Last June 14, I visited Zamboanga for the first time. The one-day visit was arranged primarily by the National Youth Commission, who I’ve partnered with a couple of times, to do community work for the people of Layag Layag in connection with the 25th anniversary of the NYC. In order to maximize my trip, I figured it would be best to do campus visits to the schools in Zamboanga to propagate our anti-bullying campaign, which has been given much attention lately. During that same trip, We were also able to have a productive meeting with the regional youth board of Zamboanga as well as a live guesting with Sir Ron on TV5 Mindanao to talk about bullying and other relevant issues of the youth.
My friend Oliver and I took the early Cebu Pacific flight that departed Manila at 545am. Upon touchdown, we were met by Commissioner Early of the NYC and immediately had breakfast at the Garden Orchid hotel and met with the rest of the group, composed of NYC Chairman Flores, DepEd representatives and volunteers of the Yellow Boat project headed by Dr. Anton Lim, who became known internationally for his contribution in saving the life of hero dog Kabang.
NYC Chairman Flores speaking to the very well-behaved kids of Ateneo de Zamboanga during our Anti-Bullying & Anti-Drug abuse symposium
Students signing the pledge that they will not be bullies, they will report bullies & they will help the bullied
This time, here I am addressing the less-behaved Western Mindanao State University students and faculty, hehe!
Charis Foundation Exec. Director, Oliver Tuason, giving a short seminar on virtues to local administrators
We drove about 15 minutes to get to the eastern tip of the mainland where we had to walk and maneuver our way through the muddy ponds, which used to be salt ponds. It was a wrong move to wear flip flops because they ended up sinking in the mud so I just walked barefoot and watched out for the sharp rocks. We then boarded two yellow boats, which were made possible by the Yellow Boat group of Dr. Anton, and sailed towards the Layag Layag community which was located around 2.5 kilometers away. It was a very scenic and serene ride through the mangroves. This boat ride was only possible as it was still high tide. The bigger boats cannot sail during the low tide. At one point we could actually see the silhouette of Basilan already. The water was surprisingly clean and clear, allowing you to see the floor bed.
Executive Director of Charis Foundation, Oliver, and a cute local friend
Beautiful mangroves leading to Layag-Layag
Finally we arrived at the community. I was amused! They literally lived on stilts. And the boats were their primarily mode of transportation. Potable drinking water was delivered twice a day. Electrical wires were tapped from the mainland. I felt like we were already at the end of the country already where all you could see was water surrounding us. Apparently, when I checked my location using google maps on my mobile, we were literally on the southwestern most tip of the country.
Some houses even had TVs and it was flattering to find out that they enjoy watching iBilib on GMA7! Some of them also patronize the PBA and my team Rain or Shine. I was amazed to see they had a basketball rim hung on one of the houses BUT it could only be played when it was low tide. I initially thought they could play ball on boats when high tide, but no! That would have been interesting to see! Since they were predominantly Muslims, there was a floating Mosque nearby where they would pray several times daily.
It wasn’t very easy loading and unloading the boat because it would sway once someone stands or unloads. We did our gift giving at the day care center, which was donated by the Tzu Chi foundation and this was physically connected to the sari-sari store only by three bamboo sticks which we had to use to cross. Incidentally, our goodie bags contained Master facial wash among other Unilever products.
Check out these eco-friendly makeshift light bulbs. Recycle your plastic 1.5L or 2L bottles, fill it with water and add some zonrox or bleach, then you have a natural source of light that’s essentially free and eco-friendly.
KIDS TRAVELING TO SCHOOL
The one thing that alarmed me and caught my attention was how the kids travelled to school and back. The nearest public school was Talon-Talon public school, which is located in the mainland. If it was low tide, these poor little kids have to place their school uniforms in sealed plastic bags and wade or for the smaller ones, swim to the mainland which was around 2-3 kilometers away, so that their uniforms will not get soaked. Remember, these are kids as young as 6 or 7 years old. If the tide would permit, they would take their own boats and paddle their way to the mainland. Some are lucky enough to be ‘paddled’ by their fathers before they head to work.
Upon getting to the mainland, they dock their boats on tree stems and bring their paddle to school. After class, they walk back to their boats, untie them, and paddle back home. I’ve never seen kids so independent and fearless!
The reason why this community chooses to live on water is because of their livelihood. The main produce in Layag Layag is seaweed. They plant and harvest these seaweeds just outside of their houses. Sadly, many of the young boys have to stop schooling as early as high school in order to help their families make a living.
Here’s a photo of myself with the ‘seaweed’ boys! Always cheerful and positive.
Another thing that got my attention was the average number of people per household. Moms had anywhere between 4 to 8 kids despite having such low-income levels. Some of them were fathers even before 20 years old. For the women, because of the lack of opportunities, education and absence of aspirations, they decide to marry early and have kids.
SO PERSEVERING, SO SIMPLE, YET SO HAPPY
After a few hours, we headed back to the city, I hope we were able to bring smiles to this uniquely persevering community! Paradoxically, I was the one really moved after witnessing their persistent and such simple lifestyles. Yet, they remain so detached and so happy with whatever it is that they have – mostly I would say is the company of their families and loved ones!
This experience made me reflect. Many times, we fail to realize how blessed we are because we are pre-occupied with our fast paced lives. And with this consumeristic environment we live in, we tend to want more, more and more, never content with what the Lord has already given us. I think one way to escape this viscous trap is to practice self-giving and detachment before it’s too late. It won’t happen overnight, we will need to do it one small step at a time. With God's grace, it can be done!
The Yellow Boat project is a huge blessing for the people of Layag Layag! Through the generosity of various individuals and institutions, these boats allow the kids, at the very least, to go to school. More so, they are used by the locals to make a living by planting, harvesting then selling the seaweeds in the markets. But more than its pragmatic function, for me, when I see these yellow boats in the community, I see HOPE! I see persevering individuals trying to survive in life! I see selfless Filipinos who care for their fellow people. This is one type of fever we won’t mind spreading – the Yellow Boat fever!