Philippines Diary #2

We arrived by flight from Manilla to the city of Porto Princessa and spent the day relaxing at a lovely bed and breakfast. At night we took a trip to the boardwalk where I was pleased to see that locals outnumbered the tourists. That’s always a good sign and a chance to really observe and learn.

The boardwalk reminds me of the one in Pondicherry but at a smaller scale. There was a lovely beachside walking promenade and bicycle path, and you can rent bicycles and tricycles to pedal up and down the street. The opposite side was lined with shacks and small stalls serving up delicious local cuisine. We saw our first Balut vendor but weren’t able to gather up the courage to try it just yet. That might have to wait till we have acclimatised ourselves better to the local food. Vegetarian food is still a distant dream but we’ve done our best to eat as much fruit as we can to offset the meat intake. I can honestly say I’ve never missed a ‘shiv sagar’ more.

Days are burning hot here but the evenings are pleasant. I haven’t found use for my hoodie at all, even at night. Most places are safe to wander around even at night and seeing single women and families with children walking around at night is reassuring.

Many people have asked if I was Muslim. It didn’t strike me at first but on closer inspection I realised that there’s an absence of facial hair within the local people and being brown skinned and bearded they assumed I’m Muslim. Surprisingly that did not stop them from offering me pork.

The local food has a lot of BBQ and there’s lots of small ‘thelas’ that serve barbecued meat on a stick, although it looked and smelt great at night we only discovered in the day that most of it was second rate pig parts like intestines, bladder and the like. Luckily we didn’t eat any and have stuck to more discernible food options like grilled fish and large pieces of what we are sure is chicken. I don’t think our system can handle these odd treats yet but we have another week left and you never say never.

After spending time in the lovely city of Purerto Princessa we made our way to the beach town of EL Nido in a shared AC mini-van that costs around rs 750 a person for a 5 hour ride. We were promised a pickup by 11am and a drop off at 4pm but like India nothing happens on time here and it took us over 8 hours to complete the journey, reaching El Nido only after dark. Once we got in our van it kept looping around the airport to pick up more people instead of starting the journey right away. I was almost annoyed by this but found out that there were people in our van that had been sitting in it since 9am and had taken many more rounds of the airport than us so we were happy to realise that it could have been worse.

Once the van filled up we heaved a huge sigh of relief and everyone clapped eager to get going but our joy was short lived as our first stop was a drive through Jollibee, a local McDonalds lookalike, just 2 mins down the road where the driver and the other Filipino passengers proceeded to order a mountain of take away food and chomped away as we drove off. At this point I could only laugh at the absurdity of our journey, but that laughter was replaced with nausea as the smell of strange food filled the windowless AC van and the winding journey up the mountain forced us to sleep just to keep our stomachs settled.

That was a pity because the coastal road to El Nido was some of the most scenic and beautiful drives I have ever been on. Any direction you peered out was paradise with lush green tropical forest and small glimpses of beautiful beaches and water so blue I had to rub my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

At some point our driver decided to make up time by speeding through the curves and woke everyone up with the jostling and turning of the van. By the time we got off the cramped van our feet had forgotten how to walk and we slowly stumbled out of the van with a huge sigh of relief at making it through the journey. I’m dreading the journey back and trying to find a private car for the return leg so we can stop at some of the more picturesque spots on the way so we can take photos and get more breaks on the way.

Since we arrived late the beauty of el Nido did not sink in till the next morning. It’s a beautiful coastline dotted with rocks and mini mountains in the middle of the sea that are surrounded by many shades of blue water and almost pristine soft white sand beaches. We had pre booked an island hopping tour on a boat and had been assured that there would only be a couple people on the boat with us so that the experience was fun and not too touristy.

On arriving to the boat we found that was a lie and the boat was quickly packed full of tourists and we were squeezed between them. There was no pier or landing for the boat and at every stop you were thrown off the side into the sea and had to wade or swim to shore to complete the tour. It’s not a tour I recommend for those who can’t swim or aunties in sarees.

I’d also recommend dishing out a little more moolah and upgrading to a private boat so you can take your time to explore the islands instead of being rushed around in 40 min intervals from spot to spot. The landing spots can get crowded too and we skipped getting off the boat for the ‘secret’ island because the line to get there looked longer than the queue for darshan at Lalbaug. Obviously not so secret anymore

They then took us to a little island cove where we rested on the beach while they cooked our lunch on the boat and then swam it out to the beach with the plates full of food on their heads. It was an amazing sight to see these lovely island food platters emerge from the water and the lunch itself was fantastic, with fruit and fresh grilled tuna served with soy sauce marinade, roasted pork and white rice. It was an amazing experience and was the highlight of the trip, making up for all the troubles along the way.

Another lesson learnt was that you need appropriate footwear for these trips as some of the coral and rocks can be really sharp, something I only found out after over-enthusiastically jumping off the side of the boat and landing on a very sharp rock that cut through my foot. First aid kit is also something they don’t carry and my request for a band-aid was met with “don’t worry, be happy”. Which I did then as I dragged my bleeding foot through 3 more stops before I found help.

Waters around the main town are polluted with the same kind of plastic bags and food wrappers you see everywhere but once you get further out the sea water in parts is clearer than the tap water we get at home and you could see right through to the bottom. Schools of little fish, near transparent jellyfish and many colors of coral line the sea floor and you can jump off the boat and snorkel almost anywhere. There’s lots of scuba diving around these islands and it’s heaven for people who love the open water.

We’re going to wander around over the next two days, trying to avoid the tourist traps and try to find a small boat that can take us to some of the more remote spots that are only accessible by boat.

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