Tuesday, December 16, 2014


I WALK OUT FROM my house at 04:00, April 28, 2014, into the back streets until I reach Plaza Independencia.  I have a backpack with me stuffed with clothes good for five days, fully waterproofed inside a 30-liter Triton dry bag.  I will be part of a small production outfit that would do a documentary about indigenous fishing of the Bajau people who lived in Bato, Leyte.

Yes, we will be at sea most of the time on small outriggered boats.  Matt Everett, from England, is the producer and director.  It has been his passion to make videos about the indigenous people in the Philippines.  He has completed a short documentary about the Matigsalug tribe of Mindanao which was shown last year during an indie film festival here in Cebu.  He also did a made-for-cable TV reality video about the Aeta people which I had a  substantial role on screen.

For this project, however, I am the interpreter.  I will do the interviews behind the camera while the interviewee gets to answer or narrate on camera.  The Cebuano dialect will be used during the conversations and, hopefully, English subtitles would be added during the editing.  Coming also are Paul Blackmore, from Ireland, who will be Matt’s second-in-command and cameraman, and Silke de Vos, of Germany and long-time Philippine resident, takes care of underwater shoots. 

Supporting the video crew is Angel Gumere, Matt’s personal assistant; Australian John Creane; and Renzy Gumere.  Matt hired an outriggered boat belonging to the Sama Bajau Community Tribal Association, based in Mambaling, Cebu City.  We embark on the small boat at the coastal road near the Malacañang sa Sugbu, a short walk from Fort San Pedro.  This artificial coastline, a by-product of reclamation work, had been used as a beach by people from the poorest quarter of the city last Easter Sunday.

We leave Cebu at 06:50 cruising past the two bridges of Mactan Channel, winding out of Punta Engaño into open water north of Bohol.  It is a very sunny weather, the sea very flat, the wind only a whisper.  We arrive at the Bajau village of Dolho in Bato, Leyte at 13:00.  Their houses occupy dry land on stilts.  A lot of boats are either beached or raised on platforms undergoing repairs.  Some of the boats are anchored offshore.

The beach is crowded as well as the houses and it would not be a good idea to spend nights there, so we transferred instead to the center of town.  We found two vacant rooms of a pension house that could accommodate us and our equipment before taking our only meal of the day at 16:00.  By 18:00, we go back to the village to start our work.  My skill as interpreter would be tested that night on a set of questions which Matt prepared but I added some of my own, based on my broad knowledge of local ways.

Jerry Balansi, 49 years old, a Bajau born in Zamboanga and one of the very few who converted to the Christian faith, volunteered to be interviewed in behalf of his people.  He is a registered voter in Isabel, Leyte and had finished Grade 5 in Cebu City.  He says that his family came from Zamboanga and migrated to Cebu because of strife and piracy.  They searched for good fishing grounds and came upon Bantayan Island where diving with the use of an air compressor is rampant.

Later they were hired by a Chinese businessman to spear for good-sized groupers (Local name: suno, pugapo) and monocled breams (Local: gapasgapas) in Palawan.  It was a good time for them then yet it did not last long and they were forced to go back to Bantayan.  Compressor diving was already prohibited and many of their former fishing grounds were converted to fish sanctuaries and they were chased away until they arrive at Bato, Leyte.  

They found the local community receptive and the fishing grounds very rich.  Compressor diving was allowed until such time that it was prohibited there.  But enforcement is very lax so they continued with what they do best: spear fishing using the air compressor.  Other people believed that they used poison and other prohibited methods but it is not so.  The truth is, they do not want to antagonize law enforcement agencies and government officials by fishing the wrong way.

He says that he is not an elder but the village chief is a cousin of his.  Another branch of the tribe lives across an estuary and headed by another chief.  They still practice their tribal customs but the younger generations do not want to learn preferring instead their desire for alcoholic drinks.  A tribal priest still performs rituals and weddings but his sons are not interested.  There is also a healer among them but he might be the last in their village.   

I asked him how many have had accidents during compressor diving?  He named two and both cannot walk anymore.  One is in Surigao while the other one is in Isabel.  Another diver got stung by a poisonous fish, but he was able to recover.  Although sharks are always a threat, he could recall only one being attacked and had survived.  Jerry himself was threatened by a tiger shark in Palawan when it made a pass at him but he faced the predator and it swam away.

When the interview on Jerry was concluded, a Bajau climbed the stilt house where we were in and proudly showed two large groupers.  The Bajau says that he caught these with a hook and line.  How incredible!  I know, for sure, how difficult it is to pull a grouper to the surface when it swallows bait and retreat into its hole.  I have done this many times in 1986 when I fished at the Visayan Sea and it was not even a tenth of the size he is showing!  It takes skill to hold breath in depths of 10 feet or more to wriggle it out of its hole. 

The next day, April 29, 2014, we wake up early and go back to the village.  Everybody is already up.  The children milled around us and the crew are busy with the kids.  I focus my attention instead at a Bajau bending the prow of a boat with a couple of C-clamps and a hand saw.  Each time he ran a shallow cut with the saw on the wood running the length of the prow, he turn tight the clamp screw, wood would bend slightly and then held steady by a copper nail.  He repeated the process on the rest of the wood until it follows the shape of a banana.

Today, we hired two compressor divers and a couple of free divers with another boat.  We will be making a video shoot at a reef bank near Dawahon Island.  Along the way, the Bajaus caught a garfish with a spear on the surface and proudly showed it to us.  It happened so fast when their boat was at half-speed passing by a spot where a flock of terns flew close to the surface in circles.  A subtle splash in the water and a flash of silver and, voila, they have food. 

When we reach a good spot, Silke goes first into the water in her scuba gear and her underwater camera.  The divers prepare their gears.  They use flippers made of plywood or PVC and rubber and they are very adept at navigating the depths using these.  Their spear guns are made of wood, rubber and pieces of metal with the spear coming from a spoke of an umbrella.  They use regular dive masks.  The long compressor hose which they breathe from are coiled around their torso with the end held by their jaws.      

The divers would not have to spear fish but will just show for this documentary video of how deep and how long they would stay underwater and in what manner by which they would dive to the bottom and float back to the surface.  For Silke, it would be a new experience which she had not had witnessed in all her years of diving here and abroad.  She holds an international license of Master Diver and is an instructor where she teaches basic diving at Amontillado Beach and Diving Resort in Dauin, Negros Oriental.

After about 15 minutes, the Bajau divers returned to the surface.  Fifteen minutes more and Silke appeared with her underwater camera.  She showed me her dive computer which registered a depth of 24 meters from which she and the Bajau divers were but it was the rapid way the divers floating back to the surface that alarmed her.  The Bajau divers were doing what everyone in the scuba diving profession would not:  accelerating faster than your air bubbles!

She explained to me about the procedures of safety diving and how long should one stay underwater when breathing pressurized air.  I begin to understand her concern and she would talk to me more of it once we are on dry land as the sound of boat engines begin to drown out our conversations.  We transferred to a shallow depth where corals and fishes could be seen below.  This time, the free divers would show their stuff. 

Two young Bajaus, Tyson Bangcongan and Pooms Aslani, came with us from Cebu.  Both are 19 years old.  Both were born at the Bajau community of Mambaling.  They learned free diving while young at Cebu Harbor.  Coins would be tossed by boat passengers and the Bajaus are known to dive after it and retrieve it even though how murky the waters are.  It is entertainment for passengers but it is a hard way to earn a living for the Bajaus.  

Tyson and Pooms make ready their home-made flippers, masks and spear guns while Silke takes another dive on a second oxygen tank with her camera.  The divers appear over and over at the surface with small coral fishes skewered on their spears.  They prefer the short spear guns since they would shoot the fishes at short range.  Tyson was able to stay and hold his breath for 33 seconds at fifteen meters depth, at one time, surfacing with a speared garfish.

We leave Dawahon Reef, going back to the Bajau village.  From there, we go back to the hotel and take a bath before going out to take our only meal of the day at four.  We go back to the village to do an interview shoot on one of the Bajau compressor divers.  Sound conditions were not conducive and we ran out of daylight time and we go back to the hotel to take a well-deserved rest.  At 20:00, we visit the town’s “baywalk” area and talk about our next day’s plan over glasses of cold beer.  

On April 30, 2014, we wake up early so Matt could shoot sunrise over the village using the timer to run for an hour.  After that, we begin the interview on one of the compressor divers yesterday, Dulhussein Jumaldi.  He is 38 years old and is a registered voter of Bato.  He says he used to be a free diver.  When his band went to Bantayan Island, local fishermen there were able get a lot of catch using the air compressors which they could not accomplish by just holding their breathe.  At Bantayan, he learned compressor diving.

They usually dive during nighttime.  The fish are not so active and it is easy to shoot these with a spear.  They could swim close to their prey and then shoot it.  The spear guns they use during nighttime are short unlike in daytime where they use the longer spear guns.  He explains that long spear guns are used to take down fish from a long distance and it shoots faster, taking a prey by surprise.  The shorter ones, on the other hand, do not need accuracy as it shoots fish at short distances.  All spears are connected to their guns with a long nylon cord.

Preparations before going out to see sea is very crucial to a Bajau diver, according to Dulhussein.  First, he has to take a long rest and must refrain from drinking alcoholic drinks 24 hours before he dives.  Second, he must check that his equipment, to include the boat engine and the air compressor, are in good order.  Third, he must have ample fuel for the boat engine.  Fourth, he prays and asks protection from his god and from the spirits.  Last, he must have a good meal before setting out to sea.

We take a break after the interview with Dulhussein and return to the hotel to take a meal.  We go back again to the village to pursue on our interview on a man who had survived a shark attack in Zamboanga.  Matt is so excited to learn from the man and we caught him gouging wood from a boat keel.  He is Uladji Lampinigan.  He does not know his age but it would be somewhere between 60 to 65 years old.  He used to be a free diver but now he makes boats.

Uladji, narrated that he was diving at 25 meters deep holding his breath.  His concentration was on the lookout for fish and failed to notice a shark from behind him.  It jolted him when he felt something tearing at his back.  He tried to evade and he was able to move sidewards as the jaws of death clinched at his left shoulder.  He wriggled and he was able to break free.  He tugged on a rope and his companions pulled him to safety.  Ugly scars remain to remind him of his close encounter with death.

Matt needs to do one more interview for this day.  He asks me if it would be possible to ask a tribal priest.  I am able to convince Jerry’s older brother, Capulisan Balansi and I am also able to ask a favor if he could demonstrate a tribal ritual which is still part of their culture.  That done, we wait for several hours to produce the needed items for a spiritual rite which had been practiced by their ancestors before the advent of Islam in Southeast Asia and is passed to the succeeding generations.

Capulisan, cannot ascertain his actual age but he would be around 60 to 65 years old.  He is a well-travelled Bajau and a real badass when it comes to free diving.  He says he was born in Basilan and his family travelled across the Zamboanga Peninsula for a year.  That time, compressor diving and makeshift flippers were not yet invented.  They would dive at depths of 30-40 meters and hold breathe for more than a minute and they could swim fast without using flippers.

He says his family crossed the sea to Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental and stayed there for half a year before taking root in Cebu.  With Cebu as base, they go diving for fish at Bantayan Island, at the coastal towns of Masbate, reaching as far as Gigantes Island, then to the islands of Sicogon, Calagnaan and Semirara in the Visayan Sea, and on the coasts of Southern Leyte, Dinagat Island and Surigao del Norte.  Eventually, they settled in Bato.

According to him, he was appointed by their elders to be their tribal priest.  He learned the Bajau tribal rituals from the elders and, since he has no formal religious education, taught himself prayers in Islam and was able to marry couples, pray for the dead or ask blessings from the spirits this way, combining Islam with Bajau customs.  The items that Capulisan wanted to procure had arrived and the women had processed the food that are part of this.

The food and the items would have to be brought offshore.  Capulisan’s own boat was used for this ritual which is really appealing the spirits of the wind and the sea for blessings of good harvests and for protection.  The boat is filled full to the brim as Capulisan, Jerry, another elder, his son, Matt, Paul, Silke and me rode it beyond the wharf of Bato.  Capulisan prayed to the spirits and released the offered food and items to the care of the sea.     

All the people in the village appreciate our gesture of initiating this rare ritual and for providing the offering which, to them, is already a luxury.  They are, by their own beliefs, now assured of the blessings of the spirits.  Satisfied with our day’s coverage, we go back to town with our equipment and take a bath at the hotel.  We get ourselves a good good dinner at Bato’s baywalk area after which we wash it with cold beer.  We slept early.

On the fourth day, May 1, we begin to pack our things.  We would leave Bato but we will do a last shoot at the floating huts of Dawahon Reef on the way to Cebu.  Matt needs to know the life on the seaweed farms which he wants included on his documentary.  We saw, from a distance, water rising high above a group of small boats then we heard, three seconds later, the unmistakable sound of an explosion – dynamite fishing!  Then four more spouts of water then four explosions.  Matt wanted to go that way but I forbid him.  

We choose one such hut and asked permission to come aboard and to interview a seaweed farmer, Victor Torreon.  He is 51 years old and a resident of Dawahon Island.  He had been farming seaweed for a long time and, he says, when not farming they catch fish using nets and sold it as dried fish.  The hut, which they use as a resting and storage place (Local: kamalig), had been destroyed by strong typhoons and rebuilt many times.  They culture the Espinossum carageenan (Local: guso) only and sell it to Cebu.  When we left at 13:00, Victor and his nephew continue weaving nets.

The sea is very calm as we travel back to Cebu but current is very strong since low tide is starting to move water from the inland seas out to the Pacific.  We pass by Caubian Island and then into the Camotes Sea.  Ebbing water exposes a very long sandbar.  Footprints from an absent fisherman are all over it and a live hook and line are left.  The afternoon sun is beginning to get soft as the horizon of Cebu is getting nearer and nearer.  

When we got past Punta Engaño, the boat has to stop at the north entrance to Mactan Channel so Matt could shoot Silke talk of her opinion on the Bajau way of diving with an air compressor machine.  Sequence has to be restarted over and over again when channel current either move the boat closer to the shore where voices of people could be heard or when an airplane arrive and depart from the Mactan Cebu International Airport.  

Matt wrapped up the project after a rare uninterrupted sequence and go back to where we came from four days ago, which is at the coastal road near the Malacañang sa Sugbu.  It is 19:00 and I got invited by Matt, Angel and Paul for a dinner at the Texas Rex Bar-B-Cue Restaurant in Mandaue City.  I am tired but I am rich with the experience of working with a film crew and with the Bajaus.

Document done in LibreOffice 3.3 Writer

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