The Demon Beautician of Rizal Street (part 8)

There is a beautician in El Nido who collects the small scraps of skin from around your toenails with a sharp knife, puts them into pies and sells them to tourists. True story. It’s like Buko Pie, but not as sweet.

Like all ideal situations, the longer we stayed in the winsome paradise of El Nido, the less ideal it became. We had drunk all the Malibu in town. We’d swum in the bay. We took every tour. And after a throbbing hour at the local beauty shop, we bumped into no less than four people we had met along the way. The town became uncomfortably small.

On the morning the thunderheads rolled in from the horizon, we decided that a day zooming about on motorbikes would be just the thing. I’m sure we both had the same image in our mind’s eye: a cheeky pale blue Vespa; a dashing scarf; ¾ length pants; the breeze in our hair and a basket full of baguettes. What we got instead was one of those great hulking trail bikes, all shiny red plastic, thin wheels and sloping seat – ‘The Maxxxon 3000’ or something like that.

Annoi sauntered up to the very lovely bike shop chap, and said that as we ‘both had manual licenses in Australia’ that figuring out these puppies would be no problem. He offered to let us putt around the block before we hired it, which we thought a very good deal indeed. We stood on either side of the monstrosity saying ‘you go…no you….go on go on, oh all right, no wait… you go first and I’ll go second’ etc until I threw all intuition to the wind, said fuckit and leapt on.

I drove straight up the main drag, and for one splendid moment I was James Dean, Dennis Hopper and Lawrence of Arabia in the one woman. I had the wind in my hair and a song in my heart. I drove through an intersection, past a school and a basketball court. I kept driving straight without turning left or right, and tried to slow down. I sped up instead, wobbled on my tiny wheel, wobbled some more, and gripped the handlebars. In a panic, my hands were glued to the accelerator, which for some reason I thought the brake. What gear? Which button? Left hand or right foot – WHAT WHAT WHAT.

With a final roar I sped straight into El Nido’s only deep ditch and smacked the side of my head on a telegraph pole. I flew backwards off the seat and landed on my arse in the ditch with both legs around my ears as the bike coughed and stopped. I sat thus for a while.

Covered in dirt and bruises, I crawled out of my ditch and crouched for a while with my head in my hands. A group of silent locals prised the bike from where it had wrapped its wheel around the pole, and someone handed me my sunnies.

When I canvassed several family members later I found that all had had their own experiences with motorbikes, ranging from being unable to keep both wheels on the ground to driving one up a neighbour’s hallway and even setting one on fire. “I can’t water ski either”, said my Uncle Gaz, for good measure. This proves conclusively that my family are completely unco and cannot be trusted around moving parts.

The bike shop guy drove up to inspect the damage, and cheerfully plopped me on the back of his bike for the, oh, 500m ride back to his shop. He produced the price sheet for the mashed mudguard, which came to all of $7.50 to replace, and no charge for labour. Annoi was all ‘Aiieeeee’ and worried eyes, but everyone else standing around produced their hilarious bike smash stories while I inspected my wounds.

Just in case anyone dislikes Annoi for being tall, gorgeous and smart, it’s good to know also that she is also the world’s most accident-prone woman, has had something like 7 sets of stitches to the head, and knows exactly what to do in case of shock. Back at the hotel I was chivvied into the shower for ‘a good sook’, bullied into drinking litres of water, and plonked upon the bed (where I lay with bottom lip out) while she swabbed every graze with rubbing alcohol.

A few hours passed while we sorted out what to do next. All we needed was a quiet afternoon free of chit-chat* and full of books. We hired a private bangka to drop us off at the exciting-sounding 7 Commandos Beach, and loaded it up with Sky Flakes, rum and other necessities. Once the anchor hit the water, the sky started to unload in earnest. We raced through a grove of palm trees, and found an Indiana Jones-esque cave to shelter under, to wait the storm out.

I’m normally all for a good ‘two women against the elements’ tale, but this day my humour had departed along with the mangled sunnies. I perched irritably on a rock while the sky opened up around us, and sluiced litres in front of our faces. Mosquitoes emerged from their lairs and danced around our ankles. We finished the rum with alacrity, and one by one popped out to the beach to inspect the wall of water, then report back.

The mozzies pursued us to another outcrop on the beach, where we tried to lie on damp sarongs in the drizzle. Every time I shut my eyes I could see a telegraph pole rocketing towards my head. We went for a swim in the rain. Finally I sat up and announced that I was wet, bitten, uncomfortable, bruised, not nearly drunk enough, and that it was time to move on again. As we made ourselves comfortable in an abandoned shack, the boatman returned to rescue us from our island prison.

What a day!

That night, in the Shipwrecked Bar, we met some handsome divers as we shuffled and dealt the now well-worn nautical playing cards (learn semaphore and maritime flags as you play!).

There were a few moments I would describe as Champagne Annoi during this trip: her firmly administering the Nice N’ Clean to a howling child on a jeepney, or the announcement to a group of dull British backpackers that “I just want everyone to know, my hair’s not normally this curly!” but this comment took the cake.

So some Filipinos are mad for the cockfighting, yeah? They strap metal spurs to roosters and watch them fight to the death and then take bets. Just horrible – if you’re unlucky you’ll walk past a fight in the street. But we found out that the handsome divers had bought a bird (thus to unleash the thrilling line ‘come back to my hotel and see my cock’ on the Ladies) and were going to fight it the next day.

Annoi’s lips turned to string. She harangued them about their morals, their warped sense of humour and their ideas on humane behaviour, which they all shrugged off with a laugh. Finally she turned to me and said, very loudly, “YOU KNOW WHAT? I DON’T LIKE THESE GUYS ANY MORE. I THINK WE SHOULD GO.” I snortingly wrapped up the game as she made to sweep out of the bar, not before this parting shot: ‘We’re going to meet up with our FRIENDS at another bar. You can come if you want. Or not. Whatever.” Like I said, Champagne Annoi.

*A note on North American chit-chat

Don’t get me wrong, the North Americans we met were lovely. Really really lovely. But the amount of chatter that went on was not to be believed. We could be in the most gob-smacking environment, and these guys would be talking, without a break withoutabreath, notasecondtotakeinamomentofthecountrytheyweretheretosee. What they were going to do for lunch. Where they bought cute dress #400. What they were going to do after teaching in Asia. What they studied at college. The weird spot on the inside of their knee (their perfectly toned bodies came under intense scrutiny around the clock).

Once they did lift their heads up, everything was declared ‘aaawwweesumm’, ‘amaaaaazzing’ and ‘goooorgeous’ (they should have checked the Lonely Planet for adjectival inspiration). Everything, everything needed to be described, processed via the mouth and the ear. The air was FULL of words.

I. Went. Out. Of. My. Mind. After. A. While.


The ‘typhoon’ (part 7)

They get a lot of typhoons in the ‘Pines. Coming into Manila – typhoons. Coming out of there – typhoons. Crossing the street to get a drink – typhoon. There’s so much drama about their weather all over the Internet, that what most people overlook is that any wind over 60km per hour in the Philippines is considered a typhoon. What you and I would call a thunderstorm. Light showers. A sea mist.

To get up north in Palawan we had to consider a number of options: flying? Too expensive, and all flights cancelled anyway in the ‘typhoon’ season. Van on bumpy road throughout jungle? Nine hours – uurrggh. What about boat? That would only take 4 hours, but there were only two of us, and we were quoted about $75 each. With great fortune, the perky North Americans intervened. Props to those cookie-loving people.

With clouds starting to mass overhead, we waited for our new pals on the pier while locals talked up The Biggest Boat in Sabang. Nearly 2 Aussie hours later (about 10 Pinoy minutes), we were well on our way to the exotic north in a jolly boat full of merry whiteys. We sat around….and read….and yakked…and watched as the waves got higher and higher.

The Biggest Boat in Sabang rocked to and fro on its bamboo supports, and I observed one of the supports (right) crack open and break away in the surf. Rain blew in from the open ocean – obscuring the horizon and surrounding land – and thunder snarled. Annoi and I gazed at each other, eyes round. She reached up and plugged one of her headphones from her phone into my ear. Expecting to hear some fond message from home (perhaps some intelligence from luli, below), what I heard instead was this:

Show me that smile again. (ooh show me that smile)
Don’t waste another minute on your cryin’.
We’re nowhere near the end (we’re nowhere near)
The best is ready to begin…

Oo-oooo-ooo-ooh. As long as we got each other
We got the world spinnin’ right in our hands.
Baby you and me, we gotta be
The luckiest dreamers who never quit dreamin’.

As long as we keep on givin’
We can take anything that comes our way
Baby, rain or shine, all the time
We got each other, sharin’ the laughter and love.

The Growing Pains theme song, complete with air piano. I’ve never had much truck with the idea of bringing music overseas (thinking it separates you from the very people and experiences you’re there for), but I think that for the above gold moment, well worth it.

All land had now disappeared in the storm, and we could have been in the open ocean on a 4-metre swell. Rain and spray soaked us from either side. The boatmen put all our daypacks and cameras in the hold and moved in under the awning to cluster around the tiller (just a skinny strip of bamboo). When we all discussed the trip later, each person was mentally preparing which direction they would swim for and what they would save, if possible. Most people thought ‘money, passport’, but Annoi confessed later she was thinking ‘shoes’. At my shout of laughter she insisted that ‘if you got shipwrecked, you’d probably have to walk somewhere’. And show an elegant calf, no doubt.

A good 6½ hours later, jagged limestone landforms covered in jungle started to appear, rising out of the water like ruins. We rounded the corner of one just as the rain steadied to a gentle patter, and came at last upon the sheltered cove at El Nido. As The Biggest Boat in Sabang came to a halt outside our hotel, the rain stopped completely.

El Nido is one of those places that a certain guidebook insists is crap, but is really lovely. It’s in the natural shelter of a range of limestone cliffs, crossed with tiny wee streets, and looks out upon a flat bay scattered with bangkas and fishing canoes. The electricity is on at eccentric hours (ensuring you’re awake at 6am every morning when the fan goes off), there’s a really cheesy live music bar* and you can get a whole deep-fried squid for about five bucks. One odd thing about El Nido is the curfew for the kiddies. At about 9pm a great alarm bell goes off, like a London air-raid siren in a Noel Streatfield novel. Half an hour later it goes off again, just for the stragglers. I wondered what happens to them if they’re still out after this time. Are they rounded up and detained?

A couple of perfect, sunny days ensued. We snorkelled all day in the Bacuit Archipelago with the North Americans, and ate barbequed fish on a remote beach overlooking a Pyrate’s Cove. We saw a sea turtle swimming in slow-motion, 15 metres below us. I made friends with a shy, piebald brown cow-like fish with exaggerated eyelashes and fat cheeks. One day we were dropped off at a place called Helicopter Island, had a wee picnic and used Annoi’s business card to slurp up the tuna. We skinny dipped for 15 glorious minutes but were sprung by a boatload of Pinoys pulling up in the sand next to us. We were picked up again, just as another ‘typhoon’ rolled in.

*I’m convinced there’s a department in Ikea where you can order a backpacker’s hangout and make it yourself.

These kits have been sent all over the world, from Senegal to India. The packaging (sticky-taped together with 6 screws, an Allen key and a diagram that’s supposed to be explanatory but looks like a Swedish person violating a Stink Badger) contains the following items:

-6 x lengths bamboo for rafters, or shorter lengths, for ashtrays
-Woven palm fronds for walls and door
-10 x wooden tables and chairs, hand-hewn and full of deep grooves for drinks to tip into
-One roll toilet paper, one sheet remaining
Best of Bob Marley CD including ‘No Woman, No Cry’, ‘Iron Lion Zion’ and ‘Get Up, Stand Up’
Best of Backpackers CD including ‘Hotel California’, ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ and that one about getting knocked down and getting back up again
-One stoned bongo player with an eye for the Ladies
-One cheery drunk woman who knows all the words to every single tune
-10 x cheesy hand-drawn portraits of assorted celebrities eg Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Eric Clapton etc
-One rat, trained to skitter over everyone’s bare feet