It was a bright, sunny second Tuesday in July when this team’s search for a story of courage brought its members to the sidewalk along Manila Bay.
The calming waves of the sea splashing to the shore and the heavy breathing of the cyclists and runners who were already drenched in sweat provided background to a really long, yet peaceful walk that in the initial hour gave nothing.
Then, as the seemingly fruitless walk was about to end, a song from the band Sugarfree blasted:
“Ikaw ang dulo’t, gitna’t simula (You are the end, the middle, and the beginning)…”
It was as if the song signaled there was finally something for the team.
At the end of baywalk, the team spotted sailors and boats with their supposed shelters that are made out of bamboo and tarpaulin.
And they were not just sailors; they were divers. They dive into the sea for a living.
Standing out from the crowd was Merlyn Manalo.
Nanay Merlyn, 53, is a native Kampampangan, a mother of five, a widow since 2002, and the only woman among the troop of divers.
Growing up along the banks of a river, she learned how to swim at age six. She catches and collects mussels as her way of living, but when luck strikes, she could binge for tilapia, bangus, banak, and tamban.
Reach the site to fetch for mussels takes more or less an and a half hour for Nanay Merlyn. These mussels can be found in the MV Captain Ufuk, a cargo vessel that carried smuggled guns and sank in 2016 after water seeped through a hole in the ship.
Oil spill and loss of fuel caused the ship’s sinking, according to Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo.
Unlike the other divers who have boats when they go fishing, Nanay Merlyn uses her bare strength in breathing and muscles for her livelihood.
To fully understand her story, the team rented a boat and followed through Nanay Merlyn’s route. Kuya Junior, the bangkero (boatman) was kind enough to offer a ride to the team, which took about 30 minutes to arrive at the submerged ship.
The team was fortunate to travel on calm waters, as there were no waves during the the visit to the area where the mussels are caught then sold fresh to anyone who passes by Manila Bay.
Nanay Merlyn was with her close friend Jojo Ugali or Kuya Jojo, who is also a diver but with the capacity to stay under the water longer than the former could.
Wearing a smile that can brighten up anyone’s day, Kuya Jojo kept sharing with the team divers’ stories and life lessons.
“Ganito ang trabaho naming mangingisda. Maghapong sumisisid, kapag dating naman, ibebenta ‘tong mga huli namin, babaratin pa! (This is our life as fishermen. We catch fish all afternoon, and when it is time to sell them, the customers would still bargain for the lowest possible price),” he told the team while shaking his head and pairing it up with a smirk.
“Ang sabi namin sa kanila, bakit hindi kayo ang sumisid at kami naman ang mangbabarat (We tell the customers, why don’t you try what we do and we will be the one who would haggle)?” he added.
Small mussels sell for P30 per pile, while the big ones can go for as high as P50-P60 per kilo.
Nanay Merlyn’s lowest earning so far was P200, while the highest ranges from P500-P600.
When the team asked her about working on jobs that are not hard and risky, considering her age, she smiled and said, “Iyong nakapagtapos nga ng pag-aaral ay hirap nang humanap ng trabaho, lalo na kaming hayskul lang ang nagawang tapusin. Hindi naman dahil edukado ka, ibig sabihin no’n may trabaho ka na kaagad na mapapasukan (Those who finished their studies have difficulties in finding a job, what more people like us who just finished high school. Being educated doesn’t mean it would be easy for you to find a job).”
Nanay Merlyn even insisted to cook mussels – tahong in the vernacular – for lunch with the team even if it was still around 10 in the morning. She said that for the team to know what the mussels they sell tastes like, she sautéed her catch in garlic, onion, and ginger. She said that one no longer needs to pour water since the mussels already extracts natural water from their bodies, which gives a bit of sauciness to the dish.
Then came the most awaited part – “Tikiman time (It’s tasting time)!” just like what Chef Boy Logro usually says in his cooking show.
The shells were really closed and the mussels tasted great. The saltiness was there, as what Nanay Merlyn and Kuya Jojo said. The team members’ taste buds seemed to applauded after taking the first bite of the sautéd mussels right in the middle of Roxas Boulevard.
For some people, mussels are just ordinary food – they do not really stand out from the rest of the offerings in a menu.
But for people like Nanay Merlyn and Kuya Jojo, mussels are a way of life – catching and eating are never a joke. Risky, yet it is the only choice they have to prevent starvation.
“Kung hindi ka kikilos, walang mangyayari sayo (If you don’t move, nothing will happen to you),” Kuya Jojo said.
As the team bade goodbye to Nanay Merlyn, who said she would be looking forward to the members on television someday, she reminded everyone to not neglect studies, to do well in school and to finish what has been started.