I spent Christmas alone on a tiny speck with nothing but sea a hundred kilometers in any direction. It was wonderful.
Cuyo Island Christmas was almost a last-minute decision, coming only after I reluctantly discarded plans to visit Romblon (too much travel) and Sugar Beach in Sipalay (no lodging vacancies). It was the result of a chance encounter with another volunteer in Iloilo City only a few days before Christmas: Julie was planning to take a two-night ferry to Puerto Princesa in Palawan along with her brother and sister-in-law, and she mentioned that her boat had a stopover in a place called Cuyo. And so, after a little research, some confusion with tickets – I noticed on the 24th that my ticket was for the 21st; “Just come an hour early,” assured the Milagrosa rep – and fourteen hours spent alternately sweltering in my boat’s lower economy deck and freezing in Julie’s aircon compartment, we pulled into Cuyo Island’s little port on Christmas morning.
The Cuyo Islands are a small archipelago in the north Sulu Sea. The principal island – the only one of any girth – is also called Cuyo Island, and its main hamlet is Cuyo town; it is a small spit of land roughly midway between Panay and Palawan. Aside from the municipality of Cuyo, there’s another “town,” two pensions, and one resort run by a rather unpleasant European. Lonely Planet says nothing whatsoever about Cuyo Island, and its only distinctions are that it is a prime spot for windsurfing, was the filming location for the Filipino film Ploning, and – on one of the miniscule landmasses scattered around Cuyo Island itself – is the home of Amanpulo, one of the most exclusive resorts in the Philippines. I showed up just hoping I could find an empty bed, since I couldn’t find the phone numbers of any possible lodgings.
Finding a place to stay took all of five minutes. Nikki’s Pension (“and Fast Food”) is a serviceable place located on the front beach. It’s cheap – PHP200 a night; for perspective, one night at Amanpulo could buy me around 250 nights at Nikki’s - and run by a lovely Filipino couple, Ate Nida and Kuya Steve. The downside was that it was also the chosen lodging of several older, unsavory Westerners and their Filipina “companions.” Allan, an American, detailed to me his plans to buy a tract of land on a nearby island and start a small resort; he was very complimentary about Peace Corps, telling me he wished his own son had joined the organization instead of the military. Unfortunately, he lost credibility when he referred to the young Filipina he had in tow as his “personal assistant.”
Allan, Kuya Steve assured me, was one of the better ones. He groused about Jim, a fat, balding man of unknown origin I thankfully never met, who revved up his ragged motorcycle in front of the pension, startling Steve from his naps. Jim apparently became incensed when Steve, a gentle, soft-spoken fellow, suggested he might want to muffle his bike so as not to awaken the entire town. “Ah, very arrogant,” said Steve.
I asked Steve if they often saw foreigners on Cuyo, and he affirmed that they did – and sometimes they were even young. I certainly didn’t see any evidence of that type; aside from the brief white invasion during the five-hour layover of Julie and her companions, I was the island’s token backpacker for the weekend.
And so of course I garnered attention from almost everyone on the rock. There was something subtly different about the people on Cuyo, though: unlike most Filipinos, their attention didn’t stress me out. Somehow they managed to be friendly and welcoming without being overwhelming. One factor I noticed was that it was very easy for me to speak to them in dialect, which was odd, since I speak Ilonggo and the people on Cuyo didn’t. Tagalog’s their tongue, and also something they called “Cuyonon,” which I suspect is essentially Tagalog with some local flair.
The difference was that they didn’t take my speaking Ilonggo as a joke, like many adult Filipinos do – they didn’t treat it as a frivolous amusement, and I found that carrying on conversations, or half-conversations really, was easy and gratifying. No raucous laughter, no barkadas yelling a thousand questions at me all at once, no mocking my accent. They tried to understand me and I tried to understand them, and we got along smashingly.
Particularly the kids. Within hours of landing, a group of beach rats led by Mark Anthony, a clever young wag with bulging eyes and a deformed hand, had befriended me, and we hung out a bit every day of my visit.
One morning I heard the boys talking from under the cover of a beached bangka. I glanced into the boat and there were three boys, including Mark Anthony, sitting on the benches. I thought I had glimpsed a wisp of smoke wafting up, and I sternly asked the boys if they had been smoking. They denied it vehemently. Later I caught them red-handed and, unabashed, they posed for a photo like three young, brown James Deans.
Immediately afterward I announced that I would be taking the photo to show the police. That spooked them; they tossed the cigarettes and pleaded with me. “Ryan,” Mark Anthony said seriously, “Don’t go to the police, okay? We threw them away already.” I agreed to let them slide this time, but I let them know I would keep the photo just in case.
My whole trip was laid-back and easy. During their stopover, Julie and her crew joined me in exploring the town – an expedition that didn’t use up much of the sun. We partook of a Filipino-cuisine Christmas lunch, chatted up the locals, and pretty soon I was seeing them off at the port.
And for the next couple days I was blatantly and gloriously alone. It was, simply, exactly what I had wanted when I was trying to find a place to go for Christmas – somewhere away from anywhere, somewhere nobody knew me. A place where I could replace all the disappointed memories of Christmas the year before – when I bought my host family gifts on the odd chance that they had gotten me something as well (they hadn’t), and had spent most of the holiday either biking desperately away from my town or being reminded, through the spectacular blandness of the day, of what I was missing back home.
I hiked all over the island one day, walking from end to end and prompting an angry sunburn as well as bloody cuts. (Early in my service, I was very diligent about applying sunscreen. Now I tend to undertake long bike rides and hikes under the vague and easy delusion that there will simply be shade along the way.) I climbed into an abandoned, rusty boat and read a book on the history of salt. I scraped my knees bloody kneeling in the sand taking photos of sandcrabs, and harassed seabirds to get them to fly in front of the setting sun.
I ate cheap and walked until my legs felt like rubber and my feet like wood. I sweated from the heat of the sun and shivered in the chill of the water. I hobnobbed and enjoyed it. (Me: “What was your job at Amanpulo?” Filipina: “Being cute!”) I swear by the time I left, half the town had met me. I met a gregarious Filipino who had lived in Iloilo and gave me old business cards of his associates – including van drivers, a traffic inspector, and a dentist. He was involved in shipping, loved signing packaging forms that would be read in other countries, and wanted nothing so fervently as to have his name spread around the world: so for you, Raul Fabiantes, here’s me doing my part.
Cuyo is very little and has very little. Although it is a pretty island, for beauty it can’t measure up to a thousand other places in the Philippines, and in terms of cosmopolitan appeal it places somewhere below Wiggins, Mississippi. But it doesn’t matter: one of my fondest reminiscences of this whole experience will no doubt be the Christmas I spent bloodying myself on rocks and briars and getting scorched by a merciless sun that knows no winter.
When I reluctantly walked to the port to catch my boat back to Iloilo, Mark Anthony was waiting on the pier to bid me farewell; and while I watched the beach recede as the setting sun painted it with gold and rust, I thought this tiny place floating in the middle of nowhere was a little bit dreamlike and a little bit wise: it had known exactly when to appear for me, what to offer and what to shyly withhold, and when to retreat into the gathering dusk, rosy and lovely, until the darkness left me with only sea air and soft memories.