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Zamboanga: Place Where Orient Meets Occident

March 01, 1987|ROBERT F. KAY | Kay is a San Francisco author of a travel book on Fiji

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines — My guide, driver and soon-to-be-friend Inday (pronounced In-dye) pulled up a stool next to me at the Lantaka Hotel's outdoor bar that faced Zamboanga's bay. Across the Strait of Basilan the Philippine sun was setting behind the serrated scarps of Basilan Island.

We chased salty, oily peanuts down with San Miguel beer and listened to the chanting of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the mosque at Rio Hondo. Just a few feet away, Badjao or sea gypsies, unloaded shells and coral from their vintas (outriggers) and stacked the souvenirs on the sea wall for sale to tourists.

Like their slender boats, the young Badjao were lean and sinewy, the sun had turned their skin chocolate brown and bleached their hair sienna. "Hey, Joe, come see, nice shells," they beckoned to me. Since February's "revolution" they had not seen too many Americano tourists.

Prepared to Eat

Inday, waving his hand with a flourish, called my attention to the Badjao outriggers that sailed lazily into the bay, furled their colorful sails and anchored among the cluster of vintas already in the harbor. The flames of cooking fires in the tiny boats licked the bottom of pots as families prepared to eat their evening meal.

"These people are born on these boats and die on them. They get land-sick the way that you and I get seasick," Inday said. The Badjao are wonderful divers and fishermen but they also barter for goods.

"We call them sea gypsies because one day they may be in the harbor selling shells to the tourists, the next week they may be trading off the coast of Borneo," he said.

Beyond the vintas , the lights of rusty tramp steamers from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore reflected the glassy waters of the harbor. The vessels sat offshore waiting for cargo.

Commerce, trade and smuggling are centuries-old institutions in Zamboanga, the southernmost port in the Philippines. On the southern tip of Mindanao's finger-like peninsula, its strategic location between the Celebes Sea on the west and the Sulu Sea to the east has made it a meeting ground between Orient and Occident. Chinese traders came here as early as the 13th Century, and Moorish settlers and trade followed in the 15th Century.

The name Zamboanga is a result of cross-cultural currents, most likely the Spanish corruption of sambuan , the Malay word for the long wooden pole used by the Badjao to maneuver their vessels.

Zamboanga is a hot, dusty port with 390,000 inhabitants. Like all Filipino cities, it teems with traffic, tiny motorcycles with sidecars, masses of pedestrians, bicycle-drawn carts and marauding jeepneys.

In the heart of town is Plaza Pershing, named after the most famous American military governor of the region, Brig. Gen. John (Blackjack) Pershing who went on to distinguish himself in World War I.

One can easily get around town by taxi (fares are cheap), but I had the fortune of being driven around by Inday in his battered car that he dubbed Red Rider.

The most arresting symbol of Islam in Zamboanga is the dazzling mosque whose silvery domed minarets tower over the Muslim enclave of Rio Hondo, a community of precarious-looking stilt houses built over the shallow waters of the bay. Rio Hondo means "deep river" in Spanish. It is inhabited by sea gypsies and the Samal, a group that specializes in fishing, mat weaving and selling tropical fruits at the market.

For all the colorful history attached to the barter trade, the barter market here is a prosaic shed covering numerous cubicles. Most items are mundane: clock radios, umbrellas and other sundries are the norm but more exotic objects are available.

Inday led me through a labyrinth of stalls where we paused to speak to a man named Jose. I bought batik that hung from the walls of his booth at a more than reasonable price. It was embarrassingly inexpensive.

Inday sensed my hesitation and said, "If you want to pay him more you can, but I wouldn't worry. He has some very good connections. He will make a profit, I can assure you."

The bustling public market, which is divided into sections for produce, fish, meat and dry goods, is best seen during the cool hours of the morning.

The seafood market is an immensely long boulevard of stalls selling every conceivable creature dragged from the ocean--pancake-flat bottom fish, slender fish with pointy snouts, limp heaps of squid, masses of octopus, stacks of stiff tuna, mounds of prawns, fleshy chunks of moray eel, piles of mussel and live crab, their pincers trussed with twine.

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