Shanghai is one of the most intense places I have ever been to. It’s a city that 24 million people call home and, this was my home for 18 months. The pace is fast and unyielding and before you know it, the day is over, and you hardly had time to look up and see whether the sky had a tint of blue today. The thing about living at this pace, is that when you finally do have time to relax, you can’t seem to remember how to and it takes a while before you can sit back and simply… Be.
So when 2 of my friends and I decided that we wanted to go away for a couple of days, I knew we needed a place that was the exact opposite to Shanghai. After weeks of research and review reading, I suggested to Tim and Coco, that we go to the Philippines. Now, the main reasons why this country looked appealing to me, were the photo’s I’d seen and the price of the flight tickets (ridiculously cheap). I also did not want to go to a place that was overrun by tourist and the island of Palawan presented many opportunities to stay off the beaten track. We worked out a route and decided not to book any accommodation incase we wanted to go somewhere wikitravel was yet unaware of. Most people in the Philippines can speak English so winging it wouldn’t be a problem and, since all three of us had travelled in South East Asia, we knew what to watch out for, or so we thought…
Our first flight took us to Manilla where we had to catch a shuttle to another terminal which was pretty far from where we were. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no airport shuttles operating at 05:00 in the morning and so we had to get a van which cost us 600 pesos (R 150). We all knew we were getting ripped off, and the driver also knew that we knew, but, he also knew that we didn’t want to miss our next flight so, that was that. Luckily, this was the only time we had such an incident and from here on out it was all smooth sailing.
From Manilla, we flew to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, a place teeming with people and life! Our tuk-tuk ride to the bus terminal, took us through streets where lights hung from great big trees and people were selling every kind of fresh fruit you could possibly want to eat, and as it turned out, we had some time to kill before our bus left for Port Barton, the first place on our agenda, so we could spend some time in the local wet market.
For those of you who don’t know, a wet market, is a local market where you can buy fresh everything! Vegetables, fruit, pork, fish… Every kind of food, for cheap! We had a look at some king prawns for R 110 per kilo, not bad considering they were still swimming around in the ocean the previous evening. Our drive to Port Barton, would take about four hours though, so we left the prawns for another day and got onto the old WWii bus, now a bright lime green and sunny yellow.
We drove out of Puerto Princesa and into the lush green country side where palm leave huts were standing on stilts amongst beautiful rice paddies and lazy water buffalo were trying to escape the day’s heat by wallowing in the mud. The bus droned along and would stop here and there to pick someone up or drop them off, giving us time to stretch our legs and fill our lungs with fresh, clean air, a real treat for people who had been living in pollutions and smog. Everywhere I looked there was a photo. People and landscape and food. I had bought myself a 40 mm fixed lens a couple of days before we had come on the trip and had been dying to try it out.
I had never shot with a fixed lens before, always preferring the diversity of my 18- 135 mm, but this little beauty, gave my new inspiration. I sometimes feel like I get a bit lazy creatively, but with this fixed lens, I started seeing angles differently and the aperture of f2.8, made me fall in love with it. Technicality in photography is very important, but, sometimes you need a trip to an idyllic tropical country, to make you remember why you wanted to become a photographer in the first place. I never wanted to be the person producing images that others would look at and say “this photographer has got great technical skills”, my goal was to be the person who stirred up the viewer’s emotions in a way that made them want to know more about the subject matter of my image, and this is the gift that travel photography has given me.
Back on route to Port Barton, we turned off onto a very bumpy dirt road and after an hour or so of hopping along over rickety bridges and sharp turns, we finally found ourselves at our destination. The first thing we did was to throw down our backpacks, kick off our shoes and run into the ocean. The bay of Port Barton is lined with palm trees and the sellouts of many islands can be spotted all the way to the horizon. Standing on that white beach, I could not imagine ever leaving, this was true serenity.
We had a quick lunch and then set off in search of accommodation. This was done by walking along the beach. Yes, this was all we had to do since everyone approached us. We looked at a couple of places before deciding on a lodge at the edge of the bay. Our humble abode was 10 steps from the beach with a wooden deck draped with violet bougainvilleas and cost us about R 100 pppn. The owner is a Japanese guy who saw the place while travelling and decided that this is where he wanted to stay.
The soft lapping of water onto the beach woke us early the next morning, the perfect day to go island hopping. Our guide was a 24 year old Yum-Yum. He is a local fisherman’s son who, like many other fisherman in Port Barton, take the tourists out on island hopping expeditions. The first stop was at a reef teeming with fish and coral. The moment my ears were amerced under water, I could hear the life of the coral reef crackling through the water. This is where I knew that the next item in which I would invest for my photographic kit, is underwater housing for my camera. Parrot fish, clown fish, trigger fish, blue fish, red fish, big, small…the magnificent colours and abundance of life in this magical underwater garden overwhelmed all of us and we spent a couple of hours exploring the reef.
Yum-Yum had to drag us away eventually, promising us a fresh fish lunch. Fish that we were to catch. Luckily he had bought enough that morning from the market, otherwise we would have to have shared the only edible fish which Coco had caught… beginner’s luck!
Lunch was cooked over a fire on one of the islands. I never fully understood which island was German island or whether they were all called German island since the locals and the internet had differing opinions on this matter, but what’s in a name? The water was a clear translucent turquoise, the sky was a deep blue and the food was delicious! Our last stop of the day was at Coconut Garden, and as the name suggests, it’s pretty much an island with lots of Coconut trees. For 20 pesos (R5) the local guard will pick a massive coconut for you, filled to the brim with coconut water. Here we snorkelled again and this is where I had an altercation with a very territorial fish. The black and blue males all have little mounds and will challenge anyone who invades their private space, as I found out when one of them took a bite from my index finger and proceeded to stare at me while chewing. Most evenings it would rain but when the clouds cleared up, a starlit sky would be revealed bringing each day in this isolated paradise to a perfect end.
The next day was a bit wet though so Yum-Yum took us on a hike through the forest to a waterfall. According to him the walk would be about 45 minutes but Filipino time is a relative concept. We tracked trough the forest for an hour and a half. It was beautiful though. Ruby red dragon flies dotted the leaves and clean streams would wind their way through the undergrowth. All this was simply the prelude to a magnificent waterfall that thundered down for about 10 meters. The water was very cold and refreshing after our long walk (especially on my dark red back) and here Yum-Yum revealed our lunch, fresh crabs with rice and salad! Food photography has always been interesting to me, but here at the waterfall, it became something new. The ability to portray the food and the atmosphere where you will be enjoying this meal suddenly became very important to me and I spent quite some time trying to make those crabs look great before they were taken away to be cooked. On our way back we strolled through a sleepy village where kids played in the dusty road next to the water buffalo’s water holes.
The following day would play out much like the first where we went island hopping, but ended with us camping on Coconut garden! We had caught fish and had bought squid and crabs so in between showers of rain, we feasted! Fish, rum and good company was only made more spectacular by the blue plankton in the water. Our magical night was ended by a magical pink and purple sunrise over islands and bays.
As we were packing up to head back, we saw a dark head popping up… sea turtle. This was the one thing I had told Yum-Yum I wanted to do, swim with a sea turtle. The water was so clear and we saw a young turtle darting away as our boat approached it but just as I thought I was out of luck, a massive turtle was lying on the ocean bed, right underneath us. We got in to the ocean and swam behind it, watching it glide effortlessly through the water with such subtle movements until it disappeared into the gloom.
Our next stop was Sabang, home to one of UNESCO’s new natural wonders of the world, Puerto Princesa’s Underground river which attracts more than 500 000 visitors every year. This was exactly the kind of place I wanted to avoid but, since it is a wonder of the world, we went to go and see it. There were dozens of tourists from all over, queuing to get onto one of the boats taking them to see the river. The boat ride offered a great view of the spectacular limestone mountains and cliffs, dark green and greys, surrounded by low hanging clouds. The river itself is navigable for 8.2 km and winds through a maze of caves with stalagmites and stalactites of all shapes and sizes. Bats and swallows fly in and out of the cave by the thousands, creating an eyrie atmosphere. The tour itself however, was less impressive, perhaps because it was so overrun by tourists or maybe because it felt so forced an a bit like a sausage machine. We decided to spend our last two days in Puerto Princesa. At first I was apprehensive about staying in a city for a part of my holiday, this was after all what I was trying to escape from, but Puerto Princesa impressed me. Myself and my compadres had picked up a another traveller from Spain and together the four of us set out to explore a bit more of the city.
We made our way down to the wharf, searching for some of those prawns we had seen on our first day and low and behold, the wharf had everything we wanted. The restaurants were all lined up and the air was pulsating with good vibes and local music. Here we found the prawns, fresh from the sea, we could pick the ones we liked and have them cooked in butter and garlic. A memorable night to end our trip on a high note.
Going back to Shanghai had never been so difficult. After a while the tan fades and you go back to running from one place to another. I suppose the only cure for this, is simply to save up for the next trip… I hear Sri Lanka is great for back packing.