After a fantastic time in Coron, we were ready to move on to El Nido, a small coastal village on the neighboring island of Palawan. Our search for transportation, however, left us in a foul mood. Everyone in town was pushing us to make the 6-hour trip in a small wooden bangka, and it was obvious why. The boat ride came with a hefty $50 price tag. This may not sound like much, but fifty bucks is more than a month’s wages for many Filipinos. It’s complete extortion.
Needless to say, we were pissed. But rather than giving into the Mafia-like behavior of the bangka owners, we went out looking for a cheaper alternative, and quickly found one. For less than half the price, we decided to take the overnight cargo boat which stops off in Coron on its way south to unload goods and load up on human cargo. It sounded awful. But, at least, this was a way around the price-fixing scam.
The open-sided, two-deck vessel with the pretty name of Josille was anything but pretty. Beat up with a crumbling coat of paint, the boat laid low in the dark waters while its cargo was slowly being unloaded by a bunch of rough-looking workers. Awkwardly inching our way over the plank onto the boat, we were hit by the smell of fried fish and cigarette smoke. The lower deck was cramped with passengers sitting between crates of San Miguel beer and sacks of cement. We worked our way through the thick cement dust and up to the second deck only to discover more people – a lot more.
They were all huddled up on ridiculously narrow cots which were lined up in three rows about 20 meters deep. Already completely drenched with sweat, we quickly snatched up the last two corner cots normally reserved for the handicapped. It turned out to be an appropriate choice as we were seriously challenged by the conditions. We proceeded to endure hours of waiting for the boat to embark, stifling heat, kids jumping from cot to cot, and tortuously off-key karaoke music. All WE wanted was to sleep. But that was a luxury not to be had on this cargo boat. After sitting at the dock for eight hours, we finally left Coron at 4 AM. Nearly comatose from a lack of sleep and water, we eventually nodded off.
An alarm sounds. Is it already time to get up? Momentarily roused from deep sleep, images of an older lady standing over me answering her phone. Annoyed, I turn away to face my neighbor’s stubby toes. Minutes or hours later, my eyes open to witness a beautiful sunrise, or was it just another episode in a series of crazy dreams? Lines of people pushing and shoving towards a fragrant seafood buffet – ouch – an elbow suddenly jolts me awake to discover a plate of fried fish heads being placed next to my face. I devour the food and drop back into unconsciousness. Those stubby toes kick me in the back of the head and I protectively roll up into the fetal position. An endless string of desert islands with perfect white-sand beaches. Restless sleep. The boat’s horn rattles me back to consciousness. I prop myself up on my elbows and rub my eyes. Jagged karst formations surround the boat? YES, El Nido is clearly visible in the distance!
After a long 9 1/2 hours, we finally stepped off the boat. I thought this trip would never end. Although I felt like crap, I was pleased to have dotched the bangka owners turned mafiosi. And on top of that, we had saved enough money to pay for all of our island hopping trips El Nido is so famous for. I can’t wait.