Thursday, December 27, 2012

I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas

at Talikwas, El Nido, Palawan (PHILIPPINES)

As December rolled in this year, I found myself dreaming of the beach. Zapped out of energy at the end of the year, just the thought of white sand on my feet, clear blue waters, and frolicking in my bikini and sun dresses made me smile. In my head, I had my own picture of a white Christmas, and it had nothing to do with snowmen and cold weather.

Frolicking in El Nido

My fairy godmother came in the form of my dear friend Lory Paredes Tangonan. She invited me to join her, along with her husband, Greg, and some guests in their island home in El Nido, Palawan.  Unfortunately, we had an uninvited guest, by the name of Pablo, the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines this year.

Lory, my island Santa who made the White Christmas possible. THANKS, Lory!

I was set to travel to El Nido, the day after Pablo hit the island. Lory arrived a few days earlier. She assured me there were sunny skies in El Nido. Thankfully my flight was not canceled. My reward after a six-hour bus ride from Puerto Princesa to El Nido was a serene sunset.

This was first scene I had seen when I arrived at El Nido

By the beach were two schoolgirls, chatting about school as they sat by the beach.

my arrival to Talikwas (photo courtesy of Lory)

I arrive at Talikwas, the Tangonan island rest house to be greeted by Lory, Greg, their trusted Perlita, and an international group of students from the Ateneo Innovation Center including French, Spanish, and Filipino students.

88 steps up to paradise

I negotiate all 88 steps to reach the three-bedroom house. One room is looks out to the forest, another to the serene bay, and another the islands of El Nido. The entire gang headed to Art Café in El Nido town, a joint quite popular among foreign tourists for pizza, ice-cold San Miguel beer, and artwork for sale. A local band plays standards and folk tunes. With some prodding our talented host, Lory, kindly gave in to singing a few songs for group to the delight of the entire café.

The next day, Lory, the students and I did the island tour of El Nido. When I did this nine years ago, each island I visited had no other tourists. It is no longer the case. Our first stop, Commando Beach was perfect for photos, to sunbathe and to swim. As soon as our boat ride began, Spanish student Antonio and Filipino Jesse, put on their Santa hats. The merry-making began, as the two boys played Frisbee, snorkeled, and swam with their santa hats for the rest of the day.
Jesse and Antonio play Santa at Commando Beach

Next stop was Secret Lagoon. Obviously, it was not much of a secret, as there were many other boats parked around the lagoon with many foreigners swimming. The charm of the secret lagoon was the pool you enter through a small opening in the rocks. The cool clear water of the pool is hidden by tall limestone formations. 

The third stop was at Shimizu island for lunch. While our boatman Ryan cooked our island feast of grilled fish, squid, cucumber salad, and fresh bananas, papayas, watermelon, and pineapples, a few of us snorkled while the others napped. As lunch was served, from a distance we saw the rain pouring.
Lunch at Shimizu island
At Shimuzu island

We then proceeded to Big Lagoon, where our two Santas took turns jumping off a wooden floating deck into the cool lagoon. When the rain started to pour, we headed to Small Lagoon. Other tourists explored the lagoon on canoes. We walked, swam or floated merrily into the lagoon, laughing and ribbing each other.

At big lagoon

While the AIC students worked on their projects such as portable lighting and smart phone charger from a motorcyle battery, I spent my time with Lory and the caretakers of Talikwas: Flor, her husband, her daughter, Baby, and her grandson, Kulot (curly). The island has no electricity, so food had to be purchased fresh everyday. We went spent our mornings going to town to go market shopping.
Bonding with Kulot and Baby

But my utmost joy was Lory’s Air Chair. It was an innovation on the hammock. I sit on it, with the intention to read, but often times I find myself dreaming. I gaze out to sea and let my mind wander. Other times, I fall asleep. There is something so soothing about this chair, making me feel like a baby cocooned in a warm embrace.  In many respects, it was the universe hugging me back and sending me some love.
Cocooned in Lory's Air Chair

I did not dream of making a Snowman in the sand. But I got my wish of making snow angels at night, with the luminous violet flicker of light called Dyna flagellants in the sand. I slept out doors by the beach. I spotted three shooting stars, made three wishes, and slept under the warmth glow of the stars. I awakened in the wee hours basking under moonshine. I fell back to sleep only to awaken to a warm sunrise. 

My friend, Ned, says El Nido is his one of his three favorite towns in the Philippines. When I spent my last night exploring the town, I could see why. It is a charming quaint town you can easily navigate on foot, with enough dining and drinking options. Lory and I ate in Altrove Trattoria. It boasts of brick oven pizzas, which were delicious. Visit this place, even just for the aroma of pizzas baking in the brick oven. It is foreign owned, but not by an Italian guy. The waitress said he was from Slovakia. He was rather shy when I talked to him. Understandably he was more concerned clearing the table for the next set of customers.
Brick oven pizza at Altrove Trattoria
At Altrove Trattoria

Heading back to Puerto Princesa, as luck would have it, Lory and I end up riding a non-aircon Roro bus. To my delight, it was more comfortable than the air-conditioned bus. It was only P250, and not at all hot. The wind blew on my face during the entire trip. Aside from human companions, I had a few baby chicks chirping in the bus. It makes two stops in Roxas and Taytay for toilet breaks and to purchase food or drinks.

MY TRAVEL tip: If you are tall like me, opt for the bus not the express vans. Six hours is a long time to be stuck in a crowded van with no legroom.

When we arrived in Puerto Princessa, Lory’s friend, Ernie Lim picked us up at the bus station. His car had not even moved for a kilometer when Lory asked, “Did you bake bread?” I cringed in the backseat of the car, slightly embarrassed. I’ve heard from Lory that Ernie was a phenomenal cook. I knew Ernie prepared baked spareribs waiting for us for dinner. The thought of spare ribs kept me going through the six-hour bus ride, even if lunch was a bag of chips and nuts.

The spareribs were perfectly smoked. Then Ernie, revealed, “I have a smoker.” I was in spare rib heaven- big, meaty pieces of ribs, with real smoked flavor. It had none of that sweet sauces commercial joints slather on their ribs. The next day, Ernie served us Drunken Shrimps for breakfast. He poured Gin to live shrimps then quickly sauteed them. The piece de resistance was his Bacon. If I thought the ribs were excellent, this was even better. I said, “Ernie, do you just spend your day playing?” Without missing a beat, he said, “Why were we born to do anything else?”

After breakfast, a huge speaker was wheeled into the kitchen. Ernie bakes with loud rock music playing. Then he was like a zen monk at work. Two kitchen aid mixers whirred as if they were dancing to the music. Photos of his children flickered on the Samsung tablet nearby. He masterfully kneaded the dough, making his signature Kamote Bread. Little did I know, Ernie Lim was the man behind Café by The Ruins Kamote bread in Baguio.

Ernie at play with dough

The scent of freshly baked bread is bliss. But it was breaking the bread, slathering it with real butter, then the first bite in my mouth. Oh, wow! That moment was priceless.

So, I did get my White Christmas. The universe gave me all that I need and so much more: the sun, sand, tropical santas, shooting stars, a soothing cradle, laughter, song, fresh food, play, freshly baked bread, fun people, quality time with a friend, and a renewed sense of wonder.

Merry Christmas!

Wherever you may be this Christmas, I wish you the merriest of the holidays. Ask for the gifts your heart longs for. The universe listens. The universe kindly grants your desires. May your receive lasting joy, and delicious days always. Merry Christmas!

Copyright2012 Maida Pineda.

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