We’ve just finished an hour snorkeling at a beach somewhere in Sulu when the sky cracked red. Sitting on the beach, conversation with the Juan Portrait crew was starting to heat up around the reason why Sugarfree broke up. Bottles of Red Horse and shot glasses filled with Emperador were soon passed around.
As the sun started to set, everyone turned to look. I knew each one was debating whether to get their cameras and look for a proper vantage point, but the lure of alcohol and stories were just too much. After a moment, everyone settled back to their place, looking on as I raced for my camera and tripod.
We were at the Marine Battalion Landing Team Six camp in Sulu. And even though we were in a military installation, it felt more like we were in a beach resort. Located at barangay Buhanginan in the town of Patikul, the whole northern side of the camp faces the Sea of Sulu.
Their barracks are made from split bamboo, some with cogon for roofing. The whole area is replete with huge acacias and coconut trees. If you choose to ignore the tanks and military trucks parked along the grounds, you would definitely mistake it for a beach resort.
For five days and four nights, we considered the MBLT-6 camp our home, the numerous marines living inside it, our brothers and sisters.
The day we arrived, we were immediately briefed about camp rules; always have a buddy inside and outside the camp, never go outside without an escort, observe cleanliness, don’t swim on the beach without companion, don’t stand under coconut trees and observe completeness by 10pm.
While everything was quite clear with us, the last two rules made us scratch our heads. Lt. Col. Mangoroban, the head honcho of the marines in Patikul elaborated. Completeness means that everyone should be accounted for by ten in the evening. Regarding the coconut trees, well, he said that we really didn’t want coconuts falling on our heads, do we?
That last one made us laugh, relieving the tension that was slowly building up as we read through the rules and their implications. It was quite clear that Sulu is not a place to go wandering about, taking selfies, alone.
Our day usually starts at an open-aired hut situated two-storey up in the middle of the camp grounds; a tree house of sorts, sans the tree. A long table is set in the center with a breakfast buffet on one end. Here we feasted on the usual longsilog fare complete with sliced apples and the addictive kahawa sug brewed coffee.
It was quite surprising to find longanisa and tocino in this place as most of the people in Sulu are Muslims; their diet consisting of halal food, they don’t eat pork. From what I gather, they import this forbidden delight all the way from Zamboanga City.
We’d then get off camp to Kaunayan Elementary School where we’d be taking pictures of kids the whole day, show some documentary movies to the locals and help paint their classrooms before going back to camp to process the photos on our own laptops and print them; the lapping waves our music, the calm sea our background.
Before the sun sets, we’d close our laptops and take a break. We’d all head to the beach, don our snorkels and frolic in the waters. The beach inside MBLT-6 forms part of the nearby Quezon Beach, the sand is creamy white and the waters quite clear for snorkeling.
The shallower part of the beach is sandy but once you head out, it makes way for corals. There were fewer fishes here than in Quezon Beach, but I did see a flourishing underwater life; heck I even saw a couple of cuttlefishes, their colors changing as they slithered near the seabed.
On shore, we’d see a few marines with binoculars held near their faces. They’re ever watchful over us, a craft can suddenly make an appearance and grab one of us, hence the security. While we all thought it to be highly unlikely; with the Abu Sayyaf base only a few kilometers away, you’d really never know.
Night time, we’d get back to our tasks of preparing the photos of the kids for the next day. From our station, we’d see strange lights illuminating the edge of the sea.
Massive fishing vessels, Lt. Col would say. Ancient aliens, I’d say.
One night, with the moon shining fully, we got tired of watching the lights and decided to go near it. We boarded a marine vessel and chugged our way to the middle of the sea.
Well, we’re really not here for the lights, we’re looking for whales.
They say that this part of Sulu is a known channel for whales. A few of the marines testified into seeing a mother and a baby whale playing along these parts. We were all crossing our fingers that we’d see them too.
Alas, minutes turned to hours and still nothing. But even without the sightings, it was still all fun; with the ancient alien lights on the horizon, we passed the time exchanging stories, drinking locally brewed coffee and eating steamed bananas. We can only wish we brought some Red Horse with us.
And then we’d wake up to a longsilog breakfast again and the whole cycle would repeat itself. Eat breakfast, convoy to school, photograph kids, go back at camp, process and print photos, swim, snorkel, drink beer and sleep. It was a routine I could get used to if not for the real threat of being kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf.
On our last night in Sulu, we were surprised to find a stage set up at the marine camp. I can’t believe that they’re throwing a party just for us. That explained the band rehearsal we always see at night. Food and beer flowed as some of the marines took the stage and played rock anthems. Not to be outdone, the Juan Portrait crew also did some numbers, performing Eraserheads songs while the whole camp sang along.
A few of the soldiers would say a few words before singing; letting out emotions, saying their piece. Like how most Filipinos fail to value their freedom, like the simple liberty of walking along the streets safely, something that’s not possible here in Sulu. But what struck me most were their sentiments that they might not see the resolution to this conflict in their lifetime; but still, they’re willing to literally bet their lives to its completion.
These are the marines of Sulu. They have a lovely home. And they are our heroes.