“Hello, ma’am, sir, ice cream?”
This question would not have struck me as strange if we were perhaps sitting in a restaurant after eating dinner. But I did think it was quite odd, considering we were floating on a thin outrigger boat in the middle of a turquoise reef about 200 yards from shore, getting our snorkel gear ready.
I looked around for the source of the voice, and saw a wrinkled old man sitting in a small canoe, giving me a very gummy grin as he held up a Styrofoam cooler full of ice cream. ‘No thanks,’ I said politely with a smile, and he paddled his way by hand to visit the other tourist boats. Toto our boatman, barely 14 years old, shrugged and smiled, and promptly settled in for a midday nap on the boat. As we lowered ourselves into the warm water, another man in a little canoe went past, this time selling green coconuts. I guess in a small island like Boracay, you have to try to make a buck whenever and wherever you can.
Boracay island is a beautiful tiny dot in the Aklan province of the Philippines, and a big tourist attraction in Asia. Because we got a cheapo package from the travel agent, we had a long and painful trip. We flew Hong Kong to Manila, Manila to Kalibo, took a bus from Kalibo to Caticlan, and a rickety old boat across the channel from Caticlan to Boracay. We arrived in the evening, and even as darkness was falling, I could see how amazingly clear the water was. ‘Wow’ I thought, ‘if it’s this beautiful in the dark, can you imagine what it is like in the sunlight?’
We dropped off our bags in the hotel and headed out to take in the sights and sounds of the little island. As we walked down the strip of the famed White Beach, we saw the vendors selling puka shell earrings, scuba divers walking around in wetsuits, tanks full of lobsters, coconut trees, and people in hammocks everywhere. What a little piece of paradise!
The next morning I was not disappointed — it was even more stunning in the daytime. White Beach, obviously named for its best attribute, is like a postcard — blindingly blue turquoise water, powdery sand between your toes, sailboats with blue and white sails like a camouflage, and soft waves that couldn’t even knock a baby over. Probably dreadfully boring for a surfer, but excellent for people like me who just want to relax.
Boracay is a funny little place though. Kids never seem to go to school, and are seen playing all day and night. All the signs are in Korean to accommodate the recent increase of Korean tourists who walk around in matching beach outfits. And for some reason the beach security carry these massive silver sawed-off shotguns. I can’t imagine whose head they are planning to blast off.
Filipino food proved to be a lot better than its reputation as the Worst Food in Asia. Shrimp paste is a popular flavoring and its salty tang is wonderful. We particularly enjoyed bangus sisig — a sizzling plate of flaked fish with drizzled lime. Kang Kong green veggies with garlic and shrimp in coconut milk was fabulous. And eating out is amazingly cheap: an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet on the beach costs roughly $4 US, a beer is a little over $1 US, and a cocktail about $2 US. As you can imagine, we ate and drank, a LOT.
The only thing that bothered me about Boracay was the constant hustling from the locals. As expected in a place where there is a big disparity between rich and poor, local and tourist, you can get a lot of sales pitches. Ma’am, sir, boat trip today? Sunglasses? Para-sailing sir? Horseback riding? Snorkel trip? Island hopping? Pearls for the lady? But I must admit, I had to laugh at the massage parlour, where ladies sit three in a row, six rows back, all in matching uniforms and sunglasses, and as you walk past they sing in unison, ‘Ma’am sir masaaaaage?’, and then repeat the refrain in perfect Korean, Japanese and Chinese.
Definitely my favourite part of the holiday was the snorkel trip. We had met a young man with a round belly that he seemed proud to show off, as he kept hitching up his vest and rubbing it from time to time. His name was Archie, and he had long hair turning blond in the sun, and a tattoo on his arm of a heart with ‘Boracay’ on it and a sword going through it. ‘I give you a good price, private snorkel trip, four hours, 750 pesos each.’ We decided to take him up on his offer.
He walked us down the beach to the ‘office’ — a small concrete hut — for us to pay the fee and introduce us to the boatmen. Both of them barely looked as though they had entered puberty.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked the first one, trying to be friendly.
‘Toto,’ he replied.
‘And what’s yours?’ I asked the second one.
‘Toto,’ he said, with a big grin.
‘Uh oh…’ I thought, ‘this isn’t going to be good.’
True to their word, they did take us to the best snorkel spot in Boracay, and it was the most incredible snorkelling I’ve ever done. I’ve never seen so many fish in one place, and never such a huge variety. Emerald blue starfish the size of your palm, baby squid, gar fish, sea snakes, clown fish, butterfly fish, parrot fish, footballers, and a number of others I couldn’t begin to name. At one point we were surrounded by a huge school of tiny iridescent guys the length of your finger, and they kept changing color in the sun, from a flash of gold to a light green to blue. Swimming with the school was like driving through a rainbow snowstorm.
When we got back onto the boat and asked to be taken to the next snorkel spot, the Totos told us that to go to the snorkel caves we would have to pay another 200 pesos, which we had not brought with us and which Archie had not told us about. We asked if they knew any other spot nearby, they suggested simply calling it quits and taking us back, even though we had only been out for half of the trip. After our protests they took us to one or two other spots but they didn’t compare. We decided to call it a day and head back to the island. I had heard that Boracay people don’t take work too seriously… I guess I had my proof. But anyways, it was time for a San Mig at sunset on the beach.
All in all I really enjoyed Boracay for its beauty, relaxed pace of life, delicious food, cheap drinks, and very kind people (when they’re not trying to sell you fake pearls). We certainly slowed down our pace a lot, doing little more than swimming, reading, walking, napping and eating. This holiday was rejuvenating, just what I needed, and now that I’m back in Hong Kong I feel like I’ve gotten a new dose of energy. I’ll have to try to hold on to that Boracay feeling for as long as possible.