Slowing Down in Sabang: a town in nine words

For five scheduled hours each day, electricity is available in Sabang. Their concrete oceanside pier also functions as a basketball court, community dance hall, and a place for the heavy surf to deposit a quarter ton of rocks every night. Staying in a bungalow on the southern beach runs about $10 per evening. Staying in the random, out-of-place luxury resort on the north beach will suck $250 a night from your wallet (on a discounted week).

Bungalow on the beach in Sabang

This seaside village is the departure point for a visit to the Puerto Princesa Underground River — a giant cave system several kilometers long with a floor permanently covered in at least six feet of flowing water. It is also home to opaque blue-green waters, palm trees galore, and the constant sound of surf — a paradise!

The day I arrived, all trips to the Underground River (in the running for one of the seven natural wonders of the world) had been cancelled due to raging surf. The day previous, four boats had capsized. Sabang is the first line of defense against the South China Sea for the Philippines, and bears the brunt of any meteorological misbehavior coming from that direction. The tourism department steeled itself for the wrath of the tourists and shut down operations.

The gorgeous beach where the “underground river” transport boats land.

As tourists around me stressed about whether or not they would accomplish the Sabang portion of their itinerary, I counted my blessings. Being able to travel without a tight schedule is a hugely different experience. Most people I meet have limited time and arrive somewhere fighting to see the guidebook’s list of must-do’s. It seems like an uphill battle. I’ve noticed a more authentic, rewarding experience is often available to those who arrive with ideas but are open to whatever life has in store.

I know, I know… “Who are you, and what have you done with Jema?” Formerly — probably up until I “wasted” an entire year in New Zealand, I was a bang-for-my-buck traveler. The mentality is as follows: I’ve worked hard, sacrificed home ownership, dining out, buying stuff, eating gourmet food, starting a family, a nice car, etc. to get here. If I don’t get to see the ___________, ___________, and __________, I’ll be devastated.

The friendly giants – my escorts on my stroll into “town”

After 20 months of freedom from my American life, I’ve finally slowed down enough to absorb obvious but elusive lessons. As my sophomore year at the University of the World comes to a close, a bit of wisdom of the ages has finally started to sink in. I’ve started to see value in experiences, places and people that will never end up on the pages of a guidebook. My essay for this semester’s final exam might begin like this, “You get just as much from an enlightening 30 minute chat with a mid-western waitress in a quiet diner as you do from visiting the Corn Palace.”

Not that I think I have things figured out. Far from it. Trust me. I know I’m basically still a clueless dunce.   A clueless dunce who immensely enjoyed my private bungalow, hanging out with some locals, watching a heated basketball game, and attended the local’s weekly disco. The basketball game (played on the pier) was called on account of wave danger, despite the efforts of several individuals wielding giant pieces of plywood as squeegies. They couldn’t get enough water out the drain slots in the pier wall before the ocean dumped more under the west hoop. Overall, probably a good thing for the athletes who were hustling up and down the court while breathing in the thick smoke from cooking fires blazing around town.

Toto (yeah, like Dorothy’s dog) – our awesome guide.

A few of the players were back when the court transformed into a dance floor. I stopped by to say hi to Francis (who DJs). The scene wasn’t exactly “happening.” The fesitivites were being held under (the rural village version of) floodlights with a revolving, drowned-out colored light as a weak attempt at atmosphere. After spending ten minutes memsermized by the ferocious waves rocketing skyward as they slammed against the concrete pier wall, I accepted an invitation to sit with locals. I regretted it almost immediately. I sat with the ladies, but my seatmate didn’t speak English. Most pairs of eyes looking back at me belonged to men. As soon as my butt touched the chair, I was surrounded by dudes tripping over each other to introduce themselves and shake my hand.

My mind quickly went into escape-without-being-followed-back-to-my-bungalow mode. Thankfully, I saw Joshua (a gay teen with incredible hair) standing with a bunch of girls out in the parking lot. We chatted until Percy came along. Then I stood and talked with her even farther from the festitives. Finally no one was looking and I slipped away!

Not really worth the cash ($15 can go a long, long, long way in budget travel world), but great views and a killer shortcut!

So that’s Sabang! Oh. And I did go to the Underground River. It’s a cave. Nice, but not worth the hype. I took the 5.3 kilometer jungle trail back to town with a group of guys — two Swedes, a Frenchman, and an American (Hi, Dan!). We stumbled upon the over-hyped zip line 1.5k from town and succumbed to the potential for thrill, the new experience of flying over the ocean, a group discount, and a shortcut. I wouldn’t do it again, but it was fun! Actually, those nine words apply to my entire Sabang experience. If you’re stressing about packing value into your vacation, I’d say skip Sabang. ♣

More photos of this coastal paradise (taken by my new camera!) are here.

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