A Squatters' Area Easter and My Tropical Rescue Mission

A Squatters' Area Easter and My Tropical Rescue Mission
Boracay, Philippines. Coolest basketball court ever? 

So I'm sitting on the bathroom floor of my Boracay hotel room with a syringe in my hand. I press it to my arm, sense the warmth of the liquid coming out, and feel the pinch in my elbow pit. I did not see this happening on my trip.

Um, maybe I should explain.

Let's back up a bit first.

It seems that Good Friday is the most sacred day of Holy Week. Almost everything closes down but then reopens on Saturday, and most places seem to stay open on Easter Sunday.

I ride out the weekend in a newly built condo complex in the Parañaque area of Metro Manila, just south of Ninoy Aquino International Airport. It turns out it's right next to a squatters' area. From my 8th-floor room, I can look out on rows of shacks with nothing more than thin sheets of corrugated metal as roofs, some with tires thrown on top to weigh them down.

I see a group of kids lounging in a small inflatable pool, seeking relief from the tin saunas they call home. There's a mattress where a handful of children sleep, unprotected from the elements. They are outsiders, I learn, even in a place where the occupants don't have legal rights to the buildings they dwell in. Runaways, perhaps.

It's a red pill to the reality of hundreds of thousands of Manileños. Ivory towers might only be metaphorical, but they must not have windows.

Just down the street, there's an open-air diner that looks like it could have been a hamburger stand in the US in the 1950s that I end up eating at several times. Only one item on the menu costs over $2, and that's a whole fish that you need to order in advance – for just over $3. They even have Coke floats and root beer floats for under $0.50.

During one of my meals there, I notice a boy standing alone just outside the rail. He mimes eating, so I wave him in and tell the waiter to let him have a meal on me. He just nods in appreciation. At first, I think he just doesn't know any English, but he doesn't speak to the waiter either. He just points to the bangsilog, a typical breakfast of fried milkfish, an egg, and rice on the menu board.

It feels nice to help someone, especially for such a paltry sum. Then again, I'm also guilty of walking past countless beggars, including other children, without doing a thing.

As I retreat back to my room, a well-dressed man greets me from a shop on the ground floor of my building that is being renovated. We strike up a conversation and I find out he grew up just a stone's throw away from here when the place we stand was still just rice fields. Rogel left his family and moved to California by himself, where he lived for over 30 years, became a successful restaurateur in Pasadena, and eventually moved back within the past few years.

He's opening a resto-bar in the coming weeks and working feverishly with his business partner to get everything done in time. He chose this location because he wants to bridge the gap between the upper-middle-class residents of the condominiums and the slum dwellers across the street.

He seems to genuinely care about helping to improve the squatters' lot in life. His venture already employs a married couple. Once, while we are talking, the couple's son comes up to Rogel and requests the mano gesture, a traditional greeting where a young person asks to touch an older person's hand to his or her forehead as a way of accepting a blessing from the elder. It's a way of showing respect.

My first experience flying a Philippine airline is very positive. With a flight scheduled to arrive at Caticlan Airport at 7:30 PM, I have a little anxiety that a delay might cause me to miss the last ferry to Boracay, but the flight boards, departs, and arrives early – a first in my travels to the best of my memory.

The Caticlan seaport assesses an environmental fee of 300 pesos ($5.42) for foreigners – double the rate charged to Filipinos – and a 150-peso terminal fee on top of the boat ticket, which only costs 50 pesos. You can't purchase all three of these at the same time though, because that would be too simple. You have to buy them individually, even though they're all at the same counter.

First, you need to stand in line on the right side to pay the boat fare, then proceed to the environmental fee line on the left, and finally the terminal fee in the middle. Then you have to fill out your information on the boat ticket and hand it to another person in exchange for a seat number, which you hand back after getting on the ferry.

The vessel fills up quickly and we head off. It just takes around 10 minutes to arrive at the Boracay jetty port. By the time I take a motorbike taxi to my hotel, it's almost 9:00, so I forgo dinner, hoping that I can get an early start the next day.

After a breakfast of an omelet and rice for a ridiculously low 35 pesos at a shop next to my hotel, I make the short walk to the Northern end of White Beach, probably the most popular stretch of sand on the island.

If this is an off-peak time, then I am glad I wasn't here during Holy Week. It's much too crowded for relaxation, but it is a great spot for people-watching. After walking almost the entire length of White Beach, I settle into a stool on the balcony of Real Coffee and Tea Café and have one of their signature calamansi muffins while the hordes of Filipino, Western, and East Asian tourists stroll by, make TikTok videos, have their hair braided, or haggle with touts. With the cool sea breeze blowing constantly, I think I could sit there all day.

There are no jeepneys or taxis on the island. Most people get around by e-trikes. They can seat 6-8 people comfortably, and it's easy to hop on and off them. Fares usually cost just 20-40 pesos. They struggle to make it up the slightest of hills even while mostly empty, but it is nice to not be choking on diesel fumes for once.

After a rest in my room, I walk the opposite direction in search of lunch and a more secluded beach, but on my way, I hear a kitten mewing. On a pile of rubble next to the road, I see a couple of tiny kittens teetering on broken cinder blocks. There's no sign of a mama cat.

There's a small bakery just across the street, so I walk over and ask the girl working there if she has seen a cat that might be the mother, but she says she hasn't.

I find a third kitten, and then a fourth. They are much too young for solid food and don't have a chance of surviving on their own. I don't want to leave them there, but I also don't want to take them away from their mother if she's simply away in search of food.

Then again, a pile of rubble by a busy road doesn't seem like a place a cat would choose to nest in. I think it's far more likely that they have been dumped here by someone.

I finally make up my mind to take them with me, but I leave my local phone number with Mariel, the girl at the bakery, and ask her to message me if she spots the mother. She finds a small empty box for me to put them in. I buy some sort of ube (purple yam) pastry to have as my lunch.

Not really sure what to do with them, I hop into an e-trike with the four kittens curled up in the greasy bakery box and head to the local veterinarian. As I sit just inside the entrance in the tiny waiting room, I am struck by fear when a rottweiler exits the examination room and heads for the door. I leap out of the chair and hold the box up out of reach. The kittens just keep sleeping, oblivious to any danger.

There's no runt in this litter. They all weigh in at an identical 150 grams. The vet tells me they're just over a month old. Two of them have deformed tails. One is curled at the end as if it's prehensile, and the last inch or so of the other one forms a right angle.

I buy some kitty formula and a nutritional supplement paste for them, and they give me a couple of syringes to feed them. I get my hopes up when one local lady and her daughter seem to want to help me, but then they simply wish me good luck and leave.

I finally make contact with an animal rescue center on the island of Panay, where Caticlan is. They give me the number of a girl named Karoline in Boracay, who seems to work in some capacity with the shelter, but she informs me she has become severely allergic to cats and can't foster them. She agrees to help coordinate the effort.

Out of options, I sneak the kittens into my room while we work out the details of how to get them to Kalibo, the town nearest the animal rescue. Luckily, it's a motel style with a private entrance, so I don't have to carry them through a lobby. I notice one of the kittens has peed in the box.

I put them on my spare towel in the shower and close the door to keep the bathroom as warm as possible while allowing me to keep the bedroom cool. The noise from the air conditioner and bathroom vent also help drown out the kittens' mewing.

The hotel has a water cooler, so I add some hot water from it to mix the formula. Following the instructions on the pouch makes it way too watery though, so I add more powder, leaving me with far too much.

The kittens don't take to it so well, preferring to suckle on various parts of my body instead. I try to be gentle with them at first, wetting their lips with it, or putting a little on the places they try to get milk from on my body – my elbow pit, my hand, my belly. I can feel that their teeth are starting to come in. It's a very inefficient method though since I can only do a little at a time and it leaves me covered in gobs of sticky formula, so I finally resort to forcing their mouths open with my fingers and squirting it down their throats.

I'm too afraid to leave them alone and go out for something to eat, so I munch on the airplane snack I stashed in my bag as my dinner.

Karoline tells me I'll have to take them off the island myself, but she will try to get someone to meet me in Caticlan to make the transfer.

After another feeding and coaxing them to sleep, I retire for the night myself. It's a restless sleep, with alternating nightmares of the kittens destroying the hotel room and me finding them dead in the morning.

I crawl out of bed at 5 AM for another feeding. By the time I get them satisfied enough to go back to sleep, it's around 7:00. I sneak away for breakfast at the same place next door. This time, I double up on the omelet and add a side of vegetables with an instant coffee, all of which still costs barely over $2.

I wait all morning to hear back from Karoline, but don't hear anything. Finally, in the afternoon, she informs me that the workers are all too busy and I'll have to take them all the way to Kalibo myself. I already have the hotel room paid for until the next day, plus holding the kittens while dealing with my luggage would be impossible, so I'll have to go there and make it back by the end of the day.

I finally get the formula right, adding just enough water to mix the powder with, feed the kittens as much as they'll take, wait for them to go to sleep, wrap them in the towel, place them back in the cardboard box, and head to the port.

I worry that I might receive some pushback from someone at the seaport for smuggling animals off the island, but the staff there couldn't possibly be friendlier or more helpful. I assumed I'd have to pay all the fees again upon my return to Boracay, but they inform me there is a day pass that allows me to bypass that. They even usher me around and assist me in getting to the boat as quickly as possible.

At Caticlan, I hop in a van bound for Kalibo, well over an hour's ride away. I communicate with Jenie Mae, a worker at the rescue center, and she tells me she can send her husband, Given, to pick up the kittens. Just before arriving, the kittens become restless, ready for yet another feeding. I focus on keeping them from crawling out of the shallow box.

There's no time for a sentimental goodbye. Given opens the crate and I load them in. He invites me to come to the center, but again I'm afraid of missing the boat back to Boracay. I tell him I'll arrange a visit soon.

I buy some snacks at a 7-Eleven, mostly just to break a 1,000 peso bill in order to have change for the van ride. Garlic peanuts and some bacon-flavored crackers. It's the second day in a row without a proper lunch or dinner. By the time I make it back to my hotel room in Boracay, it's almost 9:30.

Some people spend their vacation in Boracay scuba diving, sunbathing, or enjoying the nightlife, while others haul around feral kittens in urine-and-grease-stained boxes.