Bayugan, Agusan del Sur

Second Mate, 1990-2010

Phoenix Gasoline Station Operator, 2010 to present

Never Give Up on Your Dream

By J. Dela Torre

gonzagaJimmy was born and grew up in a squatter community in Kupin Compound, Butuan City. His father worked as a tailor and the mother a dressmaker, but with the advent of ready-to-wear clothing, the business became a dying occupation. Jimmy’s parents gave up their trade: his father took up tricycle driving and the mother sari-sari store buying and selling. Jimmy also remembers helping his parents put food on the table by selling boiled saba bananas, sweet potatoes and ice drop. After school, he’d buy the bananas at the wet market, boil them himself three to a bunch and then sell them around the streets of Butuan. At a very early age, Jimmy already knew what being poor meant and how to fend for himself. There were times when sitting down at the dining table, he’d find no more than a plate of rice because there was no money to buy a proper meal. Sometimes, his father’s tricycle broke down, and they’d scrape by for days from his mother’s and his own earnings. Their house was made of nipa shingles and leaked when it rained. Their place was prone to flooding, as most of Butuan City is, and water on the ground was a constant feature in their miserable life.

High school wasn’t much better. On summer vacations, he worked at construction sites as ordinary laborer. Until now, he’s proud to point out buildings in the commercial area of Butuan, where he had sweated out as an unskilled construction worker. On pay day, sometimes he’d be wheedled into buying drinks for the boys, and he’d sit down with them for a while, but his mind was wandering. He realized if he didn’t work hard, he’d never make a name for himself, and he’d up as a bum, like so many in their squatter community, like the ones he’s now drinking with. In 1986, he finished high school, and wondered what to do next.

Their eldest sister had won a college scholarship at a state university in Leyte. Since there was no way for him to pursue a college degree, he took up a vocational course in electricity in Butuan. After the one-year course, he became an apprentice electrician, and began putting up light fixtures in subdivisions and in houses under construction. But he found that the work of an electrician wasn’t that stable and depended on orders. But not having any other option, he decided to advance his knowledge of electricity. He went to Bohol to study as Master Electrician. Her sister who by that time had already graduated and was gainfully employed, promised to help with his expenses. He had actually thought of pursuing a career at sea, but since he hadn’t passed the NCEE yet, he decided to go to Bohol instead. Even while already in Bohol for the Master Electrician course, he was still looking at how much it would take for him to enroll and finish a course in BS Marine Engineering. He couldn’t find a way so he was stuck with the vocational course, and went back to Butuan after one year. He resumed his trade an as Electrician.

Then he met his future wife, and as things usually went for guys with no future planned out because of missed opportunities, he got married at the age of 20. The couple hadn’t planned on starting a family, but there it was, and so Jimmy decided to stand by his young wife. Jocelyn had just recovered from an illness and was ready to resume her study of nursing. Jimmy still had no clue how he would raise a family. After their wedding, they lived in the house of Jocelyn’s grandfather. Jocelyn’s mother had encouraged Jimmy to live with them and just help out in the metal fabrication business which Jocelyn’s family owned in Bayugan.

But Jimmy had other plans. The couple decided to go through with their studies in Butuan. Jimmy told Jocelyn’s mother not to worry about his expenses: he’d take of it himself. The mother promised to pay for her own daughter’s education. In Butuan, Jimmy’s father, seeing that his son needed help, gave away the tricycle to him so he could operate it himself, with the earnings going to him for his education. They decided to have a small room constructed as an extension of the house of Jocelyn’s grandfather, and lived there as a couple. And so, Jimmy drove his tricycle during the day, and went to St Joseph’s Institute of Technology in the evening for his BS Electrical Engineering degree. Jocelyn decided to take up BS Elementary Education instead.

His fate took a different turn on the summer vacation after he finished his second year preparatory courses. He was in Nasipit for the fiesta and learned that his cousin was married to a seaman. He was impressed by what he heard from his cousin about the life of a seaman and how much her husband earned as a Second Mate. When Jimmy went back to Butuan that evening, he had made up his mind: he was enrolling in BS Maritime Transportation the next semester. His wife expressed some misgivings but he talked her out of it. He finished his new course after two years. He worked on his documentation straightaway, as he didn’t want his application for a job as an ocean-going seaman to be delayed because of bureaucratic delay.

The couple was anxious to have a child before he left for abroad, and so, they sought the aid of a ‘hilot’ and indeed after that, she got pregnant. When their son turned one year old, Jimmy sailed abroad for the first time.

But before that happy occasion, however, he had to go through the same ordeal as the rest of the tens of thousands of seamen applying in Manila. For seamen who had close relations in Manila, the path was not so arduous. But for Jimmy who had nobody, he was forced to stay with the relative of a friend, and it wasn’t a picnic because it was also a squatter’s area. Every day at dawn, they’d get up to shower because at 6 in the morning, the water pressure started to drop. For lunch, they’d gorge themselves with banana cue, and wash it down with tap water from the agency they were applying at. But he found things to be slow at the agency: there were too many BSMT graduates and too few openings to go around. Somebody of influence, a backer, had to “push” an application to get it going through the meat grinder. And that’s just the start. BSMT graduates literally have to go through a litany of woes before they can get one foot in. Because of the lack of uniformity in the standards of education in the country’s maritime schools, each applicant is absolutely unsure of what to expect at the agency, unless he was some hotshot or a cum laude graduate from the top five maritime schools in the country. He is literally at the mercy of processors, evaluators, and hiring managers, who are not in business to make things comfortable for the applicant. A fresh graduate would be extremely lucky to get an OS position in an ocean-going vessel after two years of munching banana cues and burping up on tap water. We’re not talking yet of the gauntlet they have to go through if and when they decide to become officers: the expensive courses they have to undergo, the great expense they have to pay, the exams they have to pass and the red tape they have to endure at the agencies which have overlapping jurisdictions over maritime matters. Those small vendors at the Seaman’s Center on TM Kalaw are hoping this will not end because they are making a killing from selling stuff to a seaman waiting for days and months on end for that sign from a manning agency that he had been chosen at last.

Jimmy learned from his mother-in-law that she had a brother of high position at the Department of Labor and Employment in Manila. He sought him out, and wangled a recommendation letter to the POEA. And on a bright sunny day, he presented himself to the POEA official bearing a letter from his uncle. The POEA made a few calls to manning agencies, but the break Jimmy was expecting didn’t come. In fact, he was about to go through a short phase of his life which almost made him give up his search for that elusive job as a seaman.

He got sick of chicken pox. He must’ve got infected in that squatter household in Pasay where he temporarily stayed. At this time, he had gone to live with his uncle, the high DOLE official. When the latter found out about his condition, Jimmy was dropped like a hot potato. He was driven to a crossing in Taguig, where he was to search for a friend’s house, but he didn’t know where to start. He approached a police squad car, but instead of helping him, the police officers searched his bag and asked him questions as if he was some kind of suspect. He spent the night in a cheap boarding house, and the following morning, he asked for help from a friend in Fort Bonifacio to get him a ticket for an inter-island boat passage to Mindanao.  

Back in Butuan recuperating, he was so disappointed with the way things turned out for him in Manila, that he thought of hanging up his gloves. But upon further reflection, he knew there was no other way. He had to go back to Manila. He had concluded that the POEA recommendation was a dead-end. He decided on a blitzkrieg approach. He applied with every agency he could find or happened to know.

He came to know about an opening at Wallem Shipping and tried it too. But his papers got no farther than the desk of the processor, who marked his documentation with those dreaded words “No Vacancy”. But Jimmy was ready this time. For the next four days, he practically camped out at the agency’s office building. He made sure he was the earliest to come, and the first one on the line. He wanted the agency to know he wasn’t taking no for an answer, and that he would do everything just to jumpstart his seafaring career. Every day for the next four days, the British manager would see him and ask, “You again?” On the fourth day, the Brit gave in: he asked Jimmy if he was willing to work as an unpaid Utility Man? For a seaman without experience and who had gone through quite a bit of trial looking for a job—any job—the British manager’s words sounded like he was asking Jimmy to be the Captain of a cruise ship. If he has asked Jimmy to go clean the toilet for the next six months, Jimmy would have agreed anyway. Outside the building, he punched the air with his clenched fists, and screamed, “Yes!”

He went back to another agency to retrieve his papers. Another bad news. His papers, including his passport, were nowhere to be found. Jimmy felt his world collapsing around him. He volunteered to help in locating the whereabouts of his precious documents, and finally, they were found in the drawer of the Greek manager who had gone on vacation.

Armed with his newly-discovered papers, he went back to Wallem, and began his seaman’s career as a Utility Man. But he didn’t wait long. Processing and deployment at Wallem were efficient and fast. He was advised to undergo training for any kind of ship, tanker, dry-cargo or passenger, so that at any time, he could be deployed. He went to AMOSUP for the training, and after the training, he went home to Butuan, there to await word of his deployment. On January of the following year, he boarded his first ship, a convertible oil tanker, as a cadet in Singapore, paid at US$150 a month.

On board the ship, Jimmy thought back on his journey: “If you are challenged, don’t give up. If you give up, you won’t reach your goal. Never, ever give up on your dream.”

But his journey was just beginning. On his very first day on board, he was given a pair of boots, a shovel, hat, and a pair of gloves. Jimmy smiled, remembering his days as construction worker in Butuan City when he was given almost the same set of gear.

Jimmy learned that a convertible oil tanker was the most difficult of all ships. After unloading an oil shipment, and the next cargo was dry, he along with the rest of the ship’s newbies will be sent down to the tanks to dig up the knee-deep oil sludge and clean up the tanks. They wore masks but it was barely enough to keep off the toxic fumes when the sludge was dug up. The masks issued to them by the bosun were substandard but to complain on their first day would’ve been unheard of. On board, the only words the bosun wanted to hear was “Yes, Sir!” or you will be “airmailed”, i.e. sent home.

“It was then I realized a seaman’s job was not as glamorous as it was thought to be,” Jimmy reflected.

The nice-looking girls in Brazil, the pictures of delectable food and postcard-perfect scenery in other countries, the latest technological gear—they were just temporary and were just part of a seaman’s coping mechanisms for a lonely and difficult life at sea. The foul weather, the harshness of winter, the backbreaking work, the constant pressure to report on deck even when the seamen was under the weather, the danger of collision, the need to be on one’s toes all the time—all these contributed to Jimmy’s conclusion that he was not going to spend the rest of his life as a seaman. He needed to just save enough and go into business. On his first month at sea, he already set a timeframe for himself when he would give up his career as a seafarer.

On his first vacation after completing his contract, Jocelyn again aired her sentiments about Jimmy’s career. But Jimmy, though half of him agreed with his wife, insisted on coming back, but re-assured his wife he was not working forever as a seaman. At the same time, he also cautioned Jocelyn not to compete with the wives of other seamen in the spending department. Jimmy is thankful his wife has heeded his advice from the very start. Although he remitted 80% of his earnings to his wife, he just pegged her spending allowance at P20,000 a month, and the rest to be saved up. And so, for the next 20 years, he invested his savings in buying up farmlands and commercial lots. For the farmlands, he made sure that they had access to the road, or had right of way. In a spell of poetic justice, he bought a piece of real estate at his former home in Kupin Compound, sold by the community’s richest resident but whose children never bothered to go to school.

On occasions when his seafaring buddies teased him for his parsimonious ways, and when he chose to stay on board instead of having fun in every port, he would show them photocopies of the titles to the real properties he had acquired over the years.

In 2010, he started operating a Phoenix gasoline station. In 2012, he immediately copped 2nd place in sales in the whole of Visayas and Mindanao and in 2013 was first place as Dealer of the Year. He has already began construction of another branch in Bayugan, and bought a commercial property in Butuan, site of his third branch. He likes the gasoline retailing business because it require him to be there all the time. Sales and inventory can be monitored online. Even employee behavior may be monitored through CCTV.

Turning to fellow seamen, Jimmy advised:

“You need to have a timetable and a plan, and you have to set it up on the very first day of your career at sea. It’s easy to accumulate capital from savings. But if you just kept your money in a savings account, you’ll find that soon enough, it will be gone. You need to use your savings and invest it in a business which suits your qualification, or which you feel you have a natural affinity for, or have experience in.

He has begun to pay it forward. Among his employees in the gas station, he encourages them to finish their education, and makes sure that their station work hours are not in conflict with their school timetables. He is also very liberal about cash advances for tuition fee payments. He has seen at least two employees finish college this way, and Jimmy was happy to see them go.