The magic and mystique of South Central Mindanao

Model Catherine with members of the T'boli tribe

Model Catherine with members of the T'boli tribe

Jose Bangun of the T'boli tribe

Jose Bangun of the T'boli tribe

Young T'boli girls in full regalia

Young T'boli girls in full regalia

Weaving a piece of t'nalak at the School of Living Traditions

Weaving a piece of t'nalak at the School of Living Traditions

Flying along the 740m cable at Lake Sebu Seven Falls Zipline

Flying along the 740m cable at Lake Sebu Seven Falls Zipline

Mother Superior of Trappistine Monastery

Mother Superior of Trappistine Monastery

Weighing yellowfin tuna at the fish port

Weighing yellowfin tuna at the fish port

“And what about you, what’s your tribe?” There’s a question you don’t hear every day. Then again, it’s not every day I find myself visiting the town of T’boli in the Allah Valley of South Cotabato, in southern Mindanao, home to the T’boli tribe. It’s early morning in the garden of a local tribal princess where, as guests, we’re being taught the tahaw, a traditional dance that mimics the movement of tahaw birds in flight. In the olden days, the ceremonial dance was performed at the start of each planting season.

Asking after people’s tribal origins is perhaps musician Jose Bangun’s way of making small talk. But when the question is put to me, it strikes a deeper chord. When you hail from a place as spacious as Mindanao, where driving in any direction can be an endless pursuit, the question of belonging fills your mind and colors your speech. I’m from Mindanao but I moved away a long time ago and I don’t have a tribe to call my own. When I finally had to tell him, “I don’t belong to one,” it was grudgingly and with sudden, inexplicable regret.

The Smile team is in South Central Mindanao, administratively known as Region 12, for a road trip, the best way to explore the swaths of land extending from the heart of the island all the way to the southern coast. Like the rest of the mainland, the provinces that make up this region — Sarangani, South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Cotabato — along with the city of General Santos, are linked by a network of roads that run one after another and ultimately lead to the Maharlika Highway, also known as the Pan-Philippine Highway. If you check out a detailed driving map of the Philippines, you’ll see that the highway traverses the entire country, snaking from Zamboanga City in the south-west all the way to Laoag City towards the northern end of Luzon. It covers a total of 3,517km.

Our plan is to drive from General Santos City to the hillsides and lakeshores of South Cotabato, on to the plains of Sultan Kudarat and then all the way back to the coast in the province of Sarangani. In such a culturally and geographically diverse landscape, the Maharlika Highway might seem to be the only thing holding the region together. After all, the area lumps together a population of ethnic tribes, coastal dwellers and highlanders, Muslim and Christian settlers, plus other migrants who brought with them not just their own ways of life but their own languages, as well. In Sultan Kudarat and parts of South Cotabato, for example, many of the people that we meet are Ilonggo-speaking and trace their family roots back to Iloilo.

The marked cultural differences have long been acknowledged as one of the reasons that the geographic parameters of the local provinces are often changed (although certainly other political and economic factors come into play). But lately these differences have become a cause for coming together. The result? Something new is taking shape: a unified tourism promotion effort now binds Mindanao even as the complicated histories of its constituent parts defy homogenization. Everyone wants a fair shot at the economic growth tourism can bring. It is, finally, a campaign everyone can be a part of.

In tuna town

We begin our journey in GenSan, formerly part of South Cotabato. In 1988, it was reclassified as a highly industrialized city, the aim being to run it independently of its home province, in much the same way that Iligan and Davao operate. GenSan remains the region’s busiest urban center, thanks in no small part to the presence of major malls like KCC and starred hotels. It’s also well known as the hometown of boxer Manny Pacquiao — whose bout with Floyd Mayweather next month in Las Vegas is being touted as the “Fight of the Century” — and of tuna so fresh it’s capable of bringing tears to the eyes of Japanese and Korean chefs.

Also read: General Santos city guide

Heralded as The Tuna Capital of the Philippines, the city boasts a Fish Port Complex (Brgy. Tambler; +63 83 304 9474) that sees hundreds, if not thousands, of yellowfin tuna change hands every day. The early morning is the best time to visit the fish port, which is why we rush over in the bluish darkness of 5am, just as a flotilla of fishing boats is returning from a night of deep-sea fishing. Visitors are required to wear white rubber boots provided at the information counter, which is decorated with posters of the many varieties of fish sold at the market along with images of protected species. Illegal fishing of these species carries heavy penalties.

As soon as a boat docks, uniformed porters hoist yellowfin tuna or blue marlin on their shoulders and lug it off the vessels into waiting carts. The fish, after being labeled with the names of the fishermen responsible for that catch, is taken a few meters away to a building where traders weigh and inspect each one. Bidding ensues and all the action is over before 8am. An average of 750 tons of yellowfin tuna are reportedly brought into the market every month, much of it for export.

If you’re prone to cravings for tuna kinilaw or ceviche, the makings don’t get any fresher.

The nuns and the pineapples of Polomolok

As it happens, another of the region’s marquee products is available not far from GenSan. As we drive into Polomolok in South Cotabato, it’s all pineapples as far as the eye the can see. At least that’s the case until Mt Matutum, an active volcano credited for the area’s mineral-rich soil, heaves into sight.

Also read: Cotabato city guide

We roll along a wide, dusty road that cuts through a large pineapple plantation — we’re told it belongs to Dole, the world’s largest fresh produce company — before topping a hill and heading into a Trappistine Monastery, where a group of nuns have lived by St Benedict’s creed of hora et labora (prayer and work) since 1995. It’s not exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find in these parts, but as the monastery’s Mother Superior explains, the land felt right and Mindanao was where they needed to be.

We load up on bread and pastries, all baked by the nuns, at the monastery’s small shop and follow Sister Julie as she walks us through gardens tended by another nun, Sister Stella. The view from the top of the hill is of a small pineapple farm where yet another nun oversees the field work. During harvest season, the pineapples are sold to Dole and the income helps bankroll improvements to the buildings here.

“We live a life of prayer and never leave the convent, except on certain occasions,” Sister Julie says. “We belong here and this is where we’ll live out the rest of our lives.”

The birds of Baras

Later, we set off again and by noon we’re in Tacurong City, where deep within an African palm plantation we explore Baras Bird Sanctuary (Baras; +63 64 477 0440). Long before environmental protection became politically fashionable, the owners of the bird sanctuary had lobbied for local government support and fought to keep this patch of forest free from poachers.

The sanctuary has its origins in the sighting by husband and wife Rey and Mary Anne Malana of four birds — two pairs of black crowned night herons — on their 1.3ha pepper farm. Mary Anne doesn’t know why the birds chose to visit their backyard but they seemed to like it enough to nest there. Over the next four years, word of this safe haven evidently spread among members of the avian community. The number of winged residents grew so significantly that the Malana family decided to give up the pepper farm and let the kakawate trees (which hosted the pepper vines) grow untrimmed, creating ideal forest cover for the birds. Estimates of the bird population now hover around 20,000, most of them egrets, herons and swallows. But every now and then an unfamiliar flyer, typically seen perched on a high branch, swoops in to check out the neighborhood.

Many of the birds are cattle egret and egret, diurnal birds that leave their nests at 4am to search for food at nearby lakes. They return to the small patch of forest in Baras at sundown, just as the nocturnal birds, the black crowned night heron and the rufous night heron, are setting off to forage by moonlight. Lacking the patience or quiet resolve of seasoned bird watchers, we struggle to stay awake until the magic hour, wondering aloud whether the birds chose to take another route home.

“At 5.40,” Mary Anne reminds us with a smile. Sure enough, almost to the minute, the aerial show of crisscrossing rush-hour traffic reaches fever pitch at twenty to six. This Mother Nature-choreographed spectacle, presented against the dramatic light of sundown, leaves us all speechless, so much so that our long drive back to Koronadal City passes in relative silence.

The T’boli of Lake Sebu

As we approach Lake Sebu, something seems to echo across the mists of time, which we take as a sign that we’ve entered a realm that has changed very little over the centuries. Perhaps it’s the long and winding drive up the mountain or the large sign by an archway shaped like the T’boli comb (a traditional headpiece for women) that reads, in big, bold letters, “The Ancestral Domain of the T’boli”.

In truth, much has changed around here. There are newly built concrete houses, a few lakeside resorts and, surprisingly, a rather impressive zipline park. At the Lake Sebu Seven Falls Zipline (Brgy. Lake Lahit, Lake Sebu), touted as South-East Asia’s highest, there are two lines, one 740m long and the other 460m. Both are 180m high. It’s an exhilarating rush as we zoom, face down and strapped onto cables, over the lush landscape, taking in picturesque views of three of the seven waterfalls.

Still, some of Lake Sebu’s ancient mystique remains. It’s most evident in the early morning, when a thick fog settles on the lake and enshrouds the surrounding hills.

It helps that the T’boli are fiercely proud of their heritage. At the School of Living Traditions (Poblacion, Lake Sebu;, founder Maria Todi, her fellow instructors and their students keep the traditional arts alive. Here, children learn to play the drums and kulintang (gongs), dance the tahaw and weave t’nalak (T’boli tapestries), on top of learning the community’s long-held values.

A sporting life in Maasim, Sarangani

Back in Maasim, Sarangani, we settle in at Lemlunay Resort (Maasim,, which is a great place to decompress when you’ve had your fill of highway and lost all sense of time. In the language of the B’laan, a tribe that was among the original settlers of this coastal area, lemlunay means paradise. Though the area has seen some development, parts of it still fit that description. In the waters of Sarangani Bay, just a few steps from the resort, divers can explore the 300m Tinuto Wall, an underwater sanctuary that’s home to everything from sea turtles and reef sharks to schools of clownfish and napoleon wrasse.

Up in the hills, at the Sarangani Paragliding Site (Sarangani Flysite, Maasim) and SAFII Ranch (Brgy. Tinoto, Makar-Siguel Rd, Maasim; +63 917 327 0113), we feast on views stretching from sea to mountain. We’re here to visit one of just three paragliding sites nationwide — the others are in Carmona, Cavite and Bontoc, Mt Province — to try this fast-growing sport. In 2009, Jason Luengo discovered that the wind conditions in the area made it ideal for sports like paragliding and hang-gliding. He became the first to take to the skies here and now the area is home to a flying club.

We arrive at 10am for scheduled tandem flights with the pilots of Sarangani Paraglide, but the winds are deemed too strong for the moment. We pass the time in a makeshift store — manned, oddly enough, by a Frenchman — next to a hilltop construction site. The pilots, all strapped to as-yet-uninflated wings, stand in the shade of a solitary tree, patiently monitoring the wind conditions. They don’t seem to mind the punishing heat, the thick dust or the fact that lunchtime was hours ago. Flying is their deal and they’re with their tribe.

The view — of the sea, the hills, the sun and a clutch of eager pilots — sends me back to that morning in T’boli town when one musician inquired after which tribe I belonged to. Still basking in a kind of high thanks to everything I’ve seen in Mindanao, it occurs to me that if you stretch the definition of “tribe” to encompass its modern meaning — the people you choose to call your own — I’ve finally got an answer for him.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Tara Sering

Photographed by

Jake Verzosa

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