The Off-Season Boracay Blues
White Beach (Boracay), Philippines
Pale and hungry inside of Boracay's off-season tourist bubble.
Mindoro to Boracay
After six-something hours in a jeepney and minibus Tatiana and I arrived in Roxas (from Puerto Galera) to the pleasant discovery of a range of morning and evening transport times to Caticlan. The large cargo ships ferry both people and cars from island to island in about four hours, for around US$10 per person (ask for a student discount if you've got the ID to back it up). Arriving in Caticlan at night and trying to push onto Boracay wasn't practical, so Tatiana spent the night in Roxas and waited 'till morning.
Aboard the ferry the next day, we discovered a welcomed new sight: Rows of padded beds for passengers (instead of the typical benches or seats). Time flew by as pirated DVDs were broadcast on the televisions, showing a pair of movies I'd actually been interested in watching.
From the principle dock in Caticlan it's necessary to take a tricycle taxi to the shore where boats ferry travelers from the island of Panay over to Boracay (no more than 15–20 minutes boat ride away), for less than US$1. Because of the stormy off-season conditions on the western coast, ferries were dropping folks off at the pier on the southern tip of the island, requiring another tricycle taxi to transport you to the island's plentiful accommodations (over 300 choices and counting along the popular strip of sand of White Beach).
Boats with a Balancing Act
It seems that the Philippines is still using boats fitted with those classic outriggers (a framework projecting from the side of a boat or canoe to give stability). This is the first place I've seen such a thing on modern craft, and can't figure out what makes these boats need them while so many of the other sea-going craft seen in other countries don't—the boats don't appear to be any narrower than other ocean ferries I've ridden on in the past.
The Other White Beach
Arriving in Boracay's White Beach with a friendly, slightly polio-crippled local that latched onto us on the ferry over from Caticlan in tow (offering to assist us in our accommodation hunt so that she could undoubtedly pick up a commission from our selected hotel), Tatiana and I set a new standard for what we're sure to be doing each time we arrive in a new city: She stays planted with the bags while I quickly run around the streets and alleyways searching for a room.
I'm good with this, as I don't need a pregnant Tatiana walking around with a heavy backpack on, and can visit three-times as many places in the same time period without her and my backpack than with them. It's also nice using her as a scapegoat for indecision with hotel staff—a practice I might have to continue to employ when I find myself traveling solo in the future.
Dragging the islander around with me for about 40 minutes while I hunted and haggled, I certainly made the woman earn whatever commission she'll pick up from St. Vincent Cottages, where we've stayed for the better part of a week (in some nice digs, for P$600/night).
Easily the strangest thing about our room is a channel on the movie-channel-laden television that has consistently shown each evening (until lord knows what hour of the night) Korean teenagers playing multi-player computer games against each other. The commentators speak English—yes, there are actually hosts and "experts" offering up play-by-play announcing, speculation, and critiques—while participants battle in some type of studio arena. Some of the games I recognize, but have never played (some new variant of Warcraft, for example), while others are unfamiliar but look like your standard team-based FPS (first-person shooter). Here's a 17-second video (9MB download), for the curious.
Western Wind Woes
The off-season is in full swing in Boracay (pronounced bore-ah-kai). And although I simply can't imagine packing any more Korean tourists into the place during the popular months of the year (December–April), I'm sure the island somehow manages it. Tatiana couldn't help but comment to her sister in an e-mail about the number of tourists who were openly photographing or filming me as we walked on the beach, telling her that the gay ones were looking at me as if I was the tasty duckling in a Tom and Jerry cartoon—entertaining.
Massive barriers made of plastic sheets or fine screens are found along White Beach, shielding the walking path and storefronts from the strong western wind and rain. Islanders tell me they're a temporary eyesore that's only present during the typhoon season (although very much an every day necessity, as the strong wind seems to rarely take a breather).
Nearly a week in Boracay, and not a single day has past where the sun and blue skies have won out to an endless stream of clouds. I've no idea if the water is always this cold or rough, but have a feeling that the images on the postcards aren't lying (but simply taken in January instead of August). I've discovered the hard why that this is certainly not the month of choice to visit if snorkeling and sunbathing is your thing.
August in Boracay's White Beach does however seem to be heaven for kitesurfing and other wind-powered water sports. The wind is strong and consistent, and most days have found me wanting to give the sport a try—although the combination of water temperature, cost, and wind strength have been discouraging enough for me to continue to put it off.
A Quick Rant
What is the deal with the watch/fake Rolex peddlers along the White Beach's main pedestrian drag? Seriously, are so many tourists actually buying them that it warrants these aggressive, babbling touts to perpetually harass me for a sale every time I go out for a walk? I should really start printing off t-shirts in different languages that read: "Get your worthless wares out of my face." No, I don't want a massage, henna tattoo, wooden carving of Jesus, drugs, jet ski rental, my hair braided, or any of the DVDs that were just pulled out of your pants. Shoo!
I generally believe there's a strong correlation between the number of photos I'm exposing in a place with my level of interest—with more photographs indicating greater satisfaction. The snapshot count has been way below average for the Philippines thus far. 11 Days, four cities, and many kilometers traveled over land and water later, and I've collected but a fraction of the images I'm accustomed to accumulating (exposing around only 200 or so, compared with over six times that amount in Laos over similar time period). Some of it might be the travel and time with Tatiana, but I think the biggest determining factor is always the environment.
The Filipino Food Frown
Tatiana and I are missing the best food we've encountered in the Philippines: A cart in Manila serving up skewer-your-own fried squid for a mere three pesos a piece—delicious. It's been downhill ever since.
Even on the rare chance that we find a dish that we enjoy, the serving size is pitifully small—it's no wonder why the populous is so short and thin. Since we're in a touristy spot, the prices are way out of proportion to the meal size, which has been incenting Tatiana to just go for the P$200 all-you-can-eat buffets that we pass every five meters (with a particular Mongolian grill outfit taking a special place of honor).
These buffets are about the only place you can get economically get a satisfying portion of meat or seafood, as the alternative is getting nickel-and-dimed at restaurants for significantly less food or eating skewers of grilled animal innards from street vendors and restaurants tucked away in the alleys.
I eat a lot of strange stuff off the street without question, but never before have I been so inundated with food options that I find utterly revolting. I've completely given up trying to find vendors that will give me a hearty stick of grilled meat. Instead, intestines, gizzards, heads, feet, and every other part of pigs and chickens are on display in the tropical heat, without refrigeration, and with small clouds of flies eating and defecating all over the uncovered sticks of foulness. If I didn't see the exact same thing (and have the same problem) in Manila, I'd say the Boracay locals are only left to eat the animal parts the tourists won't.
I've now decided to completely give up on consuming land animals in the Philippine islands. I will no longer try and order dishes containing them at restaurants or search for them on the streets. If I'm lucky enough to see Tatiana run into something that isn't pure skin, fat, or bone, then I'll order a matching plate—otherwise, forget it, I'll just stick to veggies, eggs, squid, rice, and my beloved banana/mango shakes.