Maritime Woes

29 Apr

Fishing bangka with extra outrigging, off Palawan, the Philippines

You can find the bloody fish, though, can't you, chaps?

There are many things unique and wonderful about the Philippines. But the boatmen here are phenomenal in many of the wrong ways.

Right now, sat in utter serenity on a perfect crescent of a beach (me) and scaling a coconut palm (Z), the various unpleasantnesses of the morning feel like serendipity in action.

All the same, Filipino mariners are quite the phenomenon. I’ve traveled in heading for forty countries. This is the only nation I have ever visited where boats routinely deposit one in the wrong bloody place.

It is the nature of Palawan, both the island, which stretches for 450km north to south, with some fairly impressive mountains at its midpoint, and the province, which chucks another 1500 or so islands into the equation, that getting around takes time. Which is fine.

Up to a point.

You may recall, gentle reader, that we were supposed to be in El Nido today. We were in Sabang this morning, on the west coast. El Nido is also on the west coast, about 100km north of where we started.

To get there by road, you either travel back across the island for a couple of hours on an early morning jeepney then sit on the main road waving at any large vehicle with people sat on top of it heading north, or you continue your journey back to the east coast and down south to Puerto Princesa bus station, where a chariot may or may not awaits for six or seven hours of bad road hell.

Ergo, one takes the boat.

There are, of course, no scheduled boats. That would be too easy.

As I understood it until recently, boats need a certain number of passengers to make the journey up the coast. We met a bunch of people who wanted to get to El Nido, and were up not only for chartering a 14-seater bangka, but for gathering troops to fill it.

They wanted to leave yesterday. I had promised Z a day at the pool of the upscale resort down the beach, but he was prepared to sacrifice this in the name of budget.

Enter the short chap at our beach huts. He guaranteed that he could get us to El Nido at a price of 1800 pesos for me and 600 pesos for spawn, cheaper than our previous quotes for the journey, albeit more than the cost of splitting a charter.

“No minimum passengers?” I asked.

“No minimum,” he said.

“So it leaves, even if it’s just the two of us,” I say. (It’s always good to triple-check gift horses.)

“Yes, yes,” he says. “Cash upfront.” His boat leaves at 7.30am. Everyone else’s leaves at 7, apparently at the direction of the coastguard.

But he’s a nice chap. And the child discount – again much higher than previous conversations — is a very handy sweetener.

Spawn and I discuss. I junk the charter plan, pay cash upfront, and spawn gets his day in the pool.

After a night of mysterious bug bites, cat-fights, dogfights, geckos, cockerels, thunder and rain, although, rarely for small-town Philippines, no karaoke, our alarm goes off at 6am. I awake with a start at 6.30am to find our knight in shining armour at the door.

“Are you going today?” he says.

“Yes, yes,” I say, panic and gratitude mingling as one. In between piling our laundry, which has been “drying” on our balcony for two days of tropical rain and is beginning to smell, into bags, shoving things into the pack, and chivvying spawn to dress, pack up, brush teeth, etc, I absent-mindedly take the day’s malaria tablet.

We are nearly ready when our knight in shining armour reappears with a boatman. “The boat today,” he says.

“Yes?” I say, all sweetness and light.

“The boat today, no go to El Nido. Not enough people,” he says.

“But I paid to go to El Nido,” I say. “I want to go to El Nido.”

“The boat goes to Port Barton,” he says. “Port Barton is also very nice.”

“I’m sure Port Barton is very nice,” I say. “But I wanted to go to El Nido. And you said we were going to El Nido. I paid 1800 pesos for me and 600 pesos for him to go to El Nido. You said there was no minimum fare.”

“Nobody wants to go,” says the boatman. “I am going up and down the beach, up and down the beach, and no one wants to go to El Nido, only to Port Barton.”

Spawn mutters darkly in the background. My immediate instinct is to yell at him, as a safe alternative to yelling at the chaps. “You want to take the boat?” interjects the mariner. “It is leaving now.”

“Leaving now?” I say. “But you said it left at 7.30.”

“No, no,” he says. “It leaves at seven.”

“Are there boats from Port Barton to El Nido?” I ask.

“We can take you on for [pause for mental calculation] maybe 6000,” he says. (That’s just shy of £100 or $150, AKA almost three times our daily budget.)

I brace myself. “No, thank you. If I had wanted to charter a boat, I would have done so. I was asking if there are boats from Port Barton to El Nido.”

“Port Barton is a very nice place,” repeats the chap from the beach huts, mollifyingly.

I learnt from the crew of the Blue Penguin, after a ride to Sabang, Puerto Galera, which ended in a different bit of Puerto Galera, that there is absolutely no point in arguing about such triviality as destinations with boatmen unless there is a Filipino chap who works for the government on board, and he is minded to take you under his wing and kick up merry hell with the relevant authorities on his mobile.

Any residual desire to argue the toss is replaced by a need to get the hell out of Sabang, ideally in the right direction, with the chance of a decent night’s sleep and, ideally, no more time in Puerto Princesa, or its bus station. “What is the price?” I ask.

“One thousand,” he says. “Five hundred for him.”

Some part of my brain knows that the fare is in fact 800. Still fuddled with sleep and laundry, I register that the chap from the guesthouse has given me my money back 100 pesos short.

I recall from our guide, boatman and boat owner in Quezon that to negotiate the fare back down without loss of face will require reserves of diplomacy that I do not have, and an hour or so of time which the boatman does not have. Plus I haven’t finished packing.

I hand over 1500 pesos, meaning that, with the missing 100 pesos, I have paid two full adult fares to Port Barton, which was not where we wanted to go, but does fill the boat to profitability and is, at least, in the right direction.

Like I said, neither I nor the spawn are at our best in the mornings. Duly packed, he swings his bag onto his shoulders. Unfortunately, his motorbike helmet, which is attached to the top strap, swings with it, and hits him in the face.

In an insensate fury with the evil pack, he swings it again. The consequences are entirely and painfully predictable, but neither of us are in a state to see the funny side. He bursts into tears, sits down and begins violently to detach the helmet from the pack. The boat, by my calculations, is due to leave in 20 minutes. By the boatman’s, it should have left ten minutes ago.

“What are you doing?!” I ask, rhetorically.

“I am FED UP of carrying this thing with me everywhere,” he says. “I am going to leave it behind.”

In truth, it has not been used since we reached the Philippines. As, however, we are headed back to Vietnam and Laos, it remains essential. I say as much.

It is not a happy party that trudges down the beach.

I mentioned that I had taken my malaria tablet. I know, both from the literature and from previous experience, that taking doxycycline on an empty stomach is a VERY BAD IDEA. My stomach is empty. The boat is small. The motion of the sea is, well, all too conducive.

Surveying our youthful companions in the boat, I am overcome by a desire to maintain some sort of dignity by holding back the vomit until we are, at least, moving forward, rather than simply up and down, and side to side, and up and down, and side to side…

A series of doxycycline gags and belches issue forth, followed by a preliminary doxy-yellow gush onto the white outrigger. I feel every bit as appealing as I sound.

We set off. Z, who, like the Martini advert, can sleep anytime, anyplace, anywhere (apart from in a bed, at bedtime), leans back in his lifejacket and nods off. I adopt a marginally less neck-achey vomiting position (face down over the prow), until the doxycycline has worked its extra-special magic on my innards.

It is a quite phenomenally wet journey, with notably more power in its shower than the bathroom in our hut, enlivened only by gangs of kamikaze butterflies and a close shave with a jagged promontory. Personally, I would have steered round the outside of the fish farm rather than cutting in between that and the rocks, but I guess they know the tides, or something.

Anyway, we are here. And, one of the benefits of being last on, our bags are dry. And, finally, our laundry.

There are, of course, no boats to El Nido for the foreseeable future. In fact, the whole west coast has an end-of-season feel about it, which is rather charming, except when one is trying to move around it.

I am assured, however, that the road journey from here takes only a little more time than the boat trip. It is also cheaper by a factor of ten. We are forty kilometres down, sixty kilometres to go. Wish us luck as we embark on day two of our fantastic voyage!

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2 Responses to “Maritime Woes”

  1. jessiev at 9:02 pm #

    THOSE are for sure woes. hope that you can find good food – and some peace – in this crazy travel thing that is going on! yikes!

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