Needing a break from Beijing’s cold, dry winter, I traveled to the Philippine city of Puerto Princesa for Christmas. It’s located on an island called Palawan, a place where Chinese families migrated from the mainland in the early 20th century in search of a better life.
White-sand beaches outline the island. The seas are rich with grouper, snapper and blue marlin. And no matter the season, sweet mangoes and fresh coconut milk are just a short climb away.
I stayed with my girlfriend’s family, who is well known in the city for a Chinese restaurant her parents opened in 1978 and a chain of electronic stores they started years later. Their home is surrounded by concrete walls about 10 feet high. Above the walls is a row of barbed wire. They have four dogs that help guard the property at night, a black lab and three Doberman pinschers. They like to bark.
As I rode around the city in her father’s pickup truck, I noticed more high walls, barbed wire and barking dogs. Why all the security? Petty crime, her father said.
The Philippines is a developing country, where the average worker earns between 200 and 400 pesos a day ($4 to $10). Property is an easy target for someone looking to make a quick buck.
I also noticed that most people, even the ones living in homes with roofs made of dried palm leaves tied together, seemed to be happy. And aside from paying a little extra for my taxi fares (the unwritten foreigner surcharge), I wasn’t treated like an outsider.
Filipinos like to sing, and each year my girlfriend’s family hosts a Christmas party. I was asked to play a song on the guitar. I’m pretty sure my rendition of Feliz Navidad didn’t leave anyone begging for more, but when I finished playing I received a nice applause and 100 pesos in cash.
One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to an underground river. At 8.2 kilometers long, it is the second-longest underground river in the world. The river flows directly into the sea, so the water level rises and falls with the changing of the tides.
I took a canoe tour of the river. Only 2 km of it is open to the public. The rest requires a special permit to enter, usually obtained by researchers. It’s called an underground river because the water runs underneath a mountain.
Inside, illuminated by flashlight, my guide Romnick pointed out the rock formations as he paddled. He was especially fond of the ones that resembled people or objects most people would recognize. A banana. A dinosaur. The Virgin Mary. A big round turd.
Romnick talked a lot about turds. “Don’t say wow when you look up unless you want bat shit in your mouth,” he joked.
A few days later, I took another trip in a canoe down an open river to observe fireflies in the dark. They clustered together in mangroves and palm trees and resembled white Christmas lights when they flashed.
The river was full of plankton, and when the canoe’s paddles cut through the water the plankton also lit up. The trees and the water glowed under the stars, which were very bright because we were far away from the city. For the first time in a while, I remembered how beautiful the sky looks when it’s not polluted by millions of artificial lights.
Before I left, I celebrated New Year’s Eve with my girlfriend’s family. As the clock ticked toward midnight, we drove around Puerto Princesa, stopping occasionally to set off fireworks on the side of the road. It’s a tradition in the Philippines to welcome the New Year with fireworks, and sometimes guns are also fired into the air.
The fireworks were followed by a late dinner and a few rounds of brandy. I fell asleep that night around 3:30 a.m., full and happy that I was too warm to pull a cover over my body.