The first thing you should know about the capital of Palawan is than when you step off the plane, a brass band greets you with ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’. The second thing you should know, is that the smaller and more regional the airport, the less likely you are to find a certain hott individual. Despite our plotting, Dr. Bloom had escaped our clutches. Great shrieks and cries tore the air.
We had one of those days where everything seems to go wrong: with bellies full of gin our sleep was light, and the mood glum. After visiting a number of ATMs, my bank decided to freeze one of my cards. I spent an energising 20 minutes on the phone giving my opinion of their service and banks in general, and we mooched up and down the main drag, a road alive with trikes, vans and pollution.
You know what, I think the occasional crappy day is an important part of it all. Although I’ve banished all forms of superstition from my life, I believe the fantastic moments, or wild strokes of luck you get when travelling only come when you get a real bummer of a day, like when the hotel staff spend their days laughing at you in another language, or when you get angry at one rip-off too many.
But off the main drag, Puerto Princesa is very pretty. Our hotel had a rooftop restaurant overlooking the bay and surrounding mountains, where we could watch the clouds drift up and down with the weather – sometimes floating downwards towards the fishing boats lazing in a current, sometimes up so high they only grazed the summit like new wool stuck on a fence.
We chowed down on Philippine sangas made from that bloody awful cream bread that sticks to the top of your mouth and can only be prised off with a fingernail, and wandered about some backstreets, admiring little hole-in-the-wall tailors, 24-hour funeral parlours, barbers and coal and bamboo vendors. The central market was slick with fish scales, and bawling vendors under bright lights sold dozens of different types of prawns, crabs, stingray, octopus, squid and fish of all sizes. In one dimly-lit corner a row of wild-haired village women crouched in front of their straw baskets, which were full of sea anemones with the seaweed still attached.
That evening we found a supermarket/pharmacy/department store called ‘Drugman’ and found many delights: amid the strange packaged spice mixes and creamed corn we spied pads called ‘Those Days’, and in the skin-whitening aisle (there is a whole section devoted to this in every shop), we found boxes of ‘Placenta Soap’. God knows what the good burghers of Drugman thought of the giantesses who spent hours in their supermarket bent double with hysteria at every product.
We paused at a kind of inner city amphitheatre, which was thronged with town kids enjoying some wholesome Filipino fun. Back home, Aussie teenagers were sneaking booze from their parents, comparing iPods, playing Wii for eight hours straight and just being misunderstood. But in Puerto the BMX bandits wheeled and spun up and down, boys (and some girls) practiced their cheerleading routines to a tape, some clattered skateboards up and down the steps while others twirled on their heads on old bits of cardboard. It was the place to be on a Saturday night. Annoi’s take on this healthy spectacle? ‘THIS is every government’s DREAM’, she shouted, with outstretched arms.
Despite our overall despondency, we were still a good team. Cocktails flowed at sundown, cigarettes were lit and twine was deployed to fix hats and erect washing lines. And it was nice to have someone on hand to appreciate the traveller’s keen and obsessive pride in one’s bowel movements with such comments as: “H’m. I think I’ve conjured something up,” an observation normally considered antisocial in the cut and thrust of Melbourne society.