Friday, November 7, 2008

Agusan del Sur

Exploring Agusan del Sur

Agusan del Sur won’t elicit a second glance as one passes along the National Highway. All there is to see are kilometers of rice fields, numerous rivers and lush mountain ranges. However, the sight of both the toog and falcata, both found in that region only, is hard to ignore.

Then you’ll encounter a “Skylab,” which is what locals refer to a motorcycle with a wooden, rectangular board as long as the vehicle itself attached to both sides. It’s impossible not to get your eyes off passengers sitting on those boards. Then you’ll realize that Mindanao’s largest province is worth exploring.

A journey along Agusan’s subsidiary rivers brought me to a young Manobo lass who has a small flower bud pursed between her lips. In their custom, it means she’s the most beautiful. At a slope near the Bayugan Poblacion lies Barangay Makiangkang, with a climate as cool as the Cordillera Region. The place abounds with attractive anthuriums, orchids and other eye-catching ornamental plants. Its gorgeousness is accentuated by the presence of a small, man-made falls.

There’s more but I didn’t have enough time to explore further. Of my many recent journeys there, three struck me as both unusual and memorable.

Time travel

Gibong River in the municipal capital of Prosperidad is a tranquil, brown-hued body of water hugged by two-short mountain ranges. The sides aren’t sloped, but more cliff-like with stalactites partly covered by plants. The river also has a number of small rocky islets.

Chito Indias theorized that Gibong could have been a huge underground river eons ago whose ceiling collapsed when the water receded. He pointed a cave about halfway from where we departed. It is nearly submerged but when the water level is low, daring souls can enter it and explore the mountain’s interior.

We were on our way to Binaba Falls, which he recalled to be a magnificent site when he first set eyes on it a decade ago. It cascaded down a small mountain slope. Coming from three underground creeks. It is nearly 200 feet long. Chito’s wife, Jean, fondly remembered how she and her friends bathed there when they were young.

A pool and concrete stairs were built to make the spot more accessible to visitors. Unfortunately, it affected the flow of one of the creeks such that it lessened the width of the falls. When our baroto (a local term for boat) arrived , the couple showed me a moist, almost barren slope where the cool water used to run.

Visitors won’t be able to appreciate the beauty of Binaba Falls from a distance because it is partly covered by trees. After docking, we climbed 116 steps–water from the falls run down the part of the stairs closest to the river. We hiked a few meters to the left of the falls’ topmost point to be able to reach the pool, which is abandoned and is slimy green in color. I imagined how fascinating the pool was when it was cleaner and there were eating sheds besides. Chito showed me one of the creeks and its source, which is within the mountain.

After lunch, we walked back to the falls and then hiked about 150 meters further to the right to set foot on a clearing where there were man-made pools that cultivate carp and tilapia. The owner treated us to a local brand of puto while a turkey slowly walked around nearby. The thick vegetation camouflaged both this clearing and pool, as they can’t be seen from below.

There are plans to reclaim the original look of Binaba Falls. One of the creeks may be redirected to join the other two. The present condition of the site is a shadow of Laguna’s Hidden Valley. A little makeover is what the place needs to make the falls very attractive again.

Exploring Azpetia

Our adventure didn’t end at Gibong, as Chito took me to Azpetia, a barangay in Prosperidad, the following day. Both of us went there to see a hot spring. We walked through several kilometers of rice fields to reach it. Its curious feature is that this is a place where seawater and fresh water meet. No one had any idea how it could be possible as the Pacific Ocean is nearly 100 kilometers away.

The spring is located in a rice field. It has dead trees and plants floating in it. Chito checked the water’s temperature and found it to be lukewarm. An old farmer remembered the field to be a forest not long ago and all kinds of birds took a bath in the pond. Life was sucked out of it when the area began to be cultivated.

Not far from the pond is a small mountain range. A young lad and Aniseto (our Azpetia guide) led Chito and I to a cave that is found there. Aniseto led the way, as he brought along an “itak” (machete) to chop off the plants and woods that blocked our path. We entered the first opening they located underneath but we backed out after finding out that stalactites made the path too small for us to go through. We retraced our steps and returned to the rice fields. I thought we were through until our guide led us to a steep slope to climb. Another opening is found near the top.

He was successful this time and we entered after a few minutes rest. It was my first time to explore a cave and I struggled to walk inside, as I had no headlight to see in the dark with. The path we tread was muddy and my rubber shoes nearly got stuck a number of times. Sounds of a flying creature coming close to my face made me a bit scared but Chito assured me that it was a sparrow and that a number of them lived inside.

The cave gradually becomes smaller as we walked further. Chito was kind enough to point his flashlight at the ceiling to show me the sparrow’s nest. It was about 200 meters from the opening when we began to crawl our way in. I surprised myself when I managed to pass through some narrow passages (I’m slightly overweight). I’m an adventurous spirit but I’m ashamed to admit that I was relieved when he told us that we couldn’t go on further because the path was too small and difficult to pass through.

Sliding down the slope was easier than climbing down. The small pool at the base washed off the dirt in my legs and soothed the blisters as well. We went back to the poblacion at lunchtime. After the meal, Aniseto told us about a waterfall located not far from the cave we explored. I was too tired from our visit to the pond and cave so I declined.

Both the pond and the cave are virtually unknown outside of Azpetia. Both the cave and the falls don’t have a name yet. Who knows how many unknown spots can be found there and in other parts of Prosperidad as well? Chito’s zest for discovering these places was infectious and I’m hoping for another adventure with him when another chance comes.

The strange case of a dead datu

Mount Durian in the neighboring municipality of San Francisco is where the remains of Datu Anawa Kalipay are found. Juancho Vicente told me that the datu is a baylan (Manobo priest) and that he was known for his generosity in his locality of Barangay Lucac. He died in his 120s. Many good things were said about him but what many people might remember him most is what happened after his death 4 years ago–his body hasn’t decomposed yet.

We hiked a hard-soiled path frequently passed by carabaos and some locals. We got lost twice, which Mang Jeffrey jokingly blamed on his being engrossed in our conversations. Our journey hasn’t reached the half point yet but we were already depleted of our water supply. We strayed away from our path once to descend towards a nearby stream.

Slightly below the road, we rested for a bit underneath huge trees, ate the food we brought and drank the cool water from the stream. We resumed our trekking afterwards and we climbed Durian, which is a few hundred feet in height. It took us about two and a half hours to reach our destination. Juancho estimated our trek to be six kilometers.

We arrived at a small clearing with limestones and what looked like rice plants with red or yellow flowers. A bahay kubo (native hut) stood amid it and only the datu’s grandson was around. He told us that the rest of his kin went to the poblacion to buy some things for their forthcoming annual ritual. After a brief rest, he led us to another bahay kubo a few meters away. The same limestones and colorful rice plants are found there but this one was distinguished with a small toog and marang trees guarding the entrance and a wooden fence surrounding the kubo. It was the datu’s mausoleum.

Its external features were curious enough to look at. The table and upper part of the wooden seats (where visitors can relax) are triangular in shape. An offering tray hangs above, which is shaped like a chicken’s body and has fowl feathers attached to it. Christmas silver linings shaped like a heart and a triangle hang on the door and window, respectively. Both the door and the windows were locked. One of the datu’s children has the key and she was among those who went to town but his grandson instructed me to climb up in able to position my face on the narrow opening between the roof and window where I can view the body a few meters away.

A white-linen cloth covered it and a triangular-shaped wire fence protected the body. He said that it keeps off the rats, which chewed off a bit of the datu’s left cheek. I didn’t detect any rotten smell, which happens when a body is on a state of decomposition. Below the floor where the datu’s body lay were his wife’s remains. She died around 90 to 100 years old and her body hasn’t decomposed too. It’s also cloth-covered and wire-protected. The young man said that it was his grandfather who chose the site and how the kubo should looked like.

The triangle is a symbol of power in olden times and it’s known in Lucac that Anawa Kalipay had special powers. He performed his rituals in a cave named after him. It’s described to be wet and its special features include a water-sealed chamber, an underground creek and weird rock formations (according to Juancho who had been there many times). The family goes and stays in that cave every Holy Week.

No one can explain the phenomenon yet but the Datu Anawa Kalipay Cave, the datu and his wife’s bodies are all being tapped as potential tourist spots of San Francisco. It is a strange case, and curiosity will be its drawing power. I expect more than a horde to be piqued by it. I was one of those.

(First published in Manila Times on August 22, 2003)

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