It was still some hours before our flight to Zamboanga City; our jump-off point to the province of Sulu. We were headed to the town of Patikul in particular. And I was totally dreading it.
With time to kill, we got out of the airport and bought a few cans of Red Horse. We brought it to a grassy patch near the terminal and guzzled a few down. I was hoping to unknot the terrible loops forming in my stomach.
And then we were flying. The metro was still dark as we took off. There’s definitely no going back now.
Some weeks back, I was invited by a photographer friend, Chris Linag, to join a shoot in Sulu. Having never been to that province, I immediately said yes; it was for a good cause anyways. We’d be going there to take portraits of school kids, print them and give them back the next day. Easy, right?
It was the second time they’re doing this so I assumed that Sulu is a safe place; so much so that I never even bothered to research about.
Upon landing at Zamboanga Airport, along with the crew of Juan Portrait and a few other like-minded groups, we rode a van and alighted at Camp Navarro, AFP’s Western Mindanao Command. From there, an MPAC was going to pick us up. What the heck is an MPAC? I asked no one in particular.
I found out in a few minutes.
The RORO ferry ride from Zamboanga City to Jolo, the capital of Sulu, takes around ten hours. Via MPAC (Multi-Purpose Attack Craft), it takes two hours. It’s a vessel similar to speedboats; only this one has a slot for a machine gun on its roof and looks really bad-ass. I think it can fit at least twenty individuals comfortably.
Well, okay, not as comfortably as a luxurious speedboat that I’m used to seeing at posh resorts. MPACs literally rip through the sea. We bounced and hurtled through the waters of Sulu Sea like it was the end of the world. The possibility of being tossed to sea is, well, really really high.
You have to really hold on. Very tightly.
As promised, after two seemingly unending hours, we finally saw glimpses of civilization. Fishermen started appearing right along our craft, riding their seemingly too slow outrigger boats. They’re gone faster than a shooting star. We were unrelentingly fast.
My hands and arm were hurting by the time we saw the huts clustered around the coast of Sulu. It was slightly drizzling, and over the horizon, I can see layers of trees, hills and mountains. A few mosques tried to compete with cell towers, failing miserably against technology. Everything looked so serene, pastoral even.
And then we docked. And reality came crashing back.
From the port, we were greeted by the multitudes. But not by townsfolk in their festive garbs, singing and dancing to festive festival songs. But by marines armed up to their teeth by long, heavy firearms and garbed in full metal combat fatigues.
Radios started squawking amidst the incessant patter of rain. Apparently, we have arrived.
Hauling my backpack, I hesitantly set my foot down in Jolo. Still dazed from seeing so many guns, I auto-piloted to a designated military truck and sat down. The engines rumbled and two marines clambered up, taking the tail end of the open-backed vehicle.
I immediately noticed the Kevlar armor placed on my backrest. And the two trucks full of marines rumbling alongside ours. And the huge tank with its huge gun tailing us.
I really should’ve done my research.