Monday, March 22, 2010

WOW! Philippines III (21-25 January 2010)

Coron - The Long Way Round

In the northernmost reaches of Palawan province, lies the Calamian Group, another set of densely packed islands, filled with more secret beaches, towering limestone cliffs, lush greenery, blue lagoons and hidden freshwater lakes. We stayed in Coron Town, which is on the largest island of the group, Busuanga, and its namesake, Coron Island, is just a short boat ride away.

Getting here from El Nido should have been simple. There are basically two choices. You either a) retrace your steps back 6 hours to Puerto Princesa, fly to Manila and then back out to Coron or b) take a 4-hour boat trip on one of the several “fast, safe and comfortable” boats that run the route throughout the week. Of course, this was a no brainer and we opted for b as any sane person would. As it turns out, the boats are not fast, safe or comfortable and the entire journey ended up taking us 36 hours!

Our first attempt at leaving found us two hours into the journey with a large hole in the boat, bailing out 2 feet of water from the engine room thanks to some very rough waters and a captain who’d decided to ignore the coastguards advice not to attempt a crossing that day. We could see the funny side as we were never too far from land but had it happened 20 minutes later and further out in open water, we’d have been up the proverbial creek without a paddle. As it was, we had a few buckets and once Flo and one of the other passengers, Fred, had organized the crew to start throwing the water off the boat instead of onto the deck, we stopped sinking, managed to turn tail and slowly shamble back to El Nido.

The next day we made a second attempt on a different boat. Though more successful we soon discovered that 4 hours of Filippino time is not measured in the same way as regular time, and also learned a new definition to the phrase, “its just behind this island”. What this actually means is, “we’ll be there in another 5 hours”. However, the sea was calmer, the sun was shining and we spent much of the journey sitting on the roof of the boat chatting with our newfound friends. Several of them had shared our previous day’s experience and as the sun gradually went down and the stars appeared, we wondered if we would ever reach Coron.

Finally, after 12 hours and in complete darkness, we arrived.

The main town in the area, Coron is made up of a few streets filled with shops, restaurants andmarkets and the constant buzz of people and comfortable, friendly commerce, trikes and motorbikes, all at the foot of a hill atop which stands a giant, white, metal cross overlooking the bay below. It has the organic feel of an established local town rather than one that has grown up off the back of tourism alone. Like El Nido, it has some electricity issues with regular power cuts and, when it is working, each side of the street takes turns to use it. It does however, have the added bonus of an ATM which is quite handy considering the next closest is several hundred kilometers away in Puerto Princesa.

Monsters of the Deep

Aside from its exquisite natural beauty and charm, Coron is also home to some of the world’s best wreck diving, with about 15 diveable wrecks around the bay. Sometime during the Second World War, the Japanese thought to try and hide a fleet of cargo ships in the surrounding waters, presumably in the hope they’d be thought no more than rocky outcrops amongst the hundreds of other genuine islets surrounding them. Unfortunately, some eagle-eyed US scout spotted them and returned with 180 of his Helldiver buddies to wreak havoc on the 24-strong convoy, sending most of them straight to the bottom of the ocean. Not so good for the Japanese admittedly but awesome for anyone who is keen on donning a scuba tank and pair of flippers for some underwater exploration.

Now we have dived a few wrecks before, but these were rowboats in comparison. The wrecks in Coron are monstrous. Great hulks of metal, they loom out of the murky darkness like fortresses from the mist. Some lie on their sides, some still stand on their hulls and though anything of use or recyclable has been salvaged long ago, they are all intact enough that you can actually go inside.

I made sure to always be as close as possible to our divemaster who led us through the maze of passageways, down narrow ventilation shafts and old boiler units, through engine rooms and cargo holds, pointing out where we could see old oil drums, broken wine bottles and even a bulldozer, all remnants of a cargo that never reached its destination. Sometimes it was pitch black and all you could see was the faint circle of light from the dive torch softly illuminating some unknown and unrecognizable piece of rusted metal. At other times you emerge from the darkness in to a chamber of luminous grey green as the sunlight filters down through the silted waters, surrounded by the silhouettes of schools of fish in all shapes and sizes.

Diving the wrecks here had only one drawback, which was the number of people at each site. Even though the dive groups are made up of only four or five people, with 5 or 6 groups at a time, it gets pretty busy down there and with all of those fins flapping about, a whole lot of sand and silt gets kicked up and the visibility was not always great.

We just did the one day of diving and managed to see three boats, the Iraku, the Olympia Maruand the Tongat. Though there is plenty more to keep you going for a few more days, it was enough for us – although a really surreal and unforgettable experience, we wanted to check out some of the other pleasures on offer in this little corner of paradise.

More Bikes, Beaches and Bangkas

We spent much of the time in Coron with the friends we’d made on the boat. On one day wehired motorbikes to explore Busuanga Island. We rather optimistically thought we might make it all around the circular road that takes you up past Calauit Island, which is bizarrely home to giraffes and other sub-Saharan fauna after an experimental game reserve and sanctuary was set up to house an ark full of animals from Kenya in the 70s, stopping on the way to take a dip in the small but perfectly formed, Concepcion Falls. In fact we only made it about one third of the way up the bumpy but picturesque west coast road before realizing we’d need to turn back to make it home by nightfall. There was also the question of lunch. Only two restaurants on the entire island outside of Coron Town, and we managed to miss them both so by 3pm were getting pretty peckish. Heading back the way we’d come we eventually found one and finished off everything she had left, all washed down with warm cola. Not very refreshing after our long day on a hot and dusty road but with no electricity there’s no refrigeration – it makes you realize how much we take for granted in our everyday life.

Another day we hired a boat between six of us and set off to see nearby Coron Island. Home to the indigenous Tagbanuas tribe, many parts of the island are considered sacred and are off-limits to tourists, but there is still lots to see. It was a beautiful day and with the sun blazing down from above, our little bangka took us first to Kayangan lake, where a 10-minute climb up a steep pathway left us breathlessly gaping at the crystal clear turquoise lake before us, its still waters encircled by craggy cliffs and jungle towering above. A small bamboo walkway around one section allows access for swimming and kayaking and with only two other people there we felt a million miles away from anything and enjoyed a happy few hours swimming and splashing about with the tiny blue pipe fish that seemed to be the only inhabitants.

Our next stop was the deep blue waters of Twin Lagoon but we decided not to swim here and instead make our way to a beach for our last few hours. We found a tiny, deserted beach about 30-metres wide with two small huts for shade and a rickety handwritten sign declaring a fee of P150 per person. Though there was not a soul in sight, our boatmen assured us we’d have to pay and sure enough, 10 minutes after landing two small children appeared in a canoe from who knows where, and after sitting patiently and without a word by the rocks at the edge of the beach, made sure they got their money before we left at sunset to head for our next and final stop, the hot springs back on the main island. Here we slowly cooked ourselves in various pools for an hour, before heading back to the town proper. Being some way out there weren’t too many trikes around but we somehow managed to get all six of us onto one. This worked quite well except for the uphill bits where we had to get off and walk… and the corners when it felt like we would topple over at any second… and when the road was uneven, which was always so, OK, actually not ideal but it was a lot of fun, an excellent test of balance and we did make it back in one piece!

The following day we left Coron, bound for Manila then Singapore. At the tiny airport we checked in before having a coke at the restaurant outside where roosters and dogs wandered about at will, looking for scraps. Looking around and reminiscing about our time there, we realized we weren’t sad to be leaving Coron or Palawan. It's the kind of place that gets deep inside you and instills such a sense of wonder that you just know one day you’ll be back for more.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Bridge with a View

Let's take a break here for something more timely.

Allow me to transport you to Shanghai on an, almost warm, spring Wednesday afternoon of this week. I have to admit we haven't been terribly active since getting back from our trip last week - when you have nothing pressing to do, it can be very tricky to motivate yourself to do anything at all (though Flo has taken the opportunity to become an expert in downloading classic French comedy) but here we were, after a few days of miserable weather, awaking to sunshine and blue sky. We've long said that we need to make a list of all the things we want to see and do in Shanghai before we leave (if ever we do at the rate we're going, but anyway...) and having never actually written said list we can never remember what those things are. Fortunately, en route back from the airport we went over the Lupu Bridge, jogging our memories that there is viewing platform up top which overlooks the World Expo site as it unfolds below and in a flash of inspiration our day's agenda was complete.

The bike ride over there took us through down newly constructed roads and through neighbourhoods buzzing with Expo-related building activity. The development that has been going on throughout the city over the past couple of years has reached a crescendo with just over a month to go til D-Day though thankfully most of the serious construction has finished and it's now more the finishing touches that are being made. Every building and fence has been given a new coat of paint (only what is visible from the road mind, wouldn't want to waste any paint - example, the neighbours wall in our lane), roads dug up, pavements replaced, new roads built and new Metro lines opening what seems like every week. The sheer manpower involved has been incredible.

We reached the base of the bridge and found the entrance hidden in a building site, bought our 35 RMB tickets, took the elevator up 13 floors before walking the staircase up the arch to the highest point where you can see both sides of the river really well and even across to the Jin Mao, SWFC and Pear Tower in the distance - not bad for Shanghai visibility! Closer up we had a good view across the Expo site with the British fuzzy ball looking teeny tiny compared to all the other pavilions, some of which look like they're might be quite good fun.

After we'd exhausted the view we ticked off our imaginary list and headed down, stopping onthe staircase to marvel at the orange-clad workers sitting casually on the edge of the bridge fixing lightbulbs, and wondering what would happen were they to accidentally drop a screwdriver onto a fast moving car far below. Luckily they seemed to be keeping firm hold of all their tools so our question was left unanswered and the motorists remained safe and blissfully unaware of the dangers lurking above.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

WOW! Philippines II (17-20 January 2010)

Going Bangkas in the Bacuit

The island landscape is truly awesome and the best way to enjoy it is by bangka (the local style of boat with a narrow hull and two arms either side to balance it and bounce off the waves). Craggy islets dot the azure blue sea, their rocky profiles dangerously sharp in places. Most are uninhabited but for the occasional fishing hut and many swallow birds whose nests are those favoured in Birds’ Nest soup, and who are therefore constantly under threat from poachers. Undeterred by the treacherous cliff faces, these guys risk life, limb and severe scarification clambering up into hidden caves to find their treasure. Full of secret coves, white sandy beaches and hidden lagoons, you could spend weeks exploring here and never go to the same beach twice.

We only had a couple of days however so day number one, we signed up for a group tour and and spent the day snorkelling, swimming and sunning ourselves with Superguide Eddie who made us hats from palm leaves as well as a kick-ass bbq lunch, and an American guy who insisted he didn't need any help putting sunscreen on his back and ended up with a pattern of well defined finger prints in cheerful shades of strawberries and cream.

For our second day we'd discovered that it only cost a teeny bit more to get a private boat and so decided to set out early and be the first to some of the nicest spots and enjoy the beaches before anyone else arrived - like virgin snow, there's something very pleasing about yours being the first footsteps on an untouched, pristine beach.

Our first stop was "Secret Beach". Accessible only at low tide by swimming through a hole in the cliffs, you have to time the waves to avoid being mashed against the rocks and coming out looking like you've gone 10 rounds with a particularly vicious cheese grater.

Fortunately we had Superguide Eddie to see us through and made it in with nothing but a few minor scrapes into the small crescent of sand surrounded 360 degrees by rocks. Beautiful as it is, it's not a place to linger with the knowledge that the water is only getting higher with every passing minute. We only managed to get a few pictures before our camera died a watery death and went to join my mobile phone in Davy's Locker, it having fallen victim to the seas just earlier that morning... it was not a good day for technology.

In fact it was not a good day for engineering of any sort it seemed as only a few minutes after returning to the boat, the engine sputtered and died. The rough seas earlier had bent the propeller shaft. Not unheard of apparently as they had a spare but after an hour of banging about below, we were still stuck, with a strong current pushing us toward one of those merciless looking cliffs I mentioned before. We managed avoid disaster by waving down another passing boat to tow us to the closest beach where we had lunch while waiting for a replacement. We finished up the day having to tow our original bangka back to El Nido, directly into the wind of an approaching storm with huge waves crashing all around and just made it back by nightfall cold, wet and in great need of beer.


On day 3 we'd planned a sea kayaking session but on waking to an overcast sky threatening rain, we decided to explore our other options. By chance we discovered there was a fiesta being held in a local village so we hired a motorbike and set off for a day of land exploration, discovering even more gorgeous beaches, fishing villages and great scenery.

The fiesta was in aid of celebrating Senior Santo Nino or the boy Jesus, (who apparently spent several years performing miracles across the Philippines which accounts for the ages of 12-30 when Jesus disappears from biblical texts... well I imagine we'd all need a bit of a beach break if we just found out we were the son of God). It was a lot of fun with food, drink, music and dancing and laughing men armed with charcoal drawing on everyone's faces and making the handful of tourists scattered through the crowd feel very welcome.

The main event of the day was a dance competition between local schools starting with the 5-7 year olds who were very cute but kept wandering off and doing their own thing while their teachers desperately tried to keep them on track. The older kids were a bit more organized, with great costumes, but varying degrees of enthusiasm - the whole thing was quite a show. It's a shame there was one big fat white guy who insisted on standing in front of everyone with his three cameras trying to get the perfect shot but in turn ruining everybody else's.

After that, we continued a bit further up the road to search out another beach we'd heard of and navigated some some pretty ropey and steep roads, to find a single (and at times non-existent) track leading to another stretch of lovely, windswept and given the means of getting there, deserted beach. If only we'd bought the kites!

So that was our time in El Nido. Well almost... we were off to Coron by boat the next morning, but that's another story.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

WOW! Philippines I (12-16 January 2010)

As far as national tourist board catchphrases go, this may not be the most imaginative but it hits the nail right on the head. Both being big fans of the Philippines after a great trip to Bohol a couple of years ago, Palawan had been on our hit list for some time. Billed as the last frontier of the island nation, an adventurer’s paradise, unspoiled by the ravages of commercial tourism, this long, skinny island about 400km long and 80km wide, did not disappoint.

We landed in Puerto Princesa, smack bang in the centre and optimistically headed south, paying no heed to the cautionary words of the Lonely Planet that the going would be tough with no real infrastructure to speak of.

One day later we were back.

Four hours on a minibus had got us 70km to Narra, where we planned to hike and see some waterfalls. The heavens opened and with the falls still an hour away by motorized tricycle on very bumpy dirt roads veiled with dark clouds, we just made it to the nearest hotel by nightfall. Twice our budget but the only place for miles, it ended up being quite a find. The sole guests (and only about the twentieth in the last year according to the guestbook), we had the run of the pool and the private mangrove. On the downside, it was still raining, there was very little to eat in the restaurant and the rooms were full of bugs having been unused for quite some time. The next morning we faced reality and more black clouds in the south and hopped on a minibus back to Puerto, the north and the promise of more sunshine and marginally easier passage.

We were sidetracked in Puerto for a couple of days with the discovery of a lone kite school. A beautiful, calm lagoon, shallow waters and nobody else on the water it was the perfect spot for me to tackle the sport with none of the dangers regularly faced by the debutante kitesurfer in Shanghai (overhead wires, rocks, rogue fishing nets and bamboo poles sticking out at random in the water).

The first afternoon was a washout with the weather flipping from glorious sunshine to treacherous rainy squalls but the following day proved more fruitful after a bit of a false start; there being no wind in the morning we decided not to waste the entire day waiting and booked ourselves on a bus to El Nido, the northernmost point of Palawan. Of course, the wind arrived with the bus and though we did stick to our guns and climb aboard, we came to our senses when the engine conked at the main bus station 20 minutes down the road, and took it as a sign not to spend the next 6 hours on a cramped and sweaty bus when the sun was out and the wind was a-blowing. Much to the amusement of my instructor and our other newfound kitesurfing friends, Italians Monica and Aquil, we were back on the beach in no time and after 4 hours of patient instruction I was managing the kite and body dragging up and down wind.

So we had another night in Puerto where we wandered along the seafront then up to the main street for some food (and where we saw some local kids playing an unusual sport that involves what looks like a badminton net, a large hackysack and some very flexible leg work) and an early morning start to catch the 7am bus to El Nido.

The Road to El Nido

We crammed ourselves in to the tiny 11-seater mini bus bound for El Nido and prepared to get cozy with our fellow passengers, of whom there were 15 (you do the math!). In spite of the cramped conditions the journey was not too bad – 200km over 6 hours. The first half is fairly smooth on a new road dodging the ever-present collection of jeepneys, motorbikes, scooters, trikes, buffalo and cart. After a place called Roxas, approximately midway, things started to deteriorate with the road only partially complete on both sides, and dirt tracks connecting the random sections of concrete, it became more like a game of chicken with the aforementioned assortment of vehicles traveling in both directions and on either side of the road. There was always something interesting to see out of the window though, from a religious procession following what looked like Big Bird to lush green rice fields or views of the sea and fishing boats sparkling through the dense jungle all around.

We arrived in El Nido around lunchtime and set out to find a room. After more than an hour of hauling our heavy rucksacks from end to end of the small town where every inch of the beach front is taken up by some form of guesthouse of restaurant, though none of them with any vacancies, we eventually found a great, tranquil little place called Makulay, a few minutes walk around the headland on the next beach with a room for $8 a night.

El Nido used to be just a small fishing village and though it remains a small village the emphasis has started to shift from fishing to tourism. With just one main street the shop fronts alternate between guesthouses, tour agencies and restaurants, but there is still no ATM and electricity only runs from 6pm to 3am. A bummer if you’re after a fresh fruit smoothie or a cappuccino for breakfast! It's a nice place to pass a few days but the real reason for bein g here is what lies out to sea and the collection of jagged limestone islands that rear majestically out of the waters, known as the Bacuit Archipelago...

Waiting for Jobot (Dec 09/Jan 10)

Christmas and New Year 2009/10 passed smoothly and happily in Shanghai with plenty of turkey, Champagne and making merry with the good friends that had stayed put for the holidays. Flo’s contract at work ended with December and the new one in Singapore was still not confirmed. I was freelancing and finishing up some temp teaching, so we both found ourselves starting the New Year in a cold, damp employment limbo. With news from Singapore not forthcoming until the end of January, we decided to up sticks and wait it out in warmer climes. On a whim, we were off to the Philippines. Destination, Palawan.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Beginning...

I’ve been having some serious issues trying to write an update for my friends and family recently as there is so much to tell. It’s entirely my own fault of course as I have been too lazy and distracted to do it as things happen and now I am left with almost two months’ worth of tales to tell. As this is going to be the first post on a new blog (which I plan to keep updated on a more regular basis from now on), I hope you can bear with me while I backtrack a little - there’s no chance I’m going to be able to keep it short so I’ll try breaking it into chunks and posting as I write retrospectively instead. Dip in and out as you please!