Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Apulit Island, El Nido, and Manila (Philippines)

We left Apulit Island as we had arrived - to the dulcet tones of the staff serenade and waving. Our transfer this time was through the airport in El Nido, allowing us to get a glimpse of the town proper. With more options for accommodation and dining, it still didn't look terribly overdeveloped, though popular with backpackers, not unlike Ko Tao in Thailand. The airport, on the other hand, was awesome.

We drove down a dirt track, passed a military outpost with fierce-looking firepower, and rolled up to a single strip airfield. It totally looked like we were on location for a movie about drug running and smuggling operations. The terminal was an open thatched-roofed hut on the left. Check-in was a bar top with a few guys looking into your bags. Our boarding passes were tiny wooden boards with the seat numbers carved into them. While we waited, we opened up the sandwiches the resort had packed for us - roast chicken - and helped ourselves to the free refreshments in the hut. There was tea, coffee, fresh squeezed juice, fruit, and suman (sticky rice steamed inside palm leaves and drizzled with coco jam). Periodically, a tricked out bus would rock up unloading passengers, presumably from another one of the El Nido Resorts. Since they do weigh each passenger, we were a little nervous about what kind of plane we would be taking. These fears were unfounded though, as evidently, Palawan's popularity has meant an upgrade in aircraft in recent years. Instead of some kind of Cessna where you're practically sitting in the pilot's lap, ITI now operates a twin turbine 50-seater plane. No worries! To top it off, upon arrival in Manila, we were shown to a comfortable lounge where we were plied with more food and drinks until an airline agent told us, "Sir, ma'am, your bags are ready now. Please come this way."  I could get used to this kinda travel!

Back in Manila, we met up with family again at a restaurant that specializes in a sort of cosplay cabaret experience. To his mortification, Rich was hauled onstage to shake his groove thang with Spiderman, Freddie Kreuger, and V from V for Vendetta. He was a good sport about it, and there were plenty of embarrassing photos to prove it. The schedule streaming on the big screens indicated a different show every half hour - Star Wars, anyone? - and though we watched a tribute to an anime show we'd never heard of, we escaped any more invitations for table top dancing.

We wrapped up our trip, killing time before our flights home wandering around the Mall of Asia. This behemoth is one of the largest in the world, sporting an Olympic-sized ice skating rink, IMAX theaters, science museum, basketball arena, convention center, and Ferris wheel. Filipinos love to shop, as attested by the presence of every global apparel brand we could think of, and the fact that since the mall opened in 2006, it has been eclipsed in size by 2 others in Metro Manila alone! Probably the strangest sight for me - besides hosting an amateur boxing match in the middle of the mall - was the popularity of Cinnabon and North Carolina's own Krispy Kreme Donuts. Why, oh, why?!? The Philippine brands Goldilocks Bakeshop, and Red Ribbon are far, far superior!

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Monday, July 27, 2015

El Nido Resorts Apulit Island (Philippines)

The Philippines has over 7000 islands to its name so when it comes to finding paradise, it just becomes more of the question: "Which one?" On our last visit, the family was well-pleased with the white sand beaches of Boracay - not to mention the fabulous experience we had at the spa there - but rumor has it that the island had become, as one person described it, "Spring Break... but with Australians." The tiny islands off the northern end of Palawan, most of which fall in the municipality of El Nido, however, had not experienced quite that level of development yet. Unfortunately, this means there are limited options for accommodation. You pretty much have to stay in one of the locations of a resort. I know, I know, you must be thinking, "What a rough life!"

[Note: While we usually avoid name-checking specific accommodations, when we were researching options, we found it difficult to get a real feel for how the place we chose compared to other resorts. In addition to Rich and me, the rest of our party was also a well-traveled lot, and having stayed in a full range of swanky establishments, our discussions with them may have veered this post more toward a traditional review.]

We picked El Nido Resorts' Apulit Island. Despite organizing transfers from Puerto Princesa through the resort, it didn't click for most of us until we were actually on our way that this location wasn't in actual El Nido. Apparently, Apulit belonged to a different company and only recently taken over by El Nido Resorts. The trip involved a 2.5 hours in a private van plus a short bangka ride from the fishing port of Taytay. The entire staff turned out at the dock on Apulit, greeting us with a song and dance number, offering cool drinks and puto (sweet, steamed rice flour cakes), and draping handwoven necklaces on our necks.  

All of the rooms were private, thatch-roofed huts over the water, but we decided to splash out for the option with private stairs down to the reef below à la French Polynesia... and what reefs they were! Even around such a tiny island, there were several reefs to choose from so we never felt crowded, and the reefs were so close and waves so calm that even timid swimmers could feel comfortable. The guide even offered to take my nervous folks out, each on their own private snorkeling lessons. Should such gentle handling still cause panic, the water is clear to such depths that just looking off the balcony or dock gives you an excellent view of sea life. We were so fascinated watching 2 small squids moving in and out of hiding, working their camouflage magic, and spraying ink at each other that we nearly missed the gorgeous sunset behind us. The diversity of fish and corals was astounding in what is known as the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area. It was certainly on par with our trips to the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos. Rainbow-colored parrotfish. Blacktip reef shark. Giant clam. What felt like the entire cast of Finding Nemo. To say you're snorkeling through an aquarium is not far from the truth, as NatGeo estimates that the Philippines, along with Indonesia, accounts for 86 percent of aquarium fish sold in the U.S. Rich even followed a super highway of silver fishes to find them all trailing behind a barracuda, sneakily hoping he wouldn't look behind!

Besides sunbathing and relaxing in the infinity pool, there were plenty of adventure sports and activities included to keep one occupied. We went a little crazy and actually had trouble fitting in everything. There were island-hopping tours, sunrise/sunset boat excursions, and more caving. Rich zoomed up the rock face like the pro-climber he is while I predictably waffled and stumbled below. A 60-meter high limestone cliff made for a challenging hike in the blistering sun and an even more exciting rappel down. We ferried my folks around in double kayaks, and Rich decided to solo around the entire island on a whim. I was concerned, as it wasn't until later that we learned that the resort security mans discrete lookouts and would've mounted a rescue should he have run into trouble on the other side of the island. Learning to paddleboard was fun although my attempts at yoga on it were more comical than successful. Luckily, this was also the case with Rich's private windsurfing lesson. One of the best workouts - and most fun - we had was playing beach volleyball with the staff. Filipinos may be short, but we're agile! Predictably, the adventure guides were the May-Walsh tag team of the island with beautiful sets and fierce spikes, but even the tubby guy behind the desk could serve. It was a strange feeling calling balls and lines in tagalog... and even more hilarious listening to the trash talk!

There were some downsides to the resort. It is an island after all... with all that entails. You're stuck there. Some people may find it difficult to live without a TV, but the wi-fi was surprisingly good. Everything needs to be brought in from Taytay, and we're pretty sure our party ate our way through the week's supply of ripe mangoes in a few days. The food was a good buffet with build-your-own whatever station, grilled-to-order flat top, and an abundance of fresh salads and veggies (a real rarity in the Philippines). But it wasn't fine dining, and there aren't other options if it's not to your taste. We liked that the resort is engaged in many kinds of conservation efforts, but some of our party balked when they realized sustainable fishing impacts what seafood shows up at the table. The resort lacked a certain amount of finesse and could use a little more upkeep. Rich was disappointed the Hobie cat was long in need of repair, and there weren't enough life jackets for all the passengers on the trip from Taytay. The only spa treatment on offer was a massage, room service was only available if you were sick, and it could be difficult to catch waitstaff for drinks refills or clean towels. Luxuries, to be sure, but what you would expect for what it costs. At the end of the day though, we felt that the reefs and the personal attention of the guides was what really made the Apulit Island resort special.

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Puerto Princesa and Sabang (Philippines)

Rich firmly believes in being a polite and cooperative passenger so when the flight attendant on Cebu Pacific Airlines turned on the PA system, he was attentive. Thus, he was the only one making eye contact when they announced a prize giveaway. He became alarmed when the flight attendant approached him and demanded he say something like, "Quick kiss quicker kiss." To this day, we have no idea what the tongue twister was, but as the only contestant, Rich took home the "prize" of a Cebu Pacific pencil bag. Woo bloody hoo. Not to be outdone, all passengers exiting the aircraft received a complimentary bag filled with a variety of name brand toiletries. A closer inspection revealed nearly every product included was the whitening formula... and not for teeth.... for skin. Vaseline "Healthy White" lotion. Pond's "White Beauty" for that "translucent pinkish white glow." Facial scrub that color away! Because - in the Philippines, as in many other cultures - lighter, high yellow, mestizo, whatever you call it, is considered more desirable. Sigh.

We arrived on Palawan, a long, thin strip of land west of the Visayas region and north of Malaysian Borneo. Gaining popularity with Philippine tourists for years, Palawan was named the "Best Island in the World" by Cond√© Nast Traveler readers in 2014. The capital of Puerto Princesa is a nice, compact town, and the most developed part of an island known for its rugged beauty. Having been go go go on the trip so far, the ladies were starved for the things we look forward to on any trip to SE Asia - bargains at the spa and shopping! It's a little hard to turn down 3 hours of foot bath and full-body massage when it's less than $25. Jewelry, wood carvings, and other handicrafts were the earthly delights we descended upon in the market. The Philippines is also known as the "Pearl of the Orient," and its namesake is for sale in abundance - South Sea pearls or cultured, in all shapes and sizes and colors. The wooden handicrafts ranged from small figures to handsomely-carved furniture. Heady with haggling for an hour, my sister only belatedly realized her new, gorgeous inlaid table would require a creative arrangement for shipping. 

The big draw to Puerto Princesa is actually located in Sabang, about 2 hours away. The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. It is immediately evident by the masses waiting at the dock that word has got around. We managed the long wait in the scorching sun, partly soothed by frequent trips to the tropical fruit shake vendors and stands selling banana cue, a delectable Filipino snack of deep-fried bananas caramelized with brown sugar on a stick.

Our group's number was finally called, and we loaded onto traditional bangka boats with colorful streamers to get to the actual park (accessible only with permit). We enjoyed spotting turtles in the clear waters on the way there. Palawan monkeys and big monitor lizards wander freely in the mangrove and beach forests of the park. The guide warned us to be careful of the monkeys, which had been known to scamper off with bags, but we discovered the real danger to tourists was the river itself. While waiting (again) to board canoes, we saw the hungry river claim electronics from 6 different people! Smartphones, tablets, cameras - none of these were safe... and using a selfie stick might as well have been a kiss of death for a watery grave.   

I got my own electronics as the canoe's nominee for holding the spotlight. The local in the boat was both guide and ferryman, directing us to the different formations within the subterranean river cave system. There are sections that look like fruits and vegetables, human body parts, and religious figures. Until 2007, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River was known as the world's longest, at around 24 km long. It's possible to apply for the permit which allows access some 3-4 hours deep into the river, but most folks opt for the 45 minute tour. There are swiftlets by the hundreds darting in and out of the entrance, and the species in Palawan are the ones that create the delicacy known as bird's nest soup highly sought after by the Chinese. Further into the cave, the aroma of guano assailing your nostrils signals the huge bat populations in residence. This place is definitely not for those uncomfortable with the things that go bump - or squeak or whoosh - in the night. In case that isn't enough to give you the willies, you can also try the local Palawan delicacy: raw tamilok. Described as a mollusk, it is more akin to a very long worm, having been pulled out of its burrow in mangroves or water-soaked timber. Even dipping it in hot chilies and calamansi citrus juice, this entomologist and seafood lover had a hard time choking it down!

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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sagada, Bontoc, and Banaue (Philippines)

We had contracted the country music van to pick us up a couple of days later. With no sign of the driver, and several hours of trying to frantically reach him on his cell, our guide decided we should just jump on the public jeepney before it left Sagada, rather than miss our chain of connections that culminated in a flight. We'd been enjoying another roof top ride for about a half hour when the jeepney stopped to drop off some folks. A man approached the vehicle, calling out and looking up and down at the passengers. Wait, is that the van driver? Sure enough, it was. He made some half-hearted excuses about the traffic - none of which we had noticed on the road - and a bad cell battery. After leaving us hanging, our guide and we were more than a little annoyed with his unreliability. But he had our deposit, was exchanging money with the jeepney driver for our fares, and was delaying everyone with his protestations, so we reluctantly re-joined him in country musicland.

We made a pit stop in Bontoc. The capital of the Mountain Province has a small museum on the indigenous people of the Cordilleras. There were rice god statues, pictures of the various tribes and colonial officials throughout history, and examples of traditional tools and textiles on display. Outside, there were replicas of typical structures of Cordilleras villages, including single sex dormitory houses, a pig pen with a native pig (more like a boar), and a stone circle where tribal elders would meet. The gift shop, which doubled tripled as a library and art gallery, was manned by a nun in a habit. This ticked the box for one of Rich's all-time favorite sights: nuns doing normal things!

Back on the road toward Banaue, the heavens opened and unleashed monsoon rains. Though I was a little worried for the road conditions, it didn't actually seem to be that bad, and we were puttering along nicely... until our genius driver decided he wanted to aggressively overtake a vehicle by plowing through a flooded section of road on a mountain turn. Then came the inevitable sputtering, and the engine died. There was a moment as we were coasting speedily and steeply downhill that I thought, "Oh, God, I hope the brakes still work." But we came to a stop. The driver kept trying to re-start, but no dice, the ignition would have to dry out. We were only about 30 minutes drive outside Banaue. Too far to walk with our packs and still make it to the overnight bus on time. The driver tried his miraculously now working cell phone but couldn't raise any one. Our guide tried his contacts in town, but the other drivers he knew were out. The only option was hitchhiking. A few trucks were interested enough to stop, but wouldn't take us on. Finally, our guide convinced a couple of guys driving in what could be charitably described as a mini-Jeep, or more realistically, an all-terrain golf cart!? The four of us and our packs crammed in the back with the spare tire, spool of rope, and sharp metal tools there. Our poor guide was stuck on the fabric roof in the rain with each bump convincing Rich it would rip and land the guy on our heads. I could just about read a short prayer painted on the passenger side, appealing to God for a safe trip home. As we knocked about into each other, hunched over and losing all feeling in our tangled legs, I couldn't help but appreciate the sentiment. We made it to Banaue, but what an adventure!  

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Friday, July 3, 2015

Batad and Sagada (Philippines)

Early in the morning, we high-tailed it out of Batad. While the jeepney at the end of the road technically departs at 8 am, the driver often just leaves as soon as he's got a full load of passengers... and it's the only public transport the whole day. Sweat pouring off of us, we made it just in time. Eyeing two locals still clutching their bags of unrefrigerated carabao meat, Rich and I squeezed into the last spots on the roof of the jeepney. We escaped the carcass smell only to realize we were sitting next to something worse - a tourist with a selfie stick. With the roof was already so crowded with luggage and backpackers that each of us only had about half a bottom to sit on, the Frenchman with the selfie stick was just plain obnoxious. He proceeded to film himself for the entirety of the hour-long ride! Every time he angled to get a better shot of himself, I wanted to throw a sharp elbow. Since I found bruises later from all his shifting, I felt justified in secretly hoping that a palm leaf would catch him unawares with a smack to the head.

The second part of our ride to Sagada was a semi-private affair in an air-conditioned van. Most of our lot knocked themselves out with Dramamine for the 2 hours of twisting mountain roads, but Rich and I were awake for the driver blaring a heavy rotation of hair bands and country western music!?! ...the 80's music, ok, even my folks are huge Journey fans now that the lead singer is Pinoy. But country!? Where were we? This love for the American West also manifested itself in the landscape. It was strange enough for me to see pine trees in the tropics, but actual log cabins - Whoa, now! Later we learned this affiliation was due to the Americans. The colonizing Spaniards never fully infiltrated the rough Cordilleras terrain - as 2 different guides noted admiringly - but I guess the good ol' USA was embraced in the forms of country music and Episcopalian missionaries.  

Sagada is a quiet retreat of a mountain village. There's even a late night curfew to enforce the peace. The streets are pleasant to walk around - strangely absent of the crazy drivers and random traffic jams elsewhere in the country - offering another possible reason Sagada has been a popular getaway for urban Filipinos. At a shop selling the traditional weaving, you can go out back to watch women work the looms. A local belief is that the patterns must come to the weaver in a dream. Unfortunately, the pickings for purchase were slim (we suspect they export most items). However, seeing the sign for "thongs on sale" sent us all into fits of giggles, "Hmm, that seems like an unusual product choice... rather than something with more mass appeal... say, tea towels." It was only much later we realized they were probably referring to the traditional long-draped loincloth the men of the local Igorot tribes wear.  

The most famous sight in Sagada are the hanging coffins. These are part of traditional Igorot burial practices. Instead of a death bed, they have a death chair, and the bodies are smoked and tied in a fetal position. On the way to the burial site, many people touch or carry the corpse, as it's considered good luck to get some of the, er, bodily juices on you. It is the tribal elders who are placed in the coffins on the cliff face. Originally, the coffins were secured in the climbing vines of a local plant, but now they are hung with more modern techniques. The important thing, the local guide told us, is for sunlight to hit the coffins so that the spirits can be free. This is why the coffins of the Igorot who are not elders are still stacked very near the opening of shallow caves... and since they have followed these practices for hundreds of years, as the wooden coffins have deteriorated, it's not unusual for a casual glance to land on some skeletons peeking out!  

Another draw of Sagada are the caves themselves. The extensive networks in the limestone can be visited from a couple spots which were walking distance from town center. We got to see both in 4 hours. Entering the Lumiang Caves, mind the stack of coffins piled on the side! A local guide is required to navigate the treacherous dark. Nevermind that he is rocking only flipflops and a kerosene lamp. Trust him when he says things like, "Left foot on the rock there, right foot on my knee, then sit on my shoulder, and pull yourself up with the rope." Because this isn't Ammurica so we don't need no stinking headlamps or safety harnesses. It adds some spice to the spelunking! As do the sections where you use barely visible handholds to hug round an overhang because the vast, unknown drop behind you is terrifying... or when the passage is so small that for a moment, you actually get trapped, cursing yourself for being a woman with wide hips. The guide shouts, "Don't worry, the rock is flexible!" Pretty sure it was the grinding on my internal organs that got me out of that one with nothing worse than a severe wedgie. It became a joke that whenever we came to an apparent dead end, we'd point at the smallest crevice we could see as the correct route, and more often than not, it was. Wading waist-deep through a wide pool was easy by comparison, and where it was just easier to slide wholesale on your bottom than try to negotiate the slick rock face was such fun. Wheeee!

While we had had the Lumiang Caves entirely and spookily to ourselves, in the narrow connector section we could already start to hear the echoes and see the flashbulbs emanating from the Sumaguing Caves. It was jarring. Much less technical (and in Rich's mind especially, much less fun), the rock formations were more photogenic and bigger in bigger spaces. Combined, these aspects make Sumaguing far more popular for large groups of casual visitors. The racket they were making was enough for us to speed toward the exit and back into the sunlight. Many of the Filipino tourists, it should be noted, were also caving in flipflops. Silly Westerners, with your water bottles and dry-fit shirts and Keen sandals!

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