Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

– from The Sea is History by Derek Walcott

Sirwagan River in San Joaquin
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In the Maragtas legend, the story of the purchase of Panay by the ten Bornean datus started in San Joaquin. After fleeing from a cruel sultan who ruled in Borneo, the datus landed at the mouth of the Sirwagan River. Then they moved to the Andona creek where they met some Ati fisherman who brought them to Sinugbuhan to meet King Marikudo. One of the datus, Datu Puti, explained to the king that they came as friends and wanted to buy land. Marikudo agreed to sell land to them. The datus paid for the land with a gold salakot for Marikudo and a long gold necklace for his wife Maniwantiwan. There was a feast after the sale, then Marikudo and his wife left for the hills. After the purchase, seven of the ten datus settled in Panay, while three sailed to Luzon where they settled. Datu Puti however returned to Borneo and told the Borneans of his exciting adventures.

Reading about this legend led me to look for the present-day Sirwagan River. My quest was not difficult as the river can be seen in Google maps. After finding it on the map, my videographer Manuel Domes and I traveled by bus to San Joaquin. What greeted us was a wide expanse of a dried-up river in summer. We walked to the mouth of the river where I thought the ten datus may have landed, and there we found children fishing and playing where the sea meets the river.

A dam and breakers were being built by construction workers nearby. One of them told me that it was to prevent the sea from surging into the river causing it to overflow and flood the communities nearby. Most of the workers are from other parts of the Visayas and not from Iloio. They didn't know anything about the Maragtas legend, specifically the ten datus who arrived in Sirwagan River. If the legend were true, I wonder how the communities near Sirwagan River may have looked like then.

Budbud Saltmakers of Miagao
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I stumbled on the salt-making tradition of Miagao when I was looking for other aspects that Miagao is known for aside from the ones that are popular. For travelers for instance, Miagao is known for its old church, called Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva, that was built by Agustinian missionaries in 1786. In agriculture, Miagao is also known as the “Onion Capital of the Visayas” because it ranks as the highest producer of bulb onions in the Visayas.

The salt-making tradition of Miagao goes way back to 1823 when it started as an industry in what is now called Baranggay Guibongan. It is still being practiced today despite facing the threat of extinction. The salt variety produced in Guibongan is called “budbud” and is often considered as first-class salt. In his blog article, Archi Nacional writes about the process succinctly: “The salt is made on bamboo nodes. Several bamboo nodes are split lengthwise and set horizontally on posts about a meter from the ground. Coastal sand is placed inside these halves to serve as the filter. Then, sea water is poured into these bamboo splits and dried under the sun. And the finished product? Clearer, whiter and more crystalline salt. Not as salty as the other varieties.”

So out of curiosity for this tradition of making salt, we ventured to Baranggay Guibongan to find the saltmakers or “asinderos” as they are called in these parts. I expected that because it was summer, the beach would be lined with bamboos. When we arrived in Guibongan, I was told there were only two families who still practice the tradition of making “budbud” in the area. We were lucky to find “asinderos” who allowed us to film the process from start to finish.

We were told that one sack of “budbud” salt only costs 1000 pesos, which I find not commensurate to the high value that should be placed on this heritage of salt-making that's slowly being wiped out by modern processes that require less time.

The Watchtowers of Guimbal
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During the Spanish colonial era, Guimbal which faces the Panay Gulf, was often a target of several raids by Muslim pirates coming from Mindanao. The inhabitants of Guimbal and the Spaniards decided to build six stone forts or watchtowers that were placed strategically in the town. The watchtowers faced the sea so that people in charge would be able to see the pirates coming. Drums called “guimba” were used to sound off an alarm when raiders were spotted.

Today, three watchtowers remain in Guimbal. Two of them were restored while one stands not having gone restoration. Standing near the shoreline facing the sea, the lone tower is surrounded with overgrowth and covered with moss. This lone fort faces the sea, looking almost sad in its solitariness. It doesn't look like a landmark that would encourage tourists to visit. But I chose it because of its appearance that almost poetically speaks of history as a past that people sometimes wrestle with and leave behind.

The watchtower holds many memories of that long history of wars. But when I stood beside it facing the sea, it somehow dawned on me that whatever happened in that period, the sea was witness to it all.

Fishing Community in Tigbauan
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Tigbauan is named after a reed, called “tigbaw” in the native dialect, that used to grow lushly in the area. In the Maragtas legend, the families of the tribes of Labing-isog and Mangwalis sailed on their boats after the purchase of Panay by the ten Bornean datus. The tribes landed in a place called “Katigbawan.”

The best time to experience the fishing community of Tigbauan is early morning when the boats of fishermen are sailing back to shore from fishing the night before. We arrived in Baranggay Tanpa-el beach at around five in the morning where we saw boats sailing to shore. Some fishermen docked their motorized bangka along the shoreline. One of the fishermen said he was going to sail again at seven to gather his net and find out how much his catch is for the day. Unfortunately, when he came back, he only found a few fish stuck on his wide net. I found this an ironic situation being that Tigbauan is one of the municipalities that ranks top in terms of fish production in Iloilo. But apparently, as the fisherman explained, the larger fishing boats that sail in the area usually get more bountiful catch compared to the small-time fisherman like him.

Woodworkers of Oton
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I became interested in going to Oton because I learned that the first Manila galleons during the early days of Spanish rule in the Philippines were built in Oton. Amando Doronila in one of his columns mentioned that the Manila galleons were patterned after “Visayan design; after all, the Visayans were already constructing huge multimasted caracoas in their wars against other kingdoms. Thus, the technical know-how to construct the first galleons was an amalgamation of Visayan and Spanish shipbuilding.” Doronila further wrote that the reason for the building of the galleons was because of the Spanish-Moro conflict. The Spaniards wanted to repel the Muslim marauders from Mindanao that had been raiding Visayan islands and kidnapping natives to “sell as slaves to their allies in the sultanates of the Sulu Archipelago.” Because of the continuous raiding from the Dutch and Moros, the Spanish moved their settlement from Oton to Irong-Irong (now called Iloilo) in the 1700s.

Henry Funtecha writes in his book Pasan-aw that “Iloilo had always been prominent in the boat-building industry of the Philippines since early times. It developed out of necessity due to the abundance of marine life in the area and the archipelagic nature of the country.” Fentucha added that during the Spanish period, Spaniards forced natives to work in the shipyards of Oton. By the 19th century boat-building was at its peak because of the thriving sugar industry in Panay and Negros islands. Fentucha opined that “the decline in sugar transport from Negros to Iloilo had negative repercussions on the boat-building industry.”

It was difficult to find traces of the boat-building industry in present-day Oton. Every local we asked in the area didn't know of this past. But we found ourselves at the coastline witnessing the life of the fishing community of Oton. Boats are still being built here so to speak. But instead of large ships, fishermen build small motorized boats (bangka) to use while sailing to sea to catch fish. Somewhere in the area, we found woodworkers hauling slabs of wood into a pick-up truck. Somehow, this sight seems like a reminder of the boat-building industry in Oton. It speaks indirectly of how it might have been back then.

A Journey Through the Iloilo River
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In his book Pasan-aw, Henry Funtecha writes that “technically, Iloilo River is not a river but an arm of the sea. In more specific terms, it is an extension of the Iloilo Strait situated in the heart of the City of Iloilo. Unlike other rivers, it has no defined watershed of its own. This is the reason why it never gets flooded. Water level at the Iloilo River is so much affected by tides. When its high tide, the water flows into the mouth of the river at the Parola junction and the opposite happens if it is low tide. Hence, it is sometimes referred to as a tidal river... Despite the fact that almost all literatures say that the Iloilo River is not a river in the real sense of the word, pronouncements on its nature are contradicting. Thus, there are inconsistencies on what really is it.”

Whatever it is called, the Iloilo River (as most locals call it) plays a significant role in the history of Iloilo. In the past, the Iloilo River was a primary route for travel among locals. There was also marshland surrounding the river that became a location for a trading settlement between local and foreign merchants. Because the river played a vital role in trading, the Spaniards during the colonial times, built a port in the mouth of Iloilo River. In 1855, the Port of Iloilo ( formerly called El Puerto de Muelle Loney) was opened to world trade and was one of the first international seaports of the Philippines.

Curious about the breadth of this body of water that's considered by most as a river (but isn't really one), my videographer Manuel Domes and I took the challenge of taking a trip on a motorized bangka from the banks of the river in Molo to where the port is located facing the Iloilo Strait. It was almost an hour-long trip under the scorching heat of the sun. At the end of our trip, we walked to Fort San Pedro, which is located at the mouth of the river. It was built between 1603 to 1616 by the Spaniards to guard the island against raids by the Dutch and Moro raiders and also to solidify their stronghold over the island of Panay.

What made the journey interesting was the changing scenery along the river: from fishing communities, to medical buildings, to restaurants, among others. It was as if we were witnessing how life changed in the city by taking a trip down the river.

Acknowledgments:

Special thanks to Prof. Susan Tosalem (Chair of the Humanities Division) and to historians Prof. Rey Gonzales, and Prof. John Barrios for the invaluable support given to make this project possible.
Director and Writer: Jean Claire Dy
Videographer and Editor: Manuel Domes
Web Developers: Ara Ambita, Joanah Sanz
Research Assistant: Yza Layson
This project was made possible through the Humanities Division of the University of the Philippines Visayas (Miagao Campus) and funded by the CHED Institutional Development and Innovation Grant.