Thursday, January 1, 2015


THE BAJAU PEOPLE HAS created a deep impression on Silke de Vos during the time when she was part of a production outfit doing a documentary story about the indigenous fishing methods of these sea-faring people who, sometimes, are known as the Philippine Sea Gypsies.  I was also with her for four days, being part of the team organized by film maker Matt Everett from April 28 to May 1, 2014 in Bato, Leyte.  (Read my article Conversations with the Bajaus.)

Silke decided to organize a team of her own to document the Bajaus again.  I am again part of this and there is a reversal of roles:  Matt will be her cameraman.  She has commissioned her diver friend, Lisa English, to help her on this project titled BADJAO SAFE DIVING, which really is a brainchild of Silke and her husband, Peter de Vos.  Silke and Peter owns Amontillado Beach and Diving Resort, located in Dauin, Negros Oriental.   

Badjao Safe Diving aims to improve the survivability of the Bajaus through education and actual training on the proper procedures of safe diving standards which are respected by all professional scuba divers around the world although it does not recommend or support the use of air compressors in diving.  Through this direction, the hazards of unsafe diving practices among the Bajaus would be minimized.  In the end, it will provide the Bajaus more years to enjoy their main livelihood and more years to bring food on their tables.  

To recall, the Bajaus catch their fish through diving, breathing air supplied by air compressors.  These air compressors are either the commercial kind bought from hardware stores or those that are improvised.  Improper diving causes decompression sickness which leads to coma, paralysis or death.  A lot of local government units have good reasons why it prohibits fishermen from engaging in compressor diving because of health concerns.

We start at 07:30 of May 10, 2014 from Kon Tiki Diving Resort in Lapulapu City, Cebu where Lisa and Silke were staying the previous night.  Silke rented a good-sized boat for this project.  Very spacious unlike the last time.  The plan is to cross the Camotes Sea into Isabel, Leyte and find the crippled Bajau man that another Bajau, Jerry Balansi, had mentioned last April 28 and interview him.  We do not know the exact place where he lived, much more so, the name of the man.

We took the chance even though it begins to look like finding a needle in a haystack.  But it is a better option than going to Bato first to look for Jerry then go up to Isabel and back to Bato.  That way, we can save on fuel and time.  We only have two days to do this project.  The problem is, the boat crew have no idea where Isabel is and they have to fetch another guy who does.  I had traveled to Isabel as a boat crew but it was night time and that was 28 years ago!

Anyway, the EZ Map that Silke bought was a big help.  Fishermen off the coast were also a big help, giving us information.  We dock at the Port of Isabel at exactly 12:00 and walk to the village of the Bajaus in a place called Marvel.  We introduce ourselves to the village chieftain and tell him our story.  It helped to mention the name of Jerry and they were very accommodating.  It would have been easy to locate our man but he was not in the village.  He left three days ago for Baybay City.

Challenged by this situation, the trip altered into something adventurous but, at least, we now have a name.  The quest continues back to the Camotes Sea, passing by Ponson Island, where a lone fisherman gave us directions to Baybay like someone would on a street.  We reach the Port of Baybay at 16:00 and see a man with crutches.  He is with several Bajau women and children and I am sure he is the one whom we seek and interview.  

He is Matlan “Sonny Boy” Kalingkopan, a former compressor diver.  Incapacitated by his injury caused by decompression sickness, he now make his living begging on the streets to feed his family.  He is 48 years old, married and a father to a 6-year old girl and a 2-year old boy.  He is an expectant father to a third child five months on the way.  He converted to Roman Catholic years ago and christened as Sonny Boy.  His is a sad story.

He was born in Basilan and started diving at a young age.  He met his accident some thirty years ago while in Zamboanga.  He narrated that he stayed below at about 30 arm lengths for a duration of the time you finish two cigarettes.  He remembered he floated to the surface fast and stayed on the boat to enjoy a cigarette when he began to feel numbness on his legs, tingling of the skin, headache and difficulty of breathing.  He lost consciousness and, when he regained that, three days had passed.  

He never was able to recover his full health despite being subjected to home and traditional remedies.  He left his place of origin when his father was murdered by pirates and their boat stolen away and he journeyed with his wife into the cities of Pagadian, Dipolog, Iligan, Surigao and Cebu to try their luck but he was disappointed.  He settled in Isabel for good and begged on the streets of Ormoc City for many years but he was apprehended recently and dumped in Baybay, where he goes back from time to time.

He says, a lot of good people in Ormoc knows him and he was able to give his family a decent meal.  The aluminum crutches he uses now were given to him by a kind doctor from an Ormoc hospital.  In Baybay, he is still feeling his way and he do not earn much unlike what he used to in Ormoc or when he used to dive for fish long ago.  He cried when he talked about his predicament and placed his faith in God that He will not abandon him.  

He is happy to learn that we are doing something for the Bajaus and he would have joined our tomorrow’s workshop should he be in good health.  The interview on Sonny Boy was done on camera at Baybay’s waterfront.  Later, we film him begging at a street corner where there is a popular fastfood chain.  The shooting wrapped up at 20:00 and we facilitate for his transfer to his temporary address here but not after we parted some cash for his upkeep.  After we had taken supper, we stayed at the GV Tower Hotel.

The following day, May 11, we left Baybay at 05:10 for Bato.  We were there last week, except for Lisa.  The boat reach the Port of Bato at 07:40 and, immediately, we proceed to the Bajau village of Dolho, crossing an estuary by a raft made of Styrofoam scraps.  We carry equipment, cameras, visual aids and literature for an impromptu workshop on a beach.  We meet Jerry, his brother Kapolisan Balansi, and Dulhussein Jumaldi and all agreed to attend and to learn the basics of safe diving procedures.

Lisa is the main instructor of the workshop while I interpret for her and for the Bajau should they comment or ask questions.  The simple illustrations provided quick learning and, sometimes, I need to be very creative when explaining very technical terms like “oxygen”, “nitrogen” and “decompression sickness”, which does not have an equivalent in the Cebuano dialect.  A shaken softdrink bottle, with its bubbly contents, provides them understanding why gases expand in the human body if under pressure.

When the theoretical part of the instructions had been finished, Silke decide to rent a boat owned by a Bajau complete with a compressor machine.  Silke needs to apply the theories to an actual situation and we all get ready to move offshore.  Our destination is one of the lighthouses of Dawahon Reef.  We drop anchor there while Silke and Lisa prepare their scuba diving gears.  Dulhussein, together with two others, transfer to our boat to get a last-minute review of the lectures from Lisa which I interpret for them.

Dulhussein and another will dive.  Lisa will dive with them and will give signal communications underwater.  Silke will also dive with them but she will take footage of the training.  The third Bajau will stay on their boat and will act as watchman.  He will see to it that his companions will be supplied with air and will signal same when their time under the water is about to approach the allowed time.  He will jerk at their compressor hoses and he will rap the side of the boat.

Matt stayed on our boat and shoot footage on the Bajaus’ boat and the surface where the ongoing training is being done below.  I keep reminding the Bajau watchman, above the din of the compressor, to be attentive of the time.  The current is swift, the compressor hoses are stretched almost horizontally.  We wait for the tell-tale signs of bubbles.  It came, but,  whoever is below the surface, especially at the five meter level, stayed according to the length of time allowed.  

Dulhussein surfaced first then the other Bajau.  They were trained to ascend slow – to never overtake their air bubbles - and to stay five meters below the surface at three minutes before surfacing.  Since both do not have waterproofed watches, they were instructed to count slowly from 1 to 180.  When Lisa and Silke, likewise, surfaced, all gathered on our boat for their final evaluation.  

Lisa and Silke observed that the swift current caused the air hoses to wrap tight on the Bajau divers.  Should those conditions arise, the boat should flow with the current.  It was a difficult situation for the Bajaus yet they followed the instructions to the letter.  Asked of his opinions regarding the different dive routines that he was undergoing, Dulhussein narrated that he felt good.  He did not feel the usual uneasiness that came to him after every dive using the old unscientific way.  “Mas maayo ni (This is better)”, he says. 

Happy on the progress of the workshop and training, Silke gave Dulhussein and his companions, all representing the Bajau community of Bato, a set of waterproofed instructional illustrations.  These illustrated cards would now be the cornerstone of safety whenever the Bajaus go diving.  Aside this, a quartz wristwatch with bezel ring is donated to the Bajaus so somebody on the boat would keep track of time in their underwater search for fish.

We officially terminated our business with the Bajaus and part ways from them at 17:00 for Cebu.  The team reach Lapulapu City at 22:30 and enjoy a very filling late supper at the Kon Tiki Diving Resort.  It was a memorable experience for me to work with professionals who know their line of work and exposed me further on the intricacies of the rules of proper underwater diving, which is very educational.

I am hoping that this advocacy of the de Vos couple would be made into a documentary and generate interest among well-meaning organizations and individuals on the plight of the Bajau people.  The sea is their only source of income and they have to adapt to dangerous fishing methods so their children could live.  Teaching them the right way like Badjao Safe Diving would improve their lot.      

Document done in LibreOffice 3.3 Writer


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