Young Star

Oxygen weekend


Basically I needed air. Having lived in Manila all my life, my mutated lungs can survive on fewer oxygen molecules than regular humans. However, I have been prone to coughs, colds, and minor respiratory infections lately, and I was convinced that my lungs needed to reboot.

Have you given any thought to the air we breathe? It’s probably carbon monoxide, nitrogen, toxic emissions, fourth-hand tar and nicotine and, in my case, masses of cat hair. To restore my lungs to their usual level of efficiency I would have to vent all the gunk, clear the alveoli, and ingest plenty of fresh air.

So I had a long weekend in Currimao, Ilocos Norte. I had a standing invitation from Sitio Remedios, a heritage resort on the South China Sea — the cottages and villas are preserved Ilokano houses from the 1920s and 30s. Upon my insistence the resort had recently acquired WiFi — it was installed on the day of my arrival, and will be known henceforth as “ WiFi ni Jessica.”

My 1820h Cebu Pacific flight out of NAIA Terminal 3 (Cavernous! Not packed with people!) was 30 minutes late, so I arrived in Laoag after 8 p.m. It was almost nine when we sat down to dinner at Sitio, al fresco in the plaza by candlelight. Having come to Currimao for my health, I began to worry about my eyesight: my night vision seemed to be faulty.

Only later, when I had sworn to eat more carrots for vitamin A, did I realize why I couldn’t see in the dark. The last time I was in Sitio, the moon was full; now there was barely any moonlight, and a thin haze covered the night sky.

The following afternoon I took a walk along the beach. I do not like sand and sunshine, but it would be rude to come to the seaside and ignore the beach. One cannot snub nature so openly: it may reach in and drag you out of the house.

We had just had a very late lunch, so late that by dessert the sun had begun to set on the horizon. In fact it appeared to be slowly drowning itself from 93 million miles away. I wondered what the earth looked like from the sun.

This being a privately owned strip there were few people about — the occasional fisherman dragging his banca, kids playing, Taiwanese tourists. However, the minute I descended the stairs leading to the beach, three fierce-looking native dogs (askal) appeared and started barking at me. They looked serious, not to mention hungry. Maybe I reeked of cat. I was not exactly scared, although the idea of rabies is never attractive — the violent aversion to taking baths, the drooling and baring of teeth. I was more offended that my privacy had been disturbed. I ignored the beasts but they followed me, and I was not in the mood to lead a procession of barking canines. I returned to the dining room for a cup of coffee, sat by the pool, and watched the setting sun. The sky was bleeding orange. By the time I finished my cup the dogs had gone away, so I could proceed with my walk.

A soundtrack is required for these strolls, and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah seemed appropriate. I have four versions of this song on my iPod — Cohen’s, John Cale’s, k.d. lang’s and Jason Castro’s. (Ed: What? No Jeff Buckley?) Of these I like Cale’s best: there is a note of tragic grandeur in the way he sings, “The baffled king composing hallelujah” and “Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” Cohen’s own version is more about getting horizontal, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Lang, of course, is a wonderful singer, and Castro’s version is surprising — not the least because most American Idol aspirants do not cover Leonard Cohen.

Treading on sand is good exercise: your feet keep sinking, so your muscles work harder. It is like being on a demented stairmaster. The sand is easier to walk on as you get nearer the water; the waves have evened out the surface. I trudged along the shore for 10 minutes. The South China Sea was on my left, trees and grass on my right; at the end of the cove was a cemetery. It occurred to me that I was stepping gingerly, as if I did not trust the terrain. I was reminded of my cats stepping into their litter box, careful not to uncover buried poop.

The light was waning when I decided to walk back. The water looked so much more interesting than the gray sand. I don’t swim, but I had to know how the water felt. I took off my shoes, rolled up my pant legs, and walked to the edge where the waves sloshed over my feet. The water was warm and my toes gripped the wet sand. It was like going to a foot spa with a reflexology massage and exfoliant.

I followed the waterline back. Some kids were walking in the opposite direction, and they showed no surprise at the strange tourist carrying her shoes. When I reached the steps to Sitio Remedios I could not stuff my wet, sand-encrusted feet into my shoes. I had to walk back to my house barefoot, which I haven’t done since I saw a documentary in the fourth grade on how people get hookworms.

I put my feet under a faucet and watched the sand swirl down the drain, to be washed into the sea and carried back to the beach.

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