Most visitors to the Philippines do not visit the southern island of Mindanao. But then again neither do Filipinos who live in Luzon and the Visayas. Not because they can't afford it (although it's true that many can't it is possible to get a cheap, budget airline ticket from Luzon to Mindanao for only $20 or less, well within the reach of the burgeoning Philippine middle-class), but because they are afraid to. Mindanao is home to various separatist rebel groups (such as the unfortunately-named MILF) and has seen numerous bombings, abductions and killings of foreigners and locals alike. For most Manileños it's a lawless, anarchic place with danger lurking around every corner, completely forgetting that the vast majority of people who live there are ordinary citizens just trying to get on with their lives (if it was so dangerous they would have probably left long ago themselves). I, however, despite the many warnings and looks of incredulity from other Filipinos, was determined to go there. Partly because I find that there is always a huge disconnect between risk and the perception of risk. Often when I mention that I have been to North Korea the first question people ask is "but isn't it dangerous?" to which I, in all honesty, reply that it is probably the safest country to visit as a tourist, even more so than Japan, South Korea or any European country (with the possible exception of Liechtenstein). The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office would rather err on the side of caution and advises against travel to Mindanao (see map below), but luckily I am travelling on a Czech passport and a brief perusal of their foreign office website I found no similar warning, so that makes it OK to visit then. My other reason for going to Mindanao is far more prosaic: the only scheduled international sea connections from the Philippines leave from the island. One south to Indonesia, the other west to Malaysian Borneo. I had lost in my attempt to enter the country overland, but I was damned if I was going to be beaten twice in succession.
The reason for the instability lies, as it so often does, in history and religion. When the Spaniards first arrived to the archipelago in 1521 they were in full crusader mode, having just recently flushed the Moors from Iberia in the Reconquista and embarked on their little Inquisition, whilst unexplored, pagan lands were just waiting to be converted. They must have been more than a little annoyed then to find that their old foes, the Muslim Arabs, had beaten them to the Philippines, having landed about 200 years previously, and already made progress converting the locals to Islam. During the 300 years of Spanish rule in the Philippines they were never able to subjugate the island and its fiercely independent Moros (Spanish for Moors), their influence only extending to a handful of coastal outposts that were used to counter the constant raids of the Moro pirates. It wasn't until the American colonial period that the island was finally tamed and there began an influx of, mainly Christian, outsiders to populate the interior, which, of course, led to lingering resentment amongst the Moros. During the Marcos regime a separatist movement coalesced with the aim to achieve, if not independence for Mindanao (which was always an unlikely goal), then at least a degree of autonomy for its majority Muslim areas. After years of conflict, and after the ousting of Marcos, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was created in 1989 to answer the local desires for autonomy. However the desired-for benefits of self-rule haven't materialised. Many of the insurgent groups have held onto their weapons, finding that old habits die hard and that violence, especially without ideology and principles, is a lucrative business. And so corruption and violence have remained entrenched whilst rival factions squabble for power and money, ignoring the plight of the people or the reasons for taking up arms in the first place, which, of course has lead to cynicism and disillusionment towards them from the general public.
Although there are places in Mindanao that are indeed dangerous, and I would never think of going there, to tar the island with as broad a brush as the FCO is unfair and ultimately unhelpful. My first port of call on the island, the northern city of Cagayan de Oro, or CdO to locals. CdO is a perfect example of the potential imprecision of travel advisories. There have been no attacks and the pleasant university town is more famed for its giant Del Monte pineapple plantation, zip-line which is touted as Asia's longest (Filipinos seem to have a strange obsession with zip-lines as they are to be found everywhere), and white-water rafting. In fact it's the R&R, student capital of Mindanao.
|One of the tent cities dotted around Cagayan de Oro following the destruction wrought by tropical storm Sendong.|
It would be an even happier place if it hadn't recently suffered a major trauma. Not a man-made one (though perhaps exacerbated by peoples' actions), but natural. On the 16th of December last year tropical storm Sendong unleashed its burden (some 20cm of rain in only a few hours) on CdO and the surrounding area creating flash floods that swept away entire neighbourhoods. As is often the case, the poor were disproportionately affected, as they lived in flimsy, slum accommodation near the river. In all over 1200 people died in northern Mindanao, the second-worst natural disaster last year after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. When my host, Alex, offered to take me down to the tent cities that have been erected for the homeless survivors, where he volunteers part time, I jumped at the opportunity. Not because I'm a morbid person and revel in others' misery, but because I believe it is important to see,experience and try and understand all aspects of a situation, including the less palatable. The tent cities were grouped on the far side of town, each cluster comprised of identical tents, but different from cluster to cluster (each one supplied by different relief agencies, such as the UN, Rotary Club, ICRC or USAID). We stopped off at the Rotary Club cluster with their domed tents. This is where Alex most often helps out so he knew many of the people there. I felt a little self-conscious with my camera, a blatant tourist in a sea of suffering. A voyeur poking his nose into other peoples' misery. But the people themselves didn't see it that way and were happy to see us, inviting us into their makeshift homes with casual ease, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. I was not only amazed by their good humour, but also at their ability to make do with so little and adapt to their circumstances. Every tent had some additions out front - a porch, table and chairs, kitchenette, impromptu stall, etc. all made from the flotsam recovered after the storm - that turned them from impersonal, temporary shelters to little homes. Some even had little businesses going on, providing carpentry or upholstery services and the like, but it was obvious that this was one of the bones of contention in the camps: people could not go back to work. If they left their tents during the day then they ran the risk of losing their rights to aid handouts or, even more importantly, the new accommodation units that were speedily being erected nearby. The intransigent bureaucratic rules of aid perversely hinder the people it's supposed to help by disincentivising their return to productive society.
My other stop in Mindanao was Zamboanga. Lying at the extreme tip of the "elephant trunk" that protrudes to the west of the island, it was to be my point of departure where I would catch my ferry to Borneo. The fact that it's deep in the "advise against all travel" part of Mindanao meant that rather than dilly-dallying along the way, as is my habit, I caught a direct bus all the way from CdO. Zamboanga, apart from having a great-sounding name, was one of the Spanish strongholds in Mindanao, and as such has a rich history and fascinating heritage. It is the bastion of the largest Spanish creole language in the world: Chavacano. Created as a lingua franca when Filipinos of different regions (and therefore speaking different languages) were brought to work on the fort under Spanish masters. It is now the touchstone of Zamboangueños, who are inordinately proud of their special language. For me, as a visitor who understands Spanish to a reasonable degree, it was fascinating to hear this language where I was able to recognise about half the words and get the general direction of a conversation.
|The sign at the Fort Pilar museum in Zamboanga written in both English and Chavacano. If you know Spanish then you should be able to understand the Chavacano.|
I personally didn't feel any trouble or tension whilst in Zamboanga, nevertheless my host did excercise precautions that would not be usual elsewhere. Although during the day the city was like any other, he said he would not leave his immediate neighbourhood unless by car, and even then rarely. Not that that is an ironclad guarantee as on my last full day there (Palm Sunday) the son of a prominent citizen was shot dead (although there were rumours that he was involved in dodgy dealings himself). But I was only passing through so I was confident nothing untoward could happen to me in the short space of time I would be there. Actually I was far more afraid of the traffic.