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The International Writers Magazine

Filipino Bais
Why I will be going back to this beautiful bay

Polly Barraclough

I spent 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.

Once 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.
Fish 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 their education.
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.

Juanito Torres is my brother’s 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 Elley’s Place that I stayed during my six-week visit.

Eating at Elley’s 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 Elley’s 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 boat’s 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 fishing boundaries.

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 Elley’s 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 freezer.

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.

Fish Farm
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 traps

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 work.

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.
Elley’s 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 brother’s boat – made particularly slow as the boat is moored several metres from Elley’s 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 into action.

Fishing 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 friend’s 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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