During Lunar New Year, Alona Beach, a smallish haven for divers on the end of Panglao Island, gets as bloated and swollen as a pimple on the tip of a person’s nose. Tourists come rushing in like imperial forces, overtaking the beach and claiming it for Lonely Planet readers everywhere. Hotel rooms fill up faster than seats for a Duran Duran concert in 1983; women working at beachside massage parlors touch nearly as many vacationers as the security guy doing pat downs at the airport. The sales of beer and sunscreen go through the roof, and prostitutes do so much overtime even they feel slutty.
TTD and I were warned. Going down to Alona Beach at night during Lunar New Year with no room booked was not a good idea. It would be like buying a pizza with your fattest friend and expecting to get the last slice. But, as is the case with most warnings, we paid it little mind. When our friend told us that we wouldn’t be able to find a place to stay, we chalked it up to silly paranoia. Besides, aren’t most warnings based on overblown negative thinking, like when your parents tell you not to take candy from strangers or the surgeon general says smoking is bad?
By the way, if the surgeon general has kids, their lives must be a nightmare. Warnings everywhere. Don’t smoke, don’t take candy from strangers, don’t take candy cigarettes from strangers, don’t take real cigarettes from strangers, don’t give cigarettes to strangers without warning them that it could cause emphysema first, etc, etc. Those poor children.
I digress. On our second night in the Philippines, TTD and I decided to throw caution to the wind and head down to Alona Beach without a place to stay. We took a cab from Tagbileran and, our backs saddled with all the clothes and toiletries we could shove inside our backpacks, set out to prove the naysayers wrong. We’re not really the type to make arrangements in advance; my idea of planning for the future is putting a condom in my wallet before going out to a bar. We wandered down the beach, bouncing from place to place, hearing the same thing over and over again:
“No rooms. Fully booked.”
The first half hour or so of being rejected by every hostel or hotel we stepped foot in wasn’t so bad. However, it gets distressing after awhile. It’s sort of like that first week on OkCupid, when nobody has responded to those winks you sent out. It’s fine, nothing to panic about. But after you’ve winked every girl within 100 miles and your inbox is still as empty as an Ethiopian refrigerator, you start to worry a bit. The sun had long gone down on the beach and our remaining options…well…there were no remaining options. I stood there with my backpack on, wondering why my clothes suddenly felt so dang heavy.
“What are we gonna do?” TTD asked. “Everything’s booked.”
With all hope seemingly lost, a motorcycle pulled up next to us out of nowhere. A Filipino man drove it with an older German woman on the back. “Do you need a room?” she shouted over the sound of the engine. “I have a room.”
TTD and I exchanged a look to make sure we were on the same page. “We’ll take it,” she said.
A few minutes later, we were in a large house located well off the beaten path. This wasn’t a hostel, but the place where these two lived. The German woman had to go someplace, so the man showed us around. His name was Kiko and he was an artist, a painter. “We bought the house to make art,” he said. “Then…we have no money. We rent out our rooms so we can stay.”
There were a bunch of people living in Kiko’s house. Alex and Ninette were from Denmark and had come to Panglao to dive. They had a room there. Nelson was from Manila, but had come to the island to work in a tattoo shop. He also lived there. In addition, there was a Canadian who would start shooting a feature length film there the next day. All of them, except for the Canadian, were sitting out on the porch drinking Red Horse and passing around a joint. They invited us to join them, and we did.
Nelson poured us beer and nobody seemed to mind when we passed on the joint. “Do you know the Thresher Shark?” Alex asked.
“Thresher Shark?” I asked cluelessly, clearly indicating I didn’t.
“It is very rare,” he said, and then explained how he and Ninette had come to the Philippines with vague hopes to see one. The Thresher Shark can only be spotted in a few places around the world, one being Malapascua. They had gone there, hopeful, but weren’t surprised or disappointed when they didn’t see one. “They swim so deep in the ocean,” he said. “You have to hope one comes up. We will go back to Malapascua soon…maybe we will see one. Maybe not.”
Kiko bought another case of beer and the drinks started going down quickly. We all smoked cigarettes and talked. We talked about Koreans being afraid of the sun, and how the Americans and the Japanese destroyed Manila in WWII; Alex talked more about diving and his Thresher Shark and Kiko talked about the subtle differences in how Filipinos from different areas speak Tagalog. Nelson was cool. He sat there quietly with tattoos covering his brown skin.
“What’s the craziest tattoo you ever gave somebody?” I asked him.
“It was on a very crazy man,” he said. “His brother brought him to me. This man…he was a soldier and he was hit in the head. He couldn’t remember things and he would get very drunk and lose his way. I tattooed him right here.” Nelson held out his forearm, palm up, running his finger across the area between his wrist and his elbow joint. “I tattooed on him his name, his address, and his telephone number. His brother said to him, ‘Be good and I’ll take you out for food. What do you like better? McDonald’s or Jollibee?’ and the man said he wanted McDonald’s. When I finished, the brother told him to thank me but the man said no, and he put his finger in my face and said, ‘You hurt me.’”
Nelson shrugged. “I didn’t get mad.”
Eventually I would drink until I couldn’t keep my head up, and then I would pass out on Kiko’s floor. Later, in the morning, TTD and I would pay them for the room and the German woman would give us necklaces that she had made. We would walk down to the main road and get a taxi back to the city.
It was a strange and wonderful night, the type of thing that doesn’t happen to people who get their names and addresses tattooed on them. Nor for people who are good at making plans, or who figure that the chances of seeing a Thresher Shark are so low, there’s no point in trying.
What would Alex do if he actually did end up seeing a Thresher Shark, I wonder? It would have to come up from the deep at the perfect time, in lovely synchronicity with his dive, like they had both arranged to meet but didn’t know it.