Survival Tips in Traveling Around Mindanao

By Penelope C. Sanz / MindaNews / 5 November 2005
(Republished with permission from the author)

A FEW MONTHS BACK, I wrote about the snorer, spitter, smoker, and pukers in a bus ride. This time, despite needing to pass an academic requirement, here I am writing about how to survive traveling in Mindanao. After a recent trip to Butuan City, I figured I have to sift through my old journals and collate the dos and don’ts of traveling I have listed down at least over 10 years of running around this ‘promising island’.

For starters, the must haves in your survival kit: a shawl, flashlight, loose change or coins, white flower, a plastic bag, a bottle of water, some candies, alcohol, tissue paper.

Never leave home without a shawl. It protects you from dust and the UV rays when you’re on a long habal-habal (motorcycle) ride to nowhere. It is also useful to cover yourself when you need to pee in the middle of nowhere. Shawls also keep you warm when traveling at nighttime especially in airconditioned buses. Bus drivers would tend to turn it on full blast to keep their seats cool because it is where the machine is throbbing.
This is a constant cause of bickering. Passengers would holler at the driver and bus attendant because the bus is virtually becoming a freezer. The driver would snap back by saying, “pasagdihi ko kung gusto ninyo mabuhi” (let me be if you still want to live).

Speaking of night trips, here’s another tip. Look out for radio speakers on top of your head. Bus drivers also have the proclivity to play the radio in full volume to keep them awake the whole trip. So, please bring cotton balls for your ears or move two seats away to avoid auditory trauma.

Never get a seat beside a window. Scalawags along the highway would sometimes throw rocks at passing buses. Besides, if you sit beside a window and the bus rolled on its side, you’ll definitely get a bump on you head and bruises on your side. I learned it the hard way when I got squeezed between a heavy weight male and the window a few years back.

The flashlight. Landslides are of normal occurrence during rainy season. Sometimes you need to walk in darkness for over a kilometer of mud and heavy rain to get to another bus waiting on the other side of the highway. Flashlights are useful when the bus breaks down in the middle of the night in some God forsaken areas and you’ve got to find an ally, say a grandma or an elderly person.

If you are a woman and you travel alone, transferring buses is like mayhem. Everybody will be scrambling for seats you need to have that much needed flexibility and elbowroom for maneuvering. Sometimes you need to clamber up on the side of the bus and wiggle your way into the window (just be prepared again for bruises). Grandmas would watch your things for you. By the way, just be prepared to be her gofer girl and for inquisitions for the rest of the journey. But you are actually creating good karma here. The sticky part is she will probably be matching you up with her son or nephew. Argh!

Mind you, if you can’t find an ally since all are young and want to grab good seats, brace yourself with your backpack for the pushing and shoving. Mind you, I fell several times from the bus, and I can only imagine what it’s like to be in a football game stampede.

When traveling alone, always make sure to inform the driver or bus attendant that you need to go to the comfort room. There were more than two instances that I was practically left by the bus, but thank god for elderly seatmates who called out to the driver and told him I was left behind. It is also good to know if you are a fast or slow eater. If you are a nibbler, never dare to eat a full meal. Instead thrive on biscuits, boiled eggs and peanuts the whole trip. The bus is always raring to go – finished or unfinished.

Always have loose change say, P 20 or P 50 bills, and coins. These are for transferring buses when the bus attendant does not have enough change. By the way, always clear your tickets with him. Don’t take his word that you’ll be reimbursed or get your change in the next bus. An elderly couple had to argue their way all through out their trip because of this.

Coins are also needed for using the comfort rooms (price ranges from P 2.00 to P 4.00) and buying tissues when the need arises. It is also an effective token to hush up preachers who stepped into the bus and conduct biblical sermons. By the way, regarding hold-ups, reserve at least P 500 to give as token when the occasion arises that is, if you can spare it. A colleague actually has to give P 25, her last money, to the robber who took pity on her and waived it aside. Better that than your cell phone, which should be kept hidden as much as possible

Checkpoints at nighttime are really an inconvenience. You also don’t know whose army is conducting it. So cooperate and be courteous, show your luggage when needed. Soldiers (again whose troops?) can be overly eager they would suspect all boxes may actually contain arms.

This had happened to me. They insisted that an unclaimed box was mine. I have to show my student ID, Press ID and argued that I am carrying only a box full of books (I wonder what they have to say if they see one of them is about Marxist theories). It was a good thing that another journalist was on that same bus and vouched for me. Lesson learned, put your name and address on your box(es).

Plastic bags and white flower are for pukers. You may not be what they call “dagaton” (easily nauseated) but the kid beside you or a pregnant woman might be. Sharing your white flower vial is God’s grace to them.

Habal-habals (motorcycles) are accident-prone rides. Long sleeve shirts, jeans and high-cut shoes are ideal get-up. If you can afford to hire a habal-habal, great! If not, the next two seats behind the driver are the best ones. Sometimes on long motorcycle trips in forested areas, rain would suddenly pour that you need to seek shelter in a hut along the road. Check first if it has foxholes or underground tunnels. I would rather catch pneumonia than be caught in a crossfire. So pack your clothes in plastic bags or bring a poncho with you.

Be attentive to the habal-habal driver’s instructions. If he says never point or dare to look at a certain hill or mountain, obey! Snipers abound and anybody is just fair game. As long as there is a cell signal, update someone back home of the exact location of your area and what you’re wearing. At least your whereabouts could be traced if anything happens to you.

The “last trip” to Mindanao’s innards could mean a full passenger vehicle. There’s nowhere to go but go “taplod” (sit on top of the jeepney or bus). Try to find a seat in the middle, but chances are these are already taken. So you have nobody or nothing to hang-on. What do you do? Pray! Try also not looking down the cliffs if you can help it okay?

Boat rides can sometimes be so surreal. All are in a state of liminality even the cows and carabaos could just be meters away from you. So if I were you, make sure that your cot is on the upper deck. Otherwise, you’ll worry the whole time about the what ifs of a foot and mouth disease you’ll get from them the whole night.

Be careful with your questions. I realized on the field that sometimes people would easily open up to strangers. A simple ‘kumusta?” (how are you?) could release a torrid of emotional trauma. Let them cry. But if you don’t have the emotional stamina for it, let them drink from your bottle of water. Never mind if you go thirsty for the rest of the trip.

What else? Prayers help a lot. You need it when you are caught forging a river and there’s a sudden flood in San Fernando, Bukidnon, or when the bangka you are riding in Siargao stopped in the middle of the sea, and there’s a whirlpool gaining momentum. Whew! All you can do is just have faith and just surrender to God’s will. (An Istambay sa Mindanao post courtesy of Penelope C. Sanz/ MindaNews.)


About mindanaw

A Journalist from Mindanao

5 responses to “Survival Tips in Traveling Around Mindanao”

  1. Penelope C. Sanz says :

    Waaah! I could have provided you an updated version of this Walter i. Balane… say how to swing from one tree to another? mwahaha!
    See you one of these days/weeks/ Walts. Will be “grounded” by November.

  2. Sarah Matalam says :

    my oh my… Penelope Sanz.. I miss this girl/woman/doctor/traveler/jetsetter or whatever you call yourself these days 🙂

    Thank you Walter for posting this.

  3. mindanaw says :

    @ Penny. Hi there. I hope to see you in Davao before I leave for Bukidnon. Grounded in Davao? I hope also it could be at least for a while.

    @ Hi Sarah, yes I could pass your comment to Penny. I heard she is arriving from Zamboanga-Sulu-Basilan-Tawi tawi today or tomorrow.

    Thanks for dropping by.

  4. Penelope C. Sanz says :

    Hello woltir! Thanks for letting me know re: Sarah’s message.
    Hi sarah! Sorry it took me a while to write. Had a bad bout with pneumonia. It was explained only to me yesterday how lucky I was. Ate (Charina) told me that I looked like death personified when she saw me in the hospital (yep from the airport to the hospital kind of thing since it took me nine days to have proper medical attention because I was on field). I’m just so thankful to God that I have another lease on life (this is my third life Sars) and to have my voice back (lost it for three weeks. Still croaking but I can now talk- see why I’m very talkative?).
    I still easily tire out. What with everybody watching over me, the food I eat, meds. No just kidding. I’m grateful for the care but I’m now looking forward to going home to my own home this weekend (you’re welcome to hang out there. Rest, rest, rest is what is everybody, including the universe, is hammering down on me.
    Where are you? Are you in Davao? How do I reach you? Walts help me out, I don’t know our exact office address after all these years. I know its planet or stars thing (are they not the same?). Do you have Sarah’s contact details?
    Anyway, I really hope to see you soon Sars. I’m thinking of having a thanksgiving mass when I’m fully recovered. I hope you’ll be there. It’s been a looong time since we saw each other. I miss you too Sarah M.
    Walts, I remember that I do owe you a cup of coffee. Btw, I’ve fulfilled my promise to Mindanao na Walts. So when mama asked me no more trips in God forsaken areas when the nurse was inserting an intravenous needle in my veins. I simply nodded and smiled.
    God is good walts. He watches over us all the time, and He helps us fulfill our promises. Let’s have that long over due coffee soon ha. Btw, thanks Walter I. Balane for everything.

  5. jong alvaro says :

    Great article Penny, quite a good TIPS for mindanao travellers. used to be one also back in the 90’s. all the best my friend.

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