Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bora Sojourn

I’ve never ridden on small planes so this was a first. Not that it bothered me. Incredibly despite my acrophobia, I ride planes pretty well. In fact, I would oft ask for window seats.

When we were ushered out to the tarmac at the old Manila Domestic Airport, I immediately looked at the plane. It was a Dornier 328. I recognized the make of the plane: it’s German. And if anything, I trust German engineering. The turbo-prop 35-seater has a pair of Pratt & Whitney engines that enable the plane to take to the skies in 22 seconds on a short runway. I kinda felt safe on this Sea Air flight as opposed to the Inter Island Air flights that use Russian planes that date back to the 70s.

The ride was blissfully quick. Cruising at an altitude of 15,000 feet, the plane’s parabolic arc catapulted us into Aklan airspace within 30 minutes. I couldn’t help but feel a surge of excitement when the islands came into view. The descent into Caticlan Airport on the other hand took our minds off the beach paradise for a bit. I wasn’t sure if it was the buffeting winds or the sharp turn the plane took but the descent elicited a few concerned “whoas” from the passengers. Juan Elizalde who has made this trip hundreds of times looked at me and smiled, “Pretty freaky landing, huh?” I made sure to profusely thank the pilots upon disembarking but guys, er, take it easy next time, huh.

Caticlan Airport is one of the busiest in the country. This tiny airstrip accommodates up to 55 flights a day or an average of about eleven flights per hour during its 11-hour operating period. There would be more were the airstrip better equipped. The last flight out of the island is at 6pm because of the lack of landing lights. So inclement weather can be a bitch when it comes to delayed and canceled flights. Juan tells me that one time, a delayed flight arrived way past six and airport officials had to use a car’s headlights to guide the plane in! Remind me never to book a flight close to dusk!

From the airport, tourists normally take a trike to Jetty Port (which was put up during Erap’s time) for a 15-minute banca ride to Boracay Island. Being with the heir to the Elizalde business empire has its perks for we have an L300 that will instead bring us to a private port owned by Fil-Estate. The Elizalde’s private speedboat is docked by the shore. I have to take off my rubber shoes and wade in the cold and knee-length water.

If the flight in was freaky, the boat ride to the island made me nervous. Uncharacteristic rough seas greeted me by splashing salt water on me. I stood up and held on to the rail putting up a brave front. But heck, I was nervous! Talk about a warm welcome. I certainly hope my three-day stay will be much better.

Instead of heading for the Elizalde Beachfront residence, we get off the beach fronting the family-owned D’Mall Boracay. There are a couple of huge and intricately-designed sandcastles close by for tourists to take snapshots of. The grainy masterpiece took about four hours and three men to make, according to the sandcastles’ architect. Around 1am when night life fronting the D’Mall area dies down for the day (those who still want to party-on move over to a trio of popular watering holes: Hey Jude, Summer Place and Nigi Nigi – the latter two cater mostly to foreigners), they demolish the structure only to put it up again the following day with slight changes. They make their living through donations. In my first day there, I noticed that there was a Php 50 bill. For my photo op, I plunked down a 20 figuring that a 50 was too much. The following day, just as the structure rose up again, the 50 was there again. I told myself, wise mga ‘to; they leave that there so that tourists will think that the average tourist donates a Serge Osmeña (a fifty peso bill) is the minimum donation.

I get to see Aria and Café Del Sol, two of Juan’s business here in Bora up close for the first time. Several years ago, I helped design the menus and the standees of the restos; now I get to see and eat in them. And D’Mall… wow. It isn’t what I thought it was. When you hear “mall” the first thing that comes to mind are the lavish concrete and commercial behemoths that have become national landmarks and tourists spots in the metropolis. D’Mall isn’t anything like that. It’s an open air mall that resembles a small village (the size of a small parking lot) with several “avenues” with lots of:
• Small stores: Rudy Project, a magazine stand, stands for tiangges, a store for surf and kite boarders, a shop that sells burned copies of Chillout and House music (Ironically, while going through security check at the old Manila Domestic Airport, Airport Security was checking all baggage for pirated CDs and DVDs!), a mini-mart, and the ever-present cellphone stores,
• Restaurants: they’ve got Mongkok, Lemon Café, Cindy’s, Andok’s (that also sells soft-serve ice cream!), a transplanted Hobbit House, Fruits In Ice Cream, a restaurants that offer Greek, Korean, and other ethnic cuisine,
• And entertainment stalls: they’ve got this basketball ring where you try to beat the clock by canning all these shots, there’s a kiddie Ferris Wheel in the middle of the mall (really!), and a Sex Shop for those into kinky stuff.

In the four years since D’Mall began operating, it has literally become the center of all island activity. Pretty amazing.

I follow Juan around as he checks on his other business. Mongkok, Julie’s Bakery, and the Budget Mart are his too. Wow, is all I can exclaim. Around 12:30pm, we have lunch at Aria. Aria is an Italian Restaurant that has the only wood fire oven in the whole island. They’ve got an authentic Italian Chef – Gino is his name – who overseas all the food. And everything is just delicious. My first meal at Aria is a bowl of Caesar’s Salad and pizza (their pizza is one of the best if not the best I’ve ever tasted here in the Philippines much more anywhere else).

Juan introduced me to Paolo, his Italian business partner. Paolo has been living on the island for 24 years now. He has seen it develop from a virgin forest into a premiere tourist destination. During the rainy season, Paolo goes back home to Italy or Germany where his live-in partner, Suzy originates from. They have two children already. The only one I’ve met is Farah, a beautiful young girl. Suzy worked in Manila for two years and during a vacation in Boracay some seven years ago, she fell in love with the place and like her beau, decided to make it her home. When she isn’t taking care of her kids, she helps manage Café Del Sol.

Around 3pm, we meet up with Paul Henares who is a Bacolod native who has made Boracay his home. Paul is the Executive Director for the Boracay Eco-Educational Campaign and Material Recovery Facility (MRF) Project. In short, the waste disposal and environmental protection program of the island. Incredibly, it isn’t the Philippine government that funds them but the Canadian government! Paul explains to me what is being done about Bora’s embarrassing waste disposal problem. Juan offers a simple and brutal summary of the problem: the inefficient local government, the undisciplined locals, and the overdevelopment of the island.

Around 4:30pm, we head over to the MRF site of Balabag in a golf cart (!), one of the three sectors of the island to meet up with the Barangay Captain Glenn Sacapaño who is the only Barangay Captain seriously dealing with the garbage problem (Barangays Yapak and Manoc Manoc are still a long ways off from doing anything substantial about the garbage problem). He shows us how the garbage is segregated and how they will either be recycled or grinded into a more compact and disposable manner. 30 minutes later, we’re on our way to the island’s dirty little secret – Bora’s own Smoky Mountain garbage dump that has been closed ever since that Philippine Daily Inquirer expose of a few years ago that first put the island in bad light. It’s a 25-minute ride up a narrow and uphill trail frequented by ATV-riding Koreans. Before you get to the dump, the first thing
you notice from afar are all these things swirling in the air. Seagulls I thought to myself. But as we got close, they weren’t any winged creatures but plastic bags whipped up by the wind blowing from the sea. The stench isn’t as overpowering as the dump in Payatas but it assaults your senses just the same. After taking a video of the place we zip over to a sewage plant where sewage is converted into fertilizers. The smell here is obviously worse. Its downhill this time and the golf cart isn’t exactly designed for off road terrain and the ride gets pretty hairy once the vehicle picks up speed. “If it looks like we’re going to crash, jump,” jokes Juan. That’s thrice on my first day about perilous rides. If I make it back to Manila unscathed, God must have a serious plan for me. The brakes on this thing must probably be shot after this trip.

Once back on normal terrain, we drive past the beach on the other side of the island. The roar of the surf on the sand is both frightening and beautiful at the same time. We go to the Elizalde residence to freshen up before heading back to D’Mall area for dinner.

In one of the rooms of the Elizalde’s beach house is a painting of Boracay unspoiled by human hands. The painting is some 20+ feet long. The only discernible structures in the coconut palm dotted beach are the original beach house of Don Manolo and the hut of property caretaker Jony (who tricked the Elizalde’s out of ownership of one of the properties to put up his own hotel resort house called … Jony’s). Walking the length of the 4k western side of the island which where the famous powdery white sand beaches are located, I can’t help but notice the crass commercialism of the place. Pump boats, bancas, and hobie crafts prominently feature the logos of the major telcos. Except for the a few establishments that have kept the tropical theme of Boracay, most seem to be transplanted malls out of crowded Manila. The Regency Hotel (that is about 120 meters long) seems better suited to the well-manicured and cosmopolitan Makati.

The Elizalde residence and the white sands outside the property are the only ones left unsoiled by progress. No need for them. After all, they have D’Mall, D’Talipapa (their own wet market that is a five-minute drive from D’Mall), and a few other tracts of land that they have rented out.

The cottage I'm staying in is the highest one on the lot. Like all the others, they’re all air-conditioned with spacious bathrooms. It is simply furnished with a huge bed and a bare bones home entertainment system. Not bad. I could live in a place like this.

I freshen up with a nice cold bath then head out after a bit to do some sightseeing. I was hoping to catch a glorious sunset but the dark clouds prevented the sun’s rays from peeking through. So I just walk around checking the sights and sounds.

Around 7pm, I meet up with Juan again at Aria where we have dinner. This time I have vegetable soup and carbonarra. I meet Gene, a transplanted Manileño and fellow Atenean (batchmate of my cousin Keith Olivares) who manages Aria. He moved here a couple of years ago and despite the disparity in pay prefers the more laid back atmosphere of the island. Juan introduced me to several friends of his.

There’s a couple of French guys George and Xavier (pronounced Sa-vee-yay). George lives here for several months of the year before heading back to Manila where he works. Xavier is an Engineer who calls Greece home. His accent isn’t that thick since he studied and lived in America for a while. George is always on the lookout for hot chicks while Xavier is still recuperating after getting sick while swimming on the other side of the island that was polluted by the sewage.

A little later, three more expats join us at the table. There’s Keith who has been working in Manila for the last six years. Every Friday he goes to Boracay to unwind with his petite and bodacious girlfriend whose name I cannot remember. And there was this Spanish expat Alberto who was celebrating his birthday that night. He treated us out for dessert at Fruits in Ice Cream afterwards. Alberto owns the English Baker somewhere nearby. Alberto married this local girl who eventually separated from him and took away his business that he had built from scratch. It was only recently that he was able to recoup and rebound from that unfortunate affair.

Beside FIC is this Mediterranean restaurant with a British chef. He personally serves this large party of 12 having a late dinner. The food looks and smells great that Juan says that maybe we should try out the place sometime later.

By 1130pm, Juan and I are ready to call it a night. We’ve got a busy day tomorrow. We don’t take the golf cart going back but walk the beach instead, his three body guards some ten feet back.

I take a bath then change into more comfortable sleepwear. The English Premier League is on and I watch ‘til my eyes drop. Thank goodness it isn’t Real Madrid playing or else, I’d stay awake for two hours more watching TV.

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