Davao: city of superlatives

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

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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The Taoid Museum in Laoag, an Ilocano tribute to a Cordilleran heritage

Here is a well-made museum in the lowland city, about the culture of the neighboring highlands.

When tourists, myself included, proclaim that we ‘like’ the culture of a city or country we have just visited, I wonder what we truly intend to say. While in Vigan, for instance, do eating an egg-filled empanada, taking photos of colonial-era houses, and learning to say Naimbag nga malem!, while having fun, already count as ‘liking’ the Ilocano ‘culture’?

Unfortunately, culture extends deep beyond these superficial experiences. Travellers have time to appreciate its displayed gems, but not enough to suffer its habits. In primary school we are taught that the Ilocanos are known for being a thrifty people: do we travellers like that particular trait of Ilocano culture? Ignoring the fact that tourism is rarely a thrifty activity for the traveller, the question is irrelevant. When we tourists say we like Ilocano culture, we are only talking about Vigan’s beautiful houses, Bangui’s magnificant windmills, and Pagudpud’s fine beaches.

Perhaps as an atonement for this tourist’s guilt, I ensure that museums are always part of my opportunities to travel around the country. Museums are essential to overcoming the limitations of tours when appreciating a place’s culture; they show us the practices, products, and persistence of a culture that we cannot see by simply strolling through the streets or by buying souvenirs. This endeavor is possible because museums are built by people who have dedicated a lot of their toiling hours learning a culture beyond its most visible trappings.

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Baguio: the eternal and the environmental

Baguio’s unique character as a Philippine city requires a similarly unique dedication to its protection.

Baguio is a young city. It is only over a century old—practically an infant among the historical cities and towns of the Philippine archipelago. As recently as the turn of the 20th century, while ilustrados and invaders quarreled over the serious matter of sovereignty in the lowlands, the area known as Kafagway was only a grassland inhabited by humble Ibaloi folk, quietly tending to their cattle. A few years later, after inevitably winning the Philippine-American War, weary Americans stumbled upon this cradle of a land in the mountainous Cordillera region. Exhausted by lowland Luzon’s tropical air, they must have fallen homesick at the first whiff of Kafagway’s chilly midland winds, so they quickly decided that they will build a resort town in that place. Baguio was born.

Flowers with dewdrops at Burnham Park, Baguio City.
Flowers at Baguio’s Burnham Park.

Yet, despite this young history and the absence of a Spanish heritage that most of the rest of Luzon Island enjoys, Baguio has already attained for itself an immortal character. The numerous artists and authors who have made this place their home attest to the sense of the eternal pervading the midland city.

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Culture as History: Nick Joaquin’s provocative essay on Filipino identity

“Unconscious anthology”—I have not encountered a more beautiful phrase to concisely describe the richness of society, and the heritage of its individuals.

Culture as History, a 1988 essay by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, employs two massive words in its brief title, only linked by a provocative conjunction. Entire lifetimes and university departments are devoted to these topics, so Joaquin must have thought his essay’s particular subject important enough to warrant a short but dense title. And it is indeed significant, at least for his target audience, Filipinos. In this essay, the author deals with popular beliefs about the birth of Filipino culture, and does so with much wit and wisdom.

It was published only about a decade before the 21st century, a circumstance that led me to think about Joaquin’s insights from a present-day perspective. But before that, a review is in order.

The essay: crucial points and select quotes

Culture as History is one continuous piece of prose, but thematically I see it as having four parts.

In the first one, relatively independent from the rest of the essay, Joaquin introduces his inspirations—the intellectuals Marshall McLuhan and Oswald Spengler—and discusses the relationship between literacy and culture. The “modern notion” of illiteracy as ignorance is debunked: if the illiterate peoples of the past were indeed ignorant, how come they were able to build magnificent churches and other cultural wonders which we, today, cherish as national treasures? (It is, after all, the toiling of the masses that actually built these structures, not the plans of the colonial masters.)

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

The cult of vampire films get a horrifyingly beautiful addition with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

The centerpiece of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the titular character, a “lonesome vampire” (from the film’s official descriptions) who stalks a sparse Iranian town called Bad City.

This particular vampire is neither the stiff, bloodshot-eyed Dracula type, nor the pale yet sparklingly beautiful undead of Twilight: for one, she wears a chador, an encompassing piece of clothing traditionally worn by Muslim women, although she wears it loosely, as if it was a cape, and underneath she sports modern Western garments.

This Girl also prefers to prowl the streets at night on a skateboard. In her basement dwelling, a comfortably hip room full of art, she listens to Lionel Richie and house electronic music.

Actress Sheila Vand as a chador-wearing vampire on the streets at night.
Sheila Vand as “The Girl” in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. (Image from vice.com)

“Weird,” was one of my friends’ summary comments on the film, as we came out of the film’s screening in the recently-concluded 2015 Quezon City International Film Festival. I partly agree to this descriptor, though some synonyms describe the film better: eerie, bizarre, unsettling.

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