Ahhhh. Can you feel that? There’s a buzz in the air. A new year is upon us and all of those clean slate, new beginnings clichés are flooding my news feed — and my head. The worst part? I love it this year. I know, I know . Who am I?! 2013 brought two new continents, six new countries and a massive reunion with some of my favorite people from around the world. It was one of my best, hands down. I’m certainly not happy to see it go, but the prospect of a brand new year loaded with unknown places and people is absolutely thrilling to me. Although I’m not quite certain where I’m off to next, I have a few ideas — and they all rock. For now, I’ve planted my feet at (gasp!) Mom and Dad’s house down here in sunny Florida. Yes, I am a mere 8 months from turning 30, and yes, I am living with my parents. I always say you have to be willing to sacrifice something if you want to see your dream come to life. In my case, it’s the apartment in a big city, parties on the weekends with friends, money to spend freely on clothes & the latest gadgets, etc. In a nutshell, it’s that sense of independence that every 29-year-old wants to feel — needs to feel. I’m sure people could look at my situation and laugh, poke fun or even pity me. For the record, I laugh at myself all the time. It’s kind of funny. I get it. I, however, choose to look at it like this: I am really, really lucky to have this home and these parents. They won’t be here forever, as they like to frequently remind me. My parents have been my biggest fans since first setting off on this journey in June of 2012, so I knew they would gladly take me back in for a few months while I reset the funds and plan for the next big adventure. And that’s exactly what’s happening here. I’m currently searching for bar jobs in the area and am (oddly enough) really excited about it. South Florida isn’t exactly known for being the “trendiest” place in the U.S., but I dig everything else about it. From the near perfect weather (year round) to a standard bed time of 10 p.m., I kinda love it! I’m getting some quality and essential “Emily time” in down here too, which works out well for both my bank account and my sanity. Thanks to a kick ass local gym, I’m getting into serious shape and even enjoying it. Crazy, I know. I’ve also [successfully] ditched the backpacker diet for a super clean-eating lifestyle, providing me with energy I forgot existed. See ya later, greasy Thai noodles! I also get some invaluable family time in here, ranging from nightly Jeopardy-watching (and answering) with Dad, and kitchen time with Mom. When I’m feeling really social, I go out with their group of friends on Friday nights for beer, wings and the most inappropriately awesome conversations you’ve ever heard. I laugh harder than an average night out with people my own age, so I got that going for me these days. Sure, life is weird right now, but it’s fantastic as well. I have the right perspective and I’ve found that’s all that matters. So, as I start this post from Florida, sitting outside on this sunny, breezy, 80-degree (that’s 27 degrees for the rest of the world) day, I can’t complain. I can only anticipate great things ahead for this new Florida resident and British Passport holder. Bring on more stamps, stories and love in 2014! That goes for all of you, too!
View of another near-perfect sunset from Mom & Dad’s back porch in Port St. Lucie, Florida. This is why I can get used to calling this “home” for a while. Every evening here is photo-worthy.
Me and Stella just before our Floridian Christmas.
Okay, so let’s get back to the good stuff. It’s what you came here for, yeah? The glorious Philippines deserve more airtime, so I shall wait no longer. The last post I left you with a “and then there were four” kind of ending. Choppy was back home nursing her poor, fractured leg, while Elissa, Maartje, Tash and myself were off to a new island called Palawan. We had read the reviews and seen the photos — this place was paradise on crack and we wanted our fix. We were told about a smaller, backpacker town called El Nido, which sounded right down our alley. We flew from Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan on that early, drunken morning that I described in the previous post. Who could forget that mess of a day? Not us. We sleepily arrived around midday, ready for a new adventure. We knew we still had a 5 hour bus ride to endure, so we were careful not to get ahead of ourselves. We attempted to haggle with a few local drivers before just jumping on the first offer, but decided the bigger “companies” seemed like the way to go. I think we paid around 500 pesos (or $10 USD), which ain’t so bad for such a long ride. We loaded the bags up, grabbed some questionable snacks and got comfy in our chosen seats. I immediately felt like we were really traveling again. It was that unfamiliar, edge-of-your-seat kind of feeling. I was craving it. Although Boracay was beautiful and friendly, it lacked any real depth. I don’t want to take away from that wonderful island, but It was all so safe and easy. And we all know the best stories aren’t born from safe or easy. Not only was I stoked to be moving again, but I was particularly anxious to dig into some family ties on this particular trip. You would never know by my blue eyes, blonde(ish) hair & freckles, but my Uncle Fred is actually from The Philippines. Obviously, the relation is by marriage, but as a child I was quite close with him. See? Just when you think you know me, I throw you a curveball. Fred’s wife, Monica, was my Father’s sister and they lived in Miami for years, where he still resides as I write this very post. He made the most amazing and unforgettable egg rolls and chicken adobo I’ve ever tasted. My Mom would cook his recipes at our house in Georgia, as they were such a hit with us as kids. Now that I was really getting a chance to explore his homeland, I was on a mission to find the best adobo around. I started while we were on Boracay, but the abundance of chain restaurants really hampered my search. I tried again on the van ride to El Nido and got a little warmer at a small pit-stop on the side of the road. Still, nothing came close to Uncle Fred’s adobo.
Adobo & rice from a little restaurant we stopped at on the ride from Puerto Princesa to El Nido. For all of about $2, it was good stuff. Nothing close to Uncle Fred’s (or Mom’s) though.
Now, back to this van situation. What we hoped would be an opportunity to sleep turned out to be one of the worst transits I’ve yet to experience. And you know that’s a huge call from me. The ride was closer to 8 hours and the blogs I read ahead of time failed to mention that the last few hours were spent on a narrow
dirt road pothole-ridden trail. Combine that with minimal seat cushion and virtually no leg-room, and you have the ride from hell, folks. My ass hurts just writing about it. We were all exhausted and just wanted to sleep. Tash’s poor knee was bugging her, so she and Elissa sat up front with the driver, while Maartje and I sat in the first row of the 10-seater van. Oh, and you know how they roll on this side of the world. The 10-seater van magically became a 13-seater in no time. This made for quite the bonding experience with the person next to you on the pothole portion of the ride. Maartje and I were practically glued together, while the girl on my right got to know me real quickly. I swear, Maartje and I could write a book on our transit experiences alone. She says this was not her worst transit, but it’s up there. I, without any hesitation, labeled it the absolute worst before the ride was even over. At the end of the day though, she and I always look at each other and say, “adventure, hey?!”
A completely sleepless eight hours later, we arrived to the town of El Nido. We’ve never been so happy to get out of an automobile in our lives. The other nine backpackers felt the same. Naturally, it was dark by now and we hadn’t sorted out accommodation yet. Whoopsie. We arranged two trikes to take us to the center of town where the hotels and hostels were located. After about 20 minutes of driving from place to place to ask about price and availability, we finally just asked the drivers to drop us off so we could figure it out on our own. It was about 10 p.m. by this time, so our bodies and brains were all but fried. We threw our bags in a restaurant and decided that Elissa and Tash would stay put, while Maartje and I went to find a place to stay for the week. We were on a mission and Maartje’s Dutch bargaining powers were still sharp — even at this hour. We must have checked out every place on the main road before finally finding something that suited the group. It was more of a hotel and less of a hostel, but affordable, nonetheless. Hot water, air-con and a proper mattress for all four? We snatched it right up. We went back to get the girls at the restaurant and quickly threw our things down for the week. I can’t even remember if we ate dinner that night, to be honest. Perhaps we had a drink or two to celebrate finally arriving, but that’s about all I recall. The delusion and exhaustion were full-on and we all silently agreed to an immediate bedtime. It goes without saying that we slept like babies that night. Party girls? What party girls?
We woke up the next day to a million dollar view of El Nido, Palawan. Limestone cliffs lined the town, while beautiful, calm ocean sat directly in front of us. The town was generally quiet, but the amount of construction taking place made me think it won’t be like that for long. It still felt slightly undiscovered, which was just what we needed. We threw our suits on and decided to venture to Maremegmeg Beach, one of the closest spots to town. We hailed two trikes from outside our hotel and were there within 10 minutes. For just a few bucks, we arranged for the drivers to drop us of at the beach’s pathway and wait for us to return a couple of hours later. It seemed to be the norm here, as the beach is quite remote. We ventured down the pathway, which was more of a baby hike — especially when the rain came down on the uphill return. Tash’s knee did not love this part, but teamwork made things a bit easier. The beach provided us with some exploration and photo ops, which made for the perfect first day in El Nido. We even found a tiny restaurant where we were able to grab a few beers and kick back. Once again, we were livin’ the life.
*Note responsible Tashie wearing her knee brace all over El Nido. She was such a trooper the entire week!
The rest of the week was spent soaking up as much sun as the rain gods would allow. The wet season was still very much upon us, so we were selective when planning any activity. Tash and Elissa really wanted to dive one day, and all four of us wanted to do the popular boat tour that El Nido is known for. We got really lucky and ended up picking one of the sunniest days for the tour — and it was amazing. We also decided to hire our own boat, as it came out to about the same price split among four people. This also meant we could go where ever we wanted, which was practically our motto for the entire trip. We chose to combine tours A and B, which was basically seven hours of screensaver-style views. It was this particular day that I deemed The Philippines as the most beautiful place I’ve seen yet. And I meant it. It was out of a movie. In fact, remember the creepy, yet intriguing 90’s flick, The Beach? Who could forget a young Leonardo DiCaprio in that one? Well, Alex Garland, the author of the book which lead to the movie, was actually inspired by the islands surrounding El Nido. I could see why. The entire day was breathtakingly perfect. We jumped in the water at every given chance, snorkeled in completely secluded coves and even swam into a cave. Between the scenery and the company, I don’t’ think any of us could have asked for more. Well, except for Choppy to be back, of course. But we made sure to drink enough rum on her behalf. Our captain and his first mate (his son) were perfect additions, to boot. They made us a lunch with freshly caught fish and they even partook in a little of the rum & piña action themselves. But the food, y’all. THE FOOD. I just cannot say enough about this particular day. It was one for the books. I’ll let the photos do the rest of the talkin’.
And what do you do if your boat doesn’t have a kitchen? You create one. I always love observing how resourceful these people are. It reminds you that we don’t need half of the shit we own. I find it to be incredibly refreshing.
Charlie’s Angels meet James Bond, maybe?And she STILL has her leg propped! Good on ya, Tash! The clouds moved in on us towards the end of the day, but it didn’t really change much. I think we all had enough vitamin D by this point anyway. We climbed up to a little mountain to get this shot of Snake Island. It only exists during low tide, when the sand bar becomes perched above the water and creates a stunning strip you can walk on. We just missed the right tide, but it was still a pretty amazing spot. After climbing into a very small, dark hole — we found this. I don’t lie when I say that adventure is EVERYwhere in The Philippines. One of the most important parts of the day, clearly. We are “okay” divers! Or snorkelers. Obligatory jump shot in front of Seven Commandos Beach. Tash gave it a go, and I think it came out perfectly.
Are you Googling flights to The Philippines now? Thought so. Not much could top our perfect boat day, but we were always up for the challenge. We took in all El Nido had to offer, while savoring our last few days together. It didn’t take long before we found the party bars either. I suppose that’s no surprise though. I’m fairly certain the entire town knew who we were after night #2. I’m not sure if that was from the time we stood up and danced on the tables (while every one else was still eating dinner), or if it was from the night that we took a local bar up on their “Ladies: no shirt, free shots” offer. Hey, we like to have fun. I think we’ve already established this though, right?
Snagged a photo in front of this “ambulance” for our homegirl, Choppy. We later told her it could have been worse.
Just steps from our hotel. It’s also where we ate almost every meal. Why wouldn’t you?
Elissa certainly has a way with kids (everywhere we go). Guess the teacher in her really is full-time. Fried, sugary bananas on a stick. These things will make you a believer. I must have eaten my weight in ’em that week.
Our little sandwich maker friend. We had ham, cheese and veg sandwiches almost every day in El Nido. You can’t really beat a $1.50 lunch!Meat anyone? No, thanks for me.They may look like limes, but don’t fool yourself. They’re better. They’re called calamansi and they work wonders on a rum-n-Coke. It’s as if a lime and an orange had a little baby. I devoured these things in El Nido and would pay big money to have them here in Florida with me now!
Just before sunset with our new, local friend, Don. He gave us some good tips and introduced us to the best bar, Sea Slugs.
This is what happens when you party at beach bars — you end up in the water. The wet t-shirt look here was just from some splashing, but it goes without saying that I ended up taking a swim that night. I always do. So did Maartje, as I think we ended up pushing each other in. Sounds about right.
Beautiful sunset, beautiful Tash. Life is so good.
Somewhere between the sunset beers and late nights at the reggae bar, we found time for the famous Napcan Beach and even some scuba diving. Busy week, I know. The trip to Napcan beach was a rather brutal 45 minute trike ride, followed by a muddy walk through a local village. It’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful beaches around, but thanks to more rain and big waves, we didn’t get to see that side of it. I think the four of us combined have seen some of the most picturesque beaches in the world, making our standards almost too high. Tash and Elissa live in Australia, where every beach is postcard material, while Maartje and I have both been to places in The Caribbean that are almost impossible to top. Tough crowd, hey? That begin said, we were still glad we went and saw the 5 kilometers of deserted beach. I could see the potential come dry season. We snagged some photos, but didn’t stay long once we saw the thunder clouds moving our way. We were ready for dry clothes and cocktails.
This was one of the trikes we took to Napcan. The driver escorts you to the beach by foot, while the local village kids watch the trike for him in exchange for a few pesos. The kids practically stormed the trike when we arrived, each of them hoping to make a few cents.
We had a few nice minutes on the beach before this became our horizon. We all went running for cover, while Maartje (Dora the Explorer) stayed back to snag this shot. It was well worth it though. Perfectly captured.
A few goats all cuddled up on our walk back to the trikes. Guess they weren’t fans of the rain either.
Our last night together crept up on us quickly. As you can imagine, no one was ready to say goodbye and we were already making plans to see each other again soon. We went out for one last hurrah, singing and dancing the night away down the beach. We met quite a few people during our time in El Nido, making our last couple of nights that much more fun. We left our mark on that town, whether it was intentional or not. In the months leading up to our big reunion, I kept telling the group, “The Philippines will never be the same.” Guess I nailed that one. I knew we would have funny stories, but I had no idea they would be as memorable as they are. I laughed more in that two weeks than I’ve ever laughed in my life. I think the other girls would say the same. It’s as if no time had passed. We were the same scuba sisters as we were when we all met in July of 2012, and this two-week reunion had proved just that. This trip made me even more grateful for my time in Utila than I already was. You just don’t find friends like this every day and I am especially lucky to know these fabulous women. I hope the next reunion includes the other girls who couldn’t make it this go ’round. And yes, there’s already talks of another reunion. It started before we left each other, of course.
The goodbye morning came with a small hangover and tired eyes. Though it wasn’t nearly as bad as our legendary transit out of Boracay, it still sucked. Tash and Elissa were headed to El Nido’s tiny little airport, where they would fly to Manila, then split ways from there. Tash was off to do some backpacking through Vietnam, while Elissa was headed back home to the land down under. Maartje and I were catching a boat to another island the following day, so we were the ones to send them off. We hugged and said “see you soon,” knowing those words weren’t empty. Tash and Elissa had a trike awaiting them in front of our hotel, so we waved ’em off from the balcony — Maartje’s camera in hand.
Bittersweet goodbye from above. I’m not sure Tash had even opened her eyes yet. Early morning send-offs are just the worst.
And then there were two. It was back to the adventures of Emily and Maartje. We weren’t quite done with The Philippines yet and we still had some time before we were to catch a flight to Thailand. We were headed to the island of Coron for a few days for some diving and reuniting with friends we met in Boracay. We arranged for a boat to take us directly from El Nido to Coron, an eight-hour journey. As luck would have it, this turned out to be one of the sunniest days we ever saw in The Philippines. Although we would have rather been at a beach enjoying the rays, we took advantage of the fact that we were on a boat instead. It was an absolutely stunning ride through tiny islands, white sandy beaches and limestone cliffs. I laid out on the front of the boat with the ole’ iPod and was in absolute heaven. It was like an eight-hour music video of pure bliss. Yes, please!
What all-day transit? This was an excursion in and of itself.
We only spent a few days in Coron, but we successfully conquered our short to-do list. Coron is known for its world-class diving — something any of you fellow divers should know. It plays host to about a dozen or so sunken Japanese WWII ships, and they are said to be spectacular. Maartje opted for the three-dive package and said it was out of this world. I suppose now is the time to address the reason I didn’t dive here, or in El Nido. I have been putting this off for a few posts now, but I shouldn’t avoid it any longer. Remember that time I was in Indonesia and went on the most insane dive of my life? The one where I saw the rare, 2,000 lb Mola Mola? Welp, I discovered a rather shitty thing that day. It’s a long story, loaded with medical terminology that even I’ve yet to comprehend, but it’s not so awesome. About an hour after the dive, I noticed a bruising sensation around my abdomen, accompanied by red and purple coloration. After a slight panic and a few chats with the dive shop, we decided I should go on pure oxygen — just as a precaution. After some quality time with the shop owners and Google.com, I realized I had what’s called, “the skin bends.” Basically, it’s decompression sickness, localized to your skin. While it’s a better alternative to full-on deco sickness (which will put you in the chamber or a grave with the quickness), it’s still quite the damper. It also happened back in May when I went diving in Florida with Ginski, but I never thought about it again…until now. The dive shop in Florida foolishly wrote it off to a jellyfish sting reaction, which Ginski and I assumed was accurate. Silly diver, Emily. Silly. What does all of this mean, you’re asking? Well, odds are, it means I have a heart condition called PFO — Patent Foramen Ovale. Put short and simply, it means there’s a small hole in my heart was supposed to close when I separated from the womb, but it didn’t. Think: flap valve. Now, that same hole doesn’t do well under pressure. Literally. It’s allowing blood to flow freely from the right to the left. When nitrogen bubbles are in your blood, as is the case while scuba diving, this is a recipe for disaster. You following? A bit nuts, I know. What’s crazier though? Statistics say one in four of you reading this right now also have this condition. Look at all this knowledge I’m dropping on you today! Before you freak out, for your sake or mine, know that this means absolutely nothing unless you’re a scuba or free diver. Some research even suggests as many as 37% of the human population have PFO, most of them unknowingly so. Why did I not find this out after my first few dives? No idea. It seems to be the case in so many patients though. I’ve read articles where life-long divers have logged as many as 700 dives before having an episode of the skin bends, only to discover they’ve had PFO their whole lives. I was so down and out when I first came to the realization that scuba diving had to be put on hold for a while. It’s played such a massive role in my life the past year and a half and I’m damn near passionate about it at this point. I haven’t’ been to see a cardiologist yet, due to the cost of healthcare in the U.S., but I’ve done enough research to know that I am at a high risk for further damage should I continue to dive. I might hop on an insurance plan while I’m here in Florida, but given the fact that this state falls just under Texas for the most uninsured residents in the nation, it ain’t looking’ good. So, there ya go. There’s the secret I’ve been holding onto since September. Don’t worry, this condition can be treated (assuming I do, in fact, have it) pretty easily and it won’t affect me in any other way if I leave it as is. The thing is though — the water’s calling, and I must go back.
Okay, so…other than the not diving thing, Coron was a pretty cool town. It’s much different than El Nido, as it’s smaller, quieter and mostly Muslim. We were able to meet up with Vincent, our friend we met in Boracay, who provided us with loads of laughter. He introduced us to a few of his fellow Dutch friends, who happened to be living in Manilla at the moment (for work). Perfect, we thought. They were kind enough to invite us to stay with them on our overnight layover scheduled for just a few days later. We all had a fun night of eating (questionable animal parts) & drinking, and even had the chance to see a lady boy show at a local bar. What a perfect way to end a few weeks in The Philippines, aye? Maartje and I were actually ready for more from this fabulous country, but our tickets were already booked for the one and only Thailand. Although Maartje had been several times, it was set to be my first. I love firsts, and Maartje can get a long almost anywhere. We were jumping from high to high across southeast Asia and it was written all over our faces. What a place it is! Thank you for the amazing time, Philippines! I can’t wait to continue our love affair.
I’m out for now, guys! It’s way past my bedtime and I am over my projected word count — again. I hope you enjoyed and were able to escape to paradise with me in this post I am going to skip straight to the one and only Myanmar in the next post, because….well….because it’s just that good. It’s quite the change of pace from Indonesia or The Philippines, but the magic is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced or written. It’s gonna be one of the best, so stay tuned! x