Mark was one of those tour guides who crosses his ‘t’s’ and dots his ‘i’s’ by keeping us up-to-date with all the emergency phone numbers, location of city hospitals and tales of the Mayor of Puerto, Edward Hagedorn, whom we learnt was part-German, lived in a mansion and had a passion for cockfighting.
We got out of the capital and found that Palawan is rather wild. Dense cloud and mists crept around fantastic jungle, bright green rice fields, palm trees, buffalo dragging carts with no wheels and little huts crossed by washing lines. Most houses we saw were made of natural materials: supports were thick bamboo or wood, walls were tightly-woven rattan and rooves shingled with palm fronds (called ‘nipa’). We were told all about the various bizarre local remedies found in the jungle, as well as strange beasts including…the Palawan Stink Badger.
As Mark mentioned it in the same breath as ‘a giant crocodile that weighs 500 kilos’, I had to interrupt his flow of information – Stink Badger? For real? When pressed, he revealed that ‘one fart from the mighty Steenk Badger will kill a small dog from a kilometre downwind.’ I verified this later at the Palawan Museum. This is a real creature.
Eyes peeled for more curious faunae, we stopped off in Sabang to catch a bangka to the Underground River, an extraordinary long cave full of limestone formations, bats and swallows. This whole area is so protected that you can’t even swim in any of the beaches surrounding the national park, and is so strange and gorgeous it attracts throngs of tourists from all over Asia. Once we’d travelled 3 hours over unpaved road, queued up for boats that only take 6 people each, sweated in more jungle and arrived at our destination…well we had to wait just a little longer to get in the damn thing.
I paused to take some photos near the mouth of the cave, where huge monitor lizards flopped about and evil-looking monkeys scuttled out of the trees, looking for small children to kidnap. What is with everyone’s obsession with monkeys? Can’t anyone see how scarily close they are to people? Their small hands? Their malicious, shrivelled faces? Their mocking laughter, thin tails and persistent thievery? I know that monkeys are one of those creatures everyone is supposed to like, but they give me the willies. I would go a long way not to associate with monkeys.
Moving right along.
As I snapped away at nice, trustworthy monitor lizards, Annoi tiptoed up to inform me discreetly that Dr. Bloom had just set one glorious foot upon the beach. And that he had a bit of chest out. As I am the soul of suave and cool, I kept peeping charmingly though the lens, chatting animatedly to some Pinoys nearby, finally turning around to exclaim ‘Oh hey! Fancy seeing you here!’
We each scored a peck on the cheek and a friendly hug. (faints) We chit-chatted gaily and found out he was being put up by some locals, grateful for his doctorly services to a relative. But why was this godly creature sent back to haunt us with his cheekbones, his hazel eyes, his sophisticated chat and his knowing air? Ah, I guess we’ll never know. Sometimes when you travel you bump into the dullest people time and again – at airports, at hostels, in the most random bars – whereas others just flit in and out of your hold, like trying to keep water in a cupped hand. We feasted our eyes richly and sent him back into the wild.
At last we gained access to the Underground River, which was fragrant with the chemical tang of bat guano. Undeterred, Annoi sprayed large quantities of the complimentary rosewater from Sonya’s Garden in a giant cloud (which I had lost patience with after it leaked all over my bag), and made herself a pomander out of a tissue, which she held under her nose like Queen Victoria. Our guide was vastly amused.
The darkened cave was lit only by one torch, and thick, green water lapped very close to the sides of the boat, which was powered by a boatman with a paddle. All the formations created by the dripping minerals had names like ‘the Korean mushroom’, ‘the squid’ and ‘the face of Christ’, and one ‘naked lady’ formation was known as…‘Sharon Stone’. Ridges in the ceiling trickled water, while tiny swallows raced and swooped over our heads. Sometimes so narrow you could touch the sides, the river occasionally widened into immense caves, which stretched upwards like cathedrals corrugated with organ pipes, up to 65 metres high. One long, eerie passage followed a straight line for ages, and when the river finally became too narrow to sail up we had to turn back from the bowels of the earth to find the light again.
We were sweaty, we were tired, we were thirsty, we were dirty and bat-smelling. We were then ferried briskly to our LUXURY RESORT, which was precisely the sort of place where cabana boys bring you cocktails on the beach. Two days of blissful indolence in Sabang transpired, and we widened our girths considerably with daiquiris and San Miguel. They had this terrific pool with wide, shallow steps, a posing platform and an inflatable ring, which I threw myself upon and spent a pleasant hour drifting about in, staring at the sky. Annoi was greatly intrigued by this, and tore her eyes from the machinations of Wynkyn de Worde to inquire if I was enjoying myself.
“Yup,” I replied.
“Just thinking your own thoughts, eh?” said she, with high diversion.
“Happy as a clam,” said I.
This seemed to crack her up quietly: “Puckie does that….just mooches about the house.” Then her eyes unfocused a bit with happiness. “Thinking her little thoughts.”*
*A note on Puckie, the omnipresent:
Even on the other side of the world one cannot escape the fur clutches of this neurotic, high-pitched canine. With a moist gaze, soft, human tongue that tries to enter every ear and humorously ladylike paws, Puck has exasperated and entertained my friends for nearly 13 years.
There is one person who loves Puck in the whole world, and that is her adoring mistress. Annoi feeds her expensive nutritional powders, follows her around faithfully with bulging plastic bags full of shite, throws herself upon her back when she tries to chase down and bite trams, artfully arranges different bedding in every room of the house and hotly defends her from the slings and arrows of her less adoring public.
Every dog we saw in the Philippines was stopped with a cry, and insistence that ‘this one’s little face is exactly like the black angel.’ She would also pause at the most random moments to speculate: ‘I wonder what my luli is doing now?’
This is what happens when you christen a dog ‘Puck Bluebelle la Rue Ookawacka Pop’.