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. Habitu├ęs 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)