In the Waters of Sulu

We boarded MV Trisha Kerstin 2 departing from Zamboanga to Bongao, yesterday at 4 in the afternoon. We were told that we set sail at 7 in the evening, but due to a ‘steering problem’ we departed Zamboanga at 3 in the morning. Not a very good experience for a first-timer. But surprisingly, passengers never complained, as if it was to be expected – When in Rome… Well, in Zamboanga, expect the unexpected and remember to keep a cool head.

I woke up this morning to a stunning view of Basilan and other islands, the gentle sun peeking from the low hills. From our vantage point, it looks like only one island, but the stacked-up hues of blue betrays the illusion. One man pointed to an area and said it was Malamawi. Oh, the names of these islands smell of adventures and ancient tales! 

Breakfast was spartan. A cafeteria sells hot water and cup noodles. We bought our noodles and bread in Zamboanga, so we only had to buy hot water for 50 pesos. I noticed the ship’s plan posted in the cafeteria and realized it’s a Japanese cargo ship, intended to transport vehicles. MV Trisha, of course, was modified: another floor here, bunkers there, and cots everywhere on the 2nd and 3rd floors, the first reserved for cargoes. 

It is a Babel here. Languages I’ve heard are Tausug, Sama, Bisaya, Tagalog. I have yet to find a Bikolano so we can add our language to that list. Include also chicken, goat and dog talks. To pass the time, I noticed that people resort to smoking, talking with strangers, staring at one point in the horizon, sleeping, watching a movie, and more sleeping. It’s easy to strike a conversation. Choose a random stranger, ask something, and maybe out of boredom or sheer friendliness, the other would gladly open a conversation with you. The hard accented Tagalog is hard to understand at first, but I survived. I find it dangerous to talk about certain topics though. A stranger asking your views on politics, the Zamboanga Siege, or your opinions on Nur Misuari, is best to be avoided. 

Entering the waters of Sulu, one cannot miss the number of boats fishing for sardines, tamban. Our last count puts them to 44. Large nets trawl schools of sardines and I can’t help but wonder how fishing in this area is being regulated. Over-fishing is a possibility. 

MV Trisha passed right in front of ‘Lupah Sug’, Jolo, Sulu. Although quite far, I noticed it is a sprawling community. A large mosque with 4 minarets cannot be missed by the eyes. Several mountains, extinct volcanoes perhaps, tower the island. My companion, a Sama from Laminusa, pointed at Bud Daho, site of a terrible massacre of an entire community in 1906. Surrounding the main island are several other smaller islets with dazzlingly white beaches. Some inhabited, some not. In one islet, a community enjoys the white beach right at their front doors. On closer inspection, the architectural design of their houses are uniquely theirs, supported by stilts with their roofs like 2 trapezoids on top of one another. To the right and left of this community, long stretches of white sand beaches tempt an eager soul passing by in his old, heavily-converted Japanese ship. 

Before reaching the waters of Tawi-Tawi, our friend pointed at 3 island to the left side of ship. He said that in between the islands of Tara and Siasi is Tara Strait, where legends say a snake and a Sarinaga (dragon) fought. One island was cut into two because of that fight, and until now signs of that battle can still be seen in the area. I can only dream of collecting stories such as this to share with the children. Tell them of our heritage, our treasures of identities. 

We have just entered the waters of Tawi-Tawi, but we still have 5 more hours before reaching Bongao. On our right, another string of islets seating on turquoise water beckons – here on the edges of our country, beauty needs no announcements, she is a revelation.

5:40 pm, October 15 aboard MV Trisha Kerstin 2

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