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The Balangay: Maritime Connectivity and Migration

I was formerly working with the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) from 1996-2005. Under my watch, the government drew up the maritime industry plan with focus including rationalizing government agencies. Case in point, we had 13 maritime-related agencies in five government departments. A highlight of this plan was the transfer of the Coast Guard from the Department of National Defense to the DOTC. Also under my direction, the DOTC also drew up a Metro Manila land transportation rationalization plan.

When I left government in January 2005, I decided to pursue a lifelong dream – that of climbing Mount Everest. More than a thousand people of various nationalities have climbed Mt. Everest, the first two being Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. However, no Filipino has climbed Mt. Everest – well not until 2006. In October 2003, I made a public call for Filipinos interested in climbing Mt. Everest. I was the expedition leader of the all-Filipino Mt. Everest team. We short listed a small group. With scandalously low funding and meager resources, our group trained in lower mountains. Due to fund limitations, only an all-male Filipino team (two to be exact) could be supported and successfully scaled Mt. Everest in 2006. Then last year, three Filipinas scaled Mt. Everest. The Filipinas notched two records, namely, the first Southeast Asian females to do so, and the first women in the world to transverse Mt. Everest, i.e., climb up one way and go down another way. Please note that, while I led these two expeditions, I myself let go of the opportunity to climb Mt. Everest itself. It is a case of the common good being a priority.

In the trainings and two Mt. Everest expeditions, our team learned some valuable lessons: Belief in one’s self and each other was important. Teamwork and unity were paramount necessities. While we saw the beauty of nature, we also witnessed the ill effects of global warming. To highlight, in our first year, we saw the Mt. Everest base camp blanketed in snow. In our second year, we saw patches of snow at the base camp; last year, there was no more snow at the base camp. We also saw and experienced the poverty of people living in the mountains. Though the Sherpas are a sturdy people and gain economically from the climbers from various nationalities, their lot in general is still poor. In fact, our Philippine Coast Guard doctor, Dr. Ted Esguerra, attended to the medical needs of the Sherpas, and this gesture endeared us to them.

We asked ourselves: What next? As a team, we are still keen in pioneering outdoor adventure, specifically adventure with a national significance. While the Philippines is a mountainous country, it is also an archipelago. Thus, it was natural for us to look to our seas.

This is where the balangay comes in. Our plan is to construct a balangay, the sailboat used by our forefathers to travel across the Southeast Asian islands. The inspiration for this project comes from the maritime achievements of our ancestors. Sailing along the South China Sea, the Gulf of Thailand and the Java Sea despite the presence of obstacles and dangers, our people considered the seas to be unifying rather than divisive. It is a means of transport and communication. In fact, nearby countries have their own version of the balangay. There is the tatara for Taiwan, the lepa for Malaysia and perahu for Indonesia.

Our plan now is to construct a replicate of this boat. The wood will come from the established traditional source in southern Philippines, specifically Tawi-Tawi. We have pinpointed Badjao master boat builders, whose predecessors actually built such boats. We will use traditional tools and not modern ones. However, we will construct right here in Manila Bay, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex. This is meant to generate national awareness. We estimate construction of the first boat to be around 90 days. For 2009, we expect to sail to different Philippine islands. For 2010, we plan to go to different ASEAN countries. From 2011 onwards, given our two-year training and travel, we hope to take on the challenge to sail to Madagascar to the west and to the Polynesian Islands to the east; two places reached by the balangay of our glorious past.

Aside from the outdoor adventure endeavor, we will use the balangay trips to assist in community-building, particularly for coastal communities. The balangay’s construction was meant for travel hugging the coastline and not for deep waters. This then is a plus factor in our community-building efforts. We will travel along the shorelines and stop at communities and key human settlement centers, including cities, to hold seminars. We intend to heighten awareness of global warming. We aspire to challenge our people to help out in watershed management and also in coastal rehabilitation. We also plan to support wholesome coastal tourism and development.

In our travels, we will share our self-image and self-assertion that the Filipino can do the impossible. By exhibiting and challenging Filipino ingenuity and native survival skills in this modern age with the use of ancient seafaring technology, we aim to rekindle maritime consciousness among our people which colonialism took away.

The Balangay will become the catalyst to stir up historical consciousness among Filipinos today, a sine qua non in transporting our people to our cherished goals. Without that keen knowledge of history, our people will continue to suffer as our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, aptly described, “Ang taong hindi lumilingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa patutunguhan.” With these efforts, we can identify our counterparts in the various Southeast Asian countries through the balangay and its reconstruction for cultural unity, an ongoing identification and traveling of the ancient sea routes of our forefathers, and, more important, partnership with the coastal communities. Indeed, with the balangay and the modern transport and related facilities, together we can make concrete our balangay theme for Southeast Asia: We are one!

-Art Valdez-