by B.J. Stolbov
Pagudpud is not a promising name for a beach town.
Boracay – now that’s a great name for a beach town. Boracay is an island between the Tablas Strait and the Sibuyan Sea in the Visayan Islands of central Philippines. This is the place where people, many foreigners, go when they want to go to a beach. Here are white sandy beaches and deep blue waters, planted coconut palms and scheduled ferries, harbors for sailboats and large yachts, expensive hotels and designer resorts, gourmet restaurants and fast-food joints, beautiful women in tiny bikinis and handsome shirtless men, hot sunny days and wild drunken nights, 24-hour bars and all-night discos, music, singing, laughing, fun, affairs, romance, sex, secrets, exciting evenings, and, maybe, a regret-filled morning. Boracay.
Pagudpud sounds like one of those small, lost towns in northern New Jersey. Pagudpud is a small, lost town in northern Ilocos Norte. It is the most northern town in the most northern province on the northern island of Luzon. From Manila, it’s a 10 to 12 hour bus trip. But when Filipinos want to get away, they go to Pagudpud.
Pagudpud is a tranquil, isolated town nestled between the South China Sea and the Cordillera Mountains. Protected by the mountains, few storms threaten up here. The weather is warm, but not hot. The ocean is clear, blue, and unpolluted. The fishermen, in their hand-built boats, are out early in the mornings, tending their nets. Long-winged seabirds fly low over the water. Wavelets splash lightly on the shore. The beaches are pristine, unspoiled, and almost all white sand. These beaches are some of the most beautiful in all of the Philippines.
Because Pagudpud is so far away from other towns and cities, and so difficult to get to, there are few foreigners way up here. There are few drunkards or rowdies. No one is immodestly dressed and trying to attract attention. The beaches of Pagudpud are secluded and peaceful.
The local Ilocanos are quiet and efficient people, polite and helpful. They are not talkative or effusive. They are not wild, party people. (I’m not much of a wild, party person, either.) They don’t try to entertain you. They do their jobs well. They are, like their resorts and food, simple and frugal. The resorts are modest. The rooms are spotless. The beds are comfortable. Mostly, visitors stay in guesthouses, rooms for rent from local families. Many guesthouses provide cooking facilities.
The restaurants are not elegant 4-star gourmet, but clean and plain. They serve local Ilocano food, mostly freshly caught seafood, including lapu-lapu (grouper) and lobster, locally grown vegetables in pinakbet (Ilocano-style ratatouille), good food, simply prepared, courteously served, and greatly enjoyed, with fresh buko juice, still in its coconut shell.
There are some small, thatched, bamboo souvenir shops selling t-shirts, seashells, and key chains with Pagudpud written simply on them. There are no catchy slogans that describe Pagudpud.
After an undisturbed sunset (where you swear you can hear the sun hiss into the ocean), Pagudpud goes quiet. There is nothing much to do here but to sit on the deserted beach and watch the sky turn purple, then black, and gaze at the stars.
Pagudpud, however, does have the two of the most important objects that any ocean beach town should have – the ocean and a beach.
I’m not much of a beach person. After about an hour of hanging out at a beach, mostly walking in the sand, getting my feet gritty, then washing them in the ocean, then getting them gritty again, I’ve pretty much had my beach experience. I do enjoy watching the people – the stunning, the ordinary, and the ugly – for a while, and I like watching the changing angles of the sunlight on the ocean but, after that, I feel that I’ve pretty much done all there is to do at a beach.
I’m not much of a swimmer. As a kid, I liked to swim, dive, and jump around in a swimming pool to cool off on a hot summer day. As a teenager, my best friend drowned in a swimming accident and since then swimming hasn’t been fun. When I do swim at all, I quickly get tense, scared, desperate, stressed out, floundering about, trying not to drown, trying to go in some direction, trying to get anywhere, then I get worried, tired, and I have to swim my way back from where I started. I’m a terrible swimmer.
It turns out, though, that I’m a terrific floater. At Pagudpud, the ocean is calm, smooth, and shallow. At low tide, I walked out until the water was waist high, then I gently leaned back into the salty water, stretched out as if on an immense bed, and relaxed, unworried, unstressed, and unconcerned, contented, confident, and serene, I floated on the ocean.
The kids, standing on the shore, were amazed. Apparently, they had never before seen anyone floating. They seemed most impressed when they saw on the surface not only my face and my hands; they could see my toes wiggling!
Hesitantly, they waded out into the water and gestured for me to show them how to float. One young girl took to floating on her first try. She did well for a while, until she thought about what she was doing a little too much, and her head came up and her arms came in and her feet went down until she touched the bottom and she was standing, looking startled and saddened that it was over and she was no longer floating.
Floating on the ocean is easy. Begin slowly at low tide, near the shore, in a smooth ocean. Now lean back into the salty water, arch you back slightly so your stomach rises, stretch out your arms and your legs as wide as possible, and breathe calmly through your nose.
Don’t worry. You are naturally buoyant. Think of floating as horizontal meditation on soothing water (with the slightest possibility of drowning to focus attention). Or, better yet, don’t think so much. Don’t panic. Stay calm.
Soon, the only sounds will be your breathing and the ocean’s breathing. Close your eyes, relax, trust yourself, enjoy the nurturing softness that is all around you, or look up and smile into an amazingly blue sky with its imagination-inducing multitudinous shapes of clouds.
Don’t think too hard. Don’t try so hard. Don’t worry so much. You’re not going to go too fast and you’re not going to go too far. You’re like a cork floating on the ocean. You’re a bottle with your own special message inside. Let the currents take you wherever they want to. Drift with them to the infinite ever-moving horizon or, if you want to go anywhere, you can flap your hands a little.
Eventually, you’ll float into shallow water near a shore . . . somewhere. If you’re not worried about where you’re going, everywhere is somewhere. So what, if you’ve ended up somewhere you hadn’t expected? Just remember that wherever you are, you are where you are. That’s what . . . floating on the ocean . . . is all about.
B.J. Stolbov is a writer, poet, essayist, novelist, short story writer, travel writer, technical writer/editor, and improving photographer. He lives and works in the Philippines, and travels and explores throughout Southeast Asia. B.J. teaches English and writing, and is available for writing and teaching assignments. Please feel free to contact him at BJStolbov@gmail.com.