Pandelicious

Travel Stories

The Tawi-tawi Alternate Reality

“No ma’am. The announcement was last call for boarding. You can’t check-in anymore.”

Like a lover chasing for her last chance at happiness I chased my plane like a madman dashing through the airport and zipping past the security officers but to no avail. I heard those words as a broke travelling student who was 781 miles away from home. It was the last thing I needed and the scariest thing that could happen. My legs felt soft and I was so angry at myself for being late. Sick or not, I had a flight.

Saying shit on my mind i asked for the next flight out on this same day.
She quoted: P4,900. Shit, shit, shit.

I thought I left my ability to think when I rushed to check-out from my hostel this morning. No I still am okay. I was able to purchase a next day flight at the airport. My pocket felt significantly lighter, my itinerary changed like lightning and I willed myself into a good mood, meanwhile the word shit is still resonating in my head.

The thing with Zamboanga happened, went to Basilan for a day trip around the rubber plantations. Learned how to make gloves, met very good people and had a great time.
But what if that never happened?
What if I was 40 minutes earlier.

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“Last call for check-in, Calling all Cebu Pacific 5J-678 Zamboanga to Tawi-tawi passengers, last call for check-in”

I came right at the nick of time. Uneventful. A due process done with mild annoyance. Blurred bag checks. Sat down at the airport while people are busy mingling, talking or the few like who are just staring and waiting for the big white bird off to take me to my new adventure.

I arranged a tour from the local government unit. I don’t know if I was supposed to pay them, a woman coordinated with me, when a phone call the week before confirmed that I was indeed a solo female traveller. The mayor’s wife must be curious to meet me, She was there in her Hijab, she recommended beach resorts where I could spend the night like Dan Mar, Sand Bar, and when I mentioned I wanted to climb Bongao Peak, it had to be arranged, I needed a guide for that, she said.

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I had to place an urgent call for a friend. I missed my flight but there’s no frozen chance in hell that I’ll miss out on my intended destination, Tawi-tawi will have to happen, cockroach infested hostel or not.

I arrived well before my flight schedule.
People seemed calm, I was not in a rush, I breathed in the chilly Zamboanga air.
I could chalk it up to the phenomena where at 5am all my polite sensibilities just went flying out the window and I felt like a little kid who can’t help but talk to stranger danger. Was he dangerous? He had a string dangled on the pocket of his bag. A school ID, he looks to be about my age and doesn’t appear to be exceptionally strong or muscular. Perhaps I could Muay Thai him off if the situation calls for it.

*I poked the back of the person in front of me and asked him where he was going*

Waiting for my disappointing Airbus A360, I had hoped for a tiny turbo propelled carrier.The terminal seemed like a scene from my last family reunion, with invisible me detached from the hullabaloo of greetings, hugs and gossip. Sitting beside me suddenly is the local student who was probably infected by my initial curiosity and asked me who I was going to visit.

“No one, I don’t know anyone there.”
This quickly turned into a scene from the Spanish Inquisition. I had to answer a smattering of questions. Finally as if receiving a 3 from a stern professor I got an invite from Wong See Jaafar, a 2nd year Political Science student from Mindanao State University- Tawi tawi for a special one-time-only tour of the century.

*If this was a movie, there will be a quick scene depicting my empty wallet, and unanimously, the audience will cheer, “Go for it!”.

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I settled for a “hotel” in the city center. Hotel Juana, just near everything I can consider as creature comforts. There’s a TV, a bed with white sheets and an ageing but still functional shower head. Simple, non-descript and it’s as if I was in millions of other hostels in the country.

I had a Satti lunch, as recommended by my guide. My, was my day lagging. I felt like I should be giddy, I was at the last frontier of the Philippines, although even if I booked my tickets months before I had no idea where Tawi-tawi is exactly. What I was doing felt so routine-ary, I asked her if I can go to Simunul, Sitangkai or the Snake House, an infamous abandoned stilt house within the beach inhabited by nothing but sea snakes. She said a permit from the Mayor would be best, I didn’t have time for no permits though. So too bad about that.

I’m thankful I was looked after, but I get enough of that at home.

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“I thought you were the Chancellor’s daughter, I was wondering why she gained so much weight.”
– Leia, Wong’s Aunt.

I sniffed back my petty tears of insecurity and said Hello.

Wong, explained everything to his bewildered Mother, and I had a glimpse of her face that was alternating between concern, worry and finally settled on amusement. Perhaps she was relieved her son wasn’t about to elope.

Back at our 40 minute plane ride, Wong kindly briefed me about his life, family and customs that may avoid the likely scenario of me offending someone and getting my just desserts. Basic Arabic, “Assalahmalaikum” calling his Mom and Aunt as “Abong”, for they are the daughters of a Dato, tribe lessons, from the enterprising Yakans, to the fierce warriors of the Tausugs, and to them the “Jama Mapuns”.
Obviously, only a few things stuck, because I called his Mother, “Tita Abong”.

They prepared breakfast, my favourite dried fish, eggs, bread and a curious novelty, Malaysian Maggi noodles. It was red, spicy and very tasty. I took a picture of it and they said, “Don’t bother with that, you should take pictures of seafood or special dishes instead”.
“Tita Abong, this is such a feast for me.”

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There’s very good reception in the Alien land of Tawi-tawi. I saw ads for Sun Cellular, there’s a Mercury drug store. An al fresco two story mall and the tricycles are just like at home.

Familiar, everything I saw and felt gave me social relevance.
We’re not very different, these people and us.

Overlooking the town hall that’s set atop a high hill overlooking the rest of Bongao, I saw the Governor’s pretty home. It’s nice here.

Peaceful. Quiet and very much as still at the sea of Sulu.

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That heavy breakfast turned out to be in preparation for my gruelling hike. I asked the “Abongs” if I was allowed to wear shorts, they said of course, there’s no stigma because it’s painfully obvious that it’s not an easy hike. I thanked her for her practical understanding and quietly thanked G-d I didn’t have to trek in my blue pyjamas.

We rode Wong’s motorcycle up to the base of Bongao Peak, I naively asked why are we getting off so early, the tippy top looks so far away and it looks impossible from my worm’s eye view. He said yup, this is it- the start of about 3 hours of pure vertical ascent that started with us leaving his red motorcycle with a friendly store vendor.

Now I’ll spare you the details of the climb and will just show snippets. Midway I realized that I forgot to bring bananas, a must to placate the Macaque monkeys that act as guardians for the mountain. I didn’t want to get a disfiguring curse so when we saw two men climbing the mountain I asked them whether they had any. They opened their knapsack and gave me half of their bunch, I wanted to pay for it and insisted, but they didn’t want my money. Wong later told me those nice men were Criminology students from his school.

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With a very nice male guide I climbed the famous Bud Bongao.

Here’s a little bit of a cultural lesson I learned in between panting breaths and tired legs.

You will see strings of plastic, tied lovingly on branches, whatever you do, do not attempt to remove it. You’ll wake up with a huge pimple on your left eyelid or some other deformity. It is an ancient belief that if you tie your wish with a string on a branch, it will stay there forever, and if you dare meddle with someone’s wish, you’ll get bad karma in return.

And remember that not everyone has enough of what they need, even for important matters like medical needs, and if you needed me to tell you that you are either seriously kidding yourself or a politician.

So up in that mountain you will find people from desperate states negotiating the mountain’s tough terrains. Pregnant women at about 8-9 months along who are there to pray for a normal delivery because they can’t afford a c-section. Babies in a bundle brought by their parents to pray for their good health and fortune. Sick people being carried by their loved ones to asking fervently for a miracle.

Then you’ll hear the stories of how the mountain listened to their pure wish.

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I’m sorry, I just wanted to see how deep it goes— a stupid, stupid mistake was what happened when I dipped my foot at the mystical fountain where Wong said we had to clean ourselves with.

The water was white-ish and opaque but when we use the dipper to get the water it turns clear. It smelled slightly of the earth, it tasted faintly of alkaline and it made me very curious. This was special, because according to Wong, your wishes will not be granted unless you are “clean” in the eyes of the mountain. It makes sense, there’s faucets and a place to clean yourself in every Mosque you will encounter.

And Bud Bongao has one, a makeshift mosque made with white tiles and wrought iron, about 6 meters in width, and 2 meters long. Just enough room for a few people to pray.

Good thing no one knew my faux pas except us, oh now and my 5 or so readers.

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I met some people on the top. They were friendly, and they requested i take a photo of them. My guide urged me to do it, because it will be impolite to refuse. I took their picture and showed it to them, then they went back to taking pictures of themselves with their cameras

They are Tausugs from Jolo, who made a pilgrimage to Tawi-tawi. And they knew I wasn’t a Muslim, but that didn’t matter anyway.

Stories are said about people getting robbed here. Some watches, a few pesos taken away by groups of men who sometimes wait for victims behind the thick foliage.

I hope that never happens again.

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A scene from both settings:

The view is exhilirating and Bud Bongao is nothing short of breathtaking.
By the warm sun i played I-Spy, the Malaysian illegal fishing boats, the Navy detachment perched up high above to my left, there’s that blue, blue sky mirrored by the blue, blue sea.

My splintered time had a collision at that very moment.
And I wanted to pause it and play it every chance I get.

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I left Wong my 4gig memory card crammed full of my favorite music and my black Sony headset. From that moment on, I’m at the mercy of the musical tastes of bus conductors, and boy, did I regret that decision when I spent 7 hours in a frigid bus to Pagadian from Zamboanga and had a driver with a penchant for Whitney Houston.
But that’s a story for another day.

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Epilogue.

There was no plane crash either of those days, nothing so significant I’ll spend the rest of my life regretting it. Both events are just another page of a traveller’s diary, and save for a few words there really isn’t much of a difference. But words turn into ideas, ideas become our mindset and they dictate the direction in which we base our lives.

If what happened to me didn’t include the words adventure, trust, independence. How differently would life be for me? If I didn’t take a leap of faith and went with my gut feel, trusted myself to make the right kind of mistakes and felt free enough to act and make them right.

I probably wouldn’t be the same person right now.

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