(This Holy Week article is a true story. Names of places and people have been changed.)
Sta. Lucia Island, off Palawan, is owned by Pierre, a French ex-backpacker-turned-resort-owner. He decided to buy the island with his last savings. He married Nora, a feisty Ilonggo. Pierre turned the island into a successful haven for French backpackers.
Getting off the boat, I was greeted by Pierre. A pretty young lass appeared, attempting to put a lei on me. I resisted. She handed a tall glass of iced red juice.
Bernie: Hmm, I prefer a beer.
Lass: Yes sir. At once, sir.
Pierre signaled with two fingers. She faded away and quickly returned with two frosted bottles of beer. We sat facing the reddening horizon. Glasses clink. My first swig was an arctic rush.
Bernie: This place is awesome.
Pierre: That’s what I said 15 years ago. The island was deserted with only two makeshift huts. I put up a tent. I asked the boat man to bring me water and food every two days. No electricity. No sound except the waves. It hit me, wham, like a baseball bat. I was so drunk with happiness, that I had tears in my eyes.
Pierre: I slept at eight and woke up at six for the sunrise meditation. It was mind-boggling. But now it seems to slowly lose its luster.
Bernie: That’s because paradise is not a place. It’s in your heart.
Pierre: (A woman appears with a log book.) My wife, Nora. This is Bernie.
Nora: Hi, Bernie. Just fill in the log book, please. Pierre, you have to do the barbecue when the fire is ready.
Pierre: No problem.
Nora: We have 10 for dinner. Two Danish, eight French, and this solo Filipino. I have to fix dinner. See you. Welcome, Bernie.
Pierre: We make a good couple. She runs the place. I handle guest relations. I’m laid back, she’s a workaholic. She does all the accounting, and bribes the local government for the license. Without her, I’m dead.
Bernie: I discern you’re not so happy anymore.
Pierre: What makes you say that?
Bernie: I don’t know. I’m guessing. We are ex-backpackers. Wanderlust is no longer in our veins. You’re stuck in this island. It’s no longer paradise. It’s business.
Pierre raises his hand to stop me. He signals to a waitress. In a minute, a bottle of Jack Daniels appears with an ice bucket and two glasses.
Pierre: You hit it right on the nail. Thank you for being frank. Now, finally, I can get this boulder off my chest.
We move to the barbecue area. He starts to grill the chicken. As Pierre unravels his story, I begin to discern how his happiness is slowly fading. Nora is an alpha female. She runs the shop. He follows all her orders. He is busy but bored. The Jack Daniels is now half empty.
Bernie: I did Europe and North Africa for three years.
Pierre: I covered Afghanistan and Tibet for five.
Bernie: We got no more wings now.
Pierre: The moment I bought the island and married Nora, it was the beginning of the end. I had to marry. Under Philippine law, foreigners can’t own islands.
Bernie: You clipped your wings instantly. You equated the island to happiness, so you bought it. You bought not happiness but slavery. It became a business venture. You stashed your backpack away, and with it your happiness. Revive your backpack. Give Nora the island. She won’t miss you.
Pierre: You’re right. She won’t miss me. I married her to buy the island. She married me to get out of poverty.
Bernie: Grow wings once more. You will go crazy here. You’ll end up hating each other.
Pierre: I need time to get the guts to do it. Thanks, Bernie.
Nora: (Loud voice from afar) Ready yet, Pierre?
Pierre: (Loud reply) In a moment. (He breaks down and sobs softly.)
Bernie: Let’s pray for you, Pierre. (We said a silent prayer in the dying light.)
One can own an island but one cannot own happiness. Happiness is not a property. It is something within you, deeper, more mind-boggling than a roller-coaster ride. Sometimes what you search for in a lush Eden you find in the gutter later. Happiness has a way of lingering, then suddenly fading. The thing is to not look for it, to not have expectations. Happiness comes and goes like an intruding butterfly.
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