KISSAH AND DAWAT: A different way of going to the beach, Tawi-Tawi style

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ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 5 August) – Weekends are always a welcome time for families and friends to unwind after a busy week, especially for those living in urban areas who long for the tranquility of rural settings. But, have you ever wondered how those in rural areas spend and enjoy their weekends? As I came across a photo from a relative back home, memories of my own experiences as a rural boy flooded back, and I vividly recalled the joy and happiness of spending vacations on the islands.

In rural areas, weekends take on a unique and charming character. Life slows down, and the simplicity of the countryside offers a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of city living. Families and friends often engage in activities that bring them closer to nature. Rural communities are tight-knit, and weekends provide ample opportunities for socializing and strengthening bonds. With little to no rush, conversations flow freely, and laughter resonates through the air. The absence of urban distractions allowed us to truly immerse ourselves in the moment and appreciate the simple pleasures of life. Those weekends felt like an eternity of joy. Those moments of connection with nature are invaluable, fostering a sense of harmony and contentment, and now in my 50s, form part of the happy memories etched in my heart through the years.

Puh Boan (Buan Island), home of the Sama Bangingi’ in Tawi-Tawi, offers a unique and distinct experience of “going to the beach” during summer vacation. Whenever I join my elder cousins, we embark on a boat journey during low tide to access this extraordinary location. Unlike traditional beaches with dry land, Puh Boan’s “beach” consists of shallow waters that surround us.

From this vantage point, we are treated to breathtaking views of our island village and the nearby Barangay Balimbing, a place steeped in history for its opposition to the American regime. The horizon also reveals the majestic sight of the renowned Panampangan Island, celebrated as the longest sandbar in the country. The whole experience feels like a journey into history, culture and nature’s wonders, making it an exceptional destination for summer getaways in Tawi-Tawi.

We arrive at the “beach” where the sea is just a foot deep, creating a perfect opportunity to collect shells, catch fish, and gather other edibles. What initially appears as a sandy shoal from a distance teems with marine life once we set foot on it. There are various species of edible fauna and flora, ranging from the grassland areas to the reefs at the end of the shoal.

All the while, the tide slowly rises, and there is no shade except for the cap and the shawl that shield us from the direct sun. But it is all part of the fun. The older cousins are very protective of us, the younger ones. Tagging along with them is an educative process where they teach us about our natural environment, the dos and don’ts while being out there, how to collect seashells, fish on the coral reef, differentiate one from another, and emphasize what to avoid, especially the poisonous and dangerous species. They are also patient in teaching us how to float before we can master swimming, how to stay calm and gather air before we can dive deep.

With a larger boat, we can bring along a portable stove that allows us to grill or make soup with whatever we have caught. We sprinkle seagrapes and seaweeds with lime and bubuk (a coconut-based appetizer) to enhance their flavors. As for the fresh catch of reef fish, there is no need to clean or add salt; they taste as delicious as they are fresh when thrown onto the grill. Additionally, with vinegar on hand, we can slice the fish meat to prepare a traditional ceviche dish. And let us not forget about the sea urchins – we simply scoop out and enjoy the raw yellow roes.

What we cannot catch or source in the area, we bring from home, such as steamed rice, cassava, water, and some other dishes. Unspoiled sautéed noodles, cooked the other day, can taste just as great to hungry mouths.

As we enjoy our time on the shoal, there are one or two older cousins watching over the group. They wave to incoming lansa (launch boats) and pambut (pump boats) to alert them of our presence.

From time to time, we encounter fisherfolks either returning from or going to their fishing areas. Some would even throw us a few of their catch. A simple conversation about who we are and where we came from could reveal astonishing relationships! They can be our relations by affinity or consanguinity. What a small world, indeed!

There is no entrance fee to the shoal. The older ones would chip in for the pump boat gasoline. The younger ones are required to seek their parents’ approval. If you get caught lying, the older cousins can disallow you from joining them in the future. With this threat of exclusion, we would run as if a ghost is after us to reach home and obtain explicit permission from our parents. Some parents would even pack leftover food from breakfast or buy snacks for everyone. A generous parent can ensure inclusion and favor in future gatherings.

I remember my own parents. At first, they were reluctant, telling us that we were too young for such activities. However, after some persuasion, they reluctantly permitted us to join one. As time went on, they simply reminded us to be careful.

I recall the first permission coming with a round of reminders – to behave, to listen to the elder cousins, and not to be naughty. They always made sure I was under the personal care of one of the elder cousins they trusted. They would seal their permission by arranging my pack bag and cap, and then they would send me to the group with a kiss.

What a memory! Someday soon, I will take on my parents’ role when it’s my kids’ turn to enjoy going to an unlikely beach near Puh Boan!

I would like to conclude this piece from a developmental perspective, focusing on the right of citizens to enjoy nature. Presently, economic development is often associated with urbanization and commercialization, leading to troubling consequences. Our once-public beaches are now being privatized, accessible only through fees. Additionally, sand from shoals is being mined for construction and to enhance private resort beachfronts.

Nature’s beauty, the refreshing air and sea, and the vast underwater world can profoundly impact mental health. Our marine ecosystem is an integral part of our maritime culture and identity as well. Furthermore, there is the urgent need to address global climate change. The destruction of our marine ecosystem not only contributes to cultural loss but also negatively impacts mental well-being. At the current rate of destruction, these consequences may become apparent within the present generation.

As we continue the path of economic growth and development, it is crucial to strike a balance between progress and the preservation of natural assets. Sustainable development should be at the forefront of our efforts, ensuring that future generations can still bask in the beauty of unspoiled beaches and thriving coastal environments.

Considering this, policies and regulations should be enacted and strictly enforced to protect public access to beaches and prevent their complete privatization. Efforts must also be made to regulate sand mining and promote responsible practices to safeguard the environment.

Ultimately, development should not come at the expense of nature and the well-being of the people. By prioritizing the right of citizens to enjoy nature, we can build a future where economic progress goes hand in hand with Islam’s principle of amanah, or environmental stewardship and social well-being.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry—born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-Tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue.)

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