RURAL VIEWS | R ‘n R in Marawi

I LOVE to travel.  I love it even more when it is for free, like on official business.  It is very exciting to visit new places and experience other cultures.

Visits to Moro communities

My immersion in Moro communities started with a job in a micro-enterprise development project of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), which covered Moro and indigenous people areas in Davao del Sur, Caraga region, Cotabato City, Maguindanao, Zamboanga City, and Tawi-Tawi.

The project was a great learning experience not only on helping sustain initiatives on micro-enterprise development, but also on enhancing appreciation of the diverse and colorful culture of Mindanao.

A paradise named Tawi-Tawi

So far, what I consider as the best Moro place I have been to is the island province of Tawi-Tawi.

It was in a multi-sector forum in Bongao when I presented the support programs and projects of the Mindanao Business Council (MinBC).  My companion was an economic development specialist who presented the programs of the Mindanao Economic Development Council (MEDCo), now the institutionalized Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA).

It was my first visit of the Philippines’ southernmost island via the 16-seater Mindanao Express from Davao City through Zamboanga.

I committed the usual blooper of a first time Mindanao Express passenger upon check in at the airport.  I insisted on a window seat but was merely given that suspicious smile by the counter crew who handed me what looks like a laminated piece of paper without any seat number.

All were window seats:  eight seats along the left and the other eight along the right windows.  I did not have to insist on a window seat because passengers did not have any choice!

After a warm welcome, we were escorted to the forum venue from the Sanga-sanga airport.

For the good warm welcome, better venue and best food, my first impressions of Tawi tawi were excellent.

After my early morning walks along the white beach sand in the following day, then Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Secretary Fatima Razul told me and MEDCo’s Jun Avelino, “You have not actually gone to Tawi tawi until you conquer the Bongao peak.”

Both of you are scheduled to speak in the afternoon.  You still have enough time to climb the peak this morning, she challenged.

And so, we immediately went to the market and look for that “saging sa unggoy” (banana for the monkey).  We bought two big hands of fruits.

And there we go, with our guideless adventure to the Bongao peak, except for a mere pointing by the driver of the jump-off point.

Brilliant monkeys

The trek was free from human guides but not exactly guideless.  The climb to Bongao peak is one for the books, literally.  The mystic place had been featured in public school textbooks, highlighting the monkeys as attractions or even as guides.

About three minutes on our way up, we started seeing smaller monkeys playing along the rock cleavages.  Upon reaching the base of a cemented stairway, we had to give a piece of banana fruit each to the bigger monkeys so they may give way and let us pass.

Halfway to the peak, we ran out of bananas.  We thought we should have bought more to make it all the way to the top of Bongao.

Surprisingly however, the “monkey guards” let us pass through their barricades even without receiving any gate passes.

It seemed they had a way of communicating, with those in the lower portions of the mountain radioing their superiors that we had complied with the banana visa and immigration requirements.

And so, we conquered the Bongao peak.  Having accomplished that, I could officially write in my resume that I have been to the southernmost paradise of the Philippines, the island province of Tawi-Tawi!

Before seeing Marawi City, I used to solely associate it with Mindanao State University (MSU), the biggest state university in Mindanao.  That alone has already made craved for a trip to the Summer Capital of the South.

When the chance to go to Marawi came through an invitation to a briefing on the first automated elections of the ARMM, I tagged along with MindaNews editor Carol Arguillas.

There were two routes going to Marawi from Davao City.  There was a longer but known as safer one via Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities.  The shorter route was via Cotabato City, where we had to traverse the municipalities comprising the former Camp Abukakar of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Carol said the shorter route was more picturesque as we can see what looks like a transformation of the sceneries from one culture to another.

I was already familiar with some of the municipalities along the perceived riskier route. The municipalities of Parang, Buldon, Barira, and Matanog were within our areas of responsibilities as lawyers during the election in the supposed province of Shariff Kabunsuan, carved out of mother province Maguindanao.

However, the creation of the new province was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  In effect, people were trying to choose leaders for a non-existing province.  What a waste of time and resources.  But what a wonderful experience nonetheless!

From Cotabato City, the sceneries were slowly changing:  the set-up of communities, the styles or architecture of houses and other buildings, and even the clothes people wear.  It was like seeing a metamorphosis of communities from Christians to Muslims.

As we passed through the municipalities comprising the former Camp Abubakar, I remembered the rare chance of visiting it for the first time before an all-out war which destroyed it.

After a business conference in Cotabato City, I was asked if I was interested to join a team which will visit Camp Abukakar.  I really wanted to but had to decline and immediately go back to Davao for a class in the graduate school.

And as it happened, Camp Abubakar was bombed to destruction in 2000.

Upon reaching Marawi, we immediately went to the landmark MSU.  I was amazed of the big campus, with a nearby (or is it within?) business community.  A glimpse of Lake Lanao from the campus is calming and breathtaking.

On our way to Campo Ranao for the elections briefing, I saw a more beautiful view of Lake Lanao.  I even wanted to see it next time from more elevated grounds.

That visit to Marawi was very brief.  But I want to have those colorful and peaceful memories etched in my mind.  At least I have been there prior to the May 23, 2017 attack, which still goes on today.

Muslim country in Southeast Asia

Thanks to the liberalization of the airline industry which led to affordable promotional air fares, I also had a chance to visit Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country in Southeast Asia.

We went through the usual rituals of taking photos for social media profile picture purposes at the landmark Petronas twin towers.

A day after, we reminisced childhood with thrilling rides at the Sunway Lagoon theme park and enjoyed a modern “Baguio City setting” at Genting highlands, before going back to Singapore.

The cleanliness of those cities in Malaysia, their better infrastructure facilities, the feeling of safety and convenience during our stay erased our usual misconception of a Muslim area.  The place is beautiful and peaceful in spite of, or maybe because of their Muslim culture.

My busy schedule

My schedule became more hectic after I returned to litigation.  I am also happily busy with important tasks at the Integrated Bar of the Philippines – Davao City Chapter.

With improved time management however, I still enjoy what I love to do.  On long weekends, I even go on rest and recreation with the family.

Dubai in my bucket list

When I can save enough money, I want to visit Dubai.  I know I will not enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Vietnam and Cambodia because of my love and passion for rural views.

Nevertheless, Dubai remains in my travel bucket list:  to climb Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

However, I think it will be risky for me to still include skydiving, after having miraculously survived a hemorrhagic stroke in 2015.  Perhaps I would instead enjoy their water tourist buses and happily search for vegan restaurants in the biggest open city of the Middle East.  Touching base and playing badminton with Mindanawon shuttlers who have sought greener pasture in the modern desert city would be a nice addition to my itinerary.  Plus perhaps a cross-country travel to play badminton or even compete in a tournament in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would be a big bonus.

I also want to go back to Tawi-Tawi, visit the Turtle Islands, and even re-conquer Bongao peak.

I heard unconfirmed stories that Tawi-Tawi is a peaceful Moro place because of an unwritten rule among different groups:  military, rebels and even some bandits that the island must remain a free zone:  a place where the wounded can recuperate, the sick can heal, or the tired fighters can re-energize through much needed rest and recreation.

But all places should be peace zones for rest and recreation, shouldn’t they?  Regardless of the dominant dwellers, be they Muslims, lumads or Christians, the normal or default should be that all places are peaceful.  War or skirmishes must be the exceptions, not the general rule.

And yes, when the war is over, I want to be a part of rebuilding good memories by visiting for rest and recreation the beautiful Islamic City of Marawi.  I will go to higher grounds to have the best view of Lake Lanao and visit the Sacred Mountain National Park.  God willing, In Shaa Allah!


The author is a returning trial lawyer and writer.  Now a vegan, he holds office in his hometown in Calinan, Davao City, plays badminton in Tagum City, and loves early morning and late afternoon walks in Obrero, Davao City, where he lives.  He is the Special Assistant to the President of IBP – Davao City Chapter.

Posted in Opinion