PANGASINAN:  THE SIMPLE PLEASURES OF BINMALEY

MANILA,
August 19, 2005 
(STAR) By Joy Angelica Subido - Without warning, the traffic gridlock suddenly gives way to a long stretch of well-paved road. The roadside establishments turn sparse, and low earth dikes cut the water into the regular grids of fishponds. A random clump of nipa palm, or the occasional coconut trees growing on earth dikes, dot the scenery with refreshing spots of green.

The view varies with the changing of the seasons. In wet season, the force of heavy raindrops churns the rich sediment at the bottom of the ponds and stirs the water a darker brown. On calmer days, crabs sun themselves on top of the floating algae islands. The locals call the algae lamuyak. They persist in using it as traditional fish food, as bangus, or milkfish bred on algae is believed to taste better.

Harvest season tempts motorists to pull over the roadside to watch groups of men herding the milkfish into pond corners. With bamboo fence-like contraptions, several men slowly walk across the pond until the bangus are trapped in a small space. Then, the fish frenzy commences. The silver-colored fish lunges out of the water in a futile attempt to evade capture. With nets, it is a simple task for the fishermen to scoop the writhing fish out of the water. The sturdy baskets or kaing are filled with gasping fish in no time at all.

With harvest time over, the season for the birds begins. The fishpond owners drain the ponds to kill the snails that compete with the fish for food. It is during this time when flocks of white herons and assorted seabirds descend on the drying ponds to eat their fill. The small fish trapped in the remaining small puddles are fair game for the birds, while the catfish that have escaped harvest burrows deep to find pockets of mud that stay moist throughout the dry season. There they wait, motionless, until water fills up the ponds again.

However, the dry season is long. When the birds have polished off a pond’s offerings, they move on to another area. The mud hardens and cracks, and salt from the briny pond water forms thin white crusts on the surface. Stray dogs walk on the dry pond bottom, sniffing for catfish. The dogs dig these out and triumphantly devour their trophies. Brown-skinned children also make the fishponds their playground. They run through them to try to catch the breeze that would launch their kites. With few electric wires to trap these, the kites, fabricated from multi-colored paper, soar and dance in the blue sky, until the playing children remember other diversions and pull them down.

Binmaley is a little town in Pangasinan. At just 6,120 hectares, it comprises 1.14 percent of the province’s land area. Located between the bustling city of Dagupan and the provincial capital Lingayen, it is also known as "the fishbowl of Pangasinan." This is not surprising. More than half of the town’s land area is made up of fishponds and swampland – breeding areas for fish fry.

Legend has it that two brothers, both heirs to the reigning datu of Lingayen, once controlled the flourishing barter trade in pockets of communities that dotted the vast shoreline of Lingayen Gulf and its large tributaries. The younger brother decided to venture off on his own. He went east and formed a settlement that became a bustling entrepot frequented by Chinese, Arabs, and other traders. The settlement was known for its gold artifacts, cottage industries and fish products long before the coming of the Spanish conquistadores. Soon, the settlement grew into a large community. Thus, the name Binmaley, which is short for "nan maliw ya baley." In English, this translates to "a place that became a town." Still, another popular legend claims that Binmaley is derived from the word "binamin," or "bai-min-amin," which means "our grandmother," after a revered and powerful priestess who once lived in the area.

It took a long time for Spanish colonizers to make inroads in Binmaley. Chronicles written by early Spanish missionaries record that Spanish soldiers armed with superior cannons and firearms were met with stiff resistance and hostility by the Binmaley folk who united to fight those who sought to conquer them. It was not until 1589 that a Father Luis Gandullo arrived from Binalatongan (now San Carlos City) and was able to baptize and convert the natives to Catholicism. In the 1600s, construction of the church began.

Today, the Binmaley church edifice remains an imposing structure in the town center. Its towering belfry can be seen from afar, as one approaches the town surrounded by fishponds. The ancient red brick that was used to build the church is exposed in some areas; but in most, the plaster that protects these is left intact. Traditional industries, like daing or dried fish production and bagoong (fish paste) manufacture, remain.

Despite the growing scarcity of forest products, wood artisans who have learned the craft from their forebears continue to carve wooden furniture in the barrio of Malindong. The historic Lingayen Gulf where fierce battles were fought during World War II is a mere 1.5 kilometers away, a fact brought to the consciousness of Binmaley residents recently, after a local fisherman dragged a WWII airplane wreck to shore.

Most importantly, the town remains clean, well kept and safe – a testament to the citizens’ highly developed sense of civic consciousness and cooperative spirit.

One should not go to Binmaley to enjoy the accoutrements of modern leisure. There are no tall buildings, flashing lights or three-storey roller coasters. However, if new trends start to bewilder and disconcert you, perhaps it is time to find a small town like Binmaley to enjoy the simple things. Going to the market early in the morning to buy fresh seafood, walking through deserted fishponds, watching the waves crash to shore or taking an anxiety-free walk in the well-lit town plaza at dusk are simple joys that do much to refresh the jaded soul. To maintain our sanity, we city folk need some quiet, away from the complexities of big-city living. Sometimes, it is wise to heed Henry David Thoreau’s counsel: "Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplify, simplify."


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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