Published: August 3rd 2006April 20th 2006
entering the cave
Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park
The traffic noise is deafening, yet I find myself crouched behind the counter in the lobby of my door-less hotel-come-brothel, a finger in one ear and a phone to the other, struggling to conduct an interview with my future boss in Korea. Luckily neither of us can really understand the other in the din, so it is decided the best thing for me to do is write an essay on 'The teaching of English as a foreign language in Korea'.
During my 45 minute flight from Cebu to Palawan the following morning, I eat my airplane snack, drink my coffee and put the finishing touches to my essay. I know nothing whatsoever about teaching …or Korea for that matter. So after completing my three page plagiarized master piece, I feel pretty pleased for myself.
I'd arrived in Palawan with a mission to visit the Tau't Batu, or 'People of the Rock', an indigenous tribe discovered just 20 years ago who live in caves deep in a valley in the south of the island. Many Filipinos had warned me off such a trip "Muslims and Malaria" they had said. Comical as it seemed to me, 'M&Ms' is reason enough to keep
Entering the Lagoon
Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan
locals and tourist alike from heading down there, after all, Lariam can't protect you against Islam right?
Unfortunately Stone Age tribal people don't traditionally have GSM or Gmail. And since I still hadn't heard back from my future employer, I was shackled to civilization. Though fortunately, what I assumed to be 'the beaten track' in Palawan, had loads of world class spots scattered along its path, allowing me to make a trip of it... and, just a four-hour bumpy bus ride from Puerto Princessa is the sleepy village of Sabang, and the jumping off point for a visit to The UNESCO St. Paul, Subterranean Cave River Park.
Arriving in the afternoon I soon discovered electricity was a luxury and no Telephone or Internet connection meant I was already out of contact with Seoul and my recruiter in New York. I had planned to visit the cave on a leisurely hike the day after my arrival, until I discovered the weekly boat was due to leave at dawn the following morning, leaving me just two hours to hike to the cave and back. However, in my sweaty fatigued state, I decided to bite the bullet, dip into my pockets,
Bacuit Bay, El Nido, Palawan
and charter my own personal boat.
The entrance to the cave sits in a magical little lagoon with stalactites guarding the entrance. The local Batak people once feared to go inside this 8 km long underground river and after paddling into the mouth of the cave you can quickly empathize with their spiritual apprehension. The cave is shrouded in complete darkness, the only noise being that of the boatman's paddle, slopping smoothly in and out of the tranquil river, echoing eerily around inside the enormous bat-lined chambers. Then the boatman tosses me a floodlight to guide our way and allow me to witness all the weird and wonderful shapes the years of erosion have sculpted into the stalactites and stalagmites of this mysterious world. If you hadn't before, it is now you realize how seriously the majority of Filipinos take their Catholicism; 'The Virgin Mary', 'The Nativity' and ' The Three Wise Men and Castle' formations were just a few biblical sculptures pointed out to me… those and the somewhat less pious 'bacon', 'cheese', 'bird' and 'Sharon Stone' formations amongst many many others… to be fair, some of these descriptions you can understand, but most seem to simply reflect
Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park
the amount of years these boatmen have spent in this subterranean world, starved of reality watching light bounce off the weird shapes as their imaginations run riot.
After a days boat ride north I reach my next destination of Port Barton, another charming little fishing village inside a bay dotted with picturesque tropical islands. Fortunately one of the hotels had a generator and a satellite dish allowing for a very sketchy and expensive Internet connection a few hours every evening. The 'highlight' of my stay their was undoubtedly one night when I was awoken at around 1am and attacked on my doorstep at point-blank range by two drunken guys with giant clam shells!?
Before I could comprehend what, or more importantly why, this had happened, they had fled the scene. I stood in shock, looked down at my hands in the darkness and saw dark liquid oozing from my wounds. As I stood bewildered, momentarily thinking how bloody long these wounds would take to heal in the tropics (as I was still battling my infected knees from a motorbike accident in Mindanao) the fight-or-flight-juice kicked in, and the next thing I knew I was running after them with
a clam in my hand, wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts…I caught them up, sought petty and very sweet retribution, and in the next instant, it was they who were chasing me… Four of them!
On my return from a moon-lit Benny Hill type experience, I informed Mrs Ausan, the charming and fiery owner of the hotel, of my predicament. She was livid, and felt in many ways that this had been a direct attack on her. After waking half the neighbourhood up she notified the Barangay (village) Captain, who came out immediately, even though it was now 2am. The generator was turned on and a big Poirot-esque forensic assessment of the scene was carried out. At first I thought the inspector was milking it when he shone a torch at some indistinct markings in the sand and said excitedly "See that?", "What?" I replied, honestly expecting him to say 'Three Wise Men and Castle". But in actual fact he'd discovered hand prints where one of my pursuers had fallen down a flight of stairs whilst chasing me, and furthermore, matched the shoe prints with those found outside my room.
Next morning, as arranged, I went
island hopping again with my trusty boatman Danny. The previous day we'd had a day long chat about Filipino politics, corruption and civil strife. In the guide book it warns against discussing such topics with Filipinos, who it claims prefer talking about their families - and it's true, Filipinos love talking about their families… until you start talking politics and corruption...
Filipinos claim their country is the birth place of people power. In 1986 two million people took to the streets in a peaceful revolution to oust the American sponsored dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Democracy restored, people expected an end to corruption and poverty, but ultimately the new leader Corazon Aquino was held up by the remnants of the old status quo, was therefore weak, and nothing changed.
In 2001 the people took to the streets once again to oust ex-actor Joseph Estrada. This time the revolution was live on TV…and this time Gloria Arroyo, one time classmate of Bill Clinton, was the beneficiary. Could she bring about an end to corruption, poverty and election fraud? Recent evidence would suggests she'd rather not!
In many ways, the last revolution cannot be called a revolution at all, after all 'revolution' dictates
a big change, not simply a change of face. The Philippines remains poor and politically unstable; corruption is still rife and in many ways things are worse than they were 20 years ago. If people power has achieved anything at all, it is to have made the status quo very nervous, with human rights violations on the rise and over 700 politically motivated killings occurring since Arroyo was catapulted to power. It seems the military have been given carte blanche to deal with potential threats, which currently include indigenous, communist, Muslim and Maoist leaders, their sympathizers, Human rights activists, and even the journalists who attempt to uncover the truth.
People in The Philippines have become very skeptical, they want rid of Arroyo but have come to realize the alternative is probably not much different. Taking to the streets nowadays in protest simply means the loss of a day's wages. The big fear is that Filipino 'people power' may ultimately leave people feeling powerless
Anyway, today Danny and I had something else to talk about! I told him all about my little incident the night before and he was as shocked and outraged by it all as I'd been.
As we took shelter from the midday sun on one of the beautiful tropical islands that dot the bay we got chatting to some fisherman. News travels faster than a flash flood in a town like Port Barton, and It materialized that one of the fishermen had overheard some guys talking that very morning about how 'they' would seek revenge that night and attack the 'foreigner' if he left his cabin.
At this news, we all agreed it would be best for me to skip town. This thought had of course crossed my mind, even before the previous night, due to my ongoing Korean/Trans-Pacific employment efforts. But with the road closed and no boat for a few days this hadn't been an option. However, now my predicament had taken on added urgency and with Danny's help I'd found an off-road bike to take me out.
When I returned home and informed Mrs. Ausan of my plan she was outraged. I mustn't be afraid she'd said, I was under her protection, I could stay for free for as long as I wished and she'd put 'one of her boys' outside my room with a loaded gun to protect me.
Bacuit Bay, El Nido
This I found hilarious, particularly since she was deadly serious.
I made my very genuine excuses and she made me promise to return one day, before I left on the back of a trials bike into the rutted forested hills.
El Nido is small fishing village situated in the shadow of a towering limestone peak, which houses the birds nests that gave the town its name. On the other side of this peak is the world class destination of Bacuit Bay, composed of 45 islands and islets jutting out of the sea. Most of the islands have pockets and coves of fine white sand beaches, and some with orchid-lined limestone walls opening up to crystal clear lagoons. Under the water there are rich marine life, housing dugongs, sharks, turtles, rays, and exquisite coral reefs. I spent a few days exploring the islands and the worlds below them on various boat tours, and I never ceased to be impressed.
Palawan is considered 'the last frontier' of The Philippines, mainly due to its local image as far-off backwater, and the fact that the forests have yet to be stripped bare to make way for multi-national company cash crops. I've seen
a bit of the world in my time and this place is right up there near the top of the list. The Philippines is home to over 7,000 islands and would take years to explore in any depth. In comparison to the rest of South East Asia this place sees hardly any tourists at all. It is now fairly well known that Alex Garlands beach fable is located in The Philippines and not Thailand, and for those of you still looking for that deserted beach, away from the madding crowd, just head over to The Philippines, I can virtually guarantee you one a week for the rest of your days. Though I must add as a disclaimer; if you are planning a visit to Palawan, watch out for the Christians 'n' Clams and Muslims 'n' Malaria!
Leaving paradise It took two days on a boat to reach Manila. In the countryside poverty has a way of blending into the landscape. Here in Manila, the poor, drawn to the city in search of work, shelter under flyovers and crowd together in slums amid the grime, pollution and commotion of a mega metropolis. 40% of Filipinos live on under a dollar
a day, and arriving here, even at seven in the morning, peering out into their world from the back of my air-conditioned taxi on the way to the backpacker hub of Malate, this fact hits you like a train. Even the once economic basket cases of Asia, Cambodia and Vietnam are eradicating poverty faster. Corruption has destroyed, and is continuing to destroy this once wealthy nation. Is it any wonder why 3,000 Filipinos leave the country every day in search of work?
Malate is where frivolous decadence and abstract poverty collide under neon lights. The hobbit bars, fancy restaurants and high class brothels attract an assortment of wealthy Filipino party-goers, backpackers, sex tourists, child beggars, prostitutes and lady boys. Though in a perverse twist, the bright lights have a way of stifling the seediness and intimidation; heightening the energy, and even allowing the giving of a little alms between bars in order to clear the conscience and cleanse the karma.
I spent my time in Manila hanging out with some cool cats from the US peace corp who were taking a little break themselves. And whilst still waiting to tie up loose ends with Seoul, I headed down
The view from my hotel, waiting for phonecalls, complete with local clam shells;-)
for a very relaxed few days in the presently undiscovered Romblon Islands with Jeremy my peace corp host. Here we put the world to rights whilst drinking the local sauce and dining on exquisitely fresh bluefin tuna sashimi direct from the fishermen at a dollar a kilo.
I have no idea how much the US government spends on the peace corp every year, though I'm sure it's crumbs compared to the $500 billion spent on the military. Hearing about all the worthwhile projects being carried out by these guys just here in The Philippines alone, made me fantasize about just how different the world could be if a fraction of a superpowers manpower and budget was spent on civilization and not war. Surely in this day and age the propagation of ideas should come through benevolence, rather than through the fear and insecurity of the gun. But for this type of revolutionary world change in thinking to take place, it would have to come through people power in the world's only superpower. This may be a naive dream in the year 2006; a fantasy only aired by old hippies or well-drilled cuties on the Miss Universe Pageant, but as
people in The Philippines people are starting to realize; it is people, who have power, and not governments.
So anyway back to reality;-) ...I finally had my job sorted, my ticket to Seoul in-hand, and it was time to head back to Manila for some hardcore consumerism Filipino style! Filipinos have an obsession with Malls, millions upon millions visit them every day…some people even claim to go 'malling' everyday …and it's not just that they love to shop; In Manila, with it's lack of green spaces they act as an Air-conditioned replacement for parks. I had a new wardrobe to buy if I was going to transform myself from hairy backpacker to responsible school teacher in the span of two days, and it turns out I was in very good hands.
I must confess I have no real excuse for taking so long to add this blog entry and failing to keep you up to date with my movements (or lack there of). But with moving out and all, this is an excellent diversion from my responsibilities...and besides, I am leaving Korea in three days, so I thought it was about time I cleared my blog burden
before hitting the road again!!!
There are more photos below