Philippines: paradise lost.

I woke up as the plane was landing at Manila airport.

I was on my way to a tropical paradise but I regarded Manila – or rather parts of it – as a circle of hell. It looked like that as the rising sun struggled with choking clouds and was only able to give a dim ruddy hue to the scene: the brightest objects being a few aircraft and the dark blocks of the city silhouetted amidst the gloom beyond.

Here for 6 hours. Mike had thought that unwise. He didn’t like Manila airport and it was one of the less interesting ones around, but I wasn’t bothered, had a relaxing massage – not the bar girl sort but literally a massage – and thought about where I was going.

5 years ago I’d discovered a tropical paradise on the island of Palawan. This pencil shaped jungled mountan range of an island lies between Borneo and the rest of the Philippines. It had been a land bridge connecting both. I’d spotted the paradise on the internet one night when I couldn’t sleep: a land of impossible beauty, of coconut palm coves under fantastic rock formations, turquoise seas crying out to be swam in, coral reefs and so on. It became a who dares wins triumph. After a hair raising 200 mile drive it was not only as good as it looked but a woman travelling in the same vehicle turned out to be a local girl. She and her husband had the hotel room next to me and befriended me. We – and another friend or two – had a brilliant time together and I swore someday I’d return.

We hadn’t stayed in touch but I’d managed to regain contact to find that by a fantastic stroke of luck one of their trips back there was coinciding with my arrival. We would celebrate our reunion and my Komodo Dragon success in drunken revelry at that beach restaurant again with sand under the tables, torches above and the South China sea for restaurant décor! We could go island hopping too again. Absolutely brilliant!

Manila airport had long since brightened into sunny weather with the odd titanic thundercloud by the time I took off again. The spectacular cloud formations were not enough to obscure the azure sea below which matched the sky, apart from small islands outlined by white beaches and the exquisite turqoise of shallow water marking a reef. Turqoise is my favourite colour, reminding me of what was to come.

Puerto Princesa airport was still a landing strip in the jungle virtually in the city but there were signs of it being extended. Puerto Princesa was the biggest town on Palawan, halfway up its length, similar in size to Gosport.

The hotel was within walking distance from the airport. I was shown to the rear past tropical trees to my room, which was large but windowless. Same league as the hotel near the Bali bomb then. No problem, tomorrow I’d be heading north to that paradise.

For old times sake I took a walk around town. Puerto Princesa prides itself on being a city within a forest. The suburbs certainly were. Maybe I hadn’t seen enough tropical vegetation in Indonesia but it seemed more lush, more diverse, more spectacular here. I love exotic vegetation. Everything seemed further though and boy was it hot! Again the water I was carrying was a life saver. The centre seemed the same frenetic scene and I rounded off the day after nightfall with a massive pizza and beer on the rooftop part of a restaurant. Quicksilver geckos on a white wall with creepers made for photos – when you were lucky enough to get them – that looked like designs involving lizards.

The morning of departure and I didn’t have to get up early. When the combi transport arrived it looked smart and professional so with any luck it should be a safer ride than the last time I was here. And I wasn’t on my own. The van was full and a New Zealander and his friend a Canadian in the 2nd row provided good company. We were all set and moved out joining the slow traffic through the north of Puerto Princesa.

Up there was a reminder of dangerous driving with a car upended into a ditch in the suburbs. Soon we would hit the open road.

Then out of the blue a problem pulled us over and killed the progress I was enjoying! Somebody had waited until we were almost out of town before telling us they needed a cashpoint. Why was this our problem? Why didn’t the driver or everyone in the vehicle say ‘well it’s too late now’ or ‘grow up and get organised?’ I tried a furtive few words towards this effect but the consensus was that of dutiful acceptance and a ‘U’ turn to crawl back the wrong way looking for a cashpoint. It was like a dream gone bad.

Those responsible were at the rear: a tall young bearded dickhead with the look of ‘why shouldn’t I have the right to do this if it suits me?’ And of course someone like that is never without a girfriend! The little woman, who for all I knew was the cause of this.

We found a cashpoint at a supermarket and they did their dismal zombie routine with the difficulties of technology while I photographed a dog lying under a truck who – judging by its expression – felt the same about existence just then as me.

I must have been successful in sinking into a state of apathy for we were back on the road for awhile before I realised we were still going the wrong way! “They couldn’t get the cashpoint to work.” the New Zealander informed me.

I can’t remember loathing a couple so much. The reason being that something much more crucial was at stake here than whether I was annoyed or not: life and death.

For Philippine driving can be dangerous. And because of this idiocy our driver would very likely make up for lost time by driving like a maniac up that road to the north. Those two would probably make all the difference between a successful trip and death or serious injury for most of us while they were relatively safe in the rear.

They really made a job of it too. We were obliged to crawl back almost to the centre of town to waste another yawnworthy amount of tme. It was all to no avail when we were finally heading in the right direction. The other cashpoint hadn’t co-operated with those cretins either. With any luck there were no cashpoints where we were going. There weren’t last time.

The car in the ditch was passed; an omen of our very near future?

It was very nearly worse than that! I was absolutely right about the driver making up for lost time. Instead of a ride to enjoy it was a white knuckle one. One place that sticks in my mind was where the New Zealander said “don’t overtake:” on a blind bend with none of the vehicles being overtaken giving way. One vehicle coming the other way then would have meant a dreadful collision! Lives ruined and the end of this story very likely.

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The further north one went the more the driving seemed to settle down or maybe there was less traffic to overtake. Apart from motorbikes and once in awhile something more spectacular such as that crowded bus where they were hanging on to a goat at the rear.

Or maybe the scenery was a balm for the nerves. Almost all forest actually apart from the odd rice paddy, settlement, glimpse of green mountains or the sea. But what forest: lush shades of green rain forest, jungle plants with huge leaves, coconut palms, stands of tall forest giants. Last time I was here they called it the last frontier. Man doesn’t surround nature here like in the UK. It’s the other way round.

We had lunch at a place with a view of the sea just south of the few towns on the route. Almost half way there.

The journey went on to the north. 5 years ago there were roadworks, then a dirt road writhing through the jungled hills to the destination. This time there were still roadworks now and then with tarred road in between. Resurfacing probably.

There had been a mountain across an inlet of sea, bigger than anything else. The Canadian said he’d already seen it. We were getting close. After awhile the sea could be seen to the west this time; almost there. The town was extending southward! Much of it a building site of what would become small modern hotels and the like. The commercial world was catching up with paradise. I hoped it wasn’t going to be for the worse.

We were at the bus station! Previously a bare patch of ground above the town. There was still bare ground but a few service buildings too. Despite another dangerous journey I’d made it back to paradise anyway and was jubilant! I assured people I could make it on foot from here, even in the heat, for the town proper – El Nido – was hemmed into a ½ mile triangle of ground by hills and the sea. It would have fitted into my part of the housing estate I was in back home.

Out on to the road I realised the bus station had been shifted further from the town centre. It looked like ½ a mile to the next bend instead of to the beach; but I footslogged on.

Slowly on my triumpal return I entered familiar territory: the towering limestone precipice on the left, El Nido with its narrow shanty flanked streets had been ramshackle but seemed dingier now, a glimpse of the sea at the end of a street, turn right and there’s the Asylum Bar, very close now to the police station under the big trees opposite the hotel.

I checked in to the same single storey hotel I’d checked into 5 years ago. The room was supposed to be more luxurious than the last time I was here but it was more interesting; seemingly catering for women with flowery arrangements and trashy romantic thriller paperbacks. TV worked okay anyway.

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At the back it was just as it was 5 years ago. Sand underfoot. Hammock, white chairs, fence and entrance to the beach under those palms. Fantastic view beyond. Perfect.

Time for a beer in paradise, up at the little palm thatched cafeteria/bar to the left where one also had breakfast. While there I could see some of those beach restaurant tables along the beach to the right. The ‘Seaslug.’ Where we’d eaten out 5 years ago and where we were supposed to meet, at 7 I thought. A man there looked as though he was waiting for someone. It just might be my friend! It was 5pm now, maybe I’d got the time wrong. Beer bottle in hand I descended from the bar and sauntered along the beach.

It was! The German husband. A good reunion, more beer! They’d checked the hotel register and seen my name there so they knew – barring accidents – I should arrive. We were supposed to meet at 5 after all.

The others turned up. The woman looked younger, I told her. I was re-introduced to the teenage daughter, now in her 20’s, a German relative and 2 children who just been christened. It was all happening quickly now but there’d be time as I was here for 5 days.

For awhile we drank and chatted. Discussing Greece and Syria. Reminiscing about an American at the hotel misbehaving and the police inviting him across the road for a chat.

Then there was a chunk of bad news. There’d be no island hopping. Commercial firms had the place sewn up and although my friends had local contacts none of those could help with trips to the islands. Sometimes I just hate the moneygrabbing commercial world.

Then suddenly it was all over. They had to go home for an evening meal and put the children to bed. Don’t worry they knew where I was. So although the sunset was still fabulous I was on my own with: ‘well, not quite the kind of reunion I’d been banking on.’

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The following day I decided to just relax and plan. There was going to be another meeting late that afternoon. I had another massage. Bona fide parlours were common from here to Thailand I found. I also must have spent some time loafing and swimming at the beach. Unfortunately I also picked up a cold. The kind of bunged up one that’s ongoing.

My German friend was also vulnerable to that he told me, when we eventually met for a beer. It was because the Europeans weren’t used to this climate, although the last time I was here I’d had no problems. Happily there was more conversation: not so happily much of it was about things that were wrong here. There was an increased environmental tax but not even litter bins had resulted from it. This used to be a backpackers paradise but what with that and the boat trips being sown up it had become a centre of commercial corruption. Shit. Just another case of commercial crap imposing itself on everything again. There was though also the violence. I knew that the Philippines could be a violent place but wasn’t sufficiently educated. I’d checked out wanted posters at the police station involving 2 local political leaders: they were both wanted for murder! My friend more than equalled this by informing me that most of his wife’s relatives had died violently and he’d witnessed a murder in broad daylight in Puerto Princesa where someone walked past him and shot a man in front! It was a row over a traffic accident. I’d witnessed the aftermath of one when I’d hiked around town a few days ago. Given the state of driving here there was plenty of scope for more of that sort of trouble.

By the way his wife had to go to Puerto Princesa tomorrow and back again in one day! For a dental appointment apparently. I wished her luck!

Then I was on my own again for the evening except for those unwanted thoughts along the lines of ‘was it something I said?’ It was more likely the need to look after young children – a major game changer – and maybe limited finances too. Whatever the reason things weren’t shaping up like last time and compared to then something was wrong, sadly.

The following day I went on an cruise around Bacuit Bay. On to one of the outrigger boats which were everywhere in El Nido bay like giant versions of insects that lived on a pond’s surface.

Just like last time it was off with a group through a watery gap between the main island and a few domed mountains tapering down to a spike of a headland. Beyond lay Bacuit Bay: a deep wide one littered with small islands or mountain sized lumps of old hard limestone, often jagged, clothed in tropical vegetation wherever it had a chance. The few longest islands, mini mountain ranges, lay to seaward. This was the land of impossible beauty I’d seen on the internet.

Before long there was a casualty though. Maybe the weather was windier than last time for my white floppy hat blew off, landing in the sea. The crew thought it could be retrieved but by the time they’d swung the boat around and returned to the rescue there was no sign of it. Like the clock on Skyros another old comrade had become a fatality of this campaign, sinking into the indigo deeps of Davy Jones locker.

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I got some photos of what kind of heaven this place could be, but there were fewer opportunities than last time when it was sunnier.

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A typhoon was approaching the northern edge of the Philippines, the opposite end of the archipelago from El Nido, but it had the effect of sucking in cloud from a wide region, some of it across El Nido.

And this time I was bringing a cold along. Like a typical British tourist perhaps. When we snorkelled I didn’t seem to be as good at swimming as last time. 5 years older perhaps but there was also the cold.

I was dismayed at the state of the coral. There was a distressing amount of it broken up into fragments although there were still some spectacular formations. 5 years ago there was an odd clump of white coral in an otherwise spectacular alien fish city of a ‘seascape?’ Small fish had been everywhere, each one a masterpiece of design and colour.

After this I tended to give the swimming a miss – unlike last time when I swam at every opportunity – feeling too weak and trying to sunbathe, except it was cloudy when I wanted to.

Back in El Nido I tried to find another hat, settling for a turquoise one in the end.

The following day brought an improvement. I got up early to explore some of the northern tip of Palawan, something I didn’t get round to last time. El Nido was almost there but there was an airfield just to the north of the town to start with. Then more in the way of cultivation amidst the jungle hills.

Transport was a tricycle and driver. Motorbike covered metal sidecar combinations: they were everywhere in the Philippines, often gaily coloured with original names on them: ‘Rich Anna’ and ‘Bam – Kids’ to name a few. The streets of Puerto Princesa were crawling with them and when there was traffic in El Nido it was usually tricycles.

The country going north was more picturesque than spectacular; good for some good shots of water buffalo and egrets in the rice paddies. There was also a long idyllic beach and stretch of coconut palms with rock outcrops offshore that just managed to be islets with trees and even habitation in one case. There was a price on this beach sightseeing though and I realised I was running low on cash.

I hoped it wouldn’t be a problem for an expedition to a waterfall on the way back. Where the English is partial – as it is in the Philippines – misunderstandings occur more easily.

We stopped for a break I thought, by a hut with dog in the road and a pig lying under some shrubbery. By the time I’d photo’d the pig a small wiry lady of indeterminate age was right behind me. She would be the guide to the waterfall. We set off smartly but I still couldn’t get a price out ot the driver for this.

Relax and enjoy: this little expedition which developed into a memorable trek. The first bit involved crossing a jungle stream, or river, depending on what one wanted to call it. Beyond was an exploration of the richness of Philippine plant life: giant bamboo, over a wall into a palm grove, rain forest giants.

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We recrossed the river many times. Boulder and rock strewn it was adding up to the kind of adventure I enjoy. Plus opportunities to take each other’s photos.

My guide was a character. Chatty and strong willed she insisted on holding my hand aloft to ease my passage; as though we were always about to enter a ball as a regal dancing couple. The one time I managed to assure her I was okay and walk unaided I promptly tripped over a root. A source of merciless humour from then on. The way had become hillier with many roots. According to her I was tired and slow. Well I had the cold still but I didn’t feel as bad as yesterday, whereas she’d done this for most of her life so was probably fit in a way that was unknown in the world I came from; where every 2nd person of any age either seems to have something wrong with them, or knows someone who has.

The waterfall when we reached it was small but beautiful in its own way with a handy rock pool to bathe in. Not to be missed in the heat one had to get used to. There was a butterfly there too.

On the way back I took a pictorial record of a small tree with a intriguing bark patterns. It had a kind of small fruit – my guide showed me – like a lemon. If only we lived in the kind of world enabling people to have more time to explore more – at the cost of living rough at least some of the time to suit the environment – to appreciate the natural world.

At the end of the trip though I was obliged to guess the right amount to offer the guide and got it wrong. It was 3 times as much! Luckily I had just enough cash but the damage was done. As soon as she had the money she walked off abruptly marring an otherwise good experience.

My response to the shitty debate about being ripped off or ripping them off and so on ad nauseum is I just don’t like haggling at the best of times and it goes against the grain for me to do it in 3rd world countries where nearly everyone is bound to be a dammed sight poorer than the tourist. On the other hand – although I’m not normally one to interfere in the local way of doing things – the locals here at least might make life easier for everyone including themselves by getting their heads around being clear on price when dealing with tourists. If I have any advice for tourists it’s get a clear price if possible.

Another day another adventure hopefully. I wanted to take a longer boat trip to photo an incredible rock formation in the sea that was so undercut by erosion it almost looked as though it was hovering above the waves! Like one of the islets in the sky creations from the fantasy artist Roger Dean. Trees and a rock structure resembling a roof added to my fantasy. I’d photo’d it 5 years ago but the images weren’t good and this time I still had 2 days to play with.

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The typhoon though had taken up residence on the northern edge of the Philippines and although we were nowhere near the storm itself it was managing to reel in a endless belt of cloud and rain and murk right across Palawan. And another effect of the commercial world muscling into El Nido was a tight control on boat trips. Mine was disallowed. Not that I would have missed much. I consoled myself with the odd photo of the bay misty with rain, like a Chinese print.

I got through one of the trashy novels from cover to cover, loafing in the hammock when the rain was elsewhere, in bed when it was not. There was trouble where I was going as well. A few bombs had gone off in Bangkok, killing 30 people at a shrine.

In the afternoon and evening amidst beers I went on patrol up and down the beach hoping to spot my friends, to no avail. Never mind. Still a day left. Surely they wouldn’t let me go without one last meetup.

The last day was a repetition of the one just gone. Lousy weather. No boat trip. No friends. Maybe there’d been a tragedy on the road to Puerto Princesa but I was never to find out for it was as though they’d just vanished.

It was so different from the island hopping, swimming, singing and revelry in the tropical evenings 5 years ago and seemed to prove what my father had told me about it being a mistake to follow up on a good experience as the 2nd can’t match it. I remain unconvinced believing that to be negative thinking. Attempting to reinforce success in this way involves risk of course but it could even be better the 2nd time or another good memory to help ward off the dross in life we all have to put up with at some stage or other.

There was – however – no getting around the fact that although last time I felt nothing could go wrong in El Nido this time it was a case of nothing going really right.

At least the return drive to Puerto Princesa was okay, the cold had nearly gone and out of the 13 plane flights there were now only 4 to go.

© D Angus 01 16

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