Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Sea People

Lianga, like many coastal communities, has a love-hate relationship with the sea. The local people know that it feeds them and provides livelihoods for many. But somewhere deep within their common psyche is also an irrational fear of the sea as a fundamental force of nature, fickle and unpredictable as a woman, and capable of unleashing the awesome power of wind and water that can wreck havoc and destruction upon their homes and communities and indiscriminately take their lives and the lives of their loved ones. This deep and primeval fear finds manifestations in many different forms but none fascinates me more than the enduring legends of the sea people.

The local lore is replete with stories and tales of the mythical residents of the underwater world, who depending upon the perspective of the storyteller, can be gentle and benevolent creatures aiding fortunate local residents in times of distress in the sea or vengeful and malevolent monsters who demand yearly tributes and sacrifices in the form of human lives. Old timers also talk of local residents kidnapped by the "ukoy", a particularly nasty, humanoid sea monster, who then condemns these unfortunates to eternal slavery underneath the blue-green waters of the deep.

Interestingly, the mermaid, classically depicted in many cultures as a woman with fish fins instead of legs, also abound in the shallow coastal waters if the stories of old fishermen and the grizzled mariners in their motorized boats are to be believed. Many of them even offer food and incantations to these fishy humans in the hope of a safe journey or a bountiful catch.

Without a doubt, there is no scientific evidence to support the existence of the sea people. They exist only in the realm of the imagination and, perhaps, in the collective subconscious of a people needing to understand, in their own limited way, the mystery, complexity and the massive power of the sea and the ocean.

But I have traveled by boat along Lianga's coast many times and I can understand how easily one can be seduced by these old legends. The flash of a white topped wave or the rolling dance of a rogue dolphin or the flitting shadow of a fast traveling fish can be taken for a mermaid from a distance. Or perhaps one can think that the rough brushing against your leg by a clump of seaweed or some harmless sea creature while you are swimming in deep water is the touch of the dreaded ukoy.

Either way, the myth can suddenly and terrifyingly take on reality and for a heartstopping moment there, you are almost certain that the sea people have come for you.

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