San Francisco, Agusan del Sur

Ordinary Seaman to Second Mate, 1983-2003

Organic Farmer and Cooperatives Advocate, 1986 to present


By J. Dela Torre

turlaThe earliest recollection of Hilario “Boy” Turla as a boy was of running to the Nasipit shore every day after school and digging up for shells, clams and other sea life which he could use as fish bait. Then, he’d run back to their house to drop his school gear and pick up his fishing equipment. Not bothering to change into more suitable clothing for fishing, he’d hurry off to the Nasipit wharf to spend the rest of the day in his favorite spot at the wharf, waiting for his line to catch something. This was his hobby and routine every school day until he graduated from high school, interrupted only when there was an activity at the school or a family occasion he had to attend. Sometimes, his younger brother went along. If the catch was good, Boy would sell the catch around Nasipit, and keep the money so he wouldn’t have to ask his mother for school allowance.

Boy was literally following the footsteps of his father, who also fished in the same wharf earlier in the day. Celedonio Turla worked the graveyard shift at the Nasipit Lumber Co. (NALCO), in Nasipit, Agusan del Norte, so he fished in the early morning hours after his shift until well into midday.  The Turla family had inherited the fishing gear from Boy’s grandfather on his mother’s side, who was from Negros and had a fishing boat. Boy had been taught by the grandfather at an early age not to allow his body and mind idled by their station in life. The sea, the grandfather said, offers opportunities for livelihood, and you must always turn to the sea. Boy never imagined that his fate would be tied up with the sea as his grandfather had counselled him, except in a different way.

Boy had six other siblings and he was the eldest, and so he knew that there wasn’t enough money to go around when the time came for him to go to college. He wondered how his father was going to get the money for his tuition, so he was half-expecting that he’d be left in charge of the family’s idle 7-hectare farm and become a farmer with no education, and to him at that time, no prospects the rest of his life.

But his father had other plans for him. One day, after Boy had graduated from high school, as Celedonio fished and watched the big ships loading the logs and lumber processed by NALCO for shipment to other ports in the country and abroad, he chanced upon a member of the crew and struck up a conversation with him. He learned about the life of seamen, how risky it was, and how much they got paid. When he got home, he called for Boy.

“Buti pa, anak, mag aral ka na lang pagka-seaman,” he advised the clearly surprised Boy.  

How? Boy stared at him in disbelief. From the sale of fish we catch every day?

As if reading his mind, Celedonio answered: “You will go to Cebu and live with my cousin there. She’s a retired doctor, and she’ll put you up.”

A few weeks later, Boy found himself as one of the hundreds of white-clad BSMT students at the Cebu Polytechnic School, pursuing a mariner’s career, which at that time was the career of choice for young and ambitious students from the rural South. The following year, his sister followed him to Cebu and enrolled in midwifery school, making it more difficult for their parents to regularly send enough money for their allowance.  Though the father was worked as Boiler-Maker at NALCO, and was paid above-minimum, there were too many mouths to feed, and too much to pay at school and at home. To earn his keep and something extra for his pocket, Boy collected “tong” from mahjong players at his aunt’s tables. “Tong” is the share of the winnings collected by the owner of the house for the meals and snacks of the players, and for the electricity expense. It is collected at the end of each round of play, and when all the players’ luck is about even, it is usually the “tong” which “wins” or ends up with the highest winnings. Mahjong is the most popular form of untaxed gambling in the Philippines, because it’s usually just played among friends and relatives during social occasions, but the bets can be considerable and losers could throw away thousands of pesos in one short session.

Boy kept this daily routine until he finished his BSMT theoretical two and half years later. He returned to Nasipit, and since his father worked for the giant lumber company, he knew people from the shipping companies which loaded and shipped away the company’s products. Boy boarded an inter-island ship in Nasipit for his practical, and after a year, obtained his BSMT degree.

Back at Nasipit, having tasted life at sea for one year, Boy was thrilled to get his ocean-going seaman’s career going. But he was clueless as to whom to approach and what to do. Again, the father was several steps ahead in planning Boy’s future. It turned out that the he knew some people who knew other people who had a manning agency. Boy lost no time and boarded a ship to Manila, armed with two letters from his father to his uncle and to an officer of the Associated Marine Officers and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines or AMOSUP. While on the boat to Manila, Boy was still incredulous that his father, a mere rank-and-file worker at a lumber company, who couldn’t feed his family adequately if he didn’t take advantage of the company privilege of vale (buying rice on account, deductible from the salary), knew the right steps to take, and the right buttons to press, in advancing his career. If his father had been with him at that moment on the boat, he would’ve given him a big hug.  

He sought out a Mr. Mansueto of AMOSUP, and it didn’t take long for his name to be shortlisted for one of principals of the CF Sharpe manning agency, bound for the United States as an Ordinary Seaman. Boy was ecstatic and soon, he was sending money to his parents on a regular basis. He didn’t marry until all his siblings had all finished college, and he had built a house for his parents. He proudly ticked off his brothers and sisters whom he had supported to become midwife, seaman, accountant, another accountant, hotel and restaurant management professional, and the youngest, also a seaman. He was already Third Mate then.

He tried his best to fast-track his career. He suspected it wasn’t going to be easy because “my superiors were Norwegians, Americans and Swedish, and their standards of performance were high”. He showed them that even if he was size- and height-challenged, and came from a poor country, he had what it took to become an officer, just like them. He smartly finished his daily tasks as Ordinary Seaman earlier than expected, and promptly went up to the bridge to demonstrate his willingness to learn the intricacies of navigation. His efforts paid off—he was allowed to train as a cadet. In 1986, he passed the examination for Third Mate.

“I really set out to become an officer, and I used everything I had—my body, my mind, my wits—to become an officer. I knew that to be an officer was the only way to free my parents and my brothers and sisters from their difficult life in Nasipit, and to pave the way for my own future,” his eyes narrowed, as if recalling the determination and the efforts he had to bring to bear on achieving his goals.

In the next twenty years, he roamed the seas and oceans of the world, sending money to his family regularly, and after he got married to Yoly, he began investing in his own house and farms. His work experience being in chemical and oil tanker navigation, and therefore sought after, he didn’t stay long in every company and always aimed at getting a better deal in each contract. He also made sure that the ships he boarded were only Asia-bound. He didn’t want to relive the horror of navigating through the world’s great oceans in foul weather and heavy seas, “especially in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean,” he added. He just wanted to live long for his growing family, and often when working during bad weather, he’d call on his Creator for comfort and succor.

“The life and work of a seaman is no walk in the park. Sometimes, you work for days on end with little or no sleep, and you begin to lose concentration, and since you are in charge of navigation, this could be disastrous. Winters are especially harsh on seamen. Our nose would bleed. We’d put on five layers of clothing to ward off the biting cold in the open sea. Your hands would harden from the cold, and we’d find it difficult to work,” he narrated, briefly staring at his hands.

Three years after working as Third Mate, he took the exam for Second Mate in 1989. Only 17% of the hopefuls passed, and Boy was one of them. But he knew his days as seaman was numbered. He knew he had to give up sooner or later.

“I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days risking life and limb when I could be with my family. Back then, I was convinced we could just live off my mango farm and my mango contracting business,” he resolved. Mango contractors go around the countryside, looking at the potential of mango trees they find, talk business with the tree owners as to the latter’s share of the produce, and henceforth be responsible for inducing the mango tree to flower and bear fruit. All expenses, including those for harvesting and delivering to buyers, are to the account of the contractor. The owner just waits for his share of the produce, presently at 30%.

Boy found himself hooked on farming. After establishing himself as a major player in the mango contracting business, he tried his hand in rice farming. His wife’s family had idle rice farms, and he was willing to invest his time and money on them. But he found rice farming to be a shaky proposition: sometimes he’d make a profit, often not at all. The profitability of rice farming in the Philippines is totally dependent on two vagaries: irrigation and the fact that the country is pummeled by at least two dozen typhoons every year. Plus, he found the daily commute from Nasipit where his mango contracting business operated, to San Francisco, where the rice farm was, to be taxing.

“Rice farmers’ English vocabulary is limited to only two words—failure and short, i.e., crop failure and short in earnings,” he cracked the old Philippine farming joke.

On his very first harvest as mango farmer, he made a lot of money, which he invested in mango farming equipment, such as power sprayers and a motorbike. Motorbikes are the ideal mode of transportation in the hilly terrain of the Agusan countryside, and having one unit was a business imperative for Boy.

Then he tried freshwater fish farming, vegetable farming, pig farming, goat farming, duck raising, chicken farming and mushroom culture. If there was a new fad or a new technology in farming, Boy was into it. Then, he decided to go organic because he realized how harmful farm chemicals were.

“I realized I wasn’t getting any younger, and I wanted to contribute what I could to preserving the environment for my children.” He became so active in farming he was chosen as the President of his baragay’s farming association. He was also elected into various other farming groups: secretary of the San Francisco federation of farming associations; president of mushroom farmers association; federation secretary of the San Francisco organic farmers association; federation secretary of the Agusan del Sur organic farmers’ association; president of San Francisco fisherfolk association.   

Did he find the transition from one whose language used to be characterized by seafarer’s jargon (port for left side, and starboard for right side of the ship) to one who now advocates the preservation of Mother Earth and installing “internal control system” for organic farms, difficult?

“Of course, it was difficult at the start, but I made it easy for myself by reading a lot and by attending organic farming seminars very often. In other words, I had to re-educate myself,” he replied quickly. He also consulted with the local and provincial officials and technicians of the Department of Agriculture.

His advocacy now includes managing a farmer’s cooperative, the San Francisco Farmers and Producers Cooperative, which lends out farming input capital to farmers at very low interest, and leases farming equipment at minimal fees. The cooperative’s aim is to empower the farmer and to ensure that the farmer doesn’t miss on economic opportunities for want of capital. With just a hint of comic relief in his face, he said he wants the use of the English words—deficit, failure, short, damage—no longer in the farmers’ lexicon.

He has three children by Yoly: the eldest a nurse, now employed by the Department of Health and pursuing a masteral degree; the second, a SPED Teacher, also taking up a masteral course; and the third, on his junior year in accountancy. Boy is happy with the way his children has grown up. He’s never regretted he gave up a well-paid career at sea every time he looks at his children.

Not forgetting to get himself involved in community and civic affairs, he is a member of the tennis club, the electric cooperative council and the amateur radio club. His wife, Yoly, is active in church activities.

Would he allow his children to go abroad for work? “Yes, I wouldn’t prevent them, but I don’t think that is likely because they are all gainfully employed now. I see no reason for them to seek their fortunes elsewhere,” Boy replied.

Any word of advice to OFWs?

“If you plan on going into business, you should start saving now. If you are now financially stable, having saved enough, invest in the Philippines. The money is here, as you are willing to work hard for it. The problem with most Filipinos is that they want to make a lot of money the quickest way possible. Not many of us are willing to make the sacrifice. Working abroad, though financially rewarding, is risky, particularly for seafarers. There is also the danger of your children going into harm’s way when you are too far to supervise them. But if you are around to guide them, you can be assured they will turn out to be good responsible children. You are happy just going to church as a family, and relaxing in the beach as a family. You’re smiling inside every time you see your children going off to their productive jobs. As long as you are not too ambitious, as long as you’re happy with plain and simple living, you can live comfortably here in the Philippines. If you have the money, invest in agriculture. As long as one is willing to sweat it out, there is future in agriculture.”

Boy has sought to escape poverty by working abroad as a seaman, but he has realized his future lay not in slaving away aboard ships, braving tempestuous blue oceans, but getting down on his haunches and getting his hands dirty on Mother Nature’s green pastures.