I don’t remember the first time I saw the name Boracay but I know it mustn’t have been somewhere I was aching to visit. Aching that’s the right word. That’s when you know a place was meant to become entwined with your inner traveller. You were meant to go there, and it was meant to be seen by you. It’s like love at first sight but with cities or towns or countries and differently to love at first sight, you don’t actually have to see it, not in the flesh. Maybe you see a picture or hear someone describe it or even read a book and just like that, you are there. You have walked down its streets and danced all night in a quirky little bar. You’ve seen the sunset and fallen in love with the clouds changing colour. And just like that, the place is yours and you are its captive and life is good.
I don’t remember the first time I saw the name Boracay, but I remember the first thing I was told when I arrived. “On our island, we have a McDonald’s and a Starbucks and Jollibee.” That is when any traveller wishing to experience the local culture, settles in for disappointment. One of the most touristy islands on the planet, shut down for over six months due to over tourism, consistently ranking at the top both as an island destination and for its famous White Beach… was it really possible to experience local culture here?
Gearing up for the end of the year, you have the Christmas parties and celebrations, the New Year’s countdowns. There is one name for that in island language, peak season. The island held its secrets close on the first day, with our arrival later in the day, darkness had already descended. A delayed flight was to blame, a certainty instead of an exception I’d come to realize.
A one hour flight from Manila to Caticlan airport is the easiest option, then pick up by your accommodation or a short tuk-tuk ride away to the port. Exchange a few hundred pesos to grant you passage across and after approximately fifteen minutes you can be hobbling out of a boat and stepping onto the white sand you have been promised. The night might be a secretive mistress, but the light of new day shows clearly.
Boracay Island was closed for six months after government intervention to allow for rehabilitation of the environment and nature and a major re-do on the islands waste system and infrastructure. During your stay it is inevitable that you will cross the main road of Boracay, that traverses through what the locals call Station 3, 2, 1. Station 3 offering more budget accommodation and dining options, building up to the more luxurious water side villas in Station 1. The road is still very much under construction.
Tuk tuk drivers, rush up and down the main street, avoiding pot holes as best as they can, haggling with tourists and offering the only way to see the island if walking in the heat is not an option. Boracay might have a McDonalds and a Starbucks and even a few American looking restaurants but everywhere you turn you glimpse at locals. Little side streets and alleyways, wooden planks leading to their storefronts, fruit vendors and toy sellers, small boutique shops that feel reminiscent of a previous era. A couple of amusement park type rides on offer for children lost among lush greenery and lines of people.
Rain trickles down on more than a few occasions on the few days we are there. A short-lived typhoon front that was not a welcome guest to our camera rolls appears. Doesn’t stop anyone from heading down to the beach though. The sand sticks to your toes and covers your feet, like a shortbread cookie dipped into icing sugar that you can’t unstick from the top of your mouth. A vast white stretch of sand before you and that is what you will now call White Beach. The sand mixes with the rain and covers everything, restaurant entrances, hotel fronts, your shoes.
It is soft and powdery and the perfect reminder of where you are, a tropical paradise, where sand in your shoes doesn’t matter and swimsuits in restaurants are appropriate clothing options. White Beach has a presence that cannot be missed by anyone visiting. It demands to be enjoyed, covering most of all of the northwestern part of the island, almost 4km in length. Green algae, street vendors, massage relaxation experts and illegal structures used to dominate White Beach. Not anymore! No furniture, no chairs or tables ruining the landscape, no algae, no people offering services, and no rubbish. Instead, waste bins, separate plastic and paper bins and compost bins can be found every couple of meters.
There is no doubt that Boracay is a tropical paradise. A newly cleaned, tranquil, white-sand- stretching paradise that soothes and relaxes you or energizes and moves you depending on whether you prefer sunbed lounging or late-night partying and water sports. But what made Boracay a destination I can see myself returning to is the Filipino culture that accompanies the place.
Smiles, greetings and hellos.
Only a few months since the island has opened, there is no shortage of tourists. There are Chinese, and Koreans, Russians and Brazilians, English and South Africans but mostly there are Filipinos. Filipino families having end of year family vacations and engagement photos at the beach, eating breakfast together, and lunch together and trying to squeeze into a tricycle all together. There are the western foods of course that you could find everywhere but look closer and you will see that breakfast options are dominated by bangusilo, rice and fluffy pandesal. Rain might threaten to ruin sunset shots and crowds might become too tight but locals never lose their slow pace, their kindness or their gratitude for life.
When you walk down the streets or the beaches it is the lyrical voices of the locals that you will hear calling out to you. Yes, they want your business, they want to give you massages and food and mangoes and bananas and sailing package trips. But it doesn’t matter whether you want to partake in what they offer or skip right through, you can do either. Their voices will carry on behind you, they will sing good morning, shout out Merry Christmas, wish you a great day. Cell phones might block your view to the best sunset but look around and you will see that these are Filipino tourists, snapping photos of their children building sand castles and Skyping their friends.
In the midst of foreigners, there are groups of friends, mostly young adults that have come down for a short holiday. Spending as much time as possible on the sand at the beach, playing music, cards, swimming, making memories to treasure later in life. There are children, so many children. Running around with braids in their hair and hats on their heads to cover from the sun. They are building castles and learning to swim, oblivious to the immense natural beauty of this place.
The food options can feel oh, so western but the smells are not. Garlic rice for breakfast, lunch or dinner, plus fried fish and crispy onions. Aromas that are earthy and sweet, familiar in a way that seems strange and drink choices that leave no doubt as to where you are. Sweet or green mango shakes, calamansi juice and pandan flavoured water. The nightlife the island has been known for could not exist without the passion for life and dance and song that Filipinos have. Family is everything and families party together, pose for a gazillion photos and burst into karaoke songs. Even on those quiet dinner nights, you can always count on some locals bringing the tunes and showcasing their incredible singing skills. Then they dance and sing some more and create the atmosphere we all want to go and enjoy. Boracay was surprising in so many ways, but mostly for this.