Basilan, Unexpected

September 04, 2018 Travel

I am one of those travelers who dream of ticking off the eighty-one provinces of the Philippines off my list.  I am also someone who is afraid taking too much risk.  So, unless there is a good reason to go, Basilan would be never be a place I would plan on going.  

But I received an invitation to write about a hero teacher, and I would never dare say no to that.

And I am so happy I did!

More than ten years ago, I launched a campaign for PhilamLife entitled “Aid for Basilan Children” in partnership with Philippine Business for Social Progress. I already wanted then to visit this province, but the advertising agency I was working at did not allow me. I was disappointed, but I understood why.  Violence and attacks were in the headlines at the time.

While I felt excited about this new opportunity to visit Basilan, I was also a bit scared.  Ten years later, Basilan is still infamous for being an insurgent hotspot. So, I asked a friend to join me, which was a good decision.  I was not prepared for the chaos at the port in Zamboanga. Travelers pushing their way, ferry workers blocking us, and handlers hustling for us.  

At one point, my traveling companion was already on the ferry and in between us was a gangplank and a ferry worker standing on it, intent on barring me and other passengers from entering.  I was confused at the whole situation and contemplating on just staying in Zamboanga City, a city I grew to love. I heard a fellow passenger shout, “Pare, paunahin ang babae” (Let the lady go first). After a few minutes, I was allowed to board.

There was a drizzle when we arrived in Isabela City.  We waited a bit at the port before we decided to look for a tricycle that would take us to the city center.  I was a bit anxious and I thought it would be better if we eat first.  Since I am a satti (grilled meat dazed with a red-colored sauce eaten with rice cooked in coconut leaves) fan, I stopped the tricycle when I spotted a place selling satti.  

At the satti place, we had a good chat with the owner who convinced us not to push through with our plans of staying overnight on Malamawi Island, which we thought was a better plan since the school we had to visit is in that island.  I asked also our host, and she agreed. So we decided to stay in Isabela City instead.

It was mid-morning, so we had a whole afternoon free.  We just decided to just explore Isabela City, which is the province’s former capital and is now a component city.  

There were lots of activities happening towards the city center.  I found out they were celebrating their feast day. Before coming here, I didn't know that there was thriving catholic faith in this part of the country.  A girl offered me a raffle ticket as part of a fundraiser for the church, and I gladly bought it. 

We went inside the church and spent a few minutes thanking God for the protection.  Then, we walked to Jollibee, a popular Filipino fast food chain, which is another sign of the city’s progress.  

Isabela City looked more like a rural town with commercial establishments mixed in amongst the old buildings.  Before returning to our hotel, we spotted a small grocery where we brought our supplies for three days.  

The following day, we left for Malamawi Island early to visit a Badjao village.  There, I interviewed educators and tribal leaders working on both preserving their culture and the real identity of the Sama Dilauts, the formal name of the Badjaos.

Photo by Ian Gongona

The Badjaos are one of the most misunderstood and marginalized cultural groups in the Philippines. They carry the image of both “gypsies of the sea” and kids roaming the streets begging for alms.

We visited a replica of a Badjao house, 
which houses native instruments, kitchen utensils, pandan mats, and other relics and artifacts.  It is located inside the Badjao Floating School.  We also went to an ancestral home, and the tribal elders residing in that place took time explaining their culture to us.  After the talk, we paid respect to their ancestors by leaving a small token in a little box that carried gifts from other visitors.

Photo by Ian Gongona
Photo by Ian Gongona
Photo by Ian Gongona
While I was brimming with excitement as we cruised one of the villages I longed to visit, I also felt sadness after understanding the plight of this indigenous group.  At the same time, I gained deeper appreciation of their culture and character.  For one, I didn’t know the Badjaos are very peace-loving people.  They are people who would rather leave than be in conflict with other people.  That is quite a dilemma for a group that get its livelihood from the sea, which they could never lay claim on.  

Badjaos are people without ancestral land.  They are sea people and we have never given them exclusive rights to their part of the sea.

After my interviews, we asked our hosts if we could see the beach that the island is promoting.  We walked further through the villages, passed more stilt houses, up to the island’s port, where we took a habal-habal (or motorcycle) that took us to the other side of the island.
On our way, we passed a beautiful rural scape.  I gasped as soon as I saw the strip of white at the far end of the road.  It was a bit gloomy, but even with the overcast skies, the scene was still mesmerizing.  While the waves were roaring, I found the beach idyllic.   

For a while, I forgot that I was in the part of the Philippines where a lot of people would never dare to go because of all the stories of hostility this far south. How can a place tainted with so many images of violence bring me so much tranquility?  

I walked the long stretch of white sand, just taking it in - the quiet, the calm, and the beauty. 

Photo by Ian Gongona

Photo by Ian Gongona

Photo by Ian Gongona

Photo by Ian Gongona
There are signs that the place is ready to accept tourists like the facilities, the photo spots, and the accommodations.  I wondered why the people we asked advised us against staying here.  But, nevermind.  We were lucky enough just to spend an afternoon here.  

We actually had an entire beach all to ourselves.  It was not just any beach, it was a beach that fits all the descriptions I have of a perfect beach – long and wide, white powdery sand beach, pristine blue waters, and very little human influence.

It was difficult to leave, but we had to go.  It was not the end of our Basilan adventure,though.  We spent the following day chasing its living treasures, but that’s another story. 

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