It’s my last night in Romblon, marble capital of the Philippines, and a South African expat is giving me a history lesson on apartheid.
We’re sitting at a table in the bar-slash-restaurant-slash-hotel I happen to be occupying, sipping drinks and looking out over the dark water. His name is Derrick and we’d met just a few minutes prior, introduced by Tophy, my old friend that I’ve known for almost thirty minutes.
That’s sort of how it goes in Romblon. Everybody knows everybody else, and if you don’t you will soon. Not a difficult task on an island smaller than San Francisco (especially when most of it is uninhabited). Add to that the fact that Romblon isn’t an incredibly popular tourist destination—most people tend to head to its higher-profile neighbor, Boracay—and it’s easy to see how the island could become such a close knit community.
Steering the conversation to cheerier topics, I ask Derrick how long he’s been living in Romblon. “Just about ten years,” he says. He had been an engineer in Kuwait and the Middle East and, having heard Filipino workers talk so much about their homeland, he decided to give it a visit when he eventually went traveling. Romblon hadn’t been his destination—he discovered it almost accidentally—but once he found it he knew he had to stay.
“My wife and I have a nice little place here,” he goes on. “You know how much we pay? $125 a month. It’s paradise. You know how many LOIs we have here?”
LOI, shorthand for “Living on Interest,” refers to Westerners who have retired here and get by on pensions and investments. And his comment rung true—I had noticed a number of European locals in my short time there. And while Australians and Europeans are becoming more and more common a sight in the Philippines, the ones you meet in Romblon are more likely to be residents than tourists.
This is thanks in part to Romblon’s difficulty-of-access. Whereas visiting tourist hotspot Boracay has never involved more than a quick flight followed by a quick boat ride, getting to Romblon has traditionally required long, slow ferries (sometimes multiple ones). The only people you’d find on Romblon were those who really wanted to be there (or couldn’t leave). Not a lot of casual tourists. This in turn helped keep it such a low-key town all these years, its small town feel never really wavering.
This however is changing, Derrick charges, as the town grows. “Up until five years ago, we had one filling station on the entire island,” he offers. “Now we’ve got three with a fourth under construction.”
He may well be right; with ferry giant 2GO now servicing Romblon from Manila and Cebu, the island is seeing more visitors than ever before. And more visitors leads to more development which leads to more visitors, and so on. Already a number of construction projects dot the city. Change is inevitable, and it won’t be long before the island is unrecognizable by today’s standards.
For now, though, it’s still as homey and small-town as it gets, feeling like a tropical analogue to the sleepy villages of Cinema Paradiso or Il Postino. And even though it now has a direct ferry line it’s still a 14-hour voyage from Manila and a 25-hour one from Cebu. So it’s not like the beaches are suddenly going to find themselves packed with weekenders and shitty tourists. Meanwhile this added accessibility does mean that it’s a little bit easier for adventurous travelers to get to if they wanna check it out “before it was cool.”