Bittersweet surrender

In the lush verdant Philippines, a writer was grounded by her fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants spirit.

Philipines 88 248 (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri )
Philipines 88 248
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri )
I landed in the Philippines as I land everywhere - with no plans. Though I didn't know where I was going, I knew exactly what I was looking for: a mind-blowing beach, minus the mind-numbing tourist scene. I wanted meditatively quiet sands, a place to let a few days slip away. I wanted to be somewhere that I could slip out of my skin. Manila was anything but quiet, and the minute I got a look at the city - from the backseat of a cab - I wanted out. I checked into a pension, dropped my bags and headed straight to the closest Cebu Pacific airline office, located in a nearby mall. It's a cliché of travel writing to talk about contrasts, but in Manila the class differences are too glaringly obvious to ignore. As I walked to the mall, I passed a family of eight living on a street corner. The mother, a baby hoisted on her hip, stood outside their makeshift shelter of cardboard. One of her children, a little boy who looked to be about four, ran barefoot and naked in and out of the street, merrily bouncing on and off the sidewalk. Air-conditioned cabs, their windows rolled up tight, spirited their shopping-bag-laden passengers by, whisking them past the family. When I entered the mall, I was immediately struck by the frenetic mix of Spanish, American and Asian influences that make up Filipino culture. Tightly clustered families and friends strolled past signs in Taglish (Tagalog and English). I passed a stand selling fried ice cream named Frito Frio, Spanish which translates literally to "fried cold." Restaurant menus - and this mall was packed with places to eat - advertised merienda, a late afternoon snack that is a part of both Spanish and Filipino culture. As I approached the Philippines-based Cebu Pacific airline office, I noted its logo, an English sentence that included a common Spanish name: It's time every Juan flies. And it seemed like every Juan was trying to. I pushed my way through the throng to take a number. When I realized there were 150 people ahead of me, I gasped. "Can you believe this line?" I said to no one in particular. A few Filipinos laughed and I got my first taste of that taking-everything-in-stride-with-a-smile spirit. I spent the next four hours pacing the mall, walking back to Cebu Pacific to see which Juan was up and sitting in cafés staring at the Lonely Planet map of the Philippines. The archipelago looked like puzzle pieces, 7,000-plus islands flung into a sky-blue sea. To negotiate a trip through these alleys of water takes patience and planning - like many Israelis, I'm notoriously short on both. But when I headed back to Cebu Pacific for the last time and saw that my number was almost up, I quickly formulated a rough itinerary. I did not want to get stuck in Manila. It was my turn, finally, and I booked a ticket to Cebu, where I would slingshot via ferry out into the surrounding islands. That night, I met a Peace Corps vet - a thin guy approaching 30, with messy brown hair and a thick five-day stubble - at the pension. He was headed back to the States in the next few days and we sat outside at a wrought-iron table, enjoying the strong wind that rushes through Manila from the water, talking about our plans for the future over a couple of San Miguel beers. Using the map in the Lonely Planet guide book, I traced my island-hopping route with my finger. He dragged on his cigarette. "But you can't miss Sugar Beach," he said. He took my Lonely Planet out of my hands and pointed at a far-flung spot on the map, outside the invisible lines of my itinerary. "Here." He described pristine sands with achingly blue water, without a tourist in sight. I told him it was too late, that I already had all my plane tickets in place, and that I was leaving for Cebu in the morning."It's no problem. You can take a bus from Cebu to Toledo, then a ferry to San Carlos, then a bus to Bacolod. Then another bus down to Sugar Beach. And you're there," he said, snapping his fingers as though it were simple. No problem? That certainly sounded like a problem to me, but I was quickly learning that this was what travel in the Philippines was all about - finding a way to put the puzzle pieces together just so. He took a thoughtful sip of his beer, swallowed, and said, "Or there are flights from Cebu to Bacolod. I'm telling you, Sugar Beach is just what you're looking for." Not only had he spent an extra year traveling the Philippines after his Peace Corps service, not only did he speak Tagalog, not only had he had a Filipina girlfriend... he'd also had dengue fever. Surely a man who'd had dengue knew the islands intimately. I was sold. Sugar Beach became my singular obsession. TWO DAYS later - after a flight from Manila to Cebu, after another wait in another airline office, after a night in Cebu, after an early morning flight from Cebu to Bacolod, after a shared taxi from the airport to the bus station - I was finally on my way to Sugar Beach. In five hours I would get off the bus in Sipalay, where I would take a boat from the Driftwood Restaurant for the last leg of my journey. The boat would deposit me, at last, on Sugar Beach's shore, just in time for merienda. The bus eased out of the city and into the countryside, the road little more than a dull, dusty intrusion into vibrant green. Gathering speed, we rolled past neat blocks of color, laundry drying in the late morning sun. Some dangled from lines and flapped in the wind, some was draped over bushes - riotous green wedges flanked with blues, pinks, and reds. The city was fading, but Coca-Cola signs, some with curiously American names - Norma Store, Nixon Store, Elmer Store - nailed to rusted roof shacks remained constant, appearing every few meters. Milagros Eatery, written in scrolling black letters beneath the familiar swirling red-and-white logo, showed both American and Spanish influence with the name. I glimpsed the line of aluminum pots on the plain wooden counter facing the road, and saw that the place was pure Filipino. A typical turo-turo stand like those found all over the Philippines, a place where hungry diners lift the lids and turo-turo (point-point) at whatever appeals to them. Some of the Coca-Cola signs announced vulcanizing shops rather than stores and turo-turo stands, and the air whipping into the bus was tinged with the acrid smell of burning rubber. But, still the air was countryside-sweet. I noticed the countryside put the same filter on the scenery that it did the air. Though it was clear that the people there were as poor as those in Manila, the sharp edges of poverty were made softer by the lush surroundings. The bus driver used the sharp, high-pitched horn liberally, sounding a warning to oncoming cars, punching it with the butt of his hand as we entered lurching curves. At the same time, he punched the accelerator with his foot and the trembling box of metal that was our bus sped up; we hurtled past the repeating landscape, the window serving as a frame through which I viewed the slide show of scenery, the driver weaving his way around other vehicles maneuvering as though he were driving a nimble motorbike. We passed what Filipinos call a tricycle - a motorbike with a side car - the occupant a young mother with long, straight black hair and thin arms hugging a round-faced baby to her chest. Further out from Bacolod, the shacks gave way to simple huts made of bamboo sides, closed by palm frond lids. We passed rice paddies, farmed by stooped-over men with their pants rolled up to their calves. We passed oxen. We passed four-walled, pastel-colored churches with simple signs "Iglesia ni Christo" (Church of Christ). We passed sandy, grass-studded basketball courts consisting of little but a hoop set against a weather-beaten backboard. As we journeyed deeper into the countryside, the vegetation grew thicker and the already-narrow road grew thinner, the lane markers disappearing. A man who worked on the bus - he seemed to have a variety of jobs including helping passengers on and off, loading and unloading luggage, collecting money - made his way up the aisle, asking our destinations and doling out tickets. I told him I was headed to Sipalay. As I paid, I explained that I'd never been before and asked if he could let me know when we were close, so I didn't miss my stop. He raised his eyebrows in response; in the Philippines this means yes. "Are you going to Sugar Beach?" he asked as he handed me my change. "Yes," I replied. "Where are you staying?" "I don't know," I said hesitantly. As a woman traveling alone, I wasn't comfortable telling men I didn't know what my plans, or lack thereof, were. "Do you have a reservation?" "Um. No," I said. He laughed, shook his head, and moved forward. OCCASIONALLY PASSENGERS signaled that they wanted to get off by hissing, tapping on a handrail with a key or a coin, or knocking on the roof of the bus. The driver would tap the brakes and we'd come to a rolling pause, the departing passenger dropping off onto the shoulder. We also picked up new passengers, the bus rattling to a halt when the driver saw someone waving him down from the side of the road. As we passed through small, rural towns, men selling peanuts or rice wrapped in banana leaves scrambled on behind new passengers. They walked up and down the aisles before giving up and hopping off. Long after we'd left them behind, I imagined these men spending their days like this - traveling the same sliver of road again and again in perpetual motion that took them nowhere. In the mid-afternoon, a few hours into the ride, we stopped at a restaurant that seemed to double as a bus terminal. Many of the passengers filed off and the man who worked on the bus climbed to the roof and tossed parcels down to waiting hands. Two schoolgirls in burgundy skirts and short-sleeved, white, button-down shirts, their hair pulled back into thick ponytails, shuffled slowly by, eating ice cream. Our break was short, but I was happy to board the bus again, figuring I was only two hours or so away from Sugar Beach. The bus pulled back onto the road and quickly regained speed. We flew past tricycles with as many as 10 to 15 schoolboys packed on - crammed onto the seat, standing on the edges of the vehicle, hanging on to the sides and roofs with their small hands - impossible flocks of white-bodied, khaki-legged birds. They shouted joyously at the bus as it passed, and I felt their exhilaration. I was almost at Sugar Beach. The bus climbed into the mountains and the view became more spectacular with each curve, the roadside curtain of green parting to reveal a verdant plunge to dark blue waters. Soon, the mountains were behind us, a backdrop, and we were entering another small town. The bus worker hissed. I looked around and no one was moving."Sipalay?" I asked him. He raised his eyebrows and picked up my backpack, helping me into it. As I approached the door, I felt a bit like a parachuter about to leap out of a moving vehicle into the unknown, hoping to land in one piece. The bus slowed and I jumped out. My feet stuttered, but I caught myself and was steady on the ground in the middle of nowhere. And that's when it hit me: I didn't know where I was going. With my 15-kilo pack on my back and my purse dangling from my arm, my jeans drooping because I'd lost weight since the beginning of my trip, I walked straight ahead, not knowing where else to go but forward. Every few steps I stopped to tug at my jeans, which crept toward the ground. I came to a dirt road branching off to the right. A sun-bleached yellow sign with blue lettering announced Driftwood Restaurant, where I needed to go to get a boat to Sugar Beach. I felt a bounce return to my step and my load suddenly felt light. I sped up, not bothering with my jeans. I was almost there. The Driftwood Restaurant was bamboo-walled and palm-frond-roofed. One side was open, facing the water, just meters away. I walked in and slung my pack down. A couple of shirtless, shoeless Filipino guys sat at a table in driftwood-backed chairs, playing chess. One of them was wearing a faded black baseball cap and he glanced over at me. "Do you want a boat to Sugar Beach?" he asked. "Yes," I answered. "How much will it cost?" "Where are you going?" "I don't know quite yet," I said. "Do you have a reservation?" he asked. "No," I said, and I thought of the guy on the bus, his chuckle when I gave the same answer to the same question. "But there are rooms, of course. Right?" He didn't respond, but flipped open his cellphone and began moving his thumb rapidly over the buttons."Um. So. You know," I said. "I guess I'll just take a boat over there and I'll figure it out when I get there." "I'm checking to see if there are any rooms," he said. Checking to see if there are any rooms? He sent the last SMS and shut his cellphone, his eyes turning back to the chess board. One by one, the phone beeped as the replies rolled in. He remained silent."What's the news?" I asked. "I'm waiting for one more," he said, shifting a pawn. And then his phone beeped again. He opened it, shut it, and looked at me. "There are no rooms until Wednesday," he said. "Wednesday?" I repeated, not waiting for his response. "But today's Friday. What will I do for the next few nights? Sleep alone on the beach?" He looked at me and said nothing. I picked my pack up and struggled to get in on my back. Once I was strapped in, feeling a bit like a camel, I stood there, awkward, heavy, not knowing what to do. "But I've come all this way," I said, mostly to myself, offering a final protest. I thought of the five hours on the bus, the plane ride from Cebu to Bacolod. All of it. For nothing. But what was there to do? I was a victim of my own poor planning; I was grounded by my own fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants spirit. I headed back out to the dirt road, and then I walked straight ahead, not knowing where else to go but forward. When I got to the main road, I saw a bus approaching, hurtling toward me, a cloud of dust blooming behind it. I flagged it down and it paused. I leaped on, grabbing onto the handrails, hoisting myself aboard. And then I sat down, bracing myself for another five-hour ride back to where I'd just come from. The bus slowed as it took a curve. The driver blew the horn. We passed a pig-tailed girl in a school uniform - she looked to be about 10 - standing on the side of the road. We made eye contact and she smiled and waved at me like she was greeting an old friend. Something in her smile made the puzzle pieces fell into place: the easy-going attitude at the airline office, the basketball courts surrounded by dire poverty, the brightly painted churches, the girls shuffling by with their ice cream cones, the child merrily hopping on and off the curb in Manila, his mother looking on. I finally saw the picture as a whole. The uniformed girl on the side of the road's enthusiasm was infectious. I laughed and waved back. Then she was gone and the bus was coasting down the same mountain we'd sped up less than an hour before. I closed my eyes, breathed and let my body go, my head bobbing with every bump in the road. I smiled to myself. This wasn't what I came to the Philippines for; I'd yet to find my quiet, picture-perfect beach, but I surrendered myself to the beauty surrounding me, to the moment I was in.