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In the Wayback-Outback

The first thing to know about “indigenous” villages, if you didn’t already, is that they’re claustrophobic. And almost totally lacking in privacy — especially if you’re one of the rare foreigners to stay within their borders. The sheer Novelty of You makes you a public attraction, no matter how much everyone tries to be polite.

One of the first things to know about “island paradises” is that they mostly aren’t. Islands, yes. Paradises, nope.

Another thing I didn’t know about villages is how F*&&^%%ing noisy they are. OMG, OMG, OMG!

My friend Lorri and I spent most of a week on an island in a blue, blue, sea. An island that was no more than a few hundred yards wide and not terribly much longer (though if you counted up the whole little string of island-ettes that were connected and divided by swamp-ettes and canal-ettes, the length might have been a mile).

Despite that, from most places in the village, it was impossible to glimpse that blue, blue sea because of the dense housing. And when you did get close to it … you might wish you hadn’t. That’s the first place where we noticed the part about paradises not being paradisical.

I don’t mean to sound like a crusading Greenpeace member. But that blue, blue sea was awash — not in water and fishes, but in food cans, shoe soles, candy-bar wrappers, empty (I hope) motor oil containers, and of course the omnipresent plastic water bottles.

And I’m not even mentioning what the built-over-water privies add to the mix. That’s a whole ‘nother blog entry.

When we asked where the swimming beach was, we were loaded into a dugout canoe (motorized, but judging by the sound of the motor, just barely) and we were efficiently put-putted a full hour from “our” island to … well, picture that famous “desert island” you’ve seen in a thousand cartoons. Yes, that island. Except there were three palm trees instead of the standard one and four bamboo-and-grass huts sometimes used by workers or travelers. But the whole thing couldn’t have been more than 75 feet wide and 200 long. And there, on a white-sand beach exactly the size of the one in those cartoons, we had a delightful time swimming in warm, clear water and gathering humongous entire sea shells.

Our deserted island
This is a picture of the actual desert island from which we swam. Our little beach begins on the lower right. The huts are empty when not used by occasional plantation workers or travelers.

But even there, the island was covered in old pairs of jeans, Pepsi cans, used diapers, and depleted bottles of suntan lotion. I’m afraid stuff like that will be our main memory of “paradise.”

We got in exactly two hours of swimming and beachcombing before our guide (who spoke no more of our language than we did of his) communicated that we had to go back. Never saw a beach again until we flew over some on our way back to civilization.

Don’t mean to whine, though. Being in the Wayback-Outback was one powerfully interesting experience in “the other side of life.” No electricity. No Internet. No post office. Running water that rarely actually ever … er, ran. When it did run, householders would quickly fill buckets to cover all the times it didn’t.

Most houses had bamboo walls and thatched roofs. More modern ones were built of crumbling concrete and tin. For most of a week, we didn’t see or hear a single bit of news. Never saw a newspaper. Nor one wheeled vehicle (the streets, such as they were, were often too narrow, or the house roofs too low, for even a bicycle to pass). Men carried burdens, including coconuts, bananas, and in one memorable instance, a string of five-gallon propane bottles, slung from thick branches over their shoulders. Women carried baskets of wood on their backs, supported by a strap across their foreheads. (And each and every one of them looked as if the thing was giving her a roaring headache.)

Yet oddly enough, there was cell service and many young people had cell phones — though we saw those used primarily as cameras. Didn’t see a single soul walking around with phone clapped to ear. That was nice.

Without electricity, you might ask, how did the cell phones stay charged? Well, a few grass roofs did sport small solar panels, and the handful of tiny stores (such as they were) were wired. If you knew where to look, you could pay a business between $.25 to $.50 to charge your phone.

Free enterprise; ain’t it grand?

I can’t really say we had a great time. But we had an enlightening time. And there were plenty of good things I’ll try to tell you about in the next few days. Like the food.

But the noise … OMG. From firecrackers going off at 4:00 a.m. to dueling radios blasting from the village’s two small squares all day, to domestic arguments under our wall to barking dogs to just-plain chatter, chatter, chatter and kids playing soccer in front of the house at all hours … we barely slept the whole time we were there, and once into civilization again we each collapsed for 12+ hours.

Oh … and for those who were wondering after the earlier thread about Don’t Drink the Water kinda places … I survived the Wayback-Outback unscathed, thanks to scrupulous drinking of bottled water, a few uses of a SteriPen water purifier, regular dosing with doxycycline, and three tasty acidophilus chewables a day — much of this thanks to recommendations from blessed blog readers. I did defy the “don’t eat any vegetables you haven’t peeled yourself” rule to enjoy a couple of irresistible salads. No problem.

My friend Lorri, however, didn’t luck out so well. She was fine until, on our last evening in the village, she accepted a glass of Tang at a birthday party. She’s a more experienced traveler than I and should have thought twice. But she reasoned that since one of the village chiefs (our host) had told her proudly that they had five miles of water pipe, it meant the water was piped from five miles away, from some safe spot. She was halfway through the glass when it occurred to me that he probably meant there were five miles of pipe running back and forth under our feet, not running from somewhere else, and that the source of the water in those pipes might actually be unthinkable.

She’s still not feeling too well. But we have pills and potions for that, too.


  1. Karen
    Karen February 27, 2010 8:33 am

    Sounds like quite an adventure. Having just heard news of a major earthquake in Chile with tsunami warnings around the Pacific, I’m surely glad to my core that you’re not still on that island paradise(?). Stay safe! I’m eagerly anticipating more reports.

  2. Dave
    Dave February 27, 2010 3:46 pm

    How stupid of me to forget about Tagalog…

  3. Ellendra
    Ellendra March 2, 2010 1:06 pm

    “In wine there is wisdom. In beer there is truth. In water there is bacteria.”

    Even if the water had been piped from 5 miles away, there’s no way to tell how clean it was when it went into the pipe.

    I hope Lorri feels better soon!!!

  4. home water filter system
    home water filter system April 9, 2010 9:40 am

    A great man can bend and stretch.

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