Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sleeping in a Closet: Traveling Through the Philippines Part 1

The second part of our Winter Vacation 2012 took us to the Philippines.  I found that in this country you have to take the good with the bad.  I have what is referred to as a love hate relationship with the Philippines.  We had some fantastic and memorable experiences, but it was some of the most stressful traveling I have ever done.  It is the first country that has tested my limits as a backpacker, and I have been to many countries in Asia by this point.  I'm going to do that thing where I say something good about it before the insult so I can soften the blow.  Like when a girl says, "I love Tammy, she's like the greatest girl in the world, one in a million...but girl needs to take a shower because she smells like reheated Chinese take-out."  So if it sounds like I'm doing a lot of bitching about the Philippines it's because I am.

We encountered stunning scenery, beautiful ocean waters, ate some good meals, and met some very nice people.  However, the best way to describe the Philippines is a trailer park situated in a beautiful setting.  Or the Mexico of Asia but without the delicious cuisine and charming culture.  It's sometimes trashy, sometimes depressing, sometimes scary, and sometimes wonderful.  The whole time I was there I was a walking ATM.  Something to extract as much cash out of as possible.  I wasn't viewed as some one who wanted to soak up the country, take in the sights, do some relaxing, and gain some experiences.  I was viewed as some one who went to the Philippines, threw around all the cash I could, and get out.
Hey Philippines, where's the beach?
We didn't even bother with Manila after hearing all the horror stories about it.  We heard stories of horrible poverty, suffocating pollution, constant scams, dangerous alleys, and the overall opinion that the city is a dumpster fire.  The whole country is poor though.  There are full grown men hanging out everywhere in the streets.  Doing nothing but standing around and looking.  Some one I met compared it to India.  I've been to very poor countries before (Cambodia, parts of China) but I have never seen so many men wallowing on the side of the road.  I don't know what I'm implying, but either the country needs to hire some motivational speakers or everyone is receiving disability checks.
I only saw Manila from the inside of an airport or through a plane window.
The first place we flew in to was the overwhelmingly gorgeous island of Palawan.  When you arrive at a new location in the Philippines, whether by bus or plane, expect to encounter who I like to call "the piranhas".  When we walked out of the airport there were ten guys in our faces saying, "Get in my tricycle.  Give me your bag.  You have reservation?  Give me the money."  When we settled on one driver we next found out that accommodation is a big problem in the Philippines during the travel season.  Elsewhere in Southeast Asia I just find a place to sleep when I get there.  We learned quickly that you don't do this in the Philippines.  I blame the Chinese.  The tourism board for the Philippines must have a huge marketing campaign in China and it's working.  It's working very well.  The problem is there are a lot of people in China and they travel in huge groups of over twenty people.  That's a lot of hotel rooms.  So we spent our first night in Palawan in a utility closet with bunk beds too short for my 5'8" frame and a pack of fighting wild dogs outside our window all night.  Yay, welcome to the Philippines!
Notice how the mattresses curve up against the wall.
The next day we took a dusty seven hour bus ride to the city of El Nido in northern Palawan.  Luckily we made a reservation on the phone the night before.  This is when I discovered that customer service doesn't exist in the Philippines, and if it does then it's extremely awkward.  When you walk in to a store, restaurant, or hotel you are rarely noticed until you grab some one's attention.  My favorite moment was when I had enough of it and decided to do a little experiment.  Now remember everyone in the Philippines can speak English.  So I went in to a store, grabbed two bottles of water, and put them on the counter in front of the cashier woman.  Then it was the battle of who would make the first move.  She sat in her chair behind the counter staring at me and I stared right back at her.  After about a minute of complete silence I couldn't take it anymore and victory was her's.  I finally asked, "Do you want money for this water?"  Basking in her glory, she knew she had broken me and kept staring.  "HOW MUCH FOR THE WATER?!" I snapped at her.  She finally muttered, "50 pesos."  This was an everyday occurrence in the Philippines.
Clint couldn't even win a staring contest in the Philippines.
Another example of bad customer service, or just awkward customer service, is when you got in to a restaurant.  First, find your own table.  Second, wave for a server to come over and they will walk over and stare at you.  Third, say the word "menu".  Fourth, the server will give you the menu and continue to stand and stare at you until you order.  Fifth, take five minutes to decide between a ham and cheese sandwich or a chicken sandwich to punish the server for their horrible service.  Sixth, wait 45 minutes for the kitchen to make a simple sandwich.  Lesson, get to the restaurant 45 minutes before you're hungry.
Can't tell if they're taking their time make a delicious sandwich or they forgot.
My final example is prying the information out of customer service people who have the information you need.  This brings me to arriving in El Nido.  When we got to our hotel we walked in around 4pm and said we had a reservation.  They said "not ready" and did that damn staring thing I keep talking about.  So we asked, "When will it be ready?"  They answer "sometime" and stare.  We ask, "Can you say how many minutes?"  They answer "one hour" and stare.  We ask, "Can you tell us the problem?"  They answer "working on it" and stare.  So we leave and thus is the way of the customer service in the Philippines.

Anyway, I'm putting a break on the bitching and it's time for the wonderful.  The thing to do in El Nido is to go on boat tours of the surrounding islands.  The islands are limestone karst cliffs that rise out of the ocean and are surrounded by hidden beaches and lagoons.  To get to one hidden beach we had to swim through a hole in the rocks at the right time so a wave doesn't smash us against the roof of the hole.  We also swam around in a lagoon filled with caves, corral, and perfect blue water.  It was simply magnificent and here are some pictures:
The view from El Nido and the boats that take you out to the islands.

Such great scenery.

Caroline enjoying the beach.

Snorkeling in a lagoon.

Can you find the hidden beach?  Yeah it's there.


The captain of our boat, a chain smoking sixteen year old.

The clear blue waters of the lagoon.

A good spot for a picnic on the beach.

After a few days of taking boat tours in El Nido, we traveled back down to central Palawan to see the subterranean river in Sabang.  It was voted as one of the new seven wonders of the world.  I don't know if it really deserves that entry, but I'll happily put in the category of pretty cool.  They put you in a tiny boat and a guide rows you 1.5 kilometers in to the belly of the river.  The river actually goes for 8km, but tourists are only allowed so far.  There are literally millions of bats that live in the cave.  Pointing the flashlight up revealed the most bats I have ever seen in my life.  I found out why the mosquito population is low in that area.  It was a worthwhile experience and here's a few pictures:
In Sabang!

Taking a pose in front of the subterranean river.

A helmet for protection.

Almost in the cave.
Oh and watch out for the giant lizards that guard the cave.
The post is getting along so I'm dividing it in to two parts.  In Part two you can expect whale sharks, bees, lady boys, and some more ranting.  In the meantime here is video of the 800 meter long zip-line we found when hiking in Sabang:

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