The stilt house squatters in Puerto Princesa, Palawan

The squatter stilt houses in Puerto Princesa (click to enlarge)
The squatter stilt houses in Puerto Princesa        (click to enlarge 800×600)

Living near stilt house squatters in The Philippines

The biggest plus about my new place was that it was in the heart of the squatter area in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. Stilt houses ran all along the bay. I didn’t call them squatters myself, this came from the house owner. I thought they were just regular houses by the water.

Inside a stilt house in Palwan
Inside a stilt house in Palawan

Just off the main road are some steps leading into a shadowy alleyway and a different world. The sun was setting and even the most unfamiliar of places take on a warm golden hue at this time. Smiling faces and greetings from my neighbors was the sunsets only rival to the unseen beauty. Sometimes you just know when you come across a special place. And this was one of them.

What is a stilt house squat like

The houses here are made of wood, some painted, others worn out by time and sea air. Doors are left open, and many a room is empty aside from a piece of carpet, and maybe a television. The occupied houses often have one or two people sitting on stools or the floor, some mixing rice into a bowl, others nodding off to sleep.

Right under and running alongside each of these houses are big gaps leading down into the sea below. A mass of interlinked wooden beams supporting it all. Further along and this maze reveals chicken coups and pig sty’s alongside a bedroom wall. Livestock pens suspended in air to maximize the limited amount of space available.

Main street at the squatter dock area Puerto Princesa
Main street at the squatter dock area Puerto Princesa

The place reminded me of Lagos in Nigeria, though nowhere near as … well … life threatening? Indeed the people were all full of genuine smiles and welcomes. Curious at the equally smiling foreigner with a camera.

People living in squatter houses in The Philippines

I followed a man carrying a small fishing line to the main dock area. The wooden planks that was the ground now more warped than ever from the sea air. All manner of boats lined the ramshackle port. Small banka’s decked out in bright colors and multicolored flags bobbed gently against various wooden posts. A few men were coming back with a bucket or two of fish. I imagined this was not to sell, but to feed a family.

Walking along the dock more and more children began to pop their heads our of doors, windows, and the odd hole in the wall. Smiles, waves and “Hello Joe’s!” were now common place. I  sat down as the sun relaxed for the evening over the water and the children began to sing a chopped up mix of English nursery rhymes.

It seemed sunset was playtime on the boats as they jumped in and out of many a neighboring vessel. An occasional question would be fired off at me, and I’d answer as best I could. English wasn’t fully understood, mainly it was just sentences that were memorized.

As this was going on a few parents came out to see what the noise was about. Suspicious fathers smoked cigarettes from doorways, every now and then nodding to each other as they looked on.

Young girls playing in a boat in Puerto Princesa
Young girls playing in a boat in Puerto Princesa

There was no malice intended. I’d be out looking too if there was someone with a camera was hanging around my neighborhood.

Conversation in a squatter area in The Philippines

Then a mother caught my eye. She’d waved at me as I passed by her house a while ago. She was with two children and a baby in her arms. She waved again and I prepared my usual “I have no money line.” But I had no need for it here.

“Hello Mister.”

“Hello Madam, how are you?”

She smiled and nodded in satisfaction, “Fine sir. You picture picture.”

I smiled back and stood up to show her some photographs I’d taken. She then asked for one of herself. Again there was an ease about the place and unlike many other places I still knew I would not be asked for money once I pressed my shutter down.

The lady was slightly overweight. Yet her face was worn and tired, her eyes sunken. Across her mouth there was a series of scabs. I took the photograph of her and the baby and showed it to them. As expected there was a great fuss and many laughs and smiles.

During this I noticed her left leg and a similar long scab running up her shin. And her right leg was full of cuts and bruises. Of the two standing children one had a similar scab on her mouth too. I couldn’t tell whether it was malnutrition, infection, or some kind of bacterial thing. But it just seemed to affect just that family.

The lady sat back on a few crates as a few other mothers came out. They all greeted me and then turned to woman to ask questions about me. Much nodding later and I received a second round of welcomes and waves. Accepted I was.

Plight of the squatters in The Philippines

This was of course home, to them. It was work, and it was life. But not for much longer. The whole area was scheduled to be torn down as it was deemed the houses were illegally constructed on government land.

“Where will you go?” I asked, half expecting the answer I’d heard in Lagos, Nigeria.

The local government had apparently promised to relocate everyone to a new area with housing and facilities. The woman smiled as she said this. I wondered if she believed it. I wondered if there would be a mass of paperwork for people who could not read nor write to fill out. I wondered if everyone would get a house, or would there be waiting lists.

The evening time at the docks in Puerto Princesa
The evening time at the docks in Puerto Princesa

This was a place I would like to see as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is a part of our history we try to hide, or in this case, demolish away. Slums, squatter camps and stilt houses are listed as just that.  A part of human culture people want removed … or more likely shoved under a carpet somewhere not so obvious.

I felt an affinity for such a place. The same as I did in Pakistan for the Afghan refugees being sent back. We share a common bond in search for a place to live. Some by choice, others by necessity.

I am in the latter section by choice.

But if I fail, I too might well end up living with squatters out of necessity.

A term that has many meanings; that many people simply don’t like.

Yet in this place of avoidance, I’m made to feel more at home than I have done in so many places. Maybe it’s a kinship?

As quite honestly we’re all just looking for a place called home in this place. And at this time of year, what better to wish for.

Whether a slum / squat / this place for the night is, it’s not my home. I do however feel my final days here have given me the gift of realization once more.

It’s also left a strange effect on me. From the last entry it’s obvious I am not alone. But now, it almost seems as if others in the same boat see it too.

A piece of the puzzle has been found and fits into place quite perfectly.

Now, it’s time to move on from this island.

Coming Soon:

Leaving Palawan …

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4 Replies to “The stilt house squatters in Puerto Princesa, Palawan”

  1. Places like this should be a UNESCO World Heritage site, I am with you.
    By the way, I really like your snapshots

  2. While I believe that the squatter areas like the one in PP shows the real face of any region, I won’t go as far as saying this should be a UNESCO World Heritage sites. I believe we all should work together in ensuring that these kinds of places don’t exist, that everyone would be given their own homes and be given medical care to take care of scabs infecting the whole family.

    Apart from that, I found your post honest and more importantly, real.

    1. In the “true” term squatter camp. Then yes, we should make sure everyone has appropriate housing. But, in terms of preserving a truthful history, I do believe that houses like this should be preserved. Sites that UNESCO award as heritage sites, often turn into shallow tourist gathering places. And then, fall into disrepair as the ill prepared communities fail to manage everything well.

      Stilt house squatters have no choice, and people are willing to demolish these places without offering alternative housing that really exists. I’ve seen it countless times. The paper work says there is a house waiting for them, they leave, only to find the house is not there’s or not even constructed due to “admin error” or the like.

      It’s a harsh reality and a polar fusion of so many things not right with how people here are treated.

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