A Naked Soul in Tawi-Tawi Island

I adore the coast.  The coastline is a constant trip down memory lane – a reminder of a childhood Sunday advent to the beach with my family. I say, ‘Sunday advent’ because we happened to live for many years in a coastal area in the island of Mindanao . An island complimented by nature’s scenic beaches. My invariable exposures to the shore, the sea water, the sand and the corals explain my persistent fondness of the beach.

My birthplace. The islands give me a sense of tranquility. The hours of strolling on the seashore – worshipping the sun, sensing my steps on the sand and feeling the sea water smacking my feet, swimming, snorkeling, or just simply lazing by the beach, feeling the sea wind breeze stroking my skin, listening to the slapping of the waves, watching the sunset, and embracing the sunrise never tire me. The endless activities of hopping from one island to another, crossing the sea and gazing at the crystal sea water, watching the horizon, or snorkeling to explore life under the sea never weaken me. I love the seawater. Why should I not? I was born with the water sign of Pisces. I was born in the island of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi.

Mat Weaving Learning Center, Tandubas, Tawi-Tawi (2004).

There is nothing like the breathtaking islands of Tawi-Tawi which are blessed with pristine white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, beautiful coral reefs, rich natural resources of unspoiled forests, mountains, exotic fauna (monkeys, wild hogs, birds), and the diverse cultures manifested by their work of arts and crafts (mat weaving and wood curving), and the attractiveness of the languages spoken in a different tones of Tausog (my late father’s dialect), Sama (I have learned to understand and speak), Malay, and Indo.

My family left Tawi-Tawi in the 70’s because my late father who was a Civil Engineer had a promising job waiting for him in the city. We had to say goodbye to close family and friends. I still remember the yellow dress that I worn the day we left Bongao as I boarded my first plane ride together with my mother while the rest of my family took the boat. My special privilege to board the plane was to avoid the attacks of seasickness. However, the airsickness did not escape me because the moment we deplaned at Zamboanga City airport, I threw up, staining my yellow dress with chocolate! This is my last memory of Bongao.

Bud Bongao (2004).

After 30 years, I went back to Tawi Tawi to do development work. There was so much excitement and joy in the thought that I was going back to the place that made me. I was nostalgic the moment I arrived at Bongao, Sanga Sanga airport; it brought back childhood days. While I was standing outside of the airport waiting for my ride, I noticed that the airport had improved a lot. Inside of me, there was longing! On my way to town heading to my hotel, I was staring at the sight of ‘Bud’ (means mountain) Bongao (I climbed it when I was 5 years old to do some religious ceremony) and the sight of it and the view of the surroundings made me yearned for the years that I had missed! My birthplace! My first home!

Bongao, Tawi-Tawi (Small white background on the center top is the Provincial Capitol, and on the upper right hand corner is Bud Bongao), 2005.

My place of work. Tawi Tawi is a province with 11 island municipalities and a total of 107 islands and islets. It is located in the southwestern part of Mindanao. I used to work as a Programme Coordinator/USAID contractor covering the eight provinces of western Mindanao for two years. That gave me the chance to travel Tawi-Tawi’s island municipalities except Mapun and Turtle Island and to visit outer islands and islets.

I have countless memorable happenings to narrate starting from my plane ride to inter island boat rides going to and fro the islands and islets of Tawi-Tawi.  Allow me to share with you my Tawi-Tawi trips.

In order to reach Tawi-Tawi, I took the small SEAIR plane which deplanes in Bongao, the main town capital via  Zamboanga city.

Sitangkai island (2005).

A tricycle (motorcycle with a side car) or a single motorcycle is the mode of public transportation around Bongao town. However, to reach the outer islands, I took a boat ride in a ‘lantsa’ (small vessel) which are docked at the Chinese Pier – the network of commerce among the traders of the inter islands in the province. It was very challenging to ride in a ‘lantsa’ because it is also used as a passenger and a cargo boat at the same time. I stopped counting the many seasick medicines that I took and the many bottles of ‘white flower’ (menthol oil to ease my seasickness) that I sniffed and dabbed in my forehead and stomach while I was en route to the islands. In the ‘lantsa’ I could hear the crumping sound of the cargoes being loaded, the murmuring noise of the passengers talking and babies crying, the indescribable boat smell of fuel mixed with other odors, the crimped space with only enough room to seat, the rough tides (in certain areas) were among the many challenges which I had managed to endure. In some occasions during my boat rides, I was sitting at the boat’s stern, paled face and profusely vomiting feeling my intestines were coming out. But I had learned how to contain myself because the very moment that I arrived at the island, work was waiting for me.

Sibutu Island (2005).

I had again to face another challenge when I took another chartered boat ride in a ‘banca’ (small open motorised pump boat ) or ‘kumpit’ (motorised speed boat) in order to reach the island ‘barangays’ (smallest administrative division or political entity in the Philippines). During my boat travel, I had to endure the long hours to cross the sea, exposing myself to the strong ultra violet rays of the sun while staring at the endless seawater in the horizon. I spent nights in the islands of Tawi Tawi immersing with the community – sleeping at our beneficiaries house, planning, discussing project proposals, and visiting project sites. While eating the local foods was something I loved, the lack of drinking water was a challenge in the island, not to mention the strong chlorinated rain water I used for bathing. But all these challenges were insignificant compared to the beauty that I witnessed in the islands and the immeasurable fulfillment it brought when I arrived at all my destinations!

Among the many islands I have travelled in Tawi-Tawi, I fell in love with the islands of Simunul, Sibutu, and amazed (as always) by the beauty of Sitangkai.

Simunul Island (2005).

In Simunul, the call to an early morning prayer from Sheik Karimul Makdum Mosque, the first mosque built in the Philippines in 1930 reminds me of the history of the place when Islam religion was first introduced in the country.

Sibutu Island (2005).

In Sibutu, the island which lies on the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia sea, sends a connection to my soul. There is something magical about the place being known as the island of boat curvers and makers.

Sun drying seaweeds, Sitangkai Island (2005).

In Sitangkai, located at the southernmost tip of Mindanao, known as the ‘seaweed capital of the Philippines,’ I was  awed by the beauty of the emerald seawater and the large seaweeds farming industry in the island. Sitangkai is dubbed as the ‘Venice of the South’ as boats are the primary means of transportation. I was amused by the setting of the footbridges which connect the stilt houses together, the interlocking of boats to sell their produce of all sorts, such as dried fish, various kinds of fish of all colors and sizes, delicacies, fruits, and vegetables. These three islands are and will always have a special place in my heart.

My fave and memorable regular activities (apart from island hopping) in Tawi-Tawi islands are: food tripping (back then when I was a semi-vegetarian) – ‘kamun’ (lobsters), turtle eggs, grilled dried sting ray; the stroll to ‘ukay-ukay’ (second hand) stalls and the public market; and the motocrossing in Bongao airport runway.

Tawi Tawi made me overcome my fears at sea. It made me realised my weaknesses and made me perceived where my courage lies. It made me appreciate more the beauty and life in the islands. Tawi Tawi indeed, made me.

I have had many more island experiences to share, islands that made me who I am today, islands that left me wanting, and islands that have dearly touched my heart the most – islands that allowed me to lay down my naked soul.

P.S.

How to reach Tawi-Tawi. In 2005, I took the SEAIR plane. At present, there are available flights viaCebu Pacific Airlines: https://www.cebupacificair.com/  and the jump off point is Zamboanga city.

Where to stay. I stayed at Rachel’s Place Hotel and Restaurant which is located at downtown area.