Saturday, May 19, 2012

Passage to the South: Zamboanga, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi

These are 360 images, hit the pictures then click and drag the image in any directions after loading. 360VRs produced by Firefly Digital Designs Services.
Welcome to the Sta. Cruz Islands off the coast of Zamboanga City. These 2 pink sand islands, a rarity in the Philippines, are located about 30 minutes away via pump boats. The pinkness is the result of white sands mixed with the powder remains of red corals that are abundant in the area. The bigger of the two, Greater Sta. Cruz Island, is usually where the tourists go. Generally private depending on the season, the beach is ideal for swimming with its gently sloping terrain and crystal clear waters. There are no developments in the island, so be sure to bring food and water for the duration of your trip. Public restrooms are available, as well as cooking and washing areas. Behind the beach lies a thick mangrove forest and on the eastern side lies hidden, a graveyard dedicated to the Sama people (boat builders and seafarers).

The Little Sta. Cruz Island houses a light tower being tended by a fishing family and is usually off-limits to tourists. It also has an extensive mangrove area and a site for migratory birds.

Being one of the important trading ports before and after the coming of the Spaniards, galleons and ships laden with precious cargoes like spices, silk, chinas and the likes, sailed from Zamboanga towards mainland Asia and Europe. It is said that after a storm, one can still find pieces of porcelain tossed up from the sea-bottom scattered along the beach; remains that dated back to the once glorious days of the galleon trade. 

Before visiting the islands, you need to register with the local tourism office located near the Paseo de Mar seaside strip. The tourism office will then assign a tourist police to accompany you; this is of course to ensure your security and well being.

Another attraction of Zamboanga City is Fort Pilar. Built under the directive of Gov. Gen Juan Antonio dela Torre Bustamante in 1718 primary for coastal defense and as a staging area, it is presently converted into a museum that showcases Zamboanga’s rich cultural history.

As night falls, Paseo de Mar, that stretch of seaside boulevard, is transformed from a quite park into a bustling hang-out complete with lights, music, food, and yes, beers.

As early as the 16th Century, expeditions against the sultanate were launched by Spain in order to control the lucrative trade routes as well as to curb slave raiding. From then on, there were all in all 16 military campaigns against Jolo, five resulting in occupation and all except the last were short-lived. For more than three centuries, the Spaniards had held Jolo for a short period of three decades due to the resolve of the Joloanos that resisted Spanish intrusions.

Today, the island of Sulu is still embroiled in a fog of war between government forces and the rebel faction. The once mighty sultanate has been slowly eroded by the dynamics of geopolitics and economic interests. Progress has been slow, development come in tickles. It is one of the few places that peace and order are achieved under the barrel of a gun.

Tawi-Tawi is the southernmost province of the Philippines. Comprising of 107 islands and islets, it included the islands of Simunul, Sibutu, Sitangkai, Mapun, and the fabled Turtle Islands near the borders of Sandakan in North Borneo. Tawi-Tawi is home to the Sama, Badjao, Tausog and other close cultural groups. Majority of the islands are covered in thick vegetations, these lush green foliage gave the islands its emerald meaning.

Tawi-Tawi was previously part of the province of Sulu. On September 11, 1973, under Presidential Decree No. 302, the new province of Tawi-Tawi was officially created, with Bongao as its capital.

The name of Tawi-Tawi is a projection of the Malay word “jaui” meaning “far.” Prehistoric travelers from the Asian mainland would repeat the word as “jaui-jaui” to mean “far away” because of the distance of the islands from the continent of Asia. The word “Tawi-Tawi” was picked up to later become the official name of the province.

Compare to Jolo, Bongao is relatively peaceful and secure. There is commerce in the capital, familiar banks have their presence, telecommunication facilities are stable, education is more widespread, there’s the newly constructed airport runway in Sanga-Sanga, and people are generally in a happier disposition.
Towering at about 370m above sea level, Bud Bongao or Bongao Peak as it is popularly called, is the tallest and easily recognizable point in Tawi-Tawi. It takes about an hour’s trek to the summit and back. Apart from the spectacular view of Bongao and the nearby coast from above, halfway along the path you’ll get to interact with monkeys! These primates would swing from branches and wires and expect to be given bananas by the trekkers. You can either hand it or throw it for the monkeys to catch. Old saying goes that for your wish to come true, you will need to whisper it into a plastic bag and tie it among the branches near the peak. A trip to Tawi-Tawi is not complete without conquering Bongao Peak.
The islands of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi are often referred to as the country’s “backdoor” and connotes a lot of negativity. My sincere belief is, with sustainable effort in tourism development, modern agriculture, better education, and enhanced peace and order; we can make these provinces as the Philippines’ “frontdoor” and partake the benefits for economic growth as well as understanding and tolerance between cultures and religions.
















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