The Philippines! Palawan, PART 6: In Search of Crocodiles

I managed to save only 3 photos from this trip, and only because I was able to upload them in my Facebook account years ago

I managed to keep only 3 photos from this trip, and only because I was able to upload them in my Facebook account years ago

It’s my second time to spend holy week in Palawan. The first time around, I had been riding all day in the general direction of the south and by afternoon had decided to call it a day and spend the rest of it in an inn by the main road.  I usually went for accommodations by or near a beach or ones that had some kind of peculiar charm, but considering the time of the day plus my general physical state, I couldn’t afford to be choosy.

And so I ended up reaching as far south as I had ever been in Palawan only to spend the rest of the day and evening in an unremarkable inn by the road with nothing to do. I went outside to see whether there were any small stores with a bench where I could loiter and perhaps chance upon anyone to talk to and indulge my fondness for local stories and anecdotes. But I could only see the long stretch of road and a sporadic line of middle-class houses lining it in either direction.

My room was in the attic and was the cheapest available. After unsuccessful attempts to get any sleep, I went down to the canteen and sat by a corner. One of the lady attendants was sobbing over a particularly violent scene in The Passion, which was playing on television.

I got into talking with the place’s visibly bored security guard who I asked for some information regarding this neck of Palawan. He said that before becoming a security guard, he used to work at Tumarbong River catching stuff in the night (I have forgotten what exactly). But then his sudden brush with death made him leave the river for good. “One evening”, he recounted animatedly, “I was hunting near Tumarbong Falls, when I noticed a creature just several feet away”.

I asked, “What did you see?”

“A big crocodile!”

That really caught my attention, “Really? How big?”

He held one hand at eye level like a salute and the other hand palm-up at knee level.

I said, “Oh, that long. A young crocodile”

“No, sir! This was how thick it was!”

I succeeded in suppressing a spontaneous laugh. I wasn’t sure whether he was joking. I said, with unintended skepticism “Really?”

 His reply was immediate and emphatic, “Of course, Sir! Why else would I be a security guard now??”

Much later, After gulping down a cup of instant noodles and a Gatorade at exactly midnight (I had been staring at both since 11pm), I went to sleep with my mind filled with giant sunbathing crocodiles. I did not have any access to the internet where I could check on the guard’s story, though I vaguely recalled news stories of crocodile attacks in a river somewhere in Palawan.  I was also aware that the rare and endangered Philippine Crocodile could be found in the wild in this province.

At sunrise, I went on the road holding a crudely drawn map courtesy of the security guard and missed the entry point to the river at least 3 times. It was thanks to the left-right-right-left directions of a boy I met near a small wooden house where I left my motorcycle that I eventually found myself lost in the forest for a couple of hours;  as clueless to the direction to the falls as I was to the way back where I came.

I decided at that point that I would have better luck at finding the river than the road, so I wandered some more, keeping my ears on the alert for the sound of flowing water.  Instead, what my ears picked up were the sound of leaves rustling and the agitated barking of a fast- approaching dog. I ran around in circles in frantic search for a stick to defend myself with, and ended up picking up a long, pathetic branch no thicker than my pinky with some leaves still hanging from it. Great. Maybe I could tickle or fan the dog to keep it from attacking me. The dog’s crazed barking was interrupted by a man’s authoritative shout from afar and they emerged up a slope seconds from each other. The white-brownish dog barked at me again fiercely, with raging animosity in its eyes. His master scolded him and its face instantly transformed into what bordered on angelic, with tongue hanging limply and wearing what seemed like a big smile. It was as if a switch had been flicked that made him pop out of demonic possession. He actually looked quite adorable. What a relief.

The old man had thinning hair that he wore long past his shoulders. He was very gaunt and was wearing jogging pants cut off at the knees. He was dripping wet. If I remember right he told me later on that he was in his mid-fifties though he looked much older than that.

Good morning, I’m looking for Tumarbong Falls, can you tell me where it is?”, I asked.

Tumarbong Falls is way over there”, he said, moving his hands behind him in a shooing motion to emphasize the distance.

“Can you show me?”

“Come, I’ll accompany you”, he said, as he bade me to walk down the river.

When we reached the water, I saw a half-naked, old woman, with 2 teenage girls bathing.  “We were all bathing together when our dog ran away to meet you”, He said.

We proceeded to walk away from the group. “Did you see my wife?”, He asked.

I said, “Yes, I saw her”. I tried not to look behind me to avoid having to see the old woman’s breasts glistening in the sun again.

He added, “She’s the young girl to the right”

That made me turn to look behind suddenly, and a few yards from the old woman, I saw his young wife looking back at me.  She must have been 15 years old. She was quite pretty.

Pride was written all over the old man’s face when I turned to him again. I looked at his wife again. Then I looked ahead at nothing in particular while I tried to switch to a different topic in my head.

The Scream

The Scream

“A lot of land around here is for sale”, he said. “If you want to buy any, I can talk to the katutubo (indigenous people) who own it and arrange the sale.”

I said, “Yes, it would be nice to own a place by the river”

He said, “The main reason people buy property here is not to build a house. They buy property here because of the gold.”


“Isn’t that why you’re here?”, He asked

I said, “No.  I want to go to Tumarbong Falls and maybe see a giant crocodile”

“Who told you there were crocodiles there?”

I said, “A guy I met yesterday”

“That’s a myth.”


He said, “That was just a myth spread by Bruno to keep the locals away from Tumarbong Falls where a huge cache of gold was hidden.”

Oh. The plot thickens.

“Who’s Bruno?”

“He’s a Spaniard who had a map of the gold treasure left at the falls during Spanish times.”

I said, “The guy from the inn said he saw a giant crocodile here with his own eyes. I was thinking maybe I’d see some wild ones or ‘the’ crocodile itself.”

He said, “Maybe he was referring to a dummy they put there to keep the locals away”

I wanted so badly to vigorously scratch my head. But decided against it.

I said, “And the treasure is still there?”

“No, they’ve already taken it. They brought a boat here all the way from the mouth of the river and hauled it away”.

The dog had been stalking us running by the riverside above and sometimes at our level, disappearing and reappearing out of rocks and the woods to catch up. Sometimes he was compelled to wade into the water so he wouldn’t lose us. He kept a wide berth between us and himself like a Secret Service agent.

“But!”, He added , “If you can give me P50,000 to ‘rent’ a piece of land I know, I can pretend to work that land while actually looking for gold I know is stashed there. I’ll give you half once I find it.”

“What makes you sure there’s any gold there?”, I asked.

He replied, “It’s a secret my father told me. We have a map.”

I was beginning to think he had been watching way too many Hollywood movies on pirated DVDs (quite abundant and ubiquitous in the Philippines).

We rested for a while by the riverbank. The dog watched us from the other side, half-submerged in the clear water.

The Bodyguard

The Bodyguard

I asked, “Have any outsiders taken interest in the gold here?”

He said, “Oh, yes, Robin Padilla (a popular actor) himself had visited this place on account of the gold.”

The old man liked to talk. He said that he was originally from Pampangga, a province in Central Luzon, and that he and his father had moved here years ago and settled with the indigenous people in the area. We hiked the rest of the way and his stories revolved around land, gold and Spaniards. He was quite entertaining.

I eventually found myself standing in a very small clearing beside the river where Tumarbong Falls could be seen. It was not an especially remarkable waterfall. Looking around the area, the place we were standing on seemed to be the only spot on that side of the river where you can view it. The area was lush; And you’d have to swim across to get to the other side. The river seemed deep and inviting, but not having checked the place in the internet before coming, I chose the security guard’s story over the old man’s. I wanted to see a crocodile. I didn’t want to be inside one.

Nope, I didn’t see any crocodiles nor gold that day.  Just the oldest pair of naked breasts I’ve seen in all my life.

(To be continued)


The Philippines! Palawan, PART 5: The Iwahig River; The Attempt to Eat a Snake



For some reason, I would always feel as if I owned the place I am currently at, especially when there was no one else around. What does it matter who owned the title or rights to the property. I’m there. They’re not. So for the few hours that I spend in any magnificent place, it’s absolutely mine for as long as I’m there, even more so than the legal owners who aren’t even around at the moment to enjoy it.

The past two days, I have so far owned a couple of hectares of beach property and a piece of forest with a waterfall. And looking further back I have been the owner of several mountains, countless coves, caves, forests, islands, coral gardens, lakes, rivers and a few houses. If you think of it, no possession is permanent anyway. You will most certainly have to part even with your legal possessions one way or another. By virtue of what others would probably consider a delusion, I’m therefore one of the wealthiest people I know. Mere pieces of paper are no match against the deep-seated sense of ownership I would feel over a place. My feelings are my proof of ownership.

I don’t know how long I had been staring at what looked like a Begonia which had grown from a rock moistened by perpetual spray when I was dislodged from my reverie by a bird announcing itself with a wild call that sounded more like the howling of a monkey in heat.

It’s just as well. It was time to move on.

Back to the road.



I have grown used to the curious looks I get from other riders, which I’m sure are on account of the conspicuous armor over my legs, arms and hands, which look inordinately paranoid in provincial outskirts where a lot of riders don’t even bother to wear helmets, and where you would often see a family of four in a motorcycle (sometimes with one of them clutching a dog or a couple of chickens). I owe all of it to  my rather memorable introduction to the motorcycle years ago…

“These are the brakes. This is how you change gears, try it..”, The tricycle driver demonstrated. He owed me driving lessons. After all, this was all his idea. He hurriedly drove to this motorcycle rental before I could say anything; And I never said I knew how to drive a motorcycle.

“Ok, try driving a few blocks”, said the tricycle driver. My motorcycle lurched like a startled horse and I drove in circles in front of them in quick hiccups of uncertainty as I kept squeezing on the breaks to make sure they’re working and to keep my speed down. The tricycle driver and the attendant watched me with expressionless faces.

“Will you be able to manage to drive all the way to Sabang, Sir?”, asked the tricycle driver.

“Sure”,  I replied, with all the confidence I could manage to feign.

The following day, I returned the motorcycle badly broken and scratched; And although the damage were for the most part cosmetic, involving side mirrors  mudguards and paint, I still shelled out at least 1,000 pesos to compensate the owner. “Sir, ano nangyari sa inyo? Ok lang kayo?” I was glad that the attendant seemed genuinely more concerned with how I looked than how their motorcycle did. I had a severely bruised knee under my muddy jeans. My grotesquely skinned palm was hidden under a bloodied handkerchief tied around it, and I had abrasions and gashes over my arms. I had crashed in every possible way over the course of my trip. I crashed when my bike stalled uphill, causing my big bag to drag me sideways, making me hit the pavement with my right knee bearing most of the brunt of the fall. I picked myself up and performed a Jim Carrey-esque little dance on account of the pain before I walked the bike to the side of the road and give myself time to contemplate how utterly stupid I must have looked. In another instance I hit the front breaks while speeding over gravel, sending me and my bike sliding side by side over the road for a few meters on my arse and one hand, bloodying my right palm. Several kids who witnessed the whole thing, rushed to me and made an excited inventory of the damages incurred by my bike. “Hey, look, the side mirror is broken.” “Hey, look, the mudguard is broken”. “Hey, look, this footrest is bent”, and so on and so forth... “Ang galing!”, one of them exclaimed. In my mind, I was like,” Ano kaya magaling dun? Dagukan ko kayo isa isa dyan e.” 

I could more than hear their recounting of the spectacular accident while I picked minute rocks that have embedded themselves all over my bleeding palm.

These were just a couple of incidents among several, involving a couple of shallow ditches, and the need to remind myself in ensuring I’m already ON the motorcycle BEFORE starting and hitting the gas, if I don’t want to be dragged by the arms by a lurching bike without me on it and look like an absolute idiot in front of people (although they seemed to find it quite hilarious and entertaining). I decided against the initial impulse to take a bow before my delighted audience after picking my bike and myself off the ground at a food and souvenir area at Sabang.

And so I will endure a thousand stares and looks elicited by my outfit if it will keep my blood inside my body where it belongs, and save me a trip to the hospital or the morgue.


All mine

After riding over dirt roads gently winding through forests, I’m back on the main road. I noticed a tarpaulin sign offering ‘Firefly Watching’ and ‘Mangrove Tours’. I severely doubted if I would see a single firefly under the blazing sun, but I had always enjoyed riding on small boats , and I desperately needed distraction from my growing hunger.

I was told by the quide that they fought for the preservation of the mangrove forest that flanks this river

I was told by the guide that they fought hard for the preservation of the mangrove forest that flanks this river


I am told that this place is quire a hit with tourists in the evenings when the place is lit up by nothing but the stars and thousands of fireflies

My guide said this place is quite a hit with tourists in the evenings when the place is lit up by nothing but the stars and thousands of fireflies


Hah! Just as I had predicted. Not a single firelfly in sight

Mmmm, flowers. I wonder if they’re edible


snake pwn 11.22.11

What the park lacked in fireflies during daytime, it made up for with quite a number of these bright-colored snakes lazing over branches of mangrove trees

According to my local guide, these snakes are called Binturan. They ate small bats and lizard eggs. My stomach groaned at his passing reference to diet and nutrition.

I said, “It sure looks tasty. Can I eat it?”

(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 1: Spider, Ma’am!

You had to view it from a certain angle to see it under the blazing sun.  But once you do, spider webs stand out against the sky as if lit from within. I carefully tug on a strand upwards with open palms to feel how taut and durable it was. If it was flimsy and easily gave, the spider that spun it was small. The tougher they were, the bigger the spider. The air smelled of baked earth, grass, wild blossoms and cow dung. I had never been to a rice field before but many years later the aroma of rice fields under the noon-day sun would send me years back in time precisely to this moment.  My legs bled from kalmot pusa– A creeping plant whose thorns looked like cat-claws that came off its stem and caught on your skin in neat straight lines. I am 8 years old. What a great day to be hunting for spiders.

I was in the company of, to my knowledge at the time, the best at this peculiar skill–Putol, Makenbord (Mockingbird? He was Caucasian) and Eddie-boy… They were informal settlers from a squatter colony called Fatima in our village.

I had a bike imported and given to me by an uncle who was in the US Navy and was based in Japan. This bike had foot-brakes. You applied the brakes by pedaling backwards–a novelty that elicited oohs and ahs from my spider-hunting friends. In exchange for riding around several blocks on my bike, they would teach me the fine art of tracking spiders. I get to keep the ones I was able to catch myself. The rest were bartered for more time on my bike. I sat on the gutter wondering how my newly caught spiders would fare in battle while waiting for my bike to re-appear on either end of the street. On not a few occasions I also wondered if I would actually see my brand new bike again. The prospect of my bike getting stolen frightened me so much it took all of my will power not to barf and make a fool of myself in front of my friends. It also didn’t help that I had only met my ‘friends’ about a couple of hours ago. A few more hours later, with the last of the daylight reluctantly draining from the sky, my bike is returned to me. I had felt so sick with worry, I had no more energy left to feel any relief. I glanced at my 2 matchboxes full of mean and exotic-looking spiders for consolation all the way home. If my parents had even the slightest idea how far away I had wandered from the house and who I’d been with, they’d have blown enough capillaries to earn them a trip to the nearest emergency room. Instead they just said something about how a kid can smell so awful, where on earth have I been (I said at the neighbors a block away. Nanay: Maraming tinik sa bahay nila? Puro sugat binti mo o!), that I smelled like I just swam in a sewer (Saang imburnal ka galing??), and orders me to hit the shower.

A few months later, I’d exceed the skill of my friends and would later on catch hundreds upon hundreds of spiders over the course of my grade school years, selling off my surplus to awestruck and gullible elementary students where I went to school.  My spiders cost from 5 pesos up to a cool 50 pesos and they came with free lessons on the concept of debt, amortization and interest rates.

Spiders would fight to death on a tingting—the woody spine of a coconut leaf. A kid would slide out the drawer of his matchbox and tap their thumbs from under to coax the sleeping gladiator out and onto the tingting. Another kid would likewise draw out his bet and the short battle would ensue. The air would be filled with wonder, anticipation and electricity. There would usually be quite a number of kids huddled around cheering, shouting, egging, in a wild orgy of primal lust for blood and death.. Some were silent in seeming suspended animation, rapt in awe. Incidentally this was also a venue to enrich your vocabulary with the coolest swear words and obscenities to have ever come out in the national language, with all kids well-represented from all grade-levels yelling, gago! tarantado! pak yu!,  putang ina mo ka!, puking ina mo ka!, akamputa! (Grades1 to 6). Puta ina!, puki ina! Tantado! (Kindergarten and Prep) with testosterone-charged gusto and abandon that would’ve put the most foul-mouthed black rapper-slash-gangster on crack to shame.

Advanced Biology and Language Lessons

Advanced Biology and Language Lessons

The peaceful and leisurely hike to the camping site in one of the peaks of Mt Batulao in Batangas decades later found me smiling to myself while watching these childhood memories like a movie in my head. Hikes were usually an activity that did not involve much talk even if you had company so usually your thoughts flew off where it pleased. I try to figure out why my mind chose this particular part of my past and I reckoned it was the faint glimpse of a strand of spider web I had seen from afar a few hours ago.

(To be continued)