2017 was the last busy year I had for travelling on an assortment of speaking engagements. The downside of my new position at work was that I no longer had much official trips and was compelled to remain in the office as “taong-bahay”. Add to that the fact that I had also reduced my hours spent on advocacy work to focus on family time. Fortunately, by God’s grace and the goodwill of a few close friends, I managed to land a few rackets here and there to keep me sane.
Towards the latter part of the year, I had back-to-back trips to the South to facilitate several workshop-dialogues towards developing a stakeholder’s manual for an elderly program. The audience were from really depressed and remote areas, so we had a great deal of coordinating to do to bring them all to a safe and convenient place. Most of the chosen locations were in urbanized centers of the province with enough facilities, but there were a few times when the best the host-organizers could do was to put us up in seedy pensionne houses and hold our sessions at the available LGU building.
One of our pilot areas was in Region X, specifically Bukidnon province. And while I had the opportunity to go around Southern Mindanao before, particularly the Davao provinces when I was working for the National Amnesty Commission, this was going to be my first time to really see Northern Mindanao. Admittedly, a few years back, I had the occasion of going to Cagayan de Oro and Camiguin island several times. At one point, I was able to make a sidetrip to Dahilayan Adventure Park in Bukidnon to try their zipline. But I had always been curious about Bukidnon and its famed abundance.
My UP Los Banos classmate, Sen. Migs Zubiri used to boast about the rich farmlands of his home province – the sweetest pineapples and horseback riding amongst the cattle on the hills. He proudly portrayed it as the “land of milk and honey”, and perhaps with good reason. Not only were they blessed with fertile agricultural land and sufficient water sources from the rivers and waterfalls from the mountains, high elevation and the passage of very few typhoons granted them good weather all year round.
However, because of Bukidnon’s land-locked and mountainous location, the closest commercial airline entry point was the new Lagunduingan airport by way of Cagayan de Oro. So there we were, coming in by plane and driving through El Salvador in the outskirts of CDO where the airport was actually located. Heavy traffic usually plagues this area but at least the view of the blue sea was a refreshing sight, albeit in between the numerous seafood restaurants which line the road.
Upon reaching the city proper, we headed directly for the bus terminal to catch the earliest trip to take us to Bukidnon. Like Victory and Dagupan buses heading up Northern Luzon, buses here leave within regular intervals, not waiting for the bus to fill up. So besides getting seated comfortably, the aircon bus itself was clean and well-maintained, with its own CR, on-board movies and wifi. Since it was going to be a long 4-hour trip, I managed to buy some food to snack on. Lo and behold, I found the biggest and juiciest grapes this side of the world!
Exiting CDO once more, my eyes were again treated to the beautiful sight of the blue sea. Cagayan de Oro has one of the busiest ports in Mindanao next to Davao. From a distance, we can see that both passenger and cargo shipping lines congest the CDO pier. Leaving the coastline, we suddenly ascend a zig-zagging route and the air changes from hot, humid sea air to a cool, mountain breeze. I am reminded of our summer route from La Union’s beaches going up to Baguio every Holy Week in my youth and the childhood memory made me smile. Soon, pine trees and fog are what I see through my window, and I realize these highlands are a perfect holiday destination because of its cool weather.
In about an hour, we entered Manolo Fortich, best known as the location of Asia’s largest pineapple farm – Del Monte Pineapple Plantation in Camp Philips. Because of its elevation, Manolo Fortich also gives one an idea of the wide expanse of the Mt. Kitanglad mountain range which characterizes Bukidnon. Manolo Fortich is also where the famous Dahilayan Adventure Park is situated. Once touted as having the longest zipline in Asia, it is still a favorite holiday destination of families and tourists.
Along the way, we traversed various croplands planted to rice, corn, sugarcane, and coconut. I am told smaller farms also cultivate bananas and other fruits and vegetables. We crossed some rivers with rampaging waters from the mountains and I can only imagine the power generated by these bodies of water.
After two hours on the road, we reached Malaybalay City, the provincial capital of Bukidnon and its center of political and economic activity. With its government buildings, various transport terminals for buses, inter-municipality jeepneys, and tricycles, it is what would pass as “urbanized” in these parts. The only other “urbanized” place in Bukidnon would be an hour away – Valencia City with the same aura of economic hustle and bustle with its assortment of shops, stores, and restaurants for people passing through. After token stopovers at these main hubs to unload and pick-up passengers, our bus once again traversed the tree-lined mountain roads. At times it opened up into rolling, green hills dotted with free-range horses and cattle gorging on the lush and verdant grass.
Worth mentioning is the fact that we passed through checkpoints where every one was asked to disembark. My legal background has taught me that at checkpoints, one should never to get down from your vehicle, and never let them open your glove or baggage compartment, because anything the authorities wish to confiscate from you should only be in plain sight.
Lining up outside, we were told to show our IDs while the military men boarded our bus to check inside. Only senior citizens were exempted from disembarking, so they stayed inside the bus. There would be a few more of these checkpoints as we continued our travel because Bukidnon and its mountainous areas are also havens for the NPA rebels. It just shows that because the wealth in natural resources doesn’t necessarily translate into reduced poverty for all people, this kind of peace and security situation results.
Nonetheless, I appreciated the times we were stopped and asked to get down for agricultural quarantine issues. We had to dip our shoes in some disinfecting solution placed on mats or rugs so that contamination from Foot and Mouth disease in pigs and avian flu in chicken is prevented. Apparently, the province was afraid of a repeat of an animal epidemic a few years back which gravely depleted their poultry and livestock. These had dire consequences for an agricultural-based province like theirs, so they also impose similar restrictions to protect their crops.
Finally, we reached Maramag and got off at the highway for our provided lodgings. We were staying at the newer building of the only hotel in town because it had a swimming pool and they had a restaurant there. While our accommodations had free breakfast everyday, lunch and dinner were not included. Sadly, there are no fast food restaurants around, so the best thing was to eat at the carinderia stalls at their local wet market. To be honest, I was never a fan of Northern Mindanao cuisine after my bad experience in Camiguin island during my first visit. Except for the famous CDO lechon and occasional seafood buffet sans shrimps, crab, and squid because of my allergies, I was hardly impressed. So I steered clear of the viands I wasn’t accustomed to because even the longganisa and sisig were kinda weird tasting.
Note that Maramag is famous for having the cleanest wet market in the Philippines and has been featured in media often. There are no flies buzzing around, no blood and guts stinking up open canals, no muddy footprints going up and down the stalls. Instead, the beige-brown tiled floors are frequently mopped with disinfectant by designated cleaners. You can smell the Zonrox emanating from their mops as they went about, up and down the whole stretch of the meat section. Truly, it is even cleaner than some fast food restaurants’ floors!
The next day, we headed for the famous RR spring resort near the mighty Pulangi river. This great river has many tributaries and runs through several municipalities of Bukidnon before emptying out to sea. Probably because of its elevation, this river looks more like a mountain lake surrounded by pine trees with its clear, still waters reflecting the sky above.
The whole day workshop-dialogue went well, but since it wasn’t really safe to be going around a place where you are an unfamiliar face, we were told to stay close to our hotel. Not being one of those highly-populated municipal centers, nothing really happens after dinner and at around 7PM, the roads are seemingly abandoned. I opted to take a swim in the hotel pool while my companion took advantage of the cable TV in his room. The next day, we left early to be able to catch our respective flights back to Manila from Cagayan de Oro.
All in all, Bukidnon is a nice place to visit and experience its beauty if only momentarily; perchance to quickly pass through but never to tarry.