About a decade ago, when I first started writing novels in earnest, I had an idea for a novel set in the Philippines. I had been doing research for The Spanish Exile (the first book in this series), and in the course of that research, I got a lot of material on Sultan Alimuddin who was overthrown by his brother in the late 1700s, and exiled to a southern Philippine island. During that time period, the Philippines was under the control of Spain, but there were still a few holdout tribes among the Muslims (also called Moros), like Sultan Alimuddin’s. I got bits and pieces about him, here and there, but one particular part of the story stood out to me. He was charged with treason and thrown in prison at Fort Santiago, in old Manila, the capital. The Spanish colonizers who were in government agreed to spare him from execution on one condition: if his daughter Fatima would travel back to his sultanate and arrange the release of certain prisoners.
I continued to work on The Spanish Exile, but Fatima’s story wouldn’t let me go. On a lark, I decided to write the last chapter of a novel based on her. It was a wedding ceremony between a princess I based on Fatima and the love of her life. I shared the chapter with my critique group. I told them nothing about the background. It was a chapter that I derived a lot of pleasure in writing, imbuing it with romance and exotic details, with the sun setting upon a house on stilts and the lovers finding each other in a playful game of hide and seek as was their culture’s tradition (the groom had to find the bride). When I finished reading the chapter, my critique group members sighed, stars in their eyes. I could tell it made them swoon, which was promising.
Years passed, and other projects superseded that novel. I wanted to write a trilogy, and tried to think up some ideas. Then it dawned on me: The Spanish Exile and this other novel could complement each other. What if I had the protagonist of The Spanish Exile go to the Philippines and meet this princess? And what if she was in love with a warrior from her tribe?
Thus, The Islands of the Crown series was born. Fatima became Juliza. I based fictional Gurian on the southernmost island of Jolo.
An important note on the Muslim faith as depicted in my novel: I decided to incorporate two major departures from what would traditionally be considered strict adherence to Islam. First, that a sultan could be female. Although I could not find, in my research, female sultanas, the Philippines’ matriarchal society has a solid history of strong women leaders. Second, that men and women mingled somewhat freely. I employed variations like this on the Islam faith solely for fictional purposes.
In 2007, my husband Drew gave me one of the biggest, most selfless gifts in our marriage. He said, “You should go to the Philippines. If you wait until we can save up for the family, you probably will never go.” (As it happened, I went back again that year for my sister’s wedding and again in 2016 with my family. But I certainly couldn’t have predicted this back then. And I am glad I didn’t quibble.) It wasn’t as easy as just booking my flight and flying out over Spring Break. But because of its timing, my sweet family spent Spring Break on a road trip to Arizona. So, relatively guilt-free, I took up my husband on his offer.
I had drafted The Spanish Exile, and was writing two other historical novels, Girl from Gurian (which is now The Last Princess) and Blemish (a coming-of-age story set in a leper colony). Apart from visiting Manila, the Philippine capital where I grew up, I wanted to visit Palawan. Not just to visit family (my father’s mother grew up there) but also to do book research. Unfortunately, Jolo, in the south, and other similar areas, are not considered safe at the present time for American tourists so I couldn’t visit there.
Palawan’s main island, Puerto Princesa, is an umbrella shaped section in the southwest region of the Philippines. I had never been there before and travel there intimidated me. By dint of luck, my brother Lizor was serving as commander of the Coast Guard outpost in Coron, which is one of the islands north of Puerto Princesa. It is part of the Busuanga Islands, along with Cuyo and Culion.
Apart from the pleasing alliterative nature of these island names, they are significant to our family. My paternal grandmother, Candelaria, or Lola Cande, grew up on Coron. Her family even has streets named after them. A branch of the family owned Culion before the United States government bought and transformed it into a leper colony. My father’s Spanish ancestor reportedly settled in Cuyo, on which I would base the Spanish settlement Zamboanga in The Last Princess.
Luckily, my brother, his wife and son were able to travel with me to Palawan. To save money, we took the WG&A super ferry from Manila to Busuanga on a Friday night. The other option was to fly for an hour or so, which would have tripled our cost. Once we got past a cute drug-sniffing dog, we staked out a set of bunks in the ferry’s large commons sleeping area. Taking our valuables with us, we roamed the ship, ate meals of squid, rice and pansit rice noodles, and stood on the deck for fresh air. It really wasn’t a bad way to travel, especially escorted by a Coast Guard officer.
We arrived in Coron without lodging reservations, only to find all the rooms booked at SeaDive. The owner was my brother’s friend and he allowed us to rent a room usually used by volunteer doctors. We took day tours to some of the prettiest places I have ever been to in my life, where the waters were such a bright turquoise and clear, and the sand white and fine like sugar. One of my favorite stops was Kayangan Lake, which formed in a volcanic crater, surrounded by tall rocky cliffs with breathtaking views of the sea. I made sure I used this setting in a chase scene in The Last Princess.
After some idyllic island-hopping, we looked into travel to Culion and Cuyo. We took a day trip on a motorized outrigger boat to Culion. It was a Sunday, and everything was closed, but a hospital official graciously opened the doors of the museum to us. I won’t dwell on Culion in this Author’s Note; I shall save this for Blemish, but that was a fascinating visit, marked with some excitement when I bumped off my sunblock into the water and one of my brother’s men dove and rescued it, and when I went on a bridge and was rescued by this same officer when I was confronted by monkeys.
Cuyo took a bit more doing. On our last couple of days in the area, my brother and I booked a ferry ride from Coron to Cuyo, intending to return to Coron the following day. The wood-hull MV Catalyn-D was much smaller than the one that brought us to Coron. The sleeping area had green serviceable cots. We looked the color of the canvas come morning, after the ferry pitched all night. We beached after lunch. Normally, the ferry ride takes about 12 hours, but we took longer. The ferry had to drop off some workers at the luxurious Amanpulo Resort on Pamalican Island but did not receive permission to get too close, adding to the mystique of the place. The passengers had to be fetched via small outrigger boats.
Upon arrival at Cuyo, I observed an American tourist pedal a ratty old bike down Fernandez Street rather erratically, one hand clutching a couple of plastic bags, presumably his lunch. He leaned the bike against a tree, sat on a low concrete wall and proceeded to eat mais, or boiled corn, with gusto. An impromptu, simple lunch set in a casual beach setting. He wore a pair of shorts, a tank top and a golden tan and would have blended with the locals were it not for his blonde hair.
He and his friends were lodged at a house next to the Coast Guard station on Fernandez Street. In this small town, word got around fast, and their arrival on our small ferry earlier in the afternoon created a stir. I counted one, two, three surfboards with sails parked next to a fence. The Coast Guard station commander said the group had left Boracay, a resort famous for its night-life, to flee the crowds.
For the backpacking crowd-shy tourist, Cuyo is the perfect antidote to a party-resort vacation. The beaches were still pristine, but the crowds were absent because tourists with packed itineraries would find it a challenge to indulge in a side trip to Cuyo. In 2007, Lonely Planet didn’t even list Cuyo. Internet information was sparse and outdated. Unlike other destinations, you cannot simply hop on a plane with a daily flight schedule or board a ferry from Manila. It takes some doing to get here.
I suppose if you are royalty, or a celebrity, or want to plunk down $700 per night on lodging, you should seriously consider staying at Amanpulo, just a few islands shy of Cuyo and reputedly one of the most beautiful resorts in the Philippines. After all, for only $1,100 a one-way, private charter plane can take you to Cuyo proper. But my brother and I opted for a 750-peso-a-night (roughly $15) air-conditioned room in Nikki’s Pension, which is walking distance from Cuyo pier along the boulevard.
Our first stop was lunch at Nikki’s, a turo-turo (point-point) style dining with a variety of dishes to choose from. For dessert, I indulged in the fragrant brown chico at the palenke or wet market, as well as pan de coco (coconut bread) at the bakery, which was just around the corner. A woman, overhearing me crave for fresh buko, or young coconut, invited us to check out her place down at Quejano beach. Later, we promised.
Then we were off on a personal pilgrimage to Cuyo Fort, built in 1683 by the Agustinian Recollects to ward off attacks from southern neighbors who challenged Spanish rule. This was the main reason I came to Cuyo in the first place: to see for myself the silver frontispiece donated by my Spanish ancestor, Don Pablo Ponce de Leon, whom I base the main character of The Spanish Exile on. At the juncture where altar and carpet met, I found his name and the year (1800) inscribed.
At what used to be the island’s Spanish military fort, we climbed a staircase leading up to a stone observation deck and the watchtower from which we glimpsed the coconut tree-lined bay. I shivered as I looked down at the blind entrance (where I would not be seen by someone entering it). In the late 18th century, the besieged natives would have poured hot oil from above to repel their slave-raiding attackers.
Afterwards, we took a tricycle (a motorcycle with a sidecar) to Quejano Beach, traveling via a pastoral scene of calves and dogs basking in the sun, which was Cuyo’s air strip. When we finally found the beach, our five-year-old host (his mother wasn’t there) and his yaya (nanny) lent us spoons so we could enjoy the coconuts harvested by our tricycle driver. A restful place, perfect for lazing on a hammock or scouring the beach at low tide for sea urchins, which I was told was a local delicacy. You cut one up and eat the yellow stuff raw, which is a lot like crab eggs (aligi), but watch out for the cholesterol. In The Last Princess, I had my main character Raúl relax at a similar beach and try the sea urchin.
Later, we hiked up Mount Aguado, a 10-minute tricycle ride from town. A cross and statue depicting the stations of the cross marked the trail at intervals.
The next day, I got up at sunrise and enjoyed a solitary stroll down Capusan Beach, which began just outside our pension. This is where swimmers can enjoy white sand and surfers get their fill of playful amihan and habagat winds.
Mid-morning, we hired a banca (boat) for island-hopping. We stopped first at the small and uninhabited Pandan Island, its black volcanic rocks a startling contrast to the white sand. A few fishing boats lined the beach in a colorful display, their owners eating their lunch under the shade of rocks. We also stopped at Bisucay Island, Cuyo’s neighbor. A mangrove-lined trail led to a shallow bay fronting a fishing village and a beach all to myself. We would have liked to go to Seland, which reportedly had good snorkeling and a fine beach, but the boatman feared he didn’t have enough fuel.
Oh, and yes, the nightlife.
Our first night, I spent with my brother and his Coast Guard friends at Nikki’s videoke bar. The next night, just a few hours before we shipped out, I caught a little bit of the Pinalubogan Festival, which is a variety show/fiesta the town hosts every full moon.
Nothing like Boracay’s party-resort, of course, which was perfectly fine with me.
In 2016, I returned to Palawan, Philippines with my family. For my debut novel, Ghost Moon Night, I had researched details of cockfights online, watching Youtube videos. For The Last Princess, I was able to watch one live and in person.
It was a Sunday. At 1:30 p.m., we headed down to my grandmother’s family’s hometown, Bintuan, with the help of a tricycle driver we hired, named Junior, who turned out to have been baptized Mormon years ago. Small world. He knew a lot about my second cousin Kuya Joseph “Patit”’s family; I was glad he was driving us. He took us 30 minutes to Bintuan, directly to Kuya Patit’s farm, where he was hosting a cockfight for the feast of San Juan. On the way, men carrying roosters in little vented boxes zipped past us on motorcycles.
“Two things Coronians do,” a local said, “basketball and cockfights.”
And treat guests with such generous kindness. We met Lolo Tantin (Kuya Patit’s father) first. He was still fit, at nearly 80 years old. He introduced us around, then his daughter Sandy fed us some chicken sandwiches and soda.
Cockfights took place all afternoon. There was a covered pavilion without walls, surrounded by three deep people many of whom stood on the low wall to watch. With each fight, the crowd got into a bidding frenzy, some people holding up their fingers, and looking around for bets. Then they released the roosters, unleashing an intense fight and loud cheering. One of the bouts yielded a dead rooster, with a slashed chest. I couldn’t see much past the crowd, but I will never forget the excitement and the sounds of this sport that seemed to belong to a past age.
I suppose you could say that this book took a lot of research and I may never get back in book sales the amount I put in. You figure, I traveled twice to Palawan, Philippines, where much of this book takes place. I stood on the ramparts of forts built specifically to repel slave raiders, alongside weather-worn cannons pointing to the sea. I stood on balconies where villagers poured hot oil upon their attackers. I peered into dark dungeons at Fort Santiago in Manila, trying to imagine what it would have been like for a sultan to be imprisoned there. As we cruised down the sea on the ferry, dolphins swimming in its wake, I imagined what it would have been like for Fatima to travel on such an errand upon which her father’s life depended.
That is the beauty of historical fiction. More than yielding a book, I have come to understand my homeland’s interesting history and my family’s roots. A priceless blessing. This book was born out of my love for that epoch and setting. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.
March 3, 2017