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Mt. Everest Conquerors Sail On To New Adventure

From: Philippine Daily Inquirer

Date: Decemeber 5, 2008

By: Erika Sauler

AFTER SENDING THE FIRST FILIPINOS to the summit of the world’s highest peak, the leader of the first Philippine expedition team to Mt. Everest is embarking on another epic adventure – to navigate the waters of the archipelagic areas of Asia as the early Filipinos did on a replica of a balangay, a pre-colonial boat.

The same Mt. Everest team will steer the balangay around the Philippines in 2009, then proceed to Southeast Asia in 2010 and on to Madagascar off Africa in 2011. It will sail the natural way – by adhering to celestial navigation, observing the migration of birds, cloud formation and waves.

“We would build a boat the way it was, sail it the way it was and trace the migration route of the Austronesian-speaking people,” says Art Valdez, head of Kaya ng Pinoy, a group that pushes for projects that uphold national pride.

The “Voyage of the Balangay” was unveiled yesterday at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Makati City together with the launch of Valdez’s coffee table book “Live the Dream: The Saga of the Philippine Mt. Everest Expedition Team.”

“How will this (balangay project) relate to the Filipino? Just like Everest, this is a way of showing what you can achieve when you believe in yourself and put your heart into it,” Valdez says in an interview with the INQUIRER.

I is also a way of knowing history and rekindling the Filipino maritime consciousness which, Valdez says, was disrupted by colonial policies. “In the process of stirring historical consciousness, we might just discover a national identity.”

He adds that there are several benefits of reviving our maritime identity: “This mode of transportation doesn’t use fuel, it is environment friendly and it restores our heritage.”

Badjao boat builders

Valdez tapped boat builders from the Badjao ethnic group, a semi-nomadic seafaring tribe from Sibutu and Sitangkay in Tawi-Tawi, to craft the balangay that will be patterned after the Butuan boat displayed in the National Museum which was carbon dated to 1250 A.D.

The first recovered balangay was excavated in Butuan City, Agusan del Norte, in 1978 and carbon-dated to have been built in 320 A.D. Together with other archaeological artifacts, it shows the high level of maritime technological adaptation of the early Filipinos, says Rey Santiago of the National Museum.

“There are historical disputes, of course. And I expect the experts to discuss and relate who we were and who we are. I’m just providing the symbol,” Valdez says.

The group will start building the balangay near Manila Bay in January and set its launch for April next year. In labor cost alone, the estimated budget is P600,000 to P800,000.

Valdez says the Department of Environment and Natural Resources will provide the wood while the cloth for the sail will come from Panay.

Citing a book he had read, Valdez says the 15 x 4 ½ meter balangay can accommodate a maximum of 50 people. Of this number, 12 are already accounted for as the balangay crew would include two Badjaos, a master sailor from the Philippine Coast Guard and the Mt. Everest team (Valdez, Leo Oracion, Erwin “Pastour” Emata, Noelle Wenceslao, Carina Dayondon, Janet Belarmino-Sardena, Dr. Ted Esguerra, Fred Jamili and Dr. Voltaire Velasco).

Public can join voyage

Valdez says the public is welcome to join the voyage which will be divided into several legs. For example, one can board at Manila Bay and get off at Sangley Point.

The team members themselves will rotate shifts as the balangay makes the rounds of major ports in the Philippines.

During the journey, Valdez says the team plans to spend the nights in the nearest coastal communities.

“It wouldn’t be just an adventure. By learning about their (communities’) culture and their needs, we might be able to help by linking them up with NGOs (non-government organizations),” he says.

Although they intend to sail as faithfully as possible to the ancient way, Valdez and his group cannot escape modern technology altogether as it will have cell phones to communicate with. It plans to chronicle its experience through blogs.

After circling the Philippines, the team will navigate toward the Southeast Asian countries and invite seafarers and adventurers from such countries as Taiwan, China, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam to board the balangay in their respective ports.

“The whole exercise is to drum up that this is what unified us as a people,” Valdez says.

The plank-type, edge-pegged naval design was common among the ancient boats of Souteast Asian countries.

He adds that in precolonial history, the people – rather than being separated – were connected by bodies of water and boats were the means of transportation.

“As we enter the Asian Century, the emergence of the region as a major player, this endeavour could get us into that regional environment again,” he says.

Quoting an anthropologist, Dr. Wilhelm Solheim II, Valdez says there is no question of sailing to Madagascar, which the team plans to do in the third year. (The first settlers of Madagascar came by boat from what is now Indonesia.)

The most difficult part is going to the Pacific as the balangay doesn’t cross wide bodies of water but only hugs the coastline.

Trade winds

From historical accounts, Valdez explains it would be possible to cross the Pacific by sailing along the black currents and trade winds but the conditions have already changed because of global warming.

“It depends on the performance of the first three years,” he says. “If we could come back and we’re still OK, it would give us confidence (to cross the Pacific in 2012).”

Valdez says the reasons behind climbing Everest and the balangay quest are the same.

“We climbed Mt. Everest for two reasons. First is personal; as mountaineer, you always look up to the highest mountain. The other one is collective; to show what we can do as a people,” he says.

Rousing national pride

He believes that if the group succeeded in rousing national pride when it conquered snowy terrain, then more so with an endeavour closer to home.

Mas maiintindihan ng Filipino ang Bangka (Filipinos can relate more to a boat),” he says.

“My gauge is when I can see countless sails on Manila Bay – the way we’ve encouraged interest in mountaineering – then we’ve succeeded.”

Valdez adds: “When Filipinos start asking question about our historical identity, that’s good enough for me.”