From the open-aired windows of the military trucks provided by Marine Battalion Landing Team Six, I caught a fleeting glimpse of Sulu; from the chaotic streets of its capital, the bucolic sceneries of its outskirts, the stilt houses near its coastal area and the graceful white mosques towering above the town’s painted tin roofs.
Our trip with the Juan Portrait team to and from the various rendezvous in Sulu wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the MBLT-6 team. Besides providing us with a place to stay in every night, they also lent their vehicles for us to use, complete with armed personnel and a platoon of convoys.
And that said convoy includes a tank. Yes, a full blown, massive, armored tank.
See, no matter what you read or heard about how it’s relatively safe to travel to Sulu; it simply isn’t true. Especially for people like us who are considered foreign to the place. We were told that the moment we stepped into Jolo’s port, everyone knew that we were already there.
And that is not a comforting feeling to have.
Through the five days that we were on the island, our movement was totally limited to the MBLT-6 camp in Mahabang Buhangin. To go out, we need to be on their trucks, rumbling at a fairly rapid pace. These trucks were not to be impeded by anything; local vehicles swerve out of the way when we pass, lest the chance of an Abu Sayyaf ambush begets us.
And through these trucks, I saw Sulu.
It looked as chaotic as any city I’ve been to. Pedicabs and tricycles rule the street of Jolo. It was surprising that their houses looked as ordinary as the ones as say, in Quiapo. It was jarring to see the graceful minarets of mosques towering over the chaos of the city.
I have no idea how many mosques there are in the whole island of Sulu, but I can tell from those we passed that there are a lot. Some of them, the major ones I suppose, are even quite impressive. It was with a disheartening feeling that we were left to admire them from afar. It would’ve been nice to see them up close, and if possible, even enter their premises.
From our vantage at Camp Bud Datu, I saw a couple of mosques that really stood out. Again, I have no idea what the names of these worship houses are. My mind was too preoccupied with things that might happen as we hit the road again, leaving the comforts and security of the marine camps.
Which was quite unjust to the place.
From what I saw from the mountainous region of Sulu, I’m pretty sure that the island offers more than the little we saw. If the white sand beach of Quezon Beach in Patikul is paradise, what more so those little islands I saw dotting the perimeter of Sulu.
This is a place different to most provinces in the Philippines.
In Sulu, there are no guided tours. Here, you take in as much as you can from a vantage of a speeding vehicle. You can swim on white sand beaches, but with escorts checking you out via binoculars from the shore. You wait for the sunset, not beside the sea, but on a speeding military truck trying to beat the retiring sun from setting before you reach the safety of the camp.
It is not a place to go to just for the heck of it.
It is saddening to admit, but Sulu is not a safe destination for tourists like us. I’m just hoping and praying that someday, I can take those words back and not only let everyone see how beautiful this province is, but also invite them to see it for themselves.