Meeting the parents of your partner for the first time is always a daunting prospect. Factor in cultural differences and language barriers, and it’s hard to keep the butterflies at bay for that first weekend visit. Going to stay with my Filipino boyfriend’s parents for the first time is an experience I will never forget.
We hadn’t been living together for too long before my boyfriend suggests I go meet the rest of his family. So, we set off on the 10-12 hour bumpy bus ride away from El Nido, the idyllic beach village we lived in, to Puerto Princesa, the main town of Palawan province. Journey time varies according to how many times the bus breaks down, whether you get held up by gangs and how many chickens you run over.
On arrival, my boyfriend announces that his parents don’t actually live in Puerto Princesa, but in a village about 45km away by motorbike, giving me extra time to get more nervous. After a while we drive past a sign which announces ‘Iwahig – Prison and Penal Farm’.
I hesitate, “Do your parents live near a prison?”
“No”, he responds, matter-of-factly, “they live inside the prison.”
My initial relief is short lived. Iwahig, I later learn, is essentially a little village, surround by barbed wire and armed guards, where convicts live together with their families, who are allowed to come and go as they please. Any escape attempts by the convicts, however, and it's 'shoot to kill'. I discovered my potential father-in-law is there for life.
So, in we go, first stopping to convince the guards that I am entering of my own free will, and know the possible risks. As we walk to my in-laws’ house (and by house, I mean bamboo hut), I catch glimpses of where my boyfriend spent his childhood years. His tiny mother explains that they were in the process of building a new hut on the same plot, as theirs had become so run down, but they’d run out of money to finish it. They were missing the equivalent of £10. Then, my boyfriend’s dad appears, covered head to toe in tattoos, which in the Philippines generally symbolises brotherhoods, victims, prison time. Still, he seemed quite friendly.
That night, my boyfriend and I slept on the floor of the half-built hut, a machete under our pillow, ‘just in case’. I have to go to the toilet in the night, so my boyfriend accompanies me down the garden path, complete with machete, again, ‘just in case’. I sleep as well as I can, as possible scenarios of what ‘just in case’ could involve play through my head.
I wake up panicked. My boyfriend isn’t next to me, and the machete has gone. I come out of the hut. My boyfriend is covered in blood, lying on the floor. An inmate is crouching over him, complete with knife and maximum security shirt. His dad stands there watching, morning bottle of rum in hand. My heart skips a beat as I jump to the obvious conclusions. On seeing my terror stricken face, his dad explains that my boyfriend is just getting a tattoo. This is done by dipping a knife into ink and pretty much scratching it as far into you as they can. With the threat of imminent death removed, I think it best to overlook what tattoos usually mean in this province.
After another hour or so of what just seemed to me to be torture, my boyfriend stands up. Wiping away the blood, he proudly shows me his arm. It’s not the raw, red skin that catches my eye, though. What catches my immediate attention is my name, in great big capital letters, sitting on the dragon’s back that my boyfriend has just had permanently etched into his skin.