My fascination for South Cotabato deepened when I watched the award-winning indie film “K’na The Dreamweaver” starred by Mara Lopez in Cinemalaya Film Festival two years ago. The film’s depiction on the T’boli’s culture, the sacred process and weaving of T’nalak cloth, the ethereal harmony of opal and jade lotus foliage in Lake Sebu, and the well-kept wonders of the place itself made me want to personally experience it. Come January 2016, I finally booked a flight to General Santos, the nearest jump-off point to South Cotabato.
It was only a week before my flight and I still have no idea how I’d get around South Cotabato, until I found Kuya Jun, one of the most recommended tour guides in Lake Sebu. I originally planned to go to Pink Mosque, Grand Mosque, and Blue Lagoon in Maguindanao, and trek up to Lake Holon and explore South Cotabato, but the accessibility of the places are quite hard to squeeze in for my three-day stay. Thus, I opted focus on what I saw in the film and spend time in what the people of Mindanao hail as “The Land of the Dreamweavers” that is South Cotabato last August 25 to 27. Interestingly, the province is also known as the “Summer Capital of Southern Mindanao” because of its Baguio-cold temperature.
The people and their culture
While I was waiting at the boarding gate in the airport, I met a General Santos-native woman and her family, who immediately changed the negative connotations of Mindanao that’s been filling in my head. During our conversation, I learned that how I feel towards Mindanao is almost the same as how she feels towards Manila—both of us were a bit skeptical. Here’s why:
Mindanao has always been tagged as a warzone in the Philippines with all the bombings, beheadings, hostages, and massacres from terrorists because these are what the Internet and media show us. But have you ever considered knowing what it is really like in the eyes of the locals? Let me tell you what: Mindanao is their safe haven, Mindanao is beyond blessed with most of the natural resources and breath-taking destinations in the Philippines that are fortunately unobstructed because of lesser tourist influx, and here’s a secret: the people of Mindanao are humans, just like you and anyone else. Sure, our country has been experiencing bombings in parts of Mindanao, which recently happened in Davao, but that doesn’t make it less safe than in Manila or in other parts of the Philippines.
When the woman I met told me about her experience during her short visit in Manila, I got terribly ashamed on how stressed she was with all the time she lost due to heavy traffic we got here, and we can all attest to that. “Ayaw mo sa Manila?” I asked. “Ayaw ko. Doon nalang ako sa amin [General Santos], masaya ako doon,” she smiled.
I was normally scared but I saw safety in her eyes. “Safe ba diyan?” a friend asked. “Oo safe. Mas safe pa nga dito kaysa sa Manila,” I said. Til then, I knew that where I’m heading is going to be a wonderful place.
The most interesting people I met in Lake Sebu were the T’boli tribe. To be honest, meeting the great Lang Dulay was my primary reason for visiting the province. She was hailed as the last dreamweaver of the T’boli tribe and received the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA, or National Folk Artist Award) from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in 1998 with the hundreds of T’nalak cloth she designed and weaved. In the T’boli culture, the spirit of abaca named Fu Dalu comes into the dreams of the chosen ones like Lang Dulay. Fu Dalu taught Lang Dulay the patterns and designs to be weaved, which subjects are usually environmental-based such as eagles, clouds, waves, rivers, and leaves of palm trees.
She started dreaming and weaving patterns after her first born until she held her last breath at the age of 91 on April 30, 2015. Now, the designs were passed on to her students, who eagerly weave and live on her legacy in Lake Sebu and in the country.
“Malungkot kami. ‘Di na namin makakasama yung ugat ng aming culture. Siya ang nag-umpisa ng ginagawa namin [weaving]. Masakit man sa amin, wala kaming magawa,” Josephine Malanao recalled with a shaky voice. “Palagi kaming masaya [noong buhay pa siya]. Mabait talaga si lola,” she added. Josephine is one of Lang Dulay’s 16 students, who I chanced upon, together with her daughter-in-law Sibulan Dulay and her granddaughter Noemi Dulay, when I visited her home and weaving school.
Each T’nalak cloth takes about three to four months to finish and costs from PHP 700 to PHP 4,000 depending on the size. The T’nalak cloth is a sacred entity to the T’boli tribe because it serves as their intricate cultural attire, dory, source of income, and it introduced them and their culture to the world.
Sites for your sight
Three of the most important sites for your sight to behold in South Cotabato are Lake Sebu, Seven Falls, and Trankini Spring. Lake Sebu is a 356-hectare body of water, which depth is immeasurable. Within Lake Sebu are two more lakes called Lake Seloton and Lake Lahit. It is composed of 12 islands such as the Crocodile Island, which has no crocodiles but is rather shaped like one, and an island where they used to hang up dead bodies on trees. The lake is rich in Tilapia, one of the most important watersheds in the country, and supplies water irrigation to South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat.
The most captivating thing you’ll ever see in Lake Sebu is the lotus. It’s best to row around the lake from sunrise to 9 AM as it only blooms at the coldest time of the day. Kuya Jun can rent and row an owong, the traditional boat of the T’bolis, for you for only PHP 200.
Meanwhile, the Seven Falls are Hikong Alo or Passage Falls, Hikong Bente or Immeasurable Falls, Hikong B’Lebel or Zigzag Falls, Hikong Lowig or Booth Falls, Hikong Ukol or Short Falls, Hikong K’Fo-I or Wildflower Falls, and Hikong Tonok or Soil Falls. You can opt to trek your way up to some of these falls, but the best way to see all of these is via zipline. After all, it’s the highest of its kind in Southeast Asia that’s suspended 600 feet above the ground with 700 and 400 meter distance.
Believe me, Seven Falls Zipline is the best! I was emotionally screaming out of fear, happiness, and amazement throughout my two-ride experience! Just imagine yourself flying in the midst of forestry surrounded with not just one, but seven waterfalls! I felt like a human drone for a moment!
Rates range from PHP 250 on weekdays to PHP 300 on weekends, while picture packages range from PHP 150 to PHP 300.
After the liberating ride, I did a tolerable trek up to Trankini Spring. It has a small falls that cascades down a spine-chilling-cold catch basin where I spent my afternoon. “Sa lahat ng dinala ko dito, ikaw lang umabot ng 30 minutes diyan,” Kuya Jun laughed.
Beyond blessed land
Lake Sebu is beyond blessed with natural resources. They are rich in Tilapia, crops like corn and tomatoes, and soil that surprisingly have gold powder. Tilapia dishes can be bought all around the town from a meal for only PHP 35 to a lunch buffet for only PHP 250. Crops are also all around the town and have blossoming flowers and plants. “Blessed kami dito. Kung masipag ka lang talaga, ‘di ka magugutom sa dami ng pananim,” Kuya Jun said. What’s more impressive is that even if there are gold sightings in their land, no one dares to land-mine in the town.
If there’s one thing I love about South Cotabato, it’s there responsible stewardship on our environment. There are even environmental signs along the roads telling people to plant trees and to protect Mother Nature.
Bong salamat, South Cotabato! Bong salamat, Lake Sebu! Bungnawa hukon!
Should you wish to book Kuya Jun, reach him at 0906 758 6256 or at his Facebook account.
South Cotabato in my words,