"Can I volunteer myself to get imprisoned here even for just three months?" I asked.
"Hahaha! It's not that easy.", answered an ex-prison superintendent.
It was in 2012 when Cebu Pacific opened its Davao to Puerto Princesa flight. The low fare tempted me to avail their promo. An overnight stay in Palawan is too impractical for a Mindanaoan. Yet, my overnight trip was all worth it. I learned a lot beyond expectation.
In fact, Iwahig Penal Colony did not even cross my mind when I planned the trip. It's the Iwahig fireflies that invited me. I contacted Jasper "Pong" Camacho and learned that he's one of the project's stakeholders.
When I arrived at Puerto Princesa past noon, Pong fetched and toured me around tourist spots nearby. Bakers Hill topped the list. When our stomachs demanded refill, bread and a bowl of Chaolong gave us burp.
When evening struck, we proceeded to Iwahig River for firefly watching. Pong was my paddler, guide and lecturer during the whole tour. Colonies of fireflies glistened against a lighting device while we paddled among the mangroves along the brackish water. That was the only place where I've seen fireflies that much. After an hour of amazing date with fireflies, we headed to their home inside the penal compound. Everyone we encountered along the way was so courteous.
A dinner with his kind family was full of informative conversations. There I learned about the real human "Lolong" whom the largest crocodile in captivity was named after. Pong's father is a retired prison superintendent.
"Most of the people you see here are inmates. The guard at the gate is an inmate. The church's janitor is an inmate. Our house help is an inmate from Samar." said Pong. His words surprised me. I looked for their house help and validated his status. The house help answered my every question including the year of his imprisonment and the offense he committed.
A refreshing morning came after a restful night in their hospitable home. While Pong was still snoring, I went out and roamed around with my camera having no amount of fear. I admired the whole place, the landscapes, the mountains, the ricefields and the peace of mind they bring. Pong later followed me.
After breakfast, he guided me around the penal farm. We encountered many inmates doing their usual chores. We visited their products display center, church, ruins, disciplinary center and anywhere our feet could take us. It was then that I learned that not all prisoners roam around working like free citizens. Inside the disciplinary center are the inmates with major or heinous offense. I peeped in to see those men but I was never allowed to take them photos.
I was about to leave the hospitable family that hosted my stay. After expressing my gratitude, I jokingly asked Pong's father, "Can I volunteer to get imprisoned here even for just three months?"
"Hahaha! It's not that easy.", he laughingly answered.
It was almost noon when I left the Penal Colony. The main gate is just beside the national highway. The inmate guard was so friendly when I waved goodbye. While moving out, my mind cloud popped up with a question "What if the inmate guard steps up a bus and go hide anywhere?" I answered my own question "Why would he go away if I myself want to stay inside?"
I requested Pong to head back to Iwahig River and witness its alluring view.
Then we entered Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center, the workplace of the human "Lolong", a crocodile expert who died while on mission to capture the giant "Lolong" in Agusan Marsh. One week after his death, the crocodile was successfully captured and named after him.
Inside wildife center, I saw many crocodiles and other wild beings. Before heading to the airport, we even shared crocodile sisig for lunch.