A muscular guy in full-face helmet got off the relatively new scooter. He placed the bike on the stand, took off his helmet, and then in one huge scoop, lugged the woven plastic sack from the scooter’s step board and effortlessly wrestled the pack on his shoulder.

The disposable mask effectively hid half his face, but the deeply tanned and muscular guy in a black sweatshirt is certainly no farmer.  A few more steps and he was pulling string beans, eggplants, okra, squash, cucumber and bags upon bags of leafy onions, bell peppers, chili, bulb onions, tomatoes, and an assortment of leafy products from the sack now resting beside the market display table. On Friday at 6:00 p.m., he has to arrange the vegetables on a display table where his sister was to sell for the following day’s market day.

He is Leonardo Planas, 27, a seaman. A seafarer working in a cruise ship that makes the Caribbean its kitchen, this man still thinks selling vegetables is just as honest a job as scraping dirt and rust, and that he is doing this to help his mother and stepfather feed the family while waiting for his next international cruise.

Top photo: GREAT ATTITUDE IN LIFE. As a seaman, Leonardo could have just stayed home. But he choose to continue to work, serving as a model to his younger siblings the value of hardwork and love of family, while waiting for the resumption of work in the international cruise. (PNA contributed photo)

Top photo inset: VEGETABLE LIFE. Seeing he could stretch the little savings he has, Leonardo ventures into buying and selling vegetables, ready-made items, wearables, food packs, and even ladies’ sandals. (Contributed photo)

“Nalipay na unta ko sir kay as an ordinary seaman (general purpose deck crew in cruise ship term), I was promoted to crew events coordinator, a less strenuous job with plenty of time to earn a little sideline, padugang sa sweldo,” Leonardo, shared.

But fate was not as kind to the guy who has just sent his salary to the Philippines to fix the house he shared with his mother, stepfather, and three siblings, as he was ending his last contract. 

COVID WATERS

“Nag-andam na mi nga magpa-board sa sunod nga cruise, pero ningbuto na ang Corona Virus Disease (We were preparing to board the next cruise when COVID-19 happened) while we were in anchorage in Los Angeles. We waited for weeks on board the ship, but people were not into leisure traveling anymore. The management decided to just momentarily send us home,” he recounted his last days at the cruises ship, the 108-thousand gross ton Star Princess of the Princess Cruises.

The ship, which had over a thousand crew, had to stave its workforce without guests coming on board. All the ship needs is a skeleton maintenance crew and a few officers while the ship is on standby anchorage. Unfortunately, some less than a hundred crew remained on the ship while the rest has to be sent home. 

“We prepared but unfortunately, there were no plane trips anymore, so they sent us back to the Philippines on board the ship, traveling for 20 days before entering Manila Bay,” he recalled as they stayed on board for the mandatory quarantine period for days before the Philippine Coast Guard could have them tested for COVID-19. 

There were almost ten ships ahead of them and all crew and officers have to be tested before they can disembark. Returning home could have been a joy for him, but with barely enough money for fare, he was starting to worry.

Worrying, however, has never dampened Leonardo, whose life has revolved around scrimping, saving, and doing odd jobs to survive.  In a Facebook post, he said “Never blame any day in your life. Good days give you happiness, Bad days give you experience. Worst days give you a lesson.”

BORN TO ADAPT

Born in Manila, Leonardo and his family finally came home to Bohol when he was two years old and has since lived simply. His mother worked odds from laundry to yard cleaning while tending a small garden where they gather some of their food, as he and his siblings joined in any way they can.

Schooled from elementary to high school in Cortes town, Leonardo, who had this rare outlook in life as a young teen, was almost everywhere: gardener in people’s yards, errand boy, doing everything to germinate a dream of becoming a teacher and saving his way to bring his family out of poverty. 

Going to college, however, was enough of a challenge, much more completing it. “My mother’s relative, a ship officer, helped us out. He got me in at the Philippine Maritime Institute, Bohol’s biggest marine training school,” Leonardo said. 

He once auditioned for a local theater in high school which he took piously, with his little talent fee going to his school allowance.

In college, knowing he still has to find ways to find additional income, he became an officer of the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps in school. This gave him some leeway and he found a few spare income which he kept until completing the four-year course in Marine Transportation. 

When not in school, Leonardo was with the local theater in the Cortes Cultural Collective, playing a key role in dance-drama performances for tourists, or as a company bagger in a Bohol superstore. While not really into becoming a seaman, Leonardo was still looking for ways to be a PE, Health, and Music teacher, but he said he had to be an ROTC trainer so he could fit in his tourism performances.

With a newfound inclination for military service, he banked on his knowledge of military science and tried joining the navy, which got him venturing in Manila. Living there while processing his application for draft, he occasionally did odd jobs if only to survive. But he still had one bad luck in his path. 

“I passed the physical fitness exam and the neuro examinations but I failed in the medical exam for a rare male breast tumor,” he said, sadness still evident in his eyes even in the illumination of the incandescent lamp in their living room which also acted as an aeration area for his vegetables.

Frustrated, Leonardo was about to throw in the towel. But a few days later, he learned that a medical mission was giving free surgery in Bohol and he was able to secure a slot – the only male in the breast tumor surgery beneficiaries.

After a successful operation and a few months of rest in Bohol, he decided to get serious with his course on Marine Transportation. “I had to complete my apprenticeship requirement, while led me to Cebu to board an inter-island ship, getting P500 monthly allowance,” he said. 

In between his days off, he is in Bohol, performing in theaters or picking on the junior staff instructor at the PMI where he had Saturdays and Sundays of instructions and theater rehearsals for a local production here. Miraculously completing his apprenticeship, he tried applying for a slot as an international sailor, which would bring him again to Manila.

With no one to turn to, while waiting for his application to get approved, he applied as a utility for the manning company, a one-day-in-a-week job, while the rest of the week he spent working as a full-time fast-food service crew.

“For seven months, I tried surviving until January 2017 when I was drafted for a cruise ship contract job, not a fancy one but as a general-purpose deck crew. In short, we were among those who scraped the ship of rust, repaint, clean up the engine oil, clean the galleys, and other odd jobs, and it was not even good-paying, as what most people think cruise ship seamen are getting,” he confessed.

This came as a surprise as several sailors do not really disclose their jobs onboard ships. 

ABLE-BODIED SEAMAN

“Not all are officers incidentally. As able-bodied seamen, our tasks include the most menial, cleaning, and keeping the general order and cleanliness in the ship while the guests are asleep,” he shared.

He, however, compared his international cruise stint with inter-island experience and he could just laugh it off, talking only about getting the proper equipment, all-weather coveralls, work shoes, hard hats, and learning the fire drills. On his fifth contract, he applied for a better position: crew events coordinator, which he was trained for while managing events in theater performances.

“It’s a simple job. I plan for the weekly events our crew would be engaged in karaoke contests from the crew, sports, and show on the cruise. It’s a less strenuous job and it gets me into the performances,” he said. 

This was also an opportunity for him to earn, as his theater experience harnessed him to face crowds, perform, and render shows for their cruise guests. “It’s not much but who would give you $20 for a song?” Leonardo asks with a sheepish smile. 

In between rests and siesta times, he also accepts laundry services, body massage, and any odd jobs that guests want him to do. Until their last cruise from January to February 14 when the company decided to momentarily send home 900 of the ship’s crew, as cruises were suspended due to COVID-19.

“I was apprehensive I did not have much money because I already sent it home. Now, how would I ever survive in Manila where COVID is threatening the people, and how would I ever survive in Bohol?” he asked.

But having been nurtured in prayer and trust in God, he said he had never prayed harder in his life to go home to Bohol. 

OWWA TO THE RESCUE

As a member of the country’s millions of overseas workers, the Overseas Workers Welfare’s Administration (OWWA) had readied assistance packages for the repatriated workers like Leonardo.

Through OWWA’s repatriation assistance program, Leonardo, along with thousands of sailors affected by the distressful times of the pandemic, was brought back home through emergency repatriation.

The emergency repatriation is carried out in the event of any political unrest or natural calamities. Leonardo was accorded airport assistance, temporary shelter, psycho-social counseling, stress debriefing, and transport services or fares for their onward travel to Bohol.  “OWWA arranged for our free airport transfer, packed food at the airport, and the free plane tickets to Bohol. The assistance package also includes free transfers to a quarantine facility upon arrival and free quarantine accommodations,” he said. 

“You know what made my day so unforgettable? I arrived in Bohol on my birthday and I have to spend the day at a posh resort,” he meekly smiled, maybe remembering this was no casual friendly talk but an interview.

Now back home in Cortes, Leonardo has to keep in control of the family spending, not really certain when he can be back onboard. Here where most people treat seamen as outrageously rich and neighbors troop to them for easy help, Leonardo picks a life which is something different. He keeps a simple life, investing in supplying people’s day-to-day needs, especially when quarantine discourages people from going out of their houses.

“I do door-to-door delivery of vegetables and ready-to-wear items, anything they message online, I try to get them,” he proudly says.

He peddles his vegetables in the neighborhood and in areas that are far from markets until he established a good customer base, which gets the merchandise he delivers. 

His friends and high school classmates, in fact, had this posted online: “Seafarer noon, vegetable online seller and vegetable delivery ngayun.” The post was in reaction to what he had posted on his Facebook wall: Di ko kinahiya ang naging trabaho ko ngayun. Due to this pandemic, isa ako sa libo libong nawalan nang trabaho. Pero kahit ganun ang nangyare, life must go on. Kasi kakain tayo, may babayaran tayo. So walang mangyayare pag nakatunganga lang. Kailangan maging madiskarte.”

Getting scoffed at is nothing new to him. To them who looks down at his kind, Leonardo has this to say: “Wala naman sigurong masama sa magbenta ng gulay. Kahit mawalan tayo ng trabaho basta may diskarte at tiyaga tayo. Di tayu magugutom. Kayod marino pa rin tayo.”

“I may be an OFW, but I have to earn because we need the money, I cant be choosy,” he says, the personality of one of his favorite characters now showing as he was packing string beans for tomorrow’s selling day. Under his chair rests a clear pack of ladies’ sandals, also ready for the market. On the table at the far side of the room are packs of polvoron, peanuts, and packed food items for delivery.

Outside, Leonardo’s half-sister is attaching a laundry basket in Leonardo’s scooter, arranging vegetables for an early morning door-to-door delivery before he is off to another job: as clerk in the ongoing census on population and housing.   

Kinahanglang madiskarte ka, OFWs are not always rich. We are not always strong, we do not allow our minds and pride to dictate us on the kind of life we should live,” he remarked.

As to his advice for Boholanos, he said do not lose hope, pray always and ask for guidance and help “so we can get past this sooner than it should be,” Leonardo said as he prepares spending his Christmas here in his home, a celebration he has not spent with his family for quite a long time. (Rey Anthony Chiu, PIA-7 Bohol)