Davao: city of superlatives

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

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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.

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Sketches #2: Solitude

Exploration

For now, you are a satellite.

You place your hand on the white skin of the ship. You admire its rough, jagged texture, a surprisingly delightful quality, although you can only infer the surface’s character from the way the sharp sunlight casts shadows upon it. You take care not to put too much pressure against the vessel, because you don’t need your advanced grasp of physics to know that doing so will push you back more than you will push the vessel away, and you will have to spend precious micro-rocket fuel to secure your proximity to the ship.

You look above you (or should that be below?) and see what others before you have lovingly described as a blue marble. You admire the clouds, white and frayed, soft and seemingly still in a layer underneath the blue fringes of the planet’s atmosphere.

From where you are, the sun is an intimidating presence. It is a violently brilliant orb, and yet, in the emptiness of all that surrounds it, you can sense the clash between its intensity and the fragility of worlds. You look at the stars, and even them, their beautiful multitude, they cause you distress, because their lights will forever be only a dream beyond your reach.

You hear nothing but your own breathing, and the occasional beeping of the systems that keep your suit a habitable space. You listen carefully to this solitary sound. This, the voice of your body, is the only thing sparing you from the silence of space.

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