Tourists know Balicasag Island for its gorgeous coral reefs brimming with the life of hundreds of colourful fish species. Fishing boats flock here from neighbouring island Panglao during the hours of 8 – 10 am so visitors can float the crystal clear waters, watching the underwater scenes of vibrant coral, bright blue starfish, the occasional giant sea urchin and the entire fish cast of Finding Nemo. After 10 am the tourist boats leave and the island goes back to its natural position, with the small community that reside here going about their traditional daily lives.
Many who venture here do not know that a small community of individuals resides here. They venture here to see the underwater world but do not take notice of the world beyond the shores, a community that has inhabited this island for generations.
Rita and her family are locals that reside here permanently on Balicasag Island. They open their home to travellers as part of a homestay exchange. She has been accommodating visitors since 2011 as a way to generate extra income for her family, while the island struggles with any other form of income aside from tourism. I joined the list of explorers wanting to experience the real Filipino way of life and spent one night on the island in Rita’s home.
I arrive to be greeted by one of Rita’s five sons Rihal. He invites me into their home, a tin-roofed complex built using cement and Besser brick. Numerous homes scatter the surrounding area; dry shrubs and barren tree trunks stand in between, as the island endures the hottest and driest months of the year. The interior of their home is nicely decorated with colourful wallpaper, wooden furniture and a large cabinet that contains glass kitchenware, religious statues and the diploma certificates of Rita’s children, demonstrating the strong family and Christian values instilled not only in her but also in the larger community of Balicasag.
We meet Rita’s grandchildren, who greet us with innocent smiles, and Rita’s daughter-in-law Joanne who takes the time to sit with us and explain, with good English, the circumstances of life here on Balicasag Island.
Balicasag is a 1-hour boat ride from the island of Panglao, in the Philippines central island of Bohol. The community here relies profoundly on income generated from tourism. The men build boats to carry tourists to and from Panglao Island or work as guides on the island hopping tours. Most of the women are housewives, with a small portion making what little money they can through the sale of souvenirs to visitors. There are few small businesses on the island that sell basic needs to the local people but the majority of supplies must come from a boat ride away, on Panglao Island.
Tourism is the main form of income because the geographic location of the island makes it difficult for the community to grow any kind of resources. “We planted sweet potato, and it came out salty potato,” says Joanne, referring to the quality of soil on the island. “Most of what we have here comes from Panglao Island, including water,” she continues. In the dry months, Rita’s family must head to Panglao at least once every two days to get their water supply. “We bathe every second day just to make sure there is enough water for everyone”.
After spending some time with Joanne we head out to cool off in the animated underwater world that lures people to this small island. The afternoon brings the harshest heat and, without electricity until 6 pm, the children also head out to the shores to play and frolic until the sun fades and the temperature weakens. The children run through the coraled sands laughing and playing amongst themselves without a care in the world, and for a small while we join in their careless joy, feeling like there was no world beyond these shores.
Despite the challenge of only 6 hours of electricity per day, the community endures the summer months, cooling off in their surroundings and making the most of what little they have. Rita put on a delicious dinner for us consisting of flame-grilled, freshly caught tuna, and pork chops with white rice. Her pleasant hospitality warming us as we start to feel like part of her large family.
As 6 pm hit, the Television came on and the children got to spend some time watching Cartoon Network, a daily reward. From 6 to 12 the small town lights up and many spend their time watching Television or heading down to the local Karaoke house on the beach. As we know, Filipinos love their Karaoke, and we were happy to be invited by Joanne to join in on some of the festivities. 5 peso coins hounded the jukebox as we took turns choosing our favourite tunes, the children even singing along to their own beloved Filipino pop songs. At one stage we were all dancing around the pool table to 80’s pop classics. It was one of those unforgettable moments where you truly embed yourself into another place and time, taking with you only unforgettable memories.
That night as the last of the electricity roused our ceiling fan we fell asleep to the silence of this magnificent island in the Bohol Sea. In the morning we would head back to our regular world, with our western comforts and only memories of the wonderful people of Balicasag, the community invisible to the hundreds of tourists that come here every day. If only those tourists could see how much of a positive impact that one night here can have on the local community and their families. How one night here can open up their own world, and let them experience what life is like for the island dwellers of the Philippines.
As travellers we have the opportunity to positively affect the communities we visit and participating in a homestay is a perfect way to directly help any local community, especially here on Balicasag Island.