This Side of Paradise

Like a little package from the sky, you are ribboned onto a paraglider, with half a kilometer of space before you hit the earth's surface. Up here, your view is dominated by a pair of legs, attached to a pair of shoes, blocking a faraway scenery of a tropical island, ringed with white sand and then the cobalt blue sea. For all you know you are a child in an incredibly high chair, your feet dangling in mid-air.

Of course, you don't fly alone. Behind you is Matte, an Ati pilot with kinky hair and skin as black as earth. When you turn your head around, all you can see are the white of his eyes and the white squares of his teeth. Matte doesn't smile, no. He grins, his lips stretching as wide as his face. "Boracay is different from this side up, yes?" he says. His English is sensible, butchered with the thick accent of Inati.

As the wind picks up at 25 km per hour, your tandem glider hovers over a kilometer of deep blue sea, separating Boracay Island from the larger island of Panay. Pumpboats ferry tourists across that strait below. Scattered around are tiny fishing boats shaped like rice grains. Matte snaps a finger at the islets on this strait, saying, "Those are Laurel Islands. The collective name of Crystal Cove Island and Crocodile Island. One is a stone-age park, the other a dive site." The islets look like jagged rocks hurled by a giant into the sea. "Have you tried diving here?" says Matte. You say, "No." "You know the movie Nemo? Lots of Nemo fish here, and sea snakes and sea urchins. Delicious!"

As you enter Boracay's territory, two cream-white beaches are fringed with coconut trees and flecked with more pumpboats. "Those are the jetty ports of Cagban and Tambisaan," he says. "Tambisaan is where we unload cargoes of vegetables and fish and shrimps and crabs from all over the Visayan Islands." Straight ahead, Boracay covers a little over a thousand hectares of land, shaped like a dog bone. Both ends are wide, hilly, and green. The island slopes down to a flat narrow center. Brown huts and low-lying houses with iron roofs pepper along the roads.

Matte points at a road thick with passenger motorcycles and tricycles. "That's the main road," he says. The main road loops around the island like a go-cart racetrack, interconnecting the island's three barangays. "Below is Barangay Manoc-Manoc," he says. "That's Barangay Balabag in the center, and Barangay Yapak up north." From the center of the island, either end is just 3.5 kilometers long and a fifteen-minute tricycle ride away.

Your pilot tugs a riser line and you drift across the commercial center of the island. Vegetation thins out down this neck. Coconut trees and tropical palms are pushed out to both sides of the island. "This here is D'Mall," Matte says. Moving under your feet are matchboxes of different sizes and colors, making up most of the 200 establishments, restaurants, bars, hotels, and resorts. A number of them have little blue puddles of water--swimming pools--with tiny people sunning beside them. Meanwhile, greenish murky water makes up the mangrove swamps at the east. "That's the Dead Forest," he says. "Salt water leaked from the sea and killed the trees." The swamps come together to a channel whose mouth opens into the Sibuyan Sea.

As you float over this neck of the island, you see the infamous four-kilometer stretch of talcum powder-white sand at the west. "Look, White Beach!" Matte pipes, but you know that already. The beach is sprinkled with ant-like humans, and dotted with shops, restaurants, and bars facing the Sulu Sea. Farther out, motorboats tug along, through an invisible string, tiny multicolored umbrellas--parasails--up in the air.

"Back when Boracay was our ancestral land," Matte says, "my grandmother used to tell me that a pirate ship heavy with gold and gems would dock over there." Through the thick sound of wind Matte says, "Girls as beautiful as Anne Curtis would step down from the ship and sing melodies that made fishermen crazy." Today, there is no pirate ship on the beach. The myth of the pirate ship died when the island became popular in the 70's. Instead of ships, White Beach is now littered with triangular sails puffy with the wind. "We call them 'paraw'," your guide says. "They're native to the Visayan Islands."

Opposite White Beach, on the other side of the island, lies a 2.5-kilometer strip of coarser white sand. "That's Bulabog," Matte says, "otherwise called 'the back beach'." While this side is often grim with seaweeds and docked with fishing boats, Bulabog is popular to itinerant adrenaline junkies, the seasonal kiteboarders and windsurfers. White Beach and Bulabog Beach are just two of the 14 beaches on the island. Clockwise from White Beach, Matte names the rest of the beaches: Diniwid, Balinghai, Punta Bunga, Bunyugan, Puka, Ilig-iligan, Lapus-lapus, Lugutan, Tulubhan, Tambisaan, Manoc-Manoc, and Cagban Beach.

Matte pulls the control lines and your glider swings over to the quiet northern hills of the island. Your eyes take in the cool shades of green: the lush vegetation of shrubs, wild vines, and trees. Your pilot pulls another handle, and you swerve to the northeast, almost kissing the highest point of the island. "It's a small zoo and a view deck," Matte says. "At 100 meters, Mt. Luho is really just a hill, not a mountain." After Mt. Luho are pretty manicured hills that comprise a 180-hectare 18 hole par 72 championship golf course.

As you near the northern end of Boracay, there lies the provincial idyll. Nipa huts peek out from the sprawling forest, whose ground reeks heavily of guano. Bat caves hide beneath a thick tangle of vines and trees at the northeastern part of the island. "The caves are the roosting ground of three species of bats in Boracay," he says. "The one that looks like a flying vampire dog, the endangered Golden-Crowned Flying Fox, is endemic to the Philippines." Later he adds, "Best meat on the island, this flying fox."

You reach the northernmost tip of island, where dreamy shores glimmer at you with a melancholic goodbye. "We are at the end of the trip!" the pilot says. "This is where we land, on Puka Beach." Waves roll on the beach and slam against limestone walls. As Matte tugs the brake lines and your glider swoops towards land, you hear the waves, you hear the water crashing, you hear the spray. Landing here, you hear the pulse of the island. Before you know it, you and Matte are running on the beach, the glider wing falling behind you like a giant jellyfish.

"You will fly again, yes?" Matte says. As he stuffs the deflated glider into a backpack, it strikes you how short he is. He could be under five feet. You remove your helmet and emergency parachute and say, "If you give me a discount maybe I will fly again." "Why don't you buy one of our gliders? It's used but cheap. Very sturdy!" "Oh I don't know if I can operate that in Sweden," you say. "I don't even know if I can operate it by myself!" "It's easy," Matte says. "I can teach you in three hours." "I'll think about it," you say. "If you leave me your address maybe I'll come visit you tomorrow." "About that," Matte says, zipping the backpack. "I don't have one. I rent a small room in an old red boat. Everything in this place has been sold to outsiders." "Tell me where it is anyway," you say. "I would like to visit an old red boat."

Instead, he hands you his calling card, with three mobile numbers, each under a different phone carrier. "I don't have a house. But I have three phones." He grins. All you see are the white of his eyes and the white squares of his teeth. "Text me," he says, "I'll teach you to fly. If you're tired of the beach, you can have Boracay sky." "Oh, I will, I will," you say. You tuck the card into your back pocket. "I would like to have a piece of this Boracay sky."

Later in the hotel shower, you catch yourself singing 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds', humming and whistling along lines that escape your memory.

// 06 Oct 2014