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2000, Mindanao, Philippines

Lake Sebu,Mindanao, Phillipines

The first grey streaks of dawn cast a dull blue, misty hue over the placid surface of Lake Sebu in the south-western interior of Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines.

Not far from here, less than 30 years ago, a tribe was discovered that had never had contact with the outside world - not the European world anyway. An established road has yet to penetrate this far inland, and the scene remains a canvas of rural calm.

The noise is something else. The persistent buzz of the insects begins to rise in ferocity, accompanied by barking dogs and cocks crowing as the sky lightens. By the time the rest of the birds have joined in, a full symphony has blasted the village into wakeful activity. There is another noise, too, a faint crackling that seems to be coming from the hills to the north.

My flight to Cotabato the previous day had been cancelled. We flew instead to General Santos in the south. The Moro Liberation Front had been attacking farmers in their fields and the Philippine military were mounting operations to confine guerrillas to their camps.

Sporadic attacks from Muslim separatists have been a source of conflict on Mindanao for hundreds of years. The Spanish were attacked when they ruled the islands, the Americans were attacked after the Spanish handover and the Japanese were attacked during their brief period of control in the Second World War.

But so long as you have no intention of running things, there is little to fear from warring groups. That said, no one wants to get caught in the cross-fire. Could the crackling sound have been gunfire? It was the last thing the hotel manager wanted to hear so he didn't hear it. One group had already cancelled and the prospect of nervous tourists was bad for business.

"The fighting is well away from here. There is nothing to worry about," he said. He was right. The lake was tranquil. There was just that mysterious crackling over breakfast. Was it Rice Krispies?

Those of a nervous disposition should breakfast on fruit at Lake Sebu. They should also stick to four-wheeled transport rather than "Skylabs" on the rough, unmade roads. The Skylab is a moderately powered motorcycle with an extension welded on to the pillion. One person sits on the handlebars and four sit behind the driver. The bike can carry six and is licensed to do so.

The Skylab is the latest in improvised Filipino public transport, as yet confined to Mindanao and Cebu. The most famous example is the Jeepney. Originally converted from second world war Jeeps, cut in half and extended to make a 24-passenger bus, Jeepneys are now purpose-built. Rare examples have treads on their tyres.

Then there is the tricycle, a motorcycle and covered sidecar, somehow capable of taking eight passengers. Filipino transport, therefore, is probably only marginally safer than the average skirmish.

Public safety is not the biggest issue in this fatalist society, which places much faith in a combination of luck, superstition and divine intervention. The door to my hotel cabin had a cross daubed on it in pigs' blood. This is not a country for those whose idea of stimulation is buttered scones in a tea room. The British Foreign Office is at present warning against all travel to Mindanao.

Everyday life in the Philippines is like bungee jumping without the elasticity. It may not be safe, by western standards, but it is certainly lively.

My guide at Lake Sebu is 18-year-old Ging Ging. She wears the traditional weaves of the T'boli tribe, and carries a permit that vouches for her incorruptibility.

Too often, in the past, she says, women guides have accepted financial inducements to sleep with their clients. Part of the problem has been a reluctance to offend the tourist by declining. The Philippines is cleaning up its act but there are still places where men can and do go for sex and the big cities remain a magnet for paedophiles.

Ging Ging establishes that I am married with a family. "Why are they not with you?" she asks. I explain the problem of mixing work and family but she does not seem convinced. Neither does anyone else I encounter in the Philippines. They giggle at the idea that anyone can call travelling around, staying in hotels, and eating good food, work.

A middle-aged European man, travelling alone, is viewed with suspicion. Complete strangers will ask you about your married status without preamble. Not that the T'bolis are straight-laced. A man can have up to four wives, so long as he can afford them.

However, to have four wives a man would need to part with a herd of water buffalo. But why be greedy? Lake Sebu has everything - fish farms, rice fields, abundant vegetables and fruit.

Walking along a country trail in Mindanao is like passing through God's own orchard. Bananas, mangoes, papaya and guava trees are everywhere, interspersed with bamboo thickets. Anything grows on these islands.

On the journey back to General Santos for a flight to Cebu, we pass acres of pineapples and asparagus fields waiting patiently for the man from Del Monte to say ?yes?.

In the city, the fish market is alive with buyers bidding for the day's catch of tuna. The contrast between the abundance of sea and countryside and the poverty of the cities, combined with the fragility of an earthquake-prone landscape, may contribute to the Filipino character that can sway suddenly between placidness and agitation. Attention spans are short. Nowhere is this more evident than in the cock-fighting ring.

Cock fighting is a passion among Filipino men. Every town has a ring with tiers of seats that fill to overflowing on Sundays after church. Owners gather first to look for another owner with a bird of similar size and quality. Once the match is made they await their turn.

The fighting birds have 3in razor-sharp blades attached to one leg. The birds have been trained by their owners to use their feet aggressively so fights tend to be brief and decisive. Before they start the crowd erupts in a frenzy of betting.

Those very rare birds which have survived seven fights are rewarded with a retirement of gluttony and sex - they are put to stud. A visit to the cock-fighting ring is an opportunity to witness a sharp division between life and death. This fine line seems to captivate the Filipino psyche. Life is about edging ever closer to the line. Safety is for cissies.

Financial Times

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved