Monday, April 20, 2009

A Day or so in Palawan

April 16 at around 4:30 p.m. I hopped on a plane along with two fellow employees of DBM and their families, onward to Palawan: from the afternoon of the 16th to the afternoon of the 18th.

As was customary we arrived two hours before the flight at NAIA 3. We availed of the Go Lite promo of Cebu Pacific. That required no check in baggage and a hand-carry that should be about 7 kilos.

Because of the promo I packed my bag conservatively meaning I was trying to bring only the exact amount that I needed. I was always wary about the weight. Although, now that I think of it, the regulation weight never was in my mind during prep perhaps because even if I did know what the weight requirement was there was no way for me to measure my bag in kilos.

I wanted to bring a book or two to help pass the boring hours, and I wanted to bring an excess of clothes which was what I was accustomed to, but all I thought about was necessities and the total time in Palawan almost amounts to one day.

Typical of any airport security was tight, guards were frisking; bags went through x-ray machines; and IDs were asked to match up with the tickets. By the second check (the gate was the first) I removed, for the first time I might add, my footwear. I was wearing sandals and thought of keeping it on thinking it should be easy for the guards to examine it at the frisking area but then I would stand out, everyone was in their socks or on foot. ‘When in Rome’ as they say.

In waiting for the flight I wondered about the two hour rule or how strict it is. It was a boring wait. After eating an expensive but rather delicious clubhouse sandwich I had nothing to do. There was a bookstore nearby, and if I didn’t have a limited budget I would have bought me a magazine. By now I was really itching for the book I never packed especially knowing of the 3 kilos to spare after weighing in the check-in counter.

And boy was I was really itching for that book or anything to read during the flight. Strange that unlike my two previous I seemed more bored and cramped in this flight. I was relaxed enough to want to read.

Food was no solace because there wasn’t any that came with the ticket in Cebu Pacific, which explains its cheap. You’d have to buy the food, and even souvenirs too if you’d like. The stewardess will parade the goods in mid-flight should any passenger wish to avail of any: food and souvenirs.

We landed at Puerto Princesa at around 5:30 pm. There was the usual taking of pictures beside the plane which makes the locals easily tag you as a tourist but then who cares. It was a welcoming ceremony in a place some of us have not been to before, and certainly it was much better than kissing the cement. Getting a ride was not difficult because my officemate had friends in the locality and she was assisting us much of the way. She had sent over a driver who easily picked us out of the crowd; so without check-in baggage we were off into the city in no time.

I stayed at the Tropical Sun Inn with at least half of the party. The entire structure was rectangular in shape with the quadrangle in the middle used as a kind of dining area or a place where patrons can hang out. Beer is always available should you feel a need to drink at 12 midnight, there will be a staff getting it for you but the kitchen, like many places I know, closes early. Rooms are clean with air conditioning and cable.

The only bad comment is that Tropical Sun Inn takes its check-out time seriously and charges overtime. We had exceeded only one hour. One reason which should have made the Inn exercise more discretion is the frequent brownouts. They had generators, but not powerful enough for the air-conditioning. Though it was not the Inn’s fault they should have had the foresight of giving patrons a reason to come back. It was not a five star hotel after all; some leeway would have been nice.

The locals including our host said the brownouts were not frequent occurrences. For only the occasion of our visit there was damage in the plants that power the city. It was just bad luck, made even worse considering it was summer. Though the blackout did not take the whole night it still took some drinking in the cool quadrangle and outside, in the city, to make sure one is ‘knocked out’ enough should power fail again in the early morning.

We spent the night of the 16th at the establishment of our host which she calls “Kweba” for short. I am sorry to say the full name escapes me. But the inspiration behind the name is the abundance of natural caves in the land.

On Friday, April the 17th, we were on our way to what is effectively Palawan’s pride and joy, the Underground River. While the island enjoys a host of other natural wonders I know of nothing else the locals aggressively campaign for than that river.

Anyone with the desire to visit the place has to rent a van. There is no public transport to and from Puerto Princesa to Sabang at least from where I could see. It was almost two hours just going there, through fields and mountains; there were strait roads and winding roads; and there were long tracks of rough roads too. I saw no busses or jeeps. In some areas there were locals walking which could suggest the absence of a transport system or if there is any, it would be irregular.

In looking at the landscape you get the feeling that it is untouched, or maybe more appropriate, unspoiled by man. It was green as far as the eye could see. Sad to think that when the population of the province rises the unspoiled land is sure to be no more. But for now, Mayor Hagedorn from what I see has a good handle on things especially on the environmental aspect.

In credit to Hagedorn I saw in the infrastructure something I never saw before nor thought that anyone in the Philippines would even consider making one: it was a row of street lights with either a windmill attached to it or what seem to be solar cells.

Now they say Palawan enjoys more sunshine than the rest of the country and that makes the solar cell a good idea. There are less storms that could endanger the expensive solar cells, not to mention having lots of sun powering it. Luzon and Manila along with it has storms which could make the windmill part more ideal.

The road to the Underground River goes through Sabang. It is a port area from the looks of it. You need to secure permits there to get to the Underground River. I saw some beaches on the side but I am not sure if Sabang is developed as such other than being the halfway point to the Underground River.

From here large parties would have to group themselves into 6 in order to get into the boats. That number is strictly enforced perhaps for both the safety of the passengers and the equity for the boats all around. Our small party of eight was supplemented by another DBM office, the Budget Technical Service (BTS) who by stroke of coincidence was holding their office outing; so the total DBM contingent there reached to almost 60.

Inside the boat I was glad to see and wear a nice looking life vest. It was of a simpler kind than one would normally see on banana boat rides but infinitely better looking than those available in snorkeling rides in Puerto Galera. For one I like that I can zip this vest tight unlike the Galera kind you get this awkward feeling because everything depends on how good you tied it. Thankfully the Underground River too had similar life vests.

Once reaching the island that has the underground river our boat reminded us that we should remember the body number. They were to be the same boat taking us out back to the mainland. The river entrance is some meters inland.

We were advised before landing, in fact, before even taking off from Sabang to pay close attention to devices that may protruding in our pockets or food that we might be holding; indigenous monkeys are known to be a little courageous ‘relieving’ tourists of goods especially the food. Have no fear, they don’t attack they just grab things. There is no danger of harm but still if you think of it, it won’t be a pleasant trip if you are robbed of a sandwich half finished. On this particular trip I saw one tourist raving mad that she was robbed of a suman by a monkey.

Depending on the season you came in there is to be certain a long line going into the Underground River. Including our now expanded party and the people present we could be talking at least 70 or more people and that’s not counting the people already inside. The boats now require groups of 8; we stretched it to 9 because of one excess in the division from the BTS group; that makes a total of 10 including the boatman.

All patrons are required to put their names and age in the passenger manifest for, I suppose, statistical purposes and also for safety. You are also required to wear safety gear such as helmet and a life vest. Everyone is not required but passionately requested on a separate sheet to list their names as a vote for the Underground River to have a place in the seven natural wonders of the world. Once accomplished all you have to do is wait for boats to come in.

We had the pleasure of a certain Teng as our boatman. He is a pleasant sounding fellow; full of jokes and information about the cave. I suppose just seeing how everything in Palawan is run, Teng might not be unique. His jokes, his information about the cave may be how the government wants Underground River tour to be run.

From the river entrance to about 1.5 kilometers deep he always had something to say. He had jokes, he had stories about the discovery of the cave, he had information about the rocks and how it got its color; how high is the highest point; what are the indigenous organisms inside. The trip took almost an hour and he was talking all the way.

I wonder how much of the science he spouted out are based on true knowledge of geological and biological principles but suffice to say he was saying a lot. Between listening to him and minding the surroundings I doubt anyone had the ability to quiz him. What astounds me more is that Teng assists the lightman who is part of our party. The lightman was one of us free to light any shape he wished. Teng can pilot on his own seemingly not needing lights. And on many points, in advance, he would point to the lightman where to point the spotlight.

‘To the left, higher, higher; that’s it’ is something he would say to the lightman depending on the location of the rock he was aiming for. There are plenty of rock shapes and he had imaginative stories to tell about it. Even if memorized his memory is phenomenal. Can you imagine memorizing every location of every rock while navigating in the dark?

The Underground River is certainly something I or anyone else has never seen before. The awe factor never leaves you. And yes to be honest I thought of Batman a few times considering the vastness of the cave. I also remembered in literature of lost worlds underground especially after seeing the dinosaur shaped rock. But the surprising thing is that the cave is cool. I was thinking hot and stale air but in fact the air inside is cooler than the air outside where we spent some minutes falling in line.

People with claustrophobia need not fear enclosed spaces. The main route was maybe 5 meters across and the ceilings were uneven. There was a point or a rock that reached down almost close to the touch while sitting down. And the highest point was as high as a typical cathedral.

After the cave we went back to Sabang to go back to Puerto Princesa. We took our lunch at the Chicken Inasal though not exactly the local delicacy if you are the traveler who loves local food while on the road they do make good chicken. It was at this point that my conservative way of packing for the trip and the unnecessary caution on the hand carry weight requirement was beginning to haunt me. I was running out of clothes, in fact I was down to one.

To complicate things there was a dinner organized by Mayor Hagedorn. Thankfully before dinner we passed by a market place where I bought me 4 T-shirts to last till Saturday. Getting an XL size was a headache, and even at XL it barely fit me. The stores all say the shirts were free size; for what, I thought, for a hobbit. I found XL somewhere at the back.

DBM was not alone there. There were also members of the local government in Cavite if I am not mistaken which is why the Mayor took time to organize an event to advertise his advocacies and yes lets be honest, he also advertises himself. From what I see he has every right to and he, unlike other local politicians, is not full of hot air. Puerto Princesa from the looks of it is beautifully run.

Mayor Hagedorn did not come in that event which was understandable considering the office but he left for us a nice meal and a lovely cultural presentation. The band was named Sinika, and it had a unique feature; in some songs or a song the back up singers were mimicking jungle sounds perhaps to illustrate the virgin nature of Palawan. Accompanying them were dancers in local costumes. Many of the songs were ballads and mixed with the dancers viewers will see what seems to a history of Palawan. All participants were given rainmakers as souvenir.

The night life needs a little more exploring which my party unfortunately did not have time to do. We chanced upon a little spot from the opposite corner of what I remember as the Capitol building (at least I think it was). The place was decent. Some of its best tables were styled like individual huts. Food and service was ok. All would have been perfect except for what the establishment seems to consider its main attraction: the singers. The quality of the song and the way that they sang is far less than most of the bands seen in Manila. It might have been better if we’d listed to a videoke bar because then there would be lowered expectations.

The flight home on the 18th was chaotic at the airport. There was a pile of passengers for Cebu Pacific and why did it reach that long, the counter was closed. PAL had theirs open which accounts for the shortest line. A long line of passengers, now with loads of check-in baggage, just imagine the headache of going home.

The waiting area of the airport was full but no biggie I just found myself a nice little corner. Our flight was delayed so we came to Manila past 6 pm. The headache was repeated again at the retrieval area for the check-in baggage. Coming out of a trip, and almost always in similar looking boxes, the moving tracks of the check-in baggage was full. It took a while getting the check-in baggage. If you are a large party I suggest getting all familiar packages you see and not letting in circle the tracks again. It also helped that my group was positioned at different points. Except for getting an extra package because namesake to one of our party we got everything out.

And so ends the Palawan trip. We had little time but it was beautiful as Mother Nature can ever get. If budget permits we shall come in for seconds or firsts since we, or more to the point, I have yet to see all that Palawan can offer.

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