I have to admit that I was worried my trip to Tawi Tawi would be aborted because of all the negative things I’ve heard from people and the news. I mean, just google Tawi-Tawi up, and you’ll be reading kidnappings, the Abu Sayyaf, unfriendly locals and all sorts of horrid things. Also a major reason I thought it was going to be down the drain was that my travel companions have started to back out 2 weeks before our trip. But here I am. Loving Tawi Tawi for what it has to offer: the simple lifestyle, the charm of the people and the beauty that is really sort of fabled at first, something that must be made purely out of imagined stuff, but then strikes you as a beautiful truth.
There is always an unfounded fear whenever we set foot to any place here in Tawi-Tawi. Rumors of kidnappers, murderers and cannibal sultans are always buzzing in my mind. Just yesterday we were at the Chinese Pier looking for a boat to rent. In just 5 minutes, we were swarmed by men speaking in Tausug, Sama and bits of Tagalog. They were all burly men and all advising us not to go to the far islands of Sibutu, Sitangkai or Panglima Sugala (the recent kidnapping of 2 Dutch citizens happened here). It was of course a genuine concern from the people, but they scared the hell out of me. But being the hard heads we are, we managed to find a boat that will take us to a nearby beach. The ‘nearby’ beach turned out to be a Tausug village and a not-so good view of floating toilets, so we asked if we can go to the islands instead, raising the fee of course. Fortunately the boatman generously said ‘yes’.
We were brought to Sangay Siapu Island in the municipality of Simunul. And my God it was a good decision to go to that island. Very small, and surrounded by fine white sand, Sangay Siapu is inhabited by 10-20 workers of a dried fish enterprise. I was wary of the people at first. But the moment you say ‘salamallaykum’ to them, they will automatically smile and answer ‘salamallaykumasalam’ – peace be with you. A very assuring exchange of good will. And yes, there is peace is that island. The white sand slowly cascading to the green – blue – turquoise of the sea. It was so easy to say Salam.
Carl (my travel companion) and I befriended 2 girls, Mansi and Amisha (whose surnames are so long I’ve fogotten it). They are children of workers in that island. They taught us how to count in Tausug, we taught them how to count in English. They also joined us in swimming the beautiful, cool waters of Sangay.
Turquoise. I will always associate it now with Tawi-Tawi. I think it is the combination of the white sand beneath the shallow sea, the sun and the stillness of the water, that let’s you exclaim “whoa, Turquoise!”
This morning we went up to Bud Bongao. That’s a peak not unlike the Tabletop Mountain of South Africa. We were guided by Kuya Ben, a friendly tricycle driver we met at the airport yesterday. It’s so unfortunate he doesn’t have a celphone, I will gladly recommend him to anyone going to Tawi-Tawi. He’s so friendly and helpful, we were very glad to have met him.
Anyway, the trek to the Bud was so tiring, we have to stop every few meters. Steep and slippery. On the way to the top, our guide and his friend are telling us stories about the Bud – about the princess who was turned to stone and the Nabi or Prophet who was buried at the top. The mountain, and especially the ‘kubol’ housing the earthly body of the Nabi is sacred according to them and every wish you pray to him/her (since, they themselves don’t know) will be granted.
At the top of the Bud, people are praying and touching the sacred burial place. I prayed knowing that the Nabi would never mind if I am Catholic. I know, religious affiliations don’t count in heaven.
A few more meters up, we were at the ‘bintana’ a sweeping vantage view of Bongao and nearby islands. It was unfortunate that it was cloudy and we never saw Borneo but they say that Borneo is just 2 hours away from Bongao. At the top of the Bud, again I felt peace – the land and the sea all proclaim ‘Salam’. Peace envelops us. And I exhale a prayer for Tawi-Tawi: ‘Salam.’