Sunday, November 17, 2013

Surprised by Surigao City (Part 1)

Say “Surigao”, and, chances are, the first thing that would probably run through an incorrigible tourist’s mind are the wild, wind-swept and wickedly surprising escapades guaranteed to give anyone a good dose of sun, sea and sand in the so-called “City of Island Adventures”, a title that fits Surigao del Norte’s capital to a tee.

Say “Surigao”, and, chances are, the first thing that would likely whet an insatiable foodie’s appetite are the fresh catch of fish, crabs, lobsters and prawns cooked and served in a variety of ways—grilled, fried, boiled, steamed, baked and what have you—by restaurants in one of Mindanao’s renowned seafood capitals.  

Say “Surigao”, and chances are, the first thing that would perhaps tickle an impassioned historian’s imagination are the treasure trove of precious historical and cultural finds just waiting to be rediscovered in one of Philippines’ little known yet most important enclaves of history, culture and the arts.

I’m a bit of the three—incorrigible tourist, insatiable foodie and impassioned (read: wannabe) historian—and those thoughts crossed my mind when I learned I was one of the delegates to a Mindanao-wide corporate event in Surigao. I’ve never been there so imagine how surprised and delighted I was to know I’m bound for the city. 

Surigao's giant crabs

Nestled in the northeasternmost tip of Mindanao, Surigao, which is fast rising as one of the island's economic cornerstones, offers some of the most breathtaking natural attractions that would captivate tourists who are constantly in search of dream destinations that are largely unspoiled, unaffected and uncharted.

Giant shoe at Luneta Park
What’s with Surigao that makes it such an interesting tourist magnet? Well, it wouldn’t be called the City of island Adventures for nothing. Composed of seventeen bewitching islands and islets, it boasts of several stretches of immaculate beaches, unique rock formations, mystical caves, lush mangrove forests and awesome marine sceneries. 

St. Nicholas of Tolentino Cathedral
The city’s vast potentials for tourism may have only been recognized in recent years following the wave of political developments that came about with the formation of Caraga Region, but Surigao has been attracting people to its shores long before Ferdinand Magellan and his crew first sailed through historic Surigao Strait.
Nonoc, one of Surigao's 17 islands

During pre-Spanish times, the old settlement was already a thriving area populated by a group of fierce and intrepid people of Visayan stock who had contacts with Chinese, Arab and Hindu traders. In the 1600s, it grew into a port town named Bilang-Bilang (later called Banahao in the 1730s), which was part of the district known as Calagan. 
Surigao City Hall

Surigao del Norte Provincial Capitol
When the Spanish conquistadors came, they must have mispronounced Calagan and ended up calling it Caraga, which originated from the native words kalag, meaning “spirit or soul”, and an, meaning “land”. In essence, Calagan/Caraga, which then covered a third of Mindanao’s total land area, referred to the “land of spirited people.”

History has it that Provincia de Caraga (with Tandag as its capital) included present-day Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur, the eastern portion of Misamis Oriental and the northern part of Davao Oriental. When Tandag was burned by Moro raiders, the Spanish authorities moved the capital to the town of Surigao in the 1750s.

The road to Surigao City
In the early 1900s, Provincia de Caraga came to be known as the Province of Surigao, lasting throughout the American occupation up to the post-World War II years. When the province was subdivided into two in 1960, the then municipality of Surigao became the capital of Surigao del Norte with Tandag as its counterpart in Surigao del Sur.

Rizal's monument
Meanwhile, modern-day Caraga Region, which seems to have partly reverted to its original composition in the 1600s, is made up of the provinces of Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur and Dinagat Islands, as well as the cities of Bayugan, Butuan, Cabadbaran, Bislig, Tandag and, of course, Surigao.

Facade of Surigao's City Hall
Blessed with rich natural resources, Surigao’s economy flourished through the years, bolstered mainly by agricultural, fishing, mining and tourism activities. This eventually paved the way for the old town’s cityhood in 1970. Populated by nearly 140,000 people, it ranks today as one of the most competitive small-sized cities in the country. 

A mall in downtown Surigao
Surigao has 54 barangays, 33 of which are found in the mainland while 21 are scattered in its seventeen islands and islets, which—I hope I got it right—include  the following: Awasan, Bayagnan, Basul, Danawan, Hanigad, Hikdop, Hinatuan, Manjagao, Nabago, Nonoc, Raza, Sagisi, San Jose, Sibale, Sugbu, Sumilom and Talavera. 
Gazebo at Luneta Park

Battered by typhoons year in, year out, Surigao, a legendary name fraught with stories about its origins, had long intrigued me. For years now, I’d been trying to arrange a sojourn to the city and its neighboring islands. Almost always, I ended up cancelling for fear of being caught in the middle of some forthcoming storm.

Just when I had given up on my best-laid plans, the chance to see Surigao came my way. Like those huge Pacific surges bashing its shores, I surged forward to the city when the storm season had already set in. Good heavens! Super Typhoon Yolanda had just left the country while we were gearing up for Surigao!

A glimpse of Surigao Strait

When everything  was set for our sojourn to the so-called “Gateway to Mindanao”, we found out that another typhoon—Hello, Zoraida, is that you?—was going to make landfall in Surigao on the very day that we’re supposed to go there! Oh, no! Not again! I protested. Why can’t these freaks of nature just leave the country in peace?!

Gaisano Capital Mall
Geez, I’ve had enough of typhoons—Ondoy, Pedring, Quiel, Sendong, Lawin and many others—which have done so much to spoil my previous vacays. Although Zoraida was of lesser intensity compared to its catastrophic predecessor, Yolanda, which wrought havoc in Central Philippines, I still had misgivings about travelling that day.

Tavern Hotel
Bracing ourselves against Zoraida, our twelve-man delegation braved the inclement weather—gloomy skies, intermittent rains and light floods—all the way to Surigao. Lifting our cares to the Almighty, we forged ahead as the weather forecast said that the typhoon would already be in the Visayas by the time we reach the city.  

Traveling by land from Davao, we embarked on a thrilling eight-hour journey into the heartland of Northern Mindanao, passing through two regions (Davao and Caraga), four provinces (Davao del Norte, Compostela Valley, Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur) and four cities (Tagum, Bayugan, Butuan and Cabadbaran).

Lake Mainit as seen from the town of Alegria

Aboard three vehicles, we meandered through the arterial roads linking the southern and northern portions of the island. Slowed down by rains and floods, our vehicles travelled at 60 to 80 kph, trailing behind the typhoon, which traversed the Caraga Region at  30 to 50 kph. Zoraida was gone by the time we reached Surigao. 

On the way to the city, we passed by picturesque Lake Mainit, said to be the country’s fourth largest lake with an area spanning 173,000 hectares. Home to a wide variety of fish and wildlife species, I first saw it over a decade ago during a trip to Tubay in Agusan del Norte. Unfortunately, I failed to explore it on the two occasions I was there.

Said to be the country’s deepest lake, the pear-shaped natural attraction is shared by the provinces of Agusan del Norte and Surigao del Norte, with four municipalities from each province bordering it. Gazing at the lake from our vehicle, I couldn’t help but be stunned by its sheer beauty. I brought out my Nikon and took some snaps of Mainit.

Arriving in the city, we immediately proceeded to one of Surigao’s newest hotels where we were billeted for the next few days. From my room, I had a glimpse of Zoraida’s gloomy specter at the distant horizon. Tired, I sank into my bed, comforted by the thought that the storm was on its way out of Mindanao. I dozed off minutes later.
After an hour, the incessant ringing of my phone woke me up—a text message from  a colleague reminding me it’s dinner time. With much effort, I rose from my bed, washed up and went downstairs to join the group. Destination: the public market where we feasted on delectable seafood. Before calling it a night, we had a few drinks at the hotel’s restobar.

Tipsy, I slept like a log that night. Waking up hours later, I was surprised to see an unexpected phenomenon from my window—a dazzling rainbow glowing in the early morning sky. Rainbows, they say, symbolize God's promise that He won’t be sending another flood to destroy everything on earth like what happened during Noah’s time.

In the aftermath of the typhoon and its accompanying storm surge which nearly wiped out many parts of Central Philippines, I couldn’t help but wonder if He’s reneging on that promise. Was Yolanda an omen of sorts, a prelude to something far more devastating, a sneak peek at something apocalyptic? Geez, I hope not.The thought scares me.
(to be continued)

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