Sitangkai, Tawi Tawi; Perl of the South (Philippines)

Imagine 50,000 people living in houses on stilts on the reef, bridged only by wooden planks and manmade walkways. Imagine an islet less than 1 km square which the predominantly Muslim Sama and Bajau people chose to snub in favor of living on the water that is their life. Imagine a place that is practically the last digit island South of the Philippines and is as close to Sabah Malaysia as the main Bongao island of Tawi-Tawi. This is the glorious place of mystery called Sitangkai.


Getting to Sitangkai from Bongao, Tawi-Tawi is a three to and a half (3-3.5) hour boat ride. Upon getting off at the Tumindau pier, I strayed from our party as I caught this Madonna and Child by the deck. Having no time to change the settings of my camera, I took a prayer of a shot at low light. At 1/6 seconds, this is my slowest handheld shot ever. Except for some expected softness around the mother, the infant’s outline came out sharper than I could ever hope.

At Tumandau port, Sitangkai municipality, the Southernmost islands (of the country), Tawi-Tawi province, the ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao), or the "Pearl of the South", the Philippines.


The Bajau and Sama people of Tawi-Tawi are fearless boat people then and now who brave the turbulent straights of Malacca, Sulu and Celebes for hundreds of years. These traditional boats are made locally in the islands, particularly in Bongao and Sibutu. Made of hardwood cured and bent by smoking, they are a wonder to witness being manufactured (we were lucky to see how this is done in the traditional manual method by a singular man!!!) and manouvred in the ocean. What you see here are water taxis as seen from the boat that has to dock at an offshore pier in Tumindau, about 3 kilometers off Sitangkai island. Colorful and powerful, the boats are a source of pride for the people of Sulu.


This is the afternoon crowd which greeted us upon our arrival in Sitangkai. Our boat's arrival signals that there are new goods coming from the big island of Tawi-Tawi so a lot of people were in the center "street" picking up their relatives who arrived in the boat or shopping of whatever came with the boat.


The main thoroughfare in Sitangkai is a narrow waterway that is only about 20 feet wide. Business thrives most densely when the big ferry arrives from Bongao. When we turned up that day at around 4 in the afternoon, the water streets spilled with boats and the man-made causeways teemed with crowds. People simply gravitate towards this center of the town. Whether to gawk at passersby or to buy for their dinner (refrigerators are rare in the island which has no municipal electricity), the sea of faces was a warm familiar welcome to the urbanity in me.


There are only a few floating markets in Asia. One of the liveliest but least known of them is the one kilometer marine causeway at the main sea highway of Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi. From dry wares being peddled at the manmade strand to the fresh produce being brandished on the boats, the Sitangkai market is a riot that transports you to a totally different world.


Sitangkai Public Market Freshly caught - that was what they were. Sitangkai is in the basin of the Sulu Sea teeming with marine life. Being Muslim, the people of Tawi-Tawi rely on fish for protein. Beef is practically non-existent as the islands in Sitangkai are small. Goats and chicken are also few. But when you have a bounty of the sea right at your doorstep, you would not really miss terra firma meat.


This boy were waving the fish he most probably caught by himself. Life is hard in Sitangkai. As evidenced in his scabied knees and torn shirt, the poverty incidence is high, probably around 60%. While food may be abundantly at their doorstep, access to necessities in life is no easy matter.


The market reveals the soul of the community. It is not just a lifeline for nourishment, it is a throb of conversation, acquaintance and culture. The main thoroughfare of the island of Sitangkai is not of concrete or timber but a sea passage between manmade causeways. One can clearly know that a boat from the main island of Tawi-Tawi has docked, as automatically, the water market springs into action. Otherwise, the day becomes one of those times when sales are moribund and action is idle.

Let me tell you about the story of 5 "vicious" dogs. Notorious of having bitten at least 2 strangers, they scare everyone. The problem is, the bathroom is separated from the house and can only be accessed through the yard where these guard dogs roam.


There is one technique to chase them away though. Just shout "Tubig init!". When they were young, their owner used to splash them with hot water whenever they get too unruly, with an accompanying scream "Tubig init!" (Hot water!). Strange, funny but true. Pavlovian techniques work!

Rain water are used for cooking and there is no municipal district water distribution in sitangkai, water are collected from rain or imported from sibutu  island for drinking and bathing or even for laundry of clothes.


Pila na ba leleng layu-layu
Sitangkai ba leleng pa Sibutu
Bang kaw bunnal ba lelelng matuyu
Urul kaw ba leleng sampay mayu

How many  as dear far by far
Sitangkai as dear to sibutu
If you really as dear insist
Follow you as dear even/till(that) far

In the late 80s, a Cebuano folk singer had a monstrous hit, Baleleng. Up to now, the song remains popular and it was not until years later, when I first visited Sitangkai, that I realized that the strange dialect was Sama. The 2nd line above is the giveaway. It means Baleleng is going to Sitangkai from Sibutu. My mistake now was that I forgot to ask the full lyrics and translation of the traditional Sama folk song. Sometime soon I will.


I've been meaning to get a good picture of the jackfruit for the longest time. It is the favorite fruit of my brother who's been dreaming of this sweetest of yellow manna in the States. When in Sitangkai, from my 2nd floor vantage point, I spotted a vendor quartering the fruit, I knew I had to make this shot. As a bonus, the boy noticed me and gave me a knowing smile.


The Bajaus are the seafaring gypsies of Sulu. They are excellent boatbuilders and deep-sea divers. Like the Samal people, the Bajaus find it unimaginable to live on “enchanted” and “wild” land (kappat). The Sama however opt to live in real houses albeit on stilts by the reef. Taking the superstition to the extreame, most Bajaus prefer to live in houseboats (koboh). A telltale sign of the Bajao women is their affinity to wear a purung or scarf wound around their head.


It was past 7 in the morning and we were getting ready to survey Sibutu island. The scene that greeted me is entirely out of context for most Filipinos. Yes, morning scenes are busy everywhere. In Sitangkai however, where about 50,000 people live not on land but the reef, the traffic is not on land. Except for a man-made causeway, all roads are waterways. I don't think they have any name.


Stormy weather is the norm nowadays in Cebu. Wet, cold, dreary. I miss the sun and well, the heat even. I imagine that it is summer in the beach. Whether it is to dive into the waters or to watch the world go by, I long for that short period in March to May when there was a no-rain guarantee.

Sibutu an island adjacent to Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi, Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, the Philippines.

Upon docking in Barangay Tandu'banak, an Island of Sibutu adjacent to Sitangkai Municipality, the province of Tawi-Tawi, ARMM, Sulu archiepalago, Philippines.


Such a loss these baby sharks are. However in the sea culture of the Bajaus and Sama of Tawi-Tawi, sharks are their enemies at sea so the creatures become fodder to the people as well. Eye for an eye. No wonder then that the name they appellate to the shark is saitan as derived from Satan, the devil. The hunt for sharks in the islands is thankfully limited as the delicacy is only among the local Bajao and Sama populace.


The farming of the seaweed cottonii, Eucheuma striatum, began in the Philippines in the 1960s under the auspices of the University of Hawaii, USAID and Marine Colloids, a US carrageenan firm. However, mariculture started seriously only in 1973 when a cultivar was discovered by a Sitangkai farmer called Tambalang. This variety was later recognized as a totally different species (and genus) and renamed Kappaphycus alvarezii var. tambalang in honor of Mr. Vicente Alvarez, a biologist of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources who became the first Manager of Marine Colloids and Mr. Tambalang, the true pioneers of cottonii cultivation.

Masjid of Tandubanak
Probably the biggest mosque in Sibutu is the one in Tandubanak. Sporting a pink and green motif, it stands proudly along the narrow and singular road that bisects the island. Without any wide angle lens, it is difficult to capture the full breadth of the beautiful mosque so the next best alternative is to show how stately it soars above the wooden houses of stilts that are typical of Tawi-Tawi.

Sheikh Makhdum Memorial
The “other” claimant as the burial place of the Sheikh Makhdum, the founder of Islam in the Philippines, is Sibutu island. There, a colorful and still unfinished memorial in honor of the Sheikh now stands. Behind the memorial is the graveyard of the Sheikh which is just a plain marked mound of dirt, which according to local lore, is growing and rising over the years.

Another Barangay we visited is Ungus Ungus, situated still in Sibutu island, the municipality of Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi province, the ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao), Sulu archipelago.


I was on an open traditional temper boat when I took this shot. My subject of course was the sun-bleached cottonii seaweed being dried on the platform of this traditional house on stilts in Sibutu island. (This is an official business trip after all). The picturesque chance just presented itself: boards of attractive paint of teal over clear still waters at 8 early in the morning. The sun was not yet harsh and high so the reflections were long and lazy.


I really meant to document how seaweed is bleached and dried under the sun in Sibutu. Instead I got sidetracked by these pigeons feeding off the maggots squirming beneath the bed. It takes 2-3 days for freshly harvested seaweed at 90-93% water to dry to about 40%. Meantime, the cycle of life streams on: insects bear eggs on the wet succulent algae and birds feast over them.


It was high noon and the tide was ebbing. Families were harvesting the seaweed which they have cultivated for 45 days. The boat I was in literally crawled over the coralline reef. Navigating was most hard as the water was too low. What I remembered most was the most eerie feeling of silence. Except for the occasional swish made by the farmers the mirror sea was still.
Today, Philippines still leads in the red seaweed farming and carrageenan manufacturing in the world that is why our forefather named it as "Perlas ng Silanganan" or "Pearl of the South".


We were on our way back to Sitangkai from Sibutu island when the sky suddenly dimmed. It was high noon and the clouds descended obscuring the brightness. What happened next was strange- the heavens turned soft blue. Without any water movement, the horizon disappeared and the water and sky wed together and the horizon disappeared. This was exactly what I saw- surreal!


In our last afternoon in Sitangkai, we took on the boast that this local refreshment parlor has the best halo-halo in Tawi-Tawi (mixed fruits, beans, crushed ice, condensed milk, young coconut and ice cream- think of the Malay/Indonesia es kacang or es teller). The sundae was exceptionally delectable (the claim is true!). Most of all, the view from the second floor window directly over the floating fresh food market is enviable. No complaint could be heard from me as I took in all the sights. I am a Filipino who travels more than the next guy but what I experienced cannot be more exotic and surreal.

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