Princess Diana could have looked like her hadn’t she died young.
“Oh, you’re only here for two days…” The blonde immigration officer said,
handing back my arrival card and Australian transit visa with a friendly smile,
without any hint of sternness, her accent reminiscent of Harry Potter movies.
“Yes. I’m actually going to New Caledonia.” I answered back with a smile.
“New Caledonia! What are you going to do there?” That Hermione Granger
accent again. And the excitement on her face. It mirrored the excitement in my
I’m attending a film festival.” I answered almost pensively, trying to contain my excitement.
Her eyes sparkled with much enthusiasm as she exclaimed. “Great! Good for
you! Welcome to Australia!”
I could almost hear the faint sound of the Australian immigration stamp as it touched my passport. With barely two days to explore Sydney and with a connecting flight to New Caledonia after that, I’d have to make the most of my time in this vibrant cosmopolitan city.
Right under my nose, a fellow passenger on a van from Catarman to Calbayog City had stolen my umbrella. He could give Lupin the third a run for his money- the umbrella was gone in a jiffy! But still, I wanna thank him for not including my backpack.
Which reminds me of the parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Parish Church in the quaint town of Larena, Siquijor. With my ferry trip to Dumaguete delayed that morning, I meandered back into the town and stumbled into the olden church as a mass was about to begin. All of the churchgoers were in their best Sunday attires, I settled for the last part of the long rows of pews as I fidgeted in my capris and slippers. Communion rite later started and I was grateful for leaving my bulky backpack on my seat. Bags, purses, wallets were left on the pews as the mass attendees queued up to the altar.
Imagine the usual six-hour drive from Catarman, Northern Samar to Tacloban City cut short to only four hours. I check again if its Dominic Toretto aka Vin Diesel on the steering wheel and it’s not. This chauffeur’s just fast, not furious. I don’t even flinch on the passenger seat. Can I have this Lightning McQueen ride everytime I go home, please? (read: pwede ba makihitch lagi, sir?)
One dreadful thing about solo travel is the likelihood of sleeping in a musty-smelling hostel room alone much less a 16-bed cottage dormitory like this one in Misamis Occidental Aquamarine Park, Brgy. Libertad Bajo, Sinacaban, Misamis Occidental. One survival tip? Don’t watch scary movies at least a month before your solo trip else you’ll get crazy imagining the rest of the 15 white linen covered beds are occupied.
On a side note, the place has good security, and the airconditioned dorm (TV, wide veranda, 2 bathrooms and a mini-kitchen included) is all yours for only 150 pesos a night. 🙂
Oh, and the view outside is surely a delight for nature-lovers.
A sudden torrential rain, itchy plants, tiny blood-sucking leech-like creatures called limatok in the Waray dialect, supernatural tales, fordings on streams with slippery rocks, trail so steep we had to use vines for climbing, there were even times that there was not a trail at all. I knew the hike was going to be difficult. I just didn’t had an idea that it would be this treacherous.
But perhaps that is the beauty of an adventure – there will always be uncertainties and possibilities.
What awaited us in this risky trek was an overwhelming series of waterfalls. This had also been a surprise for me. I counted perhaps three mini-waterfalls and two big waterfalls when I was only expecting to see one. There were at least two more, our two local guides told us, if only Supertyphoon Yolanda/Haiyan hadn’t destroyed them.
cascading waters spread on huge rocks – the 1st big waterfall
Our ultimate destination was something like a 65-70 ft high waterfall. The sight of it makes you forget the ordeal you had just gone through. The feel of its surging waters massaging your body is of relaxation – a perfect communion with nature.
Some say that the Busay Falls experience would be incomplete without taking a slide on the upper middle part of this waterfall. It was risky but at the same time too tempting not to take the slide challenge. We each took turns. I happily did it thrice. I knew right then and there that the many waterfalls of Tambis are worth chasing and worth risking for.
Brgy. Tambis, Burauen, Leyte the location of Busay Waterfalls is also the source of the municipality's water system. Reaching the upland barrio means having to go on a 20 to
30-minute habal-habal ride on a rough terrain for a fare of 25 pesos. There are no fees to be paid but you have to ask permission from the barangay chairman who will then recommend you to at least two local guides. This is done as a safety precaution.
So this Torogan-inspired cottage perched on a hill on the farthest end of Marawi Resort Hotel is all to myself for a night. It’s spacious, two-bed, non-aircon (but who needs an aircon in MSU Marawi’s Baguio-like weather), with a leaky faucet (drip..drip..drip..), creaking doors and squeaking floors (freaky), and at three in the morning I get to wake up to a chilly breeze and the seemingly endless howling of dogs (awoooo!). The combination of eerie noise creates a perfect harmony which is, in an odd way, melodious to the ears. Were they singing a hymn to the moon? 😀
And as I felt the warmth of the lantern on my palms and released it to the skies, I whispered to the heavens a silent prayer of hope for us who survived, of justice for the oppressed and often neglected Yolanda victims, of compassion for those who have perished, and of thanksgiving for the outpouring of support when we needed them the most.
Meet Nur Shalyn, a sixteen year-old Tausug girl with a sunbaked skin and a warm smile. Stranded for four hours at the old bustling Chinese Pier of Bongao while on a boat bound for Simunul Island, I had a long conversation with this fellow passenger who was rather puzzled that I was alone on such a long journey. She slept soundly on the backpack on my lap for the entire duration of the trip while my stomach churned at the angry waves of the Sulu Sea and the uncertainty of my destination. I would later find myself in their stilt wooden house meeting her family and sipping my favorite buko drink which she herself prepared..
My dear beloved Leyte, it breaks my heart to see you so devastated this way. I thought that surviving supertyphoon Yolanda was enough, I should have known better, dealing with its aftermath is another story of survival. But still, I don’t want to leave you, my beloved home for more than twenty years. You have taught me to be strong, and optimistic somehow. Aren’t Warays known to be easygoing but tough people? It may be hard to fathom God’s reasons, but the trademark resilience of your people may probably have something to do in being chosen to be the bearer of the strongest cyclone to ever hit the world. We’ll get by, we’ll rise again, I know we can. We must, my dear beloved Leyte.
Bud Bongao with its altitude of 300 meters stands prominently in Bongao town like a stationary honor guard geared up to protect the whole Tawi-tawi territory.
“If you are kind-hearted you won’t have trouble climbing,” Kuya Ladz of the tourism office told me – an indication that what we’re about to climb is not just an ordinary mountain. It is actually regarded to be sacred and revered by many Muslims.
The mountain has often been enfolded with tales of mysticism. One of the legends is that of white monkeys who were believed to be its guardians before. Now, instead of them, grey-colored macaque monkeys also considered sacred inhabit the place which is the reason why we were carrying a bunch of ripe bananas with us.
Amidst the scorching heat of the afternoon sun, the steep climb proved to be tiring but I soon forgot all about it. After all I was with a fun bunch of hiking buddies – Kuya Ladz and his three nephews who are students from Mindanao State University.
It was perhaps almost halfway through the climb when the friendly macaque monkeys started appearing and swaying through the trees. They seemed to be following us all the way and I was so amused while we fed them with bananas.
one of the three tampats
Near the summit, we arrived to what they consider to be a holy shrine. In it were three tampats or holy graves. This is where the Muslims pray and make wishes.
Now I probably know why they say that you really haven’t been to Tawi-tawi if you haven’t climbed Bud Bongao. Its summit will give you a commanding view of the vast Sulu Sea and the Tawi-tawi landscape. Kuya Ladz pointed to me the islands of Sibutu, Simunul and Sangay-Siapo. On a clear day, one can even see the outline of Borneo atop this mountain. It was kind of a bizarre feeling, I was at the southernmost tip of the Philippines and what I behold before me was already an international border.
What better way to chill out after a hike than with barbecue and fresh buko by the beach? The al fresco setting of the barbecue place beside the Beach Side Inn where most locals flock to for beer, barbecue, and videoke is certainly a perfect spot to mingle with the locals, watch the sun set gold over the Sulu Sea and view the mystical Bud Bongao from a distance.
Tawi-tawi’s hidden gem
Of the 7,107 isles and islets that comprise the Philippine archipelago, 307 belong to its last frontier – the province of Tawi-tawi. I consider myself lucky for being able to set foot on at least four of them. One of them truly a paradise on earth – the virgin island of Panampangan.
JourneyingJames, the surfer and the blogger who had backpacked around the Philippines for 100 days and been to practically every beautiful beach in the whole country wrote in his blog, “Ask me what’s the finest white sand beach I ever saw and hands down I will say aloud- Panampangan Island, off the coast of Tawi-Tawi.”
For somebody who had always fantasized of the white shores of Maldives, reading it made me long to see Panampangan for myself.
So I booked a flight for Tawi-tawi, with four things in mind – the local breakfast in kahawans, Bud Bongao, Simunul Island, and Panampangan Island.
Panampangan islet on the map
On my third day in the province, after an overnight stay with a hospitable Sa’ma family in Simunul Island and a tour around the capital town of Bongao the following day, I was about to give up my hopes of seeing Panampangan. From Bongao, one has to charter a speed boat for P6,000 to reach the uninhabited islet. My three round trip plane fares from Tacloban-Cebu, Cebu-Zamboanga, and Zamboanga-Tawi-tawi when summed up would not even amount to such a hefty price for my poor pocket.
But fate favored with me. Mindanao State University just concluded the Tawi-tawi Jobs Fair the day before. ARMM Assemblywoman Ma’am Samira Gutoc who initiated the event would be visiting the island for the first time. I rejoiced upon hearing the good news from two tourism staff, Kuya Ladz and Ate Cdang that Ma’am Salve Pescadera, the Tawi-tawi Provincial Tourism Officer invited me to come along. The planned hike to Bongao Peak could wait until the afternoon.
The boat moved at a speed that took our breaths away. But it was even more breathtaking when we finally arrived. The long stretch of immaculate white sand lay impressively on turquoise waters so pristine I could clearly see the creatures beneath. Dappled with coconut trees, and the picture of a tropical paradise was perfectly complete.
calm and clear waters surrounding the Panampangan sand bar
I’m afraid that my photographs, let alone my bad writing, can’t give enough justice to the splendor of this place. It’s as if the Creator had fashioned something out of some precious white crystals and threw it somewhere between the Sulu and Celebes seas. I was instantly charmed. It was idyllic as I took off my flip-flops and sauntered on its fine powdery white sand. They were so soft and white they reminded me of something. Goldilocks milk polvoron. Yes, that’s it! And who would not be tempted to take a plunge into its inviting waters? As the sacred mountain of Bongao awaited for my ascent, I was frolicking in the resfreshing waters of Panampangan.
“Lalong sumasarap ang sardinas kapag sa ganitong napakagandang lugar ka kumakain.” I must have heard some of them say. A picnic of sardines, biscuits, chips, and Tawi-tawi native delicacies by the beach with Ma’am Samira Gutoc (in blue hijab) and Ma’am Salve Pescadera (in red blouse) together with the Tawi-Tawi Provincial Tourism Office Staff.
Blessed with unspoiled beauty yet its image marred by the conflicts of its neighboring places and the sensationalized media coverage, the province of Tawi-tawi is like an exotic food. If you don’t have the guts to try one, you wouldn’t know that you missed one of the greatest wonders nature has to offer. Dare, give it a shot and you’ll soon discover its flavors bursting throughout your tastebuds, surprising you even more, making you crave for more, and you’ll ask yourself, why haven’t I tried this before?
For assistance contact the Tawi-tawi Provincial Tourism Staff
Ate Cdang – 09476395011
Ka Queen- 09288300581
Kuya Ladz – 09108532442
Kuya Ben – 09126425593/09075932907
or check out the Tawi-tawi Provincial Tourism Facebook Page
My bad. I decided to contact the local tourism office only a week before my planned trip. No response from them.
I tried to look for blog posts of solo female travelers going there without a guide nor a local contact. Just an assurance that I could do the same. But I couldn’t find any.
A couple of days to go, I incidentally met sir Jamju on facebook who is from Basilan. I bugged him with my travel plans. He seemed enthusiastic about it and assured me that it was safe to go alone as long as I took the usual safety precautions. I was overjoyed.
And so in Zamboanga- still fatigued from my practically sleepless overnight stay at the Mactan-Cebu Airport and my early morning flight to the Latin city, I checked in at the Atillano Pension House, rode a jeep to the pueblo, alighted at the Universidad de Zamboanga and found my way into the port, albeit lost for a few moments in the bustling Zamboanga City Public Market.
I paid P150 for the 9:30 am trip and walked nonchalantly into the Isabela City-bound Weesam ferry as if I had done this many times before.
The waves were raging violently and my stomach was churning, or so I thought. Bumpy rides have always thrilled me. My main concern was how to start my city tour that day. My seatmate, a middle-aged woman, spoke to me in Bisaya and exclaimed that the waves were terrifying that day. I was about to speak but she closed her eyes and soon fell asleep.
From my window seat, I enjoyed the misty landscape while figuring out what to do upon arrival. The clouds were threatening to rain but it was a sunny Basilan that greeted me when we finally docked after an hour.
Once outside the port , I instantly eyed the Sta. Isabel Cathedral. A relief. The cathedral would have to be my starting point.
And so in Basilan, using the guide sir Jamju made for me, I inconspicuously wandered on the streets of Isabela City like I had been living there most of my life. Nonchalant but still vigilant. The presence of military men was at first a bit unsettling but I eventually became used to it. It was peaceful, just like any other ordinary day back in my hometown in Leyte.
I saw a group of students in the park who appeared to be working on a group project. I sat on a vinta-inspired bench near to them and I could hear their cheerful chatter. A father and his little kid taking a stroll, a pair of lovers seated at a corner, women in their colorful hijab gathered around a table. The scenario looked very much different from the chaotic Basilan often portrayed in the news.
… basta, don’t go off the beaten track lang, I’m sure you’ll be ok. Tricycle fare should not cost you more than P10.00 anywhere within the downtown area. Sofia Hotel is right smack in the middle of town if u will stay overnight. Casa Rosario is right next to the wharf, but a much cheaper (and more basic) accommodation..
Some easily accessible places of interest:
Sta. Isabel Cathedral, Downtown (Mosaic mural entablature from Italy which accordingly costs something like P25,000/sq foot?)
The Twin Plazas (i.e. 1. Isabela City Plaza – right beside Sta. Isabel Cathedral; and 2. Plaza Rizal de Basilan – right in front of the Provincial Capitol – the layout is typical Spanish 17th century – plaza at the center, church and government bldg in the same axis, and all the prominent families – their houses converted into commercial bldgs now – around the plazas)
Provincial Capitol – site of the old La Fuerte dela Reina Isabela Segunda (Fort Isabela II), to whom the City (Isabela) is named. The Fort was occupied by the Japanese in WW2, bombed by the Americans, demolished after the war, replaced by the old Basilan City Hall bldg., burned to the ground in 1992, and replaced by the present structure.
Alano Zenith Bldg. – right behind Sta. Isabel Cathedral, first floor… you will find the YAKAN CRAFT store, selling trinkets and souvenirs of Basilan…(for pasalubong purposes)
Women’s Weaving Center – (ride a Tricycle, direct the driver to “Tabuk, Palar” near the NAPOCOR Barge – when ur there, walk directly to the guard of the huge Napocor power barge berthed at the end of the road, ask the guard where the Women’s Center is (its entrance is surrounded by a bushy, flowery wall enclosure so you might not be able to see the entrance from the road! hehe)… more souvenir items, plus weaving looms of authentic Yakan cloth…
Jollibee Basilan – the exterior is under renovation but the inside is business as usual. the 500th Jollibee Branch of the Philippines and (you may or may not put this in your diary)… “the most bombed” Jollibee branch anywhere in the Philippines! Hehe
If ur not into the usual burgers, try “Miss Inasal” (asawa daw ni Mang Inasal kaya may unli rice din. Hehe) its right in front of Claret College of Isabela (Sta. Cruz Brgy., Roxas Ave.)
For traditional “Muslim cuisine” try any of those Kitchenettes and carinderias along Ulbert Tugung Road, right beside Isabela City Police Station and the Public Market. Order a cup of “KAHAWA” … you will not regret it.
If you have extra time, you could also get a tricycle and ask to be brought to Begang (7-kms from the city center)… we call this our “Little Cebu” as most of the people there come from Cebu (my mom included! hehe)… a little bit farther in Baluno, you will find the first Rubber Plantation in the Philippines (used to be owned by Sime Darby/BF Goodrich – now operated by a coop)…
On the other side of town (you will cross the Aguada Bridge), you could ask the tricycle to bring you either to Calle Posporo (San Rafael Brgy). Residents are mostly Chavacanos, and then go to Calle Bisaya (Aguada Brgy) most of the people there used to be Bisaya (Cebuanos), now its a much more ethnically mixed…
Barangays and place names in Isabela are pretty easy to remember and easy to get your bearings from: There is a Sunrise Village (eastern part – rich people mostly, this is where all the Mayors of Isabela build their big houses, just a stone’s throw away from the present City Hall) and a Sunset Village (west – populated mostly by indigenous Samal/Bajao). Other Barangays are typically named: Eastside, Westside (Dona Ramona Alano), Seaside, Port Area, Isabela Proper, Marketsite – all within the poblacion…”
But I knew that my Basilan trip would be incomplete without seeing the white beach of Malamawi Island- just a nearby barangay of the capital city. So I walked back to the port, asked a man in uniform, and found the small bancas near the fish vendors.
For a short 5-minute ride and 5-peso fare, we reached the island. I spoke to the habal-habal driver in Bisaya, told him to bring me to the white beach and either fetch or wait for me. He agreed for P100 since I was the only passenger and said he’d wait for me.
The road was winding, narrow, and uphill. The driver, whom later I would know as Roland, asked if I had friends waiting for me over there. I nodded, thinking of one safety precaution when travelling solo. Don’t let them know that you’re really alone.
But he would soon find out the truth.
It took us around 25 minutes to reach the beach. My expectations of a desolate place proved otherwise. There was small group of teenagers having a picnic. But just them. And an old man clad in a camouflage jacket sitting on a distant cottage. I saw Roland walk towards him.
By the shade of some trees, I found a spot to sit on and breathed the fresh air. If only I had a hammock with me, it would be a perfect spot to set up one. I could stay there for hours in solitude and indulge in the serenity and the beauty of the place. Malamawi, with its fine white sand, and pristine waters will definitely give the best beaches in the country a run for their money.
I’ve heard that this is not the best beach in Basilan though. Further in the province are still more unspoiled beaches, often elusive to tourists and travelers. I can never imagine how delighted would I be, if I get to see them as well.
I left my small backpack behind and started taking a stroll. My daydreaming was soon shortlived when the old man I just saw earlier approached me.
I told him I was from Zamboanga and was supposed to be with a friend who didn’t show up. He eventually found out I was lying. In a concerned fatherly tone, he scolded me for going there alone. He seemed doubtful of my name and said it sounded Chinese to him, so I took off my glasses and showed him my big round eyes.
I asked for his name but he insisted on being called “Lolo Police.” In the end we were already laughing with Roland joining us. We shared a few stories and a few laughs. It felt good to finally have somebody to talk to.
I was surprised to learn from Lolo Police that sir Jamju owns the place. I would later know from sir Jamju who really Lolo Police is. Manong Maang, the caretaker of the beach, was one of the best boxers during his youth.
Manong Maang and Roland
I wish I stayed longer but I had to leave for the 4:30 pm last trip back to Zamboanga. So I bade goodbye and thanked him. He assured me that I was safe with Roland and even invited me to come back. “Bring at least five people with you!” he smiled.
I unexpectedly met some good souls in Basilan and if given the chance, yes, I’d love to go back, even without a guide. Definitely, there’s a lot more to discover.
It is still highly recommended to contact the local tourism office when planning a trip to Basilan. For those who plan to visit Malamawi Island, you may contact my kind habal-habal driver Roland Enriquez at 09261260019.
One of life’s greatest rewards is perhaps witnessing nature’s greatest phenomenons. Like the rising of the sun, when God makes a natural canvass out of the wide majestic sky.
It’s amazing to see how at daybreak the sky can change in just a matter of minutes, even seconds.
From deep disturbing shades of black and red…
To peaceful lilac…
To jovial yellow…
And before you realize it the sun is up.
A sign of new hope and new tomorrows.
Just like the cycle of life.
Black Saturdays in the quiet, predominantly Catholic town of Burauen is heralded a couple of hours before dawn by a procession around the town of a multitude of barefoot parishioners.
Nobody is being genuinely nailed to the cross. A tableau vivant is staged for each of the procession’s fourteen stops in designated areas of the town depicting the fourteen stations of the cross – from the Last Supper, to Jesus’ scourging, crucifixion, death and to his resurrection. It’s commonly known among Roman Catholics as the Stations of the Cross.
Passages from the bible concerning the portrayed station is read for each stop. As the devotees kneel down and fall silent, they begin to reflect and meditate. The cycle goes on until the fourteenth station. The crowd walks on during intervals while the rosary is prayed and songs about the passion of Christ are sung.
By 7 in the morning, the procession reaches almost every corner of the poblacion and goes back to the church for the final station.
Sacrifice? Perhaps. But it’s more of a rejuvenating activity for me. Walking barefooted early in the morning before the sun is up, and then eventually being kissed by the gentle rays of the rising sun, is naturally favorable for the physical health. To such an extent is kneeling down for several times during the procession. Add the reflections which I think are good for the emotional and spiritual health, the procession leaves you hopeful, thinking somehow, that after that 3-hour long barefoot journey, something positive will come out of it.
Palanas is a small sitio lying between the border of the municipalities of Leyte and Tabango. Where every household in my town Burauen has at least a motorcycle and in the cities, a car, every house on bamboo stilts here own at least a small single-outrigger canoe.
The streets of Palanas are not the usual paved or cemented roads. When children go to school, run errands, or play street games it would mean paddling the canoe on the brackish waters and occasionally, having to take a swim.
These streets are also bountiful of crabs, prawns, milkfish,etc. which my seafood-loving-palate much to my delight had feasted on that day. This is where the majority of the community’s livelihood is sourced from.
As dusk approaches, these streets transform into one of the most picturesque phenomena in this humble village. Watching the beautiful sunset in Palanas was probably the highlight of my stay there.
The sun’s hues mirrored on the brackish waters dramatically changed almost every second, I wanted to savor every moment of it, and I did (ignoring the stubborn mosquitoes biting my knees as I sat on a boat, hehe).
Greeting twilight on the streets of Palanas? It’s one spectacular and lovely moment.