I’m in the Coron Ferry Port waiting area, waiting for my boat to come in and to embark on the 7 hour journey to El Nido, the northern tip of the island in the province of Palawan.
Every now and again the general noise and chats of waiting ferry passengers and staff are cut through by a ‘Cuckadooldodoo!’ from the back of the room. I turn around and a few rows back a young man is travelling with a couple of old, sealed beers boxes containing cockerels.
The guy was sleeping with his head about 30cm from the clucking boxes! I wanted to know his secret, I struggle if I’m sharing a dorm room with a snoring roomie!
Thankfully, this guy and his cockerels were not on our ferry, as it’s not going to be the most comfortable journey anyway. The ferry is a pretty small boat, which can carry around 20 passengers either sitting or sleeping on the deck – No seats at all! The views made up for the lack of comfort though as our tiny boat weaved its way through the hundreds of little islands in between Coron and El Nido.
The 7 hour trip was briefly broken up as we begun to pass another boat heading in the opposite direction. They slowed down and the crew started shouting over to our boat (in Tagalog), with our crew shouting back. Eventually, after a lot of back and forth, the 2 boats slow down and position themselves to align side by side.
Once the boats get nose-to-nose, I realise what’s going on. A stray dog has managed to get aboard their ferry from El Nido! The other crew was asking were we where heading there and if we could take it back.
After the package was delivered, we were off again. A few more hours and I’m treating myself to a post-journey treat!
I find a guesthouse and drop my bag. Before heading into town to catch my bearing I take a quick peak out of the curtain….and bamm! View!
If I thought Coron was quiet and isolated, El Nido takes it a step further. There aren’t even any ATM machines in the town – fortunately I had been told by another traveller in Coron to bring some cash over with me to last me the next few days.
I spend the next couple of days doing some snorkelling and Kayaking around El Nido and the surrounding islands. I’ve been snorkelling a few times before, but this was the best experience so far. The water was so clear and the reef was beautiful…the fish were pretty friendly too. My Filippino kayak buddy also provided the music while we were paddling around……“You know Ed Sheeran?…..You know Bruno Mars?”, he asked while we were setting out and broke out into song when I admitted I did. Had to join in after a while…..Karaoke Kayaking.
One of the days, as I was walking back to the hostel down one of the main streets, I see a group of around 10-15 tricycle cab drivers huddled together, crowded around in a circle. I go over to see what is going on and see that it’s a chess game between 2 of the drivers which has caught everyone’s attention.
I stop for a while and watch with them. I’m always interested whenever I see a chess game going on. Everyone around is fully engrossed and whispers in Tagalog are being exchanged between the spectators on the moves. One of the drivers, despite keeping an eye on the game also, is designated lookout for potential fares from passers-by – it seems that business is still the priority but these guys have it worked out so that only one person has to put in the touting work at any one time – the rest can relax and enjoy the chess.
The lookout spots me, “Taxi?”
I smile, “No Thanks, just watching”
“You want play?”, he says in broken English, smiling, and points to the board.
“Sure!”, I nod.
Now the title of this post is a bit misleading. Truth is, I’ve played a lot of chess, especially when I was younger. Before I left for university I was roughly ranked in the top 10 players on Merseyside, and had even beaten a few titled players (Fide Master, International master)…….if we go with the BJJ analogy then I’d probably be around the brown belt level :-) Anyone who plays chess seriously or professionally should be the favorite to beat me, but with anyone else, I should have the edge. I was definitely confident sitting down with these guys on the side of the dusty street in the middle of a town with no ATM machines!
The game finishes and I sit in to play the winner. Immediately i’m surprised by how strong he is! No stupid mistakes, a few tactical traps set for me. I make sure not to get sloppy, avoid the traps and land some of my own. He resigns, and immediately starts setting up the pieces again, one of the spectators laughs and jokes something in Tagalog. I get the impression that this guy wants revenge on the foreigner :-)
We play again, but he’s eager for vengeance and rushed this time – he gets sloppy this time and drops some material quite quickly and the game shortly after.
One of the spectators laughs, “Next!”, he barks, and another driver replaces my opponent.
And this is how it continues for the next few hours; I checkmate a cab driver, “Next!”, cab driver knocks his king over to resign, “Next!”
As the games go on, more of a crowd develops around the board. There are some jokes when I beat some of the drivers, with other drivers there is solemn silence when they resign – I’m guessing these are the ones who took themselves a bit more seriously and their friends knew that joking about it wasn’t appropriate.
With others (some of the weaker opponents) it seemed like the whole crowd wanted to and together to beat me. I don’t speak Tagalog, but the language shares a stem with Spanish – I know a few Spanish words so could make out words like ‘Caballo’ (Horse) which would be said in a sentence, whenever I moved my knight :-)
After a couple of hours, a new cab driver turns up. “Ah! Our saviour!” another spectator says and starts talking Tagalog with the new arrival, gesturing to me and the board, explaining what was going on – and they needed someone to take me out – a cab driver hero!
“This must be the top guy”, I’m thinking. It’s like facing the ‘End Boss’ in a computer game! The game I’m playing is nearly over and the ‘End Boss’ is watching while 2 other drivers are whispering in each of his ears.
Checkmate! and the End boss moves towards us. When my current opponent sees him he doesn’t say a word, just gets up and vacates his side of the board.
My new opponent smiles at me while setting up his set of pieces, “We play for Money?”
‘Oh, here we go!’, I think. How confident is this guy!? He’s just been told that I’ve been here for a few hours and beat ever cab driver here. He’s seen the end of one game where I’ve just crushed one of his colleagues. I’ve literally shown no weakness yet, and the first thing he asks is ‘Play for money?’!
‘Done’, I smile. 100 pesos isn’t much at all from a UK perspective – around £1.50. However, in El Nido, for this guy, that cash is a 30-minute fare ride!
We start and I can sense that he is a cut above the rest of the guys I’ve played today. No mistakes, super tight player. He was laying very subtle and in-depth traps left right and centre, and I’m fighting just to keep in the game. Finally I spot a tactic which will give me a microscopic advantage….giving up my queen for 2 rooks. We then reach an endgame where I’m trying to maneuver my way around increasing the advantage one small step at a time. ‘I can’t believe how I’m having to play this game….I’m using all the chess experience and years of playing to subtly outmaneuver this taxi driver!’
I finally cash in my edge and reach a won king and pawn ending. He knew it as well and resigned – another sign of a good player…..he knows what the score is and doesn’t need to play it out.
‘Double or quits?’ he asks, setting the pieces back up.
We play again, another tough, back and forth game where we reach a complicated and balanced rook and pawn endgame. It’s back and forth but he eventually makes a mistake, believing he is winning, but missed a move which made him resign.
We shake hands. I have to go, it’s been hours, my legs are aching from the position I’ve been sitting, and I’m hungry. I decline the ‘End Boss’’ cash, thank the guys for letting me play with them and dust myself off.
I tried to remember some of the games, which can be found by clicking here for anyone who’s interested :-)
After a few days, I make my way down to Puerto Princessa, the capital of Palawan. Not much to report here unfortunately from my side as I was ill for the few days I was here and didn’t have too much energy to explore. I did try to get about though…first stop – the Pharmacy!
Time for my emotional goodbye with the Philippines. I fly back to Manila and spend one last night out with Kev and Ian (“You look ill!…..Could be Malaria……..better drink some Gin and Tonic!”). And get my flight out the following day, just squeaking in under my visa limit :-) Thanks Philippines for an unplanned, month-long detour on the trip, and thanks to everyone who I met along the way who made it so enjoyable!
Next stop Taiwan!