Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. Having just come back from organizing and escorting an all-women trip to the quaint, rural hamlet of Banavasi in Karnataka, today was a day for me to just think about all the wonderful women I have been in touch with over the years, and who have been sources of inspiration to me at some point or the other. So, I cast my mind back to a time not very long ago. And this is what came to my mind.
I am standing at the pier in Baclayon, the sun wilting my energy. A few boats rest languidly on the crystal-clear waters. I am in search of the Baclayon Heritage Café, which serves some of the best desserts in the Philippines. At 11 AM, the café appears deserted. “The chef has not come yet,” the lady tells me with a smile. The smiles are easily dispensed here in the Philippines. I can’t but smile back, despite my frustration. I look out at the ruined Baclayon Church, under renovation after bearing the brunt of the 2013 earthquake. I decide not to wait for the chef, and step out again to the pier, thinking instead of going to the church. “You want boat?” comes a voice from behind. I turn back, and see a woman, in her 40s, approach me from a shelter at the pier that barely protects her from the heat.
“No, I don’t want a boat,” I say, looking to get away, thinking about all the touts you meet when you travel. I used to be irritated by them, but now, I know better. They are trying to do their job. To make a living. And the more you travel, the more you realize that we are all similar in that one endeavor. The woman seems unfazed by my dismissal. “You don’t want to see dolphins?” she asks. Dolphins? She had me there. I stop and look back at her, striding to me. Worn flip-flops, a hat, and cheap sunglasses to go with some badly uncoordinated clothes. “Dolphins? Where?” I ask. “Pamilacan Island, you know.” No, I don’t know. But I want to.
“I have cottages by the beach. Big white beach,” she adds. I am hooked to this marketing spiel, standing under the harsh Philippine sun, by a pier where distant islands to beckon me with mysterious dolphins and glorious beaches.
“Your cottage is on the beach?”
“Yes. Just 100m, you know, from your room, you can see the beach. White beach,” she adds for emphasis.
An island. White beaches. Cottages. Dolphins. Keywords for a great marketing campaign and she is doing it well.
And when I hear her final marketing line, I make up my mind. “You are very beautiful!” Elvie says, laughing. Who can resist that?
I beckon her to sit on the pier, under the shade. “How old are you?” Elvie asks. “Where is your partner?” is the next question. It’s a common enough question in the Philippines, with many unable to understand I am traveling solo. Elvie reveals she has two daughters, both in school. She would be taking me to Mary’s Cottage, she says. Only 700 pesos a day for full-board. It’s tempting. I leave, promising to get back to her in a few days after touring Bohol and the Chocolate Hills.
I keep my promise, calling Elvie a day later to arrange a dolphin-watching trip with a stay at the “white beach” in Mary’s Cottage. She picks me up from the Baclayon Pier, a bancas waiting for me. Elvie has a different hat but seems to be wearing the same outfit as when I saw her a few days ago. On the boat, her marketing continues “You want massage? Mary charge more. But I give it to you cheaper, ok? Only 250 pesos,” she says. I smile, her relentless marketing has a charm, really. “By the beach,” I say as a joke. Elvie takes it seriously. “Yes, of course by the beach!”
Over the next two days, Elvie is my go-to person for arrangements for food. Or for snorkelling. Or just for walks into the village. And she is there, of course, when we go dolphin-spotting. She claps her hands delightedly when we watch the first dolphins break the surface of the sea in the morning, making me laugh. And she does give me a massage by the beach. On a table, she spreads a cloth, a pillow for my head to rest on, and kneads out all the pain and accumulated knots of the year. “Are you married?” she asks, while working on a particularly stressful knot in my shoulder. No, I reply, tensing for the inevitable whys that follow this answer. But it doesn’t come. A minute passes and I can see her looking out at the sea, past the ruins of the Spanish watchtower. “That’s good,” she finally says. “Don’t get married until you are sure why. Marriage, it is not important. But being with the right person is. I made a mistake, you know. In marriage. I got married too fast, too soon. My husband, he doesn’t care. I bring up my two daughters on my own.” I listen to this face down, to the short staccato sentences, thankful I don’t have to show any reaction.
“Where’s your husband?” I mumble when the silence spreads itself thin. “Oh, he is in Dumaguete. He drink every day. We don’t live together. Sends only 500 pesos a month, you know. How is that enough? Remember this. Don’t get married unless you know why,” she wags a finger at me, as I turn around. Later, she tells me that Mary, the owner of the cottages, is also a single mother. “But she has a boyfriend,” she adds, a little gossip filtering into our conversation.
Elvie relies on the commission she gets from Mary to bring guests to Pamilacan Island, the tips from travellers like me, and also operates her house as a homestay. Her two daughters help her out at the house. But she is serious about their schooling. Elvie wants them to study, and maybe move away from Pamilacan to a big city. She herself is from Mindanao, a province that is more known in the Philippines for its insurgency. The massage is over, and the night sky is ablaze with stars. We sit for a while, looking out at nothing in particular. The sea is still a murmur in the background. And even today, months after my trip, I can remember how incredibly thankful I felt then. Not an “Oh, so lucky I am, while she is slaving away” kind of thankfulness. But just gratitude that I was there. Listening to a woman advising me about marriage. Sharing her life story and her thoughts. For that, I felt privileged. It was like the moon and the stars had conspired to bring this one moment together.
The last I remember of Elvie is her settling me into a jeepney, on my way back to Tagbilaran. I see her now, walking into the market, all mismatched clothes. And I see her now still talking of marriage and her husband. I see her now clapping at the dolphins. I see her now. A wonderful, strong woman with a smile and some of the best marketing skills that no MBA can give you.