The Balangay – A Voyage of Unity: For the Philippines and Southeast Asia

From: The Manila Bulletin
First of Two Parts
By Former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos
December 18, 2010, 10:53pm

 MANILA, Philippines – After sailing more than 14,000 kilometers in 14 months of hazardous, death-dealing and life-changing adventures, the “Voyage of the Balangay” completed its journey around most of the Philippines and Southeast Asia last December 13 at the Harbour Square Open Plaza, CCP Complex, Manila – against all odds.

The three replicas of ancient Filipino sailboats that made that epic voyage consisted of the Diwata ng Lahi (Spirit of the Race), Masawa Hong Butuan (Radiance of Butuan), and Sama Tawi Tawi (People of Tawi Tawi) with a hardy crew of 40 Pinoys and Pinays – including Badjao boatbuilders, Butuan volunteers, Philippine Navy and Coast Guard sailors, history chroniclers, and the team that planted the Philippine flag on top of Mt. Everest three years ago.

Lessons for all; directions for the leaders The successful completion of the “Voyage of the Balangay” from September 1, 2009 to December 13, 2010 carries profound lessons for all Filipinos, in particular a legacy of “best practices” for decision-makers and a set of fresh directions for incumbent elected leaders at all levels. In most of his presentations and media interviews, expedition leader Art Valdez articulated what these are – better than anyone else can ever do.

This old hand, as a consistent supporter of that extraordinary, heroic journey and of the equally record-breaking Mt. Everest Expedition by the same core of intrepid Filipinos, has this to say by way of wrapping up these astounding feats:

(1) Our balangays completed their 14 months voyage of 14,000 kilometers, arriving safely at their Manila homeport still healthy and fit, and eager and ready to undertake their next mission.

(2) The crew correctly navigated the unfamiliar South Seas, and properly coordinated their safe passage across hazardous, stormy waters and thru busy commercial shipping traffic in major ports in Sabah, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, and Cambodia.

(3) The expedition promoted goodwill towards themselves as daring Filipinos in particular, and towards the Philippines in general thru their on-shore interactions by way of exhibiting unity and teamwork, and underscoring the heroism of our ancestor seafarers.

(4) The present-day sailboats demonstrated – particularly for our incumbent leaders at every level – that a capable, well-motivated, self-sacrificing crew skippered by a leader with breadth of vision and exemplary determination, can bring Philippine ships through every hazard along the way and reach their distant destination not only intact, but also more experienced and ever-proud as achieving Filipinos.

Always essential: A visionary skipper and competent crew

The Balangay adventure, like the Mt. Everest Expedition, was successfully skippered by former DoTC Undersecretary Art Valdez who pioneered and highlighted the “Kaya ng Pinoy” spirit of modern-day Filipinos in these two record-breaking exploits.

Valdez explains: “This expedition was intended to rekindle the dormant maritime consciousness among our young people and reconnect our people to their seafaring past. It was one way of showing that Filipinos, as a people, have so much talent and energy enough to overcome daunting challenges and actualize a seemingly impossible dream.”

His unshakable belief that we Filipinos can achieve anything we have set our mind to do – as he has already proven twice at great risk to life, limb, and family welfare – is simply inspiring. For senior citizen Art (age 62) who was a militant activist in his youth during the First Quarter Storm, anything is possible – if there is consistent unity, solidarity, and teamwork in the enterprise.

He even managed to marry a beauteous social worker, Joy Santos, from Pangasinan (who later was elected mayor of Bacolod City over scions of haciendero families), even as she and Art raised a quality family of three boys and a girl, plus three adopts: A homeless Badjao, a Nepalese Sherpa, and an orphaned Tsinoy streetchild – but that’s another story.

Beginnings of the balangay

The “Voyage of the Balangay” began on September 1, 2009 also from the CCP Complex where the three boats ended their arduous journey.

The 21st century Filipino expedition retraced the migration tracks and trading routes of our seafaring ancestors and relied on ancient navigation methods like the monitoring of cloud formations, wave patterns, bird migrations, and positions of the sun and stars in criss-crossing inter-island waters and unknown seas.

The original balangays, like their present-day replicas, ranged from 15 to 50 meters long and 4 to 11 meters wide, large enough to collectively accommodate some 60 persons. They were propelled by no more than crude sails and paddles, but were motivated by uncanny determination and the Filipino Kaya (can do) spirit.

Wikipedia reveals: “The ‘Balangay’ was the first wooden watercraft ever excavated in its entirety in Southeast Asia. Also known as the ‘Butuan boat,’ this artifact is evidence of early Filipino craftsmanship and seamanship skills during pre-colonial times. The finely built boat was made without the use of blueprints, put together by hardwood pegs or dowels (with no iron nails or spikes) and natural resins, and taught to be made from one generation to another with primitive handtools .

“But, the balangay was more than a mere boat. It was a vessel bearing a social unit. In fact, upon the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century, they found out that the term ‘balangay’ (now ‘barangay’ or neighborhood community as part of a city or municipality) referred to the smallest political unit, ranging from 30 to 100 households, ruled by a chief or datu.”

More than enhancing our maritime heritage, Valdez stressed that the voyage served to underscore our struggles in nation-building, with the balangay representing our one and only Ship of State, “Pilipinas.” All citizens of our vast archipelago, including the OFWs and unborn generations succeeding us, are onboard this one and only ship. We must succeed together, or we sink together. The waters of our archipelago of 7,107 islands should not be seen as dividing Filipinos, but rather as embracing all into one national society – along with our neighbor-countries in the larger Southeast Asian aggrupation of nations.

Rousing welcomes in Sabah and Brunei

Datelined Kota Kinabalu, the Daily Express of Malaysia (August 22, 2010) reported: “They were the first Filipino group to climb Mt. Everest and reach the top not just once but twice! The women on the team were the first females in history to do the difficult ‘traverse’ up from the North Face (Tibet) down to the South Face (Nepal). Now they have decided to test their mettle on something equally extraordinary.

‘Going to the sea in an ancient balangay is more than coming down to earth,’ enthused Art Valdez, leader of ‘Voyage of The Balangay’ which sailed into the beach off the Kinabalu Yacht Club yesterday. Before breaking into international waters into Sabah on its way to Brunei and Singapore, Valdez and his flotilla of three balangays spent a year sailing around the Philippines, making 80 stops in all.

“The international leg first took them to Sandakan, then to Kudat, around the tip of Borneo to Kota Kinabalu. Everywhere they went, they were greeted with rousing welcome.

“’We are out to show the young that the sea is part of the natural environment and the natural highway for the peoples of the Philippines and Southeast Asia,’ said Valdez, a close friend of Tengku Datuk Dr. Adlin, Chairman of the Sabah Tourism Board. ‘It unifies rather than divides us,’ he added.”

Brunei Times (August 26, 2010) said: “We want the balangays to be not only the symbol of unity for our country, but also an inspirational source of unity for all of Southeast Asia,” according to Art Valdez.

“We are a great race and people... so we are promoting our brotherhood by sailing these boats. Incidentally, we are all Filipinos (on board the ships), but we are trying to portray that today there is unity among Southeast Asian nations,’ seconded expedition medical officer, Dr. Ted Esguerra.”

Southeast Asians had used the balangays and similar types to trade with each other and with the dominant commercial power, China, six or more centuries ago. The challenge to the “Voyage of the Balangay” is how to reenergize the unifying spirit of enterprise and cooperation existing among the Southeast Asian peoples before colonization.

Final reminder

To our Malacañang authorities, present and past, let me pose a final reminder – how come the summit climbers of Mt. Everest (doing the world’s first-ever traverse) and the leaders of “The Voyage of the Balangay” have NOT been accorded any government recognition by way of an official award for their achievements? To this senior citizen, these two magnificent accomplishments are more meaningful than winning eight boxing championships or an Olympic gold medal.

This is what P-Noy can do – much better than just proclaiming the TOYM or recognizing our ASEAN soccer team!

Abangan, Part Two.