At first glance, the street outside the dim sum restaurant looks like one in downtown Manila. Roadside vendors line the sidewalks, college students stroll along, and all the trappings of development are apparent. Inside, the restaurant’s staff roams around in a hurried pace, a steady drone of chatter fills the air, and all the trappings of a Binondo diner are apparent.
But linger a little bit longer and the differences set in; it’s a lot less hectic than the Philippine capital, the odorous durian assaults your nose, and the language is Bisaya, one I’m a bit familiar with but cannot fluently speak.
I’m actually in Davao City, the economic and cultural hub of the Mindanao Island, as well as the country’s largest city in terms of area. It was in 1994 when I first came here with my parents and siblings. We passed through the city, first, on our way to neighboring South Cotabato, where my dad was born and raised; and, second, on our trip back to Manila by bus. Back then, my parents were physically capable of long road trips and that particular one held a place in my mind. I was nine, in fourth grade, and we had just learned about the administrative regions of the Philippines, and there I was, seeing first-hand a handful of provinces I had just memorized from a textbook a few months before.
But, except for a very brief stopover in 2006, I’ve never been back. I really don’t remember much about Davao City and I’ve been curious since. So when I was asked if I could fly to the city on a whim to interview someone whom I’d be writing about, I never hesitated.
Tummy grumbles fixed, I step out of the restaurant with Nito Fabian, the president of Christian College of Southeast Asia, and the middleman of the interview I’ve been doing for the past two days. We duck into a taxi and navigate the Thursday afternoon traffic. I’m on my way to People’s Park, and Mr. Fabian is headed back to the school.
“That’s it, stop there,” Mr. Fabian tells the driver, then turns to me. “You can manage your way from here?”
“Sure, I’ll just ask around if I get lost.”
“This is the Philippines. You won’t get lost.”
I step out of the cab and make my way to the park gates. The guards motion for me to open my backpack and they start looking at its contents and frisking me. Security has been tight in Davao City, especially after a spate of bombings in other parts of Mindanao the past few days. But although the blasts, attributed to breakaway Muslim groups, have threatened to cancel this year’s Kadayawan Festival – Davao City’s biggest annual event – there’s still a palpable excitement among the city residents.
The People’s Park, a public space of trees and lawns peppered with sculptures by Kublai Millan, is playing host to pre-fiesta activities. A group of photographers are taking pictures of beauty pageant contestants.
I stay for around an hour before I move on to Museo Dabawenyo a few kilometers southwest of the park. Occupying what was once the Court of First Instance, the Museo is the smaller of the two city museums and its compact structure and layout means you can navigate the whole building in less than an hour. It would take much longer, though, reading the texts of the exhibits to fully understand the complex social fabric of not just the city, but the whole region as well.
The city today is a multicultural hodgepodge reflecting the various assimilations that have occurred throughout its history. Before the Spanish conquest, the place where Davao City now stands was the home of various Lumad (native) peoples, whom were dependent on the region’s fertile grounds. By Philippine standards, Mindanao was late to be colonized, with the Moros of the island largely successful in driving out Spanish invaders. Only in the early to the mid-19th century were the Spaniards able to make major headways into the island, and the conversion of the natives immediately began, including the forcible assimilation by the Spanish government to help pacify the locals. By the time the Americans took over the Philippines, Davao’s economy has grown significantly and has attracted more people from all over the country. The Japanese have a hand in the makeup of the city’s demographics, as well; positively, through the abaca plantations they set up in the region, and negatively, through the horrors they created during World War II.
Evening begins to roll around as I head north of the city center to the two newest malls in town, the Abreeza by the Ayala group and the SM Lanang Premier. I ride a taxi past the rush hour traffic (which, it must be said, is much tamer than Manila’s), past Victoria Plaza (one of Davao’s earliest malls and which I remember going to back in 1994), and past more modern establishments. I spend about two hours wandering around the malls’ shops and restaurants.
For dinner, I meet with my dad and two of his female colleagues, one of whom suggested I look into enrolling in the Philippine Center for Creative Imaging, where his son took some courses and is now an in-demand photographer. As for the meal itself, we sit in a restaurant in SM City Davao and have grilled tuna and sinigang.
Early the next morning, I have breakfast at a McDonald’s with my dad. It’s the Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and President Noynoy Aquino earlier had declared this day a non-working holiday. The streets seem to have grown sedated and much of the stores are closed.
When we’re done, I bid my dad goodbye as he prepares to leave for Manila. I, on the other hand, will remain for several more hours. I want to explore more of the city but with a limited time, I have to carefully plan my itinerary. I choose to go to the Philippine Eagle Research and Nature Center in Calinan, about 45 minutes from Davao City.
The center houses a few of the critically endangered birds, as well as some other native species. Obet, a volunteer guide, leads a handful of visitors around the park, regularly dispensing bits of information. “Did you know that male Philippine eagles have a sexy body, while the females have bulky ones? Did you know that Philippine eagles are monogamous and will stay faithful to one partner for the rest of their lives?”
Back in the city in the afternoon, I return to the People’s Park, where students from schools across the city are participating in a public event that gathers local media and local personalities. Teenagers dressed in traditional costume sway to the pounding of drums and the sounds of the kulintang, pretending to swim like the Badjaos of Sulu and imitating the waves of the ocean. There’s a sense of tension as the schools prepare for a dance competition later in the day.
The sun has started to dip as I make my way back to SM Lanang for dinner before returning to the airport. The mall resembles Mall of Asia – big and wide with all the modern amenities you can ask for, including an IMAX cinema. The mall’s façade, outlined with lights, is a stark contrast to the vacant lots around the building. Inside, modern pop songs fill the air. Teens are walking around with their tablets.
The only reminder that I’m not in Manila is the smell of durian from a table nearby where a large family is eating. I don’t like the smell, but it’s fine. I’m just relishing the fact that, after almost two decades, I’m back.