There is, among the 7,000 islands in the Philippines, an island called Borocay. It is idyllic to look at and has the whitest softest sands and glorious clean aquamarine water. It can only be reached boat – an outrigger – from a tiny little port twenty minutes ride away.
Many years ago when people did their Gap year, it was on the list for a truly adventurous place to visit. There are still no cars on the island but in those days there was only couple of tiny beach bars. You could stay for a week frolicking in the sea and drinking yourself into a stupor for a very few pounds a night… happy days!
50 years later I found myself on an outrigger on my way to explore the very same place. Dusk was falling just as we clambered on board and the sky was magnificent. But complete chaos greeted us when my companion, Global Gypsy, and I reached the island.
Our suitcases were carried off down a bamboo gangplank and dumped on the jetty. Then you had to find a tricycle (a three wheeler with a motorbike engine) which will take two westerners (or eight Filipinos) plus luggage to wherever you are staying.
The roads are horrendous. They are more like potholes joined together. Like a string vest. The currency is pesos and of course there are two noughts on everything, making conversion something only a mathematical genius can attempt. Tagalog is the language and it’s pretty unintelligible. Any thoughts that this place will be like some amazing Hawaiian-style island forget it despite it having all the natural ingredients.
And forget glamorous Imelda Marcos types. Instead imagine several metric tonnes of pink and tattooed fleshed Vladivostokians. Well, wouldn’t you come to the sun if you lived in Vladivostok? Plus hoards of bespectacled mainland Chinese who also come for the sun but never let their bodies see it. I have never seen such cover ups as by the pool. Foreign Legion caps, dark glasses, full neck to ankle bathing costumes.
The food is fun. There is every conceivable kind of restaurant but two will remain in my memory. The first, a tiny delightful Italian, run by an ex-criminal lawyer who I can only think is hiding from some of his previous clients as he serves the food through the letterbox of a huge door between the restaurant and the kitchen!
The second is The Hobbit House. The brainchild of Peter Turner, now an American college professor, but in the Peace Corps in 1973. Only little people may work there (dwarfs used to be very badly treated in the Phillipines) and they have created a wonderful and original place.
Tiny Boracay is the Philippines’ top tourist draw, fuelled by explosive growth. Last year the influx of visitors caused the Philippines government to temporarily close the island to tourists for six months last year. This period was used to restore the Borocay to its former glory and it has since reopened with a limit on the number of daily visitors. So what are my feelings about this extraordinary island? Mixed I would say. It could be a truly enchanted isle with its fecund climate, glorious flowers and lovely sunsets. English is the second language, but somehow it just misses it.
For a start, I have never ever seen so many security guards in my life. Whiter than white laundered shirts, guns at the ready. They’re even outside the ladies loo! Every shop has two guards on the door and more wandering round inside, so anxious are they to stop crime. They truly inhibit you when you are trying to buy diapers for dogs (yes really) or false bottom knickers! Definitely not needed by either myself or Global Gypsy!
Talking of my travelling companion, over the years we have had some scrapes but nothing compared to what happened on Borocay. It is this which has coloured my view of the Philippines. On entering the country Global Gypsy was told she was on a watch list. They would allow her to enter but told her she might have some difficulty getting out. When asked the immigration girl vaguely muttered something about accounts which had not been filed. Global Gypsy had run a business in Borocay in 2007 but it had folded and so she moved on to pastures new. “I’ll get my lawyer to work it out” she told me, but little did she know what she was about to fall into…
We were so enjoying the glorious sea sand and craziness of the island that she didn’t ring her lawyer for three days as she did not expect for a single moment it was anything more than an accounting lapse. She could not have been more wrong! It seems through no fault of her own she has committed a heinous crime – for which a fine has been compounding since 2007. It is now well into double figures and the bottom line is they will not let her leave the country until the debt is paid in full.
At first we saw the funny side. I got thoroughly overexcited and thought up hair brained ideas of scuba diving to little fishing boats and then making an escape across the South China Sea. But in the cold light of day this is NOT a good idea.
So I have had to leave my good friend behind while her lawyer and the Philippine investment department sort out the problem. There are worse places to be incarcerated – I mean it might have been Vladivostok. I have other places I am scheduled to get to – Manila, then Singapore and finally on to Australia to see some of my grandchildren. In case you are thinking what on earth am I doing leaving Global Gypsy on her own to deal with this, I must assure you this is not a criminal offence and, as she says, there are worse places to be holed up other than a tropical island.