Text and photos by Ibarra Siapno
February of 2019, I went back to Mindanao for a different kind of photo assignment. The region was still under Martial Law so there were military checkpoints and curfews. I brought an unconventional seven-day itinerary starting from General Santos then to Laguindingan as my last stop.
I missed the first flight and waited hours for the next. Upon arrival, I took a two-hour van ride and reached in the afternoon at my first stop in Lake Sebu. This cultural landscape is known for the T’Boli tribes, gongs, and the fascinating weaving tradition T’nalak. Just a walking distance from the hotel where I stayed, I visited the T’Boli museum and souvenir store to get a good introduction and grasp of the rich culture of the T’Bolis. That was for my first day.
The following day was the real start of my travel-landscape visual adventure. Early morning before sunrise, I went out on a boat for a lotus bloom viewing. First impression was that it looked normal from afar. But when I got right in the middle of the lotuses, it was a magical moment. The first ray of light from the sunrise, a faint fog and with the hill from the background blessed me with good compositions of surreal scenes in the middle of the lake surrounded by blooming lotuses. It was for me a T’Boli dream.
It was a great start but I did not waste any time during the golden hour after sunrise and went quickly to the famous Seven Falls. Well technically, I just saw two. Started with the first waterfall, Hikong Alo. She was fine but didn’t stay long so we headed down to the tallest one which is the Hikong Bente. When I saw the sunlight was breaking through the trees over Hikong Bente, I knew that was the background I was hoping for. The mist from the falls just added glorious effect of the environment by spreading the warm light, making it to look like a shower of holy water from the heavens.
I went back to the hotel for a lunch and a quick rest, then resumed by visiting the Weaving Center where I met the students of the National Living Treasure recipient, the late Lang Dulay. Lang Dulay was known to produce unique patterns based on her dreams for T’nalak which helped in the preservation of the weaving tradition in Lake Sebu. I did not hesitate of buying a T’nalak, a must-have souvenir.
I then requested my tour guide to take me to the ricefields for a sunset shoot — though not a famous spot for tourists but only travel and landscape photographers would have the sense of being there for an obvious reason. It was golden hour again and the ricefields were glowing in rich chartreuse with the beautiful hill and warm skies at the background. That moment I knew I’m done with my first destination. I must say that Lake Sebu is a golden hour heaven and a dream of southern Philippines.
I headed back to Koronadal City for lunch and bought snacks from this famous buko pie shop before going north. When I arrived in Tacurong, I had to wait for the van to fill up before sunset. Since there was a curfew, I was worried if I’d make it on time to my next destination. As soon as the van was full, we drove to Midsayap only to find out that the van would reach until Kabacan, just two towns away from our next destination. The driver’s excuse was that he’s afraid of driving beyond Kabacan during the night – probably for security reasons. We got a van after an hour. During the last leg of our trip, I was kind of scary because there were no light posts along the road. When I finally got to Midsayap, I checked in a hotel and ate dinner in a food market nearby just 30 minutes before hitting curfew.
Early morning the following day, my tour guide was supposed to pick me up but there was a miscommunication where he brought a different tourist that he mistaken as me. So, I had to wait for five hours for my turn. But that’s ok. When I checked the Google about my next target, sun was actually harsh during morning so it might not be ideal for my shoot. At around 11 a.m., the tour guide did not arrive so the hotel guard volunteered to drive me on a “habal-habal” (improvised motorcycle). We sped up to Dado, Alamada for an hour or so. The last part of the trip was pain in the glutes as roads were not yet cemented and the sun was scorching hot at a high noon. This was the part of the trip I knew I’m getting a sunburn. In Dado with my pelvis in pain after that long ride, I registered at the tourist desk then trekked down. Of course, it was easy going down, but going back was something I wasn’t excited about.
As I came closer to the bottom, I knew I was already there when I heard the sound of water and more shade from canopy of the trees. Behold, I arrived at Asik Asik Falls, the one that I’ve been looking forward to see for a very long time. (Asik Asik means “sprinkle-sprinkle” in Hiligaynon.) I was so captivated and left breathless how beautiful and mysterious she is. What’s unique about this waterfall is that the water is shooting right from the ground at the top than the usual cascade. What made it more enchanting and magical is that foliage engulfed the walls of the entire waterfalls. It was like a cathedral or a kingdom where fairies and nymphs dwell. I had an hour shooting at the best possible angles, but of course I had time as well to enjoy the hidden gem without my camera. Soon as I was done, we trekked back up and headed straight to the hotel. I had a quick shower and went to the van station to get a ride to Cotabato City.
As I entered the city, I realized I’m back in ARMM. First was during the trip in Tawi-Tawi, Basilan, and Zamboanga in 2015. I was only here for an overnight but I really felt the change in culture. The city is predominantly Muslim and I saw a lot of women wearing bright colored hijabs. Though we speak the same language, I must admit that I felt a bit of a stranger in a good way.
The next early morning, I took a jeep then a habal-habal to the biggest mosque in the Philippines, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque. I was the only visitor that morning with some sheep friends roaming around. The empty mosque was a treat for architectural photography. Then I went back to the hotel to grab my bags and headed to the van station for my next location.
We drove north while cramped inside a van for three hours. The last hour of the trip was fun as I had sightseeing of the second largest lake in the Philippines, the ancient Lake Lanao. As I arrived closer to the city, seen from afar on the other side of the lake was what seems to be a peaceful central business district but has an important story to tell from a very recent historical event. I have arrived in Marawi City, known for the Maranao culture and palapa dish. I settled down in a hotel near the Mindanao State University and waited for the next day.
Morning arrived, I met local officials who accompanied me to the main story for this leg of the trip – Ground Zero, infamous for the Marawi siege in 2017. Prior to this assignment, I had months of coordination in order to get inside. I was nervous and excited at the same time. First stop was at the Bayabao bridge which is the main bridge to the Marawi’s business district. I had a chance to get inside a commercial building heavily damaged by bullets during the siege. But it got more interesting when I reached the rooftop and saw a panorama of a ghost city. The establishment across from where I was standing was heavily wrecked, exposing the interiors of the building. Then we entered the district through another bridge partly open to the public. As much as I want to visit the Grand Mosque, I wasn’t allowed as it was heavily guarded by the military.
We checked other sites that are accessible such as the mass grave site and Acmad mosque. But the most memorable was the mosque in Disomangcop. At the entrance, a guitar on the side caught my attention, which led my eyes to some familiar markings on the floor and holes on the walls. Marawi has not been rehabilitated since the siege so some of the remains left by the war were preserved. What I was staring at the entrance floor were preserved blood stains, bullet holes, and a guitar. I found myself looking at the spot for several minutes imagining the events that took place. I can only guess but definitely it’s a tragic story. We wrapped up the assignment by checking other accessible ruins before heading back to the hotel.
I only had 24 hours in Marawi, but it felt like I saw a lot of stories to tell and it took me a lot of time to digest the visuals I captured. I checked out then went down for a 30-minute ride to my last stop, Iligan City.
In the city of Iligan, my only itinerary was to check out the majestic waterfall, Maria Cristina Falls and the nearby Tinago Falls – just to tick off from the list of sites I used to read from Philippine geography books. Here was a refreshment and rejuvenation from all that I saw from the previous location before going back to Manila. It was also a moment of reflection.
This seven-day trip was probably the most emotional yet a meaningful and visual orgasmic photo safari I had in the Philippines. I was gripping tight to my camera bag throughout my return trip as it holds a lot of high-valued stories. It was like going through different vivid dreams about love, magic, tragedy, and hope; a storyline that every Filipino can relate to.
Come to think of it, this all happened a year before the pandemic, making the trip so reflective and relevant in 2020. Was 2019 trip a sign or a prelude to the tragic-serye 2020? A premonition? I don’t know. But I learned from this trip and so is this pandemic.
This 2021, I learned to be grateful in life – of what I have and what I can do. If life seems to be cyclical, be it known at some point that there will always be light at the end. When you see it, capture the moment because that will remind you of a journey you both struggled and triumphed. And it was a journey on a conscious state that I would love to dream about over and over again.
For seven days, I dreamed of Mindanao.