From Whorehouse to Crystalline Archipelago: Travelling to El Nido

I’ve travelled some trying journeys in my time, a rickety 13-hour train from Shanghai to Beijing with only a toilet-hole straight onto the tracks, a mental prickly-skinned 36-hour plane ride home from New Zealand, and now I have a cramped, hustle of a van-ride to El Nido to add to that.

After a 3-hour trek to Taipei airport, a 2-hour flight in the early hours to Manila, a 5-hour stop-over sleeping on metal benches in an airport café, and a 1.5-hour flight to Puerto Princessa, we arrived ready to face 6-hour slog of a van ride north to El Nido. What we weren’t prepared for was being well and truly hustled, not so much for our money (as we paid the going-rate) but for our time!

Conferring with a few different vendors who organise van trips from Puerto to El Nido, we were swept up by a cheery local woman, a little plump around the waist, with respectable suit trousers, who guaranteed a swift 4-5 hour journey after we stopped for a coffee. Lured in by the promise of a strong coffee, we soon agreed. Our fatal error, of course, was to part with our money too early. A short coffee break turned into a lazy 2-hour wait whilst the woman tried to fill the rest of the seats in the van with every Tom, Dick and Harry passing the Filipino street.

We hadn’t realised at the time, but our old, battered edition of Lonely Plant warns you to “be prepared to wait and wait…” and wait and wait we did. When we thought the wait was over – after a ride back to the airport and a van-switch and an additional passenger (well, two) – it transpired that was only the beginning of our seemingly never-ending journey.

The additional passenger, Steve, certainly was a character. In some hybrid accent of Australian and strange Filipino, he began a torrent of prattle to the two hustling drivers about getting himself a girl: “one for my left-side, one for my right; all the girls love me for my peso-nality, ya know.” As if being bundled in the back of a van with the crass Steve upfront wasn’t bad enough, our van pulled to a gear-box crunching stop outside the local brothel into which one guy and Steve disappeared, and out of which slim, tanned women in skimpy skirts tumbled.

Somewhat horrified to be having a dirty old man and a hooker hitching onto our family ride, we made a bit of a rattle in the back when next we were told we’d be looping back round to the airport to pick up two more passengers. Sadly, we had little power as our money was already gone from our pockets – a classic British tourist mistake – unlike Steve, who had given half at the gas station and was holding onto the other half and his beautiful, young prostitute.

Finally, we got on the road, Steve telling us about his active service in the Vietnam War in 1969 and the girl in the front glancing round at us with her big, lost eyes all the time. His story certainly stacked up by the looks of his age, the spiralling grey hairs escaping his nostrils, and the dates. Whether it was true or not who knows, but he claimed it made him a damaged man.

A couple of hours in we lost those two, and gained some local or other in every village along the way, including a man with two massive fish which they strapped to the top of the van. I was relieved not to have two fresh dead fish eyeballing me, which seemed entirely possible.

At the end of the journey, the youngest in the family, poignantly noted: “We could’ve gone anywhere in the world in this time.”

Waking up to an enchanting, crystalline archipelago soaking in clear, glassy sea the next morning, you have to ask: would you want to go anywhere else in the world?

C Marchant

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