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Published: November 3rd 2008
Efforts to explain gravity have been carried out by various civilizations since at least the eighth century BC in India. Since then the Greeks, the Arabs and the Persians along with various others have all had a shot at explaining why fruits falling from trees go down rather than up. In 1687 Isaac Newton hypothesized the inverse-square law of universal gravitation which was later slightly updated by Einstein's law of general relativity. Anyway, enough of that. We all know that everything, everywhere exerts a gravitational pull on everything else, the biggest pull being exerted by the planet itself, hence why anything you drop falls down instead of up. Every molecule, every atom everywhere must obey these rules. But not, apparently, in the Bacuit Archipelago.
Our boat sails past a mountain of twisted, jagged limestone structures protruding from the turquoise sea and balancing, eyesight would indicate but common sense would scream against in denial, on a rock pedestal less than a foot in diameter. Multiple limbs jut out from this bizarre entity in all directions and I, like everyone else on the boat, shake my head and wonder at how nature can possibly have allowed such exceptions to the laws of physics. Our boatman, Christopher, shakes his head. "I come out here so often but every time it makes me think what a beautiful place we live in."
Later the same day a short swim through a tiny rock tunnel lined with jagged razor edges that would make entry impossible if the sea was at all rough leads us to a vast natural swimming pool enclosed by towering walls of contorted limestone. As we emerge, so does the sun from behind a cloud, illuminating the water to make it almost as transparent as air and giving it a radiance that is near psychedelic. "Look," says Christopher, "God's coming out."
Later, sitting on the beach at El Nido and eating freshly caught squid stuffed with onions and tomato, Christopher tells us of his past life in perfect, almost accentless English: "I studied computer programming then went to get a job in Manila. I worked there for six months but then I had to apologise and resign. I just said, 'sorry, Sir, I have to be back in El Nido.' Manila was dirty and stressful and anyway, I prefer living a simple life here where I grew up."
But Christopher has a nice job with enough money to go out partying every night and his family own a plantation that other people work on. Not everyone is so happy to live in such a beautiful place. Those that own a boat and speak English can work with the steady flow of tourists that come in for island hopping and snorkeling but there are others whose lives are not so happy.
"This is paradise," one tourist tells me in Coron, a town in the Calamian islands ten hours by boat to the North of El Nido. Like the latter, the former is surrounded by beautiful beaches and offshore islands, during large numbers of tourists by Filipino standards.
"The people are all just so happy," exclaims another.
"Why are you learning Tagalog?" asks another. "Everyone here speaks English!"
The truth is that only English speakers get to work in the tourism industry and these are the only people that many tourists come into contact with. The rest of the population for the most part works very hard for very little money.
One day, on returning from a boat trip to an island also called Coron, we see a man being dragged out of a boat and onto a jetty. He can barely stand and has to be supported by two men who carry him away from the dock.
"He's been diving for pearls and sea cucumber," our boatman, Richard, tells us. "They lower you down on a rope, sometimes as deep as fifty metres, then pull you back up again. If they pull you up too fast you don't have time to adjust to the pressure change so you get sick, like him. Lots of people die like that. He'll die too," he says pointing to the poor man staggering away from us, "if he doesn't get to a decompression chamber."
"Why do people do it?" I ask, shocked and wondering what level of desperation would lead a man to risk his life like that.
"Well, here you only earn 150 pesos a day for working on a building site. If you have a family, that's just not enough to live off."
"There's a tribe that lives on Coron island," Richard tells us later. He takes a sip of rum and follows it with one of water. "Tourists never see them because they live on the other side of the island and don't like visitors. They're negritos, you know, short black people with frizzly hair. The indigenous inhabitants of the Philippines." He takes another two sips.
"They're called the Tagbanua. Be careful of them. They practice black magic. If they offer you a cigarette, accept it so as not to offend them, but don't smoke it. It will probably be poisoned."
"Really?" I ask, leaving the way open for further explanation. An Australian couple who had accompanied us on the boat exchange skeptical glances.
"Yes," he replied gravely. "They can also make you sick just by thinking about it. Then they charge money to cure you. It doesn't really work on tourists though, I think because tourists don't really believe in it. But we are very afraid, because we have seen it happen too many times."
"One time I was out there at night," his friend adds. "It was a full moon and I saw a flying, black, legless body swooping through the air. Many people have seen the same thing."
Somewhere a bottle smashes and Richard jumps visibly. We all turn round to the sound of shouting and see two people on a pier across twenty feet of water from us locked in a vicious fight.
"People here drink too much," he comments. "It's good spending the evening with tourists like you, because we talk. If it's just Filipinos we just sit here and drink until..." He slumps back in his chair, miming being passed out, drunk.
The Calamians, the Bacuit Archipelago and El Nido; all three translated into a wonderful, magical experience for us and probably everyone else who has ever visited them. The beauty of the islands, the many secluded white sand beaches, the perfect, see-through, turquoise ocean, the almost ridiculously cheap and delicious sea food - all of these lead people to feel that "this is paradise." And indeed it is, for visitors like us. But scratch below the surface and a slightly harsher reality appears, a life where desperation, alcoholism and fear of one's closest neighbours are an everyday reality, a life that the tourism industry works hard to prevent visitors from glimpsing and that tourists themselves show little interest in.
Click here for my website offering advice on independent travel in South Palawan
, which is much wilder and more exotic than the north.
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