WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Whaling winds

PAMILACAN, Bohol (MindaNews/23 April) — “Oh, you’re a psychologist!” the German girl exclaimed.
“In my spare time. Not today,” I assured her, as I waved goodbye, happy to have convinced her to come see Davao some time soon.

I’d found her at mid-morning, struggling with her flipflops going up the footpath that cuts through the island of Pamilacan in Bohol. The straps wouldn’t hold.

“They’re finally giving up on you,” I smiled.

“Yes,” she grinned back ruefully. “My second pair in two weeks.”

She was on a three-week holiday and had a couple of days left of going native in this little island, soaking in the sun as much as she could before it was time to head back for work and home. I wonder if she knew that Pamilacan had an on-again/off-again Abu Sayyaf alert, sitting as it does just a little off Mindanao. Most foreigners are scared away by the merest whisper of ASG. Maybe not her. I would bump into two or three more young Europeans on the trail that cuts through the island from north to south.

So small. It didn’t take me an hour to walk across on the footpath that undulated with the gentle rise and fall of the terrain. This island has yet to know the tracks of a four-wheeled motorized vehicle. The cement blocks are an informal record of the recent life and times in Pamilacan.

Constructed beginning the mid 1980s – so far as I could tell – it followed the paths that people use to go about the island. Some sections are a product of communal projects, what we call “dagyaw” in Iloilo or “bayanihan” somewhere else, when people get together and work on something that would benefit everyone. One slab has the childish scrawls etched out when the cement was still wet. I make out “Grade III” after the list of names. Elsewhere, you’d find autographs of Pamela, Darna and Antonio d’Great.

Hubby and the kids were down at the marine sanctuary and coral coves. Me – well, the romance of walking away just grabs me by the heels sometimes. I like meeting people doing what they do where they are. Or finding evidence of what they do. Sometimes, that means you’ll probably catch me puzzling over the modern-day hieroglyphics etched in cement or spray-painted on the city’s culverts. The human mind has this need to say “I’ve been here, world. Go and tell them.”

From her seemingly diabetic stupor up there on her teacher’s desk, the formidable Dr. Nenita Cabalfin had hammered into me the fundamentals of human ecology. She, of the Chicago chool of sociology, who’d memorize verbatim every chapter George Homans ever wrote. Well, she gave me a grade that was not to die for. What she didn’t know was that my time with her fired me up for a lifetime. I go to places automatically tuning in to livelihood resources and how people work out geographical and labor distribution, how they negotiate social arrangements and interactions that allow them to survive. It’s very rare to find a genuine Gemeinschaft community any more.

Pamilacan is the 17th barangay of Baclayon. Natives here will tell you that the name is derived from the local term for a whaling hook, because whale-hunting was the source of livelihood for people here for as far back as they could remember. In 1998 when the ban on hunting, killing and selling of whales and dolphins took effect, the people here bonded and clamored for government help in finding them alternative livelihood. Today, in less than a generation, Pamilacan sits as an example of the political will that turns a whole community around, so characteristic of the Boholano. With a little help from the government, the WWF-Philippines and some other NGOs, the three-sitio island transformed into one of the best community-based self-sustaining eco-tourism projects in the country.

Pamilacan rests at the navel of the country, right where waves of cetaceans and manta rays come by to feed. Even from the beach, they are quite a sight to behold. As the Pamilacan residents are finding out, many people actually want to come and see the dolphins play off their coast. Former whalers now run dolphin-watch trips, operating on a strict rotation that allows everyone the chance to earn from the tourist trade. Out there on the sea, they watch each other to make sure that rules are followed and dolphins remain protected. The good thing about the Gemeinschaft community is that people follow rules. There’s just no place for you to hide on such a small island if you do not do right by others.

“We used to kill them. Now we protect them,” said Dadong who in the late 1990s was caught in Cebu for trying to sell his last whale.

“When you see one, do you feel the urge to kill it?” I asked. (Don’t blame me- for leisurely reading, I brought along Miller and Kanazawa’s book on evolutionary psychology that says generational behaviors are genetically encoded and boys will be boys. Well, actually, I asked because when we started married life hubby was monitoring dolphin safety for Earth Island Institute which was, and probably still, quite invested in pushing for the whaling ban. I wanted to see whether Dadong still had bad feelings for the pressure groups that in effect took them away from their way of life.)

“Not any more. We have to protect them. They bring us good,” Dadong replied. And sincerely, as far as I could judge. In fact, he’d lecture me on whale conservation, which is quite a far cry to how this conversation would have gone twenty years ago. (Okay, that’s another item for “not today.” Kanazawa can take that statement apart for how modern requirements to behavior are made to make sense with the memory of the ancestral environment. Not me.)

Asked further about basic services in this island, he told me that there is an elementary school to serve the children in the 200-household community. Last year, they also started offering first year high school, opening up the next year levels as the children move up. There is also a barangay health station here. Residents have a rule that in case of emergency, anybody’s boat could be commandeered as a water ambulance that would take the sick person to Baclayon an hour away.

The rotation scheme also works for the homestay homes and seaside resorts that island women run. Children do their bit by stringing white calachuchi flowers and welcoming tourists off the boat with a lei. When the rain comes, they’re the ones who really run to catch it since the island has no other potable water source.

People here make sure that their neighbors earn enough to live on. They would call on their neighbors if someone wants a massage or needs to buy convenience and souvenir items.

For the tourist, P750 a day would get you a soft bed and three square real-hearty island meals. Manang Mery who fed us lots of seaweeds, backyard vegetables and grilled fish said they only have pork about twice a week when someone in the neighborhood slaughters a pig. Mental lightbulbs flashing! I’d probably come back here to work on that book I’ve been meaning to write for some time now.

Bohol. The land of dive sites, tarsiers and peanuts, of watchtowers and imposing colonial churches. One coral stone church is remarkable enough, but here you’ll find them about six kilometers apart on the average. Getting here on the Holy Week when people were at worship did not allow for much opportunity to really haunt these living witnesses to the island and its people.

There really is no way to take in Bohol in only a couple of days. I guess it means I’ll be back.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to [email protected]. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says).

 

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