After a short flight and a jeepney ride to the coast, I was taking an outrigger boat to the white sand beaches of Boracay. Along the coastline, the sun splashed impressionist shades of light against the leaves of coconut trees swaying in a hula breeze. I sat at the front of the banca, my feet hanging over the side, creating a fine spray as the boat sliced through the water. I lounged back on the deck, gazing out at the ocean, listening to the water lapping gently against the side of the boat, the sun warming my chest and the wind on my back.
As our boat approached the beach, we were greeted by a large banner, hanging across a fence announcing the Ati-Atihan festival. Every year, the small coastal town of Kalibo, the mainland launching point to Boracay Island, commemorated the sale of some coastal lands to Bornean chieftains with one of the most colorful festivals in the country. This three-day festival had spilt over to the Western Visayas and several towns had adapted their own version of the colorful celebration.
I moved into into my cottage by the beach, a small room with rattan walls, hidden in foliage.
I wandered along the sandy boardwalk. There was a flash of excitement in the sleepy afternoon as a small procession of colorful men pounding drums and dancing, led me to a basketball court for the opening of the local Ati-Atihan festival. Figures with body art – charcoal and oil designs, lizard-like scales of green and yellow danced to techno music throbbing from stereo speakers set up in a basketball court near the local school. A bright blue man watched the festivities, framed in a window above the sari-sari store. One of the lizard men took me aside and painted my arms and face with white skeletal bones outlined in black and I joined a parade of bright yellow, red, green and black villagers. We gyrated in the hot sun until the streaks of red, beaded in perspiration on their foreheads, slowly blended into the yellow of their cheeks.
When the festival mellowed, I went back to the cottage. I wandered among the curio shops of the market, past mangy dogs basking in the sun and flies mating on plates of leftover fried pork in a street stall. In the Swedish bar, with an antlered helmet over the door, a fuzzy TV was showing a tennis match. Wafting out was the haunting musical aroma of The Doors. I continued past stalls selling plastic slippers, bright tropical sarongs and tourist T-shirts and stopped at a convenience store selling dusty bottles of shampoo and packets of stale biscuits to buy a bottle of soda water.
I walked along the sandy path to my cottage, calmed by a mellow sun and a no-worries beach mood. A warm film of coconut oil and beads of salty perspiration covered my skin and I shivered from a wisp of ocean breeze.
After a late lunch, I took a nap in the cottage. The last ash had dropped from the mosquito coil and I knew that without mosquito nets the tiny monsters would eat me alive, attacking my peaceful dreams of far-off streams, awakening me to humid reality in siesta-soaked sheets. Unable to sleep, I went to lounge on the grey wooden veranda. The steady blowing of the wind from the sea had dried our neighbor’s stale laundry hanging from the rafters and salted by the sea, into corpse-like stiffness. The paint that was peeling off the railings and the sand that had trailed in from the beach on shuffling feet, carpeted the veranda floor.
Later I decided to go fishing and walked along the beach looking for a boat to hire. The sun was still hot and I had a good time being on the beach again.
A discarded plastic bag was blowing in the wind, among empty coconut husks strewn across the seaweed-littered beach and metal cans washed ashore by the tide, lay corroded, peeling or caked in phosphorous green.
When I negotiated a fee with a local fisherman, I helped him push the boat along the sand till it bobbed in the surf. He held it steady while I climbed in and then shoved off. Wind filled the sail and we skimmed over the water, past windsurfers, out to the open sea. The boat sliced through the water splashing up a fine spray of foam. I could taste the salt on my lips. Reggae played from our sand-scarred radio as we fished over the side with wire rolled around an Evian bottle. I knew my big fish was out there somewhere. When I felt a pull on the line, I tried to keep it taut, but the fish fought to throw the hook. The tension of the line was slicing my hands so I let it go slack. Then I brought it up from the sea. The fish broke the surface of the water into the suffocating air and I pulled him in onto the deck, thrashing, the hook tearing his maw. He had delicate turquoise scales. He was so small that I let him go.
In the evening I walked along the boardwalk to a beach bar. I buried my toes in the warm sand and leaned back in my chair to watch a beautiful sunset.
The waitress came and I ordered a banana daquiri
Half an hour later, I was still sipping shards of ice from our daiquiris, watching silently as a sliver of gold sank beneath the shimmering dark blue horizon.
The beach now looked dark and eerie as I sat in the shadows staring out at the inky sea. A ship’s light blinked on a distant line of black beneath a star-swirled sky. A young couple, illuminated by moonlight, walked along the shoreline, the tide washing over their feet, absorbing silver pools of water and fading the shimmering footprints they left behind.
I was awakened the next morning by the chattering of monkeys. Two of the owner’s pets had climbed into the cottage through an open window. They spent the rest of the morning jovially harassing me with their antics of thievery—stealing socks from my cupboard and eating the lush tropical fruits I had bought from the market and mocking my attempt to chase them out by jumping across the rafters from room to room. That evening, to get back at them for their pranks, I soaked some bananas in vodka and left them on the porch. The next morning, the monkeys were back, but this time one of them was squealing wildly as he wobbled drunkenly along the veranda railing and the other was snuggled up in my beach towel, clutching at his head with his paws, nursing his hang-over.
I stayed ten days in Boracay. On the last morning, I packed my things and walked down to the beach to catch a boat to Kalibo for the flight back to Manila. Looking back, as the plane dipped over the island, I already missed the monkeys. They were my accomplices in freedom. Driving from Manila airport in the heavy traffic, I missed the gentle breeze, the clear turquoise waters and the fine sand beach fringed with palm trees. I know the monkeys are still there, lamenting my loss.