"a caterpillar doesn't just grow into a butterfly. a caterpillar must undergo metamorphosis, and a cocoon is where a caterpillar risks it all: enters total chaos, undergoes total rebuilding, and is born to a new way of living. only in taking the risk of entering that inert cocoon can the caterpillar go from dormancy to potency, from ugliness to beauty."

Monday, July 16, 2012

exploring tawi-tawi's sibutu island

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” 
-- Jawaharlal Nehru

from one island to another in tawi-tawi
this is part 3 of a series entitled breathtaking tawi-tawi: our journey to the philippines' southernmost frontier.

map of tawi-tawi
image source: google maps

day 2. april 22, 2011. holy friday.
route 1: zamboanga city to tawi-tawi, then bongao to sitangkai
route 2: sitangkai to sibutu

after exploring the waterworld of sitangkai, our travel party went to her nearest neighbor within philippine territory -- the visually arresting and oh-so-tropical long island called sibutu.

where is tawi-tawi's sibutu island?
image source: google maps

our main ride for the day, a speedboat powered by two efficient engines, quickly conquered the distance between sitangkai and sibutu so it didn’t take very long for us to have a close-up view of sibutu and her white sand beaches, coconut trees, and stilt houses.

approaching the picturesque island of sibutu

being each other’s nearest geographical neighbor, sibutu and sitangkai do not only share cultural heritage and trade environment but political history as well.

when sitangkai was created as a municipality in 1959 by an executive order released from the office of then president carlos p. garcia, her territory included the island and islets of sibutu. it was not until 2006, 47 years later, that the municipality of sibutu was created from 16 out of 25 barangays of sitangkai by virtue of a duly ratified muslim mindanao autonomy act.

destination: sibutu
island home of skilled seafarers, expert boat-builders, and master woodcarvers

when you find yourself already in the philippines' southernmost borders, make it a point to pay sibutu island a visit. it is definitely worth the stop! the place is undeniably tropical and has a peaceful, friendly aura.

we first set foot on sibutu at the pier -- not just a place for docking and undocking but also a good spot for viewing arrays of stilt structures and some pretty beaches.

celebrating our arrival in sibutu island with a jump!
this is my only jumpshot for the entire tawi-tawi trip :)
(photo by kat)

our travel party's arrival in sibutu
leaving the pier and officially entering the municipality of sibutu

we did not linger at the pier. as soon as everyone was all set, we followed the concrete road that led us inland to the municipality of sibutu and to where our lunch was waiting for us. after traveling for most part of the morning -- exposed to the summer sun in open sea and to the salty air -- we arrived in sibutu excited and spiritually high but physically parched and hungry.

the welcome marker and the concrete road of the municipality of sibutu

since we had to walk a short distance first to get to our hosts' house, we also took this opportunity to soak in the place's natural vibe.

along the shores near the pier, it is common to see concrete houses that are not at all very different from the concrete houses that can be found in the rest of the country. their backyards (or front yards, depending on the orientation of the main entrance to their dwellings) are interesting and make the big difference  -- outbuildings supported by stilts standing on seawater and charming wooden footbridges!    

outbuildings on stilts and footbridges like these are common along the sibutu coastline

because we couldn't resist the footbridges, we had to walk on one :) | sibutu, tawi-tawi

the combined aroma of the sea and lovely sights of stilts and footbridges that extend out to the water made us temporarily forget our hunger.

our hosts served malaysian specialty dishes for our lunch -- they're all spicy and yummy and went well with both bread and rice. the malaysian food theme came as no surprise. like sitangkai, sibutu is closer to sabah, malaysia than to the mainland of mindanao -- consequently, malaysian influence in the area is so strong even down to the cuisine.

malaysian specialty dishes for lunch | sibutu, tawi-tawi

after lunch and some bit of rest, we all boarded a mini-truck to go further inland -- to explore more of sibutu island. it's amusing how around 20 of us managed to fit ourselves at the back of the mini-truck. i guess, when adventure calls, things just fall into place. haha.

a glimpse of our sibutu island roadtrip

sibutu island's natural freshwater swimming pool

our first stop was a swimming hole called kaban-kaban, a cave with a natural pool of clear freshwater. the place was just a short walk away from where we stopped along the concrete municipal road. the area was cool, shaded with trees, and had a very refreshing vibe. at first, we thought it was just a look-and-see kind of stopover but...

the natural pool was inviting to most of us especially since we already had more than our fair share of exposure to the sun that day. plus, our guides shared with us that it's often said that no one can really say they've been to sibutu if they haven't taken a dip in the pool.

sibutu's natural swimming hole

convinced and already badly wanting to beat the sweltering tropical heat, most of us took a dip in the swimming hole. the water was cold and the pool was deep! good thing, there were trusty roots to hold on to along the sides and there were also some helpful poles close to the stairs.

our group enjoying the waters of kaban-kaban, sibutu's swimming hole
(some of the photos in this collage were taken by our guides)

some of us were brave enough to take an exhilarating jump going into the pool. the rest of us enjoyed swimming-and-floating in the cold freshwater and watching the splashes created by those who jumped from the overhang.

after our enjoyable swim, we all climbed back to the mini-truck. like most of the rest who went swimming, i was wet and shivering but the summer heat soon balanced things out and all was well. on our way to the next stop and while the mini-truck was moving along the road, i managed to take pictures of things that caught my interest.

prior to our tawi-tawi trip, i already knew that sibutu is regarded as the home of the south's boat-building industry, being the island of master boat-builders whose skills and expertise in making sea vessels date back to pre-colonial times. as jun mercado shared in a blog article, "big and small boats that navigate the sulu sea are 'made in sibutu'. these boats are more popularly known as kumpits."

with that information in mind, i was stretching my neck and looking out for something resembling a shipyard during our roadtrip in sibutu. however, i only saw two or three boats that appeared to be work-in-progress -- and i was able to take a picture of only this one.

a work-in-progress, a boat made in sibutu

the other thing that caught my attention was the community graveyard that we passed by. less concrete or stone materials were used but the markers were engraved with ornate designs. there was an ongoing burial when we arrived at the area and i was tempted to document that but i restrained myself from aiming my lens in that direction.

ornate designs standout in a graveyard in sibutu

makhdum memorial
tandu banak, sibutu island, tawi-tawi

our next stop was the makhdum memorial, an impressive structure with elaborate engraved designs built in honor of sheikh karim makhdum, the arab missionary who reinforced the introduction of islam in the philippines. although old and unfinished, the memorial -- declared a national shrine in 1993 by the national historical institute -- is attention-grabbing and very picturesque.

the makhdum memorial

side view of the makhdum memorial

the ornate details of the makhdum memorial

it is said that sheikh makhdum was buried in sibutu island. the makhdum memorial with all its ornate designs was put up to mark his burial ground, a simple mound located at the back of the structure.

at this point, it is worth sharing that the site of sheikh makhdum's "real" grave is a subject of controversy. there is also a tomb of sheikh mahkdum in tawi-tawi's simunul island, the cradle of islam in the philippines and which happened to be our next island destination that day.

before we left sibutu island to get to know simunul, we went to one of sibutu's white sand beaches and took a dip in the celebes sea!

white sand and the celebes sea | sibutu island
if you're after unadulterated white sand beaches in the tropics, sibutu has them!

getting wet in the celebes sea! | sibutu, tawi-tawi
(photo by kat)

next up for this series: setting foot on tawi-tawi's simunul island

breathtaking tawi-tawi: our journey to the philippines' southernmost frontier | the series

Sunday, July 08, 2012

destination: sitangkai, the southernmost municipality of the philippines

"having reached and personally experienced batanes and tawi-tawi,
the northernmost and southernmost provinces of the philippines, respectively, i personally think that
eat bulaga's "mula aparri hanggang jolo" is quite unfair for these two provinces.
but, in a way, maybe
patas lang...
in batanes, they're hearing more taiwanese;
in tawi-tawi, they're hearing more malay."

-- thoughts i shared with my friends on june 6, 2011 via my facebook account

finally, tawi-tawi!
this is part 2 of a series entitled breathtaking tawi-tawi: our journey to the philippines' southernmost frontier.

this time, tawi-tawi!
image source: google maps
(i provided the labels and rectangular markers in blue and red)

day 2. april 22, 2011. holy friday.
route: zamboanga city to tawi-tawi, then bongao to sitangkai

an early morning special flight arranged by air philippines took kat and me (and our fellow passengers from the previous day’s cancelled flight) from zamboanga city to tawi-tawi.

from zamboanga to tawi-tawi, the southwestern tip of the country
image source: google maps
(i provided the elliptical markers in red)

it was a good sunny day and my window seat allowed me to see a great deal of the coastline and the tropical wonder beneath us as the pilot ably steered the plane towards sanga-sanga (pronounced as “sang-ga sang-ga”) airport for landing.

anticipating touchdown | flying over sanga-sanga

sanga-sanga airport, a minor domestic airport located in bongao’s sanga-sanga island, was our gateway to the province of tawi-tawi. bongao (pronounced as “bong-gao”), by the way, is the economic capital of tawi-tawi.

the terminal building of sanga-sanga airport

just outside the airport, we met the rest of our travel mates for that day – members of the AMCI mountaineering club, inc. and the local guides. we were ushered to a waiting van where maida, a good friend from TOSP and member of AMCI, quickly introduced us to the team. tessa and clint, also of AMCI and whom we already made friends with in zamboanga city the previous day, assisted her in doing the brief introductions. no time was wasted. as soon as we boarded the van, we hied off to the tawi-tawi governor’s place for a courtesy call.

first stop from the airport: house of the governor of tawi-tawi
our group and governor sadikul sahali (in blue)

we were let into the governor’s house and we had a meet-and-greet with gov. sadikul sahali himself. he allowed our group to use his family’s big speedboat for our trip to the distant islands of sitangkai, sibutu, and simunul. it was up to our group to shoulder the fuel cost, three full barrels all in all.   

destination: sitangkai
the venice of the south and the southernmost settlement of the philippines

sitangkai on the map
image source: google maps

to get to sitangkai from bongao, we traveled at an estimated speed of 150kph with the dual-engined speedboat defining an aqua blue highway in the calm southern seas and covering the great distance between sitangkai and bongao in just one hour. the trip usually takes 4 hours -- waiting time excluded -- via regular boats, which travel the route from bongao’s old chinese pier to sitangkai.

the skies were clear and the sun was high up when we arrived in sitangkai. the first thing that impressed me was not the array of stilt houses but the very clear seawater!

hello, sitangkai | that building over there is the sitangkai public market
i couldn't stop myself from taking this picture as our boat floated over underwater seaweeds

among the places in the country that i have been to, the municipality of sitangkai stands out as it is a settlement on significantly more water than land – a real deal waterworld. yup, sitangkai is a municipality and, as part of the province of tawi-tawi, it is one of the 113 municipalities under the political jurisdiction of the  autonomous region in muslim mindanao (ARMM).

presenting... the venice of the south, the waterworld of sitangkai
look at the map and check where the south of the philippines and the north of borneo meet :D
that place is this -- sitangkai!
(photo by kat)

the highway in sitangkai is a marine waterway and, except for some causeways and footbridges, all the other roads are also marine waterways which is why, instead of cars, boats are the primary transportation there. it is for this reason that sitangkai is famously referred to as the philippines’ own venice -- the venice of the south.

kat in venice | sitangkai, the venice of the philippines

a glimpse of sitangkai's main highway -- a marine waterway

the boats of sitangkai

sitangkai. it's a waterworld!

the highway also serves as the floating market area. along both of its sides are business establishments on stilt houses connected by footbridges and causeways.

since we arrived in sitangkai during low tide and close to a prayer hour, there were not a lot of boats found in the floating market. nevertheless, on the causeways and footbridges, there were still ongoing business and trading involving “boats to agar-agar (seaweed), and everything in between,” as kat put it.

business as usual on the causeway | sitangkai, tawi-tawi

in sitangkai and in the south: kurikung, tempel, and tiririt are types of boats

just some of the many goods being traded in sitangkai

it is interesting to note that a lot of the packaged products and dry goods we found in the establishments were from malaysia and indonesia. in fact, the bottled water that kat bought was from malaysia. this is something quite understandable – sitangkai, after all, is closer to the island of borneo (northern borneo being a malaysian territory while southern borneo is an indonesian territory) than to the philippine mainland.

in the background: the main highway of sitangkai

aside from being the venice of the south, sitangkai is also the seaweed capital of the philippines. the waterworld houses very vast seaweed farms and accounts for the country's biggest seaweed production in one contained area.

our tour of the place was rewarding. until now, i get overwhelmed every time i look back and get reminded that i set foot there in sitangkai -- the southwesternmost island border of the philippines -- where fishing and seaweed farming are the main livelihood and where boats are the stars of the highway!

the people who were with me in sitangkai: AMCI team + kat + local guides

our stay in sitangkai wasn’t very long as it was just a quick day tour. it got extended a wee bit though and we were allowed a bonus adventure -- well, sort of. 

remember, i mentioned low tide earlier? here’s what happened: on our way out of sitangkai, the water level had already gone too low and the bottom of the loaded speedboat was at risk of hitting the seabed. there were 20 of us including the guides and that meant some of us had to go down and help with pushing the speedboat to better depths… which we did.

actually, they did. kat was one of the few who opted to stay put inside the boat. i went down and took pictures of them pushing the speedboat to deeper waters. :D

glimpses of our extra adventure just before we left sitangkai

then, when everything was already deemed good, those of us who were in the water climbed back to the speedboat. the two engines roared to life. in no time, we were almost flying over water again and off we went to our next destination -- the island of sibutu.

breathtaking tawi-tawi: our journey to the philippines' southernmost frontier | the series

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

the unplanned part of our tawi-tawi trip: the zamboanga city sidetrip

“A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. 
Because that is how life is -- full of surprises.” 
-- Isaac Bashevis Singer

thanks to aircraft situation and sunset limitation
this is part 1 of a series entitled breathtaking tawi-tawi: our journey to the philippines' southernmost frontier.

day 1. april 21, 2011. maundy thursday
route: manila to zamboanga city, zamboanga city to tawi-tawi

our arrival in zamboanga city a few minutes past six in the morning

we -- kat and i -- took the first flight from manila to get to zamboanga city. we were supposed to fly to tawi-tawi soon after that but "aircraft situation" (and no further explanation) delayed our tawi-tawi-bound flight -- this, after we already checked in. c'est la vie!

the check-in counter
flight no.: 2P 243. destination: zam-twt. ETD: 10:30am

with a major part of our tawi-tawi day 1 itinerary suddenly wiped out due to "aircraft situation," the moment was ripe for pulling from out-of-the-blue a then non-existent plan B. we went out of zamboanga international airport and decided to go around the city, not exactly knowing yet what else to do.

kuya edwin, a tricycle operator and driver whom we met just outside the airport, became our instant tour guide. he took us, first, away from the airport, then, around the city -- to paseo del mar, fort pilar, pasonanca park, and back to the airport.

kuya edwin, his red tricycle, and kat and i in zamboanga city

paseo del mar
zone IV, zamboanga city

paseo del mar is a seafront parkway, which is very accessible from the main grounds of nearby fort pilar via valderoza street. as a reclaimed esplanade facing the basilan strait, the paseo allows the visitors to see from afar the islands of basilan and sta. cruz during good sunny days. at night, the paseo is the place to be for people who enjoy good food, great company, and colorful lights by the seaside.

a section of paseo del mar

there are numerous food shops in paseo del mar but, since we arrived there on a maundy thursday morning, none of them were open. in fact, we were the only people around. just as well. minus the hustle-bustle and under the scorching heat of the sun, we were able to appreciate the place -- benches, cemented breakwater walkways, brick patterns, and all -- and the sights we saw from there. 

a short boatride away from the mainland: sta. cruz as seen from paseo del mar
sta. cruz is famous for pink coralline sand beaches.

basilan's silhouette as seen from the breakwater of paseo del mar

fort pilar
a major historical and cultural heritage landmark in zamboanga city

think of fort pilar as zamboanga’s intramuros. it is a 1635-vintage military defense fortress commissioned by the spanish colonial government as zamboanga territory’s protection from local pirates and raiders. it started as real fuerza de san jose (royal fort of saint joseph).

a wall of fort pilar as seen from the outside

the present-day name, fort pilar, is short for the royal fort of our virgin lady of the pillar of zaragoza or, in spanish, real fuerza de nuestra señora del pilar de zaragoza, the fortress’ 18th century name.

by virtue of presidential decree no. 260, fort pilar became a national cultural treasure in 1973 and is now a regional hub of the national museum of the philippines.

the main entrance of fort pilar

part of fort pilar, specifically the eastern wall, is an outdoor roman catholic marian shrine. devotees to the patroness of the city, the our lady of the pillar, visit the site to pay homage.

the marian shrine in fort pilar

the bells of the sanctuary to the lady of the pillar

while some portions, particularly those of the southern wall, remain in ruins, the rest of the fort already underwent rehabilitation and they have well-maintained gardens.

pasonanca park
the premier outdoor recreation site in zamboanga city
brgy. pasonanca, zamboanga city

about seven kilometers from the city proper is zamboanga’s “little baguio of the south” and one her highest elevated barangays relative to sea level, brgy. pasonanca -- home to pasonanca park, a main tourist attraction in the city.

the canopies of old, old trees in pasonanca park

once you reach the area and start going uphill, it is difficult to miss the natural cool-and-breezy aura of pasonanca. the park is huge and home to many different species of trees, flowering plants, ferns, and shrubs. the park facilities include swimming pools, an aviary, an amphitheater, a convention center, and camping grounds.

the old tree house
at the main entrance to pasonanca park is a tree house, which, after its construction under the mayorship of cesar climaco in 1960, has since become a symbol of tourism for the city.

the pasonanca tree house, a symbol of tourism painted on a stone

personally, i consider the house as a part of my family history. my parents visited the place and climbed the tree house when they were still in the courtship stage. growing up, i saw the tree house in my parents’ photo albums and i used to wonder what it's like to be there.

the tree house in zamboanga city's pasonanca park
more than 30 years ago, when they weren't yet married,
my parents had their pictures taken here
and it was my first time last 04.21.11 to experience this place. very surreal! :-)

my mama said that, when they were there, the house only had a bench. when i got there, the tree house was already furnished with a bed and cabinets  --  basic amenities for a short stay and very reminiscent of dorm living.

according to zamboanga.net, permit to use the tree house to pass the night and commune with nature can be obtained at the office of the mayor.

the marcos-era convention center as seen from the tree house
the building is unfinished but its basement is being used
as the regional office of the department of interior and local government.

camp atilano and the scout park
not far from the location of the pasonanca tree house is the arch marker for camp jose t. atilano and the entrance to the scout park.

boy scouts of the philippines zamboanga city council office
official name: scout antonio m. limbaga memorial training center

the scout park has very well-maintained lawns which serve as camping grounds to boy scouts and girls scouts especially during jamborees.

it is actually a park of the boy scouts and was developed in honor of the 24 boy scouts and scouters of the philippines who perished due to a plane crash somewhere in the arabian sea and indian ocean while they were on their way to marathon, greece for the 11th world jamboree in 1963. one of the boy scouts was antonio m. limbaga, a 15-year old zamboangueño, first class scout, and son of zamboanga’s city engineer at that time.

these green teepee-inspired structures are made of steel

there are 24 green teepee-inspired tent structures in the camping grounds and 24 concrete stands arranged in a circle around the campfire area of the amphitheater. they are dedicated to the 24 scouts and scouters, whose names, by the way, were also used to rename the streets of quezon city's barangay obrero, laging handa, and paligsahan. their bodies were never recovered; streets, monuments, and markers were named in their honor.  

the water tank of the scout park
these two photos of me "climbing" the tank are owned by kat.
no, i didn't climb all the way to the top.

after kat and i took all the pictures that we wanted to take, kuya edwin offered to take us to the swimming pools but we weren’t in the mood to swim so we passed on that one. we asked to be taken back to the airport instead.

the zamboanga international airport

facade of the zamboanga international airport terminal building

we had just gotten back to the airport from our unplanned but fruitful enough zamboanga city tour when an announcement related to our tawi-tawi flight was made over the public address system: our initially “just delayed” flight was already altogether cancelled due to "sunset limitation" (and, again, no further explanation). at that point, our tawi-tawi day 1 trip totally got wiped out. we had no choice but to stay the night in zamboanga city while looking forward to the next day's special flight for tawi-tawi.

we learned from our chit-chat with the locals at the eatery just outside the airport that the “aircraft situation” meant a technician had to be flown in to zamboanga first just to fix whatever was wrong with the plane. due to this delay and because the plane had to fly first to jolo before going back to zamboanga to take passengers to tawi-tawi, “sunset limitation” caused our flight to be cancelled for the day.

the airline, air philippines, arranged and paid for our overnight stay in grand astoria hotel and scheduled for us a next-morning special flight.

on our way to grand astoria, kat and i were given the opportunity to make friends with clint and tessa, fellow passengers from the cancelled flight (and of the next morning’s special flight, too) and who turned out to be members of the mountaineering group that we were to meet up with in tawi-tawi. it was from them that we learned the explanation for “sunset limitation”:  the airport in sanga-sanga (pronounced as “sang-ga sang-ga”), tawi-tawi is not equipped with runway lights and arrival of the aircraft during dim conditions is not advisable. 

my facebook status update on the 21st of april 2011, 2:44 pm philippine time

our assigned room in grand astoria hotel along mayor jaldon street

so there. having accepted our fate for the day but still with high spirits, we gave ourselves a gastronomic treat at alavar seafood restaurant where we had a very sumptuous all-seafood dinner with rice.

all things yummy | alavar seafood restaurant

verde manga con bagon gata and zamboanga white
unripe mangoes with shrimp paste and lychee shake, zamboanga city-style!

with all that said, this could have not existed if it weren't for "aircraft situation" and "sunset limitation." here's the blog article counterpart of my photo album tribute to those two rhyming phrases!

all's well that ends well. we squeezed in an unplanned zamboanga city tour to our 4-day holy week trip and still eventually got to tawi-tawi and had our 2011 summer adventure in the philippines' southernmost province. :)

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