In the old days, which in my case meant the '90s when I first set foot in Galera, there were no boats sailing direct to White Beach, White Sands, Lalaguna, Sabang or all the other coves and beaches that dotted the Mindoro coastline. A lumbering but air-conditioned ferry took three hours to dock at the town proper, after which a hired jeepney took visitors to their preferred resort. That 20-minute ride virtually turned you into a walking espasol; the dirt road was extremely dusty in the summer heat, and woe to you if your vehicle trailed another belching jeep in front.
My first stay at Galera was not at White Beach, then as now the epicenter of night life in the island, but at White Sands, a quieter corner more suited to honeymooners and melancholy foreigners. To reach White Beach from White Sands, you had to take a boat, or you could wait for low tide and walk along the coastline, crossing craggy stretches of rock and bluff that in high tide were impassable. White Beach offered bars, booze and the prospect of scoring a hot lay. Naturally, few were daunted by the erratic topography of the place.
I've been to Galera six or seven times (most recently three weekends ago), and every time we're in White Beach we've stayed at Mamita Stella's White Lodge (what's with all this 'white' fixation when Galera's sand is more like pale brown to beige?). This once-modest collection of breezy nipa huts has now metamorphosed into a sprawling mini-village of two-story concrete buildings, housing rooms with toilets, aircon, TV and refrigerators, and soon (Mamita says by this month) even wi-fi--a dizzying rush to progress echoed throughout White Beach itself.
It's churlish not to feel good at the rapid transformation of a once-rustic, rural destination, especially when you see the locals taking pride in their recent prosperity. But if you had been there during its simpler days, the change could be rather startling. About nine years back, there was nothing in the back lot of White Lodge except endless rows of coconuts and a dirt road that turned muddy when it rained. Here and there you could still see a carabao or a goat tethered to a tree.
I saw the area again three weeks ago, when I walked the now-paved road leading to town to look for an internet cafe, and what I saw amazed me. The coconut trees were all gone, replaced by all manner of structures offering lodgings to visitors. This was no longer prime beachfront property, mind you; you had to walk a bit far to reach the water. But the proliferation of newly-built accommodations only testified to Galera's unbridled growth in the last few years, as domestic tourism has heated up and Manila's urban horde yearn for easy weekend getaways.
How has the beach stood up to the onslaught? I'm not sure, but if I were to judge just the state of restrooms all over the place, I'd say quite poorly. While most rooms have toilet and bath, public restrooms are mostly rudimentary affairs, and some locals are only too keen to direct you to some dark corner, or even the beach itself, when you need to take a leak. How such lax arrangements affect the overall sanitation of the beach can be a worrisome thought. Another troubling sight is the gradual subsidence of the grounds leading to the beach. The land has dropped by a few inches some distance before hitting the water, and some establishments (which are perched too close to the edge) now have to prop up their foundations with sacks of sand to arrest the subsidence.
Hardly anyone notices, of course. Not when everyone is having a good time. Holy Week has always been Galera's Zero Hour, the peak of its frenzied summer season. As more and more city denizens have discovered the cheap thrills (in more ways than one) of Galera, White Beach has become increasingly congested, rowdy and noisy. Even the weekends before Holy Week are now often fully booked.
If you're yearning for some peace and quiet by the sea, White Beach is no longer the place for you. And if you're trying to get away from the faces you see every Saturday in Manila's bars, prepare to make a detour, as they rule the bars here as well, carefree and boozed out as usual. But of course, if partying is what you dig, you'll have a ball at Galera. The music doesn't let up until about sunrise, by which time everyone has presumably collapsed in bed or gotten laid.
It used to be that every Good Friday, the people behind Library Bar in Malate would stage a Miss Puerto Galera contest, with drag queens in hilarious costumes figuring out Q&As like: "Ang pambansang kasuotan ng mga Filipina ay ang terno, na naging tanyag nung kapanahunan ni Imelda Marcos. Ang tanong: sino ang modista ng ternong suot ni Ginang Marcos nang manumpa sa kanyang tungkulin si Ferdinand Marcos bilang presidente ng Pilipinas noong 1969 sa Luneta, at bakit?"
Even the Puerto Galera mayor used to judge such rollicking contests, until some pious souls must have complained. Last I heard, the tilt has been moved to Black Saturday.
Once, after watching an interminable episode of that campy affair that ended around midnight, I trudged back to our cottage with only the moon illuminating the beach. Our room was located rather far away, among the now-gone niyogan--the result of late reservations. I could barely make out the slender trail leading to our room, but this was Galera, and I felt safe. I was inhaling the fresh night air, when suddenly I keeled over. My right leg--just one leg--had fallen into a ditch. When I hauled it out, I had wet black slime covering my leg right up to the thigh, glinting in the moonlight like a shiny boot zipped up to there. My friends never gave me sympathy when I limped in; that's what I get for my late-night rampa, they said, chortling.
My most unforgettable Galera experience, next to the "He have a lover" incident, involved getting drunk for the first time in my life. What an embarrassment it turned out to be. We had gone to a bar where we got into chatting and dancing with some cool folks who proved to be daredevil drinkers. I've no idea now what I downed that night--the infamous Mindoro Sling, perhaps, or the noxious Mudslide (gin mixed with Ovaltine, ugh!)--but the next thing I knew, I was lying on the beach, the water soaking me. Vinnie was frantically calling other friends to help me to our room. Since I was practically dead, they ended up carrying me on all fours like a hog. I was too heavy for them, so several times during the trek they had to drop me down (blag!) to catch their breath. Strangely, I was aware of everything that was happening, but I was too soused up to move even a finger.
I woke up the next morning with a hangover so terrible that I vowed never to get drunk again. Isinusumpa ko na talaga ang alak, I said melodramatically, as if I had been drinking myself silly all this time. We had to leave that morning for Manila, but I knew I couldn't ride a boat without retching, so I decided to stay in Galera for one more day.
This was just a few months after the tsunami that devastated Phuket, Aceh and South Asia. While resting in bed with my head still doing cartwheels, I suddenly felt the ground shake. An earthquake! What the fuck!
It was a quick, mild temblor, but nothing else could have sobered me up more quickly. I spent the rest of the day dozing off, slurping fruit juices and trying not to look wasted. At noon, my brother texted to ask where I was. "In Galera, why?" "Watch TV, the Pope is dead. Last night pa."
The first and last time I got pickled out of my wits, and it happened on the night Pope John Paul II breathed his last. What can I say? Puerto Galera only confirmed the obvious: I was meant to be an ex-seminarian.
Puerto Galera's White Beach three weeks before the Holy Week onslaught
P.S. On this note, I'm signing off for a few days. See you after the holidays!
[photos: Chris Lagman/Tad Payomo]