Zamboanga - A Very Special Love Affair
Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
"Sir Philip will you honour us by starting one of the regatta heats?" said one of my smiling hosts, as an Army officer released the safety catch on his sub machine gun and passed it to me.
To my rear an excited crowd lined the wall overlooking the beach in Zamboanga City, as dozens of traditional vinta boats bobbed in the crystal blue water ready for the off.
Around us another sea of blue swayed gently in the background, only this was the uniforms of hundreds of police, army and security officers, intermingled with the crowd like a complicated weave pattern.
It was 8am and I was smack bang in the middle of the 2018 Hermosa Festival in a region of the Philippines currently under martial law, and seemingly heralded as a ‘must avoid’ destination by everyone from the British Home Office to nervous Manila types further north.
But here I was being mobbed for selfies, interviewed for national TV and being treated with all the reverence of David Beckham at a Manchester United re-union, and all because I was a white European who had ignored best advice and made the effort to visit this most fascinating of places.
And it is a love affair that will stay in my heart for a long time to come.
The Zamboanga Peninsula in Southwest Philippines is Mindanao’s smallest region and its 958 islands and islets are ringed by the Sulu Sea to the north and west, with the Moro Gulf to the south.
"Sir, selfie?" I was jolted from my daydream as another crowd of well-wishers pulled out their smart phones and crowded round, eager to capture this pale-skinned peculiarity for posterity! Nearby, lots of weather-worn faces scarred by the efforts of a hard life, lined one side of a tiny trough, a mini gutter-like creation made from something resembling bamboo, but stretching in a straight line for hundreds of yards.
The clue was in the nearby promo banners. It was filled with tonnes of sardines ready for the Wow Sardinas Grand Boodle Fight, a peculiar type of feeding frenzy in the Philippines that begins with something equivalent to ‘go!’
Everyone pitches in for a feed, usually from banana leaves, avoiding the need for lots of washing up. Today it would be fiesta fingers into the sardine ‘gutter’ buffet, courtesy of the local canneries that operate out of the region, supplying much of the world’s canned fish.
Jollibee, the huge red mascot from the number one fast-food chain of the same name, danced on the beach with all his cartoon friends, as we were whisked off for a city tour, leaving crowds to cheer on camouflaged soldiers, complete with landing craft, assault rifles and helicopters, who were leading a mock beach rescue as part of the afternoon’s entertainment.
Three provinces and five cities make up the Zamboanga Peninsula which is in the heart of the Philippines’ so-called ‘terrorist’ country, however, I had already lost track of all the acronyms representing the various militias that are known to operate, in varying degrees, across the largely Muslim area of Mindanao. Understanding what each of them wanted was an even bigger challenge!
A smiling soldier waved me onto the mini bus, muttering some words in Chavacano to one of his colleagues. The dialect is heavily influenced by Spanish settlers who occupied the Philippines for more than 300 years and, for a moment, I might have been in Madrid.
Later, as we walked around the city centre I continued to be a curiosity to passers-by but, despite my new found fame, was able to marvel at Fort Pilar, constructed in 1635 but still connecting the city to its Spanish imperialistic past, as well as the majesty of the century old City Hall in this bustling city where a good guide is a must and a sense of adventure a prerequisite.
The Zamboanga Hermosa Festival is an annual October bash lasting a fortnight and held in honour of the patroness of the city of Zamboanga, Our Lady of the Pillar. The Zamboanguenos are known for their fervent devotion to this lady icon, better known to them as Nuestra Senora La Virgen del Pilar, and the annual city parade and street dance competition in her honour is something to be witnessed before you shed your mortal coil!
City tour over we were bundled back into the mini bus once more. The drone of the engine mumbled on and it didn’t take long for me to fall into a deep sleep lodged against my inflatable neck cushion. After a while, the vehicle braked and I was jolted out of my slumber still gripping the bag containing a towel, sun cream and my trusty Beau Geste hat complete with French Legion style neck protector.
We were at the entry point to the Once Isles, a new eco-cultural tourism attraction composed of 11 islands, four of which are open to tourists; Bisaya-Bisaya, Sirommon, Baung-Baung and Buh-Buh. Little did I know that God was about to give me his greatest gift; an early trip to Paradise!
Filipinos are slowly waking up to the fact that their country’s wealth is in its environment. It is a region of exceptional beauty and the Philippines really is home to those holiday catalogue backdrops; after all they have more than 7,100 islands to choose from!
The Once Isles are stunningly beautiful and, thankfully, locals treasure and guard them with all the passion of a jealous lover, making sure that tourist visits are planned and that visitors are given a pre-brief in the barangay hall first so as to preserve this pristine environment, with its blue green waters, coconut trees, white sands and corals.
As the boat began its slow journey to Bisaya-Bisaya I pondered life. At that moment I realised how meaningless so many things were; consumerism, mobiles, PCs, irate clients, road-rage. THIS was life: beauty, serenity, calm. Surely this was man’s raison d’etre and the Once Isles were one of life’s true gifts from someone somewhere?
I thanked my God for his preview of Heaven knowing that there was just one more stunning visit ahead of us in Zamboanga Sibugay Province. We would soon be in Siay to celebrate the first World Migratory Bird Day.
“Nice bird, shame about the legs!” I thought about my dad’s attempt at humour and smiled at how politically incorrect he would have been in 2018 had he still been with us…… but, somehow, it didn’t really matter because today we would be seeing some nice birds but of the feathered variety!
As the minibus pulled into Siay bus station I was gobsmacked to witness hundreds of people waving flags. The PA system said it all. “They’re here, they’re here,” announced an excited voice. “Our VIP guests….and Sir Philip all the way from London, Yorkshire!” News of my national TV appearance had already reached the town even if the geography was a little skewed!
I was ushered to a long table and within minutes had been declared an honorary judge for a series of competitions taking place that afternoon but, whilst enjoying the exceptional welcome, I was still eager to visit the Sibugay Wetlands which serve as a stop over ground for thousands of migratory birds from across the world. However, that unique pleasure was being saved for the following morning.
Next day, as my Filipino friends gobbled down their traditional breakfast of rice, fried egg and some kind of meat, a waitress took pity on me as I pushed my lukewarm food to one side. “Sir, I will bring you some toast. You are English!” Manna from Heaven. Another blessing from the Lord above!
It was enough to sustain me for our return to Siay and the Sibugay Wetlands which, I was keen to see. It didn’t take long for, within an hour, I was part of a huge retinue of local ‘celebs’. There was the Mayor, a Congresswoman, officials from the Tourist Promotions Board and armed guards and we all piled into waiting boats as if they were the last vessels to be leaving the sinking Titanic. Nearby, dozens of local well-wishers waved us off like Conquistadores returning to the homeland.
It was a breath-taking journey to the ‘floating restaurant’ where we were to have lunch, through what seemed like miles of water, set against a backdrop of amazing, exotic looking birds, inlets, small boats, local communities and wetland greenery.
And what a lunch! Every conceivable type of fish you could imagine; crab, lobster and rice, always rice! There were the customary selfies and, lunch done, the homeward journey started to beckon.
“We love you Sir Philip,” I heard a solitary voice call from the quayside – maybe they had been paid - , “…and I love you,” I thought, unable to utter the words in all my British reserve but smiling and waving frantically, by way of compensation, as the skies opened and a monsoon downpour quickly soaked everyone to the skin.
Around me dozens of people waved continually as our boat cut through the water, heading back to the quayside for our minibus journey to Zamboanga Airport and ‘home’ to Manila.
The rain bounced relentlessly. Only God’s tears could have produced such a passionate downpour, I thought, but, lucky for me, no-one could see the salty tears of sadness running down my face, masked by the warm afternoon rain.
My wonderful love affair was coming to an end. It had lasted just six days and my mistress was Zamboanga, a complicated woman who had stolen a piece of my heart.
Less than a week ago my stomach had been churning as I landed at Zamboanga International Airport, not from the flight but from the naysayers who had been putting the fear of god into my soul.
“There are ‘spotters’ in Zamboanga who will inform kidnappers that a potentially lucrative white guy has arrived in town. You’ll fetch a good ransom.”
The Zamboanga Peninsula can be a challenging place and caution is always advised but, as is so often the case, the bad guys are in the minority, even though they do seem to get all the publicity!
Zamboanga is also a place of stunning beauty, wonderful people, kind hearts and a sense of welcome that is rarely witnessed.
And it has some amazing guides who will keep you safe and take those with a stomach for adventure, to some wonderful places.
I have an appointment in Zamboanga City. I am returning to collect the broken heart I left behind. The love affair continues.
Contacts: Errold Lim Bayona – Tour Operations Manager / Staff guide, iTravel Tourist Lane Company. www.itraveltouristlane.com firstname.lastname@example.org Facebook – Zamboanga iTravel Tourist Lane Tel:- +63 917 724 3199 / +6362 991 1174
Errold was a superb guide and locally well connected. His knowledge of the area was exemplary. He knew everyone, everywhere and never for a moment did I feel in danger. He will guide and signpost you to key people / organisations on the Zamboanga Peninsula for those wishing to go there.
Zamboanga - A Very Special Love Affair, 1st November 2018, 22:02 PM