Saturday, 2 May 2009

El Nido: Not What It Says On The Tin

The Rough Guide (spits) describes Palawan as "the last frontier" of Philippines travel. That may be (vaguely) true in southern Palawan, but Up North, it's hardly the case at all. Besides, surely somewhere like the Sulu Archipelago, southwest of Mindano, is more fitting of said description? After all, there are Muslim separatists fighting a civil war and occasionally beheading kidnapped foreign aid workers. Sounds a little bit more hardcore to me. Not that it's on my list, to be honest. My head is no match for Brad Pitt's, but I'm pretty happy with its current location on my body, thanks.

El Nido is a long, dusty bus ride from Roxas, a jeepney ride from Barton. It was a beautiful morning, and we sat on the roof all the way to Roxas. Stunning scenery from every angle. Deposited at a barren, dry junction we waited for the bus. Never mind air-con, this one had no glass in the windows. Never mind lunch, chew the dust if you're hungry. We were filthy. A short break at Tay Tay provided lunch; I asked if the prawns were fresh. Yes, I was told...but they didn't say when they were fresh. JB declined an offer of a prawn with a wry smile: I was on my own. Thankfully there was no need to hang my arse out of the window on the second leg of the journey; the Philippines has toughened my intestines.

Besides chewing dust, the worst aspect of this journey was the local penchant for waiting until the bus has set off after the last shouted-for stop before shouting that they wanted off, too. Roughly 20 yards down the fucking road? Lazy bastards, I tell you. One woman berated the driver for going past her house when she called, and he had to reverse approximately 30 yards...I couldn't believe it.

We eventually arrived, after the driver had wrestled the bus around various breakneck bends on the gravel-encrusted road. It didn't have the vertical drops of the Baguio to Sagada trip, but it was still pretty hairy. Always nice to get to a destination alive. I had a laugh with a local chracter who worked as a desptch rider in the town; I told him he was the Filipino Keith Richards and insisted I have his photo. He loved that.

Capitalism has come to El Nido in a big way, and it took a while for us to find somewhere with cheap rooms. Chip and Kiwi Kris from Malapascua found a really nice place called Cliffside when they arrived, but too late for us. Stuck with a shithole for a week; the shower in our place was in a tiny, windowless box next to the family kitchen...you had to use a candle to see what you were doing...it was like the Black Hole Of Calcutta in there. On one occasion there were no candles, and one of the teenage girls asked me if I was Ok with no light. She blushed and giggled when I said it was OK, I knew whereeverything was.

The town isn't too exciting, and the nightlife is limited to the beachside bars and restaurants. There's a particularly good seafood place at the bottom end of the beach, and myself and JB were there most nights eating the very reasonable fresh fish. We met an Italian and his English girlfriend at our accomodation, both divers, Govinder being an Instructor; we arranged to go island hopping. The natural beauty here surpasses anything I've seen in Asia. The limestone karsts and islands in Nido's region better those of Vietnam's Ha Long Bay. We did two island tours, A and C, which are widely agreed to be the best. Hidden lagoons and great visibility for snorkelling. There is a place called Secret Beach, which was supposed to have inspired Alex Garland's novel. If this was the case, I'm sure the book would never have been written; the entrance is small, but anything but secret...Stevie Wonder could have spotted it. It was nice enough, but I was expecting an underwater tunnel or something a bit more risky; I'd liked to have earned the right to sit on the sand. Ho hum.

Govinder's girlfriend was driving me mad with a prolonged, drawn-out Wowwww at every corner we turned. Even if it was just another little cove much the same as the last. Lunch was Wow. The boat was Wow. The birds nesting above our chosen spot for lunch were Wow. I was in the Cult Of Wow, and less than happy about it. It died off a little towards the end of the day, until we arrived at our final beach. I jumped off the boat, and turned to look back the way we'd come. It was certainly a stunning view across the bay...tiny islands as far as you could see. "That looks amazing" I said, and instantly bit my tongue for its haste. It happened in slow motion, her turn and squint, beaming smile. "Wooowwwwwwwwww." Oh, please. On he way back, she started telling us a tale about how a German dies every day in the Philippines. JB and I exchanged a doubtful look. Someone had died in heir last hotel she informed us, and the staff had said he was cut from his abdomen to his chest. But no-one had seen anything. Gullible is not the word. I asked her if she didn't think there'd be some sort of news frenzy if a European of one country died here every day? Especially seeing as one kidnapped German aid worker in Mindano was headline news? Tsk tsk...

We spent our last night doing a home-made BBQ. A large snapper, and mango salsa created by yours truly. Delicious. I was off to Coron the next night, JB was staying to finish his Open Water course, and Govinder and Gullible were heading North. I needed to dive, and arranged to meet up with JB if he was going to decide on Coron over Tubbataha Reef.

Now let me at those wrecks...

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