Mindanao Saga: Return to the Land of Promise (2011 Year Ender)
Mindanao—the second largest island in, down south of the republic…very far yet so close to my heart. For most of the urbanites, it is a place that most should avoid because of adjectives associated with it: war-torn, poverty-stricken and home of the “terrorists.” Indeed, the notion of the island has evaded so many people to visit this great island in the south. However, in my own perspective, we have to take a second look onto this island. Mindanao has so much to offer, so much to see, so much to experience yet so neglected and feared by many.
Mindanao was (and for some, still is) “The Wild West” of the Philippines, as what they said–a tapestry of stories of three seemingly opposite cultures, vastly still unexplored and full of potential.
It has been several years since I last stepped into this island—the last one was in 2005, during my thesis days. Yeah, you might ask: “How come a Manila-born and Iloilo-educated idiot made it to Mindanao for his thesis?” It’s a long story (want to know the story, click here), but it was in that college period that sealed my relationship with this island that brought me curiosity and have loved its tapestry of cultures. I wasn’t scared of crossing “rebel and warlord areas” since then. My visits in Mindanao have changed my life perspective completely.
Now, I went back. And I wasn’t expecting that 2011 would be my return to the Land of Promise, “Ang akon nga pagbalik sa Dutaang Guinsaad.” 2011 is the Year of Mindanao.
Join me as we take a glimpse of the start of my return to the land of my ancestors–Mindanao, on a journal that gives a recap of my journeys down south this year…
Chapter 1: June 2011–Buena Mano sa Soccsksargen!
Read more about my travels in General Santos City, South Cotabato, Maguindanao and Cotabato City here:
I got the money; the airline got a sale, the first city that came into my mind: my beloved Gensan!
Why Gensan and Soccsksargen, for so many destinations in Mindanao?
Because I have the urge to come back here since I consider as my hometown in Mindanao. It was here where I forged my thesis out of curiosity of the migrant Kristyano culture and its implication to the Moros (Muslim Filipinos) and Lumads (animistic indigenous Filipinos). It was here where I got my thesis with flying colors. Sometimes I would even think or feel that I have been here before, during the Pioneering days—well, my late grandfather raised his family and was assassinated here, perhaps that may explain why the sudden affinity to this vastly dusty, hot yet bustling southern Cotabato corridor.
That June, I was so excited to come back. I was excited to see my relatives, my best friend, and some of my colleagues and see the tuna capital once more. Added bonus, I got a travel companion, good friend of mine and fellow Iloilo Blogger, Marcos. The first day, I spent my days in Gensan and finally met the “Dominatrix” of Sox Bloggers, Kuya Avel Manansala and Kuya Orman. Seeing Pioneer Avenue, the “desert-savannah” of Tambler-Fatima, the towering Mount Matutum and the waves of Sarangani Bay, cooling off at the city hall, relaxing at Horizon Spa, eating frenzy at Ranchero’s, House of Cashews, Batchoy King and Fiesta! It was all too real—that finally after half a decade, I was home.
Wrapping things up that day—serendipity came over as we met Manny Pacquiao and Jinkee, a very rare occasion which we weren’t expecting at. I know General Santos City by heart since I kept on going back here in college, but I never knew that it would give me more surprises.
The second day, we woke up and headed to Gensan’s Fish Port to get a glimpse of the Tuna Market. After that, we spent our afternoon in South Cotabato and up into Lake Sebu, the summer capital of South-central Mindanao. The placid mountain lake with its peace-loving T’boli people was the right venue to unwind from stresses of big urban jungle living. The rush of cars was replaced with the rush of water, thundering in the Seven Falls. The smoke that I breathe in was replaced by cool and clean fog from the mountains. The fastfood was replaced with fresh tilapia. The morning ride was replaced by a canoe ride in the lake in search of the fabled lotus that blooms in the morning. And the rude people were suddenly changed into the friendly T’boli and South Cotabateño. Lake Sebu is indeed one of the few places in the country where you can unwind full time. Dream of para…para…paradise.
The third day, Marcos and I parted ways. He went back to Davao while I went ahead to Cotabato City. A lot of things have changed since the last time I passed here. In November 23, 2009, the most brutal killing of journalists and civilians happened in the road to Cotabato City. It has shocked, horrified, and outraged people as to the degree of barbarity and brutality. Even up to this day (nearing the third year) the relatives are still seeking justice. I’ve passed Maguindanao—it was and still is under state of emergency. Saw Sharrif Aguak, the big mansions of the accused in the backdrop of shanties, and towns and projects that sprang out of nowhere. Maguindanao is still charged up and still uncertain.
My return visit to Cotabato City was brief. Thanks to Chris Sodusta and Jam, I’ve managed to travel the old capital of the Empire Province in a jiffy. Grand new edifices such as the partially-Brunei funded Golden Mosque (journalists call it Masjid Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah) and People’s Palace (the new city hall of Cotabato) were on my itinerary. However, the grand antique edifices such as the landmark old Cotabato City Hall, and the old provincial capitol of the Empire Province of Cotabato (which even locals didn’t knew it even existed) I have to visit. And before I leave for Tacurong that late afternoon, I’ve managed to visit the nerve center of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (Bangsamoro) in ORC. That evening, I managed to travel in the dark and rain at Maguindanao—was concerned but not fearful. I reached Tacurong safely.
The last day, I went to Tacurong city hall to give the finished product of my hardwork in college. After all, I prefer to hand it over personally than sending it via courier. It has sealed my five year promise for the people I called kasimanwas sa habagatang bahin. That afternoon, the rain fell tremendously in Gensan…our plane was delayed (which I’ve hoped for, sorry for being mean)—as if the weather knows my emotion of sadness leaving home once more…then, luck had it—T’nalak Festival next month and I have a ticket just in time for it!
Chapter 2: July 2011– Three Cities, Less than 24 Hours! Davao, Gensan and T’nalak Festival at Marbel
With my boss coming from LA, my vacation to Davao was under threat. Good thing though, I flexed myself. This was my shortest trip in Mindanao so far, spending only one night at Davao then left for Manila the following evening. It was a one, two and three punch destination—three cities in less than 24 hours!
Davao was the first destination. I arrived there by nightfall. First time since 2005 and it was my home for more than two months, back when I spent my summer classes in UP Minadnao. The smell of durian was everywhere yet Kadayawan Festival was just a few days from then. I miss it.
A lot of things here changed though. The once empty lot, is now another Ayala Mall called Abreeza—a hybrid of Trinoma and Ayala Center Cebú in one. I may not like malls on vacation though, but I have to meet a company of people here…That night, I had a relaxing time with a friend of mine from Davao at Green Coffee together with the rest of the company…and in the wee hours of the morning, we took some running tour of Davao City before retiring in a nice dormitelle in downtown called Green Windows. It was a quickie since I have to wake up as early as 3AM…first trip bound for Marbel—a 4 hour ride from Davao via of course…Gensan!
Our trip was rough…the road was deteriorating in Davao del Sur area. (Three months later, it would be repaired). Yet I didn’t mind. The bus was comfy enough to sleep…however; the vistas didn’t let me doze off. I miss the journey itself.
We stopped over at General Santos for a while before heading to Marbel, a less than hour trip with one of the best roads in the country. South Cotabato has one of the best highways in the country! Less curves, wide and seemingly like a runway, this made travelling within the province stress free! No wonder people here take that 50+ kilometers ride from Marbel to Gensan as if like commuting from Ayala to Cubao in Manila—less the traffic!
It was T’nalak Festival—celebrating South Cotabato’s founding anniversary, celebrating the three cultures of Kristyano, Moro and Lumad with street dancing. The street dance was one of their highlights, and I did enjoyed seeing different peoples, T’boli, B’laan, Maguindanaoan, and Visayan groups perform in one event. Too bad, I have to leave early to go back to Davao for my evening flight.
Chapter 3: S3X Tour – Soccsksargen Bira!
This was the third time in three months that I’ve been to Gensan and the rest of southcentral Mindanao. I was invited in the annual SEX Tour (It’s Soccsksargen Experience Tour, not that nasty one) that was organized by Avel and the rest of Sox Bloggers. This time, there’s some adventure and food on it. General Santos City at that time was celebrating its charter day, paying homage to the source of their income through Tuna Festival.
It was unfortunate that I didn’t made it to the first day, where the participants had some great time in western Sarangani (water tubing, the 1st zipline, snorkeling and even riding a military tanque de Guerra!) yet at least I made it through dinner, after that sixteen hours of transit (from office to hotel, baby! Haha!)
My first real live taste of the tour was in B’lakayo in Gensan. Having one of the fastest and highest zip lines in the country, it was nerve-wracking! Fresh food was also served. Nevertheless, I conquered my fear for uncertainty once I stepped out of the platform and let it all lose. After spending our morning up in the mountains, we headed back to downtown to eat more (Calda Pizza) and watch the pageantry of Mr. and Ms. Gensan, which was organized by Kuya Orman, one of the Sox Bloggers.
Sunday came in and we went to South Cotabato for some out-of-town leisure. It was back to Lake Sebu for me, yet I wasn’t able to conquer one of the highest zip lines in the Philippines. We were lucky that our admission was free—and so, we flew over the Seven Falls! It was indeed a sight to behold! I remember a Palestinian friend of mine said, “You folks have great sights here, unfortunately not that as visited as the rest of SE Asia.” What’s more when it’s Mindanao? That afternoon, we ate our lunch beside the lake and then spent it at Marbel at its first wave resort. The evening came in, we had our dinner at an ancestral house at San Isidro, Gensan—peculiar since you don’t see such American-colonial houses in southcentral Mindanao. We had a dinner with the mayor, and I was lucky to have a one-on-one for her, telling about my experiences, my ideas and even the intention of pushing sisterhood cities for Gensan and Iloilo. We ended our night well with crazy pictorials and sumptuous food. Tired, but still smiling.
The next day was the last day of the tour—and it was the highlight of Tuna Festival. We jumpstarted our morning with visiting the nerve center of its economy, the Gensan Fish Port. By afternoon, we had our lunch at BeeStop then off to Robinsons to see the starting of the floats for the parade. Apparently, the float parade reached the main streets of downtown Gensan around 8PM already…thank goodness; we had our first dinner at Asian Tongue then the second one on top of Sydney Hotel. We had a great view of the parade from the top! It was the end of the tour for most of us. For me, I still have three more days to wander and reminisce in Soccsksargen.
The next day, I feel like I don’t like to do anything except eating pastel and go back to visit Tacurong. It was only a quick day, visiting some friends at the city hall and looking what’s new there. Tacurong has been my dad’s birthplace, and I owe them so much with the success that I had in finishing college. I was planning to offer services for them sometime soon though.
Morning came and I went back (again) to Lake Sebu. I have yet to see the Lady Dreamweaver herself, the national living treasure, responsible for keeping the T’nalak cloth weaving alive despite the onslaught of commercialization and modernization that penetrated the T’boli society. Lang Dulay was recognized by the national government because of her effort in preserving what was then a dying legacy of her people. In her simple hut, she teaches younger generation of T’boli women the art of weaving. She is confident that her legacy will still push through even if she fades away in this world. For the T’boli, she has done well and earned well-respect.
That night, I had a dinner with Avel, Mars and Nardz. We unexpectedly met the daughter of the first mayor of Dadiangas/Gensan, which was Ireneo Santiago. I told my stories and my love for the place. What trembled me was when she said this, “Next time I’ll treat you, since you are already an adopted son of General Santos City.” I was speechless.
And because of such extensive vacation, that when the last day came in and I was at the airport, I stop myself from crying silently. Like I had in my college days, I refuse to leave Mindanao—I was (and still is) thinking of relocating here, especially when I was in Gensan. Sobbing as we leave, the place that I hold dearly in Mindanao was there. I’m sure that I’ll come back once more.
Chapter 3: September 2011–Bienvenidos Zamboanga!
- For my Zamboanga journeys, click here.
It was my first time in Ciudad Zamboanga–first time, since I was just only until Pagadian City, some six hours away from the other side of Zamboanga Peninsula. The first time was a shock. I was expecting wide roads and spacious urban planning, but the downtown (Pueblo) itself was like—I’m back in Luzon or Visayas! Drafted during Spanish colonial era, Zamboanga is unique to Mindanao, for they speak Creole Spanish called Chavacano. My first day though wasn’t here. My dad was at a project in Zamboanga Sibugay, so I also went with him there.
I started exploring Ipil, the capital of Zamboanga Sibugay province early in the morning. Jogging at the streets and have a hearty breakfast beside the street. The town has a scarred and tragic past. In 1995, armed men, believed to be the Moro rebels, sacked, stormed and razed the town to the ground, killing more or less fifty Ipileños. The event shocked the nation of the degree of barbarity. From that tragic day, the town rose from the ashes—literally, and is now one of the most progressive in the peninsula.
That afternoon, I went back to Zamboanga City. Thank goodness my colleague from college was there. So, she gave me a tour and has the first bites of La Comida Zamboangueña by eating pastel in WMSU then chilling out at Paseo del Mar, after visiting and praying at Fort Pilar—Zamboanga’s very own Catholic pilgrimage site, at the same time historic.
The next day though was a bit unexpected. I had a breakfast at Jimmy’s satti—spicy jumpstart! Had an unplanned trip at the pink sand beaches of Santa Cruz and visited the Badjao cemetery there. The serene calm of the sea made me think of spending here overnight together with the residents. Island life at the edge of conformity, as what some people would have said. That afternoon, a friend of mine took me as far west as Ayala-Recodo, the industrial base of Zamboanga’s sardine industry, to the relaxing Ecozone resort then well all the way to Taluksangay to experience maghrib adhan or the call for prayer that dusk. And as for me, my dinner was tulah itum, the Tausug people’s answer to Tagalog’s bulalo with burned coconut and spicy turmeric flavor.
And the last day…I spent it all at Pueblo. The downtown itself gives me quite a charm though, from Cawa-Cawa Boulevard to Plaza Pershing and to the grand historic city hall of Zamboanga. Also to the greeneries of Pasonanca to relax and then I bought some goods at Canelar Barter Market and went back into the museum of Fort Pilar. This city is often mistaken by some as a war-torn and terrorist-haven for bombings, when in fact it isn’t. Sure it has its shares of bombings—well, just like Manila’s right? But it would be very unfair for the Zamboangueños to treat them as such distant country. The city is a hub of cultures. She got me for the first time and with that, my promise to come back at Asia’s Latin City of Flowers.
Chapter 4: November 2011 – To the Kingdom of Sarimanok and the Majestic Waterfalls
Read more about my travels in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur and Iligan:
Who would have thought that I’ll be going into this place? My mom was even enraged when she found out that I’ll be going here. People have advised me to just—go to Cagayan de Oro, to Iligan, to Davao, to Gensan—BUT PLEASE, stay out of Marawi. It’s dangerous and people there shouldn’t be trusted. Isn’t just that I’m curious or was it that I’m hard headed that I didn’t heed the tips of most of my friends and relatives. If my late mentor even stayed here for a long time, why shouldn’t I explore it myself? So, I’m off to the “Kingdom of the Fabled Sarimanok,” Marawi City and Lanao Del Sur.
Marawi City itself was strangely alluring. Its way different from the rest of Mindanao and the Philippines, as if it has its own culture, own world that it is running. The city continuously is in sync with the beats of Islam, since majority of its residents are Muslims. Time here seems to follow the salat or the five daily prayers—with muezzins calling from time to time with their hypnotic and enchanting azan or call to prayer. The cool and wet weather was refreshing. Although for first timers, the city seems kinda’ depressing yet the people itself have a lot of treasures in store—may it be in the banks (financially) or to the art galleries (culturally). It has also a sizable student population since Mindanao State University is located nearby.
Marawi wasn’t enough. We even went to where the Maranao’s answer to Angono and Paete as “art and cultural centers,” Tugaya. Yes folks, we went deep into Lanao del Sur—something that the tourists may wouldn’t think about. Tugaya on the other hand has this extraordinary distinction of being a center of Maranao arts—the cabu, the kris, the brass-works, the inawol and malong, all in one town proper beside the calm Lanao Lake. Traders flock here to purchase their works of art, just like in Paete or Angono.
Yet despite evading the advices of my relatives and friends, I still have to be careful on what to do and where to go. Even our Maranao guide gave us some advice since some of them are still suspicious about the outsiders, or you might even be entangled in a generations-old clan war called ridu. Overall, its respect for the culture that they ask for—respect begets respect.
I’ll be back here in Marawi and Lanao del Sur…this place has earned my interest to understand more of the Bangsamoro culture.
As I leave the Kingdom of the Fabled Sarimanok, I spent my last full day at Iligan City—dubbed as the city of majestic waterfalls. Who wouldn’t, you got a lot of them within the city’s area itself! Iligan is virtually Visayan, just only an hour away from the Islamic Marawi. Thanks to the Iligan Bloggers, they gave me insights of what I once called “Industrial City of Minadnao” since a lot of heavy industries such as then National Steel, Holcim-Iligan Cement and NAPOCOR have their addresses here. Its history is entangled with the Visayans, Maranao and the Higaonon Lumads.
The next day though, it was waterfalls craze all over. I couldn’t believe that I would be seeing Maria Cristina Falls this close, from what was once just a postcard picture! What’s more, I saw its gradual awakening since for most of the time of the year, only Maria can be seen. It was a surprise and majestic yet all powerful since most of Mindanao’s electricity comes here.
Then to that hidden waterfalls appropriately called Tinago Falls. It’s an effort going here. The cool and pristine falls look heavenly and divine. I was tempted to take a dip yet I only had a short time—SAYANG! What’s more, the challenge was to get back up again. Incredible and steep 500+ steps! I can feel my fats burning indeed. It made me convince that—city living has taken a toll on me. I can do this before, but now—I couldn’t even take the next fifty steps! My next mission—be fit by next year, through hell or high water!
I confess that my stay in Lanao was short. Like all vacations in Mindanao are. I did enjoyed Iligan and the company of Iligan Bloggers. I met new friends and fresher perspective of what it is in Northern Minadnao. I have proven the people wrong. As like in travel, taking risks is its partner. Without it, you couldn’t move ahead—just like in life.
Mindanao the Misunderstood
For most Filipinos, traveling to Mindanao was like traveling to the Wild West. You may never know what’s coming up nor would you even be going face to face with danger himself? What I wouldn’t understand is why the hesitation to visit the island itself? Why label Mindanaoans as if they have scarred the rest of the nation, while the Philippines itself seemingly can’t let go of this resource-rich island? In its history, she may have her own wars in its own backyard, distrusts among the three Mindanaoan peoples, sporadic conflicts and all others, but today is different from yesterday.
I challenge every Filipino to take a second look and visit Mindanao. Let us not just listen to the seemingly exaggerated and often sensationalized news about her. Like all travels, we should take the risk and break the shadow of conformity and face a new world—just like in life.
Mindanao may be misunderstood still by most of our kababayans, but it is better that if this generation would start thinking otherwise—understand its culture, its history and treat every people with respect. People of this generation should be courageous enough to let their minds open and explore the world. Philippines is not Manila alone.
And as for me, I may not be born and raised in Mindanao, but I’m proud to say that I am “Made in Mindanao.” My bloodline runs from the mountains and the sea of its vast and unexplored tapestry. To be honest with you folks, I still have a lot of pending posts and backlogs about Mindanao, that’s how a single island has so many photos, so many perspectives and so many stories to tell the whole world.
This is my personal entry for the Pinoy Travel Bloggers’ Blog Carnival for the month of November 2011, hosted by Olan Fernandez Emboscado of The Travel Teller, for “A Bliss Called Mindanao.”
All for my personal advocacy of peace and development in Mindanao!