Monday, December 21, 2009

The Fire Breathing Monster of Palawan

We pulled up to the bus terminal at 11:50 and were greeted by a fire-breathing monster who had assumed the form a of rambling 40-year old bus in its present incarnation, the latest of many, I can only assume. Inside was a lively swarm of people, packed well beyond the intended limits of the manufacturer, but quite at ease in spite of it, squeezing together a bit more to make a sliver of space for me on the bench in the front, inviting me be assimilated into the collective. I did.

The collective consisted of the driver, the conductor in charge of the passengers and cargo, some 50 locals varying in age from about six weeks to, well, elderly, and five of us tourists in the middle of it all - me, a German couple, and a couple from Chula Vista, CA - practically my parents' neighbors in nearby San Diego.

Some fifteen [uncomfortably hot and sticky] minutes later, the monster belched to life and rumbled off towards the jungle. Some 45 minutes earlier, I had just come back to my hostel, having learned that I would not be doing the dive trip I had come looking for (typhoon season!), which got me to trying to reach Sabang, which got me to the fire-breathing monster at the bus terminal. It's supposed to depart at noon, but tends to actually go when full - be it earlier or later, and since this was the last Sabanga bus for the day, I was feeling pretty good about being aboard as it pulled away.

Our driver cajoled the screeching beast along the twisty, surprisingly well paved roads for the next three hours until we reached the far side of Palawan island, and the tourist enclave of Sabang, home of Palawan's signature attraction - the underground river, UNESCO recognized. At one point, the asphalt had abruptly ended just as we passed a sister-beast, heading in the opposite direction, with a dozen people riding on the roof exchanging pleasantries with their comrades on our roof. The beasts merely snorted at each other...

There are no actual bus stops on Palawan, so to get off you just knock on the beast's metal roof, the bus stops and the conductor produces your luggage (or your pack of bamboo sticks... or your live chicken) from the smorgasbord of packages occupying the roof. Since there are no actual stops, everyone expects to be dropped off precisely at their front door, even if we had just stopped 30 meters earlier to drop off your neighbor - walking is so twentieth century! I kept a wary eye on the people and packages getting off, hoping to spot the guy who may decide to take off with my backpack - noone did... Noone took off with the ten packs of bamboo sticks we had loaded onto the roof along the way either - I calmly and pragmatically figured that anything which complicated the situation on the roof also served to reduce the odds of my backpack walking away, so I welcomed the addition of the bamboo.

About two hours into the trip, the beast, bright green in color, sputtered around a sharp corner, and a view of the bay greeted us - a yellow ring of sand hugging the coast where the stately bright green palm trees were coming down to dip their toes in the water, while somber green peaks were rising up meet the sky a bit further beyond the shore. Perfect. Picture-perfect, in fact!

So perfect, in fact, that I'd figured I'd come here to spend my birthday - if I can't be up in Seattle with my friends, I might as well be surrounded by beautiful pristine shoreline here on Palawan instead... A full day here on the beach, including a trip to the nearby caves, which host the underground river, on tap for tomorrow, before catching a boat up the coast for El Nido on Friday, to take in some scuba diving in these beautiful waters.

The locals have given the beast a name: jeepney.

The one on the left was my residence for the two nights in Sabang

The ubiquitous Filipino bangka boat. Low tide.

Hannah, Till, and I getting ready to head off for the Underground River

Have I mentioned the beautiful sandy beaches?

Monitor lizards, harmless, but a rather menacing 5 feet in length, patrol the entrance to the caves

While the monkeys stare at the lizards with mild bemusement

Going into the cave

The formations inside are pretty crazy... A little similar to Halong Bay, but unlike Vietnam, only natural lighting is allowed in, making for a much more peaceful and natural view

They name a lot of the individual formations - this is one is named Bacon... Because they are thinking of you, Lott!

All of us back at the Dab-Dab for dinner that evening

So, have I built up enough anticipation about the fire breathing monster of Palawan yet? A couple days from now, I'll be getting on the same bus/monster/jeepney here in El Nido and making the seven to nine hour journey back to Puerto Princessa to catch my flight back to Manila. I'm hoping to get to ride on the roof!

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