|I wonder if it's something in the air. Some places you arrive, and you just know it's going to be good travel, the way you know the outcome of a first date in the first five minutes. I had barely left the airport, the scent of fresh jasmine filling my nostrils, and I was already thinking: how come it took me so long to get here?
I love South and Central America, perhaps more than any other region on our impassioned planet. Asia, collectively colourful and so culturally kooky, represents our past, and our future. Having experienced 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, followed by four decades of the United States, the Philippines falls somewhere in the middle - a meal of hamburgers, served with ceviche, and eaten with chopsticks.
Manila, the capital, has two seasons, hot and hotter. A yellow glare beats down on us, the light shares the faint colour of manila envelopes (originally made from an indigenous plant fibre). I'm here in rainy season, when torrential downpours soak the stickers off the loud chrome jeeps that shepherd the population around the city. These customized "Jeepneys" growl with engines trying to dispel a piece of chicken lodged in its throat, shepherding Metro Manila's 12.8 million population for a couple pesos a head. Yes pesos, here in Asia, where soy sauce is mixed with vinegar and floating fresh chilli, where people's names combine Spanish, English and local tagalog. For a city established by the Spanish as early as 1571, there's a definite lack of historical buildings to prove it. For the Philippines, named after the Spanish King Phillip II and the world's third largest Roman Catholic country, has been pillaged, bombed, colonized, rebuilt and pillaged and bombed again. The Americans took it from the Spanish in the Spanish-American war (the same war that inextricably gave the Americans Guantanamo Bay in Cuba), the Japanese brutally took it from the Americans in World War II, the Americans took it back (bombing most of Manilla in splinters) and gave it to the Filipinos for independence in 1946. Since then, governed from the main island of Luzon, the country has repeatedly slipped off tightrope of political instability, ruled under corrupt martial law by those shoe-worshipping Marcos's, pillaged of its rich natural resources (and a hidden Japanese war treasure worth some $100 billion). Battered by up to a dozen typhoons every year, loan-sharked by one-sided US naval base deals, prodded by Islamic insurgencies in the south, and kept afloat by regular remittance cheques from the world's largest diaspora: some 11 million Filipinos live and work abroad. Yet, much like its Spanish-influenced cousins across the Pacific in the Americas, its people are friendly, genuinely welcoming, impassioned by the sun to dance the fiesta of life. Perhaps it is this dichotomy of tragedy and joy that draws me to the Latino culture, and the dichotomy of a Latin Asia that has drawn me here.
More accurately, I've arrived to shoot an episode of Word Travels. As usual, I only have a week, and spending a week in a country is like having only one bite of one dish at an endless 5-star hotel buffet (more on that later). As much as Manila has to offer, the most delicious slices of life are always, in my experience, found off the plate of a big city. One bite and I'd better choose wisely. It's my dream to snorkel with whale sharks, the ocean's largest fish, but not only are they tough to find, they've also been covered by another travel show on our network. From fellow travellers, I've long heard that the Philippines have some of the world's best tropical beaches, scuba diving, rock climbing and surfing. So I call over the waiter and order a plate of Palawan, a narrow archipelago of 1780 islands located to the southwest of the country. If I'm only going to be able to take one bite, I may as well chew on paradise.
Palawan has the highest number of islands, the least amount of people, and is proudly referred to as the "Last Ecological Frontier" due to its wealth of protected areas. In 1967, the entire province was declared a Fish and Wildlife Sanctuary, and while Ferdinand Marcos was looting the country's economy in the 1980's, he still passed a number of Presidential Decrees safeguarding Palawan's environment. With this commitment to national parks and reserves, there's a slick irony that huge deposits of natural gas have been found off Palawan, leading to the single biggest investment in the history of the country's economy. It's always interesting to see how governments react when a previously worthless tract of land ("hey, lets declare it a national conservation park!" suddenly attains mineral value ("hey, lets mine the crap out of it!" Hopefully, the remoteness and vastness of Palawan, coupled with a political desire to maintain it as such, should see it through.
It's a one-hour flight to Peurto Princesa, the capital of Palawan and the nation's fastest growing city. On board, there are around 50 girls wearing bright orange shirts asking me if I'm pregnant. A pharmaceutical company called Biofemme is having a conference in the city. Last week, a massive typhoon blew through the southern Philippines, killing dozens of people, tragically capsizing a ferry that drowned another 700 more. Other than some towns in the north of the main island, I'm relieved to hear that Palawan is typhoon-free, since this is slam-bang up the ying-yang of typhoon season. Not that I'd be getting away from the rain mind you, this is rainy season, and let me describe what a tropical downpour is like with bullet points:
* The rain falls with the force of angels using power hoses to put out a fire on earth
* The rain falls as if the clouds have overfed their fat bellies and have burst at the seam
* The rain falls like bullets from the sky.
Palawan boasts two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (and nominees for the online poll of the World's Seven Natural Wonders), and it was only a few hours drive to visit the World's Longest Underground Navigable River. The road was a rutted, crunchy pretzel, our guide called it the "Free Palawan massage." Air conditioning is cranked in the mini-van as it worms its way around flooded potholes, so no surprise when the engine overheats. Fortunately, we had two minivans to hold crew and equipment, and proceeded on towards the Subterranean River National Park, arriving just in time to watch traditional wooden boats head out into the crystal sea, the wind tickling the coconut balls hovering over the white sandy beach. After two weeks exploring some of the world's biggest cities, this, my friends, is much more like it.
Navigable. I've always enjoyed the way the word sounds on my tongue, forcing it into four positions within my mouth. At 8.2km, this underground river is the longest in the world, drifting from the mouth of a cave beneath the limestone mountain above it, into a narrow sanctuary for eight species of bat and striking rock formations. Tourists only get to paddle up the first kilometre with a guide, using a car-battery power spotlight to see the sights within. While some of the stalactites and stalagmites have the usual cute-cave names common in caverns around the world (the Jesus, the Candle, the Naked Lady), refreshingly absent are bright coloured lights and wooden walkways. With the acrid smell of bat shit in the still eerie darkness, I felt like I was being swallowed by a beast, prodded along beneath stalagmitical teeth, ingested further towards something powerful, something black. Cave exploring is fun, but not as much fun as seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
Continue reading Robin's blog at http://www.moderngonzo.com/reports/philippines.html
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