Puerto Princesa City, the Philippines
March 25, 2013
Youth, large, lusty, loving – youth full of grace, force, fascination.
Do you know that Old Age may come after you with equal grace, force, fascination?
Walt Whitman wrote the words that my mother seemed to live by. Her dream of visiting the Grand Canyon came true the previous year, but she ain’t done yet. She still had Puerto Princesa Underground River, one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, to check off her bucket list. She had just turned 80, not an age for dilly-dallying. We flew to Palawan that summer with my eldest brother and nephew.
Garbed in spandex, black jacket, aviator sunnies, and wide-brimmed tarsier hat, Mom was on bring-it-on mode on D-day. By 8AM, Sabang Wharf was already buzzing with tourists processing their permits (issued in the city proper), registration, and payment of environment fee. While my brother and his friend Adam Ausan, a colleague from his stint as a conservationist in Palawan decades back, were doing the paperwork, Mom and nephew were sitting pretty under a flaming fire tree. She had to conserve her energy for the main event, not squander it on bureaucracy.
The Underground River was fairly remote, accessible by boat or on foot over rough terrain. My brother would’ve preferred that I trekked over a mountain and waded across an estuary as a form of brotherly torture, but the trail was, thank goodness, under rehabilitation then. Instead I got to join Mom on the boat. A fleet of outrigger boats was waiting for our picking to take us to the same place in no time, in relative comfort.
The process took half an hour before our adventure began in earnest. It took three men to help Mom up the boat’s wooden ladder. Good thing it was smooth sailing, literally, from there, a breezy 20-minute ride traversing Ulugan Bay framed on one side by limestone cliffs chiseled into craggy monuments, a foreshadowing of things to come. Mt. St. Paul was visible at a distance. Incredibly, we would be going into the mountain rather than on it.
As we approached the shallows, Capt. Boatman jumped overboard to pull the boat aground at Sabang Beach, a scene straight out of the viral Parking is More Fun in the Philippines video. Mom, once again, exerted monumental effort to get off the boat and find her balance on the soft sand. Finally, touchdown Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Despite the welcome sign, we weren’t quite there yet. We had to register anew at the final gatekeeper that put a cap on the number of daily visitors to the national park, and walked for another 20 minutes, Mom’s pace, through a forest of mainly dita trees to reach the staging area. This obstacle course did not dampen Mom’s spirit, thanks largely to the wooden walkway and the amusing simian welcome party.
We geared up at the staging area under the cool rainforest canopy. A few steps away, the emerald-colored Cabayugan Estuary calmly beckoned. Helmet, check. Life vest, check. Can-do spirit, double check! We were good to go. We got on a smaller row boat that would deliver us into the jagged jaws of the Underground River.
How quickly we were plunged into pitch darkness. Mom had evaporated before me, as did everything else, until the guide flicked his floodlight on, revealing Mom’s tarsier hat slung around her back, giving her away among orange helmets and vests.
The Underground River was a portion of Cabayugan River that flowed right into a cave system under Mt. St. Paul, one of limestone mountains that formed the backbone of Palawan Island. Typical of karst formations, Mt. St. Paul was porous; water had tunneled through it for millions of years, creating cavernous spaces within the massif.
Romnick, our boatman/guide, turned out to be quite a comic, peppering his spiel with dry humor, which somehow lightened the underworld creepiness. Mostly, I couldn’t tell facts from his jokes. He pointed at one dark passage and called it the “bat room” because of bat poop smell wafting from it, but I couldn’t sniff it out. He warned us to avoid open-mouth amazement at the massive rock formations he trailed his spotlight on, as we might get a taste of guano, bat excrement that stained the cave walls. Being nocturnal, the bats themselves were nowhere to be seen, only their cathartic by-product, which looked like leopard print wall art.
Romnick irreverently grouped stalagmites (rising from the ground) and stalactites (hanging from the roof) into supermarket sections: vegetable, fruit, and fish. True enough, familiar figures of squid and even puso ng saging (banana heart) loomed above us. The joke was on Mom: she had to go all the way into the heart of a mountain only to find herself back to her weekly haunt – the grocery store.
But all was not mundane; there was also the sublime, which Romnick called Cathedral Cavern (aka Italian Chamber) because the cave’s roof was so high, the light he pointed upwards was devoured by what seemed like a black hole. Back to eye level, the stalagmite tableau of the Holy Family was the chamber’s highlight at the far end of one corner – the Holy of Holies, if you will.
A kilometer or so into the Underground River, Romnick made a U-turn. Alas, the remaining seven kilometers was not navigable by tourist boats. Still, it was enough to leave me in awe of nature’s majestic artistry exhibited in this natural museum. Water and time that flowed so inconspicuously had carved out this space and filled it with rock sculptures, all works in progress. Slowly, surely, serenely, formless water had conquered a mountain of rock. Mom described it all in one word: fabulous! After about half an hour in the darkness, we emerged from the underworld squinting at the glorious world of light.
The experience brought to mind the book Mom gave me from Doulos, the floating bookshop, titled Grace Like a River, the inspirational autobiography of musician Christopher Parkening. The foreword described it as “a story of how the grace of God has conquered him.” On it Mom wrote:
I hope (wish) you experience “grace like a river” as the author experienced it in his life!
Back at Sabang Beach, we pranced and took jump shots, not out of conceit for having conquered the Underground River, but out of gratitude for this rare chance to share the experience with Mom. That I got to do what meant to me most with people I loved most was more than I had bargained for. It was by grace that, at an age when most would live on memories, Mom was still making some. Not only had I experienced grace in my life, it had conquered me.