THE IRONY is that in the places where you meet so few people, the folks turn out to be among the most likeable.
Puerto Princesa City in Palawan is such a place.
In the two hours or so it took to clear the airport and travel by van to the coast of Sabang, there seemed to be more trees than people.
These are not just the scrawny, dusty urban survivors eking out an existence in concrete and smog. The trees of Puerto Princesa are royalty. They exude Presence.
These sentinels of antiquity set the tone of the city’s hospitality, as well as the terms of a gracious but firm host. Before passengers disembark, the pilot enjoins everyone to abide by the strict no-littering ordinance of the city.
Even city monkeys that toss litter from vehicles or drop trash outside, around and on top of trash bin covers (but somehow, never inside the bin) will surely be inhibited from monkeying around in Puerto Princesa.
It’s a city without a mall, we learn. This fact is a source of wonder, underlined by the presence of the evergreen vanguards. I had to blink to confirm that we were still in the Central District, not in the heart of a forest.
Yet, in Puerto Princesa, tourists seem to outnumber the locals. Can the government and the private sector sustain this eco-tourism, which apparently is not fed yet by shopping mania and the insatiable search for novelty and entertainment?
Or will malls, resorts and escape getaways someday encroach on and displace the trees from their century-old niches?
You get a preview at the Sabang port, where there’s a bottleneck of bancas. In the islands of Cebu and Bohol, chartering a banca for island-hopping usually means the boat and crew that ferries you over waits for you at the island to bring you back to the point of origin.
In Sabang, you follow a trip schedule. As soon as each batch of seven or so passengers wades to the shore, the banca scoots back to Sabang, picking up a fresh batch for ferrying. At a set time, you emerge from the forest to find your ride back is waiting, as prompt and predictable as any mass transit system.
What creates this un-islandlike flow of commuters and traffic?
The Underground River of Puerto Princesa.
Like other tourist magnets, there’s a long list of acclaim attached to this spot: “the longest navigable underground river in the world,” a finalist of the “Search for the New 7 Wonders of Nature,” and future location of the shooting of a few scenes for the latest installment of the Bourne saga.
That Puerto Princesa straddles two worlds is apparent after one drops from the banca and wades to shore. A few steps take you to a forest that calls, shrieks and whistles in a babble of tongues that don’t sound human but are human in its acuity to communicate.
But even the wilds can be tamed by tourism. The monkeys sidle along like movie stars accommodating fans begging for photo ops. Only those human eyes betray their thieving intentions as they follow the bag swinging from your hand or the bun you’ve put down on a table to better point and shoot the hairy mercenaries.
Trekkers wind past trunks of phantasmagoric twists and heights to find they’ve reached a platform that strongly reminds me of the MRT station crowds at peak times.
It’s quite orderly, with foreigners resigned and watching what remains of the view that’s not blocked by talkative and gesticulating groups of local tourists posing and rearranging themselves for the dozen or so cameras that each group seems to possess.
Not unlike the MRT waiting platforms, though, the brackish water is clear, cold and placid. Schools of fish as long as your thumb and middle finger can bracket create an illusion of ripples and shadows, striping the swimmers. Impassively, the limestone cliffs tower above the crowd waiting for their turn to go inside the cave.
Water, tree, stone—how do they see us, oglers passing through and changing irreversibly everything once under the dominion of millenia?
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Jan. 29, 2012 issue of the "Matamata" Sunday column