Interview by Maffi Deparis
Words by Ivery del Campo
Photos courtesy of Real Coffee and Tea Cafe
The Boracay of today has bigger and fancier modern establishments compared to the time in the 1990s when there was just Real Coffee and Tea Café and other nipa-style abodes. However, long-time Boracay aficionados and new visitors alike flock to this humble place “where great minds meet,” not just to enjoy an all-day breakfast menu, a healthy fruitshake, or to place orders for take-away boxes of calamansi muffins (considered a Boracay delicacy), but to savor Boracay’s ethos and history that flavor each cup.
In a rapidly transforming island like Boracay, cafés have come and gone, but none could ever rival the iconic status of Real Coffee. Previously tucked away in a quiet clearing behind tourist traffic in White Beach Station 1, people went out of their way to ask around, to look for this place. But in September 2013, Real Coffee made a big move again, this time back to the center of action in a beachfront location on Station 2, which is very close to Real Coffee’s original location when it first opened in the 90s.
Many consider their Boracay vacation incomplete without dropping by this café, which for a long time was the only café in Boracay that served “real” (i.e., brewed) coffee. That’s because Real Coffee transmits wonderful stories of what Boracay used to be and still is. Real Coffee stands as a tireless reminder that what makes Boracay a great place is the intimacy that one feels with its people, with whom one deeply appreciates little things that were normally taken for granted in today’s age of disposable incomes.
Those who have been to Real Coffee and Tea Café know Mamma Lee and her daughter Nadine who run the café like a home kitchen for friends. They swing in and out of the kitchen, guiding the staff or chatting with the guests. The tables are lined with photos, photos, photos; when the smell of freshly baked brownies wafts in the air, word gets around and people pack the place that’s basically thatched roof, bamboo, and wood. The calamansi muffin, a simple sweet-and-tangy delight, is as unpretentious yet unique as the café itself. The menu doesn’t boast of fancy dishes but hearty, healthy, homemade sandwiches, pancakes, and fruit drinks “made with love.”
We often hear from locals, residents, and frequent visitors that Boracay is such a “small island,” meaning, everybody knows everybody (which can be a wonder to guests who melt into the anonymity of crowds). This harks back to a time when it was impossible to stay unknown on the island. Nadine shares, “walking from one place to another took a lot more time then because along the way, people greeted you with ‘Good morning! Where are you going?’” which is a friendly Filipino way of greeting similar to “How are you?”
Nadine continues, “the beauty of a place is not just in the place itself, it’s also about the people. This island is a small place, you can walk everywhere and I love that. People here are very good with names and faces, you can go away for six years and when you return, they will still greet you by your name. Blue water, palm trees, white sand, you can find these in many places, but it’s the people who make you come back.”
In those days, there were no Lonely Planet guides. People came to know about the island and all sorts of secret paradises purely by asking around. “People asked where are you coming from, where are you going next. People shared experiences.”
Today, the word “adventure” is associated with activities on offer in Boracay: island hopping, banana boat, and other fun rides. But the local community understands adventure differently.
“The way my mother and I ended up in the Philippines was purely by a sense of adventure, by traveling. My mom was sailing around the world. When we first came to Boracay, it was an adventure—you didn’t come for the convenience because there was no electricity. You pumped your own water. You lit candles at night. You walked everywhere. There were big blocks of ice to cool your drinks and generators for music.”
In 1992, when Nadine first arrived, “the island was a true paradise, unbelievably beautiful! Coconut trees, white sand, and the view of the horizon was unobstructed.” Boracay was different from what Nadine had been accustomed to. She was born in California, raised in the suburbs where there were sidewalks, refrigerators, and running water. “In the 1990s, the type of foreigner who would come to Boracay were ‘freaks’—as we were known at the time—anyone who was not of the norm. A cold water shower, for instance, was not something I grew up with, so you had to be ‘freaky’ to be able to put up with cold water showers. From where I came from, you turned on the faucet and there was hot water when you needed it.
“Nowadays it’s different, the island has access to all the amenities so it attracts a different kind of person. You can go on a vacation and still attend to some business because we now have the Internet. Back in those days in Boracay, it would take so long to log in, you could smoke a cigarette or two before anything even happened! When I went to California and went online, I was so shocked, like, Oh My God! I didn’t know that Internet connections could be that fast!”
Nadine has seen and lived in many places, but she settled in Boracay when, at one unhappy point in her life, her mom urged her to return to the Philippines and open a café. “Real Coffee was an idea of my mom. I thought, why not? I asked her some questions, there was one about water, and my mom simply said, let’s boil water, a bucket of water on a stovetop. We started with coffee and tea, and then one day, I went to Kalibo and found baking chocolates! And I said, ‘Oh! Let’s make brownies!’ It was just like that. With the calamansi muffin, it was just a matter of taking a recipe and tweaking it to use what’s available.”
It was all a matter of trial and error, improving day by day, loving what you’re doing, and just being yourself.
“We’ve been here for 16 years, watching everyone grow up. People have come and gone. It’s unbelievable what the island can provide now when it used to have just the ocean and the majestic coconut trees. How fortunate we are and how far we’ve come in such a short time!”
The island has changed a lot, but what makes Nadine stay? “The island and its people welcome and embrace you here, you become a part of the barkada of Boracay, and that’s what makes you stay, keeps you coming back.”
The island is indeed a gentle and accommodating one, but there is a certain kind of sensibility that upholds it, a consciousness shared by those who have lived in it as long as Nadine and many others have. “When you get accustomed to electricity, television, hot showers, and running water, it’s hard to give them up again. We can deal with it because we know what it’s like to not have had these amenities. I feel for those who can’t deal with it because they never had that experience, but wish they would appreciate how lucky we really are.”
Lest we think that living without these so-called modern conveniences belongs to the past and is no longer part of present reality, Nadine reminds us that even in certain parts of Boracay and in many provincial pockets in the Philippines, people still live without electricity and water. Not too long ago, Boracay was one of those isolated places with no basic services. Locals who have lived through this and have watched the island transform into a bustling travel destination are held by memories of working together through thick or thin, by a deep gratitude for what the island now enjoys, and by a concern for what lies ahead.
“The island will continue to change and grow. Give it a chance, if we leave, it’s going to regenerate itself, that’s for sure! There are many options and possibilities and when the time is right, it will happen. Definitely a part of the population will give back, but not all.”
When asked about her hopes for the island, Nadine replies, “I meet people every day who come to Boracay for the first time. So many people are coming to the beach. They love it here, they want to live here. Boracay will always be Boracay. I hope people will continue to come here, that they won’t stop coming. Let’s just help the tourists by informing them to be more conscious of their use of airconditioning and water, that they should be mindful of the trash. My hope is that it gets better and better. But sometimes you also have to hit rock bottom before you can rise again.
“I’m not born here, so I’m not a local per se, but I’m a sort of pioneer so I feel connected with the island and the community. I’ve met the greatest minds in the Philippines here at Real Coffee, and it’s a real pleasure. They broadened my horizons. You’ll never know who you’re going to meet. Anything is possible!”
- For updates, like Real Coffee and Tea Cafe on Facebook.