Two years ago, I couldn’t believe that I crossed for what they say, one of the most treacherous highways in the country. Only a few years ago, during the Estrada Administration, the only thing that you see here are bombshells, mortars, evacuating people and guns, guns and more guns. Crossfire was everywhere, and media blows it all up in Manila.
That was several years ago. The waring factions agreed upon a ceasefire while two bodies of negotiators tried to resolve this centuries-old conflict. Me, I’m busy with my thesis, and will trace the path that most of my thesis respondents’ took to the Land of Promise, and it was through that path that they took the road, or maybe a way less traveled.
And now, on the headlines again, this side of this tropical state in the Philippines has a lot of potential when it comes to resources and tourism. A lot of things that are still untapped because of unreliable peace and order and poltical suitation in Maguindanao.
I believe that this highway is one of the most well-paved in the country. The shuttle van zoomed effortlessly through the fields and the hills of Sultan Kudarat, then to Maguindanao all the way to Cotabato City within just less than 2 hours.One October morning, it was Ramadan for our Muslim brethen. I’ve been wanting to see the entrepot of my subjects in my thesis: Cotabato City, almost a hundred kilometers away from Tacurong City in Sultan Kudarat Province. And boy the van in Tacurong terminal was waiting to be filled up. I have to be there early, or else I’ll be stranded in Cotabato City without any idea where to sleep over. So, I went up to Isulan, the capital of the province, passing through palm oil plantations that are owned by Negrense hacienderos. Isulan is where most of Cotabato bound buses and vans pass by. One of the largest Christian settlements in Central Cotabato.
As we zoomed ourselves from Isulan by around 8AM, we were passing by ricefields, in full vista of the Teduray Mountains in the west. Surprisingly Mount Apo in the eastern side with its silhouette basked in morning sun and Mount Matutum in the south, somewhat like her sister in Bicol. We passed by Allah River, the lifeline of Allah Valley and Isulan-Esperanza area, and was also remembered as a rampaging white wall of water that claimed lives in 1995 after its headwaters in Lake Maughan bursted, blaming to mining activities.
As we crossed the border between Sultan Kudarat and Maguindanao, I got excited that for the first time, I was in the heart of the Bangsamoro. The landscape started to change. Barrios dotted with mosques and ricefields were getting less the farther we go inland. Still, the van was speeding up like a bullet train, we whisked ourselves passing by the town of Ampatuan.
But what brought me the shock and awe was when I passed by Sharrif Aguak, the capital town of Maguindanao Province (which by the way, in 2006 Maguindanao was divided into two provinces and the newly formed province was named Sharrif Kabunsungan) when this magnificent palace of the Ampatuans (who ruled Maguindanao as a modern sultan) rose among the plain nipa huts of the ordinary people. The magnificent palace was accompanied by the golden mosque inside the compound. A few meters from it is the new capitol of Maguindanao, like an intricate jewelbox in the hills, it manifests Moro architecture.
We went further deep into the Maguindanaoan heartland and the road went uphill with military posts and checkpoints of both AFP and MILF dotted along the road. Along the hillsides, ricefields were replaced by coconut groves and unused land. Population became sparse as we apprached Talitay and Talayan, two hilltop towns, and we are still 40 minutes away from Cotabato City.
Several kilometers onward, we approached a very busy town and noticed flagpoles with colors flying in their town. Busy streets with a lot of people selling goods. I think it was market day in Datu Odin Sinsuat (as referred locally as DOS) at that time, Seeing the town hall that as majestic as her sister in Cotabato City, manifesting the intricate art of the Maguindanaoan people. The crowd was a relif from desolation between the cabisera and DOS. I thought that within 10 minutes, we will be in the city, but I was wrong.
Zooming away past DOS, settlements along the roadside increases as we approach Awang, the site of Cotabato City’s airport and a barangay of the said town. The The homeland of the Tedurays in your left, steep and cogon-laid hills, while on the right were the marshes of Liguasan. Majority of Cotabato is somewhat like a lake, especaially in Maguindanao and the present day Sharrif Kabunsungan province. Due to the Pulangi River or Rio Grande de Mindanao, the plains are flooded and vast amounts of fish, flora and fauna and rumored oil reserves abound here. It was here that the people of Maguindanao derived their name, “Ranao”
Finally, we were in Awang, a crossroad community north of DOS. The location of Cotabato City’s airport and the gateway to the Teduray Highlands of Upi and the coastal towns of Sultan Kudarat province. As our van squeezes in on its narrow and crowded street, we were getting the feeling that we were near the city. As we get the glance of Awang airport in the left, we went uphill and finally descend to cross the southern branch of Rio Pulangi, Tamontaka, marking the entrance of the Bangsamoro cabisera that is also known as the Stone Fortress City.
That morning, in less than two hours time, my excitement of exploring new vista and terra gave me so much that it overwhelmed me. It was my first time that I crossed the comforts of my home down south. I wondered how the pioneers felt when they went here for the first time.
There are so many things other than passing by the highway or reading or seeing it thru the eyes of sensationalized national media. A culture and a place vastly unexplored and misunderstood. Maguindanao has a lot to offer.
Some tips in going to Cotabato City and the surrounding places:
- Check with the local DOT or Provincial/Local Information Centers for updates or local situationers.
- If you are coming from General Santos or Southern Cotabato and wanted to go to Cotabato City, the only bus liner that serves this line is Husky and the rest are van for hire. The earliest possible time to leave South Cotabato or Sultan Kudarat is 6AM and the last trip is at 4PM either going through Tacurong City or Surallah.
- In case that you have the feeling that you cant go home immediately, contact anyone you know from the place or go to the City Hall for the list of hotels and accommodations.
- Set your appointments. If there are no importnant appointments then better postpone or cancel it. If you still want to move on, go to the local authorities to consult.
- There are three possible ways to get to Cotabato City or the rest of Maguindanao. One is through direct flights from Manila and Cebu. The second one is through the sea via Zamboanga and the third is through land either coming from Zamboanga, GenSan, Cagayan or Davao.
- Bring your spartan self and the respect for other cultures.
- Have fun! Relax. Don’t get paranoid over news and heresays.
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