As we all know, the airline industry has been precarious for the last few years. I thought I had seen it all, until I arrived at the Cebu International Airport. The short Filipino lady standing behind the counter wearing a tight bun in her hair pointed with her manicured fingers towards the weigh scale. “Sir, could you please pick up your carry on luggage and stand on the scale.” I responded in amazement, “Are you serious? You want to weigh me?” Apparently, airlines have become so cheap they now assess your weight to determine if you have to pay a little more than your thinner counterparts. Basically, a thin person could have a 15kg suitcase and an obese person could have a 5kg carry on and would probably end up paying for their rather robust figure. This may just have been my first exposure to fat tax. I’m trying to imagine the number of plump men and woman in North America who would rather kill themselves than stand up on a weigh scale to be scrutinized by their fellow passengers.
The flight from Cebu to Cataclan Airport is a short 45 minute zoom across an ocean dotted with mountainous islands. The airplanes that fly into Cataclan are small and consist of only twenty rows of seats. The Cataclan Airport is a tiny paved airstrip in the middle of a palm forest. As our plane landed on the tarmac all of the passengers in front of me appeared to be bounding through the air. Two seconds after the wheels touched the pavement we made an abrupt halt. With a short runway one cannot be fickle with the breaks.
From the airport I hopped on a motorized tricycle with two guys from Munich. A few moments later we arrived at the ferry terminal where we paid about five different taxes/fees. I walked over a rickety old ramp which could not have been wider than one foot. Safely sitting at the bow of the boat I rested my head and sighed with relief. The ferry to Boracay lasts a short ten minutes. Once on the island all of the tourists were hounded by locals selling hotel and resort rooms. With a postcard perfect, 3km-long white beach on its resume and the country’s best island nightlife, it’s not hard to figure out why Boracay is the top tourist draw in the Philippines.
White Beach is organized into three zones. At the most northern tip of the island is Boat Station 1 where the most expensive lodgings, such as the Shangri-la Hotel can be found. Farther south in the centre of White Beach is Boat Station 2, the location of D’Mall and the hub of the islands restaurant and nightlife scene. At the south end of the island is Boat Station 3, approximately a thirty minute walk from Boat Station 1.
Boat Station 3 is the farthest away from the islands main action and therefore the budget option for travellers like myself. I spent the next 30 minutes walking up and down the beach until I finally found a place that fit my budget. At Tree House Da Mario I struck a deal for a room with a fan for 200 pesos a night (around $4). My room was anything but luxurious as you can imagine. I found a rather large toad in the communal bathroom and my bedroom was a cement cell with tacky plastic paintings hanging on the wall. I knew I would be spending very little time in my room so thought it best to take advantage of the ridiculously cheap room rate.
I walked out onto the beach in front of Mario’s and was struck by the beauty in front of me. Parasails, seabirds, frisbees and paraw (small bangka sailboats) cut across the technicolor horizon, while palm trees whispered in the breeze and reggae wafted through the air. The sand was a perfect white powder and the water a turquoise bath which you could see perfectly through. I closed my eyes and thought to myself, “Andrew you are now standing on a beach staring out at the South China Sea.”
With a bit of giddy in my step I walked north. I would say that 60% of the tourists in Boracay are Korean honeymooners. It seems to be the classic spot for Koreans to spend their first week together after getting married. They aren’t hard to spot here as newlyweds wear matching swim suits, hats, sunglasses, sandals and t-shirts. Many of the scuba shops and restaurants cater solely to Korean tourists. To think I thought I was leaving Korea, only to discover that they had followed me here! The beach also has its fair share of European men and woman wearing thong swimsuits. Always a horrifying sight: coming across a bronzed 50 year old German man with a string up his ass and a huge beer belly hanging over his crotch.
I arrived at Boat Station 2 after an enjoyable walk past many beach vendors (the typical shell jewelry and other such island junk). It seems that every property on the beach is a combination bar/restaurant/hotel/scuba shop. Some of the resorts were truly magnificent with classic Polynesian palm roofs. A zen indigenous ambiance seems to run along the beach. The resorts are only allowed to build property behind the designated White Beach Path. Each hotel/resto-bar creates an interesting ambiance on their own portion of the beach by decorating their section of the waterfront with plush leather sofas, bean bag chairs, gardens and art pieces.
I was persuaded by a group of middle aged couples from Portland to sit with them at their favourite bar on the island. The bar at Café del Mar features a central pirate ship surrounded by bar stools which sit in the sand. The bars famous iced margarita Blue Mermaid has been named after the huge blue mermaid statue which stands in the garden. Over the next few hours I chatted away with a bunch of well to do 40 year olds who called me “little man” and couldn’t quite grasp the idea that I was traveling through Asia on my own. I enjoyed a fresh mango margarita upon arrival and an hour later my friend Cassy suggested we all order Mexican food from the restaurant a few minutes walk down the beach. Amazingly, a waiter arrived at the bar and took our orders. I found it so hilarious that a restaurant would walk ten minutes to deliver food to patrons who were sitting at another establishment. The bartenders at Café del Mar didn’t care, as long as we kept buying their drinks. I ordered a Blue Mermaid Margarita (flavoured with fresh lychee fruit) just before our Mexican food arrived. The glass steamed off the table as the cool ice hit hot humid beach air. I gobbled down a plate full of beef potato croquettes with refried beans and creamed corn. The crowd gasped as I ate my food with an astonishing sense of ease. My next order arrived: a massive plate of enchiladas wiht nachos, salsa and sour cream. I cleaned my plate and looked up at my friends to realize they were all staring at me in amazement. One of the men jokingly said, “you are the most amazing little man I have ever met in my life.” A compliment I will not soon forget.
As we all finished our feast and slippery margaritas I decided to follow the group to their hotel. A few of them had suggested an excellent massage therapist and I was game for a proper kneading. I quickly said hello to my four foot tall masseur who told me to lie down on the table she had set up on the beach. Moments after she started squirting coconut oil all over my body I fell asleep to the rhythmic lapping of ocean waves. An hour later she tapped me on the head and I yawned and woke up from my state of sedation.
I rubbed my eyes and sat up in my chair. I was struck by the change in scenery. In a short span of 60 minutes the beach had changed from a hot, brightly lit turquoise mirror to a dimming jaw dropping horizon of red, purple, pink, orange and yellow. The islands most famous monument, Willy’s Rock sat right in front of me. This small island is covered in small palm trees and features a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Many eager photographers stood on the beach in front of me waiting for the perfect Boracay sunset postcard moment. I quickly joined in the fun and moments later turned around in horror.
Like something out of a Japanese horror film (think Godzilla meets King Kong on the beach) I quickly turned around to notice a huge dark cloud racing towards the north end of the island. It appeared like a thick wall across the horizon and moments later I found myself running south along the beach as Korean and Japanese couples screamed in horror. I could see a thin veil of torrential rain quickly approaching. I was running straight for it. I could hear hundreds of screams and as soon as the buckets of water started to fall down on me I darted for the nearest shelter. Unfortunately for me I chose to run into a Korean scuba shop. I didn’t know how long these tropical storms lasted but after waiting twenty minutes with no end in sight I decided to run into the storm in search for more interesting conversation. I figured if I was going to be stuck under a palm roof for several hours I’d rather be with a few young anglophones rather than a group of terrified Korean newlyweds. I waited for a lull in the storm to make a dart down the steps and made a quick left. I was instantly soaked by a fury of spray. I couldn’t help but laugh and scream (in a synchronized fashion) before jumping under another roof for safety. The people under this hut were an odd bunch of Russian sailors and an interesting mix of Germans and Scandinavians. They sat around a large wooden table drinking vodka as a candle flickered across their faces. It was a bit of a “is this really happening?” moment. The electricity on the island had gone out and I stared across the blazing candle as palm trees whistled in the wind and a couple of Russians started screaming and arguing with the Germans across the table.
Once again I found myself as the odd man out as far as conversation goes. I took one more shot and ran back onto the beach as my face was whipped with rain. My eyes quickly searched the interiors of each beach side bar. It seems like each hut on the beach was filled to the brim with terrified tourists. I finally caught the eye of a few Caucasians sitting outside Hey Jude’s. I rushed by, stopped in my tracks and pointed to the empty chair at their table and asked if I could join. They sort of stuttered (as I surely caught them off guard) and then said “Ya of course come sit down and get out of the rain.” For the rest of the night I drank myself to sleep with two lovely ladies from Melbourne and a bloke who works for Google in London.
Once night had finally swept over the South China Sea the storm passed and tourists started to once again walk along the beach. Thank heavens for the Boracay Happy Hour! We chatted for hours with the help of one dollar Singapore Slingers. White Beach is absolutely beautiful at night. The stars come out and the moon shines across the water as the beach fills with hungry sun burnt faces. Popular dining options are beach side BBQ’s full of lobster, crab, prawns, fish, fried chicken and a plethora of salads. The palm trees glow along the beach as Christmas lights blink across the horizon which constantly reminds me that even though I’m feeling summer heat Christmas is quickly approaching!
The next morning I walked down to the Crown Plaza Hotel and sat at the lobby to use WIFI while eating caramel banana pancakes with mango butter. Seeing that I had toured the north end of the island the previous afternoon I figured it made sense to adventure further south. The sky today was perfectly postcard pristine blue. I loved the southern less inhabited part of the island as you can actually relax on the beach without being pestered by vendors every few minutes selling fake Rolex watches and Oakley sunglasses.
After a relaxing walk on the beach I fitted my swimming goggles around my eyes and splashed into the ocean for the first time. Submerging into the warm transparent ocean is such a liberating experience. I lay on my chest and stared down at the sand bellow. I tried to just sort of zone out and relax as the little waves tossed me towards the shore. Once I was totally calm my eyes noticed about five fish which were swimming directly beneath me. The fish were almost impossible to see as they were camouflaged white with black stripes (I call them white tiger fish). I chased them around the shallow water for about thirty minutes. Its amazing how lost you can get in the moment when you are under the water.
I climbed back onto land and relaxed on the sand while clenching my hair as it was stiff from the salt water. After a nice nap I jumped back up onto my feet and walked back up to Pier 2 while splashing my feet on the shore as the waves crawled around my ankles. I stopped for lunch at the amazing French restaurant Tibraz. I ordered a ham, tomato, onion and béchamel crepe and then sat myself under a palm tree on a white leather sofa. I popped by Andok’s, a very cheap traditional Filipino fast food joint and ordered a ¼ chicken, rice and a can of San Miguel beer. The grand total of that bill was $2.50!
I relaxed while staring up at a kaleidoscope of sunset colours transforming in front of me. I sipped on Pina Colada and Tequila Sunrise and fell into a smile of contentment. I then noticed my British friends walking across the beach and called them over. They informed me of the afternoons Cock Fight. Animal activists would just freak out (and I’m no promoter of the practice) but Filipino’s love the “sport.” The Brits went during the afternoon to the islands Cock Ring (actually the name ha!). They told me how brutal and gruesome the event is and I sort of gagged on my pineapple wedge and maraschino cherry. We then headed to Hey Judes for a DJ beach dance party where everyone seemed to tell me that I was alarmingly red. I walked into the bathroom and almost fainted when I saw that I was as red as a stop sign! I had clearly acquired a hellish burn throughout the day and I cringed when thinking about how this would all be feeling in the morning. My toes were full of sand, the moon lit up the beach, the waves crashed on the shore and I danced until 3am.
In the morning my back felt like it had been beaten by a butcher. I was actually so burned on my neck, face, arms and back that it was actually embarrassing to walk around in public. I looked like a freak to the locals. I ate an early breakfast at the fantastic Lemoni Café, enjoying a plate of eggs benedict and a small bowl of pineapple, banana and mango. I spent the rest of the day hiding in the shade like a vampire.
The following morning I walked over to Nigi Nigi Nu Noos for their classic English Breakfast. I sipped on a cup of black coffee and a thick glass of fresh mango and banana juice. I spent the morning and early afternoon on a lounge chair under a palm tree. I was clinging to the shade. I was amazed at how exhausted my body had become from the previous days heat stroke. I walked towards the shore and stood over a cluster of coral. Suddenly a light mist filled the air and the cool pitter patter of fresh rain hit my sun kissed face and shoulders. I closed my eyes and listened to the rain splashed across my back. My feet began to sink into the sand as the waves crept up my ankles.
I returned to my hotel room to pack my things and then walked next door to The Red Pirate for a drink. The bar is owned by a woman from London and her husband, a local man who runs a sail boat tour company. I sipped on a colourful cocktail while chatting with a rather drunk 60 year old grandmother from Amsterdam who was visiting her son. She could barely sit straight on her bar stool it was hilarious. She complained to me about how every time she put down an empty bottle of beer she would find a new one in her hand. An hour after my arrival a sun bathed beauty from Stockholm sat down next to me and we struck up an instant friendship. We ended up spending the entire afternoon and evening together. She is a local here now as she offers tours of the surrounding islands. She informed me that the bar would be holding a special live music and BBQ dinner event this evening.
The bar and surrounding beach slowly filled with what seemed like hundreds of local expats. She introduced me to her 70 year old British friend from Kent who has been traveling the world for the past 20 years. He told me, “I love Japan, I have been to Tokyo 23 times.” He was the biggest playboy I had ever met. During our thirty minute conversation his cell phone buzzed about a hundred times as local Filipino woman expressed their interests in him (and his pocketbook). At 8pm a long line formed across the beach as people piled their banana leaves with potato salad, grilled pork, fried chicken, fried rice and slices of fresh tropical fruit. I sat on the shore with a few locals and stared out at the pink horizon as the remains of the day glowed in front of us. A delightful way to spend my last night in Paradise.