Ship of pols? Aquino, Arroyo invited to sail

By Philip Tubeza
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: November 28, 2010

MANILA, Philippines—Will Aquino be joining Arroyo in a balangay ride?

For the last leg of their epic voyage across Southeast Asia, the crew of the balangay expedition has invited President Beningo Aquino and former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to join them as they sail into Manila.

“This is to show that, in spite of our differences, we are riding on one boat, one ship of state which is the Philippines and only by being together and working together (as the crew did) will we able to safely reach the next port,” said Art Valdez, the leader of the balangay expedition.

“If we could do that across Southeast Asia, then all the more that we’ll be able to do this in the Philippines by having our leaders riding in that same boat,” he said.

If they accept, Mr. Aquino and his predecessor can come on board when the flotilla sails from Sangley Point, Cavite, to the pier across the Cultural Center of the Philippines on Dec. 6. The trip will take two hours.

“We want them to talk to each other, we have a big space on the boat. Then we, the crew, will all be there and we will tell them our stories,” said Valdez.

We’re family

Invitations have also been extended to Vice President Jejomar Binay, Senators Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Francis Escudero and Jinggoy Estrada, boxing champion Manny Pacquiao and even detained Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, if he has been amnestied by then.

“I just like to see that maybe at one time our people will realize that we cannot be tribal. We have to be together. Of course, there will still be some fighting but it’s just like in a family. We’re a big family and I think that’s the message of the balangay and the Mt. Everest team,” Valdez said.

“Why did I launch into the Mt. Everest expedition and the balangay? To capture the imagination of the people and send the message that we can do so much. We must be able to show everybody that we can be a team, that we can work together,” he said.

The expedition aimed at tracing ancient maritime routes in Southeast Asia through a fleet of three replicas of precolonial wooden balangay boats. It was manned by a crew of around 30 people, including members of the first Filipino team to scale Mt. Everest, Navy and Coast Guard personnel, Badjaos and volunteers from Butuan City.

The fleet—composed of the boats Diwata ng Lahi, Mazawa hong Butuan, and the Sama Tawi-Tawi—left Butuan City last July for its epic 14,000-kilometer journey across the region.

After sailing to Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the expedition arrived in the port of Puerto Princesa, Palawan, last Friday. It is now on its way to Manila.

Valdez met with reporters when the flotilla made a stop at Apulit Island in Palawan, the latest exclusive resort development of the El Nido group.

Voyage of unity

“This [the ride with Mr. Aquino and Arroyo] will cap the whole voyage because we’ve traveled around Southeast Asia and at times we were called voyage of unity because the balangay is not a typical Filipino boat. It is a Southeast Asian boat. We were front page news and they called our voyage, the voyage of unity,” Valdez said.

“If they want to know if the boats are safe, we’ve sailed across Southeast Asia with those boats. They are safe,” he said.

According to Valdez, the crew will talk about their experiences during the two-hour ride with the leaders, “that in spite of the storms, the rough seas, in spite of the difficulties, we were able to put our act together so that we could safely reach the next port. The same thing with our country.”

Valdez said he had asked San Miguel Corp., a major sponsor of the expedition, to invite Pacquiao to sail with them on Dec. 6.

“You know, every time Manny had a fight, we stopped at a port. During his last fight, we were in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, and we watched it on the Internet. But then the connection kept on hanging and so the punches would stop in mid-air,” he said.

As soon as the crew set foot on Philippine soil on Balabac island, Palawan’s southernmost island, they got hold of a pirated disc of the fight and watched it.

“We were really excited. At least the fight was continuous. There were no interruptions,” Valdez said with a laugh.

Not always smooth sailing

But it was not all smooth sailing for the expedition. They had wanted to go to Hanoi and rendezvous with Mr. Aquino at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit but was prevented from doing so by bad weather.

And when they were crossing from peninsular Malaysia into Borneo at the end of October, they again met very stormy weather for three days with waves as high as a two-story house.

“We were blown off course and we ended up in Indonesia. My plan was not to go to Indonesia but there was no way we could go against the winds and the waves,” Valdez said.

“What I did was tie up the three boats together so that we wouldn’t be separated. So that whatever happened, we would be together,” he said.

For three days, they couldn’t find land.

The crew of 37 lived on fish that they caught from the sea, like blue marlin and tuna. They got their supply of fresh water when they made port visits.

On to next adventure

Asked what the group intended to do next after having scaled Mt. Everest and crossed the South China Sea on a wooden boat, Valdez said all he wanted to do was rest.

However, the crew was “very excited” about taking up the challenge of Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn to explore the Palawan Underground River.

“The underground river has not been fully explored and mapped. Foreigners have offered to explore parts of it but Hagedorn wants Filipinos to do it so I threw the suggestion to the group and they’re all excited. Why should foreigners be the ones to map that,” said Valdez.

Valdez said he would help in putting together the underground river exploration team but he would not join it as he wants to spend more time with his family.

“I’ve been doing this for the last eight years. It was a real adventure,” he said.

“From the time I announced (the plan to climb) Mt. Everest in 2003, I’ve been doing this. That’s a lot of time. We can’t forever be like this. I have my family, my grandchildren. I’d like to enjoy them, have more time with them,” he said.