“What’s SSSS?” he texted again. “Sand, sea, surf, sun, ” was my reply.
“But what about TV footage of men waving ISIS’ black flag?” was his follow-up query.
“Those are clueless copycats. They’re aping everything they see on YouTube—from bandanas to bandoliers to beards,’’ I said.
I was tempted to call them dubsmash militants, they whose idea of insurgency is to mimic poster boys of terror for social media likes. But my friend, being a foreigner, hasn’t probably heard of Aldub.
The above conversation is familiar to me. Friends planning to fly to Mindanao would first surf the Trip Advisor website for reviews and validate what they read there with me, their personal trip advisor.
What usually follows is talk or text interpellation. They raise their concerns; I assuage them.
After fieIding questions from hundreds of them through these years, I have come to conclude that their fears stem from low GQ—or geographic quotient.
They think Mindanao is a postage stamp-sized island which can be circled by a car with just one full tank of gas.
If they’d just Googled its size, they would have learned that at almost 100,000 square kilometers, Mindanao is the world’s 19th biggest island.
It is slightly smaller than Cuba (17th) and Iceland (18th) but bigger by 13,000 square kilometres than Ireland. You can chop off one-third of Mindanao’s land mass and what would remain would still be bigger than Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately, when a bomb goes off in Zamboanga, the impression is that the shrapnel is sprayed all over the island, as if this land of 23 million people were a pocket-size sitio.
What is not known is that the distance by a straight line from Dinagat, the northeast-most point of Mindanao, to Tawi-Tawi, its southwestern tip , is the same as that of Matnog, Sorsogon to Aparri, Cagayan.
In fact , in Dinagat one can tune in to the spiels of Waray DJs of Tacloban FM stations while in Tawi-Tawi, they’re addicted to Malaysian telenovelas.
So my standard reply to the stereotypical fears about Mindanao is that it is generally safe and peaceful.
Exhibit A is Davao City. While a Metro Manilan would clutch his old Nokia phone for fear of being snatched, such a habit has not been ingrained in Davaoeños.
So, if you’re planning your summer trip, you may consider the world’s 19th biggest island, whose sights and adventure offerings are only matched by the number of its residents.
For one, Mindanao is well served by airlines. Flights to Davao and major cities like Cagayan de Oro from Manila or Cebu leave almost hourly.
Even once-missionary routes are now linked by sky bridges. There are flights to Tawi-Tawi, out of Zamboanga City by Cebu Pacific which has deployed an Airbus jet for this route.
You may not have heard of Tandag, the capital city of Surigao Sur. It is the latest destination of the Gokongwei-owned budget carrier.
Now you ask me what visitors can do in Surigao Sur, on Mindanao’s Pacific seaboard, or in Tawi-Tawi, whose many islands can be reached by paddleboat from Borneo.
Plenty. The Philippines’ version—petite, I must, however, qualify—of Niagara Falls is in Tinuy-an, Bislig, less than two hours by van from Tandag. Nearby is Hinatuan town’s Enchanted River, unfathomable both in depth and beauty.
Or if you want someplace nearer, there’s the Britannia group of islands, which many swear is better than Boracay without the crowd—and for a fraction of the cost.
Tawi-Tawi’s 109 islands boast of pristine beaches. If only the security situation in the area were better, Tawi-Tawi’s beaches would have long made it to Conde Nast’s global best.
That in fact is the common roadblock to scenic spots perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be located in conflict areas. Case in point is Basilan,which a friend attests, possesses an inventory of unspoilt beaches. One day, tourism will be a dividend of peace.
Mindanao is dotted with beaches off the beaten track. Glan in Sarangani, and Kalamansig and Palembang in Sultan Kudarat have great beaches.
A friend is trying to catalogue Mindanao’s waterfalls. He has counted 150 and admits he has not reached midpoint yet. He invited me to Asik-Asik in Alamada, Cotabato. I’ve put it in my bucket list.
Another friend’s project is to sail around Mindanao’s many lakes. He has been to Lake Mainit which straddles the Surigao Norte-Agusan Norte boundary and the freshwater eel he tasted there, he swears with eyes closed and lips smacking, can give the roasted eel in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market a run for its money.
Marawi City in Lake Lanao he describes as a city with the climate of Baguio but with a lake as big as Laguna de Bay beside it. Both the city and lake are perched thousands of feet above sea level, assuring its residents of natural airconditioning.
If climbing summits, not the 4S, is not your cup of tea, Mindanao offers lots to climb. Mount Apo is one. Kitanlad in Bukidnon also has a climbing season.
Whatever, Mindanao offers ridge to reef natural wonders. Beginners may want to enjoy what Davao and its environs can offer, from summiting to snorkelling, all within minutes of their hotel.
The CDO-Camiguin-Bukidnon triangle can also be packed with trips, from canopy walks, to culinary excursions , to camping out.
More than 4.7 million local and foreign tourists visited Mindanao in 2014. And not one was kidnapped by a terrorist group—real or copycat.