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.
“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.
“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.
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)