By Jean Claire Dy
(originally published in http://www.mindanews.com 2004)
Framed by the arch of the blue plastic roof hoisted by bamboo poles of the boat, the image of the Mamali slowly blurred. The multi-colored garbage randomly strewn on its shoreline gradually transformed into sprouting mushrooms then more like sea-foam as the pump-boat gathered speed. To the east, Sicalig Island slowly loomed large—a green promontory silently floating on the calm blue-green waters of Balete Bay.
“Magpa-alsa nalang ka sa mga lalaki day,” the guide behind me said loudly as he poked my back. “Kay mo-dock man ta sa layo kay low-tide. Mabasa nya ka.” I looked down on my black cargo pants, rolled them up above my knees and turned to the man. “Dili ko motuo anang alsa Nong.” I flashed him a smile to let him know I was okay.
The pump-boat docked a few meters away from the shore. I could see men and women crowding by the coastline, wide grins pasted on their bronzed faces. A few hands were waving at our direction. Three sturdy looking men ambled excitedly towards our boat. One of them offered his shoulder to me. I politely said “No, thank you.” Then, I splashed my way to the shoreline, sometimes flinching at how my toes would dig into the muddy soil underwater.
A skinny man dressed in a blue shirt with a large GAP logo printed on the front pocket and faded Levis jeans welcomed me with a handshake, saying “Asalamalaikum.” I uttered a slow hesitant “malaikumasalam” and “maayong hapon” under my breath. “So, you Pilipina, foreigner? Not from anywhere else in the world?” I shook my head then gestured to my other foreign companions. “Foreigners,” I said. The man seemed pleased at the information. He gave me quick nod then quickly walked right up to my foreign companions.
I stood there for awhile, scanning the huts scattered by the coastline. Batik curtains were draped unceremoniously from their open windows. Behind one hut, I caught a glimpse of a billowing blue blanket amidst brightly colored cloths hanging from what seemed to be a clothesline. A little girl’s sun-bleached hair bobbed from one of the windows, as she peered out to catch a look at the visitors. Colorful bancas of different sizes with fishing nets dangling out of them lined one side of the shore. On the other side of the shore, mangroves grew profusely.
A sixty-something woman was grinning at me, showing two missing front teeth. Her body slightly bent forward as though she had spent most of her life bending down over something. A colorful malong hugged her hips and covered parts of her brown pole-like legs quietly shaking under the weight of her upper body. I smiled back at her. Not even letting go of her smile, she silently took my arm and led me to a small kiosk outside her house.
In the middle of the kiosk was a table filled with all sorts of native delicacies. It was the first time I had seen some of the food and so I tried each one, slowly chewing as I relished the unfamiliar taste of the pastries. In between gulps of the coconut juice, I heard the skinny man in blue shirt introduce himself as the community leader as he launched into a long talk about the community’s history with the conservation projects for the bay.
“You see, Balete Bay has to be taken care of, “ the man solemnly said. “Or else it would stop giving us fish.” The women who were huddled in a corner behind him giggled. One woman’s head stuck out of the door of the hut near the kiosk revealing a face full of curiosity. She gazed at the community leader. She was apparently weaving what looked like a banig.
The fishermen sitting beside the community leader nodded approvingly. With raised voice and furrowed forehead, the community leader continued, “Actually, we take turns patrolling the waters at night to catch illegal fishers even with just a few lamps around. But the light of the moon will help us see. That’s how we do it,” gesturing with his finger to emphasize his point.
I raised my eyes at the late afternoon sky. Soon, the moon will appear with its blue light reflecting the waters of Balete Bay. I imagined the fishing wardens clambering into their bancas, poised for another long night of searching. Fishermen becoming “fishers of men.”
“But often the Christians who are the illegal fishers, they make trouble, “ the community leader said bitterly. “I don’t know why they do it. They take our lands, then they take our seas.” He was breathing heavily now. I could see tears welling in his eyes. Then the sixty-something woman spoke, hesitantly at first, “but we’ve learned to live with the Christians in our community. After long years, we’ve learned to live together.” Mumbles of agreement echoed. “Some of us have intermarried. That’s how we got to understand each other,” a man who introduced himself as a former Visayan said. “Eventually, we learn, you know. Pareha lang gud na sa among relasyon sa dagat.”
I gazed out to Balete Bay, the heart of this small community of people. With its seemingly murky, blue-green waters the sight of it is far from the pristine postcard pictures of popular beaches around the country. But one knows it is alive and teeming with treasures.
I looked around the coastline and listened to the silent hum of the sea breeze, to the bronzed faces and turbanned heads of the men and women crowding around the kiosk and understood what the man said. The air around Sicalig Island was elemental. Surely, Nature works the way it does—the moon would bathe the island with its blue light aiding the unwitting fishing wardens in their quest. This is a story of interconnectedness: me, my foreign companions watching the people with wide-eyed wonder, the sea—the heart of the people of Sicalig, everything, here and now.
(Balete Bay, a 725-hectare body of water is considered to be the main source of food and livelihood for thousands of families living around it. It is currently under the biodiversity protection and conservation programs of some NGOs, such as the Interfaith Movement for Peace, Empowerment and Development (IMPEDE). The community of Sicalig Island is one of the communities that organized deputized fish wardens to catch illegal fishers in the area.
Route: Take a public transport to Dawan, Mati, Davao Oriental. Then take another public transport to baranggay Mamali. From there, one can hire a ferry boat or pump-boat to get to Sicalig Island or tour around Balete Bay. )