We found paradise
30.09.2011 - 06.10.2011 29 °C
A year ago I wrote a blog titled 'My bad luck, very good, holiday'. We've just got back from another holiday that could also claim this title. If anyone ever thinks they have bad travel luck- I challenge them!! Maybe it's just our luck in National Holiday week (the first week of October).
We started the journey from our school in Shunde. Unfortunately there was no school bus running on a Wednesday night, so we decided to get a taxi into Guangzhou instead. Normally it takes about 40 minutes and costs 140 Yuan (maximum), however this time we decided that we'd put the taxi on a metre rather than negotiate a price. Of course, the driver thought he was really lucky to have two foreigners in the back of his metered cab, so instead of going the direct route to the city, we took quite a detour in order to get to a far out gas station... the meter, and the time, ticked away, until we were far above the maximum cost and time this trip should be!!!
We arrived in Kengkou metro station, and took the, surprisingly uneventful 40 minute metro over to the train station. The next train was scheduled to leave at 7:15. China is known for loading people on the train just minutes before it departs- so we thought nothing of it when 7:10 passed by without any movement from the staff. Then 7:30.... then 7:45.... and eventually 8 o'clock arrives and passes. Finally, an hour late, we depart on a different from normal train (as our train had broken down), and arrive in Hong Kong where we spend another hour going through the three metro changes that should really only take 20 minutes maximum because we were at the doors of the train when they were closing every single time! Making us wait 10 minutes until the next train.
Exhausted, we get a good night sleep- all ready to leave for our 11 AM flight the next morning.
8 AM comes around and we leave our hostel to walk down the street to catch the airport bus. We're old pro's at this, having done it so many times, so there were no worries. I point out the windy weather to Rog, and we're both surprised by the lack of traffic on the road considering it should be rush hour on a Thursday morning. Half an hour passes without our bus showing up- so we start to wonder where this regular bus could be. I ask a taxi that passes by where the bus is and my response is 'Don't you know- the city is shut down! the Typhoon is coming!' I say, 'Oh right, but we have a flight- how can we get to the airport? Can you drive us', his reply 'No way! You couldn't pay me $5000 to drive you out there today! Way too dangerous' (If you've never been to Hong Kong- there are lots of suspended bridges in between the main island and where the airport is). Oh Great!!!
So we managed to flag down the next taxi to drive us to a train station so we could attempt to get the train to the airport instead. What should have been a 20 HKD trip cost us 100 HKD because the taxi's were refusing to drive anywhere on meter, and they were also being smart because noone was on the road and they knew they could massive increase the price! but we had no choice... we couldn't miss our flight!!
We arrive at the train station, where they conveniently have airport check-in desks. The lady at the desks informs us that our plane hasn't even left Manila, Philippines yet, despite the fact it's meant to be taking off from Hong Kong in an hour. Unfortunately this meant there was no way we'd make our connecting flight, so she kindly booked us onto the flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa the next morning. Knowing that we wouldn't be leaving for a while, we had a nice coffee in Starbucks before we decided to depart for the airport on the train.
Getting to the airport, they miraculously had moved our flight to 1:30PM- meaning we should have just enough time to catch our 4PM connection flight in Manila. So we inquire about our flight that had been changed to the next morning, and the man behind the counter tells us that although we will be in time for our connection flight, we won't actually be getting that flight. 'Why?' we ask, very confused at this point. 'Haven't you heard, AirPhilippines staff are all on strike. It's the third day. there are two more days.'
Of course they are.
We board the plane, thinking we'd be taking off in time for our connection, but we sat on the runway for an hour waiting to be cleared. Honestly, I was more than happy to spend another night in Hong Kong if it didn't mean we'd be taking off in the middle of a typhoon (I kid you not- if you saw BBC headlines for this day, it was 'Hong Kong shut down in typhoon'). But, being here, that doesn't mean they'd cancel any flights. They were getting as many flights out as possible. For the hour sitting on the runway, our plane was being thrown side to side in the wind. And this is on the ground!! Finally, we get the clearance for take off and oooooh was that a take off. If you didn't have a fear of flying before, I'm sure you would have after this flight. More than once it felt as though the plane was just dropping from the sky. And of course it would! WE WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF A TYPHOON!!
After a sweaty palmed flight, we land in Manila, where we see the after effects from the typhoon that had passed through days before. This airport was not at all equipped for any sort of international flights, and we manged to be the first to arrive at a 'connections' desk with 3 ladies, in normal clothes, sat behind. One lady immediately starts to try and figure out our travel (at this point, every flight out of the airport with AirPhillippines had been cancelled). An hour later, and we are still there... with a very large queue of people behind us who are one by one giving up and just leaving the airport. Miraculously, 1 1/2 hours later they present Roger and I, and another German man, with coupons for a hotel and dinner for the night, and tell us that we'd be on a 8AM flight the next morning. When we inquired about whether we really would be on this flight, or another day's flights will be cancelled due to the strike, we never got a clear answer. We were expecting to spend our week long tropical holiday in the typhoon hit, disaster zone, that is Manila.
Flooded Manila, from above
As frustrated as we were at our travels, we cannot complain about the accomodation we were given. On our way in the cab, our German cab-mate, who is familiar with Manila, tells us that this hotel hit the history books 4 years ago when there was a coup in the Philippines and the rebel group raided the hotel with armoured trucks, driving them through the glass windows. Today, the leader of this rebel group is a senator in the Philippines. We pull up to the hotel, and have our private car completely bomb checked by two security men, followed by a dog. And before we are allowed inside we are patted down, and go through other various security measures, including more dogs. At this point I wasn't sure what to expect! But my jaw dropped when we entered the open reception hall with a string quartet there to welcome us, palm trees and elaborate stair cases. Have you heard of the Peninsula Hotels? If you haven't... check out their website. http://www.peninsula.com/Manila/en/default.aspx . It was the poshest hotel I've ever stayed in! And the beds were amazingly soft after our year long stay in China where beds are, quite literally, planks of wood. The dinner was just as breath taking.
All in all, I think I deffinately could've stayed longer but we were up before dawn to make our flight. Enroute to the airport the driver kept getting updates as to where our flight might possibly take off from (apparently there are more than 2 airports in Manila...). Our route was also changed due to police presence and safety warnings at some points on the road (I think due to the strikes?). Finally, we made it, and this leg of the journey was surprisingly uneventful!!
Landing after the hour long flight to Puerto Princesa, Palawan, we walked off the plane to a tiny little airport surrounded by palm trees. As we had our diving course scheduled to start the next day, we needed to get to El Nido that day! We were told that transportation doesn't leave for El Nido past 9AM, but we were very lucky to find a shared bus leaving at 11AM. That was after we were incredibly ripped off- paying 300 Peso for what should have cost us 40 Peso. Warning out there to anyone going to Puerto Princesa!!! We think of ourselves as being really travel smart, but it goes to show that if you're a little tired or off your guard and not paying absolute attention after a long journey, it's really easily done.
So we board our minivan, and happily set out on our 7 hour journey. Finally, we are on the last leg of our journey!
And then we go round a corner and POP... our back tyre blows out.
Half an hour later, we are on the road, again, and enjoy a very scenic drive up north through untouched nature and the occasional village which reminds me of images you'd see in a national geographic magazine. Eventually we pull to a stop in the 'Fort Wally' bus terminal, El Nido, where we catch a tricycle to our accomodation.
Looking around at this point, we realise the journey, however unlucky it was, was 100% worth it. Our accomodation is right on the beach front over looking a bay that is reminds me of Halong Bay in Vietnam, but with much more inviting clear-aqua waters and pristine white sand beaches.
The view from our bedroom window, and our room (behind Roger)
We started our PADI open water dive course the next day, where we watched 5 hours of videos, following 2 inch thick book. After taking our theory test (and passing with only one mistake!) we were free the next day to start our diving. Our first dive was in a sheltered lagoon, aptly named 'Small Lagoon', where cliffs dropped into the crystal clear sea, with a small gap in the cliffs with a small, white sand beach and a little beach hut. No other civilisation in sight. It was paradise!!
If you don't know already- I have quite a fear of open water. Actually any water. I'm really not a swimmer at all, although I can if I have to. But never ever have I jumped into water from a boat that isn't right next to the beach! But with my scuba gear on, and everyone else in the water I stood on the edge, held my mask and my BCD with one hand, and my weight belt with the other, and took a big step into the water. Looking back to the boat I put my hand on my head, making a 'O' with my hand, signalling to the boat that I am 'OK'. Then, our dive master, Windal, showed us how to deflate our BCD jacked and exhale so we sink to the bottom. At this point it's only 5 metres deep, and the water was clear, so no problemo. Although we were meant to stay on our knees on the sand at the bottom so Windal can show us some exercises but I think my rear-end is far too buoyant to do this as I could not stop myself from tipping forward. Windal makes it look easy!!
After some exercises we head off, following Windal along the luminous green/blue/purple/red coral, with tons of fish. I don't think a 'boring'' looking fish even exists in these waters! My favourite part of this dive was seeing a 6 inch brightly coloured puffer fish, with a face that looked like a puppy, aswell in some coral. Windal kept tickling him under his chin and the puffer fish only smiled, eyes still closed, fast aswell. Soo cute!
One of our dive sites. The sights are just as amazing above water as below
Our next dive was more of a struggle as we went into open waters and had some pretty strong current. But the coral is still just as stunning. Sadly, our last dive of the day had to be cancelled due to worsening weather conditions. The journey back, which should only have taken 15 minutes, took us 45. The ocean here, which normally is as flat as a sheet of glass, was instead covered with 10 foot rolling waves. All the crew members were not hiding how concerned they were. Especially after a loud crack came from the mast... we thought we'd be swimming ashore! When the captain rounded the corner to the sheltered bay of El Nido, he immediately stopped the engine and pulled out a cigarette. We forgot to warn the crew that Roger and I have the worst travel luck in the world!!
Did I mention that typhoon number two was coming at this point? As if we hadn't had enough bad luck already!!!
Every day, we'd stop after our second dive and go ashore to one of the secluded white sand beaches that are hidden under the cliffs in the various islands of the Bacuit Archipelago, off the coast of El Nido, where we were diving, to have a lunch of bananas, rice, vegetables and salad (and fish and meat for those non-vegetarians). Especially after diving in currants and surges, with rough waves at the surface, you feel really hungry. No wonder our dive instructors all told us how they lost tons of weight when they started diving! We originally only signed up for a 3 day course, but we were hoping for better weather and we both found a new passion for diving, so we opted for a third day diving. Luckily on our last day, the rain had stopped, and although it was cloudly, it was all around much nicer conditions. I was also so happy because we saw two turtles! And I braved 'North Rock'.
North Rock is a famous diving site, just on the edge of the archipelago and the open ocean, where black and white tip reef sharks are common. We pulled up to the rock, with choppy waters and they announced our group were going in first. Inevitably, as I'm the only girl diving alongside Roger, our dive master, and the occasional other person who joins in with us, I'm always the first one in the water. This dive, I made sure that I would not be! The visibility here for the first 5 metres was pretty bad as well, but once we descended to 15 metres it cleared up a lot more. I couldn't get the soundtrack 'dun dun, dun dun, dun dun dun dun' of Jaws out of my head. We saw a turtle, but after 45 minutes in the water, no shark!! Maybe they saw us, but apparently they are very skiddish and swim off quickly. Oh well no sharks this time!
The dive before this, at Helicopter Island, there were lots of 'shark sucker fish' around. Apparently this means there are sharks nearby. I didn't know that until I was out of the water, though. Phew!
After a long day diving, we'd hang out here with drinks and good food
Go away typhoon! + Pina Coladas by the beach
Our dive boat and tanks
Beaches where we'd stop to have lunch
Our last day of diving, and after I saw my first turtle! and Andy trying to balance the boat
El Nido, from the boat, and after our last day of diving
Here are some photos from our diving:
Blue spotted stingray + clown fish
Two crocodile fish
a lion fish
The camera we had was not equipped at all for the underwater colours, but the fish were amazing! Here are some photos (not taken by me, but from www.oceanlight.com), that we saw on our dives
Back in Hong Kong in our favourite Vietnamese restaurant