Philippine Omens: Morse Code

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El Nido, Palawan  Photo by Philippine Fly Boy Creative Commons 2.0

El Nido, Palawan
Photo by Philippine Fly Boy Creative Commons 2.0

I’m often amused by the varying standards of airport security around the world.

In the U.S. you could easily find yourself locked in a dimly lit interrogation room with a husky TSA officer for answering your cellphone in the customs line; while in Thailand, the four-inch hunting knife and sandwich bag of valium you forgot about in your carry-on after last month’s bender in Bangkok easily make it aboard your outbound flight to Malaysia.

In Dubai, A dildo tucked into the abyss of your checked luggage might get you put on “the list” while the the nugget of hash your scored in Morocco somehow finds its way back to Wisconsin via the pocket of your cargo shorts. Whoops.

The varying degrees of scrutiny do nothing for me in terms of airport safety, but I appreciate the sense of relief and triumph tied to unknowingly breaking the rules–that feeling you get when you discover the lighter in your camera bag right before take-off or when the flight attendant fails to notice that your iPhone is indeed NOT on airplane mode. Take that, Luthfansa.

This is what I’m thinking as the security official is clawing through my bag In Manila. Supposedly the extendable monopod in my pack has raised suspicion. “Sir, may I check your bag?” He asks as if I have a choice in the matter. I imagine myself saying no and being hauled off–hands bound by zip ties.

He pulls out the camera pole for inspection, checking its heft by swinging it through the air a few times. “Sir, this is not allowed on the plane…” I try to look confused as if I hadn’t already been told this at the airport back in Kaohsiung, where it took ten minutes to first find a box and then have it checked in.

“…but I’ll let you bring it. Your hair is cool, like Bob Marley.”

At first I’m slightly disappointed. There could’ve been anything hidden in that camera pole; a knife, liquid explosives, miniature bottles of vodka. Then I realize this is one of the only positive omens I’ve had on what is surely a final attempt to enjoy a relaxing vacation amongst Palawan’s scattered islands, the first one being that we’re even able to find a flight going to Palawan after so many failed attempts.

Rather fortuitously, the same typhoon that kept us from departing by ferry and grounded the morning flight to Palawan also kept the Tao Expedition vessels from taking to the sea. Should we be able to make it from Puerto Princessa to El Nido by the following morning, the company will allow us to take the tour from the opposite direction and we won’t need to charter a private boat to catch up with the rest of the group.

There’s a shit ton of “ifs” in the equation, but after dealing with an airport security official who likens me to Bob Marley, I like our chances.

After a quick google search, we find a blog that mentions a bus company–Roro–that makes the seven hour trip from Puerto Princesa to El Nido overnight. There’s also mention that during peak season seats tend to sell out fast but neither phone numbers for Roro work so we turn up blindly at the San Jose Bus Terminal, a shoddy looking structure resembling an abandoned fruit market about a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride from the airport. There’s mud everywhere and the electricity is out. Across the road there’s a small food stand serving typical Filipino fare out of varied pots and pans laid out for display on a long candle-lit table. Additional food stands selling pork rinds, bottles of water and beer are tucked in between the terminal boarding gates. I have no doubt that during the day this bus terminal looks like just about any other bus terminal you’d find in small town Southeast Asia, but at eight o’clock at night and with no electricity, it looks more like the perfect place to hold a satanic seance, or maybe snuggle up with a serial rapist.

Along with Roro another bus company–Cherry–also offers the overnight trip to El Nido. There’s seats available on both, but Cherry leaves at nine, an hour earlier than Roro. We purchase tickets from the bus driver and chat with one of the teenage boys milling about the terminal. He mentions that the bus will arrive in El Nido around 4:30 in the morning, but because the the driver and porter won’t be returning until the following night, they’ll allow us to sleep on the bus until we can check-in at the Tao Expeditions office. I float the idea of buying some pot before the bus leaves, but he either doesn’t care to point me in the right direction, or he’s more inclined to discuss my thoughts on the NBA.

“Kobe Bryant is best player, right?”

“Actually Kobe Bryant is old and I hate the Lakers.”

“But he’s best, right?”

“No.”

“So who is best player?”

“Right now? Maybe Lebron James, but I hate Miami.”

“What about Michael Jordan?”

“Michael Jordan doesn’t play anymore.”

“Hmm…So Kobe is best.”

I just about go into a rant about how big-money basketball is depleting the entertainment value of the NBA, but instead ask him where the bathroom is.

Before the bus departs I grab a bag of pork rinds and we board the half-empty bus joined by five or six flip-flopped twenty-somethings from France who I peg as gap year kids on the backpacker circuit. I’d like to say that I wasn’t nervous about being annoyed for seven hours by our French busmates, but experience has taught me that–much like cats–young Frenchman have a tendency to hiss and moan until someone acknowledges their existence, at which point they turn up their tails and tell you to fuck off.

The route from Puerto Princesa to El Nido is best described as morse code: dashes of jaw rattling gravel road dotted with quarter-mile sections of paved asphalt. Throughout the journey I manage to fall asleep during the short paved sections, only to be awaken by a barrage of rocks and dirt bouncing around under the bus as we rip through the gravel sections. Having a full bladder only makes it worse. Three hours into the ride I give up on sleep and hone in my frustrations on the French delegation in the back of the bus loudly discussing matters of who gives a shit.

By four a.m. our bus is making it’s way down the nearly vertical hill that drops into El Nido after dispelling most of the other passengers just outside of town. The sun is starting to come up over the green crusted limestone karsts and we catch a glimpse of the beach before descending into town.

The porter gives a quick demonstration on how to make a small bed out of the bus’s seat cushions and I’m hoping we’ll be able to sleep for a few hours and maybe get some breakfast before checking-in with Tao Expeditions.

Stretched out over the prickly cushions, I don’t know if I’m more relieved about our trip finally coming to fruition, or finally being able to get some sleep.

I’m just about to dose off when the porter–laying atop a mountain of seat cushions–whips out his cellphone and launches into a Christian sing-a-long session comprised of Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” on repeat. Fists clenched, eyes closed, veins protruding from his neck, he belts out every verse and crescendos on the chorus. I sit up to shoot our karaoke comrade a scowl that will convey “shut that shit up,” but he’s too entrenched in the music to notice.

The driver–on his own mound of cushions–is completely passed out, seemingly unaware of the performance happening just a few feet from his face. It gives me the impression that this is a regular occurrence; a religious ceremony perhaps: arrive safely in El Nido or Puerto Princesa and thank the savior above for not allowing the bus to careen off the scantly paved road. For that matter maybe I should be singing as well.

Eventually we’re able to rest for a couple of hours before sauntering into El Nido’s maze of beachside narrow lanes. The town is just waking up and Tao’s office isn’t open yet so we settle into a small restaurant nearby that looks to be recovering from a long night. It’s raining and I’m staring at my corned beef hash over rice, looking up between bites to take in the beach with its stray dogs and rubbish.

After what it took to get here, I’m fully preparing myself to be told that due to unforeseen circumstances, our idyllic boat excursion has been postponed or otherwise cancelled.

*Authors Note: This is part II of a three part series about a two week trip to The Philippines for Chinese New Year. Read Part I here.

Links:

Ironwulf En Route has done a fine job reviewing both Cherry and Roro bus companies that offer service between Puerto Princessa and El Nido.  Tickets can be bought directly from the driver. From the the airport, it will take about 30 min. by tuk-tuk to get to the San Jose bus terminal. Walk just outside the airport gates and haggle for better rates.

Cebu Pacific– apparently lax on security if you have the right hairstyle, they offer regular flights from Manila to Puerto Princessa

Tao Expeditions– Open itinerary, multi-day island tours in Northern Palawan.

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Weekend Wanderings: Xiao Liuqiu

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Flower Vase Rock on Xiao Liuqiu

Four-day holiday weekends In Taiwan often mean getting out of the city and finding a nice piece of somewhere to temporarily escape  lesson plans, tests, and cheeky preteens who scoff at the idea of anything being more interesting than K-pop stars and computer games.

For us, this last holiday weekend meant throwing a few things in a bag and loading up my scooter for a trip down to Xiao Liuqiu, a drop of coral island off the southwest coast of Taiwan.

The weather wasn’t perfect, we had yet to eat breakfast and the island was swarming with tourists, but we had a mini cooler, a tent and some snorkel gear. At the very least we could stage a nifty Instagram photo and lie to everyone about having the perfect long weekend on an island paradise.

With a total land mass of just under seven square kilometers, Xiao Liuqiu clearly isn’t the biggest, but it’s the only one of Taiwan’s fourteen islands made completely of coral. Take the twenty-minute ride around the island by scooter and you’ll notice an abundance of cemeteries and solitary grave sites. Apparently island regulations prohibit graves from being in too close to homes so when grandma finally keels over, she’s relegated to a roadside mound to rest in peace. She might also be next to an electric scooter charging station.

We arrive on the island and grab some food then head off to sort out where to sleep for the night. The number of people pouring off the ferry almost certainly means that finding a reasonably priced hotel room will be out of question, but we’d heard that it’s possible–while technically prohibited–to pitch a tent on one of the island’s four beaches.  After meeting  two girls from Tainan who were looking to camp as well, we decide to stash our tent in the brush near Geban Bay and return at sunset to set up camp. The idea being that island officials would be less inclined to boot us off the beach once the sun goes down.

Plenty of tourism websites and blogs will lead you to believe that the attractions on Xiao Liuqiu are “amazing,” “fabulous” and even “captivating.” And why shouldn’t they? Fishing has been on the decline so local islanders have began banking on tourism to make make a living, which means up-selling mediocre (albeit naturally beautiful) highlights:

Black Dwarf Cave
A dark coral crawl space that will make claustrophobics soil their pants; connected to a path the twists between a few boulders and spits you out onto a stairway which leads to a sea facing pavilion. By definition, this may be the only actual “cave” on the island.

Wild Boar Trench
A labyrinth of wooden paths criss crossing a forest of banyan trees and narrow dirt paths that may or may not lead anywhere and several ditch like crevices that I chose not to venture into. It’s a nice place to take a quiet stroll or get some island nookie if you and your boo are feeling frisky. Grab some ice cream across from the entrance when you’re done.

Flower Vase Rock
The symbol of Xiao Liuqiu, Flower Vase Rock looks more like a cheap bouquet of flowers rather than an actual vase. It’s probably among the most crowded places on the island and you might end up fighting for space amongst vacationing families and couples looking to capture the perfect selfie, as well as snorkeling groups donning wet suits and life jackets. I’m not saying the thirty-foot crag isn’t interesting, but I can only be so enthralled by the beauty of sea erosion before my attention is captured by something else, like say, ugly dogs wearing sweater vests.

The list of goes on, but I’ll spare you the details.

Call me picky, but if you come to Xiao Liuqiu for anything, it should be for its snorkeling and the abundance of sea turtles that come to snack on its healthy corals. This was the one thing mentioned by just about every person we asked before deciding to visit ourselves. Doubting that we’d be so lucky as to actually see any turtles, I still made sure to pack my GoPro just in case.

I slip on my fins and hop in the water off ChungAu beach just east of Baisha port. Not anticipating a long swim, I leave the GoPro on the beach and am content with kicking around the corals nearest the shore. Just twenty yards from the beach (and still rather close to where the ferries pull in) , there are plenty of fish and the visibility near perfect.

I return to the beach after fifteen minutes and an expat visiting from Taipei who’d just exited the water asks if I’d seen the turtle swimming just beyond the wave breakers. I tell him no and he points me in the direction of where he and his girlfriend were just swimming, some 30 yards out.

I immediately kick out past the wave breakers, hopeful to catch a glimpse of said turtle and right before I decide to turn back I see the dijon yellow underside of it’s oval shell as it’s scraping for food between two pieces of coral. I let out a “holy shit!” and nearly choke on a mouthful of salt water. I follow it along the coral for ten minutes before spotting another smaller turtle to my right, closer to shore. I decide not to chase the second turtle, opting to float at arm’s length with the first one until it eventually turns and heads out to deeper waters.  Damn my idiotic self to hell for forgetting to bring the GoPro.

That night, the Tainan girls inform us that they also spotted turtles on a different side of the island. Kay and I decide to head out out together the next day. Having stayed on the beach during the first sighting, we’re both anxious for her to catch a glimpse firsthand and I’m hoping to get some quality GoPro footage. We follow the the advice of the Taipei couple and check the waters off the beach at Flower Vase rock (no doubt the tour crowds were amused by the two guide-less foreigners scrambling over coral to safely slip in the water).

We drift east with the current towards the pier before I realize that just below my stomach, a mammoth sized sea turtle more than a meter in length, is feeding on a piece of coral. I stick my head above the surface and yell to Kay and reach for my GoPro.

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

I swim in circles above the creature shooting photos and video before diving closer. It seems unalarmed by our presence and continues its snacking for a few moments before treating us to a swim-along: rising towards the surface and slowly drifting in a circular pattern as if–I shit you not– inviting us follow. Eventually the creature  grows tired of us and begins flapping out to sea.

At this point the recurring thought “holy fucking shit I just swam with a giant sea turtle” is bouncing around in my head and I’m keen on making the journey back towards Flower Vase Rock. Enter turtle number two.

This one is a considerably smaller with a shell that looks as if it’s been painted in hi-def. Not as outgoing as its larger sibling, it’s vigilant of our proximity, but doesn’t shy away from the camera as it rotates a few degrees to its side–fins extended– allowing me to capture a shot of of the mural on its back.

DCIM100GOPRO

Four turtle sightings in not even two days. We spent nearly two weeks in Palawan, Philippines and, while the snorkeling was remarkable, I saw only one turtle at a depth where I could barely make out it’s shape, let alone take any pictures.

The abundance of turtles on Xiao Liuqiu is perhaps a testament to a small but vibrant ecosystem that has remained protected and largely untouched (the island is also home to an inter-tidal zone with an equally diverse range of sea life).

On land Xiao Liuqiu probably won’t make anyone’s year-end list of top island destinations, but as far as it’s waters are concerned, you’d expect to drop a good chunk of loot for the opportunity to gawk a sea turtles in many other parts of Asia. Here it’s available to anyone with access to snorkel gear and a willingness to shimmy over some coral if necessary. 

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Getting to Xioa Liuqiu:
If you’re coming from other parts of Taiwan, you’ll need to make it to either the Kaohsiung Main Train Station or the Kaohsiung International Airport. Both locations have buses that can take you to Dongnag. Once in Dongang, hop a taxi to the ferry pier. Just tell the driver Xioa Liuqiu (chow-lee-oh-choh). A round trip ticket will cost you NT$380. You can rent scooters on the Island just across from the ferry terminal. It will cost an extra NT$100 each way to bring a scooter. More ferry info here.

It takes about an hour to get from Central Kaohsiung to Dongang if you decide to drive. Take highway 17 out of the city and turn right when you see a sign for Dongang Township. Stop in a 7-11 or McDonalds and ask them to point you in the direction for the ferry terminal.

Where to eat:
There are plenty of Taiwanese restaurants around the ferry terminal but don’t expect any of them to be English speaking. A Dui’s Tuna Restaurant is a popular, cheap option that has and English menu. We went for the grilled tuna fried rice and an order of sashimi.  If fish isn’t your thing, they also have standard fried rice dishes and typical Taiwanese veggies. If that still doesn’t do it for you, pop into any place near Baisha Port with a line and utilize the point method of ordering.  If all else fails, grab the microwavable curry bowl at 7-11.

Where to sleep:
Most of the hotels and guesthouses are concentrated around Baisha port. It gets crowded on the weekends, so it always safe to book ahead, but one could still show up a secure lodging if it’s not during a holiday.

For camping there are two campgrounds to choose from(Dreamland and Samaji) or you can be a rebel and pitch a tent on the beach. The north end of Geban Bay (Venice Beach) provides a great sunset, plenty of firewood and nice view of Koahsiung’s skyline. There’s more info on eating and accommodation on the Liuqiu Tourism website.