Seeking Palawan

Matthew Mendoza is sipping a San Miguel Light and musing about the days when he was at the peak of stardom before his self-imposed retreat. I draw the conversation back to Palawan, Mendoza’s childhood home and current hideout—an island at the geographical, ecological, and infrastructural edge of the Philippines. “When I was at university in Manila my colleagues used to ask me, ‘Do people have tails in Palawan?’ ” Mendoza says. It’s not the kind of insight I was hoping for, but it does describe the general attitude of Filipinos toward this far-flung corner of their country. Never fully explored, shrouded in mystery, Palawan has long been the somewhere-beyond.  

 

Mendoza grew up in Palawan and became famous in Manila as a teenage heartthrob in Filipino films and TV dramas. Then, in his late twenties he returned to the island for what he describes as a professional sabbatical. “I am now too old to be a young character, but not old enough to play adult roles,” he explains. “And it’s not easy to switch from one role to another, so I pulled out now to allow people to forget my film persona. Eventually, I will relaunch myself!” In the meantime, Mendoza’s running the Casa Linda Inn in Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s provincial capital, and maintaining his lithe youthfulness by jogging and playing tennis and limiting his diet – hence the San Miguel Light.  

 

My girlfriend Rose and I had been touring Palawan for three weeks, and now we’re having drinks at the Casa Linda’s tranquil restaurant, telling Mendoza about our enchantment with Palawan’s quaint island character and outlandish wilderness. It’s this discourse that reminds Mendoza of the line about people having tails. The people do not, of course, have tails, but Palawan has many animals that do: crocodiles, eagles, monitor lizards, whale sharks, wild boars, pythons, long-tailed macaques, dugongs, and Palawan hornbills, one of the island’s many endemic species. “Palawan used to be very rugged and isolated, and very sparsely inhabited,” Mendoza say. “It’s only in the past 10 years that Palawan started developing.”  

 

Set at the somewhere-beyond, straddling the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea, Palawan lies closer to Borneo than to Mindoro, the nearest sizable Philippine island. Its first inhabitants, a small, dark-skinned people arrived from Borneo some 50,000 years ago, before any of the other islands in the archipelago were inhabited, but they never spread beyond Palawan. Filipinos now refer to Palawan as “the last frontier,” and Palawan province—which consists of the main island of Palawan, 400 kilometers long by 50 kilometers wide, and more than 1,500 isles scattered off its gnarled coastline, most of them uninhabited and unnamed—is drenched by rainfall, allowing thick forests to flourish in the rugged karst terrain and dense fringes of mangroves to knit the shores of bays and estuaries. Most islanders live in small fishing villages strewn along the coast. And in much of the archipelago outside Puerto Princesa, the provincial capital, electricity is erratic, terrestrial phones are absent, roads consist of gravel tracks, private cars are rare, and banks have yet to make a presence. It’s this untamed remoteness that had lured us to Palawan in the first place – it’s what makes it special.  

 

*** 

 

We feel a tangible sense of going somewhere remote as soon as we board the Twin Otter in Manila that will take us to El Nido, Palawan’s prime resort. After an hour’s flight over an empty, glittering sea, the plane spirals down toward a bay fringed by dramatic cliffs, ancient forests, and dazzling crescents of white sand. Then the plane swoops, and just as I begin to wonder whether we’re going to crash into the sea, the plane skims to a bumpy landing on a dirt strip set behind the palm trees that fringe an empty beach.   

 

El Nido means “the nest,” in reference to the swiftlets’ nests found in the surrounding limestone cliffs. Glued together with saliva, the nests are main ingredient in the Chinese delicacy known as bird’s nest soup, and now that commercial fishing has been banned, harvesting them has become, alongside tourism, one of the area’s main economic activities – two cupped hands full of raw birds’ nests fetches 1,500 pesos (US$27).  

 

We find a small, somnolent town, walkable in 10 minutes, backed by looming cliffs and fronted by the great sweep of Bacuit Bay. El Nido is a congregation of brick and bamboo houses arranged on a neat grid of paved streets. Its tiny market area, at the crossroads in the center, is a little hub of activity centered on a few supplies shops, fishmongers, and grilled-meat stalls. The sounds are of tricycles purring through the streets and the clamor of children frolicking on the beach.   

 

We adopt the town as our base for excursions to the 22 isles lying offshore, collectively known as the Bacuit Archipelago. Three of the isles are home to exclusive resorts, best of which are the two resorts run by El Nido Resorts. But most of the rest are uninhabited, and hopping from one island to the next in a banca outrigger that we charter by the day, we find idyllic coves nestled in the creases of cliffs—deserted, powdery beaches that we make our own for a few hours. The coral gardens at Matinloc Island reveal a riot of colors, and at Tapiutan Island I encounter more sharks and green turtles than I had seen in a lifetime. I take note of the species—three kinds of starfish, lots of delicate colorful moorish idols, giant clams, solitary lionfish, barracudas effortlessly weaving past and octopuses morphing into different shapes and colors.  And those are just the ones I recognize 

 

We aren’t lucky enough to run across any of El Nido’s “big four”—whale sharks, dugongs, manta rays, or dolphins—and we don’t get to meet Jackfish, either. Jackfish is the most outlandish character among the bay’s dozen or so expatriates, a German hermit who lives in an open hut on a deserted beach. But Leeann comes a close second in eccentricity; mention of her naturist, ascetically New Age resort in El Nido elicits hisses of gossip or twitters of chuckles. A British-Australian who has been in El Nido for 20 years, we find Leeann at her part-naturist, part-detoxification resort on Malapacao Island. She’s strutting nude on the beach, flowers tucked behind her ears. “I spent 16 years traveling around the world before I found my little paradise here,” she tells us. “At first people thought I was crazy to confront fishermen catching turtles. Now this is my home, and visitors come here to spend some time with a lady who’s off the wall.” We borrow Leeann’s kayak, make a run to the mainland and paddle upriver to snoop around an eerie mangrove forest (Palawan has 48,000 hectares of mangroves, almost half the extant coverage in the Philippines).   

 

We hear about Jackfish from Tony, a forty-year-old Swiss guy who works in Singapore and has been visiting El Nido for many years. We are in the Art Café, one of the three bearings that mark our wanderings in town—the Art Café for breakfast and small-talk with expats; Marber’s for lunch and gossip from the owner; and Balay Tubay for dinner, Filipino bands, and talk about culture and politics. Tony tells us about the retirement home he is building nearby. It will be powered entirely by solar energy; the solar-energy system will cost him US$12,000. I ask Tony why he’s chosen to retire here, of all places in Asia. “I love El Nido because it’s still undeveloped and quiet,” he tells me. “This is how Phuket was 20 years ago.”  

 

Nor is it likely to change anytime soon. Although tourism is recovering from the crash in 2001 when Muslim militants kidnapped some tourist from the resort Dos Palmas near Puerto Princesa – and  local tourist operators say that tourists increased by 30 percent last year – we encounter only a trickle of holidaymakers as we tour the island. Still, growth is growth, and the government, having designated Palawan as a special zone for ecologically sensitive tourism development, has dispatched consultants from Manila to draw up a blueprint for sustainability. We meet them at the Art Café, where they are pouring plans for new hotels, assessing water and electricity, and debating the merits of dredging El Nido’s harbor to allow large ferries to dock—an idea that many in the community vehemently oppose. One project is already underway: the rutted track that links El Nido to Puerto Princesa, currently passable only by buses and four-wheel drives, is being concreted.  

 

As a marine reserve, El Nido is spared the larger environmental vexation that besets other parts of Palawan—the ravages of fishing. Fisherfolk from other parts of the Philippine archipelago began settling in Palawan in large numbers a couple of decades ago, in search of fresh fishing grounds. “Boatloads were arriving every week in the 1990s, perhaps a thousand a week,” a long-time French resident anthropologist told me. “They started chopping down forests for lumber and to clear land for agriculture, and plundering the seas.” Now the immigrants make up the bulk of the province’s 800,000 inhabitants, making Palawan’s population the fastest growing in the Philippines. 

 

An outright ban on logging seems to be holding, but breaking the cycle of destructive fishing techniques—the use of dynamite and cyanide on the reefs—has proved more complicated. The government and a dozen NGOs are struggling to contain the fishermen, and the stakes are high: the Sulu Sea has more marine species than any other sea. 

 

I called Sheila Albasin, a project leader with the World Wildlife Fund, to ask her for an assessment. She told me: “I think the incidence of dynamite and cyanide fishing is increasing. The biggest culprits are big commercial fishers who encroach illegally into territorial waters.” Another day I went to see Janet Uri, a marine biologist involved in various projects. “Only about one percent of coral reefs are still in a pristine untouched condition,” she lamented. The government recently introduced testing of live fish for residues of cyanide, but the fishermen quickly found out that if you keep the fish—mostly groupers that end up in the aquariums of expensive Chinese restaurants all over Asia – in a tank for two weeks all traces of cyanide dissipate. “In theory,” Janet said, “the environmental laws are stringent and great, but in practice law enforcement is grossly inadequate.”    

 

**** 

 

All roads in Palawan lead to Puerto Princesa, the provincial capital, and we eventually catch a bus from El Nido for the bumpy, seven-hour journey. The town’s sights—a drab, neo-Gothic cathedral and a small provincial museum displaying worn bits and pieces—provide only passing interest, but we relish Puerto Princesa’s relative luxury. It’s the only town in Palawan that has a whiff of modernity: charming and comfortable hotels, excellent and affordable restaurants, and banks that could take our credit cards. We check into the charming Casa Linda Inn, where Matthew Mendoza’s quietly imposing presence keeps the service attentive.  

 

After a few indolent days, we hop on a bus bound for Sabang, the trailhead village of Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. The road takes us twisting for 80 kilometers across the island’s mountainous spine. Sabang turns out to have several bungalow-style lodgings set sparsely among palm trees behind a large beach; it’s a world of light and brilliance, of dreamy mountains and open horizons, of waves breaking in long lines along a crystalline shore. The park itself is home to eight out of the thirteen types of habitats found in Southeast Asia, as well as a staggering biodiversity: 165 kinds of birds, more than 800 plant species, 19 types of reptiles, and scores of rare mammals. Such variety, and an eight-kilometer underground river, earned the park a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1999.  

 

One could spend a month exploring all the trails, caves, and rivers in the park. We opt for the well-trodden trek from Sabang that follows a three-kilometer trail around empty beaches and mangrove wetlands. Fairytale clusters of limestone pinnacles dominate the terrain, riddled with caverns and draped with trees and climbers. Every so often we come across one of the monumental trees that Filipinos call balete, whose shallow roots fan out from the trunk in massive buttresses, large enough for a man to hide behind. Filipinos believe that balete trees are inhabited by powerful spirits and, as I stop to gawk at one spectacular specimen, my girlfriend Rose tersely exhorts, “Don’t point to the tree... Don’t talk about it out loud... Don’t mention it by name.”  

 

We find guides loitering near the entrance to the underground river, and hire one to paddle us into the underground realm in a canoe. The river meanders through tunnels, caverns, and chambers, all cluttered with stalactite formations. The hush is almost complete, disturbed only by the splash of the oars and the rustle of bats’ wings. More than 40,000 bats are thought to inhabit this subterranean lair, and the air reeks of their guano. They dangle from the ceilings, curled into fist-sized balls, stirring and hissing whenever the beams from our flashlights pass over them. 

 

I can hear dollops of bat guano occasionally plopping in the water, and keep my mouth shut, and suddenly a vague inkling I had felt throughout Palawan crystallizes itself into an epithet. Palawan’s special allure lies in its peculiar, uncanny wilderness, which lend the island an aura of enigma. Others had had similar feelings: the Chinese called it Palao-yu (“land of beautiful harbors”); the Indians Palavas (“land of abundant plants”); and the Spanish Paragua (which could either mean “umbrella” or “land of promise”). Nature seems amplified into something familiar yet quirky in Palawan; the ruggedness, isolation, and incessant rainfall have accelerated evolution—about 15 percent of Palawan’s plants and animals are endemic.  

 

The inhabitants, too, seem affected by their milieu. The immigrants are possessed by superstitions, fantasies, and rumors. They fear the alleged magical powers of the indigenous peoples in the mountains – the secretive and shy natives who live in the remote jungle hinterland, mostly subsisting from hunting and gathering. The immigrants are also terrified of the spirits that roam in Palawan, especially the ones that fly at night; many dare not venture beyond the confines of their villages. Several times we were given hints about where crocodiles might lie, but no one wanted to take us there, everyone was scared. Many warned us to refrain from drinking coffee offered by strangers, as it might be imbued with a magical curse that will make us cough up blood.  

 

I dismiss these fears as irrational superstitions. But Rose, once again, reprimands me: “It’s better to be in doubt and safe, then dogmatically rational and sorry.” So did other educated Filipinos. In Puerto Princesa I had gone to see Dr Ray Angluben, who heads the center called Movement Against Malaria, to ask him about rumors that three journalists who had visited a remote tribe last year had later died from magical curses because they had offended the ancestral spirits. “It’s malaria that caused their death, but it’s the magic that prevented them curability,” he told me. “This is because despite hospitalisation and repetitive tests, there were no signs of malaria. Only after they died was malaria detected – that was the magic.”

 

Our last foray is to Quezon, four hours of manic driving on a bus from Puerto Princesa. The town has a scruffy market that supplies all points south, and a few squalid fishing villages—jumbles of colorful boats and huts thatched with nipa palm. We’re here to visit the Tabon Caves, a series of more than 200 caverns gouged out by water erosion and geologic upheavals. Situated on a headland called Lipuun Point, these caves were home to the first people who reached the Philippines from Borneo 50,000 years ago, and have been inhabited by successive waves of settlers up to 700 years ago. Archaeologists have excavated 33 of the caves since their discovery in 1962, and unearthed a treasure-trove of artefacts, some of which are now exhibited at the Quezon branch of the National Museum. The most fascinating object is the Manunggul Jar, which represents the apex of artistry of the Philippines’ Neolithic inhabitants. Etched with geometric designs, the rotund terracotta vessel once held human remains, and a carving on its lid depicts a man paddling a passenger in a canoe.  

 

Seven of the caves are open for tourists, so we arrange a guide and a boat for the 20-minute ride from Quezon. The landing is a small, sandy cove backed by the dark maw of a cave. A path weaves through this first cave, then spirals up through a second cave before emerging into sunlight some way up the cliff. From there, we pass another grotto, and then swerve inland through a cavern that opens onto a wide, primeval valley. Around us are ficus and balete trees; we hear the distinct din of a flock of Palawan hornbills passing overhead. We wander into another couple of caves with interiors as large as cathedrals, then follow a path up to the mouth of the small cave. The vista from here reveals a scattering of offshore islands and a hazy blue horizon. It’s where the Manunggul Jar was found, and standing here I am reminded of the symbolic carving on its lid. The carving represents the passage to the afterlife, and now it is easy to see why the Tabon People believed that somewhere in the blurry dreamy horizon lay the somewhere-beyond: a version of paradise you can imagine if you have spent your life hunkered at the cluster of fantasy islands that are named Palawan.     

 

© Victor Paul Borg. This story was originally published in the premier pan-Asian magazine Destinasian.

 

Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.

CULTURAL INSIGHT

 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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