Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Coming Down From the Galera High

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Puerto Galera. Located at the north-eastern tip of the island of Mindoro, the Philippines' third biggest island (after Luzon and Mindanao), Galera is basically strip after strip of white sand beaches and the clearest, crystalline waters this side of the world. Boasting a thriving beach culture and some of the best places in the world to go snorkeling, deep water diving, para-sailing and other water sports, Galera is simply paradise on earth. There's no other way to describe it. And I managed to spend three days on its legendary shoreline.

Day One

After a night out with Ginny, where we spent the evening lounging across the lush pillows of Ziggurat along Makati Avenue, I got home at around 3AM, which gave me just enough time to shower and to pack last-minute items before C picked me up at the house. We still needed to fetch his American cousin Jordan at Katipunan, where he was dorming, before going to the bus station at Cubao, where we could catch a provincial bus going to the Batangas Pier. After a few minutes of running around like headless chickens, we managed to secure a comfortable place aboard and cram ourselves - these are the days when I'm thankful I'm quite small, because I can squeeze myself quite comfortably into the wedge between two bus seats; the boys were pushing the limits of height and bulk, and had to figure out various configurations for their legs. The three-hour bus ride from the city to the pier was punctuated by snippets of sleep, snatches of short dreams that left me quite rested.

We reached the Batangas Pier and managed to find the bangka we were riding in, which already carried our other five companions: the siblings Joan, Jona, and Jesa; Dione, our captain, and her friend Fe. It was Dione who pretty much organized the trip, and Clark and I and Jordan just pretty much strung ourselves along. The ferry was supposed to leave at 8AM; unfortunately, Filipino time dictated that we leave just before 10, which meant that we were stuck on a bobbing boat, the engine enthusiastically thrumming to the point where I could feel my teeth chattering, and the mid-morning heat squarely on whatever parts of out bodies were exposed, for about an hour and a half. Thankfully, the waters were quite calm when we docked at the shores of White Sand Beach. I could feel the heat seeping into my skin and boiling my blood alive.

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Bangera Inn was a small, unobtrusive white building squashed somewhere between two other inns, and you could reach it by ducking through a couple of bars and alleys. It was quaint and charming, with sloping white walls and a colorful clay tile floor. There was a wide wooden staircase that spiraled three storeys up, with two lobbies where people were encouraged to have their meals or simply gather around to have a good time. Stained glass windows occasionally decorated the walls, and ornate iron grills and sconces completed the Caribbean feel of the entire place. The rooms weren't so bad themselves: a large wooden cabinet and a television set (cable, of course) were provided, as well as two queen-sized beds. The bathroom was quite large and comfortable as well, with a hot and cold knob, and the airconditioning was nice and strong. The eight of us paid Php 1,000 for the three-day, two-night stay, with options for cooking and laundry at the back of the inn. Kuya Arman, the owner, was also kind enough to provide us with space in the refrigerator for our groceries and meats, a cooler for the vegetables, and ice water. ^_^

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After cooking lunch and taking a very very VERY long siesta, Dione and C and I made the trip to the bayan to pick up fresh vegetables and meat for our next meals, since it was cheaper to cook than to keep on buying food. (And it helps if the organizer is insanely, well, organized - it was nice to be following someone else blindly for once) As the town proper of Puerto Galera was a good thirty minutes away from the beaches, we had to ask one of the tricycle drivers to take us to and from the marketplace. When we got back, what needed to be marinated and prepared were already chopped up, smooshed, and placed into plastic bags. After cleaning up after ourselves and getting rid of the day's sweat and dust with a long, cool shower - and you know there's nothing more than a nice cold shower after a trip over land and sea - we prepared dinner and then decided to wander around the nighttime shoreline. C and I bought sarongs and spread them across the sand, where we lay down and watched the stars wheel overhead, dancing to some unheard music. Our fingers traced invisible lines from one silver pinprick to the next, playing a grown-up game of connect-the-dots, reciting the names of constellations from childhood memory. This was the first time I had been to the beach in over a year, and the first time I had seen the sky so overwhelmed with stars that it seemed that it curved heavily with delight.

Day Two

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The next day found us up bright and early and in our most colorful bathing suits. I bought a black frilly skirt the day before, which was made out of some thin cotton material that was way too short than what I was used to, but was useful enough as a cover for the bottom half of the blue tankini (yes, I bought one, so shush) that I was wearing. We were off to our adventure for the day - we rented a smaller outrigger bangka that would take us to the nearest snorkeling spot. It was a good twenty minutes away from the main beach, and the manong who went with us provided us with bright orange life jackets and snorkeling equipment. Our group slipped and tumbled into the waters and I eagerly took to the sea. I never realized how much I missed being in the water, and before anyone could tell me otherwise, I dove headfirst into the waters and paddled around to follow the fishes.

Everything was cool and muted underwater. Everything was shadow and light and movement, and it was just absolutely lovely. The fishes darted in and out of corals, oblivious to our eyes and our feet as we struggled for buoyancy, and their colors were bright and dark at the same time, a flash of fin and reflection from the sun. C, obviously, was not quite as happy in the water as I was, and I had to help him fix up his snorkeling mask and remind him to breathe with his mouth and not with his nose, since his nose was covered in the first place. ^_^ Some of the people we were with brought bread, and the fishes eagerly gathered around them, nipping at the damp edges of the bread, their tiny mouths gasping for more. I was content to float face down, kicking once in a while to remind myself that I was still alive, and watch the fishes. I could have followed them around forever.

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Afterwards, the bangka took us to a nearby deserted beach, where we were allowed to swim and paddle around to our hearts' content. A passing ice cream boy was selling popsicles, and the others happily gathered around him - much like, I suppose, the way the fishes gathered around the pieces of bread we were throwing into the water. Surrounded by sand and sun and "water. water, everywhere," the world suddenly kinda comes into perspective. I missed being enveloped by nature like this, where all your petty problems are suddenly drowned by the simple majesty of things, and a part of me could never understand how people could leave this beauty, this amazing country, and never want to come back.

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Of course, such moments are finished all too quickly, and soon we had to head back - our stomachs were growling and there was cooking to be done. After my siesta, I found myself wandering around the back alleys of White Beach, checking out the stalls and beginning to buy little trinkets for people as pasalubong. Walking back, I found one of the henna tattoo stalls near Bangera that was open, and decided to get a small henna tattoo of a dragonfly on my nape. (Back story: the first dragonfly henna tattoo I've ever gotten was on the back of my hand, one night at the UP Fair while we were still undergraduates, and I was getting over my first boyfriend. During the time, the dragonfly was symbolic of transience for me, of things never staying the same. Now I find it's one of those sigils that I'm always attracted to.)

The banana boat experience happened just as the sun was setting. The seven of us - Jordan opted out and stayed in the relative safety of the airconditioned room at the inn - decided to get a banana boat and ride around the outskirts of the beach. For the uninitiated, a banana boat (or a pencil boat) is a long, inflatable floating device with handholds spaced across the length of the "banana." You grab on to the handhold, wrap your legs around the "banana" and hold on for dear life while a motor boat drags you and your friends along at amazing speeds, making sharp turns in the water and eventually (if you are not lucky) will tip the damn thing over and everyone flies into the water. C's advice was simple: "Don't let go of the handhold." His reasoning was that the boat will eventually right itself up, and you might as well be on it when that happens. Of course, since he was the more experienced of the two of us when it came to banana boats, I deferred to his advice.

Big mistake.

As soon as the banana boat made a series of sharp curves in open water, I knew we were in for a ride. And about midway through the trip, we flew into the air, there were series of screams, and then it was all water around me. Instinct told me to hang on to the handhold, and I struggled to find the surface, but somehow, the speed of the banana boat was still dragging me along. Someone bumped into me, gripped my life jacket, and hauled me up. It was C. We were quite a way away from the rest of the group bobbing in the distance. Saltwater burned in my throat and in my eyes, and he was sputtering away. Of course, despite almost drowning, I found the energy to whack him repeatedly on the shoulder and to piggy-back across the distance from where we were to where the boat stopped. All of us were coughing and laughing as we were hauled up to the banana boat by the dock hand, kind of like heavy fishes flopped across the boat. But still, I loved it. And yes, I would be perfectly willing to cough over another hundred bucks to ride the damn thing over and over again.

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But our last night was probably the best experience for me: a bunch of us managed to get some of the roving masseurs for an hour-long massage right on the shore. Of course, there was that part where you had to strip down to your bra in public, but when was I ever self-conscious? The woman who massaged me had amazingly strong hands, despite the fact that she was small and brown and probably only reached my shoulders. I could feel her calluses digging into muscles I never knew I had. The coconut oil she was using seeped into my skin, and all I had to do was close my eyes, rest my cheek on the sand, and sink into heaven. Stars surrounded me at all sides, and it was the closest to prayer that I remember being in for the longest time.

Day Three

Our last day was spent in a rather lazy manner. Woke up to find people walking all over me (I was sleeping on the floor, on an extra mattress) and realized it was almost eight in the morning. Waited for the other girls to finish with their bathroom duties before popping in and taking a long hot shower to get rid of the oil from last night's massage, and pretty much scrub myself shiny and clean. Plodded down to breakfast and ate a shitload of rice and tilapia. Then C and I decided to wander down the shore one last time to finish our last-minute shopping - I still needed to get something for my dad, and he needed to get something for his mom. Back at the inn, started packing, since we were supposed to check out by noon.

The boat ride from Galera to Batangas was...eventful. As my mother said later on, I seem to have this propensity of getting into any seagoing vehicle and having the shit kicked out of me by the waves and the water. In our case, the sea was so choppy that it felt like we were flying across the surface of the water. Waves were slamming against the sides of the dinky little ferry, and trust me, even if your country is generally a seafaring nation, you still get a bit pale and frightened when the boat starts rocking from side to side as well as from front to back. It was quite interesting to see how the passengers dealt with the bad water: some people firmly plugged their headphones into their ears and curled up in their seats, while others had to increase the volume of their chatter, firmly ignoring the waves. I decided to focus on the nearest shoreline and wonder whether or not we could swim in that direction within the day. Thankfully, the waves quieted just as we came close to Batangas, and an escort of dolphins surrounded our ferry just as we turned landwards.

But now, sadly, I'm back to the daily grind, which pretty much consists of trying to make ends meet and finish the things I have to finish, and to deal with personal issues. I'd like to think this trip was good for me - and for the most part it was - but I also have to learn how to curb myself and my impulses next time with a lot of things that I do and say and buy. Especially the buying part. And I'd like to think that I needed this break, that it was good for me to splurge on something that I've never done my entire life, and that in the end, this vacation was totally, totally worth it.

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