travel to Puerto Princesa, Underground river, residing in El Nido at two places, chilling, Spring leaves, interesting travel to Coron, wreck diving, gorgeous scenery, True Manila Tour
03.01.2013 - 23.01.2013 30 °C
The day had arrived when we would be going on ‘holiday’ and so spent much time worrying Spring would back out at the very last minute. I organised what I was and was not taking with me, in an effort to get my bag to be around the 10kg mark, and waited as she went all over Dumaguete so that Destino would still be able to function without her being there. Coming through the door with flight printouts was enough to de-stress me so took the bike over to Harold’s to say goodbye to John in his cesspit of a room (stank and stuff littered everywhere) and before showering and almost running out the door so that Zanesh and Monique could ride us to the road with our bags on and catch a tricycle to nearby Sebulan Port in a rain shower only to find out the next boat to Cebu was 45 minutes away and so no need to rush thinking we would miss the last one. We both fell asleep on the short crossing over and missed the opportunity to be first off so had to wait in line for the Ceres Liner coach on the other side. Seated in the back corner, my head was millimetres off the ceiling and it was hard to see or hear the TV but I had leg room and as it was Armageddon on for the most part knew all the lines anyway (seen it countless times). As late evening there was no traffic so it took much less time than usual to get to Cebu City where opted for a cab to her cousin’s as it is a notoriously dodgy place and nearby were drug users/hookers. Not too far away in a seemingly safe neighbourhood Maiah opened a gate and led us to her front door where she already had both sofas prepared for our arrival. A bag full of cakes from Julies Bakeshop was to be our dinner but whilst munching noticed my left foot was really swollen so spent time laying with it in the air looking up side effects for the antibiotics I am taking- Ciprofloxin; scared myself a bit hearing what some people had gone through in taking this medicine (tendon rupture and problems lasting years not uncommon) and so put it straight in the bin.
Seeing my foot of a normal size was a great start to the day as ate banana cake and used the kindle for weather updates and various things to do with Palawan as Spring went to see her auntie at work in the nearby children’s hospital. Later we took the 6C jeepney to Robinson’s Fuente, past some of the slums, so that I could take money out (no ATM’s where we are going) and buy a new journal and cheap headphones as my ones have had for three years on verge of going silent. Pushing time to the limit we got in a taxi at 1.35pm for the potential hour trip (would be late if it was that long!) having a driver who took every back road imaginable to avoid traffic and get us to Cebu-Mactan International Airport in 40 minutes. The feeling that my time was improving in the Philippines was increased when the Air Phil Express lady let me off a kilo when checked in so didn’t have to pay a penny plus seeing our flight as on time when the Zest Air flight to the same destination had been delayed hours- in your face! I used my remaining change to buy fruity menthols as we boarded and before we knew it had landed into wet Puerto Princesa, having got free coffee/biscuits on the plane in contrast to the money grabbing Cebu Pacific.
At Circon Lodge, right in the middle of town by Rizal Avenue, we were put in a great room for only 500 pesos so used wifi to see that a cyclone was approaching with it already raining. We ventured out at 5.30pm, saw the soaking wet Baywalk (ferris wheel, unlit Christmas tree, stalls), bought lots of snacks at UniTop, and settled on a restaurant that was attached to the Skylight Hotel for dinner where I was given a big rack of pork ribs (just meat as only two bones) with unlimited rice and ice tea for only 110 pesos (<$3); only one other table occupied because of the weather. When safely in the room ‘tropical depression Auring’ dumped many inches of rain onto this part of Palawan as began to watch The Pacific then play Sudoku/Angry Birds till a power cut meant the emergency lighting came on which would not switch off! This coupled with me realizing had left my laptop charger in Cebu still meant took a while to sleep that night.
With no tours at all going to Sebang we could lie in and aim to get the midday public transport instead, although, as is typical with me, we still had to leg it to the San Jose Bus Station in the outskirts and nearly missed it as the multi cab we initially got in didn’t exactly move quickly so required a tricycle to save the day. Being last into the ‘super jeepney’ we were on sideways facing seats eating crisps and boiled eggs, reading a couple’s Philippines LP and looking out at the undeveloped and mainly unmanaged land go by as moved north until the engine required some tinkering at a rest stop almost not being able to start again. We pulled up onto the pier at Sebang and saw what I imagine to be a rare quiet day due to no Underground River happening then went away from the beach to the more localised area where Blue Bamboo is located and who fortunately had a nice cottage for P500 available; stilts, a porch, mozzie net and by good bathrooms.
We wasted little time in putting swimwear on and going out to the convenience store (yellow and bright purple cakes but taste of nothing) then took photos, ate a hot French stick filled sandwich and played with the cutest little puppies who were fighting for mother’s milk (so many dogs about town and a full litter in Blue Bamboo).
Past the exclusive Sheridan and people on Segways we went into the rough sea to be engulfed by water as admired the lush, mountainous surroundings and low mist whilst feeling 110% diving into the waves. I spent time under the perfect cold shower then chose to have a beer and eat good pork adobo in house as not willing to go in search of food; seated on floor Japanese style as seats too high for table. With nothing going on (don’t come here for excitement) we watched more Pacific and chilled till generator turned off at 11pm.
We contemplated leaving for Puerto Princesa in the afternoon but the van arriving early forced our hand and so would stay here another night. Vans were scattered about wherever they could park and hundreds of people occupied the pier in groups waiting for their turn to go to one of the new 7 Natural Wonders of the World so hung about in the shade awaiting instruction from ‘guide’ Diane.
Knowing it was us in a matter of minutes we had ‘scramble’ (ice, flavouring and milk in a plastic cup for only P10) on the sea wall, making a good alternative to ice cream, and proceeded down the concrete steps to banca number 40, ‘Sarah-Jane’, along with 4 others. Taken to another beach a few minutes to the west we hung around the information boards and looked at the Monitor lizards until were led to the cave entrance and told to put bright orange life jackets and helmets on (picked only blue one to stand out). Eventually Diane, who had done next to nothing so far, told us to get in a small boat for the 45 minute tour with an annoying boatman who wouldn’t stop talking or making jokes when all I wanted to do was experience the spectacular system and formations that required a light to be seen.
The Cathedral Room with its mammoth stalagmites, scores of small sleeping bats, and an opening that had a ceiling over 65 metres above our heads were the highlights and just wished could go further than the 1.5km we reached and do a full on caving mission to see the real reasons why this place is so naturally and archeologically important.
In Sebang again at 1.30pm there was still many people waiting (poor souls) as clearly the 900 limit was being broken to accommodate the washout yesterday. An all you can eat buffet lunch was waiting for us at Tawar Restaurant and I even surprised myself how much pork, chicken and rice I ate as it was so tasty. ]In a vain attempt to avoid paying what we owed we snuck away to the far end of the beach to rest in the shade and ignore multiple phone calls only for Diane to appear noticeably angry at 4pm for the 1500 pesos; not small change. Out in the bay we didn’t need to tread water, as stood on a sandbar, letting the sunlight hit us, which doesn’t happen often as northerly facing.
Up at 6.10am we paid the bill, watched the puppies play and waited for the first Jeepney to fill up seeing a Kangen Water sign knowing Veronika would be over the moon that is all the way out this part of the world. When a few onboard we began moving, stopping regularly to pick up people/families, bags of rice/food for livestock and most intriguingly for individuals to hand over little bags of money to guys on the roof knowing full well they will reach the intended recipient over 2 hours away; money transfer with no forms or ID- complete trust and something you will never see in the west. In the province’s capital once again we put out bags in the reception of Circon as collected laptop charger at LBC (cousin kindly sent it) and I sent over the 170 pesos in opposite direction (tough to justify sending what is less than £3 in the post but goes further here). I bought cookies, juice, burgers and fruit at the supermarket then we went to the bus terminal where we initially got on the wrong one as happened to be there already- a/c and big, almost unmissable sign on the front were the giveaways. On a small El Nido bound bus first we put ourselves by the driver for the 6.5 hour journey which had enough bumps and stops that a computer was not bought out my backpack. I alternated between leg room and heat and no legroom with a breeze as stretched my legs at every opportunity and got local chocolate/ube/cheese ice cream in a cone about halfway for 25 cents. The automotic beep on the bus almost drove me to cookoo land so distracted myself with the landscape and terrible Korean sitcom on the above TV that I couldn’t understand as was in Filipino (Spring had to suffer with the even worse dialogue). Although only part finished, potholed and untarmaced, for half of the last 50km we were flying as a previously overtaken bus that had broken down raced us, with positions alternating all the time due to amount of passengers wanting to get off or get in- was fun for us but not for pedestrians or those on bikes as getting caked in a cloud of dust. At long last the ‘last frontier town’ of El Nido was reached at 6.45pm and although a big tourist draw no touts were about to offer cheap rooms meaning had to look ourselves on a tricycle coming a cropper when nothing available for less than P1000.
It was time to look on foot and this proved even worse with ‘no vacancies’ or ‘full’ signs in every window so relied on Spring being a Filipino to get another tricycle driver to show us the Plaza Inn which was budget traveller perfection and centrally located but right on my price limit of P500 (for this he needed cash upfront for 5 nights making us quite inflexible) as a very basic new build; no more stressing as became miserable thinking I should of known better not to book. I ate my first bad meal in this country at Skyline Grill, as one of few places open gone 9pm, sipped on a beer at The Watering Hole and passed out on my computer before putting it away at 3am.
Northern Palawan only receives power 1400-0600 every day which means it’s tough to have a lie so woke up at only 7.15am, got up to date with photos and had some bananas/choco biscuits as a make shift breakfast then looked about town. I enquired about diving, island hopping and the boat to Coron then tried working out the cheapest places to eat which inevitably were the Midtown Bakery, street food and the ‘Buy One Take One’ burger joint. As a lovely sunny day we took a walk on the beach seeing the spectacular Cadlao Island, that looks the epitomy of a South Pacific paradise, and a general lack of people as probably all on day trips somewhere. I couldn’t resist going in the sea, especially when a flat sandy floor with a gentle current and few banca’s currently about made it really relaxing.
Mid-afternoon we were back at Plaza Inn to ‘de-salt’ and attempt to rest but a ‘brown out’ occurred (power cut) which lasted a while and was the reason beer at Bacuit Grill Bar during 30 peso Pilsen happy hour was not so chilled. We found a quite brilliant budget eatery called Pempena’s by the church (both our meals totalled 100 only pesos) then drank at Aplaya as needed to use Wifi so could make a decision what date to leave El Nido (have to book boat well in advance) but yet another power outage made this take way longer than it should. Little is going on here late at night so turned in before midnight.
Following another ‘healthy’ breakfast we were due to go on Tour A with Spur Travel, who made sure we paid the P200 Environmental fee and got on the correct boat along with a dozen others from different companies- packing them in Thai style! There was an interesting mix of Filipinos, Israelis, Italians, French and British but it was the gorgeous young Russian girl with her husband who was about half a century older which caught everyone’s eye. Although I did have suncream it was the stuff made for extreme conditions and high altitude so not waterproof or formulated for the climate am in meaning it was next to useless and required me to be careful.
Seeing so many other people at the Small Lagoon as well as a field of dead coral really put a dampener on the day for me as was originally excited and naively thought the place they call the ‘Last Frontier’ was just that but it appears there are few areas in the world that aren’t prohibitively expensive to get to free from mass tourism- sucks balls! Luckily when we were beneath the imposing, jagged black limestone cliffs treading water the rest had left so could almost feel alone but the lunch spot, Zimizu Beach, at a different part of Miniloc Island was full so just went snorkelling to get away.
Being last for food meant missed the adobo although got lots of the other things including a big, whole fish that tasted great with soy sauce; bananas were so unripe they were nigh on inedible, however. Going through a hole not much bigger than me to reach Secret Lagoon, the picturesque cove next to it, sailing about Big Lagoon and playing frisbee on Seven Commandos Beach improved things a bit but the damage had been done and to make matters worse the lack of a smile rubbed off on Spring.
On the other side of the gigantic headland was El Nido itself where parked right by a restaurant full of whites at 5pm before I booked myself in for some dives and later played a local variation of Rummy called Tong, which is not as strategic as the original but in some ways prefer it. Pempenas was the name of the game for dinner then once Pacific Part 4 ended I spoke to my brother, Nick, on the phone for ages as he leaves for his epic travelling trip with his girlfriend, Nicky, in less than 48 hours and had some questions for me (Mum and Dad going on holiday to Caribbean for 2 weeks day after so only my boy Max left in Jersey).
I began my day under the cold shower and minutes later was at the El Nido Marine Club, cake in hand, to prepare for a dive day that I had minimal expectations about. Once we dropped off a group of Polish first timers at Helicopter Island we cruised to North Rock with big dark clouds pushing the sunny weather away not making for an ideal start. Along with enthusiastic, funny divemaster Ronaldo and only one other person (an Asian Brazilian girl who lives in Australia) the dive was possibly the best one I have had in the country so far due to the 20 metre visibility, rock/coral formations, huge variety of fish (school of Barricuda, big Jack Fish, lots of Trigger/Parrot fish) and the steady speed we were going for over 50 minutes; whale shark spotted here yesterday for first time in years but these things don’t hang around. The only downside was hearing two loud bangs which turned out to be dynamite fishing taking place many kilometres away- amazing how far sound travels underwater. Following Miniloc’s west coast (opposite to trip day before) we awaited the dive computer to give us the get go so we could explore the many corals of different shapes/colours/sizes of ‘South Miniloc’ and see a school of Yellow Snapper, Big Mouth Mackeral, Kingfish Mackeral and some Nudibranch our divemaster seemed to have an ‘eagle eye’ for. We lunched and sunbathed where the Poles were so they could head back and we could recuperate; more yummy fish and a nice chat with Ronaldo who is following in his uncle and grandfathers footsteps. It was just me and him for the last dive at Cadlao Tip and even though it is not a noted spot seeing masses of squid eggs (appears as if clouds on the sea floor), two male Scorpion fish fighting (locked heads like bull), a juvenile Blue Ribbon Eel and a turtle capped a fine end to the day. I got the chills again so stayed in the wetsuit till back at the shop where spent time filling in the log books (highly recommended company) till 6pm then did the usual- cheap beer and cards/Pempenas/watching something on the Kindle.
After two long days out on the ocean I did some writing, ate much sweet bread and lay on the beach as Spring became increasingly stressed as to the lack of communication from members of her family and the ability to contact her son in Bacolod. At 4.30pm we made the most of another happy hour at The Lonesome Carabao so could use the Wi-Fi extensively over bottles of Red Horse and P1 packets of peanuts eventually finding out that my Australian friends, Bridget and Lisa had arrived into El Nido safe and sound but were staying out of town. Over Facebook I arranged to meet them at one of the few places I could remember the name of here and was really happy to see them again as not seen Bridget since Vang Vieng, Laos 11 months ago. On high stools at the 24 hour snack bar we caught up and ate with myself choosing right with spicy pasta arabiata but wrong with a tomato & onion salad; their pizza was basically half made of cheese and took forever to come but meant I got the leftovers. Even though no alcohol was drunk we talked right through to midnight when mutually agreed it was time to sleep.
Prior to us checking out and going to the upmarket place I booked many months ago at Corong Corong Beach I did budget calculations, ate an ice cream sandwich, visited Pempenas one last time and bought crackers, mini bread rolls and rum from the supermarket and bakery. At 1pm we took a tricycle to beautifully landscaped Greenviews and were put in cottage no.2 which was extremely nice and just about worth the P1900 a night we’re paying- spacious, lots of windows, modern bathroom, porch with a view (big butterflies all over) and a huge, soft bed. Knowing we wouldn’t be eating at the restaurant ($$) we scouted around for alternatives (not many) then waited for power to come on so could make a plan for myself, Bridget and Lisa for the 2 weeks between Manila and coming back to Dumaguete, being quite proud of it in the end and making a copy for them to read over (flights, dates, prices, ferries, how to get to places, timings, things to do etc.).
We ate 4 burgers between us in town, met the Aussies at their brand new place called Tres Verdes and took our time going along the shore in the dark with no torch trying to avoid ropes, coconuts, rocks and rubbish as tide up. Once showered we sensibly used the road to go back and have a night of drinking Tanduay Rhum alongside very drunk but interesting American Todd, getting into deep conversations such as genocide and why it occurs with Bridget. Having one too many he turned nasty and shouted at his pregnant wife (climbed Everest a few years ago) so Spring took her son away from the commotion and we tried getting him to his yacht. The small wooden boat sank part way there so required a group effort to dig out the sand that accumulated inside before a kind fisherman offered to take the family over himself. When settled we informed a group of French backpackers on the real cost of things here after they thought 500 pesos on a bottle of spirits was good value (had no idea so were spending silly money) then when at Greenviews at 2am, feeling tipsy, I started what became a heated discussion with Spring about the rights and wrongs of the guerrilla army in Negros whom she had personally visited high up in the mountains years ago.
Really missing porridge I sat on the porch having an unhealthy breakfast again watching the tide get lower and lower uncovering quite a sizeable area of sand. Bridget and Lisa met us on the road with transport at midday so we could visit Las Cabanas which was not far enough away to justify the price although was a beautiful place currently free from big development. Getting away from the groups of foreigners was easy but meant being by a shallow platform making swimming impossible in the azure blue/green sea so just relaxed a while with me going for a brief walk to see if anything special about. Even though it was overcast I managed to turn my back red when speaking to Spring about the fact it looks like she will need to fly home early because no one else capable to fill her shoes whilst she’saway and that’s not ideal when you have a fledgling business to look after and a new investor to impress as the students return from holiday; disappointed but understood. We swam in the deep water (caught Bridget smelling it- ?), partially dried off and got a ride to our respective accommodations so could meet up at 6pm and go into El Nido for beer and to check out the top rated pizzeria in the country- Altrove.
Knowing there would be the usual line up on the road (no bookings) we got more bottles from a shop although didn’t have to wait long till took our footwear off and proceeded upstairs with anticipation mounting. My Pomodori (tomato with mozzarella and basil) set a precedent but it was the pizzas that were magnificent and just out of this world- by far and away the best i’ve had outside of the US and Italy. The wood oven had turned a normal margharita into something exquisite with ever mouth full being so pleasurable I didn’t want it to end and only wished my stomach or wallet could take another- all natural ingredients and full of flavour with crust being perfect level of crispiness as I covered it in un-hot chili oil wishing they had a proper pepper grinder about. I got a business card on the way out and the girls each had doggie bags (none could finish) as I inadvertently fell asleep prior to choosing a film at only 11.15pm.
With Spring out collecting money sent to her at Palawan Pawnshop and then being amazing and hand washing my clothes I chilled, watched the cleaners do a sterling effort with the room and did a spot of writing. At 1.30pm we popped over to see the sunbathing beauties, played frisbee, use computers, get ready and go to town late afternoon so she could confirm and pay for the flight in two days’ time; got 80% of boat ticket refunded so happy man seeing as was my shout and over $35. We rushed down two beers at Bacuit Grill then picked up the girls so we could eat at Island Front Lodge but the weather turned horrible very quickly meaning all moved undercover as monsoonal rain drenched everything. Things got interesting when an inevitable power cut put us in the dark just as our dishes were cooked and awaited a person to bring them over- unbearable! In contrast to Bridget and Lisa’s average looking vegetables our pork/chicken adobo’s were right on the mark and coupled with the soup didn’t require anything else. The rain died down so were able to drink and eat copious amounts of salted peanuts at Tres Verdes as found Spring passed out on a bed when didn’t return from going to the bathroom. The disorientated Filipino couldn’t understand why we didn’t do the ‘right’ thing and wake her (not in our culture) when I felt was a good time to go if wanting to make the most of her last day so walked home, saved clothes that had blown off the line and slept.
Not seeing much light in the room and hearing the trees moving outside prepared me for when opened the door and could barely see any of the islands amongst shite weather conditions and rough seas meaning no chance of kayaking (tour company would provide it for free as forgot on our trip other day). All I could do was laugh to myself on the porch as I scoffed on chocolate crackers weirdly putting me in an energetic mood knowing it would be a ‘nothing’ day. I showed her some photos that linked into some stories had mentioned thenwatched Fifth Element as not too humid or stuffy to do so mid-morning. I looked at my HSBC account, booked Manila hostel, copied over some music videos and played some before we each tried readying ourselves to leave the cottage during yet another electricity outage. In El Nido I bought more delicious Ube pancakes (thing purchased the most) and was then forced to drink at Lonesome Carabao as the other bar didn’t have cold beer. We played 7 long and close games of Tong (beat her 4-3 for first time) as conversed properly and honestly for once, tried an apple shake from the juice bar nearby, enquired about Daria’s missing ring she lost many months ago and saw the girls for half an hour at about 8pm so Spring could say goodbye. After she packed we watched Saving a Friend for the End of the World (bit different with Keira Knightly and Steve Carroll hooking up when an asteroid is en route to Earth- could have been better), lay on the bed and drifted off till the alarm sounded at 3.20am so she could go to the bus station and begin the long journey to Dumaguete.
As there was no power from 1am onwards (meant she was in the dark walking) I only had enough charge in my laptop for an hours usage so made most of it, ate more sugary bits and sat on the table taking in the cool breeze that presented itself. As we were quite possibly the only customers to have stayed that didn’t purchase a single thing the bill was fairly straightforward to calculate (just the room rate and that was at 50% as paid a deposit!) and must of looked fairly odd when, instead of going to the road, went onto the beach in just my board shorts. Alongside Bridget and Lisa I stayed on one of the sun loungers at Tres Verdes for the majority of the day from 11.45am entertaining a bunch of kids, talking about odd dreams, lying down with no cushion for comfort, trying a 30 peso chicken sandwich and patiently awaiting power as always (story of our lives in these parts). We took it in turns showering (provided towel useless) then went to Carabao for Red Horse and Wifi; managing to book a Cebu Pacific flight on my Kindle (if you knew how bad this airline website is you would know how much of a feat that was). At 7pm we were totally ready for more Altrove pizza that dare I say was better than the last (added fresh tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, onion and garlic to it) with Bridget somehow eating the whole thing (helped by me having the crusts). Full and very satisfied we bought rum and coke to have by the beach as Lisa gave up trying to book her flights on the same website I was successful on hours earlier. Having an enjoyable evening manager Marvin then put in the rather small spare mattress for me at 12.30pm so when got one of the girls to put moisturiser on my back joked it was ‘shrinking cream’ so would fit on it better by morning.haha.
I was all prepared to finally leave the El Nido area but it wasn’t quite ready to let me go as turns out the ferry was moved to tomorrow and somehow I was the only person who didn’t get pre warned about it- must of looked like a right Muppet! As you’ve probably gathered I was not amused by this so made sure they knew that and with my tail between my legs went back to Corong Corong. Thankfully all was not lost as the girls had opted today to be the day they at last did something- island tour D. Once the shady man in charge was informed about me joining he made sure more food and a spare lifejacket were put on the small banca as it was to be only us and two Finnish guys making quite a contrast to last time. Thinking this would be better in general I did not account for the pathetic speed of the vessel which was mind numbing at best. Overcast skies and an uninviting sea made Helicopter Island an almost pointless 20 minute stop but it was a necessary interruption as was a looooong hour to the northern tip of Mantiloc Island on the outer reaches of the Bacuit Archipelago (drone of engine almost sent me to sleep). We entered the channel separating it from Tapituan Island and docked by a random white shrine and abandoned church taking a look around (somehow got there when no other boats were about) and climbing up the sharp limestone for a fantastic view.
It was lunchtime so on a narrow beach on Tapituan joined a few other boats so the captain and first mate could cook and we could relax and watch the sun unexpectedly make an appearance. As Bridget is a veggie and there was a lot available I had two full plates of rice, fish and soy and two giant bananas all to myself so was surprised didn’t sink when got in the sea for a swim through to the unique and surreal secret beach which is enclosed on all sides so unsure how it formed in the first place. It was just me for a couple of minutes making me feel like I discovered something which was really cool; especially when going back out by diving down into what looked like a blue hole. Because of the time it took to go anywhere we couldn’t go to the last location and instead went to the Big Lagoon and lay on the pontoon a while before getting soaked going into the offshore wind and waves taking 50 minutes to reach dry land; successful day in all. I still hadn’t seen the sun sink into the sea here and even though it looked promising my hopes were dashed when some pointless cloud hugged the horizon. The girls had a bad meal experience at Carabao (I wasn’t intending to eat but got Bridget’s meaty nachos) then we enjoyed the terrible karaoke going on at Tres Verdes with a load of rum, as was opening night of the little beach bar (brand new place and still only half finished) that went on into the night.
Being bored and slightly irritable I was on the verge of losing the plot upon reaching the port in El Nido at 7.45am to see lots of stressed people around a desk manned by one poor guy. It turned out the big boat to Coron was now under repair and the replacement was a fraction of the size meaning priority was given only to those who could prove they had a flight out in the next 48 hours. I lied through my teeth and tried getting myself on the boat by saying I don’t use paper tickets and showed them a fake passenger code but my plan came unstuck when a laptop with Wi-Fi connection was shoved in front of me so, without making a scene, backed away every so subtly. Unwilling to waste any more time here I didn’t think twice when a random guy in a grey t-shirt said he organised an unofficial boat at a different location for up to 20 people even though sounded far too good to be true. When there was a group of us discretely standing away from the terminal, having got a full refund from the ferry company, he informed us to all locate tricycles and follow his lead. Ironically we stopped only yards from where I just spent the night at Corong Corong and things started to seem a little dodgy when the coastguard was mentioned so all bought snacks to look as if we were on an overnight trip or something.
Off the road and by the bay now we patiently waited but from the looks of it couldn’t see any boat that would fit us all in. All of a sudden the grey shirted man asked for all males to help him move a banca off the sand with it instantly clear this would be ours for the day…oh dear! Half an hour of being waist deep in water and using all our strength going forward and sideways we were afloat so wasted no time in getting bags and doing an ‘every man for himself’ philosophy when choosing where to go; got a great spot in a corner and big bag by the wheel so almost guaranteed to be dry. By charging the same price the only thing missing was to be lunch but this was, in his mind, sorted with two bananas on a stick each that would of cost him about 7 pesos- he probably did this as only gave him half the money now with the other half handed over when there; I was the one who proposed that idea as the other 14 didn’t say anything. We were to never see the guy again as he handed the reigns over to his captain and sturdy crew of two so (along with their friends of course) when a sufficient amount of diesel was poured in and engine tinkered with we were good to go at 10.20am.
In passing Cadlao island and getting a sufficient distance away from civilization on what was a glorious day on the open ocean (couldn’t of timed it better) everyone noticeably calmed down as clear no coastguard about to take us back. I lay back using lifejackets as a makeshift cushion, listened to my iPod and watched the world go by with enough food (3 chocolate crackers, 2 ube pancakes, 2 big rolls, 5 tiny rolls, 2 bananas and 1 litre of H20) as to make it that every hour I would eat something so always a little thing to look forward to otherwise would be bored outof my mind; although watching people is always fun. The one problem I faced was the sun itself as there was no cover and my sarong/ towel was well packed away meaning risking use of the dodgy cream as no other choice.
There were so many uninhabited gorgeous islands we passed by no wonder Survivor is coming here and could only dream of owning one. As we passed into the Calamian Group I thought we were making really good time but the massive kilometres long wall that is Coron Island seemed to take an eternity to reach as the sunset gave everything a nice glow. Finally Coron Town on Busuanga Island was clearly visible and although took a wrong turn and was stuck on a reef for a few minutes we made it after an 8 hour trip that could have been so much worse had there been any kind of swell.
I went solo and got in a tricycle the 5 minutes to Patrik and Tez Guesthouse feeling incredibly relieved. I had a Pale Pilsen then ate a cheap meat and rice meal from an eatery another British guest told me about, tried a foot long hotdog and mango shake from the night market and wondered about the lively quite local town before sitting down with the owners to share a joint (been a while) once washed all the sweat and salt water off me. Although I was informed the generator was to be turned off at 11 the power must have come on just prior to this as lights and internet stayed on when the loud noise stopped. I tried writing but could barely keep my eyes open and so knocked that on the head and put head to pillow as figured out I had now been travelling 2.5 years as of today!
Having got Patrik to phone up the night before meant I could just walk on up to Rocksteady Dive Shop and get kitted up at 7.30am all excited to see the 1944 Japanese WW2 wrecks. For once I was the person with the least experience on the boat as the two Australian guys were a dive instructor/master who manned ships for a living whilst the Polish guy was a dive instructor who worked in Scotland catching big razor fish and his girlfriend had a few hundred dives logged; at least no amateurs about to cock things up. My stomach had stopped growling at me as asked the guys to go via the bakeshop on the way so could have some breakfast otherwise would have been hard to make it to lunch.
It took 70 minutes for the colourful boat to reach the bay most of the Jap fleet was sunk in all those decades ago so did my best to not burn myself as Bong went over a diagram of the 147m refrigeration ship ‘Irako’, describing in detail the exact route to take as can get disorientating in those confined spaces and easy to lose someone (would be standard procedure for all the wrecks I visit). We descended the line to the top of the rear mast and kept going to the deck level at 28 metres noticing <10m visibility due to masses of plankton about then followed Bong through a cargo door into the massive ship penetrating a couple of levels seeing natural light through the port holes as used torches to find our way in the remarkably intact vessel. Space was limited as saw a sowing machine then transmission in the engine room, going through an actual doorway to see the various cogs, then continued around the collapsed crew levels popping out the top towards the distinct bow where a few lionfish lived. De-compression warnings meant it was time for a deep stop as well as a safety stop with my air still above the red at 55 bar. Pleased about how awesome that was we moved to the second site and ate an early curry and rice lunch consuming much chicken and fish pieces thinking 1kg less on the weights might be a good idea.
The second wreck was the freighter ‘Kogyo Maru’ which lies on its starboard side and was fascinating due to all the construction equipment on board such as cement bags, a bulldozer and a mixer (was going to build a new runway to help the war effort). Clanging my tank repeatedly on metal we passed a huge boiler (engine removed long ago) on way to see the cabbage coral and some fish then spent 10 minutes at 5metres deep as Bong’s computer told us not to surface yet- like how he is so by the book but was too long. Back in Coron Town I sensibly bought things for the next day, showered, got distracted by friends online and spent only P95 on a rice meal, burger and mini pancakes. In the mood to get the a blog out I was online till it was posted at 2am taking much longer than hoped.
For the second dive day there was now 8 of us and some with barely any experience making me feel more adequate as we headed to the same area but this time was stupid and caught the sun too much out on deck. At the 122m long freighter ‘Olympia Maru’ we swam amongst lots of oil drums, saw three blue spotted stingrays and well camouflaged Crocodile fish, and could move about the vast cargo holds with large holes to go through and lots of light coming in making it my favourite of the wrecks; pushed the limit to 3 minutes from de-compression in the process. After much pork adobo it was time to explore the civilian cargo ship, ‘Morazon’, that lay on its side but due to the ridiculous amount of plankton only saw it when a couple of metres away (whale sharks would have a field day here). Coming face to face with two enormous boilers in the centre of the ship and seeing actual damage from the bomb strikes that disabled it were the highlights along with a lobster hiding away and multiple lion fish roaming the outside that are a common feature on all four I’ve now seen. We were delayed a while as someone knocked a torch into the depths but the guys were unable to locate it (risked the bends so must be expensive) so carried on to Coron Island; lots of spray so moved to the back. Nearing 4pm we were by the famous Barracuda Lake and so due to the high water temperatures did not need a wet suit which was bad news for my red belly putting kit right onto it and going up slippery stairs with my tank on. Once fins were on in the water we moved as one big group (excellent visibility) feeling the temperature jump 10c depending on what level you were at with it being too hot at points. The makeup of the lake floor was less dense fine material reminiscent of a pyroclastic flow and demonstrating the same type of cloud formation when moved about creating ‘storms’ when thrown. The sides of the lake were quite moon like but it was the obvious thermocline which had me fascinated as bobbed up and down right on one experiencing rapid temp changes and blurred vision- sweet! Pleased from another great day beneath the surface I nigh on downed the beer we were given (shared another with Pole Ipor) and got local ice cream as waited for tanks to be loaded on the truck so could go to Rocksteady to fill out my book and officially make the key mark of 60 logged dives. Already gone 7pm I ate two burgers then spent the night on my computer Skyping and eventually falling asleep with it still on.
After checking non-existent emails and reading about some siege in Algeria (so behind on those sorts of news stories) I met my boat captain outside the guesthouse at 8.30am, picked up the Polish couple and brought fruit and bread (5 peso mango shakes also). Along an unsteady, loose wooden walkway we got safely into the banca and went over to what is claimed to be the countries best snorkelling site, Siete Pecados, which has been given unparalleled protection over last 7 years by being a marine park.
They might be onto something as when away from the mooring area I was all alone with my GoPro when saw a pair of turtles, school of Batfish, school of Trevally and a Barracuda which stayed by the surface; best things are when on edge of coral by deep water. I took Ipor over to witness it for himself then we went to the extremely popular Kayangan Lake (of the 12 lakes on Coron Island only this and Barracuda can be seen my tourists) and as a Saturday was full of Filipino families having the time of their lives all looking the same in bright orange lifejackets making a photo of the place pointless.
I pinned my hopes that most would go before us so jumped in the fresh water and swam way out to near the other side (felt weird and almost scary as no idea what lies beneath-lol) and watched as they went for lunch enabling my SLR to get a look in. We rested and snorkelled at Twin Peaks, lay on sand at the tiny but congested CYC beach (only one free to enter) then sat by the market having three beers each that Ipor and Bertru insisted on buying (they love their alcohol). Being lazy I got a ride with them and was on the internet the whole evening bar going out for dinner as needed to send messages to people and try to figure out my life the next few months. Sticking to my aim to post the second Himalayan blog before I could sleep was tough as was gone 4am when hit the magic button!
The long days and nights took their toll when could only manage four hours kip and so felt shattered and in a dreamlike state when visited the market for food, shakes and keyrings. I caught up on the journal as received email confirmations about accommodation in Chiang Mai and PADI Divemaster course in Borneo meaning things are coming together well. Doing a number of other semi important things took me until 4.30pm when it was just about time to go the 720 steps to the top of Mt Tapyas where the giant cross is that can be seen for miles around. Not taking any breaks and unable to go slowly meant I was very early for sunset but that didn’t matter as being out in the fresh air with a great view was just what I needed.
When the great ball in the sky did descend behind the other islands I went trigger happy with the SLR using three lenses (not 35mm) trying to capture the colour, energy and beauty of such a spectacle from one of the best vantage points I have been to in Asia as able to see almost the whole Calamian Group in all its glory liking that besides divers there are very few foreigners who come here; blue sky went orange then red and purple making the islands and islet silhouette. Picking just the right time to go I was able to make it to the bottom without the need of artificial light to guide me so headed straight for food. Being possibly a bit banana obsessive of late I ended the day with 14 under my belt (4 banana sticks and two normal ones) as well as a cheese burger with a thicker than usual piece of ‘meat’, although contrary to the reports in the UK horse would be more than fine considering what else it could be. Proving to be a very good place to ‘get stuff done’ I posted a photo album and sent an epic email to my TEFL tutor (wanted to know my background so wrote an essay) when said enough was enough and slept at ok 1.30am.
Back on it early I settled the bill with Patrik and packed things up when the minivan came early to whisk me away. In pleasant air conditioning it only took 35 minutes to reach Busuanga Airport where ate a meal outside the terminal, saw the scales only put me at 83kg (too low if correct) and had time to play the ‘pipes’ game on my Kindle understanding why Spring was so obsessed with it. In seat 10D on the turboprop plane I was intrigued by the seemingly undiscovered coves and islands that could see out the window wishing had a yacht to explore all seven thousand properly!
Once at Manila’s NAIA T3 I found out the public transportation information on the hostel website was wrong as the airport shuttle apparently does not take you to the LRT anymore although the assholes on one bus made me wait an hour to go to T2 in the hope I could from there. Being quoted upwards of 800 pesos for a yellow taxi made me walk to the street and pick up a white one where still was required to negotiate P200 for my ride to Malate as unwilling to put the metre on; not in mood to argue or complain. He took me right outside the mustard colour apartment building near Vito Cruz and I got in a lift to the 5th floor and 5 week old Pink Manila Hostel.
Getting a good vibe instantly (part owner Chrissie from the US very accommodating) I put my bags away, chose a dorm bed and went out in the rain for a variety of street food which was topped off by a big $0.40 soft ice cream out a machine. By the pool on big, soft chairs Isocialised over some Red Horse (general consensus on how bad airline websites are here) and was easily persuaded to go out with most of the guests to the bar area of the city where they ate at a chicken fast food place as me, Oregon Mike and another yank got rum from 7/11 and quietly drank it there and then. Later we tried out an ok club devoid of females (was a sausage fest pure and simple) then before 1am me and Mike left in a taxi to Ocampo street. We ate the cheap stuff in a chain restaurant then went to the hostel for sleep as only ones back already.
For the third night in a row my mind refused to rest later than 7.30am which is beginning to drag as progressively more tired and know will be having zero tonight trying to get to Malapascua. Two coffees and some toast helped as did meeting some cool people who were up for doing True Manila so went on at the lady in charge to get hold of Edwin. Out of nowhere she said we had 15 minutes to be by the Starbucks at Robinsons Mall so got my bag and put myself, a black Texan, a couple from New York (not met Americans any other place except here in Manila?) and a guy who had literally just got off the plane from Canada into a taxi. Being stuck in traffic meant we in fact waited nearly an hour for the legendary founder of True Manila to appear with black t shirts for us and a few others who were also waiting.
Edwin’s enthusiasm was contagious as we filled a jeepney and got given the background to what it is we were doing and what the organisation is all about- to show people the real side of the city and to give them some hope for the future. After paying the driver the Filipino way in the Tagalog language we got out on the edge of one of the poorest areas where he grew up and had taken 80 groups already. In the alleyways greeting people, seeing smiling faces and having an ever increasing entourage of children around us holding our hands we saw how entire families occupied and lived in one small space and the difference between the concrete and ramshackle houses.
Upon hearing drums and music we went to see what was going although was not exactly my cup of tea with it being a bunch of horrifically dressed he-she’s trying to rub up against you, breath fire and prance around like they owned the place having a large crowd watch their every move. Seeing photo opportunities at every turn I made sure to have the camera out at all times as bags of rice and packets of noodles were given to us so we could pass them on to those that are less fortunate.
Edwin purposely picking workers and older folk although felt only 50% actually appreciated it as possibly didn’t want to be singled out and even embarrassed in the community with proudness being a big factor. On the main thoroughfare we played and won a game of basketball against a group of locals (scored two long range baskets) making meeven sweatier than already was which didn’t think possible as already spent many a minute picking up a never ending amount of kids with one arm- who needs a gym?
Armed with packets of crackers we knelt on the floor with about 5 around us trying to give out pieces evenly and looking out for ‘repeat customers’ but was impossible as there were hundreds in every direction- need contraception here! Coming from being a street kid himself and conducting so many tours Edwin knew exactly how to handle the situation by having them all seated with hands on their heads and coming up one by one to be given a portion of coconut sweet.
Ridiculously hungry myself, I got burgers with Texan Jerome then at his house helped out preparing the chicken adobo/vegetable/rice meal we chipped in 120 pesos each for (ingredients purchased in the market). A mixture of fruit in condensed milk was dessert and served in a plastic cup tasting ever so good and fresh I wish this was available to me on a daily basis. We signed the book (no.528- could only see Olga’s name and not Amy’s as they both did this last March) as were told the story behind True Manila and how Edwin has been to faraway places spending next to nothing in the process as relied on peoples kindness and generosity to get by and even come out with more money than he started with.
To finish we each donated some money with a Swiss guy having 8000 pesos from his organisation at home to give enabling the pot to be the biggest so far and meaning could pay for one more child to go to school; incredible and so inspiring. We said our goodbyes to the family as acquired another jeepney to take us to Pink Manila where showered, checked out the room very late, emailed Darleine in Oz and came to the conclusion that Burma/Myanmar is not really feasible to visit in April. Just prior to leaving I spoke to Joe from Nova Scotia who is the type of traveller I aspire to be as has a trade (carpentry) so can make money anywhere and uses it to do out of the way adventures such as walking 1000km Perth to Albany, kayaking the Murray River for 3 months and spending the past 5 weeks in dangerous and intriguing Papua New Guinea where he lived with a tribe after getting into trouble hiking on his own as wild dogs ate his supplies. We went out for food then at 9pm I left what will become the best party hostel in the country and eventually got in a metered taxi to Manila Airport after the lift broke and it took time to unlock the stairwell from one of the residents on a lower floor. T3 appeared all but closed and it was with only a handful of Cebu Pacific staff about, no shops open and only one gate, 134, in operation with the flight departing on time for what should be the start of an exciting couple of weeks with Bridget & Lisa island hopping.