Like all good travel stories, this one starts with pollution, pirates, and a flu epidemic.
Teaching in Brazil taught me to choose countries with good public holidays (I miss you, Carnaval), and I was très excited to see a 10 day break for Lunar New Year when I signed up to teach in Hong Kong. Always living from one trip to another, as soon as I got back from Japan last October I started looking at maps. Hong Kong is an incredible place to live, but I miss sky and sunsets and I’m either allergic to work or pollution or both because I sneeze constantly.
I wanted a beach and a short flight and quick google search for “most beautiful island in the world” led me to Palawan, Philippines. This was even better because growing up in the Bay Area and now living in HK, I’ve met and fallen in love with so many cool Filipinos and I’ve always wanted to go. I think the obsession began during College Park’s Multicultural fests, when Alisa Quezon and other girls I always wanted to be (particularly at school dances because they had memorized all the moves to anything by Aaliyah) would perform the stick dances. Mesmerizing.
But I digress.
I did Japan by my lonesome, which was fantastic, but I wanted to recruit a travel companion for this longer trip. Enter my bestie Amie, who is a kiwi and we teach together and I barely understand what she says because kiwis can’t get their vowels straight, but despite the occasional communication issue (I keep requesting subtitles when she talks but they haven’t installed) we get along like a house on fire. But then after giving me a mostly yes, she came back a week later and mentioned she was worried about pirates. And yeah, there is some violence and danger in the Philippines, but I kept texting pictures of beautiful islands and pointing out that I am a slow runner, ideal in a potential pirate kidnapping situation, and finally wore her down.
We counted down the days, getting through the surprisingly cold winter here in HK (like, wearing a scarf and a beanie to bed kind of cold, bc we don’t have heaters) until we’d be beachside. And then the flu hit HK hard. Because we live in such a population-dense area, all schools rely on the Education Department Bureau to tell us if a typhoon is too intense and we can’t go to school, or if there is a major illness outbreak, they will actually force a shut-down of schools. Which is what happened for our primary a full five school days before our vacation officially started. This led to a school full of bored and somewhat mischievous teachers, and what should have been plenty of time for me to prep for my trip.
But if you know me at all, you know that I waited until the very last second to do all the things I’d planned to do, ie pack, wax all hair off my body from the eyelashes down, dye hair, and remember where I’d booked hotels. The morning of the day of departure found me on the floor of my bathroom, thinking it would be a great idea to try self-waxing my legs for the first time ever, while also skyping friends, texting Amie every five seconds about what to pack, and cross-checking bank accounts and credit cards.
Note: stop trying to self-wax. It only ends in tears.
We headed to the airport, somehow managing to meet up with Seerah for a glass of wine before she took off for the Olympics in Seoul, which we couldn’t have planned if we tried, and caught a snippet of a Chinese New Year dance before boarding the plane. Landed in Manila around 9pm and guess what? Our hotel had canceled our reservation. That reminds me I need to send a strongly worded letter to them.
Luckily, through the power of the interwebs, I booked us another hotel quickly, we only got slightly scammed on the cab ride there, and slept a lovely four hours before waking up to get to a different terminal to fly into Puerto Princesa. It was the first sunrise I’d seen in a long time and a good welcome to the island Palawan, that was to be our adventure for the next ten days!
We grumbled through one of the longest van rides ever, shoved in with 12 other passengers including one with serious BO and one who had such bad nightmares she jabbed Aimes in the side with her elbow. Our first hotel wasn’t on any maps, so we were dropped off on the side of the road, went down some stairs, carried our luggage across a beach, up and down back alleys and asking everyone until we finally found it, tucked behind a makeshift laundromat and a rooster chained to a pole.
One of the great moments in life is the shower after a day of travel, and once that and a bit of makeup was accomplished, we headed to El Nido proper, taking our first tricycle ride into town. Picture dusty gravel roads full of backpackers, inhale the diesel, wave to the smiling children, ignore the people trying to sign you up for tours, shoo away friendly dogs, wonder at sketchy massage places, food stands, overpriced snorkel gear (which we obviously fell for).
The tricycles are the main mode of transportation on the island. Imagine a motorcycle with a minivan built around it. Each one decorated and personalized with cool messages on the front, many of them Christian, which we loved. “Jesus is Lord #2” was a favorite. The locals would fit up to eight people in one sweaty, bumpy ride. Sometimes the driver pulls over in the middle of your ride to get a snack. It’s very loud. Prices are negotiable.
Our first goal was happy hour with an ocean view – sandals off and cocktails in hand by 5pm is my ideal vacation starter. And ender. And lifestyle. So we settled on Mezzanine.
Feet kicked up, I tried to figure out my GoPro and we watched the boats come in and assumed the sun set behind the clouds before walking up and down the beach to figure out the best place to post up for the night. El Nido is one of those small port towns that I could have gotten lost in during the backpacker days . . . a hostel would have become home for a week or so, every bartender and barefoot child and local guy slinging reggae tunes would have been my best friends, and there would have been a motorcycle mishap and wicked tan-lines to round it out.
We decided to make first night the big night and ended up at a locals only karaoke bar called Jessabels, competing with what started as a very small crowd for control of the mike. It was a night of epic proportions – sampling the national brews, cheering loudly for everyone’s song (including some very interesting Christian rock), flirty married men (ew) and single men (yay-ish), who yelled “I LOVE EL NIDO” repeatedly, and at one point I got distracted on the way back from the bathroom and started playing hide-and-go-seek with the children of the bartender until he fell and hit his head and we both got in trouble. I shut down the ‘club’ with Justin Bieber, you’re welcome, then we walked into town to get water and snacks and I wandered away to get chicken nuggets, as you do at 1am.
The next day it felt delicious to sleep in all the way until I think nearly 10am! Both of us being teachers, this felt like a real accomplishment. The rest of the day was spent getting food, paying for hotels, booking tours, etc., as a warm-up exercise to one of the biggest things we realized about the Philippines – it. is. slow. Living in Hong Kong means we’ve gotten really used to fast – rush down the street, rush to the bus, rush to the MTR, wait in lines for everything, order, rules, timetables, expectation. I got in trouble for being four minutes late to work (no joke).
We had to learn a bit of slow down, a lot of patience, a lot of flexibility. And I can’t promise we were very good at it. But the delightful thing was that it all came with such friendliness – it was so refreshing to see smiles and hear “good morning” and I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear or see anyone spit the entire vacation.
Our podunk hotel in Corong Corong was just a few steps away from the beach, and we went down to watch the sunset before going into town determined to get a well-deserved massage. We ended up with cheap but entertaining “massages” – one of the employees was sleeping/coughing on the bed next to us the whole time, and at one point a very intoxicated man came in, got completely naked, and had to be coached into position. People from the street could look in and see me stretched out on what I hope was a clean stretcher, dress rolled up to my hipbones and then rolled down from shoulders to my waist, trying to reach nirvana while a stranger spoke in rapid-fire Tagalog with her friends as she elbowed my tension knots away.
And nothing hurt and everything felt good and all was right with the world UNTIL
I woke up at about 2am and puked six times. Violently ill. Which is ten out of ten not what you want to do ever, let alone on vacation, in a small bathroom with buzzing mosquitoes, sharing a small bedroom with a relatively new friend, vomiting bright red Gatorade, so dehydrated from constant barfing that you apparently start saying delirious things and/or ignoring your friend entirely. Doesn’t matter how old I get, I still want my mom, still cry if someone asks how I am when I’m sick. I’m a miserable sack of bones when ill.
So Amie was “Nigel No-Mates” the next day as I flopped about in sweaty and then chilly pain on my wee twin bed, dreading the moment the power and A/C would go out. We had to cancel our boat tour as I couldn’t even keep my own saliva down, and it took a pharmacy visit, some tears, and a full day before I felt nearly human again. By which time Amie was sick.
I’ll stop here for now, but what do we learn from this post?
Travel with electrolytes.
Travel with people who will cancel their boat tour when you’re too sick to go, and show you their epic sunburn lines to make you laugh. Thanks, Nigel No-Mates.
Karaoke is the universal language of the future. Just do it.