Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Baroto as Cultural Icon

There is art in the Asi way of cooking ginat-an nak tawan, or ginat-an nak yangka, as well as in shredding the coconut meat, pagkurkor it nidog, from which the milk, either yapot or yasaw, is derived. The art extends to shredding the other main ingredient of the ginat-an, the bago leaves, whose English or Tagalog equivalent is not a serious concern among Romblomanons. Are they of a tree’s or a vine’s?

There is also fine art in the recipe’s use of the Indian spice, the ruyaw, or turmeric, a medicinal plant. Without it, the ginat-an will be pale and bland. Without it, the mixture of mam-on used for buga will be a shade less effective, for the ruyaw is a loud, indispensable additive to the herbal mix basic in this traditional healing ritual.

The yellow-orange color predominant in the Asi food culture, represented by the ruyaw, antedates the yellow color of the 1986 People’s Power Revolution and the orange shade of the Estrada regime by, let us factually exaggerate, three centuries.

Today, the Asi eats ginat-ang yangka or ginat-ang tawan not so much to satisfy the palate as to remind himself of his roots. These roots could run as deep as the ocean domain of the Sri-Visaya and Madjapahit Empires, if reckoned through the ruyaw as prism of historiography.

But the land bridges that once connected the Philippines to the Asia mainland, onto where the bearers of the food culture described above most likely traveled—to pass it on to our forebears—are now gone. Only the ocean remains. In our case, that ocean is personified by the treacherous Tablas Strait and the haunting Sibuyan Sea.

This brings us to where the baroto, that simple but mean sea contraption of the Asi, sits, or floats.

Then as now, the baroto occupies an elevated and venerated position as icon in our cultural pantheon. With unafraid certainty, it will continue to do so in the years to come. Not even the rising and ebbing tides of the ocean and of history could possibly dislodge the baroto from its exalted perch.

Baroto-building is an art. And it is surely in the baroto’s utility and symbolisms that the art was fully developed. Meticulous preparation attended the making of the ubiquitous sea-craft. Just felling down a tree, from whose trunk the baroto is fashioned out, necessitates a feast, during which a four-legged animal, usually a boar or a goat, is slaughtered to feed the neighbors who will help in bringing the tree down. Why not fish or fowl? It was because the strength and longevity of the vessel were not expected to come from perceived “weak” creatures!

baroto is chiseled out of a log with the use of simple hand tools, chief of which is the puthaw, a small pick axe used to shape the log into a kasko. The trunk of the tawan is most ideal because of its wood texture, which is smooth, or anihor. The rita and mayugango trees also make a good baroto. They are light and sturdy when dry.

Before the advent of marine plywood, bamboo slats woven into sawali make do as the baroto’s walls or entable. Plastered thickly over with the anangge tree’s sticky sap—the sayong—to keep the water out, the sawali is extremely pliant but durable. Nowadays, only very few use sawali on account of the bamboo’s scarcity and, I suspect, the baroto builder’s laziness to return to the tradition of sawali-making.

Bamboo is also used for the baroto’s tarik as well as its katig. Add a paddle or bugsay and a mast or palo to which a sail can be hoisted and the baroto is ready for launching.

The baroto is chiefly a fisherman’s craft. As it is small, it can only accommodate two to four persons at the most. But what it lacks in heft it makes up with its maneuverability, swiftness, and adaptability. A ship made of steel, despite its size, sinks; a baroto, never.

In bad weather, such as a storm, a baroto effortlessly floats and glides on the crests of the waves, unaided by high-tech navigational instruments which equip today’s modern sea vessels.

It can go out far into the ocean or hug the shorelines, making no distinction of the water it navigates, unlike large ships which can smell shallow reefs miles away. A careless navigator can bring his ship to collide directly with a bahora but an Asi can paddle his baroto to shore with eyes closed. Small is beautiful, isn’t it?

The pre-Spanish Filipinos, it is now established, led riverine lives. Their existence revolved around the river, or the sea, which supplied them not only food and water but provided them a medium to interact with peoples beyond their sphere of influence. The baroto thus afforded them mobility during calamitous and joyful times.

It was a practical vessel in a practical highway of commerce, of attack, and of building alliances with other tribes during battles. A war party, such as the one sent by an unnamed Lakan of Macabebe down the Pampanga river to the mouth of Manila Bay to help Soliman fend off a Spanish attack, glided in paraos, the Tagalog’s equivalent of the baroto. The archaeological find in Butuan of ancient boats, much bigger than the baroto proves that pre-Spanish Filipinos roamed the high seas to trade. The Butuanons had sent a tributary mission to China in the Ming dynastic era precisely on this purpose. The Spanish galleons were late comers compared to the Butuanons when it comes to maritime trade!

Even in death, the baroto was our forebears’ last refuge. Some tribes in Panay were known to load the body of their dead on a pyre atop a baroto before setting it on fire and afloat, downriver. This is Indian ritual, but the Asi have improvised it into a religious belief. Today, it is still believed that if one dreams of a baroto, an immediate member of the dreamer’s family would die.

In the Asi culture, the baroto is also used as a unit of measure for fish catch. After a fishing party comes ashore and it is asked how large or small were its catch, one answers not usang balde ka ibis but tunga sa baroto nak lambiyong, or sambarotong sulig, or binarotong rawat. Big words, but that was how the Asi describe their achievements. In religion, the baroto is the bearer of the religious souls joining the Biniray.

Of the baroto were born Asi words that came to be indubitably associated with sea-faring life, about the weather particularly. It is difficult to row a baroto if the current is strong—“makusog ka suyog ag nagririlam-rilam ka bayor,” as Manuel F. Martinez fondly says, because of subaskokanaway, nordiste, sulang, or mait. That’s why, the pilot should be strong and his bugsay and awoy or gaor, vigorous. Launching to sea and landing a baroto on hard land is saog which has no equivalent in Tagalog; the water which seeps into a baroto is called limason and to bail it out is to limas—no relation to the Tagalog word which means to clean out. The Asi Bantoanons, ever creative and hardy, have made bigger baroto in the lanson. I suspect the word is a derivative of the English launch but this cannot be ascertained.

The baroto has witnessed a revolution in boat building. It has been overtaken by the motorized pump boat, the duon-duonpasajebotelanson or batil, and the huge-bellied roll-on-roll of vessels, fast crafts, and ocean liners, but the baroto has remained a humble, utilitarian vessel. 

Batil, I discovered on accident while on a trip to Qatar, is an Arab term—bateel—for schooner, which is the vessel of Arabian Gulf pearl divers until the present day. It is bigger in size but the baroto, it being one of our most recognizable and durable identity and cultural symbols, is worth its size, or weight in pearl, or gold.

So, instead of Hala, bira! as a verbal expression of spurring one to action, I would suggest Hala, saog! to encourage us to move forward.