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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.