Paradise Found

 

Have you ever fallen in love with a place?

Like falling in love with another person, it is intoxicating, you want to breath them in, you can’t bear to be apart, and then you can’t help but start to imagine what it would be like to live together, to plant roots and grow old together.

That can be part of the reason why travel is so gratifying. Each time you step foot in a place you’ve never been before, the possibility is there.

But there is a distinction between Love and its often-confused doppelgänger, Infatuation.

Infatuation is a volcanic eruption: loud, intense, all-consuming. It can feel like the real thing, and sometimes, it could be.

Love, on the other hand, is a garden. It takes time, a lot of effort, quiet, and without fanfare, it blooms, and an entire field that once had nothing but dirt, is filled with life and beauty.

During some of my travels, certain places have aroused this feeling in me; places that have taken my breath away, places that feel like home.

My earliest memory of such a place would probably be Baguio, a city in the mountains in the north of the Philippines. I had spent almost every summer there as a child, and bathed in its cool air that smelt of pine. I rode horses, learned to bike and roller-skate (had quite a few injuries), and met a lot of interesting people. Unfortunately, rampant and uncontrolled development has destroyed the Baguio I once knew, and living there no longer appeals to me as it once did.

Another place I felt at home in was in Basco, Batanes, the northernmost island of the Philippines.

Batanes
Photo by Maria Ong

Closer to Taiwan than the rest of the Philippines, Batanes looks completely different from the rest of the archipelago.

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Fundacion Pacita. Photo by Victor Gamboa

Then there is Baler, Aurora, a city on the Pacific coast, six hours from Manila. Over the course of well over thirty trips, I grew to love surfing, the people, and the place.

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Photo by JR Teehankee

When I went to Bali, Indonesia in 2013, the perfect waves, friendly people, and cheap yet delicious food made me feel that I needed to–if not relocate–return here at least once a year.

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And then in January 2015 I experienced La Palma.

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Rainbows are gay. Unless they’re on La Palma.

All the places that have captured my heart have similar characteristics in that they have a lot of nature, are close to the ocean, the people living there are warm and hospitable, and economically are quite undeveloped, and certainly none are likely to be listed in the GOOD cities index anytime soon.

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The view from my flat.

It could have something to do with my having grown up in notoriously congested and polluted Manila.

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Although Manila will always be my home. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Like Thoreau, I longed to escape the concrete jungle, and time and again, had considered packing up and living on some seaside town where the pace was easy, and life was as it should be: Enjoyed everyday.

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I have always contended that sunsets were overrated…until I experienced the daily programming on La Palma.

But La Palma was on a whole another level. Its natural beauty was stunning, with its sunsets, mountains, flora, seaside, and climate being optimal for human existence.

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Caldera de Taburiente National Park

The entire island is a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

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Compared to Barcelona, the Spanish people I met here were so relaxed, friendly, and their features were likewise very different. Also, I was surprised at how many Germans were on the island. Hiking, apparently, is something Germans (and other Scandinavians) are totally crazy about. I met that rare breed–retired hippie Germans–who have made la Isla Bonita their home.

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If only I had a wing suit.

Even if hiking isn’t your thing–although if you are walking through trails like these–how could you not be, La Palma offers so many opportunities for cyclists, climbers, downhill bikers and long boarders, para and hang gliders, sailors, surfers, and so on.

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You need to register in the visitor centre before visiting Caldera de Taburiente National Park, and slots are limited.
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Fuencaliente

The island was formed and reformed by volcanic activity, and the most recent eruption was less forty years ago, and its raw beauty made me imagine that this is what the earth must have looked like when it was very young.

20150108_164529 Although I have never been there, I imagine that this is what Hawaii–one of my dream destinations–looks like.

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Los Guirres

Although Hawaii has much better waves, I was pleasantly surprised to see beautiful right handers and A-frames at Los Guirres, one of the surf breaks on La Palma and the one of the stops for the Gran Canaria surf circuit.

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If only I had a surfboard and wetsuit.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to paddle out because I didn’t have any gear and wasn’t able to find the board and wetsuit rental. Instead, I was able to watch a bit of the surf, bodyboard and drop knee competition that just happened to take place that weekend.

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At the competition I saw the most number of people I had ever seen in one place on the island. La Palma doesn’t have its own university and its industry mainly revolves around bananas and salt, which are its main exports. As a result, young people leave to study and find work, leaving an ageing population and not much economic activity.

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But this is what draws me to this place even more. Bali and Baler have started to become crowded as tourism has developed the area. In La Palma, with a population of less than 18,000, you can go to many places and not encounter another human being.

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Reventon trail

Before I came, I considered hiking to be a boring past time, devoid of any thrill or challenge. I’ve gone mountain climbing, cross-country skiing, and caving, and all the hikes I’ve been on had been unenjoyable. But La Palma showed me that I had not experienced extreme hiking. Every year, hikers die and sometimes disappear in these mountains. Towards the end of my stay we went on hikes that lasted for five hours, that rose and descended a thousand meters, and where nothing, not even the wind, could be heard.

Absolute silence.

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Los Llanos
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This park is designed by the island’s resident artist, the Gaudi of La Palma, if you will, renaissance man Luis Morera

Of course, it could simply be the people that have drawn me to this place. As I wrote in Terminal Illness, I went to La Palma to visit my aunt whom I had not seen in over twenty five years. She and my cousin made my stay absolutely wonderful, especially since it was such an ordeal to get there, and I will forever be grateful for their hospitality. My aunt rises up with the sun, which peeks over the mountain at around 9, she makes an impressive cup of tea, then goes to work in the garden. She has a macadamia tree. She and her husband are still gradually moving books and things over from Germany, and the house still needs constant work. Occasionally, she visits with other residents of the island (her neighbour, another German, spends seven days a week tending to his garden–which is beautiful) or drives into town to do shopping.

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Warm enough to sit outside, but at 20 degrees, the water was too cold to swim in. Summertime in La Palma is very warm, I am told.

My aunt had only moved to La Palma less than two years ago, before this she had devoted her life to running a bookshop which she owned for fifteen years, then sold when on their third trip to the island, her husband said, ‘Sell the bookshop, let’s get a place here.’ Just like that.

It sounds so simple, although of course, it never is. But at its core, life and love are simple.

It is for all these reasons that La Palma has captured my heart.

So we shall meet again someday, La Isla Bonita.

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This is how around how much I need.

During these seven days, the island also captured my imagination:

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Fuencaliente, 21.59 x 33cm, watercolour and graphite

 

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Tihuya, dimensions variable, wood, volcanic rock.
“Tihuya” was the name of the island before the Spanish invaded, renaming it and wiping out all traces of the indigenous people.

 

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Carcosa. Digital photograph.

 


If you would like to read more about everyday life on La Isla Bonita, here is the most popular blog on La Palma (in German).

 

Terminal Illness: Part One

 

Prologue

I have always had problems with authority. When it comes to rules, like in the story of Bre’r Rabbit and the Brair Patch, if you want me to do something, tell me to what it is and I will pathologically do something else, gaining some sort of undefinable satisfaction from refuting imperatives that may be as simple as ‘No Entry’ signs to as practical as ‘Please sit down while you are on the (insert the ride or transport of your choice).’ My point of contention is not the rule itself–this is for the good of the general public–but that it should always apply, when I feel that there is room for exceptions. This knee-jerk rebellion kicks in most especially in ‘controlled’ environments, places where authority is unquestioned and absolute. Places like embassies, restricted areas in offices and hospitals, prisons, military camps (I was detained for 6 hours in 2012 while working as a courtroom sketch artist for an Al Jezeera – English documentary. I will expound further in a future post), and airports.

Airports and I have quite the history together.

2010: Stopped at the security check of NAIA 3 for packing a Swiss Army knife in my carry-on. They told that I would have to get rid of it before I could board the Cebu Pacific flight to Samar, where I was headed for a surf. Not seeing any alternative, I gave it to the airport security officer.

At the departure gate, I thought about how I really liked that Swiss knife–it was a present from my godfather–so I ran back to the security check to ask for it back, gave it to a Cebu Pacific desk agent, saying that I would be back in Manila in a few days, and would she mind keeping it for me? She said yes, we exchanged numbers, and ran the considerable distance back to the gate where boarding was already in progress. Upon returning to Manila, I contacted the Cebu Pacific desk agent, but I think she had grown attached to the Swiss knife and I never saw it or her again.

2012: On a trip to visit my sister in Brisbane, I received this lovely letter from the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service:383013_318786388131377_204919405_n On the immigration form one is asked if they are bringing in any foodstuffs. I had some granola bars on me, and I assumed the Australian Quarantine & Inspection Service meant produce, meats, fish, and so on, so I indicated ‘No.’ Apparently that was a mistake. During the security check they took me aside and sternly informed me that I had breached Australian Quarantine Law. Fortunately, I simply got a slap on the wrist instead of the fine of $AUD220 or even 10 years’ imprisonment.

2013: While traveling to Hong Kong to visit my friend Dominique, who was living and working there at the time, I was detained for around two hours. I had just landed, and at immigrations the officer took a cursory glance at my passport then beckoned me to follow him. I was led through a door, a starkly-lit hallway, then into a  holding area with other travellers, 90% of whom, as far as I could tell, were Filipinos, with some Papua New Guineans and a Taiwanese girl who was traveling as an unaccompanied minor.

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Trying to sneak a photo of a holding area in the Hong Kong airport using a handheld camera is not easy.

I figured that being a 33-year old, single Filipino male, I fit the profile of someone who might want to overstay in HK, something that Filipinos have earned a reputation for doing. In colloquial Tagalog we even have a term for this: TNT, which stands for Tago Nang Tago, translating to ‘Constantly Hiding From the Immigration Authorities.’ Maybe it was because on the immigration card I indicated ‘the Omni Hotel’ as my residence in HK, a hotel I had stayed at with my family over twenty years ago. Why I put that down can only be explained by that innate problem I have with authority.

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Hong Kong circa 1989. Since I’m not in this wonderful group photo blocking pretty much the entire HK skyline, it is reasonable to conclude that my rebellious streak was already beginning to find its voice during this time.

In broken english, they asked me questions about my profession, how much money I brought, and so on. This was not so bad, considering the other detainees were interrogated in rooms, asked to switch on their computers, and questioned more aggressively than me. When they asked me where I was staying I provided them with Dominique’s address and phone number, and they gave her a call. She had been expecting me to call her hours ago from the train station from the airport–where she would meet me–once I had arrived. She later told me she had fallen asleep waiting, and when her phone, she immediately asked “Where are you?!” upon picking up and was surprised to hear a strange voice on the other line introduce himself as someone with the Hong Kong Immigration Authority.

After two hours or so I was finally free to go. I got on the train (didn’t even buy a ticket), and was greeted by the Dom’s bemused expression as I proceeded to pay the fare at the counter to exit the train station.

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“Hm, I’m sure he’s somewhere out there…”

2015: For the holidays, I was flying to La Palma in the Canary Islands from Barcelona to visit my aunt Susan whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty-five years, and my cousin Anja.

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Baguio City, circa 1984. I’m next to Tita Susan who is on the far left, Anja is second to the right.

My flight was at 0900. I was up by 0500 and it was still dark when I walked out to catch the bus which would take me to Plaza España, where another bus would take me to the airport. Simples.

After reaching the first bus stop and waiting and walking from stop to stop for around 10 minutes, I realised that the bus wasn’t coming and that walking to Plaza España would take too long. I hailed a cab, got to the bus station in less than ten minutes, where I saw the next bus waiting. At that point I should have leapt out of the cab like in the movies, telling the driver to keep the change. That would have been the right and cool thing to do. But instead, I waited while he counted out the few cents I had coming, lost the few precious seconds, and missed the bus. But no problem, there was another bus coming. In fact, there was an express bus that went straight to the airport. It was more expensive, but after waiting for the regular bus to arrive, I decided that I’d need to to shell out the €5 to get there in half the time. But then these express buses do not make change for anything larger than €20, and I was only carrying €50’s. The driver shook his head when I asked him to give me a change, so I proceeded to ask the other passengers. No one had any change. I spent fifteen minutes running around like a fool. On the curb was a queue of taxis waiting for passengers. I went from one to the next, but at seven in the morning, no one had any change. In desperation I approached a couple of street sweepers, who looked at me like I was crazy, exclaiming (and I am paraphrasing) “Can’t you see we’re working? We could use 50 euros!” They directed me to the Metro, where I went down but there wasn’t a soul. I tried cafés in the Plaza, where the first said they didn’t have change, the second one was closed. Returned to the first cafe, asked to buy a bottle of water, figuring that they had no choice but to give me change then, but the lady insisted that she really didn’t have any at this hour. I realised that I had no chance of getting on the express bus so I decided to wait until the regular bus arrived.

Around 0745 I was headed for Terminal 1 of Barcelona airport.

But my true ordeal had yet to begin.

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