Saturday, May 24, 2014

Bucked up by Butuan City (Part 2)

Long before I went to Butuan, I’d been obsessed about seeing the balangay boats. So when I finally came to the city, I readily drove to Libertad where the ancient vessels were unearthed. Beside the excavation site lies the Balangay Shrine of the National Museum where the remnants are being displayed. Brimming with excitement, I reached the shrine which is roughly 12 kilometers away from the main road.

Balangay Shrine in Libertad, Butuan

A sign along the national highway directs visitors to the shrine, which is about fifteen minutes away from the downtown area. Driving there turned out to be a breeze because the access road is well-paved. The villagers were also kind enough to give me  instructions on how to reach the shrine. Tip for commuting visitors: hop into one of the tricycles stationed at Gaisano Mall and instruct the driver to take you to the site.  

At first sight, the shrine seems plain and ordinary-looking. But the structure belies the treasure-trove of extraordinary historical finds inside it!  There’s no entrance fee to the museum but tourists are required to register in the log book. No other visitor was around when I came so I had the shrine to myself. After I’ve done my part, the museum’s caretaker allowed me to roam around and take photos freely. 
Time seemed to stand still as I milled around to gaze at the relics, particularly the first excavated balangay boat as well as the coffin burials and skulls of ancient Filipinos. The enlarged, old photographs showing how the seacrafts were excavated were also enlightening. Geez, the Balangay Shrine houses one of the most amazing collections of artifacts from pre-Hispanic Philippines! 

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Excavation site right behind the shrine
I also saw the excavation site at the back of the shrine. From what I’ve gathered, the boats, made out of hard wood like doongon (for the planks), kamagong and magkuno (for the pegs), as well as the other relics, were only about a few meters from the ground when they were unearthed. Hmmm, I wonder what Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones would do if he stumbles upon this incredible find! LOL!

Seriously, I have my misgivings about the shrine’s security. Mind you, it’s disappointing to see that only a barbed wire fence provides protection to the most tangible evidence of pre-Hispanic Filipino civilization! All right, there’s a guard on duty as well as a museum caretaker but are the assigned staff working in shifts 24/7? I hope so. If not, what could stop some ruthless people from pillaging it? 

Every May, Butuan celebrates the month-long Balangay Festival to commemorate the arrival of the Malayo-Polynesian migrants from different parts of Southeast Asia aboard the balangay boats. Here’s hoping that the grand celebration would also give due attention to the protection as well as preservation of the shrine’s most important artifact, if only for the benefit of future generations of Pinoys.

Here’s hoping also that both the national and local governments would exert more effort to improve the museum’s facilities. Perhaps, they can also enlist the help of donor agencies which have experts in museum preservation and security. I’m no expert on these things but I fear for the shrine. Maybe through this humble post something positive could come out. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. 

En route to downtown Butuan, I recalled something I picked up from one of my history classes about the origin of the word barangay.  Known as the country’s smallest political unit, the term came from balangay, which the Austronesians used to refer to "sailboat". These barangays, which already existed during pre-Spanish times, were independent village-kingdoms akin to the city-states of ancient Greece. 

Each barangay, according to historians, was ruled by either a datu, raha, hari or lakan depending on its side. Today, these barangays, headed by a barangay captain, have swelled to over 42,000, serving as the people's vital links to the local and national governments and vice-versa. These political units are the closest one can get for a grasp of how democracy works, particularly at the grassroots level.

Obviously, the seeds of Christianity that Magellan propagated nearly five centuries ago had taken root so deeply in the city. Today, Butuanons count among the most devout Christians in Mindanao, if the crowd of parishioners I saw who attended the late afternoon mass at St. Joseph's Cathedral were to be my basis. Almost every seat was taken and people part in the rituals of the Holy Mass.

St. Joseph Cathedral facing Rizal Park

Altar and retablo of the cathedral

Facing the cathedral is historic Rizal Park (a.k.a. Guingona Park), which used to be a public square during Spanish times. On January 17, 1899, the town plaza became the venue of the raising of the Philippine flag for the first time in the entire island. The park, which was recently renovated, features the all-white statue of the country’s national hero standing right in the middle.

The church and the park were all spruced up that time. And so was the rest of Butuan. I found out later that it was in preparation for the forthcoming feast of the city’s patron saint, St. Joseph, which falls every May 19. How I wanted to stay and observe the weeklong festivities. Too bad, I had to report back for work on the very day of the fiesta itself. Had I known about it earlier, I could have taken a longer leave of absence.

Sto. Niño Shrine 

Incidentally, many Butuanons happen to be devotees of the Child Jesus or Sto. Niño. So intense is their fervor for the Holy Child that they’ve put up a shrine in his honor. Founded in 1986 and declared a diocesan shrine in the 2000, the Sto. Niño Shrine houses a replica of the original image of the Holy Child brought by Magellan first to Mazaua (allegedly today’s village of Masao) before it was taken to Cebu.  

As a devotee myself, I made sure that a visit to the church would be part of my itinerary so I can pay homage to the Child Jesus. I didn’t have a hard time locating the church even if it was my first time to go there. The shrine isn’t hard to miss. It’s found along the western side of the Butuan-Cagayan-Iligan Highway, in the village of Libertad, on the way to the city’s Bancasi Airport. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t see the venerated icon as a wedding was about to begin when I got there. I just took it as a sign that I have to go back there so that I can pay my respects for one of my devotions. After saying my prayers at the shrine, I drove back to the downtown area, passing by the President Diosdado Macapagal Bridge II, Mindanao’s longest span.

President Diosadao Macapagal Bridge II

The cable-stayed bridge is one of two spans linking the villages found along the riverbanks of the city. I stopped by to take some snaps of the bridge and Agusan River. Geez, it felt so ecstatic to have finally driven along that bridge and see the river below it.  Like many cities and towns in the country, Butuan owes much of what it has become today to its river, which happens to be Mindanao’s widest and most navigable. 

Agusan River, which is the third longest in the country, stretches about 350 kilometers from its origin and drains into Butuan Bay. There are several pump boats that take commuters to a 30-minute cruise down the river from Butuan City to the nearby municipality of Magallanes in Agusan del Norte. Too bad, I failed to go on a voyage along that body of water during this recent sortie.  

Portion of Agusan River

Gazing at the calm river from the bridge, I suddenly remembered something about the name Agusan. For a long time, I really thought it was taken from the word, agos, the Tagalog equivalent, for “flow”. But I stand corrected. It was from their river that the two Agusan provinces owe their names, particularly the word, agasan, which in the vernacular means “where the water flows.”  

Bucked up by my exhilarating discoveries in that part of Mindanao, I’d like to close this  two-part anthology about my Butuan escapade with this: I couldn’t agree more to the Butuanons’ claim, which goes: “In the beginning, there was no Philippines…but there was Butuan!” So, I dare say this—it’s Mindanao, not Luzon nor the Visayas, which is the veritable cradle of Philippine history, culture, trade and foreign relations! :-D

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