Out of the Philippines: A port of call where there's always a storm

ZAMBOANGA - Nothing really out of the ordinary had happened on the previous day, according to the front page of the Zamboanga Times of 13 January. Two fatal stabbings in broad daylight; the kidnapping of a jeepney bus driver by a group of Muslim rebels in the countryside; the capture of two pirate ships by the Philippines navy off the coast; the deployment of 100 policemen in the market to crack down on extortion rackets after the new market supervisor received death threats; and the sighting, offshore, in a speedboat, of a renegade policeman who has been on the run for three years from charges of murder, 'with some 30 heavily-armed followers'.

'Ah, that's nothing,' said the barman at the Lantaka Hotel, behind the harbour. 'Just don't go out after dark.'

Zamboanga is a colourful port city on the island of Mindanao in the south-west corner of the Philippines, facing the island of Borneo. It is 500 miles (312km) from Manila, 500 miles from central government, 500 miles from law and order and prospering very nicely (give or take the odd shoot-out and kidnapping). All the vitality and drama, the wealth creation and the exploitation, the violence and the degradation of the Philippines are compressed into one turbulent city.

Zamboanga is the world's capital of coconut oil. It is home to brigands, pirates, 'Badjao' sea gypsies, Chinese merchants and the descendants of 15th-century Arab traders. It is renowned for supplying the rest of the country with hired assassins. And yet Zamboanguenos pride themselves on their politeness.

The heart of Zamboanga is the port. Before the Spanish arrived in the 17th century it was called Samboangan, which means 'place to anchor' in a local dialect. It was developed by Muslim traders and still today the city's mosques are many and crowded. When the Spanish came they merely added another layer of colour, different churches and more ships to anchor.

For centuries sailing ships, ferries, cargo boats and tramp steamers have been plying between Zamboanga, the Sulu Archipelago, Borneo and down through the Makassar Straits to Java and beyond. For sea captains on their first voyage the names on the charts were as exotic as the oils and spices they were taking on board.

The port is busy from sunrise. Porters struggle with over-loaded carts, passengers seek ferry tickets, sailors strut up and down fanning their naked chests with T- shirts against the heat, while hawkers selling their wares wend in and out between everyone. The ships are as colourful as their names: Sampaguita Express, Osimar, Lalathazzomar. The ferries have double bunks on their open decks, where people loll in the sea breeze, chickens tied up to the bedposts.

Trishaws buzz back and forth between the ships and the market behind the wharf, where fair-skinned Muslims in turbans rub shoulders with weathered fishermen, Malays with towels twisted on their heads, moustachioed Filipinos with avaiator sunglasses and women carrying black umbrellas as parasols against the tropical sun. They are buying and selling silks, batiks, oils, garlic, barbecued mackerel and squid, mangoes, tobacco, soaps, sandals and spices.

And there are guns everywhere: men with M-16 rifles wander the decks of ships, casually stepping over sleeping passengers. At sea they are protection against the pirates that plague the region. In the town, guards with pistols stand outside even humble grocery shops. The coastguard patrol boats have small cannons and heavy machine-guns mounted on their decks.

'You can never be too careful,' says Eleutherio, wiping away beer foam with the back of his hand. He is sitting at a bar looking out over the harbour. Some Badjao sea gypsies, who are born, live and die on their wooden boats and wander between the islands at will, are bartering fish in the foreground.

'You never know who you can trust.' Eleutherio is telling the story of his life. Now 44, he had worked for 10 years as a logger in the hills, keeping 'some wives' in different towns around the island. Then he came upon another Mindanao hazard: Communist rebels from the New People's Army (NPA). 'Even the amazonas, the women guerrillas - they would come into our camps at night and eat with us. But no courting - they all carried their Armalite (rifles).'

Five minutes' walk from the harbour is Fort Pilar, built by the Spanish in 1635 as the southernmost outpost of their domain in the Philippines. A plaque at the entrance relates the troubled history of the fort, which is also the history of the country at large: attacked by the Dutch in 1646, deserted in 1663 when the Spanish were fighting Chinese pirates in Manila, stormed by the Muslims in 1720, bombarded by the British in 1798, scene of a mutiny in 1872, occupied by the US in 1899 when the Spanish were ousted from their colony and seized by the Japanese in 1942. It is now a museum, with displays of maritime life and local history. 'No dating inside' a sign warns.

'Dating' is big business in Zamboanga, too. In the evening, Remy - 'you know, the same as the brandy' - inserts herself into the barstool next to mine. Her story is that of thousands of young Filipinas. She had her first child at 16 - the Catholic Church is virulently against contraception - and has four children now, looks middle-aged and is barely 30. She spent one year in Japan in a hostess bar, but the 'Japanese gangsters' took most of her money, so she came back to the Philippines. She doesn't like what she does, but needs the money for her children. 'I just want to be your special friend,' she says, her voice already slurred from drink. There comes a point, she says, when she is afraid to go home alone, but afraid of taking someone with her too. Zamboanga has it all.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Midweight

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Front End Developer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks