I freaking love cheesy tourist things. I used to scoff at tourist traps; thinking I was so cool in my backpacking cheapskate ways, always winging it, hoping to find something local and have a more authentic experience. But when I try to do things on my own, especially when short on time, it ends up being so rushed or stressful that it would have been worth it to sign up for something on a flyer to make sure I didn’t miss a destination highlight.
I used to be too embarrassed to get on a big red bus and hop on and hop off somewhere, my ear pressed up to an English audio guide. Now I am out of cares, finally realizing no one will remember me even five minutes after we say goodbye, and I am not going all over the world to not experience the hell out of it.
So we signed up for the “Super Ultimate Combo Tour” of Coron’s highlights – an all-day local boat adventure that promised, like, everything. We rushed down to the docks, herded around with other travelers into smaller herds, walked onto boats in the harbor and then waited for them to fill. Like the buses, the boats in the Philippines often won’t leave until full enough to make the cost worth it. The Spanish girls wandered away to try and find items they should have had in the first place if they’d done any research at all (water shoes, sunscreen), the beautiful couple from Mauritius made out and looked beautiful, the wonderfully Asian family dressed in head-to-toe wetsuit onesies, which extended into watershoes, worried at their sunglass leashes and applied more sunscreen, and we all waited for the last couple, threatening physical harm for making us wait so long.
The couple arrived, smoking and with beers in hand, and turned out to be a delightful Indian couple that now lived in Hong Kong. We bonded quickly over banking woes and the wonders of Asia, eventually sharing beers we bought from a local guy that was paddling around on a kayak at the neighborhood shipwreck so many of us stopped at, with the welcoming name “Skeleton Island.”
We went to six or seven different locations, all of them beautiful, with small swimming lagoons, huge schools of fish eating rice out of the palms of our hands, crystal clear water, the entire cast of Finding Nemo, one fish that bit me on the ankle (but in fairness I stepped on his house), coral gardens teeming with angel and rainbow and puffer and clown and needle fish. It was amazing.
The boat crew served us an epic beach lunch, I chased a rooster on the sand, Ryan from Mumbai almost got murdered by several boats because he ignored warning whistles and his wife laughed so casually from the boat you had to wonder what they were all about. And at the end of the tour they served us donuts. I can’t imagine a better ending.
We spent the next day on the hot streets of Coron. We stopped and prayed in churches, wandering local back alleys with houses on stilts and small children negotiating bamboo floors over the ocean to walk into their houses for lunch during a break from schools. We giggled over sisters furiously brush their wet hair in the back of a tricycle cab on the way to school in the morning.
We moseyed into a cheesy t-shirt store and I asked for a size in something and was told I was a 2xl. This made me cry, which was great. I bought the shirt in a medium, we walked out and as quickly as we could to a cool pub, where we ordered gin and tonics and chicken sizzlers and played a few games of foosball until I was a happy person again. (PS the medium fits GREAT.)
Back at our pretend resort (just because it’s in your name doesn’t mean you are a resort) we hit up poolside happy hour and I made besties with a fashion designer from Uruguay and tried to get some guys from Argentina to pay me some attention. It did not work. They were busy taking over the pool bar and throwing a mini rave with girls much younger and hotter than me.
Another stunning sunset absorbed by balcony and gin and tonics and we got all prettied up to go out to dinner when the power went out for the entire neighborhood. Because nothing is ever easy for us. We eventually made it to a place that still had power, and it was so delightful because there was a super talented husband and wife team playing everything from “Mais Que Nada” to “Corazon Espinado” and other cheesy American love ballads. I was so happy. We finally tried the local dessert Halo Halo (mix mix) and were . . . confused. It’s a dessert, but it has beans in it? And like seventy other ingredients. There were Pinto beans, cherries, jellies things, prunes, ice cream, mango, crushed ice, almonds. So interesting.
We ferried back to El Nido the next morning and stayed at a lovely place called Lido with enough sky to make me feel small again. Or at least a medium. I loved the reggae cover band who played “No Diggity” with the same passion they played some Bob Marley with a shout out for people suffering under martial law in effect in some places in the Philippines.
Aimes and I moved a lot on this trip. Actually trying to calculate how many hours were spent in transit is hurting my head a little. The final bus ride was no exception – we were picked up an hour late, and then spent two hours driving all over creation as our driver tried to fill up his seats to make more money. Seven hours of driving at breakneck speed later, dodging water buffaloes and chickens and small children on country roads, the driver tried to make us get out of his van and pawn us off to his taxi driver friends, claiming he could go no further. He was none too pleased when we put our foots down and refused to exit. To punish us for making him complete his job, he pulled over on the side of the road and we watched someone with a machete hack at a pig roasting over a spit and serve it to him as lunch.
Arriving at the hotel four hours later than promised, the sun had set and I was disappointed to not get some hours of tanning in. But we made the best of it – our hotel happened to be in this really cool spot with awesome restaurants, live music, and an arcade! We played darts (our fave thing) and basketball shootouts, which make my life. And had some of the best ribs I’ve ever tasted. And stared really hard at a table of men with what were clearly bored hired escorts. We got sent free drinks and listened to cheesy cover songs and some really drunk American slurred his way through a speech about how I was too young to know these people but he had hung out with (insert what he thinks were famous names) back in the day in San Francisco.
The trip was incredible in so many ways. I loved the snorkeling – something about being on a boat in the ocean and then swirling through the whooshy world of fish is so soul-filling. I loved hanging with my bestie and meeting crazy people and having a million things going wrong and finding ways to laugh about it.
I hated realizing that everyone backpacking now is so much younger than I am. It hurts that they are so beautiful and I want to shake them and tell them to hold on to their one wild and precious life. To hold onto it but to let themselves go to every possibility.
And I found it so fulfilling to finally visit the Philippines – a place I’d dreamt about for many years after having known so many Filipinos and seeing pictures. I got to see beautiful things and saw the sky and the ocean and would 11/10 recommend it to anyone. I know I will be back.