Fauli's Yagting Cultural Heritage Collections
Brave Sky Raiders
by: Val Faigao
*This article by Val Faigao was featured in Silak, a quarterly newsletter for Bantoanons.
On any Banton day, clement or not so clement, an army of stouthearted men, sinewy and self-disciplined, with glinting razor-sharp curved knives tucked to their waists, ominously takes to the air on a life-and-death mission. Some are clad skimpily while others are naked from the waist up. Their zeal is missionary; job concentration and devotion to duty results in ghastly lesson a forbidding reminder to would-be successors of the airborne profession. One-time flankers had lost their chance forever to dare again the risk of elevated challenge.
The members of this elite force usually into action simultaneously on two occasions every day as if under one unified command, at the crack of dawn and again in the late afternoon until sundown and even under the moonlight at times.
Rigid requirements for entry into the force include: the ability to use ones legs and arms with zero slippage; excellent use of the arched knife, equivalent to the surgeons scalpel, at altitude ranging from as low as five to giddying heights of 30 feet or more. Most importantly, absence of acrophobia fear of heights like rooftops, towers or hills is absolutely a must. Reward for awkwardness, nervousness or absent-mindedness is too grim to imagine parachuteless jump to partial or total disability or worst, death! There is no hospital in the island to land in just in case.
Banton sky raiders, locally called mangguguhor or tuba gatherers are farther possessed of the inherent capability and agility to clamber up and down perfectly perpendicular tree trunks, tabidle (green lizard)-like. Come to think of it. The slender trunks of the cloud, touching sanggutan, sapping trees, virtual stairways to the sky themselves, have been worn shiny and slippery with the persistent and relentless daily beating and hugging by thickly callused hands and feet. A slight drizzle turns them into slippery escalators.
One fascinating aspect of these sky workers or coconauts, if you will, is that as an army in the battlefront, they cannot even see eye-to-eye or talk to one another while they climb and conquer their towering target because they are thinly spread across the breadth and length of the island. Except, however, when their sapping trees happen to be located near property borders and within talking distance. In such case they could exchange pleasantries or perhaps compare tastes and notes regarding their liqueur harvest.
Yet although distanced enough no to be seeing or hearing each other, they could still execute bodily maneuvers in the mortally perilous heights almost in a cadence, as though on silent orders, reminiscent of PMA cadets performing their awe-inspiring precision drills at the Luneta during Independence Day. At the sound of the imaginary air-raid siren on the prescribe time, the scattered horde snappily take battle positions synchrony just like pre-alerted war-ready jet pilots.
Consider this. "By the dawns early light" these dedicated men are already up and about pulverizing shards of tile-red ganga, discarded broken clap pot, on short flat wood strip (balitan), even as their women stir the stove or tearfully torch fallen leaves, swept up into neat piles in the inclined, stone-terraced yard of their thatched farm house. When the powdered surface becomes slippery enough, the curved knife is ground upon it repeatedly slantwise, forward and backward until the thing glints keen. Soon the knife wielders hand move with magical speed, even if his eyes are not upon it sometimes, with dexterity and adeptness born of long practice that is unique to these men. Each side of the polished knife now shoots star-like in split-second intervals, one edge to shining edge-upon the reddened powdery wood strip.
Run through ones thumbnail for the final test of keenness, the arched knife, or sanggot is at last ready; sheathed and tied securely to the mayangguetes waist, depending whether he is right or left-handed. Then the series of aerial offensives, trees by towering tree, step after escalating step, begins in earnest.
Once they are airborne and doing their delicate operations, listen closely to the rhythmic sound of the kuyage, a bamboo stick with one end devised as a brush to scour and clean deposits or dregs from the bottom of the bamboo tube or sayor, purposely beating upon the swaying palms like piano keys in the heaven. You will be amused no end.
Even cleaning the tubes bottom has some trade secrets to it that lends just the right characteristics taste to the wine of distinction. Brushed too nearly, the liquid becomes very sweet; brushed not enough the wine becomes rather sourish. Aside from the wondrous kuyage tricks, the tangay, food coloring provides the finishing touches. Tangay is derived from certain tree bark. When sun-dried, powdered, and applied, it imparts a pale-to-dark red coloring to the cognac, depending on the amount of adulteration. The dark red wine, when taking with abandon, delivers the ultimate flooring punches.
Bantons mangguguhor is best with other discouraging situations than the ever present death-threats of space travel. Some rogue sky raiders who are called by the Chinese-sounding name of mangyuyungat, coconut wine thieves, move and strike furtively anytime of day or night. And they are quite difficult and wily to be caught in the act. They hit at the most unguarded moments. Of course, natural calamities like typhoons are his worst drawbacks in the calling. Bantonic typhoons packing center winds of 120-220 miles/hour when they hit, can knock down palm trees so stunningly that it takes a count of some five years before the groggy trees could stand up again in full leafage
Once upon a time a mangyuyungat weary mayangguete, perhaps to get even with the rogues, secretly places a tiny metal hook inside the sayor, hoping and praying for the mischievous thief to swallow it too, hook and line, when he tossed the tube bottoms up in the dark. The thirsting thief emptied the tube all right, perhaps even in gulps yet, but he proved himself war-wise by screening the liquid between his teeth.
The number of guhuran, or sapping trees, maintained depends upon ones purposes. Maybe one to three trees for mere household consumption, and a forest of them for commercial purposes. Tang Poli in the Guyangan foothills of Booy and Tang Teban in the Juicy shank of Hambian hills, who were both ace tuba gatherers had each many as 30 trees or more at the prime of their career. They enlivened the islands economic pulse especially during fiestas, not to mention the social behavior of the drinkers who seem to walk on air or on wide streets when under the influence of the coconut spirits.
The speed of ascent or descent is freely of the sky raiders own sweet choice. Some golden rules though demand strict observance from them. "haste makes waste" or " Slow but sure". One clumsy hold of sanggot and it plunges back to earth leaving the poor sky raider no other option but to have another touchdown just to retrieve his weapon. Or if not, the rather gory scene of shredded finger tips due to sanggot slips. Never mind that curse and invectives fly in the leafy air corridor due to such blunders or carelessness.
Usually a swift-footed climber takes only about some five to ten minutes to finish off a single tree about thirty feet tall. It takes a longer time per tree during the late afternoon maneuvers when the precious liquid (tuba) seduced form the coconut blossoms is brought down in a bigger, longer bamboo tube (calawet) slung on his shoulder. A loaded sky raider is naturally extra careful on descent; else the calawet might get unhooked from his shoulder and its blood-and-sweat-valued contents gone with the wind.
But never mind. Not very often in living memory that such thing had happened in the elite armys history of incessant warfare against the high and mighty coco-flowers. If it ever had, one momentarily disregarded self-discipline and cheated himself on the tempting cocowine while still in the midst of aerial assaults. The coconut tree to be sapped is carefully culled from the grove by its natural physical appearance and by sheer instinctive power of prospector, plus a hit or miss methodology sometimes. Of foremost consideration usually is the proximity of the chosen trees to ones dwelling. Health and height of the tree also count considerably during the prospecting and clearing up (lita) period. Likewise, the soil on which the palm stands is mulled intelligently
"Trees that grow near the seashore are usually matuyo, sap - affluent", said Guillermo Fabregs, fondly Tang Emong to us, a part-time mayangguete from the top deck of Punta Matagar overlooking the war-made famous Sibuyan Sea. The lovable, Turkish looking fellow in his lifetime gathered tuba, giant coconut crabs (tatus) from the eerie Guyangan caves and human skulls as well as in the nearby Campo Santo to bury them, of course for living. His children Policarpio and Petra, first cousins and classmates of mine on grade six (1945-46) graduated as valedictorian and salutatorian respectively, and could have easily garnered gold medals as best in Mathematics, Music, and practically in all subjects, if these citations were already in vogue at that time.
Indeed the sanggutan and immediate suburbs of Banwa like Tumalum, Catarman, Hambian, Onti, Guyangan and Toctoc are proven sap-affluent. These places, richly splashed with green line of coco palms amidst a scorched limestone and sandy soil are seasonally sprayed with briny mist lifted from the bust Sibuyan sea by the gusty inland-ward. Be that as it may, the intoxicating aerial maneuvers are not a bit bothered and go on as usual with yet a whistle from the brave mayangguete.
As the flowers ages, its thick cover gradually hardens and becomes leather brown. Too hard for the thin-blade sanggot to tackle. This hard skin has to be circumcised, which demands extra meticulous care and skill. Otherwise the blossom, a compact assemblage of various whip-like stems, (byadubay) would come apart in space like a broom and need gain much time to assemble and tie into a closely-knit bunch to fit the mouth of the sayor later on. Likewise compact in on piece for easy cutting by the arched knife.
The green sharp-tipped young blossoms look miniature war missiles perched on their natural launch pads behind every palm. While the real war missiles, however, can be directed to any desired angel, the boodoc can only be trained towards earth for sap to fall into the tube later on and not cling along its own body. The downward training is done in slow incremental stages. Undue abruptness could result in joint dislocation or breakage by its very brittle and tender root, and too slow a training could be overtaken by over-aging of the flower, which is not good either. Likewise, if the tips are initially cut off too soon or too late the expected good harvest of fresh tuba will not fully materialize.
Cutting sliced off the tip of the bullet-shaped blossom (boodoc) of the palm is the very essence f the profession from which derives the name of the practitioner. Mangguguhor means cutter. The blossom cutting is an ancient art in itself that requires no less than a magic touch a surgeons well-trained and skillful hands. Else the spirit that holds the liquid in its thrall would hardly let go off it.
Too thick as lick off every cutting unduly shortens the boodocs life. Too bad, if the tree is especially sap-affluent. Some experts in the trade can manage to have many as four active sap-tubes (sayor) in a row. In such case however, more often than not, the earliest stared boodoc is already just a six-inch remainder (tungoy), the very root of the original blossoms two-foot length. Yet, quality-wise, the Islands tuba connoisseurs are one in passing a verdict of best in taste.
Watching the skillful mangguguhor do the delicate operation makes one believe it is peanuts. Not quite so. At best it is danger-fraught.
At age 15, I was conscripted into the elite force, by force of circumstances, to do the job for Tatay during Sundays. He and Nanay spent without miss Sunday nights in Banwa, some eight kilometers snaking and undulating hike away from Cabanto, to attend regularly the Holy Sunday morning Masses celebrated in the towns only Spanish-built cathedral. This practice has somehow become a lifetime self-imposed obligation of the pious couple. Upon his return, and taking over again the chore from me, Tatay would notice the boodocs edges were badly blackened and the usual good tube flow hardly coming out from my amateurish use of the sanggot.
Despite the setback however, they would still thank God for my living through the perilous climbs and specially that my fingers were unharmed by the razor-sharp sanggot.
On other times our ever-helpful and very Bantoanonly neighbor, Leon Fababeir, would do the job for me. With his adeptness, the tube flew as good as usual. It only left me wondering no end, since as far as I could see, there was not much difference in the way we did the work.
Consider this. Mount Everest in the Himalayas, the tallest mountain on earth stands slightly lower than 30,000 feet, equivalent to the combined height of one thousand 30-foot trees. So, a 30-foot tall coconut tree raided a thousand times adds up to one complete ascent of Mount Everest. In a years time of 365 days, 730 takeoffs are made for just a single tree. Add to that another 120 more days of daily double ascensions, or 240 ascents and the total vertical space travel soars up to 970times. Multiply this by 30 feet and gasp for thin air 29,100 feet. Thus a brave Bantoanon sky raider who only has a single sanggutan conquers Mount Everest every one and one-third years. Suppose a mayangguete has more than one sanggutan. I leave the mental computation to the reader.
Indeed, how may mayangguetes of Banton have reached the Everest of their career of persistent daily marathon of tree climbing? Or is it exploration of the forbidding thresholds of outer space? How many Bantoanons likewise, since our earliest trailblazers in the Island up to the intoxication (or is it just social drinking), through their long saga of capturing or coaxing out and imbibing the elusive, dripping spirits form the coco palms?
In 1995, Pedro Fabul Faigao, a 61 year-old retired public school teacher-librarian from the Jones Elementary School in Banton, Romblon, temporarily resided in Ranzo, Pinamalayan, Oriental Mindodro. By force of circumstances, he turned to the sanggutan for a hobby. After satisfying his personal needs for the cocognac, he has plenty yet to spare which paying customers readily sought after and patronizes. This way earned him extra cents that augmented his regular but meager retirement pension. This he patiently saved to send as additional allowance to his son in Manila pursuing a college degree in Mechanical Engineering from the MIT. Ironically, the old man did not live long enough to shed a tear of victor, (or is it a toss of a glass of tuba) on the graduation day of his son who has written this article hoping to ennoble him, his heroic aerial travel and travails, including the legions of his like form the musing mountaintop and virtual Coconut Palms View Park at Banton.