I wake up with a start. The comforting whir of the fan has stopped. It must be 6am, when power is cut to the town. I can hear a rooster beginning his morning crow outside and somewhere further down the road a baby is crying. I close my eyes and breathe in the rare stillness.
I am in El Nido in the north of Palawan. After the quiet, raw beauty of my last stop this town is a disappointment. Paradise wasn’t around the corner. In fact, paradise couldnt be further away from the reality of this place. Despite the warnings that it is touristic, El Nido sounds like a good place to visit, and it’s the jumping off point for the surrounding islands. But arriving, it is like expecting you’re coming to a natural wonder only to find that you’re in Haad Rin, Thailand, the streets jam-packed with sweaty, shirtless foreigners and insistent tricycle drivers.
In El Nido’s defense I saw more of crowded town – and over a festival period which meant ear burstingly loud music blaring through the streets all night – than I did of the islands and coves around Bacuit Bay. And just a few kilometres out of town lies a quiet sandy stretch of dreamland beach with a view of the setting sun, so it’s not all bad. Some places you like and some you just don’t.
Feeling as I did about El Nido I was keen to skip off to the next place, Coron on Busuanga, the biggest island in the Calamian group and a wreck diving and island hopping hotspot. Leaving a place sounds easy enough. You show up on time, buy a ticket, get on the bus or boat and settle in for the journey. If only. The ferries (and by that they mean wooden boats with almost enough space for all the bums) are often broken and trips are cancelled even after the passengers have been waiting patiently onboard for an hour or two or three.
The first time I tried to leave El Nido I arrived – early – at a non-descript shack to wait for the van which would take me to a harbour an hour’s drive away. The van never arrived. And as I huffed and puffed, and the booking agent failed to find a solution, the minutes crept past the ferry’s departure time. That’s when I began to shout (I am not proud of losing my cool). Finally, after many phone calls to various van drivers, the owner of the guesthouse who had booked my ticket, to Sam who supposedly knew all the answers (although I never found out who this Sam was) and finally to the boatman who was actually in another town, we found out that the ferry was broken and couldn’t leave the harbour, let alone make the eight hour journey to Coron. My rage dissipated as I resigned myself to a day wasted and another night spent in El Nido.
Bad days can only get better and the overwhelming generosity of Filipinos in general, and one man in particular, turned my frown upside down. He wangled a ticket for me on the next day’s ferry, fed me lunch and offered to drive me to the beach. How could I not be smiling after such kindness? Staying in El Nido also meant I could spend more time with my new friends, and I quickly found Crystal for a potter to that sandy stretch of beach.
The next day I was up bright and early, ready to catch the ferry. I bought water and snacks. My music machine was fully charged. I hadn’t slept well so was looking forward to napping on the boat. I booked in early and even had time to sample an El Nidoian banana pancake for breakfast. At 7:50am the tourists and handful of locals piled onto the boat. We chose our seats, put on our lifejackets as requested by the coast guard and eagerly anticipated our imminent departure. The boatman took his seat. He turned the key. He pressed the starter. And… and nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing. The mechanic climbed down into the engine hole and tinkered with the greasy bits. He called to the driver who pressed the starter. Nothing. The starter motor was broken. I was on a broken boat!
Things were not looking good and I was already making a Plan B (if I cancel my ticket and take a bus there, I might be able to enjoy the beach before trying to catch another flight). But joys of joys, the boat company decided to squeeze us – and a motorbike – on their small boat and, three hours after our planned departure, we left, with views to rocky islands and isolated beaches and with a gentle breeze cooling us in the relentless midday sun.
And finally, at 7:10pm, 12 hours after I had arrived at the port in El Nido, we arrived in Coron, sunburnt and sweaty and too full of cookies.