Questions on Home in Malapascua

This is a story of displacement.

Barefoot and bareback, she wanders around the different resorts, dancing to the Gangnam Style on her mobile phone. She skews her face alluringly and shimmies as though she were playing with an invisible hula hoop. She likes to talk, it seems, to anyone who would listen even to a tourist she met just a minute ago. This was also how she met her boyfriend on the same strip of sand, a foreigner she sees but once a year.

While waiting for buyers, she shows me videos, most of them of her dancing, gyrating to a tune that has met its time. And when she walks away, midmorning sun diluting her silhouette, she carries a collection of sarongs and thresher shark carvings, swishing in her arms, as if they too wanted to join the dance.

This is the story of Esperanza, souvenir vendor, aspiring entertainer, who left her hometown of Iriga, Bicol five years ago. And without friend or relative, settled herself in the small island of Malapascua. She eyes foreigners getting a massage on the beach, and when they ignore her by turning the other way, she just shrugs and walks away.

On the other side of the island is a blue-eyed mermaid. The accent, when she speaks, cannot be placed. Later on, she explains this by saying she is Swedish who grew up in England. She might have picked up some form of Asian tone too, a mix of all the countries she’s been to. She talks about mandarin fish, pygmy seahorses and mantis shrimps the way some would describe characters from soap operas, with a mix of fascination and a suspension of disbelief. “Just the other day I saw a thresher shark passing over my head!” she gushes. This is what she’s here for mostly, for the thresher sharks, light-sensitive creatures that prefer deeper waters. Malapascua though holds a rare phenomenon. It is the only area in the world where thresher sharks can be seen a mere 25 feet below the surface or less. This mermaid serves as guide to foreigners of the underwater.

This is the story of Rebecca, who with husband Joel, left a corporate suit in Europe for a more fit diver’s suit. In the morning, with Joel’s hand propped over her shoulder, they get ready for another day of holding office under the sea. This is how they spend their days now. Faces are sunburned but they don’t mind. They plan to stay in Malapascua for at least a few more years at least.

Esperanza, Rebecca, and the throng of tourists who mix together in these now-famous kilometers of sand all have something in common. They are not from here. Very few are.

Malapascua may all be about the sea but the locals, the very few of them who consider themselves as such anyway, push back inland. The perimeter of the island, now owned mostly by resorts and commercial buildings belong more to outsiders. Fishermen who once had direct access from shore to sea tiptoe through tourists now to get to where their boats are parked. Some resorts do not even allow that.

This too, is a story of displacement.

“ Mao ra man nay binuhatan sa mga dato, ‘day,” a boatman, the Captain of Charma, says to me in passing. I biked through their labyrinthine dirt paths, watching a congregation of women play pool, the men on the other side preferring a game of cards.

I paused again ahead, observing men and women untangle nets in midday heat. “Kaniadto wala pa nang mga resorts, mao ni makitan nimo gibuhat sa mga tawo, maglimpyo sa ilang lambat, magstorya.”

Now though, there is mostly the sand, the beachfront that to locals act as main highway. Nothing else.

Of all the places we occupy yet never properly see, nothing is more distorted perhaps than the concept of “home.”

What attracts people to run away to an island that technically is non-existent, its name not accepted as a formal postal address, is a circuitous question. But gratefully, travel oftentimes is not knowing what to find but knowing the need to find it.

I came to Malapascua superficially needing to find stories. As part of a writing assignment, I documented lovers sharing a cigarette under the talisay tree and fiery sunsets for a magazine. But there are stories less purposeful for the lure of tourism and more purpose-driven for something else.

There are Koreans wearing the daster as comfortably as if they were born here. On the shore is a fraternity of vendors, stringing beads while on the side, backpackers haggle even before they’ve finished. And on the inner part of the island are unpicky divers, coming out of houses with Red Horse and pandesal in hand, a common sight during tourist season when most resorts are packed to capacity. These are sights that lovers under talisay trees and fiery sunsets could not hold against.

On the third day, biking through the center of Logon, caught in the middle of a basketball game, I passed by a sari-sari store for supplies.

After all the obligatory questions, the store owner, Nang Bebot, asks where I was from. I could never answer the question quite as aptly as needed. “Ako, ‘day, taga-Apo,” Nang Bebot said. I grew excited, coming from there a few weeks back. We trade stories, personalities we knew. I wondered then what made her move here to an island similar to her own in lifestyle and geography. I was too befuddled to ask. And even then, would she know? Could she give a good enough reason? What other reason is there to move, other than the need to move?

It is easily understandable to me, moving, for those who find the concept of unguarded heat alluring. It is the catch of novelty, the fantasy of colder and more developed areas, and its people. But this woman, she moves here anyway despite close similarities to her place of origin. What was she trying to find, that she couldn’t find in the confines of habit? What does one place hold in certain advantage to the other?

At night, red and blue lights flicker in the darkness of Malapascua’s waters, each a boat that leads back to Maya Port. Bancas are parked for the day with names like Kabughan, Purple Manta and Maliit. Candles are lit on beachside restaurants. Cool air on the skin. All the elements of romance, it seems, fixed in someone else’s memory.

I was not as impressed by Malapascua no matter how I tried to be. And I did try.

“The best places,” Pico Iyer once said, “are the places that leave you permanently unsettled.” The white sand, the macrolife, the vendors who sell fresh catch off the boat, may be to others worthy of fantasy. But to a Cebuano growing up with sun in the eyes and sand on the feet, it is settlement.

Perhaps then a certain displacement is needed to feel at home. Perhaps home is a concept in transition.

I look at the waters, its inviting darkness, the glow of Daanbantayan in the near distance and know that somewhere on the other side of the shore are more convictions waiting to be let go.

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