Puerto Princesa: On the International Cusp

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At that point, I felt it didn’t really matter how the rest of the trip panned out. My shoes safely tucked away, I took in the scent, the dim lighting, the packed tables, the perpetual buzz of conversation and laughter. I was looking forward to breathing it all in again, and there I was.

Brimming with personality, oozing with expression. Unapolegetically true to its roots of simplicity, yet unafraid to sprinkle modern touches. It’s the epitome of what I felt an ideal Filipino establishment should feel like. And like the ambiance, the food was bold, both in flavor and in its ingredients. This was KaLui, and it was certainly a special space.

Given its popularity, there was no surprise that the restaurant had a healthy dose of foreign tourists present in the evening. They all knew to make reservations. Off nights were few and far between here. Strangely, I felt a sense of pride knowing that these people would be returning to their corner of the world to speak of good things about this place. I am not from Puerto Princesa, or even Palawan for that matter, but I suppose being from the same country allowed me to draw some sort of affinity with what I would regard as my second favorite Filipino dining experience – behind family feasts. It’s pretty difficult to top a proper coming-together between relatives, where all the specialties make an appearance, together with the barrage of stories and inevitable ribbing and teasing. After all, a large part of meals is the company one shares them with.

On that evening I was with Kaila and Cha from Hotel Centro, and my partner photographer on the trip, Emman. It was a treat learning and sharing about each other’s lives, with a start of yellow fin tuna sashimi, mango, papaya shavings, seaweed, and cashew nuts. Quite the hello from the kitchen.

That was followed up with eel in coconut cream – eccentric and new, yet approachable and accommodating. It had a peculiar taste as if it was familiar, but at the same time unique. I was pleasantly dumbfounded and left chasing the taste. Cuttlefish and some shrimp sisig soon made their way to the table, bringing some sense back to my taste buds. Adding the exclamation, chili crab was the last of the mains. Fortunately for Kaila and I, the other two had a couple of allergies they were looking to avoid with the food, giving the green light for some guiltless indulgence.

Accompanied by a kalamansi-ginger blend throughout the meal, and capped off with some light fresh fruit, I was stuffed. And that meant it was time to excuse myself from the group, so I could walk around and acquaint myself with all the artworks on display. I was surprised to see there was a couple of artists busy with their creations, perhaps bringing to life new additions to the vast array of paintings that inhabit the area. There were familiar ones. Others, I was just meeting for the first time.

Even after my second visit, KaLui had not lost even a hint of its charm. And as we drove back to hit the sack for the first of three nights in Puerto Princesa, I felt the flight from Manila was already worth it. Regardless of how dull the Underground River might be on a second visit, how short the islands fell in comparison to El Nido, or how unremarkable Palawan’s capital could be, I was content.

Up early the next day, I was honestly not too psyched about the day’s first activity. The first time I had visited the Underground River a few months back, I was rather underwhelmed. A tour of rock formations that vaguely looked like characters, objects, or animals wasn’t exactly something that got the blood pumping. Perhaps I expected more from a site dubbed as one of the Wonders of the World.

On this occasion, the experience was rather different. Without family and friends around to distract from the surroundings, and with the new initiative of a multilingual earpiece as a companion throughout the tour, I got more of an appreciation of the magnitude of the place, its environmental significance to the region, and the tedious manner of its construction. It took hundreds of thousands of years for Mother Nature to shape the Underground River into its current intricate state. A haven for bats and birds vital to the ecosystem, but also, it was an expression of scale that escaped the narrowness of an existence centered around likes, retweets, and an overload of useless content. I was pleased to know that the next time the subject was broached, I’d be able to talk about the world wonder with a sense of pride and excitement.

Lunch brought about a chance to get reacquainted with tamilok. A woodworm bathed in vinegar, it’s considered a delicacy and novelty item in the region. The second time around was better. There was less anticipating the grossness, and more getting an actual handle of its oyster-like texture and taste.

In a siesta state after the morning’s musings, we slept our way back into the city, where the Butterfly Garden laid waiting. Unlike the Underground River, I was excited for this one. I wasn’t a closet butterfly enthusiast or anything. In fact, I had very little interest in the creatures. But inside the frequented tour stop, there was a presentation, repeated every 15 minutes or so to a changing group of local and foreign tourists. It was a brief demonstration of the way of life of an indigenous people called the Palawan. Always intrigued by history and how rapidly the nature of man’s priorities has progressed over such a short span of time, it was a real treat to be given an opportunity to get a real-life look at the past. It was a peek into a lifestyle that thrived off the land and mastered the ways to survive in its harshness.

The showcase began with a presentation of the tribe’s tool for gathering from the dense greenery, a simple basket worn on the shoulders – a backpack of the past. As a sign of their sophistication, the indigenous group gave us a sample of their musical instruments. There were drums, gongs, flutes, an ingenious harmonica-like invention, and a variety of stringed creations. I could imagine there must have been some pretty interesting nights with those sounds. The climax was their demonstration of weapons. Although they didn’t show how they used the 100-year-old spears that they exhibited, they did demonstrate how scarily accurate they were with their blowpipes.

From a distance of 20 meters, even the younger members of the tribe made hitting the target look elementary. Lastly, they showed how they started fires and utilized tree sap for torches. Before humans started creating massive metropolises to commoditize and shape the land to its will, people like the Palawan were the masters of these parts. As a goodbye, the friendly people introduced their pet – a giant snake. They may not have had any guard dogs, but I was pretty sure that the sight of the terrifying creature kept any potential threats away.

When evening fell, we headed to the baywalk to cap off our evening at K’na Boyet. I’d missed the opportunity to visit the last time I was around, so I was pleased to know that they had prepared a little treat for us. As it turned out, their definition of “little” was rather different from how I had anticipated. After settling into the cool seaside breeze, acclimatizing to the backdrop of couples lounging and children playing, K’na Boyet made its introduction.

In one swoop came sinigang na sugpo (prawn), pusit (squid), and blue marlin, followed by crocodile sisig, with garlic butter lobsters and prawns right behind. There was liempo (pork belly), adobong pusit, and a whole unicorn fish and a mangrove snapper. There were only four of us, and given that Emman and Cha were the other two, there was once again plenty of seafood to be had.

Of everything we managed to stuff into our bodies, the two dishes that stood out the most were the lobsters and prawns. Both prepared in the same garlic butter fashion so prevalent around the Philippines, but so clearly in a class of its own. Given a little extra care, and an additional ingredient, the flavor was delightfully packed into every bite. I’d never tried lobster before. In fact, I had only really started exploring seafood in the last two years. That meal cemented its status in my diet. Every portion I ate, the same mix of disbelief and happiness took control.

“If you’re going to scrimp on ingredients and portions, you might make more money, but you’ll end up sacrificing the taste,” said our host for the evening.

With a noticeable number of tourists busy pinpointing the fresh catch they desired and the manner of cooking they preferred, she explained why the restaurant, named after her husband, had become such a common destination for visitors.

“This is where they (drivers and hotel representatives) bring their guests because they can be assured they won’t be embarrassed,” she said matter-of-factly, adding, “Foreigners love the Pinoy style of cooking, so we make sure to stay true to our style.”

She was confident in her establishment and rightly so.

Visits to Starfish Island, Pandan Island and Cowrie Island encompassed the following day’s agenda. As one would expect, there were some interesting interactions with various underwater inhabitants, with plenty of downtime to take in the sun and enjoy the scenery. After lunch at Cowrie Island, I even had the pleasure of meeting some new friends: Ace and Rick, registered nurses and buddies from California, Miranda from Australia, and Anya from Manila.

“My brother visited Palawan recently and it just blew his mind. I knew we needed to come and check it out,” Rick shared.

After a few laughs, the group dissipated, with each one in agreement that we were pretty lucky to be experiencing Puerto Princesa at its current state – before the looming explosion of foreign tourists brought along by the soon-to-open international airport. With its improved accessibility, Palawan’s capital would experience an even bigger wave of popularity, and with it, the pros and cons that come with a goldmine of tourist-driven revenue. Accelerated growth tends to place pressure on the balance between monetary gains and its benefits and preservation of the beauty and sanctity of the city’s attractions and resources. It was fortunate that we could get a taste of the area, before it possibly morphed into a new habitat.

But then again, change really shouldn’t be perceived negatively before it actually arrives. Without it, Puerto Princesa would still be a devastated city from World War II. It would still be the same haven for illegal operations and violent crime in the 90’s. Instead, the city currently enjoys a crime rate of 0.3%, and is one of the country’s top tourist destinations.

“Puerto Princesa wasn’t always this way. We take plenty of pride in how this place has transformed,” Edwin shared while taking us around the city. Born and bred in the city, he witnessed how change brought order and opportunity to his hometown. “As a person in the hotel industry, the new airport only means good things. But the traffic will no doubt become an issue.”

Our final stop was Plaza Cuartel, the site of an atrocious massacre committed by Japanese occupying forces against American soldiers in the Second World War. Strangely, it wasn’t surrounded in the sadness and gloom one might expect from a place with such a history. There were kids all around, riding bikes, chasing each other, laughing and screaming. It was a dichotomy between the weight of the past and the potential of the future. With all that’s heading in Puerto Princesa’s direction, one can only hope that the city holds on to its beautiful, boldly compelling mix of nature and people that I was privileged to experience on my trip, while embracing change with a positive and sustainable approach.

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