Missing home: Tales from the old country
After a long day shopping, a stroll down the Embarcadero in San Francisco is always a delight, especially when punctuated by a delicious snack at the seafood stalls that line the waterfront of this famous City by the Bay.
While lining up for a cup of de-shelled Alaskan King Crab claws, I bumped into a young Filipino couple who were pining for home. We ended up eating together at one of the makeshift tables, and I regaled them with stories from the old country.
The crab claws we were eating were probably caught by Filipino fishermen still working the fishing boats off the Alaskan coast, I began. The multi-awarded Filipino expatriate writer, Bienvenido Santos, wrote about them in his stories, as he did about Filipino immigrants like him in the Pacific Northwest. I saw two pairs of eyes sparkle brightly, so I continued.
As a matter of fact, John Steinbeck’s "East of Eden" is set in Salinas County south of San Francisco, where the offspring of many Filipino immigrants who worked the vegetable farms still live. Because of their Spanish surnames, many Americans mistake them for Latinos from south of the border. But they are true-brown Filipinos, although you couldn’t tell this by the accents they have acquired from their adopted country.
The stories lasted well past dinner time, but it was spring and the sun was still up. We caught a breathtaking shimmering sunset by the bay. I could tell by the mist in their eyes that they sorely missed home and wanted to tarry a little bit longer.
My thoughts drifted to one glorious sunset a few years ago at the other famous bay in Manila, where a replica of those legendary Spanish tall ships docked near the historic Manila Hotel. There the Andalucia sat in full glory for a few days after sailing from Spain for 6 months to celebrate Unesco's Dia del Galeon, reliving the glory days of empire when the Spanish armada ruled the high seas and most of the known world.
What the known world didn’t know was that many of those wooden ships were built in the shipyards of Cavite by expert Filipino woodcarvers from Paete in the neighboring province of Laguna and shipbuilders from Mindoro recruited by Chinese contractors.
The woodcarving tradition persists in Paete, the shipyards survive in Cavite, but the glory that was Spain flickers only in memory, rekindled occasionally by the visit of a proud galleon like the Andalucia.
In colonial times, the Philippine territory was administered by the Spanish crown through authorities who also ruled Mexico, which explains why Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Patroness of both Mexico and Las Islas Filipinas.
The galleons often stopped over in Guam and other Pacific islands to replenish supplies for their long ocean voyages — so the Catholic Saint Pedro Calungsod must have boarded one of those ships for the mission in Guam, which was part of the Archdiocese of Cebu’s ecclesiastical responsibility.
At a certain time of year, the prevailing trade winds of the Pacific would blow the galleons higher up north to the coast of California, from where they would sail southward to Acapulco, hugging the coastline. Violent storms caught many of those ships, and today the California coast is graveyard to many galleons.
Many stories of heroism at sea survive in the oral history of small Filipino communities along the California coast, and farther inland at the vegetable farms of Salinas Valley, the setting of John Steinbeck’s famous "East of Eden."
Steinbeck’s son, Thomas, preserved many of those heroic tales of rescue at sea by brave Filipino sailors in a breath-taking book, "Down to a Soundless Sea." One story tells of a Filipino sailor who swam in heavy seas towing a lifeboat full of survivors tied to his waist with abaca rope.
If the galleon was blessed with good weather, it would continue on down to Mexico to disgorge its precious cargo in Acapulco. From there the cargo was packed on mule trains for the dangerous trek along mountain trails across the tropical rainforest to Veracruz on the Atlantic coast, and finally loaded onto ships bound for Spain.
To this day, the descendants of Filipino sailors who settled down with Mexican maidens live in small barrios along the mountain trails, proud of their brave seafaring heritage high up in the mountains. Their dialect is still laced with Filipino words.
North to Alaska
Other Filipino sailors found ships that sailed north of California to the rich fishing grounds of Alaska and scattered their progeny there. Some of their exploits, both nautical and historical, found their way into the stories of the Filipino novelist Bienvenido Santos, who settled in the area and penned award-winning literature about Filipino immigrants in the Pacific Northwest.
But enough of the productivity and proclivity of the intrepid Filipino sailors.
On its recent trip, the Andalucia departed Seville for Shanghai and then stopped over in Hong Kong on the way to Manila. It visited Cebu and Bohol before embarking on the long Pacific crossing to Acapulco.
In the years of the Galleon Trade (1565-1815), the voyage took all of 200 days, more or less, depending on wind, storms, occasional pirates, and brief stopovers for rest and supplies.
On the trip from Shanghai to Manila, the cargo holds of Chinese junks which brought Chinese goods would be partly loaded with stones for ballast to keep them on an even keel in the worst of typhoons.
Many of those stones were unloaded in Manila to give way to cargo for the return trip to Shanghai. The stones were cut to small squares to pave the streets of old Manila and survived to the early 60s until cultural barbarians paved them over with concrete.
The centuries-old piedra china are all but gone. But in the veins of every Filipino seafarer still flows a precious legacy of the sea: the craftsmanship and diligence of Paete shipbuilders, the swashbuckling derring-do of the Spanish conquistador, the enterprising spirit of the Chinese merchants who plied the Galleon trade, and the audacity of seafaring datus who braved the high seas in wooden boats called balanghay to establish their first settlements in the 7,000 islands of the archipelago.
Those historic journeys are replicated every day by brave Filipino seafarers. Born of the sea, they go back to their home at sea to make a living away from home, sailing dangerous waters away from loved ones who make it all worthwhile for them.
It just may be the brave seafaring tradition in their blood. But all of them are national treasures — in more ways than one. The same blood flows in the heart of every lonely Filipino who works away from home.
All too soon it was time to say good-bye to my new friends. We exchanged cards and promised to keep in touch. But knowing how way leads on to way, I wondered how our paths would ever cross again.
I could tell by the joyful bounce in their steps as they walked away that somehow the stories of home had filled them with new hope and new life. They belonged to a hardy breed — a noble breed — a proud people — and no one could take that away from them no matter where they roamed.
I knew they would do well — as so many of us do when removed from our comfort zones at home. I was happy to have shared my stories from the old country, and I was confident they would pass them forward to bring a little bit of home back to their kababayan in their adopted land.
They looked back and waved good-bye. They were happy. All of a sudden I was homesick and wanted to walk with them home. – Rappler.com
The author is founder and CEO of a management consultancy with a strong historical inclination; e-mail him at email@example.com
Galleon ship image from Shutterstock