Friday, July 10, 2009

Lakawon Island

A few years ago, I had the chance to spend some time in the Philippines. When I say time, I mean time measured in weeks that turned into months. It was a moment that defied explanation. It was the year that I drifted from one lonely dream to another and took a chance to stop and look back. I wanted to go home and be a child, without responsibilities, deadlines or a salary for that matter. It was unimaginable that a sales job can give you such a great bonus. Maybe because sales job gives such a horrid hit to your ego when you are rejected over and over again, they compensate you with a comfortable salary, expansive expense account and a large bonus. But I would not put a price on my pride; it has never been for sale. Since I have so little of it, I horde it.

I had an outside sales job. I walked into a place and was told “Get out. Don’t take it personally, but your company sucks. Please leave.”

I still remember it, I smile at the guy, hands in the air, backing away as you would back away from a rabid dog. I leave quietly, much like the way I came it. I went to my car, imagined myself an Academy Award winner trying to muster a smile and confidence to get me to my next stop. It lasts for all of 10seconds before the lie implodes. I am not an Academy winner, I don’t have that confidence nor that ego. I whimper, drive home and type out my resignation letter. Then I left, hoping to recharge my batteries, find some clarity and figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I recharged my batteries, clarity was “I need money”. I have yet to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I’m still hoping I grow up, but as each day passes, my doubt grows on that accomplishment. I may be a 12yr old for the rest of my life.

But I had the chance to spend a day in paradise and this is what it was like.

Lakawon Island is an hour drive north from Bacolod City, Philippines. You exit the main highway in the apex of a sharp right turn, make sure you take that sharp left or you’ve missed it. The incongruity of the country is demonstrated at that moment you make your left turn looking for on coming traffic blindly speeding round the right turn curve. You finish the turn with a quick exhalation of relief.

The road is paved simply with cement so the path is smooth. Solid white cement scoring the countryside of green tall stalks of sugar canes and soft nebulous squares of muddy rice fields. You feel like an invader, your 20th century diesel engine pouring smoke through the 18th century field.

You pass farmers bent over in the hot sun, placing the young rice shoots deftly into ankle high muddy water. Their faces obscured by the large grass native hats. They gamble a quick glimpse as you fly by them in your loud machine. Then finding you inconsequential to their task, they return to the seedlings in their hands.

You wonder if you could ever be that strong, to labor from sunup to sundown, feeding people worlds away. People who will never know the pride you take in a fresh harvest or a straight row, the ache in your body when the sun drops low. Then you realize the fence upon which you lean. Gazing longingly at the simplicity of their green grass, they peek back and see the greener grass upon your side of the fence. The grass you don’t notice everyday.

You drive down this narrow two-lane road at a brisk pace, you yearn for the little town that waits at the edge of the water. Then amidst the sharp turns and stomach churning dips, you break hard. You’re slammed forward and the road ends abruptly. You maneuver over the sharp sudden drop from cement to dirt road. You can only drive in first gear, the engine groaning in the pits and dips over the random, resolute rock that refuses to move.

Suddenly behind another sharp turn, the road is transformed by a grove of coconut trees that line the road on both sides like tapestry. You can’t see past the trunks, the leaves sing gently in the breeze, you are hypnotized.

Then you are rudely pulled from your reverie to the paradoxical sight of a single strip of white cement and you push your vehicle over that rut and cautiously move. The disappearance and reappearance of a recognizable road goes on for another mile, which seems to stretch into ten for all the caution and care.

You notice small grass thatched shacks amidst the fields, leaning against a small grove of trees. Sometimes it’s a few coconut trees, sometimes it’s banana trees, but often it’s shady. They stand against the sparseness of a rice field.

You know you’re closing in on the place they call Barangay Lakawon-neighborhood Lakawon, loosely translated. It sits on the edge of the water. It is there for 50 pisos you park your car, pay 600 pisos for an oversized outrigger motor boat that will take you across the water to the little slip of hazy blue that stretches on the horizon called Lakawon Island, walk around island.

The boat is bracketed by bamboo pontoons that keep the boat from capsizing but does nothing to minimalize the swells of the surf. You pick your way across the shell-strewn black sand and gingerly step aboard via a small two-by-four wooden. ramp. You reach for the boat to steady your stance and find a friendly but firm hand to guide you aboard.

Then you settle in, it’s narrow and an inch of water marks its territory at the bottom of the boat. It’s a waste of effort to bail for a few ounces that will return with each spray of a stubborn wave.

The boat rocks as it breaks against the swells of the rising tide. The motor shouts across the bay, the water flies by, a murky dark green. You watch as that strip of blue grows into a ribbon of white trim against a row of green, painted against the big bright blue sky.

Interloper puffs of clouds linger like tourists visiting for the day. Your boat chugs along, the crew languid against the closed mast. Should the motor fail, patched sails can continue your ride.

As you cross the 5 miles of open sea, Lakawon Island grows in your vision, until you see the trim of white transformed into a sandy beach. Then the green rows are more coconut trees and you begin to see the small grass shacks that dot the beach in neat rows.

It’s been 15 minutes since you boarded when the motor burps into silence. You rock in the swells of the passing waves. The crew jumps into the crystal blue waters and drag the boat to shore. The wooden ramp is pulled for your convenience, but the white sand glitters beneath the clear water, winking an invitation to jump. So you jump, gleefully into the surf of Lakawon Island.

It’s a city block long and half a block wide. It is simple, no loud lounge band, no 5 ft tall speakers with dance party fever music. No bevy of babes in two-piece bikinis, no muscle bound studs with tattoos, just you and a quiet beach on a midweek day.

There is the white sand, the grass hut without walls and a picnic table in the shade. You have your pick of a shed house as the natives call them. You pick the house with the rope hammock hanging limply between two of the four bamboo poles that hold the hand-thatched roof up.

The sand is even marked with bright buoys and ropes to demarcate your stretch of rented beach.

You walk to the “comfort room” that contains a shower and porcelain bowl. It’s a manual flush. There’s a large 50 gallon bucket beneath a water spigot and a large 1qt plastic cup that you will use to ladle the water into the porcelain basin to flush your detritus. There is a shower curtain to hide behind as you change into your swimsuit.

This is the price you pay to be on this island, on this day, with no one else but you, with the only strangers being the staff who stand away in the shade patiently waiting for a sign from you to attend your needs.

You swim first, to cleanse away the tension of the ride. You wear a mask and snorkel because you don’t want to miss the translucent fish that dart around your ankles. You won’t see the common brown jellyfish that inhabit the waters of the mainland. Lakawon’s jellyfishes are translucent bubbles trimmed with faint purple markings.

Lakawon’s beach is protected from the larger swells for it faces the mainland and the island curves like a kidney bean. Its shape affords its beach calm water like a giant saltwater pool.

You snorkel with your face in the water, watching the fish scamper about the sea grass, watch a crab crawl, pick up a starfish and watch it curl protectively inward and run the risk of enchantment. Turning onto your back, the salt water catches you and you float. You become jetsam, a small piece of a larger, grander universe and the heavy load of duty is forgotten. Replaced with a peace and wonder so profound, you’re glad for the scarcity of others for you treasure the moment for yourself.

Before you fall gently asleep and float away, you take yourself back to the shed house for refreshments, dry yourself off and lie on the hammock.

There in the shade, you watch the sun bleach the sand and blaze away to noon. That beautiful white, hot glare of a tropical day with the surf as your music and your laughter its song. You rock yourself into a nap in the middle of the day with the salty breeze tickling your sand encrusted hair and breathe deep. For that moment hanging in time, just as you drift away to sleep, you know paradise.

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