Candaba, Pampanga, the Philippines
February 24, 2008 and September 16, 2011
I was like, Dude, where’s the swamp? He was like, Duh, beats me.
OK, the exchange was not exactly slacker-speak, but it might as well have been. Our query for directions was met by a blank stare, a shrug, and a pivot away – all in two seconds. Ugh, granted he was a teenager, probably angsty or just couldn’t be bothered by lost tourists. Or worse, he truly was clueless about the whereabouts of his town’s claim to fame: the Candaba Swamp. It was the hardest 30,000-hectare swathe of land to find in a small town. We had reached the swamp three years before, thanks to the directional signs then. This time, we were at the mercy of seemingly indifferent townsfolk.
Ironically, the town showed some progress; full-on dirt roads had been paved or in the process of paving. Much to our relief, we chanced upon a spanking new information center flanked by a pair of avian sculptures, one of which was donated by the Korean government. We were sure we’d get a response and the right directions.
Eureka fail. People at the center ganged up on us, selling us the rare experience of swimming at a resort pool. We didn’t drive all the way to the far end of Pampanga for a swimming pool, we protested! The swamp had almost dried out and no birds were in sight, they intoned.
We conceded. No, we didn’t go for the pool. We drove back home with only memories, clearer than my mostly blurred photos, of our visit to Candaba Swamp three years before.
Flashback to 2008. As Ki and I were driving on a narrow dirt road meandering through rice fields, we met a few cars going the other way. We stopped one driven by an American woman. I asked if she had seen any egrets (pronouncing it as “egg”-rets). The egrets, she said (emphasizing the long E sound), had chosen to feed that day at the far end, inaccessible by car or on foot. Undeterred, we drove on. If we wouldn’t see any egret, at least I learned the correct way to say its name.
It turned out that we were well within the 200-hectare property of Candaba mayor Jerry Pelayo. A woman who introduced herself as the mayor’s sister welcomed us to a house in the middle of the wetland, apparently used by birdwatchers as a base. In the absence of other visitors who had upped and left early, she offered to take us nearer to the birds on a motor boat at no cost. Our stubbornness paid off.
I doubted any bird sighting, what with all the motor noise and water disturbance we were making. We were practically intruding on a sanctuary. Good thing they ran the boat onto a narrow strip of dry land lined by trees. Ki and I trudged on the footpath. On the grass I spotted a lone fallen feather, a good omen. The birds could not be too far off.
Soon, bird sounds started to pervade the air. A flock of egrets were feasting on a buffet of small fish and insects at a distance, poking into the water with their long beaks, sometimes balancing perfectly on one leg, their white plumage gracefully dancing in the wind. Escaping the wintry chill, these migratory birds had flown in thousands of miles from frigid Siberia as early as October to feed and breed here. They were winter visitors, usually gone by March.
We found an abandoned wooden outpost at the end of the trail. With only a handy point-and-shoot and no binoculars, we just put our feet up and watched the waterbirds from afar. We were ill-prepared for birdwatching, equipment-wise, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the seasonal wonder of our country’s avian guests. Other than the conspicuous snowy whiteness of the egrets, we were surprised to see flocks of ducks, which we never imagined to be the migrating kind. Before sundown, we went back to the house in the middle of the swamp to thank our gracious hosts.
On our drive back to the highway, we were caught in a bottleneck of squawking ducks, crossing the street en masse. We wondered if they were the same species we saw feeding at the swamp. They looked awkward waddling across the road, let alone gliding across a hemisphere.
We heard that wooden fences had been erected along the footpaths to allow birdwatchers to approach the birds unseen, hence our trip back three years later. It was not meant to be, though. Perhaps the people at the center were right that the birds had not yet landed as it was still September. A short explanation of migration schedules would have sufficed without swimming pool offers that left a bad taste.
We realized that a successful tourism campaign was not only about marketing to prospective visitors, but also educating local people about the attractions of their hometowns. At the very least, they should be able to give directions, not look “in-duh-ferent.” *snap