Swayed by the Samal Way

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Unlike the people who have come to the Island Garden City of Samal for things they would never find somewhere else in the Philippines, the man sitting beside me that evening was there for something he can have in nearly every corner of the country; he was there for a smoke. At least that’s what he said after bumming two sticks of Marlboro Black from yours truly.

“I keep telling my friends that people come here for the sand, the sun and the sea,” he said, eyes hazy and alabaster skin glowing bright red. “But I’m here,” he slurred, “for a different kind of S: a si-garette,” and apparently, a couple of beers too many.

We were at the Pearl Farm Beach Resort in the Kaputian District, by an outdoor counter bedecked with empty beer bottles and a couple of ashtrays filled to the brim. I was taking advantage of the public WiFi to sift through my mail while the man was downing a bottle of beer long after he was drunk enough to think that I’d make a good sounding board. But there are, of course, other reasons as to why others find themselves in this side of the world.

At nearly every turn, the celebrated neo-vernacular leanings of architect Francisco Mañosa are embodied in rustic contemporary structures that prove the architectural merits of indigenous materials. Sprawling before us, one of the first infinity pools ever developed in the Philippines reflected a circle of dim lights before fusing smoothly into the endless dark of the horizon. And nearby, the silhouette of the resort’s iconic Parola, a refined multi-tiered wooden lighthouse, stood watch over a body of water sprawling between the mainland and the neighboring island of Malipano; in the daytime, this glittering expanse rolls into shallows so clear that it can make no secret of the exotic marine life scurrying within arm’s reach. That being said, however, none of these caught the interest of my date for the evening.

“I actually didn’t want to come here,” he said, adding that he’s not really “that much of a beach person.” But he—a two-packs-a-day smoker and a drink-untilwasted drinker—had just spent several weeks in Davao City for work. So, after finding out from a mall brochure that Samal, albeit being no more than a 30-minute boat ride away, isn’t covered by ordinances of Davao City’s Mayor Rodrigo Duterte—from the city’s alcohol  curfew to its widespread measures to curb smoking—he decided to pay the place a visit until the day he flies back to Manila. “I want to leave with smile on my face,” he said, his sharp grin pulled by the cigarette he jammed between his lips. In this island, this is far from an unusual story.

Being compared and being incomparable

When photographer Zean Villongco and I first arrived at Samal, we did so by following the route most people take to get here: we flew in to Davao City from Manila, made our way to one of its ports and boarded a boat headed for the island. But unlike most guests, we didn’t stay very long.

We were among a group of media practitioners from Manila and Cebu who joined a familiarization tour of Davao City, one spearheaded by Air Asia immediately after it reopened its flights to the regional capital. In the middle of that tour, our guide Vera Pasyon took us on a snorkelling side trip to the giant clam sanctuary of Samal’s Barangay Adecor before resuming further excursions in Davao’s primary hub. There, she managed to crack a smile on the faces of some reporters, myself included, by explicating a well-known fact: “Samal is part of Davao del Norte. It’s not part of Davao City. So, not all that’s prohibited in Davao City is prohibited in Samal.” She didn’t even get to finish her statement before I saw some of my colleagues beelining to the back of the boat for a puff.

“We should just stay here until it’s time go home,” one of them said. It was a joke obviously, but had we actually been given that choice, I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of us chose to stay behind, skipped the rest of the Davao City tour and just stayed in Samal until the day of our return flight.

Yes, Davao City outshines Samal in several fronts. For one, both are considered as “cities,” but the former, with its modern conveniences, thorough development measures and metropolitan infrastructure, is the only one that actually embodies what a city usually is. Meanwhile, even as we entered Samal by passing by Malipano Island—with its crown of massive villas and its clean white beach—the place at the onset had the air of a sleepy fishing village that may be lagging in terms of advancement.

But even as Davao City claims through its tourism slogan that “life is here,” there are people who come to Samal that beg to differ.

A few days later, at the Pearl Farm, I met up with the resort’s PR Officer, Lish dela Torre Babela, who revealed that the resort itself has benefitted vastly from Davao City’s restrictions. Years ago, the city enacted a ban on firecrackers and, because of this, a great number people who lived there had on several occasions fled to the resort on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the way most Filipinos do—with lots of noise and a well-lit night sky.

“It is a lot more relaxed here in Samal compared to Davao City,” she said. “That’s why we get a lot of tourists.” Such is the story of this fourth-class city: because of its location, its geographic makeup, and its status as a burgeoning destination still barely scratching its full potential, it is usually a land that shines through comparison. And Davao City isn’t the only place it is compared to.

It is widely considered a beach destination, and because of that, Samal is consistently pitted against Boracay, the de facto standard-bearer of beach destinations in the Philippines. Some may find this to be a mismatch of sorts. There are, after all, a host of criteria that puts Boracay leagues ahead of Samal. The former, for one, is more likely to please party-goers. I have been to the island on several occasions—mostly during its lean season—and yet never have I seen it bereft of some kind of event that stretches all the way until dawn. Samal, on the other hand, seems vastly more reserved. During my stay, the only party it threw that I knew of was an event advertised by a bond paper taped to one of the stilts at a house in Barangay Adecor.

“Attention,” it read. “What: Big Disco. Where: Anonang Gym. When: March 27, 2015.” But there are parallels between the two. Much like the so-called island paradise, Samal is surrounded by pristine waters, striking beaches and a vast array of other natural wonders: from the scenic Vanishing Island that surfaces whenever the tides recede, to the 16 dive spots scattered around the island. With over 70 beach resorts manning its coasts, it has even been dubbed as the largest resort city in the Philippines. But unlike Boracay, Samal does not suffer from dense crowds, blaring music and sleepless nights. People who come here to escape the populace of the three “metros”—Manila, Cebu and Davao—and the noise they make do not often come here with the rest of the populace trailing close behind them. It is, in some cases, the alternative beach area. And that’s not so bad.

Babela said it all: “What makes it such a great place is that it has all the things people can expect from a world-class Philippine beach destination except for the popularity that makes it hard for you to appreciate the beach itself.” But one doesn’t always need to compare Samal to other destinations in order to fully appreciate it. It is, after all, more than just a beach destination. And when one ventures past its coasts, one may find it surprisingly incomparable.

A destination through conversation

Since Samal doesn’t have its own airport, it is a well-known fact that it relies heavily on Davao City to bring in tourists from outside Mindanao. But in the relationship between the two cities, Samal can be just as much a benefactor as it is a beneficiary.

For instance, Davao City, long dubbed as the “durian capital” of the Philippines, is known for heavily exporting the expensive, nasally unforgettable fruit, and its chief pollinators are locals of Samal—the Geoffroy’s rousettes, the old world fruit bats locally known as kwanit. A great number of them can be found at the Monfort Bat Sanctuary.

Located in Samal’s Barangay Tambo and reached about 35 minutes by car from the Pearl Farm, the Monfort Bat Sanctuary is a destination unique not just in the Philippines but also in the rest of the world. Recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the home of the largest colony of Geoffroy’s rousettes, the five-hole cave has become one of the most frequented tourist destinations in Samal. Here, guests can arrive just before the bats leave to hunt for food and soon find themselves awestruck by the sight of the bats departing: a rowdy, massive whirlwind of paper-thin wings funnelling out of the site’s five holes.

Currently, there are 2.5 million fruit bats in the sanctuary, but it wasn’t always like this. It has been theorized by a number scientists doing research on the bats of Samal that the Monfort cave wasn’t the only major roosting site of Geoffroy’s rousettes in the island— Samal, after all, has about 70 caves. However, further research in the other caves revealed that these locations are often affected by intense human-related disturbances—from hunting to guano farming. These have forced the bats to  relocate until a great number of them have found their way into the Monfort site, which is guarded by its owner, Norma Monfort, and a host of other local organizations. They do so because of the bats’ importance to the ecology of Samal.

Conservation and preservation creating a destination—it is a recurring story in Samal. Aside from the Monfort Bat Sanctuary, there are other sites in the island that have developed popular attractions from their mandate to safeguard natural resources. An example of this is the Sanipaan Marine Park, an ecotourism site located in a 158-hectare property in Barangay Tambo that includes a marine sanctuary and a mangrove rehabilitation zone. Then there’s the sanctuary of giant clams near the Pearl Farm, the 14-hectare underwater site now housing about 3,500 clams.

Efforts at conservation and preservation, however, are not the only major players contributing to Samal’s allure. There are many eye-catching landmarks in the island, and some of them were actually created due to the lack of maintenance.

Etching a memory

As a destination, Samal can benefit from further development. Between the Pearl Farm and the Monfort Bat Sanctuary, our vehicle had to cross through several rough roads that had me repeatedly head-butting the seat in front of me.

But even its shortcomings tend to benefit Samal from a visual perspective. The Hagimit Falls, for instance, is considered as one of Samal’s premier inner-city attractions and yet it does not seem to be that well-maintained. At the end of its steep entrance, one will find clear waters rolling down jagged hills. One will also find the ruins of a bridge framed by a series of crumbling stone arcs. A cold and clear watering hole surrounded the remains of a building now occupied by discarded furniture, and the remains of what looked like a discontinued obstacle course hanging parallel to a row of tall trees.

Toward the island’s coast, one will find similar sites—at the Wishing Island near Pearl Farm, there are the metal skeleton of what looked like a ruined waterslide, and along Barangay Adecor, shacks swallowed by the grip of overgrown weeds and trees.

Obviously, there are stories behind such sceneries, and there is a chance that those stories didn’t have such happy endings, but thanks to their respective locations, often in the midst of vast greens or clearings of white sand, they nonetheless catch the eye and etch notable memories on the mind. Beautiful accidents, they are; tragic perhaps but still ever so photogenic.

Samal as Samal

Yes, as a destination, Samal has a host of conspicuous flaws that sometimes work for or against it. It is rough around the edges, but one can expect it to be much more refined in the coming years.

Recently, Edge Davao reported that Samal’s tourism arrivals in 2014 reached 680,064, a 22 percent increase compared to previous years. And given recent measures from the local government, this is expected to increase further. Last April, the Business World reported that the National Economic and Development Authority has approved of the P90-million funding for a feasibility study on a proposed bridge project that will connect Davao City to Samal. Should this push through, it will aid in boosting the island’s tourist arrivals. Meanwhile, Sun Star reported that Talicud islet, one of Samal’s popular beach areas, became the recipient of P5.8-million open beach line project last year. This is expected to improve the place’s capacity to host tourists while being environmentally sound. All things considered,Samal is now poised to be the “Boracay of the South,” a primary beach destination to be frequented by numerous tourists from around the world.

For now, however, Samal is still just Samal. But that doesn’t seem to hold it back from giving people several reasons to pay it a visit—from the sand, the sun and the sea, to a number of places where you can smoke freely.

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