The following article is a commissioned feature I wrote for this month’s issue (September 2010) of SMILE, the in-flight magazine of Cebu Pacific Air. You may browse the magazine online at http://www.cebusmile.com
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY EDGAR ALAN ZETA-YAP
The din of construction rings through the city of Pagadian. Bustling shopping malls, fast food chains, hotels, banks and gas stations appear. Roads have been widened; a reopened airport heralds new flights from Manila and Cebu. The old comes face to face with the contemporary.
From my hotel room at Pagadian Bay Plaza, I see a modern skyline emerge above spider- like tapay-tapay fishing boats, floating villages and slender minarets. After the sunset call for salaat, another world beckons: a budding nightlife of live bands at Capitol Park Inn, karaoke at Extreme Sounds and clubbing at Ma Spiotti. A new and vibrant city is emerging.
At a lively downtown junction, an enormous shell of concrete and steel is taking shape where the old market and transport terminal once stood.
“This will be one of the largest government- owned shopping malls in Mindanao, if not the entire country,” reveals Mayor Samuel Co, as he inspects his pet project with the instinctive scrutiny of a civil engineer. Set to open early next year, the five-storey 6,000m2 City Commercial Center — better known by its fashionable acronym, “C3” — is the contemporary centerpiece of Pagadian as a burgeoning regional center.
Straddling the bottleneck of Zamboanga del Sur by the Moro Gulf, the city of Pagadian strategically links the Zamboanga Peninsula with the rest of the massive island. Nicknamed the “Little Hong Kong of the South,” the city is sprawled along a rolling terrain that overlooks a natural harbor, giving the area topographical resemblance to the famed former British colony. You can go horseback riding at the Rotonda Park and enjoy views of Pajares Avenue dipping down to Illana Bay, where the verdant Dao-Dao islets and the white sandbar of Puting Balas float over a calm expanse of Prussian blue.
Over centuries, this alluring landscape has drawn in waves of migrants who weave the multi-ethnic tapestry of today’s Pagadian. The first inhabitants of the area were the Subanons, a nomadic tribe indigenous to Western Mindanao. In the 15th century, Muslim settlers under the Sultanate of Maguindanao arrived, establishing a prosperous trading post and defending the area from Spanish occupation. Referring to this ancient outpost, some believe that the city’s name is rooted in the Iranun pagad (wait) and padian (market).
During the American occupation, the bandits and pirates stormed the settlement, but were eventually suppressed by the Philippine Constabulary. The restoration of peace attracted Christian lowlanders from Visayas and Luzon seeking greener pastures in Mindanao, the “Land of Promise.”
Coupled with its typhoon-free weather, the rich bounty of its land and waters has harbored ages of settlers. At the fish port, fishermen haul giant bariles (tuna) and harvest gusô (Eucheuma seaweed) under blue skies. As the deciduous behemoths of Manga Serenity Park safeguard the city’s watershed, the nine-tiered Pulacan Falls at the neighboring municipality of Labangan generously irrigates vast plantations of rice, corn, coconut and cassava.
The freshest catch and produce make their way to the busy kitchens of rustic restaurants that offer the best of Filipino cuisine in this migrant city.
Seated at his desk, Mayor Co, presently serving his third term, expounds on his ambitious campaign for a “Progressive Pagadian.” In 2004, the Arroyo administration, following an Executive Order by President Corazon Aquino in 1990, ordered the transfer of all government offices and agencies to this capital to facilitate transactions with other provinces in Region IX, which triggered rapid development.
“Pagadian is a crossroads — we want the entire region to transact business here. We want businessmen to build more hotels, more restaurants, more establishments,” says the 44- year-old visionary leader with the enterprising shrewdness of the stereotypical Filipino- Chinese. He explains mangrove reforestation and drainage systems with compelling resoluteness.
Along with wooing investors to the city, the rehabilitation of vital transportation facilities is also a priority. The newly renovated Integrated Bus Terminal (IBT) makes Pagadian a gateway to several major cities like Zamboanga, Dipolog, Ozamiz, Iligan, Cagayan de Oro and Cotabato. In addition, future attractions like restaurant-lined view decks, an amphitheater and a mountain resort on Mount Palpalan, among others, are down the line, giving travelers more reasons to visit again in years to come.
Furthermore, access roads have been built to boost tourism. At Barangay Datagan, motorists can now visit Kendis Cave, once only reachable by arduous horseback. As we hike barefoot through the limestone tunnels carved by a shallow subterranean river home to bats and swiftlets, tour guide Luz Esparaguera mutters “tabi po,” requesting forest spirits to grant us safe passage. “Engkantos can play tricks on us, and we may not find our way out,” she cautions. As the city marches towards industrialization, it also holds on to its rural charm.
This allure notably extends to their distinctive tricycles. To negotiate the uneven terrain of the land, Pagadianon tricycles have been uniquely redesigned with sidecars reclined up to 40˚. City councilor Arnold Gavenia explains, on a more transcendental note, the significance of this adaptation: “Whenever you ride our tricycle, you face the heavens as in prayer, and you remember God’s creation.” His analogy echoes the Cebuano derivation of the city’s name: pangadyeon or “to pray over,” alluding to a turn-of-the- century malaria epidemic that nearly wiped out the settlement’s inhabitants. Whatever their ethno-linguistic background, Pagadianons are unified and emboldened by their industriousness, religiosity and perseverance — qualities reflected in their iconic means of transport.
Sooner than most people think, the mention of Pagadian will no longer be met by quizzical faces. To truly emulate the cosmopolitan metropolis it aspires to be, this city by the bay faces a herculean task, but it is a challenge made much lighter by the people’s optimism.
“If we all work hard together, we will succeed — for the love of the city,” says the mayor’s wife, Ilang-Ilang, with graceful conviction. “We’re not the little Hong Kong — we’re the Hong Kong of the South. ‘Little’ is bad feng shui!” she says proudly. And given its strategic geo-political location, natural beauty, and a go-getting leadership geared for progress, Pagadian may indubitably be Mindanao’s next big thing.