Mindanao, seen through the eyes of a Kano.
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It's been more than a decade since my first visit to the Philippines, much time has passed by since then and I keep coming back to the wonderful island of Mindanao every year. I hope one day I will call this place my home.
Actually I was born in a very small but well developed country named the Netherlands. Being brought up in an open society with all it's social advantages, in the capitol city of Amsterdam, a metropolis with a multiracial, multireligious society and the every day problems that go along with that. But despite all the experiences I encountered in my home country and also during my many travels abroad, this could not even prepare me for the culture shock I had during my first visit to Mindanao back in 1995.
My wife was born in Koronadal city in South Cotabato, so, naturally that was the place we visited first, she told me one day she would like to come back to this place and settle down for the rest of our lives. And why not, the town looked like a mix of the ancient Philippines and modern western society. Old wooden structures combined with new concrete buildings.
The town was bustling with activities and people on the streets, dressed in jeans, t-shirts and native clothing, holding cell phones and bolos. It was a small city that felt like a small town. A town filled with contradictions, this was truly a place where East meets the West, or should I say a Westerner meets the East.
I was introduced to many family members and met friends, neighbors and strangers who opened their houses and hearts for me. For some of them it was apparently the first time they met a kano and it seemed they could not help staring at me for a long time. Especially young children could not keep their eyes off me and often wanted to feel my skin and touch my long nose. But I was pleasantly surprised with the attitude of these youngsters, when greeting me they took my right hand and let my knuckle to touch their forehead, this "Mano Po" shows their respect for elderly people. Really something different than the gesture that is more common used in the place where I came from, the raised middle finger from an adolescent stuttering three and four letter words.
During my frequent visits I have learned to be more humble and to show my appreciation and affection for the people that surround me. To be more grateful for the things in daily life that I always consider to be normal and took for granted. They showed me another way of life, taught me another way of thinking and living, this was a real eye-opener.
Hey, Joe, what's your name, give me your money?" , an enthusiastic yell comiong from some children that were roaming the streets of Koronadal city to search for plastic bottles and other materials to sell. Hey, Joe" is the standard Filipino greeting for any foreigner and is derived from the term "GI Joe". I could not take any offense because i knew these playful youngsters meant no harm, so I replied them with "Walang pera” (No money) and a big smile, bearing in mind that i am the stranger, a source of great curiosity fore these kids. My smile was instantly returned, it is true, the Philippines is well known as the land where Asia wears a smile.
I have noticed that Filipinos like to talk a lot (Tsika-Tsika) but their facial expressions is telling a story too. Hands, lips, eyes, eyebrows and smiles are often used to tell a wide range of messages. Being polite in the Netherlands can be different in the Philippines, when talking to another person a fixed eye contact is explained as true interest in that person or his story, it took me some time to find out that this is considered as an aggressive gesture in the Philippines. Being a direct person myself and used to speak my mind when it pleases me, I began to grow a little confused as I realized that I still had a lot to learn in ways of communication and had to make many adjustments in my behavior.
A Mindanaoan does not show annoyance or anger when things do not go the way they would like it, they do not like to openly disappoint or agree, they rather give you the expected answer, naturally again with a smile. Mindanaoans use a fascinating and nonverbal language, much of it involving facial expressions. Many times i had the idea that people wanted to kiss me when given directions, it was awkward to see that lips are pursed to give me the directions i asked for or pointing out something or somebody. Mindanaons suprised me with more facial expressions, like showing me a direction by shifting their eyes or by pointing with their heads in the direction indicated, or in letting their mouth drop wide open when they could not hear or understand me.
I was deeply impressed with the attitude of Bayanihan, the helping atittude whenever one is in disastrous need, individuals or a group of people working together for a common good.
Never have i seen such close ties between family members and neighbors in our barangay.
It was fascinating to see that, despite the spirit of cooperation, camaraderie and communal unity, how everyone differs from each other. Their looks, beliefs and their cultural diversity showed me a rich blend of people, traditions and customs.
In Mindanao there is a story or a fantastic impression around every corner, if you know where to look and if you know how to listen you can see things that exists only in the Philippines. Take the story of Christmas for example, people in Mindanao do like to celebrate Christmas for as long as possible! Christmas carols in shops and on the street can already be heard in September. And what about Karaoke or as they call it here Videoke, Mindanaoans really love to sing and Karaoke is a favorite pastime, people are literally singing their joyous music as loud as their amplifiers will let them. Many karaokebars can be found in every city or village in Mindanao, if there is electricity there will be Karaoke. A real Philippine phenomenon is the Sari-Sari Store, a convenience store. There’s one in every streetcorner, offering everything from canned food, sweets, candles, beer to band-aid and cigarettes. The sari-sari store is also a favorite hang out for the local population to meet eachother and gossip, it often is the hub of the neighborhood, a place to get drinks, snacks and to gather.
Settling down in Koronadal city in the near future is certain, despite being located in a troubled region, this city is undeniably a wonderful and relaxing place to live and it has been this way for many years. It has the best of both worlds, the facilities of a modern city and the strong community ties of a small town with its rich texture of culture, traditions and history, bursting with life and vibrant colors.
I am grateful for the opportunity for my first visit to Mindanao in 1995, grateful for the many visits after that, grateful for the breathtaking panoramas, the natural beauty, exotic attractions and the sights and sounds of it’s captivating nature. From its dazzling beaches tropical climate and to its volcanoes and rainforest, Mindanao is a revelation