When I heard that the Puerto Princesa Underground River was included in the provisional listing of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, the first thing that came into my mind was the Borg. In the Star Trek science fiction series primarily made for television, the Borg were a villainous cybernetic race with one mind and virtually no individuality, imposing their will on countless worlds and assimilating them into their own. To the Borg, anything else other than their own warped perception of “perfection” was anathema, and therefore had to be purged. As their warning went, “resistance is futile.”
I won’t go to the details of what the Puerto Princesa Underground River is. The internet has all that anybody needs to know more about it, even more so now that it’s won a spot in the so-called Seven Wonders. I actually have been there, but that was around 15 years ago, when I was still a teenager–and believe me the place is truly beautiful. As I remember it, despite its relatively unknown status back then, it was placid, devoid of tourists, and gave a true sense of descending into the heart of the earth. I have never been back there since, though I could assume that tourists (and the perennial problems that come with them) now swarm all over the place.
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It is exactly this problem of tourism that has put me into a dilemma about having the river now being exalted as one of these “New” seven wonders.
The wise ancients who enshrined wonders into their own lists of seven were convinced that these locations were unique and could never be duplicated, and that people came to them not just for the pleasure of being there, but also for the sense of spiritual awe that such places brought. The Greeks had two terms for this: topos (the sense of being in a place), and chora (the sense of spirituality a place brings, even if you’re not there). To be considered a wonder, a place had to have both topos and chora. Seven was the symbol of perfection and purity, and thus there could be no “eighth.” Since then, countless lists of seven wonders have been created, all dependent on the list-maker’s political, social and cultural worldviews.
So what does a fictional race of cybernetic hive-mind zombies have to do with an underground river in Palawan? The “New 7 Wonders” initiative is based entirely on global electronic voting, be it online or through mobile communication. Sadly, the vast majority of Filipinos have always used their thinking skills on what is popular, or “uso” in the local term, so it was no wonder (pardon the pun) that virtually any Filipino who had access to a TV, a mobile phone and the internet would vote for the river, totally ignoring the fact that there were other, far more awe-inspiring wonders beyond the Philippines that deserved to be in the seven slots. In fact, looking at the provisional list, I cringe in frustration why in the world places such as Ayers Rock (Australia), Mount Fuji (Japan), Meteor Crater (United States) or even the Great Barrier Reef (Australia) weren’t on it. The Amazon River (South America) seemed to deserve the honor of getting to the list, and many people, including myself, agree. These places are natural wonders in the sense that they exude wonder beyond just what we can see, hear or smell, but also of something deeper within the untold depths of humanit–topos and chora combined. Being promoted as a mere “tourist attraction,” however, the Puerto Princesa Underground River is now being elevated to a top destination for money’s sake–topos without chora. All because of the perceived sense of “unity” and “nationalism” that many Filipinos use to boost their egos through cybernetic voting.
Soon enough, when the provisional list was announced, the first responses were predictable, and they all had one hive-mind reply: “PROUD TO BE PINOY!” Seemingly, even the sense of topos was eliminated from the river: rather than it becoming a wonder of nature, its sense of natural grandeur was competely ignored for the sake of voters being “Pinoy.” From now on, in the “Pinoy” worldview, the Puerto Princesa Underground River is a “Pinoy Wonder,” a trophy to be brandished for nationalistic bragging rights. When other countries began wondering why their own nominations didn’t make it to the list, the response was also of one mind: “It’s your fault that you didn’t vote hard enough.” This is when I fully realized, disappointingly, that many Filipinos pride themselves on voting frenzy, using any and all virtual means to get any and all people and things “Pinoy” on the top spot, no matter what the cost and repercussions. When I gave my opinion as a status update on Facebook that the river didn’t deserve to be on the list, I was greeted with menacing all-caps howls of me being “unpatriotic” and possessing “crab mentality.” Indeed, to these people, “resistance is futile.”
I mentioned earlier that I didn’t know if I should feel happy or disturbed about Palawan and the New 7 Wonders initiative. That’s because I found out that the New 7 Wonders was nothing more than a Swiss-based initiative for some rich people to actually gain more money than they deserved. Its founder, Bernard Weber, would not disclose how much money he made from all of the votes that were cast for nominating the sites, not to mention the extortion costs the nominees had to pay for simply being on the finalists list. With all the hype of the river all over Philippine media in the days leading to the announcement, I wonder how much the Philippines had to pay to get it to the finalists list alone. UNESCO, which I actually trust more than a private initiative, made a wise choice to actually bail from the New 7 Wonders as early as 2007, citing that the initiative “cannot…contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public (internet voters).” In a nutshell, UNESCO practically told Weber to “go f*** himself.”
Putting the Puerto Princesa Underground River on a dubious scam list of “wonders” is not an honor–it’s actually a shame.
The river is indeed something that other nations do not have, a piece of nature that needs to be enjoyed in a simple way. Sure, every nation on Earth needs tourists, especially the Philippines with its natural beauty. But to have the river exploited for money and a false sense of “national pride” is where Filipinos unfortunately find themselves frequently gullible. It’s unfortunate that most Filipinos didn’t know of Weber’s moneymaking scam early on; perhaps we can blame ourselves and our misguided sense of hype for that. Now that it’s on their list, what now? Do the voters have any good ideas on what to do next? Does the Philippines have any contingencies for the river’s ecological sustainability once the hordes of tourists (and investors) come flocking in?
I for one didn’t vote for any wonder on Weber’s list, and I’m glad I didn’t. I also don’t feel a sense of “national pride” having the Puerto Princesa Underground River as part of a commercialized list of natural wonders; in fact, as ironic as it may sound, the process of shoving it there seems really artificial, with no sense of spiritual enshrinement other than the goal of having it put there, like a Google bomb run amok. This frenzied hive-mind behavior that Filipinos possess has to stop, especially if the negative repercussions of such a mentality outweigh the potential benefits. I fear the day when the Borg and their massive cube-ships were to loom over the skies of Earth and begin assimilating our planet, because I would have no doubt that Filipinos would fit right in with them.
But enough about me.