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What I learned after my boat sank

Anna Mae Yu Lamentillo

Originally published in Night Owl: A Nationbuilder's Manual

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 no access to basic education. 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 keep afloat, we untied them and let them loose. 

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

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 life through the spirit of “gulpi-mano” or bayanihan.

Classrooms with no nails

The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples declared Calauit Island as an ancestral domain in March 2010. The Tagbanuas have been fighting for the land for over 36 years. The first school, which offered an elementary diploma, had about 200 elementary students. When they graduate, they would usually leave for Coron, a town two hours away, to study high school or college.

In the afternoon, a few hours before the sunset, men would gather to improve the community’s infrastructure while women would meet to take out weeds in the banana plantation. They used materials readily available in the community. Instead of nails, the group made use of various kinds of knots.

Meals are always served fresh 

The people of Tagbanua are heavily dependent on sea for food and livelihood. They taught us that survival and sustainability would only be possible when the body of water was protected. To preserve their natural environment, they would regularly conduct reforestation of mangroves and alternately plant seeds during low tide.

Here, water is the most valuable commodity. They are stored in drums and used sparingly. Bathing is limited to a pail of water.

And for several days, what seemed “essential” did not matter.

With no access to electricity, Wifi or TV, meals are always served fresh, girls play bahay-bahayan under the leaves of the palm trees and boys are not afraid to enjoy flowers. In this part of town, with no cellphone signal, everyone knows the middle name of everyone in the village, separation and annulments are rare, and tasks are done by the entire community.

Sitio Calauit was indeed a home well taken care of.

Anna Mae "Anime" Yu Lamentillo Logo
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