Thursday, November 19, 2009 by Daniel

Philippines Day 5: Exploring Puerto Princesa

Today was considerably lower-key, though still pretty busy. To start things off, we took a half-day tour of the city of Puerto Princesa. We didn't really know what the tour would contain, but figured at the very least it would give us a better sense of where we were and what there was to see here.

It was a good tour, covering several of the also-rans in the guidebooks' list of things to do. First we went to the Crocodile Sanctuary, which is basically a small, rural zoo with a rather intense focus on crocodiles. I was never really clear on WHY these guys breed hundreds and hundreds of crocs, but there you have it. We saw the hatchery, and the adult pools, and a series of small enclosures in the forest with bearcats, civets, cockatoos, etc. I am never a fan of zoos, particularly under-funded ones, but this one was pretty good for such a small town, and their focus was clearly on conservation and rescue rather than capture and display.

From there, we went to a different sort of zoo: the Iwahig penal colony. Several decades old, Iwahig is a model of unconventional incarceration. Covering many acres of land, inmates live and work together on cultivating rice fields, building houses, and working on various crafts and knick-knacks for sale. They wear color-coded shirts (orange for minimum, blue for medium and orange for high-security) but all work together. Many of them live in houses that they've built for their families, and their children attend the same school as the guards' kids. It's all very forward-looking, despite having been around for decades, and they boast the lowest recidivism rate in the Philippines. It's a beautiful piece of country, though we only got out of the car to visit the gift shop. Mostly carved wooden knick-knacks and souvenirs, though I did score a handkerchief printed with a hilarious design of a smiling inmate with a ball and chain.

From there we stopped briefly at the highest hill in Puerto Princesa, atop which sits the local Congressman's ranch, which he allows the public to visit while he's in Manila. It commands an impressive view of the city and Honda Bay, though today was rather hazy from what appeared to be a lot of burning in the valley.

We took a short break at a nearby bakery, where Rebecca, Marc and I bought a whole bag of goodies to sample (for $3). Here's what we discovered: Ube is a purple root vegetable commonly used in sweets here. The ube ice cream I had was pretty good, though Marcus declared it tasted like old socks. Today's ube cookie was less good. The mocha munchies that Marc got were like little cupcakes with coffee and chocolate icing, but were not very good. The dried banana chips are excellent and very addictive. Pandesals are like dinner rolls stuffed with various meats, and are generally OK but vary widely in quality from one place to the next. The empanadas were good, as was the cheese bread. The "crinkles" were basically little chocolate cookies coated in powdered sugar: good, but nothing you couldn't get in the States. The real discovery was the pianonos, a roll of sweet, doughnut-like bread rolled into a long tube (like a churro) with a bit of dulce de leche, then dusted with sugar. They are extremely tasty.

Onward to the next stop, a weavers' collective. In support of a local orphanage and to support out-of-work teens, this collective takes native grasses, dyes them and weaves them on looms into a wide variety of crafts which it then sells in local markets. Many, many beautiful things like placemats, table runners, blinds, wall hangings, and other ornaments festoon the little shop by the weavers, but the real highlight had to be the purses and handbags. Really, really pretty stuff. We did get one gift there, but it's hard to buy that kind of thing for other people. Rebecca's probably going to take Dana back there tomorrow (she didn't come with us on the tour), as we were certain she would want one of the bags.

That was it for stops, but the tour took us the long way home by way of the bay road and the port, so we could see more of the city. We swung by a wide assembly area by the bay where they are in the process of assembling an enormous Christmas tree (Christmas in the Philippines is huge. Someone (Greg?) told us that they pride themselves on having the longest Christmas season in the country.) Saw the local cathedral and its surrounding cluster of schools, and caught a glimpse of the big open-air market in the heart of town.

Once back the hotel, we rested a little and then went with Dana to a local coffeeshop for lunch. Good, strong coffee with genuine milk in it was a real treat - I've been living off the rather uninspired stuff in the hotel cafe - but I struggled to find any tuna at all in my meager tuna sandwich. The pandesals I ordered as a follow-up were much better. From there we went back to the market, in search of various small items that we needed.

The market was a trip. Taking up most of a city block, it's a labyrinth of booths crammed together with very narrow walkways and very low ceilings. At its heart is the seafood section, where fish and shellfish of all types, fresh and dried, created a distinctive aroma that drove Rebecca straight back to the Hello Kitty wallet vendor. One whole section of the market was devoted to rice, with large piles of it separated out by some completely unfathomable logic (it all looked like white rice to me). Another to vegetables, one to fruit, clothes, toys, random crap, etc. This place was for locals, and Rebecca (with her blond hair) and I (with my height) stood out like sore thumbs. Curious eyes and hesitant smiles followed us wherever we went. I had decided that I would like to find some dried mango (side note: the mango here is amazingly good - vastly superior to the mango we get in the States. Apparently they can't export it, due to some conspiracy of international fruit bureaucracy, if you believe local legend), but I was unsuccessful in my search, unable to decipher the stream of Tagalog that met my query of a random woman who spoke enough English to hail us as we passed. Oh well: a project for the remainder of the trip. We were successful in our other chores: postcards for Dana, and undershirts for me and Marc for the wedding.

We got back to the hotel in time to do a little housekeeping, caption and upload the pictures from the last couple days, and just chill out until dinner. We opted not to revisit Ka Lui, instead taking Dana across the street to a place whose name forever escapes me. Something like "Kettlebush." We feasted on a wide variety of (mostly) delicious dishes. I struck out with one local delicacy that Ben had advertised: green mango served with a fermented fish paste. Two horrible tastes that taste horrible together. Well, not horrible, exactly, but strong. Green mango is very very sour, and fermented fish paste is very very... fermented fish paste. Everything else was great, though, and (like everything here) shockingly cheap.

Puerto Princesa is a BIG city measured in space (the largest in the Philippines), but the population is only 250,000 or so, and the vast majority of commercial life happens on an axis of two roads: Rizal Avenue, which runs west from the port, and the North Highway which runs lengthwise along the island. Our hotel is practically on the intersection of these two roads, about a mile and a half from the port. I can't call it a pretty city by any stretch: it is a noisy, smelly jumble of haphazard buildings separated by arteries of nonstop traffic. Still, walking back to the hotel from the restaurant, I felt a powerful fondness for this place. The people are so friendly, the culture at once so foreign and so familiar, the attitude so honest and the weather so nice...I really like it. Manila is a big city, and Rockwell is an upscale enclave in that city that leaves me feeling shut out and isolated in a bubble of all the things about the West that really bug me. Palawan is a stark contrast, a place that is proud of its unique identity and surrounded by tremendous natural beauty. It's (very) rough-hewn, but it is genuine with a big heart, and I can't help but fall for that. I was concerned when we first got here that it might be TOO rough, but my fears proved unfounded. I'll be sad to leave tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment