A PERPETUAL passenger all my life, I was thrust out of the relative safety of mere observation when I found myself seated at the prow of our boat during a recent exploration of the Underground River at Puerto Princesa, Palawan.
As the outermost passenger seated at the forward part of the banca, I was to handle the lone flashlight according to the directions of the boatman-cum-guide, who steered the boat from the stern or the back.
It seemed simple to direct a beam of light to satisfy our curiosity of what then was still shortlisted as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
We left the crowd of tourists awaiting their turn on the shore of a lagoon dominated by the majestic profiles of limestone karst mountains, and drifted towards the inky depths of the jagged mouth of the cave.
Suddenly, the boatman barked “Kanan, kanan!”.
Does “kanan” mean right or left? My panic resulted in the flashlight arching from right to left to right again. In the dark of the cave, the skittering of that spidery beam was enough to jumpstart a headache.
In Cebuano, I hissed for aid from my husband seated behind me. In the high-domed cavern, my whisper caromed like the very best pontificating address delivered with cathedral-enhanced acoustics—a point that translated well to my Tagalog companions my ineptness in following directions, as well as my pained discomfort with the national tongue.
Before anyone could throw me out of the boat, though, the tots in our group of 10 found the icy cold river more entertaining than erratically spotlighted stalactites.
After much splashing and shouting—that proves adults around children make more din than children playing among themselves—we used the rest of our 45 minutes inside the cave acting like proper tourists.
When friends knew we were joining a trip to what is hailed as the “longest navigable underground river in the world,” we got a lot of well-meant horror stories.
What should scare more than the combined forces of malaria-carrying mosquitoes and vampire bat relatives of Edward and Bella are tourists and vandals.
Last Jan. 28, 2012, the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR) officially became part of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. It’s a cause for national pride, specially for the millions whose online voting enabled the PPUR to leapfrog from an initial list of 440 sites in 220 countries in 2007 to the top 77. This list was further whittled down to 28 finalists.
After voting for PPUR, the next logical step is to visit. At P900 for every person aged six years and older, the tour is affordable as it covers boat transfer from and to Sabang Beach in the mainland of Puerto Princesa, guide, snacks, entrance fee and a permit to explore a portion of the 8.2-km river.
What will this fame mean for Puerto Princesa? According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international watchdog of climate change, Puerto Princesa is the country’s first carbon-neutral city. It means that its carbon removal is eight times more than its carbon emissions.
I see the writing on the wall, thanks to our guide, Rene Boy. In every sense of the word, he knows the cave in the dark.
It wasn’t just that even before the chamber was lit up, he already pointed out how a cluster of stalagmites resembled the Virgin Madonna on our approach but transformed into a snarling beast about to pounce as we passed it again on the way back to the cave’s maw in the lagoon.
Rene Boy also pointed out the graffiti scrawled on portions of the cave. Some vandals used non-English characters.
Seeing a boatman unload a water container from a banca full of such vessels at the side of the cave, Rene Boy explained that locals derived their supply for household use from cave fissures trickling water.
Even swarms of bats flitting in the dark and crapping copiously above our heads did not daunt us from taking photos, hailing other passengers in the underground banca traffic, and generally acting as tourists often do in places they don’t expect to go back again.
Cave formations awe because they seem to be of other worlds. In a sense, stalactites and stalagmites are truly not of our world of haste and waste: it takes about 100 years to form an inch of growth on these formations.
In the presence of those towering flowstones and dripstones, we should have acted less like theme park visitors and more like penitents and supplicants.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 5, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column