Overnight I had dreamt of the paradise we were heading for, but awoke dreading the voyage. To leave Manila, we’d need a taxi. We’d been warned by one and all about Manila taxis. We’d have to endure another traffic jam to catch an eleven o’clock charter flight.
For the first time in a week, Frank Lee’s colour was normal, that is, less ghastly than that of Prince Phillip. He and I had finally recovered. Celebrating this with some goodies retrieved from a nearby Starbucks, we began our packing frenzy.
The charter flight limited us to ten kilograms of luggage each, an issue since we’d been carting around the twenty-three kilograms allowed by the other dozen flights on this adventure. How much does one need for two days in paradise? We fretted and bickered on this subject for some time, eventually agreeing that the only essential was a valid credit card. How paradise has changed.
Having prepared to leave the vast majority of our weighty materials in any suitable location we might locate, Frank telephonically renewed our relationship with bellman Emman, who was happy to help us deal with the impending taxi drama. “I will get you a metered taxi” he assured us, “it should be no more than 250 pesos.”
Emman was a man of his word. Recognising us as we exited the hotel, he signalled the biggest, blackest, most Cadillac-ish taxi from the queue, which sped forward, coming to a screeching halt at our feet. Minions scurried about stuffing our baggage in the trunk whilst Emman gave specific instructions to the driver. We slid into air-conditioned comfort across the leather seats. Doors slammed, we sped off. Whew, that was easy. For about 15 seconds.
I was sitting on the passenger side of the back seat, staring at the meter, as I do. The driver flashed a card at me, a schedule indicating the fare to the airport from the New World Hotel was 800 pesos. “No way” I responded, “we’re on the meter.” Suddenly, unlike everyone else in Manila, he didn’t understand English, shaking his head and waving his hands.
One right turn and two left turns later – or was it left, right, left? – whatever it was, we were in an unfamiliar, busy but rough-looking neighbourhood as I watched the driver turn off the ignition while in gear, just switch the key to the “off” position. He stomped on the accelerator, turned the key several times in the wrong direction, and made noises as if he was disappointed. “Car trouble!” he announced.
He had us by the balls, I had to admit. Now what?
He opened his door, stepping out, suddenly speaking English like everyone else in Manila. “Sorry, car problems, I’ll get you another taxi.” Which he did, thankfully enough, but not until extorting from Frank the 80 pesos his meter had registered.
The replacement taxi was an ordinary, rambling thing, with an ordinary, rambling driver who was as sceptical as I about what had just happened. Sure enough, the fare to our airport was the 200 pesos we had been promised, even though it took over an hour to traverse the six kilometres in the traffic. In retrospect, I realised the difference between 800 and 200 pesos was $15, and that I’d have been happy to pay the extra $15 so I neither had to watch the meter nor worry about being dropped in, say, Beirut. Old habits die hard.
We were headed to a charter flight leaving from a “terminal” which bore more resemblance to a freight warehouse than an airport terminal, much less an executive airport. To our ordinary, rambling driver’s credit, when it came in sight he pointed it out. There, across six lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic we saw a lone, tiny ITI sign – presumably for Island Transvoyager, Inc., our charter airline.
To deposit us over there, the driver explained, he’d have to drive a kilometre up, around a traffic circle (the cause of this particular congestion), and come back a kilometre – probably taking another hour. We heeded his advice, collected our bags, and sauntered across six lanes of traffic, although climbing over the concrete “Jersey barriers” dividing the highway can hardly be called a saunter.
The security guard at the gate was unsurprised to see two middle-aged white men dragging 46 kilos of luggage across six lanes of traffic and a concrete barrier. He nonchalantly pointed us at one of a dozen black unmarked office doors. We were in the right place.
On opening the door we were greeted by the first of many flawlessly quaffed hostesses, each Palmer-girlish with modest but tight skirts, thick red lipstick and black pulled-back hair. “You must be Mr. Kodiak and Mr. Lee.” Yes, we must be. She took care of our bags, holding the excess for our return, and led us to the waiting lounge where they plied us with coffee, tea, juice, sandwiches, hot towels, cold towels, wifi, and general eager-to-please pleasantness. Oddly, they demanded twenty pesos (fifty cents) for bottled water.
Thence we entered paradise. That’s the third time I’ve mentioned paradise, so it is probably time to explain. Our destination for the next 48 hours was the Pangulasian Island Resort. Pangulasian Island is in the El Nido area of the Philippines’ Palawan region, on the north side of Bacuit Bay which connects the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea. The Palawan area is variously described as the Philippines’ “last frontier” and a remnant “unspoilt nature”.
El Nido itself is effectively a national park and wildlife conservation area, with only four far-flung resorts run by the same operator who extracts a pound of flesh from those who wish to experience its splendour. Mercifully, a small serving of that flesh goes back to the park service, who presumably feed it to the wildlife. In El Nido today, a pound of flesh goes for about two thousand dollars. This covers the hour-long flight, the 30 minute boat ride, two nights mid-level (but VERY nice) accommodation, and breakfast.
The charter flight, on a fifty-seater prop, offered a wonderful low-altitude, almost slow-motion panoramic experience leaving Manila. Then the same for a few hundred of the thousands of islands that comprise the Philippines, lush green sculptures jutting awkwardly out of sapphire blue seas. Here below me for eons was a haven and a heaven for pirates, adventurers, invaders and liberators — the Spanish, Japanese, and American being the most recent. Come to think of it, I guess we are the most recent adventurers, although there are certain insurgents about the islands that might consider us to be invaders.
The plane landed on a remote landing strip. A jeepney – a stretch Jeep contraption descendent of the famed military equipment — whisked us in simple but comfortable fashion to a waiting hut where more coffee, tea, juice, sandwiches, hot towels, cold towels, wifi, and general eager-to-please pleasantness awaited. Six indigenous ladies in indigenous attire swayed and sang indigenous greetings to us nonindigenous. Soon a launch transported us out a shallow river, scraping bottom several times. Out in the bay we were transferred onto a larger boat with marginally less care than was our luggage. Luggage can’t swim, they explained.
The boat ride to Pangulasian Island provided fabulous scenery the whole way, but I’ll let the photos do the talking. There were only a half-dozen guests on our boat, as the remainder of the charter flight passengers had headed to the other, less expensive El Nido resorts (which we had tried to book but were sold out). Chatting with our fellow guests, we soon deduced that we might be the only paying guests, the others all being on a junket of one kind or another. The whole of resort’s staff formed a reception line cheering our arrival – I fully expected a midget to appear shouting “da plane! da plane!”
The resort was very nice. We didn’t do much, truth be told. The food was hit-or-miss, understandable a zillion miles from the nearest farm. The service, accommodation and facilities were excellent. Our highlight was hiking through the jungle to the island’s peak, a look-out to watch the sunset, and getting caught in a late-afternoon squall and lightning storm – quite scary, but no harm done. Mostly, we hung out at the pool and relaxed.
Two days later, we were, finally, relaxed and healthy. Leaving for the return trip to Manila, Frank asked how much it would be to book a car to take us from the airport to the Manila Hotel.
“800 pesos.” came the response.
“Book it!” we responded in unison.