Arriving by bangka
Impossibly beautiful. We were welcomed ashore by a three piece band, which also serenades us all at dinner with Club Paradise's very own song.
Christmas is in the air. Huge stars made from sliced and twisted Coke cans sparkle in the rafters, and our bungalow door jangles with bells whenever we come in or out. Just before bedtime, when Elliot is sleeping and Duncan and I are lazing on the balcony, the Club Paradise Singers come caroling. Gathered in the shadows just beyond the boundary of our bungalow, they softly sing Christmas medleys in beautiful harmony, the lights on their Santa hats blinking red in the darkness.
Christmas Eve dinner is a festive affair. We guests gather by the pool at twilight. Soon we are summoned into the Club House and given a small, white candle nestled in a half-coconut shell. We stand together in the darkness while a prayer is said and the significance of this traditional Filipino candle-lighting ceremony explained. A flame appears at the centre of the room as the first candle is lit, and the light spreads like the ripple of a stone in a pond, fanning out from stranger to stranger until we’re all cradling a little pool of fire in our hands. We wander out to cast our coconuts adrift in the pool. A wind blows up and
Bobbing around while we snorkel at one of the islands near Club Paradise
extinguishes most of the flames, herds the shells into one corner. It doesn’t matter. At Christmas, when we’re usually with our families, it’s nice to be a part of something communal.
Our massive buffet dinner is punctuated by resort-grown entertainment. A cosy living room, complete with fireplace, is the stage for traditional Filipino dances, including one decidedly camp act where the boys—bare chested but with coconut shells strapped to their chests, shoulders and bums—slap and tap one another with coconut shell castanets. They all rather enjoy it too.
As dinner draws to a close and our tables are cleared, the living room turns into a nativity scene. Mary rides past on her donkey (two guys bending over with a blanket thrown over them), led by Joseph, and along come the three wise men, complete with stapled together satin robes and cotton wool beards. Elliot is transfixed. Above the manger, the star of Bethlehem appears. Three angels materialise, harking the arrival of baby Jesus. We recognise staff from the front desk, the bar, the restaurant. Their performance is sincere and genuine; their devotion is touching.
On Christmas morning we try and engage Elliot in the concept of opening
Duncan, looking utterly fetching.
presents. He likes the paper, but prefers climbing in and out of the wicker cabinet and pressing the buttons on the room’s safe to playing with his new toys. At breakfast, Grandma Montoya show us the calendars her son has made, filled with photos ranging from her childhood to happy snaps from the previous year, for each of the 23 members of the family here celebrating Christmas together. Their table is half the length of the restaurant. Everyone kisses the three elders (Grandma Montoya, her brother and his wife) as they arrive and leave the table.
The rest of our week comprises drifting from the beach to the pool to the bungalow and back, with three meals a day provided in between. Elliot is adored—everywhere we go, he is welcomed with “Hello, Baby Elliot”. All the ladies reach for him, and he happily accompanies them behind the front desk or bar, around the restaurant. Afternoons, while he plays with a baby sitter, Duncan and I brave the rough surf and strong current to try and swim with the sea turtles that feed on the sea grass in front of our bungalow. We never catch them in the water, and
The pretty underwater world.
only ever see their black heads bobbing above the surface of the water as we watch from the beach. We’re luckier at the house reef, where one afternoon I swim through a huge school of tuna that separates and reforms around me in a question mark of fish.
Another day we are invited by our new friends Helene and Kris and their son Norman, to join them island hopping. We snorkel together in the shallow water of a nearby island, spotting clown fish in the anemone. Norman makes friends with Elliot, lolling together under the umbrella. Later, Elliot falls asleep in my arms. Kris makes him a nest out of Club Paradise towels to bed down in. Until today, Elliot has been afraid of Kris, with his large frame, booming voice and Swedish accent; from now on, Elliot is happy to see him when we cross paths around the resort.
Dusk approaches and fruit bats rise from their roosts at the tip of the island. A scattering turns into a cloud that stretches the width of the passage, black silhouettes winging their way to find their dinner. Fittingly, on our last evening the sky erupts in a carnival
All tuckered out
Elliot snoozing on the bangka.
of colours, a sunset so spectacular everyone from the resort gather in the sand to watch.
It’s always kind of nice to leave somewhere on a gloomy day, and our day of departure breaks grey. We wait on the beach for the bangka to come and take us back to Busuanga airport, watching the rolling swell push through the passage. It’s rough out there; snorkellers who wade in at one end are soon blown well around to the other side. The boat is late, then later still. Ana comes out from the office with bad news; the bangka has broken down. Another boat is coming but we will miss our flight to Puerto Princesa. Our choices are: wait for the second boat, then get a flight to Manila and another back to Puerto (we recall domestic check-in at Manila: not a fun prospect, especially with a baby), or get the speedboat to Busuanga. We opt for the speedboat.
Soon enough our bags are wrapped in plastic, and we're wearing our rain jackets and sou’westers. We guffaw and laugh while fifteen staff members gather around the boat (more large rubber ducky than speedboat) to push us off the beach.
Pottering in the sand in front of our bungalow.
They look determined. On the water, I reinterpret their expressions to apprehension: it’s wildly choppy. The boat tips and pitches as we slowly push through the waves. We get drenched. I protect Elliot as best I can, pulling the poncho entirely over us, zipping my jacket up as far as it will go. Despite the water sluicing down my chest, dripping on his face, he's sound asleep.
We arrive at a small dock under the gazes of a clutch of villagers, straggle ashore to our van. Racing the clock we hightail to the airport, making it to check-in just before it closes. We clear security with moments to spare and are hurriedly scoffing down a muffin when we catch the end of the announcement: flight number blah-blah to Puerto Princesa is now delayed until... We shift around in our wet shorts, thinking longingly of our dry clothes, now safely checked in.
Such is life on the road, we shrug. The baby's dry and happy; we're wet and resigned to the wait. Most flights in the Philippines comprise of an ascent and almost immediate descent; we know we'll be in Puerto soon enough.
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