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Beached in Boracay

Given a week or two of vacation time, most people would likely head off to the beach. Book in hand, skin slick with suntan lotion, the average beach-goer would spend the day lazing under the sun oblivious to the world and content within their own sunny corner of it.

For those living or vacationing in the Philippines, thoughts of beaches invariably turn to talk of Boracay. Famed for its powder fine white sand, year-round sun, all-night partying and its own eclectic mix of pseudo-Caribbean culture, Boracay for most is the stuff that summertime stories are made of. For the tens of thousands of tourists who come to this island every year, it is an escape from the wearying lives they lead in the city. Tired nine-to-fivers seeking a respite from their four-walled cubicles, their malls and their Starbucks-at-every-corner mocha lattes. For the herd that descend on Bora during ‘high season’, the island beckons like torch in the gloom – and like moths they swarm.

Now I’ve never been very big on swarming – whether it’s for the latest fad, the hottest bestseller, the biggest movie or the coolest beach – but for Boracay I make an exception. On this my latest foray to the island, I had planned to make a stop on my drive from Davao to Manila. Based on my odometer I had traveled a little over a thousand kilometers of roads before I even saw it, and boy it was a sight for sore eyes (and back, and limbs, and a hundred other body parts that I couldn’t even name without a medical degree).

I arrived in the afternoon and settled in at the English Bakery, a nice two-storey inn-cum-restaurant that serves good pandesal and offer reasonably priced rooms. Perhaps it was the heat or maybe the long drive to get there, but I honestly cannot remember what happened the first night I was there. I have vague recollections of getting to bed, but that’s as far as my memory goes.

Next morning though was different; I woke up bright and early and headed back to the Aklan mainland to where I had parked my car to get my dive gear. I was planning to do some teaching for a friend of mine who wanted to learn scuba and today we were going to start our lessons.

Coming back to the island, I breakfasted at one of the numerous snack stands lining the beach that specialize in fruit shakes and thought about the scene before me. It was a typical sight at any of the three ferryboat stations of the island. One by one packed bancas from Caticlan nose up to the beach and pour out their cargo of brightly dressed vacationers. It is a scene that reminded me of the assault on the beaches of Normandy in The Longest Day, or for the younger film fans, Saving Private Ryan. Only less bloody. But unlike in the movies where the invaders brought guns and death and were met with volleys of mortar and machine gun fire, here they only brought their baggage and only porters were around to greet them.

On and on they come until it seemed unlikely that the island can take any more without sinking into the sea. Like ants they marched from the beach into the sandy walkways already crowded with people. As fast as they arrived, the tourists were swallowed up by the mess of hotels, inns, lodges, apartments, resorts and makeshift dorms that have sprouted all across the island. But just like any resort island, there were accommodations enough to fit every size of budget. From upscale triple-A, five star affairs to dinghy rooms that – to borrow the phrase of one locals I spoke to – you wouldn’t want to go home to at night.

From the beachfront, visitors who weren’t lucky enough – or loaded enough – to afford any of the beachside hotels wended their way through the labyrinthine alleys that lead to the islands main (and only) avenue. Walking through this gauntlet of overlapping concrete walls and ragtag bamboo fences, it is easy to become claustrophobic. Ironic considering that just a few meters away is a view of the sea so wide that it seems to define forever – that is if you just ignore the equally endless lines of bancas, paraws and ferryboats that block the view.

That night – this one I remember – I walked along the brightly colored stalls filled with tourists looking for a bargain. Past the t-shirts, beads and henna tattoos, the dive shops and the three hundred fifty-peso hair braids and into the shore where the waves lapped at the sand. I looked into the evening sky but couldn’t see the stars for the glare of the shop windows. I strained to hear the soft woosh of the sea as it washed the shore but the beat of the music from two or three simultaneous parties drowned it out.

I walked further, into the less crowded parts of the beach and settled my eyes on the elaborately crafted sandcastles and approached for a closer look. ‘Donation please sir,’ one of the kids called out and I dropped a ten peso coin into his palm – small price for the obvious effort they put into their work. I lingered there a while, trying to understand how I felt. I was glad to be there and I felt lucky because I was, but I knew I wouldn’t thrive there. There was too much of the city in the island to suit me. I wondered if perhaps it wasn’t just baggage that they brought.

I left Boracay a few days after and as I drove away I couldn’t help but feel emptier than when I first came. Perhaps I left something in the beaches, or maybe the beaches took something out of me.

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