I woke up..
in a muck of sweat. The sun was up, which meant the electricity had been turned off as it was a luxury only to be used during night time.
It was 9 a.m. and already nearly 95 degrees (that’s 35 celsius for all you civilized folk).
All the locals were up, smiling, laughing, and starting the day even though they’d consumed copious amounts of Tanduay Rhum only hours ago.
I had my morning insta-coffee black with sugar as I always drink it unless forced otherwise. My head was throbbing from too much Tanduay, karokee and ciggarettes the night before.
But all that went away as soon as I lifted my head and looked out unto the morning horizon in front me. The ocean, only 30 meters away, back dropped with mountains and islands.
Good morning, El Nido.
You hear a lot about El Nido from backpackers and budget travelers. That’s because the small village that sits on the almost foremost northern tip of Palawan, one of the Philippines seven thousand islands, is ripe with paradise at an exceptionally low cost.
To put into perspective how cheap, me and two other friends paid approximately $4 a night (per person) for a beachfront cottage of our own.
El Nido attracts the backpacker crowd. The type of people who don’t need fancy shwancy hotels, are okay with indigenous foods and who want to experience a true feeling of cultural immersion in their locality.
During my eight day stay I encountered people from all over the world – Bulgaria, France, Germany, China, U.S.A – all whom, like myself, came to experience the postcard picturesque islands, mountains and villages El Nido has to offer.
The locals of El Nido were laid-back and gracious.
Many were either born and raised in the little village since birth or moved there from Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa, or the capital of Philippines, Manila – in efforts to escape the fast-paced commotion and dangers of Philippine’s city life and merely be able to afford to live.
The village would be, by any measure, considered economically poor to a westerner, but far richer in other ways that money can’t make up for.
During my time there I was very fortunate to bond with a certain group of locals. They worked and ran the complex I was staying at.
There was Manuel – a lovable, adventurous 35 year old Filipino with a big heart who showed us around the village, took us on boat tours of the islands and rock climbing on a mountain. He’d stay up just about every night until 3 a.m. drinking, smoking and singing karaoke - always with a smile on his face and a kindness about him that made you instantly just want to hug him.
Beth was a 40 year-old power woman. Naturally beautiful, social and sweet. Her age and being a mother of four in no way stopped her from joining us on what I have named ‘the mountain death hike,’ a four-hour trek (the majority of which is nearly vertical over sharp shale rocks) without harnesses or climbing equipment. Beth summited with more energy than I did. I was in awe also greatly inspired by her strength in willingness and physically ability.
There were others, Larry – Manuel’s best friend, Anne – a young girl about the age of 16 who also worked at the complex, Marvin – the manager of the complex – and various more, mostly young kids in their teens and early twenties – who hung around the complex, helped out for a little extra cash and were friends with everyone.
Every night, after the sun would set and dip into the oceans horizon, meant it was rum time - or as they spell it, rhum.
The national Tanduay Rhum (dark) would come out and along with it a bottle of Sprite. The two contents would be equally poured and mixed together in a large metal picture. The picture was then passed around with one shot glass, you’d take a shot, pour a shot for the person next to you and continue passing around until empty, in which the process was completed and immediately repeated again.
It was the first time I’ve experienced ‘communal’ drinking like this. I’m used to buying or having a drink solely for myself, but I really enjoyed the sense of comradery of this group-style drinking, and while at first it seemed odd to be taking a shot by myself with so many other people around, I found there to be a melodic rythym to it – thanking someone for pouring your shot, having it passed over to you, drinking it, pouring the next persons, looking them in the eye and handing them theirs.
As the drinking commenced so did the karaoke.
SIDE NOTE **I can write a whole blog post in itself just about karaoke in Asia – it exists on a whole other plane that you can’t understand unless you experience.. As one who hated singing infront of people let me just say that my mindset of “oh god not karaoke” completely changed after my first karaoke experience about two years in South Korea. Most of the time you get a private room with friends, beers, snacks and a giant television with videos and songs that you can choose to sing along to. People don’t care about looking or sounding stupid. They have fun and it’s infectiously enjoyable.**
So here we were, night after night, bonding over rum, song and speak. During the days taking boat trips out to small crystal clear lagoons, laying out on the beach sand or walking and browsing around the village markets.
I’m a sucker for animals so I found a pleasant delight in the wildlife and livestock of the area: pigs, roosters, cows and bats that at sunset would fly from the mountains in the East across the sky with the occasional straggler almost running into your head.
Because of the lack of big city there was barely any light pollution at the night, so the stars were a spectacular sight.
Thousands of tiny dots stuck in a deep black abyss. It had been so long being I live in Seoul, South Korea (a very huge light polluted city) that I had seen the sky like that. To be honest, it was one of my favorite experiences of the trip – just staring at the bewildering sky.
I had forgot how magnetizing a night sky could be.