MANILA, APRIL 14, 2009
(STAR) A COMMITMENT By Tingting Cojuangco - In Tawi-Tawi today, there are no more natural pearls to swim for, to buy and die for because of dynamite fishing and oil spills. In the deep waters of Languyan, Tawi-Tawi two boys — ages 7 and 10; one blond, the other black-haired — frolicked in a tiny, two-meter dugout boat. They jumped into the sea, got back on their canoe and repeated their feat over tiny whirlpools of ipo-ipo. They rowed their boat rapidly to the other direction, laughing, sucking in the rainwater from their lips and mucous from their runny noses.

Manila has its big gardens for children and deep swimming pools, but the hazards of the sea are no comparison to modern recreation. The Samal children enjoy the risks and dangers daily. Their mothers may be cooking the catch of the day, their fathers may be fishing or building boats — and they’re not worried about their sons sailing far from their island without a compass!

Generally, boatbuilding is a “hereditary” craft, like how children of lawyers end up lawyering, or uniformed personnel whose fathers were once in active service.

During Holy Week, Tawi-Tawi is to me what Boracay is to vacationers. I religiously look forward to a week there with cousins and friends and political allies.

On past trips, I watched overloaded tempers sail early evening and ferry islanders to Sabah through the night. It was an eye-opener on migration. But they couldn’t change residences if there were no boat builders! Boatbuilders in Tawi-Tawi are familiar with the different kinds of wood a boat can be made of, such as nara, ipil and gargil, which are favorites because they’re durable, but heavy, so boats can’t go too fast. Years later, the favorite wood became the lauan because it was much lighter. Interesting that when a boatbuilder cuts a tree he knows how big he wants his boat to be. Muhammad Kurais and I shared the same information: the bottom of the boat would be the side that was stuck on the ground; the hull, the upward side; the prow would be the wood towards the root; and the stern towards the treetop. That has been the practice for many generations.

I had a beautiful lepa with a carving on its bow towed into the Zamboanga City Pier from Sitangkai. My lepa, like everyone else’s, was all wood with a rudder and used for commerce between southern Mindanao to southern Palawan. Having stored it inside a warehouse was a good idea. Then, unfortunately, I thought it would be better in my uncle’s backyard, but with the place being too sunny the lepa throughout the years sadly disintegrated. These lepas date back to the 1800s and were built in Balimbing municipality and Sabah. Balimbing, such an appropriate name for the events of the ‘80s if you’ll remember.

So I had lost my huge shiny brown beauty whose previous owner gave me because speedboats and kumpits, and tempers were swifter and coming into a great use for smuggling. The Malays, with whom the Samals and Joloanos traded for many centuries, welcomed these sailors-traders carrying on free trade. The demand became greater for boats then and the trade flourished in Tawi-Tawi and Sulu. But the anti-smuggling campaign of the Philippine government in the Sulu Sea hindered traditional trade between our southerners, the Sama, the Sabahans and Indonesians.

The Philippine government called it “smuggling” but the Samals and Joloanos called it livelihood and tradition. Because the trade was vital to livelihood, the Muslims resisted the sanctions and shifted from sailboats to developing swifter boats with the help of Sabah merchants, who wanted their fellow brothers to barter-trade with.

Goods were loaded on kumpits renamed “temper” and “speedboat.” Boatbuilding suddenly developed very rapidly and was made of stronger material to accommodate the stylish Volvo engines. In spite of centuries of inter-commerce barter trade did not survive. The innovativeness of the boats was stunted by less trade between Asian countries.

“Fishing for men” became lucrative thanks to ransom money, but the kumpits had patriotic usefulness, for Kurais asserted that during the war years (1941-1945,) they were used continuously for transportation by Filipino-Americans against the Japanese forces. The Filipino-American forces transported American Army officers from Palawan (through Tawi-Tawi) to Australia and transported soldiers for contact with US submarines, which carried arms and ammunitions.

One Holy Week, we encountered on the sea two effeminate Samals balancing on their boat and their hands indicated they were dancing the pangalay. When I asked them what they were so happy about they said they had just buried their friend on an island by the sea and were rejoicing at his good fortune!

I love boats and the stories they hold. And also the superstitions. You’re never to sing on a boat because “you shouldn’t disturb the sea spirits who can rock over your boat or awaken the bad waves to give you a rough ride.”

One time, our plates fell during dinnertime, splintering on the bamboo floor. “It is an omen that we should not sail tonight,” an Islamic friend told us, but we proceeded, some on speedboats and others on a temper. Just then we belonged to two worlds: one with nature (fish, corals and seaweeds, clouds and skies); the other, the world of trade. Islamic merchants traded fish in Sabah for gold, for speed engines and radio equipment in Malaysia.

It’s the many blue hues of the sea — from dark to aquamarine to whitish blue — that have guided captains and children, whether their boats’ hull can take the depth or shallowness.

My speedboat passed the temper, a 70-foot boat moored half an hour away from Sitangkay. It didn’t have a roof or flooring over its middle portion. It was a skeletal structure, with only the bow and stern having durable wooden planks. The sea was calm even as thick dark clouds shielded the moon once in a while. It was then that we got news that a woman who gave birth by breech delivery to a son had died.

In the span of four hours, we witnessed four unlucky omens, experienced seafarers told us. Plates dropping, dark ominous clouds, the girls singing on the boat, the mother who died to save her child.

“Wait until tomorrow. The night will not be safe. It harbors bad luck.” Yet we went off. We followed the path of the stars and relied on our captain. The sky darkened with drizzles. We had missed our right lane, which would have led us on our route to Bongao. We had lost our direction.

“Ma’am do you have maps?” I brought one every time we traveled but this time I had left them in Bongao. “Compass, does anyone have one?” No one did.

Then the horrid rain and lightning pounced on us. In the temper, we rocked sideways violently, that we couldn’t stand with nothing to hold on to at the bow. We sat fixed as though nailed for dear life to the floor of the temper.

The wind was furious and the waves angrier, rising two stories high. Our three speedboats bobbed up and down behind us on the Sulu Sea. Wham! “Nalunod!” the men shouted as one boat sank. Swaying with the ship, I managed to untangle the rope from its steel hook.

“Don’t move,” the colonel warned me as he grabbed the rope.

Saving their well-oiled armalites before jumping into the nearest speedboat, the Mudjahideen threw their heavy guns towards the men in boats to catch. The remaining guards were hoisted up to our temper.

And who can ever forget romantic nights that brought out the moonlight — like in a Hollywood movie — during dinner on a bamboo raft tied to a boat office? We gently swayed left and right and were carried upward and downward while eating lobsters caught right by the sides of the raft. It was a wonderful evening reliving our ancestors’ pre-boat experience. We were seemingly puppets suspended from heavenly rubber bands. We cracked and picked on our crabs, threw rubbish and clam shells over our shoulders for the fish to eat.

The boat’s office by our floating raft was of two floors. The activity on the first floor was to stock up the mother-of-pearls, clean them, and check for pearls inside. The second floor was for re-checking in case smaller pearls remained. This is where I liked to hang around. I offered the workers P30 to P50 for the smallest pin dot of a natural pearl. Happily, everyone got going on their pearl hunt that week.

And there we were in Tawi-Tawi for many years during Holy Week. Today, there are no natural pearls to swim for, to buy and die for anymore… Fewer pearls have become the consequence of dynamite fishing and oil spills; less trade from fewer boats built and poorer Samals and Joloanos.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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