Age of the Clowns

Unless the weather is harsh, I carry out my daily two-kilometer walk mostly along Bolbog Beach or in any stretch in the island where I find it suitable. This daily ritual is not only good for my grafted heart, it likewise affords me to observe the brisk physical transformation of Boracay. Most conspicuous is the rapid change of landscape as buildings continue to scrape the skies hither and thither, and the growing number of migrants from all over the archipelago seeking adventure and economic opportunities. Peak population estimate could swell to 50,000, twice that of the Republic of Palau. The population growth is matched by speculators of all sorts who want to make a quick buck from the island’s tourists and denizens alike.

One drizzly dusk, as I stroll towards Pinaungon, I’m baffled by an odd looking figure hastily coming at my direction. It’s like the abominable yeti or a lovable alien that kids watch on TV. But as it comes up close it reveals itself to be, astoundingly, an authentic clown, with his farcical regalia, trying to avoid the imminent downpour. Indeed, the presence of a clown in Boracay indicates that aside from the conventional sun, sand, and sea, antics and other odd amusements have joined the line of tourism products available in the island. Had my clown encounter occurred during my first visit in 1995, it surely would freak me out. Back then Boracay was still generally tamed, just starting to break through the world’s travel books, but talks of impending international structures were already favorite topics in bars and cafés, foretelling of a more sophisticated island resort. The Main Road then was hardly a road at all, but a mere rough and dusty pathway between thick foliage; walking through it, one would hear the hypnotic chirping of birds and cicadas. It was far from what it looks like now, an orgy of tarpaulins.

I learn later that the clown, together with jugglers and magicians, are among the rare kind of employment offered by the island’s only theme park. My economist pal simply interprets the proliferation of clowns et al as a sign of a thriving underground economy—a natural phenomenon, he says, in a booming place like Boracay. Thus explains the swarm of unkempt and uncouth “commissioners” and “recruiters” from the airport to the front beach like vultures stalking their prey: the dilettante tourists. Cutthroat competition often becomes violent, leading to fistfights and hair-pulling matches before bewildered visitors.

Recently a similar incident happened at the Iloilo airport, which led the Department of Tourism’s (DOT) regional head to suggest that tourism frontline workers should “undergo neuropsychiatric tests” before they’re given permits. That should go, too, to our frontliners. The growing number of reports of conning and swindling should worry us all, too. Regrettably, it’s the local police force that gets the public’s censure. In a forum, the top cop reportedly admits he doesn’t have the authority to clear the beaches of the circus of peddlers and annoyances, but vows that if the authority is granted, he and his men will swoop down on the beach and restore sanity and civilization. It’s puzzling why getting that precious “authority” seems so tricky.

Salisi gang style robbery has also come to town infringing homes, resorts, and shops even in broad daylight. The modus is to dress up as tourists, blend with the quintessential crowd, and voila! Most of these con artists come from big cities like Manila and Iloilo.

Tourists, foreign and Filipino alike, also have their share of comic stuff. When they run out of cash, they will feign being robbed and report it to the police. My policeman friend told me that these “self-robbers” are just after insurance claims.

Christmas is here and it’s not uncommon to see pigs being slaughtered right along the Main Road to the delight or consternation of tourists. Once, at Ambulong, a van full of tourists get off to take close-up photos of the gory spectacle while their kids watch in horror. Such a sight implies the lack of sanitary regulations; at least, visitors are assured that meats in the island are fresh, not bocha.

Meanwhile, a diverse array of jesters offer all sorts of products and services that you can think of. Vendors peddle crude Chinese kitchen wares with easy installment terms which my friend called paiyakan; “five-sixers” loansharks; the proliferation of ukay-ukay (used clothes shops). Not to be outdone are hard-selling agents of salvation who will artfully lecture you on the right mode to heaven and adroitly jab you a love offering envelope to stuff in with your generosity.

Some proprietors also have their share of comic anecdotes. A resort operator only allows her employees to take tepid coffee. Steaming coffee, she says, will take time to cool down and may make her workers gad about. Another resort owner requires only “younger female” employees to give him a good morning kiss, claiming it to be a “polite custom” in his country. And finally, a fastfood operator who runs a boarding house “exclusive” for female OJTs (on-the-job trainees) is so caring and watchful, he didn’t put up partitions in the dormitory where he himself lives—to enjoy the bliss of being surrounded by winsome tenants.

As long as Boracay possesses its splendor, it will continue to charm clowns, jesters, and other comical beings. I guess I’m one of them.

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