15.11.2013 - 25.11.2013
I arrive into Manila at ten in the evening and despite the protection of an upmarket metered taxi, am immediately scared witless. A 4k drive from airport to hotel takes about an hour and we pass by scenes in which feral type people crawl out of the darkness. I am often impressed by the dignity of people who live in poverty; despite their living conditions and lack of resources they somehow manage to have gleaming white shirts for their children to wear to school, freshly washed hair in the morning, bright curtains in the window of their shack. I have absolute admiration for them. But this was different; utter squalor, utter poverty, utter degradation.
The hotel I have booked is grim and when I ask where I can buy some beer, one of the staff suggests she accompanies when I leave the compound. When I eventually get to bed I can't figure out how to turn the air con down and I end up spending the night freezing my balls off, wearing all my clothes and wrapped in the hotel towels. Next morning the hotel fail to provide me with their minibus back to the airport (one of the reasons I booked them) and the cab I hail a cab tries to rip me off big time. Not a good start.
Back at the airport, I take a one hour flight to Palawan, one of the Philippines 7000 islands and the most Westerly in the Philippine archipelago. I fly with Zest air, a branch of the budget airline Air Asia, with whom I will fly with on probably another ten occasions before I return home. The stewardesses are something else, dressed in skimpy red outfits clinging to every curve. Zest Air are proud of these outfits; in the inflight magazine they rave about the technical qualities of the fabric they are made of, apparently at altitude it allows the body to expand and contract at ease, as well as allowing the skin to breathe more easily. Me arse. The girls were pinned into them; the mini skirts just about covering their posteriors, their knicker lines fully on show. The top was held together by a single white zip running straight from the boob line to just below the navel, teasingly ready to pop at any moment. The headline of the current Philippine tourism campaign is ' Its more fun in the Philippines', well based on those outfits, I couldn't really disagree. I'm surprised Michael Ryan didn't beat them to it. Watch this space eh.
I like Puerto Princessa airport; it's small, provincial, friendly. I have booked myself into a nice hotel for a few days and they are there waiting for me. Oh I do enjoy travelling in style. I am driven through town in a huge jeepney, by an almost as huge man who gives me the low down on what I need to know. I immediately notice there is absolutely no litter on the streets, something which is repeated in many towns through the islands, something I was not expecting. I have a lovely room; my own room, air con, a fridge, tv, bottled water, but after I recline on the comfy bed for an hour or two I realise i don't quite know what to do with myself. On the tv I am faced with wall to wall coverage of Typhoon Yolanda, which hit only a week ago. Although Yolanda passed very close to Palawan, only 12 kilometres off its north coast, it was not affected. Other than a box outside the airport collecting donations for disaster relief, there are no obvious signs that anything untoward has happened. Indeed if it hadn't been for the occasional TV in my room and concerned messages from home, I would have been oblivious to the fact that the Philippines was in the midst of a natural disaster.
Puerto Princessa is hot, hectic, noisy and poor. It feels very familiar to me, the trappings of daily life in a hot poor country are the same the world over. There is a huge trade in used clothing, the more decent stuff is slung on hangers but most are in piles on the floor, 10 pence for a pair of trousers, that sort of thing. There are little shack like shops every few metres, selling very little except sachets of shampoo, toothpaste, washing powder and single cigarettes. everything is sold in a small enough size to be affordable, everything just a few pesos. They are identical to those in Central America, except they are not behind a metal grill for protection. Everything is constantly mended and repaired, nothing is discarded. So many shoe menders, alterations seamstresses and a huge industry connected to keeping decrepit old vehicles on the road and moving. My part of town is crammed with garages and mechanics, part shops, tyre centres and something new to me, vulcanisers. What ever a vulcaniser is or does, business seems to be good. Although there are a fair few smoke belching jeepneys on the road, most people are in tricycles ( which I shall explain later, tricycles being my latest obsession) or on motorbikes. For those of you unfamiliar with Asia I should explain that the humble moped or scooter is fit to carry a family of five without difficulty. Dad will be driving, with the toddler standing on the footrest in the front. Then maybe the seven year old behind, with mum at the rear with the baby on her lap. All un helmeted of course.
I find the heat incredible and am drenched in sweat within seconds. The moment it is wiped away it condenses again and I notice that I begin to reek of a strong odour after a very short time outside. Yuk. So the next morning I try to head out early before the heat kicks in. Although three days here was supposed to be about chilling out after my mad dash through Japan, I realise I am bored and just filling in the the time really. What shall i do? I had my legs waxed yesterday, so why not a pedicure today?
The Main Street has plenty of run down saloons to chose from, all offering the same services at the same prices. All appear to be empty, so I take pot luck. The lucky saloon which get my pesos is staffed by a variety of lady boys, all with differing degrees of 'ladyness'. The jewel in the crown is as thin as a whippet, wearing painted on red jeans and killer orange stilettos with a diamanté ankle piece. She is wearing hair extensions but as yet no makeup. This allows her to spend most of her time plucking away at chin hair with a pair of tweezers. The others could be described as reasonably unfortunate looking creatures, even if they had remained being male. One is wearing make up, but with a mans hair do. The other has no make up but spends her time, straightening irons in hand, peering and pouting at herself in the mirror. There is a straight guy, watching sport on tv and a dowdy straight woman who is manicuring my feet. I am the only customer in the saloon, but they all ignore me asides from Bet Lynch. With a toss of her hair extensions she asks me where I am from, but goes back to plucking her chin before I can answer. By the time I leave two of them are asleep. I pay my 150 pesos, less than two pounds and depart. Sure it was half the price of a cup of coffee in Japan, but it was no fun at all.
I eventually escape to Sabang, basically a small square with a basketball court, a rocky foreshore and a stunning beach. The colours are so strong, so bright, so intense, it really is startling. And the wind is wild. I drink it in, God, it is soooo good to be out of the city. I check into a place with a few rooms and a balcony overlooking the basketball court and the ocean. Downtown you might say. The beach to the right is a beautiful crescent of white sand, lined with palm trees, there are two posh hotels, a few budget resorts and lots of massage tents, open to the elements. The locals live to the left. It's all so sparse, so low key, so relaxed. In Central America you had almost to show your bank balance to get within a mile of a golden beach, so this seems sooo good. How come no one is there? I sit on the quay front for dusk; the sea is on three sides, the mountains on the fourth. The local guys are playing basketball. It all seems very easeful, very gentle. This is what I learn to love about the Philippines, gentleness and ease.
I am woken by golden sunlight and gentle human stirrings at six the next morning.I walk along the beach and into into forest, I have a date with a canoe at 8. My canoe tour of the mangrove swamps is lovely. I am charmed by my slightly greying guide and paddler. I learn about mangroves sure, but it is the gentle movement through the landscape that does it for me. I wander back along the beach, have breakfast and watch swarms of minivans arrive, bearing tourists for the departure point for their tour of the famous Underground River.
The underground river is one of the Philippines biggest tourist destinations. Apparently it has just been named as one of the eight great 'natural wonders' of the world. From Sabang you take a very choppy bangka ride to the entrance of the cave, where you then transfer to a canoe for your paddle through it. Sadly my entire experience was ruined by two spoilt, surly young Americans which whom I had the misfortune to share my boat. They slouched around, rolling their eyes in a superior fashion and muttering anti Filipino sentiments, not quite under their breath. The younger one sat in a constant state of recline, open legged, whilst rolling a toothpick around his mouth like he was a goddam character out of Deliverance. In summary, Total assholes. What can I say about the underground river? It was big, deep, cavernous, sulphuric smelling. That's it. For something I had been really looking forward to, it's a shame. A shame that I let myself be influenced by their horribleness. That night I notice I am covered in bites. Next morning I count. About fifty. Raw and raging. Whether they are from the beach, the mangrove swam or my room, I have no idea. Buts it's not good.
The next morning I pay a lot of money to take a bangka to Port Barton. Bangka is the Tagalog word for boat and they come in one variety in this part of the world, a type of outrigger canoe that looks like an insect. Given the rough sea conditions they seem very flimsy, but with my history of sailing disasters, who am I to have an opinion. However I assume that for this much longer journey we will be travelling in a bigger, more substantial bangka than yesterday. Nope. Waves crash over the side and we are wet before he journey even begins. Thank god it is only two and a half hours. With each passing few minutes the sea gets rougher, the waves bigger, the amount of water entering the boat, greater and greater. The English couple at the front are drenched. Eventually a tarpaulin is placed over our rucksacks but the water runs off it and onto the floor, the floor in which the bags are sitting. It's tough going; rocky, wet, blasted by water and sun and the noise of the engine is deafening. The two malnourished looking boatmen keep having to fill the engine with kerosene they keep in a glass bottle, at times they do this with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. I have to look away.
Five hours later we have not arrived, but soon afterwards we pull into a settlement. The boat drivers don't look as if they know what they are doing. Someone in another boat waves an arm and we pull out again and round to the other side of the port. I start to get anxious about what is going on. Then with another wave of an arm we are pulling out of port. The English gut points out a sign on land. It's says San Vincente. Scanning my guide book I note it is 15km north of where we are supposed to be. What? It explains the five hour journey, but how can a boatman not have realised they have missed the mark, for a full 15 km. I have no confidence in the boat men now, no confidence that they can find the right place. I worry about the fuel, the boatmen are poor and will have brought enough diesel to get them there and no more. Will they have the diesel to get us to where we are supposed to be? We head back in the direction we came. All of us are anxious, most of us bursting for a wee. We crawl along the coast, every little cluster of house we scrutinise for a. Port Barton sign. An hour later I spot a telecommunications mast and what looks like a posh villa. Surely that must be Port Barton? The men don't seem to be paying any attention and I am despairing. Then just as we are about to pass the boat seems to hardly move. One of the boat men dives in and comes up with the propellor in his hand. It has broken. I utter deep sighs and begin my prayers to the deities. Half an hour later, six hours late, we pull into an utterly perfect crescent of golden sand. I see a sign saying Jambalaya. I scan my guidebook, it's Port Barton.
The Port Barton beach is something else, a crescent of golden sand, tepid water and a lack of strong currents which makes it very swim able. It's also dead quiet, I'd say twenty of so foreigners and that's it. I bag a Nippa Hut for 700 pesos, it's a bed with a mosquito net and that's it. You can see through the bamboo floor and onto the ground below, which freaked me slightly in relation to the possibility of furry visitors during the night. But I'm getting used to conditions on Palawan, cold water showers and electricity from 6pm to midnight only, I can cope. But I feel terrible tonight, shaky, and nauseous. I wonder if I've got malaria, heatstroke or some toxic reaction to all those bites.Then I begin to worry about how I will get to a decent hospitable for treatment. I go to bed at eight and ponder death in a foreign land. I sleep blissfully for 12 hours sleep; next morning my period has arrived and I realise that last nights nausea was motion sickness. I'm not going to die after all! So I celebrate by spend the day doing vey little and enjoy it all immensely.
Next day I do an island hoping boat trip. It's just myself and a lovely Spanish couple. The sea is calm and we move between tiny islands, blobs of white sand with the odd palm tree thrown in for good measure. But we are mainly here because of the coral and the snorkelling opportunities. The water is gorgeously tepid and while there aren't many fish, there is coral like I've never seen before. It like a magic kingdom under the water, like a forest of sedum plants, cauliflowers or human brains of all shapes, varieties and colours. It amazes me that I can see so much when the back of my head is still out of the water. Its amazing how perception totally changes under water; depth, distance, colour, temperature are totally different and then, one tilt of your head, face out of the water, and you are back in above water perception. At another stop we are treated to an abundance of tropical fish; lots of yellow and black ones with stripes, blues, canary yellows. I see my first ever cobalt blue star fish, what a thrill. We stop off on a couple of tiny Palm fringed islands, it's beautiful and the company is soft and gentle. I speak with the boatman, he is in his late twenties, trained to be a teacher, but gave it up for a simpler life. What a beautiful day.
Next morning I take my first proper jeepney ride. To me, jeepneys are quintessentially Filipino. Structurally they are army jeeps, left behind by the Americans at the end of the Second World War. They were stripped down and reconverted to meet local needs; metal roofs were added for shade, the back seats were reconfigured into two long parallel benches to create more space and of course they were decorated with vibrant colours and chrome plated ornaments for extra pazzaz. Definitely a cousin of the Central American chicken bus, they seemed a bit tougher, a bit less forgiving.
Thankfully my journey is only a few hours and not as uncomfortable as I was expecting. The only issue is that it is raining heavily and the red dirt track is soon a red mud track. The driver and his assistants have to dig us with shovels on two occasions, but it doesn't take long. Within minutes of arriving at Roxas, a minivan heading to my next destination, El Nido arrives. On the bus is Annie, recently arrived from Ubud in Bali, a place where I hope to spend a few weeks resting and relaxing next month. She gives me the name of a great place to stay for next to nothing, as well as a driver to pick me up at the airport. What a gift.
El Nido is as lively as it gets in Palawan, fully Filipino, but with a subtle accent of backpacker. Over the few days I am there I grow to like it. I'm staying at a place recommended to me, on a beach about fifteen minutes out of the town. It's a bugger to be away from the action and the beach is completely shitty, a thin strip of non descript rubble, but it is redeemed by views like this at sunset.
Next day I'm on another island hopping/ snorkelling trip. It's three times the price of the Port Barton one, there are at least thirty of us onboard and the atmosphere reeks of rip off. So many enticingly named places await us; Paradise Island, Secret Beach, Hidden Cove, but the reality is that where ever we go, there are at least another three to four boats also packed to the gills with tourists. Take for example Secret beach. You jump off the boat and swim to a small hole at the bottom of a huge outcrop of rock. Treading water you wait till it's your turn to swim through, being careful not to cut yourself on the sides. What awaits you is a sandy beach in a sheltered lagoon and maybe seventy other tourists paddling about. It was not my cup of tea at all. But the landscape was beautiful, craggy grey limestone islands jutting out of startlingly turquoise sea. During a big rainstorm in which we all got drenched (but in a good, exciting sort of way) the intense greyness of the clouds really deepened the intensity of the blue green sea. Sadly my camera is not talented enough to really capture this. And another thrill was had, I spotted my first Clown Fish ( of Saving Nemo fame) feeding off a bit of coral. What a kick.
My time in Palawan is up and I'm next heading to a really large group of islands called the Visayas. It had originally been by intention to travel by slow boat, but the extensive network of ferries in the Philippines is on its very last legs. Poor safety records, the risk of piracy and competition from budget airlines means that hardly anyone wants to use them anymore. So I was booked on a flight instead, flying to Cebu City on Cebu island where I would attempt to make my way by ferry to a small island called Siquijor.