Living on the edge in a house on stilts

Contributing writer Jonathan Orbuda finds himself in the floating nipa huts of Laguna Lake, where he discovers that life may be harsh, but people try to thrive. As one of the persons he met, Mang Rolly, said: “Mahirap tumira sa lawa. Tiyagaan lang talaga (It’s hard living on the lake. But you just have to put up with it).”

Bangus, bangus! Limang piso na lang ang kilo (Milkfish, milkfish! Only P5 per kilo)!”

The audible voice of a woman was persuading me to buy her milkfish.

Bakit ang mura (Why so cheap)?” I asked.

She just smiled at me, and then whispered: “Mga huli ko ‘yan sa baha. Galing sa Laguna Lake na nakawala sa fish pen pagkatapos ng bagyong Glenda (I caught them after the flood. They escaped from Laguna Lake after the fish pens broke due to typhoon Glenda).”

With that, I had a sudden flashback; that moment when I talked to a fish pen care taker in Laguna Lake, right inside his bahay kubo (nipa hut).

Nipa huts – that cube-shaped house closely identified with rural living – is traditionally found in the countryside. However, as I found, it can also be found at the very core of Laguna Lake.

On a visit there, the sight of one immediately picked my curiosity, and so I immediately took a ride on a paddled boat, and after 30 minutes, landed on one, meeting its owner, Mang Rolly Larita, a fisherman and who has been looking after fish pens for 10 years already.

Mahirap tumira sa lawa. Tiyagaan lang talaga (It’s hard living on the lake. But you just have to put up with it)”, he said to me as soon as we came face to face.

As a caretaker of a fish pen owned by his brother, Popoy Larita, Mang Rolly is responsible for guarding it day and night. And the need to be there all the time is what triggered him to build the nipa hut afloat on the lake.

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Nipa huts on lakes are – not surprisingly – not made in the same way as the nipa huts on land.

Here, piled bamboos at the bed of the lake serve as the nipa hut’s foundation, while tied bamboos serve as the floor and walls, and the “lona” serve as the roofing, with these canes warming and drying the tired workers after long periods of sailing and fishing.

But as it is in other family dwellings, fishermen in floating nipa huts are communal – they share their foods among each other.

The nipa hut also serves as Mang Rolly’s watch tower.

Uso kasi ang nakawan dito kahit na tubig ang ginagalawan. Ninanakawan kami ng alagang isda sa pamamagitan ng pagbutas ng net, tapos sasaluhin nila ‘yung mga isda na lumalabas. Kaya kailangan gising na gising kami kasi sa gabi sila umaatake (Theft is common here, even if we are surrounded by water. The thieves steal fish from us by boring holes in the nets, and then catching the fish that escape from the holes that they create. And so it’s important that we stay awake, particularly since they steal in darkness/at night),” Mang Rolly said.

That living on the lake can be dangerous was recognized by Mang Rolly.

Kapag makulimlim ang kalangitan, nakatutok kami sa radio para pakinggan kung may bagyo ba. Kasi kung meron, inaalam namin kung anong signal na, Kapag signal number one, mananatili pa kami sa kubo, babantayan ang lambat na nakalatag sa lawa. Pero kapag tumaas na at inaanunsyo na lumikas, kinukuha na namin ‘yung mga importanteng gamit, tapos aalis na kami. Pagkatapos ng bagyo, saka kami babalik para tingnan ang palaisdaan (If the skies darken, we listen to the radio for news on the weather. If there is a storm, we make sure to know the status of the storm. If it is signal one, we stay where we are to look after the fish pens. If the signal worsens, we pack up our belongings and leave right away. We come back when the storm has passed),” he said.

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Typhoon, obviously, is their worst enemy.

The floating nipa hut, therefore, exemplifies how hard remains for Mang Rolly, and other people like him.

Eighteen-year-old Jose Linaw, originally from the Visayas, worked for almost four months as a caretaker, and he willingly shared his experience living in a nipa hut on the lake. He initially worked on Korean-owned fish pen, but then transferred to another fish pen owner due to the difficult work paired with low wages.

Mahirap manirahan sa lawa kasi masyadong malayo dito ‘yung mga kailangan mo. Tiyagaan lang. Ang kaibahan lang dito tahimik at mas presko. Ang kalaban talaga rito ay sama ng panahon, delikado talaga kasi hindi mo alam kung kailan darating (It’s hard living on the lake because it’s far from all conveniences. But you just put up with it. The one difference with living here it it’s quieter, and the air is fresher. Our enemy here is the bad weather, which is really dangerous, particularly since you don’t know when it’ll come),” Jose said.

And so their ilk stay living on floating nipa huts, built with bamboos characterized as resilient by standing firm after storm hit them. The nipa huts reflect the very people who subsist in it, not just standing firm, but also soaring after storms of problems face them.

Alas, there is no place like a bahay kubo, indeed.

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