It’s weird to think of the Boracay of three years ago and say those were simpler times. But this is exactly what’s in my head the minute our car drives into the Caticlan port and two verification counters—one for residents and one for tourists—greet us before we could proceed to the ferry ride. In 2015 Laboracay, all I needed to concern myself with was which of the parties in White Beach shall I get wasted in. The big one at White House where Chavit’s son Ronald held court in the VIP area? Or the bigger one at Epic where they played The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” in full EDM tugs tugs loudness, as everyone’s sweat-glazed body tried to contrive a movement that barely constituted dancing given the very limited space?
Alas, there is no such quandary for this particular visit, falling as it did a full week before the announced “soft opening,” just a few days short of six months after the government closed the island to tourists. Most bars are still closed that the sight of business-as-usual Nigi Nigi Nu Noos at Station 3, with its usual mix of white men and locals drinking at happy hour, lifts the spirit.
Which is not to say that the sight of the beach doesn’t spark joy. You could count on two hands the people milling about and the locals in their wet t-shirts taking a dip; its like I’m in some paradise newly discovered. The sand is white and soft, its undulations massaging the feet on my pre-sunset walk. The water so clear I make a mental note that I could use a pedi (alas, all the pedikyuristas are still nowhere to be found, even Mandala has yet to see their masahistas back); the last I saw it this clear was the first time I was here and gleaned stars on the water. I wasn’t drunk. It was 1993.
At the walkway flanked by establishments and the coconut trees, a few restaurants are open, among them Hap Chan (pass), Aria (k) and Real Coffee (thank goodness), and over at the Lhuilliers’ Le Soleil, an intense staff briefing for the pre-opening is being presided by a stern-looking manager in blue. At the end of a tiring day of interviews, there is nothing but good old Andok’s litson manok to cure the hunger pangs—because even the hotel’s kitchen is serving only appetizers in the meantime, and only up to 8 o’ clock. There is no Exit or Bombom, but at least that’s temporary: a couple of early birds at Real Coffee tell us the famed Crusoe-style bar Spiderhouse is no more (sad face)—just like that controversial “luxury” resort on the other side of the island perched on a cliff (no love lost). Back on the ground, there is none of the old invitations for a kayak or banana boat ride from men in sandos and jersey shorts; and no “No Woman, No Cry” blaring from three different bars. No tugs tugs most definitely. It’s the Boracay your parents wanted it to be.
On the side of the main road, however, it’s like the island’s guts had been exposed for surgery. On some parts, its like a war just left—debris, rubble, exposed iron bars and discarded plywood all around. On other areas, its muddied roads and full-throttle diggings, humongous sewage pipes waiting for their turn to be buried in the ground, construction trucks causing the intermittent slow movement of vehicles. A destination that usually takes 20 minutes to reach now takes double that time. And so the tricycle driver gets to return to text messaging his wife who is preparing the day’s lunch in Yapak, as I turn my gaze into the second busy pawnshop I saw in the last three hours. It’s been tough all over, clearly, certainly for the people who have been left behind: the residents who depended on the tourists, the men at work on the streets who had to keep at it in the face of great periods of rain in the last four months—four out of the six months they are given to be able to deliver substantial improvements come opening time.
The only calm in this long stretch of frazzled refurbishing is a square patch of river that the DPWH secretary tells us have been adopted by the Aboitizes, along with the two others like it in the island, but by two other influential surnames.
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An e-trike shed on the Bolabog promenade.
The lobby of the Mandala set to open soon.
Friday morning at the White House pool deck.
A refreshingly crowd-free beach.
Local kids at play before sunset.
The port where we used to pay our environmental fees. No one knows where they go. We asked.
One of two verification stops: the other one is for Boracay residents.
A skimboarder at White Beach.
While everyone is still preparing for the 26th, Nigi Nigi is already partying.
The island grotto: a Boracay icon.
A Station 3 guardhouse.
A message of gratitude at D'Mall.
A huge sewage pipe from Germany awaits its turn to get buried in the ground.
One of three Andok's in the island. All of them open, by the way.
Calmer still is the side of Bolabog, famous as a kitesurfing destination. Now this one looks impressive, unlike anything you’ve seen in the island before, maybe even in the entire country: a line of coconut trees and a wide promenade with a floor of terra cotta bricks separating the beach from the establishments, as if protecting one from the other. Think Miami beach, they say. Think some other name of some similar foreign sun-sand-and-sea destination who like to mix their cosmopolitan trappings with their sea-related rituals.
Which is exactly what it felt like the moment I stepped on those bricks and looked around, under the spanking new and unused electric trike shed, the breeze touching my face: it felt foreign. We all have our Boracay moments, after all, personal memories. Most of us who feel this island is second home, who for many reasons feel a sense of ownership to this place, would certainly get this sense of estrangement. We forget that we have, since many years ago, shared this place with the rest of the world and its bucket lists. As I take another glance at this beautiful vista with its fresh grandeur, I make like Alice and tell my imaginary companion, “Toto”—or as the homegrown way young men in the island are called, “Tuto—we’re not in Boracay anymore.”
Photographs by Jerome Gomez and Marnie Giron