Lauren and I arrived back at Cotabato City from Sultan Kudarat a little past four in the afternoon. Missing the last trip to Pagadian, the dispatcher at the van terminal still insists that we reserve for the first trip the next day. I saw no reason for doing that since there's going to be many trips scheduled for the next day. So as we proceed to Plan B - which is to rendezvous with a fellow traveler Dennis, who was staying at a nearby budget hotel, dozens of people surrounded us, each pointing to either of the two van terminals, all wanting us to book tickets to a trip ain't happening that day. I told them we're not going anywhere since there are no more trips. "Pay now for tomorrow's trip" one of em said. I keep on politely rejecting them. All of them are after the commission in exchange for bringing passenger(s), since the two terminals aren't just in a friendly business competition with each other. They were operated by two different tribes.
It was the only part of the trip that seems like a downer moment for me. For a moment I expect someone to rob us in broad daylight. With all the pre-conceived notion of Cotabato City, I was guilty of expecting the worse that time. None happened, as the most eager bystander who was egging us to purchase a ticket, realizing the futility of the situation, just cooled down and offered us a brazen smile simply saying "sayang commission", and I then understand why they all went semi-berserk, sensing an opportunity to cash in at the sight of two travelers who seems lost and pissed that the last van have left them.
We saw Dennis at the lobby of Diamond hotel. We decided to share a room all-together and told us about his friend's invitation to have dinner later in the night. In the evening, we met up with Dennis' friend Jaffar and a couple of radio hosts and reporters at Happy FM, the number 1 radio station in Cotabato City. One of the DJ, the very engaging Nicky 'The Music Monster' told us about an island where an independent movie titled "Qiyamah" was shot. The title of the movie is an Islamic term which suggests the day of the Apocalypse. The movie's plot involves a community in rural Maguindanao waking up at the sun rising from the West, which is according to Islamic belief, signals the Apocalypse. That island is called "Bongo". An ancestral land of the Muslims since the early 16th century, when Sharif Kabungsuwan, the first Sultan of Maguindanao and the man credited for converting the people of Mindano to Islam, briefly set-up base here.
After Nicky's suggestion came a slew of stern warnings about how we should do about with the trip. Sam Sali, an esteemed reporter who have a lot of connections around Maguindanao suggested we make arrangements with the Vice Mayor of Parang, who owns a guest house at the island. While they go about it we had dinner at Alibaba - a popular halal restaurant in the city. The woman seated at the next table turns out to be a relative of Jaffar, upon hearing where we were staying, the woman warned us because, according to her, three people were gunned down recently, just in front of the hotel where we're staying for the night.
The next day, true to the promise of a free boat ride provided by the Vice Mayor of Parang, we found ourselves huddled together threading over the sweeping waters of Rio Grande river. We waited until our boat reaches the far bend of the river as it meet Ilana Bay within the waters of Moro Gulf and Celebes Sea. After coming out of the mouth of the river, We threw some coins into the water as a traditional practice expressing a sign of respect. From a far distant, we could see the Golden Mosque, even from afar it is still such an imposing presence, in the middle of nowhere beside Timako Hill.
We were told that a lot of people are afraid to even think about going to Bongo Island. The reason why we're going there with the Vice Mayor's right hand man and a couple of locals signifies a vast regard for our safety. For a few seconds I entertained the thought of being blindfolded, gagged, kneeling down and facing a video camera, mumbling words while being shown at the country's TV news shows. As I update my Facebook status that we're heading to that island, a friend even commented "It's a headline waiting to happen, be careful".
But as the smiles of our new Muslim friends from Cotabato City, all of whom are also visiting the island for the first time, suggest anything but reasons to fear. The closer we get to the island, the more I feel like its just an ordinary island with settlers, feeling territorial and all we need to do is respect their territory and not come barging in like arrogant outsiders. The fact that we were going with the blessing of the Vice Mayor and some local community leaders, signifies respect. And I think that is all they ask for.
Upon docking I quickly realized the island is lacking even of the basic needs of the residents. At the side of the island where we landed, the houses have no working sewerage system, just a bare island with small houses perched a few feet from the beach. One of the locals warned us from stepping into "dynamites" (human waste). Poverty is the main characteristic of the island and I'm sure tourism is at the end of their wish list for income generation, being a self sustaining community the locals are into fishing and copra harvesting. Now, I understand why people are apprehensive of visiting the place. They were afraid to be perceived in a threatening way by the residents. I also felt the same way, until we came across a middle age man who greeted us with a cheery "As-salamu alaykum" and quickly ushered us to a nearby cave. He proudly told us that the cave have more unexplored chambers. After a while, we also saw an old woman by the beach, sorting the day's catch. She too was very friendly and welcoming. I told myself, some of the prevailing fear about the island is really unfounded. This is just like any other island I've visited in the past.
We transferred to the other side of the island to have lunch consisting of 'pastil' at the Vice Mayor's rest house. The caretaker told us anybody are welcome to visit the island and can stay at the rest house. The stares we encountered when we arrived soon turned into smiles, as little kids waved at us while we walked back towards our docked boat. Walking back and looking around, I realized that Bongo island will never be a place where travelers could go, as it is an ancestral settlement of our Muslim brothers and sisters. They have shunned modernity in favor of a simple life, this is their territory. But, once in a while, when outsiders leave their fear elsewhere and happen to venture into this side of the Moro Gulf, they will welcome you with a studying stare and a shy smile. Nothing threatening in any way, making you fear nothing but fear itself.
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