climb

the last frontier

my legs were still itching and smarting from the many mosquito and sandfly bites i suffered on my long luxury weekend to anti-luxury pandan island when i gingerly picked out what clothes i’d be bringing with me to my trip to puerto princesa. i had been given orders to undertake an ocular inspection of a particularly testy parcel of beachfront land in the capital city of the archipelago’s last natural frontier, and as usual, work was farthest from my mind. of the 4 days i was going to spend there, a full two were to be dedicated to my own PAX, or palawan experience.

at 6am, i was already running very late for my 8am flight, so i hailed a cab, and in 45 minutes, i was already at the airport. the fare was an astounding P340. i had earlier disagreed to the P350 the driver asked for, and insisted that i just add a little to the meter. i may have lost the bargain on that one. but before long, i was onboard my plane to PPC. i’m no stranger to flying, and i had been on many PAL flights over the past few years, but it was my first time to encounter this: mist streaming out of the walls of the aircraft. i think it was meant to make the temperature inside a little bearable.

the flight was uneventful, and in under an hour, we were turning around just above what i later learned was honda bay to land on PPC’s international airport. other than the ones in manila, davao, iloilo, and cebu, this is the only other local airport with a carousel, at least from what i’ve thus far experienced. i had to peek outside the arrival area to see if the local DENR folks were already there. a brown envelope with the words “ATTY. QUIBOQUIBO” was being held up high by a man. i waved at him, and later, i was told that they were wondering who i was waving at. they were apparently expecting a much much older atty quiboquibo, probably decked in a barong and lugging a portfolio. instead what they got was this hobo in jeans and a shirt, burdened by a backpack and a large traveling bag. the PENRO was there, and for my first day, they billeted me at the baragatan inn. i did nothing but sleep that day because the weekend had completely drained me of my reserves. i was looking forward to a few more days of fun in palawan, and i wanted to be filled with energy.

a few days before i departed for PPC, i began taking prophylactics, as a preventive measure. my first concern was mosquitoes. i was immediately told that malaria should not be a problem in the city. on the reyster langit incident, it is widely believed that cerebral malaria may not have been the cause of his death. the locals swear that he and his 2 other companions were poisoned after failing to abide by certain customs, and disrespecting the elders. black magic may have been involved. and it’s a little spine-tingling when you hear the same story from 5 different people who have no relation to each other.

that night, my hosts took me out to kinabuchs, a nice restaurant and grill along the main avenue. they ordered food for me, and there was not a day in palawan that i did not enjoy the meals, mostly bounty from the vast waters surrounding the province. they also asked if i’d be interested in some exotic food. i said, bring it on. what they served me was locally called tamilok. it is supposedly a kind of worm which burrows into the rotting barks of mangrove trees. it has a head which resembles the beak of an octopus, and a slimy, long, and fat grayish or brownish body. it is not cooked, but merely washed and made to sit in a lot of vinegar, garlic, onions, and ginger. it’s not bad, actually, and i finished the plate. they asked later if i was just being polite, and i honestly replied that i didn’t think it was disgusting. not that i’d crave for it, but hey, when in rome...

the following day, i was transferred to the PENRO’s guesthouse on my insistence. i didn’t want the local DENR office to spend more than they should just to make my stay bearable. my only concern really was if the room had a fan. they promised an air-conditioner, and i was happy. that same day, i conducted the ocular. at the site, one of the parties prepared lunch, and i dug in with my bare hands. i had prawns and crabs and left a heap that may have been made by at least 2 people. prawns and crabs only happen to be two of my most favorite seafood.

the ocular inspection pushed through and there were moments i felt that the parties were going to end up in a brawl, or perhaps a catfight. several times i had to referee them since they were starting to use really awful adjectives. i was deeply embroiled in a protracted drama among warring neighbors who shared fences. i so wanted to end the conflict, but the emotions were flying high. i wanted to excuse myself and leave them to settle the dispute with whatever means they felt were necessary, but all throughout the hearing, i wore a huge grin. it failed to calm the blood that boiled among them.

after the hearing, i agreed to meet with both parties separately for dinner. so after a visit to the crocodile farm, i had dinner at a restaurant which stood on stilts on a mangrove forest by the beach. the entrance was a narrow bridge on piles above the water. the food wasn’t topnotch, but the ambiance was unbeatable. the following day, my hosts, all-too-eager to take me on a tour of PPC, arranged a trip to the underground river. yeah, like i’m one to turn down an offer like that!

getting to the puerto princesa subterranean river national park is no small business. although the highway heading north is somewhat new and is so smooth, i can compare it to the NLEX, the turnoff for sabang is very rough in most parts. and yet, 70 kilometers and 3 hours after we’ve left the PENR office, and the roads have faded into limestone mountains with bewildering karst formations and thick, green caps, i was still within the administrative jurisdiction of PPC. from sabang, it is a short banca ride to the mouth of the underground river. the park is well maintained. it is populated by a few rangers who live rather harmoniously with the resident monitor lizards and monkeys, some of whom are so used to people, they’d swipe away your food. i was very amazed by this, since the animals aren’t too bothered by the presence of humans. well, maybe their wild habits and instincts have been altered, but at least this is so much better than a petting zoo. the path to the mouth of the underground river is a wide walkway made of strong lumber. there, a few paddle boats are docked on the shore, and under a shed are hardhats and life vests.

we quickly headed towards the deceptive opening of the cave and i may not have been briefed about to expect inside since i was clearly blown away. there was something so very eerie about the place, and despite the peaceful ride throughout the 1.5km stretch that’s navigable, i could not shake off this feeling that i was being swallowed into the deep unknown, that there might be unnamed mysteries waiting to gobble me. but during that ride which lasted just under an hour, i confirmed one thing: there is a force greater than evolution, than the big bang theory, than anything scientists can cook up to explain something so beautiful and yet so natural. some might want to call it the Creator. regardless, the architect of such over-the-top madness must be too generous to have carved something like that, for someone like me to be held in wonder with mouth agape for over 30 minutes. inside the long, narrow cave were bats and swallows sauntering frantically from all directions. the cave would’ve been a rich source of ingredients for a bird’s nest soup, but the local government is taking good care of the park. there are also shapes formed by the dripping rain that melt the stone into odd figures. there’s a dinosaur, the face of jesus, a swooping crane, a burning candle, the three wise men, a nativity scene, some vegetables, an elevated highway, and whatever else. it is just too much visual fuel for 50 minutes. i would’ve wanted to ask the boatman who doubled as guide and junior geologist, to stop as i pay homage to this exquisite creation. i would’ve just wanted to stare.

but alas, we had to turn back and find the sunlight once again. on our way back to sabang, i saw matthew mendoza, erstwhile matinee idol and once leading man to charlene gonzales in “dyesebel” and inah raymundo in “sabado nights”, and had a picture taken with him. he’s looking good despite being out of showbusiness for such a long time, and without the pressure to look good. in his case, it comes naturally, i suppose.

the following day, i took a daytrip to dos palmas. this is a cursed resort, if the coincidences were to be tallied. several tourists were kidnapped by the abu sayaf here, and just as the luxury destination was recovering from the bad press it generated, it is also here where rico yan failed to wake. acute gastroenteritis, it was said. locals believe otherwise, and insist that elementals may have been disturbed when a great old tree was felled. now, one of the 2 towering palm trees from which the resort gets its name had to be cut down as well. it ought to change its name to una palma from now on. dos palmas is found on arreceffi island in honda bay. it is but one of more than 10 islands, each worthy of a visit. at the time, it was low season, but still, it had a huge share of guests enjoying its luxurious offerings. for the price, nearly everything is provided, and i took time out for some world class snorkeling. funny i should still say that after i’ve seen apo reef, but i’m easy to please. but i really would not part with that much money to enjoy nature. i don’t need luxury, and i’m very low maintenance. so i can do without those roomy air-conditioned duplexes that look out into an ailing mangrove forest. the patch of white beach behind the main entrance and the honeymoon suites is pretty standard for an archipelago, really. i guess i’m just saying that because i might not manage to return to dos palmas unless it’s sponsored. oh well, at least i get to say this: dos palmas, check!

that evening, i had dinner at café arturo, with the other party this time. since they saw how much i loved prawns, they ordered 3 meals where the main attraction was these large, tasty marine animal. so much for diversity.

and then it was time to head back to manila. i would’ve wanted to stay awhile longer. there were still a few places worth seeing, and i hadn’t manage to go outside of the city. but i had other responsibilities back home. at the airport, i was met by both well-wishing parties who carried gifts: honey, crabs, dried fish, and more prawns. they’d already checked in the items under my name, and well, despite RA 3019 and RA 6713, i accepted with only a little embarrassment. only the previous night, i declined to receive money which they said was supposed to be a “reimbursement” of my plane ticket. they insisted i take it but i stubbornly said that i didn’t spend for my trip to palawan. yeah, like that’ll make me employee of the year, but at least i can proceed with the case on a clear conscience. not exactly beyond reproach, but clean, nonetheless.

after a delayed flight, i was gently cruising towards metro manila, worrying about whether the bottles of honey would burst under pressure, and wondering how i’d manage to bring home too much baggage.