The boat ride that changed my life

Published October 21, 2017, 2:33 PM

by Anna Mae Lamentillo


Anna Mae Yu Lamentillo
Anna Mae Yu Lamentillo

In 2012, a few months before my graduation — I decided to visit the indigenous people of Tagbanua in Sitio Calauit. They had no electricity, no cellphone signal, and barely enough water. On our way to Palawan, at about 10 p.m., our boat capsized. There were 12 people. Only three knew how to swim. There was only one life vest — a plastic container more commonly used as a water dispenser. For almost an hour, we clung to a bamboo pole in the middle of the sea to survive. At first, we tried to save everything we could — we clung to our bags but when we realized we were too heavy for the “katig” to maintain — we untied them and let them loose. Our flashlight then was more important that anything we ever saved for.

A few seconds before water entered our boat, we have been stargazing. Indeed, that night, I saw the most stars in the sky. None of us thought it was even a possibility. That day was no different than the days prior — until we found ourselves in the middle of the sea, shouting for rescue.

What I learned that evening changed me. I was always told that youth is never a guarantee of opportunity or time, that chances are in fact illusory. But it was never real until that moment of danger. At that instant, nothing was ever “too fast,” “too drastic,” or “too risky”. True enough — in those few difficult minutes — I only thought of three things: the people I loved, the things I’ve always wanted to do, and honestly — how to survive.

Maybe, life is not wasted, lost in death but rather in minutes, hours, days, months, and years of reluctance, procrastination, and doubt. Maybe, life is lost, little by little, every time we shelve a dream, break a promise, or lose hope.

A few hours after the incident — we were given several options. The first one was to leave for Manila the morning after, and the second was to proceed still with the immersion. We chose the latter and after four days in the community — we witnessed how the people of Tagbanua, strengthened by challenges of ownership, rose to rebuild their lives through the spirit of “gulpi-mano” or bayanihan.

A home well cared for

The National Commission on Indigenous People declared Calauit Island an ancestral domain last March, 2010. The Tagbanuas had been fighting for the land for over 36 years. The first school, which offered an elementary diploma, had about 200 elementary students. Their classrooms were built without a single nail. Interestingly, bamboos and wood were held together by intricately woven knots. One kid wanted to be an ophthalmologist. He told me they never had one in the community. One day, the people of Sitio Calauit would not need to cross shores just to see a doctor.

Surrounded by water — boats are considered the primary means of transportation. At times, it serves as an ambulance or a school bus. But on land — boats turn into “war ships” — where children play after school.

Albert Gikea told me he learned how to swim when he was two. It was natural to them as they are heavily dependent on the sea for food and livelihood. He was one of those who would regularly conduct reforestation of mangroves. His parents always told him their survival is dependent on it. Here, water is the most valuable commodity.

With no access to electricity, wifi, or TV, children would usually gather before sunset and play. The seashore serves as playground for “I love you,” a running game similar to cops and robbers.

While children converged at sea, their parents would build roads, take out weeds, or helped construct the community’s infrastructure. This was how their library or classroom, or most of the houses in the area (if not all) — were built — through gulpi-mano, an indigenous tradition of bayanihan.

In this part of town, everyone knows the middle name of everyone else in the village, meals are always served fresh, separation and annulments are rare, and bayanihan is still very powerful.

One thing is for sure —  Sitio Calauit is a indeed a home well taken cared for.