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FROM BUTUAN TO DAVAO

A peaceful bus drive through Mindanao

MICHAEL GROSBERG TAKES A BUS RIDE THROUGH MINDANAO AND FINDS, DESPITE ITS UNSAVORY REPUTATION, FRIENDLY PEOPLE AND PEACEFUL LOCATIONS

Two years ago, on a trip to Mindanao as a Lonely Planet writer, I found myself somewhere in a jungle, surrounded by mountains, recklessly careening over a rutted dirt road, in a bus filled to the point where intimacy with my neighbors was not a matter of choice. We were south of Valencia in Bukidnon province, not far from the neighboring province of Cotabato, and according to what I’d read, I was not supposed to be there.

On that trip, however, I was to discover great affection for the province. For my most recent visit, I decided to follow a route through an even less developed part of the island. I wanted to see how things had changed and if the gloomy reports of danger were evident to an intrepid visitor.

TAINTED PROVINCE

Whenever I mentioned that I was traveling here, Filipinos in other parts of the country would become strangely silent and, out of concern for my well-being, ask me why I wanted to go. It didn’t matter that I said merely Mindanao, for now perfectly peaceful parts of the region have become conflated with legitimately dangerous parts like a good chunk of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which includes the mainland provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur; and the island provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan.

Yet there are large swathes that demand no more caution than anywhere else in the country, or indeed the world. The entire northern coastline, from surfing paradise Siargao, to stunning Camiguin, has remained largely untouched by the sporadic violence that afflicts other parts of the province. Yet most foreign embassies warn against traveling to Mindanao. The current US State Department website even goes as far as warning “against all but essential travel throughout” the Philippines.

Perhaps, as a result of this somewhat overheated rhetoric, on my first visit, most of the armed security guards in Zamboanga City saluted me, assuming that no other buzz cut foreigner would be in the area except an American commando.

FINDING THE PATH

This time, I wanted to travel south from Butuan, through the provinces of Agusan del Sur, Compostela Valley and Davao del Norte. Maps show nothing but a series of little dots, small towns and roadways of broken lines extending to parts of the jagged coastline, the cartographic equivalent of saying “your guess is as good as mine”.

A few hearty and dedicated foreigners who swear by the surf at Cloud Nine on Siargao told me that there are some great breaks along the northern edge, but that you need to set aside several days just to get there and back (see our cover story on page 24).

It sounds intrepid and on arrival at Butuan airport, the uninformed first-time visitor relying on external sources would be forgiven for expecting scenes of chaos or hostility. The reality is, of course, far removed. The main danger is dodging the flotilla of motorized tricycles with their super-fast drivers, and trying not to inhale too much of their exhaust.

HISTORIC BUTUAN

Butuan feels like many provincial cities throughout the country, but is home to a very special series of archaeological discoveries. Excavations unearthed various artifacts that reveal a great deal about the migration patterns and early settlements of the first people to inhabit the Philippines.

The Balangay Shrine museum in the barangay of Libertad, just outside Butuan, is home to the remains of a balangay (seagoing outrigger boat) circa AD321, one of the oldest artifacts discovered in the Philippines. Several coffins dating from the 13th and 14th centuries were also discovered meters from the same site. North of the city, a marker sits at the mouth of the Agusan River where it empties into Butuan Bay at the spot Magellan is said to have held mass on 8 April 1521, the first such ceremony in the country, according to some historians.

Easily the nicest place to stay in Butuan, largely because of its park-like setting and outdoor pool is the Almont Inland Resort (tel: +63 (0)85 342-7414), conveniently located between the airport and the city center and a short walk from the Gaisano Mall.
Almont Hotel – its more businesslike but equally comfortable sister – sits in the center on the north side of Rizal Park and has recently had a complete refurbishment.

RIGHT AT HOME

Leaving Butuan the following morning, I caught a bus that wound its way through dense foliage, impoverished villages and past construction crews working to ford the numerous streams that cut through the mountains.

There are moments where the scenery really opens up, especially around the Compostela Valley. If it weren’t for the mountain range far to the east, you’d be able to see all the way to sea.

My seatmate, a young man with a crew cut, is originally from Cebu. I learn that a year ago, he lost his thumb in a firefight with Abu Sayyaf on the island of Basilan in the Sulu archipelago, but that he had come to love his adopted home of Mindanao. Having been based here for the last six years, he has developed a genuine feeling of kinship with the people and told me there was little reason to be concerned with where I was traveling: the road is entirely safe and the image of the place and the people is distorted.

PEACE AND ISOLATION

After several hours the road straightens and flattens. Enormous trees line its path before we turn into the bus terminal in the town of San Francisco. It’s possible to make the journey between Butuan and Davao in a day, but it’s best to spend the night along the way to appreciate the area’s slow pace and sense of isolation.

One good option to take in the sheer space and seclusion of the region is the Villa Teresita Resort (tel: +63 (0)85 839-2053), approximately six kilometres outside the town of San Francisco in the province of Agusan del Sur. The tricycle’s route back onto the highway then laboring up a boulder-strewn path deep into the jungle emphasises how remote a spot this really is.

It is worth the effort though and a crucial part of my experience: later that evening, I’m enjoying a solo candlelight dinner in the hotel’s dining area abutting the pool complex, guarding my meal from periodic forays of the resident monkey and serenading by the parrot’s repeated question of “How are you doing?” in perfect English.

THRIVING METROPOLIS

As I set off again the next day, I realize that, after several days of uneventful travel, the most anyone could want is a quiet and peaceful night like the one I’d just enjoyed.

Entering Davao the following day after a longer and more tiring ordeal on the road, the city’s modernity and development felt like a revelation after passing through the formidable landscape of marsh and mountains. Walking through the shops and restaurants downtown, around the fancy late model cars and the large mall complexes, the road and the villages we had just passed seemed very far away.

Davao has a range of accommodation.

The most luxurious is the Marco Polo Hotel, a city landmark catering to business travelers and visitors who expect top flight facilities and service. Besides rich mahogany furnishings, rooms here offer wonderful panoramic views as does the rooftop pool area. With several restaurants, a bar, gym and sauna, it takes a determined will to leave this posh, elegant oasis.

For a truly unique one-of-a kind place to sleep, try Ponce Suites (tel: +63 (0)82 227-9070, www..poncesuites.com) where virtually every inch of space is given over to paintings, drawings and sculptures by the artist Kublai Millan. It makes you feel as if you’ve stumbled through the looking glass into a fantasy world where the building has come alive.

Looking south from the busy port in Davao, I realize I’m closer to Indonesia than Manila. It succeeds in giving the province a foreign air of excitement and of the unknown.

That day, I turn my back to the sea and prepare to leave Mindanao. With Mount Apo towering in the distance, my re-established affinity with the province and the welcoming embrace of the locals that made my trip here worthwhile, I know that it won’t be long before I return.

HOW TO TRAVEL

BY AIR: Cebu Pacific flies once a day between Manila and Butuan and four times a day between Manila and Davao. There are many other destinations served from Davao.

BY BUS: Bachelor Express buses travel frequently between Butuan, Davao and points in between.

The Butuan bus terminal is a few kilometers north of the center. Barring breakdowns or delays because of road-building, it’s about a seven- to eight-hour trip one way. The Butuan to Davao one-way fare is around PHP315, but it’s not uncommon for fares to change.

HOTELS: Michael Grosberg stayed courtesy of Marco Polo Davao, PO Box 81540, CM Recto Street, Davao City 8000, Philippines, tel: +63 (0) 82 221-0888, www.davao.marcopolohotels.com

Ponce Suites, Corner Roads 3 and 4, Doña Vicenta Village, Bajada, Davao City, tel: + 63 (82) 227-9070/9071, www.poncesuites.com

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