Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I stood in the appointed spot on the platform (signs hanging from pillars and built into the floor indicate the exact stopping point for each carriage), and the futuristic, elongated streamlined nose of the bullet train arrived on the dot of 3:00. Of course. I really have to admire Japanese efficiency – even the buses run on time, to the minute. It makes the news if the Shinkansen is late. There are three classes of Shinkansen. Nozomi in Japanese means “wish” or “hope” - named because they needed something faster than the existing Hikari (“light” or “ray”) and Kodama (“echo”). The train from Himeji to Hiroshima, the Nozomi super-express, has only one stop: Hiroshima. It skims over Western Honshu at roughly half the speed of light, making the scenery flick past like a high-speed slide show as you barely have time to focus on one scene before it's gone, left far behind. Here a farm, a tractor ploughing the field. There a river trickling under a bridge. Now a cemetery, the square granite pillars of Buddhist gravestones glittering in the afternoon sun. A small town of detached houses. A castle, shining toothpaste white. A gothic cathedral (huh?! But before I even have time for a double-take it's gone). And everywhere sakura: standing with carefully tended topiary in gardens; framed by the torii gateways of Shinto shrines; painting pale pink smudges on spring green hillsides.

A train moving at this speed doesn't have time for natural obstacles. It goes through the hills rather than over or around them. I catch glimpses of small towns as we emerge briefly, only to plunge into the next one.

Trying to keep up with the scenery was giving me a headache, so I plugged in my laptop for the novelty of having a plug socket on a train, and reviewed my Himeji photos. I didn't have long though – the Nozomi covers the 200km to Hiroshima in just an hour.

Arriving at Hiroshima station, I heaved on my backpack, loaded with the excess baggage of my Kyoto shopping sprees. Following the instructions of the nice lady I spoke to at Aster Plaza Youth Home (I called ahead this time – I didn't want a repeat of my arrival in Kyoto!) I took the number 20 bus, missed the stop because I was struggling with my backpack, got off, walked back up the road, found the building, and checked in. The room wasn't the cheapest, but with a nice bed and en-suite bathroom it was definitely the best value I've found in Japan.

It was already late afternoon, so I headed straight out. I'd got two blocks before I realised I'd left my camera's memory card in the computer, so I went back, got the memory card, and started again. The air was warm, the late afternoon light was soothing, and the cherry blossom along the river was in full bloom. Not only that, but there were hardly any people. It couldn't be more of a contrast to the frantic circus of Kyoto's cherry blossom spots, with everyone jostling to position their tripods, zoom lenses and mobile phone cameras between peace V-signs and Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties. I passed a handful of people – cycling home, walking their dogs, or relaxing on benches under the cherry trees – on my way to the Peace Memorial Park.

In the park, the hanami picnics – family, office and even gaijin parties – were well underway on tarpaulins spread beneath the fluttering petals. Despite the reputation of hanami parties' as sake-soaked revelries, these could hardly be described as raucous. Peace pervades the park too strongly to be easily shattered, and the cheerful picnickers just enhanced the sense of calm in the air.

The overwhelming feeling of peacefulness in the park was surprisingly moving – by the time I found myself facing the building now known as the A-Bomb Dome I was almost getting emotional.

The A-bomb Dome stands as a symbol of Hiroshima's infamous past. It was the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall until the bomb, having missed its intended target, a nearby bridge, exploded almost directly above it. The ruins – virtually the only part of pre-war Hiroshima still standing, having escaped demolition when the city was rebuilt – were somewhat controversially declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1996.

Surrounded by the delicate pinky-white sakura, which in Japanese culture is symbolic of the ephemeral nature of life, it seemed especially poignant.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan

I got to check in. The couple ahead of me – a western man around 40, travelling with his Filipina girlfriend Michelle (the size of a 12-year-old with the face of a 14-year old, but was probably 25) – had some sort of problem, which was causing great consternation all round. Operations stalled, and the supervisor turned the sign from “check-in open” to “check-in closed”. Eventually I asked Michelle what was going on. It turned out the flight was overbooked – to the tune of about twenty people, from the size of the queue that had formed behind me. There were seven places available on a Cebu Pacific Airlines flight leaving in the afternoon, but the rest would have to fly the next day. I was assured I'd get on the Cebu Pacific flight, which was fine by me since the bus to El Nido doesn't leave until tomorrow morning anyway, but until I had a ticket and baggage check slip in my hand I couldn't relax.

The airline provided breakfast. We were led to Jollibee's (a homegrown Philippines fast food chain more popular here than McDonald's), and given two portions of fried chicken with a parcel of rice and a pot of gravy.

I needed to get cash – Sara hadn't got any before she got to El Nido, which has no ATMs. Having called the bank to confirm I'm in the Philippines, so they don't lock my card, I found the ATM in the airport, but it didn't accept either Maestro or Mastercard. I asked at the information desk where I could find another, but they said there wasn't one. Well I'm going to have a problem leaving the airport then, I told them, since airport tax apparently isn't included in the ticket price, and to go through to departures you have to pass through a toll booth, for which I didn't have enough cash (it's only 200 pesos – about 3 quid – but I only had 80). They assured me that wouldn't be a problem, as they accept credit cards.

I returned to check-in to see if I could get any further in confirming my place on the Cebu Pacific flight. Another of the passengers, a middle-aged Filipina in purple, decided to take me under her wing. She introduced herself as Bell Desolo, producing from her blouse a press pass that hung on a lanyard around her neck. She tapped the word “PRESS” importantly, and I understood I was meant to comment. “Oh,” I said, “you're press.” She was a reporter, and the young man she was travelling with, whom I'd at first taken for her son, was her photographer. They'd been sent to Puerto Princesa to cover the festival. We were missing the parades as we sat in Manila. Tomorrow the carnival queen will be crowned Miss Puerto Princesa, which I'll also miss as I'll be on the way to El Nido.

I found a corner and sat on the floor with my laptop charging from the mains, reading the Philippines Lonely Planet (which I purchased in electronic form) to pass the time. Bell came to find me when our boarding passes were ready for collection, so I went to collect mine. From the Cebu Pacific check-in opposite she gave me a querying thumbs up, which I returned, and she cheered. I checked in my bag (“you're early,” they said. No kidding, I said), and went back to my corner – only another three hours to kill before boarding.

Bell came to ask if I'd had my free lunch. I said I hadn't, but was just thinking about it. She went with me to the Air Philippines check-in staff and demanded my lunch. I went to sit with her and the other bumped passengers to wait for my lunch (more fried chicken – cold – with rice and weird sweet pickled salad, and a one-inch square of gooey, fudgy chocolate brownie).

I sat next to Hans (that's not his name, but I didn't ask his name so it'll have to do), a German retiree. In answer to my questions he told me he and his Filipina wife live in the “Oonited States”. They come to the Philippines every two years. They were on the waiting list for the Cebu Pacific flight.

2:30 rolled round, and we made our way to Departures. At the airport tax toll booth the cashier told me they don't take credit cards. Bell announced, “I will lend you!” and we were through.

The flight was delayed. The flight from the next gate, going to Bacalod, was also delayed due to late arrival of incoming flight. Sara's flight two days ago was delayed too, because they didn't have an aircraft. “You'd think they'd make sure they had one before letting people book,” she said. I get the feeling that delays are a fact of life in the Philippines.

At 3 o'clock the waitlisters appeared: They'd made it onto the flight. Bell cheered.

Finally we were called to board, and I made my way to the gate with the other passengers: holidaying Filipinos with ipods and shades; a nun in a blue habit, carrying a rucksack; blonde tourists with snorkel masks strapped to their carry-on baggage; a straggly-haired man in a stetson, waistcoat and cowboy boots, holding the hand of a five-year-old boy wearing a coffin shaped rucksack (very emo).

I don't much like flying (well, it's not so much the flying, just the take-off – I don't like take-off because that's when planes explode), but the stories I've heard of Philippine ferries are not encouraging, and anyway Palawan's a full day away by boat.

I had a window seat, and the excitement of looking out over Manila quickly pushed worries of exploding planes out of my mind. Manila is essentially a single-storey city; clusters of skyscrapers in the business district reminded me of the stands of sugar palms that stretch up out of the flat landscape of Cambodian paddy fields. We were over the suburbs, a collection of bright roofs, pink, blue, green, red. Out over the Bay, neatly divided into a patchwork of marine (prawn?) farms. We were perhaps 60 seconds into the flight, and behind me a woman snored loudly, grunting and whistling.

Almost as soon as we'd left Manila behind, we reached the outlying islands of Palawan, small patches of green carpet outlined first in chalk, then turquoise brush strokes, on a background of indigo. Two ships with white trails passed each other in the blue. Looking straight down from the air there's no sense of perspective against the wide blue, so small clouds seem to sit next to the scattered islands.

Larger islands appeared, with mountain ranges like the vacuum-formed plastic scenery of a toy train set, and lagoons edged with mangrove forest.

The plane flew through a formation of small, puffy clouds arranged in rows, like patchy snow on a plough-furrowed field. We were over the Palawan mainland: flat plains from which ripples of mountains rose like wrinkles in a blanket, finished with a scalloped coastline of gracefully arcing bays, each trimmed with a ribbon of pale sand.

More marine farming operations. More mangroves. We descended towards Puerto Princesa, and I could see the procession of pink carnival floats in town. The plane wheeled round over Honda Bay, giving me a view of the port, where miniature people loaded miniature trucks. Then we banked and wheeled round the other way for the approach to the runway. Over the bay, over a ship, over a fishing village of stilt houses with corrugated iron roofs, and onto the runway. At the end of the runway, more sea.

Egrets stalked about in the tall grass either side of the runway. The plane taxied to the terminal building. It reminded me of a leisure centre, which made the yard's (forecourt's? What do you call a airport's parking lot?) painted markings look like a school's dual-marked tennis/netball courts.

Having collected my bag, I allowed myself to be overcharged for a tricycle (the Philippine version of the tuktuk: a motorbike with sidecar) to Duchess Pension, whose grand name doesn't match its YWCA interior, but it's homely enough in a shabby chic kind of way (with more emphasis on shabby than chic), it's only 175 pesos for a single room, and they have wifi.

I walked down the main street (the, er, “city” of Puerto Princesa is based along one main street) under fluttering blue bunting. The parade was finished, and in the dusk carnival floats drove home, minivans bedecked with palm leaf fans and pink paper flowers, loaded with smiling youths. Half a dozen ponies ridden by Filipinos dressed like extras on a spaghetti western (that explains the cowboy on the plane) trotted past in a clatter of hooves. A couple of girls wearing fairy coronets of pink paper blooms giggled in front of me. There were stalls selling candyfloss and small-scale fairground rides. It was like a May Day village fête, just missing a maypole.

I'm no stranger to travelling alone, and in fact in many ways prefer it, but having had company all this time I'd become used to it, and felt suddenly self-conscious and exposed. I found refuge in Shakey's Pizzeria, and took out my notebook. I don't mind eating alone when I have my notebook. It gives me something to do in the absence of conversation, and I fancy it gives me an air of purpose, making me look intelligent, an artiste, a poet, rather than a sad loser dining alone at a corner table. So I scribble away, and in my efforts to look busy note everything from the name of my server (Ron) to the number of pages left in my notebook (“6: I'm going to need a new notebook”).

When I finished eating I pottered back to the guesthouse, where I've been sitting writing ever since. It's now 2:20 in the morning, and I leave at 4:30 to get the bus to El Nido, so you'll excuse me if my grammar is slapdash and my paragraphs disjointed!