Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines, has been labelled as a war-torn area creating fear among tourists. But serenity was what I saw when I visited the region.
The lush greens of agricultural lands and rainforests in SOCSARGEN region (South Cotabato, Sarangani, General Santos) welcomed us as the plane descended to General Santos International Airport.
It has been six days of fun and adventure with Cultureight Travel team as the rich culture of Mindanao and its high potential for tourism were uncovered right before my eyes.
From the airport in Brgy. Tambler, we roamed around the 11-hectare General Santos Fish Port Complex situated along the shores of Sarangani Bay. Proper attire of clothes with sleeves, pants and rubber shoes were required for sanitation purposes. White boots were also provided to avoid slipping on the wet markets.
We were welcomed by fresh tuna being weighed and tagged for the domestic market.
Paris Ayon, port manager for Food Safety of the Philippine Fisheries Development Authority, told us that around 10,000 fishermen supply 250 metric tons of tuna in a day for consumption of the 90 percent export market and 10 percent domestic market.
Thus, General Santos City earned the title as the Tuna Capital of the Philippines. General Santos City relies heavily on the exportation of tuna, making up 60 percent of its economy.
After wandering along the busy port, we filled our stomachs with a sumptuous meal while being entertained by the sound of kulintang and the gongs at the Sarangani Highlands, which is overlooking the serene Sarangani Bay.
In the afternoon, courage was tested as we brave the big splash of the rapids of Pangi River at Brgy. New La Union in Maitum, Sarangani. White water tubing really raises one’s adrenaline levels. This outdoor sport is for the adventurous soul and not for the faint-hearted. Tubing involves the use of a donut-like rubber tire. The Municipality of Maitum used two recycled rubber tires of a truck, which serve as chairs for the guest and the local guide.
The community calls the barangay as New La Union because most of the residents are Ilocanos from La Union in Pangasinan.
During the evening, Nanay Perla, a local of Maitum, opened her house for guests like us. The homey atmosphere would not make you feel that you are away from home. Staying in a homestead which costs around Php 750 with breakfast is an alternative to the usual inns.
Our second day in Sarangani stretched our muscles as we trekked the Zion Mountain which is home to the Zion Cave. Wearing strapped outdoor sandals is advisable. Thong slippers would not help you hike and cross the rivers.
In my case, my rubber slipper on my left foot gave up due to the strong river current making me walk barefoot. But walking on the rocky road to the Zion cave felt good just like getting a foot massage.
Nonetheless, a local official of the barangay named Arlene helped me by tying my slipper with a long dried coconut leaf. The whole barangay welcomed us with barbecued fish and native chicken as we arrived at the foot of the cave. It was so overwhelming.
Arlene told me that kaingin is still practiced in their barangay as it is their only way to plant crops in the mountain. I felt bad. They really need to be educated that kaingin is destroying Mother Earth.
From the mountain to the seas, we visited the Pawikan Nesting Sanctuary at Brgy. Old Poblacion. The Municipality of Maitum is trying to conserve rainturtles, hawksbill, and olive Reedley from its threatened state.
Life seems so peaceful in this part of Mindanao as kids play with their crab pet while mothers weave nets as they await their husbands’ arrival with a fish catch for their daily sustenance.
Swimming with the school of fish
Snorkeling was also one of the highlights of the trip as we swam with schools of fish in the Tuka Marine Park in Kiamba, Sarangani.
In 2005, the Municipality of Kiamba declared core zone 2 in Tuka Marine Park as a protected area based on RA 8550 or the Philippine Fisheries code of 1998.
The Tuka Marine Park is a haven of colorful hard and soft corals where clown fish, napoleon wrasse, barracudas and other marine species lived.
Immersing with the community
The Ancient South Crash tour of Cultureight was not just sightseeing but it let us experience the way of life of the T’bolis in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato.
Maria, whose T’boli name is Oyog Todi, greeted us on a rainy afternoon as she accepted us in the tribal guest house. The T’boli children smiled as we entered the tribal house made of bamboo (kawayan) and nipa (sawali). It was not the ordinary bahay-kubo with its large area. Surprisingly, the bamboos used as foundations were not nailed together.
The T’bolis still kept their rich culture alive as Maria and the T’boli children performed their ethnic dances such as the Madal Tahu, Madal Soyow (Warrior dance), and Madal Iwas (Monkey dance).
After they danced, they taught us the movements of the dances to the beat of the t’nonggong (drum) and the harmonious string sound of the hegelung (guitar).
The children also showed how skillful they were in making accessories through beadworks. Even a three-year old girl named Yenyen can put beads in strands of threads. Artistry blends in the culture of the T’bolis as they passed it from one generation to the other.
They may not be rich financially but the living culture of the T’boli sets them apart from the rest. It makes me proud to be a Filipino.