After a few weeks in the Philippines, one becomes almost inured to beauty.
Almost, but not quite, for El Nido, in the north of Palawan, really does take your breath away. It’s named for the swifts’ nests which snuggle within the gothic cliffs that cast a shade so deep the backstreets need streetlights of an afternoon.
A little place, about three streets deep and three streets wide, El Nido sits on a shallow, deeply indented bay, dominated by jagged shards of the cliffs and studded with deep green karst islands, forced from the bay by primeval forces, whose surrealist precipices, humps and angles resemble nothing more than a child’s first sketch of islands.
The first amazing glimpse of the sea in all its glory as you wind through crazy chocolate drop hills, past lazing caribao and palm-thatch villages, is utterly gobsmacking.
I’ve posted before about the beauty of serendipity in travel. And in El Nido, serendipity has really struck. I could never, in my wildest dreams, have imagined that five hours on the top of an overloaded bus over bad roads could be a beautiful thing.
Buses, and for that matter jeepneys, function in the rural Philippines as a form of FedEx, delivering unaccompanied goods from sacks of rice and boxes of chicks through to fridges and air conditioners. The bus we took, amongst other things, was carrying furniture. Result!
Yep! We spent five hours among some of the nicest views the planet has to offer, sat in regal, albeit dusty, splendour atop some farmer’s newly purchased living-room suite. I think it may even have helped my vertigo.
We started our journey from Sabang to El Nido, a distance of about 100km as the crow flies, three days ago. After our unscheduled stop in Port Barton, we caught a super-annuated 1950s American school bus with holes in the floor to Roxas, a dusty small town on the wrong side of the island, adorned with hand-painted signs declaring it “the cashew capital of the Philippines”.
I had been assured that Roxas boasted not only a connection to El Nido, but a bank, with an ATM.
There was indeed a bank.
The Palawan Bank.
It does, indeed, have an ATM.
Which is bloody handy, I’m sure. If you’re Palaweno.
In fact, should you happen to bank with the Palawan Bank, the ATM must make market days a dream.
We were down to our last 100 pesos (plus shrapnel), or just over two dollars, when I discovered the ATM’s admirable local focus. And, concomitantly, realised it was Saturday. (Not that the Palawan Bank deals with such exotica as credit cards or foreign exchange on any day of the week.)
Anywise… Unlike the German chaps we met in Port Barton, who spent their last ten dollars on a round-trip to said ATM, and were last seen travelling eight hours south on borrowed money to get some cash to retrieve their belongings and passports from our remarkably understanding hosts, I managed to change some dollars at the local pawnshop.
Which is not always a given. Though very few towns in the Philippines are too small to have a pawnshop, many won’t accept dollars that have been folded, creased, or otherwise handled.
But back to serendipity.The young master has been keen to ride atop of something, anything, for aeons, but has generally been refused admittance.
This time, too, the conductor, looked at Z, shouted at some people, and said he had found us a seat within the bus. Seat proving imperceptible even to the practised eye, and not just because of the crowd of gentlemen hanging out of the door, we opted for the roof.
Sir does not have vertigo. So he scrambled up the ladder, round the edge of the roof and into a chair with gay abandon, his size and scarlet motorbike helmet provoking hilarity in equal measure among the amiable chaps sprawled casually with their legs dangling off the sides of the roof.
I must say that I had never realised quite how low the power cables hang here. Or, for that matter, the trees. It’s been a long, long time since I last travelled on top of a vehicle, and I don’t think I had any awareness of my own mortality back then.
Now, of course, I am aware not only of my own mortality but, more pressingly, of Z’s. So every time we passed through a village large enough to have power, I was virtually foetal with terror of infant decapitation.
The first palm frond scythed across the top of the bus about ten minutes in, with a vigorous slapping sound that drowned out the roar of the engine. “You all laughed at me for wearing a motorbike helmet!” yelled Z. “And now you’ve been hit in the faces by a palm tree and I am totally fine! Who’s laughing now?”
As we journeyed, he segued straight into the spotter role, yelling, “TREE!”, “CABLE!”, “DUCK!” with great exuberance, much to the amusement of the cockfighting promoter heading north with the latest addition to what I suppose one should call his stable.
As bus rides in Palawan go, this one passed seamlessly. No tire blowouts, thank God (we’ve had three, so far). No rolling backwards down hills while the conductor scurries after the bus with a bit of wood to put under the wheels in lieu of functional brakes. The engine (whisper it!) started first time…
Admittedly, the driver reversed into a wall while negotiating a very tight turn into the yard where the buses stop, but, from the state of the wall, the state of the bus and the general lack of any reaction to the crunch, this is not an unusual occurrence.
And, my god, the views! Not just the landscape. But the tiny slices of life you get to scavenge, from up high. The basketball matches. The boats being mended in preparation for the rains, on the banks of a stream which will soon be a river. Women washing small trousers in buckets outside a daycare centre the size of a garden shed…
Anywise, we are here. And El Nido is quite dazzlingly beautiful. One of the local dogs has just produced three phenomenally cute puppies who playfight on the beach. Z has made a new friend, Dima, aged eleven, from Manila by way of the Ukraine, and we’ve had a fantastic day out with him and his ma.