I think the hard-drinking tradition of New Year’s Eve is the result of an unconscious human desire, or need, to believe in the positive possibilities of our inexorably unraveling time on earth. It’s a smart dichotomy: 2010 comes in a burst of fire and color, the future riding into the skies on bottle rockets and Roman candle flares, while 2009 is puking its guts out in the bushes. Faith in the year to come is assured.
I spent my New Year in Boracay – my first and most likely last trip to that storied isle. Boracay is the premier tourist location in the Philippines. It’s a tiny island off the northwestern tip of Panay blessed with a long, long white-sand beach (named… White Beach) and lovely clear water. Since appearing on the map in the 1970s, it has been developed to the point that its front beach is now a dense cluster of resorts, hotels, restaurants and other establishments necessary for tourists to ignore that they’re in a foreign country.
Perhaps that is overly negative. Overall, my trip to Boracay was good. The beach really is beautiful, if somewhat characterless, and the pastel-fondant high-rises that plague touristy coastal areas of the US – I’m thinking Florida here – are mercifully absent. There is a lot of delicious (and Peace Corps-budget-unfriendly) food, many open-air cafes with views of the ocean, and you can go barefoot everywhere.
But the place teems with loud, rude foreigners. At one Thai cafe, I stared daggers at the four Europeans – they sounded German, but I can’t be sure – who summoned their waitress through loud, drawn-out clapping. They were arrogant, obnoxious and demanding, and I felt terrible for the Filipina who had to wait on them – especially in a country where tipping isn’t the norm. (In this instance I did leave her a tip - as a hedge against her hating all outsiders.)
There were many Peace Corps volunteers present, and though we were split into numerous residential groups, somehow it often seemed impossible not to get sucked into one faction or another. And I have nothing against spending some time with other volunteers – I was staying with four who mercifully took me under their wing after my first and second lodging plans fell through – but sometimes it was just too much: too many voices and twice as many eyes. I enjoyed hanging out, but in general I was happiest rambling White Beach or Bulabog (the back beach, not as pretty but also not as packed and developed), watching the local boats pursue their morning catch and mumbling monologues to the seaweed.
I took a few pictures, but it was overcast for much of my stay. And notice that every picture I’m posting here looks out over the ocean – none look inland. It’s because of that lamentable inevitability of the paradise despoiled. It’s an issue that has been harped on endlessly by travel writers, likely because it’s true. On one side of the coin, natural beauty and local innocence; on the other, well, the coin itself. It’s hypocritical to slam greed as a negative transforming force when I’m also contributing to the transformation - the only way to keep beautiful places pristine is to keep everyone away, and I’m unwilling to stay away, so I’m nothing but a grasping foreign devil myself.
I wasn’t thinking in quite these terms while I waited on the front beach for the countdown into 2010. It’s rather incongruous how the celebration of a worldwide event, a spectacle participated in by billions of people, can focus your mind ever inward: I was pondering, not the end of one decade and the start of another, but the beginning my last year in Peace Corps. Instead of the shadows around me I was thinking about people back in my own country. And after the noise and the toasts and the embraces, I left the crowd and sat alone on a dark patch of beach, and I could almost see my hopes for the new year silhouetted against the place where the ocean met the sky.