Palawan: Flawed Perfection

Ladyboys. Balut. Beaches. One year ago this weekend, when I first got my job at ISM and announced to friends and family that I would be moving to the Philippines, the assorted tidbits of culture and advice immediately started pouring in. The Filipino friends of my friends appeared and conveyed the must-sees and must-dos of Manila. My pleased parents read up on hot travel destinations and began booking their flights. My genuinely eager roommates helped me research Filipino culture and enthusiastically joined me in investigating the idiosyncrasies of the archipelago inhabitants. While my friend heckled me light-heartedly about topics that fascinated them ranging from my first encounter with a group of ladyboys to my tortured facial expression upon my first taste of balut, the images of the country that really seemed to captivate and intrigue were the renown beaches of the Philippines.

Through iconic films like Apocalypse Now, popular shows like The Amazing Race, and growing word-of-mouth praise via back-packing aventuriers , the beaches of the Philippines have become famous in the West for their  pristine white-sand shores. Amid the country’s thousands of miles of coast-line, the most talked about beaches seemed to be those of Palawan.

Palawan is considered the eco-tourism capital of the Philippines. Since my arrival, friends, colleagues, and magazines alike have praised its beaches as untainted by the tourist hoards. The island’s relatively easy transportation routes, scenic landscapes (both along and below the sea), and  numerous tourist attractions suggest that it is the one place in the Philippines that all visitors ought to see. Adventurers have the chance to explore the numerous reefs along that coastline, marvel at the magnificent limestone cliffs of El Nido, discover the “Cradle of Philippine Civilization” at the Tubon caves, or journey deep into under the under the rocky service along the Underground River.  Palawan was, and to some extent remains, the unscathed island paradise of dreams.

Thus, when presented with the opportunity to plan a three-day get-away for a visiting friend from the States and myself,  I chose to plan our sojourn on the main island of Palawan.

For our trip, we elected to visit the Underground River:the twisting, touristy trek into the caverns through the rocky shelves around Sabang.  We flew in Puerto Princessa and easily found a hearty jeepney to carry us on our three-hour journey from the quiet capital of Puerto Princessa to the sleepy fishing village. Though none of my research suggested Sabang to be the most idyllic spot on the island, I found the town upon our arrival to be unquestionably picturesque.

Despite the tendency to overlook Sabang and opt for a day trip from the capital, the main beach of Sabang is beautiful. A white-sand arch extends unbroken from the busy pier to some distant, towering rocks. Unlike many beaches adjacent to fishing villages that I’ve visited in the past, very little seaweed and no fish wash up with the  morning tide to pollute the broad, pristine shoreline as it melts into the lush, forest fringe. Indeed, the water is a clear aquamarine unperturbed or broken save by some colorful fishing boats and bankas conveying tourists to and fro.  The sand is fine and soft and sinks beneath your toes as the swirling surf wraps around your ankles and a gentle breeze, smelling of salt and tropical flowers, wafts across the water’s surface filling your nostrils and following you as you walk back towards your accommodation.

The area around Sabang was both beautiful and peaceful. We spent the weekend climbing along the coast, hiking along the Monkey Trail, boating through stalactites and stalagmites  and lounging in the warm waters of the hidden beaches around the town. As we explored, I felt soaked in the vibrant warmth of the sun, soothed by the cleansing rain and satiated with the peace that can only be found when completely removed from one’s “home environment”. I could not think of a better location to decompress the various pressures of work and the even more pressing momentous life decisions that had been slowly stifling my senses in Manila. The more that I connected with our little corner of Palawan, the more I realized that what attracted to that particular stretch of land was not its solitude or white-sand perfection because it truly had neither. Though on the surface it resembles a post-card one would send home to stir envy and awe, upon a closer gaze, Sabang charm is in its flawed landscape and quirks.

Yes, there are meters upon meters of pure, white sand sheltering a myriad of gorgeous shells and shy scuttling crabs. Yes, there are miles upon miles of unbroken forest along the  hike between the town and the major tourist attractions. And yes, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back for a second trip. But for all of these merits, what I found the most exciting about Sabang were its flaws.

The most enchanting part of the beach was not the sandy shoreline, but the rock cliffs that separated it from those others afar. Hopping along one piece of dead coral to another and climbing the tall rock edifice at the far end of the beach was by far the most interesting feature of our exploration. If we hadn’t attempted to scale those rocks, scraping our legs and ruining our flip-flops along the way, we would never have discovered the completely untouched beach on the other side with the abandoned, wrecked banka poised at the mouth of a small stream or the long,  stone jetti protruding 100 meters out into the ocean. Though a large wave almost knocked me off the rock shelf to my doom (an event which I truely enjoy dramatizing), standing at the top of the rock formation yards above the ocean’s surface and the breaking waves was my favorite spot the whole trip.

Beyond the main beach in the other direction, towards our cottage, lay the fishing village. Though it was seemed too intrusive to wander openly through the village, we traversed the sandbars and coral along that far end of the beach hopping from stone to stone, slowly distancing ourselves from the shore. The tide pools and jagged rocks proved rather difficult to navigate, especially when hidden by beds of seaweed and plants, but the sensation of being nearly 50 meters from the shore and still standing merely ankle-deep in water was pretty spectacular. From this vantage point, the whole village was visible and instead of the pristine beach, we could see the fishermen and their children carrying pails, searching for sea urchins, mollusks and other shellfish for their families and for their markets. Along the shore were a pack of children playing with a home-made, rainbow-colored box and splashing in the shallow waters of the tide pools. These shores were not unpolluted or as easily traversed, but they had more character.

At the end of my trip, I realize what I liked so much about Sabang was that it epitomized my primary perception of the Philippines as a country of visible and accessible contrasts. Tourists and town-dwellers existing side-by-side; children playing with their boogie-boards and children playing with their cardboard boxes; smooth, clean sand and jagged, slippery rocks; poverty and prosperity; purity and filth. The solid, central strip of Sabang beach represents the image that the local tourist industry strives to present to the world of an immaculate, austere and unadorned landscape epitomizing the beauty and wonder of nature and God’s creation on Earth. With this image in mind, all of the aspects of our surroundings that I enjoyed so much were like blemishes on the face of the Palawanese tourism persona.

The contrasts and imperfection of this beach and this town are what make it appealing and why I would recommend a visit for anyone striving to capture a little bit of beauty along with the essence of the Philippines.

Originally published February 6, 2012

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