Saturday, February 19, 2011

An Embarrassment of Beaches


When I was a boy, my family always managed to live close enough to the ocean that it could be reached without too long a drive but far enough away to make reaching it an infrequent occasion. Places like Folly Beach, near Charleston and Myrtle Beach were the settings of some of my fondest childhood memories. I will never forget seeing the ocean for the first time. I was in the back seat of my father's car (a Rambler, as I recall). We were lost, sitting in a parking lot, when I rolled down my window and heard a sound I had never heard before. It was the sound of surf rolling in. I opened the car door and I walked to the crest of a low hill and saw the makings of a sunrise on the horizon of the Atlantic.

Now I live on a small island and the Pacific Ocean, warm as bath water, is only a few hundred yards from the house where I live. How I dreamed of living in such a place when I was a boy. Unlike the beaches I mentioned above, the beaches here are not affected by an off-season. There is a "summer" observed here, between March and June, but only because it occupies the last few months of the dry season, when the lack of rain makes it seem that much hotter than it always is in these latitudes.

One of the many surprises I experienced when I moved here was noticing that Filipinos, unless they are fishermen, (1) don't seem to care that they are surrounded by beaches all their lives. Children, who might be expected to find the most pleasure in the ocean, play instead in the streets, and stay away from the beaches, except when they are fishing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, for a race of islanders, Filipinos have a strange, suspicious and mistrustful relationship with the sea. For them, the sea is a hostile, threatening element surrounding their world. There is even a reluctance to allow their children to learn how to swim, since it would only encourage them to enter the water more often. So, by their fearful logic, the ability to swim only increases one's chances of drowning. Of course, having a history of some of the worst maritime disasters in the world has not endeared the sea to Filipinos. Watching children play in the hot streets where I live, within a few hundred yards of the Pacific Ocean, makes me think they might just as well be in Kansas.

As the beautiful beaches of Thailand dwindle in number and appeal as industrial tourism spreads like a blight, the Philippines remains pristine, thanks largely to the inaccessibility of the vast majority of its 7,107 islands. The number of potentially outstanding beaches to be found is virtually incalculable. But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Filipinos to discover or develop them. Foreign investment is just about the only way that these microcosmic paradises will ever become known.

Boracay, for example, was already a world-class beach when Filipino tourists - a growing minority who have disposable incomes - discovered it was there, just north of the island of Panay. Now it is so overcrowded that foreign tourists are looking for alternative destinations. They will get no help from Filipinos, who evidently have no use for beaches. They might splash a little in the tide pools or in ankle-deep surf, or indulge in safely life-jacketed water sports, but otherwise they are at a loss at what to do at the beach.

Another reason why Filipinos, particularly women, avoid beaches is because they don't want to risk exposing their naturally brown skin to UV rays, which would promote even darker skin. These brown people were taught by 400 years of colonial rule by white people to hate their skin, and have lately been persuaded by unscrupulous skin lotion manufacturers like Ponds, Vaseline, and Garnier, to use exfoliants and keratin-blocking chemicals on their brown skin to make it as white as possible. More well-heeled Filipinos resort to routine bleaching treatments at salons.

If, by some miracle, the Philippine government should decide to remove the many obstacles in the way of foreign investment and development in these islands, this country could easily eclipse Thailand as the tropical island destination of choice for tourists seeking secluded and pristine beaches - untouched by a native population living in fear of the sun and the surf.

(1) I had already heard of the notorious practices of some Filipino fishermen of using dynamite and cyanide, when I noticed one day on a stroll down a typically deserted beach a group of men unloading a generator and a big spool of electrical cable from a truck.

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