Sunday, April 20, 2008

Palawan Diaries Part One

03 April 2008
Day 1

Waking very early to get to the Centennial Airport for an 0800H flight today had the words "WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!" stamped all over it.  Rising on an ungodly hour of a weekday after an hour of sleep brought back memories conveniently stowed away for two weeks already; yours truly was supposed to be hibernating the summer away, after a very colorful year of med school, after all.  The realization that Palawan was waiting, coupled with the threat of expensive rebooking fees banished all thoughts of procrastination, and before long, yours truly was on a flight to a remote area nestled in the forests that needed so much help.  Friends and extended family members thought that yours truly was on a "burn-out" holiday, replete with sandy beaches, shopping, sightseeing, and stamped passports.  If only they knew.

The window seat afforded a view of the billowing clouds, the shimmering sea in all its azure beauty, the uninhabited (by humans, of course) islands still lush and green, numerous sand bars that would disappear in the tide, and the raging morning sun.  The sight of the Taal volcano waiting in stillness brought a smile to my face and memories of Geo 11 flooding from my mind, and I promised myself I would go back there someday to again reach its inner cauldron.  Trying to make sense of the shapes of clouds took away most of the time and the boredom on the hour long flight; I imagined cherubs playing among the plains of clouds at 30000 feet and pantheons of long forgotten gods of mythology chasing each other amidst screams, laughter, and bliss.  Otherwise, I was bored silly trying to imagine myself in the pilot's seat as the plane banked left and right on its flight path, observing the flight attendants' manners and appearances, or trying to sneak a peek at other passengers as we all bounced to the mild turbulence some minutes before approaching the island.

The army band playing tunes amidst the light rain to welcome tourists

As we descended from the aircraft, we were greeted by the sight and sound of an army band playing some sort of music.  I tried to look for any possible dignitary or self-styled rich brat/diva who was flying with us, as I thought that would be the only reason for such a welcome to be staged at the dingy airport; apparently the army band would play such tunes to welcome visitors of each flight to Palawan.  (I don't know if the situation in Palawan is so peaceful that the armed forces would have nothing much to do, except for making some token patrols around the area and entertaining tourists as such.)  All my worries were almost washed away by such a welcome, except that I couldn't find my luggage in the carousel.  My bad, because I forgot to put luggage tags on the all-black sack; next time, I promised to bring luggage in the loudest neon colors with swirls of glitter or a barrage of prints so that I'd find it easier to locate my stuff.

After an hour's wait for another member of the volunteer group who arrived an hour later on another flight (Air Philippines apparently does not serve merienda, as she reported to us PAL passengers who cackled on the sight of peanuts, biscuits and juice), we made our way to the nearest Jollibee to eat lunch.  All the while I was expecting to be fed kalabasa (squash), ampalaya (bitter gourd), or sitao (yard long beans) with plenty of rice, but apparently our hosts wanted us to 'enjoy' ourselves in our first day, hence the fast food lunch.  It was interesting to note that Jollibee reigned in the city, as I observed couples in their tweens sharing sundaes, families with babies  screaming for Chickenjoy (rice + fried chicken + gravy) and sweet spaghetti, senior citizens nibbling on pancit palabok, and adults wolfing down burger steaks with extra rice.

After a dash to the supermarket to buy last minute groceries, we proceeded to the Crocodile Farm.  After a short tour and lecture on crocodiles and crocodiles in Palawan in general, we went to see the wildlife inside the preserve.  I saw the crocodile hatchlings vegging out mouths open, eyes open (?) and motionless in the pens permeating with the awful smell of rotting fish; crocodiles, I learned as we walked on, were nocturnal creatures and ate a lot of raw fish.  The guide cheerfully informed us to keep our cameras outside the pens, as baby crocodiles were known to jump for cameras and mobile phones held over their pens, mistaking the gadgets for food.  We emerged from the crocodile pens to see the thick forest around us.  The preserve had all sorts of wildlife within; bear cats, cuckatoos, ostriches, etcetera.  Reminded of the dangers of malaria, I proceeded to apply insect repellant and went around the foot paths to see the other animals who were apparently asleep or in hiding.  After wandering around, I went to the hut where visitors could hold a baby crocodile for photos.

We arrived late afternoon in the dormitory, where we were warmly welcomed and given a short tour of the place.  I could see the kids looking at us shyly or greeting the volunteers who had previously gone in the place.  We were introduced to the volunteers, the parish priest, the kids, and the sisters.  Bags in tow, we went to what was fondly known as Bahay Ganda (House of the Beautiful) located outside the main area, within the lot that likewise housed the Boys' Dorm.  We (ten volunteers) were to spend the next several nights in the nipa and bamboo hut, armed with mosquito nets, cotton blankets, and our makeshift pillows. 

After some time, a bell signalled the start of dinner, simple yet delicious and oh-so-fresh.  The welcome program by the kids was started right after, and then we spent almost an hour discussing our plans for academic tutorials, interest groups and other activities.  I receive the shocking news that instead of science and mathematics, I am to teach English; apparently the kids' really needed help on the basics of English comprehension.  The entire volunteering experience would entail us teaching the dormers the very basics of the English language.  I am uneasy, disappointed and bummed; I'm not exactly the best person to go to for grammar, elocution, or whatnot.  I came here with the expectations of teaching Science and nothing else; it seems that there is a huge communication gap between the people who invited me to volunteer and the actual volunteers who ran the place.  I contemplate catching the first plane home the very next day, but what the hell, I couldn't waste money on rebooking fees just yet, and I've never backed down from being slapped with the subtle hint that I might not be needed after all.

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