From seas to streets

We normally see them in groups, wearing bright, colorful sarong as they roam
around busy streets. But most of the time we see them hopping on and off jeepneys,
performing music out of the beats from an improvised drum made of tin cans or PVC pipes and their young voices, singing some lyrics most people seem not to understand at all. They would pass around shabby pieces of white air mail envelopes with a note asking passengers for loose change. They used to be nomads of the seas; but now they have settled the streets as well.

They are the Badjaos, also called the sea gypsies or sea people of Mindanao. It has
been very common to witness them in such a scene every day; young teenagers and
children scattered around places, fearlessly walking around in barefoot, going against rules, and ignoring all the negative reactions of people, and all—just to earn money that would help them all get through the day.

We went to Calamba City knowing there were many Badjaos there. However, in the middle of our search, we found out that most of them don’t stay there anymore after the authorities asked them to leave. Just when we were about to give up, we found a woman carrying a small child around her arms. She was standing along the sidewalk, getting in the way of passersby. In a glance, one would suppose they were indeed Badjaos.

She was meek and compliant when we told her what we were going to do. But as
soon as we asked if she is a Badjao, she started to keep on pointing to the child’s foot. It was wounded, and it was as if she wanted us to provide money so she could take the child to the hospital. It honestly did not look that serious (except that it might lead to an infection), so we promised to help her right after the interview.

First, we took them to a canteen to eat something. We secretly shoot glances while they were eating; and somehow, it felt great to see how much they enjoyed the rice and fried galunggong (mackerel scad) that they ordered. Watching them in that state brought about a mix of emotions—pleased because even in the littlest way we have helped them, and at the same time, sad because that was all we could do.

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Granting her request that they’d be interviewed after eating, she then asked us to
follow her. Despite telling her that it would be fine to do the interview in the eatery, she
insisted we go to another place. When asked why, she would keep murmuring: “Masungit yan,” (They are not friendly!) with her brows and lips puckered. We turned to the canteen owner, and she gave us a confirmation that it would be okay to conduct the interview there. However, we had no choice but to run after the woman, who was then already meters away from us.

We did fear that she might actually run away from us, so we did not mind dashing towards her. Following her was literally an escapade—she was carrying someone with her, but she walked unbelievably fast. She hastily crossed the street, paying no attention to the fast cars, to the overpass above us, and most especially, to the traffic officers on duty that time. They were already on the other side of the street when we suddenly heard a loud whistle as we tried to avoid the approaching vehicles. Fortunately enough, the officers allowed us to jaywalk after we explained to them that we needed to run after the woman; granting we would never do it again.

When we finally reached a secluded area, she immediately invited us to squat down
with them on the floor. She said: “Sabi ko sa inyo maganda dito, e,” (See, I told you it’s nice here.) with a seemingly mocking smile on her face. We did as we were asked, and she again started to point towards the wound on the child’s foot. We, again, gave her a hint of assurance by telling her we would deal with it afterwards.

We were not really sure why, but she was evidently uneasy and distracted all throughout the interview. She could not comprehend some of our questions well, and so most of the time, she just nodded in response. Her name’s Malabato and she came all the way from Zambales. According to her, the child she’s with is Ito, her only child. They both didn’t have an idea how old they were. When asked how they got to Laguna, she answered: “…lumakad lang.” (We just walked.)

Apparently, along with other members of their tribe, they went to the cities in hopes of a better life. She’s already an orphan. As soon as her parents died, she left their home in
Zambales and decided to settle and earn a living in Laguna. When asked what pushed them to do that, she quickly motioned her hand towards her mouth, fingers squeezed together as if eating, and said: “…walang pangkain.” (We have nothing to eat.) It was heartbreaking.
She confirmed our assumption that back in their place of origin, fishing was their
main source of livelihood. The name Badjao actually refers to a group of “boat-dwelling”
and “sea-faring” people that dwell not only in certain parts of the Philippines like Zamboanga, Jolo, Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-tawi, but also in other parts of Southeast Asia such as Borneo, Indonesia, and Myanmar.

Some people think that they beg money for a syndicate—probably because their
population in urban areas grows rapidly through time, and because their way of soliciting is, in a way, similar to that of scamming and defrauding operations. However, there are also some who still believe that these indigenous people are also victims of their own circumstances—especially considering that they left their lives on water only to find out that life in the city is pretty much harsher and crueler than what they used to have.

If one would look at Malabato and Ito, it is worth mentioning that they were not as
dirty as the other Badjaos we usually encounter. They neither had dirt stains on their body  nor that “foul” odor most people believed they have always had. Malabato was distinctly beautiful—with her round eyes, high cheekbones, and even complexion. Likewise, Ito, with his curly and messy hair, looked cute and innocent.

For a moment, I started to think about this little child and what could he possibly be if he was given better opportunities in life. If we would just look closely, we could definitely see a lot more; far beyond what we generally know with these people.

The rest of the interview did not go on as smoothly as it began. Malabato was in a
hurry; and while we were in the midst of asking questions, she kept asking if they could already leave. After merely 3 minutes of question and answer, we could see how much she wanted to get away. Her eyes kept on wandering as the child sitting next to her remained oblivious. We asked for a little more time and she agreed—but unfortunately, she became all the more impatient and uninterested. Furthermore, she seemed to be more confused in dealing with our questions. There was even a time when she said Ito is her brother, when in fact, in the beginning of the interview, she claimed she is Ito’s mother.

To sum up the interview, we asked her where they usually sleep. She pointed towards the overpass across the street; which immediately made me think of a typical scene in an overpass that is filled of either illegal vendors, or ignored beggars.

And just when the camera stopped rolling, Malabato, with all her might, started to ask
alms from us. Each of us already gave her a quite reasonable amount of cash, but it didn’t seem enough for her. From a very bored stance during the interview, she suddenly became frantic as she kept on asking for more. She even asked if we could buy her a pair of shoes, since she was in barefoot all along.

I was pretty surprised but I didn’t want to create another negative impression out of them, so as we parted ways, I just looked around me and reflected on how difficult the lives of this people must be—living in a completely unfamiliar place, away from their comfort zones; just like an animal taken out from its natural habitat.

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