Low tide (part 9)

The next morning we had to go our separate ways: Annoi to catch a plane back home, and me to pursue High Adventure in all parts south. We were both a bit grouchy at this: I’d finally come to accept I was a bit jack of solo backpacking, and Annoi had her thoughts on a Monday morning at work.

We were hustled into a trike and a van respectively and made a hasty au revoir through the window. I had the entire island of Palawan stretching in front of me, but do you think I was happy? Who was going to pour the Tanqueray once the sun was long over the yardarm? Who was going to analyse the personality of every backpacker we met? Who was going to break out into ‘I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’ every time we passed a palm tree?

I had another 7 hours of rough roads ahead of me, and said a quiet prayer of thanks that I crashed the motorbike in a nice safe ditch when I did. To the strains of Tom Jones on the stereo, the chivalrous Filipino gents continued to kiss my hand, put down footstools and rave about my bone structure. What a shame they only came up to my boob! And wore their singlets in the man-fashion of the Philippines (rolled up under their arms to expose their round brown bellies)!

I was plied with mints, chips and cassava and buko cakes by everyone on board (including the Mormons up the back), and quizzed closely by the driver about my unmarried state. Lacking the proper English, he waved his hands and blurted: “What happened?” while I struggled with myself not to retort. We stopped off at a roadhouse for a meal and a wee, and I enjoyed some stone cold fish and rice while watching a couple of teenage boys plop their baby brother on a stool, shovel food into his obedient gob and wipe up afterwards.

When I returned to the van, everyone was politely waiting for my return – none of the yelling, running in circles or pretend-driving off I’d come to love in West Africa (my yardstick of all travel). Once I jumped in, everyone smiled, the driver turned the key in the ignition and we were off. Another three bumpy hours later, and we rolled up to Quezon, a small town centre on the southern coast of Palawan, in the throes of its weekly market day.

I hopped out of the van for a quick scout around. My only criticism of the Philippines is that there is ABSOLUTELY BUGGER-ALL to buy, apart from the neon t-shirts, faded shell bracelets and coconut ashtrays you can buy anywhere in Asia, Africa or the Pacific. I had seen some intriguing t-shirts about with epithets such as ‘Say Yes to Emo’, ‘The Governor’ and one on a little girl reading ‘So Hot Right Now’, but apart from tearing them off people’s backs, I was to remain empty-handed.

On a trike I rolled up to the Tabon Village Resort, the perfect horror movie location that shall receive proper attention in the next post. There were about 10 ancient huts lining the beach and a restaurant up one end, built on ramshackle foundations at the end of a long walkway jutting into a shallow bay. To announce my presence as officially the only person staying in the hotel (and judging from my reception, the only white woman on her own that anyone in Quezon had ever seen) I had to leap over missing planks and edge around silent, staring labourers. I walked into a high-ceilinged room that would have seated about 100 people, but that day was deserted. A watery sunlight reflected off the bamboo beams, and instead of windows, hundreds of translucent capiz shells were set into cracked wooden frames. The whole place gave off a distinct aura of loneliness and dilapidation.

Behind me a tall European man shuffled up shyly. His eyes roamed around the room and his voice was quiet and hesitant, as though he was unused to speaking out loud. In comparison my voice boomed up to the ceiling, my old backpack seemed to fill the air with clatterings and dirt and my hands shot out to knock a few dusty shells off the table. He pulled out a threadbare towel and a small cake of soap, and plucked one of the many houseboys out of the shadows to take me to my hut.

Being too late in the day to roust anyone out of their siesta to take me to the Tabon Caves, I thought I’d don the red bikini and take a dip in the shallow bay. Now I’m a bit proud of these togs – I had them purpose-built with made-to-order scaffolding. They make me feel like I’m about to take the waters on the Côte d’Azur with a leopard on one side and George Clooney on the other. These togs would go well with a metre-long cigarette holder and a turban. These togs are good for prancing, preening and sashaying, in that order.

Observing the village children as they collected cockles in their buckets, I thought it safe to swim in this innocent-looking bit of ocean, and found a good spot on one side of the restaurant with soft sand leading down to the water. The kids swam around the other side of the restaurant, and a few shouts in Tagalog told me they had spotted the wonder of the red bikini. After a day on the road I was eager for a soak and sprinted in quickly.

I had taken about two steps into the water when I immediately sunk into soft mud. The first step to my knees, the next to my thighs. Unloosing a mighty shriek, I flailed to one side and plopped a hand into the mud, which also sunk up to my elbow. Working it out furiously by thrashing my body back and forth, the devil’s mud released my arm with a long sucking sound, which I held it up for inspection.

By now, every child in the village had swum, or raced around to view the days’ entertainment. The kitchen staff stuck their heads out of a window to join in the gag. My arm in the sunlight was no longer an arm – after an encounter with the demon mud of Quezon, it was a thick glove of black ooze, veined with scary seaweed tentacles and dripping a putrid stream of water onto my legs.

Still floundering wildly, I heaved one leg out of the mud and stepped back up onto the yellow sand, grabbed the other leg by the thigh and pulled it up as well. I now had two giant mud ugg boots, like the world’s first bogan. From the waist up – Gina Lollobrigida. The waist down – the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Everyone howled. One of the kitchen staff took pity and told me kindly that perhaps high tide was a better time for foolish white people to go sea bathing.

I shuffled away for a cold bucket shower in my hut, reflecting upon how things are different when you travel on your own.

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