I found beauty in Sulu

Posted at 07/02/2012 7:54 PM | Updated as of 07/03/2012 1:56 AM
Boracay? No, this is a spot off the coast of Maimbung, Sulu.

SULU, Philippines - Cumulus clouds that look like fluffy cotton candy hanging on a bright blue sky on the horizon took my mind off from the roar of the boat’s engine. The boat cast a shadow on the sea bed as we slowed down on the 4-feet-deep water over a sunken sand bar which was just a kilometer away from the shores of Maimbung town.

I had never looked at Sulu this way. I never thought I would; it never even crossed my mind. It’s usually the horror stories of kidnapping and fierce fighting between military troops and Moro rebels that breeze through my thoughts whenever Sulu becomes a topic of conversation.

ABS-CBN sent us here to cover the kidnapping of a Jordanian journalist. Baker Abdullah Atyani of the Dubai-based Al Arabiya network and his two Filipino crew were reported missing last June 12. Last week, the national government and the Jordanian government said he was being held captive by the Abu Sayyaff group.

But as soon as I got off the boat and took a step on the floating raft over the sunken sand bar, the fearsome image of Sulu was cleared by the cool breeze of the sea that blew on my face and hair. As I looked down on the water, a school of small fish was trying to give me a showdown as they clowned around star fishes lying on the sea bed. For a moment, I thought I was in another place.

Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan shows off the beauty of his province as he takes a ride on his jet ski.

Sulu Governor Sakur Tan chuckled when I told him that this scene was similar to what I had seen in Surigao, Mindoro, Boracay, Bohol, Cebu, Palawan or Ilocos.

“Ang daming magandang beach at lugar dito sa amin, pero di naman nakikita ng mga tao,” said the Governor, while putting on our lunch table a tray of “curacha” (deep-sea crabs) weighing more than a kilo each the size of a watermelon. Other sumptuous dishes included grilled fish with heads as big as a tennis racquet, shredded green mangoes, grilled squid bigger than a size-12 slipper, and boiled turtle eggs, a Tausug staple.

Sulu vs Boracay

I can understand the Governor’s frustration: theirs is a province which has not seen a single page of good publicity because of the peace and order situation, despite the beauty the place has to offer.

Sulu has coral beaches and unspoiled white-sand beaches that can outdo the shores of Boracay for their pristine quality, mountain ridges that await climbers, and dive sites that offer a diverse marine life.

The 2nd and 3rd Marine Brigades are on the island of Jolo, and they have been exploring the island via mountain climbing and diving.

“Ibang klase ang dive sites dito, buhay na buhay ang mga coral,” said Marine Col. Martin Pinto, 3rd Marine Brigade’s Deputy Commander, a diver who has had the rare chance of exploring the waters of Sulu Sea.

Pinto can talk all day describing his diving experience in Sulu Sea, which can be the envy of so many divers. A coffee-table book lays out in full color not only the sights and the places to see, but also the diversity of the flora and fauna of the islands of Sulu.

Surprisingly, the photographs were taken by a Marine, Lt. Col. Bimbo Quemado, the Deputy Commander of Task Force Sulu. Quemado is not a newcomer to this island since he has seen many battles in Sulu. But as we talked, his eyes and his thoughts were on the beauty of this place.

ABS-CBN News cameraman Gani Taoatao enjoying the marine life in the sunken sand bar off the coast of  Maimbung, Sulu .

Focus on livelihood

The local government knows that the Sulu experience is still difficult to sell because of the banditry being committed by a few residents.

“Kaya ang focus namin ngayon ay kung paano mapaunlad ang hanapbuhay ng mga tao dito,” said Governor Tan.

The island of Jolo teems with produce: high-value commodities like abaca fiber, copra, coffee, plus the bountiful seafood that the Sulu Sea provides.

From downtown Jolo to the town of Panglima Estino, both sides of the road are lined with coffee trees that are grown organically.

It’s also quite a sight to see rows of fruit-bearing trees like lime (dayap), calamansi, bananas, lanzones, durian and marang. I had to ask twice just to check if I heard it right after the guy at the cooperative store in the provincial capitol told me that a kilo of ground-roast coffee costs a mere P180 per kilo!

“Dati, ang damo sa gilid ng kalsada dito kasing taas ko,” said Edgar Soberano, a long-time cameraman of ABS-CBN's Regional Network Group (RNG) in Zamboanga who has covered news in this island since 1993.

Edgar moved to the ABS-CBN headquarters in Manila two years ago, and was sent with me to cover this latest high-profile abduction.

Wishing for tourists

Another veteran cameraman of ABS-CBN, Val Cuenca, who now heads ABS-CBN's Digital News Group Department, is a testament to the brutal life that this place has gone through.

Tausug children enjoying the sun while in the pristine waters of Sulu Sea in Maimbung, Sulu.

“Walang sementadong kalsada dito noon at halos bawat kilometro, may mga checkpoint ng militar,” said Val.

Val has seen action in the frontlines here since 1990, covering fierce battles between the Philippine military and the then secessionist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

In June 2000, Val was kidnapped, along with ABS-CBN reporter Maan Macapagal, by the Abu Sayyaf. He returned to this island in 2007 for a quick news coverage on the death of Abu Sayyaf leader Khadaffi Janjalani.

It's only during this coverage, 12 years after they were kidnapped, that he has been able to roam around the island.

Val tried the jet ski, gliding on the waters of Maimbung at 70 kilometers per hour. He enjoyed the ride which he had never done before on this island. As the jet ski roared past the raft where we were on, I glanced at Governor Tan who was sitting next to me. He grinned as sea water splashed on us. He said, “Sana puro turista na lang pumupunta dito."

As the cumulus clouds on the horizon grew bigger on the bright blue sky, I stood up, walked to the edge of the raft to take take my turn on the jet-ski ride. And as I took the ride, gripped the handle bar and pressed the lever to speed up the machine and glide on the pristine waters, I was convinced that there’s beauty in Sulu.