Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Houses on Stilts: Tawi-Tawi

We decided to head back to Bongao, and pass some more spots that we could along the way. We actually took a path that encircled Bud Bongao. There were a lot of green on one side, and to the other, blue all the way.

Of course, Tawi-Tawi won't look the same without the houses on stilts built by the Tausugs and the Badjaos. Tawi-Tawi is also known to be an area for migrants from Malaysia and Indonesia, though I heard most of them are not happy that they are here. Nevertheless, they put up residence on bamboo stilts on the shallow white sand beaches along the coast.

Some of the areas we passed by were entire communities that looked like a village on stilts. Some houses were abandoned though. Some even had the flags of their tribes on poles.

The sun was setting on the other side of Bud Bongao, though some of the rays pierced through to give us a dramatic setting. We found a sand bar that stretched to sea for around 200 meters. Yes, that was long, and it gave us a very nice vantage point to take pictures of the houses on stilts with a backdrop of Bud Bongao. How Tawi-Tawi can you get?

I couldn't resist taking a picture of myself. We all did. The view was really stunning even if you looked up. The tide was coming up, so the sand bar was slowly devoured by the blue sea until I made it back to shore.

There were really a lot of sand patches and bars in Tawi-Tawi, and I wouldn't be surprised. I really think the Sulu and Tawi-Tawi islands has so much potential for tourism, but the unruly situation has just destroyed that. I really HOPE that the rebels feel that this war will go nowhere, and that the government will never have the capability to solve this. It's really not a war I think. It's more of lack of development, resulting to poverty, that leads to all this mess. And the locals are the ones suffering.

Well, I couldn't help but express my frustration over this entire area. I was looking back at Bud Bongao and the beaches, and thought if I showed the world that this place is safe and beautiful, would people start going here?

Well, I wasn't able to answer that question, so I boarded our multicab and headed back to town for our last stop: the provincial capital that I heard had a nice 360 view of Bongao.

White Sands in Tawi-Tawi

Landing in Tawi-Tawi was a dream. I never thought that this would be the year that I would be going to the Southern most province of the country. Hence, I didn't make any plans. I only have one night here, so I wanted to make the most out of the trip. Of course, that would mean hitting the beach.

After the frustrating no-beach experience in Sulu, I made sure I would be stopping by to get some sand on my feet. After all, I knew Tawi-Tawi was safe, and the people were nodding their heads when I kept asking if we could go to the beach. So, after work, we headed straight to the store, bought some beer and chips, and made out way South of town. Actually, there would be no problem looking for a beach here, since they're everywhere on the coast. We passed by a coastal road that had a lot of white coral beaches, but most of them had houses on stilts. So we moved further away from town to find a secluded spot.

And this is where we ended up in. Coconut trees were swaying to the gentle breeze. Tattered nipa shades were eager to hear visitors coming to sit under them. White coral sand stretched until the very end of the coastal line, with giant carved rocks waving a sweet hello to us. I never felt more at ease this year.

The unknown beach also had a stunning backdrop of Bud Bongao, who peeked intently through the coconuts trees as we jugged down beers and played with our camera shutters. The place looked like a mild storm passed by recently, but to me, it made the ambience more charming, more secluded, more of paradise.

I heard there are better white sand beaches in the southern islands of Tawi-Tawi, like Sibutul and Sitangkai. I was also told that there may be a possibility of me going there next year, if work pushes through.

Well, I really didn't care about fine white sand. I actually had seen more than enough here. For some reason, I felt at peace here, as I watched the waves from far away. Tawi-Tawi makes you feel so different, maybe because it makes you feel far away from home, even if you're still in the country.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Landing on Bongao, Tawi-Tawi

From Jolo, we went back to Zamboanga to catch another Sea Air flight to our next exotic destination, southern most province of the country, Tawi-Tawi. We already felt we had a private plane to ourselves, since we always rode the same plane.

The view from above was not as clear, and the flight was deafening and longer. It took us 1 and a half hours from Zamboanga to Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi. As soon as I saw Bud Bongao, the highest peak in these islands, I was having headaches from the sudden descent. Our pilot had to go around again and take another chance in landing the small aircraft.

So we landed safely, and awaited for our gracious hosts. I immediately sensed Tawi-Tawi was going to be different from Sulu. We had no police escorts, and the presence of the military dwindled. We rode a red multicab and drove off to the center of Bongao town, passing by the coastline and going around Bud Bongao.

We arrived in our hotel, Rachel's Place, which is one of the 4 accommodations in the island. It is located near the town center, and looks like the biggest and most preferred place. Get the rooms (P800 to P1200) in the new building though, as they are cleaner.

From here, we had lunch at the venue of our shoot, Lutong Bahay sa Bongao. It seems that there is a lack of food places in Tawi-Tawi. There's even no Jollibee. But you can get a lot of fresh seafood from the market, and they can cook them for you as well. Lutong Bahay sa Bonao is cozy place to eat, but don't expect a different menu. It's your typical carinderia.

We rode our multicab to get a tour of the town. I saw a bustling market place which was colorful. Stalls selling clothes, DVDs and a lot of stuff from Malaysia lined the narrow alleyways. There was a mall being built, but people don't know when construction would finish.

Bongao had its charm that I expected. I felt much safer, but people still warned us to keep a vigilant eye open. Tawi-Tawi is considered free from terrorism, but they say some of the Abu Sayyaf bandits spend their vacation here. Like everyone else, the bandits just want a place more peaceful and pleasant.

More on Tawi-Tawi in my next posts...

The Unforgettable Trip to Jolo, Sulu

When I heard that I was going to Sulu for a shoot, I almost fell off my chair in excitement. Despite all the warnings and numerous prevention measures by my friends, I was able to hop on a plane to Zamboanga City, for my Sea Air flight enroute to Jolo, the capital of Sulu.

I expected Sulu to be beautiful, after hearing all the nice places there from people who have been there. We were descending already when I saw these island patches and long sandbars, with houses on stilts. I have never seen anything like that. Well, if there were inhabitants there, then there must be a way of going there.

We landed at the airport, which was bombed a week before we arrived. The runway was being constructed, so we had to board a jeep to take us to the terminal. I must say, the military presence and feel of the place scared me a bit. And after hearing the news about the recent bombing, I really felt uneasy. But, excitement still won me over, and I hastily jumped into our jeepney service that was followed by a military police escort.

We arrived at our "hotel", the only safe place to stay at in Jolo, the Peacekeepers Inn, located inside the police compound. Well, I can't say much about the inn, only that it felt like a prison ward. Gates were high and barb wires surrounded the perimeter. I was told that this was where the media people stay, so they assured me we were going to be safe here. But then again, the police told me to tell him if I would go out of the inn, even just to cross the street to buy from the sari-sari store in front.

The weird and uneasy feeling didn't go away though. When we surveyed the town, I felt more scared. Jolo was unlike what I pictured it to be. It was dirty, arid, humid, dusty, noisy. It was so underdeveloped and mismanaged, that I felt I was in Africa. There was a huge mosque at the center of town which was quite a prominent building with its massive white walls.

After checking in, we went to do some work (shoot an interview that we conducted). Afterwards, we had lunch at a rundown restaurant. From 3 police escorts, we suddenly had 12, and I was told to ride the police car. I felt something was wrong, but they weren't talking. It was Ramadan, so the police, who were all Muslims, remained in their vehicles when we had lunch. I was happy to be served some dishes that I never had in my life, like the Black Soup as the locals call it. The Black Soup is actually like tinola (ginger chicken soup), only spicy and mixed with burnt coconut to give it a distinct flavor. I liked it though, along with a special kind of beef curry that was also served.

Anyway, after lunch, we were treated to a tour of Jolo. I saw more of the poverty that probably is the primary cause of the unrest here. The police told me that the people were so poor that they'd rather join the rebels (Abu Sayyaf) because they could make money from kidnapping, etc. It's a vicious cycle, and I think the situation will last longer unless the government really DOES something. I felt nothing was really being done.

We went to the capitol grounds, where the Sulu provincial capitol building was located. The building was grand, and looked like the Taj Mahal in a way. It was a nice area, and empty. Guards were at the gate, and regulated the entrance of people. There was a swimming pool and a lot of gardens. I just wished that this was Jolo all throughout. But it was just the capitol grounds.

I was encouraging everyone, even the police to take me to Quezon Beach, but they told me it was unsafe there. I was still persistent, so they took me to a beach nearby. As I approached the coastline, and finally breathed some fresher air, I was hoping we could stay for a while on the beach. However, the police car in front of the us took a sudden u-turn and our jeep followed. I was shouting to the driver to go straight, but we hurried away. I was then told that some bandits were closing in on us at the end of the road. Well, too much for an afternoon on the beach, which was so inviting with its bright hues of blue and white sand.

We went straight back to the inn for a break. We had some beer at the backyard, and even took a nap, before we were fetched at 6PM for dinner. All 12 of our police escorts, including the very friendly and accommodating police chief waited for 7PM, before having their fill. We had a seafood feast of crabs, grilled fish, fresh seaweed, squid and a whole lot more. There were several native delicacies served for dessert. Our hosts gave us some fruits to take home. We were supposed to go back to the capitol grounds to see the lights, but power was cut in the entire town, and it was again unsafe (the police spotted two motorcycles following us). So, we retired early to bed, well, just after having 2 rounds of beer.

My trip to Jolo in Sulu was indeed an unforgettable experience. I had so many mixed emotions about the place. I was so frustrated that I wasn't able to see the real beauty of the Sulu. I had to blame the bandits who just made the place virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Though most of the people on the street looked like terrorists, I found some of the people, especially the police and our hosts, very friendly. They were happy to see us, and more excited that they had visitors.

In the end, I found out from the police chief that there was an attempt to kidnap us. We would be more in danger if we stayed another day. Good thing we only spent a night. The entire gang took us to the airport and even waited for us for 2 hours to board the plane. They told us they wanted to make sure we were safe INSIDE the plane. It was an uneasy feeling, but comforting as well, that, in this restive place, there are who still care for others.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mermaid Dreams in Magpopongco

An hour away from General Luna by motorbike is Pillar town. Located near the northeastern coast of Siargao, Pillar is not known to many people. Not even our resort manager, Babu, knew what was good there. But I saw a picture in the internet about a certain beach, which had natural coral pools that formed during the low tide. Without hesitation, and with a thirst for adventure, I immediately asked Babu to take me there. Welcome to Magpopongco.

This was the beach that greeted me when I arrived in Magpopongco. It is the top attraction of Pillar town, and is the venue of the International Game Fishing Tournament. President GMA already visited the place last May for the international competition. Hence, the local DOT has developed the place. I had a nice chat over bottles of beer with the tourism official there.

Well, the beach is actually not the attraction. Though wide and sandy, it is what lies beyond the rocks that has left each visitor mesmerized.

A concrete walkway was constructed leading to the rocks. I had to go under a tunnel of sorts, that made it look like I entered a whole new world - the world of the Little Mermaid.

I was greeted with this clear pool of water that was formed during the low tide. It was a risk for me to go here, not knowing when the low tide will be. But fortunately, I arrived just in time.

Apparently, Magpopongco means "to jump off" because most of the visitors here jump off the rocks and dive in these salt water pools. These are actually coral beds that have emerged because of the tide.

Underneath, a whole world of corals and marine life can be seen clearly. It was like looking down at an aquarium. You can walk further down the shore towards the the break water where waves crash wildly. Just be careful of slipping.

I was still in awe with the formations. I've never seen anything like this before. The whole coastline seemed like a home for mermaids. I walked further on, and discovered more spectacular pools. Different shades of blue and green inspired me to dream about tales of mermaids. I could see this place as a great shooting location for movies. It was just out-of-this-world.

I walked on, and landed on another sandy beach. Here, I got to swim a little bit, but I kept coming back to the pools which were mystical. It was a bit scary though, because the pools really seem they possess magic. I imagine diving under the rocks and seeing a world of fantastical creatures. I must be day dreaming already!

The water started to rise, and so I headed back. I took one last dip in the pool near the entrance already, and savored my last minutes there while the sun was preparing to set. Magpopongco is definitely a must-visit when in Siargao. I didn't expect anything. My crazy self has always taken me to places I could never have imagined.


That ends my quick and satisfying Siargao experience. The next day, I woke up at 5AM to catch the ferry back to Surigao City at 6AM. Then it was another 4 hours on the boat. I took the large barge type ferry, so the ride was quite smooth. I arrived in Surigao only to discover my flight has been delayed for 4 hours. Tough louck. Wished I stayed longer in Siargao...but then again, there will always be a next time (especially with 2 travel vouchers from Cebu Pacific from Cebu to Siargao, hehe).

Cool Cloud 9

Cloud 9 is the place that comes into mind when you speak of Siargao. This world renowned surfing spot has actually been a destination for surfers for several years. It's just recently (well, in the last 5 years) that Cloud 9 was elevated to the world stage after being featured in several magazines. It is the Philippine's premier surfing spot.

Getting to Siargao is an adventure, not until recently when Cebu Pacific opened direct flights to the island from Cebu. Now, most surfers go directly to Cebu and then catch a flight to Siargao. Cliud 9 is around 4 km from the center of General Luna. You cannot really walk to Cloud 9, but you can in 30 minutes I guess. Most people rent motorbikes, or stay in the Cloud 9 area. There are several resorts there, from simple bungalows to luxurious resorts.

There is a wooden boardwalk that leads to the surf. There is also a platform at the end, used by judges during competitions. The boardwalk looks rickety, but is actually sturdy, considering that waves pass through it. It's also nice that you can just walk to the waves.

I arrived in Cloud 9 at dusk, so it was a different feeling. There were still some surfers hitting the waves, while most are on their way back. Most of the surfers were foreigners by the way, or balikbayans. I happened to pass by some local kids who seemed to have enjoyed an afternoon of riding the waves.

I am not a surfer, and this is one thing I have to try. I just couldn't seem to find time to do it. Anyway, I want to try it in Zambales or La Union. I've been to Daet as well, but just managed to use a body board.

I was expecting Cloud 9 to be busy, but true to the surfer attitude, it was laid back. Cloud 9 is a great place to hang out, and with friendly people convincing you to try surfing, you may just find yourself giving to the temptation to hit the world famous waves of Cloud 9.

Guyam Island

Imagine, this island was just in front of Patrick's on the Beach. It was around 10 minutes away via boat. Though the seas were rough, I made it a point to convince Babu, the resort manager, to take me there. He first told me that I could kayak my way there, but after seeing the waves, he was generous enough to take me there (P500 roundtrip on a big boat). The island was called Guyam.

Guyam reminded me of Waniban Island in Mati, though it was much more picturesque. The sand was blinding white, though a bit grainy (not Boracay sand for those who always ask me). The tide was low, so a lot of sand was exposed.

The island is surrounded 50% with a sandy beach. The rest was lined with battered rocks facing the raging Pacific. The wind blew hard that day, so the palm trees were dancing. The sun was up though when I docked, so it made my stay more pleasant.

There were huts in the center of the island, and no inhabitants. The huts were set-up by the resort owners of General Luna. I heard that a wedding was supposed to happen later in the afternoon. I wondered why no one was setting up. But yes, it's a great place to get hitched. It's an island paradise all to yourself.

I wasn't able to swim, since the current was strong. I just went to the calm areas of the shore, facing General Luna, where pockets of water were formed in the vast white sand. By 11AM, the water went even lower, so imagine the stretch of sand that was revealed. The island just became bigger.

A lot of resorts actually offer island tours in Siargao, and Guyam is a popular stop. I'm seeing this to be a perfect place to have a picnic lunch. I was supposed to visit nearby Dako Island (bigger and inhabited), but we didn't bring enough gasoline. So I decided to make a rain check (more reason to go back). I've heard Dako has a longer and wider stretch of sand, but it's not as virgin as Guyam, since people live there.

I could spend a whole day in Guyam, just bring me food and drinks. I could snorkel nearby, take a kayak (in good seasons), cook, swim, and just lay on the sand. I could finish any book, or even work all day, as long as I am here. Guyam is one of my favorite islands in the country now, so you can expect me to be back.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Awesome Siargao!

The journey started in windy Surigao City. I was in the gateway of Mindanao in Surigao del Norte for a video shoot, so as usual, I decided to stay behind for a weekend in Siargao Island. The tropical getaway facing the Pacific Ocean is of course known in the Philippines as a top surfing destination. However, Siargao ihas a lot more to offer, which I am excited to share in my next posts. This was the port in Surigao City. There are several ferries going to Siargao. Just ask any friendly tricycle driver to take you to the port. The safest ferries are the bigger ones, though there is now a flight going directly to Siargao via Cebu. This is the more popular route nowadays.

I arrived in Dapa town in Siargao 2 hours after. It was a long journey on rough waters, but I slept most of the way. From Dapa, I took another trike ride (P100) to General Luna, known for its beach. I opted to stay in General Luna as opposed to Cloud 9, since I wasn't a surfer.

I stayed in Patrick's by the Beach as recommended by my driver. I was supposed to check in at Cherinicole, but my driver told me it was cheaper and better in Patrick's. I told him I could take a look first before deciding. Fortunately, the resort was what I wanted, and Cherinicole was just beside it. Cheri was more modern looking, more concrete, while Patrick's was your typical island resort. This was my bungalow for 2 nights (P1,300 a night with A/C).

Patrick's had a nice beach front and you can easily view islands from the shore. One of the more popular island destinations in Siargao is Guyam Island, which is directly in front of the resort. More on Guyam in my next post.

So, after having a heavy lunch, I took a nap which took longer than I expected. I woke up at 7PM, and wasted the entire afternoon. I was just so tired from the trips that I have been making.

Anyway, I was beginning to feel that I had a lot to look forward to in Siargao. The vibe of the entire island was very laid back. The people were very friendly, and relaxed as well. As the night fell into my first day, I was eagerly restless for an adventurous day up ahead.

For more information on Patrick's on the Beach: visit their website.


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