The Last Frontier San Vicente, Palawan (May-June 2014)

Tagbanwa's in San Vicente, Palawan



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Travel to a new place at least once in your life, but if you can afford to leave it all, make it once a year. Ideally.
The big city has too many distractions, making it hard to get away from the rat race and dismal routine of Manila. You have to wonder why so many of us are here. Not enough jobs in the provinces. We’re bursting at the seams. Then again, easier said than done; not everyone can afford to. But if you get your act together, just go.

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My love affair with the island of Palawan has lasted longer than my past relationships. It’s no summer fling folks. From the tip of Cullion to Busuanga, Coron, Puerto Princesa and further down to El Nido, there is never enough time to cover it all. But God knows I’ve tried. The island of Palawan has so much to offer.  Often ponder, why Filipinos like sheep, herd to Boracay. Same faces, just Manila with a lot of sand. Somerset Maugham was well-placed to come up with his description of the French Riviera – “a sunny place for shady people.” Had he been alive today, Boracay would deem a better fit. Palawan’s pristine waters, coral reefs, lakes, wrecks and calm island people keep me coming back every single year. Each visit exposes interesting nooks around the province, and unfortunately – development and destruction.

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Before the start of the monsoon, the decision was made to take ten days off to explore the North Western cove of San Vicente. From the end of May to the first week of June.  Approximately about 185kms from Puerto Princesa by land, it is the same road you take when you travel to Port Barton or El Nido. The plan of action was to head to the home of a family friend, Visual Artist Diokno Pasilan. Since he and his wife are currently based in Australia, he was kind enough to share his beach front property with us. They had discovered the place over ten years ago! I organized the voyage with two of the closest people to me. Whom I choose not to disclose!   Hemingway once said “to never go on trips with anyone you do not love”. Any journey brings out the best and worst in people…I’ve travelled with a few kooks, the travel guide know it all, the loudmouth, the you owe me 50 pesos for this half of the meal, the non drinker but only iced tea, the deer in your headlight no reaction friend, the sleeping beauty, the list goes on. Seriously, the last thing on earth you’d want to be, is stuck on a remote island with a moron.  Check out the headlines “Woman runs amok with bolo, beheads tourist friend.”  Travel with someone resourceful, who has a love for life, can laugh – at, with you or himself, and lastly, willing to explore the province with you. Off the beaten track.

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After an hour’s flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa, you board a van for a 5 hour journey by land.  The area of San Vicente boasts of 14km white sand beaches, with no development along the stretch. The best tip is to rent a personal van and stock up on supplies at Puerto Princesa. All the basic needs for your whole stay. From toiletries, dry goods, condiments, vegetables, meats and shellfish. Katol, lots of it, and any other mosquito repellent on earth. A First Aid kit is essential, because there are no doctors in sight for miles. Fresh fish is abundant in the market of San Vicente, but everything else is fairly hard to get by. Most travel guides do a great disservice to city folk. You really have to research and ask to know what you’re getting into. There is no electricity by the way.  And if you forget to buy enough beer or a pack of smokes, “oh it’s just 2kms away Ma’am,” the caretaker looked at me with such confidence. Don’t buy it. The 2kms will take your motorcycle almost 3hours to get to and fro a dirt road, mounds of earth and slippery mud. Mud, and lots of it. Malagnang (Muddy) was the original name of San Vicente. The Tagbanuas and two ethnic groups, were the first settlers. The Agutayno and migrants from the island of Cuyo, had a dispute on the choice of the town’s Patron Saint. It was settled by drawing a lot, the name of Saint Vincent Ferrer came up. Honestly after having to travel through what seems to be moon craters, they should have retained the name.  There is even a Mud festival before the end of June, where the whole barangay comes together in the town proper to celebrate. It was established as a town in the early 70s, but who is St. Vincent anyway?

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San Vicente, has recently come to light with various articles gushing over its long beaches. The way it is mentioned, “Soon the launch of the new Boracay of Palawan”. Great – more nature to ruin. I passed by the so called airport, dishevelled, rocky, patches of incomplete concrete and mud. Looks like another 5 years for that to be up and running. Manila airport can barely keep it together! The 50 so called resorts destined to build around the area, will just have to wait until the roads are made. Wire it up with electricity first, leave alone for a plane to land.

1As our van pulled up before sunset, it was a sight to behold. Diokno and his wife Ruth named their property Kabantagan, after a local plant, a bamboo like vine that is common to the area. Kabantagan, is in the Barangay of Kemdeng.  “Paedeng” is the root word of “Kemdeng”- in Tagbanua, meaning “little dog or puppy.”  The natives have a great affinity for dogs, they make loyal companions for hunting in the forest, and the best guards to secure your property.  In other parts of the Philippines, the dogs make a good dinner. There were a number of them, mostly mutts with the biggest hearts and strangest tails.  It was flattering to be followed around by a pack. The beach house, is elevated with large wire screen windows. Great ventilation and surrounded by tall coconut trees. It directly faces the west, with breathtaking sunsets.  For more action, one can go snorkelling in Port Barton and other close by islands. A boat ride away. Our days were spent swimming in complete isolation and discussing what the next meal would be. A generator ran for 4hrs in the evening and was promptly shut down before midnight. Diesel ain’t cheap in these parts. It baffled me why the locals did not plant more despite the abundance of land? Was this because of the mud? We hardly saw a soul.
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I’m not going to make it all sound as good as it is, the first two nights without a fan, were hell. The heat before the rain, the bugs, and the complete darkness North, South, West and East of you, just made you wonder – what could possibly crawl into your bed at night. What if they have a tribe of head hunters? Things that come to mind when you’re in the middle of nowhere. There were insects with earlier alarm bells than the Roosters. The crows were late! These bugs screeched at 3am. That takes some doing! But after we got over ourselves dealing with the lack of fully charged gadgets, and our bodies adjusted to the temperature and bugs, everything started to settle in. We created a routine, rose early, read, talked about life, cooked together, listened to music, swam, walked, and drank. The hard kind. Good excuse! Water was not easy to come by.  The tank didn’t fill up enough through lack of electricity. Some funny baths of different shades.

There is still time to see this achingly beautiful North Western town of Palawan in all its glory. Quite a blessing in disguise that it is such a chore to get to. No development, less people. Something that is rare in this day and age. Most people want to be seen and heard at a beach. Where’s the action? The party?

The silence can be deafening, if you can’t visualize yourself in a place stripped down to the basics, and stay still enough to just take in nature, San Vicente is not the place for you.

Things you easily take for granted in the city, all the amenities, actually felt shallow to even fret about. It can be simple. It is possible to be happy. Maybe that’s how life should be?

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On our last day on the island, I walked on my own, trying to digest how the time flew by. The long stretch of sand, along the cove, the water was still. Stunning. A group of elderly Tagbanuas passed by.  “Good afternoon,” I said. One of them turned to smile. And I watched them walk until I could no longer see them along the horizon. “Their life is hard”, I said to myself, as I walked back to pack.

Landed in Manila, later on in the night.  The view from my balcony, felt surreal. The chaos of grey buildings and cars. As I stooped down to water my ailing plants, it felt more like those people on that island understood life. They never left. They had it all figured out.

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