BRAVE SOULS: A Traveler’s Tense Tale to Basilan

“9 dead, several others wounded in Basilan attack.” — SUNSTAR

That was the headline I read while I was running through my Facebook news feed to a Basilan-related page just a day before our trip to the island. Anxiously, I told them about it and invoked their thoughts if proceeding is an option. I asked dispiritedly, “Mudayon ta? (Are we going?)” with a nervous grin on my face and an unenthusiastic stare at them. A slice of silence entered the room. Then, they answered my question with a shrug followed by a feeble nod projecting a dilemma that’s currently clouding their thoughts. “O, uy! Mudayon ta! (Yes! We’re going!)” I sarcastically answered my own question on a loud voice with a whiff of excitement to infuse life onto their adventure souls.

Still, our tickled curiosity weaved with adventurous souls wagered our very lives on the line for a great unknown that pushed our thirsting spirits way aboard.

 

PORT OF NO TURNING BACK

The city of Zamboanga was still in slumber as we stroll the streets that once were under siege a few years back. It was devoid of vehicles yet the subtle smell of smoke was in the air. It was dark and gloomy and expectedly chilly. We walked on our sharp shadows cast under the streetlamps of the empty streets. The scars of violence and tremors might subside but our thoughts were cloaked with fear as we paced to these unfamiliar city lanes.

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The sun slowly peeking when we arrived at the seaport. Morning fades in like a scene from a bad theater production. The seaport is already astir. Noisy atmosphere drew our attention as local vendors stationed on the cemented pavements shout their goods at the top of their voice and the buyers quarrel over quality and quantity and price with equal vigor. Porters with loads of cargo on their four-wheeled wooden carts were making rounds inside and out in the port area. Passengers swarming like bees early in the morning were roaming through and through with a handful of goods. It was a busy morning indeed in this port dubbed as the major gateway to the island of Basilan. We secured tickets and boarded a ferry going to the island.

 

RIDING THE WAVES OF UNCERTAINTIES

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I was looking at the clouds outside the stained window pane, thinking about our destination. I was optimistically painting my mind with what Basilan could offer to us – a myriad of beautiful cultures, quaint customs of the locals, undiscovered potential tourist havens and venerated mosques with worshippers on their prayer rugs. What wonderful stories I could boast when I got home.

I walked outside by the open-aired balcony of the ferry. I wanted to feel the pleasant gust of salty wind in the morning while heading to Basilan. Then, all of a sudden, my mood changed in an instant as I’m taken aback by the sight of uniformed soldiers aboard the ferry premises.

The men in camouflage uniforms are armed with select-fire assault rifles hanging in front of their chest down to their waist. Each face is impassive, not a trace on it to say what they are thinking or what they are about to do. I wonder if they were trained that way or if they are just like that where they came from. Just their presence is overwhelmingly intimidating.

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I’m feeling a little bit jittery as I could hear my heart thumping than the wind whispering in my ear. I breathed vigorously to calm. From that moment, I am grasping the fact that we’re heading to an unusual destination we’re unfamiliar with.

 

KALMA LANG! BLEND WITH THE LOCAL

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We arrived past 8 in the morning at the wharf of Lamitan City, the provincial city capital of Basilan. There, dozens of uniformed men have stationed anywhere my sight could reach holding guns and weapons. The soldiers stand stiffly in their starched and pressed uniform; some are behind the cyclone fence of barbwires, some are behind the triangular roadblocks fixed on the roads.

Of course, the tension I feel does not subside even an inch less. Not only me but also my friends. I can see the doubts and fears clouding in the eyes of my fellow travelers. Eyes of a burning adventure soul shadowed by uncertainties and hesitations. My eyes can parallel to theirs as I could picture myself staring in front of a mirror.

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“Kalma lang! Let’s blend with the locals and act normal”, I told them. Those are the words I uttered softly and repeatedly upon boarding ourselves off of the ferry. They just gave me a smirk and a conventional nod of an agreement while making our way off the vessel in the river of the local crowd.

 

BEHIND THE BASILAN WE KNOW ABOUT

We met our contact person that was assigned to accommodate us, a tourism officer of Lamitan City, just a few minutes after boarding ourselves off on the vessel. Our vehicle headed straight to the city hall to have our courtesy call for their mayor. All the staffs and people we approached are very welcoming, friendly even, with warm smiles and charming personalities. Those are the first genuine things I saw since we set foot on the island. It really is uplifting seeing those smiles and kind gestures after we mentally stressed ourselves upon our arrival. These are the genuine gems that Basilan have that the world need to see.

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Basilan, stained with negative publicity because of the known bombing, acts of terrorism, and such alike, was left with a fairly large gash on its name and gained less love and interests from the tourists or even on the locals. An island that is rife with violence, conflicts, and danger, it isn’t surprising why there are only very few numbers of visiting tourists as most of them question their safety and might face their death from terrorism.

These negative views about Basilan that left entrenched to many Filipinos somewhat abjured the natural wonders of the island from being explored and discovered. Thus, leaving the island with so many untouched beauties and awestruck island treasures waiting to unfold. But in adverse circumstances, security and safety issues are the main reasons why Basilan is still an uncrowned tourist destination.

Nevertheless, the urge to venture to Basilan in spite of the overwhelming military conflicts never cease. I don’t want to waste this window to close. For a long time, I’ve been hankering these unspoiled destinations and now, I’m finally here.

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After some small chitchat and few arrangements of our itinerary, we prepared and proceed to our first stop — Bulingan Falls.

 

LAMITAN CITY’S GENUINE GEMS

Unlike any other city, Lamitan is more of a laid-back urban town — there was a dearth of urban features and people seems living on a provincial life. Looking out the window, I see Muslim men with skullcaps on their head wearing modest and loose white Islamic clothing. I see cute little girls playing along the road dressed with a piece of fabric folded and fastened under their chin highlighting their sunny faces.

From a distance, there’s a familiar pole with a helical stripe. It’s a local barbershop with its classic touch of a helix of colored stripes — white, blue, and red — with a set of old-fashioned rotating wooden chairs. Just a glimpse of it, I can smell the distinct powder that lingers inside the shop that was used to clean some shards of hairs. It took me a short trip to a memoir-lane across the time when I hated scissors and blades and also the grumpy barbers. I guess it’s just a pretty laid back city after all. If someone would’ve just visited the place without a hint or background about it, they could’ve said the same.

As the city of Lamitan is surrounded by several towns that are highly involved with extremist militants, we’re accompanied by a single soldier for safety reasons. Along our way to the falls, we passed several checkpoints heavily guarded by armed men in uniforms. We crossed a river and some indigenous communities before we got to the falls.

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Bulingan Falls is tucked within the verdant forest of coconut and rubber trees of Lamitan City. It is not far from the main city and took us 25 minutes before reaching this wondrous body of water. The unusual yet beautiful rectangular block rock formations of the waterfalls made it more stunning and looked different from any other waterfalls. Its basalt rock basin is surrounded by the variety of flora and fauna that made the entire place even more magical.

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The place is devoid of visitors as we have it all for ourselves. Though we did not bathe in its waters as time was short but we really did enjoy the view and the tranquility of the place.

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We returned to the city safe and the only injury we have is an empty stomach. Our guide said that Lamitan also serves delicious Yakan delicacies. As soon as we set foot in the marketplace, our patrolling soldier accompanied us inside together with our guide.

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It’s just a typical market scene for the locals where vendors brandished their wares under their noses. The hubbub at the marketplace caused by the bargaining between sellers and buyers is almost deafening. There are carts and lorries that bring fish, meat and green vegetables. Some have permanent stalls and some have their commodities kept either in the baskets or the ground.

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We tried some of the native delicacies that are famous to the tourists when they come visiting Lamitan. I tried panyalam and lokot-lokot which is very unusual to my taste buds. These foods are made by Yakan natives.

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Panyalam is made of rice flour and brown sugar battered then deep-fried in oil. It’s actually sweet and tasty pancake-like food with a soft chewy center.

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Lokot-lokot, on the other hand, is also sweet yet crunchy texture made with the same ingredients as panyalam. It is folded or rolled in various shapes before it turns to golden brown.

Surprisingly, Yakan people are so friendly. They even joked and laughed with us. With or without the fabric on their heads, they’re as the same as the people that you’ll meet in every travel that you’ll have — sweet, kind, and beautiful.

 

CROWN JEWELS OF ISABELA CITY

After chasing a waterfall and eating some native delicacies in Lamitan, we headed straight to the next city — Isabela City. We were picked up by the tourism officer of the city at the wharf going to Lampinigan Island.

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Isabela City has a fair share as Lamitan City as it is known to be a dangerous place. The city is almost synonymous with a bombing, kidnapping, and terrorism. That’s why for our next destination, we were accompanied by two armed officers with rifles as stiff as they look against their body.

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While waiting for our boat, a group of middle-aged men congregates inside an open-air waiting shed where our escorts took a shade. At that moment, we were at our holiest state but we end up with a lot of killer stares from that group and some initiated some whispering gestures. Unlike the people of Lamitan, these are rather a peculiar crowd. Our boat arrived just before noon.

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Lampinigan Island can only be reached by motorboat and took us almost an hour to cross the sea. Situated away from the mainland, a paradise kept secret for many years slowly unfolds its beauty on the horizon.

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Jagged rock formations refined by the continuous pounding of ocean waves faced our motorboat. Our boat tilted its course, facing a different seascape. Hectares of sand and glimmering waters in the sun with coconut trees towering to the sky.

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Lush vegetation that decorated these formations and turquoise blue water of the sea made a stark contrast on the scene — it made the place more of a lost paradise of Philippines. Untouched, the very definition popped into my head.

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I only love the beach and not the sun. But this time, it’s different. The island itself was inviting me to frolic on its waters. We’re the only tourist on the island. Though we had the island for ourselves and no influx of tourists, Lampinigan Island has a great potential that one day will put Basilan on the map of tourism.

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With limited time at our hands, we could only enjoy the island’s pristine waters and its exclusivity for an hour. With our boat, it took more than an hour to cruise to our next destination, Malamawi Island. And again, by far, one of the most beautiful island and beach I’ve been so far.

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The beach is devoid of visitors when we arrived, another exclusive place for me and my friends. The scorching sun made the sand glitter and brings out its radiance on the stretch of beach.

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We swam, we jumped, we dived, and we climbed from a gazebo in the middle of the sea with pillars partially submerged underwater that’s full of sharp barnacle shells. Upon climbing those pillars, we got cuts, scratches, and bruises on our skin.

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Past 3 PM, we left Malawi White Beach to catch the last trip to Zamboanga City. We rode habal-habal to the port for mainland Basilan. It took a 10-minute pump boat ride from the port to mainland Basilan. It’s almost sunset when our ferry left Basilan to Zamboanga City.

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It really is upsetting that only negative news about Basilan reaches the mainland, truly disheartening. There is so much to see and take in not only in the main island of Basilan but also in the surrounding islands. It’s time for people to associate the place with its wonderful scenery, delicious foods, and warm locals.

 

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