Far, far Tawi-Tawi is home to many a peoples’ lifestyles and the numerous tongues spoken spontaneously there, the nuances and meanings of words often understood between diverse groups I must liken to fresh and marine waters rushing into the big ocean converging as frothy waves and twirls — forged mysteries between land and sea.
As the dense clouds receded from view, the group of islands, like floating plates on water reported to be of volcanic origin, began to grow larger before our eyes, turning deeper hues from our window. The plane began its descent on Tawi-Tawi’s Sanga-Sanga airport.
Our introduction to this island paradise Tawi-Tawi, originally called “Jawi-Jawi,” from the Malay word meaning “far, far” (or far away) was as dramatic as the group of islands is fraught with myth and legend.
Our excitement began to rise on clayish terra firma when we first experienced the island’s colors and sounds and the welcoming peoples’ speaking many tongues at the same time, mindful of the playful sound of repeated syllables of the names of places we encountered.
Perhaps, somewhere in that mythic past, this beauty and bounty must have been the result of the environment diwata’s magic hand spread over the four major islands of Tawi-Tawi: Bongao, Tawi-Tawi Island, Panglima Sugala and Tandubas, covering an area of 580.1 square miles to compose the third largest group of islands of the Sulu Archipelago originally peopled by the animist Sama group, majority of them Islamized today.
How ironic that the perceived “fear” for one’s safety might as well be for the better to preserve Tawi-Tawi’s bucolic charm comparable to the beauty and symmetry of, say, a python, but whose wild nature, more often than not, assures its survival.
While at this, we note the sad reality of Tawi-Tawi’s negative reputation brought on by the presence of terrorists in the jungles of neighboring Jolo known to kidnap their victims for steep ransoms.
But such fear was pushed away when my team, composed of Dr. Erlinda Kintanar Alburo of Cebu City, Karlo Antonio Galay David of Kidapawan City and myself from my second home, Iligan City, traveled for the first time to Tawi-Tawi aboard a Cebu Pacific Airbus flight 5J 841 from Zamboanga City.
The trip’s purpose was to give training to language and literature teachers at the Mindanao State University-Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography (MSU-TCTO) upon the invitation of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) dean Ann Wellms and chancellor Mary Joyce Guinto-Sali and, encouraged by its PR man, my former student and now taking up law at Cebu’s University of San Carlos, Datu Esma Mikee Maruhom.
During the first two days of our visit, the priority was the training of teachers to evaluate literary works by home-grown writers, the use of local languages in literature and of literary translation with materials from their own communities by home-grown writers around the Sulu archipelago.
Rich food choices
In between these academic duties, we sampled a variety of local dishes like mee goring (similar to Indonesia or Malaysia’s mie goring or bakmi goring), siyanglang, fried grated and powdered cassava, tiyula itum (black broth), steamed scorpion spider conch and mantis shrimp and native pastries collectively known as bangbang like daral and pitis and many more, their ingredients and manner of cooking closely linked with other Mindanao Moro groups and with our Southeast Asian neighbors especially in the use of coconut milk and local spices. A cup of coffee from local coffee beans, notably Robusta, packaged as Sug Kahawa, was something to remember as well.
During the daily ride from our hotel, Rachel’s Place, to the MSU-TCTO campus, one could take in with one breath the entire lush, wooded landscape, clear rivers, the irregularly-shaped Mount Bongao, the sight of people on the shore during low tide and the filtered, salty smell from a seemingly endless shoreline, interrupted only by the sight of boats moored beside houses on stilts — a tropical paradise that the environment-diwata must have blessed during a weak moment.
On the last day of our visit, we motored to the Batu-Batu Fish Port in Panglima Sugala, eight kilometers away from the capital Bongao and about a 30-minute drive from the MSU-TCTO campus. The group was headed by Chancellor Sali herself.
Tabuh by the sea
At the tabuh by the sea of garish colors and peoples from various ethno-linguistic groups in the afternoon, heat greeted us at Panglima Sagula’s Batu-Batu Fish Port. The municipality of Panglima Sagula is named after a local community leader, according to its mayor, Regie Sahali Generale.
The tabuh (Tausug for “marketplace”) at this fish port happens only every Friday, from 12 noon to five in the afternoon. A tabuh is as much the interactions between various groups during the barter of goods but for a few others today; the goods are paid in cash.
Beyond the unique set-up and the strangeness of it all, this age-old practice of barter — of rough estimates and honest transactions — had brought together the Sama Badjao, Sama Dileya, Tausug and settlers to exchange goods from land and sea — fish, clams, seashells, seaweed, octopus, sea urchin, sea anemone, eels, stingray, dried fish without salt to exchange with other merchandise and from farmers — charcoal, young coconuts, sugarcane, root crops, bananas, papayas, ginger, turmeric, sili, powdered cassava, gabi, nangka and a variety of native delicacies, often rice-based, some of the rice bought from Sabah and Malaysia: balangkay, boiled cassava, daral, pastil, butsi with sweetened, grated coconut and seaweed chips. Most of these local delicacies were later offered during merienda hosted by Mayor Generale.
Melting pot of languages
I made the rounds among the diverse groups of sellers and the bountiful harvests taking in the cacophony of many tongues along with my interpreters who code-switched from Cebuano, Tagalog, Sama and Tausug with so much ease that you’d think this was some other country I was at.
The interpreters were faculty members, some assigned to the MSU-TCTO Marine Science Museum like Nroshene “Sheng” Sanuddin; Rushaida “Anne” Muham and Ar-ar Ervy Halirin Ellema from the Office of the Chancellor; Ariel Bacol from CAS, and the first Chancellor of the MSU-TCTO, a Jama Mapun, Dr. Felimon Romero, head of the World Wide Fund of Tawi-Tawi.
During these whirlwind interviews, I had to often repeat some of my questions in English and in Cebuano because my academic interpreters would first give the scientific names of the marine produce, emphasizing the sp. (species), followed by their common names, or the local names of delicacies, spelled out.
One more difficulty was how to make the sellers who were Sama or Tausug stay put to answer questions.
Take fisherman Jamalali Pantalani who, as a sea-faring Sama Badjao, understood better and could speak Bahasa Indonesia or Bahasa Melayu than Cebuano or Tagalog. His body language through his toothy smile and piercing eyes against a sunburned face wanted me to rush my questions, his economic need more imperative over some silly interview.
He said he was about 37 years old, but was not certain about it since he and his people, he said, the voice a decibel higher (and the interpreter translating as), “They/we don’t have birth certificates.” Jamalali hails from Belatan, in the municipality of Sapa-Sapa, a four-hour boat trip from Batu-Batu. He claimed that he started to fish at 13 years old and that he comes from a family of fisher folk.
There was, however, no more opportunity to follow through Jamalali’s replies because he suddenly took French leave, much to my surprise, such was also practiced in this far-off island.
Where lapu-lapu is cheap
At the tabuh, some of the goods for sale were bung or golden rabbitfish (Siganus gutattus), bukan or anchor tuskfish (Choerodon anchorago) and pasingco (Plectorhinchus lineata). Lapu-lapu, a grouper (Epinephelus, sp.) is pricey in other places but cheap and ordinary fare in Tawi-Tawi.
A bunch of fish we estimated to be about three kilos was being sold for P150. On the other hand, Romero, who supplied the scientific names of the fish for sale, dipped his hand into a basin of the meat from giant clams (Tridacna gigas), species that is considered vulnerable to endangered. Indigenous peoples are exempted from penalties if they gather these, according to Romero, because “it is traditional food and a source of income for the IP.” Romero then held up the meat from a giant clam and thumbed out its white knob or adductor muscle that he said allows the giant clam to open and close its shell.
“The Chinese consider it an aphrodisiac,” he added.
Within those precious two hours, my capsulized glimpse of the centuries-old barter of marine and agricultural products and other merchandise between the Sama, Tausug and residents from the surrounding islands was one memorable discovery as an accidental tourist.
Editor’s note: The author, Christine F. Godinez Ortega, is a poet, fictionist and critic. She has authored, singly or with others, books on literature. She retired as professor of Literature and Creative Writing and as director of the Office of Information and Publication of the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT). She was head of the National Commission for Culture and Arts National Committee on Literary Arts and was secretary of the NCCA Subcommission on the Arts. At present, she is director of the Iligan National Writers Workshop, president of the Mindanao Creative Writers Group (MCWG) and the MCWG-Multi-Media Arm and is International Liaison of the MSU-IIT resident theatre group, the IPAG. In between her lectures around Mindanao, she writes her second novel, a romance.
The 39-year old photographer Abduljim B. “Jimjim” Hassan II finished a degree in Marine Biology. He works as a University Research Associate at the MSU-TCTO.