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Islands Enchanting: A Discovery
My guide pointed to the smallest trees on the ground as we tread softly underneath the canopy of the Agusan rainforest. Duko was the son of one of the chieftains of Salog, Esperanza, a tribe known as the Higa-onon living in the deep jungles of the Upper Side of Agusan. And he was assigned to me to be my warm buddy, my permanent companion, my bodyguard and GPS within the mountain range of Agusan Province in Eastern Mindanao. The time is in the 20th century. Duko was younger than me, lean, shorter, but agile and sharp as an eagle.
The night before, we talked about the natural environment of the Higa-onon, and how it was being slowly eroded by systematic logging by large corporations. I asked if there were still pristine areas where the tribal people can find solace in times of stress or danger. He replied there are sacred grounds that only Higa-onons can go into, and these places are secret and quite far from their settlement area. I asked him if he can bring me into one such place. After asking permission from the elders, we decided to leave for a nearby rainforest on high ground, a few kilometers away.
We trekked early morning into the rainforest. Yes, these were the very first tree species I have seen in my life. The sun’s rays barely touched the ground as I looked up the giant trees. But these trees on the ground just below my knees were different. They were not stunted; they looked upright and healthy, and were fully grown, some with tiny flowers like gold nuggets glowing on branches. Was it the lack of sunlight that made the trees grow that way? I wondered.
We walked in reverence. I could sense the friendliness of the trees and flowers around us, as if they were greeting us as we passed their way. We also saw the presence of magnificent tiny tree species in groups, just above my feet, and flowers with amazing colors that bloomed underneath the canopy that I have never seen in urban areas. It wasn’t dark. Sunlight above the trees was still illuminating the cavernous space under the canopies of the trees.
I was in the USA (Upper Side of Agusan) as part of my work with the University of the Philippines Department of Asian Music. After training for three months in Manila under Dr. Jose Maceda, the Executive Director of the department, I was immediately assigned and flown to Butuan City to document the songs, music and poetry of the Higa-onon and Manobo tribes who lived in the area. I had to take over the work of an anthropologist who was assigned in the same area before me.
As a result I had to learn to live with these tribes for 45 days each. I chose to live first with the Higa-onons, after which I had to go down the mountains and live with the people by the river, the Manobo. Part of my work was to collect their musical instruments, pay for them, and bring them back to the Department of Asian Music, aside from the recordings which I had to make.
Butuan and Surigao
Duko explained to me that some of these trees were used by the Higa-onons in their healing rituals. The leaves, barks and roots of certain trees were also collected and boiled and made into a concoction to enhance healing and wellness. Some barks and roots had to be dried under the sun for several hours before boiling in water. We talked in Cebuano Visayan which was understood and used in the area.
We were quite far from the main Higa-onon settlement, and on our way back, we were sweating and felt thirsty. At the time, bottled water for drinking was not yet in existence. Duko pulled out his badi a type of machete and cut a rattan pole along our way. According to Duko, rattan holds water from rain. But he warned that there are rattan species that hold water and can poison the body. He knew which rattan pole to choose. He cut the rattan pole that was darker in color, and gave one to me. Water was oozing out. I drank from the open end. It was like drinking mineral water from the refrigerator. After that refreshing drink, we went back to the settlement where we found the elders chanting their history, as they chew mama-on or bettle nut and leaves mixed with lime powder. On the tables were bottles of Kulafu native wine and Tanduay rum.
After that stint, I revisited Mindanao a number of times, but this time in other places where my appreciation of the geography, natural environment, beauty, and culture of the different places was heightened. And before the turn of the 21st century, I decided to live in one of the most livable places in Mindanao.
A part of the attraction generated by the geo-ecology of Mindanao is its history, the unique culture and sub-cultures found in many places, including its cuisine, and of course the people who comprise Christians as predominant, the Muslim tribes and the Lumad or the indigenous peoples.
Many people are surprised to know that the First Nation of the country was formed in Butuan, a place in Northeastern Mindanao (see map above), but archaeological finds and historical evidence have pointed to Butuan as the place where the cradle of civilization of the Philippines was formed.
Butuan was the First Nation of the country long before the arrival of the Islamic missionaries, and long before Manila was developed into a center of commerce and trade by Spain. It had a distinct culture, a productive technology in terms of gold and weaponry, and a political organization that established laws and policies. Butuan at the time was considered by its foreign trading partners, China and Vietnam a strategic center in Southeast Asia. Butuan, a flourishing trading center and port was considered a "state," the first to establish diplomatic relations with China on October 30, 1003 A.D.
Butuan is a neighbor of Surigao, where one can be led to an enchanted island known as Siargao, an island popular among European and American tourists as a swimming, snorkeling, diving and surfboarding destination. Surigao also boasts of other locally popular islands known as Arangasa, Cabgan and Britania all found along the eastern coastline.
Historically, the eastern seaboard of Mindanao has been the “jump-ship” point of the people from Borneo and Malaysia during the so-called Diaspora when large numbers of people fled the wars in Mesopotamia, India and China. The primitive Aryan Armenoid group, after a long journey from the Fertile Crescent, through the Silk Road, and via the Pacific islands reached Mindanao by sea crafts via Malaysia. The group, influenced by the Kerajaan culture of India (i.e. the Rajahship) settled in Butuan and intermarried or amalgamated with the Proto-Manobo people and established the “First Nation” of the Philippines.
Surigao's Enchanted Isles
The northeastern part of Mindanao is filled with ancient stories of adventure, love, conflict, enchantment and magic. Such stories are continuing in the present times in the new generation of Mindanaoans who never tire of exploring the different enchanted islands and destinations, discovering for themselves the excitement, beauty, freshness and naturalness of the geo-human ecology of the place.