Maffi Deparis and Ivery del Campo
Note: This piece of creative nonfiction first appeared in Heat: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology, eds. Khairani Barokka and Ng Yi-Sheng. Malaysia: Fixi Novo, 2016. Authors share non-exclusive rights to republish the piece. Old Boracay photos c/o Maffi Deparis of Boracay Retrospective Group.
* * *
An aircraft cuts across steely skies over molten silver that is the sea.
This is no postcard photo. None of these are. There is none of the brilliant blue of the summer sky, and the water a mirror of it, bordered by the blinding white of the sand and the blinds that are the rows of palms. There is none of that transparency, and that blindness, that one finds in postcards.
This is, after all, the monsoon season, never pictured in postcards. The tourist lean season is the industrial peak season, when infrastructure is built/destroyed/repaired/replaced behind curtains of tarpaulin, beneath skies low and heavy with rain. When the beach is draped with mist and screened with mesh to diffuse the onslaught of the wind. When sand flies into your eyes, into your drink, and pricks your skin.
When the floury sand of the postcard beach flows back into the sea, white-capped and stirred by the wind, thickened to consistency not unlike the silver coating of a mirror on its back and its refusal to reflect the sky.
Not postcards. Rather, mercurial images of demolitions and constructions, arrivals and departures, of metal and concrete, as well as of sand, wind, and water in the drama of the island’s seasonal self-cleansing. I love the habagat, this ferocious wind that clears the horizon of boats on whose sails are printed advertisements, eyesores backlit by the sinking sun. During the habagat, with windbreakers curtaining off the infrastructure from the beach, and the sea emptied of sails, in this perpetual morning weather, when the sea coughs up the soggy scent of its depths so strong it masks the sticky vanilla of lotions with SFP, when driftwood and coconut husks are tossed about in the sand, when all-day coffee takes over sweaty drinks, the island resembles the Island rather than Boracay in the postcards.
* * *
A long time ago when the island was younger, a person from Kalibo (the provincial capital in the mainland) would have to travel two and a half hours down rough roads, through quiet farms, and across the coast of Nabas just to make it to another stretch of coast where across the water Boracay Island jutted out in a bluish haze.
There was no jetty port, no billboards, no hawkers. No multicultural throng of tourists or residents, only the dark beach of Caticlan at the edge of the mainland shrouded with tall trees and encroaching grass. Boracay back then was a lonely island, isolated and at times inaccessible. Crossing to Boracay was not recommended when the waves were high, and when the weather calmed you still had to wait for hours for a small ten-seater boat to sputter towards you from the horizon. The filling up of the boat was a process in itself, waiting for passengers back then took hours. Fare was a hefty 3.50 pesos, and throughout the thirty-minute ride movement was kept to a minimum lest you outbalance the flimsy craft and overturn everybody onboard.
My mother noticed the stillness most of all. They were quite alone back in the day. The few inhabitants were hardy people who kept to themselves. None of them lived on the white beach, to them it was desolate and barren. The monsoon ravaged the white beach with wind and rain, and only fishermen braved the white waste of copra plantations and silent nipa sheds where fishes were salted and dried in the heat.
Fishing was bountiful but nobody else stayed long on the beach. They would retreat back into the interior where swamps and small estuaries irrigated small plots of land for growing cassava, mongo beans, or corn. Only the crazy white men and their families lived on the shore, even if their whole reason was deemed superficial. Beauty was not sensible to the locals. Who could blame them?
* * *
The windbreakers. Unsightly for some but beautiful for me.Islandwide sheer curtains. I play in the rain, or I go somewhere I can sit next to the windbreakers, the rain pelting on it the next best thing to feeling the rain itself.
From behind windbreakers I wait for those rare moments when the sun peeps out of the clouds. Filtered light coats the scene with a thin layer of sheen, in watercolour hues of pink, lilac, and peach. The undertones of pastels are, after all, the grays of the monsoon. This is a painting, not a postcard. But a painting that will dissolve with the coming of a raincloud, and everything will be in tones of gray again.
* * *
One Saturday, as it is deceptively sunny, my husband, child, and I take a stroll towards Willy’s Rock. It is windy of course, and when we arrive at the rock there is a dark and menacing cloud right above it. You feel the wind blowing differently now, with dampness and renewed force, and water starts pouring as though from a thousand upturned buckets above our heads. There is a mad scramble among tourists caught unaware, taking photos at Willy’s Rock one moment, running for cover the next. We run to the hotel in front of the rock, and for the next hour we watch the wind beat against the windbreakers and the trees.
I have since learned how to sense a raincloud from far away. I developed the talent for smelling the slightest change in the air, for feeling the slightest change in texture when breeze turns into wind. And I’m always right. My family and I will quickly pack up and make the dash for a nearby shelter, with vendors doing the same, and we will have already secured a seat in a little restaurant by the time the clouds break open and there is a mad scramble among tourists again. The restaurant will be jampacked in minutes, but my family and I are already seated, warm and dry with our cookies and hot coffee or milk, braced to watch the wind beat against the windbreakers and the trees.
* * *
Cooking was and still is my mother’s specialty. It’s her way of expressing herself; it’s her calling. She’s the type of woman who can cook anything and make it taste good, be it octopi, mollusk or leaf.
My earliest food memory includes soup, fish, beans, and greens, at times cooked in one pot. Occasionally we had rice. Nobody grew rice on the island, and for most families rice was eaten only once a day, for lunch. Bread was easier to come by:a small bakery sold a large loaf for 25 centavos.
A friend of my mother said that rice was such a luxury in her own family that it was carefully, equally, divided among her siblings, and not a grain was wasted. Now, this generation scoffs at a commodity so coveted in their parents’ day, preferring meat to fish, and sometimes leaving a waste of rice on their plates, enough to cause headaches among the elders of the island. “They don’t know how good they have it,” is their most common refrain.
Fruit was another luxury rarely seen in the old days. What grew on the island were hard fruits like Indian mango, alatiris, and the occasional duhat. There were stories about island children spying on foreigners visiting for the day with bags of food; watermelon rinds and apple cores discarded in the sand were scavenged in the dusk and carefully washed for a fleeting taste of these unattainable delicacies.
* * *
When you live on the island, the question is, where do you go to watch the sunset?
One island mother had renovated her beachfront property, and my small family became foundlings in her nest. What used to be a shack serving home-cooked meals is now a three-storied bar, the obligatory modern front of an ancient resort refusing to replace its huts and trees, however harder it is to maintain them. The shack turned bar is an intimately narrow space between two mega clubs. This semi-private enclave in a very public space became our regular sunset spot.
My toddler of a daughter, born and raised in the Island, swims in the sand fronting the bar, and when tired, she falls asleep on one of the mats. For canopy she has a choice: either the tent of stars over the island, or the underside of a low table laden with drinks and candlelight.
One early evening, the place is semi-packed as usual, and party music starts playing in the two big clubs sandwiching us. Candlelights are newly placed on the many low tables lining the entire length of the beach.
Suddenly there is a blackout, as is wont to happen on this clumsily industrial island.
The electric lighting, the party music, and the white noise of construction are snuffed out. It is suddenly dark and deafeningly quiet on the beach, except for the hundred tea lights on the low beachfront tables mirroring the stars above on what is now apparently a serendipitously clear night, and people’s hushed voices letting out an amused or reverent “wow.”
After two minutes, electricity is back.
Two minutes of paradise.
* * *
I sit on the shore and let the waves wash over my legs. Then I feel several fishes congregate around me, washed to shore by the waves. Transparent fishes on white sand, carried by foamy white water.
But I had left my child in the house, thinking this dewy weather might betray us. Now I regret the decision. I wish she were here sitting with me, touching fishes for the first time.
* * *
What we had on the island was seasonal and local. Easily caught parrot fish and lobsters were sold for five pesos a kilo, squid for 1.50 to two pesos. My mother would trek into the interior to look for cassava or bittermelon tops; if lucky, she would find chili tops. A bounty of beans—purple, green, or brown, in sacks or plastic tubs—was kept in storerooms beside deep wells. Vinegar made from coconut sap doubled as liquor if you hurried and drank it before sunset.
The wet season brought typhoons that flushed out black coconut crabs. The heat of summer, on the other hand, encouraged the hunting of bats and at times monkeys which were carefully prepared and consumed by the families.
The days were long and the nights longer without electricity. Torches blazed in the dark that was tinged with moonlight, and the sky was strewn with stars. People were fed; nobody went hungry; the island provided for us very well. It comforted us when we were sick and soothed us when our souls were tired.
* * *
We live inland, in a balcony apartment overlooking the road and across it, the local wet market. From where we live it doesn’t look like a tropical island destination, the country’s tourism crown jewel, but the back end of it where we watch tricycles loading and unloading market merchandise, vans shuttling tourists and their bags, and uniformed crew walking to and fro any of the boarding houses dotting the area.
The balcony apartment faces the east, its back thus exposed to the flailing of the warm, wet, southwest habagat wind.
Past midnight. Power outage again. I wake up and feel my way in the dark towards the balcony door. I want to step out and see the extent of the blackout.
But I find something else. The winds have shifted: the habagat has left, the amihan has come. When I open the balcony door the cool, crisp, sweet-smelling northeasterly breeze comes rushing through, sending chills down my spine and the bones of the house. And up in the blacked-out moonless night are the biggest, brightest stars.
Two years later, shortly after we move out of this balcony apartment, the habagat fans to flame a massive fire that licks up the market and the boarding houses. A total destruction awaiting new construction.
* * *
In the first few weeks of the monsoon season, before the first real storms hit, rain started to fall, silently and steadily on the island. The days grew shorter and the nights rattled our windows with a waking wind that was born of the open sea, pushing and shoving its way under our doors and onto our beds. It was the time of the tall grass frogs croaking with mirth as the water rose in the lagoons, of great white moths flickering into the smoky orange light of kerosene lamps.
From our kitchen came the comforting smells of wet weather food, cassava boiling over wood fire and the pungent pressings of coconut flesh on wire mesh to extract gata or coconut milk. My mother, her dress soaked at the hem in a mixture of sand and rainwater, pulled out an old plastic bucket from under the wooden sink and announced that we would be going to the beach for shells. Not the aesthetic kind we had methodically arranged on windowsills or beside the effigies of a baby Jesus, but the small feisty molluscs that burrowed into the sand and tasted wonderful with ginger.
I would be snugly wrapped up in my uncle’s old raincoat, grey and patched and smelling slightly of old beer, before we headed out into the windy twilight, our kerosene lanterns singing and turning our shadows orange. We would pass by men tying together makeshift windbreakers, preparing for the storms they expected any day now, their cigarettes flickering beneath their straw hats.
The beach would be empty but full of the sound of breaking waves, the skies dark and without form. I squinted against the sudden barrage of raindrops and sand as we made our way towards the heaving of water, fully facing now the open maw of the sea.
The tides would have only just begun to turn and already we would find driftwood washed up on the shore, many of them carrying barnacles hard and fingernail-like on their backs, or spidery crabs that scuttled from little holes in the trunks, just as stunned by the elements as I was. As a child I imagined those bleached and waterlogged carcasses as the remnants of aquatic trees from the fathoms of an underwater forest.
Occasionally we tried to haul them from stinking beds of blue sand, pulling and tugging at them, freeing them from the shore. If we were lucky, we would find a fat crab hiding underneath and my mother would quickly trap it under a bucket while I squealed at the sound of its hard little legs scraping against the sides of its plastic prison.
If it had been a calmer sea, we would have felt for flatfish in the shallows with the soles of our feet. I would have built caves in the sand for the transparent crabs to run into. Or bartered with the fishermen for parrot fish, or perhaps a grouper or two—nasty, ugly fish that my mom boiled with ginger and called lapu-lapu.
But it was the monsoon. There would be no boats out, only the bats above us, struggling with the wind that was slowly turning into a soft gale. Habagat season, when the sea gave up its dead.
Soon the last of the purple clouds would disappear and the world would turn pitch black. No moon, no stars, because the clouds would have had swallowed them whole before spitting them back out again in the summer.
* * *
The strongest typhoons are not brought in by the feisty monsoon, but by the cool, dry, and gentle northeasterly wind, the amihan.
I celebrate my birthday quietly, without fanfare, against a backdrop of little but bearable discomfort as the archipelago slowly recovers from the massive damage caused by the worst typhoon that ever hit the country, and a mild feeling of uncertainty.
But what a gift uncertainty certainly is.
Things have gotten really tough, so on my birthday we move out of the house we’ve been renting in the hills and start squatting at our own office, the apartment balcony by the road. We curtain off the corner where my husband’s worktable used to be, lay a mattress on the floor, at the foot of which we install a television set with cable for movies. We live on the bed watching TV or else on the sand watching the sun, between periods of work that sustain a stripped down life on this so-called luxury island.
* * *
Halloween. The beach is alive and thick with costumed throng. Once a year they take off normal garb and walk around naked as they really are. Witches, vampires, fairies, zombies, heroes, celebrities, animals, flowers, household objects. I feel bad for sticking out as the only one in costume, the only one in normal clothes.
* * *
On that windswept beach, beside the limbless torsos of dead trees, my mother would tell me stories she had heard when she was a child, maybe with a few embellishments, while I shivered in the dying light clutching small shells to my chest and my bucket full of crabs. Back when the island was younger, there were beings that slithered from the sea towards the tall grass, taking the form of humans, luring men close to the edge of the shore on clear nights and dragging them screaming into the waves. There were half-women, half-birds with tongues like straws, babies with sharp teeth that howled beneath rows of copra. Always these stories warned of the dark and the night.
Soon the weather would be too harsh for us to come out of the house and sit on the beach or look for shells in the chaos of sand and froth.
* * *
Old-timers and locals talk of the thick ring of tall majestic palms that used to separate the beach from the huts. I regret not having seen this old Boracay except in yellowed photos and in my dreams. A thin strip of trees persists today, with a few dense patches here and there somewhat preserved.
The new object of my spite is this new uptown hotel that cleared all the trees on its beachfront, creating a bald spot in the thinning line of trees. The objective is apparently to make way for a stage from which diners can be serenaded under the stars, without the obstruction of ancient leaves.
* * *
Old-timers and locals also tell of a time when one entered the island via three boat stations on the four-kilometer stretch of beach. After a long and weary journey by plane to the mainland, bus on the dirt road, and finally a fishing boat to the island, travelers found themselves rising to their feet as though enchanted upon sight of the beach: postcard-pretty and unbelievably real. On approaching the island for the first time, they rose up in the boat, clapped their hands and wept, goosebumps crawling up their bodies, their hair standing on ends. The boat stopped a few meters from the shore, and they waded in the bathtub warmth of the waist-high water before setting foot on the sandy beach which felt cool under the feet despite the searing heat of the sun.
It was a perfect postcard paradise, isolated and unlivable. Except for those who dared to leave the world of running water, functioning toilets, air-conditioned rooms, telephone and power lines. Except for the locals who fished in the sea and never imagined living with the world in the tiny village of the island.
They moved in, mingled, married and had children, built huts between the trees; traveled four hours to Kalibo to make a phone call; pumped water; powered up generators to play music and make fruit shakes; lit their nights with Petromax. They lived with the bats that flew as a dark flock across the sunset sky. They held nightly parties in the moonlight.
And so it became a secret paradise because of the people drawn into it, who lived together and through changes precipitated by a destructive typhoon that came at that opportune time when the island was beginning to lose its invisibility. A rapid facelift, a rebuilding. Then the island passed from what in retrospect is now labeled its homegrown golden age to a millennial age of travel and tours.
The Island by then started attracting a different kind of traveler: the tourist of convenience, the adventurer of theme parks and water rides. But the Island also made it hard for those who tried to live in it to extend the fantasy, subjecting them to inconvenience and the adventure of survival, the disillusion of paradise.
Boats no longer depart and arrive on the front beach; too many people were coming and going so a jetty port was built. Travelers now experience the island first as a brief inland travel from the jetty port to the road (we watch them passing through from our apartment balcony) ending in the resort they have booked. We can just hope they experience the magic too, however belatedly, if at all.
Plans are underway to connect the mainland and its new international airport to the island by a bridge.
* * *
For some, it’s difficult to imagine Boracay Island without the imported and processed foods now made available abundantly on White Beach, once desolate but now teeming with holiday crowd. It’s not the same without the variety of restaurants, the shawarma and barbeque stands, the food carts, and the market filled with seafood no longer caught on these shores.
But I’d like to think that somewhere, the grass is still allowed to grow knee-high, palm leaves still fan out towards the sky, ghosts of long ago still thrive in the dark with a kerosene glow about them as they search the undergrowth for root vegetables; that in between waking hours, the lights that dotted the horizon of the island are still there, glowing, and fishermen still cast nets for fish and squid.
* * *
The local elderly talk about the engkanto portal at the port in Cagban. A third eye will see a golden gate where engkanto who look like Swedish beauties come and go with the departure and arrival of Koreans, Chinese, Russians, cruise ships and international flights, tourism workers, entrepreneurs and residents, kiteboarders with their kites, Filipinos with their grocery bags of corn chips and canned drinks.
Hearsay has it that the most beautiful ghost in the island is a Japanese woman in bridal kimono haunting a presidential suite.
An American expat talks about walking one evening among the mangroves and being grabbed by a dismembered hand.
As this used to be a fishing village, there is talk of mermaid sightings long ago in Din-Iwid beach, and the golden boat that shows itself to fishermen far out to sea at night.
And of course, the cliché what happens in Boracay stays in Boracay. Love affairs only possible with the magic of the island.
* * *
This is how I’d like you to see the island, this is how an island survived, this is how the island fed and nourished us. The beauty of memory surpasses even the bleakest of today’s realities.
* * *
We’ve lived three years on the island before we felt it becoming a home. And it still makes me cry, this Island.
I’m still mesmerized by the breathtaking beauty of the beach. I get healed whenever I go for a swim. As the locals say, living in the island is not for everybody. Paradise can get boring eventually, unless you find something beyond paradisical to keep you in. Besides, Boracay is not exactly paradise to begin with. What do we mean by paradise, anyway?
I go to work in shorts, slippers, and a shirt; as often as I crave for it I can leave everything, strip, take a dip, fill my lungs with air and stare at the water’s horizon to my heart’s content. I feel free and safe walking around with breast cheeks and butt cheeks exposed, and not at all embarrassed by hips widened and belly distended by pregnancy. By just looking at visitors who are here now and gone in a few days having a great time, enjoying the beach that has lodged itself in the depths of my dreams, I share in their joys and am myself revived.
Yet how many times have we also thought of packing up, heartbroken by the Island, till we felt it loosening up and accepting us? We’ve stayed here just three years yet we’ve also seen people come and go, feeling the Island constricting itself against them, a familiar feeling we ourselves have had at one point or another. We felt the love was one way, we loving the Island but the Island not loving us back, till a few people took us into their nests, wove us into the fabric of their lives and, before we knew it, the Island’s.
And so I’ve come to revere the Island. Some call it its magic, its mysticism. Those who’ve chosen to stay talk about it all the time. I thread lightly on it and dare not to call myself a local out of deep respect. I don’t even dare call it a home. I can only hope, I can only desire, that I’m one of those whom a Boracay elder once said the Island attracts in times of need when it sends out a secret primal call, to be heard and felt only by those it has elected to live in it.