, who after three months on the island last year has returned home here, only to dread his next Pagasa assignment. “Next is seeing the plane arrive with supplies. The sound of those engines means cigarettes and alcohol.”
Claimed by many
Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all claim part of the Spratly archipelago, which spreads across a lonely stretch of the South China Sea west of the Philippines. Some have based military outposts there to safeguard their interests.
There’s talk of a United Nations resolution to settle the turf battle over the island group, thought to be rich in oil and gas deposits as well as virgin fishing grounds.
Manila claims nine islands in the so-called Kalayaan group. Pagasa, which means “hope” in Tagalog, is the largest and the only one with a year-round population.
It’s a sun-bleached settlement of 20 houses, a community center and a clinic run by a resident midwife. There are no stores and no roads, but a military landing strip knifes through the island’s heart.
The population rises and falls. At its height, 300 lived there. Nowadays the total is 55 civilians, fewer than half a dozen of them women.
Pagasa even has its own mayor. Of course, gray-haired and garrulous Rosendo Mantis doesn’t actually live on Pagasa; he keeps an office on the mainland and travels out to press the flesh and check on his constituency. Mantis is the island’s chief promoter, but even he acknowledges that Pagasa is an acquired taste.
“Most people who have problems there just miss their families,” he said. “Basically, they go crazy.”
By his own account, Mantis first hatched the inspired idea to bring women and civilians to Pagasa Island. As a navy commander there years ago, he was, along with his men, driven to distraction by the celibate life.
“There was little communication with the mainland,” Mantis, 56, recalled of the military stints, which can last for eight months or more. “When we heard a woman’s voice on the line, all of our ears perked up. We were very happy.”
Soon, Mantis brought his family for a visit. At first he worried for the safety of his daughters on an island populated by restless men.
The trip was a success, setting the stage for another brainstorm: “Why not found a community there?”
The Philippine government had sought to better secure its claim on Pagasa and the surrounding Islands. So, in 2002, officials staged visits for prospective new residents, like an island version of a time-share pitch weekend.
There were few takers. So officials did the next best thing: They ordered civil employees in Puerto Princesa to replace them for at least three months. Those who refused were fired.
In a boat that they dubbed Noah’s Ark, 100 employees set sail with 200 chickens, 23 pigs, 20 goats, four turkeys and two puppies.
Island life was hard from the beginning, Mantis recalled. Residents ate and slept together, “communist style.” Everyone was assigned a job, horticulture or fishing.
“You had to work to eat,” Mantis said. “I didn’t want to feed a bunch of lazy people.”
In return, settlers received free food, housing, electricity and medical care. “Everything is free on Pagasa,” Mantis said. “Still, people complained. I guess that’s normal.”
Eventually, volunteers took the place of the employees, all of whom left after their assignment. They were greeted by typhoons that drove them indoors for weeks, preventing them from catching the fish that soon became a staple of their diets.
In the toughest times, they slaughter a pig or goat, but when fish are scarce they live off canned corned beef and sardines.
Telephones and satellite TV are powered by generators that run only part time. Air-conditioning is nonexistent, and on the hottest days many wonder why they ever came in the first place.
“Sometimes, when the phones were down, I’d lie in bed and think about my girlfriend back home,” said National Police Sgt. Hermar Medina, 27. “I’d get bored and let my mind wander. And then I’d get freaked out.”
Army Lt. Ace Ronald Ampong kept a blog of his eight months on Pagasa in 2008 -- entries full of pain and wonder.
Ampong wrote of being “filled with serenity by the exquisiteness of silence and the noise of nature like waves, birds, breeze and even raindrops.”
But nights, he wrote, were hard. Fellow soldiers “learned to compose lyrics in a melody of going home. One of them even cried because of loneliness, hoping that death would soon come.”
Soldiers try to keep the mood light by staging a male beauty contest. In his office in Puerto Princesa, Mantis flipped through photos of the events. “Many are quite convincing,” he said.
Mantis says he likes Pagasa’s alternative lifestyle: He once oversaw a mass wedding of six island couples. (So far, one baby has been born on the island, but many more have been “assembled” there, he says.)
The mayor also screens new island volunteers, warily weeding out potential troublemakers who might view Pagasa as a way to escape creditors, the law or a bad marriage.
His first question: “Why do you want to live there?”
When he leaves office next year, Mantis plans to live on Pagasa full time to pursue establishing a year-round tourist resort.
Roel Robles questions the sanity of that decision: “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me a million dollars.”