Star Date: July 2007
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
(Welcome - Muslim - Central Mindanao)
"A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears."
(Michel de Montaigne (1533 - 1592)
We continued traveling over the mountainous interior of Samar, further discovering this unexplored island. Logging had occurred near the thatched hut villages but hopefully, as claims have it, some of the distant inaccessible mountains still hide surprises like virgin jungle or isolated tribes. We keep looking, ever hopeful.
Invited into the home of Jesus
Estefan, or Steve, a local principal, we met his 81 yr old Mom and
76 yr old Dad who had horrible tales of the Japanese occupation.
To our delight, after a walk on the beach, Dad scurried up a 100 ft
coconut tree in their backyard and offered us a taste of their 'buko
maserat' or delicious young coconuts. Can you picture any 76
year old that you know doing the same precarious feat of climbing up
a trunk 10 stories high? A highly religious Catholic family,
they kept wanting to know our personal beliefs. Finally they
were satisfied with our story that when something good happens in
our life we say, "Thank you, God" to our friend. There were
several ex-pats with Filipina wives living along the beach and we
spent some enjoyable time with them exploring the Borongan area.
We were invited to ride in the lap of luxury of Stewart and Jenna's
new Toyota SUV down to the north end of Leyete, the next island
Island of Fear. A long day of buses and ferries brought us to the large southernmost island of Mindanao. Scores of ambitious young boys swam alongside the ferry, diving for pesos that were thrown their way. The quaint islands and colorful sunset were punctuated by a large yellow moon rising to join the star filled sky. We made our avocado salad on the top deck and enjoyed our cruise through the dark, calm waters. Choosing to keep away from living a life of fear we weren't prepared for the stories awaiting us on this sometimes tumultuous island.
As is often the case, apprehensions are soon alleviated, if we allow ourselves to open up to new ideas. While the ferry was docking on our new unknown island we were graciously offered a ride into town by Neil and his father. They introduced themselves by saying they had heard we were vegetarians and had cooked our meal in the restaurant at the Leyte ferry dock. There are NO secrets in this country! They stuffed us with handfuls of unsweetened banana chips, a cooperative project in western Mindanao that the Dad believes will inspire the locals to exchange their guns for business opportunities in this restless area.
Tucked into our little hotel room we slept soundly. In the morning as we checked out, we were knocked over by a crushing wave of fear as locals and a surly expat loudly told us in no uncertain terms that we were "F---ing Crazy" to go down the remote eastern coastal road. "There are bandits that will steal then kill you or the NPA (or National Peoples Army) rebels will rob you to fund their cause". The Filipina wife of an expat, living on nearby Siargao Island for 26 years, told us to just be aware, travel on public jeepneys as there is safety in numbers, don't travel after dark and have an extra $20 handy in case the bandits or rebels want money. A business hungry travel guide offered to accompany us, but said he wouldn't even go to some of the areas we had planned. Neil and his Dad had offered to use their connections to provide an armed guard while touring Mindanao, especially now during the increased violence of the upcoming elections. Welcome to Mindanao!
Pirates, bandits, rebels, extremist groups; you name it, they live here, mainly hidden in the mountainous interior or remote islands of the westerly Sulu Archipelago. The media, worldwide, draws it's very breath from violence; magnifying and sensationalizing every incident, every crumb. They fan the flames of a small spark until it becomes a blazing inferno, engulfing everyone with fear. Unfortunately I saw the pictures in the newspaper of the headless bodies of 13 Pilipino road workers kidnapped and unsuccessfully held for ransom in the remote Zaboangan Peninsula, supposedly the center of Muslim extremist training camps, etc. That remote, volatile area was off our itinerary before we landed. We aren't foolish or reckless and we definitely have a strong admiration and connection with our heads, which we would like to maintain. Traveler's advisories are in full effect and the NGO's won't even allow volunteers to set foot on Mindanao. Overwhelmed and still reeling we instead caught a bus to Butuan and hung out at this busy, nondescript city along the main highway. We didn't want to just take yellow Bachelor buses with armed guards down the major ring road, stopping at large noisy cities. Because of bus hijackings and a string of kidnappings for ransom, it wasn't even recommended to take a side trip to the ocean. Depressed, sitting in our dingy room (the Philippine hotel standards are a poor value for what you get) we thought maybe we should just head to more hospitable island pastures up north. We always try to accentuate the positives and strong points of an area or country. We know if you want to hear about the negative stuff and even the downright lies all one has to do is to listen to their favorite newspaper or TV station. Our society is fueled by stories of disasters or sensational descriptions of the actions of the 5% of the population who are doing negative things. Like we've said before, what about the other 95% great people? What's wrong with us? Are all Muslims terrorists because of a few extremist groups vying for attention? Are all Americans warmongers because George Bush wants to continue White Imperialism, as a well educated Islamic engineer pointed out to us? After years of travel to over 50 countries I have only been truly scared once in Africa and several memorable times in the big cities of, you guessed it, America. Home of apple pie, the free and the brave, and the most violent cities on this planet. Does that mean tourists should skip the USA, missing the spectacular variety of scenery or the ingenious, outgoing nature of Americans? Or should they simply choose to avoid high crime, inner city areas after dark? We took time to reflect and weigh our options. "Just give us the facts, Mam". The control that fear allows is maintained by the perpetuation of ignorance. Statistically very few buses here have been robbed, fewer bombs have exploded, and only 2 foreigners have been kidnapped and killed; none of this happening in the last 4 years. These internal rivalries are real and must be noted but could be equated to us being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, as one drug gang in Los Angeles rumbles with its enemy. With armed security guards everywhere in the Philippines we can see that this new protection racket would have a vested interest in keeping the fear alive. We had a better chance of being eaten by a shark while in Australia than coming to harm here, which is still less probable than being struck by lightning. Should this send us scurrying under our wooden desks in case of a nuclear attack by the Russians (remember the days)? Upset that we had listened to naysayers at the hotel in Surigao we took a deep breath and picked out a new destination on our map. Boston or Bust. There is a great local saying: 'A smile gives more light than electricity'. Armed with large smiles and a love for the local folk we set out. Without any information in our Lonely Planet due to past dangers over much of the island, we were on our own in search of the true Mindanao.
Interestingly, as we sat by the side of the road, waiting for our bus out to the eastern coast, locals questioned why we wanted to go to such a dangerous town as Bislig (Managuay). Later sitting on the bus next to a teacher from Bislig she said her little coastal town was safe and friendly but why would we want to continue down the coast because it was dangerous there. She had never even been to Boston or Cateel only 1 hour away. When in Cateel they told us it was safe in their town but we shouldn't go through the dangerous Campostela Valley en route to Davao, because we would be robbed by rebels. Many Pilipinos are superstitious, provincial minded and susceptible to rumors, as are people all over. Everywhere we went it was dangerous around the next bend or in the next town, or the next province. Then once physically in the 'dangerous' town of which we were wildly warned, we found it was friendly, safe and welcoming. And on and on. Get the idea? Generalizations are always incorrect to some degree, but patterns repeated wherever we travel are intriguing to note, for what they are worth.
In the tiny berg of Bislig we spent time with 2 expats, one Aussie, one Brit, who had lived in the Philippines for 7 years. One told us of the local corruption and the hit squads trained by US soldiers or 'advisors', who supposedly torture then shoot hundreds of villagers suspected to be rebels. Church walls are covered with pictures of missing people, families frantic to find them. A new foreign funded Anti-terrorism Law has just been passed in the Philippines, amid much opposition. Limited human freedoms are being further taken away. There were also eye witness reports of random bombings of mountain villages. The expats both lived in a squatters camp (supposedly 70% of the country is squatting on the land of a few large land owners). A local paper factory which has polluted the bay with mercury and stops paying it's employees for months on end has caused extreme poverty in the area. These squatters from the mountains, formally self sufficient, are forced to eat seaweed and crustaceans from the lethal bay when money for rice runs out, causing stillbirths and commonly seen birth defects. The sweetest people you have ever met are in such dire straights. Life is basic back in their mountain villages but at least they can eat. These squatters seem scared to return to the mountains where the government troops raid and kill their quota of 'rebels' regularly, like the traffic cop who has to have his monthly quota of fine paying speeders. Another real mess, stirred up by the funding and training of America's fight against terrorism. So much for our foreign aid. As is the usual case, conflict is good for business as the rich natural resources of this island are being stripped round the clock, cloaked by the smokescreen of unrest.
And who are these notorious rebels? Dressed like anyone else, leading normal lives, they try to leave civilians out of the conflict. Without a doubt, we have had tea or sat on the bus with some en route, unbeknownst to us. Once they figured out our agenda, two retired teachers simply having a look around the Philippines for 4 months, everything was cool.
We tried several times to visit the waterfalls up river but transportation was always a problem. Narrow log bridges and rocky dirt roads are the norm on the coast (even crossing through the river at one point). Topped off with basic dingy but expensive accommodations this is not a trip for the faint of heart. The Filipino people have been battered by all sorts of natural and political upheavals. As a result the travel infrastructure in many out of the way places is lagging far behind. These villages located along stunning coastline, have the hotels in the heart of the noisy town or if on the water, the window looks in the opposite direction. Go figure. They have a long way to go before they can handle the inevitable consequences of organized, mass tourism. That being said, if you make it out these remote areas the scenery and people are superb.
In Cateel we were befriended by the family next to our guesthouse. The grandfather, John Pastor former police chief, even took Joseph around on his motorcycle looking for alternate accommodations. Cooking in their kitchen we discussed overpopulation and the problems of trying to feed, clothe and educate 10 children. Grandpa had 9 children, his eldest daughter alone has 7. Did you realize that if 2 parents have 10 children, and their children each have ten children, and so on that in 6 generations or only 120 years, there have been 1 million descendants of the original 2 parents?! Overpopulation literally explodes as our planet shrinks under the weight. One of the younger married daughters confided to us later that she wanted to stop at 2 children but the governmental, family and church pressures are almost insurmountable. A captive in her own tribe. Joseph went swimming in the ocean one day, soon joined by about 20 kids frolicking and having some real fun. The daily bus down the coast wasn't leaving until 3pm so we had a leisurely morning, conscientiously arriving at the bus stop 1 1/2 hours early. The bus drove around the parking circle and within 1 minute was speeding back down the road, amid the frantic yelling and waving of almost 50 onlookers. We jumped in a tricycle and like a turtle trying to catch a wild hare we soon realized it was a futile chase. I stomped around, not believing that the driver had left behind 2 paying customers in his hurry to continue his trip. Rrrr. Up at 5am the next morning we stood by the road and we were ready this time. No one was getting by us! The bus never came. Instead we hesitantly boarded a substitute van and embarked on a beautiful, exciting trip past Aliwagwag Waterfalls, the highest in the country, over the mountains of Compostela Valley and right through NPA rebel country. At one point 2 rebels stopped the van and the driver paid for safe passage, just like the good old days. One rebel elbowed his partner when he saw us squished amongst the masses inside, thinking maybe they could get a little extra money for their cause, but decided it wouldn't be worth the hassle. We were out of their league. Further up the road machine gun toting soldiers stopped us and searched the van while carefully scrutinizing all the lined up passengers, guns ready. Not interested in their internal struggles Joseph replied that we were just tourists, with tourist stuff in our bags, and that was that. He motioned for him to lower his gun, shook his hand and after the driver paid a bribe to the 'other side' for safe passage we were on our way once again. Rob from Peter to pay Paul.
Only in Davao was the cycle of fear broken for a time. The mayor, nicknamed 'Dirty Harry' has reclaimed his city from the organized criminals and the streets are supposedly safe even after dark. But then with such power, are all his targets indeed criminals or some simply those who have disagreed with him? Marcos 'deja vu all over again'? Whatever the case it was safer than Manila and we leisurely feasted our eyes on the cornucopia of the area's fresh fruits and vegetables, before cooking in the tiny stall owned by Ronaldo and Nelda. Hoards of dirty children stared in amazement, then played with Joseph as dinner magically materialized.
We also decided to plan ahead and get our visa needed for Indonesia in August. We strolled through the Taoist Temple and Long Hua Buddhist Temple, where we were invited to a scrumptious vegan lunch by a nun from China who spoke nary a word of English. We wanted to lay low during the upcoming election. Not surprisingly foreign observers noted bribes and vote fixing as the norm rather than the exception. (Read the book Vote Scam regarding America's less than lily white voting reputation). The difference here is that opposing parties get upset when their rival gains popularity or wins and they simply shoot them. Only 103 current candidates and associates have been shot, blown up or killed to date, or so the newspapers reported. Maybe becoming a teacher would be a safer option. Even so, one businessman in Davao proposed that with each election things improve a little. Optimism shines brightly in the murky waters of politics.
Heading west from Davao, past Mt. Apo, took us right through the lush interior mountains of Mindanao. Ending up in Cotabato City near dark, we were greeted by the stares that told us few, if any, travelers came for a visit. Seat of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao the locals were extremely helpful, and even invited us home and offered their phone numbers; while the head of tourism, Bennie, like the Maytag repairman, showed up personally to try to help find us a suitable hotel room. We can handle most situations temporarily but the dirty, depressing state of even the best but expensive room in town caused us to keep moving. Our new acquaintance had a big job on his hands trying to upgrade tourist facilities to bearable. Glimpses of India passed through our minds. Starting early the next morning we packed into a car taxi, as lack of passengers has done away with this bus route. Unprovoked, like a floodgate breaking, all the negative images and warnings of danger in western Mindanao started flooding over me.
What difference does it make if the thing you fear is real or not?
(Toni Morrison (1931 - ) U.S. novelist).
Fear. It's a funny thing. If you invite it in, it takes over. It multiplies. It attracts more fearful situations to enforce our fearful ideas. If allowed, this unwelcome visitor rules and dominates ones every thought or choice. It controls our very being. We become fear. To break this cycle one has to recognize and face our fears. Trying to replace our perceptions of these fears with perceptions based on facts, positive experiences, and love completely changes life. Like a loud lesson in the making, my ongoing positive experiences replaced any doubts or fears lingering in my mind. For example who can forget the impression made by a ragged Muslim man on our bus with only one leg. We talked to him for over half an hour then he painfully climbed down the steps with his wooden crutch and insisted we "wait a minute". Unknown to us he went over to a nearby vendor and bought 2 sweet treats made out of sago palm, the local specialty. He then climbed up the steep steps of the bus on hands and knee and presented these gifts to us. We were speechless. Just another example of one the many acts of kindness by Muslims we experienced on Mindanao.
As we headed towards the Islamic City of Marawi, as it is properly called, in Lanao Del Sur, the center of Muslim culture in the Philippines, churches were replaced by mosques, women wore head scarves, and signs were in Arabic. It was a pleasant drive through the cool lush hills along Lake Lanao. We passed the Headquarters for the Islamic Revolutionary Committee and billboards urging voters to elect pro peace candidates. We were attracted to a flashy lakeside mosque near Madelum, built 30 years ago by a wealthy financier from Saudi Arabia. Our new Islamic 'friend' from the front seat arranged for us to tour around it and take photos. A forward thinking engineer on his way to work, we had discussed many deep subjects before and during the 4 hour trip. He was concerned that many people don't understand the Muslims and their culture. "We are not terrorists. We want the same from life as everyone around the world... We want our homeland and culture as it has been for centuries before Christian domination. Violence is never an option." We talked of using inner vision to guide our lives and actions. As we walked back to the car we expressed our sadness that he didn't think it was safe for us to stay in his town, due to the possibility of kidnapping. This is one area where we heeded the warnings. With only one hotel in town it would have been hard to maintain low visibility or an element of surprise. We told him we have always enjoyed the genuine kindness of the Muslims around the world and we hoped that one day we could visit and learn more about his fascinating home. Their turn for peace will come. Allah was smiling.
Sahad asked the driver to drop us off to catch the bus to the next town. As we were slowly cruising the side streets, three trucks full of soldiers gawked in amazement at us in the back seat. Not surprisingly, 2 machine gun toting soldiers arrived and stood guard at our back street bus stop, loudly chatting with a young woman fully covered by a black burka. Befriended by a Muslim woman, her twin daughters, and 2 large smoked fish we took a new SUV taxi to Iligan. From there we sped along the northern coastal road by bus towards Cagayan De Oro. She whispered to me as she left, "You should be safe now." Not having felt the slightest reason to be alarmed, amid endless smiles and acts of kindness we rested contentedly. We thanked God for another remarkable day of travel; with eyes wide open but ultimately trusting our path to powers beyond our control. Esalaam Haliekum. (Go with God).
A short ferry ride from the north coast of Mindanao washes you up in another world. Our springs immediately started unwinding the minute we stepped foot on Camiguin Island. With 7 volcanoes, some still active, making up the lush forested interior, it is a spectacular place with rushing waterfalls, old Spanish ruins, hot and cold springs, and alternating white and black sand beaches. We had run into Jim on a ferry from Leyte and decided to check out his Camiguin Apartel on the beach. Like living in their home, we felt welcome and knew this was a relaxing reward after our tough but adventurous trip around Mindanao. Still a low key option, the main activities here are swimming, diving and exploring the natural attractions. No night life or noise, besides the peaceful crickets that is.
And so it goes..............................Next Bohol, Cebu and Palawan. We are having a fun time exploring the many islands and faces of the Philippines. We enjoy your emails as we wander. That is the kind of news we like to hear. Until next month Keep Smiling and let's have a look at our fears. Either we visit them or they will surely come knocking at our door. Take care.
Love, xoxoox Nancy & Joseph
$1.00US = 47 pesos.
Joseph looks for quiet, clean rooms, with windows and screens or mosquito net if necessary; (with a bathroom,) down an alley or along a park or river. Walking up to the upper floors often allows a newer room and less street noise. Avoid the top floor if it is really hot, otherwise it is usually the best in the place, plus good exercise.
We prefer fan rooms, as it is
easier to acclimate to the heat without coming out of an icebox air
conditioned room and never getting used to the heat. Most of
our rooms listed are fan and in fact Joseph will pick out the best
available room in the place and ask to have a large floor fan
brought in instead of the provided a/c. Less expensive, fresh
air, and less sneezing from the stale air.
Hannahjoy Food Hauz: Across from the market, this small 2 table restaurant run by Yuri and Imelda Magallano can whip you up any vegetarian delight for 30 pesos. Like the estimated 10 million hard working Filipinos employed overseas, Yuri's experience as a Chinese cook in Saudi Arabia helped him buy this tiny place. We kidded that with our webpage recommendation so many tourists will come he will have to expand his business. The fact that we didn't see one other tourist in town may give him a little time to catch up with the demand. Please stop by and say hi from us!
Cotabato City: Hotel Castro, bleak rooms, safe but expensive for what you got (500p w/discount), but the others in the city center were scary. Joseph checked 10.
Cagayan De Oro City:
Camiguin Island: Camiguin Apartelle, in Agoho, between Hexagon Gallery and the sea, only 3
rooms so call ahead, cell: 0921-7207601, phone: 088-3879068.
Airy room on the side overlooking the rice fields. bathroom adjacent.
600p includes breakfast and use of the modern kitchen. Reduced
rates for the week or month. Be welcomed into the quiet ocean
side home of James and Jenelyn Moller, gathering point for some of
the 70 expats hiding away here with their Filipina wives. The
place to chill with great sunsets, constant breezes, clean beach for
At times expats have everything
expropriated or 'expatriated'.