The Philippines! Palawan, PART 1: The Prisoner by the Road


Holy Thursday, 2011, on a motorbike. The road in front of me stretched into the horizon. The wind roared like steady thunder in my ears. The air was warm and thick. Like riding through soothing balm. I can’t get enough of the smell of the air. I keep breathing in lungfuls of the countryside potpourri, trying to make sense out of the pleasant commotion it stirred inside me. Strange and familiar at the same time, it reeked of the ancient and primeval. The mingling sense of recognition and novelty fought one another in a stalemate.  Like bumping into a long lost friend I’ve never met before. Like going back to memories that are not my own.

My destination is the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Palawan to make good on a promise.

The previous year while riding south on the roads of Palawan, soaking in the scenery and the local wildlife (The occasional monitor lizard or bayawak crossing  the road, a flattened snake roadkill  in the shape of an ‘S’, a couple of squirrels darting into hiding, big birds gliding high up in the air), I saw a guy standing by the road with a juvenile python hanging over his neck. I drive past him, but after a couple of blocks I made a u-turn to take a closer look at his pet. The sun was mercilessly beating down on me anyway and he was standing under the welcoming shade of a giant Acacia tree.

He seemed delighted to have someone to talk to and was quite eager to tell me about his pet. It was only half its size when he found it and he fed and grew it to its present size. Nope, it doesn’t bite. It sheds it’s skin after a while, etc.  He said that he was one of the many prisoners in the farm who were free to roam about and attend to farming and other kinds of agricultural work. He was in charge of taking care of itik (wild ducks). I didn’t have to say much to him. He carried the conversion all by himself and talked and talked like it was his first time to do so in ages, while the python over his shoulders watched us with its sleepy indifferent eyes. He said he ended up in prison for hacking a trespasser to death in Quezon Province. That it was deadly boring in the farm and that he longed to be free to go home someday.

I asked him if I could take a photo of his pet python and he was quite delighted to see the resulting image in my digicam’s display. He requested me to take a photo of him together with the python and I haven’t seen anybody as happy as he was upon seeing a few simple instant photographs. He wondered aloud if I could send him prints, and I said sure.  Perhaps in gratitude for breaking the dreadful monotony of his days, he offered to catch me a ‘sqealer’ when I came back. I asked, what’s a squealer? He replied that they were quick-footed, reddish mice with long puffy tails. (Oh. Squirrels.)

Before leaving , I gave him some cash for graciously photographing me with his python. He lit up and flashed an all-teeth, ear-to-ear smile. He said he was going to use it to buy the nicest pair of footwear there is: Islander brand flip-flops. 

A year later, I’m back on the same road carrying photo prints of my homicidal friend with his cold-blooded pal.

(To be continued)




The Philippines! Mt. Batulao part 3: the Squeeze

The original plan was that we would spend the afternoon at the peak and my companions would descend back before dark and leave me to camp alone overnight. But because of our little side-trip to the old lady’s house earlier, there was only half an hour’s worth of daylight left by the time we arrived.

After pitching my small tent, we stared at it for a long time. Though no one made any comments on the subject, we all knew there was no way on earth we were going to fit in there. By tacit agreement, we did not bother to find out and just went wandering around the vicinity, checking what stuff was available in the store nearby (liquor, soda, noodles, junk-food ..) and lounged around checking the surrounding scenery.

Our campsite was right beside a hill. I climbed it and sat on a rock at the summit transfixed at the western horizon where the sun was putting on a show. The sky was so red, it had made the whole landscape blush. Nothing was spared from its cosmic paintbrush.  Clouds, whole fields, whole mountainsides, tents, people, a dog, a cat, a goat and a couple of chickens– .. everything turned into a surreal purple-red in absolute chromatic unison. It was only around a 10 minute show. And as with all things of sublime beauty and wonder, it was terribly fleeting and you can’t take it home with you to keep. I stayed for a few more minutes and just stared at my shoes before finally descending down the hill while the trail was still visible.

We had dinner in the nearby store where there was some cover from the cold wind steadily coming in from the east. We were joined by other hikers and a cat. It kept getting colder and there was no longer ignoring the inevitable. How were we going to fit in our tent without oozing into each other and merge at the molecular level?

After several experiments in different positions in my tiny blue tent, we finally give up and just hope for the fatigue to do its job and knock us out in whatever position we were in. We chat and chuckle ourselves to sleep, and in that steady descent into the carefree, indifference of slumber, I thank God for tweaking our itinerary and foiling our plans for this trip. In travel, as in life in general, I’d hands down prefer His plans over mine any day.

I just hope nobody farts.

How to get there:

Morning has broken

Morning has broken


The smell of the air here makes you close your eyes


Near the old man’s house


Just one of the many peaks

The Batangas Sky

The Batangas Sky

Oh, give me a home...

Oh, give me a home…

Evening falls

Evening falls


The Philippines! Mt. Batulao part 2: The House by the Stream and the Saddest Dog I’ve Ever Seen

We had originally planned to hike Mt. Tagapo in Talim island but just the previous day, had changed our minds and decided to do Mt. Batulao instead.

About a quarter of the way to one of Mt Batulao’s campsites, in one of several stops where fresh coconuts were sold, we met an old lady who invited us to their, as she enthusiastically put it, “house by the stream”. When it comes to side-trips, I invariably do not need much convincing. We went and happily disregarded our original itinerary. We were welcomed by an excited white mutt and the somewhat reserved old husband of our new friend.

We walked towards a swimming hole 5 minutes away and I took a dip in the ice-cold water while my friends took in the surrounding woods and scenery and chatted with our young guide who was the old couple’s niece (or was he their grandchild?)

For lunch we laid out banana leaves on the grass in front of their house and dumped the rice and gatang manok (chicken cooked in coconut milk) we bought from a sari sari store earlier over it and ate with our hands while listening to the old man’s small transistor radio playing oldies music from an AM station. We kept a close watch over their white dog who kept licking his snout, eyes wide and alert in giddy anticipation for our left overs.

I had brought a flask of brandy with me and the mention of this seemed to breath life and enthusiasm into the old man of around 80 or so years. We passed a glass around and tried to make my 8 ounces of liquor last as long as possible by pouring just enough to wet our throats with each shot. We chased our brandy with fresh coconut water. Now that we had a lot of.

The old man told us he grew up in batangas and one night a long, long time ago, they were having a drinking session with his friends and a dayo (guest). And for some reason he and his friends were suddenly seized with curiosity on what a couple of hundred feet of rolling down a steep cliff would do to a person. And so they proceeded to carry their drunk and semi-conscious guest over a nice cliff nearby and tossed him to his bumpy, bouncy death. The only problem was although their ‘friend’ was practically naked once he made his 2,212th  and last somersault, he actually survived to tell the tale (Old man: ay nung hinagis namin e naka long sleeves, bihis na bihis. Pag dating nya sa baba,  hubo’t hubad na). Wanted and hunted by the Philippine Constabulary (PC) as the police were called in the olden days, he was convinced by the mayor to just leave town and return once the heat died down. It took decades before he was able to return. I asked him why they did that to the poor fellow, and he replied, Wala, trip lang (We were just fooling around), flashing a shy, near-toothless smile.

One of my companions suddenly felt hungry and thought of requesting our hosts to dig up some Camoteng Kahoy (Cassava), so off they went and returned with 2 uprooted camote trees with their big, bulby roots, still holding on to clumps of earth.

We took turns pounding on the boiled harvest which they mixed with sugar and coconut meat on a really big wooden mortar and pestle until it became Nilupak (gummy, pasty Cassava cake). We helped ourselves to heaping plates of the gummy goo before leaving for the campsite.

Our shadows already grew long over the grasses and the warm melancholy smell of the waning afternoon and impending dusk cast a gloomy spell on my heart and exposed me to wave upon wave of memories of childhood sadness and grief over another day hopelessly giving in to the night. I had always wished there were more hours in a day to play and explore as a kid. I hoped for the same miraculous extension now.

I looked over my shoulder and bade a reluctant farewell to the house by the stream with the white dog (his head questioningly tilted to one side and sadness and devastation writ all over his eyes to see us go), and the animated, old lady, and the old man who tried to kill a guy and now had just 3 teeth left and liked to chase brandy with buko juice while listening to Nat King Cole sing There Goes My Heart on AM radio.

(To be continued)

Listen to There Goes My Heart by Nat King Cole