My friend and I were surprised to find out that our gracious guide at Jolo had something else planned for us. I thought that he was well aware of our itinerary that we proposed weeks before, but we welcomed the slight change of plans anyway because we obviously had no other choice that morning.
Right after breakfast, we then drove past the busy center of downtown Jolo and headed to an upland barangay, the name of which I already forgot. Along the way, I tried to look for tell-tale signs of the famed Walled City of Jolo, the fortifications of which were said to be similar in function to that of Intramuros in Manila. The Spaniards built the walls in 1878, including two outer forts and three inner forts, to protect them from attacks from both the Moro natives and foreign invaders.
It is interesting to note that a 1921 New York Times Article described Jolo as ‘the smallest walled city in the world.’ That morning though, we only passed by modern concrete archways and small towers. How small was this walled city and what became of the fortifications – all these are indeed interesting topics that merit further scholarly research.
We stopped by a small house somewhere in the outskirts of Jolo. The house was made of light materials yet it was cozy, decent and clean inside. People were shuffling back and forth before us as they prepared the meals to be served. The festive atmosphere may also be likened to the fiesta in other parts of the Philippines. Our guide told us that they are celebrating Prophet Mohammad’s birthday or locally known as Mauluddin Nabi. Soon enough we were invited by our hosts to join them inside one of the rooms since they thought that their dining area was too small for our company.
We sat on the floor and around a large metal plate that was laid on top of a carpet. On it were small plates containing various pastries locally known as bangbang – tompong, pitis,panganan among the other Tausug dishes that followed shortly. A cup of native coffee was also served along with an ‘a strangely colored blend’ as what one of our guide’s friend described. I drank it curiously only to find that it was just pineapple juice, which drew laughter from the group.
Among the dishes served, the sambal was my favorite. I like spicy foods in general which is the flavor profile of most delicacies in these parts. After we profusely thanked our hosts, we then left for another celebration, which is more subdued in tone yet still equally grandiose.
I remember that we alighted somewhere in Indanan, a municipality which is just located a few kilometers southwest of Jolo. Our guide told us that this time, it was a traditional Tausug vigil. Most of the the Tausug in this part of the country practice Islam. The departed loved one is buried as soon as possible, but the prayers for the dead are said afterwards, during the seventh, twentieth, fortieth and one hundredth day. It was the 20th that morning, if I am not mistaken.
We missed the ceremonial prayers since we already arrived just in time for lunch to be served. The men were then seated separately from the women. I stayed beside our guide so that he could help me identify the dishes that would be served shortly. Unfortunately I was unable to take down notes that time probably because we were too engrossed in our conversations. I learned that one of the men in our table was once a child actor in a movie that was starred by Fernado Poe Jr. He never pursued a career in showbiz though. He is fine I guess with his current stint in local politics.
A large red plate was then brought to our table. On it were a handful of colorful plastic plates, each containing a different delicacy. This could probably be the Tausug version of an eat-all-you-can buffet. The difference is that you don’t have to discreetly queue for seconds. Once a paricular plate is almost wiped out, it is immediately refilled by the house servants. Thetiyulah itum in particular, was a bestseller in our table as it was replenished more than once. It is a black, spicy soup made of beef parts mixed with burnt grated coconut.
Two celebrations in a less than an hour. This was probably just another day for our guide, his friends and the many others in this beautiful island. But aside from the visual and gastronomic adventure, it was an eye-opening experience for me in more ways than one. I realized that good food is a great leveler of some sort. You just can’t think of anything bad to say on a full stomach.
I have to thank then our guide for ‘interfering’ with our original itinerary. Because looking back now, I consider it a rare privilege to have been invited into a Tausug home and to take part of their celebration as well. We were accorded with a kind of hospitality that left a good, lasting impression. The few Tausug that I met that morning were curious in their questions, generous with their blessings and loved their culinary heritage. Although we have different tastes in food, but they are just really like the rest us in many, many ways.
How to get there
Airphilexpress has flights to Jolo from Zamboanga City. The cheaper yet longer option is via an overnight passenger ship from Zamboanga. The choices are enumerated here.
The blogger strongly encourages that you also coordinate your itinerary and transportation arrangements with a contact person that is based in Jolo. It would really help a lot especially in interacting with the locals and getting around, if you have someone who speaks Tausug, the local dialect.