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The Rising and Setting Suns of Boracay, By An Aging Writer

It’s nighttime by the time our plane leaves the Cebu runway behind, with a convoluted journey yet to come: after getting out of Kalibo Airport on Panay, we still need to haggle for the two-hour journey to Caticlan Port, navigate the short ferry ride to Boracay and finally haggle once more for the tricycle ride to our hotel on the other side of the island.

We left Cebu at 11:25pm – by the time we started to draw close to Oasis Resort and Spa, the horizon is already threatening daylight. The porter on duty has been waiting for us since 1am, and his genial greeting isn’t enough to convince us that we aren’t terrible people for making him wait. We drop our bags in the room, ready to slip into a coma – but it takes no small amount of self-discipline to intentionally be awake for a sunrise in the Philippines, and we weren’t about to waste the opportunity.

Sitting on Illig-Illigan beach, a short walk down the hill from the hotel, we let the sandflies dance madly around us as we watched the sun sneak over the horizon and start its rounds over Boracay. This was especially poignant for me as this was now officially the start of my 30th year on Earth; our irresponsibly fancy, non-backpacker-y hotel and this trip to the luxury capital of the Philippines was all part of Meg’s birthday plotting, and this solar spectacle was an event neither of us had planned for.

Three glorious hours of sleep later, we scraped ourselves off the bed and sloughed our way to the restaurant for exactly the right kind of birthday breakfast, with every intent to go right back to sleep afterwards. That would likely have resulted in the rest of the afternoon vanishing, however, so we grudgingly decided to have a glorious day instead.

Boracay was a familiar name to me even before coming to the Philippines. For better or worse, it’s the tourist capital of the country, particularly with Korean visitors (as my students have informed me en masse). This being an improvised, tight-purse sort of backpacking adventure, such a destination would probably not have been on our radars, but it was my birthday and be damned if we weren’t going to do something special.

I was a bit wary of the crowds at first. I’ve been trained from a young age to Not Be Tedious and I’m already desperately English to look upon as it is: no matter how long I spend in the sun, I’m either ‘bleached’ or ‘violently bacon-like’ without much time in-between, so the least I can do is try to avoid behaving too much like I’m looking for an English breakfast everywhere I go. As with many touristy things, however, there’s a reason for Boracay’s popularity.

White Beach is exactly what you imagine when you picture somewhere like the Philippines. A two-mile bar of bone-white sand stretches along the side of Boracay with palm trees behind and crystalline water beyond; despite its popularity, it’s fastidiously maintained, with regularly-signposted rules on what is and isn’t allowed on the beach (mostly sensible things like smoking, fire-dancing and whatever ‘commercial sandcastles’ are). As a result, you never have to worry about discovering someone‘s cigarettes/broken bottles/remains while picking out the perfect towel spot.

You’ll need to develop a thick skin for salesmen – every few feet someone will pitch a boat tour, massage parlour, restaurant or trinket to you, some more enthusiastically than others. After I semi-jokingly assured one hat seller that my head was too big for most human hats (this is in fact true) and walked on, he came running after me a good kilometer further down the beach with as many large-size hats as he could find. While he caught his breath, I dutifully tried them on to guiltily demonstrate that they, too, were to small for my massive noggin.

Being a commercial hotspot for the Philippines, dining on Boracay is noticeably more aggressive on the wallet compared to the rest of the country. We spent many-a frustrating moment trudging with increasing hunger-induced wrath past wonderful but overpriced eateries (lomi for 200 pesos, pull the other one it’s got bells on my good man), occasionally settling for appetisers or, in our darker moments, 7/11 toasties. It was a turning point, then, when we discovered the wonders of the town’s side streets.

I promised a shout-out in particular to the wonderful folks at Eva’s Homemade Resto and Bar: they don’t advertise themselves with particular gusto and are a little off the main stretch, but their food is a) backpacker-priced and b) spectacular. We spent both breakfast and dinner there, talking with the staff and accidentally advertising the small restaurant to other passing travellers. Eva, Vanessa and Nonoy – and their food – were lovely and I would love to point any hungry adventurers their way.

Boracay’s sunrises are serenely beautiful, but its sunsets are a true spectacle. Dark-sailed boats drift lazily across the bay as the sky becomes a vivid palette of orange and blue hues, putting any social media filter to shame. I gave up on editing the photos as there was nothing I could do to make it look any better than reality.

As our penultimate expedition in the Philippines, we head with quiet trepidation to its capital – the sprawling, decidedly palm-tree-free metropolis of Manila. We’ve got flights to be on and Meg’s got a climbing fix to feed, so we’ll be thrust into the beating and blaring heart of the biggest city for hundreds of nautical miles around.

I reload my camera, shoulder my slightly salty backpack and hope my passport’s around here somewhere.

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Lunch At Michelle’s

IMG_1249I wanted to call it ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s Lunch At Michelle’s’, but the title wouldn’t let me use a strikethrough. First-world problems.

What’s this? Two posts in a week? I spoil you.IMG_1235

Normally, I would have a blog post to brag about a particular holiday/month/season in extended tedious detail, cramming as many photos in as is conceivably possible. This time, however, I’m going to describe the one-off experience of a luncheon invite from one of my adult students, Michelle. Ordinarily, this would be a matter of ‘coffee and bikkits’, or chimaek(Chicken + Maekchu[beer] –  they LOVE their contractions) – but this particular feast was an education on Korea in edible form.

If our flat had this view, there'd be SO. MANY. PHOTOS.

If our flat had this view, there’d be SO. MANY. PHOTOS.

IMG_1241My previous experience with Korean food is relatively minimal. I know the basics: gimbap, rice, vegetables and meat wrapped in seaweed not entirely unlike sushi; bibimbap, a big ol’ bowl of vegetables, rice and gochujang sauce; dak galbi, possibly the most delicious thing ever done with saucy chicken; pulgogi, a mishmash of beef strips, glass noodles and rice, etc. etc. I have eaten more food than I actually know the name of, alas.IMG_1253

A quick introduction to Michelle and her family. Michelle is one of my longest-running students, having been taught by both myself and my predecessor John (and, I would imagine, possibly before) at Kangs Academy. In contrast to many of the other students at the school, Michelle has an extra-Korea past; before marriage, she was a professional opera singer in Moscow for seven years (another man I teach was a tenor in Florence) and still teaches several of the students’ children. I have also taught her son, her sister and her niece/s throughout the year – no pressure to behave over dinner, then.

FeastAs it turns out, the event was joined by a total of seven of my students, all of whom apparently working to make an unbelievably sumptuous Korean feast. If I’m to be honest, I recognised about half of the spread, but enjoyed everything regardless. Michelle had made(from scratch, including the soy sauce) – beef ribs, pork with kimchi, spicy chicken and potatoes, unnamable boiled roots, bamboo shoots, kimchi chige(soup), kimchi just for the hell of kimchi, black-bean rice, glass noodles, dotorimuk(sesame oil over vegetables and acorn jelly), potato-and-octopus tentacle pancakes (less scary than they sound), seasoned soy sauce, sautéed vegetables and, for dessert, homemade fruit yoghurt. I’m certain they had Korean names, but buggered if I could tell you what they were.IMG_1295

Seating arrangements aside (I love the aesthetic of low-table Korean dining, but my bloody massive legs make it like trying to cram a gorilla into an eggcup), I was totally absorbed by the meal. Not ordinarily being a great campaigner of kimchi, I devoured the pickled cabbage with a newfound relish while Meg stared in shock and revulsion at my sauce-smeared features.

It was so thoroughly enjoyable that I condescended to doing the ‘peace sign’ thing with everyone afterwards.Peace Sign Thing

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Discerning Dinner and Strange Plaices

Octopus. ‘Yum’, I hear you cry.

I’ve had 24 hours to digest now, so I’m fairly sure I’ve escaped the grasping clutches of Tempting Fate.

The grisly remains: the mollusc-like things in the middle were apparently as ‘living’ as the undulating things in the shell.

Last night was an Educational Experience in many ways. Firstly, it is entirely the norm for the director to take out the whole staff (at great expense, I guiltily suspect) to a local restaurant after work. Secondly, it is also entirely normal for the entire group to drink merrily and continuously; I’m still not entirely sure who was meant to be driving, but everyone turned up hale to work today. Thirdly, such merry drinking is rarely, if ever, a good idea the night before teaching, especially when one is expected to live up to one’s energetic expectations in the classroom.

Fourthly and finally, it is apparently customary to ingest food which, over the course of the meal, appears to gradually require less actual heat to prepare in the kitchen. By this, I mean that the last thing I ate actually wriggled in its beautifully-prepared little grave – leaving me with a mixture of guilt, intrigue and hedonistic gluttony. I never even knew its name.

Relatively few worries about the mortality of this fish, at least.

Despite our phobia of consuming anything intestinal, tentacled or still-respiring, I took childish joy in slurrrrping several octopi limbs while Meg eyed me with disgust and rage, clearly having doubts about this man she was stuck with in Tentacleville. Nonetheless, I persisted in my carnivorous endeavours, gleefully downing shellfish with varying levels of consciousness and mobility. We were proudly presented with an enormous, somewhat belligerent plaice which made a heart-wrenching bid for freedom, flapping about the tiles at our feet, before being wrestled to the kitchens by its unsmiling executioner. When next we met, it was on a bed of (as it transpired, artificial and therefore inedible) noodle-like strands, raw and beautifully prepared. I can only hope to have a similar experience when I go.

A pot of, for pathetic English tongues, Unbelievably Hot Stuff.

Dining in Korea, especially with Koreans, is particularly poignant to observe – even if one observes in hindsight, with gochujang still smeared about the mouth. As Westerners, we are particularly prone to the defensive this is MY food attitude towards dining, regularly resorting to wielding utensils as a deterrent to reaching fingers. I know of one particular incident whereby a (otherwise peaceful and lovely) friend of mine defended her pizza from opportunism by burying her fork in her assailant’s tendons, thereby disarming said poacher and saving her dinner. I know that my chopsticks are a barely-discernible blur to spectators when presented with a group-size pan of dak galbi, but this is a result of both my own greed, and my culture’s encouragement of said greed.

(사진= Photo, I believe) – taken by Amy’s phone, featuring (left → right): Eric, myself, Amy, Jun, Meg & Sunny. The pictured beers show that this was the START of dinner.

When eating with others, I realise that is must be a relatively violent scene for them to behold: a smear of sauce across the table, a mumbling and smacking of lips and three people’s dinners are gone. And yet, I found myself defeated by two-thirds of the way through the meal, while the rest of the school hadn’t broken stride in their conversation. Apparently patience is not only a virtue here, it’s a recommended dietary technique. I’m taking notes.

Also, an entirely unrelated but nonetheless bizarre story to end on: yesterday morning, shortly before school started, the staff room was filled with the heartwarming sound of tweeting infant birds. This in itself was not entirely unusual – plenty of trees around – but for the fact that it was coming from a bag in the very confused Sunny’s hands. As it turns out, a young student had decided (without her parent’s knowledge, I gather) to purchase two chicks from just outside the school, casually bringing them in with her. We placed the entirely confused birds under a colander in the kitchen for their stay.

Terrified beyond reason, I believe.

I am duly informed that they were intended as pets, and choose to believe this to be the case.

* A note, for credit/information: the majority of photos in this particular post are mobile-phone pictures taken by either myself or colleagues. Had I actually brought my camera to the seafood slaughter, I would have taken more.