It wasn't a line fished out of a zombie-romance flick. Nor lyrics of some mawkish glam rock song. It was literal to the core, delivered with utmost nonchalance by a first lieutenant nicknamed Mac as he thumbed towards the officer behind me.
The words sent a chill up my spine.
Just minutes prior, fellow traveler Edgar — who convinced me to book a flight at the last minute — and I arrived at the relatively young Jolo Airport. Mac and a slew of marines escorted us to a van that was to be our service for the four-day trip. It had to be a private vehicle, I was told, because the marines' pick up trucks are sometimes assaulted with grenades. I slouched on my seat and barely said anything throughout the ride to our first stop.
She rounded up with "Enjoy Sulu!". Enjoy. The verb seemed like a challenge.
On our day one itinerary — and when I say 'itinerary' I mean a computer-printed itinerary in a spreadsheet layout, bulleted by military time — which Mac constructed, were sights that serve as prelude to cultural immersion. Museum, the provincial capitol, old Spanish towers. I'm usually not the itinerary kind of backpacker, but for that trip it was imperative to let go of the helm.
My distress somehow faded as the day progressed. Never felt like I was under any kind of threat, and I wondered if escorts were really necessary or we were simply babied so the marines could mark a good impression.
Approaching sundown, we were rushed (they wouldn't risk joyriding in the dark) to Bud Datu where the 9th Marine Battalion was encamped. Had dinner and a few beers with the officers on a balcony overlooking the capital and a mountain territory of Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf, before slumbering in a room setup for visiting commanders.
That night was devoid of unease. Even though we chewed on stories of casualty, of sorrow, of boredom, of finding love in a seemingly hopeless place. I drew an early conclusion that Sulu, at least at that time, wasn't as menacing as I the outsider assumed. That the place could easily be explored by a brave few when not under fire.
In the next two days, unfortunately, my sentiments made a total turnaround.
Mac began his day two prologue in the van with some random report. "Meron pa sigurong bente na andun sa bundok (There are probably twenty people left on the mountain.).", he was referring to kidnap victims. Apparently separatists and extremists are always on the prowl.
Why he shared this piece of information? I must have smelt of ridiculous courage. And he didn't want to take chances.
"He'll die for you.", the words from yesterday echoed and resonated.
I put my guard back up. And it stayed on for the remaining days of our trip that was a mishmash of island hopping with fourteen marines, armed with heavy artillery; driving through no man's lands, and sometimes trudging on them; trying out wayside cafeterias, where the marines themselves are afraid to dine in; and crossing bamboo bridges in a water village to catch weavers of pis (local woven textile) do their magic.
We were introduced to a band of government officials, more marine officers, a member of the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front), civilian women who "guard" their municipality at night (against invaders), and a community rebuilding their reclaimed area. Their choice of staying in their respective hometowns amidst the on and off unrest, to me, is unfathomable. They live in anxiety. Not the I-need-dibs-to-pay-the-bills kind of anxiety that attacks every month, but the I-could-lose-a-house-or-loved-one kind of constant anxiety. My first world issues here are nothing but trivial.
Reconnaissance, or simply recon, is an exploratory mission to gather information about an enemy's territory. It wasn't my objective, but I underwent a recon of sorts. My enemies: doubt, fear, and an adolescent ignorance. I studied them. Overcame them. Handed my life to strangers who would literally catch a bullet for me, and I didn't even know their names. Lent my occasionally stuck up ears to folks whose narratives are bereft of social media lingo.
I tasted victory, but there was nothing to celebrate about. Similar to my first world issues, my personal victory is trivial here as well.
I left the province with a change in character. Akin to a soldier who left the battlefield... There's simply no turning back to my old self.