Boracay: Against the Tide

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The skies of Boracay seem darker in these well-lit nights. My gaze crossed the gloom only to find but a handful of stars caving in and out of the haze. This is a sight I’ve grown accustomed to having lived in Metro Manila all my life. But to some of the island’s longtime locals, such a vision is a little harder to accept.

“Back then, you could see a lot of them” said Romeo Cañaris, a stable owner who settled in Boracay during the 1980’s. “But now, because of lights coming from the numerous establishments near the coast, that is no longer the case.”

This is but one of Cañaris’ grievances. In recent years, an idea has been circling among him and his peers, a theory dolefully dubbed “Boracay City.” It is a crowded, urbanized and light-polluted future foreshadowed for this white-sanded paradise; a far cry from the beauty that has spurred all the modernization to begin with. And during one of my strolls along the coast, as the blare of house music gave pulse to the night from a distance, I caught a glimpse of it simply by looking up.

When I came to Boracay with photographer and frequent traveler Owen Ballesteros, the first thing I was told was that we arrived earlier than expected. But, after listening to the stories of the people who have lived there for years, I could not help but think that we arrived too late.

No. The “party” hasn’t ended but I have been told that it has gotten bigger and consequently more standoffish. The beach remains covered with vast amounts of white sand but it now comes heavily garnished with a teeming, highly varied populace, thanks to tourist arrivals that reached over a million last October. The shallows of the water remain pristine but the nearby sight is a crowded rainbow of paraw sails and parachutes. And as for the stars at night, they don’t seem to show up that much anymore. It is easy to think that their grand spectacle is now reserved for the less modernized and, quite possibly, future “hidden wonders” for consummate travelers-something that Boracay once was.

All things considered, however, the gradual makeover of the island is far from superficial. Some changes, according to locals, literally and figuratively dug deep.

To Elena Brugger, a prominent figure in SPR Boracay Real Estate Estate Inc. and a member of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry-Boracay, the island “is slowly changing.” Having lived in it for over 15 years, she has been a far-from-silent witness of its transformation. She currently serves as the Environmental Consultant of John Yap, the mayor of the Malay municipality that Boracay belongs to. And it is a role which she has dubbed “continuously challenging.”

“At times, you really need an iron fist,” said Brugger who, during our visit, chastised a group of foreigners smoking in Puka beach. And, at the moment her fist constantly clenches at the looming urbanization the island is being subjected to.

“The problem is lack of sustainability,” she related. “There are several businesses that came in this island to make money out of Boracay and that’s it. They don’t seem to care if they cause irreparable damage to the environment or promote a culture that will do so.”

Not all, however have incurred the ire of Boracay’s environmental advocates. With the rise of numerous establishments gearing the island toward a less desirable future, there are also those who have come to thwart such a course.

Enter its longtime lovers. Enter the successors of the backpackers, and the natives who have called its shores home. Armed with their firsthand knowledge of what really made Boracay special, this group of entrepreneurs, artists, athletes and environmentalists has banded together to create an eco-friendly experience of the island they fell in love with.

Most of them say that Boracay on its own is charming already, and with vessels powered either by man, nature or ingenuity, and bodies either sculpted or bronzed by the island life, they labor to prove this to a world that has already begun entertaining the idea of “the next Boracay.”

Riding the wave

The tides of the island are changing. And as its waves roll toward the future, a handful of Boracay’s own have come with well-meaning ways to navigate it. Among them include Nenette Aguirre-Graf, a woman who has made history on the waters of the island as one of the best wind surfers in the world. With her board on hand, she is among those who cut a watery path toward a more sustainable, yet still enjoyable future for the island.

“There are plenty of ways to take pleasure in Borcay without causing harm to the environment,” she states. And she adds that among them is windsurfing. Thanks to Graf and her colleagues, the island is now known as one of the best windsurfing destinations in the world. But, all things considered, she admits that their efforts bore fruit, thanks to the beach itself.

“We have all the winds and all the water,” she stated. “And if you want to come here to windsurf, the bonus is that you have one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. That’s the advantage.”

Recently, a number of premier windsurfing events have been hosted in the island. The Boracay International Funboard Cup for instance-an event hailed as one of the top 52 weekend events by CNNGo in 2010-has been drawing in seasoned competitiors for over 20 years. But Graf related that windsurfing in Boracay is not just for those who are experienced in the sport.

“Our waters here are very good,” she states saying that it’s suitable for beginners and up because of the “flatness”. Meanwhile, there are also a number of windsurfing establishments in the area that offer rentals and lessons for those who wish to try it out. Among them include the Green Yard Fun Board Center which offers beginner, intermediate and advanced coursed that range from one to three days.

Apart from windsurfing, other eco-friendly water sports are also featured in Boracay. These include stand up paddle surfing and kite surfing. But  for those that wish to explore around the coast, a new method recently came to shore, thanks to the husband and wife tandem of Luca Tizzato and Amanda Virrey.

In September, the couple brought in pedal kayaks to the island through tier group Sail.Me.Baby.Boracay. Since then, they have been garnering interest from tourists and locals due to the versatility of their vessels when it comes to navigating the pristine waters.

“We want to establish that we are nature lovers and water sports lovers who don’t like pollution,” Tizzato said. “That is why we brought in these kinds of boats. With it, we wish to organize environmentally friendly visits to the reefs and other areas like Puka Beach and Buruanga.”

Dubbed by Tizzato as “kayaking made easy,” the boats of Sail.Me.Baby.Boracay come fully equipped with detachable pedals and sails that can aid in seamlessly navigating the lulling waters with ease. The group’s two-seater kayaks also come with detachable trampolines that allow the vessel to have a carrying capacity of up to four people.

“Another thing that’s nice in this boat is that it can teach you how to sail,” said Tizzato. “It’s also very difficult to capsize.”

During our visit, Owen and I were able to test the kayaks by pedaling them to the neighboring waters of Buruanga. And somewhere between our gingerly takeoff from the front of Angol Beach and our graceful glide  across the deeper waters in front of Station 3, we found our rhythm with nature=an intuitive partnership which dictates when to pedal and when to let the wind do its work.

On dry land

According to Virrey, the beauty in Boracay is that “you’ve got so many outlets; so many sources of happiness and contentment.” And while the island’s pride and joy comes from the sea, many of these outlets can also be found on dry land. Among these include the offerings of Boracay Bike Adventures-a group which sets afternoon bike tours in Boracay and Morning tours in Panay.

With one of its handlers, Sebastian Stoeber, Ballesteros, Brugger and I rode through the circuitous roads in the island and I got to see Boracay from a different perspective. Stoeber, who has lived in the island for over six years, describe the place as a “melting pot.” And from what I’ve seen during the tour, it would appear that the fusion is not just of races, but also of varying styles, eras and means.

The path of the tour started at the center of the island’s commercial district-a road flanked by high end restaurants, sari-sari stores, wooden structures and post-modern architecture. Meanwhile, the ride is just as mercurial-an undulating journey that tests you with its uphill roads before comforting you with a breezy downhill trip. The ultimate reward of the tour was Puka Beach- a rural seaside escape from the more crowded parts of the island. Charging at P1,800 per head, the Boracay tour can take hours to finish. For me, however, it was worth it.

“The island is really appealing by itself,” said Stoeber. “A lot of people see it as a must-go place before you die. That alone is enough to make it a good biking destination.”

Apart from bike tours, however, Boracay also offers horse rides to remote and scenic locations within the island. For this, we met up with Cañaris at the Boracay Horse Riding Stables which as been a local establishment there since 1986.

We came to take yet another tour of the island but Cañaris offered more than that. Sitting on his porch, long mane cascading over his shoulders, the man-who up to now, still remembers the exact time and date he came to Boracay-also took us to a trip down memory lane.

“I arrived here at 1 am, July 30, 1985,” he said with a triumphant clap tailing his sentence. He then told the story of the island that once was-a mysterious patch of white shores and lush greens, tersely populated by locals and Europeans who greeted each other cordially. It was in those days when resorts of the island stood meters apart, when the only lights you would see at night were that of lamps and stars, and the beaches had so much space that horses used to race there. Nowadays, the horses can only be used to tour specific locations like Bolabog beach since other seaside areas have become too crowded. The sites are still worth seeing but like a lot of the long-time residents of Boracay, Cañaris has misgivings.

“Every year, more buildings rise,” he said. “More trees are getting cut and more space is being taken up. Just recently, floods have affected Station 3. It could get worse if they don’t stop.”

Look up

During the last night of our stay in Boracay, we visited the Mandala Spa to try out its signature treatment. Here, we found one of the quietest places in the island. Tucked in an enclosure of trees and calming string-based music, the haven can be a respite to those who seek to experience Boracay through the rigorous yet rewarding trail blazed by its eco-friendly residents.

After dinner, we walked back to the Robinson house of Station 1 where we have been staying. It was a Sunday evening, a few hours before midnight. The parties of Boracay have moved indoors. Past Station 2, the shore often filled with people has been surrendered to the shadows of trees and life guard towers being stretched by spotlights.

Within the duration of our stay, I have asked environmental advocates if it is still possible for Boracay to return to the paradise that it once was. The responses I’ve gotten have ranged from mocking smiles to doubtless shakes of the head. But when I asked the same people how they would define the place, the answers I got were consistent. “It’s still paradise.”

Boracay, as Brugger said, is gradually changing but certain things remain the same. The “party”has yet to end. The beach still remains covered with vast amounts of white sand. The shallows of the water remain turquoise and pristine. As for the starts at ngiht, as I discovered during the last night of our trip, in that magic hour when Boracay simmers down and recharges itself for yet another blaze the following day, they have yet to completely abandon the island.

And all I had to do-all we had to do-was look up.

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