Last week I was able to visit Sitio Sabang, home to the famous PPUR (Puerto Princesa Underground River). My main purpose was only to celebrate Mass in the church there in St. Joseph Marello Parish. Coincidentally, there was also a sort of a cultural event- the “re-opening” of Sabang. After several months of lockdown, the City Government has deemed it to jumpstart tourism. In other words, the place now, while yet observing quarantine protocols, is once again ready to welcome guests, albeit only for locals.

To say the least, the current pandemic is catastrophic to the tourism industry. It is always the first to be severely hit by any crisis. With the stay-at-home protocol, no-travel is but just the spontaneous consequence. Travel is destination. It goes without saying that the talk of destination almost always has Palawan as one of the options, a top priority at that. If this crisis indeed is catastrophic, what does it make, or unmake, for Palawan, and for us Palawenos? How are they doing now and where are they now, Palawenos who are tour guides, shuttle van drivers, waiters and waitresses, travel agents, hotels and pension house owners, event organizers and suppliers, among others?

Sabang is a case in point because of the Underground River. People have been making a living through relatively small businesses like sari-sari store and transportation or through employment in high-end resorts. With Underground River now closed, one local aptly described how they are now- “Nakadapa po. Dapang-dapa.” (Flat and flattened)

I have walked around the barrio and along the beach. I have discovered what nakadapa meant. It was rather matamlay (lethargic). The usual festive ambiance then of Sabang was transformed into nakakabinging katamikan (deafening silence). The sounds of partying of the pre-COVID time were filled up by the sounds and the echoes of crickets and other tiny creatures. The bounty of food tables then was nowhere in sight, instead what was made available (and have been selling like hotcake) was the like of street food stuff, BBQ, and all. Moreover, the sight that was very telling in terms of being nakadapa was the numerous pump boats just parked along the shore. Before COVID, these boats would ferry tourists from Sabang wharf to the mouth of the subterranean waters and vice versa. What have they become right now? Matamlay was the sight of pumpboats with sinampay (laundry clothes being hung under sunlight).

Matamlay is already somewhat acceptable knowing how prosperous Sabang was. Hindi inaasahan at hindi akalain ang dulot o salot ng COVID. But what was rather inconsolable was while I walking around, there was one who suddenly got near me and muttered, “Pahingi pera.” Beggars they become. This must be very painful. You think that it is all there is yet? I was also informed that there had already been reported cases of theft around. Look what have you done, COVID. Sadly, the apparent effects of any crisis, especially economic, are poverty and, heaven forbid, criminality.

On an encouraging note, Mother Nature has got her breather. Nakapagpahinga rin ang kalikasan. Waters are crystal clear. Skies bluer. Air fresher. Anywhere you would turn your gaze looked like creation has been back to Genesis time. Furthermore, people too are back to where they were before PPUR became PPUR – fishing and farming. Said they, “nakakakain na naman kami ng masasarap na klase ng mga isda.” If truth be known, before COVID the best kind of sea-catch and farm-fruits would automatically go to hotels and restos. Right now, however, a household can feast on first-class marine products. Masarap na, mura pa ang halaga.

Going back to my original purpose of the visit, I was happily surprised that the church, with maintained protocols (under strict implementation at that), was filled with devotees. You would get an instinctive impression that when everything seems lost and many are at a loss there is one thing necessary that must be kept tight – faith, that is. “Kumakapit po kami sa Diyos, Father. Malalampasan din po ito,” quipped one faithful to me. That said, naging matamlay man ang hanap-buhay, ang pag-asa sa Diyos ay lalong magiging matibay.