There are so many things in life that I am blessed with, and one of these is to have a very good friend in Patrick McDonough, former Peace Corps Volunteer in Bontoc, Mountain Province, Philippines and currently of San Diego, California. It was in Bontoc where he met his wife, Marjorie, a resounding punctuation to his love of the place and its people. Marjorie’s sister, Beverly, happens to be my wife, and so, Patrick and I became part of the same extended family.
It so happened that last April, Patrick and Marjorie decided to come home to the Philippines. Part of their itinerary was a visit to Palawan, and Patrick wanted us to go with them. Hesitant to add to my growing debt of gratitude, I initially declined Patrick’s magnanimity. I had to give in, however, when he pointed out that all he needed me for was as a drinking buddy and for inane conversation, two things that I am really good at.
Palawan did not have a choice. It was either I joined them or the trip would have been called off.
Our destination was El Nido, a scenic place that boasts of prime snorkeling sites and postcard tropical scenery. We certainly were not disappointed, as we took hundreds of pictures of the beautiful white sand beaches all over the place and the wondrous sunsets at each end of the day.
We would have preferred to stay a beachfront hotel, but the first ones we inquired in were rather pricey, considering that we were such a large group. So we settled for a hotel about a hundred meters from the beach, a hotel still under construction, the Big Creek Mansion.
The hotel has a friendly staff, and it was they who helped us save on meals. For a large group, the cost of each meal was getting prohibitive, so we asked the hotel staff that since they were not yet serving meals other than breakfast, perhaps they could cook lunch and dinner for us for a minimal fee. They agreed, so then we had to go to the local market to buy the ingredients for many sumptous meals of seafood, grilled, boiled or saucy delicacies.
The market sold lots of fish, of so many kinds, including coral feeders that in one of our not-so-inane discussions, we wondered whether how much the corals and the reefs themselves were damaged just so we could get something to eat.
So he and I went to a beach a distance from the center of El Nido. To get to this beach, we had to walk about 300 meters from the road along a motorcycle trail, through endemic flora that piqued our interest, though we had to forgo this passion. We also passed through a grove of coconut trees, and we had the fortune of seeing a squirrel that the locals said fed on coconuts, puncturing the husk and shell with its long front teeth and sucking the soft meat and milk inside. We saw the squirrel jump from tree to tree, a phenomenon that added to our fascination.
On the beach, there were several resorts that offered room and board, at a more reasonable price than those of the beachfront hotels in the center of the town. Our company however opted not to transfer, ruing the hassle of packing and unpacking again, as well as having to lug our baggage to the new site.
Along this beach were several fishing boats, and for a nominal fee we rented a small outrigger so we could go fishing. The boat was really small, but we only learned that it was too small for two persons later when we were out at sea.
There was a small island nearby, and in the water between this small island and the main island of Palawan where we were, was shallow rocky bottom filled with coral formations, most of which were bereft of the tiny animals that once lived in them. It was heartening to see that some of these formations were still alive with corals, and the fishes that hid in the formations was a heartening sight, promising a nice fishing experience.
Indeed, a few casts of the line hooked some lapulapu, though we deemed the fish too small for dinner so we threw them back into the water. We planned to catch bigger ones so we rowed further out to sea, with the intention of going to the other side of the island.
As we were rowing, we saw several fish jumping out of the water, an indication that a predator was after them. Shortly thereafter, we saw a fish jumping and skimming over the surface of the water, followed by a barracuda jumping and skimming after it. The sight itself was exhilarating, and we would have been content with it, only there was a fishing pole with us, and we intended to use it.
Further out to sea, Patrick cast the line several times, getting no bite. We settled in for a long morning, casting our makeshift anchor and repeatedly casting the line. Finally, a bite. When Patrick reeled it in, it was a barracuda a little over two feet long. Patrick said that we were lucky that the fish did not bite through the line.
Anyway we were reveling in the catch, and Patrick was again casting the line. I was excitedly fidgeting around getting our camera and then trying to get a good angle for a picture. In the meantime we did not notice a motorized boat passing by, whose wake was just reaching our small boat. Because of the confluence of these circumstances we suddenly found ourselves in the water with the boat overturned and everything wet.
After righting the boat, Patrick snorkeled around looking for our gear. Luckily it was shallow water of about ten feet. While Patrick was swimming around, I bailed the water out of the boat. After everything was found, and the water in the boat back in the sea where it belonged, we tried to get back on the boat, but, for the second time, the boat flipped over.
After we went through the recovery process and bailing out again, we decided to go closer to the smaller island’s shore before we tried getting back on the boat. We did get back on the boat eventually, though the humor of the entire exercise was getting to us, as we were laughing all the while.
Needless to say, the barracuda got away, and we did not even have a picture to show for it. Later on, as we were relating the story to the company, we could not blame them if they thought it another fish story.
The experience was invigorating, and except for the camera and a cellphone that ceased to function, was a funny and happy one.
Afterwards I thanked Patrick for inviting me on the trip, and for giving me one of the best days of the rest of my life.
It was the day that we scheduled for snorkeling, something that never before have I tried. Guides suggested that we go several of the small islands near El Nido, but we opted to go to just two of the best snorkeling sites, and we were not disappointed.
Going to the islands provided us with stunning vistas of the sea and the main island, as well as the islands we passed by.
The two snorkeling sites were indeed prime spots, giving us the opportunity to see so many varieties of fish and corals and other marine life concentrated in a small area. It was unfortunate that we did not have an underwater camera with us so we could have taken pictures. Despite the lack of photographic record of the underwater experience, we enjoyed every minute of snorkeling, tirelessly floating and swimming around as we basked in the majesty of nature.
We had our lunch on what the locals named Helicopter Island, named so because it looked like a Huey without rotors from afar. It also boasts of prime snorkeling, with the fish found just a few meters from the shore.
Indeed the whole experience of Palawan, the beaches, the marine life, the people, the land, and the company will always count as memorable. Despite Patrick’s being embarrassed with my eternal gratitude, I thank him and Marjorie for it.