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The Mayor's City

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A writer returns to a familiar place with new questions, including one that has been on the mind of the rest of the country.

Story by
Nina Unlay
Story by
Photography by
Fruhlein Econar
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The Agdao market is bustling with life—stacks of fruits, lanes of people, and the energy that comes as the early morning drags on to late afternoon. Davao City feels alive, that much is certain. The atmosphere can almost be described as homey; to me, it’s at least familiar. My senses are picking up on subtle tones of my childhood—the Davao from my past—and there is comfort: the smell of ripe pomelo in the air, the wide, dustier roads, and the warm disposition radiating off passersby calling to each other in Bisaya. They easily identify me as a “taga-Maynila,” and let me know that I don’t need to grip my bag or phone quite so tight, a common habit for city girls. Safe diri. Safe dito, they say.

This place used to be a ghost town. There are stories about it, and the few I hear are in reference to its old, infamous nickname, “Nicaragdao,” with the light brush of a hand that usually accompanies a funny memory. One story begins with an ex-soldier. It was his first assignment, he said, and Davao is where he met his wife three years after. “[Her family] had a gasoline station [here], which became a war area during the 80s. The partisan units killed people, an average of five civilians per day. Our neighbors were killed. Mindanao was not safe. Not for so long.”


He tells me this story while standing in a cold, dark room, in front of a white wall that projects a video stream of Davao today; the Agdao Market, the same streets that I had walked earlier that day, so familiar, are all projected on a screen behind him. One hundred and seventy-three cameras’ worth of real-time footage. Each unit can zoom in up to one kilometer; I can see close enough to know what a stranger is currently having for his lunch.

Davao is under a careful, watchful eye. But not for long. I catch General Francisco Villaroman on his last day as head of the City Public Safety Command Center. “We have to use technology in a developing country like [ours]. But I think Davao will be okay,” he says, and his tone is confident, steady. “Everything is in good hands. Everybody is trained. We expect more of this will be set-up in the rest of the country. I may be of help soon.”

The wall is staring back at me—I can see faces, plate numbers, sandwiches. Sitting stagnant behind a long gray desk, video operators rapidly zoom in and out, moving right and left, screening for anything in their city that is out of place. Gen. Villaroman adds, “This is very important. Peace and order; the safety and security of our people.” Peace and order, the words echo wherever in Davao City you go. Safe dito.

Peace and order, the words echo wherever in Davao City you go. Safe dito.‍

There’s a storybook quality to Davao that’s not easy to pin down. My grandmother, a Davaoeño herself, used to tell me anecdotes about her childhood when I would come to visit. There were stories about the demons, different kinds of aswang, that lived next door. They stole her sister’s spirit, before her mother pounded on the door and demanded for it back. As a little girl, I stayed up nights listening, frightened, to the trees sway outside her bedroom window, playing out her stories in my head, and wondering how people in this place got any sleep.

But time passes; fears change. The things that scare grownups are different. In place of demons, there are criminals, vigilantes and punishers that make this place far different—and far more foreign—to anyone who has not lived in it. Davao City borders Davao del Sur, which is bounded by the provinces of Davao del Norte, Occidental, and Oriental. But once you step into Davao City, you will hear in the way the people talk that it’s its own land entirely; distinguished by rules, ordinances, and regulations that mark them and their experiences. Life is quieter, slower.

“Life is here,” reads the tagline of Davao City, it welcomes you at the airport gates. These are the less obvious things, almost boring things to listen to—but there is a ferocity in the way Davaoeños talk about Davao City, their voices adamant. And again and again the stories tend to spark a question: But what is so great about Davao?

Above: General Francisco Villaroman on his last day as head of Davao City’s Public Safety Command Center.


“Why are some Davaoeños so rabid, you mean?” Benjamin Lizada rewords my question; a bit dryly, amused. For Benjie, the story of Davao began a long time ago.  He is a restaurateur, a well-established businessman, and there is a street named after his family. The Lizadas founded and managed restaurants like the Harana Native Restaurant and Sarung Banggi, sustained for so long that they’ve become landmarks. These are his roots; this is his home, and he has seen it through.

The original settlers of Davao were his ancestors, he says, as the story goes. “They came here in 1848, when Davao was still known as ‘killing fields’. I was born here. Eight generations na kami. We’re a big family, and we never left. Most of the people [in Davao City] now are from different places. When you ask ‘ano ba ang Davao?’, you have to differentiate it from the old families at sa mga nandito ngayon. The old families and the new migrants, the newcomers—there is one thing that brought us together. Si mayor. Ninety-six percent of Davao voted for him,” he says, “But don’t worry. Not all of us are rabid.”

Each unit can zoom in up to one kilometer; I can see close enough to know what a stranger is currently having for his lunch.

Mayor—as he’s still fondly called—and now president Duterte colors the streets of Davao. Some are happy to spend the day wearing a cartoon of his face on a t-shirt. Sari-sari stores lining the streets sell them like snacks. The Punisher is written below it in flashy font, promoting him like a WWE wrestler or a superhero. It is near-impossible to go to Davao City without coming across Duterte’s presence, almost as difficult as it is to tell the story of its history without a mention of his name. “Peace” and “order” are two words that have dictated the temper of the city for decades, advertised like a slogan, or a tourist attraction. In a residential village, a sign hangs outside a private house reading, “The good Lord is watching you,” with a drawing of a shotgun underneath.

The talk of peace and order is almost always followed by a conversation about Duterte. Some have hailed him as the turning point between Davao’s dark ages and what it is today. “You have to understand,” Benjie says. “The ’80s, ’70s, magulo talaga ang Davao. And then suddenly this mayor comes in, and he cleans up everything.” Online surveys have ranked Davao City as one of the safest cities in the Philippines, and though the authority of those surveys are questionable, there are a few “rabid” fans who will proudly stand by that result. Even just one is proof enough that Davao has an inspiring characteristic about it. It arouses loyalty; it inspires pride.


“We all want to protect Davao,” says Olive Puentespina.

At times, Olive precedes the word Davao with “my.” My Davao, followed by a laugh. When she’s prodded to explain, she answers that it’s alright by her that others don’t seem to want to understand so she doesn’t have to share her Davao.

Olive is a farmer, a cheesemaker, and an artisan. The cheeses we are enjoying are her labor of love. Her family is responsible for Malagos Agriventures, a business renowned internationally for their world-class, single-origin chocolates, which has turned “Malagos” into a household name. Aside from their award-winning chocolate, they are also known for their flowers and cheeses, all organically tended to on their farm. Years earlier, they set up the Malagos Garden Resort, a boutique resort that replicates what they call a “farm environment.” It has put them as one of the frontrunners for eco-tourism. “Oh, to be one with nature” is their mantra.

Agriculture is the largest economic sector in Davao, which is known as the fruit basket of the Philippines. And while this can be attributed to its idyllic weather conditions and climate type, Olive claims it also has to with the significance of place, in a different sense: “Giving milk, giving eggs, meat... [anything] to do with agriculture, you cannot do if there is fear. Peace and order is being taken care of. I don’t think I can make my animals healthy and [they won’t] give milk if there’s gulo; I don’t think I can do this in other places. Kung ang lugar na tinitirhan mo ay [nagbibigay] sa’yo ng opportunidad na kailangan mo, mamahalin mo siya. And you would want it to stay that way.”


A little way from Agdao is the Puentespina compound, a hub and office for the family to nurture their interests and work. This is a family affair: Olive is usually found in her cheese lounge, a cozy room with all of her supplies and a wooden table with chairs, tending to her cheeses. The outside is laden with different varieties of flowers, particularly orchids—the pride of the Puentespina family, local varieties that had been tended to since decades ago. On the day that we visit, they are not in bloom. But it’s alright—the Puentespinas have carefully, respectfully cultivated a relationship with their environment.

“A lot of guests, Filipino guests specifically, ask why the flowers aren’t blooming,” Charisse, Olive’s sister-in-law and current manager of the Malagos Garden Resort, says. “‘If this is a garden resort how come we see so little of the orchids?’ they ask. But this is because we let [things] run their course. We cannot create an environment where everything is blooming. If it rains, then they’ll start to bloom. Maybe in the next few months they will.”

Olive Puentespina of Malagos fame is among the Davaoeños protective of her hometown.


Charisse is patient; she knows how to bide her time. She has lived in other places. For twenty years, she called Manila home. Coming back was a decision to come home to family, and she recognizes that it was difficult in the beginning. Davao, years later, looked different. The buildings taller and the streets busier, the development picking up after decades of a mantra that involved the pleasures of a simpler, quieter, and safer life. The invisible dome that used to isolate Davao City from the rest of Mindanao is slowly starting to draw people in. Even Malagos Garden Resort is rebranding, preparing to cater to a new and different market.

And while Charisse says that she has come back to Davao and found the place where she belongs, she can’t find the turning point that everyone else talks about—maybe she missed it, or maybe it just doesn’t matter. “The laws are there, but I think it’s more [important]... for the people to actually follow it. To believe. Not because they’re afraid, but because it’s the right thing to do. My pride comes from my family; us being from here, born and raised here. The help that we give to the community. I don’t really feel that this is a place you should be afraid of. This is the place I grew up [in].”

They let me know that I don’t need to grip my bag or phone quite so tight... Safe dito, they say.

There are plenty of other stories about Davaoeños coming home, or never leaving. And most of the time they’re eager to share, as if they are aware, more than ever, that all eyes are on them. I don’t remember Davao being this loud, this energetic. Back at the public market, the storekeepers keep chocolates from Malagos on standby, in the same places that they have put up political calendars, posters, faces. One of the sellers claims, proudly, that while the chocolate comes from Malagos, the timpla is all his own.

He points out a stall, across his, that is frequently visited by the mayor for baculao and crispy pata. They almost seem decorated, like they are prepared to be seen. But, oddly, there are still smokers littering the lanes, discarded butts of cigarettes on the floor.

No smoking in public places; it’s one of Davao City’s landmark ordinances. I ask the closest shopkeeper, “Hindi naman kayo nagbebenta ng yosi dito, diba?” She looks surprised. “Oo naman. Gusto mo?” I must have seemed confused, because she reassures me, with a smile, and with what sounds like a hymn, “Safe dito. Huwag kang mag-alala. Safe dito.”

--

This story was originally published in GRID Issue 14.


This story was originally published in

Issue 14 | A Perfect Brew

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