The Road to Cateel
by Danny Castillones Sillada
Aliwagwag Falls in Cateel, Davao Oriental, Philippines, photos by Danny Sillada
"Lumapos kaw. Ya tapos. Di kaw mauno." (You will succeed. You will finish. Nothing bad will happen to you.)
~ Mandaya Panawagtawag Ritual
THE ROAD TO Cateel is dusty and rugged during summer, while being slippery and guttered during rainy season. But it’s worth the strenuous journey especially if one is going to witness the enchanting beauty of a cascading falls descending from a giant stairway to heaven.
The gushing waters from its towering staircases are like the white silken hair of Mandaya Ompo (old native women), cascading from the heavenly abode of the Mandaya gods Mansilatan and Badla, down to the long and winding streams past the translucent Cateel River and, finally, into the womb of the Pacific Ocean.
Alas! Only those who have witnessed its magical presence can bring with them the ineffable experience. Neither words nor photographs can describe the sublime encounter and union with nature such as that of the mystical splendor of Aliwagwag Falls.
Time stands still; green colors flail against the blue sky; wild birds sing and flutter on the canopy of sturdy trees; and falling waters murmur with eternity, as the mesmerized traveler takes a glimpse of its magnificent beauty.
THE STAIRWAY OF MANDAYA GODS
The creation of Aliwagwag Falls can be attributed to the tectonic tension along the rift bordering the geologic regions of Cateel and Compostela Valley. The mass of rocks on the site of Aliwagwag Falls compressed and sheared into blocks to form a huge pile of boulders. The structure of staircases was formed over millions of years through the unrelenting flow of waters coming from the upper cataracts, ridges, and valleys of Cateel mountains.
One can imagine the natural processes shaping the Aliwagwag Falls before it finally emerges from its majestic fortress at the heart of the Cateel rainforests. Just 25 kilometers away from the poblacíon, it overlooks Compostela Valley on the west and the mouth of Cateel River that kisses the Pacific Ocean on the east.
Known among the natives as the natural opus of the Mandaya gods (the father and son Mansilatan and Badla), Aliwagwag Falls is one of the tallest and most unique waterfalls in the Philippines. It stands at 1,110 feet (338 meters) high and has a 30 foot (9 meter) average width, with 84 cascading falls like a giant stairway spiraling to heaven.
Along the colossal staircases of varying heights and widths, the white waters descend onto the ever-flowing streams, converging toward the sinuous trail of Cateel River. The tallest single drop at the upper stairway is approximately 100 feet (30 meters) high and has a 30 foot (9 meter) average width.
On one side of the uppermost level of the falls is a cave, the early Mandaya burial site of their ancestors dated around 1500 BC to 1000 AD. The Mandaya(s), (whose name literally means "upstream or upland dwellers"), consider the place a sacred sanctuary protected by Mansilatan and Badla against the evil gods, the husband and wife Pundaugnon and Malimbong.
During the Spanish colonial period, between 1500s and 1800s, the Bagani (Mandaya warriors) resisted invaders on a few occasions – the Spanish conquistadors and the Moros (Muslim raiders) – by fighting ferociously with their kayam (spear) and kampilan (sword), defending their tribal land up to the last drop of their blood.
Indeed, if a traveler listens intently to the garrulous sound of tumbling waters descending from the stairway of Aliwagwag Falls, one can almost hear the scarlet sound of Bagani blood dripping downstream toward the Cateel River.
BRIEF HISTORY OF CATEEL
In 1610, a Spanish friar named Miguel de Sto. Tomas and Sgt. Juan Camacho de dela Peña arrived at the northern side of Cateel called Sitio Lapad, known today as Barrio San Rafael. They disembarked on the riverbank where they saw a Mandaya splitting a rattan vine. When they asked the native what place it was, the Mandaya thought that they were asking what he was holding so he responded "catil." Hence, from there the town’s name was derived and would later be known as "Cateel."
It was only in 1840, when Spanish governor Luis Lardezabal sent an expedition to eastern Mindanao to organize settlements with a significant number of inhabitants, that Cateel was named as a pueblo (town) on the same site at Sitio Lapad.
In 1856, the central town was moved to the seacoast, the present site of the poblacíon today. And by the late 1800s, the Cateel pueblo was fully Christianized under a Caraga mission headed by a Jesuit missionary, Fr. Pablo Pastells.
In October 29, 1903, under the American military government, Cateel was created as a municipality. From this period onwards, significant events followed like the construction of Cateel Provincial High School in 1947, the reconstruction of St. James Catholic Church in 1953, and the arrival of American Maryknoll priests in 1961, to name a few.
Today, Cateel is one of the 11 municipalities of Davao Oriental, the eastern part of Mindanao. It is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean in the east, Compostela Valley in the west, and the Boston and Baganga municipalities in the north and the south, respectively.
THE NOSTALGIC MEMORY OF CATEEL
The town of Cateel in the 1970s and 1980s, as remembered by this writer, is like a forgotten paradise bereft of any infrastructure, regressive as it was since the Spaniards, the Japanese, and the Americans came: no electricity, no television, and no telephone.
When rainy season came, the muddy roads and dilapidated bridges would be impassable, forcing vacationers from the city during holidays to travel by motorboat via the Surigao route. The faint-hearted would die from a heart attack due to nervousness from the monstrous waves of the Pacific Ocean.
During summer, children would fly a kite in the middle of rice fields with whistling winds coming from the sea and the lush mountains of Cateel. Naked boys and girls, ranging from 7 to 15 years old (including this writer), would dive and swim into the crystal-clear river at barrio Tagadao, splashing their laughter amid the heat of summer.
At nightfall, it was like a ghost town with the flimsy light of suga (kerosene lamps) flickering from nipa and wooden houses. The only indulgence that the townsfolk could afford and enjoy at night, aside from gambling, was to watch the surging full moon that came only once a month.
Then came the 1990s, streets at the poblacíon were slowly hardened with cement. Electricity from DORECO began to flow and illuminate the once bleak and ghostly town at nighttime. The townsfolk stopped sending letters and telegrams to their children who were studying in the major cities. They could now hear each other’s voices through the telephone services provided by the town’s municipality.
Further onward from the late 1990s up to the present, almost every household can already watch Korean telenovelas on cable television, send their text messages through cellphones as far as the USA and Iraq and as near as their bedroom and comfort room at home, chat online with strangers, send email messages to friends and loved ones.
Consumer products are surging like the ever-flowing waters of Aliwagwag Falls; unfamiliar faces establish their residences and businesses in town; concrete and modern houses flourish; and transportation can now travel in 3 to 5 hours from the town to the city of Davao via Compostela Valley, instead of 10 to 12 hours via the Surigao route. And Cateel, the once immaculate and naïve town, will never be the same again!
THE ENDANGERED STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
The influx of progress in the town of Cateel has its own price, and the price is priceless at the expense of ecological deterioration and, needless to mention, the neglect of the local government unit in suppressing the illegal loggers.
The forests that surround Aliwagwag Falls are slowly vanishing; wild animals like the kaguang (flying fox) and the usa (deer) are disappearing; the mystical sound of limocon (bird of omen) is going silent.
The gradual denudation of rainforests by logging concessionaires in the 1970s took on a momentum, with a new breed of aggressive illegal loggers in the 1980s up to the early 2000s. Native dwellers are driven farther away from their lands into the upper mountains where the limocons are still singing, but not for long.
Lamentably, it took millions of years to fashion the magical beauty of Aliwagwag Falls but only three decades or so for man to deface its pristine forests and mountains, endangering her ever-flowing waters to ebb away for another two decades.
‘Luha ko da lamang yang paagayon…’ (I’ll just let my tears flow away…), with lament and poignancy amid the vanishing green colors and balding mountains that were once the cradle of this writer’s dreams.
© Danny Castillones Sillada
How to cite this essay:
Sillada, Danny Castillones. “The Road to Cateel.” Manila Bulletin (Tourism) 15 August 2008. Print.