Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Authentic Boracay...part 2

Making necklaces with Puka shells

Puka Beach lies at Boracay's northern end. It’s where the road ends and the beach begins. Because of its more remote location (can there be such a thing on an island that is just 7km long) it is much quieter than White Beach. I walked out onto the beach, which stretches to the right and left, and passed two women sitting next to a blue, wooden boat. They were making necklaces and bracelets with shells found on the beach.
Further along, I noticed a woman, probably in her 50s, collecting shells. I stopped and asked what kind she was looking for.
“Puka shells,” she said, reaching into her bag and showing me a small, delicate white shell with some modest colouring on it. In the centre was a hole in which they feed string to make jewellery.
I continued down the beach and found myself looking for Puka shells. I thought I stumbled on one, so I walked back and gave it to the woman.
‘No, that’s not one,” she said laughing.
So my skills in shell identification needs some work. I smiled and said goodbye to the woman.
I came across these two people, Edward and Becky, relaxing at Puka Beach

Except for a handful of people, the beach was empty. The water looked invitingly perfect. Its aqua marine colour shimmering in the morning sun. In the distance, a wall of dark storm clouds gathered. I kicked off my sandals and walked along the beach for a kilometre or so, before it abruptly came to an end.

For a fleeting moment, I contemplated trying to round the rocky point, but I had no idea how deep the water might be on the other side, so I turned back down the beach. Just then, a few raindrops tumbled from the sky. I hoped I could make it back to my hotel, before the sky unleashed its angry torrent. But on this day, nature would get the better of me, and the rain soon poured from above.
I spotted a shelter, made of bamboo and covered with palm fronds, not far down the beach. I decided to wait out the storm there. I scampered up a small path that led to shelter that sat about 10 feet off the beach.  The entire structure measured about eight feet by 10 feet, and was constructed of bamboo poles that had been lashed together. Behind the shelter was a tall hillside covered in lush vegetation.
A fortuitous shelter to escape the rain
Safe from the rain that lashed the top of the shelter, I pulled out a book, Richard Branson’s Business Stripped Bar: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur, and began reading. When I grew tired of reading, I sat and stared out at the ocean. In the distance I sported a small ferry, and a few Bangka boats passed by, but other than that I was alone. It was as if I was marooned on a deserted island.
Two hours on, I grew restless, and regretted leaving my jacket in my hotel room. I resisted the urge to leave the shelter, knowing that I’d be soaked in a short time.
Thirty minutes later the rain eased and I dashed for freedom. The clouds that had tormented me, gave way to a bright blue sky. Instead of taking a trike back to my hotel, I decided to walk. I wasn’t sure how long it would take. The main road leading away from the beach climbs steeply, and I laboured under the warm noontime sun. I passed through small villages, where the homes that fronted the road also served as small shops selling fruit, candies, drinks, and other things that would allow a family to eke out a living. Most of the small homes were made of discarded wood, or palm fronds woven together.  A lucky few were constructed of cement.
Road leading away from Puka Beach

One of many roadside shops

A small village near Puka Beach

Father and Daughter
Just as I was enjoying the quiet and remote feeling of these villages, my senses were assaulted by an army of Korean tourists driving four-wheeled dune buggies. There were more than 20 of these vehicles. It was an odd sight.
Next to the road up ahead, I spotted a colourful umbrella attached to a bicycle. When I got closer, I noticed that four metal containers were attached to the bike. A young boy sat on the seat, while his father stood next to him. Turned out they were selling ice cream. So for 15 pesos, about 40 cents, the man scooped out a small dollop of banana and strawberry ice cream and placed it regally atop a bright red cone. I thanked them and continued along to my hotel.
Father and son selling ice cream
Everyone leaves Boracay with a different feeling. Some are dazzled by the beaches, while others revel in the island’s nightlife. To me, Boracay felt authentic. And I liked it even more because of it. Yes, I enjoyed walking along the sandy beach and swimming in the warm ocean water, yet I equally took pleasure in walking through small villages, or meandering through plots of land on the other side of the road from the famed White Beach, where scores of people live in cramped, ramshackle homes, and burn charcoal to cook their meals.
Boracay is real...and more beautiful because of it.   

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Boracay doesn't disappoint

Boracay...on approach to Caticlan 
Friends of mine once visited the Philippines with the intention of seeing different parts of the country. They went first to Boracay. Just the name has a taste of the exotic. They never left, spending their entire vacation there. After visiting Boracay myself, I now know why.

Bangka boats ply the waters between Caticlan and Boracay

One of the boat's crew
 The island of Boracay, just 7km long, and a kilometre wide at its narrowest, lies some 315 km south of the Philippine capital, Manila. It is hard to find on a map, yet it’s the Philippines’ most popular island destination, which says a lot considering the country is home to more than 7,000 islands.  
After an hour flight from Manila, I landed at Caticlan, on Panay Island. The airport is just two kilometres from Boracay, and can only accommodate small turboprop aircraft, owing to the short runway. Once outside the terminal, I hopped in a trike, a motorcycle with a side car attached to it. There’s a seat in the front next to the driver, and room for two people in the back.
It took just a minute or two to reach the port, where I boarded a Bangka pump boat for the 10 minute crossing. These narrow wooden boats, maybe 50 or 60 feet long are equipped with outriggers for stability—really just bamboo poles lashed together. Some carry 20 passengers, while longer ones can accommodate up to 40.  
Arriving in Boracay, I jumped in another trike for a 15 minute drive to my hotel, The Palms of Boracay. The island’s main road is narrow and twists from one end to the other.

Navigating the island's main road on a "trike", the local taxi

It was now early afternoon when I reached my hotel, and given that I had been travelling for 24 hours, I treated myself to a nap. Before falling into my bed, I set my alarm (or so I thought), so I would only sleep for a couple of hours.
Boracay's famed White Beach,

My alarm never did go off, and when I did wake up, I did with such a start that I feared I had slept through the entire day. Turned out it had only been three hours.
My hotel was just a minute’s walk to the famed 4km long White Beach. And it didn’t disappoint. Lined with restaurants, bars, and small hotels, areas of the beach are commonly known as Boat Station 1, 2, and 3. Not so long ago, before a central jetty was built, visitors would have been dropped off on the beach at one of the three stations, depending on the location of their hotel.
I walked along the beach, with its powdery sand. But before long I took off my sandals and continued walking in the water. The sky looked beaten and bruised, as menacingly dark clouds tried to hide the setting sun.
Day's end on White Beach

There’s something about sunsets that draw people. Maybe it’s about the sense of reflection and thinking about everything that happened that day. Maybe it’s about the promise of a new day to come.
As I passed people on the beach, I noticed many were taking pictures of the sky. There was a beauty to it, despite the angry looking clouds. I imagined showing up in holiday pictures in Tokyo, Seoul, and Sydney.
A busy footpath fronts the many restaurants and shops. Here one can relax at the countless massage tents, where an hour’s massage costs $8. Vendors talk briskly trying to sell sailing and diving excursions, sunglasses and hats. And somewhat oddly getting a tattoo here seems popular.
The sun had long since gone. The sky was dark, yet people were still enjoying the ocean’s warm water. I turned back toward my hotel, and was tempted into a beachfront bar and restaurant by a group of young people, with drinks in hand, jumping up and down to the music. It seemed so care free.  Vacation had liberated people from the burdens of life.
I found a table and ordered a pizza and a beer.  And when I heard Katy Perry’s popular songs Teenage Dream and Last Friday Night, the same ones that play on the radio at home, it made me realize how small the world really is.  
Join me for part 2, when I venture to Puka Beach, and seek shelter from rain

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Is there an airport shuttle?

I had been to Manila’s Nino Aquino Airport before...well, sort of. A dozen years ago I was sitting in a Cathay Pacific flight simulator in Hong Kong, where a friend of mine was “flying” from Hong Kong to Manila. It was a rather unusual flight that included terrible weather conditions, an engine fire, an engine stall, and a host of other flight challenges that the examiner could throw at the two pilots. But despite this, we landed safely in “Manila”.
Of course in a flight simulator you can’t just get out and explore your destination. And so the other day I actually landed in Manila for real. While there was some turbulence during the 14 hour flight, I doubt the pilots of the Philippine Airlines Airbus 340 encountered any engine fires or any other potentially crippling experiences like my friend did that in Hong Kong. And I'm thankful for that. And so too I believe is the woman sitting near me, who did the sign of the cross as we lumbered down the runway while taking off in Vancouver. 
Manila’s airport, known as MNL, was recently given the distinction as the world’s worst airport. I'm sure others could hold the same distinction. The airport actually consists of four terminals that are not connected in any formal fashion. Three of terminals are in need of a good makeover. I landed at Terminal 2, which is exclusive to Philippine Airlines, and was surprised that it took only 20 minutes from the time the wheels of our plane touched the ground, to the time I was struck by the humid tropical air, while walking outside the terminal. My passage through the airport was made quicker because I didn’t have any checked baggage, which was probably a good thing as the baggage carousel area was crowded and the space inadequate for large aircraft disgorging hundreds of passengers.
I had a four hour layover before my Cebu Pacific flight would whisk me off to the island of Boracay, from Terminal 3. I had read that an airport shuttle takes passengers between terminals, but if time is a concern, then one might want to avail themselves of a taxi.

Time was my friend, so after running the gauntlet of taxi touts ready to pounce on their prey, I asked a security guard where I could catch the airport shuttle. Just as I was asking, I saw a large sign across the roadway that read, AIRPORT SHUTTLE.
I stood under the sign with a handful of other people that I assumed were also transferring terminals as well. I later learned they weren’t. After 45 minutes I finally asked the guy directing traffic how often the airport shuttle comes. He pointed to a large yellow bus that had arrived a short time ago. The bus had no visible identification that it was a shuttle of any sort.
The driver told me that he will leave at six exactly. I looked at my watch. It was 5:30. Exhausted from my travels, I climbed aboard and fell into the front seat.
“I leave at six whether I have one passenger or no passenger,” he offered.
“So, is this the airport shuttle,” I asked.
“No, it’s a hotel shuttle for the Mariott, but I go past Terminal 3.”
The driver turned on a 1992 Nicholas Cage movie called Windtalkers, a World War II film about US soldiers in Saipan. he driver left the bus idling presumably so the air conditioning could cool the inside of the bus, and the outside through the open door. 
Close to six o’clock he returned to the bus, and kept looking up at the red digital clock at the front of the coach. Finally, after waiting for more than an hour, the bus pulled away from the terminal.
“six o’clock exactly he said,”
Not quite. The clock read 5:59.
I asked the driver he if gets lots of passengers.
“Not many...maybe one or two,” he offered.
“Maybe you need a smaller bus,” as I looked around the near empty 47 passenger bus.
“Sometimes I get a lot of luggage,” he added.
After a 10 minute drive, he dropped me off at Terminal 3, Manila’s newest terminal. 

I still don’t know if the airport has a shuttle.