April 12, 2010

Rough Road to Paradise, Philippines

Boracay Island, Philippines was not just our first overseas trip together, it was also our honeymoon, albeit six months after tying the knot.  We couldn’t have chosen a better destination, but my God, what a logistically awkward destination to reach.  Takayo has been asking me to write about Boracay for some time now.  Instead of just sitting down and doing it, however, I made excuses, claiming “It’s too touristy,” or “It’s already been covered.”  And while that may be true -- the white sand beaches, crystal blue waters, and apocalyptic sunsets deserve every bit of tribute -- there isn’t much about the adventure that is ‘getting there.’  Isn’t that supposed to be half the fun?  We had been living in China for four months, so perhaps I was desensitized.  Catching a red eye from Shanghai to Manila just didn’t seem all that strange at the time. 

    The first leg of the trip was a harrowing cross town taxi to Suzhou’s train station.  Next came the fifty minute train ride to Shanghai.  We putzed around Shanghai for a bit, taking in the culture and catching a fistfight in an alleyway before an hour-long ride to Pudong airport.  I distinctly remember how excited I was to see 10-Yuan beers in the terminal vending machines.  The shops in the terminals were closed and all the lights were off, except for the floodlights that shone down on the waiting area by our gate. 

    We landed in Manila around 4a.m. and collected our overstuffed duffel bag.  God, we didn’t forget anything.  Manila’s national airport is across town, so when the shuttle finally pulled up to the curb, a fairly sleep-weary mob bum-rushed it.  We somehow found a seat and made it to the other airport just after dawn.  As we pulled up, I saw a chicken strut out from the terminal doors.  People were standing around everywhere, fanning themselves.  Every chair was filled with the extremely old or young.  The girl at the check-in counter offered to put us on the 6:15am flight to Caticlan.  At the thought of waiting in that jam-packed airport, we gratefully took it.  We passed a clock and realized that it was 6:01.  The security check line was nearly out the door, so we did something you can only do in a small airport in an island nation:  Cut.  And boy did we ever.  A short, broad-shouldered security officer stood between our flight and us.  We showed him our ticket. 

    He looked at his watch, then eyed us up and down.  “OK.”
One thing about flying in the Philippines is that there’s a tariff at every departure gate.  This airport charged two hundred Pesos a piece, so I forked over a 500 bill. 

    He handed me the payment stubs and said, “So, that leaves one hundred…”  A grin came over his face.  “You understand?”  He winked.

    “Sure,” I said, and winked back. 

It was nice to know that, in case of emergency, a small bribe could save the day. 
We found our gate and crossed the tarmac to our twin-engine plane.  The little thing buzzed on up and before long we were looking down on the lush rolling treetops of a Philippine jungle.  We landed an hour or so later in Caticlan.  The airport is a quiet one-story building made of plywood.  Some men in tee shirts brought our bags over; no conveyor belt necessary. 

    Outside the airport, people hocking ferry tickets to Boracay swarmed around us.  There were chickens and kids with no shoes happily playing in the street.  We hired a man with a motorcycle and sidecar, or trike, to take us to the ferry docks.  I sat up front and read the billboards advertising energy drinks and political candidates, both of which looked like they’d leave you high and dry.  When we reached the docks, a man accosted us trying to sell ferry tickets. 

    “Why shouldn’t we buy them from the ticket window?”  Takayo asked.
He didn’t muster up an answer, so we walked over and got the tickets.

    It began to rain a bit, so we ducked under a shelter near a sign that read, BORACAY PASSENGERS PLS. FALL IN LINE (OBSERVE CLEANLINESS).  A slow, long wooden boat navigated us across the channel.  It was 8:30am when we finally stepped foot on Boracay Island.  Clearly, this was a place where palm trees abound, but there was no sight of paradise.  We hired another trike for the last leg of the journey.  The winding road carried us past lean-tos and constellations of vines consuming everything in its path.  It had stopped raining, but still no paradise.  Every so often, through the trees, we caught a glimmer of hope in the form of ocean blue.  We were at the top of a hill and then, dipping past another grass-hut village, it was gone. 

    If you don’t arrive from Caticlan, boats drop you off at your Dock in waist-high water on the opposite side of the island.  From there, you wade ashore with your luggage overhead.  I was a little bummed when we arrived at a proper marina.  From a young age, it’s been a dream of mine to wash up on a tropical beach.  I must have seen it in a movie somewhere.  The idea of surviving, becoming shaped by the ocean experience -- like a hunk of driftwood -- kind of stuck with me.

    Our hotel was completely across the developed part of the island in an area know as ‘Dock 3.’  As we traveled through Dock 1 and 2, I had this feeling of having traveled back in time.  Aside from the more upscale tourist hangouts, in many ways I suppose we did.  Stilted buildings with palm frond roofs line the narrow unmarked road.  Time as we knew it seemed less significant.  The sign for our hotel, The Strand, was painted on an arrow-shaped piece of wood, perhaps carved by a local wood-carver. 

    The pavement gave way to gravel after twenty yards, as dirty dogs, goats, and chickens scatter to make way.  Our driver opened the throttle and an adolescent chicken disappeared under the sidecar.  I thought the worst of him, and looked back to see the little bugger staggering off to the roadside.  There was a basketball court with a milk crate goal.  An above-ground cemetery jutted out of the hillside like some cryptic staircase.  The stones and tile in a newer cemetery were all shades of blue, as were the cat houses that sat on either side of the headstone.  White cats lounged around or slept at the foot of the tombs.  Kids chased each other outside of bodegas advertising 35 Peso cans of San Miguel and Coca Cola.  We arrived outside the cherry wood gate of our hotel.  It promptly swung open, revealing the tan smiles of two girls.  They took our duffel bag, quietly groaning under its weight as they lead us to the office.  We passed a sign that read:  WATCH OUT FOR FALLING BREAD FRUIT.  Some were as big as footballs.  How terrible it must be for someone to make it through life, only to be taken out by something called a breadfruit. 

    Too early to check in, the staff urged us over to the breakfast hut.  They served adobo chicken and pork, garlic rice, green onion scrambled eggs, fresh mango juice and a blend of thick coffee.  After breakfast, we walked down the jungle road toward the beach.  Seventeen hours after stepping out the door, we had finally arrived to paradise.  The sun had not yet risen above the palm line.  We collapsed in the sand, napping off and on for about an hour. 

    I remember waking up under a sun that had somehow turned the palm fronds overhead a metallic silver.  Tak and I retreated to a cabana bar overlooking the beach.  A smiling bartender carved up little yellow mangos with ease and tossed them into a blender with ice and rum.  We called it a night by five o’clock, ordered two rounds of room service as an early thunderstorm lit up the breadfruit and palm fronds from our balcony.

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