At the ripe age of 69, Arturo Valdez shows no signs of slowing down. The same man who led the first Filipino team to scale Mt. Everest had also led a 17-month-long journey sailing across Southeast Asia in 2009 using a balangay, an ancient sailboat traditionally found in the southern tips of the Philippines. Fascinating enough is their choice of vehicle to ferry the team across the vast expanse of ocean. The balangay makes use of an ancient carpentry technique that requires no nails and is passed on from one generation to another. To stay true to the traditional balangay, the team commissioned boat builders from the Sama Dilaya tribe from Sibutu and Sitangkai islands of Tawi-Tawi. Gearing up for this year’s next expedition, this time across the West Philippine Sea towards mainland China, he hopes to recreate the historic route of Sultan Paduka Batara who successfully sailed to China in 1417 to pay tribute to the rulers of the Ming Dynasty.
Valdez admits he had been looking for his next voyage after Mt. Everest, looking first at the Sahara, then realizing his seafaring roots. “After coming down from Mt. Everest, our initial thought was to cross the Sahara Desert, but the desert is not our domain; so what best but to retrace the path of our ancestor’s migration? Thus, the Voyage of the Balangay came to be. The water is our domain, it is a testament of our forefather’s maritime and shipbuilding skills plus navigation. Every voyage was memorable for us, challenges come and go, waves, weather and the like. When you’re sailing, you are always [on] your toes.”
And even without any previous experience in sailing, Valdez and his team pursued the training. “We have zero experience in sailing. When the first balangay boat was built back in 2009, we were taught by the Philippine Navy and the Manila sailing team on the rudimentaries. After five trials in Manila, off we went. We learned on the job, [in] a manner of speaking. And survived we did. The entire team for 17 months sailed across Southeast Asia. This simply proves that water navigation is in our DNA.”
Valdez’s team is composed mostly of mountaineers skilled in celestial navigation, including Carina Dayondon, one of the three Filipinas first to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Valdez wants to recreate Sultan Paduka Batara’s voyage as authentically as possible, shunning modern amenities like a working toilet and technology such as radios. For their safety, they will be accompanied by two other balangays decked out with modern equipment. The journey kicks off from Manila, then towards La Union, where they sail towards the first port Sultan Paduka Batara docked at in Quanzhou. “It is the starting point of the Maritime Silk Road and a lot of the Tsinoys traced their ancestors from here.” The route then takes them to the ports of Jinjiang, where they will visit the Rizal Monument, then to Dezhou to pay homage to the tomb of the sultan, then to Beijing, Xiamen, and finally, Hong Kong, where they plan to interact with the bustling Filipino community there before setting sail back home.
But then with the recent maritime tension between China and the Philippines, one might wonder if the expedition to China is a call for peace or a symbolism of such. “We do have peace with China, there’s no symbolism about that. Our voyage to China is simply an affirmation and a reminder of the more than 600 years of that enduring friendship our ancestors have with one another. Our cultural and historical ties go much deeper than what most of us currently perceive. One really has to look back into history as what Rizal once said: ‘Ang hindi lumingon sa nakaraan.…’ ”
Valdez admits that despite the moral support they receive from their countrymen, there is a lack in funding. His fellow countrymen may love the spirit of adventure but don’t see the deeper significance of these expeditions tied to a greater cause. “Most of the time [the hurdles we face are] funding and how to sustain the project. People love us, our adventures, and dreams, but very few are willing to assist. Unlike in Western countries—they gravitate to these undertakings and will readily support you. Here, our mentality is just different. We lack dreamers.”
In the end, Valdez hopes that their balangay voyages spark a deeper understanding of unity among his fellow countrymen. “Our voyages and adventures are merely symbolic. We want our countrymen to see that we can achieve our aspirations if we work together; less politics, less selfishness, more understanding, more tolerance. With a collective effort, a focus goal and coherent determination, we can easily rise up and uplift Filipino pride and move our country and its people forward. One boat, one people, sailing toward common goals.”
This article was first published on Explore Philippines Magazine Issue 18
Photos by Fung Yu and Kevin Tankiko