Before Palawan came to be the Philippines’ top tourist destination (due largely to the Underground River being voted as one of the new seven wonders), it used to receive bad press (malaria-infested, leper colony in Culion, Iwahig penal colony) and for some reason, we had this idea as children that the Palawan natives have tails. I know, it’s absurd but in those days, we believed all these stuff. My father happened to find work in Palawan when my aunt who is a health worker specializing in malaria and working in Palawan at that time invited him for a visit. And so, to make the long story short, with a lot of hesitation, the whole family moved to Palawan and we attended College there. This proved to be the best decision my family has made and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. I am about to attend College and at that age, I was given a reasonable amount of independence by my parents which allowed me to travel for days at a time.
As it was not customary for us to travel for leisure (we just have enough for our basic needs), the travels I happened to experience were due to some volunteer work. The first, was in Roxas, Palawan. At that time, the main highway connecting North and South of the province wasn’t paved at all so what today can be reached in two hours took four hours of very bumpy ride and no loos along the way. The family of a friend graciously served as our host. They lived very near the sea that the distinctive smell of the ocean can be overwhelming at times. As I saw it, there are pros and cons of living near the sea. The main advantage was of course the fresh catch everyday. My friend tossed to the rubbish bin a fish he bought that day after it had been sitting in the kitchen sink for only a few minutes. He said it wasn’t fresh enough anymore. This was a shock to me as I thought we were already having fresh fish in Puerto Princesa (the capital of Palawan) when we buy fish from the market and travel 20-30 minutes back to our house to cook the fish. The disadvantage was that fresh water was a luxury. I remember we had to ration the freshwater for bathing.
The highlight of the trip was when our friend’s family hired a banca to take us to Coco Loco island where his family were the original caretakers of the island. They were allowed to occupy a portion of the island even after it was rented out to some investors who developed it into a resort. When the banca arrived in the island, my friends grandfather, his great grandfather and the father of his great grandfather were all lined up on the shore to greet us. I think they were the oldest looking people I have seen in my life. I wondered at that time what was the secret for their longevity. At least one factor I came to uncover when they served us dinner. As we were special guests, and my friend is the favorite ‘apo’ (grandson) they prepared a chicken dish for us. It was the most tasteless chicken I have ever eaten. It wasn’t seasoned at all. They just boiled it. My friend told me later that as it is expensive to get supplies from the mainland they make do with what’s available on the island and so it would only be boiled or grilled fish (chickens are reserved for special guests) sans the spices.
We spent the whole day exploring the island by banca. It was a small banca so it can only hold two people at a time. First to check out the island were two of our friends. When it was finally our turn, we weren’t far from the shore yet and we can see our friends laughing at us. No wonder, the banca has a hole in it and we are now slowly sinking. I panicked as I don’t know how to swim and desperately bailed the water while my friend paddled back to the shore. I was so furious as I could have drowned but they just laughed it off saying they left a bucket in the banca for me to scoop the water out. It was such a great day, we were spent and capped the day off by sleeping under the stars with the sound of the waves lulling us to sleep. Joel, my husband, was by the way one of those friends who almost drowned me. He was more interested in finding edible sea shells that time than in me. We were both so enamored by the island and it made such lasting impact to us that ten years later we spent our honeymoon there. The photo above was taken at that time.
Next is Coron. Nowadays, one can reach Coron from Puerto in less than one hour by flying. But before, it took us several days -we had to go by land to Roxas, take a motorized banca from there and transfer to a bigger ferry before we reach Coron. A friend’s family were teachers in the local school and they let us use one of the classrooms as our accommodation. The volunteer work came first before the planned excursions and I managed to finish the volunteer work then I got a message from my family that I had to go back to Puerto Princesa at once to attend to something. So, I had to pack early and took the banca instead of the bigger ferry which only departs once a week despite storm warnings. It turned out to be one hell of a ride. The banca wasn’t that big and there were only two crews. The captain pilots the banca while his assistant runs from one end to the other of the rudder (my guess at the ‘katig’ of the banca, I’m not sure what it is in English) to balance it out against the big waves. I never really felt scared at that time even though I don’t know how to swim and there were no life jackets. I had this foolproof plan in my head to hold on to the water container in case the boat sinks. I didn’t really think about whether I would be able to empty the content of the container before the boat capsizes or whether everyone else is thinking of grabbing that container. I was too preoccupied of feeling sorry for the sole foreigner in the banca, who is slumped on the floor soaked in his own vomit. That was more or less my first encounter with a European backpacker. There weren’t too many at that time. So, I didn’t manage to see the attractions in Coron which includes Kayangan Lake, the cleanest and greenest lake in the Philippines, the Calauit Wildlife sanctuary where African animals like giraffe, impalas roam and Maquinit hot spring. Joel, was once again there with me in the trip as a volunteer and to this day he never fails to remind me what I have missed.
Finally, Quezon, Palawan. We stayed with a friend’s relative in a village just outside the town center. There was no electricity at that time yet. At six o’clock, it was already pitch dark, just the right time to go to the outhouse. As in the daytime you may risk exposing yourself as the walls aren’t really built of solid wood. At this time as well, we join our host in the almost ritual like drinking of tuba (rice wine). During our stay in Quezon, we visited the Tabon cave, where the remains of the earliest settlers in the Philippines believed to have traversed the land bridge from Malaysia were unearthed. We also took a very long hike and was rewarded with the most beautiful waterfalls. It was so beautiful that a foreigner had already built a small cottage overlooking the falls. Joel was again with me in this trip and I remembered being so annoyed with him for making monkey sounds while we were hiking.
In my stay in Palawan, I have learned that my earlier misconceptions couldn’t be farther from the truth. I went to malaria – infested areas but didn’t contract the disease (I have a mosquito repellent lotion with me all the time and I used a mosquito net when sleeping except for when we slept by the beach where there were no mosquitoes). Culion, which used to be a leper colony is known worldwide to have controlled the disease and has now become a tourist destination in Palawan. Iwahig penal colony, which is the only wall-less prison facility in the Philippines, sits on the bank of the beautiful Iwahig river which is now also one of the stops in the city tour list. Most importantly, a native Palaweno really does not have a tail. He maybe good at imitating monkey sounds, but no, no tail there. I am sure of it as I married one.