About 45 minutes from El Nido on Palawan island, is the village of San Fernando, 2000 people living in beauty where nothing much changes and life is boats and fishing. The starting point for the ferry ride to Coron from that part of Palawan, a 7 hour journey through the sea on a large Bangka. the ubiquitous indigenous Pilipino boat. A shuttle boat with outboard loads the Bangka, offering wooden benches under the roof, and above on the roof, an awning under which people sleep away the hours protected from the hot sun.
Like all departures this has its anticipation and expectation, what will be the experiences, what new vistas. But first departure is delayed by a customs inspection to check papers and compliance with safety rules, safety rules being particularly how many passengers and to make sure everyone wears a life jacket, although once these guys have gone that seems to slip down the list of priorities and people spread themselves through the boat and lie on the roof. The customs men are young, well dressed wearing matching pink polo shirts with Customs written on them, and of course wearing shades. They look suitably serious and fierce, a look somewhat belied by the braces on the teeth of one of them. As they march down the boat to leave they flirt with the girls on the boat and are gone. The journey settles into a familiar rhythm that takes hold of the passengers.
The Bangka motors its way through the sea past myriad small islands and lsets, some of the 7107 which comprise the Philippines, the distinction between islands and islets having nothing to do with size, simply the fact that an islet has no vegetation. Passengers either sleep or fall into the stupor of a long journey through the sea, lost in their meditations and watching the islands and their different characteristics, and shelter from the sun. Its one of those travelling times when you feel completely disconnected from everyday life, and you can revel in the freedom of your thoughts untainted by practicalities. The rhythm is interrupted by lunch, a small plate of adobo for all the passengers, cooked on a gas ring at the stern. A stop at one of the larger islands brings that sense of a spacial moment to the passengers, but just a routine ritual to the boatmen, off load, on load, a few new passengers, and then without any particular schedule, we move on.
Coron is a relatively large islands already famous for its use as a naval base in the war and the battles fought there, its natural harbour surrounded by hills and mountains shadowing the blue waters. The town itself curves round the bay and climbs up the hill looking down across the harbour and water. There is a big market and streets, narrow and filled with people and the roar of tricylces. Coron is a diving mecca attracting people from all over. The town itself has that special energy of all Philippine towns, crowded busy and at night the restaurants and bars fill. There is great local food, amazing seafood, coconuts, good beer and a special atmosphere. Outside the town, after a tricycle trip up into the hills through small villages, is a hot springs from the volcanic source of the islands, right beside the sea. Tourism does not intrude excessively on the town with many hotels outside it.
It was election time, the town festooned with the poster of the candidates, but life there is framed by the characteristics you come to find in that country. Simplicity, a friendliness its sometimes hard to believe, pride, energy, the capacity to ignore time, intuition, acceptance, a temper when its necessary and a love of life. Its airport is a gateway back to Manila and our real life, but maybe real life is in Coron.