Standing outside an internet café in the seedy part of town long after Cebu’s respectable citizens are safely tucked up in bed a sleaze ball eyes me from across the street. He flashes me that fraudulent smile common to con-men, pimps and confidence tricksters the world over, and having made ‘contact’ he takes his cue to cross over towards me. Just as he begins his pitch I try to save him the effort with a firm “No!” since it was pretty obvious what he’d be selling in this part of town.
I’m on the defensive since I must look like a potential customer standing here in this squalid street stealing a quick smoke. This knocks him slightly off his game and he decides to stop a respectable distance from me before pitching again “You want girls?” he says smiling, in an attempt win over my skepticism. This time I just give him a look of apathy. “No?” He says “I can get you young girls…virgins” he says with enthusiastic pride. “Mate just (*&$ off!” I reply. He laughs falsely then pauses abruptly in the style of all fake laughter and adds: “You want boys?”
This would have been a good
Cloud 9, Siargao
way to piss me off if he’d meant to piss me off…unfortunately, as with all good salesman, he has an almost autistic belief in his ability to win me over. This pisses me off even more.
I imagine hitting him across the shins with a Cricket bat and watching him writhe around in the gutter. This thought has a sublime meditative affect on my mood, and a rush of wellbeing pulses through me, manifesting itself in a condescending little smile and a shake of the head. Now he seems self conscious and vulnerable - his macho bravado crushed by the revelation that he sells boys to tourists - he turns and scuttles back from whence he came.
Later that night as I watch a gecko stalk its prey in my sweaty ply board coffin of a room, I play back the incident in my mind - disgusted by the fact that nothing is sacred anymore, anything is for sale. I feel happy I am flying to Palawan in the morning, I feel fortunate that I can, which makes me feel guilty, and so I decided to write this blog…
Even though you are miles away from your
friends and family there is social obligation to spend Christmas with other people even though you may not yet have met them, since only a social outcast spends Christmas alone right? In a way, the coming of Christmas was a blessing… traveling hard-n-fast, off-the-beaten-track, you take on a momentum that is difficult to slow down. Becoming content in your own little bubble driven by the desire to see and consume as much as possible. Arriving on Siargao I was surrounded by beauty, I was restless, and I knew why.
I wanted to leave the day after I arrived. The laid-back, almost comatose coolness of the few surfer dudes hanging at Cloud 9 was almost uncomfortable. These guys seemed so in tune to the whims of nature’s seasons, tides, lunar cycles, swells, and wind directions… all of which have to be in perfect harmony to create the perfect wave, giving them an almost fatalistic ability to sit around doing nothing at all. An ability we mere mortals would need a whole truckload of weed to attain. Or maybe it just seemed that way... what with my insatiable restlessness and all?
Some people consider Cloud 9 one of
the best surf spots in the world. Years ago I had flirted with the surfer’s lifestyle in Barbados and nearly killed myself! But this was the wrong season, apparently, and with no beach to wait around on I headed six kms back down the coast to General Luna, an overgrown village on the sea. And it was there that I met Pete and Derek.
Though they were both in their late 40’s, I had a lot in common with Pete and Derek; they were English. They were the only tourists in General Luna, since this area, although far away from Mindanao’s trouble spots, was still technically Mindanao. We talked a lot that first morning over breakfast and I thought I knew them quite well, so that evening when we met for dinner and they had two young Filipino girlfriends in tow I was quite taken aback.
For the next few days I was privy to their stories and those of their girlfriends. It seemed all four of them were latently trying to defend their ‘actions’. Pete and Derek were both single men. Derek owned a hotel and Pete a house. Due to the inflated housing prices in the
UK - Pete’s humble little home in the north of England was worth close to half a million dollars - Pete’s hotel on the isles of Scilly substantially more. In this part of the world that kind of money made them very wealthy indeed. Whether they had come to The Philippines to find romance is debatable; this area certainly isn’t renowned for its sex tourism, though they certainly weren’t shying away from romance.
The girls were in their early twenties, attractive, intelligent and street smart. They would often say they had no money and no jobs, but that having no money was preferable to working in a miserable factory for $100 a month. Both had had unsuccessful relationships with foreigners in the past, but from these relationships it seemed they had both sampled a slice of the good life, traveling around the Philippines as tourists.
By day four, Pete had yet to sleep with his girlfriend whilst Derek was planning to buy a house in General Luna and get married! Pete and I were shocked - but if the girls also felt this decision was a little hasty they certainly didn’t show it. The next day they had
This was Christmas dinner - and I tell ya...give a hungry man a knife and a roasted pig and the results are horrific;-)
found a potential house for Pete. For $4,000US Pete could buy his very own love nest by the sea, complete with a moat and a few palm trees. In amongst the wooden shacks of his new neighbors dwellings it had ‘Lord of the Manor’ written all over it, he and his future wife seemed delighted.
That evening Derek posed the question “Do you think she really does love me, or is she just after my money?” I answered honestly, that it was impossible for me to tell. Derek was clearly in love, and who was I to piss on his parade?
There is a mutually agreed deception that typically lies at the heart of these relationships. This is not a simple customer-service provider transaction, it’s a love affair. The idea these women charge a certain price for a certain service, just doesn’t happen. In fact, it is very important that payment is never mentioned because if the women demand money then the illusion is shattered. And what illusion is that? That he is a handsome, charming and wealthy man who she has fallen desperately in love with.
Romance tourism is a form of prostitution that dares not speak its name, which leaves the sex worker, who must maintain the charade by marketing herself as some sort of tour guide-interpreter-driver/girlfriend entirely reliant on the goodwill of her patron. If she hits the jackpot, she’ll receive “gifts” of cash or expensive consumer goods and even marriage.
It is not sex for sale; it is love
for sale. The majority of western men do not want to marry a prostitute. These girls get guys by courting them, charming them, wooing them. It is a fantasy to meet an exotic stranger on the street who seems to have fallen in love with you at first sight. They target men’s hearts: they’re sensitive, sweet, flattering and funny. And they’re also very clever about going for the Achilles heel. A lonely middle-aged western man could be putty in the hands of an attractive young lady.
The boom in Southeast Asia sex tourism started with the U.S. presence in Vietnam. It was this boom and the resulting slack after the war that was taken up by tourism that introduced prostitution as a large-scale business to the region. In 1947, Filipino President Roxas signed a military agreement granting twenty-two military bases to the United States. In the following year, the two largest U.S. military bases in the Far East were established north of Manila. Angeles City, located near Clark Air Force Base, later became the “Mecca of Sex Trade,” the military adult-entertainment capital of the Philippines, with every variety of prostitution, exotic bars, pornography, and sex tourism conceivable.
A 1989 article in The Economist reported that "around half of America's young, single servicemen leave their posting with a Philippine bride."
Finding a western husband allows the women that are able to take advantage of it the opportunity to live the American dream, to enjoy and extend increased consumerism to their families: Modernization and sophisticated advertisements have also brought new desires for consumer goods to villagers and a shift towards a cash economy. For some Filipino women, an almost religious belief in the Promised Land - America - adds to the attraction of achieving their ultimate dream: marriage to an American or European.
The twentieth century has seen the rise of the world marketplace. In this new world market, the Philippines has become a place to shop for wives.
Modern capitalism is propelled by a frenzy of greed and envy. These human vices are systematically cultivated through the media to encourage people to strive for more and ultimately to consume. These are the very causes of its success. It is the countries with the highest standards of living that pursue greater economic advantage with greatest ruthlessness. Western culture is now based on an appetite for buying, and that appetite is spreading throughout Asia and the world.
But stimulating envy and greed eats at our very fabric; destroying intelligence, happiness, serenity and the peacefulness of mankind. Leaving people feeling oppressed by increasing frustration, alienation, insecurity and loneliness. People want to conform and join the herd ultimately to avoid loneliness, though alcoholism, drug addiction, compulsive sexualism and suicide in contemporary society can be seen as symptoms of the failure of herd conformity; for while everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone.
So is it a longing for love and a dread of nothing and separateness that brings men here from lands with greater economic strength to, in affect, shop for Love as the drug to dull the pain of reality; as a refuge from the unbearable sense of aloneness?
Is it so strange when people begin to look at each other in the same way; as commodities? ‘Can I get someone better, richer or more attractive?’ What I saw in Siargao was surely just a result of the free market. Aren’t both Pete/Derek and their girlfriends simply looking for the best object available on the market, considering their own limitations/benefits of their own exchange values - his age/money…her lack of education/youth?
The middle-aged men who come here are lonely and relatively wealthy. Their wealth makes them appealing to young ladies seeking to escape poverty. These women have no economic value if there is no demand for them on the market. Is it too much to say that the very system we live in makes this situation inevitable?
And who is to say they that two people marrying under these circumstances will not live happily, after pooling their common interests and standing alone against the world?
The other ‘memorable’ thing that happened whilst in Siargao was two days after Christmas when some guys convinced me to stay and go on an extra day and go on a little motorbike trip around the island...bad idea!
Wearing just shorts and T-shirt I came off the bike - flew right over the handlebars, and just before I landed on the surface consisting of rocks, gravel and coral I thought ’how did that happen you prat'!?!
I lay on the gravel, feeling as though my knees and elbows had been hit by a mallet and someone had gone to work on them with a cheese grater (incidentally that is almost exactly how they looked!).
I drove home covered in blood feeling utterly stupid and pretty sorry for myself. The thing that pissed me off the most is that I never have accidents, I'm unbreakable; an illusion maybe, but a state of mind that gives me the confidence to go to many stupid places. Maybe those days are over, I thought, maybe this is a sign that I should hang up my traveling boots?
I had to leave the island because my visa expired the following day. Fortunately the women at the hotel phoned the immigration, and they said I could come at a later date. But I was determined not to be stuck on Siargao for New Years so I bandaged myself up and got out anyhow.
I’ll miss Pete and Derek and their other halves and wished them all luck for the future…just before I left Pete still hadn’t slept with his girlfriend and Derek was planning to buy a larger more expensive house ($15,000US) in General Luna.
As I waited for the immigration dude to extend my visa back on the mainland he inquired as to why I was traveling alone and why I didn’t have a Filipino girlfriend? When I told him I wasn’t in the market for one he warned me that people would think I was gay, if I continued traveling without one, he said, since it would be obvious to everyone I’d have no trouble acquiring one, people would just wonder, that’s all…and this was a government official!
I traveled hard that day and just made the last boat over to Camiguin, my volcanic island of choice to spend the New Year. Now I was actively searching out fellow backpackers, instead I found more sexpats. Hobbling along the beach at night with my knees in bandages searching for a place with life I soon realized this wasn’t the party place I had hoped for. I made the decision to leave early the next morning but again the festive season, and the obligation to surround oneself with people during festive periods kept me from straying.
I stayed in the house of a family; a very personable Filipino woman and her teenage kids. She’d married a German some 20 years earlier who had died a few years ago leaving her three kids and a beachside hotel.
This hotel it seemed was the social gathering spot for most of the Western middle-aged men and their wives. The language of choice was German, since they were mostly from Germany, Austria or Switzerland. Most had contempt for their own countries weather and people, a recurring subtext in the testimony of the sexpats I met; I can’t live there anymore; I refuse to work for just 4,000 Swiss francs a month (over $3,000US), said one Swiss. Or “there are far too many foreigners in Switzerland nowadays” complained another Swiss without even a hint of irony.
They spoke of how great their lives were in contrast to how they would be back in Europe. But as the days wore on they opened up to me and grew more pessimistic. They mostly sat around, drank and gossiped about each other. Here they were in paradise with wives 20 years their junior, financially secure, no need to go to work in the morning and yet they were bitterly unhappy. Roger in contrast, was a 68yr old American from the Midwest who had a slightly chubby 19yr old girlfriend, who looked more like his caretaker - they always seemed to be happy;-)
Since there was a curfew on the island, everyone had to be off the streets by 10pm. So I spent a very memorable New Year’s eating Filipino delicacies in front of the TV with my new adopted family - a product if you like - of sex tourism. Who is to judge what people do with their lives as long as nobody is harmed?
Romance tourism certainly isn’t the same as the crass raw practice of prostituting human beings. After all, haven’t people been treating each other as commodities for years back home, with people judging each other by their merits, and selecting the best partner they can from the market place. Isn’t globalization just widening the net?
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