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Letters From Boracay

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These days, Boracay is far from the secluded island paradise it once was, but—for better or worse—its people still believe in the magic it has to offer.

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Francisco Guerrero
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Its sand isn’t as white, and its nights aren’t as quiet as they were 30 years ago, but Boracay is still a white sand paradise. Here is Boracay through the eyes of seven people who still believe in its magic, its promise, and its beautiful sunsets.

OTIK MACAVINTA

Owner: Balinghai
Member, Boracay Foundation, Inc
Boracay Resident for 31 years

I grew up in Cebu and studied in Manila. While working in Manila after graduation, my brother bought a small piece of land in Boracay. Around the same time, my then-girlfriend and I broke up when she flew to Australia for her masters’ degree. I decided to go to Boracay because I was heartbroken. I hung out by the beach, and watched the sun set. It was really beautiful. If you walked all the way from where Station 2 is now, to the end of Station 1, you would still see your footprints in the sand, even after two or three days.

We started Balinghai on the property my brother bought. It used to be the R&R area for Boracay people, then we started leasing it to backpackers for about Php 10 to Php 20 per cottage. They’d stay for three or four months. When people stay on the island that long, they become your friends—almost family. Back then, during fiestas, everyone opened their homes to everyone else—there were only about 3,500 locals on the island, and only a handful of tourists. It was a traditional Filipino fiesta, where we would feed everyone because it was such a small community.

I used to gauge my lifestyle by the number of beers I could afford.

Typical Filipino values were very much present back in the day. I remember, back in ’78 or ’79, I was on a boat with friends and we got stranded in Bulabog in the middle of the night, because the tides were too low. We were walking on the beach and we saw this woman and her daughter picking shells. We asked them for directions, and they stopped what they were doing and told us to go with them. They guided us to their house and fed us. We wanted to give them money, but they refused, so I gave them bananas. They then guided us all the way to White Beach. It was total darkness, and the stars were sparkling! I was walking and the sea was awash in bio-luminescent organisms—it was so beautiful!


That’s my first impression of the island: no fences, and everybody willing to help one another. Everybody knew everybody, and everyone was equal because we didn’t have that much money anyway. And the parties—oh, shit! The parties in White Beach, man. Everybody was totally stoned. Boracay used to be the R&R place for smugglers who brought smokes to Hong Kong; after that, they would come back here to relax. There were also these big guys from Manila that came down to the island by jet to party. We’d go out and party at one end of the beach, then go around the coves with our paddle boards. I used to gauge my lifestyle by the number of beers I could afford.

A lot of people talk about how Boracay was back then, but you have to understand that Boracay can’t stay the same because it’s growing. There’s always a good and bad side to growth and development, but it would be nice to have more good. The island is like a boat—that’s the basic principle. Somebody puts a hole there and it’s either you sink, or do something to keep it from sinking. Look at the problems with pollution, the transport system. My God! People used to just walk or sail everywhere. Now we’re already becoming like urban Manila. We have color-coding in the island—imagine that, color-coding in Boracay!

I believe that the island will still be beautiful even if there are no tourists for five years. It could recover. But Boracay is still my recluse and sanctuary. I have my coffee in the morning while looking at nature. I have my beautiful sunsets. Balinghai has been here for about 30 years, and it’s still an ongoing project—one that won’t be finished even when I’m dead.

MORITZ BERTSCHI

Owner: Mango-Ray
Boracay Resident for 28 years

The first thing you notice when you step inside Mango-Ray—now Lishui Beach Resort—is a huge, bikini-clad statue behind the bar. It’s a woman with long black hair, an ample bosom, and a behind that puts Kim Kardashian’s to shame. Mortiz Bertschi, owner of Mango-Ray, calls her the “Mango Ray Baby,” and says she was conceptualized by the late Swiss artist Paul Degen. She’s been watching over Mango-Ray’s bar since the ‘90s, when the only sources of light on the island at night were Petromax lamps and the stars in the sky.

A former freelance photographer for Mango Press, Moritz fell in love with the island in 1983, when he was assigned to cover the Ati-Atihan festival in Kalibo. “It was pure nature back then,” he recalls. “No electricity, no telephone. The island was so beautiful. My wife, who is Filipina, and I just came here to relax, and then we bought land and built small cottages in 1984. There were only a few other cottages for rent back then; the rest was sand and coconut trees.”

Moritz was going back and forth between the Philippines and Switzerland for a few years before deciding to leave his job and finally settle on the island in 1986. That decision, he admits, was very difficult: at that time, no one knew that Boracay would become one of the top beach destinations in the world.

“The first phone call I made was long distance—I called my mother.”

“It was not easy back then,” he says. “We only had gas lamps. We didn’t have a refrigerator. There was no talipapa then. Every second day, I had to go to Kalibo for food and ice. When you come home from the trip, you turned into an old man, you were all white from the dust! And there was no telephone—when something happens in Manila or in Switzerland, you had no idea. We had to go to Kalibo just to make a phone call, and that was complicated, too: it was just this one radio telephone, and it was hard to connect. You had to wait for hours.”


Moritz recalls that one of the highlights in Boracay during the ‘90s was when they saw telephone lines being installed on the island. He says that everyone would watch how the transition poles were installed one by one, and eagerly cheer on the telephone men as they slowly made their way to residents’ homes and businesses. “When we were finally connected, that was something,” he says. “The first phone call I made was long distance—I called my mother.”

Moritz’s days of rotary-dialing and making the long trip to Kalibo for ice and food are long gone, but even with the conveniences of the Internet, electricity and mobile phones, he’s still nostalgic for the Boracay he fell in love with in the early ’80s. He misses the quiet nights drinking with friends, fishing just a few feet from White Beach, and the dark nights when only smelly gas lamps and millions of stars lit the island. But this doesn’t mean that he loves the island any less.


MANOY AND LEE LLIJE

Owners: Obama Grill, Boracay Kitchen, and Lugar Bonito
Business owners in Boracay for 12 years

Meeting the charming Lee Llije on our first day in Boracay did not prepare us at all for a night of drinking and mayhem with her enigmatic, hilarious husband Manoy. The power couple have been coming to the island since the early ’90s—Manoy handled events at Beachcomber, one of the very first bars in Boracay. “The first time I was here was in ‘92—no one invited me to spend summer in Tali Beach kasi,” he says, laughing. “We were young and stupid then. A friend and I boarded our jet skis onto his car and drove to Batangas. From there, we took a RoRo up to Sta. Fe, Romblon, then rode our jet skis all the way to Boracay. At that time, the jet skis on the island were old, and they charged about Php 2,500 to rent them. We rented out ours for Php 500 for ten minutes. We earned a lot!”

Manoy’s branding and marketing experience led him to create some of Boracay’s most memorable events, including one where he brought in DJ Dmitri of ’80s dance group Deelite. In 2000, he started marketing activities in Boracay, placing Jose Cuervo and Marlboro branding (through ashtrays, napkin holders and beach umbrellas) in establishments, and putting mobile ads on the sails of paraws. That entrepreneurial spirit—and a naughty sense of humor—led him and his wife to put up OBama Grill, at the height of the 2008 US presidential elections.

“The name was because it was Obama’s first run as president when we were conceptualizing the restaurant,” Manoy recalls. “We had all these ideas. ‘If you want good food; yes, we can!’ The uniforms of our staff would be black shirts with printed ties on them. When you pay your bills, our waiters would say, ‘Change is coming!’”

“The first time I was here was in ‘92—no one invited me to spend summer in Tali Beach kasi.”

Lee admits that it was relatively easy for them to take advantage of the opportunities in Boracay because Manoy had already built his network. He practically knew everyone—from the island’s pillars (like Mayor Wilbec Gelito) and hotel owners to the porters and tricycle drivers. The key, Manoy says, is building trust and strong relationships with the locals—both are not given freely.

“It takes time,” he says. “It takes a lot of years to gain the trust of the people here. You have to understand that the people who are really from Boracay, most of them don’t have land anymore. They don’t give their trust easily. I talk to and treat everyone the same way; it doesn’t matter if you’re a garbage collector or the president of the republic.”

Despite the recent tourism boom, Manoy tells us that there are still a lot of his staff who would ask him to help them land jobs in Manila. “Actually, tamad lang ang walang trabaho dito,” he says. “And the minimum wage here is pretty high. When my people ask me to take them to Manila, I say ‘Ang ganda ganda ng nakikita mo pag gising sa Boracay—dagat at buhangin.’ So I educate them and boost their morale.” Although the Llijes find themselves in Boracay often to manage their businesses, Manoy admits that he’d never consider settling on the island. “He’d miss wearing pants and shoes,” Lee says, laughing. “I don’t mind staying here, but Manoy sometimes feels that he’s already done everything in Boracay.” Manoy chimes in: “But I have to admit that I still like going to Boracay. It’s complete; it’s all here.”


LEE ROSAIA

Owner: Real Coffee
Boracay resident for 20 years

The year was 1997. I was invited to sail from Cebu to Boracay on a beautiful yacht with an Australian couple. The winds were in our favor, and after two days, we reached the island. It was a dark night when we anchored, far enough off shore to avoid any reefs or coral heads. We cooked dinner, relaxed while listening to a good CD, and settled down to a good night’s sleep. At daybreak, we congregated in the cockpit for breakfast, contemplating the sight before us, We could see only palm trees lining the whole stretch of the beach.

After breakfast, we put the dinghy in the water, and anxiously went ashore to explore. As we motored to the island, the palm trees seemed to get taller. Our dinghy glided on clean, calm water, and when we reached the beach, I was thrilled to feel the sand. So soft and fluffy beneath my feet, it felt like powdered sugar.

I had arrived in a magical and wonderful place. I fell in love with it right away. As I walked along, I noticed a few bungalows made of bamboo, with thatched roofs. Local women were sweeping the grounds. Soon, people began emerging onto the beach, white couples running naked into the sea. “Wow,” I said to myself. “This place is getting better and better.”

By my third visit to Boracay, the trip had become a bit easier. There were boats anxious to take us across from Caticlan, and there were a few more bungalows that had sprung up, along with a few night spots. The two most popular discos were the Sand Bar on the south side of the beach, and Beachcomber, down on Station 1. They had a fair sound system each, considering that they were both hooked up to a car battery.

I was thrilled to feel the sand. So soft and fluffy beneath my feet, it felt like powdered sugar.

When night fell, I would go out to dance under the stars to all the American hits, with the faint sound of the generator in the background. There were still very few motorcycles, so most of us walked everywhere after dancing the night away.

During the long, hot days, I swam, snorkeled, read books, and did long walks around the island in quiet solitude. Sunset was a ritual: Everyone sat on the beach to watch the unbelievable spectacle, with all its superb colors, the large, red sun sinking slowly into the sea after flashing a green light. Many times the afterglow lingers and becomes more vibrant.

Living on the island, our biggest fears are typhoons. The worst typhoons normally happen in December. I remember one that hit Boracay directly, around 1999 or 2000. I opened the front door, and was shocked that all my trees were down, my yard trashed. I was walking around holding my heads. “Oh no, no, no…” Out of the blue, my friend Maui Mike appeared outside, yelling out, “You’d better get down to your shop!” I almost fainted, thinking that Real Coffee must’ve collapsed, when Mike added, “Your shop is booming full of customers!” It was hard to believe that my girls had actually opened the shop and were in full swing making coffees, omelettes, and tuna melts. People needed comfort after that horrible night!

So, yes, Boracay is a paradise, but believe me—it’s full of surprises.

--

Excerpted from My Real Coffee Story by Lee Rosaia, available from Real Coffee


HELEN GICA

Corporate Supervisor, My Boracay Guide
Boracay Resident for 4 years

I arrived in Boracay in April of 2011. I’m from Iloilo—I moved to Manila to work, after graduation. I took on a corporate job, and worked there for six years before I decided to give up city life. I knew I just had to get myself to an island. My first choice was Amanpulo, but Boracay seemed the easiest to move to because it had more employment opportunities.

When I started working at the Crown Regency, my basic salary was equal to the amount I was taxed when I was working for a BPO. I really started from scratch! But when you work hard doing what you really want to do, especially in a place that you love, the money follows. And you spend less here, compared to Manila—transportation alone in Manila can you set you back a few hundred pesos a month. I remember I would spend for cabs, buses and the MRT back in the city. Here, I walk everywhere.

People usually think all we do here is party, but when you become a resident, you learn to control your drinking and partying. The first eight months, I was going out every night; I felt that I had to go out and drink to meet new friends, since I didn’t know anyone when I moved here. But it wasn’t difficult to meet new people since there are always a lot of tourists here. You can talk to anyone randomly, and learn a lot from them. It was only in the island that I got to meet someone from Kazakhstan, and someone from Russia.

I knew I just had to get myself to an island.

The Full Moon Festival, which is held in Bulabog, is the only event in Boracay that residents really care to go to. It’s like a big reunion where we drink until sunrise. Tourists would go skinny dipping in the sea while it was dark, and then they’d go back to shore when the sun rose. By that time, everyone would be hanging out by the beach and you’d see these foreigners trying to cover their privates with their hands!

Because of the influx of tourists the past years, Boracay can get crowded, but there are other places we can go to to escape. If you want to dance and party, you can. If you want peace and quiet, you can walk to a secluded part of the beach, away from the noise. When we row, we see the beauty of the island that you can only see from a boat, far from the beach. Sometimes, you have to step back and go away from the crowds to really appreciate the magic of Boracay.


DENISE TOLENTINO

Freelance graphic artist and photographer
Boracay Resident for 5 years

My mom’s from Antique, so my family and I used to go to Boracay for vacations in the ‘90s. It was—and is still—my happy place. Every time I could get leaves from the office, I would come here with my friends. I used to work for an ad agency, and I got burnt out, so I decided to try my luck in Boracay about five years ago. I quit my job and sent applications to resorts in Boracay. I started working at Mandala Spa, and even if my salary was half of what I was getting from the ad agency, I didn’t give a flying fuck. After a year with Mandala Spa, I went freelance as a graphic artist. The community in the island is so small, so word quickly got around about my services. I didn’t even need to advertise.

I had to adjust to a lot of things the first few months that I started living here. My lifestyle in Manila was very different—I used to go drinking at clubs and bars; it was all work during the day and drinking at night. Here, I learned to be more laid-back; everyone takes their time in the island, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I also learned to be healthier and to get into sports. So even when we still party and drink, it’s not as bad as when I was in the city.

We actually have a term—“Kung pumarty parang turista.” That’s what newcomers to the island usually do: they go out and get wasted every night. Some people here expect that their lifestyle as a tourist continues when they settle in, but once you live here, you realize that you can’t afford the activities of tourists. You can’t drink in bars every night, you can’t ride banana boats every day. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy Boracay—you find other things to do, like go to hidden beaches or explore other parts of the island.

Every time I could get leaves from the office, I would come here with my friends.

Some of the old-timers tell us about the Boracay of long ago. They say, “You should have seen Boracay in the ’80s.” But even if Boracay isn’t what it used to be, I think it’s still better than being in the city. Man, I would take all this over the city any time. Sometimes, I’d miss my friends and my family, then bam! I see a beautiful sunset. Or sometimes I feel like just packing my bags and heading back to the city, then I see plankton glowing in the water while rowing at night.

I chose Boracay because you can live the island life and still have the little conveniences, like internet and a grocery store. It’s not completely remote; it’s not overdeveloped. And, where else can you find a community where you have a mermaid as a neighbor?



NENETTE AGUIRRE-GRAF

Owner: Boracay Beach Resort
Boracay Resident for 30 years

Asia’s fastest woman, champion windsurfer Nenette Aguirre-Graf, grew up in Malay, and her family owned a rest house on the island before it was even known as Boracay. Theirs was one of the first few places that accepted tourists and backpackers; the only other small resorts at that time were Willy’s Beach House, Arak Resort, and a rest house owned by relatives of the Marcoses. “We would go to the island during the summer. The only person who stayed there all year round was our caretaker,” Nenette recalls. “Tourists on the island were mostly Europeans or Americans. The sand was so white in the ’70s. You couldn’t stare at it, because it hurt your eyes—that was how white the sand was before.”

Nenette has seen Boracay evolve from a hidden paradise and secret hideaway—one so closely guarded that it wasn’t only until the ‘90s that Filipinos from other parts of the country started making the trip to the island. (Some say that it was actually the crew of the ’70s World War II film Too Late the Hero who discovered Boracay. Starring Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson, the movie was shot on the Caticlan airstrip and parts of the island.) According to Nenette, puka shell necklaces were what really boosted the island’s tourism. Though the handmade necklaces were already being sold in Cebu, she claims that the shells used from Boracay were much brighter.

“We learned a very important lesson during the crisis: we can rise to challenges as long as we help each other.”

“I finally settled here in 1984, and we discovered Bulabog in late 1987,” she says. “It was actually a 22-year-old British Indian who found out you could windsurf on the other side of White Beach. We would go to Manoc-Manoc to catch the wind—that was the best spot back then. One morning, we saw him a couple of meters from the shore in Bulabog, by himself with his board. The next year, we moved our windsurfing school there.”

Nenette and other locals only started seeing Manileños in the island in the ‘90s, just as the local economy was starting to boom. When the financial crisis swept through Asia in 1997, Boracay was hit hard—resort owners were left in heavy debt, and some had to close their businesses. It was also in 1997 when the coliform crisis struck the island. “That was a double whammy. Most owners lost a lot of money, and there were no tourists,” Nenette recalls. “We organized an event called Rediscover Boracay, where we invited some 200 people from the media. We all worked together—from the vendors in the market, to the resort owners and the tricycle owners. We learned a very important lesson during the crisis: we can rise to challenges as long as we help each other.”

Nenette credits the rising environmental awareness to Boracay’s later generations. During the ’80s and early ’90s, she says, residents would pull out the grass that grew around their property, simply because the area looked cleaner without them, not realizing that beachgrass actually helps keep the sand in place. “We started practicing segregation in 2001,” she says. “[Now,] we have material recovery facilities, and recycle everything we can recycle. We also transform oil and plastic into bricks that can be used as pavement. Gumanda na ngayon ang Boracay, we just have to prepare infrastructure for the expected influx of tourists. Nauuna kasi parati ang development, which should not always be the case. But as long as we continue to communicate with our LGUs, and we see the government’s commitment, it’s easier for us to stay on the right track.”

--

Originally published in GRID Issue 02.

This story was originally published in

Issue 02 | The Water Issue

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