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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Foreign Desk
Team Boracay: 200 Miles South of Manila
by Stephen F. Anderson ||
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This little plane is going down. Fifty of us plunge and rise, rattle and shake. The bumps are so bad we've quit looking at each other, we're so gripped by fear. I ate the tiny green cupcakes the flight attendant gave us. Maybe I shouldn't have. My stomach rolls. I shut my eyes.
     Will we never reach the island of Boracay? We must. We, "Team USA," are here to win an international beach soccer trophy -- the Philippine National Beach Football Championship. It's our last chance at glory. We'll reach the final and win a thrilling, sudden-death gut-wrencher. Island music will throb and bikinis glisten in the sun as we dance with The Cup high above our heads ...
     My daydreams of this are so powerful, they seem to level out the plane. Out the window, the clouds are clearing. Below us lie jade-green islands ringed with white. Tropical islands. Paradise isles. The plane finds a smoother path, and we bump no more.
     Before we know it we're on a narrow wooden outrigger, bobbing in blue-green water. "Banca boats," Filipinos call these, their homemade craft. It slows about 50 yards out and wiry boatmen lug our gear on their shoulders and heads as we wade to shore. Before us lies a gleaming and amazingly empty beach. Lush palm trees lean toward the tide, as if bowing for our arrival.
     Teenage islanders smile. "Hey Joe!" they say, and "Go USA!" Americans never come to Boracay. We're far more exotic to the locals than the Europeans, Aussies, South Koreans and jaded expats who come here to live, love and forget.
     We're about 200 miles south of Manila. This dumbbell-shaped island is only four and a half miles long (about 75 soccer fields) and little over a half-mile wide at its narrowest midsection. Since discovered by Euro backpackers in the late 70's, Boracay and its two-and-a-half mile White Beach has been named among the world's best by top travel publications, including Harper's, the BMW Tropical Beach Handbook, Britain's TV Quick, and Australia's Sun Herald.
     A tall, lean and easygoing Canadian named John Munro runs the tournament. We stay at his Cocomangas Hotel Beach Resort near the center of White Beach. John came fifteen years ago with a backpack and never left. I wonder why. Then I take a long walk on White Beach. Calm high tides have swept the shoreline flat and smooth. The coral sand is so powdery fine it doesn't send you tiptoeing from its scorch, since powder doesn't retain the heat. Even the high humidity is bearable, I find. It takes away sore joints, and dry skin, and will let me wear my contacts for days without itching. I wonder less why John never left.
     Then, suddenly, it's high noon. Clouds clear, the sun burns and I have to shield my eyes even with sunglasses on. I've been out on the beach too long. The humidity clogs my breathing. I might be drooling. Large homemade umbrellas of thatched straw dot the beach. I find one quick.
     We're supposed to play soccer in this heavy heat? I wonder how on earth.
     Although the Beach Football Association of the Philippines calls this their national championship, the truth is we've come for an amateur tourney. We're eight Americans from Portland, Or., and one Canadian. We're well into our thirties, with jobs and families back home. Most of us were good players once. Some of us had played college ball, semi-pro, even professional indoor.
     That was a long time ago. We're called Team USA only because that's what the islanders call us. Our real name is Western Flash -- the name of a sponsor we have no more.
     Two years ago we came and won the cup. Our team captain, Mike, was there. Back home, he had assured us that we all still got it. "Definitely, this is the best team that has ever gone," he says. But that was before one of our best players dropped out -- the day before we left.
To stand a chance, you have to acclimate. We wait until late in the day to practice, yet it's still the hardest I've ever had to work for a soccer ball. In Oregon you play in the rain, wind and mud, even in the sun. Never on sand. Our lungs burn. My legs are lead. We scrimmage British expats ten years older and lose. A defender, Brice, hobbles off the beach for his bungalow, cursing. We've lost another player -- to a thrown-out back.
     After each evening's practice, the sunset saves us. We wade out toward it, the sky glowing pink and the water orange. Black banca silhouettes pass on the horizon. Again, I get why John Munro stayed.
     The tournament looms. Facing four games the first day, we swallow our pride and recruit a backpacking Englishman named James. Our stretch of White Beach has been transformed. The "field" is lined, goals stand ready and advertising banners obscure the horizon, providing shade for the spectators that ring the field. Euro pop pumps from speakers fastened to palm tree trunks.
     Our first game we play skilled islanders -- John's own Cocomangas team. The sand game's so fast, all flicks and tricks, gritty sprints and point-blank shots. Ten minutes in, my head's spinning from the hot sun. My shoulders scorch; sweat blurs my eyes. Fans shout but I can't hear them.
     At half-time I joke that we might as well have been wearing steel-toed boots and lead boxes on our heads. No one has the wind to laugh. We gasp down water.
     Luckily, our recruit James turns out to be a solid back. Our mistakes are many but fewer than theirs. We win -- barely. We win the next one.
     Afternoon. The harshest sun is out to stay. Our third game is against a team of Germans, diver expats mostly. This one's rough. Heading the ball I yank a muscle in my neck. We barely win again.
     Mike has checked the standings. "Boys, we made the semi-finals!" he reports.
     "Great." Our high-fives are lazy. We break up in search of water. Half an hour later, I can't move my head from side to side.
     The next day, it seems the whole island is out to watch Team USA in the semi-finals -- but to win, or lose? We're playing against even better beach soccer vets -- a police team from Iloilo. The music pumps on. Browned Europeans dance in thongs, sarongs and Speedos. Children frolic behind the goals. As we warm up, the adrenaline loosens up my petrified neck.
     This game's even faster. Their striker is thick and quick. Shots rebound off posts, crotches, faces. Ankles crack, toes jab at sand, the ball skitters off raw skin.
     Within an hour, we've lost our thrilling, sudden-death gut-wrencher. There are many reasons why: indecisive refs, the increasingly choppy sand, our own mistakes. Yet I can find only one decent reason.
     As the crowd roars on, I make a straight line for the water. For that sunset. Already the sky is turning pink, and the tide orange. I wade out, passing banca boats. They are anchoring for the night, close to shore. Boatmen steer them in place with long poles.
     The rest of the team finds their way out lugging cold San Miguels. We hoist beers and laugh.
     "Beach soccer, what a blast," someone says.
     "Who cares we lost," says another.
     "Hey. It's only football."      
     That night John puts on a huge sponsored party. He flies in Manila models for a bikini contest. Team captains are the judges. It's all comedy, shouting and good times. A mangy island dog wanders on stage and walks the catwalk. It garners more votes than the top model. We drink Cocomanga's famous "Jam Jars" and trade game tales with the police team. Soon these, the Philippine beach soccer champs, are dancing on stage and raising The Cup above their heads.
     Again I wander out onto the sand. It's dark now. I wade out past my knees. The calm tide is black, as is the sky, dotted by the thousands (millions?) of stars and the moon that illuminates the bancas anchored all around. The boats shine white, like bone.
     Lights of a little plane pass overhead, gliding, so easy and calm.

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