In which we flee the police and have to assume a false identity to go underground
Starring Joey who was not our friend
Puerto Princesa has nothing to recommend it really – it’s more of an overnight stop between various other places on the last frontier of Philippines islands – Palawan. It’s a huge island everything you might want to see is scattered around the extremities. Again, it would have been nice to have a lot more time.
Instead we had one afternoon in the city to sort out our plans for the next few days and do a bit of sight seeing. Our first hint that things weren’t going to go as smoothly here as they had elsewhere was that no one had replied to our emailed attempts to book accommodation or answered the phone when we’d called so we arrived with nowhere to stay. Thankfully there were touts at the airport who sorted out a place and then we set off into town to find some lunch and book the trip we wanted to do the next day out to the Underground River at Sabang. Everywhere we tried we go the same slightly surprised answer that tour was full now and that really it was the kind of thing you needed to book up way in advance. Not especially helpful the day before. We ended up standing in the queue with all the travel agents in the permit office trying to understand how it all worked before eventually calling our hotel who said they would be able to sort it out as long as we paid cash now.
So that stress over we hired a tricycle and carefully agreed and negotiated an itinerary for the rest of the afternoon. We had set off out of town and were just picking up speed having cleared the traffic on the main road when our driver suddenly pulled over, did a rapid u-turn and set off back in the other direction. He was very honest in explaining what the problem was – he had spotted the police on the road ahead and he didn’t have a licence. We decided not to ask whether that was a driving licence or a passenger licence. So we had a nice little diversion through a suburb of Puerto Princesa that he didn’t know particularly well – stopping at least twice for directions before getting back on track.
First stop was the “Butterfly Sanctuary” which was more like a sort of landscaped courtyard with a net over the top and a lot of butterflies inside. They were very obliging and beautiful butterflies though which sat nice and still while we photographed them. There were also terrariums whose contents included a set of large scorpions, a snake and some roaches and an one ominously vacant glass box labelled “Golden Orb Spider”. From there we popped in to an extremely odd place called “Baker’s Hill” which was perhaps once just a bakery but is now a meandering garden containing an unusual collection of Disney characters (a full compliment of dwarfs amongst others), plastic celebrities (Marilyn Monroe) and some under sized dinosaurs. There were also trees full of modelled parrots, a giant pirate and a miniature crocodile. Having stocked up on chocolate cookies from the gift shop we set off again expecting to be delivered to an open-air prison for purchasing of inmate handicrafts but realising too late that we were actually heading back to town. We were extremely unhappy with this situation. As was Albert who now claimed no memory of the three point agenda or the agreement to go the prison. Eventually we told him he could either take us there for the same price or drop us off for less. He chose to ditch his troublesome customers and we went for a walk instead down to the seafront.
You know you have been in Asia for awhile when you walk up to some or other view and are almost knocked off your feet by some or other overwhelming stench and instead of fleeing, you just switch to breathing through your mouth and linger taking pictures of the sunset and approaching storm. The view aside it was a rather grubby seafront and that had clearly seen better days – there was a smashed up old car on a railway track that had clearly once been an amusement.
Back at the hotel we were given some mildly disquieting news - we could definitely still go on the underground river trip, but one of us would have to go in disguise. The problem was that they weren’t enough permits to go around and so I would have to pretend to be a person who they had already obtained a permit for but who had now cancelled. Not to worry though as the hotel’s resident “artist” (he really did use this word) would make me an identity card. Did I have a picture? What job would I like? I chose International Liaison Office. The next morning I got my id: Bryananna King H. Coli, Professional Window Cleaner from Mallorca. We were not particularly optimistic about our chances of seeing the river.
The trip out to Sabang takes about two hours and our allocated slot for the river trip was at 3:30. We left our hotel at 8am. “Why, why?” wailed Abby. Because they needed to try and upsell us additional activities of course! We arrived at the tiny little beach town and were immediately whisked along towards the mangrove canoeing and zip lining stations. Our tour guide, Joey, had already won our disfavour by basically leaving us behind in the hotel – completely ignoring us until we demanded to be taken along and pointed out our names on his sheet of paper. Now we fell out of his favour as we tried to get a time to be be back so that we could wander away and track down a mango shake. Later I felt bad and tried to strike up a conversation asking him if he knew of the television programme ‘Friends’ (he did not) and tried to teach him how to say “How you doing?” At the end of this, he looked at me, expressionlessly bored, and said “In the Philippines we just use Facebook.”
After a long buffet lunch, having our high quality ids inspected, signing the register with an on the spot signature I could never ever have repeated, and a series of hour long waits at various points (on a basketball court, in a boat queue, at a landing station), we finally, finally (5pm) hopped into a ten seater row boat and were paddled by a very able oarsman into the mouth of the cave. It’s the world’s longest underground river (almost 8kms) and about 3kms is easily navigable by boat. Most tours only taken in the first kilometre or so, cruising through huge caverns dripping with water and bats. The formations are spectacular and it was rather lovely floating along in the pitch dark with only the light of a torch to pick out the strange shapes of the rocks. Still perhaps not lovely enough to justify a 12hour round trip that was mostly spent sitting around getting wound up.