Of fishes and chicken in Bantayan

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

THERE are places you question for its preserved normality. With the prerequisites of a what-might-be-Boracay, sprawling sand on one side and cliffs on the other, you question why tourism hasn’t lured it with its come-hither look and invited it for a drink, promises of moolah and technology, beckoning this barrio lass to put on lipstick and mascara.

But Hilantagaan does no such thing. Just 20 minutes from Bantayan proper by pumpboat and 50 minutes away from the “Little Boracay” that is Malapascua, Hilantagaan remains quiet, static even.

This is its charm and its crux.

Once in a while, it is said, tourists would dock here, being one of the two latest sites promoted by resorts along with privately-owned Virgin Island. But then leave just as quickly.


“Wow. The water’s so clear,” a companion couldn’t help but gush, arriving at Hilantagaan’s entry point, a length of sand that holds its share of fishing boats and washing stations.

“Yeah, right,” a local counters the companion. Do not take your shoes off, he says.

The sand holds its own secrets.

With no communal bathroom, the island is prone to landmines.

But this is about other things that float.

Hilantagaan greets with warm waters. There is no fear. Broken boats docked on the shore tell just how deceiving that can be.

We came to Hilantagaan to assess its boat damage and find instead that the whole community sat waiting beside their roofless Barangay Hall, shutters destroyed, for an organized pulong-pulong complete with dance and a cappella numbers.

Kids known as the “Hilintagaan Movers” dance to the tune of Pato Pato Gentlemen in their yellow shirts. Eyes squint in the heat, creases on their faces.

“Bisan unsa mang katilingban naabot sa among panimalay, moingon gyapon ko na padayon ta. Bangon Hilintagaanon,” the Barangay Captain says to his sweating constituents.

Out of the classroom, into the sea

Hilantagaan, like most parts of Bantayan, is a fishing community. On its streets are collections of bobos, fish cages, and hooks for squids.

And beside them are surely fishermen organizing unused nets or finding comfort in drinking the hot day away.

Bantayan has the most number of registered fishing boats.

When normalcy is sought, what could be more normal than fishing? A livelihood that has stayed with them since the island’s beginnings.

At least, this is what principal, Nang Enriqueta, says as we pass through uprooted mangroves in Barangay Bagidbid.

More than 40 years as principal, Nang Enque has seen generations of fishermen sleep
through her classes, even well after the bell rang.

She points to one fisherman at a boat-building station we visited, playfully pulling his ear.

“Kani si Rafael, grade one pa, natulog na!”

This is how life is in the island. Kids skip school to go fishing, if not for money, than for food.

But Nang Enque is quick to put up a smile. Even women and children as young as four,
after all, spend some nights at sea.

That will end soon though, she says, as in the coming year both will be prohibited to go.

“Ngano man?,” I asked indignantly, years of feminism rising up in the throat.

She doesn’t know why, she said. They merely accept these things.

Nang Enque, well-known to most residents, tours us around Sitio Villagonzalo, where toppled coconut trees unusually form into letters. T’s. N’s. Y’s. Bonfires are being lit to lessen debris and mosquitoes. And made an already sweltering December a few degrees hotter.

On the shore, part of a long line of houses and fishermen sitting on the sand, I meet Ernie Gillano. He busily readies about a hundred hooks, each a mere centimeter short and as thin as a needle. He doesn’t look up when talking, trying to finish his task before sundown.

He does this routine, apparent in the nimble threading of hook to nylon, despite knowing that he will only catch bout eight kilos that day, a far cry from the usual 30 kilos of pre-Yolanda.

Most of the corals, they say, have been covered with sand, which caused the fish to migrate elsewhere. Still, they go to sea. This is what they’re used to.

The sun seems to be holding punishment for the several days of constant rain. It shines too brightly, bringing out the scarves and sunglasses of city dwellers. But Ernie is insouciant.

He and the rest of Villagonzalo use a fishing method called kitang, a meticulous process that involves dropping a fishing hook with bait and nylon one at a time in the water in a circular pattern. Then, just as quickly as the process is completed, they retrieve them, hoping to bring something out this time around. Ernie spends about six hours completing this.

In every sitio, Nang Enque explains, a fishing method is tied to their identity. Punot Bungsod. Kitang. Pamusit. A sitio decides based on what catch the sea will give them.

Some barangays catch fish more. Others scallops. Others squid. Still others crab.

Those facing open sea often catch 30 kilo- fish or pusit. Those who don’t face open sea contend with rock-dwelling creatures.

But that’s still a far cry now with fisherfolk waiting for such variety to come back to its waters. Stranded boats are parked on the shore like displaced figurines.

Before leaving, a woman hurriedly brings in a whole pail full of fish and plants it in our van. Fiesta in Madridejos, she says. It doesn’t stop even in the midst of recovery.

“Lagaw!,” Nang Enque exclaims, white fish meat that’s good for any type of cooking. It was lunch and dinner for that day and next.

Fight or flight

What storms may teach us perhaps is that any sense of normalcy can easily be wiped out in a span of an hour. The abnormal becomes the new normal. The new normal is sought in the abnormal. Routines, so dearly held, like that feeling of arrival in a new place or that sensation of a first love affair, is wiped out. And all things are held in a different light. Food and livelihood included.

At the aftermath of Yolanda, while the sea recuperated, there were only chickens. An excess of them. Scampering around. On roads. In residences. On the beach. Raisers sold what was left of their poultry assets for P10 a piece. Buy one. Take one. With a free dead one in the mix.

“Na stressed man gud sila,” Nang Enque relates, when asked why the chickens were sold.

The change of scenery rendered them infertile and egg-less.

Yet despite the possibility of flight, a good number were still found going back to where their cages once were, lying down on the same spot after a few days of roaming at will. Freedom exchanged for routine.

She might as well have said this about the whole of Bantayan.

Bantayanons, once so used to eating fresh from the abundance of a big pool, now find themselves eating chicken instead, a rich offering to some, but not in Bantayan, whose residents are more used to giving them to outsiders. They do, after all, export 1.3 million eggs a day.

Like winged creatures looking for their nesting grounds, Bantayanon residents are quick to repair intuitively, to seek what once was.

Some are just as quick to build in the same spot in the coastal area where their former residences were destroyed.

It is a funny site, for instance, to see a toppled coconut tree in the middle of a residence, and the owners merely building a roof and frame over and around it.

On her part, Nang Enque shares she has donated her land in Sillon in order to build houses for those who have lost them. But more importantly, repair and rebuild them right this time around. A project called B-SAFR or Bantayan Safe and Resilient Community is underway to utilize her land and build storm-proof homes.

But which holds Bantayan’s virtue perhaps? The fishes that have gone or the chickens who have stayed? To hold on or let go.

And when holding on, what to hold on to?

When letting go, what to let go of?

There is nothing like a storm to realize that even age-old merits like resilience, is in new light, held questionable.

*Johanna Michelle Lim is a volunteer of Bantayan Back to Sea Project, a grassroots initiative of concerned individuals helping 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 the Bantayan Back to Sea Project Facebook page.

One may also contact Johanna Michelle Lim at (0925) 500-3922 or Bantayan Island Association President, Allan Monreal at (0928) 506-4468.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on December 19, 2013.


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