Beaches of Sadness and Joy

The Sadness of Beaches –

Early in the morning, with the rising sun still climbing up from behind the eastern mountain ridge, I walked along a beach in the province of Ilocos Sur on the north-western corner of Luzon Island in the Philippines. The beach stretches along the far end of a receding bay facing westward toward the South China Sea. I had flown a client from Manila so he could celebrate his birthday at his birth place, Vigan City. We had departed the Manila airport too late to return VFR that same night so we needed to spend the night. He put us up at a the Cabugao Beach Resort an hour drive up the coast from the airport.

When we drove into the resort the night before I couldn’t see but I could hear the swells breaking and crashing on the beach. The nest morning, because the tide was high, the breaking swell was gentle and quiet. It is this persistent pounding and mixing of the waves hitting the far end of the bay that made the beach, and the bay for that matter, in the first place. Only a deep barely discernible boom, like distant rolling thunder, coming from the coastline and echoing across the bay broke the silence. The view over the beach and the bay was peaceful but still I felt a wave of sadness washing over me which I could not readily explain.

I ordered coffee from one of the smiling Filipino girls and sat out on a terrace overlooking the sea. The client joined me briefly. He was grinning widely as only a proud father could. “See the beach over on this side?” He pointed toward the south end of the bay. This is my property – I will build my “Executive Club” retreat here. He plans to fly executives from Manila to this remote province’s beach front for an all-encompassing corporate retreat. But then he asked the unanswerable questions: Isn’t this beach beautiful? Isn’t this place amazing?

One of my most disturbing personal traits is that I cannot lie to a direct question. If my often blunt and to-the-point answer will disturb the karma of the moment, however, I can choose to grin and nod or just to redirect the question. This place is his home. This is where he grew up. I just flew him, and his family, here from the crowded, polluted, traffic grid-locked streets of Manila and he was so excited to be home to the rural and romantic setting of his upbringing how could I burst that bubble?

I tried to see what he sees, but instead I saw Jolly-Bee fast food wrappers, faded juice boxes and tattered soiled diapers littering a dirty grey beach. The beach was covered end to end with washed up seaweed and garbage and patrolled by packs of mongrel dogs sniffing their way through the more organic bits of garbage. I didn’t see the potential. I didn’t see the ….. fine white sand beach along a majestic cove advertised on the resort’s website.

The day before after landing at the airport our host had decided it best to visit the historic city center of Vigan before heading north to the beach resort where we would spend the night. I was thrilled because all too often, as pilots, we don’t get to explore the cities attached to the airports we visit. I had heard a lot about this old Spanish town and wondered what the fuss was all about.

Our first stop in the city center was to visit St Paul’s Cathedral, or the Cathedral of Vigan, for Friday mass which was just starting as we arrived. I walked around and took pictures as the mass murmured on in the background. The most amazing fact is that the original chapel on this site was built in 1574 – 202 years before American Independence. The first church, built in 1641, was damaged by earthquakes in 1619 and 1627 and a third church was burned in 1739. The existing structure was constructed in 1790 in the earthquake baroque style and since that time has survived hundreds of typhoons – the most recent being Lando in Oct 2015, and tens of devastating earthquakes – the most recent taking place in Nov 2013. (Why don’t they name major earthquakes like “Earthquake Harry” for example?)

A massive earthquake and powerful typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) successively struck central Philippines in October and early November 2013, causing catastrophic destruction and human loss.

Source: UNESCO World Heritage Centre – Heritage protection efforts underway after natural disasters in Philippines

After leaving the church and plaza we wandered down the Calle Crisologo main street of the historical city.


Vigan is the most intact example in Asia of a planned Spanish colonial town, established in the 16th century. Its architecture reflects the coming together of cultural elements from elsewhere in the Philippines and from China with those of Europe and Mexico to create a unique culture and townscape without parallels anywhere in East and South-East Asia.

Source: Historic Town of Vigan – UNESCO World Heritage Centre

The shops were inter-disbursed with touristy souvenir items, t-shirts with I “heart” Vigan and local consumable goods of which the most common was strings of dried garlic. To preserve the historic feel of the old Spanish town there were no cars allowed and instead only the local horse-drawn carts called Kalesas. With me being allergic to horses I immediately developed an annoying sniffle and itchy red eyes. Other than that I was fine but considering my allergies I did not take the opportunity to “go for a ride.”

After our tour of the old city our client treated “the pilots” to dinner in the heart of the historic Spanish town of Vigan City.

For dinner we had what our host called “local delicacies” at the Cafe Leona on the main street of the historic city center Calle Crisologo. To put a modern face to the local delicacies, in case his two western guests could not stomach the originals, our host ordered pizza made from the local pork sausages and deep-fried pork belly.

To show us what the delicacies looked like he also ordered the originals in a dish I think was called Bagnet Sisig. I tried both but glad I had the pizza version. I followed my meal up with a mango shake.

After dinner we walked down the street where he showed us a plaque, endorsed by the UNESCO World Heritage foundation, proving that his family had built and owned property here for hundreds of years. His family’s roots are deep.

All in all I enjoyed our visit to the historic center of Vigan City but I am not sure how I could recommend anyone visiting here. The city is over 400 kilometers and a 12 hour drive away from Manila, the most common gateway in to the Philippines. Flying is not normally an option because the local airport is not serviced by airlines although it is a great little airport for charters. When anyone suggests driving I cringe. The usual line of encouragement is that “it’s a great scenic drive.” Well maybe for short bursts. But otherwise the route winds through hours of boring little villages and agonizing traffic jams caused by local Jeepneys and under-powered motorcycles pushing exposed sidecars (tricycles) stopping in the middle of the road to pickup passenger with no regard to the following traffic.

Despite being away from the big city traffic and pollution the entire trip is polluted by trucks and buses blowing black diesel exhaust and over-stressed and under-powered 2-stroke motorcycles blowing sticky oil burning exhaust choking the entire journey. I had to endure the one hour drive from Vigan airport up the coast to Cabugao and I had a headache from the pollution and the continuous starts and stops to avoid the local traffic. The worst part is that once the driver had made many efforts to pass the agonizingly slow buses and sidecar motorcycles I could hardly ask him to stop so I could take a picture of the country side. Every stop would add 20 minutes to are already long drive. There is no point of a scenic drive if you can’t stop to enjoy the view.

This problem, however, is easily solved by flying to Vigan in the Cessna Grand Caravan. For every minivan of 9 passengers driving along for 12 hours on a bumpy crowded road spewing 12 hours of CO2 and pollution you can spend 1:20 mins of time in the air with negligible pollution output and minimum CO2 emissions. Plus you get a comfortable ride with scenic views all around. You still can’t stop to snap a picture but you don’t need to because everyone has a window to shoot from. My host was on the right track by chartering us for all this executive transfers.

My other dilemma was in trying to see the vision my host saw in developing the tourist potential of the area. His mantra was <em>It’s virgin territory; there are no international quality tourist facilities we can be the first. What I see, however, is an area of over population highly dependent on low-income producing agriculture for their survival. The more people the more food required and the more land needed to produce enough food to survive. In order to find more land the farmers need to move away from the soil rich bottom land (along river banks and valleys) to higher up the hills and mountains. In order for the hills to be fertile enough to sustain crops they would have to be covered in trees whose roots will hold the soil during heavy rains. The problem with trees, however, is that they are in the way of farmers. Plus with higher population down in the valley they need more wood for housing which entices the farmers to cut down the trees that are in their way to sell for profits. Then, without the trees roots to hold the soil, heavy rains especially during typhoons wash the soil down the hills into the rivers and out to sea. The hills quickly become infertile and can no longer sustain the crops. The farmer then moves on, cuts down more trees and denudes more hills creating more erosion and mud slides knocking down the wooded huts built of the former trees down in the valley. The cycle continues and eventually we end up with an island like Madagascar where the natives have cut down 90% of their forests leaving only a tiny fraction of the land arable. If modern times had not intervened Madagascar would have ended up like Easter Island and locals would have become extinct.

So much of the Philippines is going in that direction. As I flew up to Vigan over the vast areas flooded by Typhoon Lando just a week before I could see the devastation. Large areas flooded by brown soil laden water washed down from the hills and rivers into the valleys and flood plains.

Eventually the nutrient rich soil washes out to sea to be lost to the farmers and to suffocate the near shore coral reefs. The floodplains will gain enriched soil for when the floods subside but at what cost? As I flew down the coast I could also see the enormous body of silt laden fresh water hugging and snaking down the coast. Coastal reefs and salt water fish will be devastated creating pressure on the local fishermen. The thunder like booming I heard at breakfast was the sound of desperate local fishermen dynamiting the reefs trying to catch the few remaining fish and creating more environmental damage. The worse the damage the less likely the area will ever be developed for tourism. But is it too late?

The Joy of Beaches –

To be fair to my host and to Cabugao Beach resort ….a fine white sand beach along a majestic cove…. the plastic bags, diapers and other flotsam I witnessed washed up on the shore had come from the effects of the typhoon and the rain waters flushing out the rivers. The garbage floats out to sea only to be pushed back in again by the winds and currents. The grey of the beach is created by the silt washed down from the hills mixing with the natural sand created by the ocean waves pounding on the beach. Thus the pictures on the resort’s website are not necessarily photo-shopped although I am sure they have seen better days.

The only hope this area has both economically and environmentally is tourism and the higher end the tourist the larger the impact. With the economic pressure of tourists that expect pristine virgin rice fields and clean white beaches the more incentive for the locals to clean up their roads, rivers and beaches. When tourists begin to complain about the fish dynamiting and when more fishermen can afford to feed their families by working in tourism, taking tourists snorkeling out to the reefs for example, then the less pressure to dynamite the last remaining reefs for survival. I know this sounds simple-minded but tourism is a proven sustainable means for reviving rural and island economies.

Before all that, however, you need a quick, clean, cheap, comfortable and environmentally friendly means of getting the tourist to these destinations. That is where the air-conditioned, whisper quiet, fast and economical Cessna Caravan C208B EX amphibian seaplane comes in – so you can experience the joy of beaches.


About John S Goulet

Air Transport Pilot, consultant, writer, blogger and photographer with 45 years in Professional Aviation.
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