Friday, March 09, 2012

Paradise Flawed

As I mentioned in my last post, in a country made up of tropical islands, Palawan is the place to go for your dose of tropical paradise. More specifically the northern part comprising the karstic Calamianes and Bacuit archipelagos centred around the towns of Coron and El Nido respectively. Here black, jagged, limestone islands, their sharp pinnacles rising through their jungle cladding. The landscape very similar to that of Halong Bay in Vietnam and the Krabi province of Thailand. And, quite justifiably, they attract just as many tourists, both foreign and domestic.

A view of El Nido beach and bay, with the nearby islands of the Bacuit archipelago in the distance. Viewed from atop the karst cliffs overlooking town.

Naturally the main activity is to go on an "island-hopping" tour to the various islands, their secluded beaches, hidden lagoons and pristine lakes. But by the time J-B and I had got our act together from disembarking and having breakfast it was too late to join one that same day, so instead we joined our host MJ on a little tour of Busuanga island. MJ knows the secret corners of the island and so J-B and I hired a scooter between us, him showing his driving licence and me assuring him that I driven one before (which wasn't untrue, although it had been almost seven years ago). So, wobbling slightly with J-B behind me, we followed MJ into the the jungle interior of the island. He knew several out of the way waterfalls, pools and rivers that few people know about, even locals. Seeing as its the tropics though nothing should be too strenuous and hurried, so my favourite activity was to simply sit in the water and let the small fish nibble away at the dead skin on my hands and feet, which would cost me £18 back in London for just half an hour.

Getting a free manicure and pedicure from the friendly cleaner fish.

The next day we hopped aboard our boat that would take us around a handful of nearby islands. The boat was a bangka, a outrigger canoe typical of the Philippines. The lush islands and turquoise water lived up to the postcard photographs, indeed it would be hard to find more apt images for island paradise ... and yet  a paradise it certainly is not. For once the numbers of tourists, although admittedly large, and all carted to the exact same spots at the same time, was not my primary concern. What spoilt it lay beneath the water. Under the clear surface there was very little in the way of corals or fish diversity, with most of the former bleached and lying broken on the sea bed. Having seen spectacular corals in Australia and Malaysia I knew what they should look like, and this certainly wasn't it. I asked around and was given several reasons for the phenomenon: dynamite and cyanide fishing, disturbance from too many tourists and from high temperatures exacerbated by the El Niño climate cycle. If it's the former then hopefully tourism will be an incentive to stop; if it's the tourists then more needs to be done to educate them and the tour boat operators; and if it's the latter then I don't hold out any hope as I can't see sea temperatures going anywhere but up in the medium term. However I have been told that things get better at greater depths amid the WWII-era Japanese shipwrecks that Coron is famous for.

From Coron there was another boat ride (and this time with only a 16 hour delay) down to the resort town of El Nido. Here it was pretty much the same as before, with the island scenery even managing to outdo Coron, with hidden lagoons only accessible at high tide or through keyhole cracks in seemingly impenetrable rock walls and pristine, isolated beaches fringed by coconut palms and without a soul in sight. Truly idyllic, but once again lacking in coral and fish life. Though no matter how exquisite the sea, the visit confirmed for me that I am more of a mountain than a sea person, as I far preferred the afternoon J-B and I went scaling the cliffs behind El Nido, with their razor-like pinnacles providing perfect handholds for a bout of bouldering.

A bangka moored outside the entrance to the "Secret Lagoon". You can see the entrance to the right of the boat, just above the outrigger.

If anything El Nido was crawling with even more tourists than Coron, but I was lucky to get to see a slice of local community life. During the evening that I was there the whole town (it seemed to me) gathered under the roof of the covered basketball court (every barangay in the Philippines has at least one covered court, which is often the largest - or second-largest after the church - structure in town) to witness the annual selection of Mr and Miss El Nido National High School. Although fashion pageants may have fallen out of favour in the politically correct West, they are still immensely popular here in the Philippines. (I was also pleased to see that it was an equal opportunities contest and had both male and female categories.) The contestants, as the name suggests, were all students, and so there were no risqué swimsuit parades - instead they paraded in school uniforms, complete with books and bags - although I was a little disconcerted when the girls came up to introduce themselves: the ages ranged from seventeen to thirteen. Although the contest itself was totally innocent and had the support of the entire community, I was still uncomfortable with such young entrants, especially in a country that has known problems with child prostitution, trafficking and sex tourism. I'm not sure the pageant was sending the right message.

The slightly unsettling Miss (and Mr) El Nido National High School contest. The fact that some of the girls were only 13 and parading like that was somewhat the wrong side of wholesome.

A few days of beach life surrounded by more white faces than Filipino were enough for me. I can certainly see the attraction of tropical beaches though I can't help but see the flaws and feel somewhat uncomfortable. I suppose I'm drawn more by the "obvious" faults of large cities and poor mountain communities. So we headed down to Puerto Princessa from where I could continue on to the Visayas by boat and J-B by plane (few people have my luxury of time and he had had enough of unreliable Filipino ferries).

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