The Abu Sayyaf.
"Everything You Have Ever Wanted is on the Other Side of Fear."
In the mid to late 1990s, there were travel warnings for Americans traveling to the Philippines, and the warnings recommended NOT to visit the Southern Islands of Mindanao. I did not read travel warnings. I went where I wanted to go.
Talikud Island in 1996 had a few tiny rustic resorts along the coastline that were mostly thatch roof huts on stilts and were we reachable only by water. The island was covered by dense jungle and primarily uninhabited. One tiny beachfront resort had about 8 cabins, no running water, and no electricity, except for a small generator. The resort was managed by a married local Filipino couple and catered to Filipinos tourists with the rooms renting for 200 - 300 Pesos ($8-12) per night for a small 12 x 12 ft thatched-roof hut on the beach.
To get to the islands, one would take a small ferry from Davao City to Samal Island, the larger of the two islands. Samal island was more developed, and there was a luxury resort called the Pearl Farm Beach Resort, which catered to foreign visitors. From Samal Island, you had to rent a smaller boat to get to Tilikud Island.
Tilikud island was reachable by a smaller long-tail boat that could hold up to 6 people. The smaller boats had to be hired as there was no regular service. My Filipino friend Brian and I hired a long tail boat for 200 Pesos to Tilkikud to check it out the island a day trip.
Brian was a young Filipino guy I met 5 years before when he was a teen my first trip to the Phillippines. I had stayed with his mom and family on my first and second trip to the Phillippines, so I knew them well. Brian had been to Tilikud before, but not with a blonde American.
On the boat ride to the island, the water was magnificent, clear turquoise blue with transparent bright colored fish you could see just below the surface. The boat dropped us off at a small dock near a group of small huts. When we arrived at the rustic resort, there were no other guests except for the manager and his family. The huts faced the sea, and the back of the property was bordered by raw jungle. The Jungle was so thick with foliage that it seemed like you would need a machete just to clear a path for a short walk. The caretaker, his wife, and their young family resided in the main house which was raised up on stilts. They kept their hogs underneath the house behind bamboo fencing.
After spending the afternoon playing in the sea, we checked with the caretaker to find out what time the boatman would be back. He said there were no more boats for the day and the next one would be tomorrow morning. Fortunately, we did have a change of clothes because we had planned a beach day.
After hearing there were no more boats to go back to the big island, I noticed a change in Brians demeanor-the usual light sense of humor vanished.
I said, "It's ok, we can just stay in one of the huts."
Brian spoke to the manager. Ok, it was settled we would rent one of the beach huts for 300 Pesos and just leave in the morning. We did not have any food with us, so the resident family offered us some rice and fish.
My skin was covered with saltwater and sand. I asked for fresh water to rinse off, and the wife brought me a small plastic bucket of water. Brian told me in English not to ask for more freshwater because it was a coveted item on the island and had to be brought in. I could not stand to sleep with salty skin, so I did my best to rinse off with the half-gallon of water.
After eating and watching the sunset, we sat around a small outdoor table with the couple while their children settled in for the night. The generator was going, and a few lights were on, but otherwise, it was very dark. We could hear the waves in the background. It was as relaxing as you could get for a remote island in the Phillippines.
There was a rustling in the jungle behind us. Out of the darkness, 4 dark-skinned men appeared. They wore dirty bandanas around their foreheads, had longish hair, stained T-shirts, and they were barefoot or wore cheap rubber sandals. Their eyes glittered in the dark as did their machetes, the silver gleaming in the moonlight. They looked like they had been living in off the grid for months. They spoke to the caretaker in the local dialect. There was a rapid exchange of words, and then the attention turned to me. The men interrogated my friend Brian. His replies were hesitant, and I could feel the tension in the air. It was a palatable fear, yet I had no clue what was being said. After a few minutes of a heated exchange, the machete jungle guys retreated into the darkness of the jungle.
Brian was visibly sweating. His hands were clammy, and he had another quick conversation with the caretaker.
I asked, "What did they want?"
I was not nervous, I was traveling, and this was just part of the adventure. However, I was curious to know what the pirate looking guys wanted.
Brian took me aside and told me in English, "These are the Muslim guys, and they are not good, they wanted to know who you were, why you were there, and if they could buy you, so I told them you were my wife, so they would leave."
I was shocked and replied, "Buy me? Who are they?"
Not wanting to scare me, he told me he would tell me later.
(Keep in mind this was before 9/11 - before Americans really were familiar with Muslim extremists)
The resort manager immediately insisted that we could not stay in the hut on the beach because it was too dangerous. He wanted us to sleep inside the family home in an interior room.
We slept on a mat on the floor inside the families house that night in a locked room. I could hear the pigs rooting around during the night under the floorboards. Brian did not sleep. He was up all night trying to hide his fear from me. He just said we had to keep quiet.
At dawn, we came out of the house. During the night, someone had stolen my beach clothes that bad been hanging on a line to dry.
By 8 am, we were on a long-tail boat back to the big island of Samal. On the boat ride, Brian finally told me what had actually transpired.
The "pirate jungle guys" were the Abu Sayyaf and they were known to kidnap and hold for ransom American and Western tourists. They were known to torture and often behead hostages that could not pay the ransom.
That night they were worried the Abu Sayyaf would return to kidnap me.
I had just personally encountered one of the most dangerous extremists' groups on the planet. Unreal.
(A few months later that year Americans were kidnapped and killed on the adjacent beach at the Pearl Farm Beach Resort).
Over the next 20 years, the Abu Sayyaf - related to Osama bin Ladin and Al Queda. Continued to terrorize the Southern Phillippines.
As recent as 2016, Western tourists continued to be kidnapped and beheaded from Samal island and the Pearl Farm Beach Resort.
(click links for more information).
Despite this close dangerous encounter, I returned to The Southern Phillippines solo in 2014 to visit my Filipino penpal and her family. Now I read the travel warnings, but I still travel to where I want to go.
20 years later Tilikud is still considered a remote island but has been built up quite a bit. Check out a recent youtube video of the island. https://youtu.be/_jm7N3kCD2I
My friend Lummie, and I went to a resort called "Paradise Island Beach Resort." I did not sleep well during our stay, but I will always believe that fear should not stop a person from living their life.
Instagram shot from Paradise Island 2014
“Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.”