A glorious past RE-LIVED

From:    Sun Star Weekend (Davao)

Date:     April 18, 2010

Title:      A glorious past RE-LIVED

By:          Stella A. Estremera


In 320 AD, balangays that could travel the vast maritime trade routes to as far as Madagascar in Africa and Easter Island off South Pacific were already part of our seascape.


Nine specimens of these balangays were discovered in Butuan City in 1976, of which three have been excavated and carbon-dated. The boats, it was found, dated back to as far as 320, 990, and 1250 AD.


Long before the Spaniard came and claimed to have discovered the Philippines, our ancestors have been ruling the seas and traveling on vessels that could outrace any Spanish galleon, the balangay.


In Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world in the 1500s, which brought him to the Philippines, he had with him a slave named Panglima Awang, renamed Enrique de Malacca, of the Malay race, who also served as the translator for the Portuguese explorer. The slave understood Portugues and could thus talk with both the Malays (Filipinos included, since before Spanish colonization there was no Philippines, which was named after Kind Philip of Spain, ergo no Filipino). Most importantly, the slave knew the oceans more than his masters, indicating that he has been navigating the seas even before the colonizers arrived.


Italian historian Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled Magellan’s voyage, described brisk trade activities in what Spain would soon name as the Philippines, its people with dark skins but with regal posture dressed in silk and whose diet were not those of the savages we were made to believe we were.


After 300 years of Spanish colonization, we were made to believe we were nothing but indolent and unschooled Indios before the Spaniards came.


Thus, The Voyage of the Balangay.




Last Monday, bright red, yellow and blue sails of two wooden boats hogged the horizon off Sta. ana Pier like a zip back to a long-forgotten past. The two balangays – the 15-meter long Diwata ng Lahi and the 25-meter long Masawa Hong Butuan – docked at the Pier for a short lay-over to mark the end of the Philippine navigation.


The core crew members are team leader Arturo T. Valdez, Mt. Everest Expedition team members Leo Oracion, Erwin “Pastour” Emata, Janet Belarmino-Sardena, Carina Dayondon, Noelle Wenceslao, Dr. Ted Esguerra, with Fred Jamili, Voltaire Velasco and Davao’s Lito Esparar and Mark Lim, complemented by a crew from Butuan City and some guest crew members from different ports.

It is a voyage set out by Kaya ng Pinoy Inc. – the group behind the Mt. Everest Philippine Expedition – to retrace the migration path of our ancestors before the Spaniards imposed their history on us. The Philippine leg is now done, past 67 ports from Manila for 106 days. They hogged the coastline from Manila to Calapan, Calapan to Boracay, Boracay to Bacolod, Bacolod to Mactan, Cebu, Mactan to Butuan City, Butuan City to Ozamis, Ozamis to Zamboanga City, Zamboanga to Cotabata, Cotabato to Davao. In those days, they passed three major typhoons and got caught in the middle of one, Typhoon Urduja.




Butuan team member Daniel M. Calos, who at 62 is the eldest, recalled how they were throwing their tummies out while valiantly bailing out water from their vessels in what they thought was a squall.


It wasn’t. It was Urduja, which they were following, being pulled back by a bigger depression behind them.


“We thought we had to abandon ship at that time,” he said. They were rescued in time by a boat from Surigao, which met a greater damage as its outrigger was broken by the wild seas.


“The boat was rocking, we were being hit by the waves on the side, and all hands were on deck, 90 percent of whom were tasked to bail out water as fast as we can,” he said. “Sabay-limas, sabay-suka.”


Coast Guard Ensign Mark Lim recalled how their boatbuilders from the Sama Dilaya tribe of Sulu seemed unperturbed by the rough seas.


“Halos lahat kami nagsusuka na, sila pasiga-sigarilyo lang sa likod,” he said.


They made it through, the seaworthiness of the vessels tried and tested since 320 AD showed to them how our ancestors indeed ruled the seas.


The voyage is not over yet. But this time, they have the modern convenience of a generator set and sump pump, which Mr. Valdez thought was necessary to help them fight the rough seas they expect to meet as they continue farther into the horizon.


On Monday, they will be setting on back to Zamboanga down to Isabel in Basilan, Jolo, Siasi, Port Laguyan, Bongao, SIbuto, Sitankay, and Silua before exiting the Philippines for the Southeast Asian voyage expected to end in China by June 9, the 35th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between the Philippines and China.




They get a better batting average of surviving the rough seas, however with their ever-reliable Sama Dilaya tribesmen from Sulu.

Led by master boatbuilder Ibrahim Abdulla, whom the crew calls Master, the Sama Dilayas are among the few remaining master boatbuilders in the country. The other tribe is the Ivatan of Batanes.


Ibrahim’s nephew Abdul Gamar Abdulla, 32, said they have been raised with boatbuilding as a major endeavor.


He started helping build boats when he was in high school, he said.


“Tumutulong sa magulang sa pagawa,” he said.


Boatbuilding is so much a part of their existence such that they use a steel tape once, to measure the length of the keel. After that, it’s all from memory and an almost instinctive idea of proportions and seaworthiness.


They’ve been making wooden boats that carry passengers all over Jolo, Sulu, and Zamboanga and over to Malayasia.


“Malalaki,” he said, when asked compare with the seemingly diminutive balangays.


“It so amazing seeing that we have the kind of craft where only pegs and tar are used to put a boat together,” Valdez said during the dinner hosted by the Davao City government upon their arrival.


The craft the Sama Dilaya had mastered is something to behold using only indigenous materials including “damal” or hardwood reel as caulking putty and glue, the boats they make are even more durable and seaworthy than those in steel and caulked with marine epoxy.


The balangays themselves are designed to replicate the ones found in Butuan, and only indigenous materials were used; not a single nail was driven in any of the wooden plank.


The only compromise they had to make was for the sail materials and the ropes.


They wanted an authentic rope, Valdez said, but the ones unearthed in Butuan showed the ropes were made from Cabo Negro, a sugar palm. Making ropes from that, today, is very, very expensive because there is no longer much material to start with.


Overall, the two balangays are replicas of the most feared sea vessels before the Spaniards came.




It’s a way to show the ingenuity of the Filipinos, Mr. Valdez  said, as he laid out as well the reason for this seemingly hare-brained voyage.


It’s also a showcase of the greatness of the Sama Dilaya, whom we have disparagingly tagged as the Badjaos.


“None of us, except the Sama Dilayas with us, were seafarers. We’re more mountaineers, but it is in our vein because we are linked with the glorious maritime past of our forefathers,” Valdez said.


Throughout their voyage, Valdez said, they carry their message – “Kaya ng Pinoy” – and thus take every opportunity to mingle and talk with the locals.


It was just unfortunate that they arrived in Davao City when classes were already out. They did take time out to plant mangroves along the Davao River.


In their other ports of call, they were able to reach out to schoolchildren to bring their message of environmental protection and the benefits of living in harmony with nature as well as reminding the present generation of the glorious past the Filipinos were made to forget by the colonizers who kept us in ignorance of the wealth of knowledge, expertise, and ingenuity of our forefathers.


Most of all, they deliver the message that Philippines is indeed paradise which every Filipino should take care of and nurture.


“In the past three years in our Mt. Everest Expedition, andun kami sa Mt. Everest, wala kang Makita kundi bundok at yelo lang talaga (while in Mt. Everest, we didn’t see anything but mountains and ice),” Valdez said.


“Sa balangay, normal lang na nage-exhibition ang dophin sa paligid naming (On the balangay, having dolphins playing around us was but normal fare),” he added.