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The International Writers Magazine: Philippine Monsoon

Washed out in Palawan.
Will O'Neil

Will discovers the true nature of the Philippine monsoon season.

Perhaps I should have listened to the advice. The Philippines are not like the rest of South East Asia, where monsoon showers are brief, and only temporarily interrupt the torrent of tropical sunshine.
After 10 weeks following the tourist trail around Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, I could no longer curb the desire to try and get off the beaten track. With two weeks before the start of the university year, I decided it was time to take a gamble.
Some weeks previous, I met a Hawaiian man on a remote island in Thailand, called Ko Kradan. The man had been sailing his boat around the world for the past 20 years. He had a lot of stories to tell. The one that really captured my imagination was about an outstandingly beautiful island chain, the Bacuit Archipelago, off the southern Philippine island of Palawan. The man had sailed there years before, and described it as the most spectacular seascape in the world, similar to Krabi or Ha Long, but without the crowds. I relentlessly questioned him about the place, and told him I might try and get there later that month. He told me that, ‘if I wanted to see extreme weather, then I wouldn’t go wrong with the Philippines in September.’

As I made my way down through Malaysia, becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of adventure along the way, I decided I would go for it, blissfully ignorant of the country’s monsoon. I arrived in K.L, and booked a cheap flight to Manila, the Philippines’ seedy capital.

Manila immediately became the first of South East Asia’s steamy metropolises that I haven’t fallen in love with. There seemed to be a sinister edge that I hadn’t felt before, even in some of Asia’s more eye opening destinations. I arrived late in the evening, and tried to book a flight as soon as possible for El Nido, the gateway to the archipelago, but there was no availability, so in a rush to escape the sprawling mass of concrete and traffic, I had to settle with an early morning flight to Puerto Princessa, still on Palawan island, but someway south of El Nido and the islands.

From the minute I arrived in the country, the rain was relentless, and I sat in the departure lounge of Manila airport’s domestic terminal, I watched the horrific news coverage of the plane that had crashed in Phuket, Thailand, the day before. I am an uncomfortable flyer at the best of times, and this did little to calm my nerves.

In torrential rain, the plane took off, and I was relieved to wave goodbye to Manila. When I arrived in Puerto, I had every intention of jumping straight onto a bus to El Nido, but it quickly became apparent that it would not be that easy. I was told that I had missed the buses that day, so I would have to stay in Puerto overnight. No problem. I booked a ticket for the next morning, and found a cheap Pension to stay in overnight.

It wasn’t until I arrived at the bus station the next morning that I began to realise that it had not stopped raining at all since I had been in the country.

The rickety old bus was already full when it arrived at my stop and as I passed my bag up to the man on the roof, I made the mistake of asking how long the journey was going to take. I thought he was joking, ‘normally about 5 hours, but at this time of year, who knows.’ I laughed, and perched next to four people, on a seat barely big enough for two. I looked at the people around me, I had the only white face, and as I watched the chickens running up and down the aisle, I smiled and thought about the crowded beaches I had left behind.
The roads quickly deteriorated, and soon, there was no road at all, just a clay red track that was clearly feeling the effects of the season’s rainfall. It wasn’t long before the bus became stuck in the mud, caused by a hill in the road. Everyone was ordered off, and a chain was produced, of which we were all to get a hold. Standing there in the middle of the jungle, dragging a bus out of the clay, I knew that this was exactly the sort of travelling I was looking for.
I was still quite happy, the second time we got stuck, but looking out the window, at the mud approaching the top of the wheel arch, I knew that the passengers wouldn’t be pulling it out of this one
I jumped off the bus again, this time it was clear we were in trouble. The wheels were entirely submerged in the thick clay and the bus totally wedged in. luckily, some construction was taking place nearby, and two JCB’s came along to try and drag the bus out. The passengers stood on a bank and watched some of the men climb under the bus to find the hook, with which the diggers had to be attached. It was a slow process, but eventually, one digger, pulling the other digger, pulled the bus out. The journey went on this way until eventually, the clouds of smoke culminated in the buses engine exploding. Now we were in the middle of the jungle, trapped in the mud, in the pouring rain, with a broken down bus.

We waited there, by the side of the rain, for 6 long hours, for a man on a scooter to bring some spare parts from the nearest town. By this point, the novelty had categorically worn off, in the best part of 12 hours; we had only travelled about 60 kilometres. When the man with the parts turned up, the entire engine had to be taken apart bit by bit. I sat by the side of the road, watching the men trying to figure out what to do in the rain and fading light and for the first time ever, I thought fondly about the British public transport system. The process went on and on and on. I hadn’t eaten all day, and had long since run out of anything to drink, I was growing tired. The adventure and excitement had given way to genuine frustration, and the reality grew, that this rain might never going to go away.

When, in the pitch black, the bus was finally put back together, we started the rest of our journey. I was told that we were not yet half way there. What next I thought.

Remarkably, the bus did not break down again. Still, it was another 6 agonising hours, in truly uncomfortable surroundings before we reached El Nido. As typical with the rest of Asia, the most remarkable thing of the day was the patience and tolerance of the local people. Whilst waiting for the parts to turn up, I found myself pacing aimlessly around, sighing uncontrollably, like breathing loudly was going to in some way speed up the process, and when the battery of my ipod ran out, I was certain the entire world was collapsing around me. All the while, the locals sat silently, never stirring for a second. I must have had things too easy.

The bus jolted into El Nido long into the night. I don’t know what I expected, but after the day id just had, I was almost demanding some good fortune. Yet when I looked around at the sleepy, deserted streets of the small town, finding somewhere to sleep began to look like an issue. Eventually, disregarding the 'beware of the dog' signs on the gate; I knocked on the door of a small pension. The owners looked surprised to see me. Covered in clay, soaked wet through on their doorstep on the middle of the night, they must have seen id had a rough trip. They showed me to a room, right on the beachfront. It would have been nice to lie there for a while, and unwind, but, for a change, the rain was falling, just as violently as ever.

It had previously occurred to me that I made a particularly magnificent error. For some reason, that I cannot fully justify, I had decided to leave half of my stuff at the pension I stayed at back in Puerto. I thought it would make the journey easier, what is it they say about presumption? The problem being, in doing this I had ruled out the possibility of flying directly from El Nido back to Manila, which I had recently discovered was possible. Now, unbelievably, I was faced with the prospect of a return bus journey.

El Nido is a quaint town, and from the photographs I saw of the archipelago, it was every bit as jaw dropping as had been described to me. My room was great, and it had a great view. At least I think it did. For the four days I sat there, I only occasionally could see far enough though the rain to make out the silhouettes of the nearby islands. I checked the weather forecasts repeatedly. It was bad. By now, I had been in the Philippines for just over a week, and their had been absolutely no break in the weather, as far as I concerned there were three types: either it had just stopped throwing it down, it was just about to throw it down, or it was throwing it down. In the end, I had enough. I searched all manner of culminations to get me back to Manila, and out of the country. Eventually it came down to this, I decided to boycott the return bus journey in favour of a flight from El Nido to Puerto, providing the flight was on time, I would have 2 hours to pick up my stuff, and get on another flight from Puerto to manila, from where I would get on a cheap flight to absolutely anywhere that wasn’t going to be raining.

I starting to feel concerned about my plans when I arrived at El Nido airport, I use the word ‘airport’ in its loosest form. The tricycle I arrived in actually drove up the runway to the check in area, which was in fact only a small hut, with no walls. I was the only person there. Soon after, the solitary airport worker arrived. She had also served me at a bar on the beach the night before. There was only one other passenger, an elderly lady. Apparently she wasn’t up to the bus trip either. However, when the plane arrived to pick us up, over an hour late, I began to wish I was on the bus. It was a single engined, 6-seater jet. Its best days were clearly behind it. There was no safety check, procedures, just the pilot who turned around (there was no segregation between pilots and passengers) and told us to strap in. In all my life, the following 45 minutes were by far the most frightening. The plane wasn’t able to fly above the weather, so instead we just flew straight though it. The turbulence was horrific. With my head on the seat in front of me, I began to genuinely conclude my life in my mind. This is it, I thought. Looking back, perhaps that was a bit dramatic.

I was extremely happy when the plane touched down in Puerto, although late, I was alive. I rushed out and jumped into a waiting tricycle, the driver of which, seemed to understand my urgency, but did little to actually help it. Somehow, I managed to get back to the airport, which thankfully was small enough for me to persuade the workers to let me get on the flight, despite check in being closed, and only 10 minutes before take off.

After the experience I had just had, the last thing I really wanted was another flight, but here I was, on my way back to Manila. Upon arrival, I looked up at the departure board, the sight of a budget flight back to the familiarity of Bangkok was too much resist, and so without really doing what I had came to do, I left the Philippines, and the monsoon rains behind. I returned to Thailand and the backpacking hoards.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that true adventure comes at a price. But we all know, it is these intense highs and lows that keep us doing what we do, in attempt to learn the most about ourselves and he world we are lucky enough to live in. in my case, I know learnt that some advice is really worth listening to, so in case you missed the point, here it is again…If you go to the Philippines during monsoon season, you are going to get wet.

© Will o'Neill

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