Recovering from El Nido

Pat was sick. She was in bed, bleary-eyed and feverish, close to tears due to a general feeling of crappiness and helplessness. “I can’t go out today,” she said on our third day in the island. “I’m just going to stay in the hostel.” She did just that, while Monica and I ventured out into the unforgiving heat in a coastal town at the north end of Palawan.

She was sick in the most beautiful island in the Philippines (as people had proudly claimed) and there wasn’t anything we could do about it. We felt guilty leaving her for that day, but we had some work to do, and our friend would just get sicker if we forced her to tag along. In calm, motherly tones, we advised her to drink fluids, relax, pace herself. But if there was anyone among the three of us who knew more about health and the limits of the human body, it was Pat – the hapless soon-to-be doctor on a vacation gone awry.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning.

There are things you expect from much-talked-about-places like El Nido – spectacular sunsets, crystal clear waters, towering lime stone cliffs, endless blue skies. You picture them in your head even before flying out of the traffic-ridden, God forsaken city. Already you can feel the wind whipping at your hair, the sunlight hitting the tips of gently lapping waves, and the heat pulsating from the sand of  beaches as you head down from the airplane and survey your surroundings.

I was not immune to such thoughts, to lazy daydreams about lying down on one of the white-sand beaches. When two of my best friends from high school and I picked El Nido as our summer destination, we were excited; both of them had already been to the island before, yet they swore that we would all have one hell of a time. It will be just like old times! Another trip for the books! Bros forever! (We’ve called each other bros since college, for some reason; usually there were four of us, but Danica was unavailable at the time as she had a scheduled trip to the U.K.).

The three of us had been planning a trip for the end of May to celebrate Pat’s graduation from medical school. It was also a last-hurrah kind of thing as she was getting ready for a grueling year of hospital internships. She was not my first close friend to do this; my long-time best friend, Missy, also went through the bittersweet experience, transitioning from being a med student (aka life under fluorescent lights, within the confines of sanitized walls) to becoming a full-fledged – but until the boards, unlicensed – doctor. We knew what this meant for Pat, and so we booked the flights to fall within that small window of free time that she had from grad until internship. Never mind that we had to buy at regular rates – we were going to El Nido.

What did I know about El Nido? Not much, admittedly. I had been to Coron and Puerto Princesa before, but not the world-renowned town much adored by tourists. Which often came as a shock to people. Family and friends told me that it was the most beautiful of the three destinations in Palawan. They told me it was paradise. Heaven on earth. A true Philippine gem. I absolutely had to go there, was what they practically yelled at me.

And so I did – we did, my best girlfriends and I, my heart brimming with excitement. I had often been advised against expecting too much; disappointment was sure to follow if you set your standards too high. But I was incautiously hopeful, and if somehow the sights or activities turned out to be lackluster, there was always the great company to fall back on. Mon and Pat could turn any boring situation into a hilarious experience. All funny encounters were then collated and told through over-the-top reenactments again and again. Once, after a trip to La Union and Baguio (our very first adventure together), we met up at a restaurant to write down on a sheet of yellow pad each and every moment  that had us laughing our heads off – me getting a full-body sunburn for the first time, Mon and Dans colliding while on their respective surfboards, the four of us getting intensely competitive over a game of Taboo, and the list went on. One of us still held onto that piece of paper for safe-keeping.

In terms of sights, El Nido did not disappoint. It was all there – the trike-stopping sunset painted in vivid pastels (caught from the middle of a highway), the hypnotic waters changing into every shade of blue, the magnificent limestone walls, and beach after beach of Palawan’s best sandy shores. El Nido was picture-perfect, exactly as was advertised, even better in person than in photos.

On our first day of touring, we laid eyes on the beaches, lagoons, and other usual stops: Matinloc shrine, Secret Beach, Hidden Beach, Star Beach, Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, and Helicopter Island. As was usually the case with ultra-famous destinations, the tourists were aplenty, but thanks to our resident travel agent aka Monica Copuyoc of Bookie PH, we were able to avoid the rush hour traffic by going counterflow.

The weather cooperated and the sky was a gaping sea of blue mimicking the one below. The sun, however, grew increasingly hotter as it reached its peak, and our first stroke of bad luck came to light: fresh water on the boat was scarce. This was when it started to go wrong. Pat started feeling unwell and dehydrated as we slipped between the tall limestone gates sheltering the Hidden Beach from unsuspecting eyes (thus, the ingenious name!). As the boatmen prepared our lunch, Pat took a nap. But we thought nothing of it because she jumped right back to life when the food was carried out on a wooden table to the beach. The three of us ate with gusto and felt the immense satisfaction that came with feasting on good food while being treated to scenic views. All seemed well.

Later, as we glided out of the cove, our boat’s engine sputtered and died. It took a while for the boatmen to figure out what was wrong. Still full from lunch, I lay on one of the benches and fell into deep slumber even as Mon and Pat belted out some tunes at the top of their lungs. It was a good 45 minutes before the boat finally lurched forward and carried us off to our remaining destinations. Pat was still alive and kicking for the rest of that afternoon, even canoeing with us in the lagoons. But that night she skipped dinner for some much-needed rest.

It was on Day 3 that Pat tapped out from the planned activities. We agreed that it was ideal for our sick friend to stay in bed since it would be a workday for both Mon and I. I had to take photos of hotels and resorts for the aforementioned travel agency, Bookie PH, owned by Monica and her boyfriend, Dijo. It wasn’t a bad thing to have to work on vacation, especially when the places were as interesting and the people as friendly as in El Nido. The only downside was the scorching heat, which we had to bear as we crossed the wide expanse of the shadeless Marimegmeg beach and climbed 100 steps up to The Birdhouse.

But really, with a stunning vantage point – a bird’s eye view of The Nest (clever, huh?) – and a specially prepared meal to boost, who was I to complain? Up in the trees, the wind was cool and the hostesses who received us were warm-hearted. Both originally from Manila, Karen and Maita shared with us the things they missed most about the city, including skin products, fast food delivery, and Potato Corner’s Giga fries. The roaming dogs accompanied us as we said goodbye and headed back down to solid ground. Even the animals were courteous.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Lio, Ayala’s newest eco-tourism estate, about 30 minutes away from town. After a tour of the area, we settled into one of the outdoor restobars, ordered some cocktails, a small plate of chicken wings (with equally small servings), and waited for sunset. The wait wasn’t long, but the bugs were persistent and I had to swat a few away every couple of seconds. This was something I found annoying in El Nido – the mosquitoes and sand mites kept coming at you, even after layers of insect repellant. I was warned beforehand because of my allergies and skin sensitivity (I once had to be hospitalized because of an insect bite); I came armed, but to my dismay, the bugs were immune. We couldn’t stand on the beach without being attacked by the dreaded mites, so we contented ourselves with a sunset view from the restobar.

Back at Spin hostel, we joined the weekly grill night and asked Pat how her day went. “The staff, they all know me already,” she said emphatically in Tagalog. “I’ve used all the amenities and gotten my money’s worth with this sickness!” Though ill, her humor was obviously still intact. We debated on what to do the next day – we had another scheduled boat tour and while cancellation was an option, we would be charged 50% of the full amount. In the end, we left it to chance. If Pat felt better the next day, then we’d push through with the tour – all three of us. If she was still sick…well, we didn’t really want to think about that possibility. Such was our optimism; we slept with hope in our hearts, praying for a miracle.

I woke up to a surprise. From the top bunk, I heard Mon saying, “She’s back!” and when I looked down there was Pat, on her feet and ready to go. I was doubtful about the speedy recovery, but who was I to question a miracle, an answered prayer? Pat was rearing to go, to leave her prison in the tropics and have a carefree adventure with her best friends. And so, our day began on a high note. New islands and beaches to conquer. More laughter, more sand, more sun.

More sun. Not a good idea, as it turned out. Though we had brought extra bottles of water, the heat was overwhelming, more so for our recovering friend. She stayed in the shade whenever we stepped onto an island or did not leave the boat at all. I imagined the condition she was in, how the heat and the illness made everything seem a little less beautiful, a little less charming. Don’t get me wrong, all the places we went to that day, from Papaya Beach to Pinagbuyutan Island to an unnamed sandbar to Snake Island and finally to Cadlao Lagoon (my favorite), were gorgeous. But sickness hijacks all senses, and nothing can dampen the mood like a headache and fever. (I should know, I got ill myself on the trip – but I’m getting ahead of myself again.)

Pat’s miraculous recovery turned out to be a mirage. By the end of the tour, she was back in bed, praying for the next day to arrive sooner.

The last dawn in El Nido. I awoke with a start. I had a sensation of pain and longing, such as I had not felt in a while. I lay for a while wondering if it was the aftermath of a strange dream, already slipping from my consciousness. But then I felt it. It came from my tummy – a roiling, rumbling pain punctuated by spasms. It was terrible. I was on the top bunk and I was afraid I would not make it to the bathroom in time.

I did. But my stomach hurt still. It had to be the water, something I drank from a restaurant or one of the boats. El Nido was starting to get a bad rap for its contaminated water. Either way, I was suffering from convulsions that left me gasping for air. It felt like I was being punched in the gut. On the way back to my bed, I stopped by Pat’s. She held a wet, rolled-up t-shirt to her forehead, an attempt to keep the fever down. With bloodshot eyes and a stupefied expression, she told me that she wanted to go home. I tried to comfort her as best as I could. I’ve been in the same situation many times before. In fact, it had happened so often that it was a joke among my friends. Bad genes, I told them. Allergies, asthma, stomach virus, headaches, skin problems – it’s expected that I get one or the other so I carry medicines for each.

But here was Pat, one of my closest and best friends from high school, suffering the illness I could have had. It was heartbreaking. The good news was that we were going home. The bad news? We had to travel six hours on the road to get to the airport in Puerto Princesa.

I dreaded the ride as much as Pat, my stomach being the way it was. With prayers and sleep, however, we all got through it in one piece. The flight back was uneventful. I was happy to be home, glad to claim sanctuary in a familiar and safe setting. The stomachache went away after a few days and Pat recovered from the fever (though she developed a worrying eye problem a few weeks later; the doctors told her it was from exposure to a stray cat and gave her the needed antibiotics). Mon, being immune to most sicknesses, returned unscathed – well, technically she was attacked by an army of sand mites at the last island we visited. But save for the large welts on her skin, she was fine.

El Nido was an experience – not the best, but it was certainly interesting. I could never view it the same way other people do, not after everything that happened, but that wasn’t the destination’s fault. On its own, it was lovely. A little too crowded at times, but undeniably world-class. There were moments when I wished we had the place all to ourselves. An impossible reality, but a feat easy enough to pull off on photographs. Looking at these images, one could very well imagine how an island has lured and continues to enamor a world that craves for such raw beauty. Could it be that the real fault of the town was that it had let in too many people? Why could it have not remained unspoiled, untouched, unblemished? Couldn’t it have resisted the onslaught of commercialism and modernity? But these are questions that I ask of any local destination, specifically ones whose beauty I wish had been preserved more carefully and wisely. And they are certainly loaded enough to require a full article – not this one – to breathe and get the answers they deserve. Perhaps for another time.

Last thoughts on El Nido? To vow that I shall return seems a cliché, while to say I would never go back sounds much too harsh and definitive. With the string of unfortunate events still fresh in my mind, the best I can muster is a half-hearted shrug and a faint hope that I’ll be luckier the next time I find myself on its highly-touted shores.

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