DAVAO CITY — Probably because of the warm welcome thrown by my relatives when I was a 19-year-old medical student, I’ve always felt at home in Davao. In that memorable trip, I climbed Mount Apo for the first time, acquired a taste for durian, and, using my Tita Maricar’s family house in Matina as base, explored the country’s largest city on foot and by jeepney.
I have since come back many times, mostly for hiking trips and occasionally for work. This time my main destination was Cotabato province and its new museum (I will write about this in a separate column), but I couldn’t resist spending a night in Davao, catching up with friends, and revisiting some of my favorite restaurants.
The Davao of today, of course, is very different from the Davao of 2005 when I first visited; the airport is much busier; the growing range of destinations now include Siargao and Singapore. The economic landscape has dramatically changed, with call centers, condos, and malls that essentially mirror their Cebu and Manila counterparts. On the lighter side, interest in local products, from durian ice cream to dark chocolate, is at an all-time high.
Success, however, can breed its own problems — and mask old ones. Malls are hardly a measure of inclusive growth, and dealing with the urban poor remains a challenge, as Mayor Sara Duterte — who famously punched a sheriff for demolishing shanties — knows. Traffic in J.P. Laurel is starting to evoke Edsa — which is why people are hoping that the planned railways and bypass roads will come to fruition. Hopefully, there would be walkways and bike lanes too.
Still, the Davaoeños I meet are upbeat about their city, and are proud of its role as the hometown of the President; the place where he loves to hold court. “Most importantly, we feel safe here,” a taxi driver told me, echoing the sentiments of many residents for whom security has always been a major concern.
Inevitably, the conversations turn to politics. “You’re critical of Digong,” one of my friends says with a tentativeness that acknowledges the sensitivity of the topic.
“My loyalty is to principles, not personalities,” I try to explain, reminding him that I was actually open to the President at the beginning of his term—and supportive of his initial environment and peace initiatives. “I’ve always wanted a president from Mindanao,” I add, “if only to make the people here feel included in the national discourse.”
But I challenge him: How can you justify the submission to China, the embrace of Marcos, and the violence of the drug war? Can you really approve of the President’s foul language? And can you really support the evidently unqualified appointees in government?
On some of these issues, my interlocutors are willing to concede shortcomings on the part of the President — but many are defensive: “It’s not him, but the people around him.” Others defend the drug war: “Here in Davao, if you’re a pusher, they will warn you first, give you three months’ notice. Only when you’re really stubborn will you be dealt with.” In the context of Mindanao where even today, many societies demand swift retribution, perhaps some find the idea of extrajudicial killings not just tolerable but preferable to a corrupt and sluggish justice system.
Thankfully, politics is just one of our many topics. The mountaineers, for instance, are worried about the state and mismanagement of the mountains, while the doctors are alarmed over the rising HIV cases, but are proud of their hospitals and overall quality of healthcare. “There’s really no need to go to Manila,” they say, and having seen the excellent Southern Philippines Medical Center for myself, I heartily agree.
I left Davao happy to have revisited one of my favorite cities, amazed at the rapid pace of development—and somewhat perplexed about the disjuncture between political world views, uncertain where it will lead us.
But as I caught one last sight of majestic Apo; as I carried the pasalubong of dark chocolate my friends insisted I bring along, there’s at least one thing I can say with certainty — and some measure of relief:
There’s more to Davao than Mr. Duterte — just as there is more to our nation than our politics.
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