Wednesday, January 22, 2014

(Not so) Sunny Sabang

Our first proper stop in the Philippines was Sabang, a small village on the West coast of Palawan. We settled into one of the basic wooden bungalows just off the beach and were all set for some relaxing beach-time. The only problem was the weather. We knew that we were visiting the Philippines at the start of typhoon season, however we understood that even in the rainy season the weather was likely to be good somewhere in the country, so we hoped to remain flexible and head to where the weather was good. Good plan in theory, eh?

Frustratingly, although the beach looked really nice, the weather when we arrived in Sabang was overcast with occassional short sharp rain showers. Not the ideal beach weather. Still, there are worse things than staying on the beach in bad weather, and for a couple of days we enjoyed the downtime of not having much to do except sit on the porch and read our books (something we hadn't done as much as we had hoped on this trip). Our entertainment options were limited by the intermittent electricity supply which meant that we only had power for a few hours each evening.

The main purpose for visiting Sabang was to visit the nearby Puerto Princessa Subterranean National Park – an 8km long underground river which runs through a 24km long cave system and which has been selected as one of the New7Wonders of Nature. Unfortunately, due to the recent spell of wet weather the underground river was closed for safety reasons as a result of the high water level. Although this was disappointing, it was reassuring to see that the safety of tourists was taken seriously. It was also apparent that preserving the river was also taken seriously, as in order to visit you have to register a day before, and they limit the number of visitors per day. The tour guide we had been talking to at our guesthouse was optimistic that the river would re-open the following day, so all we could do was wait and see.

When the next day came the weather didn't improve and the river remained closed until further notice. Unfortunately, without being able to enjoy the beach Sabang doesn't have much going on. There are only so many times one can wander up to the far end of the village and back. Even the promising looking bars and restaurants along the beach proved to be dead. Two Isreali girls whom we had befriended on the bus journey from Puerto Princessa had opted to stay at the same guesthouse as us, and had a good suggestion – as part of our cultural experience of the Philippines we should sample the local rum. Even if I had had any reservations about this idea, those reservations would have been dismissed when they informed us that a 70cl bottle of Boracay Rum cost about US$2. The bottle of coke mixer cost more than the rum! The rum is essentially a stronger and slightly harsher version of Malibu and was really pleasant, but wasn't strong enough to persuade us to join the Isrealis for karaoke at the fancy hotel farther down the beach.

Given that there was pretty much nothing to do we thought that we would embrace the relaxation by having massages. The lesson we learned from this experience is to look at the massage room itself before committing ourselves. Our massages took place on two beds next to each other in a tiny room which only allowed access to each bed from one side. Whilst Monique's massage by the owner was ok, my massage from the owner's husband was pretty awful due in part to me not fitting on the bed in any comfortable way, and in part to my masseur (who I'm pretty sure was just roughly copying what his wife was doing) disappearing for 5 minutes in the middle of the massage.

Whilst the weather was conspiring to prevent us from doing the thing that had brought us to Sabang, it was also responsible for by far the most exciting thing that happened while we were in Sabang. While we were eating lunch and planning to go for a walk to see some nearby waterfalls (which sounded underwhelming but more interesting than sitting around waiting for news on the underground river) the wind started to pick up, and was shortly followed by a torrential downpour. Whereas most of the rain while we had been in Sabang had been heavy but short-lived, this downpour showed no sign of going away soon and the winds continued to get stronger and stronger.  The guesthouses cat even took cover in my bag:

It was initially quite good fun to witness such extreme weather from the relatively safe, and only slightly wobbly, restaurant this changed when we started to realise that a fishing boat had capsized. Over the next hour or so numerous other boats were dragged out to sea from where they were docked and overturned. Some of the locals went out to try to retrieve the boats, but it was clear that the likely outcome of this would be more capsized boats, and perhaps worse, so those efforts were aborted. It would have been pretty upsetting to watch helplessly as a number of the boats disappeared under the water, and knowing that each of those boats was probably crucial to the livelihood of a local family, however the Filipinos around us seemed to be in surprisingly good spirits and appeared to be quite entertained. 


When the winds dropped, the clear-up operation began, and it turned out to be an almost as remarkable sight as the storm and damage itself. One by one a number of the surviving boats headed out to try to tow what remained of the boats that were still afloat to shore. Meanwhile, others congregated on the beach to assist the operation. Once the boats were towed in as far as possible ropes were attached, and the people on the beach attempted to pull the boats to shore, and subsequently up the beach. As soon as we realised what was going on we headed down to assist (although I couldn't resist but to take some breaks to photographically record the event). Despite there being about 30 people pulling on the rope it was still really tough to bring the boat in against the tide.


When the boat was in shallow enough water a number of the locals stood under the “arms” that attach (or used to attach) the bamboo floats to lift the boat and insert rollers to help us pull it up the shore. It was a really remarkable show of community spirit the likes of which I haven't witnessed before.

Even some of the kids joined in..

...but not all of them.

As the boat was brought close to shore it became apparent that it was actually owned by the nearby fancy hotel, and we speculated as to whether the large number of volunteers was due to the owner of the boat. This sceptical speculation proved to be false, because as soon as that boat was dragged sufficiently high up the beach so as to be safe from the tide, the majority of people moved slightly further down the beach to repeat the task with another (thankfully smaller) boat. It was hard work but it felt good to be helpful, and to be part of such a community effort.

Fortunately for us we left the Philippines before Typhoon Yolanda (a.k.a. Typhoon Haiyan) devastated the country in November. Obviously any sort of disaster that causes such destruction and takes human lives and is quite upsetting, but this is even more upsetting when the place affected is somewhere that you have been to and loved, and you have met some of the people effected. The only consolation is that from what we have seen of the Filipino people I am in no doubt that they will rally together to repair and rebuild their communities and, as unlikely as it sounds, I suspect that they may even do so with smiles on their faces.

Even after the storm the tour guides remained optimistic that the underground river might re-open the following day. By this point our commitment had escalated – after waiting for so long in the hope that the river would re-open it would be admitting defeat, and to wasting a few days, to leave without seeing it. However, the current situation could easily continue for many more days and we weren't willing to continue to wait indefinitely when we already knew that we didn't have long enough in the Philippines, so we made the tough decision to leave without seeing what we had come to Sabang for.

1 comment:

  1. Found your blog off the link on your Flickr profile. Looks like you're on a wonderful adventure, and I enjoy the photography!