Zamboanga City Travel Diary
“You’re going to Zamboanga? Isn’t it dangerous there?”
It was a common response from people when I told them I was going to Zamboanga City. I was a little worried too, because of all the news I read in the past, and well, because of how others reacted from my said declaration.
But I overreacted.
The truth is that Zamboanga is a little more than complicated than how it is portrayed in the media. I was able to ride public transportation, and walk around the city on my own without a hitch. I walked around its malls and parks, and found my favorite café (because it probably was the only one there) without fearing for my safety.
Of course Zamboanga has its share of problems too, that I would admit. In the pueblo—the city center—the streets were filled with beggars. It felt a little too crowded too, though that didn’t really bother me since crowds make for perfect conditions to shoot street photography.
Then there’s Rio Hondo. Infamous for its Muslim community, it is often portrayed as a dangerous place. Gamz Hassan guided me around the area, and showed me around the community and told me how its reputation as a crime hotspot in the 1980s sadly persists to this day. Maybe because many of the stilt houses look run down, or that the wooden alleys were narrow and many needed to be repaired for everyone’s safety.
Many things have changed for the better, he told me. Today, Rio Hondo is home to some 20,000 residents 60% of whom are ethnic Tausugs and 20% Badjaos. Majority of the people make a living out of seaweed farming and fishing, while some from selling charcoal made of wood or coconut shells.
Despite its reputation and its atmosphere, the people I met there looked genuinely happy. Many smiled at me, while the shy ones retreated when I smiled at them. I found many Muslims undeserving of the beliefs other people have towards them. I found it evident in the way they treated their brothers in faith, and especially towards me, a total stranger.
A day after going to Rio Hondo, I went to Taluksangay along with Aming Ahmad, a guide from Gamz’ team. The barangay east of Zamboanga City is better known for its mosque, considered among the oldest in the region. But I decided to go somewhere else. With Aming, I entered Tawi-tawi Village, without any prior invitation or announcement. Nevertheless, people warmly welcomed us there, particularly a woman named Jum Hassan (not related to Gamz). We entered the village’s narrow alleys, which ultimately led us to the edge of the river where Jum lived. Aming gave his customary greetings of peace, explained to Jum what we were doing there, and she promptly welcomed us with bottles of soda. We chatted about life there, how she came there from a nearby island some 38 years ago, and how she made a home there with her family. Her grand children initially looked at me with curiosity, but they eventually turned to their cheeky selves after they warmed up to my presence. People are people. Kids are kids.
Aming and I thanked Jum for the welcome, and we proceeded further into the village. There we found people drying seaweeds, which they would sell later on. Alex, one of the seaweed farmers, gave me background on their farming techniques: they first introduce seedlings into the sea, where it takes a month for seaweeds to grow. When harvesting, they leave some seaweeds behind, so they could be cultivated later on. The harvested seaweeds are then dried for two days on a sunny day, or a week during the rainy season. Once completely dried, they would then sell it for 12 Pesos per kilo.
We also went to the floating village in Taluksangay where a large population of Badjaos live. They are better known as sea gypsies who often beg for money in big cities. According to Gamz, Badjaos originally belonged to the lowest caste when the caste system still existed in pre-Hispanic Philippines. Thus, the persistence, he said, of their low regard towards themselves.
But seeing them in their homes was a completely different experience. Many gave me shy smiles, others a slight nod when I greeted them a good day. Then there were the kids who trooped towards me when they saw me carrying a camera. Nobody begged me for money.
We returned to the pueblo just before lunch. Aming asked me if I wanted to try tula itum, literally black soup. I was up for anything, so I said yes. We then headed to the central market, along a maze of narrow alleys and endless stalls selling anything from food to DVDs. Once Aming found the spot, he introduced me to his friends who owned the food stall, and ordered two bowls of soup and two cups of rice.
And was it black. And spicy. Aming told me that Muslims generally liked spicy foods, and I grunted with a spoonful of spicy rice in my mouth, and my forehead dripping with sweat. We then ordered another bowl of soup and another cup of rice to temper the spiciness down. When the bill came, it only amounted to just 90 Pesos–90 frigging, well-spent Pesos.
After lunch, Aming and I met Gamz outside one of the malls at the pueblo. En route, Aming told me that he wanted to go to Manila or Davao to seek his fortune as a singer. Go ahead, I encouraged him. And when I gave him a tip as thanks for being my guide, he refused it. He only relented when I told him that I was giving it because I wanted to be the first patron of his singing career. And that he shouldn’t forget me when he’s already famous. We laughed.
We finally met Gamz amidst the sea of mopeds. He then gave me a small souvenir of Zamboanga’s better-known icons–the vinta. It might have been small, but it left a profound impact on me and on how I looked at Zamboanga from then on.
Two things stuck with me as I returned to my hotel room in Zamboanga: the brotherhood and the hospitality. All it took was a simple, “As-salamu alaykum” for two Muslim strangers to be well-acquainted enough to let one welcome the other to his home. But as with the other things I’ve seen and heard around the city, and as with Zamboanga City itself, it’s probably more a little more complicated than that.
Thanks to Journeying James and Doc Wends Cagape for introducing Gamz to me.