This may not be the best time for a road trip across Maguindanao and Lanao provinces but what the heck, this might be my one and final chance.
Few weeks ago, I found myself traversing the island of Mindanao starting from General Santos City in Southern Mindanao up northwest to Pagadian City in Zamboanga del Sur…by land!
From Gensan, I took an airconditioned Husky bus to Cotabato City for P260.00. I was early at the Gensan Bus Terminal because I was told that there are only few airconditioned buses and that it was best for me to take the earliest bus that usually departs at around 8AM. So I was there a few minutes before 8, excited and ready but the bus that was scheduled to take off was undergoing repair. Still, like the rest of hapless folks out there, I waited.
The bus arrived at the terminal at past 11AM. It was the turn around bus from Cotabato City. It was Friday and there were plenty of passengers. A few minutes after warming my seat, we were off to our first stop: Koronadal City. And because it was Friday and it was the first (and only) airconditioned bus to leave that day, the passengers easily filled the bus. Some were already standing when we stopped by Koronadal.
Most of the passengers were government employees from regional offices that were once located in Cotabato City. A few years back, Koronadal became host to these regional offices. Many of the employees found themselves dislocated by the transfer. So they take the early day off on Fridays to be home safe in Cotabato City before sunset. I assume that they also leave noon time on Mondays from Cotabato City and arrive in Koronadal before 5PM. That means they are at work on their desks from Tuesday to Thursday only. This makes a good case study on efficient government service but I won’t dwell on that.
From Koronadal we passed through the Sultan Kudarat and Maguindanao provinces. In Sultan Kudarat, there was the vibrant town of Isulan and the surprisingly busy Tacurong City. Four-lane highway all through-out, wide and concrete without the bumps. Stalls, restaurants and other forms of enterprise abound along the road. Signs of progess, I must say.
This draws a sharp contrast to the towns in Maguindanao. There, it was quiet, eerily quiet. The houses are closed, most stores are closed, even the transport terminals are on a stand still. There were lots of government infrastructure in the area, very new but empty– public markets, transport terminals, health centers and the palatial provincial hall and town halls. Then there are those roofed cubicles (these are housing projects not larger than 2X2 meters that are made of flyboard and a GI sheet for a roof) that lined up the highway.
At past 2Pm, we arrived in Cotabato City where I stayed for a night before leaving again the next day for Pagadian.
The trip the next day was more comfortable, thanks to the rented Mitsubishi Strada and to nice guy George, my reliable driver for this second leg of the journey. We left Cotabato City at 7:30 am after a quick breakfast of the city’s famous balbakwa.
It was my first time in more than 10 years to take the road to Parang, Maguindanao. I never thought that the place would remind me of things from my childhood- the bridge in Simuay that once serve as our signpost that says we are near Pahm Resort, our favorite R&R place way back then. It also reminded me of my many times in Polloc, Cotabato’s wharf where my father who once worked for Sulpicio Lines would never miss a Tuesday night working in the port to oversee cargo and passenger loading to M/V Cotabato Princess. We passed by a barangay named Making and it suddenly occured to me that I have been to this place before. It had been otherwise buried in my memory but seeing the place again brought me back to my 6th grade where I attended the regional Boy Scouts Jamboree in Making, Parang, Maguindanao as a senior scout fresh from completing the 12th Asia-Pacific Jamboree in Mt. Makiling, Laguna in 1991. That was the connection.
Past those towns are roads that lead to Buldon, the former stronghold of Moro Islamic Liberation Front where Camp Abubakar is located. Remember Erap’s all-out war? This was the place.
Going further north is the Province of Lanao del Sur. I say this place is mystical and deserves a lot more of my time to examine and experience its quiet charm. But all I had was a quick glimpse. Too bad I didn’t even see the lake.
Lanao del Sur borders Lanao del Norte to the north, Bukidnon to the east, and Maguindanao and Cotabato to the south. To the southwest lies Illana Bay, an arm of the Moro Gulf. Found in the interior of Lanao del Sur is Lanao Lake, the largest lake in Mindanao, where the Maria Cristina Falls, the largest waterfall in the country is located. Marawi City, the Islamic City of the Philippines is its capital. Then there are the quaint little towns of Malabang and Balabagan, where former Supreme Court Justice Jose Abad Santos was killed by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1942. The national highway linking the two Lanao provinces is named after him.
Going further north is Sultan Naga Dimaporo in Lanao del Norte, the last town I guess before finally reaching Tukuran of Zamboanga del Sur. At past 11 in the morning, we found ourselves taking our lunch at Mang Inasal Chicken house in the newly-opened Gaisano Mall in Pagadian City.
That was a long and tiresome travel. Bt it was neveretheless priceless. Most people who have lived in Mindanao all their lives have never ever tried to take this road less travel, literally. I was glad that this trip went well and ended without incident. Although I felt exhilarated by the scenic Illana Bay and the coastal towns surrounding the Moro gulf, by the wonderful tunnel that cuts across a hill, by the Muslim children playing and walking in their traditional garb, by the surprisingly new and wide roads that looked like it was only built yesterday, the feeling of fear and the thought of mishap never left me.
Roads are supposed to connect people and ideas, promote exchange of culture and trade, and become avenues for communication. I hope that the road that leads to Pagadian City, from this southern city in South Cotabato (and all other road networks in Mindanao) will serve as our people’s expressway for peace, prosperity and development.