The International Writers
it was part of the island of Mindanao, but cut off either by continental
drift or the rising waters at the end of the ice age. The island split
into two regions, Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental. A chain of rugged
mountains separates them. In earlier times, the island, known as Buglas,
a native word used to describe a tall grass resembling sugar cane plants.
In 1565, Spanish explorers re-named it after seeing many dark-skinned
inhabitants belonging to the Negrito ethnic group. Among the early inhabitants
were the natives of Malayan heritage. They dwelt along the coastline and
traded their goods with Chinese and other Asian merchants as far back
as the 13th century.Today trade with neighbouring China, India and the
Malayan peninsula is limited.
Why I will be going back to this beautiful bay
six weeks as the guest of Juanito Torres. He and his family are
part of a fishing community in Bais Bay on the island of Negros.
It is approximately 150 miles long and 50 miles wide; the fourth
largest island in the Philippines.
Despite the financial
hardships, there is a real sense of family. Close-knit family
groups live in close proximity to each other sharing food, chores and
celebrations. Laughter and fun seem to accompany almost everything they
do. Nothing ever appears to be a problem. Things are done, but in a laid
back manner that would test the patience of most Westerners.
farms and coastal fishing are how this small fishing community makes
its living. Money is a scarce commodity. Family members often work
abroad in order to fund their families. It is also traditional for
relatives working away to sponsor nephews and nieces throughout
Juanito Torres is
my brothers father-in-law and he and is wife Elley, built a house
several metres from the shore using traditional materials, such as coconut
weave and bamboo. A jetty connects it to where the rest of the extended
family lives. It was at Elleys Place that I stayed during my six-week
Eating at Elleys Place is a memorable affair; Elley is an amazing
cook. She produces meals effortlessly using fish caught by the family
and local produce such as seaweed, crabs, prawns, octopus, papaya, mangoes
and bananas. Sisters and aunties, who sit together chatting whilst preparing
the food, help our evening meal along.
Sipping rum and coke after one of Elleys amazing meals, I sat
on a wooden slatted bench on the balcony overlooking the bay. The shoreline
is dotted with ramshackle houses with much of domestic life done in
the open air. There is little privacy. A fisherman, waist deep in water,
is scraping his boats propeller. Pigpens, suspended over the bay,
are cleaned with buckets of seawater whilst their inhabitants grunt
indignantly. The gentle rustling of the coconut weave roof contrasted
by the seemingly ceaseless crowing of cockerels. In the distance, the
bay studded with tall bamboo canes encased in netting, denoting individual
One of the pleasures of staying in a house perched at the end of a pier
is being able to fish. My fishing skills were non-existent, but I was
able to enlist the help of one of Elleys relatives, who patiently
taught me the basics. I would spend ages concentrating hard on the float,
ready to hoist out the line at any hint of movement. I felt particularly
lucky one day when I caught three Puffer fish and a Whiting. The Puffers
literally puff themselves up when caught, are yellowish in colour, and
have teeth resembling a squirrel. Oh, yes, poisonous if eaten. I was
so chuffed with my Whiting that I removed the hook and took it proudly
to the kitchen, popping it into a bowl in the sink. I was ready to take
any congratulations that might come my way. Almost immediately, the
Whiting leapt out of the bowl into the adjoining sink and slid down
the drain-hole. I was mortified when a chap had to dismantle the U bend
to recover it. Here nothing is ever wasted; my Whiting went into the
Fish and all types of seafood are very important in the Filipino diet.
It provides a cheap protein-supply for the population. Fish farms are
becoming more important in catering for the demand. I witnessed a harvest
at a fish farm belonging to my brother and his wife.
Normally there are about three staggered harvests from one batch of
fingerlings (finger length fish) placed in a nursery pond.
As their size increases, the fingerlings are released in batches from
the nursery pond into bigger ponds stocked with lub lub a silk
type weed that grows when nutrients in the soil are exposed to sunlight
through shallow water.
Milkfish or Bangus, appear in folk tales as the king of fish.
Bangus is the local name. The head of the fish turns a milky colour
when cooked, hence the term Milkfish. It is metallic silver in colour
with blue-green markings on the upper and lower part of its body. It
has big eyes and a long fork-shaped fin. The fish can reach the weight
of 50 pounds and a length of 180 centimetres in its natural habitat
and live up to 15 years. Farm fish are usually sent to market at around
10 15 cm in length and weighing 75 500 grams.Concrete
The harvest begins with fish caught in concrete traps as the fishpond
drains. Crates are filled with fish. Each crate of harvested fish weighs
35 kilograms. These are carried on the heads of porters, who with great
dexterity carry them along narrow muddy paths that link the ponds to
where lorries transport them to market.
To catch the stragglers not washed into the trap set at the concrete
gate, a gang of men are employed to dredge the pond. Eighteen men stand
in a line holding onto a tightly woven net. The net is slowly dragged
across the length of the rectangular pond. One man concentrates on creating
tension on the lower edge of the net. The fish start to leap in the
air in an attempt to escape. Some manage to leap over the net and behind
the men. The men hold the net at shoulder length now. This is hard,
strenuous, teamwork. A few of the men work on the fish farm but others
are brought in especially for the harvest. These men work on the sugar
plantations but their work is seasonal; breed of men hardened by backbreaking
Filipino men are usually lean, muscular and straight-backed. They are
light and have comparatively broad feet that helps prevent them from
sinking too deep into the soft mud bottom. My brother tried it once,
and sunk up to his butt, much to the amusement of the men.
The people of this area impressed me with their dignity, fortitude and
spirituality. These characteristics were evident when Japanese forces
invaded the province during World War II. I visited the mangrove where
women and children hid during the Occupation. The only way to reach
the mangrove is by sea. To moor our boat took several attempts. During
the Occupation, boats left the Bay at night with their cargo of provisions.
Local knowledge and the navigational skills of fishermen allowed them
to arrive at the mangrove undetected. This area is uninhabited now and
as I walked around, I tried to imagine how those women and children
survived. Birdsong and cicadas are the only sounds heard; there is a
sense of foreboding about the place.
Elleys paternal grandfather refused to say where the women were
and for this, he was beaten. His beating left him paralysed and he died
young. On the 6th August 1945 the Occupation of Negros Island ended
Each town in Negros Oriental has its own patron saint and celebrations
are taken very seriously during annual fiestas. We were invited to Tanjay
to celebrate such an occasion, about 6 km by boat from Bias Bay. There
was the usual slow start whilst people and bags were loaded on to my
brothers boat made particularly slow as the boat is moored
several metres from Elleys Place, as it was too shallow to moor
any nearer. We climbed down a rickety ladder suspended from the house.
Plodded through dense sticky mud and waited our turn to get in to a
shallow bottomed boat that took us to the larger boat. All this takes
time and it is getting darker, but we finally set off, our only illumination
is from two torches, which scan from left to right. The motor splutters
in the Philippines includes trapping fish in nets strung around
tall bamboo poles. I was able to see this close-up as we headed
uncontrollably towards one of them. The left-hand boat supports
(fat pipes suspended on either side of the boat to stabilise it)
stabbed into the netting bringing two bamboo poles down into the
path of the boat. Our boat is eased out of the netting, but we head
into more netting, this time to the right. We leave a big tear in
the net, plus lopsided poles.
We disembark at
Tanjay and our mode of transport is now a pedicab, a motorised tricycle.
There are so many of us crammed together that the vehicle is unable
to move when it encounters a mount in the road the heavier of
us get out and push.
A motorised pedicab
We finally arrive at the friends house and are offered a choice
of whole baked fish, something like black pudding and a spit roasted
pig, most of which has been eaten by the guests who arrived on time!
My stay with Elley and her family had been a unique experience with
so many special memories. Did I tell you about the time my brother and
I were surrogate parents at a local wedding
© Polly Barraclough June 2007
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