Reading, Writing, Walking
Friday, July 22, 2005
The Boat to El Nido
(Catalyn-C; Manila to El Nido: P800)

March 19, 2005, Saturday. 8:30pm, the boat Catalyn-C leaves pier 2 of Manila’s north harbor to begin its 28-hour journey to El Nido, Palawan. In a world of jet travel, there's something quaint about a 28-hour boat trip between islands. Slowness, it seems, has acquired a measure of metaphysical heft, a canonization of sorts, so much so that a simple slow inter-island boat becomes burdened with an abstract mission and turns into a vessel of dreams: a vehicle to deliver the 21st-century passenger to the island state of mind--a form of grace exemplified by the following twin principles: 1) What's the rush? and, 2) Why worry? Quaint, and frustrating to be sure. But also, and more importantly, cheap.

The fare from Manila to El Nido, about 400km in a straight line, is P800, including meals, plus complimentary water (plastic cups provided). The car-rental from Quezon City to the pier, about 10km, is P500 (and we didn't get even a single Chiclet). Go figure. Is life supposed to make sense? Yes, but Manila, no.

Catalyn-C: The name sounds lovely, but it begs the question of what fates may have befallen A and B? I heard a wooden-hulled boat sprung a leak a few years ago off northern Palawan and was scuttled? Might have it been an early Catalyn? What happened to the passengers? I make it a point not to know and just be glad that for P800 I could be in Palawan, a subject that many tourist brochure writers have exhausted their adjectives list and rampaged through Roget's sniffing out synonyms to "idyllic." The Catalyn-C is mostly wood—and not much else, though I ceased closer inspections for fear that I may find some flaw in its makeup that’ll make the next 28 hours one big Panic Attack, instead of what it is now—keenly balanced between a nuisance and Trouble--bothersome. Ignorance, if not exactly bliss, at least keeps Panic, that naughty devil, at bay.

I first saw the Catalyn-C a few days earlier when I bought the tickets at the north harbor. It wasn't easy: the ticket office had no sign, nor intention to announce itself; it was hemmed in by squatter houses, and by some force of assimilation had taken on the irksome qualities of the latter: haphazard construction; uneven materials; poor fits; cables strewn helter-skelter; absence of paint; presence of soot, dirt and grease. The burgeoning squatter houses seem intent in gobbling the hapless ticket office, and once it does, its whole mass is poised to hurl its malignant self on to the sea. "Fight little ticket office, fight!" I wanted to shout.

Looking for the ticket office, I had reached pier 2 where Negros Navigation holds office, but beyond that I could not see any that serviced Palawan. I asked the guards at Negros Nav where the El Nido-bound boats were, and I was directed to the very end of the pier, to San Nicolas Shipping, about 300 meters away. I started to walk, but a guard had a final instruction, delivered in a low voice, “Its too dangerous to walk there.” It was mid-morning (what could possibly happen?), nonetheless, I think it wise to heed the advice of a man with a shotgun so I got into a tricycle which vroomed through the seemingly-placid street and deposited me next to a gate manned by more heavily-armed guards. The tricycle charged me an incredible P60, but at least I’m unhurt (at the same time wondering what mysterious evil lay between Negros Nav and San Nicolas Shipping, that I had so narrowly escaped). The San Nicolas guards hurriedly ushered me in, where the ticket office was. The smell in this part of Manila Bay is amazing (even for a life-long pedestrian like me)--picture a rotting fruit, mix in exhaust and grease, the aroma of smoked fish and top it with a load from an open sewer.

My first thought at seeing the Catalyn-C: a mistake must have been made; an Edsa bus seems to be more watertight than the vessel I was looking at. It looks flat and slow (very slow), and its low and featureless bow, sagging transom and cheerless portholes bring to mind the lines of a coffin. If it’s possible for a boat to be flat-footed, here it was. It was like something out of a Vietnamese boat people documentary. Or a period movie about smugglers that ends badly. It conjured images of Conrad and dark brooding tales of grimy locales, of long agonizing up-river meanderings. The kind of boat that gets picked on and called names by the bullying boats in the playground. I had a mind to return the tickets, but with a sinking feeling I thought about the stratospheric plane fare. Lu-Ann would be disappointed. Plus, the man at the San Nicolas ticket office was nice to me. El Nido: It was either on this floating contraption or none at all. 28 hours. Beggars can’t be choosers: I hate—abhor—that old saw.

The Catalyn-C’s horn is like a small vehicle’s: phlegmatic; a bit shy; frazzled. The kind that is tooted, not blasted—the buses in Edsa sound more purposeful (enough about Edsa buses, you can’t go to Palawan in them!). Lu-Ann and I are assigned to, no—sentenced to serve time in—cots 44 and 46. Next to me is a middle-aged Australian named Daryl, a veteran backpacker; the sort that’s schlepped small packs up twisty alleys all over the world. I know this not because he says so but because he strikes me as a man who has no further need to prove himself; nothing fazes him. He says “excuse me,””pardon,” and doesn’t make ugly faces like some Caucasians when locals “violate” their “personal space.” And because he doesn’t have fancy gear; it seems to me that the more worldly a person is, the simpler his kit becomes. Daryl's pack is scuffed leather stained in places, the kind with old-fashioned buckles. A sensible bag for a person with sensible pursuits. No padding, no loud colors, no adjustable whatchamajigs, no loops, bells and whistles. Daryl says the Philippines is a beautiful place, a comment that initially struck me as odd considering that we just left north harbor. Slum Central. But after an hour of conversation, I was beginning to realize that he had a clear, firm picture of the Philippines and its standing in the community of nations. There are slums in almost every capital city in the world, nothing special, he shrugs his shoulders at their mention. He talks calmly of roving gangs of children in Brazil, who, like piranhas, surround beach-going foreigners, pick them clean, and casually leave laughing. That never happens in the Philippines (yet). He says the Philippines is blessed; no one dies of hunger in these islands. “I’ve been to drought-stricken places, compared to them, this place is paradise.” Talking to Daryl has a soothing quality that counteracts the deadening effect of odious Manila streets. “El Nido is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to,” he says, “the boats can get very crowded, but its nice here and safe, this (boat) is what the locals take. But my wife can’t bear it, she takes the plane every time.”

The boat is crowded, with folding cots spread out in the space between the permanent bunks. The floor space, down to the last inch-square, is covered by pieces of luggage; there is absolutely no room to step and walk around. People have to tiptoe on the edge of cots, sometimes stumbling onto people’s limbs too, to visit the loo. To save themselves the trouble, people just stay put on their cots.

The loo: one cubicle for each gender. Very clean. Squat-down affairs. By the stern. Beside the toilets' swing-doors is a large drum of salt water (and a handy plastic dipper) to wash the (your) effluvia straight into Jacques Cousteau's beloved sea-creatures, some of which, hopefully, can find a decent way to use human excreta. Those siphonophores maybe. Or those holothurians we hear so much about. I wonder if this violates some health-code? But who cares, this here is the island state of mind. No worries. The toilet is a hole on the floor that you straddle (very carefully). I peer into the dark churning water below; it is mesmerizing. I remember to clutch tightly at my wallet; my fear is that it’ll slide out of my pants, drop into the hole and bye-bye. A few steps from the toilets (2 small steps, to be exact) is the boat's kitchen where a hefty bald man is busy preparing the rice, and watching his assistants slice some cabbages. The kitchen is very clean.

Daryl is the picture of cool; he eats a banana and goes to sleep. Lu-Ann sleeps too, after reading cover to cover her Time and Fortune magazines. 27 hours to go. I wonder if a person can be trained to read so slowly so that a 50-page magazine can be made to last for 28 hours. We are on the top bunk and have to squat real low because there is no head-room as the ceiling is abominably low. I doubt if there still are Third World regimes that punish their criminals this way.

Earlier, at port, an alarmingly large vessel—I saw a steel hull—dock, and in doing so, scraped the starboard side of the Catalyn-C. The sickening scraping sound and the crack of the wood made me jump (and hit my head on the ceiling). A passenger yelped; uneasy murmurings arose. I had to ask Lu-Ann to take out my life vest from our bag—I’m using it as a pillow now. Lu-Ann is unperturbed. I ponder the tiny window and whether I should jump head-first, or feet-first, if the occasion calls for it. Feet-first, I decide. After Lu-Ann. Don’t forget the sandals. And the life vest. Should I don the vest first, then my sandals? Jeez. But it seems all is well; the Catalyn-C is intact, afloat. The incident is forgotten.

People are settling in for the night; lots of teenagers and young couples with babies. We’re supposed to get dinner but no sign of any yet. Earlier, Daryl said he saw some plates come up, but we hadn’t had any. Since there is no mess hall nor room to maneuver in, the deckhands and the chef's assistants have to individually hand over the plates to the cot-imprisoned passengers. This is accomplished in the same manner that jeepney fare is carefully handed over from passenger to passenger until it reaches the jeepney driver. I see a large water jug lashed to the top of the stairs—to get to it I have to step over three cots; I stay put and tell myself to ration my bottled water. On a wall is stencilled: “Strictly No Gambling. Keep Cleanlinness. Keep On Eye On U’re Belonging.”

We are now past the safety of Manila Bay; beyond the comfort of worries.

March 20, 2005, Sunday. 7:33am. Slept on and off. Cold and windy. Had to wake up and shift positions constantly as the cot is smaller than I am tall, plus my bags are also on the cot, as well as my sandals, water, toilet paper, magazines, bird guide, binoculars, life vest, notebook, pencils, pieces of bread, some oranges. Today looks to be a bright day. Woke at about 5 to feel the boat pitching about. Day’s beautiful with the sun in my face—I am facing Mindoro—we must be on the western coast. No birds seen except for a few swallows. They fed us with coffee, rice, a half slice of Spam and a hotdog, Very good. Scarfed everything to the last crumb. In good spirits. Saw small butterflies fluttering over the choppy waters, heading north. Daryl reading "Stupid White Men." Lu-Ann having another go at Time, probably looking for typos this time. Or thinking of ways to improve the captions.

Noontime, we are fed with a piece of breaded chicken and rice. Lu-Ann and I fall on our plates like a pair of ravening wolves. Yummy. Dinner is vegetables. So this is how prisoners feel. Or pets without exercise. In my notebook, I notice that instead of “Catalyn-C,” I had written “Catalysm.” I catch myself chuckling (what a nerd!), I look around and see the young father in the bunk under Daryl eyeing me warily. What a nerd, he must’ve thought. Lu-Ann pointed at some dark shapes low over the water. Shearwaters? Too far to be certain. We are now in the South China Sea. I hear that we'll be arriving late. Something like 32 hours. But no worries. What's another few more hours, eh? We have ceased to be Metro Manilans: 28 hours mean the same as 32, and why not add more? We are starting to become islanders: we comb our hair, massage our feet, hum softly to ourselves.

Micron by micron, time oozes on. Faust's wild horses are now microscopic, lackadaisical slugs. My diary is blank in these few last hours onboard. Maybe I drifted in and out of sleep, maybe I daydreamed. Or composed lists: what not to bring onboard next time: 1) Fortune magazine, 2) heavy extra batteries; what to bring next time, 1) Stephen Hawking, 2) the King James Bible, 3) Cesar Ruiz Aquino, 4) de Ungria, 5) Alfred Russel Wallace; what music to listen onboard, 1) Eliades Ochoa, 2) Yoyoy Villame, 3) Massive Attack, 4) Groove Armada, etc. I wish I could say that I used the time wisely; that I finally memorized the Periodic Table of Elements or the Beaufort Scale; that I disproved Wiles' proof of Fermat's Last Theorem; that I finally got around to comprehending Stephen Hawking's answer to that maddening question: Why does Time move forward and not backward?; that I saw a noctilucent cloud; that a hoopoe descended from heaven and whispered in my ear the Ultimate Secret. But nothing of the sort happened, of course. What happened, as always, was that time pressed on.

March 21, 2005. Monday. At 3:30am, we arrive in El Nido. Pitch-dark. I am told the town's electricity is turned on only between 6am and 12 midnight--that should take care of the karaoke fiends. 4am and the passengers are still on board; a few brushing their hair, humming softly. No waves, a light breeze. Coming into the bay, helmsman tooted his slurry horn. A few horns tooted back in the dark. 4:10am, still no movement from the passengers despite the gangplank being down and ready. Have we become so attached to Catalyn-C we subconsciously didn't want to leave it? Have bonds been formed? But never mind Freud, everyone’s just waiting for the sun.

At first light, we manage to unglue ourselves from our cots, leave the Catalyn-C and tentatively search for the resort. We found Rico's within 15 minutes. Hot water. Shower. Bananas. The air is 30.4 degrees says the gizmo on my watch. Feels much cooler. A motorbike-riding teenager zooms by—a dog perched over the gas tank, its front paws resting on the handlebars, its head held high, ears swept back, eyes squinting in the wind, tongue pink in the sun. The boy seems to be so pleased with this trick because he keeps going back and forth along the beach. Sea doesn’t quite feel right for snorkeling yet. Tomorrow for sure, maybe, maybe not, we'll see, not to worry.
>the island state of mind--a mode of living exemplified by the following twin principles: 1) What's the rush? and, 2) Why worry?

how about "Where's the hole?"
hehe. My brother had to dig a hole on an island once. :P
hey mads. i think this is a pretty interesting essay... it's like the trip itself had more adventure than the destination. nice approach. :) you've also turned an otherwise unpleasant experience into a humurous and .. enticing (?) one. to be honest, i don't mind going on "no frills" trips out of manila-makes the experience more memorable with all the unexpected twists and turns and booboos one encounters. but the horrors of buying the ticket already made me think twice about taking this manner of transport! however, it brought me to the point of curiosity and even envy to get on the next trip out to sea! conflicting...wala bang ibang bilihan ng ticket? hehehe... i've been to that place na kasi and i was also warned several times to be extra cautious.
hi franz:
you can call San Nicolas for their trip skeds and reserve tickets. but you'd have to go to pier 2 to get them. they dont have ticket outlets (as of May 2005). if you have a car its actually v easy and safe since you can park inside the gate (with the guards) when you get your tickets.
San Nicolas 09189403600. I forgot the name of the man who owns the phone, but he's the supervisor of the ticket office (I think)
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