Monday, 21 December 2009

El Nido, Manila

In a whirl and a flash our time in the Philippines has been and gone. Contrary to all the warnings received we did not get mugged, kidnapped, murdered, drowned in a typhoon or incinerated by a volcano. As a friend remarked by email: “You can’t say that the Philippines is boring, that’s for sure.” Instead of certain death, what we did we discover was unparalleled hospitality and landscapes of dazzling natural beauty. Indeed the regrets we share about our time in the Philippines merely stem to the limited time that we had there, one month was clearly not enough. There were so many places that we did not make it to that we would like to have visited, Sagada and Vigan spring to mind a little higher than the others, alas they will need to wait until next time... On reflection it is obvious that Philippines was not the easiest country to backpack, it undoubtedly required a bit more effort and planning than other places we have been; but maybe this is what made it so special. There was a sense of reward in arriving somewhere new, and nowhere could this have been truer than in El Nido.

El Nido sits at the northern tip of the island of Palawan. It is accessed either directly by it’s small airport (soon to be a big airport) which, for now at least, is the more expensive way of getting there. Alternatively you can make your way to Peuto Princessa which is about halfway down the island, and from there your choices are to catch an early morning local bus or an “air conditioned” mini van. Either way a drive of about six hours on dodgy roads awaits. The bus is rickety and the mini vans not much better, so there is not much to choose between the two really. We took the latter of the options due to our arrival time in Palawan, having set out from Cebu airport earlier in the day. It was an eventful day from the outset. The taxi drivers in the Philippines are generally extremely affable and full of good humour.

The drive to Cebu Airport had been no exception and our cabbie, Julian, was an absolute hoot. Julian started off the conversation by asking where we from and then boasting of his dual citizenship. He was, he said, a citizen of the Philippines and a Senior citizen. In twenty garrulous minutes the conversation took in food, politics (there are elections here next year), Filipino family planning (or the lack thereof) and inevitably cock fighting. Whilst cock fighting seems to occupy the status of a national religion here, karaoke seems to be much like the national sport. So it did not seem too unusual when once we were on our flight a Christmas carol competition was announced. Within minutes three contestants had lined up in the aisle of the aircraft to sing a carol of choice to their somewhat bemused fellow passengers. The winner in our books was a little old lady who beamed at the passengers whilst singing “We wish you a Merry Christmas” in short sharp bursts before hollering “Happy Christmas Everyone” and scuttling back to her seat. It beat the pants off the serious efforts of her rivals.

We arrived in Peuto Princessa at about ten thirty with the daunting and dusty six hour drive ahead of us. We made our way to the bus terminal on the outskirts of town, crammed ourselves into a van and then set off through the undulating verdant hills that surround the town. After about half an hour the air conditioning gave up the ghost and it became apparent that the AC actually took the form of open windows. This was nothing new it would appear. In spite of this the drive was pleasant; soon the landscape changed and gave way to a coastal road that offered views of deserted beaches and a sun speckled, crystal blue sea. The road for the first couple of hours was pretty good really, and then, after a lunch of chicken and rice at a road side stall the tar abruptly gave way to dirt.

All in all we seemed to be making fairly good time, and then, on a bumpy stretch of dust and pebbles, the van gave the kind of sound that defiantly says: “I am going no further.” You could almost hear it wave two fingers at us. We piled out the vehicle and made our way to the rear left hand wheel to discover that one of the springs in the suspension had snapped. And so started the long process of trying to fix the suspension system with nothing more than lengths of rope and a small hydraulic jack. Around us, as far as the eye could see, were goats and sheep and the occasional smiling villager. There was no mobile network available. The van was jacked up, then propped on rocks whilst the jack was then used to force the broken spring back up and into it‘s usual position. The errant springs were then lashed together with rope, MacGyver would have beamed with appreciation. He would have sighed contentedly and cracker open a beer. It was torturously slow progress and two hours later, as the sun set for the day, we were back on our way.

In the interim we had met Antonio and Carlos, locals who were going to check out El Nido in advance of a joint family holiday. In typical Filipino style they were not remotely fazed by the break down. They continued to smile, laugh, joke and whistle whilst the van was fixed. They had a carefree stoicism that is typical in the Philippines. “When things go badly, we smile,“ they told me proudly. “After all, there is not much point in getting stressed out, is there?” Back in the van we had travelled about 500 metres when there was another groan from the suspension and it was time to stop again. The knot had slipped, but it had only been a matter of time. The sun had by now completely disappeared. Antonio and Carlos smiled like happy Buddha's. The whistled. The rest of us fumed. The inevitable “If this was Europe… “ was muttered. It began to look very much like that we may be sleeping in the middle of nowhere. A villager approached from a roadside settlement and then offered us accommodation for the night in his small out housing building. We accepted. He then offered to make us rice and bought us drinking water whilst Antonio and I went off to the local Sari Sari store and bought every can of corned beef and sardines that they had. Predictably Antonio refused to accept any money from me, “You are in Philippines, maybe when we see you in London you will help us.” I did not set him straight about Londoners, it seemed that now might not be the time. Rather I argued futilely for a few minutes and then graciously accepted that this was the way it would be. Back at the shack that was to be our home rice was served, the sardines were turned into a curry and I tucked into a local bottle of rum. I had it bought it to share out with the other passengers but they were not much fun sensible, so it fell to me to dispose of the wicked stuff. Later that evening the very same bottle combined with sleep deprivation sent me stumbling into an open drain, but that will be another story for another day. Above us was a star filled night, the kind of stars that you can only see in the absolute middle of nowhere, in places where electricity has not reached. That includes Harare most of the time by the way. But the whole time my prevailing thought was the generosity of the people around us. The villagers housing us for the night were relatively poor country folk. We gave them a bit of cash, but really, even if we had had no money they would still have helped. True, Antonio and Carlos were well heeled Filipinos, but then again I do not know many people who would feed a mini van full of strangers and expect no recompense or reciprocation for it whatsoever.

Behind the scenes the driver of the van had proved that he was a veritable thaumaturge and somehow managed to order a spare part for the vehicle. Where this came from I have no idea, but he and his faithful conductor had been working like Trojans to mend the suspension and at around 11 pm they achieved the impossible. We piled back into the van and continued on our way. In some ways it was a crazy decision, it was pitch black with bad roads and every likelihood of stray animals on the road. Nonetheless we went on with the journey and reached El Nido at an eye rubbing 3.00 am. We found accommodation in guesthouse close to the beach and then went to sleep. The next morning when we went out to the verandah, the full beauty of El Nido became apparent. We spent the day snorkelling at a nearby island, watched the sunset behind dramatic limestone karsts dropped haphazardly into an ocean of multifarious blues and returned to El Nido for an evening by the sea. I spent the next three days diving, including a tunnel dive and a swim with thousands of yellow snappers. The islands and lagoons around El Nido are spectacular, as were diving I did not have my camera with me and felt like my opposing thumbs had been taken away from me. By night we ate on the beach, drank happy hour beers and met up with friends that had made in Malaysia. Before long we were on the road back to Peuto Princessa, this time by bus. The journey was dusty and hot, but the bus infinitely more reliable than the van.

We spent a night in Peuto Princessa and then flew back to Manila, ran around the historical old town city of Intramuros and then met our friends in the city for one last night out. We drank until the early morning in a trendy bar in Malate and then said our farewells. Before we could depart farewell gifts were thrust into our hands which was immensely touching and came as a complete surprise, but then not that surprising when we think back to the continual generosity we were shown throughout our time in the Philippines. At the beginning of our journey through this country Anthony had confidently predicted, “You will not regret coming here.” And how right he was.

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