Today is our last day on Bantayan Island after spending seven days here. The first three we enjoyed the beautiful white sand beach but on the last three the wind got up and we spent most of our time in the restaurant accessing the free wi fi which we were advised was open 24/7.
I wrote captions for a photographic exhibition on Everest which was somewhat incongruous given we were in the tropics, caught up with emails whenever the server was reset and working so that my laptop and/or ipad could find the weak signal and chatted with the waitresses who appeared easily amused by two old farts with clearly too much time on our hands.
There were eight young waitresses on the roster, three on duty between 7am and 10am, seven between 10am and 10pm and one thereafter until 7am. They were all attractive with basic English and clad in identical Anika Resort white T shirts. When one placed an order they dutifully read it back and seemed to spend us much time giggling and staring at the two of us and they did on their various duties.
We grew quite friendly with Edna, a somewhat dated name for a very attractive and slender slip of a girl who was 20 going on 15. Her father had died from asthma and her mother had never remarried and Edna had seven siblings. Of the 9 in her family she was the only one earning and she was pleased to be working at the Anika resort as she said they paid the highest wages of the dozen or more resorts and hotels around Santa Fe. She worked 6 ten hour shifts a week, normally but not always 10am to 10 pm and earnt 5000 pesos or $125 (£75) a month and she was the only one in her family working so her salary had to support her mother and 8 others.
Well actually No. The day after we got chatting to her at some length she came up to us at breakfast and said ‘Actually I forgot to tell you I have a little boy of 3 months’ which was pretty difficult to believe as she was so slender.
Her former boyfriend was from the island and was now studying electrical engineering near Manila but had not wanted to have anything to do with Edna once she was pregnant. He had not wanted to see the baby nor contribute to its upkeep but Edna just shrugged her shoulders as if that was to be expected. However it does explain why so many young Filipino girls are listed on dating sites like the infamous Date in Asia and are willing to meet ‘serious men from 20 to 80’ and indeed why attractive young waitresses will talk and joke with guests 40 years their senior in the hotel restaurant.
They do not expect every western man they may meet to be ‘the one’ who will marry them and support them but it’s a numbers game. Most Filipinos are naturally friendly, charming, a little shy, God Fearing and open minded and if meeting some western men means there is a chance that maybe something will happen with one of them one day then so be it.
I asked Edna if she regretted that she now had a baby that would perhaps curtail her future options and more so with no partner and she looked amazed that I would ask the question ‘No, of course not. I so look forward to seeing him when I come home after work’
Our visit coincided with Fiesta week and Jack and I said we would meet up with Edna one evening for a bite to eat when she finished early but we were off swimming and never got our acts together so we missed meeting her on her day as planned but the following day Edna told us her baby was being baptised later in the week and seemed pleased when we asked if we could come along.
As it happened the day coincided with the end of Fiesta week in Santa Fe and although we had taken a bicycle rickshaw into Santa Fe twice in the evening to eat we had managed to miss the Resort evening when the various resorts compete against each other, Teachers evening when the teachers perform for their students, The talent competition (this would have been worth going to as the Filipinos are the musical stars of South East Asia with Filipino combos performing at hotels and bars from Singapore to Hong Kong and all points between) and the qualifying rounds for Miss Santa Fe Tourism but all was not lost as we were in for a double header on our penultimate day on Bantayan – the Baptism of Edna’s baby and the final of Miss Santa Fe but alas Filipino timing was to play havoc with our planning on both counts.
Edna, a dreary dated name for such an attractive young girl, told us to be at the Catholic Church at 1pm and we discovered all the roads (sorry the road) through central Santa Fe was closed for the Fiesta but we managed to arrive at the Church at 1259 so Bromfield timekeeping (aka lets leave everything to the last minute) is alive and well in the Philippines!
We had both gone to the effort of putting on a shirt and trousers rather than T Shirt and shorts although barely so in Jack’s case. It had been windy a few days ago and our waitress friends looked chilly so good old Jack, a gentleman to the end had gone to his room and returned to the restaurant with four long sleeved shirts. Now putting aside the fact that I had no idea why he thought he would need 4 long sleeved shirts in Asia in the first place and still less buy new apparel for his trip, I raised my eyebrows and muttered ‘You will be lucky to see those again’ although Jack insisted he had told them he was only lending them the shirts. ‘I don’t think most Asians understand the concept of borrowing Jack’ I responded and as of now several days later despite hints to the Head waitress and Hotel Manager Jack’s portfolio of shirts has been reduced from five to one.
And it turned out that the shirt was not required because the Baptism had ended prior to arrival – it seemed dear Edna had given us the wrong time and her son was not off to the best start in life as he had missed out on the 2000 pesos we had brought as a baptism gift! Jack was quite disappointed but I was fairly phlegmatic as I was wondering if we were likely to have been pressed into duty as God parents.
So instead we spent some of the money on a leisurely lunch and then I spent 90 minutes taking pictures of the colourful people and market stalls as Santa Fe was one big street party but the highlight was yet to come. The final of Miss Santa Fe tourism was to take place in the Towns Community Centre at 7pm in the evening and was considered to be the highlight of Fiesta week and one of our waitresses Leamae was in the final.
So sure enough we were back in town at 7pm, not going to be late a second time, but there were barely 50 people in a venue with seating for almost a thousand. Clearly what we thought was 7pm was Doors Open at 7pm so we waited……………….and waited…………………..and waited until at 9pm proceedings finally got under way and a few days shy of my 64th birthday I was attending my first Beauty Contest.
And it was to be really something really different but first we had to get the formal proceedings out of the way with the audience being introduced to the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor, the Chair of the Tourism Committee etc as Asians generally are great sticklers for formalities and procedure.
Santa Fe has a population of 5,000 and I was already quite impressed by the setup of the auditorium with a Board Walk, raised performing area, Judges seating area, a good lighting system, sound show etc. I was not sure if Sherborne, my local town when I am in the UK could put on a comparable spectacle and the auditorium was now full with locals, Filipino tourists and a fair number of expatriates either checking out the local talent or just enjoying the spectacle. Sitting next to me was a retired Italian hairdresser in his late 60s with his Filipino girlfriend who he lived with here for 4 – 5 months each winter and they had come to Bantayan for a week’s holiday.
We were introduced to the five judges who seemed to comprise of local folks made good who had returned to Bantayan from Switzerland and California, the Deputy Mayor, a student just awarded a PhD scholarship and a local larger than life Dandy like almost certainly gay newspaper columnist! And then finally we were introduced to our MC for the evening who was no other than the winner (or was it Runner up) in the 2011 Mr Cebu Competition and resplendent in his Pink suit.
Now this guy was good, and I mean seriously good, as a host and would not have been out of place as a host for the X Factor in the UK or American Idol in the USA as he kept the patter going and half way entertaining for the best part of two and a half hours and he was a real pro.
He explained we were going to see the girls dressed casually, in ballroom gowns and (of course) in swimsuits and then the ten candidates would be reduced to a final 5 who would take questions from the Judges and then the two runners up and the winner would be announced and so almost three hours after Jack and I had arrived the serious proceedings began with a spectacular performance from an all male dance group and after Mr Cebu announced the name and age of each girl the dancers formed a fawning phalanx and escorted each girl in turn to the podium microphone where they announced their names to wild acclaim from families, friends and supporters in the audience.
The girls ranged in age from 16 to 21 and collectively someone has spent a fortune in grooming these girls and preparing their hair let alone in making the fabulous outfits. And I was intrigued to learn how the girl’s acquired their deportment because they were incredible. How does a 16 year girl from Bantayan carry herself down the catwalk, pouting, smiling and posing as if she is on the catwalk in Paris or New York? Hours in front of You Tube I guess but these girls carried themselves as if they were 18 going on 30 and looked fantastic. Our waitress Leamae who just looked one of 8 nice waitresses in a T shirt in our restaurant looked absolutely stunning but clearly was going to have a hard job making the final five.
The other impressive feature was the girls had to dance, strut and walk around the stage in a gown and costume and all without exception had at least three if not four inch heels and with every move involving at least two transitions up or down a step on stage this was clearly an accident waiting to happen but No – these girls knew how to carry themselves. Literally!
I guess there were certain rules to ensure the competition was on an equal footing as the stunning gowns were all made of what looked like identical material and the bikinis were all identical and it was really difficult to remember most of the contestants were around 18 and the youngest and oldest were really put on the spot when asked ‘What is it like to be the baby of the group’ and the 21 year old was in turn asked ‘How does it feel to be the oldest and competing against so many younger girls’.
I felt a little sorry for some of the competitors because the entire proceedings were in English rather than Pinay or the local Cebu dialect and some of the contestants were at a distinct disadvantage if their English were weak or they did not understand the question. I guess the insistence on English was to ensure that whoever became Miss Santa Fe tourism could capably talk about Bantayan when representing the town.
We hand a Musical interlude with a song from a Cebu singer who had made the final 50 qualifiers for Philippine Idol no less and then he danced and sang with each of the 10 contestants. This was proving to be an impressively choreographed production!
The first section ended when each contestant was shown a picture of a landmark or feature of the island and asked to talk about it and one of the more imaginative answers was given by the eventual winner who when shown a picture of underwater coral replied:
Well thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak and this is a picture of the beautiful Coral around Bantayan and it is important we preserve this to attract more visitors to our beautiful island. If I am elected Miss Santa Fe tourism I would thank God and my family and do all I can to stop the factory fishing which may damage our reefs so that people continue to come here and visit all the attractive places on our island’
That was pretty good as she managed to get God, her family and Green issues into her response!
And so it came to down to the Final 5 Leamae from our hotel was clearly going to struggle as she did not interview well misunderstanding the subtleties of Mr Cebu’s gentle probing but at least she soldiered onto the end. One attractive 18 year old appreciating she was fighting a losing battle pre-empted the inevitable conclusion by giving a sweet ‘Thank you’, turned around and strutted off stage wiggling her rear end at the audience whilst Mr Cebu , clearly surprised at the her rapid departure sorted out his questions for Contestant No 7 who was up next!
But before the final five were announced we had the results of the minor awards Miss Photogenic, Miss Congeniality and Friendship, Miss Best in Swimwear and awards for the Best Evening Gown, Best in the Production number and Best in Talent! Cynic that I am, I assumed these may have been consolations for those who did not make the final five so that ‘everyone is a winner’ but this was the case and a Jennifer Lopez lookalike scooped 3 of these 6 awards and ended up looking like an over decorated Christmas Tree as she had so many garlands heaped around her. That is quite an apt metaphor as in the Philippines Christmas Trees remain on display until February! And then the 10 contestants lined up to see who would make the final 5.
I made my predictions based on appearance and my assessment of their replies and I got three of the five correct and clearly once contestant No 6 made the final five Bantayan’s answer to Jennifer Lopez and at 21, the oldest of the 10 competitors and a home town favourite was going to be hard to beat.
And after a final interview when most of these young and quite gorgeous girls managed to thank their parents for supporting them the final 5 each took a final question from one of the judges – ‘What is the first thing you would recommend visitors to Bantayan see’, ‘What will you do that would bring more visitors to Bantayan’ etc.
And then we were down to results time almost 5 hours after Jack and I had arrived for what we thought would be a 7pm kick off and it was no surprise that Contestant no 6 brought home the bacon – age and experience at the ripe old age of 21 triumphing over the challenges from the young contenders!
It was a long evening but certainly a very different experience and it would be very easy to manufacture some pithy and trite conclusion that the competition represented the only way these young girls could escape from a dreary life of servitude and poverty on Bantayan.
I did not see it in those terms at all (and they can always do that by marrying a western visitor!). These girls come from supportive and extended families that share something of far more value than the material wealth we often strive to accumulate in the west and appear to be happy where they are, and understandably so. It was Fiesta time and the competition was part of the fun and nothing more, nothing less.
The next morning hotel we showed Leah and the rest of the girls all the images I had taken and I transferred them onto the Hotel computer so she could get some prints made. The Hotel Manager’s eyes boggled when he saw the pictures clearly having difficulty reconciling the glamorous creature on screen with the pony tailed waitress clad every day in a White Anika resort T shirt and commented ‘My God and she is only 18’
And in truth neither Jack nor myself thought Leah was amongst the more attractive of even our waitressing crew as that accolade clearly went to our friend Edna who rushed up to us the following day and said she was so sorry we had missed her son’s Baptism but she had received a message from the Church that the time had been changed from 1pm to 10am and she had to wake her son up and had not even had time for a shower herself and so only 3 guests had been present which was a shame.
However she brought her son in this morning for us to meet him before we left and we gave him the gifts we had intended to give at the Baptism.
We have not seen much of the island except our local beach and the road between our hotel and Santa Fe but I suspect both Jack and myself are tempted to return in the future and explore the rest of the island and renew our acquaintance with Edna and the rest of the crew. Meanwhile the remainder of our day is going to take us back to Cebu and on to Bangkok via Manila but the little I have seen of the Philippines and the charming people we have met will certainly encourage me to return before too long.
Now where is the schedule for next year’s Philippine’s Beauty Pageant Circuit?
© Michael Bromfield 2012