I’d always assumed the roosters started at dawn with their obnoxious squawking. The darkness is absolute outside my window, no sunlight, no electricity, and they’re off again, calling to each other across the village, drowning out the sound of the shallow waves that had sent me to sleep.
It’s a place to jungle trek, dive with turtles, paddle a kayak to an uninhabited island, or rev up a dirt bike, turn off the highway and return the shouts of ‘hello’ to every kid you pass
At least if it was dawn there would be light and you could get up and find a hammock or take a boat to a deserted island. But now, I wish all those roosters were dead.
This is, however, one of the reasons Palawan is so intriguing. You can experience a beach paradise in a local style, having to balance the beauty of the place you’re in with the fact that you don’t get any special treatment for being a tourist. Of course, the toilet seat is broken, and the road has been overrun by jungle, and you won’t get an uninterrupted night’s sleep: welcome to the Philippines!
I’d already crashed my bike once, swerving sideways in the mud on a path that cut through the jungle. Except parts of the national highway that ran the 600km length of this slender island, there were no other paved roads, nor were there roads with potholes; there were just clearings in the trees or sections of uneven stone that had been carved into. That’s why I had hired a bike.
Off the main road the public transport system was virtually non-existent, just a handful of battered vans that got stuck in the mud with 15 people squashed onto the roof and however many more sweating inside.
So I was on another mud road, trying to maintain my balance as the path twisted before descending sharply towards the South China Sea. At the bottom is Nagtapon beach, a scene from a postcard you never want to receive, one of palm trees and soft sand and turquoise water that always make you to envious to read the message on the other side.
There is nobody here but me, the German hitchhiker I’d picked up, and a couple of fishermen repairing a boat. There is no guesthouse here though. On an island of sandy coastline, how do you decide where to put the guesthouse?
So I return to Puerto Princesa, the capital that feels like a big village with its inaudible streets that can be explored on foot and the bamboo shack quasi-slums that extend into the water.
In a country of 4,000 islands Palawan is the furthest west, the one most isolated to the two monsoon seasons that hit the Philippines. Even in peak season the weather is indifferent, a couple of days of sunshine inevitably followed by cloud and rain, keeping it off the radar for pure sun worshippers.
Instead it offers adventure. It’s a place to jungle trek, dive with turtles, paddle a kayak to an uninhabited island, or rev up a dirt bike, turn off the highway and return the shouts of ‘hello’ to every kid you pass.
Port Barton has some tourist infrastructure. Along a narrow sandy cove there is a sprinkling of beach huts and an eager boatman asks if I want a tour of the islets off the coast.
Boisterous laughter comes from an outdoor pool hall, harmonic songs drift from the small pastel white church, and children shriek as they play ‘dodgeball’ in the puddles.
This is still just a little village, with electricity six hours a day, those raucous roosters that had me up at 4 a.m., and no attempt at sanitisation to placate fastidious tourists.
Across the water I eye an expanse of sand so large I suspect I’m imagining it. I’m told it’s San Vincente, so I’m on the Yamaha again, hoping the suspension holds out.
For the first time I encounter hostility; where was the unending friendliness I had come to adore in the villages of Palawan?
The beach is 14 km long and is deserted; no people, no huts, no life, just fenced-off sections extending from the sand.
I get the story from the staff at the town’s underused tourist information office. An airport was being built and the whole of the longest beach in the Philippines had been sold to investors.
San Vincente was the epicentre of an ambitious plan, politically driven, to become the next Boracay, the Philippines’ must-see tourist destination.
And I understood the looks of askance and the curt, inhospitable reception of the locals. They had all been relocated, their bamboo shacks on the beach torn down, a livelihood made from the water practically destroyed. Foreigner equals investor.
Fighters are soon weary and bloody but they continue, fighting for their lives, the two cockerels, before a draw is announced as they both lie motionless in the clutches of death
There is always the argument that tourists bring money and create jobs. But nowhere else I went in Palawan were the people so unhappy. They had a laidback and stable way of life, a climate that ensured crops, and they lived in a beautiful beach jungle paradise: why did they need tourists?
Furthermore, surely it wasn’t possible to move so fast? To go from no visitors and a regional tourist department which produced pamphlets with essential information about the area like its size in hectares to four decimal points, to 14 kilometres of resorts?
El Nido, in the far north of Palawan, was a lesson in how to grow organically. Here was a place with a rare combination. It was quiet and relaxing, there was always something to do in the day, a different place to explore by boat or bike, and locals played live music on guitars and bongos at a handful of bars each evening.
Most people had gone for a few days and stayed for at least a week, so its popularity had grown as word spread. The locals grinned and waved; foreign money was staying local among the boatmen and squid fisherman, tricycle drivers and fruit sellers, and the enthusiastic women who sold pots of home-cooked food out of their homes.
But seeing other tourists didn’t make it feel less local, I was still only a few kilometres from Filipino life.
It starts slowly at first, the first fights watched by a handful, viewing space around the wooden arena easy to come by, bets small.
Each fight is preceded by 10 minutes of snarling and goading so when the fighters are released they attack on cue.
As more people arrive the intensity rises, the vociferous shouting increases, people are in the ring gesticulating with obscene hand gestures, and the money gets serious.
Fights are short, rarely lasting more than a few minutes, but always intense. One jumps at the other, trying to force the sharp blade tied around its foot into the other’s chest while the other ducks away before aiming a head-butt.
Fighters are soon weary and bloody but they continue, fighting for their lives, the two cockerels, before a draw is announced as they both lie motionless in the clutches of death.
So I have my wish, the roosters are dead. I don’t feel sorrow or happiness. I’m just intrigued, excited, and enjoying another day in the local style in a beach paradise.
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