A night at Sitio Evacuation, Bantayan (First of Two Parts)

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

KALISKIS sa buwaya. Small flits of clouds that altogether look like they’re mounted on a crocodile’s back was what Louie Rebamonte saw the day Yolanda came.

He watched the horizon from his shack just about 10 meters from the shore of Bantayan.

Louie knows too well the dangers of being too close to water, or of the supposed 20-meter regulation from the coast, but his body finds difficulty adjusting to the stagnancy of land. “Dili ko mahimutang.”

As a fisherman, Louie has learned to read his surroundings long before he learned to read news warnings. He knew that kaliskis sa buwaya or igbao appearing for two straight days in the sky meant only one thing. That abnormally strong winds were coming.

But no, not like Yolanda. There is nothing like Yolanda.

Storms are nothing new to this island. Louie is a fisherman’s son. And his skills were derived from generations of fishermen who have seen storms come and go. Louie points out to me, for instance, that when sea grass, debris, form one straight line or when a wawwaw (a sea snake), coils its body for three straight days, surely a storm was coming. There would be no fishing for six straight days following.

“Mabulabog ang isda.” The sea would be disturbed.

After Yolanda, Louie predicts, it would not take six days for the sea to recover. It would take six months.

A history of evacuation

The shack we were to sleep in, Louie’s, is a simple makeup of kawayan. The seats, beds for the night, form three sides of a rectangle. There are no walls, so looking up, you find silhouettes of headless coconuts and talisay trees. And always the stars, that somehow, have become a mesh of light in the sky.

Standing on the side are nets for pamolinao. On a good day, it would’ve been used to let fish, bolinao mostly, dry in the sun. But now it’s used to keep the cold Amihan air off our backs. What serves as curtain is a plastic sack that tickles the face and sways with the sound of the tide.

Louie’s shack is one of 200 in Sitio Evacuation, Sillon, Bantayan.

Long ago, before he was even born, Louie’s parents moved here along with thousands after a mass diaspora from Virgin Island, now private property for tourists. No fisherman can dock his boat there.

From Yolanda, shacks in Sitio Evacuation have been built and rebuilt, interspaced with tents from the Islamic Relief Organization. These tents hold contracts for recipients to return them three months after. Soon, only the shacks will be left.

The distance of Louie’s house is just enough so that during high tide, water touches its foundation. During Yolanda, even in low tide, water went four houses past his.

The wind tumbled their house of kawayan and nipa over and over. Louie and his wife, fleeing to a bigger house, saw it roll inland before stopping midway. All the things they saved up for, a TV, their bed, went along with it.

“Sure mo diri mo matulog, Ma’am?,” Louie asks. Plenty of room in the canvas tent that now holds his wife, his daughter, the mother-in-law, the father-in-law, and two neighbors.

But armed with blankets and jackets, we insist.

Unable to sleep right away, Louie joins me on the shore. Darkness is everywhere. He points to an even darker area in the distance. Dampog, he explains. Black clouds.
It’s raining in another part of the island.

Once in a while, the blinking light of a boat would pass by. Where once the sea would’ve been full of them, Christmas lights of red and blue, now there is only one or two.

Those are the fishermen, he points out, fearless enough to try. Most are still too afraid to go back.

“Mobalik pa lang to nga hangin.”

Sitio Evacuation catches pusit. A fisherman can catch about 15 to 18 kilos each a day.

But since Yolanda, the average is closer to two or three. Really, not enough to repay the gas for their pumpboats. Or sell. Or eat.

Louie says that in his fishing stints, he spends around 12 hours at sea, from 5 in the
afternoon to 5 in the morning.

I imagine the lull of his body shifting effortlessly with the waves as he looks overhead at a sky unfettered by any other light. Shooting stars! I point out to him.

But unimpressed, Louie explains there are too many of them to be special, especially when “mahulog ra man na sila,” in cold December.

“What do you think about when you’re in your boat?,” I ask him, urging poetry or the romance of place, notions of isolation, and time, and space, assets so hard to get in the city, intoxicating me.

But Louie responds “Wala.” He sleeps, insouciant to whether the fish or pusit gets lured by his bait. He just sleeps. If the fish comes, all the better.

I follow his lead and go back to his shack.

Early morning at Sillon

There is a boat roped to the shore, and a child sitting there holding a string. It is the first thing I see waking up to the shrill of children flying their kites as early as before sunrise.

One of them is Louie’s kid, Siena. Siena is also the name of his boat. It sits beside his shack, unable to go back to sea because of a hole in the frame.

On the first night after Yolanda, Louie tells me, their whole family slept in the back of the same frame, the only protection they had after their house was wiped out.

Siena is named after a Saint, a throwback to Louie’s days in the seminary, long before he fell in love.

Wind, breeze, with the sound of the shore and the tides, is lulling to those not used to sleeping under open sky so close to sea. Perhaps this is why I asked about their story, Louie’s and his wife. Romance again.

“Mangape ta, Ma’am,” Louie’s wife, Girlie, invites. She brings with her mugs and coffee sachets that seem bought rather than from relief goods.

While combing Siena’s hair for church, Girlie tells the story of how they met.
Louie’s version was that they were “classmates” at sea, their families a family of fishermen. But Girlie tells otherwise.

That soon after leaving the seminary in Manila, which he found stifling, he came back to Bantayan as catechist at their church for Flores de Mayo. Girlie was there.

Louie was 21. She was 17. They met every Saturday, and texted in between.

Her family, despite knowing his, was strict. He wooed her, visited their house, with mais to soften them, he says.

“Ha? Walay mais oi!,” Girlie argues.

Girlie helps Louie once in a while to fish. To wait for him on the shore or to help him on his boat, a fisherman’s wife is used to this. But the couple does not allow Siena to go. The child is afraid of open sea, they say.

And so must be her parents, after losing their second child so early on. He died even before he lived with a hole on his back that made him unfit to be born to a fisherman’s life.

But Louie has plans for Siena. That she doesn’t become a fisherman like him. She is to be a nurse, someone who can take care of him and the wife when he grows old.

“Bahala na hangtud-hangtud ko mananagat, Ma’am.”

But not his child.

This is his dream.

We sit in his shack, looking at the sea, deceivingly warm and flat on a Sunday morning.

But it has given him enough hurt, Louie says, to know that it can hurt him again.

Moving on again

The sitio, at 7 is starting to wake up. The tents grow empty as it becomes too hot to stay in, save for children playing house. And without coconut tops for shade, the rest of the sitio is a humid circle that dries up the remaining plants and grass.

Fishermen and boat mechanics eating their breakfast invite us to partake of their breakfast. For most, it is pusit. For a sitio not used eating out of a pack, relief goods are starting to lose its essence.

“Noodles. Murag wati!,” a child eating her breakfast exclaims.

Soon, Sitio Evacuation will have to evacuate again.

The mayor, Louie says, is starting to strictly implement the 40-meter regulation away from the shoreline soon. They do not know when soon is. They are not told of these things.

Louie can only shrug. “Kung unsay plano sa gobyerno gud.”

Relocation, to them, is nothing new. They are told of land donated by a barangay captain. But one place, he says, is as good as the other.

They could at least build a halfway house though. It is hard being away from water.

When all the relief goods are gone, he knows there is only the sea. “Wala man siguro nangamatay ang isda. Basta naay isda, naay paglaum.”

This is where we leave him, banking his hopes on the return of fish, the sea, and his two Sienas.

*Johanna Michelle Lim is a volunteer of Bantayan Back to Sea Project, a grassroots initiative of concerned individuals to connect Bantayan’s fishermen back to their livelihood. They aim to repair boats and rebuild lives. For more information about the project, one may go to their Facebook page Bantayan Back to Sea Project. One may also contact Johanna Michelle Lim at (0925) 500-3922 or Bantayan Island Association president, Allan Monreal at (0928) 506-4468. (Johanna Michelle Lim))

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on December 12, 2013.


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