Part 4 – Good Granny

Every fairy-tale has a moral.  The good prevails, the evil perishes.  The honorable and selfless are celebrated, the bad and the ugly walk away in shame and defeat.  Every Wicked Witch will be fought and defeated by a Good one, demonstrating the balance of power in the world, and establishing the prevalence of good over evil.  

Know what?… Fairy-tales suck balls!

While life often emulates fiction, it seems to put its own cruel and perverted twist on things.

But I am getting ahead of myself…

My Dad’s Mom was baba Natasha (“baba” being child speak for “granny”), and the exact opposite of my Mom’s Mom.  So, keeping up with the fairytale analogy, I’ll call her Good Granny.

Unlike any stereotypical mother-in-law, she wholeheartedly embraced the woman her son married.  Pretty early in their marriage my Mom started calling Good Granny “Mom”, and on many occasions let it slip that Good Granny was much more of a mother to her than her own.  It must have been quite confusing for me as a child to figure out who was whose parent.  Luckily, children don’t bother with such details – all I knew was I had 2 grannies, and half a grandad (later about that).  Good Granny did not live with us, but must have been visiting every day, for in my childhood memories she was much more omnipresent than Evil Granny.

Like many Russian men of his generation my actual grandfather lost the fight for family values to booze.  Unlike many Russian women of her generation, Good Granny had the guts to leave him, insist on divorce, and later remarry.  She lived with her husband, who I called Uncle Peter, in a one-room flat on the other side of town.  The weird part was that I did not realize that Uncle Peter was her husband, and nobody bothered to explain this to me.  In my childhood mind, he was Good Granny’s neighbor, just like Uncle Sasha was ours.  The fact that the apartment they shared had only 1 room, and this room had only 1 bed, did not bother me one bit.  I only realized that Good Granny was married to Uncle Peter when he died.  We were on the Black Sea with her then, where my parents sent us every summer for 3 months of kindergarten vacations to soak up the sun and vitamins.  We rented a shoebox-size holiday room with a communal kitchen and an outhouse in the field from the locals in a tiny seaside village on the Crimea Peninsular.  I was about 4 or 5 years old and loved every minute of it.  Good Granny got an urgent telegram (do you remember those?!…), cried quietly in a corner, and then sprung into action.  She handed me to the lady we rented the room from, took a bus to the nearby town to call my parents and to arrange for train tickets back to St. Petersburg (flying was an unimaginable and unaffordable luxury for us back then).  My Dad had to push his vacation two weeks forward and come to replace her on her babysitting duty on short notice.  I think it was my Dad who explained to me that Uncle Peter was, in fact, my step-grandfather, but that I would never see him again.  I was too busy enjoying the sun and the company of other children in the village to worry about the news.

I was upset the Good Granny left, though, because my Dad could not cook for shit.  She left us with some prepared food, but when it ran out my Dad had to go to the village library (!), and borrow a cookbook.  The study of the book resulted in a soup-like concoction that was barely edible, but kept us going for the rest of the week, until, thankfully, my Mom joined us, and took over the culinary duty.

Good Granny was about the same age as Evil Granny, but had WAY more energy and life in her!  She never complained about her health, never walked around with a facial expression of a martyr who is about to die any minute (which was Evil Granny’s usual gig).  She kept a job of a teller in a local bank for long after she officially retired, and I remember her permanently on the move.  She was busy helping us, helping the family or her other son (my Dad’s younger brother), taking care of me, giving neighbors a hand with various chores, having a job, and doing what seemed to be a hundred things at a time.  Most of them for the sake of others.  She even looked after Evil Granny when the latter told everybody else to fuck off, and the few remaining friends and family happily obliged.  Good Granny was told the exact same, but continued visiting her son’s mother-in-law, phasing out the insults and obscenities she received in return.  It was Good Granny who found her dead during one of these visits.  Evil Granny was lying in her bed, quiet and straight, having apparently died peacefully in her sleep.  Good Granny called my parents, and helped with the funeral arrangements.

When my parents got an allotment of land in the boondocks miles outside of the city and started building a “Dacha” (a big name for an un-heated wooden shack with no plumbing or running water), Good Granny could not have been happier.  She came from land, from a tiny village in the Republic of Mordovia, in the middle of the European part of Russia.  The village is probably dead by now, for due to the lack of work, most people who could do so left, and the rest drank themselves to death.  Good Granny was among those who went to search for luck in a big city, but she missed the country life dearly.  The Dacha became her kingdom – she tirelessly planted, weeded, watered and pruned something there, spending springs, summers and autumns at the ramshackle Dacha, and returning to her city apartment only when faced with the prospect of freezing to death, or not being able to dig her way through the thick snow in the winter.  She still loved it!  Good Granny was the only reason the parents kept the Dacha for as long as they did – I grew up and spending summers with no water and plumbing lost its charm, they were never really interested in it, but it was the place where Good Granny felt in her element.

NOT our Dacha. This was Good Granny’s childhood home in Mordovia.
She is the one standing in the back row, next to her older brother.

Good Granny did not have an easy life.  She had a childhood full of hardships, survived the war, outlived both her husbands, and both her sons.  Any of these would be enough to turn even the most saint-like person angry and bitter.  Yet, she was a really positive and selfless woman, and her good heart manifested itself in everything she did.  She patiently waited for the 3-year old me to do my potty business and listened to my endless rants about what we were going to do the following day, what dress I would wear, and what I thought we would see out of the bus window on the way home.  Such tirades lasted anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.  All I can say is that the 3-year old me was WAY more verbal that the today me…  Once, when I was 4 or 5, she rushed to our place across the city late at night, responding to my desperate telephone call, when my parents went to the theater and left me alone with Uncle Sasha, who was not to be awaken from the drunken coma.  I was panicking that aliens would come and abduct me (don’t ask!), and begged for her to come and save me.  It took her almost 2 hours to get to us, and parents were home only 15 minutes later, but the alien attack was prevented!

In the hard post-Soviet times, when food, toilet paper and other basic necessities were scarce, Good Granny revived her alcohol-distilling skills, setting up a still in her small bathroom, and bartering the moonshine produce with neighbors for toilet paper and grey cardboard-tasting pasta that she brought over to us.  We also got our extra rolls of toilet paper and some food coupons off Uncle Sasha, in exchange for our family’s share of vodka and cigarette rations, but somehow it was still not enough.  No idea why – we could not have been shitting excessively, for the sole reason of there not being enough food to result in such consequences, so the mystery still remains.

Good Granny helped both her sons’ families, her friends, her neighbors, and random people on the street.  She was always quietly positive and stoic about everything life threw her way.  We never had conversations about life – I was too young at first, and too busy growing up later.  I truly regret this.  I could have done with a bit more stoicism, and a bit less bitterness right about now…

Fairy-tales suck balls!…  Good does not prevail over evil.  Happy endings are handed out randomly, without any rule of logic, or merit of the recipients.  Evil Granny died peacefully in her own bed.  Good Granny was murdered in the stairwell of her apartment building, by some crackhead, trying to score money for another doze.  She was helping a neighbor, a slightly younger old lady who was not too steady on her feet, with getting to the local bank to get the neighbour’s monthly pension in the equivalent of $25.  They were both beaten, robbed, and left out to die.  The neighbor survived. Good Granny died in the hospital without regaining consciousness.  The crackhead walked away.

Part 11. Lazy Last Day

The next day was technically our last full day on the island, so we decided to make it a slow and lazy one.  We had breakfast at a French place by the beach with a view over the harbor, and enjoyed proper huge cappuccinos and fresh orange juice.  We went back to the hotel for a lazy swim in our small but nevertheless amazing rooftop pool, sat around for a while, and then the mad dogs inside us demanded action.

We remembered seeing billboards advertising Canopy Walk, and decided this was just the right entertainment for a lazy day.  Google helped us locate the place – conveniently within a 10-min walk from our hotel.  And in the heat of midday two idiots set on a journey!…

At the entrance to the canopy walk, 5 young guys were relaxing in the shade.  We were their only customers at this time, and after some discussion among the guides, one of them sighed and parted with the group to accompany us on our walk.  We were strapped into harnesses, given hard hats, and instructed never to take them off, never to stray off the path, and religiously follow the guide.  In hindsight, flip-flops were not the best choice of footwear for the experience, but we bravely dived in.  The first part of the canopy walk consisted of climbing numerous narrow stairs, in some places bolted directly into the cliffs of the Mount Taraw hovering over the town, in others, hovering on metal stilts over the hollows in said cliffs.  Quite intricate and clinging to the mountain at precarious angles, they represented a masterpiece of engineering ingenuity. Metal tubes of varied length and width were bolted together to create a stairway path around and about the mountain. Whoever came up with the technical specifications for the thing, and implemented them in real life must have been an engineering genius, or partook in very serious drugs. Probably, both.

In about 3 minutes we started sweating like pigs.  The fact that the steps were shaded by the rich foliage of the jungle covering the cliff helped shit all in the over +40C heat.  Nevertheless we persevered and continued climbing the amazing structure bolted to the cliff.  The fact that our guide was running ahead like a gazelle, squeezing himself into the narrowest turns of the stairs with boneless ease served as an inspiration, and huffing and puffing we kept moving on.

Our bravery was rewarded: the steps brought us to the top of the cliff, the jungle foliage opened up, and the bay and the town lay in front of us, all but gift-wrapped.  The view was stunning, and the fact that it was just us and our guide, with no tourist crowds pushing for a selfie with a view, made the experience so much more special, even in midday heat!

The amazing view of El Nido from the top of Taraw Mountain
Yes, we are on top of the world!

The view wasn’t all the Canopy Walk had to offer, though.  After spending enough time admiring the bay and the birds-eye panorama of the town, we moved on to the next surprise – the Spider Web!  Stretched over a hollow in the cliff, the Spider Web was made of thick metal ropes radiating from the center, and secured with metal rings of increasing diameter, clipped to the ropes.  It looked like a real spider web, only made by some monstrously huge alien spiders.  And there were 3 of them – one giant one, and two smaller ones!  You could walk on the Spider Webs (you actually had to walk across them to get to the continuation of the canopy walk), jump on them, or sit in the middle, pretending to be said alien spider.  We did all three, and were happy like idiot children in kindergarten.

Spider Web!

Despite the heat and the physical efforts required for the experience, the Canopy Walk was definitely the highlight of the day, and we can wholeheartedly recommend it to all visitors to El Nido. Just ditch the flip-flops, and wear trainers.

Enlightened by the majestic views, and chuffed with ourselves for surviving all the climbs and turns of the cliff path, we were ready for some refreshments.  Our favorite Subasco only opened in the evenings, so we landed for a pit-stop in Happiness – an Israeli bar with swings.  What an absolutely brilliant idea, and a true embodiment of happiness!  All bars in the world should have swings in them!  The swings were strategically hung around the bar, so that you could push off it with your feet while enjoying your drink.  All you had to watch out for is not hitting one of the wait staff, going back and forth behind your back, but they seemed to be quite familiar with the swings’ speed and clearance needed to avoid them, and were undeterred in their movements.  We spent a lovely hour swinging by the bar, sipping on our cold beers and watching the world go by.  Nic also took an opportunity to enlighten the bar staff on the intricacies of Irish folk medicine – the day manager seemed to have been going down with a cold, and was professionally advised on how to make a Hot Toddy that would awaken the dead.  The guy gratefully concocted one right there and then, gulped it down, and went home to nurse his cold and soon-to-come hangover.

Refreshed by our beverages, we got second wind, and decided to hop on a bus to get to another nearby local attraction – Nacpan Beach. This 3 km long, white sand beach looked mellow and relaxed. Apart from the inevitable I HEART NACPAN sign, it did not look overly-touristy or super-crowded.

We walked the white sandy stretch in both directions, and landed in a pizza bar for creative cocktails and sunset views.

The bar made us once again wonder at the popularity of Italian cuisine in the Philippines – not only was spaghetti with meat balls a staple dish in the Jollibee – the most popular local fast-food chain – but a remote beach on an equally remote island could boast a proper Italian pizza oven, chucking out more than decent pizzas! Philippines was a true land of contrasts: a comprised of a multitude of islands, each with its own character, a pseudo-Latin American-looking country plopped in the middle of South East Asia, with people enjoying Italian food, and speaking very decent English language in addition to their native Tagalog and a variety of other dialects – what a mad, fantastic, enjoyable mix!

A very decent beach pizza

Our last evening in El Nido was spent in the already familiar fashion – we went back to Subasco.  By this time everybody there knew us.  We said hello to the owner, the band, and all the regulars, and had a great time listening to the guys jamming together.

The next morning, a taxi van booked by the hotel took us back to Puerto Princesa.  This was not Bobby service, but it delivered us safely to our destination, from where our long journey home to Munich through Manila, and Istanbul began.