You see it just a few minutes after exiting the Sanga-Sanga Airport: blue-green sea so clear, you can see through to its bottom. But instead of pristine sand, houses on stilts mark where the land ends and the sea starts. Kids cavort in the water, an intrepid few diving off from spindly piers. Farther off, solitary fisher folks are bent over in search of a catch, the waves mildly lapping against their thighs.
The view is a welcome that’s distinctly Tawi-Tawi’s.
Common reactions received by those who’ve visited the province are: “Is the place really safe?” “Is it beautiful there?” “Isn’t it far?” To the last question, the southernmost province of the country’s name already provides the answer.
According to Wikipedia, the Malay word “jauh” (“far”) had mutated into “jaui” on the tongues of prehistoric Asian travellers. They would then repeat it to indicate the distance of the province from the mainland. How far is Tawi-Tawi from Manila, Baguio, Cebu, probably wherever you are? “Jaui-jaui.” Far far.
Currently, a single airline company flies in and out of Tawi-Tawi, and all of its flights have only Zamboanga as either the point of origin or the destination, and the province both suffers from and flourishes under this geographical distance. As a former territory of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi gets lumped with the rest of southern Mindanao whenever news of kidnappings and armed conflict get reported.
Yunadzmal Ong, a Tawi-Tawi native who works as a researcher for an NGO that is involved in marine and livelihood preservation and is a member of the Tawi-Tawi Divers’ Club, Inc., puts it this way: “We do get a number of tourists, most of them Filipinos but a few foreigners as well. But when there’s news of a kidnapping in somewhere as far as Samal Island [nearer to Davao], there’d be no visitors here for months. After a while, people will start visiting again―until another kidnapping happens, and the cycle repeats itself. It’s just how it is.”
It suffers in reputation, which affects its tourism, but there’s a deeper effect than that. With Tawi-Tawi comprised of more than 400 islands, it is primarily a fisherman’s country. Aside from fishing, seaweed farming, boat-building, and trading are common forms of livelihood, supplemented by farming of fruits and root crops and processing kopra, a coconut by-product. However, certain common commodities such as rice have to be imported because Tawi-Tawi is sunny the whole year round. In fact, rains are received by locals with glee. “It has never flooded here,” Ong reveals. Every time news of conflict in Mindanao breaks, it isn’t just the flow of tourists that stops: the boats carrying supplies also stop coming in. Hence, the smuggling of goods becomes a necessary evil. And among necessities such as rice and bananas that get smuggled in, there is ammonium nitrate, used in making dynamite for fishing purposes. What also gets smuggled out is another problem, with endangered marine animals such as pawikan and mameng shipped out by intruders.
Most of Tawi-Tawi’s fisher folks have long stopped resorting to illegal fishing practices, including dynamite and cyanide fishing. This can be credited to the homegrown initiative Fisheries Improved for Sustainable Harvest (FISH) Project (now known as EcoFish). From an information campaign drive in 2004, FISH Project went on to collaborate with law enforcement units and Islamic religious leaders to work on preserving Tawi-Tawi’s marine biodiversity.
Today, the province has a number of marine protected areas, with locals involved in their preservation. Fishermen themselves voluntarily join patrols of municipal waters, in aid of the Philippine National Police Maritime Unit. Local councilors are knowledgeable in marine science, even taking diving courses to increase their understanding of their province’s biodiversity. Tawi-Tawi also has the distinction of having the first marine museum in the country, located inside the Mindanao State University-Tawi-Tawi campus in Bongao.
This is how Tawi-Tawi flourishes, despite being so far removed from the mainland: in the face of limited funding and support for the fisheries industry from the national government, locals take it upon themselves to be responsible stewards of the resources that provide them food and means of livelihood—the same resources that affords them and their visitors breathtaking views. Their efforts pay off, with the diversity of legally caught seafood available in the market. In the municipality of Panglima Sugala, for example, a small reef shark could be sold for as low as P150 for the whole fish.
To answer the rest of the basic questions asked about Tawi-Tawi, here are equally simple answers that are best experienced firsthand:
“Is it safe there?” Well, the people there are less harried and brusque compared to city folks— more laid-back and authentically accommodating. The concern they show for the seas, coupled with the obvious personal freedom that pets such as dogs, cats, and goats enjoy―there’s nary a chained or caged dog to be seen on Tawi-Tawi’s streets―display a collective empathy not often seen in a more urbanized setting. So in a nutshell, if we’re talking about the local culture alone, people here are kind.
“Is it beautiful there?” Absolutely. In fact, even with the Wikipedia-approved explanation of its name, it’s easier to imagine that Tawi-Tawi’s name is a word that’s uttered twice, because the place is that nice. One visit wouldn’t be enough.
“Pictures or it didn’t happen.” This is the thrilling threat that started it all. And with Tawi-Tawi, no one can ever claim that they’d been there unless they’ve reached the peak of its most recognizable geographical feature and took a picture from the top.
Standing at 314 meters above sea level, Bud Bongao looks like a giant loaf of bread, with the two smaller peaks like separated slices. During summer, it looks even more like pastry, with its steep slopes turned brown by the sun. It is a sacred mountain to the Muslims of Tawi-Tawi, with two shrines said to contain the remains of imams or Muslim priests near the summit.
Trekkers are welcome to climb, but while about 60 percent of the path has been paved already and the climb can be done in less than an hour, the incline can still be a respiratory challenge to the casual “mountaineer.” (Leo Oracion, one of the Filipinos who have scaled Mt. Everest, was said to have reached the top of Bud Bongao in 15 minutes back in 2009. But then again, he’s been to Mt. Everest.) People are advised to bring bananas for the trek, not as sources of nourishment but as the “entrance fee” that gets collected by the groups of monkeys creeping up along the path and silently waiting for food.
Atop Bud Bongao, you can take in the view of the Sanga-Sanga and Bungao Islands—swathes of green sharing the Sanga-Sanga channel and connected by a bridge. The airport runway is visible from here, as well as the breathtaking variety of blues of Tawi-Tawi’s waters. On a clear day, it is said that one can even see as far as Sabah.
No Jollibee here, no McDonald’s either. But those who subsist on fast food may find it comforting to discover that the locals have a sweet tooth, serving soda, fruit juice, and pre-packaged cookies and cupcakes as snacks to visitors.
Even the local delicacies are sugary. The dorol, for example, is a kalamay-like treat, brown, firm, yet chewy, rolled up inside dried leaves. The knickerbocker, reminiscent of halu-halo with its mix of fruits in chilled cream and topped with a scoop of ice cream, is a common refreshment during steamy afternoons.
At the Old Chinese Pier near downtown Bongao, a small port side café serves each customer a tray stacked with pastries ranging from stuffed buns, pancakes, and sugar donuts to soft pilipit and suman made from black rice. There’s no pressure to finish everything on the plate; the diner pays only for what he has consumed. Should he ask for coffee, he’ll receive two glasses, one with hot coffee and the other empty, and he can then make an attempt at coffee-pulling (kopi tarik). Or he can simply wait for the coffee to cool down enough for him to drink.
Beyond snacks, though, Tawi-Tawi is perhaps the real Slow Food central, in the literal sense. A simple breakfast silog meal can take anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour to be served, and local cuisine specials such as kinilaw and tulya itum, a refreshingly spicy beef broth made black by the sprinkling of burned coconut meat and secret spices, require at least a four-hour advanced order.
At downtown Bongao, the bustling café Mardo’s gives diners a pre-emptive advisory on its menu: “Patience is a virtue.” The availability of ingredients, the quantity of orders, and the preparation and cooking time are all variable factors. But then again, all good things come to those who wait, and the food that comes piping hot out of Tawi-Tawi’s kitchens are truly delicious.
Photographer: September Grace Mahino.
This story originally appeared in Garage Magazine’s June 2016 issue.