Conquest

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By Arnold Alamon

Wrapped in Grey

Friday, August 29, 2014


SOHOTON is a beautiful place and is everything and more than it is touted to be. It is regarded as the Palawan of Mindanao with its limestone cliffs peering over pristine clear aqua blue waters. Grand caves dot the maze of lagoons and islands with crystal and rock formations adorning these huge untouched caverns built by the undulating tides over centuries.

The Sohoton caves, the primary attraction in the area, are actually a water lagoon accessible only during lowtide thus the origin of its name. You and the small outrigger boat you are riding on would have to squeeze its way through a low opening of a cave accessible only when the tide is low. In one cave, you are asked to swim into a watery cavern where at first you are greeted by a pitch-dark dampness. Once your eyes adjust to the darkness, a grand cavern is revealed with stalactites glistening with a watery hue. The water also glistens neon-like, something about the sunlight from the mouth of the cave refracting in the water inside. The cave is called Hagukan, owing to the sound created by the escaping air from within with the onslaught of the rising tide.

Outside is a canopy of lush primary forests obviously teeming with wildlife. In the brief time I was there, there were sightings of hornbills, brahminy kites, and kingfishers. The trees that grow from the limestone formations are obviously stunted owing perhaps to the acidic nature of the rocks. It is obvious that this part of Bucas Grande Island, a 45-minute boat ride away from mainland municipality of Claver, is one of the country’s natural treasures.

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I was awed and amazed by the sights and experiences that Sohoton offered that is true. But instead of feeling like Brooke Shield’s partner in Blue Lagoon, a film that celebrated albeit quite graphically youthful and proto-primitive freedom, why is it that the nagging feeling that I took with me as I travelled through the pristine waters of Sohoton under the canopy of its lush forest, is that of Capt. Willard as he hunts for the insane Kurtz in the Coppola classic Apocalypse Now?

The truth is that the contrast between Sohoton and its jump off point of Claver, a municipality on the mainland is a jarring case of extremes. Before you reach Sohoton, you realize that Claver, the port where you embark from is a mining town as evidenced by the dust and mud all around. Workers in hard hats walked around like drugged zombies early in the morning for another day of hauling mountains that are to be sent elsewhere. The place remains obviously poor and underdeveloped and it makes you wonder who has benefitted from the mining enterprises in the area for the past decades.

Ominous is the sight of a flotilla of huge ships on the bay, I counted thirty, visible as you make that boat ride to Bucas Grande. Small barges bring tons and tons of soil to these ships en route to Japan and China in a perpetual procession of extraction. And as you look back to the mainland, you see the scarred and flattened red mountains of Claver. Decades of nickel mining have created this wasteland panorama as wide as your eyes can see.

There is something sickening about the vision of an organized long-term destruction of nature. The fact that the place stands at the doorstep of pristine Sohoton only calls greater attention to the economic violence that has taken place in Claver. And as you disembark from the banca on your trip back, you gain an understanding why the beaches of Claver bleed red. The run-off from the mountains has settled into its shore turning them muddy and crimson.

I have often wondered about the allure of white sand beaches and turquoise blue waters, sunshine and greenery. Of course, they represent languid days of respite for many of us trapped inside our cubicles and the maze of the grey urban jungle for the most part of the year. But I have a suspicion the attraction to frolic and traipse around unspoiled virginal areas go beyond the biological call to rest and actually have an affinity with mining as an economic enterprise

I thought to myself what is the difference between me, the tourist, and the big mining enterprises. Both of us do not reside in the place and merely drop by to sample its riches and then leave. It may be the case that tourism and mining emanate from a common drive – the deep unconscious desire for conquest.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on August 29, 2014.

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