"Don't go to Mindanao. It's not safe" - Almost every Filipino we asked about the place before we went.
"Of course it's safe! The extremists only kidnap people if they're worth kidnapping, like foreign journalists diplomats." - Bruno, French restaurant owner in Coron Town, Busuanga island, Calamian group.
"We advise against all travel to Mindanao because of ongoing terrorist activity." - British Foreign Office.
"It's fine, the fighting is concentrated in certain areas and as long as you stay away from those you'll be fine. Of course this sort of situation is liable to change and bombs occasionally go off in places far away from the fighting but for anything to go wrong you'd have to be very unlucky and be in the wrong place at the wrong time." Freddy, German backpacker.
"It should be fine if you take the bus through South Cotobato. It's a longer route but you definitely shouldn't go direct, through North Cotobato - it's a very dangerous area." Professor Felipe M. de Leon, anthropologist.
When asking people whether or not it would be safe for us to go to Mindanao a pattern began to emerge; people who had been
to Mindanao or knew the place well all recommended it to us but Filipinos who had never been there would always look shocked that we were even considering the idea and tell us that the place was not safe. According to them the place was riddled with Islamic extremists, tribal warfare and violent insurgents. But there was little else they could tell about the place, because they really did not know anything. Years of media reports of fighting and terrorism had instilled a fear of the place in the hearts and minds of the nation and the general population simply considered it a given that Mindanao was a terrible place. To travel there was not considered dangerous because indeed it was not considered at all - it was simply so contradictory to what people knew of the place that it never entered their minds as a concept or a possibility.
Calling what is going on in Mindanao a conflict may be slightly inaccurate. It seems to me that it is more of a patchwork of different conflicts, fueled by poverty, under-development, land disputes and the desire of a Muslim minority to form an independent state. Whatever the reasons, it
was clear that this was a very troubled area and it was not without apprehension that we set off from Davao city in South Mindanao on the bus to the town of General Santos, site of some serious terrorist attacks several years previously.
Davao, the second biggest city in the world in terms of area, had been a very clean, orderly-seeming city and everyone at the bus station very eager to help us find our bus and direct us to a nice street cafe to pick up some food before our journey. The bus took an understandably long time to exit this enormous city but when it had it appeared very quickly to be in a different world, heading down a road that in the West would be described as almost impassable, winding through mountains, jungle and a landscape dotted bamboo shacks, water buffalo-riding children and soldiers armed with machine guns and high-powered assault rifles who more than once stopped our bus and wandered down the aisle inspecting the passengers, weapon in hand.
On arrival in General Santos we quickly transferred to a bus heading for Marbel in South Cotobato. In Marbel we were met by Christie, the sister of
the woman we would be staying with at our final destination, Lake Sebu, a member of the Tboli people who we had been put in contact with by an anthropologist friend in Manila. Twenty years old, dressed in Western clothes and constantly texting on her mobile phone, she was a far cry from my mental picture of the Tboli, proudly dressed in their traditional red and black dress and distinctive jewelry. Shy towards me but eager to get to know Lizz, it turned out that she and her friend were to be our guides for the next few days.
As our third bus of the day, from Marbel to Suralah, drew into its destination, I noticed the words "Curfew 9pm until 4am" sprayed in red paint across the wall of a building.
"Why do they have a curfew here?" I asked.
"Because of the Obo tribe," the girl replied, "they're having a tribal war at the moment, with high-powered guns. They're a few hours' walk from here into the mountains but still, it's better to be careful."
I was somewhat shocked at this as I had been led to believe that the route we would be taking would absolutely steer
clear of trouble, definitely not passing through frontier towns on the edge of a conflict zone.
"Where do they get their weapons from, the Obo?"
"From Muslim extremists hiding out in the mountains, they give them weapons in exchange for alliance."
Getting off the bus we wandered down an alleyway lined with all sorts of street stalls and buzzing with people. Cries such as "Hey, Joe, what you doing here?" and "Amerikano!" followed us down the street. The Filipino habit of referring to all white-skinned foreignors as Amerikano, or just Kano, never felt more unwelcome than right here in this land where Islamic extremism could be lurking just round the corner. Even so, we never at any stage felt any hostility towards us and the friendliness we had experienced since our arrival in Davao continued at every step of our journey.
In Suralah we all jumped into a motorbike taxi headed for Poblacion in Lake Sebu. Dusk was coming but just before darkness fell completely we were treated to some truly spectacular views of rugged, jungle, mountainous scenery as the motorbike climbed higher and higher.
After about twenty minutes we were stopped by a group of men standing at
the side of the road wearing camouflage gear and armed with some pretty heavy duty guns. In the dark I could make out little of them and, trying to read the reactions on the faces of my companions, the night revealed little of their expressions either. Worry shot through my mind that perhaps we were going to be kidnapped but I dismissed it as ridiculous, assuring myself that we were well away from the danger zone, would have to be horrendously unlucky to be the victims of any such incident, and anyway the Tboli girls would probably be screaming by now if anything was truly amiss.
One of the men stuck his head inside the doorless passenger compartment, the weapon slung over his shoulder pointing right in our faces. He exchanged a few words with one of the girls then returned to his position with the rest of the group at the side of the road.
"What was that all about?" I asked.
"Oh, nothing, just checking us, you know, making sure that no dangerous people come to Lake Sebu." Although somewhat unsettling, the presence of so much military was also reassuring. It was good to know that there were
people out there making a real effort to protect ordinary folk from the nasties that undeniably existed on this island but which the army was forcing to hide out in remote mountainous regions of Mindanao's jungles.
In Poblacion all four of us got onto the back of a large motorcycle that the girls, for some reason that they themselves could not explain, called a Sky Lab. For fifteen minutes it carried us through the dark along narrow, bumpy tracks until it drew up outside a relatively large concrete house with a corrugated iron roof. To the left of the house was a wooden shelter underneath which were some benches, a table, a fire and some racks holding cutlery and crockery. A few people were gathered around but we were not introduced to them, instead being taken up some steps which led steeply up a hill next to the house. On the grass on either side of the steps were a large number of small wooden shelters about three feet tall, wide and long, shaped like an upside down V and with walls only on the slopes of the V. I shone my torch on one to reveal a cockrel sleeping
underneath it. Attached to its foot was a string, the other end of which was attached to a wooden post with a platform on top that stood near to the shelter.
"I guess they must be breeding them to fight," I said. Cock fighting was a favourite national pastime, an essential part of any fiesta, but we had not yet seen one and knew little about how it worked or what exactly happened at such an event.
At the top of the steps was a small, two-room wooden hut with a little seating area outside one of the rooms. "This is your house," said one of the girls. It looked very nice and cosy and they had laid out blankets and sheets inside our room. In the other room was their grandmother, a very elderly lady who spoke little but impressed us with her beautiful Tboli dress.
Minutes after we had put down our bags, our hosts, Anthony and Grace appeared, along with a dinner of rice, tilapia fish from the lake and the ever-present bottle of Tanduay rum.
"How are you, how was your trip?"
"Fine, but very long!"
"Is everything ok? I know this house is small, but
do you think you can sleep here?"
"Yes, it looks great, thank you so much!"
Almost immediately I developed a liking for the both of them. They were so kind, concerned and not once during our stay did they fail to bmake sure we had everything we wanted.
"So how did you guys become acquainted the Professor? We had some friends of his staying here before, in the same house as you're staying in now." Professor Felipe M de Leon was our anthropologist friend in Manila who had put us in contact with Grace.
"He's a friend of some Filipino friends of ours in Moscow," Lizz replied.
"Moscow. You know," Anthony said, a shy smile emerging on his face, "I've always been a great fan of Dostoevsky. I was coerced into reading all of his works at university." He spoke English with a strong Filipino accent but over the next week I learned that his vocabulary and knowledge of expressions was vast, often comprising certain hyper-correct words that would never usually be used in conversation and lent his speech an almost military air.
"Russia is a somewhere I've always had the urge to visit," he went on, "but it's very
expensive, you know."
"You could always get a budget flight to China then take the Trans-Siberian Express. It's seven days long but only US$200,"
"It's still in operation?"
This discussion set in motion a train of thought in Anthony's head and I could see he became quite fixed on the idea of taking the Beijing - Moscow train. Grace, however, showed no such enthusiasm for the idea and kept quiet whenever it reappeared in our conversations.
The next morning Grace presented us with a leaflet.
"Here's the program for the festival she said. I'm afraid Anthony and I are going to be really busy working at the festival but Christie will take you around everywhere."
The five day Tboli festival included parades, dances, tribal discussion forums, demonstrations of traditional Tboli instruments and various other events. Tribesmen came from all around, those from furthest away, such as the Tasaday tribe that lived two days walk away, often subsidised by the local government. Men with traditional swords, women in bright, red and black dresses and jewelry, were to be seen everywhere. It was interesting but there was absolutely zero party or festival atmosphere as there had been at the
Pintaflores festival in Negros. The people here looked poorer, thinner and more tired than the wild, raucous party animals that had thronged the streets of San Carlos. Events took place indoors or out on a huge field that the daily afternoon downpour had turned to mud and a thousand feet had churned up. Walking around on it quickly became impossible in my flip flops and I had to go barefoot, causing my legs to become caked very quickly.
I was happy to see so much Tboli culture showcased in the festival. Having dance competitions between different school classes dressed entirely in traditional costume is a nice way to preserve some pride in the culture. However, the whole thing was very definitely a showcase and left us desperate to see some authentic Tboli culture in a genuine setting. I got a taster of this on the last day when a series of horse fights were staged, and, contrary to what certain British newspapers have reported on this practice, they were not organised by crime syndicates and they were not purely an excuse for rampant gambling.
"The horse fight is essential to Tboli culture," Grace told us shortly before the event began.
"A man's wealth is judged by the number and quality of his horses. He has to pay for his wives in horses. And of course, the more fights his horse has won, the more it's worth."
"So men can have more than one wife?"
"Oh yes," she replied,"the first one even suggests possible wives and helps her husband choose. In the old days the husband had to be able to build a separate house for each one but now they all live in the same house. They each have a different room and the man leaves his machete on the floor outside of the room in which he'll be spending the night."
The fight began and the horses spent several minutes pushing, shoving, head-butting, grappling, battering and kicking. In the end, God knows how, a winner was decided and a mare was brought in for him to breed with as a prize. As he walked towards her he seemed to grow a fifth leg at breath-taking speed. He climbed up on her, thrust and missed, the extra limb sliding down her flank and reaching halfway towards her head. Quite unfazed by the idea of touching a horse's genitals, a man
who had been in the ring during the fight grabbed it with his bare hands and thrust it inside the mare.
On the morning of the first day after the festival we had breakfast with a noticeably tired Anthony and Grace.
"So guys," Anthony said, "Sorry we've been so busy up until now. But we've taken a couple of days off work so that we can really give you our full attention and show you round. What would you most like to see?"
We expressed our desire to take a boat out onto the lake and also to visit some more remote Tboli villages only accessible by walking. It was agreed that we would do the former that day and the latter the next.
We spent several hours out on the huge lake, surrounded by lush green mountains and lined with fisheries then several more hours chugging round the areas awful roads on motorbikes checking out various local attractions such as waterfalls and an old lady named Lang Dulay who wove exquisite Tboli clothing, very fine material with intricate designs learnt back in the days of her youth.
The real gem of the entire trip, however, came on the
last day. We set off to the jump off point for a trek to a small Tboli village halfway up a mountain. First Anthony took me on the back of his bike before returning to pick up Lizz and Grace. The road was so awful and crossed so many rivers that I often had to get off and walk. After thirty minutes I was left on my own in a village to wait for the others. A crowd quickly gathered to sit with me, asking me all the usual questions about where I was from and what I was doing here. Then it was mentioned that they were currently in the middle of a wedding and they invited me into the house in which it was taking place.
The room was crowded with people, dressed to varying degrees in traditional Tboli attire. Some had none, some had a headband or conical hat, others wore the full works. Everyone was sat on the floor, eating rice with their hands and drinking Tanduay and Tuba, a type of vaguely alcoholic drink made from coconut juice. I immediately became the centre of attention and found myself trying to maintain several conversations with different
groups at the same time. Then people noticed my camera and suddenly I had also become the wedding photographer.
Shortly after Lizz, Grace and Anthony arrived the food was put away and people got down to negotiations. A group of old men formed a circle on the floor. At one end the bride, fourteen years old, and the groom, not much older, sat side by side.
"I suggest we give you one horse for her," a member of the groom's family declared, placing a small green stick in the middle of the circle.
"How dare you," a member of the bride's family replied, "she's prettier than that. We want five horses!" He placed five green sticks on his side of the circle.
"Come on, we can't pay five, she doesn't even have a proper education!"
This process went on for around an hour until the bride was almost in tears.
Suddenly there was shouting from the other side of the room. An alcohol-fuelled fight had broken out and we were quickly hurried outside. Grace suggested we walk to see the rice harvest which was currently taking place and return when everything had calmed down and there would be dancing. We
walked out across the fields for some time to where a large group of villagers were cutting the rice and carrying it in bundles on their heads to place in a large central pile. A few old women were also sat on the ground tossing the rice on abaca plates in a manner that somehow, almost miraculously it seemed, separated the grains from their shells, presumably due to the varying weights of the two parts.
Back at the village it turned out that we had missed the dancing. It had been agreed that the bride was worth two horses and her family were leading the beats down the road to their own village. It was late in the afternoon, the trek we had originally planned forgotten about. Lizz was in the field still photographing the harvest so I decided to follow the procession for a mile or so.
"Hey Joe!" Some people called to me from a village. "Come have some Tuba with us!"
So I did, and waited for the others to arrive on Anthony's motorbike.
Sat around a table in a videoke bar in Poblacion, we listened to Grace sing along to various tunes in a nearly
professional voice that we had not heard or known about before. We then embarrassed ourselves by trying the same before tucking into an array of various different tilapia dishes.
"So guys," Anthony said between mouthfulls, "we just had this idea. Do you think anyone in Russia or England would be interested in Grace's Tboli dance troupe? Because if they're invited to perform somewhere it's very likely that our government will provide us with the money to send them over there. There's a special program for this sort of thing."
So we agreed to try to find someone and left Lake Sebu having made some very good new friends and with the knowledge that for the Tboli people, whether educated, more Westernised ones such as Anthony and Grace or traditional villages dwellers like those at the wedding, hospitality and the welcoming of guests still plays a very large part in their culture.
Click here for advice on independent travel to Mindanao.
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