One advantage of coming over as an adult to live in the US is that you don’t miss the Philippines too much. This is how I feel. I came here when I was in my early thirties, and by that time I had done much traveling in the Philippines—though, truthfully, not enough. But the thing is, when it comes to traveling—whether it’s in a different country or the homeland—it’s never enough. I doubt if anyone can visit all the places worth seeing in any one country. Well, maybe if you did that full time, you could—but tell me, who can afford to do that? Even hosts of travel shows on TV must move on.
But, yes, the Philippines.
I consider myself lucky to have woken up each day of my life until I graduated from high school next to a window that looked out to the beautiful Mayon Volcano, said to be the world’s only perfect-cone volcano. It’s easy to see why. On a clear day, it really does look like a perfect cone. Although a 1984 eruption left a deep gash on its eastern slope, from certain angles, it has retained its signature shape and ability to take one’s breath away.
This was the view from my hometown of Daraga, Albay, a small but bustling municipality about 15 miles from the foot of the volcano. The town is far enough that it doesn’t have the large boulders spewed out by the volcano onto closer towns during past eruptions, but it’s close enough to get a sprinkling of ash whenever Mayon wakes up from a slumber. And it’s close enough for one to see at night the glow of a lava flow, still one of the best sights anywhere.
And as if that weren’t enough, just a hop over to Legazpi City; there’s a hill famous in the community because it offers an even closer and higher vantage point for looking at Mayon. It’s called Lignon Hill.
Looking back, it really does seem serendipitous that the city that offers the best view of the volcano would also have a hill, the only one for miles in any direction, that provides the perfect viewing platform for sightseers—as if it had all been preordained. It’s as if nature said: Here, if you want an even better view of this volcano (“Mayon,” by the way, comes from “magayon,” the Bicolano word for beautiful), just climb this hill. And bring all your guests, too.
I climbed this hill with my friends when I was young, and a majestic view of the volcano waited for those hardy enough to make it all the way to the top. Incidentally, this hill, since the idyllic days of my youth, has been developed into a fully functioning tourist attraction. A winding road has been carved all the way to the top, where now there is not only a café, but also a zip-line for the “adventurous.”
I was there in 2010, during a trip to see my hometown, and I thought, Lignon Hill as it stood now, was a far cry from the muddy, lonely hill I climbed in my youth. But then I thought it was but a sign that many things have changed since those days long gone. Another was that I was there not as a young scraggly boy looking for adventure, but a man fully grown, visiting from a distant land.
But the view up to now is the same. Finely chiseled, blue-gray, and majestic in its sheer size, Mayon enchants all lookers and turns them into admirers in a split-second. Incidentally, it’s often said that Mayon doesn’t just show itself to anyone. True enough, like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, there are days when it sits shrouded in clouds, and tourists wish they would have more luck the next day.
Another nice thing about growing up in the little corner of Bicol that was my hometown was that I was never too far away from the beach. But, of course, almost anyone living in the Philippines can say that because the Philippines is an archipelago: One is never too far from the beach no matter where one is (with the exception, maybe, of the Mountain provinces). I was not too surprised when I first learned that it actually has a longer coastline than the US It may be hard to believe, but it’s true.
I practically grew up on the beach. There’s a picture of me as a toddler, standing in the sand in Bacacay, Albay. I am about two years old. That photo could’ve been taken on any Sunday of that year or the year before or after because that was about how often we went to the beach in those days. The resorts of Bacacay, only about a half-hour drive from where we lived, were a quick and easy getaway from our humdrum lives.
When I was growing up, my family—by which I mean my extended family: my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, siblings and whoever else happened to be living in our houses at the time (they were all considered family)—was always finding an excuse to drive out to the beach on Sundays. And since we were a large family, that wasn’t very hard to do. There was always an occasion to celebrate—someone’s birthday or anniversary or graduation—and there were the holidays. And sometimes we went for no reason at all. All it took was for someone to say “Let’s go!” and we went. And once it was agreed that we were going, we all knew what to do. Each household would prepare a dish for 15, 20 or 25 people for that was how many of us usually went. And someone would bring rice and soda, too, and ice. And fruit in season.
Looking back, though, I remember a time—this must’ve been when I was in college in Manila and would spend the summer back in Bicol—when I went to the beach with my cousins with little more than some snacks and soda or water. But this was no longer the large family outings we had when I was younger, but just a bunch of cousins out for a “joyride.” Since there was no place else to go, we went to the only place we knew: by the water’s edge, where we could all be carefree for a while.
Back in town and back in school, our skin had varying degrees of sunburn year-round—except maybe during the heavy monsoon seasons, when we didn’t go swimming as often (“We’d get wet,” someone was always joking).
The nice thing, too, about the Philippines’ beaches is that the water is always a nice warm temperature, unlike the ocean water in much of the US, even here in sunny Southern California, where it could be nice and warm out, but in the water, just a tad too cool; where really the time for swimming is just a few weeks out of the whole year. Someone here who’d been to the Philippines described the ocean water there best: He said it’s “bath” water. That’s it: The Philippines is surrounded by bath water year-round.
In high school, when we were old enough to drive, my friends and I often went to the beach too, this time without our parents, and that was where most of us smoked our first cigarettes, drank our first beers, and heavens know what else we did. And once we almost got into a fight. And we kept going back. Though it wasn’t always easy to get hold of a car in those days, we kept going back whenever we could because, well, the beach wasn’t school, it wasn’t church, it wasn’t our everyday life.
And that’s probably why I’ve never passed up a chance to go to the beach, even now. I’ll probably forever associate it with freedom, with the utter lack of things you have to do.
In Rosario, Cavite, where my mom is from and where my brother, sisters and I were sometimes dispatched during the summer when we were growing up, I was lucky to have an uncle who was as crazy about the water as I was. When he wasn’t busy he would round up all of us kids, gather some snacks, and we headed off to a nearby beach.
We simply had to cross a river on a bangka to get there so we went three or four times a week sometimes. And we never got tired.
When I was much older and living in Manila you could say I took this beach-going business to a higher level. I went to places like Dumaguete, Batangas, Bataan, Subic and, of course, the mother of all beaches—Boracay.
Here in the US, now that I think about it—I’ve gone swimming only in the waters off Los Angeles and the nearby cities (Crystal Cove state beach is my favorite) and in icy Lake Tahoe and Yosemite’s Mirror Lake. But I have been all over the California coast, from San Diego and Oceanside in the south, up to Malibu, Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach, Morro Bay (where, incidentally, it’s said the first “Filipinos” to step in the United States made landfall), Big Sur, Carmel, Pebble Beach, Monterey Bay, Half-Moon Bay, and as far north as Point Reyes National Seashore. My favorite stretch of the coast is where the Pacific Coast Highway looks out to the ocean crashing against the cliffs. For a picture of the sheer rawness of nature, it’s hard to beat.
When I go through these places and look at the great blue Pacific, I can’t help but think that just on the other side is the Philippines. I’ve never seen the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico, the two other great bodies of water that surround the US. They’re definitely on my to-see list.
But after all these years, the beaches of Bicol still have a special place—yes, I’ll say it—in my heart. Its sands may not be as white as the sands of Boracay—in fact, when I was there last in 2010, I thought they’d become even darker, soot black. But I know that was just my memory playing tricks on me. When you go away you idealize things. So when you think of the beaches of your childhood, you think of the white sands of other beaches, you think of luxurious, gleaming resorts. And then you go back and find reality is nothing at all like your memory. But it doesn’t bother me. Those dark, drab beaches of Bicol, with their pedestrian resorts—just a jumble of huts, really—will always be home.