El Nido

10 Mar

Back in Port Barton, Sophia had recommended to us a place to stay in El Nido, a cheap sort of hidden guesthouse called Mikee Pension. A lot of guesthouses in the Philippines are called pensions, which is just as confusing to us as it is to you. The place, while reeking of dog on the first floor, was a good place to stay, and one of the few places in the town, it seemed, with somewhat functioning wifi. We were put in a private room with three beds, because it was the last they had available, for just seven dollars a night each. We set off walking to explore the town, which was such a lively place, with little cafes, restaurants and shops lining the small dirt roads. We wandered past the bakeries, deciding what treats we would be eating over the next few days, stared at expensive menus and weaved our way through the line of liquor shops to decide what we would buy for that evening. After grabbing ourselves bottles of rum we decided we would shower, have a drink in the room, and then head to dinner.

Our plans were derailed when, while we were buying mixers, we were found by Peter, Matt and Sean, the three guys we met in Siquijor, who had been in El Nido for a few days already. They had just finished the island hopping tour and were about to rent bikes to drive to a sunset bar. They asked if we wished to join them so we happily threw our dinner plans to the wind and got on the back of their scooters to go chase the sunset. We were cutting it close, but arrived at a bar with the perfect stretch of sunset beach, just in time. We got ourselves a few beers and sat watching the massive fiery globe sink into the ocean. What started as an average blindingly orange sunset quickly turned into a whirlwind of pink and purple colors cutting across the navy, mountainous skyline. It was the most spectacular sunset I have ever witnessed. With everyone hungry as hell, we drove back into town to go to a pizza place that they guys had eaten at before, where Christine and I split a half white and half pepperoni pizza, both sides equally exceptional. After a quick breakup to shower and get ready, Matt and Sean (Peter was being lame, I hope you’re reading this Peter) came back to our guesthouse where we drank some rum and played cards before going out to Pukka bar, where we had a few more beers and watched the thirsty men on the male dominant dance floor vying for the attention of the few girls there.

The next day, the boys boys had planned to drive to Nacpan beach, which Christian LeBlanc, a travel vlogger, called the most beautiful beach in the world, and generously offered to take us along. Hungover and sleep-deprived, we hopped onto the scooters and set off to the beach, which took us about 45 minutes to get to since we couldn’t find the entrance. While most of the road was paved, the final bit was a minefield of rocks and loose dirt. I’m not sure my ass will ever be the same after going over the endless bumps. The ride certainly didn’t help the hangover, so I immediately threw my body into the ocean when we arrived. While most swimming beaches in Southeast Asia have super calm water this beach was a different story. The waves and currents were extremely strong, which gave us great waves. However, they were so strong that it was hard to get out of the water and I was rocked by a massive wave, emerging with a sand-filled bathing suit and sand-coated hair that took days to rinse to some degree of clean. Christine and I spent the afternoon sleeping on the beach and I ended the day with my first coconut ever, hoping that it would cure my hangover. While I hate coconut water at home, which prevented me from ever getting one during my whole time in Asia, a fresh coconut is truly a different story. I slugged down the water and had the man machete it open so I could scrape out the insides, which I can best describe as the consistency of jello.

A day or two before, the boys had gone to a basketball court in a village about a five to ten minute walk outside of the center of El Nido town, where they played basketball with a few little kids. I’m not sure I have said this yet, but basketball is a huge sport in the Philippines. You can’t drive for ten minutes without seeing a court occupied by kids playing ball. After school every day, these kids head home to the court and end their days playing or watching a few games. Matt, impressed by the kids’ growing passion for a sport he loves so much, and influenced by beer, decided to buy a few basketballs to replace the over-used one that the children were playing with. We left the beach just in time for the after school rush to the court, where it was guaranteed the kids would be. While driving to the court, we passed by John-John and Jose, the two children that they had told us about, who were so excited to see the guys coming back and hopped on the back of Sean’s scooter en route to the court. We pulled up to the already bustling court, where some teenagers and people probably around our age (it’s incredibly hard to tell the ages of Filipino people; they all look young) were in the middle of a game. Right away, they came over and asked the boys to get in on a game with them, and placed some bets. The game started up and Christine and I sat off to the side, with some small children running around us. Slowly, as the game progressed, more and more people turned up from the village until the court was surrounded by old and young alike, all watching the afternoon’s game unfold. There was a lot of laughing and a lot of excitement. I goofed around with the children, watched the game and observed all the different characters hanging around the court. These guys, who probably have never had any coaching, were so skilled at street basketball. Their ball handling skills were almost humorously good, filled with fake outs and even dribbling the ball between defenders’ legs.

When I took a moment to look at this game from an outside perspective, I was overwhelmed by how beautiful it was. In this moment, who we are, our skin color, where we come from, our beliefs, our purposes, our money, does not matter. We were welcomed into this small community over common ground: the simple desire to play and watch a sport that we all enjoy, from the U.S.A to the Philippines. This basketball court is the core of their village community, their social space that they gather at daily. No matter the day, they will be here playing, we just happened to be lucky enough to be an equal part of it on this day. After two games, the exhausted and glistening guys shook hands and dispersed. The three basketballs we brought over were handed out, two to two of the guys who they had been playing with and one to John-John, who had been watching on eagerly. He took the ball from Matt with an unparalleled smile, and quickly accepted his responsibility as ball-keeper, running off towards home with his arms wrapped tightly around it. I’m not sure who was more appreciative in the moment.

It’s safe to say that we couldn’t top that experience for our final two days in El Nido. The following day we were rained out of doing any activities and simply walked about, ate and rested. On our last full day we woke up to sunshine and decided to do the island hopping tour. The tour was double the price of the tour in Port Barton and half the fun. We made five stops, three of which were lagoons. On the first stop they attempt to get you to rent a canoe, telling you that there are sea urchins, plankton and territorial fish. We took our chances and swam over to the lagoon, encountering none of these things. We experienced spurts of rain throughout the day and there was no snorkeling to be done. However, it was my last day of true adventure in Southeast Asia, as we’d be heading to Puerto Princesa the next day and then Taiwan the day after that, and I certainly don’t regret doing the tour. Overall, I would recommend the Port Barton tour over the El Nido tour any day.

On our last day, I had some business to take care of, which would require wifi, so after grabbing some baked goods we walked over to the bus station for an earlier bus back to Puerto Princesa, where we knew the hostel we had stayed in when we first got there had reliable wifi. The six hour bus got us into Puerto Princesa just before dark. With only a day left in the Philippines, we had no desire to take out any more cash. We had just enough to pay for the terminal fees and buy about one more meal. We got ourselves a cheap dinner at Chow King and then headed to the pharmacy to see if they would take cards, which they luckily did, so we could buy some soaps and hopefully an ice cream cone. The next morning started our terrible 48 hours. We did laundry at the laundromat, and went to McDonalds hoping to be able to use our cards to buy breakfast. McDonald’s did not take card, nor did any other place we tried. So, we decided we would refrain from eating until we got to Puerto Princesa airport, where we hoped they would have a place that took card. We got to Puerto Princesa and quickly realized how small the airport was, which we hadn’t took note of when we arrived. There was nowhere to take card and we had about two hours until our flight. We went to check in and they told me I would have to pay 780 pesos to check my bag, which I hadn’t been expecting. I was officially down to no money after this purchase, as the money I had was supposed to be for my terminal fees, and asked the guards where the nearest ATM was. I was allowed to leave the airport and, when I asked the guard outside where the ATM was, he told me it was broken and I’d have to go back into town, which I was not going to do, of course. I then had to wait on a massive line of people to get back into the airport. Christine had a cinnamon bun waiting for me when I got back in, which she was able to buy with the little bit of leftover money she had. We eventually got on our flight and made it to Manila, where we had a six hour layover. We were desperate for some food, so we went to McDonald’s, where they told us that they don’t take card. How a chain in an airport does not take credit card blows my mind. However, since I had taken a bit of money out here in the airport, I had just enough to binge on a McDonald’s meal. Christine, on the other hand, went to a nice restaurant which took card. When we went to check in, I kept my bag on my back, hoping I could take it as a carry-on and avoid paying the fees, and not a single person asked me about it, even though it was much bigger than the allowance. The bag made it past everyone and onto the plane with no trouble, which had me cursing myself for ever paying for baggage on the trip. Even my massive soap, lotion and sunscreen bottles made it through security, which astounded me.

Once we got to the gate, we realized that we never paid the terminal fee. We asked a couple of people sitting at the gate and they hadn’t either. Turns out the fee is now included in the ticket, which the Puerto Princesa guard who we asked about Manila terminal fees failed to tell us about. With so much money leftover, we decided to spend it all on beers and snacks and sat down to play cards and get drunk before our flight to Taipei. We put on power hour music in the corner of the seating area and had at it. By the time we were getting on board we were slugging the last of our fourth beer and feeling very tipsy. Our flight, which was after 10:00 PM , arrived in Taipei at about 1:00 AM. All of the hostels in Taipei that we read about would not let you check in after 12:00 AM, so we had decided we would have to sleep in the airport for that first night. We got off the plane and found a seating area where people seemed to be laying and curled up on the uncomfortable seats in an attempt to sleep. I fell in and out of terrible, curled up sleep a few times and woke up at 9:00 AM to a very awake, coffee-sipping Christine, who it turns out did not sleep at all. We sat around for another hour, since the hostel reception doesn’t open until noon (I know, ridiculous), and at about 10:30 decided to head out on the bus to get to our hostel.

While the end of my Philippines experience was certainly trying and left me cursing the country, I didn’t truly mean it. The Philippines is a beautiful country and has so much to offer. The only glaring issue is the travel within the country, which is made difficult by the lack of direct flights between the islands, the high expense of the flights (the flight from Palawan to Manila was $100 dollars while a flight from Manila to Taipei was $40), and the terrible ferry ticketing system. The intra-island land travel, however, was some of the easiest and cheapest I have encountered. We also shot for too much for three and a half weeks and the backpacker mindset of simply deciding the next day what you want to do doesn’t work as well in a place with so many islands and very few budget hostels. Yet, I’m not sure I would change my experience. It was beautiful, exhausting, frustrating and gave me a lot of stories. Going to the Philippines had not even been a thought at the start of my trip, but I’m so, so happy that it made its way into my plans.

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