December 30 was Rizal Day – with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day off as well (not sure if they are holidays every year or just this year to make a five-day weekend) I made my way to Palawan, the island nicknamed “The Last Frontier.” The most beautiful parts, El Nido and Coron, with their limestone outcroppings, were not on my itinerary (I have to leave some things for another visit!). What was – the underground river and a visit to fellow PCRV Mercedes.
I landed at 9:30, and not wanting to wait for a noon jeepney, I took a two-and-a-half hour tricycle ride to Sabang. Found a cottage at the end of the long white-sand beach and got my park permit. I had heard that the best thing about the underground river was hiking the rugged trails there and back and I found that to be the case – though due to the timing, I walked out along the Monkey Trail in the afternoon and took a boat back, and then took a boat out in the morning and walked the Jungle Trail back. I’m glad it worked out that way; hiking both ways in one day would have been a lot. The paths take you through several ecosystems – coastal forest, karst forest and swamp to name a few – and I did see monkeys, though I saw them by the restrooms and not in the forest. Monitor lizards, too!
The underground river itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It may be the longest navigable underground river in the world. We took a paddleboat inside the cave, with dripping water, hanging bats, flying swiftlets. I had planned to stay in Sabang for two nights, but when Mercedes said that she was coming back from Manila and that we should spend New Year’s Eve together, I tore myself away from the beach.
First we went to the center where Mercedes works – she is training the teachers, who work with autistic and Down’s syndrome children. The center is in need of just about everything, and her living situation is rustic (no mattress and no privacy, for example!). I don’t know if I could have done it. She said that she missed having other PCVs nearby, so I am glad I at least visited. The people who run the center are one big extended family (with its own soap opera), and they invited us to New Year’s Eve dinner. I learned that another tradition is to bring something round, for prosperity in the new year, and we brought some pastries. We stayed for a while and then went back to our hotel, where we played the Filipino version of mancala, called sunka; I haven’t played it enough to be good at it, so tips on strategy would be welcome! We also played a version of Syzygy/Bananagrams with Scrabble tiles, and I played some solitaire – the first games I have played since I got to the Philippines! We didn’t go downtown for the big fireworks, but our hotel had some firecrackers.
The next day, we went island-hopping in Honda Bay, on the Sulu Sea. When I was in Indonesia last year I learned about the Wallace line, which separates more Asiatic flora and fauna from more Australian ones, and Palawan is on the other side of the line from the rest of the Philippines. Sure enough, I did see things I hadn’t seen elsewhere – colorful fish, starfish, sand dollars and sea urchins, to name a few. I’d say the flora looked different too, but that might be only because I knew I was on the other side of the line. The islands differed from those in the Caramoan peninsula – for one thing, I didn’t have them all to myself! Long beaches – on Snake Island I took a long walk (collected trash and now I am retired – I gave the rubber gloves to Mercedes for her center) and on Pandan Island I walked all the way around. On those and Cowrie island, I also took long swims in the beautiful turquoise water. That night, we took a firefly cruise – paddling under the full moon, with fireflies flashing like holiday lights in the trees.
The next day we took a city tour. First, we went to Iwahig prison, known for having inmates roaming freely (they wear shirts labeled with the severity of their crimes), and then we went back to the river where we had the firefly cruise, this time doing a mangrove paddle in the light of day. There are so many species of mangroves! Hard to believe the Pasig River might have looked like this before the Spanish came! We went to a WWII memorial (Americans were in the tunnels – the Japanese poured gasoline in them and killed the people who didn’t just burn to death), the cathedral and the Baywalk. With that we saw the highlights of Puerto Princesa!
The next day, we went to a small and faded resort on the other side of the city – with a mangrove shoreline and a tiny swimming pool, it was a place to relax and read. We also went to a western-style café for lattes and a Mexican restaurant for dinner. This wasn’t the perfect trip – I was overcharged for transport several times (failure to negotiate well?) and one of the hotels had lost our reservation – but it made me appreciate all the more the mostly-smooth travels I have had on other trips here. I got more bites (sandfly, I think) than I got on all other trips combined – or maybe it just seems that way. Palawan is the one place in the Philippines with chloroquine-resistant malaria, but since the PCMO ran out of chloroquine a while ago, I have been taking the other medication (it wasn’t prescribed for me in Manila, but since I have been traveling so much they put me on it). I don’t think I got any mosquito bites there, but I got several on Sunday night when I came back and went out for a drink with Julie, Jonathan and Charlie! I might otherwise have gone straight to bed, but it was a chance to see Julie before she left for a two-week vacation with her sister, and it was nice to see the others too and compare New Year’s stories. Happy 2010!