I’M SITTING at this small, quaint café right now quietly enjoying my first cup of coffee for the day. On my blue-painted table: a small, gold-and-black French press, good for a serving; a violet mug, now filled to the brim with brewed coffee; a transparent glass ashtray, one cigarette butt parked inside; a half-empty shot of milk; a teaspoon splayed facedown; a glass of cold water; a deck of cards. Latin ska jazz is playing on the stereo, and I’m the only customer around. Three ladies in their black polo shirt are busy talking behind the counter while preparing food for the busy schedule later. It’s eight minutes before four in the afternoon, and I’m waiting for my rice, bacon and eggs.
The café is called Kitya’s Place. It’s festooned with colorful paper balls hanging on the ceiling, bandaritas, chalkboards flashing all their menus in various colors—pink, yellow, blue, orange. Appetizers. Sandwiches. Breakfast. Kitya’s House Specials. Soup of the Year. Shakes. Alcohol. Drinks. Nipa hut roof, bamboo blinds now rolled and tied up, bamboo chairs and tables, a lounge area rising two feet from the sand with a dyed, hip piece of cloth pinned on the ceiling bearing a huge Peace sign, a hammock tied on the side with a jocular ‘Hang Over’ signboard hanging above it, a few small, colorful square cushions scattered on the wooden floor with three small tables good for when you’re sitting down Japanese style. The place seems to reflect Kitya herself—her contagious vivacity, positive outbursts, and festive mood. It’s hard not to notice her cracking laughter wafting in the air.
About a week ago, I came here with my friend B for Sexy Salsa Night. The café burst into life as people came, drinks got served, and games were played. People laughed and danced, a drink in one hand, and at some point, Kitya came up with an idea: crowd surfing. Everyone gathered in front of the lounge as she readied herself for her first dive. It took five tries, three of which failed, before everyone, including her, perfected the shebang for the night. The next day, Kitya and I watched the videos in her room upstairs, laughing our hearts out, and we both agreed again and again what a great night it was.
Ghost spots. In one of his interviews, the Egyptian-born writer Andre Aciman mentions this term, those places where some of our fondest or even our most soul-smashing memories were born. He says, talking about Rome, the place where his novel Call Me By Your Name was inspired from, “This, after all, is the eternal city. One never leaves. One can if one wishes to choose one’s ghost spot. I know where mine is.”
As I look around the café, I see those people who came here that night. I remember the flushed, ecstatic look on everyone’s faces. I don’t remember some of the names, though. What is a name but a mere representation of a person in letters. I remember the sound of laughter. I remember barks of orders for more drinks. I remember voices complaining in jest why the hell the music just stopped. I remember questions: Where are you from? Where are you headed next? How long are you staying here for? I remember drinks being spilled. God, I remember throwing up myself. But more importantly, I remember the thrill, and the night, and the rain, and dancing in the empty street.
I woke up on an overcast Sunday morning with a knock on my door from my next-door housemate B, and was greeted with the question, “Do you want to join us in Daku Island?” Muttering a sleepy yes, I closed the door again and began shuffling around the room, pulling clothes from the closet for the trip ahead.
The rain has seemingly stopped, and I was given a few minutes to prepare. I decided not to bother taking a shower; I knew it would be a whole-day affair of swimming at the beach. I had nothing much to pack except for my cigarettes and a lighter, which I shoved down my left pocket. I also decided to bring my backpack and placed my iPad inside, in case I got bored on the island and would have nothing else to do but read some ebooks I downloaded months ago. When it was time to go, it started drizzling again, and by the time we arrived at our friend’s small restaurant, a few of them had already gathered around. I sat at one of the tables with B as we waited with them for the others to arrive. Except for B and K who owned the place, I knew no one there.
While contemplating whether or not I should order a cup coffee, K announced it was time to go. A quick discussion as to who would buy fish and chicken at the market ensued for a few seconds, and B volunteered to do it on everyone’s behalf. I went with her on her motorbike, and left them at the restaurant. Minutes later, all thirteen of us were on the small boat as it made its way to the island.
At past one, we arrived at the island’s surfing area and were greeted to a sight of other surfers gliding and paddling on waves from a distance. The rain has stopped, and the sun seemed to have changed its mind and decided to show up from behind the clouds. Shuffling here and there, the others jumped off the boat, grabbed their surfboards and paddled to the area. One by one, they seemed to be eyeing the surfing spot as a land full of gold as they all made their way there, the distance between us growing wider and wider until they became one with the floating crowd.
I have to admit I sometimes wish I was brave enough to grab a surfboard and paddle to one small wave and enjoy that few-second bliss everyone here keeps talking about. Whenever I hear people talk about surfing, the shrewd thrill in their voices never fails to arrest me. There’s always that slight pang of pain and envy striking the chords of my naivety and utter ignorance every time conversations like this happen, as if I’m missing out on something spectacular and breathtaking. It all became too strikingly familiar to me, this gnawing feeling, when I came across a line from Nabokov’s novel Lolita (my reading pace with his book has been painstakingly slow these days) that I had to pause and close the book for a minute and laugh at the ridiculous image I’ve latched this feeling to. Here he describes Mr. Edgar H. Humbert’s thoughts as he sits on his chair talking to one of Lolita’s friends, Mona Dahl, about his dear Lo. As they continue to talk, Mona ambles her way closer to him, and a sudden realization hits him: that Lo was perhaps pimping the two of them. This thought disheartens him, and his eyes dart to this image:
“One of the latticed squares in a small cobwebby casement window at the turn of the staircase was glazed with ruby, and that raw wound among the unstained rectangles and its asymmetrical positions—a knight’s move from the top—always strangely disturbed me.”
That beautiful raw wound.
The island wasn’t as packed as we were told earlier would be. As our boat slowly docked on the white shores of the island, I scanned the beach, hoping to see the familiar image I had of the place about four years ago, the first time I came here. Nothing seemed or felt familiar at all. Time always has its devious ways of transforming a place. A few small cottages lined the beach, each with different colors. A bright pink cottage sat empty on the farthest left side, and a lady was scooting down, a can of paint on her right hand, as she patiently brushed the wooden seats with the same color. She seemed to be taking this job very seriously and quite meditatively, in fact.
We chose a yellow empty cottage which faced directly where our boat was. We unloaded our things from the boat and brought them in. A lady from the island approached us and asked if we wanted our food cooked. I handed her the food we bought at the market. The big fish to be grilled, while the smaller one to be soaked in vinegar and spices. Chicken to be grilled. We also ordered sautéed conches.
Soon I would find out as I sat at the cottage with five other Filipinos from the boat that we all came from the same place, Davao. As I sat there listening to their own stories about how they all ended up at the island, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that I’d find people from home. I’ve heard stories of people from Davao coming and even staying on the island for good. One of them, a guy in his late twenties perhaps, whose head was shaved on all sides except for his long straight hair in the middle and whose body was bedecked with tattoos, said he’d been on the island for seven years. The first time he came here, he heeded a friend’s invitation to help him out on an art project, two sculptures that needed finishing touches. He was a passionate skater, and surfing wasn’t too difficult a sport for him once he decided to try it out. He showed me his tattoo on his back: the iconic Philippine hero Lapu-Lapu slashing Magellan with his bolo. Some foreigners would still feel shocked whenever they see this, he claimed, laughing.
I’m guessing they—we— heeded to that voice inside us, which kept whispering in our ears, “Go!” Go! Even if it meant leaving everyone behind. Go! Even if it meant leaving the familiar and going to a place where not knowing what to expect ahead is a challenge you must take on in order to grow up. Go! Even if it took all the nasty, ballsy, ridiculously self-serving attempt to go. Because, hey, it will be fine in the end. Because time, no matter how devious and a trickster it can be, is also a friend.
We talked about the island. Four years ago, the cottages hadn’t been here. All I remember seeing then was a barren-looking, long stretch of fine sand and about three, long, wooden tables and chairs. I remember space and grasses. Overtime, the place has transformed into one perfectly fit for tourism. Not that it looked bad now. Some changes aren’t all that bad.
It was a bright, sunny afternoon when my friend B and I decided to hit the road on her motorbike with her surf board resting on my lap, my hands clutching it firmly against the wind as we made our way to the most famous surfing spot on the island, Cloud 9. Word has it that the first surfers who’d discovered the spot named it after the local chocolate bar, Jack ‘n Jill’s Cloud 9. A small store stood somewhere around the spot, and these surfers figured to reconvene there by saying they should meet up at this place that sold Cloud 9.
B and I parked the bike at what seemed to be the entrance, spacious enough for other bikes. An old man put up a mobile cart and sold halo-halo. Local shirtless men sat idly on parked motorbikes, waiting for customers who needed assistance for surfing lessons. One of them approached us. Up ahead, the boardwalk welcomed us, stretching toward a wooden structure that served as a viewing deck. Surfing competitions happen here twice a year, usually in May and September, and onlookers would gather at the viewing deck, their phones and cameras ready to snap at surfers in the distance, gliding and ricocheting like bullets on big waves.
On my first night out alone, I went to Rum Bar. I arrived home the next day at seven in the morning with a puppy in my hand.