Finding another side to Puerto Princesa
Puerto Princesa is the capital of the Palawan province, located smack dab in the center of Palawan Island.
After a short and scenic flight from Manila, we arrived in Puerto early afternoon, excited to be in a new region and to embark on new types of adventures.
Well, despite the fact that Palawan is known for its rugged beauty and incredible seascapes, Puerto is no tropical paradise. The city is as urban as Palawan gets, and offers a wide range of shops and restaurants, even a mall, but we weren’t interested in all that. After lunch, we wandered off main Roxas Rd and happened upon a delightful barangay by the sea.
Later that evening, while we were cooling off with ice-cream cones, I remarked to Xiker of our tendency to veer towards the ‘gritty’ side of urban civilization. He said, without really thinking, “well this is real…more authentic.” I shot back that just because some people lived in cleaner and more ‘modern’ neighborhoods it didn’t mean their lives were any less authentic.
I also reminded him that we both come from relatively sophisticated societies, so that would be, like, invalidating our own backgrounds. We might not think we live in luxury, being solid middle-class folks, but in comparison to the neighborhoods we usually wander through, we do live like kings and queens.
He conceded to that, and admitted that “authentic” was the wrong choice of words. After a philosophical discussion we both acknowledged the fact that we tend to look for different things on our travels than most tourists.
Do we end up wandering these neighborhoods because we are innately curious about the simple way of life these people lead, and wish to glean the secret to happiness they seem to have unlocked? Or is it because we have plenty of sanitized sophistication at home and we wish to see a different side to life? …would it be better phrased as a morbid fascination with the type of poverty we have never lived through?
Well whatever the reason, I do often feel trepidation when we find ourselves walking into these type of neighborhoods, as if we were trespassing into places we obviously didn’t belong in.
But I don’t know why I still feel that way. Because, not once, in all of our 5 years of travel, have we been treated unkindly or been made out to feel unwelcome (with the lone exception of the Dharavi slums in Mumbai, India — which was uncomfortable because I was inappropriately dressed).
On the contrary, people seem to be pleasantly surprised that we are visiting their domain.
Children run around us, asking for pictures to be taken, and squeal with delight when they see themselves in the LCD screens. Adults beam at us as we play with the children, and the brave ones ply us with questions.
Nobody flinches when we ask for advice or directions, and people seem to be proud to be able to answer our questions; no one shows any shame in asking others to help translate/communicate—hell, everyone in the neighborhood knows who has the best English skills in the immediate vicinity and that person will be waved over to help. Only once in a blue moon do we get rebuffed or waved away (usually just a communication breakdown).
In the end, I think it’s just that we want to see what the local people are all about. After all, a huge majority of Filipinos live this way, as do the Indians and the Nepalese and many of the countries we’ve traveled through. The Philippines has one of the highest poverty rates among Asian countries, and the high-income class only accounts for 15% of the population.
What better way to immerse ourselves in their culture than by experiencing life the way the locals do?
Since we don’t—and can’t (or is it won’t?)—exactly live the way they do, there are other venues of getting an insight into the local lifestyle and culture.
Interacting with them in their neighborhood and seeing firsthand for ourselves what kind of homes and communities the people reside in are just two ways we learn.
What do they sell in their neighborhood shops? How are their homes built—are they built with fences or yards, or right next to each other, sometimes leaning against each other? How old are the buildings, what kind of materials do they use? How do they decorate, inside and out, and with what? Often doors and windows are left wide open but there have been neighborhoods we’ve wandered through where doors were locked and windows were barred. This gives us a better sense of what kind of community the locals live in, more than any mall could.
Another way also includes frequenting local eateries that cater to their neighborhoods rather than eating at fancy restaurants that serve western food. I mean, why would we wanna come all the way to another country just to eat the same food we eat at home? Sure, we could go eat gourmet versions of the local food, but it just isn’t the same as discovering a crowded restaurant full of locals, sitting down at a communal table and eating what the locals cook up for themselves. Our rule of thumb is, if its full of local people, it must be good; we’ve discovered some incredible meals this way.
We also believe in using the most common forms of local transportation, instead of using private taxis and the like, and not just because it’s the cheapest method of getting around (though I won’t deny that’s a big factor). Using private transportation is like insulating yourself from the world around you, and spending long hours on the bus or train with locals gives us a great opportunity to engage others in a conversation! Seeing how people use public transportation also gives us an idea of the type of community these people foster for themselves.
For example, in the Philippines, it doesn’t matter how full the bus/jeepney is, the driver will stop for any person who flags it down. People will scoot over to make room, and if not, they’ll even offer their luggage for the new rider to sit upon in the aisle. Men and young boys often opt to sit on the roof of the bus, so there might be more room inside for women and children.
We’d never learn anything about the local modern culture if we were traveling with a tour company paid to cater to our western whims. We’re not on vacation, nor are we here just to “sightsee.” Traveling this way does mean that some days are chaotic, crowded, dirty, and downright overwhelming. Some people may call this “roughing it” but to us this is the purest form of travel.
I’m not saying this is the only way to learn about the local culture. One doesn’t have to be a budget traveler, nor do the same things we do, but one does have to get out of a self-imposed bubble and actually engage with the community around them to gain a modicum of insight.