Text and photos by Elizabeth Lolarga
If black ants are marching in a long, busy line in your cottage in Davao City, consider it a propitious sign. It means the fruits you bought, be they rambutan, mangosteen or that stinky bomb called durian, are sweet.
With its land area of more than 2,000 square kilometers, it may be easy to get lost in the city or literally be taken for a ride by aggressive private van drivers who ply the visitors freshly off the plane with roomy vehicles that can facilitate a city tour. These same drivers claim that taxis are disallowed from the arrival premises, and this practice doesn't give a good first impression of the city touted as the most honest.
It's best not to take their word for it and wait for a regular cab. The cabbie will frankly tell you that decades of draconian city leadership have made them fearful of taking advantage of tourists, let alone those from their own country. The information desk comes replete with glossy guides and maps to aid the first-timers who haven't had time scroll through food and travel blogs on recommended places. Even the cabbie knows his city well enough to recommend what spots not to miss.
September may be an odd month to take a break, but the timing couldn't be better. It is the height of the durian season where a kilo of the fruit is down to P25. The weather in this part of the country is also assuredly beach weather, with the occasional passing rains or overcast skies that may mar your view of the sunset over the city from nearby Samal Island.
An island getaway has become possible to a democratic mass with many resorts to choose from-- from the high end to the lowbrow. The 15-minute ferry to and from Samal costs only P30 a person. Locals advise getting there early morning, spending the entire day sunning and swimming, even ziplining, then back to the city on the last 5 p.m. boat.
Resort meals are also affordable and generous. Go for the seafood, whether prepared as sinigang soured by mashed tamarind fruit (not an instant mix) or a family-size pizza with fat shrimps among the toppings. Expect the shrimps to come large and juicy anywhere in a city where a food crisis is unheard of.
A weekend leaves time to check out the Philippine Eagle Center in the Baguio district. The fauna in captivity (eagles, owls, crocodiles, hogs, monkeys) in large cages and sheds live under a larger canopy of trees, a simulation of a tropical rainforest where the temperature goes down when one enters the forest.
A confirmation of how wide the wingspan of the country's national bird comes at Museo Dabawenyo on Pichon street where a stuffed Philippine eagle is displayed with wings spread out. If the sight of that isn't enough to induce pride of place, what else would? The museum's contents (miniature tribal houses, mannequins in indigenous people's costumes, musical instruments, old typewriters, prize-winning photos of the Kadayawan Festival) give a glimpse of the city's historical and cultural heritage. Center educator Leonisa Llapitan can utter the old names of Davao like an incantation: Davuh, Duhwow, Dabaw, Dabu.
More fauna sightings await visitors at Crocodile Park that is also home to the feathered species like the red-plumed chattering lory and talking mynah. A bird show on weekends attracts groups of senior citizens and the more awed, less fearful children who have no compunction about volunteering to toss food in the air while a bird of prey swoops down to catch it or posing with a baby crocodile, its mouth taped shut by its keeper.
An evening must be set aside for a panoramic view of the city, spread out like a queen's twinkling jewels from a vantage point at Jack's Ridge on Shrine Hill, followed by dinner of the south's famed chicken barbecue and grilled tuna belly washed down with cold beer.
If there is room for dessert, head down to Lola Abon's durian candy shop which carries almost all variations one can do on the durian from pastillas to mousse. Their durian ice cream is perfect for initiates who find the actual fruit too overwhelming. The ice cream has the distinctive smell and has plenty of the fruit's fiber. This shop is admirable for choosing to maintain its standards of quality and turning down a giant mall's offer to go nationwide.
The city is a thriving, throbbing story of the big little town that could. Even gasoline is cheap so the commuter in a tricycle is charged only seven pesos. That ride would've cost P14 -15 in a small National Capital Region village. One leaves with a sense of "I can live here for good."
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")