Friday, 19 June 2009

Filipinos plan Asian voyage aboard an ancient Malay boat

Jim Gomez
Manila Standard

The first Filipinos to conquer Mount Everest hope to sail around Southeast Asia and then to Africa in a replica of an ancient boat—a feat they hope will inspire unity in the politically fractious Philippines, organizers said Wednesday.

The balangay, a wooden-hulled boat used in this archipelago about 1,700 years ago, will set sail from Manila Bay on June 27, said project leader Art Valdez.

Several Badjao tribal craftsmen were flown to Manila from the southernmost province of Tawi-Tawi to painstakingly construct the 15-meter boat according to ancient traditions using primitive tools and not a single nail, Valdez said.

The adventurers plan to stop at some 75 ports in the Philippines, and then to head for Southeast Asia before considering whether to attempt the voyage across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa, he said.

The Madagascar leg of the voyage will depend on the state of the vessel and its crew, Valdez said. The entire expedition is expected to last past the end of 2010.

A balangay is a fair-weather, round-bottomed sailboat with a prominent bow. In ancient times, balangays could accommodate as many as 50 people, and often entire families lived on board. Sailors sat on benches attached to the ribs of the hull, and were protected from the sun and rain by a canopy stretched over the central part of the hull.

Five Coast Guard personnel, who won the country’s praise in 2006 and 2007 as the first Filipinos to scale Mount Everest, will lead the voyage accompanied by about a dozen crew of expert mariners and Navy guards. Seafaring Badjao tribesmen will navigate guided by the stars and other natural indicators.

A Coast Guard patrol ship will tail the boat in case something unforeseen happened, Valdez said. The crew will sometimes live on the boat and sometimes lodge on land.

Janet Belarmino-Sardena, a member of the crew and the Coast Guard, said they hoped the voyage would unite Filipinos and instill courage in them to overcome poverty.

The Philippines, formerly among Southeast Asia’s most stable economies, has degenerated into one of the region’s economic laggards, often distracted by political conflicts, coup attempts and rampant corruption. Communist and Muslim separatist rebellions have raged there for 40 years.

“We were once very superior,” Sardena told The Associated Press. “We have to get that pride and confidence back.”

She said the voyage should project a message that “Filipinos can do anything.”

“When you watch the news, you see so many problems,” said crewmember Erwin Emata, who scaled Everest in 2006. “Instead of joining the rallies, we look for ways to make children realize that we have a glorious past,” said the father of three.

Rey Santiago, an archaeologist at the Philippine National Museum, said nine original balangay boats were discovered in the 1970s in southern Butuan City, three of which are on display in museums. One had been estimated to be at least 1,689 years old based on carbon dating tests, he said.

Balangays traditionally had wooden hulls reinforced with rib-like wooden frames and palm cords. They were used as dwellings, cargo boats and war ships.

Although they are no longer in use, Badjao tribesmen in Tawi Tawi and other tribes still practice the ancient building methods.

Philippine villages are called barangays in the Tagalog dialect, perhaps because boat-dwelling people were among the country’s earliest communities, Santiago said.

“It’s a time capsule,” he said. “In it, you can find the story of the Filipino people.” AP

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