I REMEMBER BEING THE third to the last passenger to disembark the 19-seater plane that landed that afternoon on the private airstrip of Pamalican Island, somewhere northeast of Palawan, Philippines where the world-famous resort of Amanpulo is located. The other passengers ahead of me in their skimpy shorts and Hawaiian shirts lugged their heavy bags and struggled to make way for the exit. Yours truly, garbed in complete office attire, carried nothing but a business suit in one hand and folders and a plastic Tupperware in the other. Curious stares were aplenty. I tried to draw some pride from my dark sunglasses. (In case you’re wondering about my odd beach ensemble, my Amanpulo trip was a surprise gift from the Chairman of the company I work for. Mr. Chairman along with the rest of the top brass was supposed to follow before sundown).
When I reached the plane’s door, a welcome site greeted me. Outside, parked neatly a few feet from the base of the plane’s steel ladder were rows of golf carts, maybe 10 carts on the left side and another 10 on the right. Standing on attention beside each golf cart was a beautiful resort attendant wearing a native skirt and shirt.
“Welcome to Amanpulo, Mr. Tolentino,” the lady at the base of the stairs whom I presumed to be the Resort Manager greeted me and ushered me to one of the waiting carts. Impressive. They know me already. She introduced me to Paula (not her real name), my resort attendant who was to drive me to my beach-side casita. I took the seat at the back of the cart. Feeling a bit uneasy sitting backside and chauffeured by a pretty lass that looked a bit like Iza Calzado (I have this incurable knack for associating faces with celebrities), I offered to drive. Paula just laughed and told me it was alright.
The other golf carts went their separate ways. Paula handed me a map of the island and briefed me about our destination. Then off we went. Somewhere we turned right taking a dirt road that snaked through waist-high bushes, then through thick forest. Every once in a while we passed by a casita, the resort’s individualized accommodations which is as big as your standard bungalow but is actually a huge room. I was told that others were much bigger and have several rooms inside. Casitas were located far apart from each other that, in order to go to another, you will have to take your golf cart with you and drive through the forest. Talk about privacy! Talk about adventure!
All through the cart ride, the beach was never in sight. The afternoon heat was blocked rather successfully by the shade of trees arching over the dirt path. Paula and I reached my casita in 10 minutes. It was situated near a beach front. From the patio I still couldn’t see the beach which was obscured by thick foliage. Paula opened the door and showed me around. The well-appointed casita was spacious enough for a couple. The cushioned sofa by the glass wall facing the sea could also serve as a makeshift bed in case there’s company. The wide sundeck offered an unobstructed view of Sulu Sea and nearby islands.
Paula pointed at a plastic case on top of the bed. Inside was a pair of shorts, an Amanpulo T-shirt, toothbrush, toothpaste and comb – enough probably for an overnight stay. I was impressed with the great deal of care and coordination exerted to make guests feel important. After making sure I was settled in, Paula said goodbye. I walked her to the big golf cart outside that came to fetch her. Before she boarded the cart, she told me rather amusingly that supermodel Claudia Schiffer once slept in that very same casita. That’s an interesting piece of information, I thought, then went back inside.
I switched the TV on and tuned in on a local music channel. I checked my mobile phone and smiled. Good, I was not getting any signal (or anywhere in the island for that matter). A world without Globe and Smart! Peace at last!
I took a quick shower then put on my shorts and Amanpulo T-shirt. I turned off the TV, locked the casita and rode the golf cart for a quick survey of the resort. Going around the island stirred up a mixed feeling of excitement and dread. Communing with nature was always a source of exhilaration for me. The eerie sound of the forest and bushes that enveloped the island could be unsettling and yet it gives one a sense of peace. I’ve heard sounds I’ve never heard before emanate deep within the forest. I wonder what creatures live in that forest. The continuous creaking of branches swaying in the wind could sometimes startle. Then I realized that I could not even hear a single human voice or any man-made sound.
With my trusty map, I was able to locate the dive supply shop (which was situated in a rather isolated part of the island), the Clubhouse, the pier, the island lagoon, the playground, and a patio that served as a dining/picnic area. When I reached the airstrip from where our plane landed earlier, I decided to return to my casita to sample the beach.
Back in my room, I took a narrow path through a thicket that led to a wide powdery beach. I took my shirt off and jumped in the soothing pristine waters of Sulu Sea. Looking around, there was not a soul in sight. Hell, I could have even chucked my shorts and nobody would notice (not that anyone would care even on a crowded beach). The clear light green shallow sea water was like you were in a clean swimming pool. Much farther away was deep blue.
So this is what they’ve been paying for – ultimate privacy. I thought of Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman, Robert de Niro, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Samuel Jackson, Mariah Carey, Claire Danes, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Gerhard Berger, Erik Morales, David Copperfield, and the long roster of celebrities and VIPs who have been in these waters.
Thirty minutes was all it took and the novelty of wading and frolicking solo in a secluded beach faded away. In a way, I missed the sound of people going about the beach, children milling around, beach balls flying in the air, sand castles and parties. The price celebrities pay for fame. I ran back to my accommodation and took another quick shower. I fed the sound system a random CD and went to bed for a nap.
I woke up around past 6pm. The phone was ringing. It was Paula. She called to inform me that the Bombardier Challenger jet carrying Mr. Chairman and company touched down before six and that Mr. Chairman sent me an invitation for dinner at 7pm in that patio I saw earlier that afternoon (I forgot the name of that open-air nook). Around 6:30pm, I took a hot shower (my fourth that day) and dressed up for dinner, which was pretty much the same get-up i had on-flight.
The moment I emerged from my casita, I got the shock of my life! Outside was utter blackness. I couldn’t see any streetlight, any lamppost, any house light or any other source of illumination except for the moon and some fireflies. So that is why they keep a heavy-duty flashlight inside the casita. I ran back to get it and, with great trepidation, drove my golf cart into the black of night.
Along the way I noticed that the sounds coming from the forest were amplified threefold, and beneath the chirping of insects, I thought I heard low grunting sounds. Genuinely spooked, I’ve decided that if some critter as much as jumps out of the woods, I’m going to crash my golf cart at the nearest tree and offer my jugular right away. I made a mental note to take room service next time. The headlights of my puny conveyance and my flashlight were my only source of illumination. I put the golf cart on full speed while struggling with the map. To my relief, I reached my destination in 10 minutes without incident.
Mr. Chairman, Mr. President and 4 other VPs and directors — my bosses all — welcomed me. Boy, was I in such distinguished company. We had the place exclusively to ourselves. Drinks were overflowing and food by an open fire aplenty. We had a great evening. Being the only Filipino in the contingent, Mr. Chairman aimed his sights on me, recounting stories about his favorite places and dishes. He even served me food and made sure my plate was always full. What a man. I could hardly imagine sitting beside this gentleman who is the immediate kin of one of the five richest men in the world today. I couldn’t ask for more.
After the last bottle of wine was empty, everybody bade goodbye and took their separate ways, golf carts streaking through diverging paths. I watched them disappear, one by one, like ghosts in the dark. I was tipsy, sleepy and left to my own good humor. I fumbled for the cart keys before zigzagging towards the black heart of the forest.
Later, within the safe confines of my casita and on my soft fluffy bed, sleep came hard. Maybe because I kept thinking of the day’s activities that made that day, by far, the most memorable birthday I’ve ever had. And yet I realized I was pretty much alone for at least the better part of the day. I thought of my loved ones back home. I thought about the small band of officemates who celebrated my birthday at the office that noon in my absence. I thought about Mr. Chairman and Joe. I thought about the sea outside lapping on now-familiar shores. The sea has no memory, they say.
But I had a feeling I couldn’t sleep at the thought of Claudia Schiffer sleeping in the same bed, under the same blanket, maybe using the same pillow, tossing and turning. Two kindred spirits separated only by time. Then I wondered how the casita of the beautiful Nicole Kidman would have been like. How it would have been like to lay in her soft bed. But my mind inevitably drifted to the bulging figure of Tom right beside gorgeous Nicole. I stifled the idea. No romance there. At least none anymore.
And how about Samuel Jackson’s bed?
I fell asleep almost instantly.
(always waist deep)