Bolitas and the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Sailor
Jude arrives at a coffee shop in Cavite in khakis, a light rain jacket, and a collared shirt. He plants himself comfortably on a leather chair, asks for a coffee, and waits quietly. At 55, he is austere and soft-spoken. He will be home in the Philippines for a few more weeks, before deployment again on a western bulk carrier ship for another six months, where he works as chief engineer, the highest distinction of the engineering department. He was 27 when he first stepped aboard an overseas shipping vessel, with luck struck by his father—a fisherman from Capiz—who met a Chinese businessman, who knew a New Zealander who was a captain on a ship. After two weeks, Jude set to sea, working as a wiper, and then moving up and around various roles for almost 30 years, including in the kitchen as a cook, before eventually becoming head engineer.
He carries himself with a lofty formality. But his quips and honesty flows in conversation, where he is surprisingly forward. There are two junior seafarers sitting across him at the table, and their mannerisms suggest a deep respect for their superior—they lower their heads as he speaks, and no one interrupts him when he is in the middle of a sentence. One of the junior seamen will tell me later on that seafarers who have been around for some time they relish their storytelling immensely, so it’s courteous to lend an ear.
When the juniors step out to get some coffee, I lean into Jude, finally asking him in a lowered voice... I am curious about this thing people call bolitas...I say, cautious about the delicate nature of the topic.
There is little documented literature about bolitas, the process in which men insert little balls under the skin of the penis, as a primitive form of penile enhancement that has, in contemporary times, become commonly associated as a practice among seafarers.
A quick search on Google will reveal traces of its veracity: a few news reports that headline it as the “secret weapon” of Filipino seamen, a handful of academic stories, and an advertisement on OLX.ph for an unbranded clinic that offers the procedure:
“Healthier. Confident. Responsible.
Man-up. It’s not too late.
German cut or dorsal slit.
We also Test and Treat VD std cases.
Pearlings or bolitas also available.”
Jude, upon hearing the question, shifts in his seat—but without a wince, just maybe a subtle change in demeanor, he answers blithely, “N’ung araw kasi, noong hindi pa masyadong educated ’tong mga seaman—parang ginagawa ba nilang katuwaan yan. Lalo na nung time namin noon, eh siyempre, dati, ’yun lang ‘yung libangan ng tao sa barko... pag nasa puerto. ’Pag dating ng barko sa puerto, wala nang maiisip yan kundi mag good time. Eh siyempre alam mo naman ’pag good time, kasama na ’yung ganung mga bagay... may mga babae doon eh, ’yung mga babae na na-me-meet nila, ’yung mga sanay din ba—parang ’yung mga gusto nila ’yung kakaibang excitement din ang hanap...”
So it is true, I ask.
Yes, it is true, he says with some indignation.
Do you know a lot of men who had them?
He answers, oh, so many of them, he says. Almost all.
* * *
The Philippines has become one of the most sought out sources of seamen in the world, with employment in overseas shipping companies continuously increasing since the early ’90s. In 2015, Filipinos accounted for more than 25 percent of the 1.5 million seafarers worldwide—figures that shouldn’t be surprising, as the concept of Filipinos as mariners actually has its roots in history: Filipinos were forced to do labor aboard Spanish galleons from the 16th to the 19th centuries, became crew members for British trading and American whaling ships in the 19th century, and were briefly stewards for American merchant marines in the early 20th century. It is said that we had become so identified with crewing, in fact, that the term “Manilamen” would identify an entire category of seafarers from Asia, including Chinese and Malays.
But life on a shipping vessel can be bleak: Living in a large metal construction measuring around 400m long and 59m wide, with 20 other men—your fellow shipmates—strangers from various walks of life, and roving around the vast sea, an in-between place that is neither identified as here nor there, vulnerable to the violence of nature, for months on end...It’s difficult. And tiring. And boring.
Time spent at sea is still time lost. And somewhere between this ennui and the need for self-gratification, is where bolitas played a role. “N’ung araw wala kaming libangan n’ung panahong iyon—sulat o tawag, pahirapan. Kung makakatanggap ka man ng sulat, after three months pa. Tapos kung tatawag ka, mauubos na pera mo bago mo pa makontact ’yung tinatawagan mo. Mahirap...” says Jude. Another seaman adds: The inside joke would be that if a shipmate hadn’t received his letter yet, they would share love letters.
“Kaya wala kayong magagawa kundi mag inom. Tapos ’pag dating sa puerto, mag-good time. Kasi wala naman kaming outlet nun eh,” bemoans Jude (who will, later, admit to having bolitas before).
Martin, 61, has been working on ships since he was a 23-year-old cadet back in 1978. Today he is a captain. Martin also admits that he, at one point, got bolitas, but had it removed when his libido started waning. “Para bang ‘paligaya’ ’yung tawag nila dun eh, ’yung pagkakaroon ng bolitas,” remarks Martin, a jolly captain whose voice becomes louder when he wants to put emphasis.
Edgar, 54, a mild-mannered chief engineer at a carrier ship, notes, “Pagpapalagay ang tawag diyan. ’Pag wala kang ganyan, para bang hindi ka seaman n’ung araw. Para bang akala nila bakla ka kung wala kang ganun. Parang nadagdagan yung pagkalalaki mo kung meron kang ganun.” Edgar was never convinced of getting bolitas, but he became witness to (and even aided) quite a few amateur surgical procedures.
In fact, they’d all have witnessed a handful of operations being done on fellow shipmates during their decades-long time on the job. But today, they view it solely as a thing of the past—recalling it with sentimentality, as something that was just a trend, and somewhere along the way, lost its “cool.”
Each describes the process with vivid detail: pull the skin at the end of the shaft, lift it up, and, with the assistance of a shipmate, shine a flashlight on the penis while pulling it taut, until the penis is white from the loss of circulation and there are no more veins visible; this is when a sharp object, referred to as pait, pierces the skin. Sometimes this object is a comb, or a chopstick, or a sharpened spoon—anything that can penetrate the skin. Sometimes it is a knife, “Tutusukin niya, hindi niya tatamaan ’yung ugat,” describes Martin. Once, Edgar says, chuckling, when the operator accidentally hit a vein, the seaman being administered on passed out.
When there is an opening in the skin, the balls—made of inorganic material that won’t encourage infection, like fiberglass—is shaped, shined, and submerged in alcohol before inserting it in the penis. “Yung iba, silicon, kikinisin nila ’yan, ’yung iba chopsticks, tsaka ’yung iba nga, ’yung handle ng toothbrush,” describes Jude. “I-sh-shape nila ’yan na parang capsule, ’yung iba bilog-bilog. Binababad ’yun sa alcohol ng ilang araw bago ilagay. Ang anesthesia d’un wala na, mag-shot shot lang muna.”
No anesthesia, and no doctors, either. They make do with what they have; in this case, a shipmate considered “experienced” at it, someone, who, for some reason or another, has been endowed with the reputation. “May mga skilled talaga na kilala. Kunwari si ganito, si ganyan, ‘Ah si Berto, marunong ’yan!’” For some, it is the engine fitter of the ship—one who handles the ship’s welding (and therefore they say, has more gall) to do the process on fellow shipmates. And other times, the men would perform the surgery on themselves.
The number of balls, and where it goes, depends on the man. But there is an aspect of community to the whole thing—it’s a rite of passage, an initiation. “Kadalasan ’yan, grupo-grupo, shot-shot doon, inuman. ’Pag nagkakatuwaan, lalo na ’yung mga bagong biyahe lang dun, bibinyagan na siya. Oh ’yun eh, ’pag nadala ka sa kantsaw, tapos naka inom-inom na, ’yun na,” says Jude.
* * *
But bolitas has been present in our culture since pre-colonial times. In William Henry Scott’s collection of writings about the Visayans during the 16th century, it was found that Filipinos “wore a pin through their penis for the greater stimulation of their sex partners.” The pin was called tugbuk: small bars made of brass, gold, ivory, or lead, and then pierced across the head of the penis so that it sticks out on both sides, enough to carry ornaments. There was also a penis ring, called sakra, which was circular with spikes, and clamped down on the man’s schlong. And even more curious is, at that time, the Spaniards already documented that in Cebu, there was another sexual ornament: “pellets implanted beneath the skin by men in Surigao, or by Tagalog mountaineers east of Laguna de Bay”—a description suspiciously close to bolitas.
The reason for the men to wear these rods, according to Juan de Medina, was that “women considered it a compliment and were proud of it” and that “they would not let a man approach them who did not have a sakra.”
What’s fascinating is that ancient practices prevail over time and culture, across centuries, as borrowed nostalgia from our ancestors. “Ang punto [ng bolitas], para lang talaga masayahan ’yung babae. Pleasure. Pampasarap lang ’yun sa babae—ang gusto lang namin talaga masarapan siya. Kaya ganahan ka ba—na makita mong magliyad-liyad ang babae,” comments Martin.
* * *
Seafarers look to their shore leaves as more than just a breath of fresh air. For these men, it was a moment to revel in an actual social setting, to maintain some sense of sanity, and perhaps to remind themselves that they were human—not just working cogs in a machine. “Kailangan namin ’yun,” says Martin. “Kaya nga na-relieve kami doon n’ung panahon yun, mawala ba yung boredom mo. Biro mo, para kang prisoner sa barko. Kaya pagbababa mo ng barko magwawala ka, lalabas ka.”
Brazilian women gave them the semblance of a life that they had left at home—that beyond the bars, the karaoke, and the alcohol—of which there was plenty, there was also intimacy.
Of the many ports they would dock in, Brazil would be mentioned repeatedly, becoming a popular destination during the ’80s and ’90s, because the women were so maganda. Here, they could afford the lifestyle and the girls. Also, Brazilian women gave them the semblance of a life that they had left at home—that beyond the bars, the karaoke, and the alcohol—of which there was plenty, there was also intimacy. There was connection: beach trips, meeting the girls’ families, there would be cooking, and even for some, tearful goodbyes. “Pagkatapos n’un, uuwi kayo doon sa bahay nila, magbibigay kaming pera,”explains Martin. “Ibig sabihin, sagot namin ang lahat ng gastos.”
“Alam mo kasi, matinding magmahal ang Braziliana, parang Pilipina rin,” says Edgar, who liked his port relationships to involve just one woman. “Aalagaan ka talaga, pansamantala na wala ka sa asawa mo—makikita mo siya sa katawan nila. Mapapamahal ka rin talaga.”
The men would spend every hard-earned penny during shore leave. When the cash started to dwindle, they would borrow some more, just to spend it again. It was worth it—the girls, the lives they would inhabit for a while; so that when it was time to go home (for some of them, to wives and kids), they would come home with empty pockets.
Whether bolitas really did help them pleasure a woman to reach orgasmic euphoria, or whether it bolstered their popularity among the women of Brazil—seems to be up for debate—even among the men themselves who had once had them. What is a consistent observation, however, is that more than just a sexual prop, the practice became a signifier of their manhood and identity—something to distinguish this very particular group of men, who shared a very unique, tempestuous experience. “N’ung time na ’yun, ’pag hindi ka sumali sa mga ganun, parang out of place ka,” says Jude. The bolitas made them real seamen.
* * *
But the lost boys couldn't stay in Neverland forever. The seamen, they grew up; and as men age, their virility naturally slumped too, and so did the motivation for bolitas. It was also during this time that the maritime industry was growing bigger, rules of international trade became more stringent, and the standards for the job rose higher. Then there was the spread and prevalence of STD and AIDS, the fact that the Philippine law now mandates seafarers to remit 80 percent of their monthly wages to Philippine bank accounts, and then of course, there’s the existence of the Internet (the men don’t feel so alone anymore. And well, there’s access to free porn.)
In a sense, bolitas seems to have existed during a very specific context. If it were around today, it might seem grossly out of place in time. “Ang pagkakaiba noon, nung kami, n’ung araw, waldasan kami,” admits Edgar of the generational shift. “Ngayon, kahit cadete, nagkakaroon sila ng kotse. Siguro dahil lonely at isolated ang buhay namin noon.”
The cadets of today no longer brag about the women they woo in the ports—the Captain jokes that they hardly even leave the ship. Instead, they will brag about their new car, or the house they are putting a downpayment on...a different outlet for machismo in the industry.
“’Di naman uso n’ung araw magkaroon ng bahay, magkaroon ng sasakyan. Noon, normal lang na umuwi kahit walang pera,” says Jude. “Noon kasi ’yung mga seaman, uuwi kahit walang pera, iniisiip nila, mabubuhay naman ako doon sa probinsya—‘di tulad ngayon na talagang pag wala kang pera, talagang magugutom ka. Kaya ubos na ubos ang sweldo naming dun, ‘di kami nag-iisip na mag-ipon. Kasi wala kaming libangan n’un eh.”
JB, a 24-year-old marine engineer who is in the process of completing his OJT aboard a tanker vessel, attests to the outmoded masculinity of bolitas. He proudly shares his Instagram account where he posts photos he has taken during his work trips with his LG Nexus 5. In the photos, his ship leaves are spent touring the places in which they dock: here he is at Ambès in southwestern France, here he is in Turkey, here he is passing the Kiel Canal, here he is at the Rouen Cathedral. Here he is biking around the city of Rostock, Germany. Here he is by a beautiful tower in a dry dock in Poland. As a football fan, he decided to splurge by immersing himself in a little bit of European football—here he is in the bleachers watching a game between Lechia Gdansk and Ruch Chorzow. A photo of a neon lit sign at “Seaman’s Club” will be paired with a caption that reads: “Time to chill and connect to the Internet.” Hashtag: life at sea, hashtag: merchant navy, hashtag: tug life (as in tug boat), hashtag: maritime engineer.
* * *
If bolitas are still found today, it is merely noted in medical records as “foreign objects.” Long gone is the role it played for the seafarers who last held it with regard as a form of identity for their kind, and found solace in it in a time when it perhaps fostered camaraderie amongst themselves, when it was a good form of entertainment, and sometimes (though they can’t be sure), it helped with the ladies.
With their tales of blustery voyage, aloneness, and comfort in recklessness—the venerable seafarers look at bolitas and their brief encounter with youthful misdemeanor with wistful affection, a poignant return to the past that they shared. These are the men who threw themselves to the sea as boys, allowing it to both take away and shape their lives completely into adulthood; they found fulfillment in the wealth of their stories, bound to be rehashed and remembered again and again, until the waves wash it ill-forgotten, uncertain if it will resurface in some other time, in some other form, with some other life and meaning.
This article was originally published in our February 2017 issue under the title "Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters."