By Maffi Deparis and illustration by Vanessa Ammann (#vanessaammannkunst)
My parents found themselves walking among the debris of our first home strewn across Angol beach in 1985. A storm had come in with the shifting Habagat winds that for most of the year blew into the back beaches of Bulabog and Ilig-iligan. On its path across the island, the typhoon tore open the face of the house, crushing its roof and throwing tables and dinner plates out and into the island’s interior. My parents packed what they could in the night and during a moment of calm, fled to a friend’s house until morning.
Misfortune, as they say, is a great catalyst for change and what my parents learned from that year was to prepare for the worst. Growing up, my father taught me how to read forecast charts for tropical storms, explaining that when a low-pressure front arrived it meant rain and wind for days to come. I would watch the waves grow higher and the waters turn a murky green color while driftwood and tangled fishing nets littered the beaches. Slowly we got to know the island and started to welcome the changes in its moods with familiarity.
The country saw a total of 28 more storms that year, each with their own particular name like Narsing, Miling and Openg. All throughout the rest of 1985 my parents rebuilt what they could. This time farther in towards the middle of the island where winds were buffeted by taller trees. I remember my father telling me that typhoons and floods were but “a small price to pay to be able to live in paradise.”
It is sometimes hard for me to explain what closure really was, it is a story that depends entirely on what was lost or what was found, but someone wise once said, “Don’t hold back on the stories of despair, they were necessary.” Closure was a price we had to pay for staying and wanting to stay despite the overwhelming need for change that happened around us. Yes, despair was necessary, maybe to invoke reform, and yet unfair to those who violated no laws.
Landing at the Godofredo P. Ramos airport during the first week of closure and on the one flight that day to Caticlan felt like a monumental change from the over 21 flights per day pre-closure - the government was already heavily into their campaign to divert local and foreign visitors from Boracay to other places in the Philippines like Palawan, Siargao or Siquijor.
The island seemed to all but vanish overnight and it was a shock to witness. It was then that I truly noticed how much Boracay meant to the country’s tourism industry, having for so many years represented such a large part of the Philippines as a tourist destination, perhaps even overshadowing the rest of the country.
I reflected on President Duterte’s “cesspool” speech which marked a turning point for the island. A speech that eventually led to the closure, sparking an incredible media response that in turn slowly dismantled the island’s world-class reputation. It put a spotlight on what was in fact a microcosm representing many of the country’s issues across all societal levels. We were suddenly seen as easily corrupted; our hunger for money eating up swathes of our own fragile environments to fuel a lifestyle of excess.
But what is not often said about the closure is that it isn’t over. It continues to affect not only the island but the surrounding townships in Malay and beyond. Boracay’s prosperity over the years spilled into the provinces, providing jobs and income to many families beyond our 10-kilometer stretch.
Those same families would lineup during closure outside the municipal halls waiting to receive sacks of rice or canned meat as supplies on the island dwindled and stocks grew scarce. Some took to sweeping the beaches and roadsides for the government’s “Cash for Work” initiative, but only just enough to bridge the gap between seasons. Everywhere you went you witnessed loss, demolition, abandonment.
Even today, construction is heavy on the main roads, locals are still forced to switch lanes or roads on a whim, riding past gaping holes of exposed piping and low hanging threads of electrical wire. There were no safety measures for those of us left living in the three stations. Only crudely made signs and ropes meant to cordon off steel rods protruding out of the ground like teeth.
For many of us, the worst part of living through closure was the uncertainty. Not knowing what would happen during the six months of time allotted us, and there was so much time. Enough to reflect over the events that led to those moments of contemplation while the island bloomed in isolation. What remained of my small community met in small coffee shops and late-night bars where, though favorite items on menus were unavailable, we enjoyed each other’s company, coming instead to fill the long nights with story.
We came together during the worst, when the sun either shone or hid in a bottle green vapor that was six months in the haze. We got to know each other all over again as people, without pretense, without superficiality. We were all on the same page, we had all lost something. It felt as if the island went through its own process of grieving. Denying at first, then accepting so that when the island was set to reopen, we came out of our homes, changed.
After the opening, I found myself at a dinner party hosted by people I had gotten to know during closure. We were gathered in a house with tall glass windows overlooking the entire south eastern side of the island where bats spilled out of their caves and into the Yapak crown.
Very much like my parents did after the storm of ‘85, we spoke mostly about rebuilding. But we also spoke about the past and what it was like before. Of friends lost to us and new ones gained. If there were morals to the story, they were mostly expressed through action, a humbling of gestures and a slowing down of pace.
And although closure is far from over, I feel that the collective sense of community is heightened, and we’ve gained a bond that grew out of a need to stick together through those long dark nights. Our lives after all are intertwined with that of the island, this slice of rock and sand that has given us so much and then taken back the rest. We are all the casualties of trying to put order in chaos and have all paid the price that comes with living in paradise.