Still couldn't reconcile Basilan's beauty with the terror that engulfs the island. The kid on the right seems just as puzzled, but with me.
The mere mention of it almost immediately makes you think of the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. Basilan, after all, was where those kidnapped tourists from Dos Palmas Resort in 2001 were brought to and held captive for over a year (throughout that time frame some have escaped, others ransomed). Needless to say, a venture into Basilan is either an extremely far-fetched idea or a downright stupid one. Or maybe not.
Unwise and foolish as it may seem, I have always been intrigued with the island, especially during my first work-related trip to Zamboanga City back in 2001. Basilan is just 30 minutes away by fastcraft (Weesam Express was and is still servicing the area) and is in fact very visible from the city's Cawa-Cawa Boulevard.
I found myself back in the city in June of 2002 but with a colleague this time, and as luck would have it, someone from our local branch there hails from Basilan. Let's just call her "B." She invited us for a weekend day trip and said she was taking us to a beach with white sand. Game!
Definitely one of my most treasured photographs.
The moment we docked at the port of Isabela City, Basilan's capital, I felt a sudden gush of excitement. If it was fear, I wasn't really able to distinguish anymore. The port was modestly developed, bustling with activity--passengers arriving and another group waiting to board, various goods being unloaded from a barge, and kids nonchalantly jumping into the water.
B's siblings greeted us at the port and without delay took us for a quick ride around the city. Contrary to the perception of many--mine included--it was just like any other town, with banks and stores all over albeit simpler compared to most urbanized places of course. Life there seemed pretty normal and it sure was no ghost town at all. We also passed by a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes prominently displayed by the city hall. All the while I thought it was a Muslim-dominated area but I was wrong.
I couldn't help but notice Isabela's lush vegetation, which was more evident outside the city center. We soon made a left towards a perfect morning scenery of a damp dirt road lined on both sides by trees and bushes still wet from the early morning dew, birds chriping, and with the sun peering through the canopy.
The occasional sight of military trucks passing by stood in contrast to the otherwise serene setting. We drove by barbed wire fences enclosing what used to be a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) camp that has since been taken over by the Philippine Armed Forces. This was where Filipino and American troops of the RP-US Balikatan military exercises held camp then. I must acknowledge that this ongoing military exercise at the time lent me some courage. Somehow I thought the Abu Sayyaf won't be doing any outrageous stuff while the American G.I.s were around, so I felt safe.
The road led to Fuego-Fuego Beach, which, ironically had no beach but huge boulders and stones. Mangroves were likewise abundant in the area. On one side was a barge being loaded with food and supplies for the Balikatan troops. Clad in running shorts with firearms in tow, the Americans on guard were friendly and courteous to us. And as if trying to prove its worth as a beach, there were also a couple of cottages, eateries and sari-sari stores. So yes, people do come here.
Enjoying one of the overwater day cottages.
G.I. Joes on guard.
Military vehicles in the background, and on the far end you'll see the barge I mentioned earlier.
We had breakfast at B's family home where I was especially smitted by their mangoes. I never thought Basilan offered such a sweet variety. I also enjoyed the cucumbers with yellow peeling.
Up next was the main attraction of our little trip: Malamawi Island. We took a 5-minute boat ride then hopped on a repurposed dump truck that served as a passenger utility vehicle. There was no roof, which added to all the fun, especially when we had to dodge branches, twigs and leaves that occasionally attempted to slap us.
When we came to a halt, I immediately jumped off and rushed to the beach. As B promised, it had white sand. For a while I forgot I was in Basilan. Glistening in the midday sun, the water was pristine and very inviting. The shoreline, on the other hand, was unpretentiously littered with dried coconut leaves, giving it a rustic and natural look. Locals simply call this place White Beach.
Monkey on the beach.
There were no resorts, toilets, or any other such facilities around although you'll see remnants of an old cottage, traces of bermuda grass and ornamental plants, and a run-down toilet where we changed clothes. Clearly, this place used to be something.
Enjoying the clear Basilan waters.
I sure didn't want to leave.
Time went by fast and soon enough we needed to head back to Zamboanga. There are more beaches and other attractions like waterfalls around Basilan but it was a lot of ground to cover for so limited a time. Moreover, in spite of our derring-do, our security remained a primary concern and Isabela was probably the safest that we can go.
It's been almost 12 years since that day and there are times when I wish I could go back. Unfortunately due to the uncertainty of the peace and order situation there, I don't think I'll ever get the chance to visit Basilan again. At least I did so once and I have memories and photographs to hold on to.