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A journey of self-discovery at El Nido

By JOSE CARLO CONSUNJI, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 01, 2021 4:00 pm

Traveling in my own backyard has reconnected me to my homeland.  The sense of belonging, the shared identity is infectious, and relevant in a time of paranoia. 

 A new movement happened in social media during the lockdown.  It’s traveling by reminiscing.  Or, digging up old pictures while ruing travel restrictions.  Stuck within the concrete confines of Makati, with no new travel pictures to share, I succumbed and joined the movement.  I posted the millionth Eiffel on Instagram.

In normal times, we work to travel.  We expend energy over the course of the work year, save a portion of our income, scour the Internet for the best deals then book our holidays.  At times, it’s a random decision.  We get stressed; we take flight.  Before productivity plummets, we flee the workplace.  Vacations are recuperative.  They’re quality input to ensure quality output.

 No man is an island: No man stands alone.

The virus put a halt to all that. True, it was disappointing to cancel our travel plans.  But we were then dealing with the unknown.  The terror, the likelihood of death was debilitating.  We had to stay home.

In isolation, we got things done.  In between Zoom meetings, we learned how to make bread, or even the now tiresome sushi bake.  Boredom spawned plantitas.  The money meant for luxury at Ginza or bargains at Don Q was spent on fiddle-leaf figs and Monsteras.  We redecorated our living spaces.  As the weeks went by, we knew we were not ineffectual after all.  But us stricken with wanderlust were miserable. 

  Duck, and hold your breath for what awaits you.

Before COVID, travel became so affordable and accessible that our default mode was always: go abroad.  We found joy in navigating complicated train networks, struggling with a foreign language, or eating strange cuisine.  We longed for the unfamiliar, or to return to a familiar place to explore the still unfamiliar.  Too bad we had to tuck away our passports, and they won’t be stamped again in the near future.

When the ban on nonessential travel was lifted in August, Palawan was among the first to welcome tourists from Manila.  El Nido Resorts, a group of sustainable island resorts lying on the northern tip of Palawan, introduced the concept of the “travel bubble” in its effort to slowly resume economic activity in the Philippines’ last frontier.  Upon the prodding of my friends, I joined their trip to Palawan.  It was the best decision I made, given the circumstances.

A travel bubble, in the Philippine context, has come to mean quarantine-free travel to a specific resort or hotel destination, on intermittent dates, for a limited number of guests.  The goal is for an area to get back on its feet, get back into the groove of hospitality, while containing the risk of transmission.  El Nido’s version was bold, brilliant, effortless and successful. 

 Our home base: Ready, willing and able

The town of El Nido closed off its borders from the rest of Palawan.  To ensure El Nido remained COVID-free, guests were required to undergo RT-PCR tests 72 hours before the flight to Lio.  The resort was planned for 50 percent capacity only.  The stay was strictly for three nights.   Everyone would arrive and leave at the same time.  There were no buffets, just personalized dining through preset “bento” boxes (you could order additional a la carte items in advance, though).  Social distancing and masks were de rigueur.  Island hopping was regulated for a limited number of guests.  The staff at the resort were all in sync, deliberate yet responsive.  They were ready for recovery.

And the Palaweños were as eager to serve. Most had been out of work for the past five months.  Some had to turn to fishing or other odd jobs to make ends meet.  Returning to the seas to ferry us to the wonderful sights not only brought them a sense of relief, it gave them purpose again, for it was what they did best. 

In my case, it was the first of many epiphanies: traveling in my own backyard had reconnected me to my homeland.  The sense of belonging, the shared identity was infectious, and relevant in a time of paranoia.  Their sense of pride in enjoying the beauty of Palawan became mine, too. 

 Natural piety

El Nido was straight out of a storybook.  Pristine white beaches any way you looked. Abundant marine life that revealed itself a few meters from the shore.  The secret caves.  The hidden beaches.  And the lagoons — the most incredible lagoons.  From the raging waves of Bacuit Bay, we ducked under a narrow entrance to be greeted by stretches of towering limestone cliffs.  Inside the lagoons, it was quiet except for the rippling turquoise waters, rustling yuccas, the chorus of exotic birds. 

It was pure bliss.  Each time we’d kayak, it was just us: three kayaks in all.  (Pre-COVID, there was always a beeline to the lagoons, like an SLEX tollgate at rush hour.)  It was a blessing.  I’m afraid I’ll never enjoy a crowd-less El Nido ever again. 

But I did enjoy a crowd-less Palawan before, about 35 years ago.  My father, who loved herding the family to strange places every summer, took us there. I remember us stopping at sandbars for a swim and even an ihaw-ihaw lunch.  Elderly European nudists in hidden coves.  Snorkeling near mangroves and panicking at the sight of baby sharks.  Having lovely French bread sold by Vietnamese refugees.  The hard trek to Calauit, witnessing the excess and madness of the whole idea.  My dad showed us all these.  Implicitly, he was extolling the virtues of venturing outside the classroom to learn new things.

Domestic travel is bound to lead you back to special memories.  Your homeland is part of your story.  It leads you back to what delighted you as a child.  New adventures, filial bonding, and cheap thrills — the child as traveler is always interested, never jaded.

 El Nido gives you sunshine on a cloudy day.

Exploring your own country is also journey through self-discovery.  That Child never complains.  He just wants to be happy.  Everything is a source of wonder.  He doesn’t carry a watch.  He can slow time down.  He lives for wandering and aimlessness.

Would I have been able to relive the same feelings of joy and awe had I gone abroad for a hypothetical travel bubble?  In ordinary times, running into some hazard while overseas was okay; we’d travel in large part to taste the sharp edge of life, to see hard adventures.  But life in 2020 has been hard enough.  I treated myself to a real break: a trip within the Philippines.

The Philippines is more convenient and affordable, especially with travel bubbles.  The islands are not teeming with tourist traps that you’d have to tick off your list.  Its natural wonders are made for relaxation, not harried itineraries. 

The brief weekend in El Nido left me with an enduring reminder:  We need one another.  The nation’s immediate survival depends on the care and support among neighbors.  The connection with fellow well-meaning Pinoys is as beautiful as a day under the Palawan sun.

Banner caption: Pure bliss for those stricken with wanderlust