Life in Salt: The Secret Sexual Lure of the Filipino Fisherman

by Owen James Burke


Everyone wore a sullen face as I walked down the commercial fishing docks in Taitung Harbor, Taiwan on a balmy midsummer morning. Everyone but Sherwin, that is. There were many fisherman from other countries: Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, but Sherwin was the only Filipino I encountered. He bore a three-mile-wide smile that I at first took mistakenly to be an indication of his appreciation for having had me appear — he’d probably never seen a westerner walk down his dock, let alone strike up a conversation with him. But on second thought, this was not the smile of someone excited about a possible camaraderie with a foreigner, but a happily tended-to man, which I would soon learn comes in thanks to what some have described as “the secret weapon of the Filipinos.”

And so Sherwin went on smiling like no deckhand I’d ever seen smile before. Taiwanese fishing docks are rarely jovial places— sure, there are jokes and gags, but at the end of the day it’s generally a pretty gritty, and tough place to be — and I found it mystifying that a deckhand could be found glowing in his manner.


Sherwin with ribbonfish (Trachipteridae)

I asked Sherwin if he’d take me fishing, and he said no can-do, the Coast Guard wouldn’t allow for it. Instead we started chatting about fishing, and about life in our respective homelands. He’d left the Philippines along with his captain in order to find better fishing grounds, and they’d settled into Taiwan, where waters are more fertile and income more reasonable.

I’d spent the day in trains, buses and taxis without stopping for a meal or a drink, and it was time for both. I invited him to come eat with me and it happened to be our luck that the sushi bar at the end of the dock had fresh yellowtail belly. We sat down as they prepared it for us and opened up a couple of Taiwanese Beers. The conversation inevitably turned to women — as it does when two fishermen start into conversation over cold beverages.

After we became more familiarized with one another, he offered me assistance in finding a lady of the night, to which I respectfully declined. Having been around enough docks, I thought nothing of the invitation, but when the conversation turned around to him and his luck with the ladies, I became all ears. As it happens, some Southeast Asian mariners, through dockside-born insecurities surrounding masculinity and nationalism, or an immense and borderline — well, not borderline, but flat out — dangerous desire to please, undergo a procedure most would not dare contemplate.

“What do you mean, ‘special?’” I asked him as he obliquely gestured toward the region below his belt line as if to insinuate that he had something there which perhaps I did not.

I was confused, to say the least, but he most certainly did have something which I didn’t, don’t and won’t ever plan to have.

“I have glass,” he clarified in so many words, for which I still found myself at a loss. “Inside,” he continued.

Inside? Good lord, I thought, what could he mean? “You must be kidding,” I assuredly replied.

In fact, he was not. He went on to explain that aboard the boat, this was the duty of many a Filipino ship’s captain, his included.


Remember Mancala beads? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few sailors are walking around with one or two of these.

(Photo via Ephraimblessing)

Bolitas, they are called, and according to one academic study which took place in the Filipino port of Manila, 57% of the seamen surveyed claimed to have them, and apparently they’re nothing new (McKay, 2005).

What are they? Bolitas, or “little balls” are a wide ranging variety of objects which are usually about the size of a pea and surgically implanted beneath the skin of a male’s member. Yes, penile implants, if you can imagine that. And if the Italian scholar Antonio Pigafetta’s journals from Ferdinand Magellan’s foray into the South Pacific hold true (and I sincerely doubt that anyone — of our contemporary or the past, or at least pre-Nip/Tuck — could have ever conjured up such a lie) this is a Southeast Asian custom (though predominantly Filipino) that’s been going on since at least the 16th century, and probably much, much longer.

And what kinds of objects might these be, you wonder? Well, anything and everything seems to be the rule. Horrifying, isn’t it? All shapes and sizes, too. From pea-sized glass balls to metal and plastic shanks cut from toothbrushes – or so I am told. And oftentimes they’ve had several implants — up to 7, says Sherwin, who purports to be rolling with 4 glass beads himself.

How is this presumably horrific procedure undertaken? Surely in a hospital, with professional doctors and medical staff by their side. You’d pray so, but would be sorely mistaken. Most of these procedures take place hundreds of miles from hospitals by people who’ve never even set foot in an infirmary. This is the job of Sherwin’s captain, who is also Filipino; and it comes with the title, he tells me. And, as long as they’ve got boiling water to sterilize the implants, he assures me that it’s safe (though I question his definition of the word, and whether his conception of whether “safe” includes the potential for contracting a horrible infection or being rendered sterile or impotent). Then he offers to call his captain into duty to do a job on me.


Bolitas come in various materials, shapes and sizes, and just about anything will do, I’m told, so long as it’s sterilized.

(Photo via Magicus)

I told him I’d heard of it — and I had — but wasn’t sure I believed him. It seemed like something that would have gone out with the missionaries of Spanish colonialism. Well, a man’s honor is a man’s honor, and I had led him to defend his. Before I knew it he had begun to unbuckle his belt and take down his pants.

I thought about it for a moment and concluded that because it was something which I would not be able to un-see, I’d better forego the experience of satisfying my minor curiosity.

Not surprisingly, there was a lull in our conversation after that, and we sat quietly watching the sun set.

“How’s fishing been?” I asked.

“Slow,” he said with a smile, this one wrought with worry, I think that he thought he’d offended me.

“Why did you leave the Philippines?”

“Better pay here.”

“So even though fishing is slow, you have enough money?”


“Where do you live?”

“On the boat.”

“And how about when you’ve got company?”

“Not on the boat. I get a hotel room.”

His English was not great, but far better than my Chinese or Filipino, for what it was worth, and strong enough for me to give him the 20 questions drill so that I could ease my way back into asking the questions I really wanted to hear him answer.

“Ah-ha… And how do the women feel about your additional hardware?” I finally inquired.

“They love it.”

“Why do you go through the pain?”

“It doesn’t hurt,” he said nonchalantly, as if I would have expected him to answer that way.

“It doesn’t?”

This I had a hard time believing.

“How long until you feel better, afterwards?” I asked, regarding the procedure.

“Oh, 3 days.”

“So three days and you can… —“

“Have sex.”


“Why do you do it, if you’re paying for your pleasure?”

“There are a lot of fishermen in the harbors. We have to compete with the others. But they get excited when the Filipinos are coming.”

Sherwin explained to me that because Filipinos are (generally) smaller in build than others, and that in order to please the local women — be they prostitutes or not — they feel they have to compensate. There can be some degree of chivalry in the sex trade after all, I marveled.

“Have you encountered any cultures in which the women are not interested in your decorations?” I was intrigued.

“Oh, yes. Mauritius people,” he grinned.

“Did they tell you why?”

“They think it’s crazy.”

I can’t fault them for that, I thought to myself.

“Do you think it’s crazy?”


“And everyone else has liked them?”

He just smiled and nodded. His captain had done it, all of his mates onboard had done it, and his father had done it. These must be satisfied human beings, one couldn’t help but surmise.

A small, tired old Chinese lady brought out a plate full of yellowtail belly and I raised my glass to Sherwin and told him to dig in.

As we began to eat, the conversation moved on to fish tales. Sherwin had been a fisherman his whole life and had seen a great deal of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and we exchanged stories of big fish. He had me beat by a long shot with a 500-kilogram (1100 pound) bluefin tuna which he brought in by hand.

Sherwin was a little shy, and far too polite to serve himself, so I had to keep placing pieces of the sashimi onto his plate, expressing that I would pay for the meal and he didn’t have to worry (yellowtail belly is never cheap, not even at the dock, but it’s far less expensive than you’d find it on an American sushi menu). His smile grew wide again as our bellies grew full. I took note — dually now — that here was a man who, much like myself, finds his enjoyment in life’s finer pleasures.

After we finished eating, we had another beer, and he invited me back to go fishing with him and his captain when the bluefin  came along to their breeding grounds off eastern Taiwan in the winter. I said I’d be in touch — and if I make my return to Taiwan, I will — but Sherwin was adamantly keen on setting me up for an appointment with his captain for some after market accessorizing, the thought of which still gives the hairs on my spine a rise. I’ll just have to be firmly resolved to keeping any strange hands away from my drink, and more importantly my plumbing, should anyone take it upon themselves to to put me under sedation in an attempt to perform any retrofitting of my system, which I’m enthusiastically intent on keeping in its vintage state, thank you very much.

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