On and Off the Road: Mindanao
First of three parts of a journalist's road trip around the Philippines.
by Quintin V. Pastrana | October 17, 2016
Notes from an inter-island road trip:
- The fridge magnet isn’t the feast: this archipelago’s beauty beggars description. Ditch the flights—take to the open roads and seas, and RoRo away.
Take a diesel car: with the magnitude and uncertainty of such a trip, reliability, comfort and frugality win over style. We did a favor for a construction business that needed to ship back a tried and tested project workhorse pick-up back to home base in Manila. So we indulged and, with a generous five day deadline, we went for it with half a plan, a trust in intuition and Waze, and the kind of curiosity Imperial Manila couldn’t stifle.
This was a template for randomness, punctuated with a few non-negotiables. Except for the tight ferry schedules and the need to be back Wednesday, we were free to explore the interstices. All knowing this was not the last time, free to let go of the more touristy highlights and save them for another time.
We set off at the cusp of the weekend, a hearty breakfast and a quick stop for groceries. After the amorphous expanding blocks of concrete that was Cagayan de Oro, the rawness of Mindanao began to reveal itself.
Knowing all too well we would miss the highlights: Camiguin’s charms lay the other way, Butuan’s treasures we’d forgo for the ferry’s unforgiving intervals, and Siargao’s splendors a healthy detour off, we decided to make mental notes of what we’d dive into later on. The road trip didn’t disappoint. Old wooden homes with the patina of traditional woven bark for walls; gaps in between the blur of the trees revealing an unkempt indigo. This would go on for miles until our bladders could hold no more.
Even in this random, broad brushstroke of a ride, serendipity was merciful. We stopped by the nearest resort, only to find it abandoned—a cross between Y Tu Mama Tambien with its murky, leaf-strewn pool, and the shoreline from The Piano—the dark sand washed over with stainless waters, and a horizon so new you wanted to stay until it became familiar. Until the light starts receding and you realize there are plenty of miles to go before we found a place to sleep.
There was room for one more stop, and we couldn’t resist—fish crackers and nameless mineral water stanching our appetite, and an excuse to stop one more time to be one with the receding sea in the clutches of dusk. And in that moment, where a sense of urgency melted away with a Zen moment, where noting and everything mattered.
So from Misamis Oriental, we found ourselves entering the CARAGA region, and in the half-light of the highland checkpoints, a smile from the young soldiers and comfort of being in the haven of Agusan within the hour gave us peace.
So after an evening of dampa by the full moon, and the comfort of Dotties, the local hotel, we set off early for Surigao and the noontime ferry.
The brisk dawn gave way to a garish sun, and we set off the last stretch towards the northernmost tip of Mindanao. Unlike the first day, there wasn’t much room to stop, except when Lake Mainit showed her endless face to us, with a beauty mark of an island rising out of nowhere. There wasn’t a moment to lose, no place to stop and take a proper panorama, but the vista stitched itself together as we wound through the roads carved into the hillsides. It was more than enough to want to come back and take a dip, or row on its rippled, vast waters.
The parched hillsides succumbed to density once more. A few masjids dotted the flattening landscape, and the harbor’s mouth teemed with large ships.
We reached the port in Surigao in time for the first of three FastCATs to come, this one with a yawning interval that spoke of the underwhelming attention the island region has endured ‘til now.
Looking back as we fastened the truck onto the ship’s belly, we were reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lament: that one’s life was defined by opportunity, even the ones missed. And, looking at a sea so azure it congealed a moment and all we ignored to make the trip, we swore we would be back.