In the morning, I open one eye and see my cousin Cheche on the bed next to mine reading a book.
I don’t know where I am.
Not knowing where you are in the morning is never a good sign for where you might have been the night before.
We are in Boracay for the weekend, the party island in the Philippines, about which a friend three years later would text me, “Hey, my brother and his girlfriend are in Boracay and they are playing a game called ‘Guess the age gap between the European and the Philippino.’”
My first instinct is to say, “Dude, you misspelled Filipino.” But I whatsapp him back, “I hope your brother’s Irish ass is having a great time anyway.”
Because, seriously, this is Boracay.
And that is the only explanation you will ever need for this island. It’s the best and worst island in the world — and incredibly people love or hate it for the same reasons. I’m a city girl who likes walking around centuries-old buildings, shopping streets and museums. But Boracay…it’s really something else.
It is 2012 and it is an extra-ordinary year for me and Boracay. I would visit it four times with different sets of friends and family, which is what makes the year special. This trip at the end of March is the first in the next seven months, the only time and local destination I would make as many trips to in such a short space of time.
On our first night we join the Boracay Pubcrawl, which barhops across the beach bars and restos and plays games on the sand with rewards like shots of Boracay rum. The first rule of a pub crawl is this: Let your hair down and have fun. The second is don’t tag the pictures you upload online showing people getting shitfaced (everybody does eventually, including you).
At the first bar, we meet a gay couple that we bond with for the rest of the night. They are teachers from Dubai who are on vacation around Southeast Asia and meeting with their Filipino friends at another island here. There are honeymooning couples from abroad and groups of locals.
At one point, I ask the American teacher, “I think they are watering down the cocktails, shall we order proper drinks?” So we do, which leads to a hazy remembrance of playing games on the beach involving wigs and hula hoops, and then a complete memory loss.
The last thing I remember is dancing at 2 a.m. in a bar where the pub crawl ends and we’re with the gay couple and I’m telling one of them, “I love you! Why are you such a great a guy?”
One of my last memories of the night is being put on a tricycle by my cousin and I am asking her, “Did I do anything I shouldn’t have done?” She is laughing at me and says no, “You were just flirting with a gay guy.”
The following day we spend the morning on a private beach reading books and swimming (me, trying not to drown). The beach is deserted. It doesn’t have the crowds of White Beach; it doesn’t have its energy either, but it feels good to be under the sun, away from people.
In the evening, we see the couple on White Beach again and invite them to dinner with a friend who owns a resort there. He had made us rosemary baked chicken. They are bonding, we are bonding, exchanging stories.
I am not very good with strangers. We do this —or I do this — only because this is Boracay, and I am just so happy being here.
* * *
A month later, I am in Boracay again. This time with friends from New Zealand.
We meet in the Manila domestic airport — they are coming from Singapore and I from Paris — to go to Legazpi for the whale sharks and the next day to fly to Boracay.
We drive from Legazpi to Donsol, but climate change has made the waters of Donsol too warm for the whale sharks to breed and feed here. After hours in the open sea snorkeling and just lying on the boat, we give up.
I am very disappointed for my friends especially because they had flown here for these giant, gentle sharks. When we were planning the details of the trip a month before in Singapore and through email, I told my Kiwi friend that they were now breeding in Oslob, Cebu, but he wouldn’t listen to me. He said those were “tame and small,” they were being hand fed by fishermen and tourists, and it was true, but they were there.
Later, I realized why he was so stubborn about going to Donsol instead of Oslob. He had been to Donsol years ago with his father and they swam with 15 to 20 whale sharks within 20 minutes of being on the water. It was the year before his father died, and it was a memory that he carried in his heart so gently, so profoundly.
We fly to Boracay the next day. The island to them is a different vibe, not necessarily the most beautiful but different…mildly interesting because, after all, they are from an island in New Zealand with a hundred-kilometer beach.
Oh, but we we laugh a lot. We go bar hopping along White Beach until we get so drunk that all three of us end up arguing for different reasons.
But in the morning, when all is forgiven and we converge for the last time at my hotel, we eat local breakfast while looking out onto the blue sea, and then we swim right away because it seems disrespectful not to.
By lunchtime, I leave my Kiwi friends to their own shenanigans and fly back to Manila to join friends that evening for a weekend in Hanoi. I am still jet lagged from Paris and, when I meet them at the airport, I have those few seconds of standing in the terminal with my backpack and not knowing where I am going.
* * *
In July, I am back in Bora with a different set of friends. It’s my birthday weekend. Another ragtag group that I spent Easter with months before, swimming, skeet shooting and eating our way through Bohol, another beautiful island in this country.
There are six of us this time. The sunsets are gorgeous every single day. They are red and orange, they are pink, they are blue — sometimes all in one evening.
Our friends Emer and Edd , who own several boutique resorts on the island, put us up at their hotel on a hill behind White Beach. Emer cooks us paella on our first night and takes us to a club where they bring out a cake with sparklers and a bottle of vodka.
The next day we spend lunchtime picking fresh seafood in the talipapa (wet market) and having them cooked in a restaurant, and in the afternoon on the beach we get massages, sleep and drink fruit shakes.
A tropical storm descends on the island that night. Some of our friends have gone back to the hotel but four of us stay behind on White Beach drinking vodka and rum coke. We are soaking wet as we barhop our way back. At one point, the rain is so strong the streets behind White Beach are flooded (July is wet season in the Philippines).
We are shivering from the cold and there is just no escape. We wade through floodwaters, taking shelter (and funny pictures) at a hotel driveway. At this point the water is almost to our knees, and finally we find a pedicab to take us up the hill. Four basang sisiw that were wondering out loud: how can an island get flooded when the beach is not? Of course, everybody knows the answer to this.
* * *
And the fourth trip of the year. An ordinary weekend because I just need to escape the toxicity that is typically Manila.
I realize that this is a special year. Some friends I went with are now living abroad and I haven’t been back to Boracay in almost three years, this beach that is so near and seemingly so far with local airlines jacking up their fares to Caticlan and without explanation just cancelling their flights back to Manila.
I am afraid to go back lest a trip would tarnish the memory of my perfect year with Boracay.
But the island has already changed a lot from the first time I saw it. About 15 years ago I co-wrote and edited the first book on Boracay. I interviewed some of the first wave of Europeans that settled here and built resorts. They told me of a time, decades ago, when there was nothing on the beach — just a few thatch-roof huts with no electricity or running water.
They were young backpackers then, they ate the fish they caught and mushrooms that grew at the back of the beach. There was no tax, there was no government. Just another uninhabited island in the Philippines. And now the beachfront has fully developed with many structures violating building codes.
And yet, Boracay is beautiful no matter how or when or with whom you experience it. The sunsets remain gorgeous, the food and shopping are awesome, the crowds are great and tolerable at worst, there are so many things to do here (cliff jumping, diving and snorkeling — or if you’re really drunk, get a real huge tattoo instead of henna!), and yes, young prostitutes with foreign tourists are sadly too many.
On this island, you can be yourself or pretend to be someone you’re not. People care very little about who you are outside their beach. Because Boracay is what it is, just as you are who you are.
I can list a hundred reasons why I love Paris and they would all be true.
But with Boracay, I don’t need to make a list. I just walk out into the sun, feel my toes sinking slowly into the cool, powdery white sand, and know that I am home.