I started the day at 5:30am, waiting for the usual jeepney, a tiny Filipino bus about the size and shape of a hollowed out sport utility vehicle. I staked my seat hours ahead of time, since jeepneys tend to be radically overcrowded. Eventually our operators began loading material into the cab and onto the roof. I had to climb out an hour later while they loaded bags of cement into the center of the vehicle, and when I poked my head back in, an old lady had stolen my seat. In the Philippines old ladies are sacrosanct; you cannot mess with an old lady in the Philippines. I was screwed. I waited in a dark mood while they finished loading and finally at about 10:30am we set off for the north of Palawan. I was clinging to the rear, standing outside on top of a steel bumper. The bus was full and the roof rack bulged with suitcases, bags and boxes. We drove across town, then stopped to load more stuff.
They began throwing fifty kilo bags of flour, sugar and urea on the roof as well as giant blocks of ice encased in wooden crates. When we next set off I was precariously balanced on a bag of severed chicken parts in ice, which was precariously balanced on a crate full of ice, which was precariously balanced on the rear bumper of the jeepney, strapped on with a fraying rope. Then we stopped so people could eat.
A Filipino gentleman in a yellow rain slicker kept saying, “You’re traveling Filipino style!” Then he would smack me hard in the shoulder and laugh maniacally. Over and over.
A few minutes later we started up again, and near the edge of town a tire went flat. Luckily this happens all the time in the Philippines and our crew had us up and running by 12:00pm.
At this time I was sitting on top of some boxes on the roof of the jeepney, holding on to the ropes that lashed the cargo together. The entire mass wobbled as we drove, threatening to nudge me and the top-heavy jeepney into one of the steep jungle ravines that lay beneath us on the curving mountain road. Then it started raining.
There was a tarp over most of the cargo, but I could only lift one tiny corner. A Filipino gentleman in a yellow rain slicker, who also balanced himself on the outside of the jeepney, kept saying, “You’re traveling Filipino style!” Then he would smack me hard in the shoulder and laugh maniacally. Over and over. He later found another rain slicker for me and I nearly fell from the jeepney trying to put it on, but then it turned out to be a pair of pants. The rain continued as another tire went flat, somewhere in the middle of this 14 hour ride.
Arriving later at El Nido, a small fishing town on the north of Palawan, I pulled out my snorkel and mask. The nearby beaches and limestone outcroppings were the most beautiful I have ever seen. But the coral was dead. All of it. Flattened, white, desolate.
Dynamite fishing had come to El Nido.
You can imagine how dynamite fishing works; it’s fairly self-explanatory. But in the end this was just as well, because monsoon season had begun a few weeks early.
I met with other travellers who wanted to escape before the storms rolled in, but we soon discovered that the ferry to Limanancong, the next stop on our return to Manilla, might not come due to a signal-one storm warning.
It began to seem as if we would be trapped in El Nido for the rest of the season. We tried to radio Limanancong to see if there would be a ferry soon, but the radio had broken from the rain. Someone mentioned that we might be able to use the shortwave radio a nearby store had. However, before this second radio could send a message, they needed a particular frequency which only the coast guard knew. So someone would have to go get the frequency from the coast guard on the far side of town, bring it to the store after 7:30pm when it re-opened, and then call to see if there might be a ferry leaving Limanancong for El Nido, even though there were rumours that the ferry had already turned back because of the typhoon.
The rains sent us back to our respective huts, and when we returned early the next morning, we discovered that the ferry had come and gone. Its captain wanted to beat the coming storm. Finally, though none of us had much money, we couldn’t stomach being trapped in El Nido for another week. We hired a jeepney to take us to the small airstrip outside of town where a small commuter plane would charge exhorbitant rates to evacuate us.
Each of us had been travelling for at least a month apiece, Me, an English student, some French speaking gentleman, and a pair of sheltered Danish nurses who frowned on card games and thought alcohol was immoral. Our clothes were clean only by virtue of the constant rain that had been pelting us. Unshaven and dismayed, our troup slogged up to the one room, wooden airport with our filthy mishapen backpacks, only to be stopped short.
The airport was full of people —well-dressed people— in new rugged camping gear. The central room was filled with a single, giant buffet. Steam tables held bacon and sausage and slabs of meat. There were piles of fried potatoes, scalloped potatoes, diced and julienned potatoes. There were fresh steamed vegetables and cheeses and covered drinks. There were giant fruit centerpieces, multiple watermelons delicately carved to look like something other than a watermelon, on top of lettuce, on top of pieces of watermelon and pinapple and tropical fruit, all of it fresh. There was an abundance of every species and family of food that we’d been missing for the length of our respective trips. And all of it was jealously guarded by German guards with walkie-talkies.
This is when we noticed the cameras.
A Swiss-German film crew had taken over the one-strip dirt airport at El Nido. They were readying to tape something called, Expedition Robinson, the original series American producers used as the basis for Survivor. The women were beautiful and powerful; the men seemed to think they were powerful and beautiful too. They followed us around the airport to be sure we didn’t attach ourselves to their buffet like hungry leeches, which to be fair, we wanted desperately to do.
The contestants each carried a single item of importance: a soccer ball, a guitar, a Bible… They were well-groomed, clean, healthy and even prettier than the film crew. I was told that one of the women was a moderately famous European actress. Cell phones were everywhere, in every hand. Utility belts held film-related items and expensive electronic things with tiny moving parts. The crew became annoyed when we began dripping on the tile floor of the airport, leaving puddles that marred the beauty of their buffet, risking a slipping-related lawsuit. They studiously ignored our questions.
Eventually, I could take no more. I left to go roam the beach looking for shells. And as I turned back about a mile down the beach, I realized that someone had erected a two thousand foot grey wall between me and the airport. It was the monsoon come again, asking each of us to stay in El Nido, to feast on dynamited fish and cheap local beer, to play pirated Playstation video games on the local generator-powered TV sets. But I had to return.
I slogged through the torrential rain, back to the tiny airport waiting room, to drip pittifully on a couple of crewmembers and await the coming plane.