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Monday, April 30, 2007

On the road: Highway of Peace (HOPE) Caravan, April 2007

In a word- it is Beautiful.

I last stepped foot in Mindanao in May of 1997, with that week-long trip limited to within the city limits of Davao. From the amazingly spartan yet hardy Philippine Eagle Center in Malagos to the inviting sparkle of the waters off Samal Island- I have been smitten. What I saw then was enough for me to forget the horrors flashed on tv as the aftermath of the Ipil pillaging came to people’s attention two years prior.

Fast-forward to 2007. In a span of a decade, Mindanao has enjoyed a season of good, positive news punctuated by senseless acts of violence that made it retreat two steps back just as it has advanced three. While many Mindanaoans would lay claim to the fact that at the end of the day their island is still a lot safer than, say, Manila, Mindanao has yet to be released from that mad tangle of negative travel advisories and misperceptions from locals and foreigners alike.

With her reputation preceding her wherever and whenever her name is spoken, Mindanao the beautiful is being shunned like an enchanted lady.


A week after our Bicol sojourn, we find ourselves tasked to undertake another Gawad Kalusugan-related activity, in Mindanao this time. Our team was to participate in the third Highway of Peace (HOPE) Caravan. The HOPE Caravan is an annual event which brings together GK volunteers and partners all over Mindanao at a convergence area of great significance. The first HOPE Caravan gathered GK heroes in Datu Paglas in Maguindanao where the promise of peace and the coming alleviation of poverty was celebrated. Participant to the second HOPE Caravan met in Camp Abu Bakar in Maguindanao (above, left), to witness how the miracle of GK has helped rebuild the lives of our war-weary Islamic brothers and sisters by way of their new 170-plus houses built by many a Christian Filipino from Mindanao and beyond. The third HOPE Caravan, I came to know later, was an expression of further solidarity of Mindanaoans- with Muslim Filipinos building houses for the poorest of the poor Christians in Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte.

The night before the main convergence of volunteers in Kapatagan, we attended a HOPE Assembly at the Corpus Christi gymnasium in Cagayan De Oro City. The three-hour long event was a recollection of sorts, a spiritual pep rally, if you may, for the assembled crowd, about several hundred strong, and many of whom were to leave the following morning for an approximately 3-hour, 100+ km-drive from CDO, Misamis Oriental to Kapatagan, in Lanao del Norte. Having had a very long day already by the time the night’s activity began at around 8:30pm, I thought I will be struggling to keep awake. But the night’s main speakers- our boss Dr. Joe Yamamoto of the GK Board and Mari Oquinena of the GK1MB (1 Milyong Bayani) team sure made staying up more than worthwhile.

I take home two things from that evening.
I. Many people- including my sister- were worried about this Mindanao trip. There were people asking Mari whether it was safe to be traveling through Mindanao. But that was precisely the reason why the caravan was being undertaken: because peace is still an issue in Mindanao. Else, said Mari, there would no reason anymore for the annual caravans to be launched. That people converge in remote and not-the-most hospitable of places is a simple, symbolic gesture of our collective willingness to risk all for peace.

II. The country is gripped with election fever and its very, very palpable in Mindanao, because of or despite its thousand-plus-kilometer distance from the capital. Admittedly, there is a brewing cynicism in our population no thanks to questionable governance and the electoral process. And since many Filipinos are not being inspired to hope by the current crop of candidates, efforts of ordinary Filipinos doing the groundwork (including GK) are perceived to eventually amount to nothing. But the message of the HOPE Caravan is- whoever gets elected, we will continue the work at hand. If the leaders who will win are sympathetic to the people with whom GK works- all the more the work of GK will flourish. If the leaders who will win are skeptics and non-believers, GK volunteers and partners should work even harder to swim against the current to make the emergency that is poverty slowly but surely a thing of the past.

Talk is cheap. Tama na ang salita. Oras na para tumaya. Love of country IS love of God.

The following day, while it was still dark, we began the journey to Kapatagan from CDO, ahead of the main caravan. It was kilometer after kilometer of arguably the best continuous set of roads I have ever traveled on, with an almost unbroken view of the coastline and the sparkling water beyond it. In the thick of the summer season, there are innumerable rice paddies remarkably lush and green. Banana trees were planted so close to each other but each had trunks of amazing girth. Coconut trees soared in abundance. There are pockets of industrialization and high level of commerce- from Iligan’s cement-producing facilities to El Salvador’s Asia Brewery plant. All are testament to the richness of the land and the potential of its people.

We reached Kapatagan after about three hours of traffic jam-free land travel from Cagayan De Oro. To get to the Brgy. Waterfalls Gawad Kalinga Village we still trekked on a good kilometer of a mixture of dirt roads with stretched partly paved off the Maharlika Highway. The site already has about forty GK houses. And yes, a God-hewn waterfalls graces the area. Rarely did we see patched of land that were not green or lush or beautiful surrounding the site. Even in its state of (in my urban mind) isolation, beauty abounded and the promise of a bountiful life is impossible to remain only as such.

We conducted a mini-medical mission in the area, mostly just dispensing simple medical advice to the residents, directing them to seek consult at their local health centers and bigger medical centers if need be, and answering health inquiries. We served at least 50 patients the three hours we were in the site, thanks to the local CFC teams of Mindanao and health workers from the Dep Ed.

We didn’t get a chance to actually encounter the bulk of the caravan. We heard that from Iligan City alone, some 300 vehicles committed to join. There were even groups coming from as far north as Samar. The caravan converged at another venue after the Kapatagan stopover, at the Mindanao Civic Center, in Tubod, Lanao Del Norte. I would have wanted to see the array of cars and buses and jeepneys as they form the HOPE Caravan. Yet I did see hope- in the eyes of GK residents, in the GK volunteers and partners, in the fleeting glimpse of Mindanao that was afforded to me.

And from their hope- our hope, actually- springs eternal the very real possibility of peace settling for good in Mindanao, the beautiful.

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