A Day Away – Malapascua, Philippines

A Day Away
Malapascua, Philippines

Someone once said that we must take a day away “to withdraw from the cares that will not withdraw from us”.

So one early morning I woke up in a beach cottage, alone in the faraway island of Malapascua, a place with no electricity and no phone signal. I felt totally unplugged.

Two days before, I took my first 20-hour ferry ride from Manila to Cebu, boarded a bus, which took four hours to get to the northern coast, and then hopped onto a fisherman’s boat that took me to this island. Along the way, conscious of my being alone and not wanting to get hassled, I tried my best to be inconspicuous and lied to strangers whenever necessary.

“Are you going there by yourself?”
“Oh, my friends are already there, waiting for me.”

On the beach, I devised a way to discourage being approached. I whipped up my spiral notebook and started writing, a trick that drove casual strangers away.

Bounty Beach in Malapascua is a smaller version of Boracay – fine white sand, placid blue sea – but without the tourist crowd, souvenir hawkers and costly resorts. Leaving my cottage, I walked toward the gentle surf. The sun had not gone up long enough to warm the waters. The wind was still a bit chilly. I went to the village on the other side of the beach.

The boat builders were already at work – chiseling, sawing, sanding wood. The joints of the boat were glued together with epoxy which kept out water. A single-seater boat was sold for $100.00 U.S. They said it could last 10 years if taken care of properly.

Several meters away fishermen were hauling in labod (anchovy-like fish). I watched, fascinated, as the villagers slowly unfolded the nets, pounding them with a piece of wood to shake the small fish off. The fish fell on waiting mats. From there they were gathered into basins or pails.

Some locals were already waiting to buy the fresh catch. A buyer explained to me that you must first gut the fish then cook them in vinegar or coconut milk. He then very politely told me that my face and clothes were splattered with fish blood. The brutal pounding of the nets mutilated some of the fish. I should not have stood so close to the nets – time to swim and get the bits of fish off me.

Afterwards, I had a massage on the sand. I was careful not to lie directly under those naughty coconut trees that I imagined were trying to target me. I asked Amy, the woman who was giving me a massage, to keep talking to me so I would not get ticklish.

She told me many of the popular folk tales of the island. The miraculous Virgin Desamparados, the island’s patron and protector, figured in most of the tales. She took the shape of a beautiful lady in white, came to the villagers in dreams, drove pirates away and protected the villagers from Japanese invaders during World War II. Her image, carved from miraculous driftwood that would not burn, was displayed in the village chapel. I went to see but the chapel was closed.

I closed my eyes to the blue of the sea, and woke up to find everything seemingly unchanged. But for the position of the sun, now high up above me, it seemed time had not moved at all. I marveled at the strange quiet, as if a great machine inside me had been turned off and stopped churning. This is Malapascua. I was beyond the reach of routine and all modern comforts I had become dependent on. It felt liberating.

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