The first days of this year is one of the best times of my life. It was so meaningful that I got absent for a week from work to spend the whole time with my family. We haven’t been together for about four years and it was what everyone’s looking forward to.
One of the experiences we had during our time was our trip to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River (the famous Underground River). My mother, sister and brother arrived at about 6PM of Friday in Puerto Princesa . Our trip to Sabang was scheduled at 8am in the morning of Saturday so they had the whole night to rest. I and my wife (ging-gang) spent almost the whole night preparing the barbecue, adobo and all the stuff that we need for the whole vacation trip. It was tiring but exciting. It was our first time to be the host of the trip and we were going through all the lists of to do’s and how’s with a minute of worries. When I and my wife would go to retreats and trips like these, we are usually not the ones you see hanging out in the kitchen or in the market most of the times. I was thankful though that my wife is mindful of so many things that I sometimes don’t mind caring about or forget.
While cooking, I was talking to my mom and sister about random things that would let me see the current picture of the people and places of our hometown. It was past midnight and they fell asleep while we’re talking. Timely, the adobo was done. Sleep.
Before 4AM, I woke my mom and we attended the dawnwatch (Dawn Prayer). It was the 1st year anniversary of the dawnwatch movement in Puerto Princesa and there was some sort of a little celebration after. It was a fruitful morning. My mom gets to meet the head of the dawnwatch ministry of our church (Cornerstone Community), some of the Key leaders of our church and some of our Ninongs and Ninangs. We went home at about 7am and waited for the van to pick us.
It was past 8 in the morning when we travelled to Sabang and it was almost 10 am when we finally arrived.
We availed our reservation and rented a cottage for the six of us. The weather was fine that day. It was a bit hot and sunny but windy. We spent the next few hours till noon chatting, takin pictures, story-telling and napping. We had three hours of it including Lunch. We were waiting for our 1:30 PM entrance to the underground river.
Finally, we decided to walk at about 1pm to the dock. It was less than half a kilometre away from the cottage where we stay. Arriving at the dock, we were surprised to see a lot of tourists waiting in line. And we still have a long process to go through.
We registered. Paid. Handed our registration paper to the boat administrators. Paid again, took our pass. Then waited in the line.
One thing I forgot to mention. The sea was rough, as in “maalon” talaga… At the dock, outrigger boats that could carry 6-8 people (excluding the boat captain and his assistant) and a few that could carry 16 passengers are available. So, Tourists would travel in groups of 6 or 8.
Unfortunately, we were in the 16th place along the line. It frustratingly means that there are 120 or more people before us. I was totally blamed by my mom and the rest for not agreeing to go at an earlier time. I basically have no idea that the underground river tourists would be that many. There were lots of foreigners too and other local tourists that are brought by tour agencies.
And worse, a few boats are coming back from the underground river so we have to wait a longer time. And what added more to frustration and fear is the rough sea. It was angry and beating the boats to the dock. The arriving boats are having a difficult time to moor because of the waves and the wind. And, it is adding more minutes in our calculated waiting time. For the rest of the time, we were all watching the cruelty of the waves below. Suddenly, a fat lady tourist was swept and knocked down by the waves as she tried to get down from the boat. Her slippers were snapped and her cell phones were wet. One was an Iphone, I believe. The boatmen rushed and rescued her from further beating of the waves for she can no longer stand by herself. Some of the tourists almost suffered from the same fate.
The waves were just below the shoulder high but it was strong. A little later, my mom proposed to postpone our trip for tomorrow. It was my mom’s 2nd time to go to the underground river and she must’ve seen enough terror. I agreed though, that we can postpone the trip but we have wasted much time and we’re now in the line behind the 2nd group. I was walking towards the registration office to cancel our trip when my wife called me back and shouted that we’re now about to go. I turned back and finally we are now climbing up the boat. Timely, there were no waves coming when we climbed. But the boat was shaking and I’ve seen a fearful feeling from each one’s faces. I think I knew what they were thinking – the boat might capsize or sink and we might get drowned with our cellphones, cameras and other valuable stuffs. I forced myself not to think about something dangerous then smiled. So then, we slipped our arms inside the life-jacket and strapped ourselves. The boat accelerated then slowed down at the first hit of a big wave. It was as tall as the boat that it hid the second wave behind it that was coming, and even higher. I don’t know if the boat man had seen it but he accelerated a bit as it approached the wave. Then in a second, the wave was at our chest. Almost a third of the boat was buried below the crest of the wave. Fortunately, it was only for about two seconds and the boatmen managed to steer the boat up. We have just escaped from the mouth of the surging salty waters. But then, the boat’s engine has stopped and we were being tossed and carried restlessly by the waves. It took the boatmen about half a minute to start the engine.
Honestly, I was at my scariest moment. But, I wasn’t fearful about drowning for I have complete confidence in our life jacket and the boatmen’s skills. However, I was a bit worried for I was carrying my sister’s samsung camera. Thankfully, its strap was round my neck and the life jacket has protected it from the salty water for two seconds. Only me and my wife were wet from foot to the shoulder for we were seated near the front.
Despite the horror that was brought upon us, no one asked to go back and just forget the underground river. Everyone was maybe in shock to utter a word or everyone is busy praying with closed eyes, or both. We were just about 250 meters away from the dock. There’s still a long way to go. But, no one really asked to go back, so we continued. There’s still 20-minutes left before we reach the shore of the Underground river. As the boat went on, Fear and forced smiles were on each one’s faces.
Finally, we have arrived. At the shore, the boatman instructed us to get out fast, so we did as told. The boat is continuously fighting against the waves so the boatmen maneuvered the boat and anchored it farther away from the shore where the waves are not as hard.
We immediately headed to the mouth of the river. We walked through the woods – and it was about a hundred meters. The last time I was here, there were monkeys and “bayawaks” all over. I even saw two bayawaks wrestling. A monkey also grabbed a mango from the basket I was guarding. Monkeys around the area are attracted with colorful plastic bags, and you really have to watch your stuff for they will grab everything at their reach – even digital cameras. It was a bit regretting that there were not much sights to see. All the animals are gone and must’ve been full from the generosity of the tourists who came earlier.
Anyway, we reached the river bank. The entrance of the underground river is just across. There were a few boatmen left waiting with their small boats that can carry 6 to 8 people. I immediately submitted our wet permit and entrance paper to the U-river officer, before wearing our orange helmets and lifejacket.
We took a few pictures. Everybody just tried to smile. Everyone must be thinking about our trip back to the dock on the boat again. It seems like everyone is occupied with the thought that – it’s getting dark, and the sea is getting rougher. And the boatman told us so.
We finally settled ourselves to the boat. My mom wasn’t so excited and she did not come with us to the trip inside the underground river.
Inside the cave was a different experience again. My brother Ian was at the front of the boat so he must be the one to hold the big flashlight while the boatman rows. The cave is pitch-black and we need a flashlight to be able to see our way and all the stalactite and stalagmite formations. Unfortunately, Ian has weak eyes and he sometimes misses the sights that the boatman was instructing. We often tell him to go “left more… right more… up more…” . Furthermore, the boatman who toured us is not as funny as I expected. He even tried to joke with his cursing.
The first time that I went here was more exciting. The boatman we had was funnier and every phrase he speaks is a joke worthy to laugh about. There was even a moment while inside the cave when the boatman told our companion holding the flashlight to put it off. He obeyed and it was really really dark. My companions almost panicked and fortunately, no one wildly moved- or we would’ve all gotten wet in the coldest waters. The boatman laughed at us and he told the one holding the flashlight to switch it on and not do it again. Oh, I now remember. The person holding the flashlight was me.
All in all, I think our trip to the underground river was 6/10.
After the tour inside, we took more pictures at the bank before heading again to the shore. Worries creep in again. The waves were whiter and noisier. We were with about 30 people on the shore waiting for their boats. We spent a few minutes standing and waving to the boatman who has anchored the boat half a kilometre from the shore.
He had seen us after sometime then headed his boat to the shore. He instructed us to climb up the boat fast again for the boat could easily be filled with seawater the longer it stays on the shore. We did as he instructed then headed back to the dock.
While on our way, we sang the hillsong song, “Still”. My wife told later that every song she sang at that moment was so meaningful. The rest of the trip back was fine. The waves were still there but the boatmen were better. We were at the top of the waves several times but it was a tremendous moment as we conquer the forces of the sea.
We finally reached the dock. As we climbed down the boat, we had the greatest feeling of relief ever. I gave the boatmen an extra hundred each and they too were so thankful. Everyone can smile again. At the dock, we took our final group picture then went to the souvenir shop for awhile.
It was later also that I had come to know that, during my mom’s first Underground river trip, she had the same experience. It was even worse for it was raining. It saddened me that she was not able to enjoy our time together. I just comforted her and told that it is still an experience worth remembering. It taught us many lessons and that we have seen God’s power at that situation. And maybe, God wants us to intimately be drawn to Him at that particular moment. And besides, I miss such moments too.
We went back to our rented cottage. Me, my wife and my sister prepared our food. We had pork barbecue, inihaw na isda (I forgot the kind), hotdogs and adobo…
The rest of the hours were a night of news, stories and memories.
In the morning before we got home, we had a family devotion. Each of us shared our learnings, reflections and appreciation of each other. It was a moment forever missed. It was the first time after four years that we were altogether as a family after my father died.
I’ve learned a lot of things during our Sabang vacation. The most precious moments of existence are those times we spent with our family. Indeed, the love of a family is life’s greatest blessings.