Sunday, November 13, 2011

The City Loves the Mayor: Puerto Princesa Underground River part 2

[This is the second in a series of posts about the Puerto Princesa Underground River, in celebration of it winning the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World competition. This post talks about a local Mayor that helped popularize the river and had a role in the science along the way.]

The day we arrived in Puerto Princesa, our motor-tricycle driver said the traffic was bad because everyone was preparing for Mayor Hagedorn's birthday. The main street had a dozen or more glossy banners that read, for example, "Happy 1000000x Birthday Mayor Ed... Tunay Na Lider" (translated: "True Leader"). After a large celebration at the City Coliseum, everybody that was anybody attended the gala dinner at the hotel we were staying at. We decided to gatecrash the banquet and see what happened. When we told them we were from overseas they said "Of course you can come, all foreign dignitaries are special guests". With that, we were escorted to sit in the "friends" section.
A-List celebrities on the Red Carpet at the Mayor's Birthday
The hundreds of family, government workers, businessmen and other admirers in the banquet hall erupted into cheering and applause at the arrival of the Mayor. We didn't quite know what to make of his celebrity status. We come from countries where people make cautious investments of trust and enthusiasm in politicians, but otherwise hold them in at least mild disdain. We have been taught to be skeptical any time that there is a devoted following to anyone really, even Hollywood Stars. For example, I have something of a personal fascination with cults of personality, such as in North Korea where every wall has a picture of Kim Jong-il on it and he seems responsible for mythical, super-human accomplishments. When I was 11 years old, my favorite t-shirt read "Abuse of power comes as no surprise" (a quote from Jenny Holzer).

A wide-shot of the Mayor's banquet

City workers perform a traditional dance for entertainment
However, Mayor Ed, as he is widely known, has been Mayor for nearly 20 years and it only took 3 years in office before someone made an action movie about his life. Indeed, we met a producer that has been shadowing the Mayor in recent years and is about to finish another documentary about him (named "The City in a Forest", the city's motto). The documentary-maker described driving in the Mayor's motorcade through poor neighborhoods, passing out gifts from the Mayor's personal savings in envelopes to those on the street. As an aside, the birthday banquet dinner was also completely free, covered by the Mayor (and donations I'm assuming?) The background art for the Mayor's birthday banner was nearly life-sized photo of the Underground River.

Although most of the punchlines were in Filipino and this entertainer slayed. People were falling out of their chairs laughing at his jokes. Note boats paddling into into Underground River in the center of the banner.  
On introduction, Mayor Ed indicated to the crowd that it had been a long day, that he had made many appearances including hospitals (where he also makes significant personal donations). Later that night, a young girl in wheelchair made a speech that it was her dream to give the Mayor a gift of walking to him and hugging him, as thanks for returning her ability to walk. When she finished her miracle walk there was not a dry eye in the entire house, myself included. 

The Mayor (center) hugs a girl he helped give the gift of walking again.
Anyhow, to say the Mayor is engaged and approachable is an understatement. Throughout the night, famous entertainers and beauty queens (in full tiara and formal wear) sung the mayor's praises, literally and figuratively. It was a non-stop set of handshakes and requests for photos with him. I saw someone chase after him into the bathroom. On the Underground River's contact webpage, the Mayor's cellphone is listed as one of the primary contacts, a few lines above the number for the tourism office.

When I asked to talk with someone who knew a lot about the Underground River's geology, the park's management pointed me the delightfully named Doctor Socrates (or Doc Soc, as he is locally known). Doc Soc has a fascinating story in his own right, the logo on his stationary is a medical stethoscope and a rock hammer. One of the acronymed qualifications after his name is DOG ("Doctor of Orthopaedics and Geologist"... How many DOGs are part of that society?)  He doesn't charge any of his patients money and according to one story, "he launched a public crusade against a big hotel in Puerto Princesa City for its refusal to admit him because he wore slippers instead of shoes during a public function." He was a finalist for Banyaning Pilipino (Philippine hero) of the Year.

Doctor Socrates accepting a UN World Health Organization award (source)
After bumping in to him at the Mayor's banquet (of course he was there, everybody was), Doctor Socrates pointed me towards a thick folio of background materials on the geology of the underground river at the city tourism office. The Underground River's folio is actually dozens of letters to and from the Mayor and other politicians and scientific societies. Geologists mapped the area thirty years ago and named the area of rocks around the Underground River the "Saint Paul Limestone" Rock Formation. Imagine a crocodile laying in a river, with only the tip of his snout exposed; the Underground River/Saint Paul area is the geological equivalent of his nose poking out on-shore, connected to a giant mass of limestone (the crocodile's body) that continues offshore underwater.

Now imagine a second snout coming onshore some ways to the north. This second area (called "El Nido") is it's own tourist destination and is a separate region from Puerto Princesa. The problem is that thirty years ago, much like connecting one nose to the wrong body, the geologists mislabeled the offshore limestone as being part of El Nido. The letters in the folio were all about a battle to rename the underwater El Nido formation and join it with the Saint Paul formation.

Why should anybody care?

[Hang in there, the story continues!]

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