At 4:30am, I was already at the airport bound for Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. While waiting in line to be checked, a light tap on the shoulder startled me and I turned, finding a porter smiling at me. He then requested if it was possible for me to carry a few baggage for his woman customer upon realizing that I was carrying only a backpack. It turns out that the woman – Sharina – was carrying two very huge luggages but her ticket only shows a 20kgs luggage capacity. I readily agreed to have her luggage carry over in my name, being a good Samaritan. I reflected afterwards that I wouldn’t do the same thing for international travel because I might unconsciously become a victim of a drug mule scam (just watch the Bridget Jones Diary – II movie). Anyways, I was able to save around P3000.00 for her (and I bet she didn’t have any idea as to how much I helped her. She just gave me a blank face. Ddudhhh…).

Sharina’s doll-like face kid

Sharina and I chatted afterwards on the plane. Turns out that she is a Sama (an ethnic group) who went to Kuwait to work as a saleslady, met a Kuwaiti and got married, and has been living in Kuwait for almost a decade. Her husband has never been to Tawi-Tawi because he considers it a dangerous place. (and I was thinking…hhhmmm really???)

Arriving at the airport, I was surprised to find a policeman

the policeman who interviewed me

approaching me at the gate. He did a brief interview with me, asking if it was my first time to be there, where I was staying, who I know from the place, etc. Of course, I readily just gave him my answers, without any suspicion as to why I was being asked such questions (and I found out later why he was doing it).

I have another SSEAYP batchmate, Basil, who lives in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. He made sure that I would be welcomed, starting by the banner his friends made for me upon my arrival. Of course, I felt flattered by the attention. There were about eight people who were there to meet me so I felt like a celebrity (hahahaha…). They were members of KAPARIZ (Kabataan Para Kay Rizal), a youth group formed by Basil which does community work, among other socially-oriented activities.

i feel like a celebrity!!! hahaha…

After the greetings and a tricycle drive to my hotel, my observer mode turned on, and it made me do some observations of Bongao immediately:

–          There is a heavy military presence in the place. I was told that Bongao, Tawi-Tawi is the most peaceful place in the south (and the most dangerous is Sulu). The military’s presence in the area is a major factor, and locals welcome their presence because they feel safe.

–          The airport is very far from the town proper (a 15-minute ride by tricycle). Along the way, I got to know the town mayor, Jasper Que, by the streamers with his name and handsome face plastered on them. By the time we got to the town itself, I honestly felt sick of him already. Everywhere I turn, I would either see his face or his name – either on a road project, or beside the largest mall they have, or painted on a school wall, or even congratulating that year’s graduates. Even on church property, Jasper Que’s name and face can easily be seen. He is a poster child for the Anti-Epal Campaign Movement.

heavy smog at seven o’clock in the morning

–          I wore cologne when I came to Tawi-Tawi. However, by the time we reached my hotel, I already smelled of vehicle smoke. There is simply heavy smog everywhere (like Metro Manila) from the exhaust pipes of pedicabs – the municipality’s main source of transportation. Later on, I found out that a liter of gasoline costs only P45.00 (as compared to Cebu’s P53.00/L) AND the gasoline comes from Malaysia. So, aside from the possibility that gas is a smuggled commodity, it is also possibly mixed with water or other additives. Which explains the heavy smoke (and I guess their motorbikes easily get damaged as a result).

garbage even in the middle of the street

–          I was disappointed to realize that Bongao is not a paradise as it is purported in travel magazines. Why? Just go to the town proper and you will see what I mean. Everywhere I turn, I see poor drainage (with Jasper Que’s streamer on top of one. Hahaha!). What is worse is the utter lack of discipline of the locals when it comes to garbage. I would see piles of garbage even in the middle of the street. A litter of garbage here, a pile of rotting banana skins there, etc. I go to the port, look down at the very clear water, AND I would see garbage underneath it. And unlike other cities, I didn’t see a single street sweeper for the most part of the day when I roamed the town, not even in the market. I guess those writers of travel magazines are not shown this side of town. When I came back to Cebu, it turned out that one of my colleagues at work actually comes from Bongao. When I shared to her my observations, she readily agreed with me. She told me that if I wanted to see paradise, Bongao is not the place. It would be on another island instead, like Simunul or Sitangkai.

the legal boat bound for Malaysia…

–          The province of Tawi-Tawi is truly the backgate of Malaysia. From Bongao, it is only a 4-hour boat ride to Semporna, Malaysia. You can go there either through legal means (only every Wednesday afternoon for P3000.00) or via illegal means (boat rides are daily for P2500.00 only). These illegal boats are docked just on the port AND a mere 10-meters away from a police outpost. Such boats are almost always full with people, who will try almost anything to hopefully have a better life in Malaysia. Unmindful of my unfamiliar surroundings, I started to take pictures of the illegal boats (stupid, stupid me) when a guy approached me almost immediately with a fierce face and started speaking in Tausug. It was a good thing that my local guide – Nur – was also a Tausug and started to speak to the man. When I asked him why was the man angry at us, he narrated that the man wanted to find out why I was taking pictures of the boats. I had to

…and the illegal boats.

give my best innocent smile and apologetically say, ‘Sorry po. Turista lang po.’ Nur and I immediately got the hell out of the place.

–          Bongao, Tawi-Tawi is a major exporter of dried seaweeds. This is a major component in manufacturing plastics. Fish is also plenty (and cheap, as I was told) in the province. However, the best fishes are immediately transported either directly to Manila or Zamboanga. In other words, the locals of the town do not actually get to experience the best fishes that are caught, unless you have an inside contact. The locals are only left to eat the small fishes.

lobsters from a local store

–          Lobsters are also pretty cheap in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. When Nur and I were scouting for it and asking for their prices, real lobsters are priced at around P2,500.00 while the ‘fake’ ones (the bluish and reddish ones) are between the range of P1,000-P1,300. By the time these beauties reach Manila, their prices will double.

this coffee shop is indeed sincere

–          There are a lot of coffee shops in Bongao. However, unlike the definition of a coffee shop in Cebu (think Starbucks or Bo’s Coffee Shop), coffee shops in Bongao actually look like carenderias that sell plain black coffee and local delicacies. Nothing else offered, not even a creamer, milk or noodles.

padjaks…and padjaks…and padjaks…

–           Padjaks (pawnshops) are everywhere downtown. Almost every block I turn to, I see theses stores. As to why they are plenty in Bongao, THAT I do not know.


Tomorrow, I share to you yet again other surreal experiences I had in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi.