Happy days are here again? Photograph by Jeff Canoy
Travel Destinations

Last day in paradise: notes from the day Boracay shut down

On the occasion of Boracay's reopening, we are republishing Palanca-winning writer and ABS-CBN reporter Jeff Canoy's account of the day the island officially closed to tourists in April this year—the same day its long time residents saw their island again.
Jeff Canoy | Oct 17 2018

April 25. The night before shutdown.

The plan was simple and seemed solid at the time: Sit in a corner. Watch the revelers. Wait for midnight to strike. It felt like a countdown to a new year. Except this one was to a new Boracay.

Boracay, the little patch of green and white paradise in Western Visayas, is known for a slew of superlatives: dreamy white beach, postcard-perfect, one of the best islands in the world, top holiday destination.

In the last few years, it has also gained another reputation: It knows how to party. Those better-pack-a-toothbrush, f*ck-tomorrow-who-cares kind of nights. I was curious how the island would spend its last night of absolute freedom. When the clock hit twelve, everything would change in the island. 

Last February, President Duterte described Boracay like it had never been described before: a cesspool. Sh*t pumped out into the sea through illegal pipes. Over a hundred establishments weren’t connected to the sewage line. Structures were built too close to the beach or were crowding into the roads. 

Government has banned tourists from entering the island. Hundreds of businesses will cease to operate, albeit temporarily. Around 30,000 of its work force will be jobless. All these to pave way for an unhampered rehabilitation of the island.

Simply put, if you’re an outsider: get out.

So the night was either going to be celebratory or funereal. After all, how will you dance like there’s no tomorrow when there’s no actual tomorrow?

As expected, hundreds trooped to the beach that night. Visibly less than what the island was used to. Still, the partygoers from different corners of the world descended on the beach. Hungry for that one last hurrah. 

I was mostly just hungry and exhausted. It had been a full day’s worth of reportorial work for me. It was dinner for the lot but only lunch for the journalist. I had shuttled back and forth, under the sweltering heat of the sun, from one station to another. I tried to piece together a story that best reflected the general sentiment of the people over the looming shutdown. There wasn’t any.

There were many who supported the initiative to close the island and finally fix its long-festering environmental woes. Yet there was also a strong sympathy for workers who will lose their livelihood. There were some red-faced, glaze-eyed looks of disbelief followed by a pang of dread. 

“What’s going to happen to us?” became a music-less anthem, ringing from one ear to another.

But mostly, there was a sense of resignation that their fates had been sealed.

I sat at a vacant table in one of the resorts that lined the beachfront, with an unused journal and an overused camera in tow, waiting for the shutdown. I ordered a cup of brewed coffee as a sort of Hail Mary shot of energy. I started writing notes of the things that were happening around me: the group of teenagers across the table, clinking away their San Miguels. A group of musicians hanging out, under the palm trees, strumming a cover of Semisonic’s “Closing Time.” 

It was expected but it still came as a bit of a shock: sloshed tourists dancing, bodies gyrating as a nearby bar blasted the worst hip-hop songs from the early aughts. Reckless abandon hung in the air.

There was a woman who hilariously attempted to take a selfie — arm stretched out, body pivoting away from other nearby bodies. But the beach was so crowded she ended up with a group photo with about ten photobombers. The stars over the night sky were bright. The neon strobe lights flashing even brighter.

Next thing I remember, the sun was up.

***

April 26. First day of the shutdown.

There I was: slouched on a chair, face-flat on an empty table, feet buried in sand.  Even before Boracay shut down, my body apparently did.  I never made it back to the hotel room we rented. I ended up in the no-star luxury of a cold, hard, plastic table. I can’t believe I slept through the countdown.

I was lurched from slumber by the juddering of the cellphone that I absent-mindedly stashed in my shirt pocket the night before. A dozen text messages.

“Sh*t.”

I rushed back to the hotel. Another full day of work ahead.  But the the spectacle before me stopped in my tracks: The sky was a swirl of crimson and indigo, framed by still silhouettes of palm trees.

The soundscape was muted—save for the distant noise of road construction on the other side of the resort. The moments of pure silence were like sweet pauses during a root canal when the dentist switches out drill-heads.

The whole stretch of the beach was empty. Nothing but the island’s powder-white sand and waves crashing into shore.

It has been decades since the beach was last seen this empty during the day. 

I blinked rapidly, unsure of what I was seeing. Moreso, what I was not seeing.

Not a single soul—lost, restless or otherwise. No tourist. No vendor. Not even a passer-by. There was no one. The crowd that had spent the night had seemingly vanished. This was the Boracay that the residents had long described but haven’t seen in years: quiet, tranquil and at peace with itself. The one that lured a few backpackers in the 80s, challenged adventurers in the 90s, and attracted a tsunami of tourists like a magnet a decade after.

I slept in 2018 but woke up in 1988. Like a Jennifer Garner movie gone right. As I walked, suddenly, there was a familiar face.

“This is weird, huh?”

I had met Elena a few months before. I had done an interview with her back in February when talks of the shutdown were simply that—talks. She’s been a resident of Boracay for decades and had been a longtime advocate of initiatives to save the island’s environment.

Elena, a resident of Boracay for decades

It was a quick morning jog for her. She was accompanied by her usual sidekick: her family’s small, brown Rhodesian Ridgeback. She may have been running but I knew that she was also basking in the emptiness of the beach. The view was nostalgic for her.

“The island used to be like this.”

Overnight, just like that, it felt like we travelled back in time.  Her earlier memories of Boracay provided a different portrait of island-life. There was a kind of intimacy with nature that seemed to have disappeared as roads were paved and hotels were built.

In the 80s, there were nipa huts by the beach, nestled between rows upon rows of palm trees. Electricity hadn’t arrived in the island just yet. Only lights from kerosene lamps, dotting the midnight landscape like constellations.

It was a place that you’d go to if you were looking for peace and quiet. Despite its virginal quality, there was still a sense of unease and foreboding from the locals—they always seemed to insinuate one thing:  when you discover paradise, keep it to yourself.

But word got out. And everyone wanted in on that piece of paradise. Tourism picked up. People built resorts. Steadily, the island became a tourist draw. Boracay was no longer the place you’d go to if you were looking for peace and quiet. You still had the same blue waters, and the friendly locals—but with growth also came ruin. “The things that didn’t change for Boracay are the crystal-blue waters, the sunrise and the people,” says Elena. “The islander feeling is still there. But what changed is the facade of our beach. More buildings, more people, more trash. There’s a price.”

Like many residents in the island however, Elena had reservations about a total shutdown of the island. She cited the loss of livelihood for the many workers— some of them her friends, most of them she hardly knows but see everyday.

Like Elena, Mamma Lee, proprietor and owner of Real Coffee and Tea Café, has been in the island for years.

Mamma Lee
She runs a small, humble cafe with her daughter, Nadine, in Boracay’s Station 2. Nestled between branches of fast-food chains that have popped up along the beachfront location, Mamma Lee’s cafe feels more like an open kitchen.

You’ll be reminded of what Boracay once was, through the hundreds of photographs of Mamma Lee and her visitors plastered all over the cafe walls and tables. All around are relics of a not-too distant past: Boracay as a backpacker’s hideout.

Real Coffee and Tea Café

Mamma Lee first laid eyes on Boracay in 1987. She thought she had discovered paradise and kept coming back. In 1996, she had an opportunity to open one of its first coffee shops. Since then, Real Coffee and Tea Cafe has become as iconic as the calamansi muffins they serve.

I found Mamma Lee at the café—dressed in blue, blond curly hair down. A vibe so laid-back you’d mistake her for a mom manning an open kitchen rather than a boss running a business.

I asked her what she thought of the morning view of the beach. 

“Oh my gosh. It’s so refreshing to see it open like this. For the last few years, we’ve been on the beach. It’s all people, people, people…and you couldn’t really enjoy it. Even working on the beach, it’s hard. Now it’s beautiful again.”

While the picture-perfect tableau of the beach is a dream for many residents, the lack of tourists is a nightmare for small business owners. Mamma Lee said that she’ll try to keep the lights on for the sake of her employees. She had already said goodbye to some of them.

“Business was fine but now, we feel a little bit like uh-oh…it’s slowing down. But we’re just gonna try and hang in there and make the best of it.”

“In 1996, we had the same beach. It was quiet. There were no people here. We didn’t have customers either. Just a few. We stuck it out. It’s like that now, so we’ll see.”

“It’s hard to plan because we have to plan it day by day and see how it goes. The local people, they say that they all support us. We’re all gonna try and support one another to stay open. We’ll just do our best. We’re happy with the rehabilitation of the island.”

Mamma Lee had quite a sobering view of the closure.

“It’s hard to to come to terms with that but (the environmental woes) are getting very out of hand. The drainage, the roads. Everybody knows the problem. It’s time to do something with the island. Hopefully, when it comes back, it’ll be better.”

The dream for many in Boracay is for a better, more sustainable island. The reality of business is more challenging. But ask any islander and they’ll tell you: if you’re going to dream, it’s best to do it by the beach.

***

In the afternoon, the sun was on full dial.

The heat was blistering and all one could think about really was to find a watering hole. At this point, there weren’t many to choose from. Most of the establishments had already closed down. 

The glass windows of the restaurants across our hotel had been covered with plywood. The resort next door was now surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. A security guard said that the building would be renovated during the shutdown. Some of the stores that remained open have cut down prices by half. A sort of last-ditch attempt to attract customers.

But the brunt of the shutdown is truly felt by employees like Sherlyn Espada. She worked for a souvenir shop in an open-air mall by the beachfront. But they had stopped selling. The store was set to close for six months. Locals weren’t exactly planning on buying souvenir items from home.

Sherlyn was on the floor, wrapping the items with old newspapers and packing them into cardboard boxes. She wondered how she’ll provide for her two young children now that she’s temporarily unemployed.

Ngayong pasukan, wala ako pang-tuition, pambili ng gamit ng mga anak ko. Ewan.

“Stay lang ako dito. Kailangan eh. Kahit pambili namin pang-araw-araw na kakainin. Sobrang hirap, iniiisip namin yung mga anak. Paano ‘yan close na Boracay wala kami pagkakakitaan? Hahanap na lang kami ng paraan kung paano mag-survive for six months.”

Her co-worker, Dolly Roque, was just as glum. But she’d rather have a different outlook.

Pahinga na muna at least makita pamilya ko sa Bicol. For the whole year, kami nagtatrabaho. Ngayon lang makaka-bakasyon.”

A vacation from Boracay. That was new.

***

The sound of demolition echoed through the streets, across the island and into the beach on the night of April 26.

The sun had set on the first day of closure.

There were barely any tourists left and most of the beachfront resorts have closed down. Including the one with the table where I slept soundly the night before. I saw a handful of locals walking by the beach, staring stolidly into the night sky. 

The first sunset after the closure

When I asked them how they felt, they said there was a sense of solitude and newfound freedom. For the first time in years, the island was all theirs.

The first day had been a strange one. A long one. But they made it through.
One down. A hundred and eighty more to go.

 

Jeff Canoy is a broadcast journalist of ABS-CBN News and was assigned to report on Boracay’s closure before and after the shutdown last April 26.

Photographs by Jeff Canoy