Mindanao—the second largest island in, down south of the republic…very far yet so close to my heart. For most of the urbanites, it is a place that most should avoid because of adjectives associated with it: war-torn, poverty-stricken and home of the “terrorists.” Indeed, the notion of the island has evaded so many people to visit this great island in the south. However, in my own perspective, we have to take a second look onto this island. Mindanao has so much to offer, so much to see, so much to experience yet so neglected and feared by many.
Mindanao was (and for some, still is) “The Wild West” of the Philippines, as what they said–a tapestry of stories of three seemingly opposite cultures, vastly still unexplored and full of potential.
In “El Pueblo,” as the local Zamboangueños call their city center or downtown, is an edifice that is synonymous to the city and perhaps throughout the history of Mindanao. The Zamboanga City Hall stands majestic amidst the well-groomed parks of Plaza Pershing (named after the American general John “Black Jack” Pershing) and Plaza Rizal. The edifice itself became Mindanao and Sulu’s bastion of power (the capital city) for several years during the American colonial era, making Ciudad de Zamboanga the capital of the whole southern islands itself!
We already know about Pampanga’s exquisite yet exotic cuisine, the Ilonggo’s love affair with seafood and broth-based food, and Bicolanos’ penchant for anything chili and coconut milk or gata. However, there is one city in the Philippines that may have been overlooked (or perhaps evaded out of “fear of Mindanao”) when it comes to culinary traditions and tours—Zamboanga City.
Well, most people tend to associate Zamboanga City with its yummy lobster or coconut crab called “curacha” (I confess, I am a fan of it!) and Salsa Alavar, a coconut-based gravy with some secret spices on it, perfect for any seafood meals such as crab, shrimp or yes—the ever present curacha. But there is more to Zamboanga City than just curacha, Alavar’s, and sweet Zambo Rolls. Given its very cosmopolitan heritage, it is indeed a melting pot of cultures. Food here is virtually influenced anywhere from Spanish, American, Chinese, Tausug, Malay and others. The food itself is the mirror of Zamboanga’s mixed concoction of peoples from different parts!
Here are some of those that I’ve tasted when I was in Asia’s Latin City last September.
Since my Basilan day trip was far-fetched and wanting to save the city tour for later, I have no idea where to go in Zamboanga City. Thankfully, a friend of mine said, “Tu viaje a Isla Santa Cruz.” It wasn’t the first time I heard about the island—my relatives have been promoting this as the island of pink sand.
For those who aren’t familiar, Santa Cruz Island (referring to Isla Grande de Santa Cruz) is one of Zamboanga’s best kept secrets. Located some few kilometers away across the strait, the islands are well-known for its pink-white sand beaches and seemingly virgin when it comes to tourism development. Despite being very close to the city, only a few have visited this island. Most people who go here are local Zamboangueños who spend their weekend at a beach. Most urban dwellers of the north may probably have second thoughts going here since Basilan is just across the strait.
As Santa Cruz Island is known for its pinkish-white beach, a lot doesn’t even know that it has one place that time and the elements have forgotten. For the culturally-inclined, this is the old Badjao Cemetery. For the paranormal and ghost hunters, this is where the dead were buried.
When I went to Zamboanga, one of my top priority destination that I would like to see and experience was Barangay Taluksangay and its red Masjid (mosque). It’s in history and travel books, and even on postcards about Zamboanga City. That Sunday afternoon, John Marlowe, a friend of mine and a local of the city, took me to this historical place that is a known bastion of Islam in Mindanao. Some people said, “delikado doon! Wag ka nang pumunta doon” (It’s dangerous! Just don’t go there.)–I said, “then let’s go there!” without hesitation nor fear for the people.
Barangay Taluksangay is located some 20 kilometers east of Pueblo (downtown Zamboanga City). The community is located at the swampy coastline of the peninsula. Taluksangay proper itself lies separated from the mainland by an estuary. One would see the towering minarets from afar, welcoming guests who have come to Taluksangay.
For me, travelling to different places meant having a bite of the local culinaria. Zamboanga City is already known for its curacha or coconut crab as some other people say, and Alavar sauce. However, there are lesser known dishes here that make Zamboanga worthy to be included in the Philippine culinaria tour. One of those local delicacies would be satti.
It was an unplanned trip and my first time visiting this side of Zamboanga Peninsula (Zampen). It was my first time to step in Asia’s Latin City, Zamboanga City. However, I wasn’t also expecting that I’ll be going all the way northeast of the city with my dad, to the new province of Zamboanga Sibuguey, where he is working right now—and to its capital town that became a national headlines more than 15 years ago—Ipil.
Zamboanga International Airport is the third busiest in Mindanao, after Davao and Lumbia-Cagayan de Oro. It is the major gateway and hub of Zamboanga City and the Zamboanga Provinces. It is also the major gateway for flights coming in and out of the Sulu Archipelago provinces such as Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Due to its strategic location, it is also used for military purposes—because of that, she is a frequent recipient of flights coming from the United States military during RP-US Balikatan Exercises.