The plane ride to Zamboanga was partly different from my previous travels: no overly excited, loud tourists taking selfies and no foreigners. I can tell that the passengers were mostly locals because they were speaking Chavacano, the city’s Spanish-based local dialect.
When the plane landed in Zamboanga, it meant many things for the group I was traveling with. For some, it was simply the wanderlust of visiting another place, of seeing the increasingly popular “Pink Beach,” some were just relieved to be as far away from Manila as possible even for just a while.
But for our friend Ramon, it meant coming home.
It has been five years since he left Zamboanga to work in Manila. He has been coming back briefly through the years, but this was the first time he was coming back with friends in tow. “Dito ako lumaki, syempre sanay ako. Pero first time ko magdala ng bisita from Manila. I’m worried na baka may mangyaring masama.” (I grew up here; that’s why I’m used to it. But it’s my first time to bring a visitor from Manila. I’m worried that something will go wrong.)
He could make a whole pitch about how his home is safe, but it is an entirely different experience to sell it to visitors, to be accountable for everything. Ultimately, it was up to us to vouch for the City. Tricycles were waiting for passengers outside the Zamboanga City International Airport. It is among the primary modes of transport in the city aside from jeepneys.
We were welcomed by Ramon’s mother and went straight for breakfast. The city’s urbanization is already visible. For one, the popular fast food chains are all there.
In 2013, forces from the Nur Misuari faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) occupied villages in Zamboanga City, resulting in a nearly three-week armed standoff between rebel fighters and the military. Up to 90 people were killed, and thousands were displaced in what the government called a state of humanitarian crisis. Diseases and starvation in evacuation centers killed nearly 200 people in the months that followed.
It has been two years since the siege and Zamboanga is back on its feet with grace. According to Ramon, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of local restaurants even after the siege — an indication that tourism is slowly booming again in the region. This year, another mall will finish its construction. I sensed no sign of political distress. Or maybe I was just a tourist who was looking at things very positively.
The Zamboanga City Hall stands at the center of the city, or the pueblo. You can easily feel the influence of Spanish culture from the way they call their famous landmarks. Located near the pueblo are the Paseo del Mar and Fort Pilar. Paseo del Mar houses restaurants by the shore such as Bar Code, Mano-Mano, Cafe Zambo and Distrito. Fort Pilar, on the other hand, is a military defence fortress built during the Spanish colonization period. These two landmarks are among the most famous in the city.
Being close to Malaysia, the food in Zamboanga is a fusion of various Asian taste. Their pride here is their famous Satti, a dish almost similar to Indonesia and Malaysia’s Satay: grilled meat served with heavy spicy sauce. Accompanying the meal is rice cooked inside woven coconut leaves.
If you have a sweet tooth, never leave Zamboanga without trying Knicker Bocker Glory: a combination of mixed fruits, milk and strawberry ice cream.
But among all food in Zamboanga, what was memorable for Ramon is the Pastil. Pastil is a local street food made of bihon (noodles) wrapped in dough (similar to empanada). Pastil is combined with cooked bihon and mixed with vinegar. The carbohydrate-filled streetfood is famous especially among students who need to survive with minimal allowance.A piece of Pastil costs 5 pesos. Two pieces are enough to fill one’s stomach.
“Pantawid gutom namin ‘yon no’ng college. Kapag wala kaming pera, magpa-Pastil kami,” Ramon recalled. (That’s how we would overcome hunger back in college. When we had no money, we would eat Pastil.)
On the third day of our trip, Ramon took us to Yakan Weaving Village where natives create meticulously handwoven textiles. There are a number of stores in the village which are selling products ranging from wallets, to bags, to table runners and even malongs.
The sense of community can easily be felt in the village. Some of my friends and I were trying to buy scarves from a store but the owner cannot understand Filipino or English. Without her requesting, another Yakan from a different store accommodated us and did a sales talk on the products of the woman who cannot speak Filipino.
We thought that it was also her store. Apparently, the Yakan who went to us was from a different store. She explained to us that some of the Yakans cannot speak Tagalog that is why they are helping each other. Without a doubt, the products at the Yakan Weaving Center are of export quality. It is ironic that most people picture Zamboanga as a dark, chaotic place, when it is a haven for colorful fabrics at the same time.
The Pink Beach
The original plan of our group was to go to Sta. Cruz Island, also known as the Pink Beach, as soon as we arrived in Zamboanga. For three days, we attempted to go to the island but the tourism office did not allow us because small boats cannot withstand the waves.
It was only on our fourth day when we were finally able to go to the island. The boat ride was not the most comfortable one. There was always the fear that the boat may flip due to the waves. There were no big boats. The life vests were old and not of the best quality. You can easily tell that tourism is new in the city. But what you compromise in comfort and convenience, you make up for by real experience.
This was also Ramon’s first trip to the Pink Beach. When he was still living in Zamboanga, the island was closed to public. Now it is open for visitors but access is limited to 200 per day to maintain the beauty of the island. That moment, Ramon felt like a tourist in his own hometown.
And as for us Manileños, words will never be enough to describe the beauty of the island. Before the trip, we looked for images of the beach on the internet but photos cannot ever capture the real beauty of the island. As we settled down in our cottage, locals of the island immediately approached us with baskets full of seafood: shrimp, snails, crabs and squid. We bought a bag of snails and another bag of squid. The locals cooked it for us.
After eating, we frolicked in the sand and sun. We acted like little children, running and laughing as if there was nobody else in the island. We dipped in the sea, forgetting that the sun was too high at eleven o’clock. Who would even notice that when you are enjoying the beauty of pink sand and pristine waters?
At around noontime, the boat arrived telling us to pack our things. The waves were becoming stronger again and we might not be able to return to the city that day if we leave at a later time.
The Simple Life
Up to now, Ramon cannot fathom the need for a war when issues could be solved in a peaceful manner. “It was a nonsensical war which took lives of innocent people. It did not just devastate buildings and infrastructures– it destroyed the dreams and the hopes of some Zamboangueños.”
He added that up to now, there are still internally displaced people who are struggling to bring their lives back to normal. But Zamboanga City tries its best to recover from the nightmare of their past. They are now more vigilant and alert, determined to no longer let anyone shatter what they are carefully rebuilding.
And Ramon knows that people in his hometown are doing their best to maintain peace and order.
Peace Is Subjective
After all, how do you define peace and order? I live in Metro Manila but I never really feel safe.
Being used to the noisy and busy life of Manila, I found peace in Zamboanga. Contrary to the common notion that Zamboanga is a place of war and distress, it is a city where you can learn to appreciate the smallest and simplest things; like how the sun sets in the bay area and how people you do not even know smile back at you. We were all tourists back there. We dressed, acted and spoke differently from the locals. One look and you know we are not from the city.
But I think that is what Zamboanga will give you. It will let you immerse into the life of the ordinary Zamboangueños. It will not alienate you and make you feel that you are different from the rest of its locals. I was glad to experience Asia’s Latin City, but I was even more glad for my friend Ramon, who can always call this beautiful city his home.
He now has five other people to vouch for his city.
[Entry 93, The SubSelfie Blog]
#TanawMindanao Part 4
Editor’s Note: Our brothers and sisters in Mindanao have always complained of isolation, and of being painted a negative image in the media. #TanawMindanao is a series of content dedicated to mainstream their issues, demystify their stories and show that we are all the same. They just have a harder battle to fight towards peace, and this is SubSelfie.com’s contribution to that effort.
Part 1 — The Siege of Zamboanga’s Youngsters
Part 2 — The Hope of Muslim Orphans
Part 3 — Lumads of Davao del Sur: Students without a School
About the Author:
Joshua Dalupang is a freelance photographer who spends his days as a corporate communications officer and his weekends on everything else: traveling, swimming, running, judo and taking photos while doing it all.