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Published: February 25th 2009
Looking back on it, it was foolish to take the boat from Tablas to Mindoro. It would have been far quicker and safer to go back to Manila then catch a ferry from there, but at the time we didn't know it.
We waited several days in the nondescript town of Odiongan while they claimed to be repairing the small pump boat that would cross the rough open seas between here and Mindoro. Had I somehow been picked up and deposited in Odiongan it could have been one of any number of small Filipino provincial towns. There was nothing to distinguish it; the small eateries with a collection of simple Filipino dishes laid out at the front in big metal pots, the peddle tricycles dodging in an out of the much less numerous cars, the mostly bland and featureless buildings that had been built in a rapid effort to develop with far more thought given to cost than culture, the sound of a hundred karaoke bars drifting over the town at night, some of it from the very average beaches a few miles away where small bamboo cottages could be rented for the day by picnicing families and drinking friends
- it was all there in abundance.
After several dull days the crew finally considered that they had "repaired" the boat. We walked to the end of the pier and to our horror saw a lopsided metal plank that was about a foot wide and thirty long serving as a precarious gangway that led to a large boat. There was a rope next to it to help passengers balance but it was strung at a height that may have been useful for your average Filipino (unfortunately your average Filipino is somewhat shorter than me). On top of that, I realised as I began putting one terrified foot in front of the other, the rope was so loose that if I did lose my balance there was not a hope in hell that it would prevent me from falling. At best I would be left dangling, huge backpack and all, provided that my muscles were big enough and my hands tough enough to keep hold after my fall.
Thankfully all went well and we found ourselves being led to the other end of the boat and presented with another tightrope walk, this time on a wooden plank half the
length the previous one, but with no rope to balance yourself on, that led to the tiny pump boat that would take us to Mindoro.
Having crossed the plank, which rocked up and down with the boat on which one end was resting, and swearing that we would never again take a boat like this, we sat for five hours on the overcrowded pump boat awaiting departure. Men, women, children, elderly people, all sat squashed up next to one another. I tried to imagine how passengers in England would have reacted to being forced to wait so long in such cramped conditions. Here, however, there were no long faces, no complaints, no shouting at the crew or driver, no one walking off in disgust. People chatted with one another, slept somehow, passed round home-made rice cakes or bananas, smeared anti-sea sickness ointment under their infants' noses; the wait, which for many, like us, had been for several days, seemed not to be causing even the smallest measure of disgruntlement.
Disgruntlement there certainly was, however, although only among the two Westerners on the boat, when, after five minutes of travel in the direction of Mindoro, the engine began leaking
fuel into the sea. To the laughter and smiles of the Filipinos, the boat slowed to a snail's pace, turned round and spent half an hour retracing its course back to the pier.
"Come back at four thirty tomorrow morning!" the Captain cried cheerfully as we wobbled back across the first gangway. "We repair the boat today and it will leave at five o'clock exactly!"
At six o'clock the next morning we had been sitting bleary-eyed on the pier for an hour and a half. The crew had not let us cross the gangways in the dark. By six thirty it was completely light and we staggered across the first then the second before waiting again for five hours, tired but unable to sleep on the hard wooden seats. I was beginning to wonder if this was the standard amount of time they waited in case any stragglers turned up.
We set off shortly before noon, in the smallest boat and on one of the roughest seas we had experienced in almost four months of boat travel in the Philippines. Huge waves rolled at us one after the other, laying siege to the creaking, groaning
woodwork, throwing the front of the boat up into the air before passing under it and allowing it to swing back down again. Not infrequently the boat would come down on another big wave that had come particularly quickly after the last and passed under the front while it was still in the air, causing an immense crashing noise upon impact that fortunately Lizz did not hear, having fairly quickly gone green and slumped forward in her seat.
Things went on like this for two hours until, halfway between Tablas and Mindoro, the boat broke down. I told myself it had probably only stalled and we would hear it starting up again within seconds.
Minutes went by. Some of the crew had run to the back of the boat, others were doing something out on the outriggers. Inside the boat nothing had changed - the laughter and the chat continued all around us indefatigably.
Half an hour had disappeared. This state of affairs had its advantages, in that the movement of the boat churned the stomach marginally less than it had during travel, but it was also extremely worrying. My mind strayed to the stories I had
heard more than once of boats being forced to wait days on end for rescue. I looked around me and saw very little evidence of food and none of drinking water. I glanced at the sky - clear blue, a few white clouds, nice enough, but all that could change pretty rapidly in this part of the world, especially if we were here for a few days. Plenty of much bigger boats than this had sunk in the Philippines; the country is, in fact, the world's number one for that, with four already this year and the world's most tragic shipping accident to its name, that of the MV Dona Paz in which over five thousand died and twenty four survived.
My heart beat fast, my mind raced, I chain smoked and fidgeted endlessly, constantly getting up to walk around, look out the window, go to the back and ask the crew what the hell was going on.
An hour passed and at last I heard a noise so beautiful that nothing else in creation could have compared to it: not the most ground-breakingly moving piece of classical music, not the sound of a school bell at the
end of an Ancient Greek lesson in primary school, probably not even Chris Tarrant's voice saying, "You have just won one million pounds." It was the sound of the pump boat's engine growling reluctantly back into life.
Two hours later we were in the town of Roxas in Oriental Mindoro, five hours after setting out, twelve hours after arriving at the pier and four days after coming to Odiongan.
Click here for my website offering advice on independent travel to Romblon
and independant travel to Mindoro
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