Friday, May 23, 2014

Bucked up by Butuan City (Part 1)

“Never again!” Two words I uttered after stepping into Butuan for the first time in the late 1990s, vowing never to return there (unless I’d take a plane) after surviving an almost ten-hour bumpy ride over the miserable road network along the two Agusans, which was then notorious for being one of Mindanao’s worst. Geez, it’s so pathetic you’d think you’re treading the road to perdition!    

The mighty Agusan River

Now, all that is water under the President Diosdado Macapagal Bridge II so I humbly take back my word against Butuan. In one of my journeys to the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Gingoog, I was delighted to see the much improved road condition as the bus passed through the Agusan provinces. Whew, it’s probably one of Mindanao’s finest! It would be exciting to drive at high speeds along that highway, I thought. 

After exploring nearby Surigao City for the first time a year ago, I returned once again to Caraga Region, this time, on a solo sojourn. Hitting the road to Butuan was like hitting two birds with one stone. First, I was finally able to come up with this post about the bustling city in Northern Mindanao. And second, I had a much needed change of scene which did wonders to buck me up in many ways than one.  

Historic Butuan intrigued me. Once known as the “Timber City of the South” because of its thriving logging industry many decades ago, it has successfully managed to re-invent itself into one of the Philippines’ highly-urbanized cities. Designated as Caraga’s administrative center, it serves as the hub for trade, commerce, education, tourism, entertainment and transportation of the region.

Driving my way into the city, I managed to pull another first-time stunt—a five-hour solo drive thru the long and winding roads leading to Butuan that had me meandering into two regions and four provinces of Mindanao! It was a dream fulfilled for this thrill-seeker, a personal feat that upsized my sense of self. It was an exhilarating joyride that pushed me beyond my comfort zone.  

Initially, I had my misgivings about pursuing the trek. For days, I was debating with myself whether to drive or to commute. Why, it even came to a point that I almost canceled the trip out of fear over this and that! But there’s this inner voice that urged me to forge ahead and wrestle with my inner demons. Finally deciding to take the wheel, I kept telling myself one mantra: “Butuan or bust!” 

As it turned out, the solo sojourn was a delight to this city slicker who’s craving to bask in the beauty of the countryside. As my car rolled along the highways of that part of Mindanao, I caught glimpses of rustic grandeur under the sun—green fields teeming with the season’s produce; mighty rivers and clear streams here and there; farmers riding astride their beasts of burden; and many more. 

The rural visuals had an alleviating effect on me; I felt so light and at peace with the world, as if a heavy burden were taken off my shoulders. It was a long drive—almost six hours as I stopped every now and then for selfies!—that I thought I’d have difficulty completing as it’s my first time to drive thru those unfamiliar paths, particularly the serpentine roads of Compostela Valley. But I survived ‘em all!

Why go solo to a remote destination? Well, patience is the least of my virtues; I can’t wait for travel buddies to become available. Admittedly, I’ve taken to heart these lines from American author and poet Henry David Thoreau: “He who goes alone can start today, but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.” Mind you, one isn’t such a lonely number; one is more fun! 

Montilla Boulevard

Why bum around Butuan? Of all the things I’ve heard about it, it’s the city’s prominent role during the dawn of our country’s history that interested me. Dubbed as the “Prehistoric City of the Philippines”, Butuan is home to the remnants of several ancient boats known as balangays (or balanghais three of which have been radiocarbon tested and dated to as early as 320, 990 and 1250 A.D.!

A remnant of the balangay boat

According to,  a balangay is a “plank boat adjoined by a carved-out plank edged through pins and dowels.” A flotilla of about nine balangays, which were used by the Malayo-Polynesian migrants from different parts of Southeast Asia, was excavated in the village of Libertad. Seeing the Butuan boat was one of the things I wanted to achieve during that sojourn.

Said to be the first pre-Hispanic wooden seacraft excavated in the country, the Butuan boats were first mentioned in the journals of Italian scholar and explorer Antonio Pigafetta. Sailing with Ferdinand Magellan and his crew under the auspices of King Charles I of Spain, he documented the Portuguese explorer’s expedition to the Moluccas, including the rediscovery of the Philippines.

The discovery of the ancient boats in 1976 reinforces our historians’ assertion that the Philippines had a culture and way of life of her own before Spain came to these islands. It also lends support to Butuan’s claim of being this country’s flourishing trade and commercial center as early as the 11th century. Undeniably, our ancestors were civilized long before they were Hispanicized!

Of the nine balangay boats that were discovered, BB No. 1 (carbon-dated to 320 A.D.) is now housed at the Balangay Shrine and Museum, along with other ancient artifacts excavated at the site. In addition, BB No. 2 (carbon-dated to 1250 A.D.) is on display at the National Museum in Manila while BB No. 5 (carbon-dated to 900 A.D.), is undergoing conservation treatment at the Butuan Branch  of the National Museum.

Artifacts at the Balangay Shrine

Libertad excavation site
All three boats have been declared by the late President Corazon Aquino as National Cultural Treasures thru Proclamation No. 86. Meanwhile, the other six vessels have been kept in their waterlogged state, which experts consider as the best way of preserving them. But I heard the diggings have resumed a few years ago—more than three decades after the three original boats were dug!

Sometime last year, I read that the diggings have unearthed what is called the “mother of all balangay boats”. Experts said that the newly-discovered massive vessel, estimated to be about 25 meters long, would still have to undergo a thorough technical evaluation to determine its authenticity as a balangay. If found to be a real one, the discovery promises to spark a re-writing of our country’s history!

St. Joseph Cathedral

History has it that the early Filipinos navigated across Southeast Asia as early as the 10th century, reaching as far as Champa, or what is now the eastern coast of Vietnam, onboard flotillas of balangays. It has always been the common thinking that these flotillas consisted of similarly-sized small boats but the discovery of the huge vessel suggests that the smaller ones could have been support seacrafts. 

The said mother boat that’s discovered in Butuan is deemed to be the storage for trade goods and supplies of our seafaring ancestors. The recent discovery further implies that they were much more organized than earlier thought. Incidentally, it has been established that Butuan has had extensive trading links with ancient China and Vietnam and the discovery of the boat lends credence to that.

(to be continued)

No comments:

Post a Comment