This is about my last days on Boracay Island in the Philippines, a letter home and an epitaph many years after.
This article is part of a diary based travelogue from a six month journey in 1985 to several countries in East and South East Asia: Japan, Taiwan, China, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
Thursday 11.4.1985, Boracay
The day was spent on my porch, partly because I wanted to relax there and partly because my skin was slightly beginning to peel off.
That evening was going to turn upside down the view I expressed the previous day. While I was sitting eating an excellent dinner a Filipino girl came over. I knew her a little bit and we started to talk first in the restaurant and later at Sand Bar. Well, it finished with an invitation to move in with her for a couple of days. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Letter to my family
An island in the tropics, 11.4.1995
I don’t know how long it takes before you receive this letter. You see that it’s difficult to say when I will be able to mail it and how long it takes from here in the middle of nowhere in the Philippines. I hope it reaches you in time not to send a letter to Jakarta, Indonesia, for I won’t be going there.
I have looked on the calendar and found out that after the Philippines and Singapore it almost the month of May. Malaysia and Thailand will take at least a month to travel through. After that come Burma, Nepal and India, and in India alone one can spend years to get through, according to travellers I’ve met. I’m now aiming at returning home in July, if not before…
I have as a matter of fact also looked into my wallet and found that my travel chest now amounts to a little more than 900 USD. For that amount I’m going to buy a couple flights and even if I buy them at (legal) places which are comparatively super cheap, they will cost a lot. As I believe I’ve said before.
To continue with my (lacking and in-the-blue) travel plans I’ve recently heard of a bus which is considerably cheaper than a plane. It is supposed to go this route: India – Pakistan – Iran – Turkey – (Greece), a six-day-trip. Surely very interesting and I would like to find out more about that trip. That way I will get to more countries, if only passing through. I’ll get to see Athens, take a boat to Italy, have a look at Rome and hitchhike home, just like that – and exciting (plus not dangerous!)! But I must add that there I a minimal chance of this becoming a reality.
However, please send letters first to Singapore (separate country), then Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and after that Bangkok, Thailand. (The GPO you are asking about in the – over a month’s old – letter to Manila, means General Post Office, the main post office.)
I came here on March 31st and will stay here (almost) three weeks more, I suppose. It is a country one could spend a lot of time in. It is nice to relax in, nice to travel in, plus a lot to experience.
On the airport in Manila I met a Canadian who was going the same place as I, and another Canadian joined us. (Named Douglas and Bryan.) We walked out in the heat, took a bus and drove along an avenue with palms. I felt at once that this was something quite different from what I’ve previously had encountered.
We found our hotel easily. This place is fairly secure as American Peace Corps members stay here. There are many kinds of hotels in Manila – the city with so much crime and according to my guidebook, 100,000 prostitutes.
This is apparently true. Some Swedes I met had been robbed on a bus, without noticing it. The second matter is a fact that I can vouch for myself.
Bryan and I wanted to see what night life the city could offer. After a good dinner we dropped into a go-go bar. There were few men, but lots of bikini-dressed girls. Some stood on a mirror-framed stage twisting with the music, making the visiting men sit down on a stool and just watch.
But don’t you believe that there are any just-look-but-don’t-touch rules here, because we had hardly sat down before some half-naked temptations started to creep, cling, hug, touch, and smile at us. This made us embarrassed, confused and slightly annoyed as we would have preferred to relax with a cold beer. We just had to leave the bar, try a mental adjustment and check out some other places.
Some of the girls were quite interesting to talk to, while others pulled back when they found out we weren’t interested, and that we’re staying in a dormitory. One girl told me the old, and credible, story of how impossible it is to get other jobs, how they didn’t like the dancing or the prostitution and had to take drugs to make it, almost all of them. Many, also this girl, had a little baby.
I was both angry and “sick” at times when seeing a big, fat, white man enjoying himself with a tiny, young girl and she was trying hard to pretend being interested.
I rest my case.
Impulsive acts have as you know never been my “strong” side. But on this journey I have not shied away from jumping onto unplanned matters. On the other hand I don’t really have any fixed plans. I came here with the intention of just staying in the northern part of the Philippines and wait to do any seaside swimming holiday.
But then Bryan told us of a place that everyone was boasting about, the tropical paradise of Boracay. So, after only a couple of days in Manila we (Bryan, Douglas and I) took a boat down to a place in the centre of the archipelago. I have now been on this island for 8-9 days. I’m leaving tomorrow, on Friday.
Just to get here is an adventure in its own right. Like in every developing country the means of transportation are full to the rim. First there was this ship where the promenade decks (where we slept) were filled with bunk beds. But in this heat it was only an advantage to sleep outside in the mild sea breeze under the starry sky.
At the landing we took a so-called tricycle (moped with a sidecar with roof). We three with our luggage took up the space there was, we thought. But the driver wanted to earn more and four Filipinos and two large crates with small fish were also crammed in. It went well, despite all this.
We then came to a town where we switched to a jeepney. That’s a converted jeep, usually painted and ridiculously decorated, and the most used means of transportation in the country. The capacity is according to my guidebook 14 passengers. I counted 34, including those who were hanging on the back and on the roof, in addition to the luggage and the roosters.
We had two-three cramped hours, even though the scenery with coco nut palms, bamboo huts, sandy beaches and all the other exotic views made up for some of the inconveniency.
After fifteen minutes in an outrigger canoe we finally planted our feet on Boracay Island.
This place is truly beautiful. We have stayed in a bamboo bungalow with private shower and toilet for a dollar a night each. A white, long sandy beach, blue warm sea, tanning sun, palms everywhere, nice people, relaxing atmosphere, good food in the restaurants, good drinks in the local bar where they are playing Western hit-music while we’re sitting on pillows and straw mats at low tables talking to other travellers.
And if one walks to other sandy beaches on other places around the island one can swim naked in utter privacy. It is not that the long beach (3.5 km) 30 metres from the bungalow is crowded; it is practically empty by European standards. Last night I slept on the sandy beach and it was lovely. In short: I’m having a very good time here!
The others left yesterday back to Manila, but I wanted to stay longer amongst other things to update my diary and write some letters. Tomorrow I’ll be going eastwards from island to island to the south tip of the main island of Luzon. Then north, make a turn west, and then south to Manila. Then I’m moving on to Singapore and the paradise islands of Malaysia and Thailand. Exactly how long I will stay here in the Philippines I don’t know, but I’ll send a letter from Manila if not before.
I hope your Easter holidays were as fine as mine, even though they were celebrated in a different manner. I thank you for now and please give my regards to everyone.
Next letter: Northern Philippines
Friday to Sunday 12th to 14th of April 1985, Boracay
Thus I had three extra days here. Not that I regret it, the place is pretty and we had some very nice days. We kept to our own “private” little beach, barbequed on a bonfire and had a great time.
The girl had a rather troublesome past. She smoked quite a lot (grass), had worked in a go-go bar for a short period suffering from lovesickness. Her boyfriend and fiancée for a year, an American soldier, proved to be married already. She had several scars on her forearm inflicted by knife cuts indicating that she had been intrigued by suicidal thoughts. She had come to Boracay as an escort girl for a male tourist, and he had dumped her here.
(My former bungalow landlady frowned when she once met us and realised I had moved in with “a fallen lady”. My conscience was clean as I wasn’t paying, but her reaction clearly showed what traditional moral standards there are in the Philippines. It is clearly a country of contrasts as I was to be reminded of many times.)
All this made me feel unwell leaving Monday morning. In the end I took the boat to Caticlan and said goodbye to Boracay.
Epilogue: A present-day remark (2011)
I called this entry “a paradise not yet lost”. Many years later a friend of mine revealed that she and her husband-to-be were going on a honeymoon to the Philippines and the island of Boracay. They had heard of the island and had found a good hotel there.
Hotel? Things have truly changed, I thought to myself.
That was around the year 2000. For many years Boracay has been voted one of the best tropical islands in the world, and its White Beach one of the top 10 beaches on this planet. That was the beach I stayed on.
No electricity, only paraffin lamps. There are no shops, only a kiosk or two. No banks, only a foreigner running a kiosk accepting to go to Kalibo and change traveller’s cheques every now and then. Few, and quite rudimentary restaurants. Only cabins or small bungalows, but quite a hectic construction activity indicating a changing future.
Every morning our landlord climbed numerous times high up in a palm tree to fill up a water tank hanging there. That tank was connected with a hose to our toilet and shower. That was part of the service.
Today there are hotels all over the island. It may still be a tropical island paradise, but not anywhere near what I experienced in 1985. Looking back, I do get the “Beach” feeling from the book by Alex Garland and movie featuring Leonardo diCaprio, without the madness of course. What I mean is that I’m content with having been a backpacker who contributed to breaking a barrier, having been there before the crowds, having seen the place as it once was and never will be again.
The paradise I visited is lost forever, and I will never return to see it again. Not ever. I will not and I cannot.
Destiny had it (so they say, I don’t believe in it) that I forty days later would visit another island. That island was larger, had far more visitors, was far more developed and had already for some years been more famed than Boracay. Like Boracay that island had no hotels when I arrived. They came later. In multitude. By now that island in southern Thailand must be quite uninteresting to visit, in my opinion. The island is called Koh Samui and most people have heard of it. As a tropical paradise…
The introduction to this journey to East and South East Asia.
Previous chapter: Boracay: The first week in a paradise not yet lost.