We decided to start our travels in Davao City, Philippines. Coming from Sydney, Australia it made sense geographically and fiscally but it was also of particular interest to Lou, my girlfriend, who is half Filipino. Our initial plan was to spend a couple of months in the country to try and experience daily life and the island life.
When I had informed my parents of our travel plans my dad immediately jumped onto Google to find out where Davao is in the Philippines. Google spat back some articles about a kidnapping back in September 2015. Typical. Three foreigners and a Filipino were taken from Samal Island, just off the coast of Davao, a popular resort destination (see pic below). It took a bit of research to provide comfort to my parents about the safety of Davao! I could of argued that it’s probably safer than Europe at the moment but decided to save that line of defense. Sadly this isolated incident had knocked the reputation of Davao but from our time there we could only conclude it is very safe. And yes this did include a day trip to Samal, although we stayed at a resort on the Davao facing side of the island during daylight hours.
Coming to the Philippines reminded me of Mexico and Spain in many ways, a humid and hot climate, the buildings and chaos of busy places. Davao is quieter than I have heard Manilla to be, but the city area is still hectic with many people on the streets. Davao city has a 30kmph speed limit which is relatively new, although in rush hour this is never a danger. The locals speak with pride about their mayor Rodrigo Duterte, also known as “The Punisher” who cleaned up the city and introduced the speed limit. Duterte is currently running for President and, should he be elected, has vowed to clean up Manila and the Philippines in the same manner. To his credit I think that the stricter laws work in Davao, crime is low, there is an “911” emergency service, plus the city is relatively clean and peaceful. I will watch with a keen eye to see how he fares if elected.
Davao was recommended to Lou by a friend in California who grew up in the city – Dennis. Without a strict plan for the Philippines we decided why not start there? We had arrived late at night so elected to grab a hotel close to the airport. Upon collecting our bags and walking out of the airport we promptly got ripped off on the price of a taxi to the hotel – “Welcome to Asia” was my first thought. The following morning Dennis and his brother came to collect us and we headed through the city and up into the hills on the west side, Matina. Our accommodation for the first week was with a lady called Pinky and her Filipino family. The large gated house was at the top of the hills and covered four floors. We had the ground floor to ourselves which meant we could hide away and work but also get to know the family during meals. Pinky was very hospitable – we had breakfast every morning and she would send down fresh fruit and treats during the day too. Her caramel shortbread was pretty amazing and it became a staple of my diet during that first week – during the hours when my stomach decided to function normally. If you have been living on a ‘western’ diet for any significant length of time I can say with confidence you will get some form of stomach virus / food poisoning. I was rewarded with two bad episodes of food poisoning for my first trip into Asia. Looking for the positives in this I realised two things – I’d lost some weight around my waist gained during my last few months in Sydney. Secondly, if Lou was prepared to endure yo-yo bathroom trips and profuse sweating (to name the better effects) then she must be in for the long haul.
On our first evening we attended an digital networking event with Dennis in the city. About 20 – 25 people from the sector met at a local restaurant and it provided an excellent opportunity for Lou and myself to meet developers and IT project managers based in the city, including some expats. I met an enthusiastic Italian who works in project management as a consultant having recently relocated to Davao to setup his business providing outsourced project management for banks and the financial sector. Vanni and I are still in touch via email and I owe him an update on Vietnam as he’s keen to travel there.
Lou was excited to be the first of the two of us to get a photo opportunity that evening – a couple of the locals thought she would be able to win Miss Universe – I have not and will not hear the last of that one. I thought I’d be the first picture request as I stand out in Davao like a sore thumb. Surprisingly there aren’t many 6’5″ white guys in the cities of the southern Philippines. Over my time in Davao I got used to the constant stares from locals although I never felt intimidation from anyone, just curiosity. Although perhaps the stares are just Filipino’s wondering what I did right to be dating Miss Universe.
After our week in the hills we transferred to an apartment close to the city centre, Camilla Northpointe. Our landlady, Corky, also owns a local Asian fusion restaurant that does some amazing food – www.facebook.com/asiansidewok. It was nice to have an apartment that was close to the city to help us discover more.
Davao as a city doesn’t have a ton of things to do for visitors. There are some tourist spots but the culture here tends to centre more around eating and malls. The food here is generally very good and a great way to introduce yourself to Filipino cuisine. Coming from a western background to a relatively poor country like the Philippines I found differences in the food – preparation facilities aren’t as good, meat and fish tends to be served with lots of bones and there is an abundance of pork. Most meals that involve chicken, such as adobo, will include small wings and thighs with bones. After a couple of weeks here I did wonder what the Philippines does with all its chicken breasts because I couldn’t find any. Having said that I really enjoyed trying all the different dishes and given the very low cost it made sense for us to eat out for each meal.
And the malls. Davao has a number of very large shopping malls spread across the city. As we visited various malls, usually by taxi, I came to wonder where all the money comes from to finance the malls and then who spends the money there to keep them open. During a taxi journey you could come through neighborhoods of abject poverty only to turn the corner to a large American style mall. It was a very confusing experience and there were very few places in Davao where I passed residences that I thought would house families with the disposable incomes to visit and spend at these malls. I guess this is the wealth gap in full effect.
Lou and myself went between malls, cafes, our apartment and even some co-working spaces to do our work and overall we enjoyed these experiences. Davao has a series of rolling blackouts, referred to as brownouts (to make people think the are less serious?) due to the demand for power in the city so at times we’d either chuckle or roll our eyes as internet connections would vanish along with the lighting and aircon. Then you’d get a load whir as a diesel generator kicked in or continued silence as nothing kicked anything. Apparently the power company releases a schedule of the brownouts but most locals grin wryly when you mention this as the actual timings are never on the schedule. Bless this place.
Lou was also keen to do some charity work in Davao. Through Pinky, our original host and caramel shortbread extraordinaire, we managed to schedule a basketball clinic at the local school that her children had attended. For anyone that doesn’t know, basketball is the national sport of the Philippines. This suited me as NBA was on TV 24/7 and there were basketball courts everywhere. This country is seriously passionate about the game and many youngsters will race across dusty courts in flip flops or barefoot to try and improve their skills.
It was somewhat frustrating to me, because the Philippines is a poor country it seems to lack the infrastructure for many basic things. Add the fact there are over 7,000 islands in the country and you can appreciate the logistical challenges too. I found myself wishing that the youngsters could be taught the game of basketball to a better standard as they are so into the game like I was (and still am to a degree) at that age. Sadly the Filipino’s share their height with rest of Asia so the scouting report would probably read a classic cliche like “You can’t teach height” although it does seem that you can teach undercutting box outs and quick elbows.
Our clinic went really well being that it was the first time that me and Lou combined to teach basketball. We had a lesson plan framework that we stuck to which worked and we managed to join in a game with the children afterwards. We also provided the local school with some new nets for their hoops and a new basketball to our MVP of the clinic.
Looking back on our time in Davao as I write this article, I would summarise to say that the city became the perfect integration for us into Asia. It allowed us to work, network, eat some great food and start our journey across the Philippines, preparing us for what was to come.
Travel Aspects of Davao:
- Accommodation & food is cheap – cheaper than any tourist destination in the Philippines, you can eat a good two or three course meal for around $10USD. Expect to pay $25/30USD per night for good accommodation. Most taxis around the city won’t be more than $4USD
- Safety – The Mayor of Davao and his family have been around for sometime, he cleaned up the streets, instituted a curfew, banned smoking in the city, instigated a speed limit and went after criminals and drug dealers. All of this makes Davao clean and safe – the current travel warnings for Mindanao do not seem to apply here
- Activities – tourism isn’t huge here so aside from exploring the town, markets and nearby Samal Island there isn’t loads to do
- Network and make friends – probably true of any new location but we managed to have a pretty busy diary of lunches and dinners getting to meet people in the city which was great fun and a good way to eat at places you probably wouldn’t go to otherwise
- Internet – the connection in the Philippines is generally slow and unreliable with most home and cafe networks running at about 2/3Mbps download speeds. This is fine for email and general work but can get frustrating. Some of the cafes are great though, my favorite was the Habi Cafe on the top floor of Abreeza Mall – good service plus nice and quiet with power outlets by some of the seating