I had just arrived at Sta. Lucia Island, off Palawan in the Philippines. It was so tiny, you could walk around it in an hour or so. Sta. Lucia was a premiere tourist resort owned by Pierre, a French ex-backpacker-turned resort owner. Sta. Lucia was not a five-star. Rather, it had a rustic air, which catered mostly to high-end European backpackers (meaning not so poor) in search of sea adventure, who wanted to ‘rough it up’. There was talcum-powder snow-white sand everywhere at Sta. Lucia, that would make Boracay look like a copy.
Pierre had a keen marketing sense because he was an ex-backpacker. For backpackers, the appeal of bamboo-slit floors was greater than marble ones. Pierre built cement cottages for durability, but wrapped the pillars and walls in bamboo to create that rustic ambience.
In Puerto Galera, Swedes would rather stay on the rooftops of jeepneys, leaving the inside seats empty. When you are sick and tired of comfort, you look for discomfort. Pierre’s market was the moneyed backpackers of Europe who were bored with affluence and the culture it bred. Somehow, there is a way that affluence siphons spirituality. For Pierre, it was a thriving going-back-to-nature market. His marketing secret was simple. He had a fantastic five-star cuisine that offered buffet breakfasts, lunches and dinners, where the bulk of his profits came from. Sta. Lucia was a resounding tourism success.
Getting off the boat, I was greeted by Pierre with a warm smile that blended with the gathering dusk.
PIERRE Hi there, Welcome to paradise.
BERNIE Hi. Bernie here.
PIERRE Pierre here. Welcome.
Out of nowhere, a pretty young native instantly appeared, attempting to put a lei on me. I resisted. She handed a tall glass of iced red juice.
BERNIE Hi. No need for a lei for me. Watermelon?
PRETTY YOUNG NATIVE Yes sir.
BERNIE No thanks. Do you have a beer?
PRETTY YONG NATIVE Oh yes sir, of course.
Pierre signaled with two fingers. She faded away and quickly returned with two frosted bottles of beer.
PIERRE First bottle’s on me. Please join me.
He pointed to two folding chairs whose legs were buried in the sand. We sat, facing the reddening horizon. The tiny waves massaged our feet rhythmically.
BERNIE You’re quite a host. Thanks.
PIERRE Not really. It’s a job. Cheers.
Glasses clink. My first swig was an arctic rush.
BERNIE Job? That doesn’t seem to jive with paradise.
PIERRE It’s marketing. I have to survive.
BERNIE No matter what you say, this place is really a fantastic island, truly a paradise.
PIERRE That’s how I felt when I first came here 15 years ago. The island was deserted with only two makeshift huts. I put up a tent. No drinking water. A asked the boat man to bring me drinking and shower water every two days. No electricity. The stars seemed to glow brighter here.
BERNIE No air pollution.
PIERRE I slept at eight and woke up at 5:30 to wait for sunrise. It was mind boggling. But now it seems to slowly lose its luster.
BERNIE That’s because paradise is in your heart, in your perspective. It’s not a place. Remember – stone walls do not a prison make. Islands do not a paradise make.
PIERRE Right you are. The first time I came, I was in a trance. Such pristine beauty. No sound except the rhythmic hypnotic waves. It hit me, wham, like a baseball bat. I was so drunk with Nature’s beauty, there were tears in my eyes. I wrote my friends back in Paris in frenzy, telling them they had to see this paradise. I lingered and overstayed for two long months. It was heaven.
A woman appears out of nowhere with a log book.
PIERRE My wife Nora. This is Bernie.
NORA Hi Bernie, just fill in the log book please. Pierre, you have to do the barbecue when the fire is ready.
PIERRE No problem.
BERNIE From your accent, you must be Ilonggo.
NORA Pretty good, Bernie. You must be a seasoned traveler. We have ten for dinner, Pierre. Two Danish, four French, three Germans, and a solo Filipino. I have to go and fix dinner. See you. Welcome, Bernie.
Nora leaves without waiting for my reply.
PIERRE We make a good couple. She’s the left brain. She runs the place. I’m the right brain, I handle guest relations. Pretty good arrangement. I’m laid back, she’s a workaholic. It’s hard for me to cope with operations. She does all the accounting, license procurement. She takes care of bribing local government and tax collectors. I tell you, outside this island is a snake pit only she can handle. Without her, I’m dead.
BERNIE Don’t mind my pointed question, Pierre, but I discern you’re not happy here.
PIERRE What makes you say that?
BERNIE I don’t know. I’m really guessing, because ex-backpackers like you and me normally have clipped our wings. Wanderlust is no longer in our veins. We no longer fly, which was our former obsession, right? Let me put it straight. You’re stuck in this island. It’s no longer paradise. It’s business. You pretend it paradise but ….
Pierre gives a frown. He raises his hand to stop me. He signals to a waiter with a non-verbal gesture. In a minute, a bottle of Jack Daniels appears with an ice bucket and two glasses.
PIERRE You are one darn journalist, Bernie. You hit it right on the nail. Thank you for being frank. Now, finally, I can get this boulder out of my chest for the first time, after nursing it for a century. I have to do the barbecue in a while, so you can join me and we finish this bottle. Okay? And let’s do some serious talking.
BERNIE Great. I noticed some nude swimmers on the far side coming in here. You should be more careful. Let the boat go around the other side so no one sees them. If word gets around, they won’t stop you. But they’ll fleece you dry. And you may invite some crazy voyeurs. You may even hit the papers, and that’s the end.
PIERRE I know, I know. But it’s the amihan (north wind). It’s rough on this side. I have no choice. You know, a nude beach is a powerful appeal for Europeans. I remember Morocco.
BERNIE You mean Tarazut?
PIERRE Hey, you know the place. You’ve been around. That’s rare information. You must be a world class drifter.
BERNIE A world class drifter would have been on the road for five years at least and would have hit both east and west hemispheres. I did only Europe and North Africa for three years. I met veterans though, even a hard core Canadian lass. I’m not qualified.
PIERRE Me neither. I covered Afghanistan ….
BERNIE You were there for the hashshish, right?
PIERRE Right. Why not? Then Nepal, Tibet, India where I got hepatitis. Moved in here after. Also three years. I’m not qualified.
BERNIE Wow. Tibet is a dream place for me. But I got no more wings now.
PIERRE Tarazut was one hell of a nude beach. Big tits, small tits all around.
BERNIE Tits do not a true nude beach make, Pierre. It is the powerful feeling of freedom. Sex has very little to do with it.
PIERRE Yeah I know. I wonder why we feel so free without clothes.
BERNIE It’s in the mind. Defiance against established social mores gives a feeling of freedom. It’s not necessarily real freedom though.
PIERRE Right. In three days, I was bored of Tarazut.
BERNIE It took me longer – five days. That’s because I come from a Spanish Catholic culture which suppresses sexual desires. I was like a wild horse out of the corral.
PIERRE Well, here it is marketing. Tell me about your backpack days.
BERNIE I hitched through Europe and North Africa for 18 months through 18 countries covering 25,000 kilometers. Southernmost Sahara, northernmost Sweden. When I ran out of money, I settled in Amsterdam another 18 months doing odd jobs. So tell me what’s bothering you.
We move to the barbecue area, and he starts to work while we talk. Jack Daniels helps us rev it up. As Pierre unravels his story, I begin to discern how his happiness was slowly being eroded. Nora was an alpha female. She ran the house. He followed all her orders. And there was a lot to do. He was busy but bored.
PIERRE The moment I bought the island and married Nora in order to do so, you know, Philippine law. Foreigners can’t own islands, it was the beginning of the end.
BERNIE You clipped your wings instantly. You moved from a free bird to a caged rooster at the blink of an eye. You equated the island to happiness, so you bought it. You bought not happiness but slavery. The pristine island became a business venture. You stashed your backpack and wings away.
PIERRE Don’t rub it in. Yes, big mistake, Bernie. Now, I’m stuck.
BERNIE Sell the island. Revive your backpack.
PIERRE It’s not that easy. Nora is not a backpacker.
BERNIE Leave her. Let her run the island. She likes it. She won’t miss you I think. Or visit her between trips.
PIERRE I thought of that, you know. You’re right. She won’t miss me. I married her to buy the island. She married me to get out of poverty. We really do not love each other. I mean, trying to, but just plodding along.
BERNIE Then go. Grow wings once more. You will go crazy in this paradise. You’ll end up hating each other.
PIERRE I will, I will. Just give me time to get the guts to do it. Thanks Bernie.
Nora (Loud voice from afar) Ready yet, Pierre.
PIERRE (Loud reply) In a moment.
The Jack Daniels was almost empty now. We were both whoozy. Pierre staggered as he turned over the chicken. I took over. He sat and broke down, sobbing softly.
After dinner, I went to the nude beach and pealed off my clothes. I was alone but I could hear voices far away. It felt great. No one was watching, unlike in Tarazut where there was a crowd of nudes ogling at each other, pretending not to be conscious. I was alone. I took a quick cold swim and lay in the sand, watching a million stars watching me nude. I thought how lucky I was that I did not equate ownership to happiness. Expensive lesson learned for Pierre.
One can own an island but one cannot own happiness. Happiness is not a property. It is something within you. This is an important lesson in wings and wanderlust. On the road, I found excitement, but not necessarily happiness. Happiness is deeper, more mind-boggling than a roller-coaster ride. Sometimes what you search for in a lush eden you find in the gutter later. Happiness has a way of lingering, then suddenly fading. The thing is to not look for it, to not to have expectations. Happiness comes and goes like an intruding butterfly.
After a year, I found out the island was now a real five-star, with plush airconditioned cottages. That is the way it goes. Backpackers discover virgin places quickly, and investors take over and rape them slowly. After the drifters in search of happiness are the corporations in search of profits.
It was on the sands of Sta. Lucia one glorious evening, sharing life with a fellow ex-drifter, that I remembered a poem I wrote in the sands of Tarazut after reading a book on Buddha.
do not seek happiness which is elusive you will just be disappointed do not flee from pain which is inevitable you will just be frustrated rather seek love which brings happiness and numbs all pain true love has no expectations except love itself it is its own reward in joy or in pain happiness and pain are mere fruits of love pain is bearable if you are in love happiness is not so important if you are in love eastwind – email@example.com for the terminally sick visit our healing ministry blogsite www.sisterraquel.com