I do not know what it is about islands but I am always drawn to them. If there isn’t an island handy, I make do with a beach. The first time in the Philippines, I had spent my time lolling on White Sands beach on Mindoro, an island south of Manila. So, this time, after one day of wandering along Roxas Boulevard in urban Manila, admiring the sludge called Manila Bay, sidestepping hordes of ragged children clamoring for dollars, I decided to head to the far north of Luzon and the Bay of a Thousand Islands.
Easier said than done, sometimes in the Philippines. The buses are old and bone-jarring, crowded to bursting point with peasants and country folk who always seemed to be traveling inordinate distances with out-sized sacks and bags of produce, the occasional trussed chicken and the odd pig squealing mournfully at my cramped feet on the floor, as if it knew it was being taken to the nearest market to have its throat slit. Even more worrying, for me, at the time, was the way my carry bag was roughly tossed on top of the bus’s dented and battered roof rack, along with the baskets of mangoes and gunny sacks of … I couldn’t tell you what not. Say goodbye bag, I thought to myself, convinced that that would be the last I would see of it as labourers, passengers, scavengers, children and assorted hop-off-my-thumbs swarmed over the bus, adjusting bundles and tightening bales before we lurched off into the night with a sickening jolt and an explosive backfire.
Every bus journey I have ever taken in an Asian city always seems to go through the dreariest, seediest, roughest parts of town. This trip was no exception. Endless industrial zones with grimy workshops advertising “Re-Vulcanising” which could have meant anything, as far as I was concerned, litter strewn, desolate streets, groups of ragged men standing around smouldering braziers, tattered children playing in petrol streaked pot-holes but then, almost with a gasp, we were out of the city and trundling north towards Baguio.
Eventually, after what seemed hours, the bus rumbled into San Fernando La Union just as dawn broke on the Gulf of Lingayan. Numbed by sitting bolt upright for the last 8 hours or so, I was too exhausted to even be surprised that my bag – intact – was still on top of the bus. Even more surprising was the charm of first place I came to which was a set of picturesque chalets nestled on the side of the bay.
“Balut, Balut” repeated cries later that afternoon woke me from the deep sleep I had fallen into almost immediately after my arrival. The sun was already beginning to sink over the Gulf, flooding the area with a peculiar rosy hue that only lower atmosphere pollution can achieve. Still stiff from the bus journey, I decided that the best thing to do would be to stroll along the beach and see what was what.
Hawkers and vendors were out in force selling fried bananas, crispy on the outside, succulent and gooey on the inside, fresh coconuts, the tops of which 5 year old children could whack off with what looked like WWII bayonets, sliced pineapples in plastic bags, and the ubiquitous mangoes which the hawkers would slice in half, rapidly criss-cross the flesh with a knife and then partially fold inside out so that the juicy flesh was pushed up and out in bite sized chunks. Smiling, dark-haired girls proffered skewers of cooked meat from small charcoal hibachis while lovers strolled hand-in-hand along the beach, enjoying the serenity of the sunset.
“Balut, balut, balut” the cry came again and a pretty girl in an embroidered peasant blouse and wraparound skirt, a woven basket over her arm, approached me. Nestled in the basket were a dozen eggs, slightly larger than chicken eggs, with a faint bluish tinge to them.
Annalisa was 23 years old and only sold the eggs for her grandmother, who lived down the coast in Vigan. During the day, she worked in a museum, commemorating the death of a “padre” executed by the Spanish in 1872. When I asked her why he had been executed, she smiled and admitted she didn’t know. “But you work in the museum,” I protested. A delicate shrug of rounded, tanned shoulders, a coquettish toss of the head, “Never mind-ah, lon’ time ago, you buy balut fro’ me. Balut bery goo’ for man, make you stron, bery goo fo’ you”.
Hard-boiled eggs always reminded me of childhood picnics in Dublin and I was hungry, come to that, and she was pretty, in an elfin way. Rummaging carefully under the clustered eggs in the basket, Annalisa produced a twist of newspaper containing a sprinkling of coarse sea salt and proffered it to me with an encouraging gesture.
Slightly stung by her assertion that I should need a few eggs to make me strong – after all, hadn’t I just completed the bus journey from hell, I reminded myself – I handed over a few pesos and walked along the shore with her at my side, attempting to juggle the eggs to impress her with my manliness.
“You eat now-ah, goo’ for you, make you stron.’” she insisted.
Throwing an egg high up in the air so that in spun in the diffused light of the setting sun, I caught it left handed and gave it a sharp crack on my forehead to break the shell, preparatory to peeling it away. Instead, a thin viscous liquid trickled down through my hair and slid down the side of my face. A scrawny gosling, all paper thin bones, pointy beak and bedraggled feathers gaped up at me from the shell!
Annalisa looked at me in utter amazement before doubling over with laughter as I stood there, aghast, eggs in each hand and the remains of a semi-boiled, fertilized duck egg smeared over my hair and face.
Luckily, the night was rapidly darkening and no one else was there to see me with egg all over my face. Annalisa was quick to proffer tissues, fearful of losing a potential customer, but unable to hide the giggles from breaking out again, as I made rather hasty and flimsy excuses and fled back to chalet to wash the gunk out of my hair and to wipe it from my mind with liberal doses of the local dark Mabuhay rum and calamansi limes.