Updated on September 27, 2020
One of the few moments when I succeed in being fully aware of the surroundings and the emotions that come along is when I take my first steps off the airport into a completely unknown territory. And no matter what I experience, good or bad, I am as excited, as curious and as present as a child. All my senses start working at their full capacity. With 18 hours of almost no sleep, jet-lagged and panicking about how I will be feeling the 30+ humid degrees (25 degrees more than in London), I couldn’t but rejoice at the first sight of this new world and culture I was about to explore. I remember the first surprise factor of our trip was, to the point of making us feel slightly uncomfortable, the way the hotel’s personnel (and most people working in the tourism business) were treating us, as if we were their queen and king. Everything one could imagine was in one way or another facilitated. And oh my gosh, I have never seen such a redundancy of employees! One driving us, two opening the car’s doors, one on the stairs welcoming us with a big smile, another one two stairs up welcoming us again, one opening the hotel’s door, minimum 3 carrying the luggage, and the list can obviously go on forever. Everything is taken care of. Oh, and everybody is smiling and greeting you. I do believe it’s a genuine, inherent smile in most cases, but can become overwhelming even for the most smiley Europeans.
The second surprise, which came quite as a shock actually, struck us when we got in contact with the huge, really upsetting at first, discrepancy between the way locals lived in the city (Cebu city), the extreme poverty, the pile of garbage, on one hand, and what they offer to their tourists, on the other. Maybe it was the unbearable heat as well, or the fact that I was very tired, but the whole urban scenery revealing itself before our eyes was very hard to take in. It was not only the ongoing noise, traffic and horns, but everything looked like a ruin and felt like a reservoir of infections. Stray dogs all over, looking bone-skinny and very ill. Canals covered in trash (I have never seen so much trash in one place). And the smell was intolerable, a mixture of dead bodies, poo and other similar olfactive treasures. I couldn’t convince myself to walk through the city for more than 30min, too much to handle at once. Dystopian reality is an understatement. As much as I hate going to the mall, and as much as I love spending as much time outdoors as possible, we spent our 2 days in Cebu (the first 2 days of our trip) going back and forth between the hotel and the mall, using the local “Uber”. I have never appreciated the air conditioning so much and I have definitely never spent so much time in a hotel. A hotel which seemed like a total luxury, with its cleanliness, spa facilities and decent food, as compared to what we have experienced in the real world, outside its walls. It’s not as if I hadn’t been aware of the level of poverty in some Asian countries, the Philippines included, and I always do a lot of research, going way beyond Pinterest or Lonely Planet, but what I have seen there was below expectations, to say the least. It’s funny, right, how we always get stuck with a particular image that we construct in our head based on others’ opinions or on a couple of catchy pictures we see on the internet. And when it comes to experiencing it with ourselves, we are often taken by surprise. We do the same with people, by labelling or idealising. Wouldn’t it be a complete relief to just let go of all these expectations, good or bad, and just experience things as they are in that particular moment?
Bear with me (and the text) for a bit though, as the tone will soon change once we start adapting and turn the volume down to this initial impact. 🙂 Just as it’s usually the case in life itself, a bad one (or what we label as “bad”) triggers or is followed by a good one: our next 3 days in the Philippines make for one of the most beautiful and revealing moments I have ever experienced. As we knew it will take time to make peace with the jolly jet-lag and to adapt to the country’s particularities, since we only had 2 weeks to explore it—including travel—we had decided to take it slowly and to only explore the Palawan province, with several stops in El Nido and Coron. The quickest way to travel inside the Philippines is by taking a local flight. It’s not very expensive and I really enjoyed every flight of this kind. The planes are quite tiny but the whole trip is cosy and relaxed. Moreover, El Nido has the quirkiest airport I have seen so far. It doesn’t actually look like an airport, so this is probably the first thought that comes to one’s mind: “Where am I?”. A small room where you get your luggage back—in an unusual way, of course, don’t expect anything to be or happen in a “normal” way there! You exit this room into a long, half outside corridor, while your senses are exalted by the lush greenery that stretches along this passage.
We always like to find the homiest and quirkiest accommodations, with good value for money, no matter how much research we have to put into it, so we chose the spots where to spend time on the islands based on those. We started with Plumeria Eco-Resort, a place that, once we got there, we wished we had never had to leave from. Unfortunately, they only had 2 nights available at the time we booked. But, for now, let me tell you a bit about the little adventure we had to go through in order to arrive there. We had arranged beforehand, with help from the owner of Plumeria, to take a private car (which is one of their recommended transportation means, the other being a jeepney, a tricycle or a private van) from El Nido airport to the Teneguiban village. From there we were supposed to get a boat to a remote beach. Our plane was delayed by a couple of good hours (we had been notified of this some weeks in advance, though), so by the time we got to the village it was already dark. Which meant, yay!, sailing through the darkness. We had been previously told by the owner of Plumeria resort that we are to pay a fixed price for the car and boat, but when we asked the drivers how much it was, they asked for a higher price—which we agreed upon as it was our first experience of the kind and it was getting quite late, so the only thing we wanted was to get there as soon as possible. However, in these situations, do stick to the original price if you can and don’t let them convince you to pay more, which some will try to do. It’s not as if it costs a fortune, since everything is cheap there anyway, but in my opinion this whole negotiation game shouldn’t be encouraged as it is in no one’s real advantage on the long term. These being said and done, our young sailors, two local children with the most indigenous features pointed us to our boat. And in that moment my jaws dropped—not only it was a tiny wooden boat, but it was “parked” quite far away from the shore. In parenthesis, for those of you who still don’t know this about me, not only that I don’t swim at all, but I also panic a lot when it comes to deep water, waves and so on. Oh, yes, and it was dark, have I mentioned this before? 😄 Plus the big luggages we had with us (including a so not useful trolley bag!), which made the situation look even more hilarious, if not completely absurd.
Me to Ștefan: Are you kidding me? This is not happening, I’m not doing this!
Me to the indigenous girl: Is it deep?
Meanwhile, they took most of our luggages and started carrying them on their back (!) through the water. The indigenous girl, with an almost unintelligible English and a certain look on her face that, to me, said something like “What’s with this strange people?”: No ma’am, it’s no deep.
And of course I was wearing jeans, as I was coming from London (5 degrees Celsius!), so obviously I got wet. But that was the least of my worries, anyway. The water was indeed pretty shallow and warm, which melted my anxiety for a bit. Our luggages barely fitted in the boat, but at that time I was happy to have the trolley bag as I used its handle as a second thing to hold on to. And there we were, on this miniature boat in the middle of the ocean, with no life jackets, shaken and splashed by the waves. The journey lasted about 30-40 minutes but I felt it like half a day. The land kept on seeming sooo far away. I was so tense and panicked and all the related, and I was holding to the boat so tightly that my hand went numb at some point. I was seriously questioning whether we were going to make it alive. And then I saw the girl standing on her feet and crossing the boat from front to back and vice-versa, walking so naturally on those wooden beams, like a true gymnast. I thought of her lightness of being and of my heavy chaotic breathing—”Laura, stop being such a drama queen! What’s the worse case scenario? If you do fall from the boat, these two Mowglis will have no issue whatsoever in getting you out of the water—piece of cake”. A bit of breathing in and breathing out, trying to practice some awareness and to direct my thoughts into a sort of floating, and I managed to calm myself for a while. I know it’s different for different people, but what (almost) always seems to work for me during these intense anxiety moments is to make fun of my own thoughts. But then it started to get even windier, hence wavier, so by the time we arrived I was completely exhausted.
The moment I set foot on land, everything started to fall into place and feel so natural, as did our whole stay there. Still a bit shaken by the short but intense boat trip, I was expecting the people who greeted us to ask how it was, if we were okay etc. (DRA-MA QUEEN!), but nothing of this sort happened. And it was then when self mockery knocked at my door again: “Chill, Laura! Of course they won’t ask you that, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for them to sail in the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean without a life jacket, dooh!” That thought, together with the feeling of lukewarm sand under my bare feet brought me back to a softer and calmer reality, though it was dark and I was a bit uncomfortable with stepping on something weird. (Where did that fear come from, by the way, as I remember walking barefoot a lot—and enjoying it—as a child? When did I become so precious?). After being shown our “room” and the eco toilets and showers, we were brought to the so called bar and dinning “area” where we were greeted with a warm big smile aaand (surprise!) a refreshing coconut. Yum! We couldn’t see much of the place, in its entirety at least, as they didn’t have electricity (except for the bar area, where they were also serving food), but there was something so intrinsically peaceful in the air that could tame even the noisiest mind. The homemade food was absolutely delicious, healthy and very tasty. And to my utter delight and excitement, they had no less than 5 dogs and 7 one month old puppies. What more could I have wished for? Oh, yes, and the friendliest and zen-like cat I have ever met, who was more like a dog than a cat, if not more like a human. She was with us everywhere: on the bed, when we went to the toilet, when we showered and when we were exploring the beach. She was like a fluffy warm glue and we fell in love with her.
We went to bed very early, as you couldn’t do much there without electricity, but I was far from falling asleep. I actually don’t think I have slept more than 1-2h in total that night, as I was so overwhelmed by that place, in a good way though. We had but two wooden walls, so we were basically sleeping half outside. We were so immersed in nature and so close to the ocean that we could hear an orchestra of sounds. There was a tight competition between the waves breaking into the shore and the playful crickets. The noise kept me awake, indeed, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world. There was something so magical about that place that at times I had to pinch myself—I couldn’t believe I was actually there. I was half awake, half transported to one of those fantasy books that you don’t want to end reading because you know, somehow, reality will follow. I usually make a very big deal when I have insomnias, hence I cannot sleep, I twist and turn, I make it worse than it is. But not then. I was feeling very light, very emotional, grateful, and so at peace with myself and the surroundings. Lots of thoughts were floating in my head, but they were not the usual worrying or messy thoughts, but the kinder and softer ones. I don’t really use the word “epiphany” very often as I find it a bit pretentious, or maybe because I cannot (yet) 100% identify with it, but judging by its definition, maybe this is what happened to me that night. I am generally a control freak, a person with lots of fears, finding it quite hard to let go, but over that night, while being lost in thoughts and daydreaming, my whole body was inundated with warmth, having this consistent thought—which prevailed throughout our whole trip in Asia—that I should trust everything will be okay, that I should trust myself more.
From time to time I was petting the cat, who was taking turns by changing her sleeping place from my side of the bed to Ștefan’s . And she was sleeping so peacefully—nothing seemed to disturb her. At one point I got bored with laying in bed, so I woke Ștefan up (oups!) and we went closer to the water and sat on the sand, getting our feet wet in the ocean from time to time. Never have I seen such a starlit sky. The cat came along, of course, and sat beside me, quiet and peaceful. We went back to bed after a while, but I was very excited for the sunrise and for seeing the whole place in daylight as well. And when the sun rose I couldn’t stop exclaiming. The magical feeling continued while the sweet rays of sun were warming up everything in their way, allowing us to explore every little corner of that remote beach, inhabited by ourselves, only a couple of locals and their animals. It was even more beautiful than I had imagined it will be. We were exactly in the same place like the night before, but it looked so different in daylight. It started to look more and more like Robinson Crusoe’s island. The moment I thought of that, four cheeky goats showed up out of nowhere, having their breakfast and climbing trees as if it was their home (which it was).
The most difficult part on this beach was not surrendering to the lack of phone signal or internet for 3 days, but adapting to the slow pace of the Filipino life and to literally doing nothing at all. Time expands in this little corner of paradise. You wake up at 5am or 6am, not because you have to, but because this is the most beautiful moment of the day, when everything seems even more surreal. You check the time at some point later in the day expecting to be lunch time or even afternoon, only to notice, with big stupor, that it’s only 9 o’clock. We are so busy being busy in our daily lives that an image of this kind of living has been almost erased from our memory. It’s getting more and more blurry, to the point that what we have now and how we rush things has become normality. Some don’t even know it exists. I urge you to force yourself into doing something similar. It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to be very adventurous. And it will probably be tough at first, for some, but I promise you it’s so much more rewarding.
When I was not eating, sleeping, laying in a hammock or a swing, petting the animals, or exploring the beach, I loved watching the local children play. I was fascinated by them. Not only they are really beautiful and have unique features, but there is such a freedom and sparkle in their eyes and laughs that I have rarely seen in any other child. What made me quite sad, though, was the fact that they frequently asked for money whenever they encountered a foreigner… Please stop perpetuating this, stop giving them money or sweets as you are not doing anyone any favour, not to them, not to yourselves. They are doing just fine, and if you really want to be generous and help them in some way, just get in contact with the local authorities. Call me naive or idealistic, but I think that encouraging them to ask for money just spoils the magic of the place.
Plumeria Eco Resort was possibly the most beautiful place we have ever experienced in our travels, but with no doubt the most meaningful and idyllic. I felt like stranded on an island, but with no intention to change that.
Our second accommodation in El Nido was closer to El Nido town and definitely less isolated, in a quirky small resort called Lio Beach. A really lovely place with many restaurant options—our favourite was the vegan one with the best matcha pancakes ever (I’ll let the pics speak for themselves)—as well as independent clothing and souvenir boutiques.
To our extreme satisfaction, there weren’t many tourists around. The Philippines, in general, are not (yet, at least) a very crowded travel destination, as opposed to similar countries like Thailand or Indonesia. Don’t miss the Kalye Artisano shop in the area, a treasure box of handmade objects to fill your suitcase with. By the way, we had never returned home with so many beautiful and authentic souvenirs, with a very good value for money, too. I couldn’t stop myself from buying. We stayed 4 nights in the area and our main activity was renting boats for tours of the beaches and lagoons of El Nido. And there I was again, making waves with my dear old friend, Water. We’ve been on the boat for so long that by the end of our trip I was starting to feel better on the sea than on the land where, if I closed my eyes, I was seeing waves and I was feeling dizzy. My fear of water was slowly starting to subside to the point that I had also convinced myself to get into a kayak on a biiiiig lagoon, which I wouldn’t have done before. It might be a small thing to you (yes, you who swims like a fish!), but for someone like me who doesn’t swim at all and who, on top of that, has a deeply rooted fear of water, that was quite a win. With so many adventures involving water (including a real life threatening one in Norway) I can hear a voice inside mocking me: “I think it’s time for you Laura to learn to swim, don’t you?”
We booked the tours very last minute (the day before) and we managed to find something, but don’t be like us if you plan to go there in full season (we were there at the end of November – beginning of December, which is the beginning of the season). You are more likely to find a private tour if you won’t book in advance, which is obviously more expensive (double the price), but definitely worth it. Most of the tours start in El Nido town, where you are again hit by the tumultuous life, the noise, the dust, the garbage, the poverty and the chaos. Somehow, however, halfway through our holiday, we were starting to get used to it and to realise that we attributed it higher proportions than we should have had. It’s not as if the reality was another one, but when I was noticing the locals during their daily lives, they seemed quite at peace with what they had. Realities become more of a burden (I am excluding here the atrocities some people are exposed to, like wars, illnesses or natural disasters), I think, when we start to compare.
Needless to say that all the islands, beaches and lagoons we set foot on during our island hopping tours were pure paradise, but my favourites were, by far, Small Lagoon, Cadlao Island and Secret Lagoon Beach.
Of course I missed part of the fun because I couldn’t swim nor snorkel, hence no glimpse (with my own eyes, at least) of living corals or Nemo fish, so when the boat wasn’t anchoring near the land I had to stay on it. The icing on the cake of these tours was the food, which was also probably the best food I ate in the Philippines. It generally consisted of grilled chicken and fish, steamed vegetables and rice, and the exquisitely delicious mango, pineapple and bananas. It wasn’t necessarily the taste itself, nor was it very sophisticated, but it had an emotional quality attached to it, as they were preparing it on the boat and we ate it as a picnic lunch on one of the beaches.
Coron was our next destination and we spent 3 nights there. By then we were already not only adapted but deeply immersed in the whole rhythm of the country. To the point that I was starting to think — I couldn’t help it — that going back to reality to London will be quite difficult to cope with. And I was right.
I utterly dislike the bustle, chaos and crowds, especially in the European cities, but the very same things had a different vibe in the Philippines. It’s full of noisy and dusty tricycles (which look more like converted motorcycles) playing the role of taxis, and there is not much staying in lane on the road, plus the continuous honking. But everyone was okay with it — no one was swearing or showing egos. It was one of the most fun things we did actually.
It was in Coron where we decided to go for a private boat tour for a change and it was so worth it, as it allowed us to customise the places we wanted to see and linger more on the ones we loved most. Not to mention that we avoided the crowds. Such a warm feeling waking up very early in the morning for this. We started the journey with a visit to the local market to buy the foods we were to cook for the lunch on the beach. Which gave us the opportunity to mingle with the local colours and feel like one. Our local guide Log, a scrawny boy with broken teeth and a squeaky voice, but with the most sincere smile and light heart, had connections at the market, so of course we got the freshest foods.
Another moment of revelation for me was triggered by one of the dialogues with Log:
Me: “Oh God, oh God… oh God!” (when I had to jump from one wobbly boat to the other to get to ours, which was at the end of the row). And of course the water was very deep.
Log, with a cheeky contagious laugh: “Ha ha ha, no ma’am, it’s ‘Thank God!’ not ‘Oh God!’.”
This put me in a contemplative state again, similar to the one I experienced at the Plumeria Resort. By the end of the day I was starting to say more “Thank God!” than “Oh God!”, in an exchange of giddish laughs with Log . It’s not that I am a religious person, not at all actually, but this served rather like a reminder to be thankful and to appreciate what I have, what I am experiencing. As well as learning to trust more, to trust myself more first of all. Without further ado, the places I loved most during our private tour were, by far, the Twin Lagoon and Banul Beach.
The next day we went for a group tour again (a group of 8 including us, which was not bad at all). Though it was a bit more rushed than the private one, and less personal, we set foot on Coco Beach, which was most probably my favourite beach out of all I came across in our boat tours. I don’t know if it was because we were the only one there (yes, just us, our private beach for a couple of hours!), or the freshly baked rice cakes we got from a local lady, or the many swings and hammocks hanging between giant coconut trees, or all of them together and some more, but it put me in such a relaxed and joyful state that I rarely experience otherwise.
I loved both Coron and El Nido, but I found El Nido better when it comes to variety—a variety of places to eat, independent boutiques with locally handmade items and, last but not least, a variety of beaches, islands and lagoons one can explore. However, the beaches in Coron felt more special and intimate due to, in part, the fact that there were fewer tourists, even none at all on some of them, and also to their unique and remote beauty. I have not included Plumeria in this comparison between the two, as it was a completely different experience, one that has surpasses them all.
Our mind and heart grew lighter following this trip and almost everything was above expectations. It was, at least for me, more than anything else, a spiritual journey where I have learned more about trust and how liberating it can be to let go. I know this is an ongoing and difficult process for someone who has been in an unhealthy relationship with being in control for such a long time, but I am very grateful for this experience that has opened my heart a bit more.
Thank God for this! 🙂