Adventures in Local Transportation – Philippines Part 2

BUS RIDE – EL NIDO TO PUERTO PRINCESA, PALAWAN

For the three days that we were in beautiful El Nido, I was slightly rattled by the accident that we had seen. There was nothing I could do to help and no way to know if the victims had been alright, but none-the-less, I couldn’t quite get the images out of my head.

When it came time for us to leave El Nido, we booked our van the night before, choosing a 1:30pm departure to hopefully put us in Puerto Princesa after the rush hour traffic and to give us time to sleep-in and enjoy the morning. We paid only 500 pesos ($15 CAD) for the return trip to the city, as we would also need to make our own way to the bus terminal.

After lunch, with our overnight bags in hand, we went searching for a tricycle to take us to the bus terminal. One tricycle driver asked us for 100 pesos.

Me: ‘Hmmm sounds like a bit much, we were thinking 15 pesos each’
Tricycle driver with a sly little laugh: ‘Just joking, it’s 50 pesos.’

I was quick to offer him 30 pesos for the two of us, which he declined, reiterating 50 pesos. We politely declined saying we would try with someone else. He quickly turned the tricycle around and rode off. Not too far down the street another driver asked if we needed a ride and we were able to negotiate a fare of 40 pesos for the 10 minute ride to the ramshackle bus terminal.

It was a bit disconcerting from the beginning when no one seemed to know the name of the company that was on our receipt, but after a couple of short conversations between men at the station, they directed us to a van and a friendly van assistant welcomed us to have a seat. We shifted into our chosen, assigned seats in the front row. We had chosen the front row hoping for a bit of extra foot and knee room, but were disappointed to see a hump on the floor giving us even less than normal foot space.

Two other passengers hopped in the van and off we went, departing nearly 10 minutes ahead of schedule. For the first few minutes, the road was more or less straight ahead and the driver clearly was excited to get going. He sped along the straight-away passing every vehicle (fast or slow) along the route. My friend and I exchanged a few questionable looks, but didn’t say anything.

The friendly assistant quickly became over friendly chatting away, asking questions and leaning over my shoulder to yell out the window to people of the side of the road to see if they needed a lift. Again, my friend and I exchanged glances wondering just what type of bus we had ended up on.

After picking up a local or two along the highway, the assistant leaned over me and adjusted the ceiling air conditioning off of me and on to himself. When I shot him a look, he adjusted one of the other vents to me and the one I had been using on to himself. Five minutes later, he moved to a different spot and readjusted the air conditioning that was on me, to him.

This cycle continued a ridiculous amount of times during the 4 – 5 hour transfer. The assistant couldn’t seem to sit still. Between leaning in beside me to yell out the window, to struggling to opening the door, to having a loud conversation with the driver from the back of the van … Not to mention the minimum of 10 times that he adjusted the air conditioning to himself.

Now, I know it sounds selfish that I would want the air conditioning all to myself, but that actually wasn’t the case! There were three ceiling air conditioning vents. I simply wanted one of them on me in the 40-degree heat. For whatever reason, he kept turning the one I was using on him and I would then have to adjust another one to be on me. Why he couldn’t have just adjusted the one that wasn’t in use, I will never know. He was antsy and kept changing seats, so he would change one vent and then change seats and change a different vent. I nearly lost it on him more than once.

As we barreled down the road at top speed passing everything along the way, I found myself thinking about the moto accident we had seen on the way to El Nido and remembering how thankful I had been for our reasonable and careful driver. Now, I felt like I was traveling with the devil!

About 15 minutes into the trip, much to my dismay, the driver’s speed stayed the same despite the hairpin turns going up and down mountains. After a short time, I stopped reaching for something to hold on to when we went around a turn, but instead, just held on for dear life.

As we careened down the steep hills, around corners and then back up again over roads in much need of repair, I thought to myself ‘Time to eat a cookie.’ Strange thought, right? True story … I was not going to die with home-baked cookies in my bag, so I was eating it to enjoy every last crumb … you know, just in case!

Along the way our driver would slow and occasionally stop to pick up new passengers and then put the pedal to the metal to make up for that lost thirty seconds. The craziness of the situation really set in when I realized that the driver of this rickety old van was leaning into the turns like a race car driver. Somehow he was delusional and thought we were in Formual One. How could this be?

Scared to death, annoyed by the unsettled assistant with his loud voice and increasing anxiety, I did the only thing I could in order to deal with it. I found a place where I could balance myself without falling out of the seat, stopped looking at the road and closed my eyes hoping for a nap. I was startled awake with the assistant mistakenly grabbed both sides of my head when he must have been reaching to hold on for a fast turn. I can’t even lie. The look I shot the assistant after his hands had come in contact both sides of my head while I was trying to sleep was a look of death. I managed to go back to a restless nap for another few minutes until we stopped at the halfway point.

Unbelievably, we had arrived at the halfway point in 45 minutes less time than it should have taken. I didn’t dare eat anything for fear that the roller-coaster of a drive would continue and that I would fall ill to motion sickness. After about a 15 minute stop, we piled back in the van with the other six or eight locals who we had picked up along the way and continued our mad dash to the city.

The assistant started up a new conversation with me about an hour in to the second part of the drive, tapping me on the shoulder and asking for the time. I quickly gave him the time. Not two minutes later, I was tapped on the arm and he asked again for the time. I looked at my phone, gave him the time and mumbled … ‘It’s two minutes after when you asked me last time.’ I had never met someone so constantly annoying. All I wanted to do was tune out, breathe and get through the crazy ride. The assistant then leaned in to the back of my seat and loudly had a conversation with the driver about the airport. That was the only word I understood in the local language. Then, a third tap on the arm from the assistant asking me what time we needed to be at the airport.

Seeing as we had bought our tickets specifically with a drop off at our hotel, it was a little frustrating that they wanted to drop us off at the airport. I explained that we were not going to the airport and that we needed to go to Puerto Princesa. A couple of minutes later, the assistant was trying to explain that one van would take us to the airport and another van would take the other passengers in to the city. I again explained ‘No Airport. No Flight. Hotel in Puerto Princesa.’ Who knew if we would end up in the city or at the airport.

To add to the joy of the ride, after another section of continuous S turns with the driver leaning in to each one, I heard the horrible sound of a cough and then a small choke and a splat. One of the two girls sitting in the front seat fumbled around for a plastic bag to give her friend. A couple more coughs and I cringed, now being sure that she was motion sick. I waited for the smell of vomit to permeate the rest of the van. As the poor girl continued to be sick, I wondered why she didn’t ask the driver to pull over for a moment. I then wondered why the driver wouldn’t offer to pull over. And then, my biggest wonderment was if the driver knew that it was likely his fault that this poor girl was motion sick. Had he driven like a normal person instead of a race car driver, he may not be smelling the puke of the girl sitting in the front seat with him, nor would we!

The friend tossed the plastic bag out the window and consoled her friend as we continued full speed ahead.

As we rounded the last few bends and started to see the slow rush hour traffic, it was a relief to know that the driver would have no option but to slow down. Sadly, the girl in the front was still sick once or twice more before the drive was over.

Next thing I knew, I was being tapped on the shoulder again, this time to be told we would be getting out and would need to hire a tricycle to our hotel. After 4-5 hours of life-threatening driving, a loud voice yelling in my ear, being woken by a strangers hands on my head and having the air conditioning re-directed every 10 minutes for no rhyme or reason, my sanity was nearly gone. I slowly and clearly explained (at least twice) that we had paid for the van to take us to our hotel and we would not take a tricycle. The assistant tried to tell me that we would get out at the next intersection and take a tricycle, but I refused, insisting that they drive us to the hotel.

In the end, the few remaining passengers piled out of the van and we continued on, stopping at a gas station along the way into the city. Within about 10 minutes, we were dropped off at the door to our hotel. Never had I been so happy to arrive at a hotel and get out of a vehicle. I was thankful that evening for being safe, for having a friend to travel with and endure the horrible ride with and I knew that eventually I would look back and have a laugh at the situation. I was wrong about that part though … two weeks later, I’m still not laughing.

Word of the wise:
If you are traveling from Manila to Palawan and plan to see both El Nido and Puerto Princesa, book one flight in to one airport and the other flight out of the other airport. This way you only have to do the crazy long drive once.

Secondly, we were really happy with the van and service of Camarih Palawan Shuttle Transport and I would strongly suggest NOT traveling with a company whose name starts with “B”. Sadly, they took our receipt when we got into the van and we had no idea that we would want to remember the company name, so I never asked for it back, therefore I can’t recall the company name. Do a little research, pay that extra $2 – $5 and make sure you arrive safe and sound.

Adventures in Local Transportation – Philippines Part 1

BUS RIDE – Puerto Princesa to El Nido, Palawan

El Nido is a small beach side community about 400 kms north of Puerto Princesa, the capital of the island of Palawan in the Philippines. It is a magical beach side community where limestone karsts protrude from the crystal clear waters and tower protectively around you.

El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Certainly one of the best-known tourist areas on Palawan, it had been highly recommended that we make the trip to bask in the natural beauty.

Staff at our Puerto Princesa hotel arranged our transfer for us with pick up from our hotel and drop off at our hotel in El Nido for 700 pesos. There was also an option to take a tricycle to the bus terminal and pay only 500 pesos for the van transfer, but after paying the 700 pesos and arriving on the side of the road to transfer to a different van, we knew we had made the right decision as the ‘terminal’ would have been a bit difficult to find.

We had been prepared for a five and a half hour transfer to El Nido, but hadn’t realized that it would take one hour to also get us from the hotel to the terminal during morning rush hour traffic.

We crammed in the very back of an 11-seater van with our small luggage stored under the seats and our feet propped on top of two other travelers’ rucksacks. It looked like it was going to be a long ride. Little did we know that the road would be nearly a constant S turn going up and down mountains. I would guess that the average speed of our van was in the 50 km / hour range for the most part. Regularly I stared out the window and was thankful that I was in my relatively slow moving van as other vans and motos zoomed past.

We travelled along the coast for awhile with the beautiful bays to our right and lush fields and mountains to our left. The first two hours of our journey were bumpy and curvy, but relatively uneventful.

We stopped at the half-way point for lunch and a bathroom break. Local dishes in heated plates were waiting for customers to make their choices. I opted for a bag of corn chips, some mentos, cashews and a small chocolate bar. Delicious and not at all nutritious but I wasn’t sure how fresh the local food was, or what any of it was!

The second half of the drive was somehow bumpier, windier and more mountainous. Throw in a few construction areas, gravel roads, school zones and rice laid out to dry on sheets in the roads, and you have a recipe for disaster. About 20 minutes outside of El Nido we had just started to see our first glimpses of water and the beautiful karsts jutting out of the water. We wound down, down, down around a big mountain when the driver put on his breaks quite hard. There were three other vans stopped ahead of us in the middle of the road. After waiting a moment, the driver and assistant popped out to see what the hold up was. Realizing that there had been an accident, one of the passengers in our van went to see if he could help as he was medically trained.

As we sat in the van, we could see only the signs of an accident to our left. There was a group of people crowded around something, a few stray car or moto pieces, a helmet and some flip flops on the road. To the right, a young girl of about 14 years old leaned over in the ditch and vomited. Whatever had happened wasn’t good.

A few minutes later, our drivers and the passenger came back to the vehicle. The passenger explained to us that there had been a motorcycle accident and that someone was hurt quite badly. She was unconscious and likely had internal bleeding. He went on to explain that they had assured him that help was on the way and that the hospital was only five minutes away.

As the line up of passenger vans slowly started to move forward and around the group of people who had gathered around the accident victims, it was one of those horrible moments where I knew that I shouldn’t look, but I had to. As we inched forward past the accident I saw a crumpled motorcycle and a second badly damaged one. Next, I saw one of the victims sitting on the pavement and the other lying unconscious with a river of blood running across the pavement.

I drew in a sharp breath and my eyes instantly filled with tears. I sat in silence for the remainder of the drive to the small town of El Nido, hoping that the two victims would be ok. Again, I found myself thankful that despite the crazy twisty, turny, mountainous roads, our driver took his time and we arrived safely. Thank you Camarih Palawan Shuttle Transport.

Costs from my Dominican Trip

I’m writing this post to help me plan for my next trip or living experience abroad. Also great information for anyone else planning the same and who needs a little guidance!

Flights: $1620
United Airlines – San Juan, Puerto Rico to Halifax – $313.90 (I didn’t use this flight because I changed my dates. Lost my money on it.)
American Airlines – Halifax to Santo Domingo – $572.91
American Airlines – Santo Domingo to Halifax – $733.73

Airport Transportation: $188
Taxi Halifax Airport – $55 CAN
Taxi home from Halifax Airport – $50 CAN
Taxi from Santo Domingo airport to home stay – $45 US (paid for with my school fees, therefore much more expensive than doing it on my own)
Taxi from Hotel in Santo Domingo to airport – $38 (booked through the hotel – 3am, more expensive than day time)

Local Transportation: $260
3 weeks of buses, public cars and taxis in Santo Domingo – $135 US

4 weeks of buses, public cars, taxis, scooter rental and moto conchos in and around Sosua / Cabarete / Puerto Plata – $125

School and Accommodations for six weeks: $2598
Spanish Lessons – $200 / week
Accommodations – $230 / week – first three weeks included breakfast and supper at a home stay, last three weeks only included breakfast at a school apartment.

Hotel Accommodations for 13 nights: $473

Travel Insurance: $67
Tourist Card: $10
Extended Stay fee (up to 90 days): $21

Food / drinks: $780
49 days Total and very little was spent on alcohol (maybe $25 total for 4 or 5 Pina Colada’s and a couple of Santa Libres)
1 meal per day for 21 days – breakfast and supper were included in my school home stay package
2 meals per day for 15 days – weekdays while I was studying in Sosua
3 meals per day for 13 days – weekends when I traveled and extra days while not in school
On average lunches in Sosua cost $250 – $360 RD / $6.50 – $9 US
On average suppers in Sosua cost $400 – $500 RD / $10 – $12 US
As a tourist, I think I could easily get by with $20 US per day for three meals. If I had eaten at more local places and less touristy places, I could have probably survived on $10-$15 US per day for three meals. If I were to buy groceries and cook myself, I’m guessing $6-8 per day.

Cell Phone: $80
This was for purchasing a local cell phone and using it A LOT to keep in touch with friends locally, make plans, calls to hotels, excursions and taxis.

Toiletries: $53
Shampoo, conditioner, razors, face wipes, bug repellant

Pharmacy: $27
bug repellant, cold & flu pills, anti itch cream for bug bites

Tips (on excursions / extra special staff): $20
Nena at Sosua school for room cleaning
Julio at Caves in Cabarete
Two girls at Tubagua who took me for a long walk and visited their families

Excursions: $218
Caves in Cabarete – $15
Puerto Plata (1400 original, I cxld – 1/2 back) – $18
Cooking with Nena – $13
Rafting – $90 (worth every penny!)
Photo CD – Rafting – $18 (not worth every penny. Only about 10 photos)
Kayaking – $64

Laundry: $30
$20 US for two weeks worth of clothes at a laundromat – WAY too expensive!
$10 US for one to two weeks of clothes, twice at the school

Spending money: $33
Movies – $8
Earrings – $10
Gifts for nieces – $15

Bank fees: $30
$5 each withdrawal x 6 times

Grand Total for a seven week trip, including six weeks of Spanish classes, accommodations, food and spending: $6315

Look for an upcoming post on how I plan to do it MUCH cheaper next time!

The Taxi Chronicles – Part 6 – Conquering a mountain by moto

Conquering a mountain by moto

Local transportation is always an adventure and you just simply have to go with the flow. When I made plans to go to Tubagua for the weekend, I had great directions from the owner, Tim, saying that I needed to take a carro publico from Sosua to Gran Parada and then a moto concho to Tubagua – el hotel el Tim en kilometre 19.

I had purposely tried to pack light for the weekend, but that is hard when you are carrying photography gear for work! I had my camera gear in one back pack and my clothes in another, so I thought that maybe it might be better to take a taxi rather than a carro publico and then a moto conch. I got Tanya, the school director to call a taxi that Tim had recommended and thank goodness she did because she had a difficult time communicating with him and she speaks fluent spanish! I wouldn’t have made it past Hola! In the end, we discovered that the taxi was only from Gran Parada to Tubagua, not from Sosua. So, off I headed on my local transportation adventure.

I left Sosua around 4:45pm from my Spanish school, Casa Goethe. I walked about six or eight blocks to the carro publico ‘station’. By station, I mean one area where the carros line up and fill up with people before taking off. It is actually quite organized as the cars are often in a line.

I explained to him, in very slow Spanish, that I needed to go toward Puerto Plata, but get out at Gran Parada. I asked him how much and he told me 50 Pesos. I thought he told me 500 though so I told him that was too much and he dropped it to 45 Pesos. HA HA HA YAY me! I sure drive a hard bargain!

They asked me to put my bags in the trunk. This was scary for me because I was carrying $10 000 in camera equipment! I didn’t really want to let it out of my site, but impossible to keep your bags on your lap inside a carro publico. There just isn’t enough room. It didn’t help that the carro publico was a smaller car than usual which meant that it was nearly impossible to fit the four standard people in the back seat. However, somehow we all squished in on top of each other. I was sitting in the back seat, on the edge of the seat, holding on to the head rest in front of me for support against the bumps and turns. I bravely explained to the driver (in Spanish) that I needed to get out at Gran Parada and tried to explain that I needed to be in the direction to Santiago. He didn’t understand and then he thought I was going TO Santiago … So, I had to re-explain and a couple of the locals in the car kicked in with their Spanish explanations too. The driver said he understood, the little ‘neon’ size car was packed with seven of us and off we went.

By about five minutes into the drive one of my legs was bruised from banging against the back of the arm rest, the other foot was asleep and I was tired of holding on to the head rest of the seat in front of me! Comfortable is not a word to describe this form of transportation.

About ten minutes into the drive, someone got out … unfortunately from the front seat, so no relief for the four of us who were sardined into the back seat. The total drive took about 15 minutes from Sosua to Gran Parada. The other gentleman that I was sitting almost on top of, and who tried to sell me cashews when I got in the car, told me (in Spanish) that he thought I needed to get out. I panicked a little and asked the driver. He had misunderstood and still thought I was heading to Santiago, but now he understood I needed Gran Parada and indeed, we had just passed Gran Parada! He pulled over, let me out and I grabbed my stuff from the trunk. Phew! It was still there!

I headed back down the road about 200 meters to where the moto conchos were all lined up. As soon as I got out of the car a guy on a moto concho was trying to get my attention. I wasn’t giving him the ok until I got closer and could see him and his bike though. As I approached, they both looked acceptable (man and bike), so I gave a nod and he immediately sped off to pick me up on the opposite side of the road.

I explained (in Spanish) that I needed to go to Tubagua and he immediately said ‘El Hotel de Tim?’ Phew! At least he knew where I was headed.

I slung my 30 pounds of camera gear on to my pack and my light weight backpack with clothing on my front and awkwardly tried to balance while swinging my leg over the bike. It was going to be a long drive to kilometre 19 on a bad road with backpacks on front and back! Ha! Little did I know that it was going to get worse!

The first part of the road was a little bumpy. My driver skillfully avoided as many of the bumps as he could and I felt fairly safe on the back of the bike. Then the road got a little worse and was a little bumpier. The road is paved but has sections which are only dirt or really bad pot holes. Cars go very slowly through these areas as they cannot avoid the bumps. Moto conchos go a little faster because they can weave easier.

I’m not sure at what kilometre we left flat road and started up the mountain, but I would guess maybe kilometre five. As we started up the mountain, I reached around and held on to the handle behind my bum. I really had no choice as I had 30 lbs of camera gear making me ‘back heavy’ and I couldn’t hold on to the moto concho driver because we were separated by the backpack on my chest. As the incline steepened, as did my fear. Now, I wasn’t really ‘scared’, more just uncomfortable. I seriously was going up a mountain with 30 lbs of stuff pulling me backwards and trying to hold on with one hand behind my bum, my stomach muscles tightened and my thighs probably gripping the guys legs pretty tightly. Let’s not forget the clenched teeth too!

By about kilometre 10 and still going up the mountain I started to wonder if I could clench all of these muscles and hold on for another nine kilometres. I had a hot / cold flash as I thought about the possibility of falling backwards off the bike with no helmet on … and I clenched my legs tighter.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have been afraid at all if I was holding on to the guy in front of me or if I didn’t have the 30 lbs of camera gear on my back. I’m sure the moto concho guy would have loved for me to wrap my arms around him for the 19 kilometre drive, but, alas, it isn’t really appropriate to hold on with a death grip to your taxi driver! So, I refrained.

At some point as we bounced around and dodged pot holes, I asked my driver for his name. Surprisingly I only had to ask twice to understand that it was Miguel. I didn’t understand much else of what he said though. More because of the wind than anything though.

Shortly before arriving at Tubagua, Miguel pulled over and said hello to a woman who came over to the moto concho and hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I had no idea what was going on … why was my moto concho stopping on the side of the road to introduce me to a woman? Was I supposed to get off here? If so, where was the lodge? And, did he really know where he was taking me? He told me I wasn’t getting off there, and after the introduction was done, we continued on, up up up the hill for another couple of kilometres where he pulled over again by a small hut with a group of young guys sitting around.

I tried to get off the bike, but one of my backpack straps had gotten caught during the ride. Luckily one of the guys rushed to my assistance to untangle me. My dismount from the bike was certainly less than graceful with my front and back, back packs! And then, when both feet were on the ground I was stuck with a cord between my legs and it was stuck on the other side of the bike. For a brief moment I was having a flash back to my Galapagos Adventures with the Lifejacket Complications.

The young man quickly freed the cord and I was able to move. I asked ‘Cuanto cuesta’ (how much) and the same young man responded ‘One hundred’ (Pesos that is, not dollars). A moment later he was sitting down talking to his friends (in Spanish) and telling them that I speak English. Being brave, I piped up … ‘And Spanish too’. Well, I guess they were impressed! I then lost my bravery and followed up with ‘poquito’, meaning a little.

They then pointed up the hill and off I started trekking up the dirt road, to where, I still didn’t know. I hadn’t seen a sign for the Lodge and from the bottom of the hill I couldn’t really see anything that resembled a lodge. None the less, up the hill I went with two backpacks. I was happy to be on my own two feet and excited that I had conquered the mountain by moto concho!