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One of the World's Craziest Islands is Siquijor, Where There Are Ten Gals to Every Able-Bodied Man

"The Isle of Lonely Women"

by Jim Elwood



Vol. 15, No. 11, March 1959

     It's an island of women," the old sunshiner had told us, "and the females there are away behind on their homework." 
    We were young and it was enough to get us going. My companion was Fred Martin. He came from some little town in Oklahoma and was a couple years older than me. At this time, a few years before the big war with the Japs, he was wandering around the Islands with an eye open for the main chance and he wasn't too loaded with responsibilities. I was 24 then and I had been in Sulu country south of Zamboanga for three years. For a while I had a gang of Moros down on Sitanki, across the strait from North Borneo. I had been drying beche-de-mer, the big nasty-looking sea cucumber that has a big market in China as an aphrodisiac. 
    It was because of a shipment of beche-de-mer that I happened to meet Fred. I had taken ten piculs of beche-de-mer to Jolo in a Moro sapit, those big-bellied sailboats the Mohammedans maneuver all over the Sulu Sea. I was going to ship my cargo to Manila on the old freighter Fernandez Hermanos and at the last moment I decided to go along with the sea cucumbers. I hadn't been in the hot spots for a long time. I needed a little companionship, female by sex. 
    Manila was a real town in those days. I got into a suit of white duck and took off for an evening of what we used to call "swinging the apes." The gals were far from apes, though, believe me. They were cute little numbers; some of them with black hair down to their knees. They were a pretty good eyeful, too, in their cotton dresses that barely concealed tidy little superstructures. The heels of their little chinelas used to go slap-slap-slap on the sidewalk when they tripped down the street. They were willing little dolls, as anyone who's been in Manila can tell you. 
    I met Fred Martin out at the Lerma, a dance hall. We bumped into each other, right in the middle of a chorus of "Baby Face," and Fred was swinging a nice little number, too. She was just as round in the right places as mine was and we all hit it off pretty good so we made it an evening. 
    It was quite an evening because it resulted in Fred and me taking off on a small deal that still remains fresh in my  memory. We went to a little hotel down by the Jones Bridge and drank tuba. That's deceiving stuff distilled from the sap of the coconut palm. We used Bols gin for chasers. It had a beneficial effect on all of us and the evening grew slightly confused. About 4 o'clock in the morning I can remember chasing my doll through the patio and the way she was  dressed she would have caught an awful chill in any climate colder than Manila. 
    The gals took off about 8 the next morning. They worked in a cigarette factory and I'm quite sure they couldn't have had their minds on their work that day. Although maybe they did. Those little Filipinas had capacity---what I mean. They were real party girls when they uncoiled for a big evening. 
    About 10 o'clock Fred and I came to life and went out for a round of spiked coffee. After we had a few cups we had a nice glow and were right friendly people. There was an old sunshiner sitting alone at another table. Loving the world like we did, we invited him over and we all sat there, eating papaya and bacon and eggs. I don't remember his name, if I ever knew it at all. He had been a sergeant in the Volunteers in the Philippine Insurrection and he had just sort of tapered off from there. He said he had a few coconuts on a little place outside Manila. The Philippines are full of old men like him. 
    We knew what he was as soon as we saw him because he had on khaki shirt and pants. Khaki was the badge of the
sunshiner who had a few coconuts and a native wife. Other white men in the Philippines wore duck or white linen when they came to town. 
    I remember that he sat there, rolling a piece of toast over with his fork, as he told us about Siquijor. 
    "Young gents of your talent," the old sunshiner told us, "are wasting your time in Manila. How would you like to be a couple of young stallions in a coconut grove, completely surrounded by little brown fillies?"
    "I love horses," Fred said fervently. "I was brought up on a ranch. I ride real good." 
    "It's pitiful," the old man went on. "All those women with high temperatures, jammed up on that little island, with the law of supply and demand reversed." 
    If you get a map of the Philippines you'll see that Siquijor is a little island just north of Mindanao. It belongs to the Middle Island Visayan Group and the inhabitants are Christian rather than Mohammedan. It's a poverty-stricken little place, off the beaten path, with an excess of population. The average Filipino is a home-loving creature who seldom strays from his own island. But the men of Siquijor go places. They go to Hawaii to work in the sugar fields and to California to work on the truck farms. 
    The women stay home. There are ten women to every man on Siquijor. 
    "Those little does up there," the old sunshiner observed sadly, "seldom see a big buck with a spread of horns. If you want my opinion," he added earnestly, "I think those Siquijor men are nuts. Young sons, the possibilities of Siquijor Island are eee-normous." 
    Well, you can't wave a red flag in front of a bull! 
    We went down to Surigao on the north coast of Mindanao. We felt this was a matter that required our immediate personal attention. A man can always split open beche-de-mer to be dried for the China market. Fred didn't seem to have anything pressing in his appointment book, either. 
    "You furnish the dough," he said, "and I'll provide the romance." 
    He could do it, too. He was a big guy, about 6 feet 2 and he had nice curly hair. I've always wondered what became of Fred. Maybe he went back to Siquijor. 
    We chartered a dalamas in Surigao; one of those two-hulled boats with outriggers and a little house on a platform. The Polynesians sailed all over the Pacific in that type of craft. We took a few necessary supplies--certain vital liquids, bottled, and a supply of canned goods for vitamins. We had some grass mats and a blanket apiece. We were young and we didn't believe in much baggage. Those were the days. The little boat performed nobly. Fred was a good hand with tiller and sail and we had fine weather all the way. We caught big mackerel on trolls and we fried them on a fire we built on a dirt platform amidships. 
    We were at sea only a few days. We, used to sit in the shade of the big sail and look at the little dot on the map called Siquijor and hope that the old sunshiner had his facts straight. 
    It was about 2 o'clock one afternoon when we dropped the hook in a litle bay. The anchor was a piece of coral block. The possibilities of Siquijor became apparent almost immediately. Two little outriggers put off from the beach, each with an all-female crew. The first boat to reach us had three girls manning the paddles. The one in the bow stood up and she was too big a girl to be dressed that way. 
    "God bless that old sunshiner," Fred said gratefully. 
    The girls had been swimming in the surf and their modesty was covered-just barely. The gal standing in the bow had on a white cloth dress and it was so wet it fitted her like a second skin. Every place you looked she was an eyeful. Her tan was a little darker than the gals on the beach in Southern California and her hair hung down to her waist. You couldn't have found a prettier pair of pins on the stage in the chorus of a musical show.
    "I hope the little dear doesn't catch cold," Fred said. , 
    The other two girls in the boat were younger. They were still growing but they showed great promise of things to come. The second boat came up, propelled by a couple more of the chief product of Siquijor. They all showed white teeth in big smiles and they dived and swam around the dalamas like porpoises. Not that they looked like porpoises. There were important differences in contour. 
    This was our introduction to Siquijor Island. They were a hospitable people. We didn't get ashore for some time. We swam and well, we swam. It was a nice gesture of welcome that we received and Fred and I were properly appreciative. I began to develop a sincere affection for that old sunshiner. 
    Late in the afternoon we sculled the dalamas in and beached it and made a few simple domestic arrangements. 
    Ashore Siquijor looked like any other island of the Philippine group. Scattered coconut groves, nipa and bamboo houses on stilts, little trails that led from one small village to another. 
    We were dug in nicely in a day or two in a little spot near the beach and we settled comfortably into the routine of Siquijor. As I've mentioned, the proportion of men to women was about one to ten. The few men on the island worked in the small coconut groves and sailed the fishing vintas. They did most of the gathering of the coconuts, hauling them into the sheds in little carts. The women opened the coconuts and exposed the half shells of white meat to the sun, curing the copra. Everyone took life easy. 
    Fred and I were as happy as ants in a picnic pie. We were really occupied. There was work to be done and Fred and I did it. We didn't work on a regular shift. We took on what had to be done on a piecework basis, with no regular hours. 
    We were there for five weeks and we got to know that island real well in fact, intimately. Naturally we became engrossed in our work and after a few days we began to specialize. Fred more or less settled on a little doll named Maria and I cultivated a small pepper pot named Soling. 
    It wasn't all pure blessing because after a couple of weeks on Siquijor we began to fade out. It was a gradual disintegration and it sneaked up on us. It wasn't the hours so much that bothered us; it was the fact that the job required too much application. We had frequent housewarmings at our little place, just informal parties with a few people dropping in. The trouble was, the house never had a chance to cool off properly because it was one housewarming after another. 
    Maria and Soling took up a lot of our time but there were other distractions, too. We had a sort of trap line, you might
say, that reached all the way around the island. Those traps were really baited. We lived casually but it wasn't restful. In fact, it was down right debilitating. There was just too much time on Siquijor and too many places to spend it. 
    Things went along like this for about three weeks and we began to develop irksome surpluses of useful material, with the supply gaining steadily over the demand. It was the inflation of the 1920's all over again. There was more stock on the shelves than the customers wanted. Fred and I just had too much of a good thing. 
    We had the dalamas pulled up on the sand in front of our house one morning and we were sitting on the gunwale, soaking up a little sun after an all-night fiesta. Fred tugged experimentally on one of the lines. The colored sail rose an inch or two on the sprit mast. 
    "You know," he said, "there's nothing like the feel of a good boat under your feet. Standing there on the poop deck with the wind and salt spray in your face. Peps a man up." 
    "I ought to be getting back to drying beche-de-mer at Sitanki," I said, "but I suppose it can wait." 
    "I've got a little deal hanging fire down in Zamboanga," Fred said carelessly, "but I suppose it can wait, too." He yawned and stretched his arms over his head. "Sitting out here in the sun is whipping me down. You tired?" he asked. 
    "Pooped," I agreed. 
    "Must be the climate. Let's go hit the patate," he suggested. 
    That we did. We got down on our grass mats and slept all afternoon. I suppose the little incident was typical of our days on Siquijor. All we did was eat, sleep-and swim. 
    The Philippine Islands have more fiestas than anyplace in the world and Siquijor holds the all-time record. If someone caught an extra big fish it was the signal for a fiesta. Soling had a favorite expression: "We have a fiesta, no?" She would roll her eyes, because she had her own idea of the way to celebrate a fiesta. 
    My answer was usually: "We have a fiesta, yes." 
    We had fiestas celebrating past fiestas and we created fiestas for special occasions. I remember one time we had a fiesta celebrating the election of a Mr. Cecil Brown to the presidency of the Chamber of Commerce in Enid, Oklahoma. That was Fred's idea. 
    Another time we celebrated the 136th day after Christmas. We even had a Christmas tree for that one and the ornaments weren't the only things that were lit up. 
    But we were living in a fool's paradise and we knew it. The sand in the glass was sinking low and we developed a
lackadaisical attitude that was alarming. We were outnumbered and our assets were draining away. 
    In short, we were bankrupt in a land of plenty. 
    As the days rolled along it was remarkable how often we went to sit on the gunwale of the dalamas. We would fiddle with the rigging and we caulked up a little bite the coral had chewed in the hull. 
    "You know," Fred said one day, "I haven't sunk my teeth in a mango for a long time. Man, how I love mangoes. It's a pity they don't grow here on Siquijor." He patted his stomach. "I've got a gnawing, right here, for a big juicy mango. I know just how a pregnant woman feels, wanting a dish of strawberries at 3 o'clock in the morning." 
    "Please," I said, "Let's not get into that subject." 
    "Man, would I like a mango," he said absently. 
    He had my mouth watering when we hit the patate that afternoon. I could hardly sleep, thinking about mangoes. 
    It was after the big fiesta celebrating the Saint's. Day of Mrs. Purisima Ledesma, a young widow whose husband had died of cholera some years before in Mindanao, that we finally capitulated. We didn't know during the party that it was to be our last fiesta on Siquijor. That thought crystallized suddenly the next afternoon. 
    Man, did we fiesta that night! 
    We each gave personal attention to Mrs. Ledesma and she was happy to be singled out for special consideration. Certainly a good time was had by all. The dawn didn't come up like thunder the next morning. We staggered to our patates when it began to get gray in the east and we slept until 3 in the afternoon. Then we went out to sit on the gunwale of the dalamas and for some reason or another Fred was indignant. 
    "That damned old sunshiner!" he complained bitterly. "He could ruin a man with his crazy ideas." 
    We went back to our patates and took on some good nourishing sleep. It was about midnight when we awoke and we had an uncanny and monumental meeting of the minds. Fred made some remark about mangoes and that old mouthwatering feeling came and it couldn't be denied. We were rank cowards, slinking out in the middle of the night because we had a good deal there on Siquijor. But it was too good a deal. You didn't have to play the cards at all. The plain truth was that we couldn't keep up with our commodity surpluses. Fred and I were weighed in the balance-and found wanting. 
    "I would never have believed it," Fred said with wonder in his voice as we pushed the dalamas down to the surf. "Imagine me, Fred Martin, chickening out. The boys on the old USS California would have drummed me out of crew quarters. Come to think of it, it would just about take the crew of the California to handle the situation on Siquijor. Ah well, we learn humility." 
    "If it hadn't been for that craving for mangoes-" I began weakly. Fred looked at me but he didn't say anything. He was busy getting up the sprit mast. 
    We were well out at sea, headed for Surigao, before he spoke again. He looked back in the dark to the faint lights of
Siquijor. "That damned old sunshiner," he said. "I'll be years getting rid of my inferiority complex." 
    I didn't say anything. I just relaxed there on my patate under the big sail. I was a growing boy in those days and I needed my rest. 

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