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In search of old Boracay

By Jay Fermin

Recently on a trip to visit the family in the Philippines, I was invited by a very good friend to spend some time in Boracay. I packed lightly to give way to my photography gear, a couple of lenses, and my always travel companion, the Macbook.

I was excited but also had mixed feelings. You can Google your way into Boracay and be able to gather information on all the ‘tourist’ spots on the island. However, I was in search of something different. I was on a search for the ‘old Boracay.’ Are the ambiance and the spirit still there?

You see, during the early 80s, and living in Negros Occidental then, we would drive for the better part of the day across Panay through dirt roads and half paved asphalt highways, and after three flat tires, would arrive at jump off point of Caticlan at dusk. Another short ‘pump boat’ (motorized outrigger) ride would land us in front of ‘Diamond Head’, a group of four nipa cottages collared by bamboo fence all around, only a few steps away from the cool fine white sand of White Beach. I can remember the warning sign: ‘Beware of Falling Coconuts.’

There was no electricity then. ‘Petromax’ gas lantern was our source of illumination, and a bamboo stick with a kerosene soaked piece of rag stuffed inside an open sardine was the lamp that dotted we used as we walked the length of White Beach at night. There were no roads yet. Even drinking water was ferried in from the mainland of Malay, Aklan.

On this recent trip, we traveled through the comfort of an air-conditioned Van for hire from Iloilo to Caticlan, a five-hour trip. Then a quick 15-minute ride via a small fast craft and we were at the Cagban Jetty Port. We have arrived at modern day Boracay!

For a few days, I had the opportunity to hang out at the opposite side of the slim part of the island, Bolabog Beach opposite the tourist-frequented White Beach. Staying at the cozy bed and breakfast named ‘Lazy Dog’, it’s a quick walk to the back beach. On that side of Boracay, ‘locals’ both Filipinos and foreigners alike who have lived on the island for awhile as well as a few regulars would wait for the wind to come up. This stretch of sand is the Windsurfing and Kite Boarding capital of Asia. (The 22nd NeilPryde Boracay International Funboard Cup is being held there from January 24, 2011 to the 31st).

Hotels, stores, restaurants and bars on the other hand, now dot White Beach. The ever-intruding work of pounding hammer and welding machines provide the background sound. I can only ask myself, when will development ever stop in this island, one of the top Tourist destinations in the Philippines and in the world. And will the island be able to handle it all?

I have to get away from it all. I have to go where I can still feel Boracay as I knew it before. An island of pristine beauty and beautiful multi colored sunsets. We climbed the foothills of Mt. Luho, the highest point of the island, and arrived at clusters of hidden casitas where we were welcomed like old friends. The view overlooks the two sides of the island, as well as the palm-sized resorts dotting out of the coconut trees, which is White Beach below. The pace of time has now become slower. It feels like the line of Michael Franks’ song, which declares ‘… it takes a day to walk a mile.’ Time just kind of stood still while we had lunch with local friends who own the casitas.

After sundown, we were invited to ‘Dos Mestizos’, a restaurant / bar with live entertainment owned by Jose Carlos ‘Binggoy’ Remedios. I ordered a vodka tonic and the hospitable ‘Binggoy’ offered me a few more amidst a relaxed crowd that was a mix of East and West locals and their friends.

They say that to follow the trail of ‘old Boracay’, you have to hear the beat of the drums. After all, this was the island of the original Ati tribe from where the January Ati-Atihan festivals all over the Philippines are named from in honor of the Santo Nino (Child Jesus). So, on a quiet and warm night, we motorcycled to the edge near Tulubhan Beach on the southwest side of the narrow mid section of Boracay’s famous dog-bone shape.

Jungle Bar they call it – an alternative dance music bar and club where the locals hold full moon festival parties that go on till daybreak and into the next day. World famous DJ’s like Rob Smith (RSD) from the United Kingdom and DJ Daedelus from Los Angeles have spinned here, attracting a worldwide crowd. The bar’s native bamboo and nipa structure and beach front atmosphere creates a cultural collision of something old and something modern; and of course that include the famous ‘Jungle Boys’, a multi-talented group of musicians that spread the message of Boracay Island Love thru a mix of tribal drum beats, electric dance music, and fire dancing.

I spoke to Jack, one of the drummers one slow night. He exclaimed that the drumbeat is one of man’s natural feelings of being, like the beat of the heart. The tempo can increase into eclectic ascents and stay there for the crowd. However, a good drummer ‘is one who knows how to bring the beat to climax and then to a smooth transition down.’

Passing by another club named ‘Red Pirates’, the owner Joey Gelito shared over cold San Miguel Light Beer that his White Beach bar is one of the last holdouts of ‘old Boracay.’ As we talked, people were stitching together the sails of a sail boat of ‘Red Paraw Tours’ that he also operates. He refuses to give in and sell to multinational corporations offering him Millions of Pesos for his stretch of sand. He stressed that ‘if I sell out, what will happen to the Boracay we once knew.’ It won’t be any different from Phuket or other heavily developed islands then, losing its culture and its character.

I finally found the ‘old Boracay.’ It lives in the people. It echoes in their music. It is inside the community of friendly locals who live within the small island, You can see it if you look closely. And it is still alive and well. When I left, I brought a piece of ‘old Boracay’ with me.

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