So there’s this spit of land that my family owns on an island close to Davao. My mom told me a couple of weeks ago to go see it and take pictures so she can make plans on how to build whatever maniacal project she has this time. She and my brother are planning to gut several shipping containers, pile them up, install some electrical wiring and insulation, and call the entire thing a Bed & Breakfast. I have to give her props for coming up with these random, berserk ideas, and even more for her ability to realize them all. She once had me plant nineteen (nineteen!) trees in her desert backyard in Texas to my horror. I tried to reason with my Netflix docu-derived wisdom of endemic species and damaged ecosystems and letting nature take its course and nature-would-never-let-these-plum-and-peach-and-pear-trees-grow-in-these-conditions. I also tried to reason with my allergies. But she had the baseball bat. She always does. And today, there’s a little oasis in her backyard.
When I get to Manila, I convince Annie to come down to Mindanao with me and see what she thinks. She is hesitant to leave because she has guests from China crating away a museum exhibit and she needs to fly to Singapore for an ASEAN meeting the following Monday. I tell her there is cellular signal on the island (I lie, I’ve never been) and she can manage her staff from there. I tell her she has dark circles under her eyes which will automatically disappear when she eats durian and/or sips margarita on a tropical island. She is undecided still, so I flash her my trusty backpack and like a phoenix rising from the toilet paper ashes behind a tree along a dirt road in Cambodia, Annie says, let’s go!
On the plane, we recount the wonderful times we’ve spent exploring a seemingly vast world that doesn’t seem so vast any longer. Flipping roaches off our bunk beds on a train from Calcutta, cheering and then immediately pitying elephants made to play football in Chiang Mai, our four-day-five-country marathon beginning in Hong Kong and ending in Singapore and not remembering anything from it, singing show tunes on a freezing Great Wall parapet, my visit to her apartment in Southern Italy that never happened because I was in Paris busy falling in love, and yes, Annie coming from behind a tree in Cambodia after feeling she needed to go and there was no toilet for another eighty kilometers. Things have changed now, we agree. Pinoys are more mobile. In hostels, people don’t scratch their heads as much when someone tells them they’re from the Philippines. Somewhere down the line, the low cost carriers have democratized the Western European idea of the gap year which Filipinos have distilled into a quicker gap month or gap week. Today, it is no longer unreasonable to spend one night in Bangkok.
My sister picks us up in Davao. They are in town for my niece and nephews’ swim meet. I tell them the plane I was just in was an A330. An A330 on a domestic, hour and a half flight. Annie tells me another airline uses triple sevens on the same route. What is this? Haneda-Itami on a 747SR or something?
Enzo, Tonii and Julie are plastered from swimming laps so we give them a goodnight hug and head out of the hotel to look for a place to eat. I want to have fish head soup, eat the soup, and leave the head, just as I always do, but the restaurant nearby looks like its seafood has been sitting in the open the whole day. We almost head back in defeat when we notice the wooden structure we passed by earlier. I am intrigued by the artwork and the use of recycled materials, so we come closer to investigate. Balik Bukid turns out to be an environmentally responsible restaurant serving organic food. The playful, repurposed furniture theme is welcoming. Menus are old chess board cases, tables are made of old sewing machines or ironing boards, walls are recycled 2 liter plastic soda bottles and chairs are held together by knots made of twisted juice boxes. There is a palpable indie, Conspiracy Cafe vibe all over. I order the beef soup with brown rice and juice made of some pink flower. It is tasty because it is organic and responsible, but I believe it would be tastier if it were fair trade. And tastier still if they lose the pretentious blue rice.
We head out early the next morning with some family friends to catch a car barge to Samal (whose official name, Island Garden City of Samal, manages to be alluring and trite at the same time) because we could not take a banca from Davao due to the waves this time of year. We traverse the island, observing one billboard after another announcing the next big resort or the new cellphone plan or that it’s more fun to be somewhere, to do something or to eat something-somewhere. We finally reach the southern end of Samal where Kaputian Beach, an endearing hump of white sand, beckons with the sizzling smell of Sinugba and vinegary Kinilaw. Locals smile and raise their San Miguel Beer the way any local in the Philippines invites visitors to join the party. I wave back before we get on a banca, an outrigger with bamboo beams on both sides, resembling Luke Skywalker’s X-wing Starfighter. On the jetty in Talicud thirty minutes later, I, Annie, my family and friends are welcomed by a nice spread of clams, fish and squid that my sister had phoned for earlier. I sigh in relief in equal parts I can now eat fish head soup and the island has cell signal.
All nourished and cheeky, we hop on a 4×4 which really is just a Japanese mini-flatbed truck seating eight people sideways. But here, capacity is a fluid proposition and the laws of space and matter do not apply, translating into eleven people, plus driver, guide and the guide’s kid hanging onto a rail on a bumpy road to the future B&B. There is literally one road. It is not paved, not gravelly, not sandy. The truck reiterates the road’s existence by flattening the vegetation that has grown all over it. And you can’t really drive on the wrong side because there is no other side. I wonder if there are any other forms of transportation on the island, or is everybody required by tribal ratification to drive in a clockwise direction explaining the absence of oncoming traffic?
The guide points to random directions of coconut trees or grazing cows and says behind those are such places as La Isla Bonita and Isla Reta and Angel’s Cove and Bali Hai. Annie and I chuckle at the originality until we get to our place and the guide declares, Welcome to Treasure Island!
Treasure Island sits on top of a coral cliff that overlooks the water. Fish swim in liquid beryl and waves thrash like angry pixies foaming at the mouth. I can’t surf here. The waves are OK but my face could get rearranged slamming into the coral walls. We go to a nearby sandy beach and swim a little. I float on my back and appreciate the lack of civilization and creature comforts. I try to imagine the Bed & Breakfast on the coral bluff. It could rust quite easily. It could look like an abandoned pirate outpost in the Horn of Africa. Or a grounded cargo barge in the Amazon. Oh, the possibilities. The guide mentioned earlier that there are only a couple of thousand people on the island. It feels like there are three. I think about Alex Garland and little utopias everywhere. Maybe when I get jaded and decide to throw in the towel, I’ll put up a hostel here and see myself in the beady, clueless eyes of kids taking a gap week. But how in the world are we going to build plumbing in coral?
It is 9:00 PM and the boat ride back to Kaputian Beach is rough. The boatman’s assistant has a flashlight pointed at the sea which is not exactly reassuring. The kids whoop and giggle each time the banca skips a wave or two. I drop my left hand in the water and let ocean spray hit my face. It is not a pretty sight. I can’t see through my glasses.
Back in Kaputian people are still partying with their families, although noticeably less sober. As we shuffle back to our cars, some folks raise their San Miguel Beer. I wave back and laugh silently as a realization flashes in my head. In this part of Asia, we don’t bow; we don’t put our hands together in greeting. We raise a beer to the sky.