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“So tell me, who’s your president?” I asked our tour host and driver, just 10 minutes into driving from the airport. After all, it was just days before the national presidential elections, and we were visiting the city of one of the most popular bets, Davao City mayor, Rodrigo Duterte. They sheepishly smiled while looking at the road and said, “Alam mo na yan.” With voices warm, full of respect, even to the point of reverential, they proceeded to tell me in detail how much impact the mayor has in their lives. Despite that, they admitted that their current leader is far from perfect, yet still deserving. “Just look around you,” they added.
There was no trash, no one smoking outside nor even on public vehicles, no idle man sitting on the street, nor even a street food vendor causing traffic. Even traffic itself was easy despite speed limits. The city made me feel safe and healthy instantly.
It was my first time to set foot in Davao Region, more so in Mindanao, and I could sense that my fearful, negative preconceptions about staying safely in the place are starting to ring untrue at all. I took a deep breath, laid the said issue aside, and prepared myself to be awed and touched by a place beckoning me to feel welcomed.
More than a work of art
Davao Region is starting to bloom in the realm of promoting their art. One of the events of the Visit Davao Fun Sale was held at the Seda Abreeza Hotel featuring its local visual artists for the first time.
“Tourism is about beauty, and beauty is about art,” stated Roberto Alabado III, regional director of Department of Tourism Davao Region. “Our ambition is two to three years of steady and extensive promotion of art simultaneous with the tourist destinations so that locals and tourists alike will see na ito pala ang gawa ng Davao.”
At dinner, photographer Leah de Leon and I met two lovely Davao artists: Jane Ramos, a classical painter, and Miyen Lim who owns an art gallery and shop. They said this is the first time they have met other visual artists as a collective, and both were grateful to have finally been recognized and appreciated. Surreal as it may seem, being an artist too, it felt like I was talking to future versions of me. It was one of those rare moments I wish to be in, on repeat, for the sake of absorbing all the wisdom they’ve imparted in less than an hour.
More than good food
Our three-day roam around Davao consists of undoubtedly great food: fresh, farm-to-table, organic. Food that my city body isn’t used to.
In every restaurant, we ate lapu-lapu. Whether it’s grilled or cooked with tomatoes, the meat itself was tasty, tender, and moist. The artisan coconut ice cream concocted by Banana Beach Resort’s operations head, Lani Sta. Maria was divine, with ingredients gathered from the plantation where it is located. And how could I forget the cheese called Chevre and the dark chocolate nibbles from Malagos Resort? And those feast-all-you-can durian and pomelo, waiting so cheaply by the roads? Not to mention our pub crawl which brought us to tasting locally made rum in ginger, cacao, mango, santol, pineapple and even chili flavor from Huckleberry? My diet was undeniably ruined, and I’m more than glad.
More than your average beach
Owning an island is one of my biggest dreams. And just for a fraction of hours, it came true at The Island Buenavista in Samal. Originally known as Little Ligid, the four-hectare island lies on the Davao Gulf. The white-sand beach is a temporary home to one group per week, making it exclusive and very well kept.
Leah and I kayaked both for the first time and when we decided that it was too much for our lack of upper body strength, we decided to go on foot and explore the little island. The sun was hiding in thick clouds, the waters threading ever so gently to the shore, the wind was amazingly cool despite the summer heat. We took pictures of the isolated beauty and of ourselves, knowing that we will never be as young as we were right at that very moment.
More than mere responsibility
Davao City is home to the 34 remaining critically-endangered Philippine eagles. Held captive at the Philippine Eagle Center, these birds are considered one of the rarest raptors in the world.
While walking around the center, we were easily distracted by writings on the floor steps. They are hundreds of names carved neatly on cement and belong to those who have donated at least Php 500 to the Philippine Eagle Foundation. We learned that one can also adopt an eagle for Php 150,000 per year.
This is where the group met Fighter, a five year old male eagle found with a gunshot wound in 2011. His left wing was amputated and cannot fully stretch its majestic span. He bobbed his head left and right, up and down, signaling that he is focusing his eyes. The intensity of his glare, his proud stance, his dangerous demeanor, and the story behind him convinced me that his species deserve to be the national bird. He represents bravery and resilience that every Filipino embodies.
More than cheap thrills
I had never held an axe before, all the more throw it at a big chunky tree trunk. When I hit it on my first try, the throwing instructor exclaimed, “Iba! May hugot!” I had a really good laugh about that. Knife throwing is also a sport at the Banana Beach Resort located in Tagum City which is about an hour away from the airport via a private car. The resort is enclosed in Hijo Plantation which boasts of neatly aligned coconut and banana trees that made my slightly obsessive-compulsive radar delighted. The plantation produces a whopping four million boxes every year for export.
We toured around the property and took note of how we slowly drove through a pathway so as not to disturb the wild boars and monkeys living in the forest. I thought it was silly when I saw them eating with each other, I even had to ask our guide if they ever have fights. “No, they actually have their arrangements,” she laughed. The place stretched to Madaon River where we cruised while eating Kalanggam Tribe delicacies and admired the century-old mangroves.
On our last day, we toured around Eden Nature Park Resort which is one of the well-known destinations in the region. Located in Davao City, it is a 95 percent man-made garden that used to be plagued by illegal logging. It was acquired by the Ayalas of Davao City during the 1970s, an abused land that was planted with seedlings not long afterwards, and was then opened to the public in 1997. It has a garden which grows vegetables using state-of-the-art hydroponic technology and produces food for the restaurants. I saw the most vibrant petunias, sunflowers, and a weirdly named specie called billy button present in its nurseries.
The tour ends at Lola’s Garden, where one cannot only see the panoramic view of Davao City, but also stalk the bright-blue white collared kingfisher. According to Alabado, they are taking strict measures to preserve their forests. There is a big market for birdwatchers which they are planning to extensively target. The kingfisher flew right in front of us, just meters away, and I was again swept away by how liveable the place is, not only to humans but to animals as well.
Lastly, before we left the city, I decided to be brave and conquer my fear of heights. I did their three thrill rides namely the Skyrider, Skycycle and Skyswing. I was okay with rides one and two, but on the last one? My knees nearly gave up on me. It is your normal swing set, only 95-feet high, almost a ten-storey building in height. It slowly brought us up and after two whistles, we were abruptly released into the air, wildly, with my gut and soul left in the sky. I shut my eyes and told myself that I would not hit the ground, and that I would live through it. In split seconds, the first swing ended and the rippling swings did not hurt me at all. I think I could ride anything after that.