At 62, Raphael Austria is no longer the young man who used to climb the steep mountain cliffs of El Nido and live on makeshift huts for days to guard and protect swift nest caves from thieves. He had long left the livelihood for easier money taking tourists on boat and road trips. That was when business was good and tourism was booming.
But the pandemic has brought El Nido’s tourism economy to its knees and left families dependent on the industry scrambling for other means of livelihood. Starting next year when the birds nest season begins, Raphael has made up his mind, he is going back to the cliffs.
“Babalik kami ngayon. Kasi sa hirap ng buhay, kahit papaano doon may kinikita. Lalo na ngayon na kahit ang mga senior citizen hindi na rin tanggapin sa construction. Iyong dating kweba ko, iyon din ang babalikan ko,” Raphael told Palawan News.
Raphael said he had stopped being a busyador three years ago because income was better for him when he was guiding tourists as a boatman.
“Sa pag-tour ko sa mga bangka, minsan makatsamba ka ng guest na medyo galante, may tip ka pa, bayad na ‘yong araw, kaya iyon ang natutukan namin,” he mused.
During times that the birds nests are not due for harvest, he said he would go fishing as his alternate livelihood source. “Pagdating kasi noong wala ng balinsasayaw, ang hanapbuhay noon ay pangingisda,” he said.
But even while he had stopped climbing for nests, Austria said he passed on his work to one of his seven children.
“Ngayong nagkaroon ng pandemya, balak ko na mga January siguro ay baka gumawa na ako ng bahay-bahay doon. Nagsisimula kami nyan December, pero ang kalakasan nyan ay January hanggang April,” Austria told Palawan News, his face showing concern about the welfare of his family.
Life of a busyador
Austria said he used to climb precipices in 12 caves to harvest edible nests. In the small huts they constructed, they would wait and observe the swiftlets before collecting their nests that are priced as soup ingredients in Chinese culture.
Being a busyador is dangerous, he recalled. He had fallen three times, broke his arm, and almost died in 2013, but it was the livelihood he knew how to do.
He said their timeline is January to May — the season that the swiftlets make their nests.
“Sa akin nasa 12 halos na kuweba ang inaakyat ko. Nagsimula din ako umakyat, 12-years-old pa lang ako. Ang nagturo na rin sa akin ay ‘yong mga kapatid ko na mas panganay sa akin. Kapag medyo mahirap na kuweba, minsan may kasama rin ako. Binibigyan lang kami ng lolo namin dahil wala pa rin naman akong pamilya noon,” he said.
While helping his grandfather, they can collect more than two kilos of edible bird’s nest each harvest season. The price per gram was P10 back then, he said.
But times have changed, according to him. Even if the price per gram has already gone up to P170, they barely collect more than one kilos of bird’s nest.
“Ngayon nitong kami na lang, wala na, hirap ka na. Minsan sa isang harvest nga, maka-50 grams ka lang malaking bagay na. Noon kasi nagsimula ako umakyat mga P10, ngayon ang pinakamataas ngayon ay nasa P170 (per gram) yong first class. Kaya maka-50 grams ka lang, malaking bagay na,” he said.
As the population of the swiftlets decreased, so did the number of the busyador in El Nido. In fact, like him, many have turned to become tourism-dependent.
“Kaunti na lang din kasi ang balinsasayaw sa ngayon gawa nga ng hindi na makapagsisiw ang mga balinsasayaw, kahit ‘yong itlog ay kinukuha. Sa isang taon iyan ay isang beses lang din mangitlog sila,” he said.
Going back to the business
Austria said he is uncertain if they could harvest more than enough edible nests next year to sell to the buyers.
He is also doubtful if he could still do it at his age. But he has no choice except to go back or his family will have nothing to eat.
Austria said they are trusting that the balinsasayaw will not fail them.
According to him, the price of the nests depends on their types — first class is around P170 per gram, second class P90, and third class P50.
“Hindi ko lang sure (kung malaki pa ang kikitain) kasi bibisitahin pa rin namin ‘yan, minsan kasi ang balinsasayaw ay pawala na nang pawala ‘yan. Bibisitahin namin iyan kung may kikitain pa rin. Sa tingin namin, meron pa rin,” he said.
“Kaunti na lang din ngayon kasi ang nangyayari diyan, hindi napo-proteksyunan ang balinsasayaw, kahit may itlog kukunin pa rin. Pero kung napo-proteksyunan ‘yong sinasabi nila na closed season, dadami ang balinsasayaw kasi magkakasisiw iyon. Minsan nga ‘yong iba kahit sisiw nga lang, kinukuha pa ‘yong pugad dala yong sisiw. Ikaw na may kweba gusto mo rin na maproteksyunan kaso yong mga magnanakaw kukunin din,” he said.