I came to the Philippines to search for Rob, my fiancee. I had not seen him in two years. The last time we spoke, he was boasting about his trip to a place called Zambales. He said it was like paradise. He said he wanted to build a house and settle there.
Rob was a chef in a luxury cruise ship. He was always at sea, and we seeing each other was as seldom as a week for every two months. But we did keep in touch regularly, thanks to the advances in technology. Though it’s not sufficient for a soon-to-be-married couple, I guess that’s just what we could manage at that time.
Rob wanted me to quit my job as a banker and join him. He even nudged his boss into giving me a position as an on-board accountant. But I declined. Life at sea was not my cup of tea. Besides, I still didn’t know how to swim at that point in time.
After Rob’s first trip to the Philippines, he began talking about how beautiful that far eastern country is. He kept on mentioning it during our dates, our dinners, even in bed after we made love. He talked about the breath-taking emerald beaches, the majestic mountains, the fantastic view of nature, and of course, the wonderful people. I thought he was just having a sort of “crush”on a tropical place, something that would usually happen whenever he’d have a trip somewhere in the Pacific.
But I was wrong.
Two years ago, he was talking again about another trip to the Philippines, in a certain area he called Zambales. He said it was the spot where a former US military base was. It was paradise in pictures, he said, so it’s going to be grandiose for real.
After he left that day, he never came back. No call. No e-mail. No message.
It was as if he had disappeared.
And then, from an e-mail that he sent to his sister a week ago, I found out that he was alive. He actually quit his job in the ship and stayed in the Philippines. I also learned that he had a house built in Zambales, and a restaurant which was being run by him.
Wanting to know why he dumped me for a tropical place, I filed a two week leave from work and booked a flight to the Philippines. I wanted answers, and I wanted it to come from him face to face.
The flight took me to Manila, where I asked directions on how to reach Zambales. My questions were all politely answered and directions were given.
Then, I took a three-hour bus ride to Olongapo City, where the former US Naval Base was. It was the southernmost city of Zambales, and I was actually impressed with the place and the people. It was a beautiful tropical haven. And the people were warm, polite, and friendly.
Again, I needed directions. Apparently, Zambales is a territory with thirteen towns and two cities. I looked around for people who would know Rob, the American restaurant owner. But in that random place where tourists from different countries pop up every now and then, no native could point him out.
I spent some time in an internet cafe, browsing through the slow internet, looking for restaurants in the territory that could give out some clue of Rob’s ownership. Rob loved to cook steaks and lobsters, and his trademark was his unique and very delicious lemon gravy.
Unfortunately, the internet search was also a dud.
By sunset of that day, I was already considering finding a hotel where I could stay overnight. But when I was taking my early dinner, I overheard a couple of tourist talking about a wonderful restaurant somewhere north. They said it was famous for steaks and lobsters. They said it boasted of a very special gravy.
I couldn’t help myself to approach them and ask.
“Excuse me, mind if I ask something,” I said.
“Sure. What is it?” the guy replied in a particular Australian accent.
“I can’t help overhearing. You know, about that restaurant that you’re talking about? Can you please tell me where it is?”
“It’s somewhere north,” the guy said. “Between here and Botolan where we stayed.”
I had no idea where Botolan was, so I asked further.” Do you remember the name of the restaurant?”
“I’m sorry but I don’t.” Then he looked at his partner. “Do you remember any, Honey?” he asked.
The lady shrugged her shoulders. “Sorry.”
“Was there a sign or something?” I asked.
Both of them shook their heads.
“There was no sign or anything,” the guy added. “It’s just one of the many restaurants that we passed by on our way here. We just remembered it because the food there was really great.”
“So how do I get there?”
“By bus or by the local jeep going north. Don’t worry about getting lost. There’s only one road going north. Ask around the terminals and they’ll help you get on a ride.”
“And how do I know if I’m already there?”
“That, I’m not sure. We found it just this lunchtime when we’re headed here. But of course, if you reach Botolan, you already passed by it.”
“You mentioned that Botolan twice. What is it?”
“It’s a little town by the sea. Lots of fine resorts. Lots of restaurants too.”
One and a half hours later, I was in Botolan and I was pissed. Reaching the place meant that I missed the restaurant that the Aussie guy was talking about. I actually passed by lots of restaurants on the way there, but I had no clue nor gut feeling as to which one should I check. My instincts told me to check them all, one by one. But that would take forever. It was already dark and I was really tired, so I decided to find a place to stay in that little seaside town.
Walking around the town, I realized that the Aussie guy was right. Botolan was an awesome place. It had lots of resorts that any tourist like me would want to visit. But of course, I would discover later that almost all areas in Zambales are awesome and beautiful.
But when I began searching for a place to stay, another kind of frustration set in. I couldn’t find a hotel with a vacant room. Even the resorts were fully booked for the weekend. And there’s only one that I haven’t checked yet.
At the boundary between the towns of Botolan and Cabangan, I found this beautiful resort where I would really love to stay. It was also my last hope for a safe night sleep. If this resort would be fully booked, I wouldn’t know where else to go.
Casa Del Rey Beach Resort and Hotel, the last one on my list, was a real beauty. It was so beautiful, that the moment I laid my eyes on it, I was sure it would also be fully booked. No tourist would miss such paradise. It might as well be the first to put a no vacant room sign upfront.
It was a resort built in the middle of nature, I mean, real nature. Not man-made. Not engineered. Its beautiful wooden villas were constructed to fit within the designs of the natural landscape. The age-old trees were untouched, as every structure was built within the available spaces between them.
And then there were the gardens, wild but beautiful. They were like rainforest growths that were trimmed to show off their beauty. Wild flowers, palms, ferns, and ornamental grasses grew without obvious man-made design.
To the east of the resort, I could see the majestic mountains. To the west, the deep blue sea.
I definitely wanted to spend the night there, maybe a day or two also.
If I could.
“Please tell me you have a vacant room,” I told the people at the reception area immediately when I went through the door. I didn’t even give them the chance to speak first.
The smiles of the young Filipino couple at the counter disappeared. Oh yes, they were smiling seconds ago, before I spoke.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” the lady told me. “But on a weekend like this, if you don’t have a reservation, I think we can’t help you.”
I gasped with exasperation when I heard what she said. “My God, I’m so tired,” I said. “I just came from Manila, and before that, a sixteen hour flight from the States. Don’t you have anything else where I can sleep? Even a cabana with a hammock will do...”
The lady sadly shook her head. “I’m sorry, Ma’am. Even our cabanas are all occupied. Have you tried checking the other resorts and hotels in this town?”
I sighed. “I’ve been to all of them. No vacant room, not even one. You’re the last one on my list and now I don’t know what to do...”
And then I heard a voice, coming from the far corner of the room, that sounded like an angel. “Is there a problem?”
I turned my head and saw him, this handsome Asian gentleman, as tall as any American guy would be, with an athletic built to match, and an Asian complexion that looked more like a perfect tan.
He was wearing summer sweaters, jeans, and sidewalk surfers, and they all looked good on him. He had a silver necklace that matched his black and white attire, and a matching black and silver watch on his wrist.
Frankly, it was an amazing fashion taste and it made me take a second look. But I was too exhausted from my travel that I wasn’t able to acknowledge the significance of his masculine presence.
The lady at the reception counter began to speak with this handsome gentleman in their native tongue. I wasn’t able to comprehend any word, of course, except some random English stuff like fully booked, vacant, room, etcetera that came on at random. I also noticed a bit of hesitation on the lady’s voice and facial expression, but the gentleman was firm and he seemed to be the boss, or so I guessed.
After a few seconds of discussions with the lady at the counter, this gentleman told me, “We’ll prepare a room for you.”
And that sounded like music to my ears. “Really? Why, thank you! But I thought... she said... you’re all booked up?”
“We actually have two extra rooms reserved for friends and family,” he explained. “Since no one is coming for the weekend, I’d rather give the room to you.” He gestured towards the lady at the counter. “Yna here will settle it for you.”
I was very much pleased with what he said. I felt relieved. At last, after more than twenty hours of grueling travel from halfway around the world, I would finally be able to take some rest.
I smiled at Yna, the lady at the counter. “Of course... Yna... Thank you so much...”
“You’re welcome, Ma’am,” she replied. Then she handed me a form to fill, a ballpen, and that genuine host-to-guest smile.
While I was filling up the form, she spoke to the younger man who had stood beside her for minutes, in their native tongue of course. The younger man nodded in affirmative, and quickly went off.
After filling up the form and returning it to Yna, I turned and smiled at the handsome gentleman who was already standing beside me by that time.
“They’re preparing your room now,” he said, returning my smile.
There was something about that smile. It was empty, like the smile of a person who’s experiencing pain from deep within.
But I was really too tired to focus on anything at that time, so I simply ignored it.
“Have you had dinner?” he asked me. “It’s quite late, and you said you came directly from a flight from the States.”
“I had an early one, in Olongapo,” I replied. “But that’s two hours ago and I think I can use some snack.”
“We have a good set of menus in our cafeteria. Our people there are amazing, to say the least. Once you’re settled it, you can drop by it. But if you’re too tired to leave your room, we can have your order delivered to you.”
“That would be wonderful. Thank you.”
“Also, as our guest, you get a free breakfast every morning of your stay here.”
“Yup. It’s part of the package.”
“That’ll be great. Thank you...”
If I was in another place, in another country, or simply in a hotel or resort in the States, I would keep quiet after that.
But the people in that place, especially the handsome gentleman, were way too nice and kind and hospitable to me. I thought it would be too unkind for me not to at least continue the conversation.
So I kept my smile towards the gentleman and asked. “Are you the owner of this place?”
He shook his head. “My family owns it. I’m just the one managing it as of the moment.”
“Well, take it from me, it’s a really beautiful place.”
“We’re kinda hoping that all tourist would notice that.”
“I’m sure they do.”
At that point, Yna politely butted into our conversation. “Excuse me, Ma’am. But can I ask how long will you be staying?”
“For now, I think I’ll check in for two days,” I replied.
“Okay, Ma’am. Thank you.”
“Two days only?” the gentleman asked me, with a bit of disappointment on his face.
I nodded to him in reply. “Actually, I’m looking for someone in this place. I’m hoping that I would find him tomorrow. If I do, well... I wouldn’t know what would come next. If I don’t, I think I’ll extend my stay...”
He gave me a quizzical look. “Husband or boyfriend?”
I frowned. Of course, Rob was supposed to be my husband by that time if he didn’t disappear.
“He used to be my fiancee,” I sadly replied. “But he disappeared two years ago. But then I learned just one week ago that he is here.”
The handsome gentleman sighed. “I’m sorry. Sometimes, things really suck. Well, if you need my help in looking for him, just say a word. I’d be willing to help. And I know a lot of people in this place.”
I was pleased with the offer, but at the same time, I was surprised that someone would offer to help. “Are you sure you’ll help me?” I asked.
“Of course, I am,” he replied.
“Is there a catch or something? Do I have to pay extra for the help?”
He shook his head. “Of course not. I just want to help. And it’s part of the hospitality that we have in this country.”
“Wow. Thank you.” I was actually amazed. “By the way, my name is Amber. Amber from San Francisco." I offered him my hand.
He shook it very gently. “Mike. Mike from everywhere.”
I chuckled with what he just said. “What do you mean, everywhere?”
He just shrugged his shoulders. “Just a play of words. But I’ve been to a lot of places...”
A few minutes later, I was in my room. It was actually a suite, and it was beautiful. I was even surprised to know that Mike was charging me only the regular room price for it. It was really a very good deal since the room was actually better than any hotel room that I’ve been into. The interior was first class. The furnitures were classy. There was a huge fridge, a big TV, an induction stove, a coffee maker, and the cabinet had more than what I needed for my stay.
Awesome, I told myself. Really awesome...
Well, I guess it had to be. It was supposed to be a room for friends and family.
So why did Mike offer me this room for the regular price?
That, I don’t know...
Is he really that nice? Or is he hitting on me?
I’d be flattered if he plain and simply likes me. But if he’s hitting on me, he won’t get anywhere with that. I didn’t go all the way to this place to flirt with a random stranger. I want to find Rob. I want to squeeze answers out of him.
But... maybe I can accept Mike’s offer. Maybe I’ll ask him for help. That’ll do the job more easily.
Feeling exhausted with more than twenty four hours of travel, I decided to leave all my things in my luggage, hit the shower, and get into my nighties. The food came and I feasted on it—a delicious beefburger, huge fries, and a nice tasting cocktail perfect for a late night snack.
While eating, I made one last look at the entire width and breadth of Casa del Rey, which was visible from my window. It was wonderful to behold at night.
And beyond the resort was the sea, dark but illuminated by several beacons, perhaps the portable lamps of random fishermen trying to catch the random fish. I didn’t know. And I was just too tired to dwell on it.
I sighed. Two years ago, Rob told me the Philippines was paradise. I didn’t believe him then.
But now I do.