Location: Boracay Island, Western Visayas Region, The Philippines
After I told Rafi I’d stay the night, she said she wanted to show me the island and (after giving me a bit of a sassy up-and-down) asked if I needed to shower before we went out. I did. So I grabbed my shampoo and body wash and followed her down the road, through a hole in a fence, and into a half-abandoned apartment complex. A man and a woman sat on wicker chairs on the front porch of one shoddy building. Rafi waved and asked if I could use their shower. The two smiled and led me through a bare room and into the bathroom, which was covered in cobwebs and whose faucets didn’t function. There, I poured water over myself from a bucket, hurrying so I could replace the mosquito repellent I’d just rinsed off; as the day grew later, the number of pesky bugs seemed to triple.
When I was acceptably washed up, Rafi and Elise told me the plan was to go to the beach to see the sunset. I knew that’s one of the things Boracay is famous for, so I agreed. Rafi told me to keep any valuables on my person (not that I was going to leave them in her completely open house, anyway). I stored my backpack in her dresser and she, Elise, and I, began our trek. At first, we stayed on the main road, and everyone said ‘hi’ to Rafi as we passed. I received a fair share of inquisitive glances. Apparently Rafi was quite well-known in town, for better or worse. One policeman, holding his shotgun casually to the side, laughed at us as we passed and told me that Rafi was crazy.
“Be careful!” He shouted.
I couldn’t tell if he was joking. Rafi glared at him.
We stopped at Rafi’s oldest daughter’s house, which sat on top of a hill slightly above the main road, and had a thick tin roof and a small garden lined with rocks. The girl, who was 21-years-old but looked sixteen, greeted us with a soft smile that warmed her brown eyes and showed off her big teeth. While she asked her mother why I was with her, I took a turn cradling her 1-year-old baby boy who just stared at me and tangled his fingers in my hair.
“Don’t stay with Rafi,” she said to me quickly, so Rafi couldn’t understand. “You can go to a hotel or stay with me here. She doesn’t have a mosquito net. That’s no good. It’s not safe.”
I hadn’t thought about that. I nodded in understanding and told her that my stuff was at her mother’s, but that after we went to the beach I’d go back and get it, then catch a ride to a hotel. As we left, she rocked her baby and waved us ‘goodbye.’
We walked through the village, which was a curved, hilly pathway lined with tin-roofed houses. Kids ran through yards, chasing each other and laughing. Men and women waved at us from porches and gardens. We passed a cockfight breeding area which was filled with tall, thin bamboo poles. At the top of each stand, tied down by a thick string, was a rooster.
Sunset was just beginning as we reached the beach, dying the sky a deep lavender and the sea a swirling teal. The buildings met the shorefront and as Rafi, Elise, and I made our way along the soft sand pathway, we mingled with locals and guests of Boracay. Lanterns lit the way a warm yellow and every few feet we were greeted by the enticing smell of meat cooking on tiny blackened grills. My stomach growled. We stopped so I could pick up a pink-skinned hot dog dipped in barbecue sauce and a crinkly plastic baggie of rice. Elise shared some of the meat with me, but Rafi just shook her head and told me she wasn’t hungry.
As we watched colors change in the sky, Elise and Rafi asked me questions about my life. They were both surprised that I was single and traveling alone; both had had children by the time they were 23. Rafi pointed out different men on the beach, locals and tourists, and would grab my arm and giggle if she thought they were hot. If I agreed, she would shout out to them “hello” and point to me. Elise and I just laughed as the men glanced at us, confused, and we shook our heads.
It was interesting seeing Boracay through local eyes. Rafi and Elise would point and laugh at drunk tourists and girls in skimpy tropical outfits. Other locals chatted with us about the day, whether anyone interesting had come by their souvenir stands. I received more than a few confused looks. It was beginning to become obvious that Rafi didn’t usually pick up random travelers and take them around. But I just smiled and tried not to feel uncomfortable.
As the sky fell to darkness, we cut inland, to the spa that Rafi’s sister worked at. We made our way through the busy maze of sarong shops, tiki bars, and Filipino fast food joints, down a dark pathway to the back door of a kitchen area, where a woman was squatting on the ground, a plastic tub of dirty plates and soapy water between her thighs. Her shirt was soaked through, her arms elbow deep in the suds, her fingers pruny.
Rafi greeted her with a shout of ‘hello,’ but the woman only frowned at her. She looked from Elise to me in a way that said what the hell is Rafi up to this time?
Rafi waved off the look, rolling her eyes. She and her sister exchanged a few words in Tagalog. Rafi crossed her arms over her chest and huffed. Her sister stood up, wiping her arms on a towel, and turned to me.
“I’m Mama Annie. You shouldn’t stay with Rafi. She’s trouble. But you can stay with me.”
I thanked her for the kindness. It turned out that Mama Annie lived in the house below Rafi’s upper-deck area. She said that her daughter and grandchildren were in town, but they’d be happy to make room. I told her not to worry, I planned on getting a hotel room.
“How much for a room? I know some hotels.”
“I can pay maybe $5 a night?” I said. Mama Annie shook her head. That was too low here in Boracay during high season. I’d have to settle on paying more. I told her that’d be fine and that I’d check it out after I grabbed my things.
“We’re having a barbecue, tonight. You should come.” Mama Annie said. I nodded, agreeing to come say ‘hi’ since I’d be picking up my stuff there anyway.
Rafi, Elise, and I wandered for a bit longer, people watching on the beach. Finally, I decided it was time to go back and pick up my stuff, before the hotel receptions closed for the evening. We walked back past a marketplace and to the main road. Rafi flagged down a man on a motorbike and negotiated with him in Tagalog. I wondered if she and Elise were ditching me.
But then Elise hopped onto the bike and scooted forward so the front of her body completely pressed into the driver’s back. She and Rafi waved for me to get on behind. Rafi motioned for me to give her my backpack. After I sat on the bike, Rafi slung my backpack over her shoulders, looking like some sort of strange, wrinkly child, and climbed up over the back, pulling herself into my body. I was squished between her and Elise. I’d done 3 people on a motorbike a few times in Vietnam, but never 4. I’d seen it, sure, but usually only with children and adults. This seemed dangerous to the extreme; how would the driver even keep the bike steady on this hilly roads with this much weight on it?
Rafi got on last, climbing up from the back and pulling herself into my waist. She and Elise didn’t seem perturbed about the amount of people on the bike in the least. As we drove, Rafi playfully tugged at Elise’s shirt or poked her boobs or stomach, giggling manically when Elise squirmed and complained.
Our first stop wasn’t Rafi’s. It was Elise’s. She lived in a little house a village over from Rafi, in a small concrete house with a teal door that was adorned with a white, wooden cross. The insides of the house were bare concrete. There were no doors, just sarongs tied up like curtains. In one corner sat a wooden mantle decorated with dusty picture frames holding images of Elise and her family, and knickknacks, including a mini-figure of Jollibee’s red-and-white-striped bumblebee mascot. (read: Jollibee is basically the McDonald’s of the Philippines.)
I sat in a couch in one corner and Elise disappeared into another room, calling over her shoulder that she was making coffee. A minute later, Elise’s daughter, who had short-cropped, dyed-red hair, and was wearing a baggy t-shirt and basketball shorts, appeared in the room. I told her that a strip of my hair had once been dyed the same color, and I showed her where the dye had faded off, leaving it blonde. She offered to redo it for $1. Rafi chuckled, telling me that the girl and I would make a cute couple.
“Rafi, you have to stop trying to set me up with every single person on this island.” I told her.
When we arrived at Mama Annie’s the whole yard was filled with Filipinos of all ages. It was a huge family gathering and they had covered the whole grill out front with different meat skewers, everything from chicken intestines to hot dogs to longganisa. Mama Annie offered me a plate of barbecue chicken intestines dipped in a sweet brown sauce and wouldn’t leave me alone until I took it from her. She watched as I ate the chewy meat wound onto the skewer in a zigzag. It was super tasty. Mama Annie’s daughter, Annifer, introduced herself to me, pointing out which of the toddlers running around were her own. She turned out to be the ringleader of the family and her English was excellent.
She offered me a cup of mixed rum and coke and as we drank, she explained that Rafi always caused trouble because she drank too much and never ate. I realized that it was true; I hadn’t seen Rafi take a bite of the barbecue yet. She just sipped on her own cup of gin.
“Rafi is crazy,” Annifer said. “Mama is scared that if you stay with her, you’ll get hurt.”
I glanced over at Rafi, who was making faces at one of the kids and poking at Elise again. She seemed so harmless; why did everyone in the village think she was such bad news?
“Mama works at a spa in Station 1. You can stay in the extra room there. It has a window so there aren’t as many mosquitos. And a bed and private shower. Usually family stays there. Just don’t stay at Rafi’s.” Annifer told me.
Later that night, Annifer and company chaperoned me over to the luxurious Korean spa and into the extra room, a private bedroom with a television (!) in the back above the garden. She paid for our trike ride there and took me down to the beach, where we sipped rum-and-cokes and chatted about life until late in the night.
Annifer was 28, married, with three kids. She was a strict Catholic and a stay-at-home mom. She was also shocked I was single and traveling totally alone.
“But marriage is good,” she told me. “I love my husband and he takes care of me and that’s good.”
At the end of the night, Annifer made me promise that I’d come back to Mama Annie’s the next day and we’d go to the beach together with the kids. I promised I’d bring over a chicken so that we could make adobo (salty-sweet vinegar marinated meat) for lunch. We hugged goodnight and as I lay down that night in the spa, I couldn’t believe I’d been in the Philippines for less than twenty-four hours.