Two weeks ago, I was at last able to fulfill a long-time dream: to travel to the southernmost point of the archipelago, the province of Tawi-Tawi. Ever since the start of the Mindanao Bloggers Community, I’ve been grabbing every opportunity to see as much of Mindanao as possible, so that I could share with the world the beauty of the Philippine South.
Sadly, except for a few people, the first thing out of the lips of friends and relatives who found out about my trip to Tawi-Tawi was “Is it safe there?”
I’m no expert in national defense situations, but as a private citizen I can positively say it’s safe in Tawi-Tawi. As safe as any city or town could be, I would imagine. The moment I arrived at the airport, I could see how relaxed people were. There were military personnel outside, but then I realized it was because a ranking officer had arrived on the same plane. And during my entire stay, I didn’t sense anything untoward or unusual. All I could feel the whole time was a sense of newness, but at the same time a feeling of familiarity — I was still in the Philippines after all.
Not counting my visits to Kuala Lumpur, Tawi-Tawi was the second place I’ve been to that has a largely Muslim population (the first was Basilan). That’s what my friends and family were referring to when they cautiously asked about the safety condition in the deep south. The perception that Muslim areas in the Philippines are dangerous still prevails, even among Mindanaoans. Allow me, then, to show you what I experienced in Tawi-Tawi (or at least the parts of it that I was able to see).
I arrived on Friday, 5 August 2011, at 8:00am from Zamboanga City via Airphil Express flight no. 2P 243. (The airline pioneered this route and now flies between Asia’s Latin City and Bongao, the municipal capital of Tawi-Tawi, four times a week.) I was already scheduled to be in Zamboanga for a speaking engagement, so I took the opportunity to visit the country’s southernmost province from there.
On the plane before touchdown, the alluring coastlines and sparkling sapphire and emerald waters were a sight to behold! The province is made up of 107 islands and islets, including the fabled Turtle Islands. I couldn’t wait to get underwater!
The people at Sanga-Sanga Airport behaved as any group of people would in any airport (although this one is small and looks more like a warehouse from the outside). There were expectant relatives and well-wishers outside and the whole setting had a business-as-usual atmosphere. I was met by my host’s driver, who then brought me to the Beachside Inn where I would stay for the next 3 days. It was about a fifteen-minute drive on cemented roads from the airport to the inn. (Most roads on Bongao and Sanga-Sanga Islands are cemented.)
The Beachside Inn is untrue to its name only because the expansive beach is actually in front of the property. It’s in a sprawling compound, with about 22 or so rooms after the owners finish constructing the new wing. They have meetings facilities and a kitchen that can whip up a mean escabeche and tinola.
The rooms, while really basic, are air-conditioned and also outfitted with electric fans for when they’re using the generator (which is super silent). Scheduled power outages are common; on the flip side, Bongao’s water is good and reliable.
When I was there, the tail-end of a storm was threatening to ruin my stay, but from the inn it was awesome to watch the waves slam into the breakwaters and spray foam into the air. I was witnessing the rage of the Celebes Sea — a far cry from even the worst weather in the Davao Gulf.
My main objective in Tawi-Tawi was to go scuba diving, so the looming bad weather was very worrisome for me. I didn’t want to have come all the way here and not be able to dive…
Long before the trip, I had myself introduced via email to Engr. Rosendo Reyes of the Tawi-Tawi Divers Club, thanks to my instructor at the Carabao Dive Center, John Neri. When I finally met Engr. Reyes and two other club members (dive master Ramon Tañgon and Mr. Lando Lim, who owns Beachside Inn), I was instantly put to ease because the first thing Ramon asked me was to see my c-card. That showed their professionalism and concern for my safety as a diver. Still, it didn’t assuage my growing fears of not being able to dive due to the inclement weather.
In the afternoon, Ramon brought me to town on his motorbike. The main mode of personal transport there is the motorcycle, and tricycles are the best way to get around if you don’t have one. Although, Japanese- and Korean-brand sedans and SUVs are also present.
Too bad I wasn’t able to take a photo, but there’s a good-sized Catholic Church (complete with belfry) sitting right across the street from a mosque. I don’t know how reliable this figure is, that Christians comprise 30% of the total population of Bongao. Judging by what I’ve seen, it could be quite accurate. What I found interesting, though, is that Christians in Tawi-Tawi observe some Muslim traditions, like touching one’s chest after a handshake. Also, they speak the Tausug dialect, even among themselves.
Near the mosque and church is a relatively new mini-mall called Midway Plaza. It’s about one-fourth the size of Gaisano South in Davao, but it’s pretty self-sufficient: it has a grocery, a pharmacy, appliance store, clothing shops, a computer sales outlet.
Other things I spotted around town: internet cafés; schools (the Notre Dame of Bongao is in this area, while the other notable tertiary school, Mindanao State University at Bongao, is on Sanga-Sanga Island); banks (I can only remember seeing Metrobank, but I’m sure there are others); dress shops; repair shops. Except maybe for the calls to Islamic prayer that can be heard early in the morning, at noon and just after sunset, Bongao felt like any other town to me.
At around 4:30pm, we went to the public market to buy fish and have it cooked at the inn. It was astounding the innumerable varieties of fish and other seafood that were being traded at the mercado! I found it really difficult choosing which fish to have for dinner that day, but I settled for a rabbitfish (a.k.a. danggit).
Locals don’t usually buy fish on a per-kilo basis — each fish or squid or what-have-you is sold at a certain price, depending on the vendor. Of course, haggling is expected. (Due to the increased entry of buyers from Zamboanga, however, more and more Tawi-Tawi traders have already started selling their goods by weight.)
Ramon also introduced me to local delicacies, which were in abundance then, thanks to the observance of Ramadhan. During this holy month of fasting, Muslims break their daily fasting with sweets and sticky-rice treats after sunset. There’s the tamparan, or the local hot cake but much bigger, served with sweetened grilled coconut meat. I also liked the pitis (looks like suman, filled with sweet toasted coconut meat) and the pasong (a cone of delicately flavored sticky-rice cake).
Back at the inn, we had the rabbitfish (about 1.5 kilos) stuffed with onion, tomatoes, garlic and other spices, and grilled in a banana leaf. I believe this preparation is called pinaputok in Tagalog. It was heavenly! (And so did the other meals prepared for me at the inn.)
Beachside Inn Hotel & Restaurant is in Barangay Pasiagan, Bongao Municipality. Tel. +63(68)268-1446. Room rates: ₱700~1,000 per night.
To contact the Tawi-Tawi Divers Club, get in touch with Ramon Tañgon via his mobile phone: +63(918)699-2822.
Next up: Day 2 & 3 in Tawi-Tawi...