BUTUAN: A VIEW OF THE PAST FROM TODAY
The CARAGA region is one place I haven’t been to very often. I made two short visits to Butuan before and both were for senior citizens activities. I haven’t been back there since then, but I was able to make the most of my earlier trips to discover Butuan’s historical significance.
I was warned that Butuan gets pretty flooded every rainy season, so I better time my visit during the dry months. This flooding is not surprising since the great Agusan River traverses a big portion of the densely populated area of Butuan City. There is a theory that the various criss-crossing tributaries like the Masao river and Agusan Pequeno river accumulated so much alluvium through the centuries that it became the land mass that is now Agusan and Butuan. The marshes and swamplands also became a perfect environment for a variety of animals, shells and crustaceans, birds, fishes, and of course – the famous Philippine crocodiles. This is after all the home province of Lolong, the largest captured crocodile.
Any real-life Philippine history lesson should include an actual visit to Butuan. The National Museum there is one of the first inter-active museums in the country and houses valuable relics from the past. These historical and cultural artifacts come from one of the Philippines’ richest archeological digs, stemming even from prehistoric times. There are actually ancient stone and metal implements, woodworks and potteries from the pre-colonial era. These proves that there really was a pretty sophisticated civilization even before the Spaniards came to our islands.
The other famous museum which is a must-see in Butuan is the Balangay Shrine. Several of these wooden boats have been found in the area of Libertad and are thought to be the major transports which took our ancestors from their homelands to the Philippine islands. Made of sturdy, water-resistant wooden planks, amazingly put together without any metal nails, these 15 meters long by 3 meter-wide boats are known as “Balangays”. Imagine these boats travelling across high seas, withstanding storms, carrying a few good men and women with the most adventurous spirits with the hope of beginning new lives elsewhere into the unknown.
Near the Masao river is the Bood Promontory, a wooded area on top of a hill where Magellan was thought to have held the first mass. As such, there is a memorial of sorts, some metal and cement sculpture depicting that historical event. Now known as the Bood Promontory Ecopark, it serves as a nursery and tree park, with fishponds, a hanging bridge, and lots of natural, open space perfect for relaxing. Together with Magellan’s Landing, the Banza church ruins and other old churches, these are markers of how hard the Spanish tried to establish themselves here.
Butuan’s connection with the past is truly extra-ordinary. The latest tourist attraction is on a private property, the Bequibel Shell Midden, which the National Museum considers an unusual archeological dig – the shell midden which goes down several meters into the ground. This site is in the middle of a large expanse of agricultural land, some distance from any waterway. Yet the existence of the shell midden is proof that once upon a time, the area was near a river or tributary. However, centuries of river flow has accumulated enough alluvium to form the landlocked farmland and for the waterway to disappear. Shell middens are actually pre-historic garbage dump-sites – while majority are the disposed shells of seashells eaten by our ancestors, these actually include remnants of other food eaten like animal bones, botanical material, human excrement, and various other refuse. These waste materials can be carbon-dated and can tell us much about the culture and way of life of our ancestors.
Being the marshland that it is, seafood abounds in the local menu. However, I am allergic to shrimps, crabs, or squid, and can only partake of the fresh fish. Butuan is where I tasted one of the best kinilaw na tangguigue served in the form of “sinuglaw” – combination of sinugba or grilled pork and kinilaw or fish ceviche. In these parts, I was also offered classic Mindanao fruits like marang, a type of breadfruit similar to langka, and durian, that stinky but tasty fruit grown only in Philippine, Thailand and Indonesian varieties. I also tasted a unique kind of suman – their sticky rice cake is cooked not just with coconut milk, but with a tinge of ginger. And as in Cebu and Davao, this suman is served with mangoes and hot tsokolate.
The place where I stayed called “Goat-To-Geder” hotel and restaurant was also quite popular for its chevon-based dishes. Sadly, even as the Ilocano that I am, I can only tolerate kalderetang kambing and nothing else. This preference for goat meat is something we share with our South East Asian neighbor, Indonesia, just like their various rice cakes and coconut milk-infused dishes. I remember from my travels that there is even a Malaysian version of our local halo-halo. But more than our similarity in cuisine, the Bahasa language has commonalities with our local dialects, particularly up north, in Ilocano and Kapampangan. So while evidence of the first landings and human settlements were in these parts of Mindanao, who is to say our ancestors did not venture as far up north and reached Luzon.
For anyone seeking true Philippine history through travel, Butuan should be your first stop. It is possible that this is where it all began, or better yet, it can give you a view into the past from where we are in the present. Butuan’s historical sites and museums can give you an idea how these islands first became populated, not by wild savages Spanish colonialists portrayed us to be, but as the civilized communities that lived in communion with nature. It is here in Butuan that shows our ancestors as a proud ancient people who were ever grateful for nature’s gifts like the alluvium from its rivers and springs, giving them living space for settlements, as well as rich, fertile lands for cultivation. But more than anything, these remnants of the past which continue to be discovered and dug up to this day, should remind us of our glorious pre-colonial cultural heritage. In fact, do drop by and take a look at the replica of the Golden Tara if you need more convincing.