We make our way to Tawi-Tawi in the far south of Mindanao to capture vivid scenes from everyday life in an oft-misunderstood region
Above video: While visiting a seaside village in Sanga-Sanga, Tawi-Tawi, I chanced upon an interesting subject — a Sama-Bajau lass to be wed that evening. Download the full transcript of the video here.
The Sulu Archipelago, the chain of islands in the south-western end of the country, hardly ever gets good press, and what limited coverage it gets almost always focuses on a dire peace and order situation. As a foreigner, I had legitimate concerns about traveling to this corner of the Philippines. Three of the largest islands are Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, and they might be familiar to most as places riven with ethnic tension. But this whole region had also held my interest and curiosity for a long time. The draw was strong, almost irresistible, and I knew that if I just put my own negative preconceptions aside, everything would be fine.
I traveled with a talented group of people from The Extra Mile Productions, who generously documented my ongoing work of recording and documenting the indigenous groups of the Philippines, The Katutubong Filipino Project. The purpose of the trip to Tawi-Tawi was to explore the local culture and learn more about the Tausūg and Sama-Bajau people, the two dominant ethnolinguistic groups that call this region home.
Flying into Bongao, the de facto capital of Tawi-Tawi, I got my first glimpse of the natural beauty waiting for me while looking out from the airplane window. Seemingly untouched islands were etched on a canvas of dark blue ocean below me. It looked even more enticing than I had expected.
My five-day visit turned out to be more beautiful and enriching than I could have ever imagined. I met people with intriguing stories, saw fascinating faces and experienced vibrant traditions. Most importantly, I made new friendships and experienced the genuine hospitality and generosity of Tawi-Tawians. My visit was short, but it filled me with lasting impressions and sparked even more curiosity to explore other places around Sulu.
Also read: Tawi-Tawi city guide
This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Smile magazine.