Into TGL: Beyond the Sea

January 24, 2017

Ben Pablo

Tigman, Aborlan, Palawan, Philippines

(Beyond the Sea is part of a multi-story series documenting the author’s visit between November to December 2016.)

Sunrises—another day, another one explodes in the sky in vivid oranges and pinks, bringing to life the dull grey dawn. A vision worthy of being on a postcard or screensaver. But that’s how you and I see a sunrise. For the fishermen of Tigman village, the sun rising marks the beginning of another hard day’s work, of a catch that determines dinner.

As roosters crow and the trees awake with chirping, the earliest of birds—the fishermen—rise before the sun. Lean shapes move measuredly in the shadows of the early hours, tying and untying knots on small boats, preparing for the morning’s expedition.

Tiny silhouettes of children are seen scurrying around their fathers and older brothers, helping out in whatever way they can. The rest of the shorefront hut is wide awake. By seven in the morning, the front yard has already been swept clean of beach debris. Cigarette smoke rises from a middle-aged man sipping on his morning coffee. The day has begun.

According to a 2016 report, The Philippines is composed of over 7,600 islands. Home to more than 100 million people, it has the world’s 12th largest population. Many fail to realize the country’s size perhaps due to it being categorized with other tiny Pacific island nations, when in fact it’s larger than the United Kingdom.

The truth is that many or most of these islands lack modern infrastructure, and the rich seas surrounding them and the Pacific Ocean to the East continue to be attractive sources of livelihood for millions.

With development remaining largely centralized, progress tends to concentrate in and around Manila and a few other big cities, leaving little for everywhere and everyone else. I visited one of those places: Tigman village in Aborlan, Palawan—one of countless fishing villages in the archipelago, with more than half of adult males employed as fishermen. Here I was introduced to what it’s like to depend on the sea for a living. Here I glimpsed at the conditions of the peripheries of the country I call home.

I talked to Jun, a career fisherman in his mid-fifties. He now spends most of his time at home, renting out his boat and equipment to other fishermen. I caught him on his hammock on a beautiful day. He was all smiles. I knew nothing about fishing, and he happily answered all my questions, from what kind of equipment they use to what kinds of fish they catch.

Crabs are quick and easy, just a few hundred meters off the beach. A few kilometers further and they catch mackerel. Trevally nets a good price. From April to June, they go as far as 40 kilometers to catch yellowfin tuna. I arrived when it was almost December, and even caught a preview of the choppy seas that challenge fishermen in January. Boats big and small have a hard time sailing this time of the year.

Jun and I had a grand time reminiscing about his fishing days. We talked about how so many of the village’s men end up in that line of work, and how he as a young boy was groomed to be a fisherman. He ended up with two daughters, and while he told me he met at least half a dozen fisherwomen in his many years at sea, he wasn’t able to pass his skills onto his girls. Perhaps that’s why he spends a lot of time babysitting his two grandsons these days.

I spoke to Roger who lives down the beach. Like Jun, he’s a career fisherman with three decades of fishing under his belt. He moved to Tigman as a young man when he married a woman from the village. His wife’s parents taught him how to fish. Unlike Jun, Roger doesn’t live inland in a house with cement walls and a television. Instead, he stays in a beach hut made of light materials. It’s not the most agreeable environment for the grandkids he has running around.

Roger calls himself a “small-time” fisherman. He doesn’t have any big boats that can go far and catch expensive fish. Along with his sons, he nets crabs and mostly anchovies nearby. They get up at 4:30 every morning for their daily catch. They light up their lanterns and spend a few hours out in sea. He says only one of his eight children finished college, and several dropped out early in high school.

Gregorio, one of Roger’s sons, sits with us. He smiles shyly with the face of a young man in his early twenties. But his body was that of a Greek god’s, sculpted like a desert pillar, skin toned by a thousand suns. His handshake, rough, palms carved deep with lines like fissures in the earth. His bearing, Spartan-like, braced for the lifetime of hard labor set before him.

There are no Sundays, no weekends, no public holidays, no days off. Such is the life of a fisherman in Tigman village. No one follows any sort of weather forecast. If they wake up and the sea’s too rough for them to sail, they may have little to eat on that day.

Roger takes on a freewheeling approach to raising his children. He’s let his sons drop out of school to learn his trade. He says it’s better than having them join gangs in the bigger towns. But he’s not completely dependent on the sea. If fate will allow, he wishes they didn’t have to fish. While the sea remains rich, weather’s always unpredictable. He says fishermen from neighboring municipalities still use illegal fishing methods in their sea. He’s worried about those from richer towns coming in with their fish finding electronics. He doesn’t wish the same onerous work for his younger sons.

But when I asked him if he hoped to own a big boat someday, to maybe rent it out like Jun does, he had no interest in this. He said it’s expensive, that it would end up in years of debt, and that he doesn’t trust other fishermen to work for him honestly.

Fishing remains as one of the great traditions of humanity—one that feeds billions the world over. And yet many of us fail to realize what it actually takes for seafood to reach our plates. We enjoy our delectable lobster dinners, and maybe dread having to pack canned tuna when camping. A pilgrimage to the Tsukiji fish market may be on a foodie’s bucket list, and the battle for the perfect seafood paella will rage on forever. Perhaps those who’ve seen the TV series Deadliest Catch have an idea of what kind of labor the work entails. But even those guys have it better in some ways, aided by adequate equipment in their expeditions, and raking in enough to live on.

The reality is that plenty of fishermen in various corners of the world continue to work with the bare minimum of tools and even less in compensation. Sadly, the injustice isn’t even limited to fishing. In this very village that I spent a month living in, I’ve watched many men work for wages below the government-required minimum. I met a 74-year-old man who earns $6 for every 1000 coconuts he peels. I bought him a Sprite. I heard of kids in Southern Palawan, no more than 10 years old, having to walk 20 kilometers a day to attend school. People living like they did hundreds of years ago, that if you asked them their birthday, instead of giving you the date, they’ll tell you they were born during corn harvest.

So many people in my country do backbreaking work for next to nothing. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to meet and talk to some fishermen, some of the hardest working men in the world. But I can’t help but notice the bitter taste left in my mouth after every chat, after every heartbreaking story of not having enough to do this, and not knowing enough to want that. It’s a completely different life from what I live back home. To you and I, the sunrise is a thing of beauty. The fisherman rises before it to catch our seafood. But there are many more truths about him and his work. There’s much more to his life if you look beyond the sea.

Ben Pablo

Filipino writer who calls the road home, eager to tell the stories of the world—from sea to summit, small towns to big cities, cultures old and new. Enjoys drinking IPAs while watching his favorite sports teams lose. Contributor at Lost at E Minor. Minimalist.

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