We’ve moved so many times over the last decade that it’s almost become ingrained: a habitual ritual that takes places every year or two. Typically, we start pre-packing a few weeks in advance, clearing out closets and sorting the detritus of our everyday life — some of into boxes, some into the trash bin, some to sell and some to give away. This year, we got a late start, preserving the normalcy — if anything about the past year could be referred to as normal — of our existence until the last possible minute. There’s no waiting anymore, however: the movers are coming on Monday, and we’re now halfway through a two-day pre-packing marathon.
So long, don’t fall apart.
The words have made a perfect burden.
— The Mars Volta, Nocturniquet
The articles have come fast and furious since the world marked the pandemic’s first anniversary. “We have all hit a wall,” declared the NY Times on April 3. Two weeks later, the newspaper put out an article on languishing. It’s not burnout. It’s not depression. It’s just that feeling of stagnation and emptiness, when each day feels like the one before it and the one we know will come after, each one equally listless, joyless, aimless. We’ve all been there during the last year. In fact, we’re there now. We’re not sure that knowing there is a scientific term for it makes it all that much better, though this appears to be the thrust of the Times article.
Most visitors to El Nido come for the island hopping. That is certainly what brought us there. After several days of snorkeling, kayaking, and beach bumming — and especially after our unexpected adventure — we wondered what else there was to do. Our guide, who was with us for four out of our five boat excursions, gave us some suggestions for off-the-beaten-path sites popular with locals, but most of them did not seem worth the while. The beaches were far less pristine than the ones included in our boat tours, and the waterfall hikes looked uninspiring. The one exception was Taraw Cliff.
Which came first: the chicken or the egg? When you’re in the Philippines, the two come together — in the form of a local delicacy called balut. Commonly sold as a street food — not just in the Philippines, but also throughout Southeast Asia — balut is a fertilized egg that is cooked at some point in the embryo’s third week of development.
Unlike our stay in Coron, where we waited until our last day to go out on the water, in El Nido we front-loaded the boat excursions. We were traveling in the shoulder season, and arrived in the midst of a torrential downpour. Not knowing how many clear mornings we would have and unsure whether we might be forced to cut our stay short, we tried to hedge our bets while seeing as much of the Bacuit Archipelago as possible. Not all of our excursions were as adrenalin-filled as our tour of the archipelago’s western islands, but they were all unique and memorable in their own ways.
One might say the Bacuit Archipelago left an indelible impression — in our minds, as well as in our flesh. The dramatic limestone cliffs that ensconce the archipelago’s beaches and lagoons are strikingly beautiful. The jagged limestone rocks also can — and did — leave a physical mark. S collected an assortment of cuts and bruises, including one particularly nasty gash when she kicked a rocky outcrop while scrambling back into her kayak. D had an even more adventuresome run-in with the karst cliffs.
The enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) — the reimposed lockdown that greeted our return from island-hopping around Palawan — lasted two weeks before getting downgraded to a modified ECQ, a distinction without a difference as far as travel goes. The modified ECQ is a step down from the Philippines’ strictest quarantine level, but it’s only minimally less restrictive. For example, D tried to visit a public park he had noticed on the eBird hotspot map only to be greeted with locked gates and sternly worded signs. Although individual outdoor exercise is explicitly allowed during this slightly relaxed containment phase, as is outdoor dine-in at restaurants, the public park opted to keep its gates closed.
Two and a half weeks later, we are still dreaming of El Nido: likely our final place of exploration and one of the unquestionable highlights of our two-year assignment to the Philippines. It seems unlikely that we will get to do any more serious exploring given the country’s pandemic trajectory and recently reimposed travel restrictions, not to mention how little time we have left in Manila. And that’s quite ok. We could hardly have picked a better way to cap off S’s first tour in the Foreign Service.
To the surprise of exactly no one, the authorities extended Manila’s recently reimposed enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) — the Philippines’ strictest lockdown level — for an additional week. Ostensibly instituted for one week the morning we returned from our island-hopping vacation, the heightened quarantine will now last through April 11, at least, and may very well continue getting extended in one-week increments. It’s hard to tell with these things. What has been noticeable, on the other hand, is how markedly different this ECQ feels to the identically named lockdown we experienced at the onset of the pandemic last year.
Closing in on his 1,000th documented bird sighting, D feels fortunate that our careers have afforded him the opportunity to go twitching in some of the most remarkable birding habitats in the world, even as he rues some of his missed opportunities.