Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Grueling the alleys of Cebu City Pier…

As written on the road
After 2 days of pure transit (from Palawan to Cebu), met with my first hiccup of the trip. I arrived in Cebu City to find there were no ferry tickets to Leyte as Christmas weekend was around the corner. I was jumping from pier to pier in the blasted midday heat (apparently, having a centralized ticket office would be too easy for tourists), but finding no luck. Trying to remember why I think unplanned travel is fun. I sincerely miss friends who would have had the foresight to think about or enquire after availabilities and such practical matters. They would have no doubt also taken the trouble to book in advance. Cebu City pier is also definitely not a place to be ‘hanging about’ – no coffee shops or the likes to rest or get a drink. Also, I did run into a shady old man who was wildly gesticulating at me (I think) and seemed to be cursing in the local language (Cebanos?) and it was unnerving to say the least. Although I have encountered several such characters in the past, it is still unnerving. I was ready to throw the towel after few hours and wallow in self-pity, but, but, I managed a ticket in the very end. 3 times the price works, always!!! Anyways, I am telling myself it will at least be a good story for later. :)

PS: I ended up in a slowest of the slowest ferries and a quite a cattle class ferry at that – yes, the ferry also carried a couple of roosters, which wouldn’t keep shut. I woke up at one point during the night and thought I couldn’t have possibly heard what I had heard – roosters crowing. But I wasn’t wrong, and it seems cockfights is a popular sport in these islands.

I was the only non-local who seemed to be headed to Leyte (Southern Leyte), which made me question my choice of destination. Definitely, Leyte too isn’t on the popular tourist map. However, I met this Filippino girl who kindly offered to share her berth…

Friday, February 15, 2013

When inspiration turns into a trip... lost in Palawan's islands

5 days of exploring deep blue seas, remote islands with no names, white sandy beaches lined with swaying coconut trees and many sunsets. From Coron to El Nido, Palawan.

It was one of the busiest, intense times at work – I can’t remember when exactly – and I was taking a moment to decompress, flipping through NY Times when I read about vacationing on a bunka (boats), off the islands of Philippines. The author wrote – “We were in the middle of nowhere, paradise-style: a sea of high-definition azure stretching to the horizon, dotted only by distant uninhabited islands. After a few days of sailing, life had become a hazy routine: eat, snorkel, chill out. Repeat. We were in the middle of nowhere, paradise-style: a sea of high-definition azure stretching to the horizon, dotted only by distant uninhabited islands. After a few days of sailing, life had become a hazy routine: eat, snorkel, chill out. Repeat.” And I remember thinking that this is how one ought to explore islands. This is exactly how I wanted to explore islands! And that is how the trip to the Philippines came about… I considered different destinations and kept discarding options, I recalled this article, which had seemed like a dream then and thought, why not?

Unlike the popular variety of 1-day island hopping trip that were offered by tour operators in Palawan, TaoPhilippines offers a 5 day expedition starting from El Nido or Coron. My introduction to Tao itself was there website, which is extremely forthright in stating that ‘This is an expedition… we don’t promise that all will go well. And if you aren’t prepared for this or for camping and roughing-it-out, this is not your thing’. Which was exactly my kind of thing. Tao itself was started when 2 friends ran out of money exploring the islands of Philippines, so they decided to take other travelers on their journey’s to make money.

Untitled Our trip started at Coron (in the North of Palawan) and over 5 days we sailed towards El Nido (a beach in the South of Palawan). We were 22 of us along with around 10 from the crew. I had read it would be 5 or 6 people on board, and in my mind this number was a big crowd. But it turned out to be perfect – in many of the islands, there were almost none others but us. There was no set itinerary and each day we would set sail, with the expedition leader deciding the route and destination for the day. Through the day we would stop at different spots to snorkel or enjoy a beach or visit a small village. At nights, we docked at an island and we stayed in open huts or cabins. Sometimes the islands had big settlements; sometimes it was an island that was 15 minutes wide, walking. Dinners were simple and were around a big table where we came together and kicked back over beers.

At one island stop, the boys-on-board played basketball with the local kids. At another, one of the village houses had an age-old karaoke plugged into a TV, and we whiled away the night singing all from Bryan Adams to Elton John to Billy Joel. On one of evenings, as I was enjoying the sunset, I was surrounded by the local kids, and unlike the usual ones who tend to be shy of strangers, demanded I take photos of them. On the last day, the boats rudder broke and we had to sail straight through the day while the crew was manually guiding the boat.

I imagined I would have loads of time on my hand during the trip to idle away. Idle away, I did, but time flew too quickly and looking back those 5 days have meshed together to one long image of the sun, sea, starry nights and happy faces. It was a trip like no other for me!

Read the NYTimes article here. For more details of the trip, go to TaoPhilippines. Don't forget to check their FAQ page which has quite a lot of details about getting to Coron/El Nido in Palawan.

PS: Now that I do go back to article to link it here (funnily enough, I hadn't read through it for my planning), it sounds very very similar to my experience, including the karaoke!

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Coron... Where it all begins

There is something nice about walking out of an airport straight into the heart of the place... No highways, no crazy taxi queues, getting lost in figuring out exits... Think Leh , think Kilimanjaro, think Basuanga in the Philippines. It is the gateway to Coron, one of the towns in Palawan. You walk straight into the rolling hills and tropical green and take an old-world shared van to head to Coron town...

 Coron town itself was extremely small, and surprisingly untouristy despite its fame (may be rising fame) as a wreck dive spot. The town has literally 2 dive shops, 4-5 restaurants and 1-2 bars (which unlike those in other backpacker towns are still not trying to cater to travelers), few groceries and fewer money changers.

Untitled by Ms N
Coron Town main road... found these bike-converted to rickshaws cute

On the night that I arrived, the hostelier of the place I was in was supposed to be jazz jamming in a bar with friends, but cancelled plans. And that was the length and breadth and also end of entertainment options! I can see how many would get bored, but I loved that life seemed to go on just as it should, without frantically changing its rhythm to suit the demands of those who pass through it. (Little did I know I would be seeing more of these towns during my trip).  And this is where it all began!!! 

coron backpacker guest house by Ms N
The way to my guest house...

I was here just for a day, so I spent the evening soaking in the hot springs (I recommend it, beautiful at sunset), before rushing into my pre-trip briefing... Also got to see the Barracuda lake - a mix of fresh and sea water lake which makes it interesting. The lake was straight out of picture post card and perfect for sunning and a good swim - didn't see barracuda's though!

Untitled by Ms N
Barracuda lake