I stared at the Cagayan River, and for a moment, I felt like I was staring at my own death. Before I jumped onto the raft, I already imagined my own mortality that would unfold in that water. Like how I would fell off and drowned in the largest and longest river in the Philippines.

There was tightness in my chest. Heart was racing faster than it should have. I couldn’t catch my breath.

Exactly how I felt when I finally booked my flight to Cagayan de Oro.

I’ve been discouraged to pursue this trip by friends and family for safety reason. I remember my best friend’s reaction upon exiting Laguindingan Airport, where we’re greeted by a group of soldiers in a checkpoint and found out that CDO isactually located in Misamis Oriental: “Diba, dito yung napapanood natin sa balita?!” I swear, I heard worry in her voice. I wouldn’t blame her. This is Mindanao. An island which often associated with adjectives that synonymous to danger.

There was fear in my heart too, but I knew that I was here for a reason. I wanted to prove people (myself included) that Mindanao is not the dangerous place everyone perceived it to be. Despite my own apprehensions, I have always believed that there’s more to Mindanao than war and terrorism.

After an hour of land travel, we have finally reached CDO. To our surprise, we’re welcomed by billboards–left and right–it felt like we’re transported to EDSA for a second. The familiar sight gave us a sense of comfort.

The rain started pouring. My best friend trusted me the logistics of this trip, but I have a tendency to not do my research enough when I travel. I’m also not a big fan of itineraries. I’ve always liked the idea of being lost and surprised. Sometimes my love for spontaneity can be a liability. Thank God we’re in the City of Golden Friendship!

When we’re clueless how to get to our hostel, locals, despite the rain and language barrier, helped us to find the right motorela to catch. Moterela is their version of tricycle, but a lot bigger. I enjoyed riding them while going around the city. Not only it was cheap, but the drivers were also polite!

The culinary scene in CDO is also something to be praised! I love how you can afford a decent Chicken Inasal (with unli rice) with Php 100! But my most favourite pick: Itlog Ni Migz from Kanto matched with a Peach Fruit Tea from Chingkeetea! Solid.

But the best gift of this city is this: my friendship with Alve. Alve is one of my favourite writers, and her works have inspired me in many ways. We have been online friends for five years, but this was our first time meeting in person. It felt like a reunion with a high school friend–no awkwardness, just good laugh and talk about life and everything in between. Of course, I have to mention that she’s lucky to call CDO home!

As days passed, I have heard my best friend said this on repeat: “Hindi pa rin ako makapaniwala na nasa Misamis Oriental tayo!” But this time, there’s less worry in her voice. I could finally hear the enthusiasm!

We also had interesting conversations with other locals, and they didn’t hesitate to open up about their lives under martial law and how they feel when an outsider thinks that Mindanao is nothing but a dangerous place. Contrary to popular belief, they’re actually more grateful that martial law happened in Mindanao. They said it’s a lot more peaceful after it has been declared. Although one of them didn’t deny the killings that still happen in the city, it was great to hear different perspectives. Maybe, it’s not always what it seems.

Our last day fell on the 12th of June. It was intentional.I wanted to welcome Philippine’s Independence Day in Mindanao. Gentlemen in military uniforms gathered in Plaza Divisoria, not for a war, but to pay respect to the Philippine flag. In that moment, I wanted to cry joyful tears. I whispered a prayer that only God could hear: “Bless this land. May it finally be freed from whatever it’s keeping it in limbo.” 

On the way back to the airport, my best friend mentioned it again how she couldn’t believe that she has visited Misamis Oriental in this lifetime. This time, I didn’t hear any sign of worry; because finally there’s nothing but gratitude and joy in her voice.

I kept walking towards the water. One foot in front of the other. Next thing I knew, I was already on the raft. We paddled our way through the rapids. This is it. No turning back.There was tightness in my chest. Heart was racing faster than it should have. I couldn’t catch my breath.

Locked your feet! Paddle forward! 1, 2, stop. Bugsay! We surpassed the first rapid, and there was peace.

On the river that divides Bukidnon and Cagayan de Oro, I was left in awe by discovering the beauty that is Mindanao.

I didn’t fall nor did I die.

I lived. Exactly how I felt throughout this trip.


Marah Roque is a a 23-year-old Filipino storyteller based in New Zealand. 

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