Embrace the unknown

Jojie alcantara at sunrise in Tawi Tawi  © Karlos Manlupig

Me at sunrise in Tawi Tawi © Karlos Manlupig

“Too many of us are hung up on what we don’t have, can’t have, or won’t ever have. We spend too much energy being down, when we could use that same energy – if not less of it – doing, or at least trying to do, some of the things we really want to do.” ~ Terry McMillan, From Disappearing Acts

I’ve been dying to visit Tawi-Tawi for a long time.  Cloaked by many intriguing and fearful stories of armed abduction and sea pirates, its beauty has remain inaccessible to tourists due to its proximity to peace-conflicted provinces and stories that the unforgiving media carries out to the world.

Finally, I had the opportunity to reach the southernmost farthest islands in my country (in 2012). Braver bloggers have journeyed to these distant specks before. I merely affirm their statements of wonder and dispel the myth that surrounds Tawi-Tawi.

It did not disappoint, and gave even more breathtaking surprises in the offing.  (read: more memorable photos to come, I swear)

I reluctantly came with a light baggage for the first time — sans DSLR, laptop and tripod (trying to protect my gears, my source of livelihood? Har.) — and opted to shoot with my small handy (waterproof, may I add) cameras and a cellphone (yes, any photographer would twitch at that).

I wanted to come as inconspicuous as possible, without a trace of “media” in neon lights on my forehead, so I can blend in with the locals.  The precautionary measures were all for naught.

Pre-departure scenery by Jojie Alcantara

Cellphone shot of pre-departure scenery by Jojie Alcantara

Scenario?  Flights were always booked, the pre-departure area was jampacked (I had a connecting flight from Davao to Zamboanga to Tawi-Tawi, an hour each). There were many tourists carrying DSLRs. Lastly, I came with three media men – my magazine editor, and two other news photojournalists with big cameras in tow.  With one of us standing at six feet 3 inches tall, who speaks Bahasa Malay fluently that would make him sound like a foreigner, that would make us as invisible as the Cirque du Soleil barging into town.

We stayed for three days with a warm welcome right from the airport (imagine two pretty costumed girls waving special leis made of shells over our heads).  We came in on the same flight as the Governor, hence the sight of armed men around the area. Later we met him with his amiable wife, who happens to be the chairperson of the Tawi-Tawi Tourism Council.

Jojie Alcantara in Panam Pangan Island

Me in Panam Pangan Island

We soaked in the sun for hours on an island hopping jaunt that ended with a dive in the cool, breathtaking waters of the untouched Panam Pangan Island. We ate delightful Malaysian dishes in the market, influenced by its proximity to Malaysia.

Badjao weaver by Jojie Alcantara

Badjao weaver by Jojie Alcantara

We journeyed inside the Badjao village, walking nimbly on delicate and worn out footbridges that are times rickety, other times dangerously missing by a few planks.  I got to capture the setting of the sun from one angle in our resort, and woke up in time to catch the stunning sunrise on the other side of the same resort! (photos supplied later)

This is just the tip of my story, and I believe it will come in a series, knowing my penchant for details.

Jojie Alcantara in Sandbar Lepa Resort, Tawi Tawi

Me in Sandbar Lepa Resort, Tawi Tawi

Like I said, without my usual tripod and Canon camera, I couldn’t get my trademark self-portrait without help from my companions.  The main sunrise photo above was shot where we were heartily accommodated, in Sandbar Resort (owned by the Governor’s wife).  I asked my fellow photojournalist to take this shot of me, as I took a candid shot of him as well below.

Silhouette of a photojournalist by Jojie Alcantara

Silhouette of photojournalist Karlos M. by Jojie Alcantara

Tawi-Tawi is an island province southernmost of the Philippines, located in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and sharing sea borders with the Malaysian State of Sabah and the Indonesian East Kalimantan province.  To the northeast lies the province of Sulu and to the west is Sabah in Malaysia, which one can visibly see on a clear day from its highest peak, Bud Bongao.  Tawi-Tawi also covers some islands in the Sulu Sea to the northwest, the Cagayan de Tawi-Tawi Island and the Turtle Islands, just 20 kilometers away from Sabah.  The capital is Bongao.

Previously part of the province of Sulu, and which became a new separate province in 1973, Tawi-Tawi is said to be a derivative from the Malay word “jauh”, meaning far, hence a repeat of “jaui-jaui” would mean ‘far away’.

Indeed, I even brought my passport for when I have this urge to ride the backdoor fast craft to Sabah. (It’s P3,000 pesos, roughly $75, for a one-way 3-hour ride)

More stories and images to come.

Thanks, Cebu Pacific, Tourism Office of Tawi-Tawi, Ms. Salvacion Pescadera, and Gov. Sadikul and First Lady Juana Sahali.