Sunday, December 23, 2012

Milling around Misamis Oriental (Part 1)

If my sense of history serves me right, it was in Mindanao where Spain took a beating before she tasted victory, or some form of it. Her incursions into the island took centuries to gain ground mainly because of the feisty Moro people whose sultanates relentlessly staved off the colonizers’ attempts to gain a foothold of their territory. It was only during the final years of Spanish colonization in the Philippines that a full-scale conquest was launched, resulting to the subjugation of many parts of what used to be impenetrable Moroland.

In what is now modern-day Northern Mindanao, the vast lands that belonged to a region called Misamis were among those that eventually succumb to the power of the Cross. By the 1800s, this part of the island was organized as a province covering Dapitan in the west up to Gingoog in the east, even to as far as Cotabato and Lanao del Sur in the south. This, however, eventually disintegrated with the subdivision as well as the creation of new provinces that included Misamis Occidental and Misamis Oriental, both of which came into being in the 1920s.

Like some episodic possession à la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the history-obsessed gadabout lurking inside me reared its ugly head on several occasions, compelling me to mill around the two Misamis provinces. But the other fellow—the fastidious bean-counter who accounts everything up to the last cent—kept resisting the urge to hit the road since doing so would only impoverish some more my already cash-strapped wallet. In the end, however, it’s always the obsessive-compulsive history-loving bum who’d prevail! LOL!

Of the two provinces, I’ve been to Misamis Oriental or MisOr quite more often because of its relative  proximity to Davao.  Whenever I’m in MisOr,  there’s this side of the province that never fails to amaze me, notably the vestiges of Spain’s colonization and  the spread of  Christianity in that part of the island. Every time  I’m in MisOr, I usually kick off  my journey in what is considered as the regional center of Northern Mindanao—Cagayan de Oro, or CDO for short.

If there's one thing about Cagayan de Oro that fascinates me, it’s the unique name that’s said to have been derived from two languages: Malay and Spanish. Legend has it that there’s a mighty river that runs through a settlement where the early Spanish conquistadors discovered gold nuggets. That settlement was then known as Kagay-an, a name which was allegedly derived from the ancient word kagay, meaning “river” in Malay. Kagay-an, therefore, means "place with a river.

When the law creating the city was passed more than 50 years ago, former Congressman (and later Vice-President) Emmanuel Pelaez, one of the city’s most eminent sons, appended “de Oro” to the city’s, which means “gold” in Spanish, in recognition of the gold mining activities in the area during the pre-Spanish times. Cagayan de Oro—fondly called CDO by locals and tourists alike—roughly translates to “City with a River of Gold.”

Considered as the capital of Misamis Oriental, the city is a highly-urbanized metropolis that now governs itself independently from the province. Like many provincial cities in the country, life in CDO is relatively laidback here compared to those cities in Metro Manila and Cebu, giving people the chance to enjoy a comfortable way of life amid a rapidly changing urban setting. From real estate to power to food, prices in CDO are relatively lower, enabling both residents and tourists alike to get more value for their hard-earned pesos or dollars.

Unlike other urban centers in the country, crime and criminality in CDO are at their lowest. Next to Davao and GenSan, I’m comfy roaming the streets and arcades of the City of Golden Friendship even in the darkest hours of night. Theft, assaults, gang wars, if any, are largely unheard of. Also, people from various cultures and creeds—Christians, Muslims and lumads—live in peaceful co-existence. 

For the nth time I’ve made it to CDO this year. Entering the city after nearly seven hours on the road, its modernity and sophistication felt like the ultimate antithesis to the picturesque landscapes of rolling hills swathe with pineapple plantations, verdant fields teeming with the country’s staple food, meandering rivers that provide power to the island. Roaming around the heart of CDO, the bucolic sceneries of the countryside seemed distant and surreal.  

As always, the city dazzled this frequent visitor with her numerous surprises: new hotels, new malls, new flyovers, new residential areas, etc. Life seemed to have taken a turn for the better following the disaster that struck CDO more than a year ago. Many Cagayanons who have survived the wrath of Typhoon Sendong seemed to have found the courage and the will to rebuild their shattered lives, choosing to move on after the tragic incident that claimed lives and destroyed properties.  

I think for many Catholics in CDO, moving on must have been less torturous because of their deep-rooted belief and trust in the Almighty. In a modern-day metropolis like this premier city in Northern Mindanao, it’s inspiring to see how people have managed to cling to their spirituality amid the tragedies they've experienced, judging from the huge throngs of devotees who were flocking to St. Augustine Metropolitan Cathedral during the weekend I went there.

As the seat of devotion for the faithful of MisOr and other nearby places, the Gothic-inspired cathedral was built by the Augustinian friars in 1845. The original structure, however, was heavily destroyed during World War II but was rebuilt in the post-war era. If time and circumstance permit me, I always include a visit to this house of worship in my itinerary where I always feel comforted and protected from the hazards of a long trip. 

Truly, CDO is one place I’d never get tired to visiting. Whenever the opportunity to go on a vacay in Northern Mindanao knocks at my door, I’d quickly pack my stuff and head for the city, meandering around town and catching up on its sights, smells and sounds even though I’ve already experienced them many times over. Rain or shine, the everyday scenes in CDO will always be chada to me.

Aside from the City of Golden Friendship, I had the opportunity to explore three other places in MisOr: the cities of El Salvador and Gingoog as well as the town of Medina. The two cities may not be as popular and progressive as CDO but they have interesting nooks and crannies that, for me, are worth exploring. Also, I got intrigued by Medina after learning about one of its fine beach resorts. These three, I guess, are some of the boom towns to watch out for as they’re going to catapult the province to new heights.

Not too long ago, El Salvador, along with 15 other newly created cities in the Philippines, hugged the national headlines when its cityhood was nullified following a Supreme Court decision which deemed the law that converted it into a city as unconstitutional. The petitioners, however, appealed their case before the justices, resulting in a legal tug-of-war that lasted for a few years, with the High Court vacillating on its own decision! After several reversals, I heard that the justices had upheld the cityhood of El Salvador and the 15 towns.

More than a century after the Spanish conquistadors left the country, the seeds of Catholicism which they had sowed in Northern Mindanao continue to bear fruit, especially in El Salvador. That it’s being referred to as the “City of the Savior” or the “City of Mercy” got me somewhat doubtful so during one trip up north, I made sure that I’d get to step into this city which is just a 30-minute ride from downtown CDO.

There, all my doubts vanished into thin air as I witnessed for myself what drives thousands of devotees from all over the country and abroad to gravitate towards the so-called City of Mercy, especially during the Lenten Season. It’s none other than the 50-foot statue of Jesus Christ which is found inside the Divine Mercy Shrine. The sculpture is considered by some as our version of Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer which incidentally stands atop of a mountain overlooking Rio Janeiro. 

On a recent trip, I was able to return to El Salvador, managing to squeeze in a second visit to the shrine, which is almost fully developed. The church, which was a loose network of scaffoldings a few years ago, is almost complete. Retreat houses, view decks, prayer gardens and children’s playground have also been put up. It was a sight to behold. Here’s one perfect place where the Son of God and his teachings are literally larger than life itself, I mused while shooting at the image. 

Gazing at the gigantic statue, which rises on a nearly 12-hectare hilly track of land overlooking the blue waters of Macalajar Bay, I recalled the Gospel’s account of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus preached about his best known teachings like the Beatitudes. The preaching, according to some scholars, took place not on a mountain (since there are none in Galilee) but rather on a large hill! Hmmm…something must have been lost in the translation somewhere.

Just like the first time, I found myself awed by the sheer size of the Divine Mercy’s statue as well as the symbol it represents. A "halo" made out of stained glass serves as its crowning glory. The red and gray “rays” that represent the flowing "blood" and "water" are actually staircases leading up to the "heart" of Jesus. At the heart is a hidden niche with a life-size statue of Saint Faustina, the Polish nun who had a vision which described what is now called the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Carved at the base of the statue are the words, “JESUS I TRUST IN YOU”.
Planning a visit? Here’s a caveat: wear something appropriate for a holy place—no mini-skirts, no tube tops, no short shorts, no sandos. Violate this and the staff at the shrine will certainly call your attention and tell you the shrine isn’t some picnic ground. Worst, they’d compel you (even if you’re a guy!) to wear a blue or red cloth either as a shawl or a skirt just to cover your “nakedness”.  Now, guys, you wouldn’t want to be forced to wear a skirt against your will, eh? LOL! :-D

Friday, November 30, 2012

Getting away to GenSan City (Part 1)

If I were to name the top three Mindanao cities I love to visit every now and then, General Santos City would be one of them. Hailed as one of the country’s fastest growing cities and one of the island’s most progressive regional capitals, GenSan, as it is popularly called, never fails to amaze me.

I’m head over heels with it so whenever there’s a chance to go there, I’d scurry to get away to GenSan. The city has enclaves of solace and serenity whenever I want to escape urban din and drudgery. It has all the trappings of a modern-day metropolis yet has retained much of its rustic charm.

The highlands of Sarangani

GenSan City Hall
Here’s a boom town that’s a veritable melting pot of contradictions—urban and rural, cosmopolitan yet countrified, leisurely for the most part but lethargic at times. It’s an intriguing conundrum where you can find calm and chaos thriving within the same sociocultural and political milieu. 

Mt. Matutum as seen in GenSan
Regarded as one of Mindanao’s highly urbanized cities, GenSan serves as the regional center for trade and industry of SOCCSKSARGEN. Known as the new Region XII, SOCCSKSARGEN is a conglomeration of South Cotabato, Cotabato City, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and, of course, General Santos City. 

Statue of General Paulino Santos

SOCCSKSARGEN came into being after the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was established, which led to the reconstitution of what used to be the old Region XII or Central Mindanao. Consequently, the region’s political hub was moved from Cotabato City to Koronadal City.

Referred to as South Central Mindanao, SOCCSKSARGEN has four provinces (Cotabato, Sarangani, South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat), three component cities (Kidapawan, Koronadal and Tacurong), one independent city (Cotabato) and one highly-urbanized city (GenSan).  

Once called Dadiangas, GenSan was originally inhabited by B’laans, one of Mindanao’s indigenous communities. In the late 1930s, a small group of Christian settlers from Luzon led by General Paulino Santos, former commanding general of the Philippine Army, arrived at the shores of Sarangani Bay.

Kinilaw (tuna ceviche)

Appointed as head of the National Land Settlement Administration (NSLA) by President Manuel Quezon, General Santos and his group sought to facilitate the acquisition, settlement and cultivation of large tracts of virgin lands in that part of the island then known as Buayan.

The early settlers became the first migrants who helped develop Buayan, which, in the early 1950s, was renamed General Santos as a fitting tribute to its great pioneer. Over the years, its economy enjoyed unprecedented growth, fueled largely by the establishment of agri-based multinational companies.

In 1968, the boom town of GenSan became a full-fledged city, which later transformed itself into one of the island’s economic hubs. Within a span of two decades, it became a highly-urbanized city of South Cotabato. Today, GenSan continues to ride on the crest of economic prosperity.   

I’d like to consider myself an adopted son of GenSan. I first saw it several many years ago when I visited my father who was then working for one of the provincial offices of a national government agency. Since then, I came to the city not only to see him but also to touch base with some kith and kin there.

Later, as a fledgling researcher, I shuttled to and fro GenSan nearly every month as part of a team working with the local government as well as attend meetings and trainings there. Even today, I still drop by the city whenever I could for I always find an escapade there to be invigorating.
All those times I was in GenSan, I’ve made it a point to savor and take home some of the delectable species—yellow fin, skipjack, big eye, frigate and the like—that  have earned for it the title, “Tuna Capital of the Philippines”. Fresh, processed or canned, tuna is a prized delicacy to this fish lover.

Every September, GenSan sizzles with activity as it celebrates the week-long Tuna Festival, which also coincides with the city’s founding anniversary. The thanksgiving festivities include carnivals, tuna dish competitions, street parades of tuna and tuna-like floats, street dancing, including sports and musical performances. 

Grilled tuna belly, one of GenSan's must-eats

For the past several months, I’d been wanting to embark on another sojourn to GenSan. This finally saw the light of day recently. It was a long weekend so I packed my stuff and headed for the city. From Davao City, I drove solo, mustering up all my guts to find my way safely into the city.

While it was a rather short trip, it left a large cache of sweet memories and stirring impressions that I’ve managed to put together in this online anthology. Come to think of it, it took time for me to realize there’s a lot I could share about GenSan in my blog! Ah, better late than never. 

Just several months after my last visit, much has already changed in GenSan's landscape that I almost got lost there! It seemed like an entirely different place. Where vast hectares of idle lands used to be, malls, hotels, restaurants, resorts, shops, stores and the like have sprouted. 

Some of these  establishments aren’t just no-name entities but plush ones like Robinsons, SM, Gaisano and even KCC, its homegrown mall, which attract mallrats. Habitués who are fond of killing time by shopping, dining, playing, watching movies and strolling will have a field day exploring those pleasure grounds. 

East Asia Royale Hotel
If you’re looking for a place where you can commune with nature, then head for Sarangani Highlands Garden. I’ve been hearing about this hotel-in-a-garden so I opted to spend one night there instead of lingering at my usual hideaways when I’m in town: East Asia Royale Hotel and Microtel Suites.

Mind you, Sarangani Highlands Garden isn’t just a garden or a hotel; it’s such a blissful paradise neatly tucked in GenSan’s outskirts. And here’s more that makes it your money’s worth: All the hotel rooms there have a stunning view of the garden or Sarangani Bay!  

The beach in Dolores Tropicana Resort

Facing the blue waters of the bay, GenSan is also home to a number of beach resorts which those wanting to get a healthy dose of sun, sea and sand would be interested to explore. I opted to spend a few hours at Dolores Tropicana Beach Resort in Tambler, said to be the city’s premier beachside hideaway. 

About 30 to 45 minutes away from the downtown area, the beach resort offers a front-seat view of Sarangani Bay. Tropicana has affordable air-conditioned rooms and open-air cottages for those who want to stay there for the night or several nights. Guests are also allowed to pitch their own tents along the beach.

Surrounded by swaying palm trees, I found the resort’s ambience cool and refreshing. Nothing spectacular about it though. The sand isn’t white but still smooth to walk on. Tropicana is a good choice for a weekend refuge for those wanting to run away from the hubbub of the city center.

Another interesting place in GenSan is Plaza Heneral, which is just a stone’s throw away from City Hall. As a teenager, I used to watch shows and sports activities there while waiting for my father to leave his office. Later, I whiled away time in the park after our meetings with the local government’s planning staff.

Reopened to the public some four years ago, the plaza now looks much better than before. It has lighting fixtures and a fish pond right in the middle. Benches have also been added where people can sit back, relax and bask in the beauty of the surroundings.

By day, the plaza looks rather drab and uninteresting. By night, it transforms into a wonderland of sorts crawling with itinerant vendors selling all kinds of foodstuff, not to mention their customers who seem to have their own niches inside the park—skaters, bikers, street dancers, lovers and the like.   

(to be continued)