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I almost drowned in Ilocos; flashing before my eyes were PH systemic inadequacies

“About to drown in Ilocos, it wasn’t my life that flashed before my eyes. But the systemic inadequacies that could make bad things happen.”

To Ewww:
For doing everything.
You’ve helped.

You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes when you’re about to die? Well… I think I almost did; but the thought that flashed before my eyes wasn’t anything poetic. Instead, it’s this nagging thought that even as I leave, so many of systems in the Philippines are flawed, so much so that deaths could happen just like that, with you actually aware something bad is about to happen, and people are just watching you as if to be first to say “I saw that bad thing happening” while doing nothing, while “experts” can’t even be found…

I’d say it was more frightening. But it also gives you a hard slap on the face.

Get a grip. Can’t die yet. Systems are still broken.

THE PULL OF THE BLUE LAGOON

So I joined a tourist group to discover the Blue Lagoon in Ilocos (c/- Jefria Travel & Tours).

The place’s history is dramatic, as it is – e.g. its main beach is dotted with small and medium business offering B&B to tourists, though a bigger company once wanted to absorb all businesses by building this tacky accommodation that actually blocked the road to the other businesses (don’t worry, that big business was forced to close, hurrah to MSMEs!). Nowadays, remnants of the once big business is still there, from the now non-functioning zipline to the cement statues of everything, from dinosaurs to some pharaoh and his slaves to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

But at least the local businesses are thriving somehow…

And so I went for a swim, right across Maritess resto, not too far from the main entry into the Blue Lagoon.

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The waves were high. No surprise there, as this is Ilocos. But more worrisome for me was the undercurrent. For every wave slapping against you, there’s this strong pull that forces you into the deeper end of the waters.

And it got me.

I was swimming with partner-in-crime Ewww; a wave swallowed me; when I looked after surfacing, Ewww was one, two meters away… And I couldn’t feel the surface under my feet.

I kicked against the water harder, towards Ewww. But every wave was creating a bigger divide.

He tried to swim my way.

“Can you still feel the sand under your feet?” I was able to ask.

He said, “No.”

Don’t come closer, I said. Look for help.

He appeared like he wanted to help then and there; I was more worried of two people drowning.

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He left, then headed to a group of people by the seashore.

From what I could see, they just ignored him.

He went to another group. Same reaction.

Then I saw him run to the resto where the other tourists were.

I was alone. Getting tired. Trying to stay afloat with freestyle, treading, dog paddle, and then floating. I can swim, but the current was quite strong. People on the shore were getting even smaller. Seemingly unable to hear, or just ignoring, shouts for help (in four languages).

Pacifying myself so as not to panic, I looked at the sky. And then the thoughts that rushed in my head were the systemic inadequacies I noticed in this trip.

SYSTEMIC INADEQUACIES

In Vigan, even with a local government profiting off earnings from the historical Calle Crisologo, you see electric wires crisscrossing edifices hundreds of years old, fire risks be damned. Vigan, incidentally, does not have easy-to0-find rubbish bins, or public toilets… even in areas where tourists flock in multitudes.

In the famed Bangui, where those windmills are, there are child laborers minding stores. Then you walk along the beach, and rubbish is everywhere… a Manila Bay in the making.

At the Kapurpurawan Rock Formation, beauteous marshlands are filled with plastics, irresponsibly thrown by tourists (perhaps), but not cleaned by locals either. And, this is interesting, even if the province produces energy from the famed windmills, dwellers and businesses here do not even have electricity.

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And – after interviewing LGBTQIA locals – this province may have an anti-discrimination ordinance, but don’t expect those at the grassroots to know shit. Shalala, who sells empanada at the Malacañang of the North, still says she’s a ladyboy, mainly because, she said, no one reached out to her to explain SOGIESC concepts. Mimi who works in the place I stayed at also sees himself as “tomboy lang” ; like Shalala, no one, including from the LGBTQIA community, reached out to them to hear their stories, the difficulties they’ve experienced as LGBTQIA people in smaller communities, etc.

HELPING HAND

I think it was the 10th time I turned over from the floating to the freestyle or treading or dog paddling, when I again looked at the shore. It seemed closer. So I tried swimming harder. In between, I saw Erwin Joshua Palamara, the travel coordinator, run to the water, towards me. Ewww was able to give him a go-over of what’s happening to me then. He swam, and then a few feet away from me, he stopped.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m about to drown.”

He extended his hand.

“Are your feet reaching the surface?”

Yes, he said.

By then I was within reach. So I grabbed his outstretched hand.

“Thanks,” I said.

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I didn’t do anything, he said back.

I was gonna elaborate, but then two lifeguards arrived. Which reminded me of policemen in films. Not fair, I know (considering they are said to cover a big area), but the thought still crossed my mind…

One asked if I’m okay; the other standing looking a few meters away.

The one near smiled. You okay?

Now I am.

“Just drink water. Then get back in the water,” he said.

I wanted to laugh.

What’s this, like riding a bike? You have to get on one if you fall off, so you lose your fear of riding one ever again?

But I just took a deep breath. I wanted – no, needed – water. Will think of going back in the water soon enough.

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SEARCHING FOR BEAUTY

Looking back (and it’s only been hours since this happened), I felt more… disappointed than distressed.

Count, too, this feeling of guilt for making (though unintentional; the Filipino in me is talking) a ruckus (e.g. trauma for some, and the panic including of the travel organizer).

But Ilocos, I’d go on a stretch and say this, is akin to so many places all over the Philippines, which has a lot to offer. The marshlands at Kapurpurawan Rock Formation reminded me of those visited by Frodo, Sam and Gollum in LOTR. The numerous variations of the empanada (using green papaya, or cabbage?) are to die for. The surf sites, wow! The historic churches, one-of-a kind. The 4×4 ride in the dunes, must-try. And heck, even the beaches like the Blue Lagoon are… must-visit.

But through visits in these places, you’d be reminded of how so many profit off them. But not enough really looks after them.

Like… where’s that sign to warn swimmers when swimming in the Blue Lagoon?

These systemic inadequacies are what hinder us from… greatness, I’d say.

Perhaps it’s just the saltwater I ended up drinking that’s talking. Or perhaps not; I’m still nursing this tiredness, sunburn, and a sprained left foot I don’t know how I got.

But think of these if and or when you get in a somewhat similar sitch… 😜😁😂

Sunset comes at Blue Lagoon.
Photos by Arthur Abad Nwabia

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