(This is Part 2 of Mindanao Loop)
Continuing my Mindanao loop tour, in April 2006 I found myself in GenSan (General Santos City), having already visited Cagayan de Oro City, Malaybalay, Valencia, Davao, Mati, and Koronadal.
Gensan is a pleasant port city. I decided to ride a boat west across the Moro Gulf and visit Zamboanga City before continuing home to Cebu.
It was a beautiful 12-hour crossing of the Moro Gulf.
The ferry let me off on the Zamboanga City pier at about 10pm.
The tricycle drivers gathered around and demanded 100 Pesos for a ride into town, reportedly less than a kilometer. Some of the other arriving passengers had advised me not to walk into town. I finally got one trike driver down to 30 pesos and hopped in. In about three hundred yards we reached the first hotel on my list, Hotel Preciosa.
“Sorry sir, no available standard room, only deluxe suite available.” Absolutely no customers or activity visible in the lobby. Did they think they had me over a barrel just because it was 10:30pm? The trike driver walked in, assuming he’d be getting his commission about now. Sorry, bud.
I walked out and a few doors up the street to Zamboanga Hermosa Hotel.
“Sorry sir, no available regular room, only executive suite available.”
There seems to be a pattern here. The trike driver came in again, thinking surely THIS time he’d be getting his commission?
Outside again, I crossed the street and walked down a few doors to Grand Astoria Hotel.
“Sorry sir, no standard room available, only Presidential suite.” Well, what a surprise. The trike driver appeared again…..
I asked the front desk staff if they knew of any budget rooms available in town.
“Sorry sir, we don’t know.”
Could I use their phone to call some other hotels?
“Sorry sir, phone is not working.”
I broke down and used my cell phone to call some hotels. None of the numbers seemed to work (“The number you are dialing is not yet in service at this time…”) until a clerk at the Dynasty Hotel on Almonte Street finally answered, telling me that they had a standard room available.
“I’m on my way!”
I decided to walk to Almonte Street, closer to downtown. The trike driver implored me to get in his tricycle. I ran down the street and was able to ditch him.
The downtown streets were eerily dark and mostly deserted; except for the boys in green, that is: M16-toting soldiers at nearly every corner. Hmmmmm…. 11pm.
As I neared Almonte Street, I noticed a different kind of presence on the street: girls. Lots of girls. And they wanted to talk with me! Wow, this was really nice.
They all were asking me for twenty pesos. Twenty pesos? Wazzup with that?
I found the Dynasty and got my 300 peso room. Not deluxe, but it had a bed and there were only a few cockroaches visible…just fine for the night.
I asked the desk clerk about the twenty pesos…. “Oh, that’s for shabu sir, they can buy for twenty piso” (shabu = methamphetamine; aka “speed”, aka “crank”) O I C; that’s how they all keep their trim figures.
Next morning I tried to start anew with a fresh attitude: Zamboanga, hope you’re a friendly city today. The sun was out and the streets were full of pedestrians and tricycles and jeeps, a busy place. But there were even more soldiers with M16s than the night before (and they definitely wouldn’t let me take their pictures.) Also quite a few surly-looking young men on the streets who didn’t respond to my attempts at a cheery “Good morning!” (usually works like a charm in the Philippines) …..they just returned sullen stares or grunts. Hmmm….!?
OK, enough’s enough, this place was giving me the creeps; first time I’ve ever felt that way in the Philippines. Time to leave.
I went down to the pier. Typically, in Philippine port cities, there are plenty of boats going in every direction. Here, there were plenty of sailings south to Jolo, Sisasi and Bongao islands in the Sulu Island chain, but I wasn’t particularly interested; there had been a bombing of a church on Jolo Island the week before, with many killed. I needed a boat heading north to Cebu. “Sorry sir, no available boats to Cebu until next week.” I started to fret, because my flight back to the US left the following Wednesday.
I walked back into town to find a travel agency. Oh good, here’s one with a Cebu Pacific sign in the window. Guess it’s time to bite the bullet and buy an airplane ticket, even if it costs me a few thousand pesos.
However... “Sorry sir, no available space on flight to Cebu until next week.”
What to do?
The US State Department warns against overland travel in Zamboanga.
The Lonely Planet guidebook says “The hinterland is definitely out of bounds to all but the most adventurous (or foolhardy) traveler. Kidnappings of both locals and foreigners do occur, there are regular shooting incidents between government forces and NPA and MILF groups, and buses are bombed on the road. Road travel to Zamboanga from other parts of Mindanao is not advisable; not all buses are bombed or robbed of course, but the number are is significant enough to be an issue. It’s safer to arrive by boat or plane.”
OK, you talked me into it: where’s the bus station?
Lonely Planet again: “If for some reason you’re determined to travel north by bus, the terminal is near the Santa Cruz market on the outskirts of town.”
I caught a jeep to the Santa Cruz market and hopped on a bus heading north to Ipil, about 100km up the Zamboanga Peninsula. My first seatmate was a local Christian man who gave me a running commentary as we rolled north: “That Sacol Island, many MILF guerilla; you don’t go there!” as he drew his finger across his throat to make sure I understood.
“Now we in Christian village, people good, you have no problem.”
“This is Muslim village, people here peaceful, but you stay on bus OK?”
The ride up the Zamboanga Peninsula was very beautiful: rugged forested mountains alternating with valleys full of lush green ricefields and coconut plantations; and on the coast, fishponds. We went through dozens of small towns, which were mostly all segregated into either Muslim or Christian, according to my seatmate travel guide.
Fortunately nobody tried to drag me off the bus with an M-16, and ten hours later I arrived in Dipolog City on the north coast of Mindanao. Dipolog is another (kinda-boring) medium-sized Philippine city, whose claim to fame is the proximity of nearby Dapitan, where national hero Jose Rizal was exiled by the Spaniards in 1892 until shortly before his death in 1896.
I found a budget pension house, went to bed early and next morning rode a bus to nearby Paluwan port, where I caught the OceanJet FastFerry to Cebu. The route is indirect, first going far west to stop at Dumaguete City on Negros Island, then east to Tagbilaran City on Bohol Island, and finally northwest to Cebu City. It was a long nine hours on a choppy sea, but much faster than if I had waited a week in Zamboanga for a slow boat. Good to be home in Cebu after 10 days.
There now, that wasn’t so dangerous, was it? Wala problema! (No problem!)