Back in December 2015, I had gotten it on (what I believed at the time to be) good authority that David Bowie was coming to Primavera Sound 2016. The prospect of seeing a creative genius of his calibre live so excited me that despite my source’s admonition not to spread the word, I could not help myself:
Getting into the whole Bowie vibe, I started learning how to play his songs on the guitar, and began researching which day he would perform in Barcelona. Even my sister who was half a world away seemed to be channeling the Thin White Duke:
To be honest, I am not a hardcore Bowie fan, in fact, I was a new one. I didn’t realise it was his birthday or listened to Blackstar until after he had already died.
Then there was that series of highly-publicised deaths that first few days of 2016: Scott Weiland, Lemmy, Alan Rickman, Maurice White. Then Aaron Swartz and Dave Mirra.
But it was the building anticipation of seeing David Bowie live, that whole ‘you might not get another chance’ feeling, then to have it suddenly vanish, that made his death strike a chord. And to make things even more odd, here is where I spent the 1st of January (playing the guitar, to boot):
This inexplicable series of events compelled me to create what will be the #BowieForever series. The series will consist of six limited edition mono screeprints and shirts which will be released over the course of several weeks.
Each mono screenprint is numbered, printed on 300 gsm watercolour paper and signed by Jose Gamboa with a Certificate of Authenticity.
As I created each design (while listening to the mournfully brilliant Blackstar) I could not help but contemplate the power and influence and creativity that could come from just one man, a man who will live forever through his work.
It has only been a few weeks since his spirit rose and stepped aside, and for now, it will be difficult to imagine anyone replacing David Bowie.
One more thing: Before I left the Philippines for Barcelona over a year ago, I sawThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Although inspiring, the film was too cheesy and unrealistic for my taste (How can Walter Mitty’s phone never run out of battery? And downhill long boarding is no easy thing). Nonetheless, it was a good film. Anyway, I didn’t realise or remember (until recently) that David Bowie’s Space Oddity featured largely in that film, and I wanted to share Kristen Wiig’s more than decent rendition of it:
He has appeared alongside Fernando Poe, Jr, the “Philippine Box Office King,” in such films as Sambahin Ang Ngalan Mo (Praise Be Your Name), Ang Maestro, and Tatak ng Alipin (Mark of a Slave). He had screen time in Sunugin Ang Samar (Burn Samar) with Ken Metcalfe, Tigre ng Mindanao (Tiger of Mindanao), Urban Ranger, Maderaso with Ian Veneracion, Diego with Jestoni Alarcon, and Di Pwede ang Hindi Pwede (Not Allowed is Not Allowed) along with Robin Padilla and Vina Morales.
As a stuntman and extra he has starred in well over fifty films (as Alex Sarmiento when credited).
He claims he has even appeared (very briefly) in Chuck Norris’ Delta Force, Hamburger Hill, Missing in Action, and Crossborn Territory.
Today, Felix lives in a shack beside a canal. He is sixty four years old, balding with long white hair and a long white beard.
He ties both in a knot and wears a cap to shield him from the sun when he pushes his cart around the neighbourhood, selling rings, bracelets, and other trinkets. At nearly six feet, he is gaunt, but stands straight, and his eyes twinkle when he talks of his glory days. If you came across him dressed in finer clothes in a more decent environment, one would assume him to be some kind of artist, perhaps a musician or painter.
However Felix, who the people in the neighbourhood have taken to calling Brother Alex, or Balbas (Tagalog for ‘beard’), lives by a canal that is green with slime and dense with shit and garbage. He has been living here since 1967, with the leave of his neighbour, whose boundary wall serves as the sturdiest part of his makeshift shelter. In 2000 he cohabited with Rita Aguirre (59), who also used to work in the film industry.
To get to his shack, one must go down P. Binay street until one reaches the canal bridge.
One must then descend into the canal, cross step a narrow ledge spanning no more than 20 centimetres running along the right side of the canal for a few meters, then step quickly to one’s left onto a bridge that Felix constructed himself from scavenged wood, careful not to fall into the green water below.
The bridge is cluttered with various buckets and receptacles for water. These are for washing and must be hauled everyday from a NAWASA water source a few blocks away.
His other companions are two dogs that are excellent for keeping possible bucket thieves away, and some cats who apparently fear neither dogs nor water, or are too starved to care. Inside, the shack measures no more than two metres across, and about two feet wide. There is a second floor which can be accessed through a ladder, and it here that they sleep. There is no electricity or running water.
For 37 years Felix has lived this way. And even that is stretching the definition of the word. He makes enough money from selling his trinkets and giving reflexology massages (he took a TESDA vocational course he says). Who would want a massage from a toothless hermit who could be harbouring all sorts of diseases, is the question.
Back in the day, when Barangay Pio del Pilar was nothing more than jungle, it was considerably less safe than it is today. Felix said you could hear the sound of guns and panas ringing out throughout the street as the gangs warred, and he had to get a gun to defend himself.
When the canal overflowed, as it regularly does during rainy season–but especially during Ondoy, his shack filled with the sewers’ refuse and was almost swept away by the waters. When he burns with fever, going to a doctor–who will write him a prescription he cannot pay for for medicine he cannot afford–is out of the question.
Felix is not the only squatter in the neighbourhood. There are communities of them in adjacent streets, teeming with naked children and bursting with noise. But Felix and Rita have no children. They are educated, can speak good English, and have a quiet dignity about them, despite living in the most deplorable conditions. They put money away in a card bank, a micro lending setup, which will give Rita something should he die suddenly. Their only misfortune, and Felix says this himself, is that he was born poor.
But things are changing for Felix. The kagawad, the local government of Barangay Pio Del Pilar, is giving them a house in Trece Martires, Cavite. All the squatters in the area are being offered this, along with relocation assistance and an allowance of P5,000 (about 100USD) plus a bag of groceries. He said that the Makati Social Welfare Development Fund of the National Housing Authority has even promised them P18,000 (about USD 400) to get them on their feet. They visited the place a few weeks ago, and they said it was legitimate, and that the houses were there. They had already begun to move their few belongings.
A few weeks later he had dismantled most of his shack. They sound excited. Felix said that if ever this article should get published that I must express his gratitude to Vice President Binay. And P-Noy as well, he begrudgingly added after some thought. A few days later, Rita had already relocated.
Two weeks later, Felix was still in his shack. I asked him why he hadn’t gone yet. “There isn’t any livelihood there,” he said. “My customers are here, the ones who need my reflex massage. And I sell my goods at the nearby public school. There, there is no one. I have no customers.”
Felix says he will construct another shelter elsewhere, once he has dismantled his shack and sold off most of the wood and roofing material for scrap. He will join Rita in Trece Martires eventually, he says, when the time comes and he no longer has the strength to keep living this way.
A month later, Felix’s shack was gone, although oddly enough, he was still there. He had started to camp in a 2 x 2 metre guard house where he cooked during the day, and he disappeared at night. A few days later Rita had returned. He said his nephew had moved into the house in Trece Martires. All day he would sit on a stool in the shade in front of my building. I began to detest his presence. Some of the neighbours had started to tell him off for having the remnants of his shanty–wood he claimed was valuable and that someone was coming to buy–lying on the sidewalk, and that he had occupied public property without any permission. At one point I stopped saying hello.
Author’s note: By coincidence, after interviewing Felix I ran into the Vice President having breakfast in a hole in the wall eatery a few blocks away. I passed on Felix’s message to him, but I think he didn’t hear me.
I was seated in the backseat of an Opel Corsa; in the driver’s seat was Miguel S, 32, and on shotgun was his girlfriend, both of whom I’d met for the first time that morning. We were driving on the highway heading to Girona, about an hour and a half from Barcelona.
Why was I traveling in a stranger’s car you might ask? The answer was simple: I’m cheap.
I had hitchhiked once before, in Bacnotan, Ilocos Norte, Philippines, several years ago. I wasn’t alone though, and this was out of sheer necessity. Long story short, a mate and I had taken a siesta while our friends were in the water surfing. We didn’t notice them leaving, and they had assumed we had ridden in one of the other vehicles back to our lodgings in Urbiztondo, about forty minutes away by car. We woke up, and realising that we had been abandoned, walked out to the main road in our board shorts with not even the equivalent of €1 between us, to thumb a ride. My mate was awfully relaxed about the whole thing–I had a feeling he had done this before. Fortunately, the first car we hailed picked us up. It was a high school teacher in an owner jeep. He wasn’t going in our direction completely, so we had to take another ride, this time by public transport. Jeepneys do not have any dress code, and since this attire is fairly commonplace in rural areas in the tropics, two shirtless guys in nothing but board shorts and flip flops did not raise too many eyebrows. Although we did elicit some giggles from some schoolchildren. The driver seemed to understand our situation and did not ask us to pay the full fare. Upon arriving at our lodgings, our friends were quite amused by the entire affair, and I was less than amused that they didn’t even consider returning for us once they’d realised we’d been left behind.
Whereas being half naked in a stranger’s jeep and in a Public Utility Jeepney with a friend a few years ago was a matter of necessity, now I was by myself in a stranger’s car for less-than-unavoidable reasons: I was using the car-sharing platform Blablacar for the first time in order to get to Salt, Girona from Barcelona to see The Coup, a hip hop group from Oakland, California, as part of Girona’s annual Black Music Festival.
I had heard about Blablacar from a schoolmate who had used it to get to Madrid, and she had vouched for it, saying that it was quite secure. Blablacar works by connecting people who have cars with those who don’t, with the car owners covering their petrol by charging the riders less than it would cost if they took a bus or train. The website requires you to create a profile, and there is a feedback system which keeps the members accountable.
The Coup were playing from 2200 up to 0200, so I had booked a ride back to Barcelona the next day, at around 1630, this time with Arturo B, 44 years old, Renault Espace. Both rides cost a total of €14. But I still had to sort out where I would spend the wee hours of dawn after the concert. And whereas Blablacar costs something to get somewhere, to stay somewhere there is another online platform called Couchsurfing which is absolutely free.
I had been a member of the Couchsurfing community since 2010, but had never had the opportunity to participate. The way Couchsurfing works is, you offer a couch (or bed) in your home to travelers for a night or more, and they in turn are expected to pay it forward, hosting people in their hometown. The community had modest beginnings as a non-profit, but had grown massively, and was eventually bought and turned into a for-profit enterprise, much to the dismay of many veteran couchsurfers.
Spending one night in Girona seemed like the ideal opportunity to give Couchsurfing a try. I was able to find a host fairly easily (Guillem, 22, 9 positive, 1 negative reference), but the day before he said he couldn’t host me without giving any particular reason. I tried finding other hosts, but since it was at the last minute, I didn’t get any confirmations. As I had already booked the rides on Blablacar and paid for the concert tickets as well–and the Coup was one of my favourite hip hop groups–I opted to go the way of the ballsy and the brainless: I decided wing it.
So an hour and half later, after bidding Miguel and his girlfriend adieu, I stood in the middle of what appeared to be a shopping complex in Salt, Girona. No worries, I had a tablet and all I needed to do was find a wifi hotspot so I could get to the venue. I hung around a bowling alley for a bit since they had free wifi and window shopped since the concert was still three hours away. The map showed that the venue, La Mirona, was only 15 minutes by foot and upon consulting with some locals, apprehended that Girona was around 45 minutes by foot, since public transport wouldn’t be available after the concert. No problem. A 45-minute walk was a piece of cake to me.
At 0100 the Coup took the stage.
An amazing set. During the after party, Boots Riley and the rest of the band hung out with the audience. The Spanish women were all over them of course, and after managing to snap a few photos, I drifted to the bar.
At 0400 I exited La Mirona. It was dark, and the temperature was around 12°C and I started to walk. I was crossing a bridge when I heard voices behind me. A cursory glance showed two men, and as they drew nearer, they became two black men speaking English. American English. California English. It was the guitarists of the Coup. They were a bit disoriented and were looking for their hotel. We walked together, chatting and smoking, and I felt like I wanted to tell them I had no place to stay that night, and could I crash at their hotel? But my Asian etiquette would not let me.
We parted ways and I continued to walk.
At around 0500 it was getting colder. I had taken a few wrong turns, and I was starting to run out of energy. My plan was to get to Girona and find a hostel or something, since I’d been there before and it was more accustomed to tourists than Salt. But by 0530 I couldn’t keep on.
What would have been my first Couchsurfing experience turned out to be my first homelessness experience. I think someone came in at one point to use the machine, and the bright fluorescent lights kept me from getting any quality shuteye, so less than an hour later I was back on the road.
It was getting light, but colder than ever. I saw a door to an apartment building ajar, so I went in and napped on the steps for a bit just to keep warm.
Two hours after I had left Salt I sat in a cafe sipping tea. It was the best tea I had ever tasted.
The rest of the day I strolled around Girona, sketched, listened to some blues music in the plaza, had lunch, met with Arturo, 44, at 1630, picked up two other riders, and slept like a dead man until we reached Barcelona.
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.
Closer to Taiwan than the rest of the Philippines, Batanes looks completely different from the rest of the archipelago.
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.
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.
And then in January 2015 I experienced 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.
It could have something to do with my having grown up in notoriously congested and polluted Manila.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although I have never been there, I imagine that this is what Hawaii–one of my dream destinations–looks like.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
During these seven days, the island also captured my imagination:
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).