A Mindanao travel experience.

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Flag of Philippines  ,
Monday, July 7, 2008

A Mindanao travel experience.
Text and Images by Ronald de Jong 

I love to travel and I have a passion for Mindanao, despite the fact that the island of Mindanao is often associated with violence, kidnappings by bandit groups and the ongoing war between separatists and the Philippine Government troops and that this region is many times portrayed in the media with a negative image. I've read that Mindanao has always had the reputation of being dangerous, especially for foreigners.

But truly, I don't think that Mindanao, and particularly the province of South Cotabato is more unsafe than many other places in the world. I've spent a lot of time travelling across this exotic island, living and laughing with the locals and I was fortunate to enjoy their hospitality and friendship at first hand.
My trips allowed me to get in touch with a distinctive culture that is a mixture of Asian, Spanish and American influences combined with the familiar warmth of Filipino culture. I know Mindanao has another, peaceful side; this island is home to a very diverse group of people, valuing peace and harmony above anything else, with a common desire for peace and stability. Catholic settlements are largely spread within and alongside the Muslim communities. Many indigenous tribes are settled here, including T'boli, Yakan. Moro, Tausug, Maranao, Samal and Badjao among others. The blending of Islamic and Christian cultures and its diversity is a fascinating experience. There is a wide variety of dialects, both local to Mindanao as well as those from the Visayas, like Cebuano and even from Luzon. The many tongues spoken in Mindanao are a testament of the diversity in cultures that thrive on this island. Mindanao is considered a unique melting pot of religions, different cultures, customs and traditions that make a captivating contribution to the island's ethnic image and original charm. 
While travelling through this wonderful and idyllic region, I came across an endless hideaway of white sand beaches, islands, lagoons, mangrove swamps, mountains, valleys, ocean, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, rock formations, forests, springs and marshlands. The region of South Cotabato was a perfect base for most of my explorations and an ideal place for my 'off the beaten track' eco-adventures. Most impressive was the visit to Lake Sebu, a beautiful inland sea that is located in the southern Tiruray Highlands at an altitude of almost 300m (984ft. Lake Sebu is surrounded by rolling hills and forested mountains and is home to the T'boli, a highland tribe famous for their colourful costumes, complicated beadwork, woven work and brass ornaments. Their traditional art forms, music and dance are well preserved. 
In this T'boli ancestral domain I discovered the striking beauty of Lake Sebu's natural waterfalls, named "the Seven falls" , which are a spectacular sight that did remind me once more of the fabulous power of Mother Nature, and truly, this place instantly captured my heart. Lake Sebu actually consists of three adjacent mountain lakes; Lake Sebu is the largest among the three lakes. Lake Siluton, the deepest and Lahit the smallest. These placid lakes are found in the middle of Allah Valley Watershed Forest Reserve which is used for fish farming or Tilapia Culture, duck raising and the harvesting of freshwater shrimps and snails. More than one half of the land around the lake is cultivated for agriculture. The lake also irrigates the fertile Allah Valley; the area surrounding Lake Sebu has many small streams, rivers, springs and creeks. Local tribesmen consider the lake not only a God-given food basket but also a miraculous body of water that never dries up. 
The Seven waterfalls run down the rugged terrain of magnificent hills. From these falls, nr 1 and nr 2 are the most accessible, the others have yet to have access trails. Crystal clear water from the edges of the hills has, over the ages, carved these unique scenic masterpieces in a brilliant display of natural colours. The Lonon Falls which is the largest of the group pours thousands of cubic meters of water into a natural pool that provides good swimming spots. The pristine forest vegetation surrounding the lake is thick and humid, but magnificent for a nature loving traveller like me. In this green paradise there are refreshing springs that flow out of rocks, natural caves and exciting nature trails way up into the mossy forests. Wild boars and Philippine deer live around the lake and are considered endangered species. The lake and the surrounding rainforest are a natural habitat to Philippine cockatoo's, swallows, kingfishers, herons and kites. These rugged hills are a rest stop for migratory birds and are a popular site with birdwatchers. The Philippine Eagle and Tarsier are among the important and endangered wildlife species sighted in the tropical forest of Lake Sebu. 

I came across some good resorts in Lake Sebu, with guided boat tours, recreational facilities and hotel accommodation. A few of them are the Traankini resort, Estares resort, The Mountain log resort, Dongon Hills & Falls resort and the Punta Isla Resort. The restaurants at most resorts are specialized in the native cuisine which mainly consists of tilapia dishes, a delicious fish to eat. These fishes are kept in net-enclosed bamboo fish pens and taken out only when ordered, so the freshness of my catch was guaranteed. Lake Sebu is often named the Summer Capital of the Southern Philippines, the climate is pleasantly cool, a beautiful place to enjoy. A new and challenging location to explore where I watched magnificent sunrises and sunsets in a panoramic view.  Lake Sebu is considered a fast growing cultural centre and the area is emerging as a viable destination for eco-tourism. I surely appreciated these lavish gifts of nature, its incredible flowers, amazing vegetation and many different animals. The scenery and light in this picturesque place, surrounded by serene waters, make it a living museum and a great outdoor escape, a photographer's paradise that have surprised me with awesome natural sceneries. 
The highlight of my trips was the T'nalak festival in Koronadal City, the grandest festival in the area that celebrates the province foundation anniversary. T'nalak is the name of a unique and colourful way of weaving the abaca cloth by the T'boli tribal community. Some locals told me to get ready for the most exciting, popular and colourful festivals celebrated in the province, because this festival was celebrated with great intensity, passion and enthusiasm and with a mixture of religion and culture. And they were right, this celebration kicked off with the Dayana Civic Parade highlighted by a float and cheer dance competition and closed with the T'nalak Parade or Madal Bel'. The colourful street dancing competition offered me unique entertainment with young dancers from around the region, dressed in native costumes of B'laan, T'boli and other tribal groups in South Cotabato, performing on the streets of the city. 
These competitions showed me the rich and colourful heritage of the several minorities in this area. The T'nalak parade is a spectacular performance that was a feast for my eyes, together with the sound of a pretty impressive tune that kept me standing on my toes for a long time. Really, this week long festival puts together all the historical and spiritual culture of South Cotabato, It was a great event to see and a unique way to see this culture in action, something I would not like to have missed.  Even as a spectator I could feel the unifying power of this celebration and the irrepressibly festive spirit and vibrant nature of the participants. 
Travelling through the island of Mindanao was great, mainly because of the means of public transportation, or should I say the lack of it. One of the most interesting ways for me, in getting around Mindanao, was taking a local jeepney; it took me almost anywhere I would like to go. I know that many things have been written and much is said already about the Philippine Jeepney and Tricycle and I guess that most readers have not experienced travelling with this fantastic form of local transportation. I will give you my own perspective on these magnificent vehicles, a personal reflection, seen through the eyes of a spoiled, but open minded Westerner visiting the wonderful island of Mindanao. 
I've learned that the Jeepney is one of the most popular means of public transportation in the Philippines, a unique way of travelling and that the Jeepney was originally made from left over US military jeeps which, in time became a symbol of the Philippine culture. My first impression was that on the Island of Mindanao most jeepneys are festively decorated and are often named after biblical characters and women. Every single Philippine jeepney is personalized; no jeepney is exactly the same as another. These undisputed "Kings of the road" are famous for their fantastic illustrations, bright colours and notorious for their crowded seating and horn-blowing drivers.
But I also found out that these drivers can be, most of the time anyway, an amusement to their passengers and the best guides one can find in any part of Mindanao.
I t was obvious to see that the jeepney is very popular with the local community, the seats inside were often filled with passengers and their belongings. Every trip made I was seated face-to-face and knee to knee, my personal space was minimized to almost nothing. However, to my surprise, always new passengers were added to the already overcrowded cabin. Here I experienced that Mindanaoans are very flexible and creative people. They will still get on board, eager to start the journey to their own destination, hanging from the tail bumpers and sitting on the top of the jeepney, balancing their way to the next stop. It was obvious to see that these jeepneys mirror Mindanao's proud culture and its rich heritage. At least I had the chance to take a good and close look at ordinary people in their daily life, and many times I wondered myself, who was looking at who? It was evident that even my person was an interesting subject of the other passenger's curiosity. 
Standing aside the road and hailing a jeepney with a raised hand was enough to stop any Jeepney and catch a ride, once inside I could stop the vehicle by knocking on the jeepney's ceiling-top or tap a peso coin on the roof. The various destinations were displayed on the sides of the jeepney and its windshields, so it was not really difficult to find the jeepney that was heading in the direction I wanted to go. Anyway, the fares were very inexpensive and riding one was always fun and exciting.
In places where there are fewer jeepneys, the tricycle is another popular way of transportation. The tricycle is a motorcycle with a sidecar combination, a canvas or metal roof stretched over a framework of metal bars, welded to the sidecar. A three-wheeled workhorse that carries passengers and cargo, which can easily reach the interior roads, narrow alleys and rural areas in Mindanao. 

This people's transportation mini vehicle can be seen in many different forms and length; it can serve passengers in almost any kind of weather, terrain, road and traffic conditions. It is rigged for the transportation of people, live animals, fish, furniture, charcoal, appliances and hardware and sometimes even used as an ambulance. Tricycles are often decorated with various mirrors, colourful banners and constructed with stainless steel and shiny chrome. But also in this vehicle, space is limited. I had to squeeze in like a sardine in a crowded pack, feeling every pothole in the road and bumping my head to the top every time we hit one. Nevertheless, it was a great experience inside a small motorcycle.
The colourful  jeepney and the exotic tricycle both symbolize the Philippines, they perfectly reflect the carefree atmosphere of the Island of Mindanao and are the most recognized, most distinct and the most unique modes of primary transportation in this region. Taking a ride with these icons of local transport gave me the opportunity to get in touch with the real countryside; I could mingle with the local and friendly population. For me it was an unusual, amazing and inspirational way of travelling with these symbols of Filipino ingenuity and indigenous improvisation that opened new and personal frontiers. 

Personally, I have experienced Mindanao as a diverse, safe and inexpensive destination, the attractions of this beautiful island are as many as they are diverse, always offering something different and special to me. The beach resorts, the garden resorts, traditional villages, canopy walks, mountain hikes, food festivals and trade fairs make it a unique combination of recreation and relaxation. Though the accommodations in South Cotabato may not be as luxurious as the usual tourist spots in the Philippines, low prices, friendly people, legendary and warm local hospitality did make my travels memorable and pleasurable experiences.
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