The rain was growing deafeningly loud as it pounded the water’s surface. It was like a prelude, like a crescendo intended to introduce some bigger song. I half expected the heavens to ring out with a power ballad, with some never-appropriate Celine Dion or Whitney Houston. After all, we were in the land of regurgitated pop, in the land with an impossibly high karaoke-per-capita-index, and the setting was perfect for a booming ballad. The power ballad never came though, just a gentle soprano voice coming from demure Daisy, sitting across from me on a tree branch.
I really cannot emphasize enough just how many love songs from nostalgia’s giveaway box I heard in the Philippines. The Philippines is a nation of singers, of voices nearly as beautiful as the smiles of the people who inhabit the 7,000 islands of the archipelago. I had heard the legends from friends and family that Filipinos were some of the kindest and warmest people on the planet, and after nearly a week in the islands I found no possible argument against that. Except for their bizarre and slightly discomforting use of the phrase “mamsir” (you guessed it—a combination of “mam” and “sir.” They don’t want to offend those androgynous among us? I still don’t know why they made that word), Filipinos are as sweet as can be—greeting you in the street for no apparent reason, grinning ear to ear just because they can, and genuinely curious about all visitors to their green and growing home.
And Daisy was no exception to this. Her teeth were pristine, and she showed them involuntarily nearly every time she spoke, incapable of frowning it seemed. Her lips were smooth and plump, just a slight shade of pink. Her hair was as straight as silk, black as ink, long, and slightly glossy in the rain. In her minimal English, Daisy communicated that she was traveling with a friend, a man she met in her home island of Coron who had asked her if she wanted to see one of the new wonders of the world (not a euphemism)—the underground river in Palawan. My friend and I had first met enigmatic Miss Daisy on our bumpy drive to Sabang. Perpetually demure, she communicated to us with just her eyes and her smile for the three-hour journey. Little did we know we would see her multiple times before our adventure was to end.
After a few minutes of conversation by the dock, Daisy fell quiet, and we all sat drenched but warm on the tree trunk, listening to that forever soothing sound of rain and whistling birds. “It’s like shower,” she then said, giggling a bit and pretending to wash her hair. I almost wish I had brought shampoo, since the rain was absolutely perfect compared to the chilly water in our nipa hut back at the beach. Suddenly, as if truly in the shower, Daisy quietly began to sing, unashamedly and calmly, staring off towards the bay and still playing with her hair. “Boy you got my heartbeat runnin’ away…” Like I said, I had expected power ballads to blare from celestial speakers in the heavy rain, but not Nicky Minaj. Daisy’s breathy soprano voice, girlish in sound, added to her intrigue, to her beauty, and to my opinion that the people of the Philippines live fearlessly out loud and with little shame, in sharp contrast to the colder people of the colder climates from which I come.
As scores of visitors huddled under a nearby thatched roof waiting for their canoes to set off for the underground, Daisy stayed with me and my friend. She continued to hum Superbass as I wrapped my camera in a trashbag. Hoping that the skies would clear in time to make it to the beach in the afternoon, and assuming that a local would best know the weather patterns, I asked Daisy when it would stop raining. “I don’t know. I’m not the rain” was all she could say. With such a reply, I cannot tell if she was saying something profound or if she just can’t speak English. As the staff called her boat number Daisy got up excitedly, bidding us adieu with a coy smile and running to her “grandpa” (her odd Freudian nickname for her late 30s foreign male travel companion) for their journey into the black mouth of the cave river. That was to be the last day we would see Daisy, a 23-year-old who, for me, was a perfect emblem of her irresistible singing country.
The Philippines’ finger pointing towards Borneo, Palawan Island has been calling me for a long time. In just the past month, I’ve stumbled across three feature articles about this “paradise of the Pacific,” each describing with excitement the struggle of this virgin land to remain pure and unharmed by the drooling, fanged bite of resort developers who would love to have their way with her. On her shores, limestone cliffs shoot up from a turquoise sea, and jagged mountains dressed elaborately in all shades of green rise and fall north to south along her spine. Flat ground is hard to find on Palawan, but the few lowland patches in between beaches and peaks are filled tip to tip with rice fields and swampy pools that provide a bit of relief for local water buffalos. Residents live simply, in raised huts constructed precariously over fields or on hillsides.
Palawan’s beauty is not easy to explore, though, as the roads are poor and—except for the AC vans provided by the very few exclusive resorts—jeepneys remain the best mode of transport. Jeepneys first came to the Philippines with the US Military, who still retain a small though unmentioned presence on the islands. Initially used just for the armed forces, these vehicles remained long after the US occupation ended, and civilians found them incredibly useful as a mode of public transport. To simplify the concept of a jeepney, imagine an extended humvee painted as brightly and eclectically as possible and stuffed far beyond safe capacity with people, construction materials, vegetables, fruits, sacks of rice, and mystery items. Our jeepney managed to fit 30+ passengers into its cabin (+1 on the roof) on the way from the island’s capital of Puerto Princesa to Sabang. The ride was an unneeded reminder that I am too large for developing countries and that my kneecaps are the size of the average person’s head. I expect and laugh at such discomforts by this point.
Sabang itself is little more than a sleepy fishing village shockingly unchanged by the luxury resorts which slouch just 200 meters from the local pier. In the mornings at the lowest tide, you will see wrinkled old fisherman tiptoeing barefoot over corals in search of fresh sea urchins, and behind them Western men in fluorescent tank tops setting out for a jog from fancy-pants cabanas. Both worlds coexist, the local not succumbing to the kitsch culture of beach towns, and the resorts not pressuring the village to do so. Ideally this arrangement can last.
Kilometers of white sand beach and glassy sea could easily have been Sabang’s main bait, but what brought me here was really the underground river, a big hole in the side of a cliff that sucks in sea water from the west and expels fresh water from the east. Home to sounds that no man likes to hear—the droplets of undrinkable mineral water falling from stalactites, the shrieking of miniature bats sleeping and pooping unseen above your head—the underground river of Palawan is one of the few in the world that is fully navigable. The hike to the river’s mouth takes you on possibly the most fun trail I’ve ever had the privilege to walk. The 5km is full of monitor lizards—terrifyingly huge animals that always seem surprised by trekkers—aggressive macaques unafraid to attack for even the possibility of a snack, slippery bamboo staircases, jaw-dropping sea views, and caves that require you to wish away your fear of small flying animals. It’s that or a $10 boat ride to the mouth of the river. You pick.
The in-your-face lushness of just this tiny piece of Palawan is just a few hours from the endless mosaic of Manila, where the Spanish and the Americans have left such obvious and brand-name footprints. My Dad, who spent eight months in Manila, would doubtless cringe at many of the changes that I imagine have occurred since his posting here in the 1970s. Jam-packed with smiley Pinoys, the sprawling capital is today like a binary code of Starbucks and mega-malls, each competing for the highest tally. Consumer culture in Manila is a bit out of control, but I am almost not surprised as so much of the Philippines’ history has been about the arrival and influence of foreign goods and peoples. The Tagalog language is peppered with Spanish and English words. The population is almost exclusively Catholic, a religion brought in by the Spanish. The food, though indigenous to the Philippines—pork, pork, pork, pork, chicken, pork—often borrows names from other languages. In the face of so much importation, Pinoys remain so proud of their uniqueness on the world stage, and they should be proud, as they are blessed to live in a beautiful, important, innovative, and musical archipelago.
Perhaps its their vibrant and sincere faith that helps them sing. Perhaps they are all born to sing of the beauty of their homeland. Whatever the cause of their singing, the Filipinos that I met did put a grin on my heart. As I lay curled up in the bathroom of the Cebu Pacific flight from Palawan to Manila, I recalled Daisy’s humming, hoping that it could drown out ABBA’s “S.O.S” that was otherwise the soundtrack of my food poisoning. My efforts failed, and I was left with a feverish mish-mash of old power ballads and whimsily-sung hip-hop that did nothing to stop my stomach from churning. While I did unfortunately fall sick in the Philippines, at least my bacteria was served with a smile.