We were headed to El Nido the next day, so on our third day in Puerto Princesa, we wanted to keep a day for some unstructured goofing and exploring. I had duly called up the Firefly Watching booking office, and booked ourselves a tour at 8 PM later in the day. We decided to do it ourselves, rather than book a tour, as a DIY tour was much cheaper.
After a leisurely breakfast of chocolate rice (my friend tells me it’s called Champarado), steamed taro and coffee, we decided to walk to the airport, where many motorbike rental shops were to be found.
After bargaining for a suitable bike for the two of us, and taking a test ride, we explored the small town that was Puerto Princesa.
We decided to head to the Bay view first. It was a deserted affair, which meant the Scientist could gleefully click away.
We noticed the many Churches and Cathedrals abounding the area, the children in their classes in the Elementary School/College, the various shops selling clothes, beachware (beachwear, footwear, glares, hats and other knick knacks), and decided there was far more activity during the daytime than during evenings, when everything starts to shut down by 8 PM.
The sun was relentlessly shining down, and I didn’t want the Scientist to fall ill, so we quietly made back to our homestay and stayed put until 3 PM. That was when we decided to go over to Bakers’ Hill, on our way to the Firefly Watching site at Iwahig River.
Bakers Hill is a restaurant/store/park with peacocks, and made out to be an attraction, which it isn’t. Of course that didn’t stop us from wolfing down some pizza, and strolling the grounds, doing some juvenile posing, before we decided we had enough, and headed to Iwahig.
The bike ride to Iwahig was the second highlight of the day, after the actual Firefly Watching. It had been a longish while the Scientist and I had ridden together, and ride was just perfect. The road was good (some parts), the day starting to become cooler, forests on either side, and far less traffic as we left city lights behind and ventured into an almost jungle like area. Needless to say, we arrive much ahead of time, to find the place deserted. The lone keeper informed us that the place re-opens at 7 PM, and switched on the TV and fan at the waiting area, and went back to take his stand. I, of course, proceeded to finish my novel (a Perry Mason affair) before the light of the day and the battery of my phone went out. The Scientist decided to take a nap. After a while, we changed the TV channel, and proceeded to do Indian voice-overs for the Filipino advertisements (shampoo, health drinks and the like), as a way to pass our time. As dusk fell, mosquitoes started to make their presence felt (we were assured they don’t cause malaria, and Scientist explained that it was because of absence of certain protein markers in Filipino and Taiwanese blood. Indian blood, was of course, different). So the only way to keep them out, was to start strolling. We went to deserted bridge on the Iwahig. The place was surreal. The quietly flowing river, the mangroves, the cool evening breeze and the sunset seemed to transport you to another time..a time where everything stood still, and we the calm we were seeking on a much needed vacation finally descended on us.
We were of course the first in line, as the tour vans started coming in, one by one. Some time before that, the staff, had started showing up, signing their rosters and marking their attendance with fingerprinting. We decided we would not go first, but wait till it is truly dark and a few other tours are over before going. There are generally 3 people to a canoe, plus a guide, but since we were just the two of us, without a booked tour, we had a boat to ourselves.
I was far too excited before even landing at PP about this tour. As is with the Scientist, he asked me to tone down my excitement, saying there would be just some fireflies, and I would end up being disappointed. But as we rowed away from the shore, it was the Scientist who was eager and child-like, looking out for the elusive creatures before the guide pointed them out to us. A full moon night is not very conducive to firefly watching, and we had picked the right time of the month to be Puerto Princesa. Our guide rowed us away for almost a kilometer, and as the surroundings became pitch black, we could see the hundreds of fireflies shimmering and twinkling away, amidst the mangroves.
Our guide was something of a biologist, astronomer and historian all rolled into one, and he regaled us with tales of the creatures, and we in turn asked all our questions, in a child-like wonder. Here are some snippets:
- Fireflies tend to congregate where the water and air is unpolluted, so the part of your village/town where you might find them, are the cleanest neighbourhoods (take it as a firefly certification!)
- The flickering or twinkling lights of fireflies are their breathing motions, in and out.
- The female fireflies are a bit duller than the male ones. The males attract the females by shining and glowing their brightest
- The whole lifecycle of a firefly is that of a month, from the egg to adult stage.
- The fireflies generally favour fruit trees.
The Iwahig river was also home to bio-luminescent plankton. To demonstrate, our guide asked us to dip our fingers into the water. Soon enough, our hands were glowing with greenish lights. He also mentioned, that if we were to swim in the waters, we would emerge Avataar-like. We found out too late that swimming and kayaking is allowed here in the daytime.
The most disappointing part of the journey that it came to an end too soon (or so we thought). Who wouldn’t have loved to float away in the magical darkness, surrounded by shimmering fireflies, breathing the purest air, leaving behind the city, pollution, cares and worries, forever?!
With a heavy heart, we stepped out of our boats, and proceeded to collect our photos, which an official photographer had clicked before our tour (they immediately print out copies), and head back home.
On our way back we stopped at Lale’s, a restaurant I spotted on the way, offering Thai and Indian food. We were the only customers, given the late hour. The food was simple dal-chawal, chana masala – roti and samosa – all done to perfect Indian taste. Later we found out, the chef here had gone to India and learnt a few basic dishes that featured on the menu. Why the dal even had curry leaves in it, and there were a few curry leaf plants on the patio outside the restaurant!!
Belly warm and soul happy, we proceeded to return our rental bike, and walk back home in the stillness of the night, with the canopy of stars spread out above us…
(..to be continued…)