In Palawan, the province in the southwest of the Philippines, a small town called El Nido rests on the coast of the South China sea. The ramshackle buildings crouch in the sun, surrounded by a dense jungle of palm trees and lowland evergreens. The ocean spends all day gathering the strength to kiss the sand at the feet of restaurants, bars, and guest houses facing the shore.
Tourists–French, Danish, Dutch, American–shuffle through the streets, taking in the sights through sunglasses. Their skin is sunscreen, sea water, and sweat.
The local Filipinos stand on the sides of the narrow streets and call out destinations to tourists, advertising their transportation services. They drive tricycles: a motorbike attached to a carriage, which whole Filipino families will cram themselves inside or a tourist or two will sit in cautiously. The tricycle drivers compete for the road with motorbikes, people, and dogs.
The roads are paved, but rough and frayed. On the right and left, restaurants serve fresh fruit shakes, stores sell brightly-colored clothing, dive shops promise an introduction to a hidden world, and boat tour offices offer island-hopping adventures, and if you walk far enough out of the town to the east, when the road turns into dirt, you can see children pretending to be monkeys in the palm trees and dogs trotting like they have business of their own and homes behind fences shaded by sky-soaring palm trees. Behind the fences, the Filipinos know they’re on display, but they watch you, too, like the strange, sunburnt creature that you are.
El Nido swarms with tourists, but if you walk far enough away from the town, you’re bound to find a beach where the water stretches out with a soft, sandy floor and the waves toss gently and there is maybe no one else around. If you’re lucky, you can find fresh coconuts and a Filipino man with a machete who will slice open its deep green shell. And you can sip the coconut juice and gnaw it into sweet, white shavings with your teeth, like the strange, out-of-place foreigner you are.
Eventually you’ll make your way back into town, and you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with other foreigners on a boat tour. The boats for island hopping are called bangkas, or pump-boats. Long and narrow, they have bamboo outriggers on each side for balance. They tote you from island to island, the motor humming through your skin. When the boat stops, there is snorkeling in crystal-clear water, fish flitting back and forth. Nemo hides in his anemone, a Surgeon nips calves and ankles to protect her nest, a pastel rainbow fish swims carefree.
There are beaches with resorts where people paid more than you ever could to stay, only to have you stomp through the sand and hog their cozy, sun-warmed hammock for a half hour. And there are beaches where you would be happy to spend your life, eating fish you caught in a hut you built from dried palm leaves. And beaches where you can buy ice cream cones for 50 pesos and play with the sand between your toes and fingers. Feeling like flour or cookie dough, the sand molds together like crisp snow.
There are lagoons, where the water is turquoise and milky and still. When you break the surface, you can hear your own sighs of wonder echo off the walls of rock that rise up like a cathedral on either side.
Sometimes the ocean shows you everything, an open book of fish and coral reefs, and other times it covers everything in shadow, hiding the life it protects beneath you and your embarrassing life jacket.
When the sun begins to fall towards the edge of the sea, the water turns from teal to navy blue.
El Nido. Where the young Filipino men lay shirtless and barefoot at the helm of the boat, soaking sun into their dark skin as the boat takes them home. Where the older men sit in the shade with their shirts pulled up to their chests, stomachs relaxing toward the ground. Where the young FIlipino women sit behind counters and give smiles that reach their eyes when they greet you. Where the older women offer open cases of handmade jewelry and squint into the sun. Where children sing “Feliz Navidad” for a tip and climb and play on boats beached on the shore. Where dogs keep watch outside of businesses and lean into your hand when you pet their ears.
El Nido. A town whose people are like a big, extended family, and the tourists are tolerated and necessary house guests. “Nido” means “nest”, and you are blessed to be welcomed, as a traveler, to the place these Filipinos call home.