Last August 2016, I went to South Cotabato and discovered what we are missing out in Mindanao, and when I went to Zamboanga or “Asia’s Latin City” last October, I realized that it is one of the many in that developing list. To tell you frankly, I was one of the many people who feared with the thought of Zamboanga, but I gave the city a chance and spent two days in it to kick off my birth month. It’s true; I was welcomed with bombs when I set foot in Zamboanga. I was bombarded with vibrant streets, with protected islands, with happiness, with tears of joy, with belongingness, and with peace. In that moment, I knew I was celebrating life in the right place.
What made me fall in love with the city
Growing up in a city with no tourist spots at all made me choose islands and mountains over city tours every time I travel. But Zamboanga changed the game. It made me love city tours. Everything in the city didn’t disappoint.
We ate the famous Satti dish, feasted on curacha crabs, cooled down with Zamboanga’s special Knickerbocker, stayed in Vista del Mar, went to Yakan Village, bird-watched at the bird sanctuary, strolled in Pasonanca Park, shopped at the Canelar Barter Trade, had tea time with renowned Zamboanga painter Rameer Tawasil, offered thanks and praise, and cried a river in Fort Pilar Shrine, vinta-watched at Cawa-cawa Boulevard, and my most favorite thing: people and sunset-watched at Paseo del Mar.
After the city tour, here are some of the many random things I have learned, observed, and made me fall in love with Zamboanga:
- Zamboanga has multifold banks. Meaning, it is a well-off city.
- Though it is a well-off city, most people live their life simply. Some locals I’ve conversed with are happy just by watching the sun rise and set by the sea. Some still want to see the beauty of nature in person than in their cellphone’s screen. Some choose to spend time with family and friends in parks and boulevards rather than in malls. Some are happy just by eating a glass of Knickerbocker. In this time and age, the Yakan tribe still weaves and makes use of their art for a living. Just by looking at all of them, you’ll know and feel peace.
- I relearned the healing capability of art through Rameer. Meditation and inspiration only act once. When it comes, create. Produce. Execute. Do something. Do your thing. Live in that moment.
- It has lots of Jollibee franchises, and every branch is insanely full.
- It is dotted around with lots of acacia trees. 50 of which are found in Vista del Mar, where the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) tagged six trees as century-old. Meaning, they should be well taken care of and kept untouched. While you’re in Vista del Mar, be sure to chat with its owner Tita Ditas over chocolate ice box cake or aromatic buko juice. You’ll learn so much from her, and she might even introduce you to good looking men! (Hi tita, we miss you and your casitas!)
- It holds one of the largest golf courses in the country, and a lot of enthusiasts actually head down south for this.
- Their native tongue is Chavacano, a mix of Bisaya and Spanish language, which is such a music to my ears. I can’t help but gush over just by listening to them converse. Every spoken word is just regal. I even went over my Spanish handouts to relearn the language when I came home.
- For one, Zamboanga City is different and far from Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, and Zamboanga Sibugay. Zamboanga City is the safest one, while the last three are most likely where unfortunate events happen.
- Almost every body of water in Zamboanga is just crystal-clear. Their Cawa-cawa Boulevard, which is equivalent to our Manila Bay, is nothing short of clean. Locals even swim there, and they look so adorable and nostalgic!
Zamboanga’s tourism is alive, competitive enough, striving, and well-organized. That’s something I would really, really commend. If you were their during their Vinta Regatta Festival, you’d know why. If not, it’s never too early or too late to book flights for October 2017. That’s the best time to go, by the way. You won’t regret that trip, I promise.
- In relation to that, Tita Mila is one of the popular tour guides in Zamboanga. One point of time in her career, she almost gave up on being a tour guide because of lack of tourists back then, but she and the people behind Zamboanga tourism strived hard and became who they are today. Also, this woman right here speaks fluent German and will treat you like her own child when you’re with her. We love her so dearly. Make sure to book her and Kuya JM when you visit! (Hi tita and kuya, we miss laughing with you both!)
- There are more Christians than Muslims in Zamboanga, but there is no religion barrier in the city. When the clock struck 6 that Sunday evening, the other side of the road led to Fort Shrine Pilar where devotees lit their candles and offered thanks and praise to our Lord, while on the other side is where Muslims thoroughly prayed and held their ceremony. I once read online that all religions teach and pray for peace, but we all hardly achieve and practice that peace in this world. Fortunately, I was able to see and feel that rare peace in Zamboanga, and it’s one of the most wonderful things I have ever experienced in my life.
Truly, ya deha io mi corazon na ciuded de Zamboanga [I left my heart in Zamboanga].
The pink island with a golden vibe
“Bakit po sinasabi ng ibang locals na nakakatakot dito? Eh hindi naman pala,” I asked Richard Aliangan, senior tourism operations manager of Great and Little Sta. Cruz Islands Protected Landscape & Seascape, as we rest our weary selves by the beach. “Ang reason, kasi ako mismong tiga dito, hindi ko alam ang about sa Sta. Cruz Island,” he said. “Kaya ang isa sa mga projects namin dito for the information campaign, we will go to schools. We will go to young professionals’ areas like workplaces. We will go there and we will give them presentations about the island para kapag may nagtanong, alam na nila. So it will now be replaced with knowledge, not hesitation kasi hindi nila alam. These are the knowledge that you should know para matanggal sa isip natin yung takot.”
I cannot blame them. People are scared of the unknown, of what they don’t understand, which results in false conclusions, unresolved fear, and missed chances. When we went to the Great Sta. Cruz Island, two armed men and a group of coast guards escorted us, which is a normal thing in Zamboanga and might be alarming to some, but it’s not. The island is a normal and peaceful one. There lies a beautiful stretch of pink coastline, crystal-clear waters, island vendors, and a few visitors who are having the times of their life like us. We spent our high noon here swimming with the strong but tolerable currents of the sea, laughing our lungs out under the trees, and eating fresh catch of grilled fish by the sea.
A few minute boat ride away from the island is the Sta. Cruz Island Lagoon filled with mangrove trees, stingless upside-down jellyfishes, walo-walo snakes, and flying foxes. The best part in the lagoon is the Sama Bangingi tribe, the friendliest tribe in the south who somehow takes care of the lagoon. Everyone, especially the kids were very welcoming to the guests. They are all even all smiles to the cameras!
“So merong treasure dito, sir?” one of the visitors asked Kuya Richard. “Merong treasure dito. The island itself is a treasure,” Kuya Richard was quick to answer. We all laughed to concur.
And this is what people are scared of. Golden.
The good in goodbye
When we were about to head back to Vista del Mar, American Pie played on the car’s radio. Everyone sang along in time for our fast approaching departure that night. It was tear-jerking. Leaving a place and not knowing when to come back is probably the saddest and most electrifying moment there is. Leaving makes me feel alive. Leaving makes me seize and cherish every remaining point in time: the breath of fresh air in the place, the strangers turned friends, the last look in the place, and the send-off hugs and kisses are all real. There’s the good in goodbye. I didn’t expect for Zamboanga to give me such energy.
And do you know which bomb hit the strongest impact on me? The city’s beautiful locals. They all long for the day when people could finally have the ‘courage’ to visit Zamboanga, because, for one, it is a peaceful place to wander in.
Give Zamboanga a chance. Salam.
Zamboanga in my words,
All photos by Jisa Atrero