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As much as Ben and I say we don’t like to fast travel, we often find ourselves too excited to stay in one place for long. Our initial plan when arranging this crazy trip was to settle in each spot for a month or so. A month would give us time to learn the local culture, feel at home a bit, make friends, develop a routine, and find a steady babysitter/ friends/ school for Whit. Well, that’s happened exactly four times in the past year. Four!
Yet again we find ourselves moving every 3 days (at best), when a month ago our plan was to stay put for 3-4 weeks. Let’s recap:
Since we left New Zealand we spent 4 days on Bali’s north coast, 3 days flying back and forth to Komodo National Park on other Indonesian islands, then back to Bali for 3 days in Ubud. We then went to the Philippines and spent 3 days in Puerto Princesa, 1 day in Sabang for the Underground River, 3 days in El Nido, 3 days in Coron, and now back to El Nido for one night before driving to Puerto Princesa for 2 days on our way to the island of Cebu. We originally planned to stay on Cebu for around a month, but it’s been cut down to 16 days and, possibly, just one week so we can do more Philippine island hopping.
We’ve realized two important things in the past couple of weeks: we are ready to admit that we actually do enjoy fast traveling and that it’s so much fun to see a ton of things on country has to offer. Also, we need to be spending more money.
That’s a silly thing to think, right? Who leaves the United States for a life in Southeast Asia and complains they’re being too cheap? Well, we stayed at a miniscule, cheap hotel in Puerto Princesa and tensions were running high. Ben and I both had lots of work that had piled up and we were staying in the room to accomplish some of it while Whit spent two mornings with a local member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We would then go out for the afternoon and dinner before our tiny room had to suddenly fit three people.
It was really frustrating, but sometimes hard experiences are what help us draw important conclusions.
It’s taken me almost a year of saying, “It’s only for a couple of nights. It’s fine.” admit to Ben that these mini trips of terrible showers, lumpy beds, and no privacy are adding up and driving me crazy. We have had some amazing experiences, thankfully, but about half of the time we are crammed in low-end acommodations because I’m under the pretense that these countries are supposed to be cheap and we shouldn’t be spending as much as they want for a family room with two (large enough) beds.
So here we are, looking at absolutely beautiful AirBnBs to rent for our 1-2 weeks in Cebu, once we decide how long to actually stay there!
Cheap rooms aside, our stay in the Philippines has been pretty interesting. I don’t like to be negative, but I had pretty high expectations and, so far, they aren’t being met. We know lots of people who have visited or lived in Philippines, and we have heard stories of beautiful, undiscovered land they all can’t wait to eventually retire on. We’ve only just begun our trip, but we haven’t found those places yet. The “discovered” places haven’t been wonderful, and the “undiscovered” aren’t beautiful. Puerto Princesa didn’t have much to offer by way of attractions, and El Nido has become such an overnight tourist sensation that the area is chock full of hastily constructed bars, hostels, and overpriced restaurants.
Where we have found beauty and wonder in the Philippines is on the water. The popularity of El Nido, for example, stems from it’s bay. Tall karst islands dot the water around El Nido as they do in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, or Guilin, China. We were much happier once we actually left the dirty town of El Nido on a speedboat heading for some of the beautiful islands. Ben had booked some scuba dives to get his advanced open water diving certification, and Whit and I paid to tag along for snorkeling in the same spots. The water is the warmest we’ve ever been in, and probably the clearest. We loved being in the water, and the rock formations along the water’s edge of these karst islands was really interesting for Whit and I to explore!
Ben wanted to take a ferry to the neighboring island of Coron to exercise his new certification by exploring some of the best scuba diving in the world: 10 wrecked Japanese war ships from WWII. We spent a long ferry ride getting to Coron, had to find a hotel room last-minute when our AirBnB fell through, and were met with a slightly larger and less-developed version of the half-built tourist hub of El Nido once in the main town. Ben booked a scuba diving trip for the one full day we had on the island, but Whit and I wouldn’t be able to join: the ship wrecks are too far away in the opposite direction of any other nice snorkeling or island stops.
Whit and I booked an island-hopping tour, instead, and yesterday he and I separated from Ben at the harbor for our respective days of fun.
It felt strange to be doing something without Ben, but Whit and I had a pretty good time on our island hopping tour. We joined 10 other people on a long, wooden boat for five stops at different islands for swimming, hiking, snorkeling, lagoons, reefs, lakes, and more. The islands and stops were really beautiful and Whit just loved swimming. The water was the same temperature as the warm air around us, which made jumping in feel like our bodies were transitioning from walking to floating. Floating in that water reminded me of the sensory deprivation tank experience we had in Vancouver, where the air and water temperature is carefully matched to make the two elements feel seamless. Honestly, I’m started to choke up remembering laying on my back, buoyed by a life jacket, in that same-temperature water. It was such a delicious sensation.
So, about being buoyed by a life jacket. It was necessary. There have been 2 deaths and at least one hospitalization of tourists to some of these spots since 2017, so they have taken the precaution to require every visitor to wear a life preserver when visiting most of the swimming spots we went to. It wasn’t too hard to swim with a life jacket on, but the real frustration of them came from the fact that we arrived at each location to find around 100 other tourists there. Unfortunately, very beautiful locations are hard to recognize when your eye is drawn to tons of bobbing, bright orange blobs all around you. Hiking over a hill to get to a hidden lake, swimming underneath a narrow archway to access lagoons on either side of an island, and exploring a shallow ship wreck would have been at the top of my Incredible Things We’ve Done list, were it not for having to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other people, waiting our turn to actually do those things.
I hope most people are able to look past the noisy, smoking tourist aspect to appreciate a place for what it is, but I’m not. I just can’t enjoy a place as much when surrounded by other people. I wish I was different, but I accept this about myself and recognize that I’m probably not going to change.
Ben really loved his scuba dives, too. He was able to explore inside the ship wrecks-turned-reef homes more than any other wrecks he’s dived, and loved “walking” through the bunks and bathrooms.
He had his own negative encounter, though. Part of his advanced open water diving training was perfecting his ability to float in one position above the ocean floor. This allows a diver to stay still or move in a straight path without disturbing the marine life around them. His last wreck was full of divers from a packed diving tour who didn’t have the same respect for marine life and reefs or ability to stay off the ground. They would sit on the ship, disturbing the delicate reef ecosystem, until a buddy had taken enough video of them, then would kick around the ground, stirring up dirt and obscuring everyone else’s view.
As frustrating as I know that was for him, I have to admit it’s nice to talk about how much we both respect our planet and want to preserve it for future generations.
Today we head back to El Nido for the night and eventually fly from Palawan island to Cebu on Tuesday. I’m pretty excited to see another island! The Philippines is huge, and I know better than to judge the entire country based on the frustrating experiences we’ve had in Palawan.
Bring it on!