Yet there I was paying the Maeryll’s captain 1500 pesos (about $36) to take me across the Philippine Sea from Boracay to Carabao (San Jose) Island and back, with a friend who couldn’t swim, for a four-hour jaunt. And I thought that was a deal.
Our five-mile trip out to Carabao, an island so undeveloped that there’s no electricity from 11pm at night until 10am the next morning, took 30 minutes. A salt-crusted mariner might have been able to figure out how many knots we were travelling at. Me, I assumed the phrase “as the crow flies” was involved in the calculation but didn’t get any farther than that.
Despite relatively calm seas, our merry little craft didn’t skim across the crystal blue waters so much as it bounced, spraying all of its occupants – me, my friend, and the four teenage hands – with salt water. I quickly regretted not putting my mobile phone in something more watertight than the pocket of my swim trunks.
At least I wasn’t in the prow of the boat. That duty fell to the youngest of the Maeryll’s four teenage hands, a boy of around 14 years dressed in a bright orange sports jersey. He bore the brunt of the sea during the voyage and was drenched by the time we arrived at Carabao, to the amusement of his older fellows behind him. Rank has its privilege.
Things you see on Carabao Island’s beaches: fishermen. Flower drying racks. Four-year-old children who are curious about smartphones. Farmers hauling bananas and squealing pigs in burlap sacks to their own outrigger canoes, presumably bound for market. No Koreans.
With thirty minutes to go before we needed to return to the Maeryll, I went for a solo stroll down the beach. One of the Maeryll’s crew had mentioned a tiki bar and I thought a few cold San Mig Lights would be a nice treat for a hot summer day. As we were the only tourists on the beach, it was no surprise that the bar, once located, was empty but for three locals playing cards to pass the time on a slow day. I inquired about the beers, which were 40 pesos each. The girl I spoke with didn’t want to let me leave with the bottles but I offered to pay her the deposit, 5 pesos each, and she agreed. We made a little chit-chat while she retrieved and opened the beers; where was I from, how long was I there, that sort of thing. After I paid her and she handed me my beers, she returned to the card game.
I was at the top of the three steps that led back down to the beach when curiosity got the best of me (not for the first time on the trip). I turned around and walked over to the table.
“What are you playing?” I asked.
A middle-aged man looked up at me. “I don’t know what it’s called in English.”
“What’s it called in Tagalog?”
“Excellent. Deal me in.”
Pusoy, by the way, is the Tagalog name for Big Deuce. Yes, I may have done some web research, once upon a time, into the origins of Big Deuce. Call me a nerd if you must. It won’t be the first time I’ve heard it.
Like many of these things, the exact origins of Big Deuce are lost to the mists of time but the Philippines can lay as much a claim to being the birthplace of the game as the next southeast Asian country can. Except in the Philippines they call the game pusoy and somehow that word stuck in my head from whenever it was I did the research.
With time running short on my charter and the beer for my friend getting warm, I only sat in for one hand. I did not win, but I also did not finish dead last. I’d like to say that I was sharp enough to propose a modest wager, something on the order of “I win, you give me half my money back; I lose, I pay you double; I finish 2nd or 3rd, we’re all square”. The truth is that I’m not that sharp and anyway I was happy to sit down and play for nothing. Besides, my guilt-ridden Catholic upbringing would have upbraided me for gambling with people from a socio-economic bracket so low I can’t even fathom it.
Instead I like to imagine that I left them with the story about the skinny American guy from New York City who strolled into the tiki bar one day and sat down to play pusoy like he’d lived in the Philippines all his life. And I got to come back to New York City with the memory of the day that I strolled into a tiki bar on a remote island in the Philippines and was dealt into a hand of Big Deuce.
Besides – the real gamble was getting back to Boracay aboard the Maeryll without becoming shark food.