El Nido. December 2017
I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of rain pounding the roof and gutters. I had been sleeping in the attic bedroom of a friend’s home in Manila. In disbelief, I walked out into the balcony to witness this unfortunate turn in the weather (Funny, how just a day before I was out enjoying a beautiful sunny day with friends). It seemed that the errant typhoon had finally arrived, threatening our trip to El Nido once again.
I had gone through the same feeling of disbelief a year ago when our much-anticipated trip to the islands of El Nido was cancelled due to an unlikely typhoon in the middle of December. Grudgingly, my friend Tony and I had agreed to postpone the trip for the following year.
And so, there I was in Manila, almost exactly a year later, in the middle of another typhoon and attempting once again to set foot in El Nido, a cluster of limestone islands off the Philippine island of Palawan in the South China Sea. Growing up in the Philippines at a time when travel was not so common, I had only admired El Nido vicariously through pictures and stories and knew of it as a place that is breathtaking but very remote. But the modern world has its way of making the unreachable closer and El Nido has now become one of the most sought-after destinations in the world.
Luckily, the rain and winds subsided that same day and flights from Manila to El Nido were reinstated for the following morning. We booked the first morning flight out of Manila, relieved that our El Nido jaunt will finally push through.
It was still dark when a local taxi picked us up the next morning. The notorious Manila traffic was still sparse and we were in the domestic airport in 30 minutes. We boarded a 48-seater Airswift plane and arrived in El Nido’s new and immaculate airport in a little over an hour. A 20-minute shuttle bus ride took us to the port of the main town where a motorized banca (small boat with outriggers) was awaiting us for a 40-minute ride to Lagen Island, our final destination.
The sea was rough as expected; we were still caught at the tail end of the typhoon. The banca held steady and on course even as large waves bashed and pummeled it. I looked ahead and was able to make out the faint silhouettes of the islands ahead of us.
Many tourists had cancelled their El Nido reservations that day due to the storm, so we received an upgrade from a regular room to our very own ‘water cottage’ on the beach. It was around midday when we excitedly settled into our cottage. We had a room with a view! Our stilted home was in a quiet cove, although I could see large waves crashing into the breakwater in the distance.
I ventured out to take pictures that afternoon and even in the safety of the island, I could feel the turbulence of the waters. By the dock, I was caught off-guard by one particularly nasty wave, which totally drenched me, as I took a direct hit while protecting my camera from getting wet. The sky was gray, the wind grumbling, and the waves ominous as I looked out from the dock to the sea. I could only hope that the sea would be tamer the next day.
It was still dark when I woke up the next morning. From afar, I could visualize specks of white in a sea of black as waves smashed into the breakwater, while gentler ripples flowed onto the shore. But the wind was more mellow and the air, less heavy. The storm has departed, I thought. At daybreak, the scene unfolded like something out of a watercolor painting. A lone banca rested on the cove surrounded by brushstrokes of pinkish orange clouds and waters of olive green and jade.
I thought about how lucky we were to witness the beauty of this cove at various times of the day, how the light captured it in its different moods, how the tide ebbed into the sea every morning and how the sea flowed back late in the day.
We would set out to sea in motorized bancas for the next few days, as the sea introduced El Nido’s secrets to us. Raw and unfiltered, it methodically went by with its business every single day. It revealed to us quiet lagoons and haunting caves and just as suddenly hid them away.
It unveiled pristine beaches where we frolicked momentarily, before obliterating our footprints, leaving us with just our memories to hold on to.
It revealed a sand bar that connected a distant island to the mainland, and for a brief interlude, allowed us the illusion of running on water.
In the masterpiece that is El Nido, we are all just bit players to the sea that is its star.
Through ebbs and flows, each day starts anew. And it would seem that everything comes full circle and that all remain the same. But look closely and look within, for things have changed and are changing, just like the limestone cliffs and the hidden caves that are continually etched by the waves and the wind.
On our third day, I took a kayak out on a quiet cove and at some distance away from shore, I set the oars aside and laid back. The cove was serene and I could see palm trees under grayish skies in front of me. The ebb and flow of the waves lulled me to sleep for a few minutes (or it might have been just seconds). I woke up to the same scene of grayish skies and palm trees. But, somehow, the sky seemed a little less gray, even bluish, and the palm trees seemed lovelier and more inviting …
Oscar H. Purugganan is a developmental pediatrician living in New York City. He is also a travel writer and blogger, whose photo essays can be followed through his travel blog Wanders of OZ (www.wandersofoz.com).
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