Selfies With The Military - Duterte, Davao And Deities!
Phil Hopkins, Travel & Arts Correspondent
Our theatre and travel man, Phil Hopkins, has been an adventurer most of his life. Today he recounts his latest journey to the internationally famous Kadayawan Festival in Davao, Southern Philippines, home to the country's most controversial President and a city currently under martial law.
Christianity and Islam may be the world's most dominant religions but when you are in the Southern Philippines you quickly become aware that there's a new deity in town, he's called Rodrigo Roa Duterte, the country's newest and most controversial President.
So, it was with some trepidation that I ignored the subtle and more often, not so subtle, advice to give Davao, now officially a city under martial law, a wide birth.
With negative comments ringing in my ears, I set off to see the world famous Kadayawan Festival, cautiously aware that I might finish up at the end of a soldier's rifle or in the middle of a military incident.
Maybe I am a like the Kathmandu taxi driver who once careered through the streets of Nepal like a lunatic, with me in tow, losing both wing mirrors as he dangerously squeezed his cab between a bus and a wall. "I am a fatalist", he cried excitedly. "If God decides it is my day to die he will take me. My driving is immaterial. Today is a good day!"
Nevertheless, I still needed to change my underwear and, whilst I am not entirely sure whether or not he was right, I am back home, this time my dissenters were wrong and I have just had one of the most amazing adventures of my life. Thankfully God decreed that it was not yet time for this former altar boy to take his place alongside St Peter!
Martial law was officially declared in Davao in May this year following the outbreak of unrest involving ISIS aligned terrorists in nearby Marawi City, but never, for one minute, did I feel that this was anything more than a force designed to protect the local population, certainly not to oppress it.
Soldiers posed, selfies were taken, often alongside heavy-duty military hardware, and everyone smiled. "We feel safe", I heard time and again. "We love Duterte", many cried.
But as the world condemns this Filipino lawyer and politician, none more vocally than what he claims is a corrupt opposition, there is said to be overwhelming 85% approval for his questionable methods and so-called policy of 'judicial killings' which, in simple terms, is to extinguish the ne'er do wells unless they toe the line, namely the drug dealers and hard criminals.
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Clearly the policy has led to Duterte's international notoriety because several 'innocents' are said to have either been caught in the cross fire of over enthusiastic police 'execution' squads or, even worse, assassinated. And, how the President's own son, himself at the centre of drug allegations, will be dealt with, can only be speculated. Poetic justice or a set up?
But many Filipinos will still tell you that they feel safer under Duterte's leadership, that the threat of drug related crime and rape has fallen, and that 'Digong' is publicly challenging those who have historically had their fingers in the government pie.
Clearly this is not a region for simple debates, but it is a place of great natural beauty and, for the not so faint-hearted tourist, it is somewhere that will reward you tenfold with its attractions, abundant smiles and kind hearts.
Even better if you are in the city in August then you can witness the Kadayawan Festival which celebrated its 32nd anniversary this year. More than a thanksgiving for Davao City's bountiful harvest, the Festival also serves as a major event that repeatedly educates locals, and tourists, about the region's 11 historic tribes- six Muslim and five non-Muslim - their significance to Davao City's continued economic growth, and the importance of understanding one's roots and living together in harmony, which they largely do!
It runs over several days and will reward you with its Subang Sinugdanan and Panagtagbo river float parade and tribal dancing on Tionko Field, street food festival and stunning city centre parade that seemingly goes on for hours.
The costumes, floats and public engagement are a sight to behold and the event is beamed from coast to coast on a myriad of TV channels. Quite how I ended up on national TV and found myself subsequently mobbed for autographs the following day is a story in itself; only in the Philippines where celebrity culture is everywhere!
Davao has always had an eye on the tourist market and has not been slow to make the most of its attributes.
The local fruit, Durian, said to 'smell like Hell but taste like Heaven', is never more than a few inches from the end of someone's camera lens but one of the newer additions has got to be Duterte's very ordinary detached home, now a firm part of the city tourist trail.
You can have your photo taken with a cardboard cut-out of the man himself and even buy tee shirts and fridge magnets outside his home!
And, as if that weren't enough, you can partake of lunch at Sana's Original Kabawan, said to be Duterte's favourite restaurant.and where Proferia Sagosoy 'Sana' Valles is always on hand to tell you about her favourite customer.
Sana's has been established 40 years and is a carinderia, or local, traditional restaurant with simple tables and an even simpler menu of something resembling carabao stew!
Like so many places, Sana's, in keeping with so many eateries, always has a tv on in the background and, at the right time of day you can probably catch the ubiquitous Miss Q&A, an insert within the daily Showtime programme specifically featuring transgenders, many of whom go on to become overnight reality stars in this country of 100m+ people.
Ironically, and in complete contrast to this alternative tv view of sexuality, you still can't get divorced in the Philippines, however, celebrities have become a little inventive in this 80% Catholic country.
Those who are fed up with the Mrs - sorry, the rule only applies to men - have been travelling south to Davao's Mindanao region, home to most of the country's Muslims.
There they convert to Islam which gives them the right to marry up to four wives providing they can prove their ability to afford more than one wife! Not quite divorce but, perhaps, the next best thing!
But, one thing is for sure, partner or not, you will not be short of things to do or places to go.
The Kadayawan Tribal Village at Ramon Magsaysay Park, in situ until December, is a celebration of the 11 tribes of Davao and their way of life as well as opportunity to see, and visit, 11 different styles of house, each influenced by the geographical constraints of the tribe which built them.
For the more serious the Museo Dabawenyo will give you a wonderful overview of the city and region's origins whilst the Philippine Eagle 'Center' is home to 36 Philippine Eagles, 18 of which are captive-bred.
Simulating a tropical rain forest environment, the 'Center', one of Davao City's major tourist attractions, offers the visitor a glimpse into the country's forest ecosystem whilst educating locals about the need for conservation.
The exotic Malagos Garden Resort will probably give you some great ideas for a wedding with a difference - at a fraction of the cost of what you'd pay in the UK.....
........whilst you can dine with all the finesse of a St Tropez eatery courtesy of Claude's Le Café de Ville, or enjoy the spectacular views at Jack's Ridge Resort and Restaurant.
And, of course, Davao is famous for its fish, the delights of which you can sample at the Marina Tuna Restaurant which offers a sumptuous dining experience with a variety of seafood choices including Japanese, Chinese and Filipino-Davao fusion specialties.
Davao is a city of extremes - an extreme reputation courtesy of President Duterte, extreme beauty, extreme kindness and a place to be enjoyed in the extreme!
It is said in business circles that aspiring entrepreneurs should only take journey advice from those who have already reached millionaire Heaven. Maybe with travel there is a slight variant?
Personally, I am inclined towards the view that you should never judge something, someone or somewhere based on second-hand information (except mine!), least of all a city as beautiful as Davao with its smiling, beautiful people.
Morality, goes the saying, is for the well-fed and it is very easy to advise a country how to conduct its affairs if you have never been there, lived there or experienced, first hand, the pain of out-of-control crime.
Choose your words carefully when it comes to the Philippines, the country has given birth to a controversial President, dubiously nicknamed, 'The Punisher'.
But make the space in your diary to visit this amazing place. You'll be safe but, if you're any doubt, call the President, he'll soon whip the naughty boys into shape!
Use a local guide (see below).
Pre-plan your trip as much as possible but be flexible. Real adventure is rarely pre-packaged!
Tell people where you are going. Be a healthy paranoid!
Tourism Authority: Davao City Tourism Operations Office, 2nd Floor, Pasalubong Center, Palma Gil St, Davao City, 8000 Philippines. Web: www.davaotourism.com, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, FB Page:- /DavaoCityTourism.
Local Guide: Samuel Alboro Libre Jr. (Samuel). Davao guide. Find him on Facebook. Great guy. Great English. Great fun. Look for the man in the red tee shirt eating Durian fruit!
Local Guide: Sharon Caneda, Davao Guide. Friendly. Great English email@example.com
Hotel: Park Inn by Radisson Hotel, Davao: www.parkinn.com/hotel-davao
Interest: Philippine Eagle Center: www.philippineeagle.org/center/
Interest: Malagos Garden Resort: www.malagos.com
Food: Claude's Le Café de Ville: claudescafedavao.com/
Food: Jack's Ridge Resort & Restaurant: www.jacksridgedavao.com/
Food: Marina Tuna Restaurant: www.davaomarinatunaseafoods.com
Selfies With The Military - Duterte, Davao And Deities!, 21st September 2017, 17:59 PM