I spent three weeks going back and forth in Mindanao, much to the horror of my friends who know about the Philippines. It is quite well known that there are extremist and terrorist groups that haunt the island with the intent of kidnapping westerners for ransom. I wanted to get the feel of the true Philippines, so I resolved to go to Butuan city which is relatively safe, or so I was told. While my decision to explore remote Mindanao might seem haphazard and even naive, I extensively researched the region and planned my excursions carefully. I did find out that the southwest areas of the large island are inhabited by tightly knit and self governed people who have little use for outsiders, including Filipinos, and they routinely kidnap and murder or behead those who wander into their domain. I learned that over eight hundred American expats are living in Butuan region, so I contacted seven of these by email me and they assured me that Butuan is as safe to visit as downtown Houston. Well, that certainly did not make me feel any better, since I would not visit most areas of downtown Houston without a fully armed escort and in broad daylight. I wanted to experience the hidden spirit of the true Philippines, free from commercial contamination of the tourist industry, so off I went. I was happy!
My first fears were allayed when I met some drivers and waiters in Luzon who were from Mindanao. They invariably assured me that Mindanao is completely safe for me and all westerners. My first concern came when I spoke with my friend, a lady who manages the restaurant in my mountain hotel near Pinatubo, and she urged me not to go there. I asked why not, and she said it is absolutely not safe for me or even for Filipinos. I asked her if she would go there, and she said NO! As she is an extremely street wise lady with excellent judgment, I was inspired to ask other Filipinos, and they invariably assured me I should not go there under any circumstances. Some became distressed at my intent, others laughed, but I began to feel like Jonathan Harker, the real estate agent going to visit Dracula’s castle as described in his journal in that excellent masterpiece of Gothic horror. Harker is a sophisticated modern man of science who dismisses the reactions of terror he receives when he tells the locals he is traveling to see Dracula! He pities them as poor superstitious peasants and discounts their offers of prayers and gifts of rosaries. It occurred to me that, like Harker, I might be getting into a situation that I would realize was a very bad one only after it was MUCH too late! I then reflected on the reactions of the people from Butuan, including some very small and gentle waitresses in the hotel, who assured me that this place is perfectly safe for me. I then realized that it IS perfectly safe for them. When the headhunter cannibals attack, they will be with the ones doing the eating, not the ones being eaten!!! I took the five magic coins from my pocket and decided to risk it.
I was told to travel with locals at ALL times, and I would be OK. I carried two ferocious young body guards, friends of physics teachers I met in Butuan, with me in my trek through the jungles and mountains up through Gingoog City to catch the ferry for Camiguin. I reasoned that no groups would know I was coming, and they certainly would not suspect that I would be so bold or stupid to ride the local passenger bus, therefore they could not set up any ambushes. I figured that I would be safe with my bodyguards, which wound up being the case, and I had a wonderful time in a land so exotic and removed from the modern world that it put me in mind of how our rural America must have been over one hundred years ago! Of course, America did not have bamboo huts or coconut palms.
In this region of Mindanao, the locals cook on wood burning grills and stoves, and they grow rice and bananas with techniques that go back for thousands of years. The curling smoke rising through the jungle makes an eerie effect in the sunlight as one passes through the curvy mountain roads at breakneck speed on the buses. On the four hour trip from Butuan to Camiguin, I did not see a single westerner, nor any in Gingoog City, a mountainous and bustling place with an exotic feel of a large jungle village so incongruous with the fast paced metropolis of Manila. In my travels through Mindanao, I never once felt threatened, except when the power failed in Butuan the night before I was to return to Manila. I began go through scenarios in my mind where the kidnappers had come hundreds of miles through the jungles just to get me, and they had cut the power lines to creep in under cover of darkness. It turned out that there was just a minor and brief brown out, and I was no worse for the wear. In fact, the only harm that came to me was from microbes when I foolishly agreed to drink the tap water with dinner on top of Mt. Hibok Hibok in the hot spring resort restaurant, and I got a raging case of Lapu Lapu’s revenge. I worried that I had contracted giardiasis, but my symptoms subsided after three days of torture where I lost nearly fifteen pounds! No giardia! I find the place exotic. I was told by a driver that some kidnappers take Westerners for a two million peso ransom. I did not have the heart to tell him that no one on earth would pay two pesos for me, let alone two million, so they would have to just kill me.
I DO NOT recommend that you go there, because there are warnings not to from the US Government, and these are given for a reason, and there might be threats to westerners. There are few tourists, even Filipinos, but this makes for a delightful and unique experience. I do highly recommend that you visit Camiguin Island, but it is far safer to travel in by air from Cebu. And DONT drink the tap water under any circumstances.