Disappearing into Davao, the Philippines’ remote southern capital


A starfish found in the Gulf of Davao

The woman sitting in seat 16A hadn’t noticed me yet, and I honestly wasn’t expecting her to. It was a short flight and she, I observed, was contented in her window seat. . The short woman wore the face of an endearing schoolteacher that could have also been an aunt. For the most part, she busied herself flipping through the in-flight magazine, a flourish made with each flip, and then by motionlessly slipping into a soft nap.

It wasn’t until we began to descend that she looked up and decided to break the ice.

“Is this your first time to Davao?” she asked.

“Yes, I have always wanted to come to Mindanao. And I figured that the best place to start would be its capital,” I answered.

A healthcare seminar had called her to Manila and she was on the way back home where she trained medical technicians at a local college. Davao was far from Manila, she said, and not only in distance.

“You can make more money in Manila. But the traffic is bad and the people aren’t so friendly,” she insisted. “In Davao, we have the friendliest taxi drivers in the country. They will always follow the meter and never cheat you.”

I had heard Davao billed this way before – as some commuter paradise. The politeness of the cab drivers is legendary, and – of all the things a city could be known for – it was this reliable demeanor that made the place most marketable to Filipinos. She then approached me with another familiar line just as the plane touched down:

“The girls here are beautiful, too. I can introduce you to some of my students if you want.”

With that, she scribbled down her number on a shredded piece of paper, and we began to disembark.

The land Duterte built

“Mindanao?” a friend from Manila once scrutinized. “Why would you go there?”

To many Filipinos of Luzon, the Luzoneros, Mindanao is a backwater only noteworthy for its decades-long conflicts and as the third star on the national flag, represented but only in passing. It’s a disturbed and remote place that would disappear from consciousness if not for the drama, like a wind-swept Kansan prairie without Dorothy or tornados.

But if Mindanao is the poster child of chaos, its largest city is exemplary of how it can be controlled. The Philippines’ southern capital, Davao is characterized by statistics and sensation, mostly because many have simply never been. Its home to the country’s tallest mountain; it is the safest, due to a hard-handed approach to law; and, by a political stroke of the pen, is the largest city municipality in the country.

A hodgepodge of superlatives and whispers paints a place that comes across as odd when compared to the country’s otherwise rowdy reputation. Davao is run, instead, by a governance style that seems unsettlingly apt for uncharted frontier filled with rebels, a description that much of Mindanao fits into. This strict rule of law and its efficacy in created security has earned the city the title of the “Singapore of the Philippines.” Even for a parachuting outsider, the Singapore comparison wasn’t hard to reconcile. It is illegal to smoke in public; the downtown speed limit is 30 kilometers per hour; and homicides, in a resolute aberration from other major Philippine cities, have been in steady incremental decline for many years.

The transformation of the city into a citadel of control in a disorderly archipelago is largely due to one man, who is paradoxically both feared and respected. In his campaigns to purge Davao of criminals, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte instigated the ire of the UN and global human rights groups, which accuse the strongman politician of condoning – or perhaps even funding – a group of vignettes to round up and kill suspected murderers, rapists drug users and drug dealers.

This silent but swift hand of the law became known in the media as the “Davao Death Squad,” and the shadowy group’s affinity for extrajudicial justice is perhaps the most significant force behind the blanket cleanup of the city. The tactic has been, disheartening as it is to admit, as successful as it is abhorrent, and the foremost legacy of Duterte’s 20-year run in Mindanao politics.

The leather-skinned, motor-cycling riding mayor of strikes up the image of a Marvel comics anti-hero – TIME magazine once labeled him “the Punisher.” But this is merely a one-dimensional attempt to caricature the man. At his most controversial, Duterte could be considered the Donald Trump of the Philippines. He recently said to media that he should not run for president because by the end of his six-year term he’d be tried for genocide.

“You commit robbery and rape your victim? I will kill you,” is his motto.

And at his most effective, he can’t help but to be cringingly controversial. Today, Davao is ranked the fourth safest city in the world by crowdsourced survey site Numbeo, up from the ninth spot on that list last year. Duterte attributes the consistent praise from such lists to his no-nonsense law enforcement. “The best practices in the city,” he once told former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, “are the killings (of criminals).”

Western governments “want to rehabilitate,” he says, “instead of just killing the idiots.”

Trikes waiting for fares in Davao
Trikes waiting for fares in Davao

A refreshing different capital

My in-flight medical professional friend’s in-flight magazine cover story featured Davao titled Southern Comfort. Much of the draconian practices that Duterte has risen to fame for are written at the top of the story, as well as the some of the more sensual superlatives of the city’s landscape and people, save for one: the politeness of the taxi drivers.

Wondering whether or not the story would check out, I exited from the Francisco B. Reyes Airport to pick up a taxi of my own. Outside the squat terminal – really more of a glorified kiosk – an unusual scene for the Philippines greets travelers: There is a well-maintained walkway and an orderly line of taxis; no one is touting fares. I entered one of the taxis second in line while a white man simultaneously entered the one in the front. “Take me to the Bagobo Guesthouse,” I said. “Is that far?”

“No, sir,” the cabbie responded, putting the car into drive and pulling out to the airport exit, where an armed guard wearing a standard assault rifle slung across his shoulder asked for my name and nationality.

“Is that normal?” I asked the cabbie as we drove away and towards downtown. “Yes, its for foreigners and locals. They want to count the people.”

It would be the last time it’d see a gun in Davao, hold for the portside area, where fresh-faced military soldiers aimlessly patrol the bay. That was one of the most astonishing differences of Davao – whereas Philippine cities are defined by gun-toting guards wearing everything from pistols to shotguns to automatic rifles, the sight of guns is rare here. Malls, banks and Jollibees have guards, yes, but they aren’t carrying anything more than batons. Whereas the presence of armed guards in Manila is said to install a sense of security for visitors, I couldn’t help but sense just the opposite – it was only here in Davao, where the conspicuous show of guns was a rarity, that I felt safer than anywhere else I’ve been in the country.

We drove further into the steady traffic of the Davao night, passing by a crush of fruit vendors as we snaked up short hills. Bananas, durians and pomelos – the latter stacked into neat pyramids in front of wood-plank stands – are set out like natural mileposts across the entrance to the city. The fruits are categorically grouped together; eight or so stands to each type, to one side of the road. Durian vendors dominate. And women manage all of the stalls.

Mindanao means more to the national economy than armed insurgencies. The island is responsible for about 14 per cent of the country’s GDP, mostly in agriculture, providing eight out of ten of the country’s agri-commodity exports. This is the Philippines’ rice bowl. A rarely touted perk to visiting Davao is that the fruit is nowhere as fresh or sumptuous as they are here.

I found it comforting to think, especially after a day of travel, that I had landed in a fruit-laden tropical outpost – secure, if remote. The cab meter steadily counted my fare while we made way across the city to my hotel, where I paid just over 300 pesos and called it a night.

Identifying an identity

The next morning I followed my stomach straight to the famous Luz’s Place restaurant, located southeast of one of Chinatown’s main strips. When I arrived, two women were sternly working rotisseries of chickens on iron spits over a charcoal barbeque, their faces as intense as the sun’s heat. I wasn’t here for roast chicken, however. Luz’s Place became a Davao landmark for its kinilaw, a plate of raw fishe cured in lime and topped with onions equally as drenched in the citrus juices. The dish served at Luz’s Place is nothing like kinilaw found elsewhere in the Philippines. Instead, the raw tuna that came accompanied by a delightfully sour soup was closer to fresh sashimi than the ceviche dish of similar taste and texture originating from Latin America, as so many things do in the Philippines.

After a final swig of my San Miguel Pilsen, I sauntered off back into the heat, lost and looking for directions to a park next to the city’s central Santa Ana Wharf. Trikes are a cheap way to get around if you are traveling only small distances. So when I spotted a row of ready riders catching respite underneath umbrellas, I called out to one.

“I want to go to Magsaysay Park. Will you take me?” I asked the young driver.

I received not words, but a wry glance in response that meant to say, “Come again?” English, unlike in Manila, is not widely spoken in Davao. Few foreigners venture to this isolated extremity of the country, offering little opportunity to polish the business language preferred by educated Luzoneros. The Dabawenyos, instead, have formed a colloquial tongue made an amalgamation of Tagalog and Bisaya (the native tongue of Cebu, the second largest city).

Cutting to the chase, he opted for the direct approach. “Veinte pesos?”

In Bisaya, numerals are the same as in Spanish, making this particular request of 20 pesos easily understandable for myself. Fifty cents, I thought – OK, no problem there. I hoped in, and we peddled off.

The trike driver pulled out into light traffic and biked us down a block lined with small shops. Then, almost as promptly as we had begun, the trike arrived at my destination. The 20-peso fee, or just over fifty US cents, had gotten me one street block. He entered the park without me asking and slipped into the shadows of the trees before letting me off.

Ramon Magsaysay Park is a nook of a public square, not much larger than a football field and a half in length. The stretch of grassy patches and sidewalks are bordered to the east by the Gulf of Davao, looking outwards to hulking barges and stapled-together pile dwellings. There is an al fresco, roofless church with a stone tablet in front, announcing the 10 commandants in English on one side, and Tagalog on the other.

At the northern edge, a neglected poured cement obelisk dedicated to former President Magsaysay stands cracked and forlorn; it seems to crumble with purpose. Mindanao has never contributed a president to Malacanang Palace, the equivalaent of the Philippines’ White House, and many Dabawenyos consider Luzon to be an imperialist power. Magsaysay could be included in this enmity – the former president was born in Zambales, another Luzonero imposing himself on the south.

The irony of the monument doesn’t seem to impact the park goers, however. Today, it casts a anodyne shadow like a sundial perfectly positioned to chiming in high noon, which is more important than politics. I notice a pair of older men sitting on a concrete bench in the shade not far from where my trike dropped me off. And just across the monument’s small circle walkway, a skateboarder finds his own form of respite, dozing on raised pavement, a baseball cap covering his head with his board kicked up against the curb. As I walk towards the monument, a couple holding hands giggles – either at me or some surreptitious joke shared between the two. I never find out.

Magsaysay Park is one of a handful of places in Davao that exhibit such a show of community outside of what has become the modern public square – air-conditioned shopping malls, or air-conditioned churches.. It’s just a quick walk away from Chinatown, with its hustle, cell phone stands, full street-block-length of durian vendors and home goods. It’s a district that has everything you would need if you were a Dabawenyo, and nothing more.

A prominent criticism of Davao, reported by the in-flight magazine story, is that the city, in its zeal to overcome crime and install civility, has alloyed its culture. I found this particular critique true but unfair. It’s a condition of many Filipino cities to lack charisma or identity, not just Davao. Yes, the industrial warehouses, goat-wandering alleys and sidewalk-absent streets of the downtown aren’t perfect for postcards, but the city is not entirely devoid of charm – especially if you don’t mind sharing paths with the occasional meandering farm animal.

Just around the corner from the Bagabo Hotel, People’s Park sets an example of how Davao isn’t necessarily strangled by a black and white interpretation of the law. Here, in front of the park’s low iron fencing, street hawkers sell pearls, wire statues and gems of dubious origin, directly within view of a sign instructing them specifically not to. I overlooked as some Filipino tourists listened to a sales pitch – in English – from one of the hawkers, both parties paying more attention to the art than the law. It’s probably the kind of bold business Duterte would approve of. And, I thought, at least they aren’t hawking in front of the city’s only other downtown park, the Davao Mental Hospital Park, located just up the road past the iconic Marco Polo Hotel.

As the sun began to close light on the day, I headed up to Jack’s Ridge, where restaurants and family KTV halls have long replaced the soldiers that once camped here. The ridge was the site of a watchtower and a largely forgotten battle 70 years ago. At the end of World War II, US forces landed in Davao and pressed up to the ridge, pushing back the Japanese and capturing the city’s strategically invaluable overlook. Today, before taking in the final view of the Gulf the Japanese saw before fleeing downhill northwards, visitors can also dip their heads into preserved underground tunnels dug by the Japanese, as well as other relics of a battle that is largely unmentioned in history books, as remote in the annals of war as the city is to the rest of the world.

Dayang beach at Babu Santa, with Mt Apo looming in the distance
Dayang beach at Babu Santa, with Mt Apo looming in the distance

A Muslim girl

She set up her rented tent on the beach just beneath the canopy of the coconut tree line. The rental service didn’t come with a pillow – soft and powdery sand like this would do, especially for Mary. On the western side of Talikud Island, opposite of Isla Reta’s white sand beach, you can see Mary’s hometown of Santa Cruz, cloaked in a tropical haze at the base of the Philppines’ tallest peak, Mount Apo. This was her backyard, and she has spent many nights before, sometimes with family, playing in the turquoise waters that lapped upon Isla Reta’s postcard-perfect beach. Across a narrow body of water too small for a name are verdant hills, part of southern Samal Island. The two islands are grouped together by a political stroke of the pen, jointly classified as the Island Garden City of Samal, Davao’s mainstay tourist attraction.

I had to see it. And not only because the Philippines is a purist traveler’s collection of natural paradises; there also is an undeniable link between people and the beach, every city across the archipelago never quite far from a envy-evoking weekend retreat. I first saw Mary just after I checked in. It was a Saturday and all of the three private cabins, set far back behind the tree line, were full. Instead, I booked myself a room with three beds in a long and stilted bamboo cabin – it was the only space available, hold for the tent. A ladder made of drift wood lead up to the stilted room, and there was no fan; the bathroom a shared affair located just past a patch of hens pecking at parched grass. Mary was sitting at the common area that also served as the check-in counter, waiting on an order of pancit canton. She had high cheekbones and was wearing a rainbow-splashed sarong around her waist with a floral bikini top, the only one on the beach that day. Davao women, like many from the provinces, dress conservatively. Here on the Island Garden City of Samal, Mary stuck out.

The Philippine version of the popular singing show The Voice played out from a TV cradled from the ceiling in the wooden box. Mary turned her head back to watch, facing me and casting a defining tone on her wide nose, now pronounced in glow of the long florescent light bulbs above. Perhaps it was her poise – coming from her reassuring familiarity in this place – or maybe the fact that she was traveling alone, and that a fellow solo traveler from Manila that she just met had just walked off to her beach-drawn tent, but she was confident to start up a conversation, and we began sharing the fried noodles and an over-priced plate of kinilaw.

Or maybe she just fancied me. Mary bought a bottle of cheap red wine – some local brand that was dry and strong, the Red Horse of merlots. We began to trade stories: Her father was Muslim, she said, and brought her up strictly. She was the oldest of three children, and always felt that she was fighting a Sisyphean battle to win her father’s acceptance but always fell short compared to her two younger and infallible brothers. Her mother was, like the majority of the Philippines, a Catholic, and the two parent’s interpretation of how to raise their daughter created deep domestic fault lines. Mary ran away from home at the age of 19.

Mindanao is the source of the Philippines Muslim population, specifically the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The group of west-lying provinces and islands are also the source of insurgent movements against the Manila government and all the tragedies associated with the country’s long-running civil wars. Maguindanao, a province here, was the site of the deadliest massacre of journalists in the world, most of them Filipino. Last year the Aquino administration made history by signing a landmark peace accord with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the closest that Mindanao has ever come to greatly reducing or stopping conflict. The deal remains unstable. A botched raid in Mamasapanao, part of the ARMM, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Philippine Special Forces has become an unfortunate testament to just how unsecure the region remains, and the flimsiness of diplomacy.

Such a political and historical narrative doesn’t deliver a happy scenario for the integration of Muslim Filipinos, but that isn’t the reality in Davao. Duterte’s unique approach – threaten violent lawbreakers with swift and severe punishment – has had a lot to do with the level of civility between sects here. It’s an anomaly that further separates Davao from the rest of the country. The city is both secure and religiously tolerant, at least superficially. Plywood signs advertising halal standards are common. Luz’s Place serves halal dishes, in fact. Colleges are exemplary of this tolerance in diversity: Just across from Davao’s Santa Ana Parish (notable for its powerful air-conditioning system, my taxi driver tells me), I saw a group of South Asians, presumably Indians, walking into San Pedro College. Men wearing knitted skullcaps and long white robes walk about in Chinatown, and just after I was finished with my citrus-soaked kinilaw, I saw a group of three women wearing hijab ascend to the second floor of Luz’s Place where there is an air-conditioned room – and less men.

In Davao, Muslims and Catholics mix, but not in balanced quantities. About one out of four people are Muslim in Mindanao, and most of the population lives in the ARMM. Muslims in Davao are a clear minority and it was hard to truly discern just how tolerant these communities would be towards each other if Durtere wasn’t in power.

Mary tacitly acknowledged this troubling societal rift in her own story. By the time we finished the dark wine, she had revealed very little about why she was back in Davao, so close to the family she had ran away from. I drained the last cup of wine into my mouth and went into the gulf, where we swam underneath an unimpeded view of the stars and shared a first kiss.

The next morning we prepared to leave Isla Reta and its solely owned hotel service for the northwestern point of Talikud, Babu Santa. This trip would require us to traverse steep hills and remote farm villages by habal-habal, the Mindanao version of a motorcycle taxi. The habal-habal drivers on Talikud, however, weren’t of the extraordinary variety popular elsewhere in Mindanao. In an apparent hope to economize their service, it is typical for habal-habal drivers in Mindanao to fit their bikes with planks on each side, allowing the driver to carry over six people at a time. The inexplicable strength and dexterity necessary to balance a motorcycle overloaded with passengers is beyond me. I was, I must say, glad when the bikes waiting at the wharf were not fitted with any additional “seating.”

Sixty pesos is all the 30-minute trip by motorcycle would cost us. Our driver had on a red baseball hat and a light wind jacket. He was an islander, for sure; sunburnt to the point where at first glance his complexion made his origins hard to guess. “General Santos,” he said, “the same city as Manny Pacquiao.”

Providing transport for tourists on Talikud paid for his family, who were still in General Santos. I didn’t bother negotiating and, after squeezing on the motorcycle behind him, Mary sitting in-between us, we took off up a cement path. When the bike passed the crest of the hill, we drove onto a plateau of villages. We bounced along the dirt path and the driver showcased his habal-habal credentials by dodging between potholes and listless cattle wandering the path. Thick jungle would occasionally give way to vast banana plantations, their tenders toiling away amid the intense sun. We hummed past a mechanic shop with a sign offering a “vulcanize tire” service – a common service across the Philippines. Many tires here absorb the brunt of brutally paved roads, and vulcanizing rubber tires helps to increase their resiliency. I hoped, looking out at the mechanic fade behind us, that our habal-habal driver had taken similar precautions.

Along the pass, an abrupt drop appeared – a steep slope of small but exposed boulders checkered the path on its curved descendent. I blurted out, “Are you sure we can drive down here? How often do you do this?”

O, po – Yes, sir, this is good. I drive through here six times a day,” he said as he began to skip the bike down the slope. Halfway down, the gradient became so steep that the driver, in what appeared more instinct than improvisation, kicked out his legs, holding up the weight of the bike, with us on back. Mary and I held to each other gasping in excited fear. But the driver didn’t flinch. He steadily walked the bike down the slope, almost slipped once, rocking us out of our frozen daze and reminding me that this danger was all too real.

The next slip was intentional. With a sudden burst of engine, he lifted up his legs and we rolled into drive, gravity propelling us down the rest of that terrible hill and launching us, almost immediately, out on to the beach of Babu Santa. Just ahead of us across the gulf was Davao City, which, from this vista, was more like an overgrown town – the Marco Polo Hotel is the only noticeable feature in the skyline. To the south of the island, Mary pointed out, was her hometown of Santa Cruz, and just above the translucent waters of the bay, Mount Apo climbed into the mist. I was so happy to have survived the trip and place my feet in the sand that I paid the driver twice the original rate, and asked him to pick us both up tomorrow, around the same time. We checked into a 700-peso room at the Dayang Beach Resort, this time with a fan. There were no other guests there that day.

From the stilted porch in front of the bungalow, Mary could see the town that she grew up in. She hadn’t been there in over five years. “My father wants me marry a man, but I don’t want to. He is Muslim. I have known him since I was in high school and he seems nice but I am too independent. My father will get payment for the marriage and thinks I am disrespectful for saying no,” she told me. “Because I refused to follow his rules, he kicked me out of the house. If I go back, my father will force me into marriage,” she continued, now with a wistful pang in her voice. “I miss my brothers and my mothers. I wish I could see them again.”

Mary had kept in touch wither family through email and the Internet over the years. After she moved out, a single 19-year-old girl on her own, she didn’t get in touch with them for several years. It wasn’t until she found a job as a call center agent through an ad in a Davao paper that she decided to reconnect, this time from her new office in Cebu. Email, text and Facebook messages became more frequent, but, no matter how much her mother implored, her father continued to firmly stand his line: If Mary ever returned, she would be married off on the spot, and the dowry – a handful of goats and cattle, a few buckets of rice and a partnership for growing pomelo –would be completed.

A new email came later that night, this time conjuring up a much different emotion in her. She shot right up in bed, looking at me with the glimmering eyes of a lottery winner. “I got the promotion I have been waiting for. I will be moving to Manila. They will keep me on the same account for a US telecommunication company, working in data analysis.” Her outsourcing company was hired by T-Mobile, the US’s third largest telecom servicer.

Mary wouldn’t be seeing her family on this trip back to Davao. Though her family knew she was in town and that her career was now rapidly progressing, an obstinate persistence remained the norm and she planned to continue forward, traveling back to Cebu tomorrow to pack up her bags for the next leg of her solo journey.

The following afternoon after we docked back at Santa Ana Wharf in Davao we rode in a taxi together, still reeling from our return trip on the habal-habal, but, this time, glad we unequivocal decided to walk up that steep. The in-flight medical professional friend had offered to introduce me to locals, but I had found a friend without her help. After the taxi dropped Mary off at a friend’s house in the suburbs of northern Davao City, the car sped away heading for the airport. It was the last time I saw her. Although the taxi ride out of Davao was quick and simple, a final glance at this comfortable complacent town, I couldn’t help but feel how the mundane could be so magical.

See the published article here. 

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