The New Year has found me in the southern Philippines where I have been telling everyone the women are fast, or should I just say friendly and the internet is slow.
I am renting a house in Thailand for three and a half months so I can write and edit images and I decided to have a break in the Philippines en route and I persuaded my friend Jack to join me for a few weeks. He is recovering from that ever increasing feature of western society – a late in life divorce from his partner of 37 years and at times is finding it difficult to adjust to life on his own when he does not have a job or keep him occupied and distract him from being reflective.
We went to a Leonard Cohen concert in New York a month ago and I told him he should be looking at the next 10 -15 years as an exciting new opportunity as he has no partner, no job, no children, no responsibilities, no home and no financial pressures and I suspected there are plenty of others who would be very envious of him and like to opt out of whatever they are doing and start over. I thought that quite literally he has the world as his oyster and now can now go anywhere and do anything without having to answer to anyone.
So applying the principles of Bromfield 101 ‘Organising the Lives of others’ I told him I thought his life needed a new direction – ‘You need to do something, anything and I don’t think at 62 you’re going to find either a rewarding job in the USA nor a new partner through Match.com. If I was you I would go off and travel and if you are lonely why not travel through South East Asia – lots to see, low cost of living, great beaches to relax and no shortage of friendly women. Frankly your life needs a new direction and you have the means to make it happen, it just needs a bit of willpower.’
We had initially met on a remote Fijian island in 1975 when Jack and his wife to be were travelling the world but Jack totally poo pooed my suggestion and said he had not travelled for years and would not know how to even begin to prepare let alone get his affairs in order to depart in early January until his brother, friends and therapist all told him they thought my proposal was a great idea and that is how I found myself at Cebu Airport in the Southern Philippines a few days ago waiting for Jack to fly in after three flights and a 30 hour journey from Washington Dulles. My arrival from the UK 3 days earlier had been a much more manageable two flights and 16 hours from London.
I had intended we should head to Palawan Island and the legendary beaches of El Nido (allegedly where Alex Garland got the inspiration to write ‘The Beach’ although it was set in Thailand) but that will have to wait for another visit as I did not think we had sufficient time to do the area justice and it involved a lot of travelling so it came down to a straight choice between Boracay – that other Philippines Beach which always seems to make the ‘Top 10 Beaches in the world’ lists and Bantayan Island where we could just relax and catch up.
We opted on Bantayan just off the northwest tip of the main Cebu Island – a short drive and ferry rather than a flight to Palawan or Bantayan and one of the indulgencies of travelling late in life with a bit of cash in the bank is that occasionally I can take a break from the local buses and so we indulged ourselves with a two and a half taxi ride ($25 each) which transferred us from Cebu to the east coast port of Hagnaya. Our taxi driver Jimmy assured us he had not had an accident in 27 years which was surprising given he liked to explore both sides of the road as we headed north up the east coast of Cebu, before crossing the spine of the island past one truck in the ditch (the drunk truck driver had died on impact but the ditch had stopped the runaway truck from ploughing into the roadside dwellings) and arrived at Hagnaya from where we took a rather shabby and basic car ferry to Bantayan.
The Filipinos together with the Norwegians are one of the great sea faring nations of the world but seem to have more than their fair share of ferry disasters although with thousands of islands to service and the frequent occurrence of hurricanes and tropical storms perhaps that is to be expected and in any case with prayers for both our salvation and safety together with the stirring national anthem being broadcast at a volume comparable with a Pattaya disco as we departed I was sure that between the Ship’s Master and the Almighty we were in good hands.
Based on the excellent reviews on Tripadvisor I had booked us into the Anika Beach Resort near the small town and arrival port of Santa Fe and the reviews were spot on. Nicely designed and landscaped the immaculate rooms were all made out of converted Containers set up on pedestals with a veranda built around each container so that each room had an outside table, chairs and a settee. The Resort bought each container new and then converted them into rooms with three spotlessly clean rooms from each container.
When we arrived we were greeted with a the spectacle of a wedding on the beach in front of our veranda between Jeff 57 (who we later learnt was from Portland Oregon) and his Filipino wife Emma 30 which was a confirmation of what we had already learnt about the Philippines from our brief stay in Cebu. As well as cheap labour the Philippines is a great exporter of brides and both workers and brides (and of course their new partners) remit funds home to support family and relatives. So during both our brief stay in Cebu and during the week on Bantayan we frequently saw the latest manifestations of Madame Butterfly – the older American/Canadian/German/Italian/Swede etc. with his younger bride/girlfriend/wannabe bride on his arm. I have seen a lot of older western men with younger women on their arms over the years I have been visiting Asia but I will surely always remember the affable multi lingual French Canadian who must have been 300lbs plus with his stunningly beautiful Filipino companion who was barely five foot tall and that with four inch heels. If anyone should be described as doll like it was her. She was barely in her 20s and had just a smattering of English but seemed to enjoy his company although Jean-Pierre spent most of his time in conversation with another French Canadian as the three of them were travelling together. Even my normally tolerant mind could not help but speculate on how Jean – Pierre and his young girlfriend got through the night without one imposing serious physical injury on the other.
This older western man and younger Asian woman is of course not at all unusual in Asia but it had taken Jack a few days to get his head used to the concept and only the ever increasing frequency of seeing and meeting couples with a wide age disparity confirmed to him that whilst this might not meet with the approval of middle of the road America the male suitors were a million miles away from what might be casually described as paedophiles or sex tourists and perhaps as per Bromfield 101 Asia did indeed offer an option for a future life partner or companion or friendships.
We subsequently had a chat with Jeff, the 56 year old American from Portland Oregon who we had watched get married on the beach on our arrival day and he told us his story. His own marriage had failed 20 years ago and he had been divorced for 17 years but his kids who he had brought up made it very clear that they would not accept another woman in the house but now they had grown up and left home he had been looking for a partner. Very few of the women he approached via dating sites in the USA ever replied (’Maybe 1 in 40’) but a friend had told him about the virtues of both Filipino dating sites and Filipinos as loyal and loving wives so he had signed up for the free sites DIA (Date in Asia), Cherry Blossoms and his own recommendation Filipino Cupid which although a pay site he believed tended to have more serious applicants. Indeed DIA is renowned as being Asia’s the first stop for single men looking for short or long term company and I had recommended that Jack use it to make contact with potential new friends as he travelled through in Asia.
I thought Jeff was typically American – he was not particularly experienced as a traveller and was somewhat naïve. He told us on his first visit to the Philippines he had let a taxi driver take him on his own to a bar in Manila which was clearly a brothel/strip club and not for him and the way he chose to extricate himself without participating and thus earning his taxi driver some commission was to sprinkle US$100 notes to all and sundry but in other ways he had been quite sensible. He was a builder/ architect so had come to the Philippines for 3 months doing voluntary work which gave him an insight into the people and their culture as well as to meet some of the women he had met on the dating sites. He was quite open, honest and organised. He had been looking on line for women who were aged between 28 and 40 and who could speak English and who already had one or two children because he was unable and/or unwilling to have any more but was quite happy to adopt and care for his future brides children. He had whittled all his contacts down to a short list of 10 and corresponded extensively with all 10 and chatted on Skype and when he was in the Philippines he had met four of them to see how compatible they were. He had hit it off with Emma and he had returned just 3 days earlier for his marriage on the beach. They had rented all 16 rooms at our resort for guests, and had a ceremony , sit down buffet for 100 guests and the loudest disco known to man for the grand total of $3200 but he had wanted to give his new bride a special day she would remember forever and to demonstrate his commitment to the new union.
Jack thought Jeff was somewhat simplistic with his platitudes – ‘It’s a new stage of my life. I have learnt to love like I was never hurt before, enjoy each day as if there is no tomorrow and dance as if no one was watching’ but good luck to him I thought. He was sufficiently savvy to realise that for Filipinos like all Asians their Family is and always will be number 1 so he was buying into an extended family and would have to remit funds back to the Philippines to assist the family and he had arranged a nice wedding so his new bride and family would earn ‘Face’ and respect within their communities and indeed the bride had even invited her dentist from Cebu to the wedding. Indeed we had a delightful chat with the Dentist and his wife (also a dentist!) whose parents and 5 of her siblings were also Dentists (!) including two practising in Victoria BC, I guess that is what you call a dental Dynasty!
Jeff and his new bride planned to live for 9 months of the year in Oregon and for three months in the Philippines and was planning to look at a beach front property for $65,000 so clearly property values are a lot cheaper in the Philippines than my next destination Thailand. Jeff was also impressed that the Filipino’s took marriage seriously and during the three preparatory meetings with the local priest his politically correct mind was somewhat surprised to hear the Catholic priest counsel his wife to be with the words that ‘One of the ways in which you can support your new husband is to provide physical satisfaction to him whenever he needs to relax and have a break from his work and other responsibilities’!
Jeff was hopeful his marriage would last for the remainder of his life and said his kids had now encouraged him to start over as they were adults and this was now ‘my time’ but ‘if only lasts 5 or 10 years it would not be for the want of trying and that will be 5 or 10 years of happiness he was unlikely to find back home in the USA.’
So all in all he was going into this with his eyes open and pretty much aware of what he was getting into and he commented several times how impressed he had been that ‘most of the girls on the Filipino websites actually reply when you contact them!’
And of course there is a reason for that because for many women, especially from a working class background, a marriage to a foreigner is a route to a better life for both her and also her family and I think perhaps a marriage to a Filipino has every chance of succeeding, and certainly has better prospects than most other Asian nationalities for two reasons. Firstly although the standard of living is not so high, educational standards are generally high in the Philippines and secondly most people speak good English so the potential for misunderstandings undermining a relationship are minimised; It always helps if couples can understand each other!
So I thought that Jeff has been fairly sensible about his preparations and planning and has every chance of succeeding and having a happy life together with Emma. Indeed I have two friends – one a teacher in Canada and the other a Tour Operator in the USA who have both married Filipino wives and both have lovely homes and seem very happy and their wives have had no difficulty in adjusting to life in North America with occasional visits home.
And whilst the idea of searching for a younger Asian bride inevitably may seem anathema to many I do not really see the problem. In much of the world marriages are still arranged by their families and often last a lifetime. Yes we all read the lurid headlines about child brides married into servitude but arranged marriages are commonplace in many parts of the world.
I know all the waiters from our local Indian restaurant in the UK periodically return home to marry brides chosen for them by their families and bring them back to the UK with obvious pride and affection, which often grows into lifelong love. The first time they meet their wives to be is often the evening before their wedding and I long remember the Head waiter of the Rajpoot showing us a picture of his new bride with obvious pride after he had returned to the UK from a short visit home to home to Bangla Desh to marry his new bride. ‘Not bad for a takeaway’ I had quipped and he laughed taking no offence. Ten years later they are still together, happily married with three kids and living in Dorset in the UK. With divorce rates continuing to soar in the west I am far from convinced we have got it right and plenty of western families I know would love to select a bride or groom for their offspring when they suspect their kids are making an unwise choice as a life partner.
All Jeff and Emma were doing was using the internet to take the philosophy of an arranged marriage one step further and to minimise the downside by controlling the process themselves.
So Good luck to them and I think they have every chance because unlike Madame Butterfly it does not always have to end in tears.
And meanwhile I will watch with interest how the next few weeks work out for my friend Jack as he returns to South East Asia after 35 years.
© Michael Bromfield 2012