Witnessing Hushed Bartering Scenes at Bulungan sa Pandawan

Every morning with daylight yet to ooze from the sky, a multitude of motorboats is heard roaring off the coast of Mercedes town in Camarines Norte. Buoyed by a prayer and a resolve to provide for their families, fisher folks head out to the abundant waters of San Miguel Bay intent on taking home boatloads of fresh catch. Providentially, the body of water that opens to the mighty Pacific Ocean isn’t called the “fishing bowl” of Bicol Region for nothing—as each day, the fish market of Mercedes becomes a bustling scene of fish trading activities. 

Crates and crates full of the freshest catch can be seen at Mercedes Fish Market
Crates and crates full of the freshest catch can be seen at Mercedes Fish Market

But amidst the chaos of the fish-market scene of Mercedes, a traditional manner of bartering reigns over every fisherman, fish brokers and marketgoers. They call this practice as “Bulungan sa Pandawan”

“Bulungan sa Pandawan”

Despite the usual market clatter of fish brokers calling attention to their catch piled on the tiled floors of the market, when it comes down to making a bid—the custom way of proposing an amount to the broker is always done through whispering. 

By following this hushed practice, the broker then determines who the highest bidder is. Because of this continuous tradition, Mercedes Fish Port became more known as the “Bulungan sa Pandawan” (or Whispering at the Fish-market).

Mercedes Fish Market or Bulungan sa Pandawan
Whispered bids are kept in secret
It was my first time witnessing such unique trading practice after being exposed to a market culture where buyers and vendors would quibble out loud—in this fish market, every deal is sealed with a whisper.

Mercedes Fish Market or Bulungan sa Pandawan
A moment of quiet between a broker and a buyer 
Men and women of all ages are seen engaging in this unusual habit of negotiations. The vibe at the market is a synthesis of chaotic activities and moments of inaudible conversations—both blending fascinatingly—creating a captivating market scene I am only witnessing for the first time.

Mercedes Fish Market or Bulungan sa Pandawan

A Feast of the Freshest Catch

A few strides from the fish market situates a few restaurants where you can have your procured fresh seafood to be cooked on your recipe of choice. You can have it either grilled or stewed in tomato sauce or simmered with sinigang or nilaga soups. After spending more than an hour observing the novelty goings-on at “Bulungan sa Pandawan”, I joined our hosts from the Camarines Norte Provincial Tourism office for a feast consisting of the freshest seafood caught just that morning. We capped our visit to Mercedes Fish Market by gobbling on grilled and sinigang fish of various types.

Preparing to leave, I again observed the returning fishermen one last time as they unload crates and crates of their morning catch from their boats to the fish market docks. I wondered about the richness of marine life thriving in the waters of San Miguel Bay. While it is an aquatic biodiversity that continues to supply livelihoods to the residents of Mercedes, Camarines Norte, it remains to be seen how the seas can continue providing a source of revenue for the local folks. I guess, the answer now rests on how our generation can take care of our oceans to ensure that nothing will poison the marine living things flourishing underwater—and in doing so, we can also guarantee that the whispered dealings at Bulungan sa Pandawan will also continue for generations to come.