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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Philippine Omens

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Photo by John McGarvey. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic

The majority of my experience with bad omens comes almost entirely from watching sports: A bad play occurs early on or at some pivotal point in the game foreshadowing the impeding demise of my team. Given the amount of sports I watch you’d think that I’d be adept to spotting bad omens when they occur in travel.

Like when a Philippine Airline Express representative–kind as she is–informs my girlfriend and I over Skype that our flight from Cebu to Coron has been cancelled. It would be nice to have the foresight to recognize what will be the first of many hiccups to occur during our two week stay in the Philippines. At least then I could mentally prepare myself and pack extra ibuprofen.

Instead the omen slips past me and I’m left with the obvious and irrelevant question: why?

The Airline has cancelled the flight because they’ve decided to cancel the route.

Why?

Who fucking knows.

What’s for certain is that PAL Express can get us to just about anywhere in The Philippines except the one place we’d like to get to for a Chinese New Year vacation of island hopping around Palawan Province. They also inform us that for a refund, we’ll need to print out a form and submit it in-person to a PAL Express service counter in the Philippines.

“Uh…we live in Taiwan.”

Hunched over my MacBook in the living room, I resist the urge to throw a profanity tantrum while my girlfriend calmly explains that this is unacceptable while taking down an email address to forward our unresolved complaints. As is the norm when dealing with budget airlines: money very easily slides into the pocket; getting it out is much more difficult. Nonetheless we need a book alternative transportation if we plan to make it to Coron Town in time to depart for the multi-day sailing tour we’ve booked with Tao Expeditions. Alas, all flights are full–another omen that I fail to recognize.

Plan B involves a 14-hour ferry from Manila that will put us in Coron Town two hours before our tour is set to depart. So long as the ferry is on time, we’ll make it. Otherwise we’ll have to charter a private boat to catch up with the rest of the group. We email Tao and ask about the ferry’s punctuality and they tell us it’s dependable and will get us there in time for departure.

We turn up at the ferry port in Manila with two stacks of required documents, check in, clear security and are ushered into a large waiting area resembling an airplane hangar, joining the other haggard passengers, most of whom who look slightly constipated and like they could spontaneously combust at any moment. The look of people who have been in the same enclosed area for too long. Upon sitting down I hear the disgruntled complaints of a guy sitting across from us who, judging by his accent, is French. Something along the lines of “…so we may not leave for another five hours?”

There’s no fucking way he’s talking about the ferry to Coron, right? The ferry we booked in place of a cancelled flight? The ferry we just checked into without a single mention of any delays or cancellations? Yes, that ferry. Enter, omen number three.

I approach a group of ferry employees–Filipino teenagers armed with smartphones and walkie-talkies–to ask about our expected departure. The response I get is a mashup of speculation and hearsay with bits of fact: A typhoon along the route has prompted the coast guard to suspend all sea travel until further notice. That notice is expected to be issued sometime between two and five o’clock, and possibly not until tomorrow or the next day. If given the green light today, we’ll depart at six p.m….maybe. In other words, we can sit for four hours and possibly leave, or sit for six hours and be told to wait longer.

Remembering that the ferry was originally scheduled to leave at four, I begin to feel constipated.

Four hours later they cancel the ferry for the day. We’re given the option of a refund or we can call a hotline the next day to find out when (if at all) the trip will be rescheduled. This means we’ll be losing one day of the planned six we’ve booked with Tao–provided we make it to Palawan at all.

With our flight and now a ferry being cancelled, I begin to notice a pattern and mull over the notion of canceling our trip with Tao and hopping a cheap flight to Boracay to drown our frustrations in a bottle of rum.

We’d probably still be sitting in the ferry terminal sulking had it not been for two blithe NGO workers who approach and offer to let us crash at their apartment for the night while we figure out what to do next. On R&R from emergency typhoon relief, their itinerary is open so they’re content with swapping their previous plans of Coron via ferry for Puerto Princesa via airplane, tomorrow morning. We’ve been invited to tag along if we decide to give up on the ferry. Puerto Princesa is indeed in the same province as Coron, but it’s nearly 240 miles south, so catching a flight there is only a slightly better option than the unreliable ferry. Even more, Puerto Princesa is still roughly seven hours by bus from the town of El Nido, where Tao has a second office and where our sailing tour is slated to end. So while Coron is all but out of reach, we might be able to make it to El Nido (via Puerto Princesa) and possibly take the trip with Tao in reverse.

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Northern Palawan Province

It’s either head back to Malate for another night of pounding San Miguels at 7-11 and chatting with strip club promoters–betting on a slim-chance ferry, or accept free accommodation from strangers and catch a morning flight that only puts us in the peripheral of our sought destination.

We choose the latter, go through yet another refund process and are soon crammed in the back of a taxi whipping through Manila’s dusty evening traffic. One of our NGO pals Lange, a slender Harvard graduate who could pass for either Filipino or hispanic mentions he has a cousin who’s celebrating her birthday later at a nightclub called Hyve. He makes a phone call and is able to get our names on the guestlist.

I admit my geographical knowledge of greater Manila is negligible, but the vision I had before arriving was mostly of urban sprawl and decay, synonymous with other capital cities in S.E. Asia that I’ve visited. So much in fact, that when our taxi pulls up to a luxury high-rise building resembling some swanky hotel in New York or Mumbai, I’m sure the driver has brought us to the wrong address.

“Welcome to ‘The Fort,'” says Lange.

The Fort he refers to is Fort Bonifacio or Bonifacio Global City–once a base for the Philippine army until it was sold off to private interests and turned into a glitzy commercial district populated by foreigners and well-off Filipinos. The place we’re staying for the night is one of several condos and office buildings that tower above tree lined streets and grassy promenades. It hardly resembles the area we just left, near Manilla Bay, where I noticed people sorting through roadside mounds of trash  and sleeping under dilapidated flatbed trucks. Even local jeepneys are prohibited from entering the district’s borders. Fort Bonifacio looks more like what you’d find in Hong Kong or Seoul, though with fewer people and not as many plastic surgery clinics. They’ve even thrown in a Tony Roma’s steakhouse for good measure, adding a tinge of sleaze to the overall glamour.

We head upstairs to an apartment that’s more plush than most hotels I’ve stayed in. The night club we’re going to allegedly has a strict dress code so the flip-flops, board shorts and tank tops my girlfriend and I have packed won’t do. I borrow a button-up shirt from one of our hosts and Lange calls a female colleague who lives in the same building from whom my girlfriend procures a skirt and some make-up. Before leaving we book a flight for the next morning headed to Puerto Princesa and decide to sort out how we’ll get to El Nido later.

When we stroll up to the entrance my girlfriend is stopped at the door. Her dusty flip-flops are against dress code. Thankfully Lange’s female coworker swoops in and throws a fuss about how dusty flip-flops are currently high fashion in the west and clearly the club is not as hip a they claim to be if they can’t recognize as much. Caught by surprise, the bouncer reluctantly lets both girls past the velvet rope. Sometimes it’s better to act the part if you can’t actually be the part. Soon we’re shown into VIP where the birthday girl has ordered a bottle Hennessy encased in lights to give it a glowing aura. Introductions to her entourage are made and I muster up just enough small talk to avoid being rude as I pour myself two fingers of the best France has to offer. photo (2)

Again there’s a noticeable difference between the patrons at Hyve and those at the curbside eatery in Malate where we chugged Red Horse and munched on bistec taglog after our 7-11soirée. Here everyone is glittery and drenched in cologne and perfume. Servers sift around the club carrying glowing bottles of alcohol with large sparklers attached, eliciting cheers from patrons huddled around tables crowded with lo-balls and buckets of ice.

On the dance floor, sweat, outstretched arms and raised cocktail glasses mix together in a cloud of lazer beams and strobe lights–the type of setting in which you’re meant to have the time of your life, or where you can take a killer Instagram photo with the hashtag “YOLO.” Generally speaking, I don’t take these types of places too seriously. The usual displays of wealth and sex that occur in nightclubs aren’t nearly as entertaining as watching  the people who frequent nightclubs (many of which are neither wealthy nor sexy i.e. me) dance to crappy music, so I tend to view such establishments with the same sardonic attitude reserved for petting zoos and really shitty amusement parks.

Still, having arrived at Hyve with someone else’s shirt on my back, to find a VIP table holding a glowing bottle of booze, after a five hour wait at the port, for a cancelled ferry that is threatening to derail our much needed vacation, it takes nothing more than four measures of Kanye’s “Niggas in Paris” for me to act a damn fool. Sure, I’d rather be laying on a beach in Palawan sipping Emperador, but the bottles at Hyve come with sparklers.

I sip more Hennessy, get invited to (and eventually booted from) a table of partying Koreans, flail my dreads around, laugh at the guys hitting on my girlfriend, drunkenly stare at a half empty parking lot from the club’s balcony and all but forget that we’re supposed to catch a flight at 9:30 a.m..

I awake the next morning with no recollection of coming back to our temporary apartment and only a vague recollection of why my breath smells like I drank a quart of rubbing alcohol. Our hosts are already awake and tell us through the bedroom door that the’ve bought donuts for breakfast.

We have about an hour to catch our flight to Palawan, but Lange tells us not to rush.

The flight has been cancelled due to dangerous weather conditions.

*Author’s note: This is part I of a three-part series of longer, feature style posts about a two-week trip to the Philippines.

Links:

Malate Pensionne–Spent a night here after arriving in Manila. Standard, clean rooms, shitty Wifi. Was a bit noisy at night, though our room was toward the front. Plenty of Korean restaurants and strip clubs in the area and a 7-11.

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

2GO Ferry–I gave them another shot and have decided they’re not so bad, especially for the cost, but be weary of shitty weather when not booking in advance. If you pay by credit card and you decide to cancel, it can take up to 2 months to get your money back.

Hyve–Not sure of an actually cover charge, but this place does it big. Bottle service, a rotating cache of DJ’s, fancy bathrooms. You get the idea. There’s a Latin restaurant nearby with cheap bottomless margaritas should you decide to pre-game.

Philippine Airline Express–Cheap as hell. Book with caution.