Cargo Boats and Commandos

8 May

I’m a great fan of authenticity in travel. Travelling, where possible, as the locals do, which, given the wealth divide in the Philippines, means either with the driver(s) in the chauffeur’s seat(s), and the maid(s) and/or nanny(s) looking after the nippers, or (on our budget) by a spectacular range of public transportation.

Now, cargo boats are a mode of transport that are rapidly disappearing. Many of the big boats on the most popular worldwide routes now function as exclusive, floating hotels for baby boomers who still retain their 60s fantasies of tramp steamers, with a la carte dinners at the captain’s table, marble en suites, and the whole shebang.

So I was really excited to be taking a bona fide cargo boat from El Nido, Palawan, to Coron, in the Calamian Islands, which cluster a hundred miles or so north-east. So was the young master.

Well, he was until we boarded.

It would be fair to say that, for Z, there is such a thing as too much authenticity, and that that thing could be best expressed by reference to the good boat Josille.

At first acquaintance, soon after midnight, later than scheduled, but much earlier than expected, the M/V Josille looked positively inviting. White, blocky, airy windows lined its two-storey superstructure. The gaping voids in the floor into which ranks of dockers slid epic quantities of empty Coke and Sprite bottles were the real deal.

And then, of course, we boarded. As on other Filipino ferries, one enters via steerage, where conditions tend to serve as a useful corrective to any concerns about the alternative.

“MUM!” came a plaintive voice, as I absorbed the sloshing bilge tanks, the families doggedly assembling sleeping platforms from plywood, two-by-four and hog feed sacks, and laying out bedding mats and pillows atop of them, “The man said there were bunks! Those aren’t bunks! And it STINKS of fish jerky.”

“Don’t worry, darling,” I said. “This is steerage, remember? There’ll be bunks upstairs.”

And so there were.

By bunks, I tend to understand the sort of thing you get on trains. You know. Nothing posh. Sheets optional. But, some sort of padding, and, generally, more than one tier.

Upstairs contained three lines of those narrow wood and canvas army cots which you see in 1950s movies about the First World War, packed so close that some were not completely unfurled.

“Those are NOT bunks,” says Z. “They have some with duvets and pillows, and ladders. I know they do! I saw them through the window… Or…” his face falls… “Maybe those were for the crew.”

“I think they probably were, sweetheart,” I say, struggling for a positive. “But at least the fish jerky smell’s gone, hasn’t it? And I think it’s really nice to be lying here directly under an open window out at sea.”

“This is a H-E-L-L-hole,” says Z. “Not a cargo boat.”

I nab two of the five visible lifejackets on our deck, announcing that they will make excellent pillows (and figuring that they will come in extremely handy should something dramatic happen while we sleep).

We assemble our possessions. I turn a sarong into a sheet sleeping bag for Z, encourage him into his pjs, exchange pleasantries with our neighbours and settle down for our six hour ride. The gentle rocking of the boat, coupled with the breeze through the windows above our heads, is genuinely very pleasant.

I awake with a start to an absolutely peachy sunrise, framed in the aperture behind me. Blearily, I marvel at the beauty of Coron, its wondrous light effects, what a fantastic view the cargo boat provides, how efficient it is to go to sleep somewhere and wake up in one’s destination, and how remarkably similar the offshore landscape is to the islands around El Nido.

“Quick, Z,” I say. “We’re here! Wake up!”

More crates of gently used fizzy pop bottles rattle down improvised ramps into the hold. I look at the islands again. I look at the pier, then down the beach. I can see our guesthouse on the shore. We are, six or seven hours after boarding, most definitely still in El Nido.

I sleep most of the journey. Z rereads most of the Artemis Fowl series with an air of strained forbearance. Having seen the cook in action at a table conveniently adjoining the vessel’s two — surprisingly clean — toilets, neither of us are minded to partake of the complimentary in-boat meal.

We hit Coron, the port at Busuanga island, at 3pm, eight hours behind schedule. And, my god, when limestone karst meets coral-strewn sea, the results are stunning.

On the downside, accommodation on Coron ain’t, in general, cheap. I finally secure a nipa hut at a residence Fred, our dive instructor, will instantly recognise from my description, “The place round the corner that the crazy man runs.”

In a country where the standard of beauty and charm is as high as the Philippines – and I really can’t emphasise enough how lovely, in body and in spirit, most of the people we meet are — our host’s dentition is as remarkable as his manner.

Sparse and yellowed, yet somehow also crowded, his teeth sprout and straggle with all the vigour of the whiskers spiralling from the moles in his face.

He capers up to me, clad in nylon shorts and rubber sandals, rubbing his hands Gollum style. “Hahahaha!” he says. “Just you and the baby? No husband?”

Z makes his “I am not a baby” face.

“No,” I say. “His father is in London now, but we are meeting him soon, in Vietnam.”

“How old are you?” he says.

“Thirty-six,” I say.

“Hahahaha!” he says. “You look maybe fifteen. Me, I am twenty!!! We can get married! My name is Arigato. Japanese name. But I am Filipino. Hahahaha!” he exclaims.

A gang of moustachioed gentlemen with a raffish, not to say bandido air, are drinking rice spirit outside one of the neighbouring rooms. We exchange greetings.

Our host segues into a sales pitch for a boat trip around the islands. “Not right now,” I say. “We will be diving.”

“On the wrecks?” he asks.

One of the reasons we are here is that US Helldiver pilots sank 12 Japanese supply ships in Coron Bay in 1944: two or three wrecks sit with decks at depths as low as 12-16m, all rich in coral and marine life, and there is even a wreck you can snorkel. It’s supposed to be one of the best wreck dive sites in Asia, if not the world.

I nod. “Hahahaha! You will meet a Japanese husband!” he says. “Japanese soldier husband! Dead Japanese soldier husband!” He cackles.

As one, Z and I beat a retreat to our boudoir.

“Mum,” Z says. “I don’t like it here. And the bathroom stinks.”

“I don’t like it either,” I say. “But I don’t want to traipse all the way round town when it’s almost sunset looking for an alternative. And we can’t afford the place where we had lunch. We’re here for the nature. We’ll just need to deal with the room.”

“There is absolutely no way I am showering in there,” Z says.

A little later, I pop out for a fag and become acquainted with our neighbours. “My brothers and I are here from El Nido,” explains the chap with the most luxuriant moustache, and a calm, yet amiable dignity.

His measured mildness of manner and respectful smile is very much reminiscent of Robert Duvall in The Godfather. Just trade in nylon vest, shorts and flipflops in place of a suit, and a bottle of local spirit for the attache case.

“Ah,” I say. “Are you on holiday?”

“No,” he says. “We are here for a week. Me and my brothers, are here to meet our other brothers.”

“Gosh!” I say. These chaps have “gangster” written all over them in every language under the sun, and there is nothing like a challenging social situation to draw out one’s inner Enid Blyton. “How many brothers do you have?”

The brothers confer. “They are my blood brothers,” he says. “We are Commandos. We are in the brotherhood. I call them my brothers because we are all brothers together.”

“Oh!” I say, brightly, in 1960s TV presenter English. “So you are in the army?”

“No, no,” he says. “We are Commandos. We are brothers in blood, the blood of the Tiger Head tattoo.”

“How interesting,” I say, my enunciation now far beyond regular TV of any era and into the realms of The Queen’s Speech. I accept a glass of rice spirit and admire a tattoo. “So what do Commandos do?”

“When there are problems in rural areas, we sort them out,” he says.

“Oh!” I say. “So you’re sort of like the police?”

“No, no,” he says. “Though police are sometimes Commandos. And many politicians are on our side.”

I establish, to my relief, that the organisation, of which I had never heard, spans a range of islands, not including Luzon, but has no specific religious or political affiliation.

“So what sort of problems do you deal with?” I ask. “Things like young people in trouble? Kids selling drugs?”

“Not exactly,” he says.

“Land disputes?” I suggest. “Problems between neighbours?”

“Maybe,” he says.

“And how do you help resolve them?” I ask.

“A kanga court,” he says.

“A kanga court?” I say.

“Yes. A kanga court. You get the people together. You agree a punishment. You deliver the punishment. It is finished.”

As a “really not in Kansas any more” moment, this sits quite high on my personal scale. On the plus side, I think I can safely say that we are unlikely to be robbed while these gentlemen remain in residence.

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6 Responses to “Cargo Boats and Commandos”

  1. Helen at 4:13 pm #

    It gets better and better! shame about the sanitation.

    • MummyT at 2:25 pm #

      Yes. Worst place we’ve stayed yet. Although the capering chap means well… We have set it as a benchmark for “never again”…

  2. jessiev at 8:51 pm #

    hoo boy. you meet the craziest people.

    • MummyT at 2:22 pm #

      No shit!!! Now, you see, in my youth I’d probably have wanted to visit a kanga court. As it was, I made my excuses and left. That’s maturity for you….

  3. Paolo Baluyot at 11:16 am #

    Awww! I feel sorry for Z. Restrooms in public places in the Philippines aren’t really that of a welcoming sight. Even I, a citizen, feels ashamed that we can’t at least offer a decent restroom/washroom for tourist. oh geez. But enjoy your remaining trips in my beloved country. 🙂

    • MummyT at 2:28 pm #

      Actually, Paolo, the average public loo here puts the average British public loo to shame. No graffiti. No junkies. No mess on the floor. The loos on the cargo boat were far, far cleaner than the equivalent on a UK ferry. Rather rough and ready. But the advantage of the mandip/tank system is that everyone simply sluices the floor when they’re done…

      He is one happy boy now I have discovered that the Coron-Manila cargo boat route is fully booked for the next fortnight, and we’ll be flying PAL like normal people…

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