Palawan, A Tropical Paradise

20121028-105030.jpgWell this story is getting old I know, the whole rush rush rush via public transportation to get where you are going. Always ending the blog and starting the blog the same way. It’s like the Amazing Race without the million dollar prize at the end. So let’s do something different and discuss Cebu Air. Cebu Air is one of the Philippines major air carriers, who’s hub is in….wait a minute, give it a second…..that’s right, Cebu. Well as an airline they are ok, but the stewardesses have a hidden talent that cracks me up. In the middle of a flight they play a little “game” called ‘Name That Song’. Everyone claps to acknowledge the beginning of the game, and then game on. So each stewardess takes turns singing. Possibly a well known song, possibly Whitney Houston, or Michael Jackson, usually one is a filipino song, and you have to guess who sings it. Then the winner gets a tshirt or a cooler or some such junk, but everyone loves this, and claps and goes with it. Then they go down the lane trying to sell the prizes to people. Not that I want a Cebu Pacific stuffed plane, but you can get one for 20 bucks. And the funny thing is, on the three flights I was on, those girls were decent singers. It was different, but fun and very surreal. I guess it goes along with this countries huge fascination with karaoke, even in small villages I have seen karaoke set up on dirt floors with chickens scratching underneath. We went on a kayaking trip in the most peaceful remote area and you could hear the jarbled electronic screeching of kids singing on a bad system, and sure enough as we round the end in a hidden cove there’s a bunch of high schoolers singing their favorite Lady Gaga tunes. Now next time you fly US Air or Delta, just try to picture how good your stewardesses might be belting out a MC Hammer or Wilson Phillips. It might give you a good chuckle.

On the transport note, sorry a necessary evil for my own sanity, another two hour ferry to Cebu, then hop on a plane to Palawan. Then a trip to the Super Jeepney center on a tricycle to get a 6 hour ride via a very uncomfortable Super Jeepney over badly paved and dirt roads.

We had another pair of travelers with us, two six foot guys, one clearly Chinese and the other if I could guess was from Belgium. These two acted like imperialists, taking over the back section of the bus, even over the protest of filipino riders explaining to them that it was for short trips only. Clearly one fancied himself a photographer, and was not shy about the camera. Now I have no problem with taking pictures of people, but when you shove your oversized camera into a mother and her babies face without asking, I feel like you are crossing a line. Might be a line in my head, but just the same. Yvonne and I both feel like we try to travel with a large amount of respect for the cultures we are visiting, though I am sure we break a million little taboos, me more than her, but we do our best. When I see people who visit other countries and act like they are at Disney World, and treat the people like they are Mickey Mouse and Goofy, and that they are there for THEIR entertainment, it makes me sick to my stomach. These guys did not seem to care at all about any rules of decency. And the bad part about this is how hard it makes it for everyone traveling, because people look at you more and more with distrust and distaste, and who can blame them.

Well another day disappears to traveling but the end of the road was nothing short of Paradise.

The end for us was a small town named Sabang, really just a fishing village that is slowly becoming a tourist Mecca. The village is on a huge protected cove, with large beautiful beaches with palm trees lining a sandy dirt path that is the road. All the beach huts are along the path, so you either have to hike in or ride on a motorbike. We were instantly greeted by our fixer, Francis. Francis was about 5 ft 1′, looking like a Springsteen fan in the eighties, right down to the feathered hair ending in a perfectly styled mullet. He was so certain that his family hotel was the place for us, that he followed us everywhere with his cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth. So our fellowship had expanded because our two tall lanky friends decided to join us on this quest also.

Well we were not that certain about Francis’s parents place, so we ended up checking four different cottage centers, passing a few more, including the super modern Sheridan. We pretty much walked from one end of the cove to the other. We were fully laden, supersized backpack on back, day pack attached to the front like some mutated camel grasping our lonelyplanet book like it’s the bible. We ended up back tracking and renegotiating a nice price for a traditional thatched bungalow with concrete floors. For some reason in a country rife with malaria, no one believes in screens. But all and all, it was cozy enough, with a nice veranda where we could sip our Red Horses and look at the sea. The other perfect thing was that you could hear the waves breaking on the beach all night long. Who needs those goofy sound tapes to sleep with, we had the real thing. And ours comes with a five a.m. wake up call of real fisherman preparing to go out to sea.

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Now we were not really here for the beach though, nor were all the other throngs of tourists. We came for the world famous Underground River. What? You have never heard of it, it’s one of the seven ‘New Wonders’ of the world. Well it was a good thing that our tricycle driver insisted we pick up our permit before driving the five hours to Sabang, because other wise you have to wait a full day to go the the underground river, staying in Sabang. What a stupid system, the capital city of Palawan, Puerto Princessa, does not want the money going to the local people, so they have you get permits five hours away. Most people do this as a day trip in air conditioned tourist vans, which is insane. Too much travel for too little return. Very few people use the local transportation system. Then to promote tourism they create the seven new natural wonders of the world, a list I am convinced gets remade depending on which country you are in. Philly is soon going to be saying that Love Park is now one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

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So after a bit of a process setting up our boat ride to the entrance of the underground river, we were off on a very choppy, wet boat ride there. The ride there was great on an out rigger boat blasting through all the waves and getting absolutely drenched. The coastline here was amazing with large cliffs dropping down to the ocean where waves continusly bash against the rocks, sending billowing clouds of spray into the air. We rounded the corner of a peninsula and come to another gorgeous beach. This is our stop. So we pull up to the beach and jump into the water and wade ashore. There we are greeted by our guides as we don our helmets and life jackets in the dense jungle canopy. Then springing across from one tree to the roof of a gazebo is a monkey. Soon to be followed by a troop of them. All fighting for what looks like a Wonder Bread bag. Seems someone did not pay attention to the Do Not Feed the Monkeys rule. For me though I was thrilled, as I am every time I see wild monkeys.

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It's just so surreal, and here we were surrounded. Our guides were prompting us to climb in our canoe with an out rigger. Eight of us climb in with the front person holding a flash light connected to a car battery, and the guide in the back with the paddle. The entrance of the cave looked like a huge mouth with fangs hanging down into the water. There were all kinds of orchids and other jungle like plants climbing up the cliff face. You can easily imagine a dragon hoarding it's gold and some brave knights wading into their fiery demise. Our guide paddled us under the jagged teeth in to a realm of darkness. Normally I would be thrilled to being doing this, but the long line of canoes made it feel more like a haunted house then a geological wonder. The light persons job was to illuminate things that the guide pointed out, but you really could not hear the guide, and the snippets we did hear were about rock formations named after anything and everything biblical or sexual; Jesus's face, Virgin Mary, holy family, penis rock, wart on the butt, bang bang rock. If you ask me they should just combine them to make it more interesting. I really did not learn anything about the formations, why they were there, how many years it took to create them. It was all one-liners, like hanging out with a has-been comedian. I did learn not to stare up in awe of the barely illuminated formations because shit happens, and there were tens of thousands of bats above us.

Now here is what I would do to enhance this natural wonder, because it truly is. First, lighting. You go to Mammoth Caves in Tennesee, they have hired lighting experts to put subtle lights that highlight the stalagtite and stalagmite formations. This would have been great, because we really could not make much out with the untrained spot light person. Then when deep in the cave I would have all the lights out so you could really feel how deep and dark the cave was, feel the immensity of the earth above your head, and the power of the river that carved the cave out over millions of years. Finally I would have a nature center at the end where you could read all about the cave, have an interactive map highlighting formations, and a hallogram or 3D model of the whole cave system, of which we only went in 1.5 kilometers, but is like eight?? kilometers long. They used to have a jungle trail to the caves too, but apparently that washed out years ago, and no attempt to replace it has been made. Because the jungle around is really exciting, with monitor lizards four feet long, monkeys, and brightly colored birds. All these things would make for a much better and informative trip. Instead it was a long way out of the way for something that was a bit disappointing. But the beach is amazing here, nicer than the cave and the boat ride was a blast.

We spent two lovely nights here, even though it seemed to monsoon rain most the time, it was a great place to relax, for our next journey was to El Nido, another six plus hour bumpy minivan ride.

We arrived much later then we imagined, and every beach bungalow spot we had picked out with lonely planet was fully booked. It's an odd town El Nido. I could not even see the beach because everything was built right up to the back of the buildings, so it seemed like we were just on a very busy, really ugly alley. Well a guy across the street running a store said he had a room. Now this store was typical of Philippines, more of a newspaper stand in size, selling just about everything. Well he led us down an alley with one side being a tarped off construction site, the other side being his store. Once you passed the little store it opened up a bit to row of bungalows with great little sun porches on them. The insides were small but very efficient, with air or fan, and a clean toilet/shower combo. The porch was the best. So we got this for a steal of like 12 dollars. No view of the beach, but in the heart of it all. Now the sad part of not seeing the beach is how amazing it is, surrounded by cliffs, numerous islands off in the distance, it truly is a paradise. So why wall it off? Simply put, no city planning and businesses using all available air space to have rooms with beach views, but no concept of curb design. It boils down to making more money for themselves.

Well we were perfectly happy with the price tag, no beach view, (which in the states you rarely get) and still being a mere 40 feet down a urine/fish stinking alley full of glass to this gorgeous vista. First day it stormed like mad on and off. So we had some beers and prayed for good weather. We set up an island hopping tour for the next day and were truly sad to hear the sound of rain coming down at 7a.m. We debated cancelling but all weather reports stated that the worst was over, so even though the other people cancelled, we braved it. Sure enough by 9:30a.m. the sun burned through the clouds and it looked like a heavenly day to start our boating.

So let me just say El Nido is possibly one of the most gorgeous island chains I have ever been to. There are forty five islands scattered around the area, and you can island hop for days. Some of the islands have goofy names like Helicopter Island or Snake Island, why, because that's what they looked like. I asked what Helicopter Island was named before there were helicopters, and it was a long weird word that I could not pronounce, let alone remember. So maybe renaming was not so bad, though I would have preferred the original names. The islands are all very mountainess, with granite cliffs piercing out of the sea. It's hard to explain the jaggedness of the cliffs. The best way I could say is that it looks like millions of knifes sticking up in the air. The rain over time has eroded the outer layer, removing the softer material, so on one cliff there are hundreds if not thousands of shards pointed up. Not something you want to climb with out thick leather gloves. In addition to the cliffs you have thick jungle covering a lot of them. The coast lines of the islands are as jagged as the cliffs, which gives you all kinds of small islands and peninsulas, lagoons, and hidden beaches. It's not hard to imagine a giant ape carrying a screaming damsel up to the top of one of these islands.

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The first island we went to on Tour A was Shimizu Island. Here we snorkeled to Hidden Lagoon, which was only accessible by snorkeling through a small cave. Once past the mouth of the cave it opens up to a large lagoon with another small cave. Well the hidden lagoons center was really deep, but on the sides were all kinds of beautiful corals and fish. Times like this you kick yourself for no underwater camera. In the back of hidden lagoon was yet another cave, with light cascading down the walls in thin rivulets, this was truly cool. I climbed up on a rock and in my most craggily voice hollered, "My precious, where is my PRECIOUS!", much to Yvonne's distaste. Later on the boat a coconut floated past and Yvonne screamed "WIIIIIILLLLLLLLSSSSSSSSOOOOOONNNNN!" Apparently I am not the only one quoting movies on this trip.

After that we hit up a few more beaches, and stopped to have lunch. We snorkeled around what I feel we're jelly fish, if for no other reason then they were translucient bag like creatures floating around, and I'll be damned if I wasn't getting stung all over. Now it wasn't the end of the world by any means, but, it still stung. The boat guys were like it's not jelley fish season, so they were just jelly fish like creatures who if disturbed, excreted a poisoness substance that stung mildly. Right, not jelly fish.

Well after 40 minutes of that it was time for a BBQ on the beach, and was it ever good. Fresh fish from the sea, heads still on, grilled pork chops, a cucumber salad, rice, and fruit for dessert. The guides grilled the fish against the cliff walls on the interior of the island. A better meal could not have been had at a Steven Starr restaurant, and here we are on beach with no modern cooking implements.

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On the last stop of the day we went to a beach where there was a bamboo ladder roped to the side of the cliff, going about 25 feet up or so to a rocky ledge. Our boat guide said this is where people jump off. So me being me, decided to swim out and give it a whirl. Well the bottom rung was a bit too high with the seas being the way they were, and in all honesty, the area was way to shallow for a jump. The low part of the wave was like 4 feet, and the crest part maybe 7 feet or so. But, I had an audience by this time, and I did not want to let my fans down. So when the water reached its highest point I kicked with all my energy, boosting me just high enough to get my fingers touching the bottom rung. The wave then ebbed down, sucking me down with it, but with a desperate kick, I was able to get a slim hand hold. I then realized how weak I was, trying to reach the next rung, which was about a foot and a half higher. (One rung between them had disappeared ages ago by looking at the rot). Well with what can only be described as a contorting porpoise move that was probably repulsive to watch, I thrust my other hand to that rung while scraping and bruising my entire torso on the cliff side! And you remember how smooth these cliffs are. Ahh, feet firmly on a swaying, roughly tied rotting bamboo ladder on a jagged cliff, smart one. Looking up I saw that I was just at the bottom of a long climb up. Glance over and my audience of three were watching and I assume making bets at which point I was going to wimp out. So with a lurch up I climbed. At the top now I slowly turn around and to look out with a feeling of vertigo at the vastness of the sea, and feel that tingle of fear knowing you are in fact doing something incredibly stupid. Then with a glance at the waves to make sure I would land at the high point, I wave to my girlfriend farewell but more so to make sure she has the camera ready, and I launch off. Thoughts passed through my mind of Eric Ensign leaping off a University of Michigan frat house four stories high and he limped away fine, and kept limping for a month or so after. I would not say so much as I plummeted down, but with a loud smack my body hit the water, arms spread out in a hope of slowing my descent but giving me quite painful smack, then my bottom literally hit bottom in a tell tale thump. I then popped to the surface with my big shit eating grin of success with only a little pain to hide and no need to repeat again. It was fun, what can I say.

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After enjoying a relaxing night we decided to island hop the next day on Tour C. I had been debating going scuba diving alot, but I was not hearing that the diving was the best, even with a million dive shops. So I decided to save money and island hop instead, seeing that's what El Nido was famous for. We had different guides this time, and truthfully I was having doubts that they were going to be as good as the first guides. We were going to islands that were much farther away than the day before. The day started off clear and pretty but the clouds started kicking up again, and a fierce storm was blowing in. The first snorkelling was a disaster, with massive waves, very unclear direction, and a channel to another lagoon. I jumped off, with the french guy following. No one else wanted in because the rain started blowing in and soaking everyone. I started to snorkel around but really was just getting bashed around on the rocks. The guide was leading me over an incredibly shallow area, to the point where I had to stand up. He kept saying to look at something, but I had no idea what. His English was poor, and he was very excitable. Seeing that the French guy clearly gave up before, I walked/swam back to the boat. Clearly this day was not going to be as nice as day before. As with the butterfly sanctuary in Bohol, a good guide can make or break a trip. For the next hour we got nailed with blowing wind and rain and everyone was wet and cold. The guides looked the most miserable, because for them this weather might as well have been a Michigan snow storm. For me I found it refreshing, a nice warm rain. Then like a light switch being turned off, the rain stopped, leaving us in a channel between two islands. We pulled up to a dock and got out at an abandoned missionary building on the side of a cliff. the building looked like a moden apartment building three stories high, with a terracotta roof. Then there was a large domed structure with a statue in the center. Our guide explained to us that it was an abandoned Buddhist temple, and lead us down a staircase under the concrete floor to various effigies and signs describing something, creation of the world, secret of life. I have no idea cause it was all in another language. The look on our faces was totally WTF, having no idea why we were here. It clearly was a Christian place, and looking at the construction, I would say built in the eighties. A lot of money went into it, from the marble shrine to all the rooms but it was completely abandoned, and slowly succumbing to the elements.

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We had another amazing lunch with fish and chicken this time on a small beach. It was pretty funny, there was another couple from another boat on this one, and I saw him bringing out a bottle of wine, and I was like ahhhhh, how sweet, why did I not think of that. Wine is rarely seen in these countries, and is very expensive. He was a hulking man probably 300lbs, 6'4", and his girl was barely five foot and dainty. Well she laid out the beach blanket and a perfect romantic date was to be had. He popped the cork, upended the bottle, then proceeded to down the entire thing and I kidd you not in one drink. He may have offered her some, I could not hear the conversation, but I am not so sure. Then he flopped on the ground in his speedo with his feet half in the water and looked for all intents and purposes like a beached whale.

The last two places we hit made up for the rainy weather earlier. We pulled into a long channel with absolutely stunning turquoise water. The lagoon is amazing, with huge cliffs surrounding it, covered in dense vegetation. Turns out this is where Survivor France was filmed, and as everyone who knows me knows, I have wanted to be on Survivor for over a decade now. The snorkelling was peaceful, with plenty of fish though no coral. There was a hut up on the cliff which was used by men who would climb in the caves looking for a very special delicacy, Birds Nest. That's right, I said it. In fact that was what El Nido was really known for. Really good birds nest soup can go for hundred thousand dollars in some Japanese restaurants according to our guide. So they would climb the cliff to retreave these yummy bird shit filled nest. Yummy!

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The next spot was another amazing secluded lagoon, with huge jagged cliffs. It was in the final scene of the Bourne Legacy. The Filipino people are really excited about this movie because it's the first Hollywood movie to be filmed in the Philippines. Every where we went we heard how they filmed this here and that there. A lot like Lord of the Rings was to New Zealand, of course this film will never reach the popularity of that. It was the scene where he was disappearing into the wild, never to seen again, ha, ha, except by the hundreds of tourist who flock to these islands on out rigger boats like us.

So that was the end of day two of island hopping. the next morning we had to take the six hour bus ride back to Puerto Princesa and then fly back to Manila. We tried to arrange to fly directly to Jakarta once we landed, but with numerous delays, ticket counters being in different terminals, it sadly became impossible. So we were stuck in a shitty, incredibly expensive hotel near the airport, with the worst service ever. The next day we went to the Mall of Asia to say good by to the crazy Philippines and then on to our next country on the journey, Indonesia.

In closing the chapter on the Philippines, I have to say I found that even though there was extreme poverty, the people were very beautiful, stylish, and friendly. Even the roughest areas we traveled through people were always smiling and willing to help a lost tourist. We were warned that it was dangerous but we found it to be really safe and friendly. The food was bland but good, and I loved the breakfasts of rice and meat. If I only had a little time I would hit Palawan for sure, with El Nido being a most. And if you get a chance to island hop all the way to the World War Two wrecks in Colon Island from El Nido, I will be totally jealous. It's supposed to be amazing. The islands are underdeveloped for tourism which is exciting because there were large chunks of time when we did not run into Westerners, giving us a chance to meet the real Filipinos. I feel really lucky to have done this before it changes.

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3 responses to “Palawan, A Tropical Paradise

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