Thursday, March 10, 2016

Tawi-tawi: The Southernmost Province of the Philippines

Day One

           The first time we attempted  to go to Tawi-tawi several years back was not successful.  We were already in Jolo waiting for the fastcraft from Zamboanga when a sudden storm hit the city  causing the cancellation of the scheduled trip.  However, this time we took the plane as the fast craft plying the waters of Jolo, Tawi-tawi and Malaysia had been suspended for sometime already. What caught us by surprise was that the plane going to Tawi-tawi was not just the propeller type but an Airbus. In fact the plane was almost full of passengers. 

             We were met in Bongao by Fr. Ely, the parish priest of Bongao, Fr. Howard, the parish priest of Sitangkai, Boy Avendana, a fomer PPC  president and K of C Grand Knight and now the regional supervisor of the PPCRV and Dr. Aldrin Ibbo, a Muslim  at whose  beach resort we were to stay and three uniformed and one plainclothes marine soldiers. Bishop Lampon whom I informed earlier that we were visiting Tawitawi had arranged with the marines for our security.  They were joking that it is easier to have guards than to find  kidnap victims.  We meet also at the airport the commanding officer of the marines in Tawitawi, Col. Leo Princillo from Catbalogan, Samar. 

           From the airport we proceeded first to the Almari Beach Resort which was still new and not even finished yet. It has eight rooms with a function hall at the end of  the building which can accommodate about a hundred people. Four rooms were reserved for us including one for our security. Had breakfast at the resort. Right after breakfast our tour started right away with a courtesy call at the office of  Mayor Que of Bongao. He was not there but the lady administrator came later to meet us. She was a Catholic as also some of the top officials of the town. She joked that it's the Christians whom the Muslims would trust in running the office. The municipal hall was newly built painted with bright colors.  From the municipal hall we went to the Notre Dame school run by the OND Sisters. We toured around the campus led by the sister treasurer. Then we went to the parish church dedicated to Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. What I noticed  right away was that the church prominently displayed it's cross unlike that of Jolo and Marawi. Brod Boy said  that in Bongao they are free to practice their religion and there is tolerance from the Muslims. Hence the town is generally peaceful. They could even do their religious processions around the town streets.  Mixed marriages in fact with Muslims are common,  unlike that in Jolo. There is no compulsion on the part of the Muslim family for the non-Muslim to convert. It happens even that some Muslims get converted to the Catholic Church.  

               Lunch was served at the resort.  We noticed three American marines were also billeted at the resort.  We went snorkeling early in the afternoon at the beach fronting the resort. It was already low tide and there was a strong current just along the coast which made our snorkeling effortless since we were not able to bring our fins along.  We saw several small colored fishes and some clams. At past four Fr. Howard and Boy came to bring us to the Provincial Capitol. They brought us  first to the bridge connecting Bongao and Sanga-sanga so that we could see  from afar the Capitol which was perched on top of a hill.  Then we drove to the Capitol. Went up the rooftop were we could see the whole town of Bongao. From there we went to the town proper walking along the main market road of Bongao. We were amazed to see a heavy traffic of tricycles along the main market street. The port which was the jump off point to the other islands was also just beside the market road. The market was quite busy with a throng of people buying and selling. As it was already past five  in the afternoon, the stores were starting to close. We were told that by sundown all stores are already closed. Boy informed us that it is to prevent from kidnappings. 

                In Bongao there is a mixture of Chinese, Visayans, Badjaos, Samals and  Tausugs, the last two being the more dominant population. The towns also of Sitangkai and Mapun have a mixture of Tausugs and Samals as residents. The other eight towns of the eleven towns comprising the province of Tawi-tawi have Samals as residents.

Day Two

                   At six in the morning the following day, we went up the Bud Bongao. This is a prominent rock mountain towering over the town of Bongao. It took us an hour to go up the mountain. From on top we could see the western side of the island including the airport in Sanga-sanga. We could also see the resort where we were staying from on top. My iPhone said that the walk up the mountain was 2.3 kilometers, an equivalent of 68 floors. Bud Bongao is considered a holy place by the Muslims. Near the top of the mountain were burial grounds of some Muslim datu. There were two tombs in the first and one near the peak. The tombs were covered with white cloths. Muslims young and old would go there on a pilgrimage. We noticed plastics being tied to the trees near the tombs. Our guide said that they were  tied there by pilgrims signifying their wishes and of leaving their problems there. We saw also plenty of monkeys along the way.  That's why we were told beforehand to bring along bananas to be fed to the monkeys.

              We had breakfast at the resort upon our return. Since we had no schedule in the morning we decided just to swim at the beach fronting the resort. After a while we decided to go the Sanga- sanga bridge to snorkel there as we remember the day before when we passed by the place that there was a good vegetation there.  It was getting low tide when we arrived and we noticed a strong current flowing out to sea from under the bridge. But seeing the clear waters Ronnie went ahead to snorkel. We followed soon. There were some soft corals and a good number of colored fishes. We even saw a school of dalagang bukid passing by.  After a satisfying swim,  we went to the other side of the road where there was this fish cages of the Mindanao State University.  They had sea bass, bangus and other species of fish they were trying to culture.  

                 It was almost twelve when we returned to the resort. Half an hour after twelve we noticed that the staff haven't prepared yet the utensils for lunch at the dining area. When I asked the staff we were told that they were waiting for our order. Ordered some fish and pancit and asked Ronnie that we go to town to buy some local food. Good that it was only our plainclothes marine who accompanied us to the market. We were able to freely roam around the market. We bought tangigue which cost only 120 per kilo.  The fish weighed more than three kilos which the vendor said was still a substandard fish as a standard fish would weigh at least six kilos and go for 150 per kilo. Half of the fish was grilled while the other half was made as kinilaw. We had plenty of leftover which later in the afternoon was made as pulutan over some glasses of beer. 

                 Early in the evening Col. Leo Princillo, the battalion commander of the  marines came to join us. He wanted to come the night before but they still had other visitors to attend to.  Accompanying him were a squad of marines. The parish priest of Bongao, Fr. Ely arrived with Fr. Howard and  the parish priest of Bato Bato.  Then the town administrator of Bongao arrived accompanied by the town assessor and in-charge of anti-human trafficking.  We had a merry company that evening. Col Princillo who was from Catbalogan was very happy to meet us some fellow Warays. It was just his third month being assigned in the province that day. We marveled at the experiences he shared together with his deep faith.  He said that he is a regular mass goer and says the rosary every day. For his catholic soldiers he would distribute rosaries and pocket bible which they would place in their breast pocket.  His battalion is one of the smallest being just more than three hundred distributed to the eleven towns of Tawitawi and some other important islands. At the main camp there are only about forty of them. Usually when there are important visitors, the marines would be asked to be the security. Even some local residents have marines for their guards as they cannot trust their own police to give the security needed. Even the municipal administrator also has marine for her security. Even though her house is just about 300 meters away from the municipyo, the mayor would not allow her to walk to the office. She has to take a car with escorts.

Day Three

              At six in the morning, as promised, Col. Leo  came to fetch us to bring us first to his camp which was just  at the other side of the runway of the airport before bringing us to the airport for our flight to Zamboanga. We made a short tour around the camp and had breakfast at the kiosk built over the seawaters. 

               We had wanted to go to the other islands and towns of Tawi-tawi. But with tight security, we could not just go where we wanted. Actually, the atmosphere in Bongao is  much different from Jolo. Despite our security the place felt a lot safer than Jolo. 


Arriving at the airport of Bongao, Tawi-tawi with my companions.

Almari Beach Resort where we were billeted.

The grounds of the Almari Beach Resort.

The corridor fronting the rooms of the resort. Our marine guards are standing by.

Fronting the resort is a white sand beach.

White sand beach of Almari Beach Resort in Pahut, Bongao, Tawi-tawi.

The Bud Bongao as seen from the resort.

Another view of the resort and Bud Bongao.

There  were just a few corals, mostly soft corals and fish that could be seen near the resort.

Sunset in Bongao.

Some of the fishes and vegetation that we saw by the bridge in Sanga-sanga. 
A school of dalagang bukid passed us by.

The municipal hall of the town of Bongao.

Office of the Mayor.

With the lady administrator on my back we had a formal photo op. 

The gang in front of the municipal hall.

Notre Dame of Bongao administered by the OND Sisters. 

Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish Church.

The octagonal church of Bongao.

Inside of the church of Bongao.

The antenna of the radio station of the parish.


Typical houses in Bongao over the sea. 

At the roof top of the Capitol of Tawi-tawi.

The Capitol of the province of Tawi-tawi.

A busy street in the town of Bongao.

Many products being sold in the stores come from Malaysia.

The port of Bongao which was just along the market.

One of the streets in Bongao.

Bud Bongao

Going up the trail to Bud Bongao.

There were plenty of monkeys along the trail up the mountain.

A young monkey receiving a banana.

A monkey poses for the camera after eating a banana.

Ronnie feeding some monkeys.

A short rest before continuing  the trek to the peak.

Tombs of some Muslim datus that pilgrims would visit for a pilgrimage.

Plastic cellophanes are tied to the trees by pilgrims as signs of their petitions.

A view near the peak of Bud Bongao. One can see the runway of the airport at the background.

Some more plastics. Our guide said that sometimes a "pintakasi" would be done to clean the trees of these plastics as they become an unsightly scene of garbage already.

View from the peak fronting the resort where we were staying down by the sea. 

Going down from Bud Bongao.

We met some Muslim pilgrims who were on their way to the peak  on our way down the mountain.

Our dinner on the last night at the resort with our marine friends.

A different kind of lobster was the specialty.

With Col. Princillo at their camp.

Our marine guards.

The kiosk behind the camp where we had our breakfast.

Breakfast with Col. Princillo.

The view from our breakfast table.

The sea was so calm that morning that the reflection of the trees was so clear.

The Marine camp in Bongao.

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