Davao: city of superlatives

Here’s what you learn when you go to Davao just to admire eagles.

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Photo of the Commemorative Monument of Peace and Unity, a sculpture in front of San Pedro Cathedral in downtown Davao City.

The much-touted piece of trivia that Davao City is the largest city in the country always had me imagining an urban jungle whose sprawl surpasses that of Metro Manila. That idea excited me, in a dubious capacity as a ‘city explorer’, but at the same time it worried my conscience, because the congestion of Manila is terrible for a myriad reasons, none of which would be pleasing to see replicated somewhere else in our archipelago.

It was both a delight and a disappointment then to realize that the nominal vastness of Davao is nothing like that of Manila’s. Delight because, as a tour guide in Museo Dabawenyo dutifully pointed out, more than eighty percent of Davao City’s territory is in fact rural—sparsely populated, fresh, green. And the city government intends to keep most of it that way; there were mentions of development plans and city ordinances intended to limit urbanization (or, euphemistically, ‘development’) of the city’s greener districts. Coming from Manila, it’s certainly refreshing to find a major city government in the country caring, or at least affecting a concern for, nature. (Only time will tell if Davao will stay pro-environment, or be tempted by unsustainable prosperity.)

On the other hand, the actual size of urban Davao means that there isn’t as much for me to see around in the way of man-made environments, i.e. city architecture. Downtown Davao, the blocks surrounding the city hall, is a blend of the weariness of Manila’s Quiapo and the sleepiness of my hometown, Malabon. Davao City’s growth so far has definitely been horizontal rather than vertical—Marco Polo Hotel is the only visibly high-rise structure in the downtown area, and serves suitably as a compass if you feel like wandering around.

Photo of old buildings located along San Pedro St. in downtown Davao City.
Buildings along San Pedro St. in downtown Davao City.

As to why the city’s official boundaries remain so expansive is still unknown to me. The size is absurd when compared to the neighboring territories: Davao City is larger than the rest of the province of Davao del Sur combined. Wouldn’t it be somehow more efficient and effective for governance if the territory were to be chopped up into several cities and municipalities? I can’t be sure, I’m not some public policy expert. I’m guessing that local legislators and executives want to retain the ‘largest city’ title for the vague pride and prestige of a superlative. Competing for the largest, biggest, longest whatever, no matter how Guinness World Records-silly it becomes, is a Filipino hobby after all.

Pithecophaga jefferyi

The itinerary for my first-ever visit to Davao City with some friends, last November, consisted of pretty much nothing. We were too cool for a competitive, touristy trip anyway, though my childhood fascination with birds of prey surfaced as an insistence to visit the Philippine Eagle Center. My companions’ non-interest meant I had to take an afternoon alone to the conservation center, far away in Barangay Malagos.

This detour from an otherwise adventure-allergic weekend in the city was where I got a feel for the vastness of Davao City. To get to the Eagle Center, I took a bus from Annil Terminal in downtown Davao to Calinan District. It was a forty-minute trip through a highway cutting through definitely-rural scenery. From Calinan, which looks like a town of its own, unconcerned with downtown Davao City, I piggybacked on a motorcycle up to the Malagos Watershed park where the Center resides. I would later look at a map and find that the distance from downtown Davao to Malagos is only one-third of the distance across the city’s official land area. Certainly a huge place, it is.

View of the rural landscape on the highway from downtown Davao City to Calinan district.
On the highway to Calinan.

(The location of the Philippine Eagle Center, in a watershed park on the foothills of Mt. Apo, corroborates the environmentally-friendly and ecologically-aware theme of Davao City. Davaoeños, in protecting these watersheds and the other rural regions of the city from urbanization, understand that these are the sources of life for the city, and that keeping them pristine is in their best interests.)

I don’t recall having seen a Philippine eagle in person before, despite my admiration for the national bird, so the time and adventure it took to get there and back was worth it. My anticipation reached its peak at the entrance to the conservation center, where all guests are made to sanitize their hands and have the bottoms of their footwear dipped on a shallow pool of what I assumed was disinfectant. Surely the eagles are in great, careful hands if this much trouble is taken to protect them from dirty tourists. (As to how they are protected from airborne germs and the visitors’ unsanitized body parts or belongings is another matter, but the gesture is appreciated.)

Photo of dense vegetation in the Philippine Eagle Center, Davao City.
The lush Philippine Eagle Center flora.

The Philippine eagle is truly majestic. No amount of eagle-watching online can substitute for seeing the huge bird directly with one’s own eyeballs. Out of the many eagles visible to the public in the Center, I took much time particularly watching the eagles named Mindanao and Fighter. These eagles, standing proud with their ruffled crests and sleek brown-and-white plumage, measure an impressive meter in length. But wait until you see one spreading its wings: its wingspan and surface area is the largest of any existing bird in the world, a factoid you wouldn’t have to doubt after witnessing the eagle’s sheer, commanding presence as it poses for flight.

Incidentally, it was after I saw Mindanao spread his wings that I noticed a part of the eagle I hadn’t noted in pictures before: its freakishly huge, powerful legs. The bird’s length is impressive, its wingspan even more so, but its legs? Compared to other birds I’ve seen it looks out of proportion, though it figures, because the other birds I’ve seen do not eat monkeys. The other birds do not have to seize feisty macaques with nature’s most lethal talons. (In hindsight, the slight fright I felt while watching these eagles is a reminder that birds are descendants of dinosaurs, as the scientific consensus goes.)

Photo of ‘Mindanao’, a Philippine eagle.
The Philippine eagle named Mindanao.

If there is anything unimpressive or disappointing with my visit to the Philippine Eagle Center, it is the fact that I had to see them in captivity in the Center at all. I watched Mindanao and Fighter in particular because they were the only two eagles in the Center, at the time, who were not obscured behind cage bars. (Though they still had a leg each tied to some post; they’d fly away otherwise, of course). The Philippine eagle is a critically endangered species, and the lesson that impressed me the most from reading the various info-boards in the Center is how this eagle is a strong symbol of the state of Philippine forests. As an apex predator, a predator that is itself prey to no other species, a loft-dweller in the local food chain—each eagle represents the health of a vast parcel of forest. That the eagles’ population is dwindling only proves the deterioration and destruction of the forests they live in.

The conservation of Philippine eagles via captive breeding is only a last-resort solution. It is tricky business, because breeding eagles in captivity is problematic—how do we ensure that they are fit for release into the forests? We’re not even talking about the tragedy of eagles out in the wild being killed, rather senselessly, by humans. To truly save the eagles, the only right approach is a holistic approach. Conserve the forests first, and only then can we conserve the eagle. To save the eagle is therefore shorthand for protecting the environment in general.

Photo of ‘Fighter’, a Philippine eagle.
The Philippine eagle named Fighter.

This, and that the eagles are simply beautiful on their own—if I were filthy rich, there’s no debate on where a lot of my charity money would go.

Super mountain, super moon

To the west of Davao City lies the tallest mountain of the country: Mt. Apo. Given the risk-averse nature of our November trip, getting up close to the mountain was a non-starter, so it just sat there, a massive feature of the western skyline. The closest glimpse I had of it was on the bus trip to Calinan.

In the short weekend we spent at Davao, whatever illusions I maintained of finding a vastly different culture in the city were demolished after we visited place after place that all felt too familiar. On Sunday afternoon, after I successfully navigated my way back downtown after my Eagle Center mission, I rendezvoused with my trip-mate, who in turn was meeting up with a Davaoeña acquaintance. This acquaintance turned out to be a recent graduate of a Manila university (like us); the shared background meant we easily understood each other and had an easy conversation. Nothing vastly different there. She brought us to a newly-inaugurated, charming little bistro named Lara Mia, serving sweet desserts in suburban Matina district. It was an establishment that would fit in perfectly in Maginhawa St. in Quezon City, or in BF Homes in Parañaque.

Night-time view looking outside from Stre3ts Urban Lifestyle Pub.
View from Stre3ts Urban Lifestyle Pub.

Later my trip-mate and I found ourselves enjoying a beer at a rather hip tavern called Stre3ts. My bottle of choice was Kalinga Kölsch, a crisp craft beer by Crazy Carabao Brewing Company, a product proudly Filipino but certainly not Davao-exclusive. Definitely not a local flavor. Still later, we stumbled onto Balik Bukid, a restaurant on Quimpo Boulevard specializing in organic, farm-fresh produce. The fascination for the organic is clearly an urban thing, something you can find in any city, again nothing vastly different. Finally, on the fine, sunny afternoon of the next day, hours before our flight home, you would have seen me and my two companions appreciating the products in FROG Kaffee on Torres St., a third-wave coffee shop. (Before you begin imagining a café adorned with slimy amphibians, ‘FROG Kaffee’ apparently is an abbreviation for ‘Fresh Roast of Great Kaffee’, the last word being the German form of the word coffee.) If you listened intently to us, you would have heard silly political chit-chat by Manileños talking about the injustice of Manila-centric imperialism.

Photo of the afternoon-lit interior of FROG Kaffee in Davao City.
An afternoon in FROG Kaffee.

These experiences overwhelmingly support the conclusion that this, Davao, is just another Filipino city, all right, distance from Manila notwithstanding. Nevertheless, if you looked closely enough, there are hints here and there of tiny but meaningful differences. At the airport, the canned landing greeting by the airline includes a gentle but firm reminder that, unlike in the undisciplined, careless cities where you, the passenger, came from, there is an anti-smoking ordinance in Davao City that is actually, strictly enforced. (I may have paraphrased that a bit.)

It was also a delight that Museo Dabawenyo, unlike the poorly-maintained, under-appreciated local government museums in a great many other places, radiates a sense that the politicians here have a genuine care for local heritage. The museum is air-conditioned, neat, free-admission and, most remarkably, is served by dedicated tour guides. This, while many other Philippine city museums would just leave you wandering around the exhibits on your own.

It is from this museum where I finally found the means to see Davao differently. Isn’t that the power of history, the power to enrich a place’s identity? What had seemed to me so far to be a city indistinct from my own hometown was now supplanted by an imagined historical city: one that was formed on the final frontiers of Spanish colonization in the archipelago, one that was, unlike most of Luzon and Visayas, un-Hispanized until only the last half-century of Spanish rule, a city that in the last century or so was a destination for mass Tagalog migrations. This last lesson satisfied my long-standing question as to how Davaoeños became as comfortable with the Tagalog language as they are with Bisaya/Cebuano. Isn’t that great (and nerdy), to have historical facts addressing personal curiosities?

Satisfied, I left the city with images of superlatives in my mind: the widest land, the largest eagle, the tallest mountain. But then nature conspired to add another hyperbolic element to my trip: on the night of our flight home, there was a supermoon. I peered through the round window of the Airbus, and saw the luminous orb among the stars, showering its radiance on a sea of clouds. Somewhere beyond, the peaks of Mt. Apo rose through the clouds, an illuminated island on an otherworldly ocean, beckoning me to return someday.

Grainy image of clouds, taken from an airborne plane, illuminated by the moon.
Supermoon-illuminated clouds.

The featured image is of the Commemorative Monument of Peace and Unity, which can be found in downtown Davao City.

All photos in this article were taken by the author.

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