February 6, 2011

High Season

This week I learned that finding paradise comes at a price -- whether it be in the form of a pseudo-seat on a bus, expensive and awkwardly sweet food, or sleeping in a makeshift room.

El Nido is exactly what one would imagine when trying to think of an idyllic paradise. The steep limestone cliffs climb out of the crystal clear waters of the Pacific and copious amounts of coconut trees line the shore. There are so many coconuts, in fact, that the town has an abnormally high amount of deaths related to falling coconuts. There are hundreds of tiny islands speckled just off the coast, each offering up aquamarine lagoons, white beaches, and the drama of high cliffs shaped by the ocean over thousands of years. The main island, Palawan, along with the other islands are lush with rainforest and all sorts of creatures that make interesting noises at night.

All of the natural glamor comes with some dirt and sweat, however. The night before we left for El Nido, we stayed in a bamboo house on the outskirts of Puerto Princesa. We had the entire house to ourselves and had to walk down a dirt path in order to get there. It is nestled in a neighborhood and is made of all local materials. We were certainly the focal point of the neighborhood. It was awesome staying there, but I couldn't help but feel a little guilty having a rainwater shower and a flat screen TV in my bamboo hut when most of the children who were eagerly approaching us slept in bamboo huts as well -- minus a real floor and electricity. One thing we did share with the neighbors were the cockroaches. They all came out to play at night and we nervously huddled our mosquito net close to our bodies to keep them from crawling in the bed. At one point I woke up to them crawling on top of the net, gross.

The easiest way to get to take a van from Puerto Princesa. The first 160 km are paved on a narrow, winding road. The 12-passenger van is filled to the brim, including utilizing the tiny foldout seats next to the door. The first half of the trip took three hours, we were going so fast that my half-seat would tip to the side on the corners. My back was cramping and Jenn and I were doing everything we could to fall asleep.

Sleep was not found though, as the second half of the trip was a pot-hole filled gravel road. It hadn't rained in a week, so the dust was rolling and we were weaving from side to side in order to avoid the "rough spots." Our driver was in a race, and he won.

The island was worth it once we finally made it. We stayed in a beachfront cottage the first three nights and were joined by a friend from Hangzhou for our second day. Two Filippino boatmen took us on an island hopping tour one day to show us the famous lagoons -- at one point we sat in a sea cave, swam in a glasslike natural pool, and crawled through a tunnel to check out a secret lagoon completely enclosed by limestone cliffs. The tour was complete with a beach barbeque with whole fish, mangoes, and rice.

The next day we all went scuba diving, which was a million times more incredible than Vietnam. Instead of the 2 meter visibility, we had 10 meters of ocean. We saw some incredible corals and a huge school of yellow snapper. Our dive leaders, Caca and Ronnie were fantastic. They just opened their dive shop, so our equipment was brand new. They brought their kids on the boat too, so it was funny watching the young boys navigate the boat as if they were old ocean pros.

El Nido by day was fantastic, but El Nido by night was nerve-wracking. We spent four nights there and only had three of those nights reserved. Prior to going, I knew we would be there during the high season because of the Chinese New year, but I assumed there would be plenty of options. El Nido is tiny though. We spent two hours one morning going from guesthouse to resort to hotel searching for a room for three. Everyone told us they were either full or they might have a room depending on if their guests check out the next day or not. No one was reliable.

At last we found a room in Taiyo Village, she offered us her Haitay Room -- or waiting room, which is a storage shed the resort will occasionally add a bed in depending on the demand. The bed was in high demand and we had to barter a bit in order to get it. It was next to the resort we had been staying at, so we still had the 15 minute walk down a dirt path in order to get there. At night we walked by flashlight (and at one point with "Killing machine #2 -- a Danish expat named Ole who owns a restaurant in the town). We only had electricity from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The night we slept in the shed was a wet one, it rained most of the day and most of the night. Our shower was a bucket in an outhouse next to a toilet. I showered in my bathing suit and since it was pouring rain, I didn't even bother to dry off until I had made the 25 meter crossing through the yard back to my room. Due to the rain and darkness, all three of us got desperate and ended up peeing in a bowl in our room.

Shameful, but necessary.

Our mattresses were larger than the bed frame, the roof was leaky, and the light bulb kept going out. But we had a bed and a roof. A lot of people had to sleep on the beach because there were no rooms available in town.

I was grateful, for the most part.

We decided to book it out of El Nido this morning with our friend who flies back to China tomorrow. There weren't places to stay and the night in the shed turned us off. We had another harrowing trip back to Puerto Princesa and have a dry clean room for tonight (although all my clothes are now soaked as a result of the rain pounding our bags on the roof today).

I can honestly say I've never had to go to such great lengths in order to get a tan.

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