I remember one public school official in Maguindanao telling me how good the opportunity was for me to visit so I could share good stories about their place and the people. I could not blame him as I had only heard about war and the criminal activities happening in that part of Mindanao then. But progress welcomed me every time I return from new school buildings to concrete roads. It has been a while and I wonder what I have been missing.
Working for a research centre had me travelling once or twice every year to Maguindanao from 2014-2016. Every visit lasted at least one week to almost a month, going to schools both remote and not. I remember my first time travelling to Cotabato City where the nearest airport to Maguindanao is and how different stories of war and cruelty were being broadcasted in the daily news. It was only a few years since the infamous massacre happened. But these thoughts were masked perhaps by my excitement to travel to Mindanao. I did not bother hearing the news and I can say there was not a hint of nervous feeling. It was not long when I realised that there was no point in worrying after all. Like any other provinces in the Philippines, Maguindanao has its own story to share. Aside from the usual news, there are also new places to explore, food to enjoy, experiences to remember, and people to love.
I was able to travel to different parts of the province through various means of transportation: by foot, motorcycle, van, boat, etc. I got wet in the rain, tanned by the sun, bitten by ants, got all muddy, and so on. Every experience made every visit memorable indeed.
But it was the people who I fell for. People in Maguindanao, especially children, made me realise how fortunate I was to grow up peacefully. I grew not worrying that a bullet might just come firing through our roof or that I may end up not going to school tomorrow because of a bomb threat in school. These people and their children spend every day looking at rifles and armed men and hearing horror stories every so often, but more than that, they know how to give a good laugh, cook delicious meals, and welcome visitors. Yes, I probably had met rebels along the way but I only remember that the people I met willingly gave their smiles. In my heart, I knew I was safe.
I also miss the food in Maguindanao where I saw a confirmation of how Filipinos are innately hospitable. What they served may not look familiar and did not suit personal preferences but I made sure that I ate what I could enjoy. What made them more filling is the appreciation of the effort they gave to prepare the meal. They travelled long to buy the ingredients, cooked them heartily, cooled the drinks, and so on. This happened even in the simplest places where you would get a feeling that they are serving you what they could not normally afford. It was heartwarming and it is in these moments that I feel proud of the Filipinos.
Maguindanao also has a significant place in my heart as it was here where I got one of the biggest inspirations in my life. It was my last visit in the province when I met this schoolgirl, preparing lunch with her friends. I thought they packed lunch to avoid missing class in the afternoon as it is not uncommon for children in Maguindanao to be living far from school. It was a heartfelt sight of friends eating together, sharing banana leaves as their plates, pouring out some cold rice from their transparent plastic bags and a few small fish in their plastic containers, and taking out drinking water in reused bottles from their bags. I blamed myself not being able to speak their language so I could ask how delicious the food was. Flashing her smile at me shyly, I knew I was welcome and considered a friend. They joked around while I was watching and shared giggles the whole time.
The little girl was contented and happy. No one has any right to tell she deserved better as she was enjoying the moment. I envied her happiness in the company of friends over a simple meal and how they were living as children. Their hearts were happy.
I have no idea if I will still be able to meet her but I know in my heart that her smile will keep her well. I have enjoyed every simple meal from then on.
I see travelling as an opportunity to learn and teach because like being unbeknownst to the little girl, she has taught a stranger like myself. That official also told me that Maguindanaons are peace-loving and I think I understand why. They love their children and they could only hope for a better future for the youngsters. I personally hope that more and more Filipinos will not think of Maguindanao stereotypically and be respectful of our cultural differences. No one can teach it any better than actually immersing ourselves in the experience.
What I learned? War and all sort of crimes are everywhere but there are no good or bad places when it warms the heart.