psychology 200: my dark storm in El Nido

On July 7, 2009, I woke up at 7:00 in the morning to the sounds of hammers breaking tiles and workers calling loudly to each other. After double checking Jessie’s watch to make sure the time was correct, I pulled the pillow over my head, trying to block out the sounds. After ten minutes it was clear that I wouldn’t be winning that battle. This was how I ended up sitting on the porch of our beachfront cottage overlooking one of the most scenic beaches in the world, with the sun starting to rise over the distant island mountain peaks, and with a bad attitude that threatened to ruin my whole day.

Jessie and I had just finished 14 months working at an English academy in Seoul and we’d found super cheap roundtrip tickets to the Philippines. We’d gone there to relax for three weeks while waiting for our English summer camp jobs to begin. It was the first country Jessie and I had ever traveled to together (except for day stops on some islands in the Caribbean) for the sole purpose of rest and relaxation. Some friends had been to the Philippines recently and highly praised the beauty of El Nido, an isolated village on the island of Palawan. So when we found the tickets we knew it would be perfect.

Jessie suggested we find breakfast in order to get away from all the racket. But I knew I couldn’t put up with this noise all day and any more mornings. We went off in search of quieter cottages halfway down the beach. After enquiring after two or three places, I found a decent second story room with a large outdoor porch whose view of the water was framed by ancient palm trees. After a breakfast of muesli and fresh fruit, we packed up our bags and carried them the 200 meters to our new place. We got inside just in time to avoid a short but heavy tropical thunderstorm.

We’d seen that the weather report called for clouds and showers on half of the ten days we’d planned to be in El Nido. Still, we truly believed that the weather was going to cooperate for us. So despite the storm and the early wakeup call, I forced myself to get in a better mood. The rain stopped within an hour and we headed out to explore the town, get food, and book an island hopping and snorkeling trip. We finished that first day eating at a restaurant set up on the beach with white tables, tiki torches and romantic moonlighting. Things were definitely improving and I could feel myself starting to relax. At night we kept waking up to the thunderclaps of a massive lightning storm which shook the building’s walls. It was kind of scary because the high winds were pulling at the roof and it felt like they might actually succeed in tearing it off. But at the same time the sound of rain on the tin roof was soothing.

On July 8, 2009, I woke up at 6:15 in the morning to the sounds of an unknown language being spoken at roughly 100 decibels emanating through the walls from our next door neighbors. They were having a good ol’ time just laughing and talking happily. I was furious at being woken up so early again. I lied still in bed talking myself down, knowing that if I allowed myself to get up I’d end up in our neighbor’s room standing over a bleeding Asian with a horribly bent bed lamp in my hands. (Okay, okay! I’m actually super non-confrontational so that would never happen….but I was sure thinking it!) That whole day was rainy and overcast. I found myself sitting on our porch, my heart feeling as dark as the clouds that surrounded us. I was angry that my vacation in ‘paradise’ was being ruined by rude people and even ruder weather. Several times I stated out loud, “I hate this place. This sucks!”

I have to give Jessie credit. I have no idea how she was able to put up with my sour disposition those first few days. We moved back to our original cottage after discovering that they’d finished their flooring project, and things started to get better. The weather continued to be schizophrenic over the course of the vacation, but we had some days with good weather and were able to get out on the water. Our first time was a chartered snorkeling trip. We and eight others boarded a long, narrow outrigger, which is a boat that has arms stretching out from the sides to keep it from tipping. Halfway to our first destination we ran into a storm that sprayed cold rain and waves at us relentlessly. We were soaked head to toe within two minutes. The boat’s only shelter was a roof with thin flaps to cover the sides. The captain refused to put the flaps down because he thought the winds would tear them apart. We took that as a sign we should turn around and go back. We even took up a vote and everyone decided to call it quits. Everyone, that is, except for the man driving the boat. It was low season and he wasn’t getting much business lately with all the monsoon action. So he stubbornly motored on. I saw mutiny flash in the eyes of the young guys sitting across from us. Eventually we reached our first island and begrudgingly snorkeled in the rain. But by the time we crawled back up on the beach the clouds were already receding and our guide had cooked lunch for us on a grill over an open fire pit.

The second time we went out on the water it was a beautiful, cloudless day. We rented kayaks and paddled out to an island half an hour away that was shaped like a helicopter. We spent the day sunbathing and playing in the sand. There were a million hermit crabs crawling over the sand, so I decided to amuse myself by building an obstacle course for them. I formed a tall circular wall around a group of twenty crabs, then put sticks and stones around the edges. I was surprised by their quick problem solving skills. First, they’d crawl the whole diameter of the wall. Once a crab learned there was no way out along the perimeter, it would climb onto the stick in the middle and up to freedom. I also became a hero on that island. We were snorkeling by a rocky outcropping with a group that had come on a boat tour. They were being beckoned back to their boat when a big Italian guy cried out that he’d lost his wedding band. I swam over to him and asked where it had slipped off. He pointed in a general area and I dove down to the bottom. Miraculously, the first place I looked had a shiny gold object in it and I surfaced seconds later with his ring!

We had some really great experiences on that trip. We found the best black forest frappe in the world (and went back several times to have it again!). We listened to live island music while eating a giant plate of curry-covered crabs. We got hour-long massages. We walked half a mile down the shore and had the beach all to ourselves. We saw Nemo fish cuddled up inside of sea anemones. We paddled up to a beach where hundreds of monkeys were playing and swinging in the trees and just watched them for a while.

I’m so glad I was able to turn my bad attitude around. I’ve found since then that with almost every trip I go on there’s always at least one thing, and usually more, that threatens to destroy the joy I’m experiencing. Here’s how I’ve learned to deal with it: 1) recognize what’s happening and how I’m reacting to it; 2) affirm that it’s not ideal and let myself “hate” it for a while; 3) remind myself that there’s nowhere in the world where trouble doesn’t exist; 4) think about past bad experiences that I’ve put behind me; 5) start feeling joy out of knowing I have another ridiculous travel story to tell; 6) move on.

Don’t let uncontrollable variables like bad weather or stupid people ruin your vacation. You’ll later regret the needless time you spent on those emotions, and you might miss out on some of the many great things that place has to offer.

El Nido collage


One thought on “psychology 200: my dark storm in El Nido

  1. Very wise counsel on how to deal with mishaps that come into all of our lives, especially when we’re on vacation. We don’t need bad attitudes wasting any more of our precious vacation time. Crab curry sounds delicious! I don’t remember you telling us about that!


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