Monday, March 05, 2012

How to Kill Paradise

So you find a piece of paradise: 2 mile long stretch of pristine beach on a tiny Filipino island. It's one of their famous "seven thousand." (Since the first time I visited the Philippines, I have heard locals talk proudly of their 7000 islands, though the official count is a rather loose 7107. I say "loose" because some of these islands "disappear" with the tides.) There are a couple of tiny fishing villages, with a few dozen families living in bamboo shacks. You get there like the handful of other travelers, hiking through jungle for the last few kilometers and then hitching a ride on one of the fishermen's boats. There's no electricity, no cars, no diesel generators, no running water, no refrigeration... but it's a pure, unadulterated tropical paradise with fireflies floating to the strains of someone's acoustic guitar, phosphorescent algae twinkling on the lapping waves. You eat like the locals and learn to love warm beer. You lease a little bamboo hut on the beach for something like $500 for 5 years. You want to be here forever.

But "here" is not here forever. Paradise slowly dies.

Travelers tell other travelers. More travelers come. The bus now goes all the way to where you can catch a boat across to the island. No more hiking, no more hitching rides with the fishermen. Some enterprising local starts a ferry service. More travelers come. A small airline operates a direct flight from Manila to ferry point. Tourists, vacationers begin to arrive. Foreigners come with their foreign needs -- locals accommodate with banana pancakes, cold beers, refrigeration. The sound of diesel generators break the silence of the nights. Foreigners open restaurants and bars. More tourists arrive. Now there are motorbikes belching black exhaust along the tiny beach path. Now there are hookers from Ermita.

Your 5 year lease is up. You do not renew, nor do the landlords want you to. They have bigger plans.

20 years later, you return to your one time paradise. The name of the island hasn't changed but that's about the only thing that hasn't. The beach is crammed, shoulder to shoulder with hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops. None seem to be owned by the original residents of the island. The beach is cluttered with boats, littered with trash, and there is sometimes a strange green sludge growing in the water. The island is packed with tourists. You go looking for your former landlord, former neighbors. After days, maybe weeks, you finally find them on the other side of the island -- the windy, rocky side. They still live in a bamboo shack but their lives have not gotten better from all the development. The little bit of money they made, selling their property to some unscrupulous developer for peanuts is long gone. "Food is so expensive nowadays," they complain.

Paradise rarely dies on its own. "Discovery" kills it each and every time.

I wonder what this strip of Mexican Caribbean coastline was like 20 years ago.

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