Mindanao is often portrayed as a place of conflict and war. It only figures in the media landscape as a backdrop for conflict, bombings, kidnappings and insurgency. “Is it safe?” is a common question people ask when they hear of ANY destination in Mindanao. But Mindanao is a vast region — though conflict may occur in isolated areas – in other places, you will find beautiful natural wonders, diverse culture, and peace-loving people.
Here nestled in the foothills of Davao, one of Mindanao’s many provinces, is one of the most blissful and memorable places that I’ve visited in the country. The trip may have been a few years ago, but I still remember how special it felt to witness the fiesta of the Matigsalog tribe (“people of the river”), who reside in the forests and remote barangays of Marilog, near the riverbanks of the Davao River (formerly known as Salug River).
Though the indigenous tribe has existed for hundreds of years and were the original inhabitants of the city’s hinterlands, it was only recently that they were recognized as a distinct tribe . Because of their geographical isolation from other communities, tribal leaders say that their existence had mostly gone unrecognized.
Art and I were lucky to get to tag along with journalist Stella and photographer Toto from newspaper SunStar Davao & artist Kublai who were visiting the community to document the history of the tribe. Since the Matigsalog tribe’s legends and history have been passed down through oral tradition, tribal elders feared that their tales would die with them if they wouldn’t be put in writing.
At the time, a group of mountaineers was also visiting to take part in an ongoing reforestation program of non-profit group Kinaiyahan Foundation. They had set up tents and hammocks in the yard beside one of the larger houses in the community where food was being served to guests. We were ushered here and welcomed with hot coffee and cassava after our long trek down the foothills.
Staying in the community made me realize how most people take everything for granted. Because of their remote location from the highway and main stores, everything has to be prepared from scratch. Having food on the table depends on the year’s harvest and the people’s hard work to cultivate the land. Traditionally, Matigsalogs are hunters and gatherers and not farmers. But since they have had to move further up the river and further inland, they have shifted to land cultivation with the help of groups like Kinaiyahan.
The women took turns pounding coffee beans and rice grains in stone and wooden mortars to prepare rice and coffee. All the cooking was done outdoors, and women took turns tending to the fire, checking the food, preparing soup, and and roasting fish over hot coals.
Right by the water well, several men butchered a pig, to serve during the fiesta, while children watched. Horses are valuable in the community, as a form of transportation particularly for bringing agricultural harvest to the highway. However, old horses that have outlived their usefulness, help sustain the community by becoming a valuable food source as well. When resources are scarce, every bit counts, and we felt privileged to share in their meals.
Before the festival proper began, some of the tribal datus had to perform a ritual to ask for blessings. As people of the river, the ritual needed to take place near the water, so we headed down through a grassy mountain path where we crossed the river by foot. The mountaineers made use of sticks to form a bridge so we wouldn’t lose our balance.
Upon reaching one of the rocks, three of the datus headed off to pray to their spirit-keepers while we watched from a distance. According to their legends as documented by Stella, the Matigsalogs consider Manama, their Supreme God. Though Manama created everything in nature, he assigned keeper-spirits to take care of these for him. Different keepers reign over various natural elements including headwaters (where springs come from), the point where the sea and rivers meet, the forests, mountains, plants, animals, and fire, among others.
Local festivities included a friendly basketball game which took place in a paved area with wooden backboards and baskets at either side of the court in the middle of the plaza. Later on, some men got together to watch and bet on sabong (cockfights), a traditional sport and a betting game using coins.
Aside from cockfighting, horse fights were also held. Since horses are valued as transportation in the community, the fights were not to the death. A mare in heat was tied to a rope, while two male horses battled it out to get the “prize.” Young and old alike crowded around a makeshift bamboo enclosure to watch the fight take place.
There is no electricity yet in the community so the whole village was pitch black that night. The people lit bottles with gas to provide some light, but other than that, we were in total darkness.
After dinner, the tribal elders sat around and recounted some of their tales while Stella took notes by flashlight. The elders pieced together stories passed down through generations about their legends and the different spirits that guarded nature. I regret that I could not understand the original language they used nor the translation in Bisaya, but it was fascinating to witness the first time their legends got put in print.
After the stories had been shared, and the elders retired for the night, someone brought out bottles of Kulafu (a very strong wine popular in provinces), and the rest of us took turns taking shots until we were all tipsy. While drinking, I noticed two men in the distance smoking out a chicken over a fire and went over to get a better shot. They said the chicken was being smoked to make the meat more tender and it would be cooked and served during the fiesta the next day.
I remember it being really cold that night and the next morning. When we woke up, mist still enveloped the mountains, but the women were already busy at work cooking and preparing breakfast, while the elders were getting ready for the fiesta to start.
Before we left, we were able to watch some of the traditional dances performed by the children dressed in costumes, who had been choreographed by the older tribal women. A cassette player was attached to a car battery which provided the music during the dance but it kept getting disconnected because of the wiring. One tribal elder was also visibly coaching the kids during the dance on where to go, as some forgot their moves, to everyone’s amusement.
I took a a lot of snapshots of the kids in the community from that trip. Back in Manila, I had the photos printed and mailed them to Kinaiyahan Fdn. to give to the kids during their next visit so I could give back a little bit of something that they had been so kind to give to me. Bliss is defined as “a state of profound satisfaction, happiness and joy, a constant state of mind, undisturbed by gain or loss.” While they may not have live the easiest life, there was something I found innately blissful about the whole experience. I only wish that I can return there someday and feel that again.
This is my entry to the Pinoy Travel Bloggers’ Blog Carnival for November 2011, with the theme “A Bliss Called Mindanao” hosted by Olan Emboscado of The Travel Teller. This blog carnival aims to showcase the beauty of Mindanao beyond the news reported by traditional media.