A SOJOURNER’S VIEWS: The joys of traveling across Mindanao now. By Karl M. Gaspar, CSsR

Since train, boat and air travel across the breadth and length of Mindanao remains unavailable, very limited and inadequate, we all have to rely on land transportation. Given that only the elite of Mindanao have their own rides (a wild conjecture: less than three percent of the population?), the majority of us have to rely on buses, vans and jeepneys to get around the southern islands.

Perhaps there is a value in terms of assessing where we are in regard to traveling by land across Mindanao today. I've traveled a fair bit in this Land of Promise in the last few months since returning from my sabbatical, so I have the audacity to claim some level of knowledgeability in terms of its state of land travel.

In the spirit of a hope-filled New Year, I will write about the good things of traveling across Mindanao these days. Highlighting the positive might just create more positive energy that could help propel a collective political will — especially on the part of our public servants — to do even better to improve the infrastructure that is so necessary towards making travel more safe and comfortable for all Mindanawons.

If those of my generation traveling across Mindanao in the l960s-70s had gone on a deep sleep since the early 1980s and would like to resume traveling again these days, they are in for pleasant surprises. Then, many of the routes that are now open were non-existent. There were no non-stop, air-conditioned buses. There were no alternatives except the long bus drives. There were no schedules of bus leaving the terminals. In fact, there were no integrated terminals for land transportation systems.

In the last thirty years, there have been some improvements. Not the kind that has transformed China into the economic power that she is today (yes, indeed, it only took China thirty years to radically transform its political economy!). However, if one were to be realistic and pragmatic about our own realities in Mindanao, the advancements in both infrastructure and land transport systems have been quite impressive. Modestly impressive, that is.

The most significant change has taken place across the Zamboanga peninsula. For decades, the national road traversing across Zamboanga was a sorry sight which provoked countless curses among the commuters. Supposedly cemented already a number of times — given the budget allocations approved in Congress — most parts of this highway remained a third-class village pathway.

Something very positive can be said about the aggressive push of the political leaders of Zamboanga Sibuguey to declare its independence from Zamboanga del Sur, where the political dynasties who have remained in power for so long misappropriated the budgeted funds. Once Zamboanga Sibuguey's public servants had control over the appropriated funds for road construction, the highway moved from third to first class in just a few years.

(There is a lesson here that can be appropriated by those who are beginning to explore the discourse of a separate Mindanao Republic.)

Today, one can travel from the cities of Cagayan de Oro to Zamboanga (passing through the major stops at Iligan, Pagadian and Ipil) from 10 to 12 hours only. Just one generation ago, it would take two days. With the vast improvement of the highway, there are more buses — including non-stop, airconditioned ones — that service this route.

The re-opening of the Cotabato-Parang-Malabang-Karomatan-Tukuran-Pagadian route has also changed radically the way Mindanawons travel along this part of the island. Before the Mindanao troubles erupted in the l960s-70s, this highway was an important lifeline in the lives of the people living in the Cotabato-Lanao provinces.

I remember that before I went to elementary school, my family resided in Parang and we regularly traveled this road. I remember us going regularly from Parang to Malabang to swim in the public swimming pools.

The swimming pools of Malabang today are but a shadow of their glorious past. But the highway connecting Malabang to Cotabato at one end and Pagadian at the other end is rapidly becoming quite busy. When opened after the resolution of Erap's total war, only military trucks and a few privately-owned cars could be seen along this road. Today, one can see a lot more varied vehicles taking this route.

It used to be that the only way to travel from the cities of Cotabato to Pagadian was through the ferry boats. The schedule of the boats' departure was dependent on the tide as the boats first need to navigate through the river before going out to the sea. One had no choice but to travel only by night, arriving at the ports of both cities at the most ungodly hours at dawn. Consequently, the day after the boat trip was needed for rest before one can go back to work.

And those cots, oh, they were so narrow! One lied down on those cots almost side by side with one's fellow passengers. If one had the misfortune of lying down beside another person who snores or who has not gone to a shower room for days or who is restless while sleeping — then one surely didn't have a good night's sleep. And those comfort rooms! Oh, they were so primitive!

Fortunately today, those ferry boats have been retired. Given that it is now possible to travel from Cotabato to Pagadian at any time of day in the more comfortable vans, no one wants to travel by ferry boat anymore.

There is just one drawback. The highway remains quite narrow with very few shoulders on both sides of the road. Since many parts of the road curve around hills and slopes, buses would find it difficult to travel along this highway. Only jeepneys, vans and private vehicles can use the road for now.

The good news is that there is some work being done to expand the highway. If only the work can go faster, perhaps it will not take a long while before buses can use this road. Once that happens, travel fare would drastically go down, as the vans these days charge fees higher than bus companies. Another benefit would be in terms of comfort. Today, the vans insist on having the maximum number of bodies that can be pushed inside their limited space. There is hardly a room to breathe and one's knees are dead upon arriving at the destination. In such a situation, one prays for a bus company to provide the competition.

There are other convenient developments lately. The buses that travel from the cities to Cotabato and Davao and vice versa do not have non-stop bus service. So it still takes around 7 hours to travel between these two cities. There are now vans that ply this route. Thankfully, they limit the number of passengers so that one has space. Taking only 5 hours and assured of comfort, the passengers do not mind paying a higher fee compared to the bus fare.

Another delight is the improvement of the road from San Francisco to Butuan City. For years, parts of this road resembled those spaces in the moon or Mars. Now, thanks to a greater consideration for public good, the government officials in-charge of this highway have given the public a much better infrastructure.

However, those who travel from Surigao to Tandag and vice-versa, as well as those that go from San Francisco to Tandag and vice-versa, are still being tortured when they travel through the coastal road of Surigao del Sur. I am sure their question remains the same: when will this road ever be improved?

Meanwhile, the sojourner is pleased that there is constant repair and maintenance work being done at various junctures of the Cagayan de Oro-Davao national highway that connects through Buda. This is perhaps Mindanao's premier highway, certainly one of the most beautiful in this country.

There are parts of this highway that take one's breath away because of their awesome beauty! Even if one were sleepy, one struggles to stay awake so as not to miss seeing nature's blessings! There for the eyes to behold are the vast landscapes of towering mountains and bountiful plains, rivers meandering through solid rocks, wild sunflowers reaching out to the sun, trees with orange tulip flowers or yellow blooms and clusters of peasants' homes that could easily be the subject of lush paintings!

If only for such an experience, one is eternally grateful for the chance of traveling across Mindanao!

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)