Feeding the Dragon

When I first met my counterpart “Ban-Ban”, I was thrilled to have an enthusiastic, hard working and smiling partner for my next two years of service- while we were standing in line waiting to get our food at a buffet during the Peace Corps Counterpart Conference Ban turned to me and asked, “Do you like Dragonball?”

I wasn’t sure I heard correctly but I nodded an affirmative because while I never really watched Dragonball- I certainly have enough comics/pop culture knowledge to know about the quasi famous Japanese cartoon heroes, and if my counterpart dug it then I could get into it as well. The next thing I heard made the conversation a bit more confusing for me. Ban continued:

“We have Dragonball team in San Jose- it’s new, but the fisherfolk are winning, do you want to come and play with us?”

Now I was really confused- I instantly had so many questions How do you win at Dragonball? Is this a Dragonball game? Like a card game? Why are fisherfolk interested in it? How big are the competitions? How do you play?

When we returned to our table, I asked Ban to show me a picture of the Dragonball team. He brought out his phone and showed me a photo of a team of about twelve people paddling a boat shaped like I dragon. I instantly realized my faulty interpretation- not Dragonball… Dragon boat.

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Dragon boat racing is very popular here in the Philippines, it originated in southern China about 2,000 years ago and is a team typically of 12 with 10 paddlers sitting in a long canoe with 5 paddlers on each side, a steerer acting as rudder and a drummer who acts as the pace setter for the race. The races are typically 200-300 meters with 3 stages in the race. Each competition here has an entrance fee and cash rewards for the top 3 places. When I arrived the local team in Dumaguete were the reigning champions for the past few years.

I was immediately interested, I looked up photos and information and watched videos with Ban about Dragon boating. As an avid kayaker, canoeing enthusiast and a fan of all sports on the water- I was sold. Then I learned the origination story of SJ Banatti- our dragon boat team.

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My most recent T-shirt design. “Kugi” means work hard or hardworking and is the motto of our town.

A few months before I arrived a provincial level Sports organizer approached the Local Municipal Government Office (City Hall) where I work, it was proposed that our town should have its own dragon boat team to compete in the many dragon boat races in the area. It is fairly common for a few people from different offices in the City Hall to gather together and participate in a few races. You have a few people from budgeting, agriculture tourism and rescue department who meet up and give it a few tries. Somehow the task of organizing a team fell to Ban (maybe because he is the head of the Fisheries and Ocean areas of the Agriculture office) and Ban decided to do something different. I think Ban was already a big fan of Dragon boating and he has regular meetings with the fisherfolk communities all around our town.

Many of the fisherfolk in our province spend most of their time fishing. Fish account for a huge source of protein for Filipinos and for a majority of meals. Most of what I eat daily is fish and rice and the fish here is absolutely delicious. You can find all kinds- but my favorite by far is Milkfish- it’s creamy and the taste is smooth and it also happens to be the National Fish of the Philippines- and everyone loves it. Most of the fisherfolk here in my town begin fishing very, very early in the morning and continue fishing until they have a full catch or it gets too hot to keep going. In fact here the word for morning is Buntag and Buntag begins at 12:01am- so it helps to illustrate that everyone rises early. Part of it is for the fishing and part of it (myself included) is too avoid the heat of the day.

Ban went to the members of the fisherfolk community that paddled their outrigger canoes everyday-  the people who already spend hours with a paddle in their hand and whose bodies move in harmony with the ocean. They are tough, strong and highly motivated to compete. Ban asked if they would like to form a Dragon boat team and the enthusiasm was intense. Not long after that an official team emerged and SJ Banatti was born. SJ Banatti has a complex origin. The SJ stands for our town- San Jose and Banatti is the name of a Filipino motorcycle engine manufacturer that has made a name for itself building green eco friendly motorcycles out of bamboo.

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The team went to their first competition and did extremely well. They were inspired and organized for the second competition where they were able to place in the competition. However, the team needed a way to practice- they were hungry for the sport and they rallied around Ban. They needed a Dragon boat- but the cost of a Dragon boat here is quite mahal (expensive) and for our team certainly cost prohibitive. That kind of money is simply not obtainable on a fisherfolk’s hard earned salary. So, Ban and the team went to the Mayor of our town who was very supportive since the team was winning and providing accolades and a source of pride for the community. The Mayor gave permission for the team to cut some bamboo that was growing in the town dump in the southern part of town.

Our team was inspired and grateful. We took to the mountain the next day and cut down enough bamboo by hand to fill a municipal dump truck. Later that afternoon we had a raft- if not a boat made out of bamboo. It was incredible. Ban and I arrived for the maiden voyage.

The excitement in the air was palpable but also a held sense of uncertainty- the bamboo was still green and since no one had ever built a dragon boat out of bamboo that we knew of- we didn’t know if it would even float. Together as a team- with everyone pulling their weight we set the raft into the river near the fisherfolk village. It floated! Then we began to load it with people, at 3 it was good, at 4 it was in the water and at 5 it was sinking.

Our team was slightly discouraged- you wouldn’t have really known it if you didn’t know what to look for- it was just a brief moment of silence and then someone told a joke and laughter erupted among the team with comments about how much stronger they would get paddling a sinking boat. Ideas where thrown around about how to fix it, some wanted more bamboo- other said we could paddle in teams of 4 but then it would take forever for our group of 40 members to all get a chance to train. I went home that night exhausted from the harvesting of the bamboo and discouraged from its maiden voyage.

The next morning, I woke up with the solution in my head. I already knew how to fix the issue and it would cost the team nothing! I almost ran to work and when Ban came in, I pitched my idea: Let’s take all the 2-liter plastic soda bottles and shove them under the raft. I showed Ban a photo of an entire raft built out of soda bottles and he was on the phone texting before I knew it. That evening when I showed up to practice- ready to work on the boat, I was shocked to find that plastic bottles lined the spaces between the bamboo- every area that a bottle could fit was plugged and with the added buoyancy of the bottles, the raft not only floated- but could hold up to 20 fisherfolk- even a big American like myself had no problem on the raft. Practice started immediately.

 

I was invited to join practice and I leapt at the opportunity. I could tell that the raft would hardly sail through the water- but its purpose was to develop strength for the paddlers- the more resistance the better. I saw the group that had just finished their first paddle exit the boat- some were dipping cold seawater onto their heads, other just jumped in for a dip. I saw their veins charged and the exhaustion in the way they moved. One of the younger members handed me a paddle- strong wood worn smooth in parts with work and other sections stood out rough with salt. It immediately felt comfortable in my hands- all the time I spent paddling brought me home. I took my place in the team- sitting in the center on the right side of the raft- my feet in the ocean and with the sun setting I made roll of my shoulders and got into a ready position for my first paddle on a bamboo raft in the Philippine sea. I could feel the tension in the air- the dragon was hungry and what it wanted was sweat, strain and every ounce of energy we had to offer, I made a promise to myself in that moment when I could hear the dragon’s stomach rumbling like thunder across the sea- no matter what- don’t stop paddling.

 

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On a Dragon boat team there are positions that everyone takes on. Each role is as important as the others and often times the roles reflect the strengths of each person. At the front of the boat, facing the team is the Drummer. This position is currently occupied by one of three people. Ban has been playing here the most that I have seen. The drummer on our boat has a wooden stick mallet and an old empty water jug that acts very effectively as the drum. The drummer sits at the front of the boat and sets the pace for the race. They are the only member of the team that is facing the stern with everyone else facing forward towards the bow of the boat. The Drummer is the manager- they can see the entire team and see who is in or out of sync and they can also see the other team’s boat and make assessments about when to call for the stages.

At the beginning stage of paddling everyone is paddling together all at once in nice strong pulls, in the middle of the race the paddling shifts with a call from the Drummer of “Powerlang” or Power Load” I haven’t quite figured it out yet- but in this part the paddles are pushed further into the water and you are pulling for power. Long full strokes make the boat increase its speed. The last part of the race is “Laski!”. This part is where the rhythm increases to double time and the paddling is furious with each paddler giving everything they have into this end phase. Calling Laski too early means that the team will run out of steam and the other boat will win, while calling Laski too late will mean that the other boat will have already gotten enough of a head start to win. The Drummer position requires the person to know the team well enough to ask them to give everything for the race while also having enough respect and trust of the team to know when to call Laski.

Ban is perfect in this position, at our first race in Dumaguete after a full day of racing in which we placed in several categories- Ban had lost his voice due to his style of calling the race. Along with Ban in this position is Kay or Enrique- a local member of the Bantay Dagat (Guardians of the Ocean- sort of like a local police force for the ocean) and he carries a whistle with him. Kay is the one who ropes everyone together at the beginning of practice- he blows his whistle and everyone emerges from houses and boats- ready to begin practice with a short run or Zumba cycle. Kay is stern when he is the drummer and pushes his team far. When practice is over he is full of laughter and jokes- but he has garnered the respect of his community and mine along with it. Our recent addition to the Drummer position is Mary Ann. Mary Ann has been a member of the team since the beginning and acts as the budget manager for the team. Mary Ann also has a food stand on the national road where she sells freshly caught fish. She always has delicious tuna or sometimes rarer fish and she is always smiling- except when she is the Drummer. During our meetings she is smiles and grace- but you can feel the steel in her voice and she accepts the responsibilities of managing the team’s budget with the same attentiveness as a high-powered accountant. In the Drummer position her determination becomes obvious- she shifts the team relentlessly between Laski and Powerlang- the two hardest types of paddling and even though we are supposed to take a running lap on the beach after finishing a practice paddle- often times the team under MaryAnne is too exhausted and just wants water.

Together these three drive not only the pacing of the boat but also the direction of our team. They often stay on the beach, talking strategy long into the night, well after the sun has set. I stand with them, watching the moon slowly rise over the nearby island and catching random words and trying to stitch them together into some sort of cognitive understanding. I love these moments, when the stars twinkle into existence and the beach quiets down and the fisherfolk who believe that the beginning of the night is the best time to catch fish slowly ease their boats into the gentle ocean. I listen to the soft rumble of the Bisayan discussion around me and am filled with questions.

Directly in front of the Drummer, facing them is the next position- the Pacesetters. There are two of these- one of each side of the boat. These paddlers are the ones that everyone in the boat looks to for setting the actual pace. The drum may bang on but if the person in front of you slows their pace, so will you. The Pacesetters are young and strong. They are often full of energy and every time I look at them, they have their heads down and paddles moving- during Laski they are fully in the game, showing no signs of exhaustion or even tiring- keeping a near impossible pace and frothing the water white with their paddles. In the meetings these same people are often moving around, shifting from place to place- playing small pranks on the team and finding creative ways to let out their energy. These pacesetters were made to move and when the race starts you understand that immediately.

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Ban-Ban (closest to us) and team readying for practice

The rest of the paddlers can be divided into different groups and theories abound about who sits where and what is a winning strategy, but what is important is that everyone else is the engine of the boat. They follow the beat of the drum or the stoke of the pacesetter and when the burn sets in, they put their heads down and get to work. This engine part of the boat is often where I sit- as one of the heaviest members of the team I’m often at the end and as an outsider I have a bit more room than others which means I can find places to fit my legs that are not nearly as flexible as my teammates in the boat. These paddlers, playing to their natural strength on the left or right are the core of the team- they provide all of the power and just work hard- really hard- for the team. Occasionally during practice someone will look up and around to see if others are feeling the burn that they are, but rarely do they meet eyes with another paddler. Once the Laski has finished and we are allowed a break, laughter breaks out once everyone’s breath is caught. We dip water over our heads to cool down and the drummer talks to us about strategy, the next race, or whatever important information needs to be dispersed among the team. During this time the steerer (that’s the actual name) turns the boat around to face back to the beach and it dawns on us that we somehow must gather enough energy to paddle back.

The Steerer is at the back of the boat and is the only member of the team that stands on the boat. Their paddle is often longer, and they act as the rudder of the boat. This position has the entire safety and awareness of the team in their hands. Their role is to literally steer the team on the ocean, to keep the line as straight as possible and to watch over the paddlers. Occasionally there are some non-verbal but highly communicative glances between the Drummer and Steerer, but for the most part they play their roles individually. When I first came to the team, Kay was always the Steerer, as the team has grown this position changes everyday depending on who is there and who is tired from a full day of fishing and who may be slightly injured or have a cold. I like that this position changes because it means that the whole team is really starting to take care of each other, to hold the safety of the team together and to be the guiding rudder for the group. In a past race it was relayed to me that during a race that our team was not involved with, one Steerer was not paying close enough attention and two boats collided, ripping the dragon head off the front of one boat.

Banatti race

The boats themselves are made out of lightweight materials and when the teams are working in Laski are absolutely flying across the water. With each stroke of the paddles you can see the Dragonhead on the bow flying forward, trying to inch out it’s opponent. It’s a magnificent site. The Dragon’s head and the tail themselves are large removable plastic molds- often painted with green and gold and molded with scales and traditional Asian dragon features- they are works of art in and of their own. In a recent festival race that was held in our town, Geneviève and I were invited to participate as special guests along with the Mayor and a member of the local council. We were both given the honor of opening the festival by painting red eyes onto the head of the dragon, bringing it to life- I could see immediately in the ruby redness of it’s eyes that it was already hungry for the races to come. I was thrilled to be part of the process of waking the dragon and deeply honored with the respect demonstrated to me, not only by my team but by my town.

It hasn’t all been an easy journey- the team is constantly managing all of the interpersonal issues you would expect to find in any gathering of humans but the real struggle often comes not in the race itself but rather in the journey to get to the race. Transportation here can be fairly difficult and very expensive- we often need many local supporters and donations to make it possible for us to just participate in the competitions. At a recent competition we transported the entire team using the municipal dump truck- we were able to transport all 40 members in the open air truck bed- but once we arrived at the location and we started to win multiple races leading up to the finals- the tires of the truck were punctured and flattened. I also had ridden my bicycle to the event (it being fully against Peace Corps regulations to ride in the back of a dump truck, I reasoned although not explicitly stated… yet.) and around this same time that the incident with the truck tires happened, someone tried to steal my tires- a failed attempt that nonetheless did significant damage to my gears. I was amazed and genuinely grateful at the reaction of my team- they immediately gathered around me and made it clear I was not an unaccompanied foreigner- but rather a part of their team and under their protections- they insisted I move my bicycle to the inside of the tent area so that everyone could keep an eye on it and they kept checking in with me throughout the day- even buying me ice-cream at one point! The truck tires were able to be repaired before the race ended and the champions were transported home, singing and smiling as they rode and I biked beside them (it was on the way to the bike repair shop) next to the ocean along the scenic boulevard. I find it amazing that where I would get caught up in the emotions of the tire incident and sad and probably over-protective- the team was instead smiling and laughing- glad for the chance to participate in the competition, glad for their win, glad for the hard work of their competitors and glad for transportation home.

At this present moment the team is in the midst of 24 hour journey to get to Davao to compete in their first international competition- something I am amazed at. Not so much because it’s a such a big deal and the first time our team will square off against the Philippine Army team, but because I am absolutely amazed that they are even going. My counterpart has been working tirelessly for the last two weeks- attempting to find a way for the team to attend the event. This included printing new t-shirts for the team, which I designed and then Ban-Ban and I stayed up late into the evening printing all of the shirts so they would be ready for the team- it was a great moment and Geneviève made chicken noodle soup for dinner and insisted we take a break to eat together. Ban-Ban ended up taking out a personal cash advance to be able to support the trip for the team. It was a close call and until I saw them off at 3 in the morning last night- I wasn’t sure if it would even be possible- but now I am sending all of my thoughts and prayers with them as they journey to their most difficult competition yet and I hope with all of my heart for our team to have joy in their hearts as they compete against the best in the nation- Our underdog fisherfolk community- new to the scene against the reigning champs. I can’t wait to see the videos on Facebook!

Here in the Philippines there are a lot of stereotypes about the fisherfolk, I have seen them sketched roughly in professional theatre performances, heard the not-so-hushed tones of strongly opinionated city dwellers nearby and heard foreigner’s lengthy explanations of how they play a necessary but unfortunate role in the economy and how they identify with their lot in life but find it sad. But when I look at these fisherfolk, no that’s not quite right… when I look at my friends- I see a team huddled together by fate and striving, working together every single day at 4pm for something better.

SJ Banatti has brought something new to our community. It has brought an honorable source of pride to the community. Each victory, each medal or trophy that we win is not just a victory against another team but a huge victory against the negative stereotypes, against the monotonous routine of life, against the depression and poverty and their unchosen lot in life. Indeed, every single stroke of the paddle is full of hope, full of possibility and full of a dream of something bigger. In this team I see a motley crew united by hope and fueled by dreams. I see people who gather every day at sunset- exhausted after swimming, fishing, hauling nets and heavy catches for 12-15 hours already that day, I see people who weren’t friends before smiling at each other and telling jokes, I see the pride in their eyes when we present another trophy to our smiling Mayor and the hope that sparks when we get an invitation to participate in another race, running through the group like a row of popcorn on the stove.

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For me, this is the reason I am here, the reason I joined Peace Corps- to support this community and to assist in any way I can. These few hours are by far the favorite part of my day. Surrounded by laughing kids throwing random English words at me, the smell of the salty ocean in the air mixed with the beginnings of dinner being cooked, the golden quality of the sun as it prepares to set behind our mountains. In preparation I grip the paddle just to feel the smoothness of the worn wood in my hands and then the sea rises and laps at my feet and the laughter of our team that subsides as the Drummer calls “Ready!”. Our team snaps into place, paddles at the ready, bodies leaned forward ready to make the first tough pull against the water, heads down and breathing evening out in anticipation. This is where I feel the most alive, and as the boat launches forward against the tide and my world becomes only a drum, muscle and salt- I look up and smile at the last of the setting sun and know I am not alone- together we are all feeding the dragon.

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SJ Banatti (left side) paddling with a local fisherman at sunset under the full moon (upper right)

 

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