In the beginning, it was famous for the awesome rock formations that greeted travelers on its shores. Then the call of the waves attracted Australians to try and test the water there for surfing. And soon after that, the quiet and little known island of Biri in Samar gained a new reputation nobody wants to talk about: a hunting ground for foreigners in search of a wife and for local women in search of a better life.
“Kwento ng lola ko, noon daw yung mga kadalagahan ‘pag nakakakita ng foreigner, magsi-akyat kayo sa bahay, may mga salbahe,” recounts Rosalio Portol, a 34-year-old local construction worker. “Pero ngayon hindi na. Pagka may anak na babae, nakakakita ng foreigner, lumabas ka, lumabas ka at mapansin ka.”
Biri attracts about 3,000 tourists yearly, with foreigners comprising thirty percent. From the beaches, these visitors have moved on to the dance floor of the Biri Fiesta, an annual celebration held every weekend of June 25—with a few who are notably well into their senior years trying to get their groove back.
“Unfair para sa mga kapwa ko kalalakihan na nakikipagkumpitensya tayo sa pera samantala ang kayamanan natin bilang mga Pilipino, pagmamahal,” Rosalio adds. “Sila napapamahal ang babae sa kanila through money.” He shares that one of his former girlfriends left him for an Australian man, which in Biri is labeled as “amerikano.” Even his wife Liza had an ex who was also amerikano.
Liza says she broke up with her foreign boyfriend because he was always questioning her about money. “Kasi pag may foreigner dito, inaano nila na pera ang habol nila,” she explains. “Yung sa akin, hindi naman pera ang habol ko. Puso lang ang hinahabol ko.”
That dream came true for Vilma Montgomery who met her match Peter in the island 20 years ago. She was on vacation from Manila where she worked as a manicurist then. It was her first time to meet a foreigner, she says, and at first refused to be introduced. But he was insistent. Everyday, he paid a visit to their house and promised that should she accept he will take care of her.
Peter made good on his promise and did more. Aside from helping his wife’s family, he also built a resort on the island, providing income to some of the locals. “Material things, yes, but the family is enough for Filipinos,” he says. ”Like fiestas my wife has to come back; Christmas, New Year, birthday—everything.”
Their story is the fairy tale Arlene Rado is hoping for herself. In her determination to get herself her own white Prince Charming, she moved to Angeles City in Pampanga. She has been with countless of foreigners but two years since her move, her prince remains elusive. “Nakakahiya. Nakakahiya ‘pag iniisip ko na gagalawin na naman ako ng foreigner.”
There was one man who almost fit the role. He put her up in an condominium in Makati and had a child together. But her almost prince continued to womanize and the two eventually split.
But still, her dream persists. “Gusto ko po talaga makapangasawa ng foreigner. Nung nakapagtrabaho na ko sa bar saka ko naisip na baka makahanap ako ng foreigner dito, mabigyan ako ng magandang buhay. Yun po ang iniisip ko eh.”
Back in Biri, the island braces itself for its off peak season. During this time there is little else for the nearly 10,000 residents of the island to do but go back to its sole industry, fishing.
For Rosalio and Liza, the seasons make no difference in their lives. After seven years of marriage and three children, Liza continues to stand by her man even though their needs are barely met. “Seven years na hirap na hirap,” admits Rosalio. “Kumakain kami ng kamote, kamoteng kahoy, kamoteng baging—pinagsusumikapin ko pa rin.”
—Report by April Joy Espejo; research by Marella Andanar.
• To find out more about Biri, watch the special documentary on the island tonight on Under Special Investigation, 7 PM on AksyonTV and 11:30 PM on TV5.