Location: Boracay, Western Visayas Region, The Philippines
A little background on Boracay. Travel and Leisure named it the # 1 Island Destination in the world in 2012, and #2 in 2013. It’s gorgeous: the beaches are of soft, white sand, the water is that perfect shade of tropical-sea blue that until you see it, you don’t really think exists, and the vibrant sunsets include every sorbet shade. And the infrastructure of Boracay is built to host tourists of all budgets, whether it be backpackers looking for cheap hostels or honeymooners who want a private suite, beach, and sailing tour. It’s an extremely popular vacation spot for Filipinos and Koreans, but less so Western travelers, simply because the Philippines is not as easy to reach as most of Southeast Asia. The main tourist area of the island is small and split into three sections: Station 1, Station 2, and Station 3. Outside of this area, which is all beachfront property with hotels, hostels, markets, souvenir shops, bars, clubs, and restaurants, is just village and hillsides.
I’d been in Boracay for about forty-five minutes when I was swept away on an unexpected adventure that totally transformed the way that I spent the next three days on the tourist-party-island. I was hiking through the village that occupies the otherwise undeveloped area between the ferry and Station 1. Usually, travelers hire a trike (a motorbike with an attached metal enclosure for carrying customers) that will drive them to their hotel for about $0.50-$1. But me? I was riding the first-day-in-my-mom’s-homeland high, bursting with energy, and I couldn’t bear the thought of riding past the first Filipino village I’d encountered.
So there I was, grinning like a fool, sweat seeping through my tank top, lugging my 20-pound backpack up the gravel hillside, taking in everything from the puppies chasing chickens in the grass to the decaying look of the bare-concrete-and-raw-wood huts on either side of me. Whenever a confused trike driver or a motorbike taxi stopped to ask if I needed a lift, I’d just smile even bigger, shake my head, and continue my trek.
Maybe I looked a little crazy and that’s what drew Rafi to me. Maybe she saw me: young, alone, and out-of-place, and thought she could take advantage of that. Maybe she just wanted to make a new friend. Maybe all of the above. Whatever it was, I’m glad that it happened.
“Ey! Ey you! You, girl!”
The scratchy, sing-song voice seemed to be coming from the air above my head.
I looked up to the second floor porch of the crumbling house to my left and saw a little, round woman with long, wavy black hair and hot pink lipstick waving down at me. I waved back.
“Hi!” I called out.
“Where you go?” She asked.
“Station 1?” I shrugged, said it like a question. Was that where I was going? I didn’t even know. That thought made me happy.
“Station 1? Oh! Come here!” She opened her mouth really big when she talked, emphasizing everything she said with exaggerated facial expressions. I didn’t move.
“Come on!” She said again.
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t have anywhere else to be, anyway.
(Now, I’d like to take a moment to say that my way of traveling is probably not the smartest and it’s definitely not something I’d recommend for everybody. But my openness to most situations is what has made my time in Southeast Asia so incredibly fulfilling and also just a little bit crazy.)
Once I was up on the porch, which was just several thin sheets of unfinished wood nailed together, I found myself staring at a woman who looked not just a little but a lot like one of my aunts. Younger, tanner, and a slightly different nose, but overall freakishly similar.
“Rafi,” she said, pointing at her chest.
“Cassia,” I said. My eyes wandered around the porch. There was a plastic table and chair in one corner. Someone had chalked the word “FAMILY” on a wall. There was no door, just a couple sheets of wood sitting to the side of the entrance. Two teenage girls stared up at me curiously from the street below. They were surrounded by toddlers. The older girl held an infant in her arms.
“My sons!” Rafi pointed. I guessed she meant daughters. I waved at the girls and they waved back, then one made a comment in Tagalog and they laughed, calling up ‘hello.’ They were both very pretty, their oval faces and soft smiles framed by thick, wavy black hair.
“Kuh-SEEAH!” Rafi said, throwing her hands up in the air like my very name brought her the utmost joy.
“CA-see-ah,” I said.
“Kuh-SEEAH!” Rafi repeated. I almost didn’t let it go because I mean, c’mon, I was named after my Filipino grandfather, Casiano, and for the love of God if even Filipinos aren’t going to say my name right, then what the Hell? But then again, it was better than the Vietnamese pronunciation; I’d started to just tell people my name was “Cat” to make it easier on everyone.
Now, Rafi was squinting at me, one hand wrapped around her chin, the other still on her waist. The way she studied my face, I understood how test rats in science labs felt.
“Filipina?” She finally asked.
“Half! My mom’s from near Baguio.” I nodded, exploding with happiness that Filipinos could tell I was one of them. I’d been afraid that I resembled my father’s Irish heritage a little too much and my Filipino-ness, the one I so identified with, wouldn’t be recognized. Rafi grabbed my arm excitedly with her little fingers, pulled me in for a hug.
“Tagalog?” She asked. I told her I only knew a few words and she waved that away. She asked me what hotel I was going to.
“Somewhere in Station 1 or 2...or 3.”
“No! No, here.” She put on a stern, frowning face. The way her voice changed pitches while she talked and the expression on her face were so similar to my auntie’s. It made me feel comfortable, even though she was a total stranger.
“No, no. I stay at a hostel.” I said.
“No! Here.” She led me into her little home, which, I have to admit, was one of the barest, most shabby residences I’d ever stepped into, and gave me the grand tour. Everything was the same raw wood, barely nailed together. I had no idea how this house was standing. There were no windows, just squarish holes cut out of the walls. The main room had a thin, plastic cover over the floor designed to look like linoleum tiles. There was a dusty wooden dresser with a mirror in one corner and a bright red couch in the middle. There was also a tiny bedroom with a twin-sized foam bed covered in a Looney Tunes themed sheet, and a pink fringed curtain. You had to climb over the couch to get through its doorway. The bathroom was bare except for a lidless, dirty toilet in one corner, a tap, and a water-filled bucket. A ladle bobbed in the bucket; it was for flushing the toilet manually.
“How much?” I asked, assuming I could just say no to whatever price she gave me. Just pretend I couldn’t afford it.
She put on an insulted look. “No! Free. You Filipina. You like me. A friend. Free.”
I opened my mouth, closed it. Before I could respond, another woman came up the stairs, shouting Rafi’s name. She was taller than me, thin, and she wore rectangular glasses. She looked confused that I was standing there in the living room, my backpack on the floor beside my feet.
“Cassia,” I told her and waved.
“Elise,” she said. She looked at Rafi, who was standing there with her hands on her hips.
“Filipina!” Rafi said, pointing to me, “she’s staying with me!”
Elise raised an eyebrow, looked at me. I laughed, shook my head. Elise asked Rafi something in Tagalog, which Rafi responded to. They held a brief conversation that was too quick for me to pick up.
“It’s okay with you?” Elise asked me, smiling. Her English was much better than Rafi’s. “You can stay for free with Rafi. It’s okay.”
“I, I mean…” I didn’t have anywhere else I was planning on going, really. It was already late afternoon. I could just stay here the night. I was a little worried about how to lock up my passport, wallet, laptop, and camera, but I could just sleep with them in the bed with me. And then Rafi was holding my arm again, looking up at me. The top of her hairline reached my shoulder. And she had the same eyes as my aunt. I could always just leave if I decided I didn’t want to stay, catch a trike up to the Stations.
“Well, okay.” I said. Rafi cheered and hugged me.