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Coron 2023: Part 1


People walking in a street in Coron, Philippines.

Did you know that Cebu Pacific plays pop music on their planes while you wait for take-off? They’re playing ‘Learn to Fly’ by Foo Fighters right now. They've also played ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Africa’ too. Not necessarily the most welcome beats when you’ve been up since 6 already, running on very little sleep.

 

Two things I notice once I finished transferring to my next flight.

  1. 31 degrees is too hot.

  2. Brand new off-white shorts were a bad choice for travel wear. They got black smudges on them immediately during the transit.

Obviously, Manila airport was never going to compare to a Heathrow or Hong Kong, but I’ve never had to physically leave the airport grounds to join the next terminal. For a moment, I thought they’d run out of room to build the 4th terminal and had to do it in another area of the city.

It reminds me of the Providenciales airport from years ago. Single level, effectively one large room. Security joking with each other and generally very relaxed, with a friendly, helpful tone of voice. I don’t remember there being as many American-brand food stalls there though, although I’ll never forget seeing ‘the only popular brand with real apple!’ on a cereal box in Grand Turk. I’m sat almost in the middle of the waiting room, and I can see Papa John’s, Cinnabon, and I should’ve brought my glasses because I can’t see the others without getting up. I’ll take a photo instead. There’s a Seattle’s Best Coffee, and THREE donut shops including Krispy Kreme in the check-in area. There’s also a Christian shop that sells various non-descript items. If you didn’t know the Philippines used to be an American colony, you’d be shocked at how exclusively American the offerings are here.

There are large grey fans desperately trying to keep the temperature down (it’s the warm side of tolerable right now) and there are several screens showing highlights from a carnivalesque celebration by the Municipality of Castellana. Without wishing to sound ignorant, I want to assume they are dressed in neon-lit approximations of indigenous outfits. Very well-produced, very fun. Of the seven screens in the waiting area, three have news programmes. Priorities.

For a domestic flight lounge, there are a surprsingl high number of tourists. I wonder how many of them are going to the same place as me. Coron certainly looks lovely, so it wouldn’t surprose me. Am I unwittingly about to go to a tourist trap? Oh no. I’m hungry. I’ll join the club and go for an American.

 

It’s just after 4pm, but I’m finally at Coron. There’s no power, so I can’t tell my friends that I’ve arrived yet. I want to write a whole bunch but I’m very tired and hungry, so I’ll likely go into town instead to scope out the food. I’m not even necessarily going to look for local food, I just need something in my stomach.

 

People waling in a street in Coron, Philippines.

Alright, I’m back. I met up with Nicole for the first time in 6 years! I’ll come to that in a moment, but let’s go back to earlier first.

Last I left off, before the brief aside, I was about to take off from Manila. The plane was smaller, four per aisle instead of ten. The roof was too low for me to stand upright, and the seats were too close together for me to properly (or at all) fit my legs under. The man sat next to me informed me that we were flying over Apo Reef, the second largest reef in the world. From the plane window, it was difficult to judge the size as it was, for a time, the only object in view. But once a tiny lighthouse appeared, the scale of it was quite remarkable. Had I known, I would’ve made plans to see it from the ground- or water as it were.

Instead, I carried on to Busuagna airport, which was like a small warehouse with too much tarmac. It was surrounded by lush green mountains and felds of sheep. There were only three identifiable staff inside the ‘arrivals’ half of the room. You have to pay a ‘tourist fund’ meant to support the local wildlife/nature conservation, or something. But in getting the money out of the ATM to pay for it (10,000 pesos is £263 for reference), I was the last one out of the airport.

“Alex?”


“Yes, hi?”


“Come with me, over here.”


Looking a little bemused, I said to myself, “sure strange man, I’ll follow you to your car.” A few smirks from the other waiting drivers, but that was all. I was the last person the minivan had been waiting for, and I felt I had to apologise to at least someone on board. Most of them were part of the same group and swapped different sizes of notes whilst babbling in Filipino. The two Russians next to me talked very little.


Lack of conversation meant my attention wandered outside the van to the countryside. Going from the glittering metropolis of HK to here has been quite refreshing. No traffic, few other cars. In fact, even things that weren’t scooters were still scooters, albeit with the skeletal frame of a tuk-tuk over the top. Families filled out every surface left so that often there were at least 4 members crowded onto one scooter, young children with parents. The roads were wide enough that we could comfortably pass all of them, and also mostly empty. The land was a mixture of sharp changes in elevation and long slopes. It felt like there were no flat stretches. Ramshackle houses were squeezed onto the banks of the road, often ignoring any sense of symmetry or architectural consistency. They were mixed-media bungalows. Corrugated iron must have been on sale at some years ago as it's on every single roof. The road weaved its way through the small valleys, and there were bits of string set up as a makeshift fence to stop cars parking down the sides. A pretty drive down into town.

The town of Coron looked small. Of course, anywhere is small compared to London or HK, so I’ll say it feels comparable in size to a fishing town. With small hostels and a police station next to a basketball court. The hostel, once I arrived, had no power, so I couldn’t let my friends know that I’d arrived. Instead, I asked about where I could find some toiletries and was pointed back down the leafy side-street I’d come from. Although Coron is not very large, the street I’m staying on feels out of the way relatively speaking. ‘Walking into town’ takes about 10 minutes, and it was back that way I needed to go.


People talking at a shop in Coron.

The shop was like one you would find at a college – a range of necessities and a whole lot of snacks. A small weaved bowl held wrinkly peppers. A second had tiny bananas. The roof sloped too low for me to easily fit under without ducking. Even then I had to lean down further to look past the sale items and at the lady on the other side. I asked or toothpaste, deodorant, and shower gel/soap.


The lady had sachets of toothpaste (which I bought) and deodorant (which I did not), but no soap. I returned with what I had, and since I already knew where Nicole was staying, I thought I’d head back out into town anyway. As I was dying from lack of food, I figured I’d nestle down at a coffee shop somewhere nearby, which I did.


Motorbikes and scooters are the main method of transport as I said. But plenty of people still walked, as did stray dogs, of which there were many. It all comes across like mutually understood chaos, lowkey as it was in the late afternoon.


 

Meeting Nicole again was lovely. It always feels fantastic when you can talk to someone like no time passed at all, no matter how long you’ve been apart. We hadn’t seen each other in person for 6 years, since I was first in Hong Kong on holiday. I’ve done pretty well out of that 4 month trip in 2017. Lots of life-long friends. She’s continued to journal, but now it’s more of a diving scrapbook. And it’s beautiful! It has little pictures of people she’s dived with alongside fun notes from the time and place she was at and includes beautiful paintings and highlighted animals. It made me very jealous of her creativity and now I wish I was able to doodle things I’s seen on my trips to any sort of recognisable level. Mika later arrived, who I used to work with alongside Nicole. Was nice to finally meet her in person after so many years. Then a dog outside started retching, which was nice.

The town was poorly lit in the evening, so the walk back to the hostel required me to use my torch light. It didn’t stop people gathering outside their houses to eat and pay music. A few girls were sitting in the open window of a car and swinging the door in and out. Other children squatted next to the road and picked at the dust. But neither the children or adults seemed to be in a bad mood. So ended the first night.

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