Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Paradise Found

Captain Lito! Former pirate, gunrunner, cigarette smuggler, dynamite fisherman, Manila airport electrician—and now, captain of the Aurora II of Tao Expeditions! Oh yes, El Capitan Lito led us safely through the ethereal islands of Palawan, Philippines on a five day magical journey that started in Coron, famous for its wreck dives, and ended in El Nido, the source of inspiration for the author of “The Beach.”

Even if I dreamt up paradise, I’m not sure it would compare to this trip. There were twelve of us passengers aboard (an assortment of Americans, Brits, Aussies and Nordic folk), five crew, Captain Lito, our trip leader ZaZa, and a seadog named Tiger (aptly named for her grey-brown stripes). ZaZa began the trip with an orientation in which she told us to chill out, relax, and not ask her what time it was or what we would be doing for the rest of the day. The philosophy of Tao trips is pretty existential—live in the moment, appreciate the beauty in the water and on the horizon, and stop worrying about what comes next. We were also told that if we were not already nice friendly people, now was the time to become so. We’d be sharing close quarters.

After her gruff but oddly appealing welcome, and once we had purchased our alcohol supplies (beer and local Tanduay rum) plus mixers (mango juice and the tiny, sweet-tart local limes called ‘calamasci’ limes), we boarded ship. At the back of the boat was the kitchen that would be providing us with delectable food for the next five days, and in between this area and the bow were the captain’s area in the middle (we steered clear) and shaded benches for lounging up front. Up top were two lounge chairs with ample space for two and a flat deck for sunbathing (or in this blazing sun, preparing for lobster metamorphosis). Fresh water, iced tea and cushions were always provided, but other than that, the crew pretty much left us to our own devices to laze about, read and gaze at the endless views as they navigated the seas for us and got busy in the kitchen.

The next five days were truly, without exaggeration, mind-blowing. From our first snorkel—a wreck teaming with brightly-colored schools of fish, alien-looking coral reef and bathtub-warm water—to our first meal—fresh ahi steaks (caught by Jimmy, one of the deck hands), green papaya and coconut meat slaw, sticky rice and fresh mango—to our first base camp—a picture-perfect island ringed by a white sand beach dotted with palm trees drooping their wings into the sea—it felt like paradise. Our first night the crew converted the wooden dining tables into ‘beds’ by covering them with mattresses, sheets and pillows and stringing up mosquito nets. Very simple, but effective. After bucket showers, pineapple rum sundowners and a delicious feast, we fell asleep to the sounds of waves lapping at the shore (and our companions enjoying more fruity rum), and woke up to sunrise, and a breakfast of banana blossom fritters, fried eggs and fresh fruit. The crew kayaked us back to the boat and our adventure continued.

I could write endlessly about the gorgeous views—a seemingly never-ending supply of islands fit for a Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Crusoe style ‘marooned on a tropical island’ type scenario—as well as the magical snorkeling and the fresh, scrumptious cooking, but the photos speak for themselves. Throughout the course of those five days, we braved a torrential downpour to help ZaZa transport building supplies to a remote village that Tao is helping to build a day care center; we hiked to a waterfall and freshwater plunge pool; we tasted a variety of wonderful local fish (my favorite was called ‘sweetlips’, aptly named for its lipstick-pucker lips) and tropical fruits (jackfruit curry was exceptional); we snorkeled until I turned into a human prune; we visited a coconut farm and drank fresh coconut water with a straw stuck in it; we slept in huts and felt raindrops dripping through the banana-leaf thatched roof; we kayaked through a azure blue lagoon ringed by cathedral-like soaring cliff walls that commanded a respectful silence; and we spent our last night on an island near El Nido that made the photos I’ve seen of Halong Bay, Vietnam pale in comparison. This island was so stunning it almost made my eyes hurt—a tan sandy beach that jutted up to dark craggy rock, which rose dramatically to mountainous heights, the tops of which were carpeted with a forest of lush, verdant trees, vines and mossy undergrowth. Along these cliff faces, birds nested, and we were told that local village men risked their lives to harvest these nests for the Chinese market and Asian diners’ palate for birds’ nest soup. To me, it looked fantastical and wild enough to be straight out of the jungley landscape described so vividly in “The Life of Pi.”

That last night we were treated to massages on the beach by local village ladies, the aforementioned jackfruit curry (tender and almost like artichoke meat but better), and stories of shipwreck survivals and fishing adventures by Captain Lito. When we left the boat the next day and said our goodbyes, I felt that pang of sadness and sense of loss you feel when something truly great—something so unique and special—has ended. I hope we go back on Tao Expedition again someday, but I’m not sure another trip will ever capture the sense of mutual wonder and awe that we felt as we glided through paradise for five extraordinary days.

Seven Hours in Seoul

You know the travel piece the NY Times does, called “48 Hours in City XXXX”? Well, during our layover in South Korea on our way to the Philippines, Drew and I lived it up for “Seven Hours in Seoul.” Our flight from Narita, Japan landed at 10pm; our next flight departed at 9am. Normal people might use this short window of time to get an airport hotel, rest up, and take a shower—but not us. We dropped our bags at a nearby motel and hopped on a futuristic-looking above-ground rail headed towards downtown Seoul. A brief scan of travel articles before landing had convinced us to head towards the Hongdae district, where one of Seoul’s main universities is located. We figured that we could count on college students to provide us with a quick dose of late-night eating, drinking and local color. Hongdae did not let us down, and after walking down a very stinky smelling main thoroughfare, we soon found ourselves amidst bright lights, rows of food stands selling everything from meat skewers to fried dough and egg balls, and hordes of people. As we wandered around, looking for a place to sample various Korean delicacies, I noticed lots of funny (both funny haha and funny weird) things. A truck selling oversized stuffed animals. A stand where a man with a sad-looking enormous furry dog sitting on the asphalt let you take pictures—for a price. Heaps of garbage piled up. (Drew took a picture of me next to that for free.) Korean street buskers crooning American-style ballads. More hanging ventilators than I have ever seen (these were attached to do-it-yourself hissing barbeque grills at the dozens of Korean BBQ cafes we walked past). Drunk people crumpled on the side of the street (ok this part not so unusual for any college district). There were lots of little restaurants and cafes to choose from, and we picked one on the second floor of a building with hanging lights and a fun atmosphere. The menu was in Korean, but there were pictures, so we basically pointed at things that looked tasty (or remotely recognizable) and waited for some kind of edible treats to arrive. First came a bottle of the local rice wine, a milky-colored slightly sweet beverage not entirely dissimilar from sake. It was decanted, poured into a ceramic vase of sorts, and then left for us to fill our little porcelain cups—repeatedly. The first dish arrived, and while I don’t remember its Korean name, it was basically a rolled up Asian-flavored omelet. It was delicious—soft eggy egg, peppered with green onions, garlic and other spices as well as a small amount of cheese, and then topped with fish roe and aioli. We were given a small dish of pickled black beans (tangy and delicious) and some spicy peppers that Drew advised me to stay away from. We gobbled up the omelet, and then dug into our savory ‘pancake’—full of umami flavor and packed with some kind of greens resembling chard. By that point we were too full and tired to sample Korean BBQ at the place next door (our initial plan)—an outcome that I think Drew may regret (though not as much as the debacle our last day in Tokyo that I have termed The Great Sushi Disaster, the topic of another entry). I felt okay about it, especially since my apartment basically sits on top of Oakland’s Koreatown (yeah yeah, not the same but whatever, delicious grilled meat is delicious grilled meat). We headed back to our motel, caught about three hours of sleep before rousing ourselves to perhaps the most painful alarm wake-up call of my life. We did get our seven hours in Seoul though, and who knows when we’ll be back—so I think it was well worth it. If you’re going: Where to stay: In Incheon, the Sky Hotel is very clean, has nice big shower, an unfortunately hard bed, and is a great value ($25-30/double). There is a person at the front desk all night. Where to eat: I don’t know the name of the place we ate. But just wander around Hongdae and you’ll find a plethora of tasty spots. If I went again, I would also be sure to sample more street food as it looked amazeballs. Transport : The subway is very convenient, has signs in English, and can get you straight from Incheon to downtown Seoul. However it closes around midnight, which means if you have a late night out as we did, you have to cab it back (around $60).