Suzi and I were getting ready to assemble for our tour on the island of Palawan when we heard drumming coming from outside. Casting long shadows is the early morning light a group of majorettes and baton twirlers were doing their routine to a massive drum corps on the dock while a group of folks were un-scrolling a sign that said “Welcome.” As a crowd gathered along the rail on the lower promenade deck a woman in a bullhorn cried out “Welcome Amsterdam. Welcome to Puerto Princesa.” This town does not get many cruise ships but when they do they really put it on. When we got off the ship we each were presented with a shell necklace with the city’s seal on a big shell in the middle. We had our Christmas tree decoration from the Philippines 8 steps off the ship.
At most stops we do not take a ship’s tour, but here we wanted to get to the Puerto Princesa Underground River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s 55 KM (2 hours on windy roads) from the dock in a national park. The park requires one to get a permit for a visitor’s slot in advance. The ship had purchased 200 slots. Six passenger Toyota mini vans ferried us to the park, do the math, there were a lot of vans. We were in van 24. It seemed to be a matter of honor for each driver to get to the park first. It was like being in a Toyota mini-van road rally through the crowded streets of the city and then along increasingly narrowing winding roads to the park. Mini-vans were passing each other on curves with double yellow lines, dodging Jeepneys and “tricycles.” (A motor cycle and side car with a single top and windscreen. One passenger straddles the saddle behind the driver the others are in the side car.) There was a lot of horn blowing. The countryside went by in a blur, as most of my pictures attest. On the positive side the van was air conditioned, we kind of got to see a lot of countryside, and our tour guide, Cynthia, was drop dead beautiful in the highly competitive league of Filipina woman. (Suzi reminds me that this is nothing compared to India.)
Once we got to Sabang, a beach resort and headquarters for the National Park, we saw why the drivers were racing. A limited number of 8 passenger outrigger ferry boats were on hand to take us the 20 minutes to the cave entrance. It was Cynthia’s job to wrangle us a ferry, in competition with 30 other guides. Sabang had limited public restroom facilities. While all the van loads were waiting women lined up at the entrances to the ladies’s and men’s rooms. Why not? The stalls all had doors. But I noticed that the men’s room also had unused urinals, so I worked through the line and went in, to nasty comments of “line cutter” from of some of the women. I hollered out “Hey guys, there are urinals here” and guys followed me in. There were three urinals and I saw no reason why they shouldn’t be used, after all, the stalls had doors and the urinals faced the opposite wall. One of the small stores in Sabang was named “Alaska.”
Once we got on our ferry we had a nice ride along the coast to a beach where we got out in ankle deep water and hiked a few minutes to the cave mouth where, after getting an audio guide and donning hard hats and life vests which didn’t fit anyone, we got into outrigger canoes, 10 to a canoe, paddled by a guy with a lamp on his hard hat. The caves were great but the commentary on the audio guide left a lot to be desired. Mostly the background music was what you would have heard on a Public Radio program “Music from the Hearts of Space” in the 70s, except for the Batman theme when we entered a part of the caves where there were bats. By the way, one of the rules was we had to keep our mouths closed because the dripping water from the cave’s sealing was infused with bat sh*t, which contained, the audio guide assured us, was unhealthy bacteria.
The commentary was ok when it kept to science and geology, but it didn’t. The rock formation up ahead has a woman’s form, we call it “The Sharon Stone.” (har har har). And off to the left there is a likeness of the Virgin Mary. My religious education, or my immersion in popular culture, must be impaired, because I was unable to tell the difference between Sharon Stone and the Blessed Virgin. “And up ahead is a structure that looks like the 12 apostles and Jesus at the last supper.” All I saw were 13 stalagmites If you ever do this my suggestion is to listen to the commentary for a while and then out the ear bud and just listen to the sounds of the paddle, the outrigger sluicing thorough the river and the echoing sound of water dropping into the river. Allow your mind to see its own images.
We went up the river for about one and a half kilometers and then came back. On return we walked through the woods again to the ocean beach sharing the path with a monitor lizard.
(To see the pics of the underground river and lizard click here.)
Back at Sabang we took a 5 minute mini-van ride to a resort for lunch. The resort had a beautiful sand beach with mild surf. The swim was what I needed after sweating it out in a too tight life vest.
The drive back was almost as hectic as the drive out, this time the incentive was for the driver to get home. All road signs and most commercial signs are in English (the next largest number are in Chinese.) Some of the most interesting signs I saw were
“6 minute cataract extraction.”
“Joseph, Husband of Mary Church” and
“Hype (as opposed to Hyper) Market”
When we got back to the city Cynthia pointed out all of her favorite landmarks, most of which were malls, many of them brand new, which Cynthia seemed very proud of. When I was a kid I went to a lot of movies in the summer because theaters were the first air conditioned public buildings. “Come in it’s COOL inside.” I think shopping malls here serve much the same purpose.
We got back to the ship and the sendoff was, if anything, grander than the welcome. A dance troupe performed folk dances, which sounded and looked Mexican, which makes sense because for 300 years all of the Philippines trade came though Acapulco. Just before we sailed off, folks unrolled a large “Bon Voyage” banner. The Captain came on the PA warning us that as we sailed out there would be much horn blowing. And there was with much waving on all sides.