'Zamboanga' The southern Philippine city home to the sea-dwelling ‘Bajau’ people

Traditional Bajau homes which are built on water.

April 24, 2008, Thursday/ 19:02:00
Flying from the Philippine capital of Manila toward the city of Zamboanga on the island of Mindanao, you actually don’t realize at all what sort of city you are about to see.

The first wave of serious heat hit our faces when the airplane door opened. At first we thought it was just the heat radiating from the plane’s engines, but then we started to realize -- after having left the plane -- that this typical, unchanging Zamboanga heat is normal for the city, set along the coast, with no real difference between summer and winter.

Be forewarned: Heat levels here are sometimes unbearable. Even the locals feel this way as they desperately search for any shade in which to take shelter during the worst of it. Of course, this means that when electricity cuts occur -- and they do -- and people have to do without their air conditioners, they just have to learn how to deal with these levels of heat.

The southern region of the Philippines has a high population of Muslims, and Zamboanga is one of the cities in this region with the highest concentration of Muslims.

With its thousands upon thousands of bicycles and peddled vehicles crowding the streets, Zamboanga -- whose name is reminiscent of either an African nation or an African city -- is a city that shelters 1,001 different cultural treasures. One of these treasures is the Bajau, a tribe of people who consider it bad fortune to have to live on land.

The Bajaus do not build their homes on land, preferring instead to live on the sea. In fact, they have built their homes directly over the sea, forming entire neighborhoods over the water, which look like a world of wooden homes standing over the waves below. Some of the homes are patched with tin barrels where there was not enough wood, and the roofs of the Bajau homes are generally made of reeds, though sometimes also of tin barrels. Some of these Bajau homes are truly far from land, while others are closer to the shore, but they are all, in the end, directly over the sea. Bajau homes are elevated on poles that are fixed in the bottom of the sea over which they stand, allowing the homes to stay free of damage from the waves below. Keep in mind, there is neither electricity nor running water in these homes, and thus none of the modern conveniences such as televisions and other appliances that require electricity. These are a tribe of people who have firmly pushed away modernity with both hands. There are spots for toilets in these homes, but the “toilets” empty straight into the sea below.

The food needs of the Bajau are, of course, also met by the blue sea that surrounds them. Their main income is from fishing, and in every home there is at least one canoe. Just as people all over the world park their cars in their garages, the Bajau park their canoes underneath their houses. We were a bit worried when we first got into one of these canoes because they are narrow water vehicles that look as though they could tip over at any moment. Some of the Bajau have attached motors to their canoes while others use paddles to get around.

The Bajau also spend much of their time growing and caring for “seaweed farms.” Seaweed is an important source of nutrition for them. The Bajau are a poor people with very little in the way of clothing or materials for inside the home. The only thing that allows them to continue living in their homes unprotected against the cold and other elements is the climate which is fair all year around. Remember, the Philippines are right along the equator and the weather here reflects that fact.

In recent years, the children of this community have begun to finally go to school. But this does not change the course of their traditions, as the children continue their cultural inheritance of living out their lives over the sea, just as their grandparents taught their mothers and fathers. Children born in these homes are instilled in their early years with a continuing and faithful love for life at sea.

There are some elements of Bajau life that have begun to change little by little, though. The government has even built them some new homes, completely out of wood, and introduced electricity to them. We walked along the streets, built above the sea, and looked around us, catching glimpses of children’s faces peeking out of windows in curiosity. Some even gathered up their courage and tried to speak with us...

We headed back to the shore later but, thinking about the faces of the children looking out from the rickety wooden homes built over the sea, what a contrast the life of fishing by canoe and living under the sky and over the sea is to the rest of the world, which has in the meantime plunged into the era of computers. Ottoman mosque in Zamboanga Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II received reports from two envoys he had sent to the Far East of the urgent need for a mosque in the Muslim Zamboanga region of the Philippines. The pasha then sent the necessary money, candelabras and interior furnishings for such a mosque to be built. The spot for the construction of the new mosque was donated by the family of Faruk Nunio Bey, and during the actual construction, there were many volunteers helping out. And thus the Taluksangay Mosque was finally opened for prayers. As it turns out, this is the first mosque built on the Zamboanga peninsula and is a leader in the coming spread of Islam through the nearby region. After the Japanese invasion of 1945, the mosque was partially destroyed, though Muslims in the region banded together to help reconstruct it in 1947, turning it into the mosque you can still see standing in Zamboanga today.

Rooster fights

The Philippines are quite well known for the cock fights they hold, so seriously organized that they have their own leagues. We decide to visit a site where one of these famous fights is held. One of the roosters in the fight we watched receives a series of back-to-back deathly attacks from its opponent and tried to fight back, but failed in the end. His brain could no longer direct his wounded body. He fell to floor and died. As for the victor, he did not resemble at all the bird that first entered the ring: he was not dead, but was quite bloody. His owner was smiling as he got his bird from the ring. After all, this rooster was the winner.

Filipino-Turkish school

The city of Zamboanga on the island of Mindanao has a “Filipino-Turkish school of tolerance” for primary, middle, and high school students and boasts 300 students. Both Muslim and Christian students study here and learning tolerance of one another’s religion and way of life, just as the school’s name indicates.

This school prepares students to be entrepreneurs and to have more self-confidence in addition to the typical coursework seen in other schools. The school also extensively cooperates with other local schools, but it does have its own activity program.

This day in Zamboanga passed quickly, but it was filled with very many interesting sights and sounds -- from the city of people living above the sea to the bicycles of Zamboanga to the bloody cock fights and, of course, the heart-warming experience of seeing the Filipino-Turkish school. As the day comes to a close, we bid farewell to the island of Mindanao with a smile on our face...


[TRAVEL TIPS]

Visas: Visas are required for Turkish citizens traveling to the Philippines. These visas are good for three weeks and can be extended if requested. All you need to do is contact the Philippine Embassy or consulate and show proof of either a two-way ticket out of the country or that you are traveling on to a different destination.

How to go: There are no direct flights from Turkey to the Philippines. You can travel with Turkish Airlines to the Thai capital of Bangkok and then transfer from Bangkok to Manila. There are other ways to go, too: Fly with Singapore Airlines though Singapore or with Emirates Airlines through Dubai, but just remember that this journey is neither short nor cheap!

Where to stay: There are lots of beautiful hotels in the Philippines, especially if you are staying in the capital, Manila. Prices can range anywhere from between $40 to $300 per night, so all sorts of budgets can be accommodated.

Cuisine: The menus here can be very difficult for anyone accustomed to different flavors. This is certainly true for those used to Turkish cuisine. Philippine cuisine is quite far from Turkish cooking. But if you don’t like what you eat in restaurants, rest assured you can always find something you’ll like at the open buffets offered at some of the larger hotels. There are also lots of restaurants that cater to European tourists. Prices for a meal can range from $20 to $100 per head.

Best time to go: Visitors heading to the Philippines should always remember that it is quite humid here year round. There are two basic seasons across the country: rainy and non-rainy. The non-rainy season runs from December though May and the rainy season begins in June and runs through November. We do advise that if you are going to travel to the Philippines that you go when it is not rainy. Though higher spots in the country can be cooler, the average national temperature is between 24 and 31 degrees Celsius. Remember, this does not take into account the ever-present humidity.

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