Malapascua: Remembering Eternity in the Philippines

 

SDC10598__1392316096_176.195.94.1It no longer exists, not as it was on that farewell New Year’s Eve when I counted the fireworks enflaming the sky. Malapascua – a small island in the Philippine chain – was buried under the sea waters the typhoons brought last year. Aerial photos show a mess of corrugated iron and bowed, broken palm trees. The pristine beaches have been annihilated, the boats blown away. All that remains now (if and until the people can rebuild) are the fragments of memory that erupt in an instant and then go dark.

I arrived on Christmas Day in 2009 eager for a week on the beach in respite from winter. The trip there had been a harrowing one, involving nearly-missed flights and a treacherous half-day taxi ride through the rain along twisting roads bordered by jungle and precipices. That was before I even set foot on the shambles of twigs and buoys the locals called a boat, the only ferry from the top of Cebu across a stretch of sea to the island.

Exhausted, I landed in a world of natural night, lighted – as no night had ever been for me in the heavily inhabited regions I have lived in all my life – by only the moon and stars. The boat was unable to dock, so I jumped into the temperate clear waters and wandered towards the hotel beacons farther down the beach.

Malapascua means “Bad Easter” in Spanish, named by sailors when rough weather stranded them there on Christmas Day while exploring conquered territories. The native name may exist in local remembrance, but the world calls it by its Spanish curse. Its reputation amongst tourists comes from the excellent snorkeling and diving to be had in the waters that surround it. Tropical fish, sharks, sunken ships, and reefs are easily accessed within a mile of the beach.

I came for that as well, but my pleasure turned out to be of a simpler sort: watching the sea roll in with an infinite number of variations. Every day, I found myself delaying my plans, drawn to the reflection the water offered. The sun was joyful but not insistent, leaving the sand refreshingly cool. On the beaches away from the hotel area, the Filipino families spent their afternoons. Children played their games in the surf while the adults hurried between their tin shacks and work. Some teenagers came by and tried to sell trinkets for a little extra cash. The old sat around the rickety buildings just beyond the sand. The whole of life was visible from any spot with the waves calling out the seconds as everyone transitioned between their stages.

I was surprised by how long the afternoons lingered. My only distractions were a book (appropriately titled Freedom) slowly collecting sand in its binding, my notebook, and my pen. Watching the sun fall over the sea, every day surprised me in not being a week. The mind has so many thoughts to think when it doesn’t have the glimmer of a computer screen and a phone to distract it.

It was by no means a perfect place. The poor were too poor, the hotels encroached a little too much into life. The food was mediocre and the tourists made too much noise. A busy life might wonder at the madness of wasting so much time staring out into the sea. Yet I found my minutes much better spent counting the sand grains than hustling through the city as I usually do. The days pulled me away to other activities, but I was always drawn back to the beach and the quiet thoughts it offered.

Paradise is a loaded word – touched as it is with associations of heaven, reward, and the immortal – but it is fitting for Malapacua. If there is anywhere worth settling down for innumerable years, it would make a good choice. When I left after the New Year’s celebrations, the overcast sky finally broke into a downpour of goodbyes. I promised myself to come back soon and live out my rest of my time sitting on that beach.

Yet it was brushed away in a matter of days. Four years – not eons – it survived before rapine rains overwhelmed the island. Thus, Malapascua not only taught me to appreciate the little moments, but also how limited they are. It makes Arnold Bennett’s claim that “no one can take time from you” the more painfully true. The lesson of Malapascua is the need to appreciate our lucky hours. If we make every minute an eternity, then there is still some eternity for Malapascua.

About the Author: Seth Libby is an American writer living in Russia. He works mostly in fiction but also engages in travel writing. Having completed his first novel, Seth is currently trying to find a publisher.

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