Voyagers, Not Conquerors

  • Apr
  • 29
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Photographs by Mike Dee

Voyagers, Not Conquerors

Arturo Valdez, Balangay Voyage’s team leader, is no stranger to epic challenges. The mountaineer, explorer, and adventurer has led two historic expeditions to Mount Everest, and now has his sights set on an expedition to China aboard a balangay replica, a wooden boat crafted in Tawi-Tawi whose history dates back to the 16th century.

On April 28, he and his team embarked on the first leg of this monumental effort, sailing from Manila Bay to Poro Point, La Union, where they will begin the 600-nautical mile journey to Xiamen.

This crossing is meant to commemorate the anniversary of a similar expedition said to have been undertaken 600 years ago by Sultan Paduka Batara, but at the heart of it is the desire to reconnect with our ancestors’ traditions and reclaim our status as a maritime nation.

GRID: After conquering Everest—
Valdez: No, we don’t conquer mountains. We are allowed to climb the mountain. People who brag that they’ve conquered mountains—no, just one flip and you’re dead. We prayed that the mountain will allow us to climb. So, we’re one of the few that made several climbs there and have come back in one piece.

Of course, pardon us. Prior to launching Balangay Voyage, while you were mountaineering, were you already interested in sailing and the ocean?
V: My interest in the ocean is that I grew up in the sea. It’s natural, but since you grow up near the sea you take it for granted. You look up into the mountains because it’s far away. But the Philippines is a maritime nation, we’re an archipelago; more water than land. Our real resources lie in our maritime domain. But how many Filipinos really are at home in the sea? People are afraid of the water. It’s colonialism that has taught them to fear the sea because it’s easy to subjugate a people when you take them out from their natural environment.

Our real resources lie in our maritime domain. But how many Filipinos really are at home in the sea?

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Where did the desire to reconnect with that part of our DNA come from?
V: [After Everest,] I was trying to find what kind of activity we’ll follow after that. We thought initially to cross the Sahara Desert. The problem there is that, just like Mt. Everest, our people have a difficulty understanding what this is all about. Partly, the purpose of doing this is to educate our people that they can do anything if they wanted to. As long as they are focused, they work together as a team. And [through the Everest expeditions,] I’ve proven that teamwork works for Filipinos. It’s not true that Filipinos are “kanya-kanya.” The Balangay [crew] works as a team, but you also need a leader to put them together. I thought, why not trace the migration of our forefathers; where they came from, the boat that they rode, their means of transport?

What insight can be gathered from doing things the way our forefathers did?
V: We are great seafarers. It is in our DNA. That would explain why one out of three seafarers in the world is a Filipino. Of course, you look at it as a means of livelihood because it pays well, but it is in our DNA. How else would you explain me? I’m a mountaineer but I learned how to sail.

Where did you go those 17 months, during your first voyage around Southeast Asia in 2009?
V: There were many, many, many places. In the Philippines alone, we’ve had 60 stopovers. In every community, town, every island. Especially in the margins and peripheries. It was really a great thing for the young to see this kind of boat. You don’t talk history; you teach history by seeing us exhausted by a whole day of sailing, darkened by the scorching heat. Then they learn about themselves as they see us, [as we explain] what this is all about.

During that trip, you attempted to travel sans gadgets. What was that like?
In a certain way, having all the gadgets and equipment, all the protocols, it robs the beauty of adventure. That first time, we didn’t know anything—off we went. We had the boat and that was it. We asked the fisherman where we were. We proved it can be done. It’s modernity that makes traveling the ancient way so difficult because there are many regulations you have to comply with when you enter major cities. Maybe you can only do it once. [If we continued to travel this way,] we would have just been pushing our luck.

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A nation that breeds trailblazers, dreamers, explorers, and discoverers is a great nation.

How does Balangay Voyage intend to make people more connected to their maritime roots?
[This entire project is] not only about sailing. We taught the local government disaster preparedness, for example. My teammates are the foremost practitioners of disaster preparedness. We treated people because we had a lot of medicines, we had a doctor. We encouraged and talked to people about how to protect the environment; got involved in mangrove-planting, cleaned up the shorelines—many things. The purpose is to educate our people, rather than just sail, stop, and sleep.

Our leaders are more honed towards land. Why, in a certain way, did we take for granted what we had in the West Philippine Sea? [Because] we’re not water-oriented. I hope our leaders will learn from this, that’s all. A nation that breeds trailblazers, dreamers, explorers, and discoverers is a great nation. That would explain England as a great nation; Japan, America. Because they have visionaries and discoverers. Filipinos, they love this kind of thing, they love the accomplishment of Mount Everest, the accomplishment of sailing, but they’re not willing to pay the price.

 

It seems like the task of this project has really been to inspire.
The Mt. Everest and Balangay are simply symbolic of what we can accomplish if we have faith in ourselves and work as a people. These are only symbolism. Why I choose this is because it’s very hard to do. I think Filipinos, given the right direction, and when they put their hearts to it, they can also succeed. Look at what we’ve accomplished on our second year in Mt. Everest: the first traverse across Mount Everest by women—never done by any women or woman anywhere. Until now, it’s a world record. Have you ever thought about Filipinos accomplishing a record unbroken until today in Mount Everest? Even people thought we were going to commit suicide over there, because we didn’t have alpine environments [here]. So what happened here was that these women did something no one has ever done before; coming from a country with no snow or icy mountain. Not bad. It’s quite an accomplishment by our people.

Endeavors like this are ways of inspiring the young, a way of inspiring our people that we can really achieve something if we set our sights on anything. If you read the papers, we’re always ending up with acrimonious activities, and that’s how we turned out to be. So I thought of doing something different.

As featured in
Voyagers, Not Conquerors
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