Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A week in San Juan, La Union

The trip to San Juan was in interesting one. The El Nido airport is a 20 minute tricycle ride out from the town. It's a small airport with an open waiting area, but it's quite nice. And the flight over to Manila's domestic airport is beautiful, flying over dozens of pristine looking islands.

Upon landing in Manila the airline put us into a lounge, with pretty good food, while we waited for our bags to be unloaded. This was a nice touch that I've never seen elsewhere.

A cab ride over to the bus depot, and a short wait, and I was on the bus to San Juan. It's not very far to get there. Under 300 km. But Filipino traffic is terrible, and it take 7 or 8 hours to get there. I think you just have to put it out of your mind and focus on something else.

I wanted the proper surf vacation experience, so I'd booked a room in a dorm at a hostel called Flotsam & Jetsam. (They had other room options, including an RV, which I thought was pretty amazing.) I got to the hostel and was immediately taken in by the experience. They were wonderfully welcoming, and it was a super chilled-out place. I arrived on the Sunday, when they were wrapping up from the weekend. Apparently it's not a huge place for international tourists, and most of their business came from Filipinos from Manila coming up on the weekend, so it had emptied out and I had the place largely to myself. But the staff, the owners and friends were still around. That first evening a music session broke out, with one of the managers, a guy who owns a coffee shop down the street, and an American woman who is friends with the group playing folk music. It was pretty wonderful.

Flotsam & Jetsam was a great place to stay for the week. The rooms were pretty basic, but the beds were comfortable and the space was clean. The breakfasts were simple, but there was lots of good coffee and bread and fruit. They did a very nice job with the dinners. And their bar served good drinks at a very reasonable price. It's a few minutes to walk over to the primary beach, but not too far.  They have an adorable dog named Gus Gus. I'd recommend it for anyone going to San Juan.

The following day I had my first surf lesson. One of the team at F&J had set me up with an instructor named Chris. I won't go into depth about my lessons, other to say that I'm a pretty poor surfer. The first day was surfing in the whitewater, after the waves had broken. I did ok at that. The next day was heading out to the line-up and trying to catch waves properly. I wasn't hopeless, and I caught a few, but I wasn't good at all.

I suspect that have my challenge isn't in the surfing, but in getting to the surf. I'm not much of a swimmer. In my head swimming is an exercise to prevent drowning. It isn't something that I enjoy at all. I sink. And so I find swimming pretty stressful. And the thing about surfing is that once you go down, you've got to battle your way out, heading out through the impact zone, with the waves trying to beat you up all the time. When you combine my stressiness around swimming with having to make my way out after each attempted ride, it's an exhausting situation. So while I enjoy the surfing, the work around it becomes pretty unpleasant, and it's not a good tradeoff.

On my third day there I called Chris to find out what time we were starting and he said the waves were just too big for us to give it a try. They had been a very good size the day before, so if he didn't think it was a good idea to go out I was happy to comply. I ended up having a nice relaxing day.

The next day unfortunately the waves were just too big for a lesson again. I didn't feel like hanging out again, so I broke out the guidebook, which said that Vigan, about 140 km to the north, was a place not to be missed. I asked how long it would take to get there, and was told to take a tricylcle to San Fernando, just to the south, and then catch a bus from there up, which should be a couple of hours. This turned out to be some pretty poor advice for two reasons. One, you can just catch a bus in front of the hostel, you don't need to go to San Fernando. Two, the bus takes closer to four hours. Oh well, just another travel adventure.

To be honest, Vigan was a little disappointing. Yes, it has some of the last remaining colonial architecture left in the Philippines, after most classical buildings were destroyed in WWII, but it's terribly worn down. And there are really just a couple of streets of it. I think the highlight was being able to walk through one of the old mansions that's been opened as a museum, and check out the windows that were made from sea shells. Overall, Vigan wasn't a bad way to kill a day, when I couldn't surf, but I couldn't recommend it to someone as a place they needed to go.

On the positive side, I had delicious empanadas at a makeshift restaurant that seemed to be in a lot where a building had fallen down. The best meal under $2 that I've had in a long time.

I had one more day of surfing before I had to leave. The waves were still pretty big, but Chris was up for giving it another try. I was a better surfer that day and had some nice waves. Unfortunately, my swimming anxiety didn't improve much, so what should have been a great day was just OK. I love the idea of surfing, I love being in the waves, I love the beauty of the sport, but I guess I just have to accept that it's not really me.

The following day it was time to leave. I had to head over to Singapore in a couple of days, where I had a meeting to atttend. I stood on the road and caught a bus back to Manila. Every bus ride in the Philippines includes a TV playing usually pirated movies, with the volume blasting, but where even if you did want to watch the movie you still wouldn't be able to make out the dialogue. This bus was no different, and the bus took about 8 hours to cover the distance.

I stayed at a less than great hotel called the 88 Courtyard, whose restaurant was the Kenny Roger's Roasters chicken next door. Surprisingly not bad food. But not something you'd want to make a habit of.

Whenever I'd asked people what to do in Manila I'd always been told to go to malls. Not my favourite thing in the world to do, but I had a day to kill the following day, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I took a short cab ride down the street to the Mall of Asia. I had read that this was the biggest mall in Asia, so I expected great things. It was actually a little underwhelming. It was big, but not as massive as I'd expected. And other than the ice rink in the middle of the mall, which was pretty surprising, it didn't seem terribly special. I took a look through all the stores to find a jacket in my size that I could wear to the meetings in Singapore, but struck out. In the rare instances that I found something decent looking they would have small Filipino sizes or giant American sizes. Nothing that might fit a mid-sized Canadian.

I headed back to the hotel and used their small pool to cool down. For dinner I thought I'd walk down the street and through the market by the hotel. It turned out to be a bad idea when a child started accosting me and decided that the best way to get what she wanted from me was to repeatedly hit me as I walked down the street. I couldn't lose this kid. Every time that I thought I'd ditched her she'd reappear and start hitting me in the arm again. It was ridiculous. I gave up and went back to Roasters for dinner. After all, I had to be up early the next day to catch my flight to Singapore.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

El Nido for a few days.

I don't post often enough, because it sometimes feels like a burden. And it's my own damned fault, since I seem compelled to write exhaustive and exhausting diaries about everything that happened. Well, now I'm so far behind that I feel OK about summarizing and trying to catch up a bit.

So I left the Jungle Beach Resort and, after waiting for an hour plus, got my bus. It would have been great for Jürg to let me know when the bus was to come, but he had taken off, as had all the other staff who spoke English, so I just had to guess at it. It was a five hour ride north to El Nido. Long and a bit painful, but not too bad.

When I got to El Nido I checked in to the Our Melting Pot hostel. I'd decided to save a few bucks, and stay somewhere where I could meet some people. I hadn't gone all the way though and gotten a dorm room. They had a single room for me. It sounded good, with AC and all. But it wasn't. It was the smallest room I've ever seem a bed fit into. Less than a foot of space on the side of the single bed, and the room was at the front of the building on the ground floor, right on the street. So very noisy. Plus, the power goes out, as it does in all of El Nido, at 6:00am until 2:00pm, so the AC goes off and the room just heats up.

I had dinner at the place recommended by the hostel, which wasn't very good, and signed up for one of the four tours on offer the next day. Tour A.

The next day one of the staff from my hotel walked me over to where the tour started. On the way he was telling me about his mother, who married a Canadian guy who lives in Vernon, and she had located there. She wasn't happy there though. It was too cold. He was planning to join her though in BC. I gave him some advice and my e-mail address for when the time comes.

Tour A was a tour of a selection of grottos and beaches around El Nido. About 16 of us climbed on board. About 11 Filipinos, a woman from Hong Kong, and older English guy, two German girls and myself. They hooked us up with snorkel, mask and towel, and we took off. Half an hour later we arrived at our first lagoon, which was a "secret" and could only be found by swimming through a hole in some rocks. It was actually pretty cool.  We next went to the "large" lagoon, where we didn't swim, but we got some nice photos. Next was a lagoon where there was some great snorkelling with the fish. And then we stopped for lunch at a beach on an island. While the crew / tour guides cooked we explored the reefs around there. And then we tried to get to our last lagoon, but apparently the currents and waves were picking up so we went snorkeling in one more reef area.

It was a great tour, showing off the beauty of the El Nido area, and giving us a great chance to visit the reefs and commune with the fishes. I had originally been considering just staying in El Nido for the one day, but I decided then to book another trip the next day and see some more things.

We headed back to the town and cleaned up. I went to a terrific pizza place for dinner then tried to join the group from the hostel at the reggae bar on the beach. It was a great place, but it was a bit much after a long day and I left and returned to the hostel to read a book. Very civilized.

The next day I got up to go on Tour C, which I'd been told was also pretty terrific. Unfortunately, while I was eating breakfast I was informed that the tour had been cancelled. The ocean currents were too strong and the waves were too big for the boats to head out. I offered to switch to another tour, but it seemed that they were being cancelled too.

With none of the standard trips happening that day many of the people at the hostel didn't have plans. The number 1 thing to do in El Nido was to visit Nacpan beach, about a 30 minute tricycle ride out of town. So about 7 of us got together and headed out. The folks at the hostel said it should be about a 1000 peso ride, but the group decided to negotiate and got it down to 750 or so, and we headed off.

It had been raining a lot recently and the ride to Nacpan was insane. It wasn't 30 minutes. It was more like an hour, with the driver having to battle massive mud ponds and deeply rutted roads. I was sure we were going to have to get out and push, but our driver knew what he was doing. Others weren't as lucky.

When we got to the beach, to be honest, it was just OK. Certainly not deserving of #1 billing. There were a couple of restaurants serving local food, but they did a very poor job of it. The beach was nice, but not spectacular. The only really great thing was the water was warm and the waves were big, so we had a good day playing.

After a few hours we all headed back to the town, another painful drive through the mud and pothole filled road. I grabbed a forgetable dinner, and read my book. I wanted to get in early, so that I could be ready for the next days long trip to San Juan, La Union on Luzon.  I was planning to go to learn to surf.