It is 2010. The van winds through snakelike roads on its way to Sabang, cramped with strangers, a carsick child and an overwhelmed mother. The mother fancies herself a traveler, so the child supposedly, should be too. They are on a mission, these two, to prove that motherhood, accidental or otherwise, is never a hindrance to dreams.
The child vomits those dreams and other unidentified objects all over the mother’s polka-dot shirt. Agitated, she tells the driver to slow down. He says he has a schedule to keep.
The van is cloistered now with the sour smell of dreams, the unpreparedness of the physical state even if the mind wills to go. Sabang is still a couple of hours away. They pass by karst mountains, little villages and souvenir shops. The toddler is bawling. The other passengers don’t care. They are on vacation.
When they finally get to Sabang, Palawan’s access point to the underground river, they are told that they might not be able to cross. The sea is too choppy. So, they wait on the coastal wall facing a turmoil of water. An empty beach is on the left. A new resort lurks on the right.
Palawan, to those waiting, seemed to be anything that you wanted it to be. It was a land that held something intangible, always out of reach. And to a new mother still grasping her new role, its lack of label held a certain comfort.
The 7th Wonder
It is 2015. So much of the land is about waiting. It never reveals itself completely to the impatient, or the unprepared. I come back five years after to the person I left stranded on that cross. The daughter is now five years old. Save for a few trips, she loathes crosses. She likes straight destinations.
The hotel on the right of Sabang’s jumpoff point, I later find out, is called Sheridan and is the very reason that brought me back to this stretch of sand.
My room faces a 340-ft. long infinity pool where some Koreans are playing a game of hoops or lining up at the lowered bar to watch Game of Thrones.
Just a short walk away are some lined gazebos that face the beach, most useful to my habit of people watching at dusk. There are construction workers on bikes with their tiffins, teenagers having a good laugh and half-naked backpackers leafing through their copies of Lonely Planet.
Palawan now has a label. It is now found in magazines, brochures and signages. It is now the “7th wonder of the world”. If this doesn’t pack a punch, then perhaps the “best island”, according to Conde Nast Traveler, will.
The first time I heard of these, I cringed. I wonder that if by somehow boxing the very notion of what made it special, we have objectified its worth, created the paradox and efficiency of a single story? Does naming a mother “mother”, for instance, streamline the meaning of a woman?
But I digress.
The beach on a Sunday is quiet. The waves break and recede to a rhythm ideal for sleep. Deck chairs save for a lulling solitary tanner, are empty. Fishing boats are docked on the shore. The volleyball net sways in the wind. A coconut with an unexpected message emblazoned with a marker perhaps says it all: that Palawan may all be the “art of doing nothing.”
There I go again. Labeling. Hurry. Hurry. My mind is anxious for an angle. Close the story, it says. While I feel off put by the notion, I also feel the need to absolve things of its obscurity, to place my own label instead of theirs perhaps.
We ride an 8×8 to a private property, then walk the rest of the way to the jumpoff point of Sabang’s zipline. On the way, we pass by uninhibited beaches, mangroves and an overgrowth of grass. The word “untouched” comes to mind.
Our guide, Roy, confirms this. No one is allowed to live in this area, he says, for fear that their presence might affect the natural balance of things. Snakes cannot be killed. Wood can’t be burned for fuel. Sea grass can’t be swept away.
“Untouched” may also be a warning. Meaning, establishments should see to it that it the word finds relevance amidst the island’s growing popularity.
Roy says that Sheridan experienced the need to give way to nature firsthand. When once they trimmed a coconut of its dead leaves, five minutes later, a civilian ranger was already in the premises, asking about the tree’s welfare, asking about legalities. Where was the permit signed by the barangay official?
In Sabang, cutting one tree alone involves serious paperwork. An area where only 20% of the land mass is commercialized and the rest of the 80% is still wilderness sees to it that the rights of majority, the trees, are respected. By law, it has just as much need for space as humans do.
Ziplines as Time Machines
We are a company of four trekking through wet sand. And as if to feel the smallness of our humanities in comparison to the expanse of space, we break off, each one enamored with a crag, a monkey, an enormous vine, a fallen tree trunk.
It is approaching low tide and the sliver of water kissing land form chevron patterns on the sand. I follow them with my feet. Best to walk barefoot until reaching the forest trail.
Where shore ends, a thick foliage begins. The sun can barely pass through the leaves covering the sky. Trekking even with the support of wooden stairs require agility and long breaths.
“I’ve found my angle!” a companion remarks as we pass through the root of a tree, big enough to form an arc over our heads.
“Palawan is all about inconvenience.” he says. “The inconvenience of having to trek to get to one’s destination. The inconvenience of having to pass through trunks of trees.”
We reach the platform and look at the view of jagged mountain and sea set against the thicket. My companion concludes by saying “We pass through inconvenience only to realize it was all well worth it.”
There is a visible line to track the meeting of mountain and sea. The cable runs from the platform to a collection of volcanic rocks that create an otherworldly set of sculptures on the shore.
I am the first to jump off. The ride is pleasantly slow with enough time to see the mangroves on the left and if you look close enough, the zipline operator instructs, you might be able to see the Kalayaan group of islands on the right.
Trajectories though can often be illusory. A combination of speed and height can also take you through time other than place.
It is 2010 again, and I am looking at another zipline cable. This one is in Mitra’s Ranch in Puerto Princesa. I want to ride it. I am already here, I think to myself. But the daughter clings to the side of my hip. Her carsickness has ruined the trip for her. She is afraid of everything at this age and is quick to complain.
Her own feelings have defined my experience. When she cries, something in me feels inadequate. I feed with her stimuli to compensate. Look, a pyramid. Look, horses. I am a mother now first before I am a traveler. This is what I remind myself. Still, the place calls, so I balance her on the side of my hip while a take a photo with my camera on my left. We take the shorter and safer trajectory of the swing instead of the zipline. She is happy.
In Sabang, my companions follow one after the other until the tour operators themselves slide down to close shop for the day. In a corporate outfit, the operator ziplines with folder in tow. This is her life in the island.
Northern Lights in Palawan
Later that night, we feast on dinner served on a wooden tray as long as our table. There’s fresh seafood – squid, crabs, shrimp, white fish – vegetables – eggplant and okra – and grilled meat. There’s organic black rice and fresh pineapples too. The next morning, we would visit their farm and, in the most authentic execution of farm to table, I see one of the farmers cut the pineapple off its stalk and serve it straight as palate cleanser. Eat it with a zest of calamansi, the farmer suggests. Acid on acid is surprisingly refreshing. Roy says that 80% of their produce come from Sheridan’s self-sustaining farm where they plan to build a backpackers’ lodge and an archery field soon.
Night in Palawan seems unnatural, at least to my own nature who is unused to total darkness. I walk on the shore, guided only by silhouettes and sounds. In the distance, there is faint light that seeps through the fog, a combination of color and air. It is what I imagine the Northern lights to be.
“They’re fishermen.” explains the resorts Human Resources Coordinator, handing me a cocktail. While looking at the lights, we talk about how Sheridan has come a long way from when I last saw it five years ago.
For one, whereas it used to employ mostly Cebuanos, now it has embraced Palawan fully by getting most of its staff from the area. And those who have been imported now plan to stay.
It now has programs for schools and scholarships for students. They’re now also building a small chapel. They don’t even consider it Corporate Social Responsibility. They consider it part of business continuity. Involve the communities, and in turn, they help you back.
It is unfair perhaps to label Sheridan as an eco-resort. They have taken it to a certain level of sustainability that it becomes a lifestyle, celebrated by many, but a norm for them. It is unfair also to brand it as a luxury resort too because it operates on a certain level of hospitality one would usually expect from homier, more intimate settings.
Perhaps it is best to not label it at all just as it is best to stop putting myself in place as “mother”, “daughter”, “traveler”, “writer” with set expectations for all. How about person? How about human?
“Have you been here before, Ma’am?” the HR coordinator asks.
“Yes. Once.” I tell him.
Hoping for more answers perhaps, he prods with a tilt of his head.
I like Palawan, I tell him, and with the best compliment I can give to those who refuse to be defined, I end with “As to why, I don’t know.”