Puerto After Dusk

Having wrapped up work late on the second day, I was resigned to the thought of an unusually boring getaway. But getaways are often punctuated with surprises, some pleasant and some dreadful as in the case of Zest Air passengers who were hurt when a Cebu Pacific plane rammed the departing (Zestair) plane’s side. I was just thinking of squeezing in a bit of fun and adventure on foot within city limits in an unpredictably packed day when caffeine-induced headache set in. My choices were extremely limited: either I go to sleep or head first to the bulalohan right across the hotel for chowlong (whatever that is and however it tastes like).

The relatively small Puerto Princesa airport terminal. Photo courtesy: skyscrapercity.com.

I had planned early on to go island hopping, but of course hoping not to end up in Sipadan and be an ‘unwanted’ guest of the late Abu Sabaya’s clan. I’d say unwanted because I don’t have the millions to pay for my ‘board and lodging,’ ‘security’ and my eventual release. But then work took longer than I anticipated that even a city tour was impossible to squeeze in, until some friends decided to venture into Iwahig. No, we were not going inside the penal colony; we were to try the firefly watching tour.

I only know of Iwahig as a penal colony where inmates in the minimum security row are slowly being reintegrated back into society whose members they once wronged. Iwahig is probably the only prison in the Philippines without walls, literally! Thanks to National Geographic and some local TV, I still have a faint recollection of a firefly colony that is increasingly drawing both local and foreign tourists and dollars, too. But I thought it’s somewhere in Bicol!

Photo courtesy: Joey Montalvo via Panoramio.

On our way to Iwahig, we decided to drop by Baker’s Hill where we spent a good 15 minutes mostly for the obligatory ‘kodak moments’ and where I bought a canister of peanuts—where else but from the only baker on the hill—for my beloved gout. Of course, I took some naughty photos of Marilyn Monroe. Yes, she’s a Baker’s Hill resident!

One of the beautiful houses on Baker's Hill.
One of the 3 cafes on Baker's Hill.
The closest thing to getting naughty on Baker's Hill: carefully examining Ms. Monroe's thighs for dark spots and any impurities. . .
. . . and a bit of mammography to locate some lumps and humps.

At the payment booth, I noticed the ABS-CBN Foundation logo displayed prominently for all the visitors to see. I would learn later from our boatman how Gina Lopez was instrumental in the organization and eventual operation of the firefly tours in Iwahig.

The tour is a 30-minute, one kilometer boat ride along the banks of the Iwahig River that pours into Puerto Princesa Bay from its source, the Salakot Falls, about seven kilometers from the boating station. Our boatman, Anthony Culvinar, kept the three of us on the boat entertained and from being scared by the thought of capsizing in the dark, brackish 30-footish deep river. He regaled us with his knowledge in astronomy as he skillfully explained the heavenly bodies that were just so majestic that night, pointing almost accurately to the constellations with his laser pen, mesmerizing us like we were kindergarten kids on our first science fair—in a boat!

Photo courtesy: Tom Conelly on Pbase.com.

As we reached the ‘turning point’ of the tour, as Anthony would call it, I couldn’t help but notice that the fireflies that draped a canopy of trees seemed to form a familiar shape and asked everyone onboard if they were seeing what I was seeing. The fireflies assembled themselves to form the Sarimanok! I jested that Ms. Lopez must have fooled us by installing the latest LED lighting technology for fireflies. Of course, I wouldn’t expect a kapuso seal in an ABS-CBN territory, if you get the drift.

Anthony would later tell us that he learned his stuff from Dr. Socrates, apart from the various training-seminars and, of course, from Google. Yes, he browses the Internet. And he paints, too! At the souvenir shop—our last stop before boarding the van that would take us back to the city—I saw three of the paintings done by Anthony on display. I learned that the lovely lady who welcomed us is Anthony’s wife! What a lucky boatman-painter this Anthony is! (Below are three of Anthony’s obra on display at the souvenir shop.)

And of course, we, too, were lucky to have experienced that rare visual feast with the fireflies although it’s unfortunate that we could not capture the sights on our plebeian cameras. But even the most expensive night vision camera may never capture that experience.

We capped the night with a Vietnamese-style noodle treat at Phan Chaolong along the city’s main road. Nothing fancy, this spartan carenderia is teeming with hordes and hordes of Palaweños enjoying the cheap yet flavorful noodles served with fresh basil. I could tell from the satisfied looks of its loyal diners and the endless throngs outside waiting for their seats that the carenderia’s owner’s financial future had already been secured.

The chaolong...
...served with bean sprouts and fresh basil is a real treat for its price.

Surely, there is much more to Puerto than the fireflies in Iwahig. And if Puerto is beautiful by day, it is so lovely at night. Indeed, beauty reveals not only in the full glory of the sun but also in the muted glow of a moonless night.

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