Islands in the Sun

Longtime development leader Karl M. Gaspar, CSsR, takes us to a picturesque sojourn down little-known Basilan, and ponders the island’s potentials to bloom sans the stigma of conflict.

            It couldn’t get any magical than this very moment.

             This moment refers to yours truly standing on the view-deck of M/V Stefani -  the slow boat that traverses between the ports of Zamboanga City and Isabela, Basilan – as I gaze at the magnificent sunset that words could never describe for its sheer, almost indescribable beauty. It is 5:30 in the afternoon and even as dark clouds hover across the horizon, the sun’s fading glory paints the sky with a full range of colors ranging from orange to purple, mirrored by the still waters of the Basilan Strait through which the boat advances towards the port.

             M/V Stefani glides down this Strait  which looks like a huge canal – far wider than the canals of Venice – separating the big island of Basilan with its capital city, Isabela,  from that of Malamaui which seems to float as hundreds of tiny huts on stilts dot the shoreline for more than a kilometer.  Malamaui’s backdrop are mountains and rolling hills planted to tall, swaying  coconut tress making this island looking like a movie set.

              As the boat approaches the Strait from the open sea at past 5:00 p.m., one is immediately thrilled at the sight of thick mangroves that sprout from the sea’s floor in the shallow waters surrounding both islands. Even as there is some fishing activity around this place with fishermen in a scattering of bancas trying to catch fish for family consumption, the whole scenery soothes the soul for its gentleness and grace. If only the boat proceeds without any sound, everything would be quiet and still from the placid waters to the wind-swept coasts.  One longs to listen to a Mozart or Beethoven piece while embracing the sight unfolding before one’s eyes.

            This sight shifts into a more crowded space when the boat is nearer the port after gliding down the strait for more than twenty minutes. There are now more noises including the sound of pump boats. But by then, at 5:30 p.m. the sunset goes on a high gear approaching the zenith of its magnificence.  The boat slows down as it manoeuvres towards where it can dock and the viewer is unimpeded in viewing this kaleidoscope of colors across the sky and on the waters where ripples are created as big, medium and small boats fight for space to cross the distance from the side of Isabela to that of Malamaui. 

            One can actually see the people in those boats; in the small ones, young boys seem to be having lots of fun testing how fast they can paddle in the waters.  In the medium-sized boats, there are young students in school uniform returning home from schools in Isabela.  In others are adults who might be working or shopping in the city and are now going home to rest.  On the other hand from the other side, farmers might be bringing harvested crops to be sold to the market in the city. All in all, there is heavy traffic in this strait.  (One may wish that a bridge be constructed between the two islands; but a traveller like me would wish otherwise, as this romantic sight will disappear).

            But alas, very few foreign tourists – especially Caucasians whose white skin can easily make them  stand out in this place where most citizens are tanned - will ever get to gaze at this magical sight.  For Basilan is not exactly Boracay, Bohol or Basco in Batanes even if there is this kind of sunset, which is one major reason to visit this place in the southernmost location in the Philippines.  Their governments will demand that they do not visit places like Basilan because of the threat of kidnapping.  But even among the urbanite Filipinos who yearn to explore exotic places in the archipelago will think thrice before embarking on a touristic visit to this place given its bad publicity. 

They imagine that as they enter Isabela, bombs are exploding, people are evacuating and the threat of being kidnapped is just around the corner!  Nothing can be further from the truth, as many local people would attest to.  Of course, in the past there have been trouble; and even on these days, one cannot be absolutely sure that no  untoward incident – especially violent ones created by the armed encounters of the military and the rebels  – would take place in the streets of Isabela.  After all, even the “safest” cities of Paris, Brussels, New York and Bali have had their share of violent incidents.

If one were adventurous and will tread where even the brave dare not go, Basilan offers its own brand of excitement for both foreign and local tourists. After all, this island boasts of so many cultures: Yakan, Tausog, the various Sama communities  and that of the migrant settlers. There is now a circumferential cement road around the entire island;  one can drive through the highways even at night, except of course the more isolated ones where there are no longer military checkpoints!  Fish and seafood are  plentiful and cheap. For those avoiding meat but have not become fully vegans, Basilan offers such bounty from the sea as fishing remains lucrative. It has also become self-reliant in terms of available vegetables. Before, they relied from the Zamboanga markets; this changed after the Zamboanga siege when no supply of vegetables came to Basilan.

One can walk around the city which is not yet polluted or beset with traffic woes.  There are interesting spots one may visit.  Start with the cathedral built when the Claretian missionaries began their evangelization work in this island; inside the church is a rare mosaic done by a Spanish artist which is, in itself, some kind of a  penteminto because underneath it was an original oil painting. Nearby is the imposing Capitol whose architecture mimics a huge mosque.  There is an interesting memorial right at the entrance of the city’s Catholic Formation House with its reminder of past violence. The bishop’s house on the hill is also worth exploring as it provides a panoramic view of the Basilan Strait. Visit the weaving and crafts centers where the famous Yakan cloth thrives in all its colorful splendor. See also the mats woven by the Sama women.  These make for much appreciated pasalubong.

There are beaches galore; start with a white sand beach at Malamaui.  Around Basilan are numerous islets – mostly unexplored.  And they have kept their original indigenous names that have lasted for centuries: these are the islands in the sun named - Tamuk, Kamluan, Lanhil, Bubuan, Linawan, Saluping, Tapiantana, Balukbaluk and the Isla de Linungan.  To the east some of these islands face the Sulawesi Sea, the others towards the Sulu Sea. There is even the Pilas island (sounds like Perlas island) which is part of the municipality of Hajimutamad named because there are shells in this island that actually have pearls! 

Speaking of names, various towns and barangays of the island have the most interesting names: Omosmarat, Bojelebung, Halabangao, Bulibuli, Binambingan, Pangasahan, Tiputipu, Bulingan, Bohesegag, Busay and Yacan (naturally as the indigenous people of this islands are Yakans).

But for all these plus factors that should make Basilan a top tourist draw, there is a major drawback!  And this has caused such a big problem for the citizenry and its local government units.  For all the campaign of the Department of Tourism to invite visitors to come to this beautiful island, there will only be a few takers, if any at all, if the Abu Sayaff is not flushed out of this island.  The threat posed by this terrorist group cannot be underestimated, even as today President Rody Duterte and the State’s military arm are doing their best to end their terroristic acts of attacking communities and kidnapping, including the barbaric cutting of the heads of those kidnapped if the ransom is not delivered.

Imagine what could happen to Basilan and all its islets if peace and order will finally return to this place.  Imagine how progressive it will become if the Abu Sayaff are gone.  Imagine how enjoyable it will be to explore the entire island of Basilan and all its islets which are just waiting for people to come and enjoy their beauty. 

If ever that imagined peaceful Basilan will come to pass, then every majestic sunset at dusk will always lead towards a sunrise the following morning when all of the Basilenos will wake up with joy and hope in their hearts. 

But for this moment, as I gaze at this magical sunset, I am delighted at such a display of awesome beauty but, at the same time, memories of past tragedies that lurk in the cupboards of my mind surface making me fear that the color of this sunset might as well be the blood shed by those victimized by the senseless war that has persisted for so long.