The Terminal Beach: A British Family Travels in the Wake of Ondoy

12 Jun

Throughout my time in the Philippines, I never got over how early and suddenly the night would fall. Our coach was on Bacoor Bay at 6pm when the rowdy ocean to the west and the brush-covered mountains to the east fell black. The girls were already asleep, Daisy face-down in Donna’s lap. I looked at the other passengers. Some picked their noses, others jiggled to iPods. A huge woman ate a huge buko pie.

We were heading for Nasugbu, a beach recommended by Lonely Planet. After only a week in Manila we needed a break from the heat, the noise and the psychotic driving. The journey would take us through both remote countryside and the economic heart of Luzon – a contrast that intrigued me.

Our coach hit the Centennial Road. On my map this throbbed like a vein through the scrotum-shaped peninsular of southwestern Luzon. Nasugbu’s position on the map was arguably the boil hanging off the lower edge of the scrotum. I didn’t know how I’d come up with this nasty metaphor. I hoped it didn’t augur badly for our trip to the seaside.

The driver put on a CD of eighties pop. There was a malfunction and ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ played in fast-motion; Kylie Minogue abducted by the Chipmunks. Donna started awake. “Where are we and what on Earth’s happening?” she murmured, eyes cemented with sleep.

“It’s all right, darling,” I said. “Soon be in Nasugbu.”

The landscape grew taller, more built-up and better-lit. We passed townhouse developments with picket fences and controlled explosions of flowers. Checkpoints subdivided every road. All the curbs were yellow-striped. The coach pulled up at a Berlinesque wall signed CAVITE EXPORT PROCESSING ZONE. Beside it was a hammer-shaped monument with WELCOME written vertically down it. Over the wall were vast slabs of factory and warehouse. Looking at this post-industrial scene, it was hard to believe that the name ‘Cavite’ was derived from the Tagalog word for creek.

This EPZ (as it’s abbreviated) is a semi-independent state with its own tax laws and loose regulations. It has its own governing council and police force. Access is strictly controlled, hence all the checkpoints. Seventy thousand people work here in textiles, food processing, electronics and manufacturing. The pay is low, the shifts are long and the conditions dangerous. Anyone who tries to form a trade union gets kidnapped, hog-tied and murdered by aforesaid police. Only brave people try to form trade unions. Nonetheless, the region has a long tradition of radicalism. As the historian and Spanish-American War veteran James H. Blount wrote in 1913:

Cavite province has always been, since the opening of the Suez Canal,

about 1869, and the agitations for political reform in Spain which culminated

in the Spanish republic of 1873, quickened the thought of Spain’s East

Indies, the home of insurrection, the breeding place of political agitation.

The purpose of Cavite and the other 240 EPZs across the Philippines is to attract foreign investment. Indeed, IBM, Gap and Nike are all here but you won’t see their logos; they use regional subcontractors.

A dozen people left the coach and marched single-file to the wall. They reached for the ID cards around their necks.

We continued south through Silang, Cavite’s quiet, rural fifth district. I saw little but fields and churches with bell gables like decorated gingerbread. My friend, the poet Joel Toledo, grew up round here in the 1980s. Electricity was a rare luxury. His poem ‘Moth’ recounts what happened when Joel’s family switched the lights on for his grandmother’s funeral.

The harsh, yellow light recedes
and bursts around each footstep.
We all go up the staircase.
Moths of various sizes hug the wooden walls.

Joel now lives in a Manila condo with high speed broadband and cable TV. I wondered how many of those EPZ workers earlier had trekked from homes like the one in Joel’s poem to build parts for mobile phones and laptops. Statistically many would have; twenty six percent of Filipinos live with little or no power.

We hit silty terrain close to sea level, moonlit waves licking the road. The coach’s headlights fell on sugarcane spiked up like punk hairstyles and bubbly mango trees. Fish cages zigzagged along a hillside river that widened into a waterfall.

The coach stopped. I woke the ladies. As we were getting off, locals with Cavite EPZ ID cards were getting on. “Why are you going there?” I asked one man with a scar encircling his eye.

“No work here no more, po.”

“How come?”

He pushed past me without answering.

We stood outside Nasugbu Municipal Hall. Streetlamps highlighted its various shades of blue paint. A tricycle buzzed over.

“Take us to the cheapest room in Nasugbu,” I yawned. The driver nodded effusively as if that wouldn’t be a problem at all.

We passed street food stalls called POTATO HUGGER and CHINKY BUCK’S. They smelled stale and had few customers; maybe these two details were connected. Daisy pointed at a carousel – also short of punters – sparkling pink against the night.

We left the main drag for a barangay of shed-like abodes with plank roofs and iron gates. Further along were empty stucco bars with strobing neon signs. Our room was the flimsiest shed in the barangay. A Philippine Tarsier – the world’s smallest monkey – could have broken in.

We went to a resto-bar in the hope of food. Only ‘chicken lollipop’ was available. Daisy liked the sound of that – it had ‘lollipop’ in the title. She was less impressed with the reality: rubbery blobs of low-grade meat wrapped in tin foil. Donna told the waitress she was vegetarian. The waitress just smiled sadly.

A group of young people entered. Each one held a bottle of San Miguel and a cigarette. The boys wore beanies and hoodies. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would wear such garb in forty degree heat. I imagined one of them passing out midway through the set and being carried off-stage by a roadie, James Brown-style.

The girls wore short skirts and low-cut tops. Each one wanted a go on the videoke, but not one could sing. To make matters worse, they all insisted on ambitious eighties power ballads by Meatloaf, John Farnham and Bonnie Tyler. I’ve now heard ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ sung badly in several Asian countries and every time it makes me question the fundamental validity of Western civilisation. But I felt particularly sorry for the Philippines. We were exporting our crappy jobs to their EPZs and our crappy music to their drinking pits.

The trauma went on for half an hour, the poor girls hardly helped by a screen showing a ball bouncing over misspelled lyrics. Occasionally, Filipino beauty spots would also flash up on the screen: the talcum powder sands of Boracay Island, Palawan’s subterranean river, the Pagsanjan Falls, Mount Makiling’s jungle soda springs. But no pics of Nasugbu. “Never mind,” I thought with tipsy optimism. “We’ll find the beach tomorrow and everything will be fine. Just fine.”

One girl embarked on an ill-advised rendition of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Daisy liked it enough to dance. Perhaps delirious from the heat, perhaps not, she combined Kate Bush-style twirls with punk pogoing. I had no idea she had ever seen Kate Bush dance or anyone else pogo.

Donna took her eyes off Daisy and opened her mouth to ask me something. Daisy stopped dancing and scowled at us. Apparently we had to watch in respectful silence the busting of Daisy’s each and every groove. Luckily she soon got bored and sat down.

The band came on and asked me for a request.

“Led Zeppelin!” I shouted, more tipsy now, if not drunk. In fact, I would have settled for anything other than more Bonnie Tyler.

Ou la la,” gasped the singer. The guitarist dropped his hands away from the fretboard. The drummer shrugged and didn’t seem to know where to put his sticks. I took all this to mean that Led Zep was beyond the band’s capabilities. Instead they launched into a kind of avant-garde free jazz take on Coldplay. I don’t think they intended to play avant-garde free jazz, it was just that the drummer couldn’t keep time and the guitars were egregiously out of tune.

Nonetheless I went to bed happy. Whether this had anything to do with the nine San Miguels and five Tanduay rums I’d imbibed is, of course, an open question. But all three of us were looking forward to a day on the beach, even if, so far, the portents hadn’t been great.

The next morning Daisy woke me up by jumping on my chest. “Get up, you puffy old man!” she ordered. We put on swimwear and walked the winding path to the beach, passing baubled citrus trees and hovels attached to hog pens. We sped up, raced each other, Daisy speed-talking in anticipation, her little eyes poised to catch the moment when the promised land would shine over the horizon…

…But it was not to be. Splinters of wood littered the sand like rice in between chunks of masonry, crisp packets, sweet wrappers, dented coconuts and ragged strands of rope. Further back from the sea, the trees were twisted into all kinds of nightmarish permutations. Beach huts had wall-sized holes in their… walls. Their roofs were missing every tile and the planks left behind resembled the spines of a fish after its flesh has been picked away. I was reminded of pictures of the aftermath of the battle for Corregidor.

I braced myself for tears from Daisy, but she just grimaced out to sea. No one said anything for a while. We may have been in mild shock. Even without all the debris, the shit-brown sand and squatter’s slum further along the shore wouldn’t have exactly made this place a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It goes without saying that there’d been no mention of these drawbacks in our Lonely Planet.

What had happened here? Typhoon Ondoy had wrecked parts of Manila a few weeks ago but nothing I’d read suggested that it had got this far south.

At that moment, an old Westerner with the narrow, tortured features of a Modigliani painting sloped by. He was holding hands with two Filipinas about Daisy’s age. The trio shared a family resemblance.

“In case you’re wonderin’,” the man grunted in military cadence – I guessed he was a Vietnam veteran as there are so many in the Philippines – “this beach took a real bad hit from Ondoy.”

OK, so the typhoon had come this far south. Nice of the travel agent to tell us about that. And the coach station staff. And the coach driver. And the hotel clerk.

I could hear the EPZ worker in my mind’s ear: “No work here no more, po.” Now it made sense. Of course there’s no work in a place that’s just been ruined by a natural disaster!

“It’s also off-season anyhow,” said the vet. As if the meteorological system itself wished to support his point, rain began lashing down.

“Just to add to the disappointment,” said Donna through gritted teeth.

“Most of the resorts are closed but you could try Casa,” said the vet, and walked on with his kids.

So we checked out of our cheap room and checked into overpriced Casa. The staff could not have looked more bored and when you ordered a pineapple juice they brought you a glass of water and a sachet of pineapple-flavoured powder even though there were actual, real, fresh pineapples hanging from all the trees in the garden. The only other guests were a log-nosed German and his pubescent Filipina squeeze.

We spent the rest of the day in the hotel garden, miserably going down the waterslide as the rain fell. Each time we climbed the steps of the waterslide we got to see the best view in Nasugbu: the rain lashing down on the typhoon-obliterated beach. Just as my mood had reached a hellish nadir, Daisy patted the slide with her little hand and said, “It’s nice sliding in the hot rain in the hot country, isn’t it?”

Somehow this comment from a sweet, innocent 4 year old seemed to compensate for all the disappointments of this doomed trip.

Originally published in the Philippines Free Press, April 2012

One Response to “The Terminal Beach: A British Family Travels in the Wake of Ondoy”

  1. Rich Peirce 02/01/2014 at 20:25 #

    Evocative prose images of a country and it’s people complemented by the disarming perspective of child’s unassailably positive view of any situation.

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