The countryside unveiled itself incessantly as we pushed onwards down the road, and my eyes traced the horizon and scanned the fields, ever thirsty for scenery and points of interest. My world was green. The stacked rice paddies, however, seemed misplaced: this was not the Cordilleras. Peculiar and out of place as they seemed, appearing in this part of the country, they still afforded a visual treat.
My partner Ginggay and I were en route to picturesque Lake Sebu in South Cotabato, traditional domain of the T’boli minority. Lake Sebu is both the name of the lake and the municipality around the lake.
Were it not for the generosity of friends, the Antonina-Custodios, who provided a Nissan Navarra pick-up truck, we would be covering the distance from General Santos City in a cramped bus or jeepney. This was a welcome luxury. Ginggay manned the steering wheel; I rode shotgun, enjoying the continually changing backdrop. We drove westward along a wide cemented highway, our patience and tolerance ceaselessly tested by motorcycles bearing enough passengers to constitute a small township, antiquated vehicles better displayed in museums and hogging the road at turtle-pace, and utility jeeps with wanton disregard for safety, making U-turns as they pleased along the main thoroughfare. Road trips in the Philippines are exceptionally gratifying provided you survive the harrowing side.
A few kilometers past the town of Surallah, we diverted from the main highway, into a narrower albeit well-maintained road, with sections draped by canopies of leaves and tree branches. Rolling hills flanked the countryside in the distance. The road meandered upward gradually. We knew we were approaching our final destination, 300 meters above.
No signposts announced our arrival or welcomed us. It was the renowned bright red abaca turban upon an elderly woman’s head that indicated to me that we had reached Lake Sebu. The T-boli and Lake Sebu are invariably linked. For 600 years, they have stayed here and their culture and craft—weaving and metalwork primarily—have flourished. Numbering over 60,000, the T’boli are of the lake and land. And the lake and land are theirs.
Face to face with the T’boli
I was lost in the dance.
The beat was muted, originating from taut deerskin stretched over an understated drum, gently pounded by a T’boli mother’s soft hands. Her child, not even ten years old, bounced on one foot to another, spinning leisurely around, yet firmly transfixed on one spot. Bright, colourful beads dangled from her hair, creating monotonic swish, not unlike the sound of rice hurled into space then caught in an abaca basket. Her hands and arms sliced the air in deliberate and precisely choreographed movements. I wasn’t certain whether she followed the rhythm or dictated the pulse.
Mother and child were garbed in ancestral dress, a signature blend of colours and intricate patterns seemingly pulled from a prism and woven into T’nalak cloth, further adorned with an elaborate yet controlled mayhem of rings, necklaces, bells, and anklets.
This was T’boli culture in full display. I patted the child on the head, charmed by the slight imperfection of her eyes.
The T’boli are a fascinating people whose heritage and culture has remained intact. Perhaps the most visually arresting of all indigenous tribes in the Philippines, one could even accuse them of vanity. They are preoccupied – almost obsessed – by all things aesthetically pleasing. Which is a good thing: their zeal is evident in their intricate, elaborate metalwork and textiles, crafted from techniques handed down through generations.
The T’boli are found everywhere around the lake, whether on the roadside, or in the Saturday markets where they display wares for sale. They are hard to miss, and if you overlook the colorful garb, listen. The jingling of bells heralds their arrival.
Time has come to a full stop in Lake Sebu. For that reason you come here because you seek contact with an unblemished past and an innocence intact, perhaps to remind you of when you were a lot less jaded and when you liked yourself a little more.
At ease in a dream-like placeThere was no single vantage point to take in the lake in its entirety. We followed its contours, occasionally stopping to glimpse its qualities – clusters of huts on stilts, restrained carabaos grazing close the water’s edge, or the lonely silhouette of a paddler gliding over the fluid plane. Yet each viewpoint offered a different feature. There was no postcard shot, and for that, the possibilities were as numerous as the vantage points. Discovering the lake was a personal experience uniquely one’s own.
Close to the furthest point southwest, a tower provided an elevated view of the lake and the jagged mountains beyond. It entailed clambering up three flights over creaking floorboards and ladders. Fishpens inundated the glassy surface of the great, tranquil pond. From above, crossword puzzle-like shapes, from the formations and placements of bamboo spokes were discernible. Beyond the lake, a collection of peaks beckoned to be trekked and explored.
We raced to the opposite end of the watery basin to catch the sunset. Twilight arrived carrying early evening breezes that formed clouds of mist as it flirted with the lake’s waters. This was not a place defined by activities and a list of things to do. No jet skis or kite boards were present to mar the tranquillity. Silence and contemplation was the main preoccupation here and it filled up the day completely. We gave in to meditative musings as the mountains and the wide sky watched their reflections in the magnificent looking glass.
How do you capture the essence of a place in a photograph? To experience Lake Sebu and its magical allure, you need to be there, not merely to perceive it as a static, frozen image on matte paper.
Bingeing on TilapiaI stared at the menu of one of the numerous lakeside restaurants, knowing that a more intimate encounter with the lake could be had over a meal. Tilapia was the primary offering but the choices revolved around its preparation – sinugba (grilled), con chicharon (pork crackling), or sweet and sour, among many others. We decided on the sinugba and con chicharon. Amidst mouthfuls of rice and fish soaked in my sawsawan (dipping sauce), a mixture of calamansi (Philippine citrus), suka (vinegar), toyo (soy sauce), and spiked with dinikdik na sili (crushed chilli), we savored the lake. Eating by ample handfuls, we partook of the lake’s bounty, toasting it and washing it down with calamansi juice -- a communion of sorts – thereby making our experience much more complete.
Strung between two platforms on the opposite ends of a chasm, a steel cable spanned the gap, two hundred meters short of a full kilometer. I was on the zip line’s receiving end, awaiting one raring-to-go “flyer,” strapped securely to a harness attached to the line. On the launch point, a guide radioed in the send-off and after a hefty shove, gravity took over and the spread-eagled rider hurtled across the divide. The squeaks of the spinning pulley were drowned by the shrieks of an ecstatic passenger. Thirty-two seconds later, Ginggay turned up after tearing at speeds of up to 60kph. The excitement on her face spoke volumes. “I want to do it again!”
I had crossed the rift earlier, albeit more liesurely. I preferred images to thrills, scenery to speed. I halted midway and took photos, the Sony Alpha’s variable angle screen coming in quite handily. I hung the awhile, simply enjoying the panoramas and the anxious thrill of being suspended over 80 meters in the air, swinging above the tree line.
This was neither the longest, highest, nor fastest zip line in the country (although it does not lag behind). What distinguishes this is the view it affords the flyer. Other zip lines only fly over canopies, and a canopy is a canopy is a canopy. One tires of it. No other zip line in the country can fly you over waterfalls and follow the drop at close proximity from its source. Three of the renowned Seven Falls, a series of waterfalls cascading from a single source, can be clearly seen from this unique perspective.
Immediately after leaving the base, you soar over falls number two, the highest and most dramatic of the seven, experiencing its power and grandeur even as you move away from it. Two-thirds of the way, falls number four and five materialize. Plummeting through notches the rock, gushing streaks of white cut through dense forest cover.
A second zip line brought us to the base of the second waterfall where a thundering boom and frail spray says nothing of the force that formed the deep pool below it. A motorcycle-ride and a short walk later, we were soaking relaxing our weary limbs in the gentler waters of falls number one.
Lost in time
After loading our packs into the truck, we took a long last look at the lake. Lake Sebu will not be free from modernism for long. Change will come. It always does. The zip line will attract more tourists. I wondered whether the fine balance between development and tradition would be kept. Will it be able to keep its traditions and innocence as modernity encroaches? For now, I was fully caught in the time warp, mesmerized as I was in the little girl’s dance. Nothing else mattered.
“Home, James.” I teased Ginggay after reclining in my seat.
My incidental chauffer gamely smiled and started the engine. A few revs later, our time machine was primed for the journey back to the future. I knew full well that Lake Sebu would still be calling out to me long after I was gone.
TRAVELIFE MAGAZINE is the Philippines’ leading travel & lifestyle publication. www.travelife.biz