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

Mine

Mine…

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.

Mine

Mine…

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.

Mine

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

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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

.

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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! Palawan, PART 2: Nay

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The Penal farm was a big place and I didn’t know where to start looking for him. All I had to go by was his full name. I asked no less than 10 people around the farm, including employees and other prisoners.  I chanced upon a gated structure where prisoners were actually behind bars. Several prisoners were let out to talk to me but they were more interested in selling me trinkets, charms, and belts made of snake bones. One particularly pushy inmate kept telling me that his belt can cure back pain. With glaring eyes, like he’d just had way too much coffee, he seemed quite upset that I wasn’t interested in his merchandise. I couldn’t wait to leave.

I asked around a bit more but  failed to find my friend. Maybe he’d been released already.  I took out the prints, 5 in all, and studied them for a while. They were nice shots. I was sure he’d have been quite happy to get these photos. If ever he puts up a Facebook account, I’ve got him covered in the profile pic department.

I rested for a while under a tree wondering where I would ride to next. I studied my map and thought of riding as far as the available daylight permitted. And so I rode.

shade

And rode.

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And rode.

pwn forest 3.21.11

I also thought a great deal.

Under the steady blast of sunshine and explosion of life around me, my thoughts venture to the dark corners of my mind, as if the glaring contrast between them can offer some kind of protection. With the intoxicating aroma of grass, forest, wild flowers and earth filling my lungs, my mind inexplicably go back to the sterile, dreary smell of hospitals, where my mother spent the last 2 months of her life.

I’m trying to understand why some people have to go through the unspeakable suffering of infirmity. I also try to come to terms with the experience of having been by both parents’ bedside and having seen them off when they left this world. I wonder whether parents, who by such time are usually already unconscious, have any need for such companionship.

Around the last week of my mother’s life, she wondered aloud whether she still had a chance of getting better.  She was only half her weight by that time, and was so weak, she could barely lift her hands. She trembled whenever she did. Looking away from me she said to herself, may pag-asa pa kaya ako?. The fear, despair and loneliness in her voice shattered my heart, the same way my heart broke every single day that I saw her health decline.

I remembered how she would merely stare at her favorite food and just manage a spoonful’s worth. I would take away her practically untouched meal  and sneak out of sight where I would stagger through waves of pain and sorrow before I return to her bedside and hope the swelling in my eyes have gone down enough to go unnoticed.

During the most recent times that I had seen her healthy, I was fond of asking her out to eat with my aunt and uncle who lived nearby. My brother and his wife would at times be around as well. I did not talk much at such meals, content at basking in her obvious joy and contentment at being surrounded by family over lunch or dinner. She would talk and laugh throughout, and I would feed off her happiness and would drive home with a smug smile on my face that I wore till I slept.

She was exceedingly proud of her children. I would often catch her over-zealously talking about our praises and achievements to customers in our small Sari sari store. One time, I overheard her telling a neighbor to let us know if ever they needed medical advice because her youngest son was a doctor. I reminded her afterwards that I was merely in ‘premed’ and was not a doctor yet. I was taking up Nursing then, and years later would eventually decide against continuing to Medicine. (‘Nay, Nursing pa lang pinag-aaralan ko, ‘wag nyo naman sabihin sa mga kapitbahay na doktor ako). She reacted by laughing with that hearty, infectious laugh that was distinctively hers.

Throughout the two months that she was sick, I wondered when I would hear that peculiar laugh again. It was frightening to allow in too much hope considering what she was up against. And I eventually paid the price for overindulging in optimism.

I had only a couple of hours of light left of riding and had to consider where I was going to spend the night. I check my map for the most likely place I’d find one. I check my watch, squeeze on the gas, and speed off west, where the sun was slowly heading.

At 70 kilometers per hour, tears run sideways.

(To be continued)

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

Palawan1

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)

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