Still Dubious about Davao

This follows on from my previous post ‘Dubious about Davao’ and is intended to give the reader a general flavour of Davao City. There is currently great excitement that the mayor of Davao City, Rody Duterte, may become the next president of the Philippines. So here goes with more about the city itself and my experience there.

We decided to avoid breakfast, as we had provided enough entertainment for the diner staff the night before. Instead I checked us out of the hotel. The receptionist started the procedure, but stopped, confused.
“But sirrr, you are booked here for fourteen nights.”
“Yes, I know, but we have to check out early.” I offered no explanation for the sudden departure. She was a different receptionist to the one that was on duty the previous evening, so she was probably unaware of the mould misery. I really didn’t care about any refund and she didn’t offer one. The entire stay cost as much as one night in a medium range London hotel. We were on our way to paradise…well paradise compared to the hotel we were leaving.

The door man called a taxi for us and we headed towards the four-star oasis in the centre of Davao City. My heart sank as I saw the city by day. The roads were lined with ramshackle buildings and shops in various states of disrepair. It all seemed to be cobbled together from whatever the residents could find. The more wealthy had erected concrete walls, but much of it was not painted. Any building rubble had been left to lie on the properties. Perhaps they were planning to use it later. Signage on many smaller busnesses looked as if it had been done in crayon by school children while The signs that were professionally made sported garish colours, which made the wearing of sunglasses mandatory. Confused webs of electric cables ran from pole to pole with some darting off at a tangent and others joining the confusion. I guess the government thought it too expensive to put the cables underground. I found that interesting in a country where typhoons are so frequent and could cause serious damage to the communications and electricity supply.

I had heard a lot about the ‘Jeepney’ while talking to Cathy and others online over the past months. Seeing one up close was a surreal experience. They are a legacy left behind by the American army after world war 2. The army simply withdrew from the country leaving fields of discarded army Jeeps behind. The Filipino people have a way of seeing the opportunity in everything and decided to bastardise the Jeeps to create passenger buses. The front of these vehicles is that of the Jeep, while the rest has been extended through backyard engineering to form an elongated vehicle with open sides and back. The idea is that passengers will climb into the back and take a seat on the benches down the sides. The Jeepney is the most common form of public transportation in the Philippines. No power steering, no air-conditioning, dodgy electrics and only plastic flaps that roll down to protect the passengers from the rain. More often these flaps don’t fulfill their purpose and the rain runs down the backs of the passengers. Their advantage is that they are cheap, although hard on the environment. They invariably belch black smoke from poorly maintained motors as they cough and splutter their way around the town. Driving a Jeepney is a skill developed through desperation and sheer determination as was demonstrated when the BBC sent a London bus driver to Manila to drive a Jeepney for two weeks. This was one episode in a series generically entitled ‘The worst place in the world to…’ in this case ‘be a bus driver’. The tall man had to learn how to arrange himself in the cramped driving position intended for smaller people, get used to the lack of air-conditioning and power steering, and negotiate the frenetic traffic interlaced with pedestrians who step out into the road whenever they feel like it. While performing those tasks, the Jeepney driver must monitor the passengers getting on at the back of the vehicle and ensure that the fare is passed to him usually through the hands of other passengers. He must then dispense change if required. To do this he keeps coins in a container within reach and holds the peso notes folded up between his finger joints as he grips the steering wheel. After two weeks of this stress, the London bus driver gave up and returned to his climate controlled, computerized bus in London. In his wake he left the 40-something Jeepney driver to carry on to with the struggling taxi business while supporting his unemployed children and looking after his ailing wife for whom he was unable to afford the pain medication she

It was ten minutes in moderate traffic before we turned a corner into a double lane road that looked more respectable. Although the sidewalks were still mostly non-existent, the road was lined by palm trees that gave it a more upmarket feel and instilled hope in my heart. At the end of the road and just before a major crossroad, the taxi turned right into what I can only describe as an enclave or oasis within the run-down city. Two guards manned the gate from the vantage point of a guard hut to one side. They emerged as the taxi approached. One guard scrutinised the driver and then looked us up and down. The other used a mirror on a stick to check underneath the car. I presumed this was to look for explosives. It was alarming to think that they were obliged to check for such things. I wondered if anyone had tried to blow up the hotel or whether bombs under cars were a common occurrence in the city. As a final precaution the guard checked the boot of the car and, finding no explosives or dead bodies, waved us forward, moving on to inspect the taxi behind us. The driveway stretched up a short incline and curved past the stately pillars of the hotel’s main entrance. This was more like it! I noticed an army of doormen and porters engaged in various activities. One of them opened the door for us and we alighted to embrace our new surroundings. The city was already warming up and I could feel the humid air teasing the sweat from my brow, but I was ready for it. I had my travel towel (a.k.a. sweat towel) draped over my shoulder. My theory was that strangers would think I had just been swimming. Those that saw me more frequently throughout the day, such as the hotel staff, would know that its only purpose was to absorb buckets of sweat. Eeeeeuw!

A pair of gloved hands were on our luggage immediately as one of the porters sprang into action. Not wanting to appear ‘cheap’ in these plush surroundings, I decided to just go with it. He scribbled on a card, tore off a strip and handed it to me.
“This is your luggage claim, sirrr”, said the porter. With my senses distracted, I thanked him and stuffed the claim slip into a crevice somewhere on my person. As an ex-South African, it’s always difficult to be parted from any possession whether it’s a jacket or a suitcase, so I was reluctant to let the luggage out of my sight, but I had to trust that it would be safe. I did wrestle my backpack away from him, as it contained my important papers and a few other valuables….well valuable to me anyway. Next came the bag search. Again, I was unnerved by the tight security, but apparently the main reason for the hotel security searching bags was to stop guests from taking the ‘Durian’ fruit into their rooms. It has such a pungent odour that, once introduced to the environment, is very difficult to eradicate. You can smell it in most Filipino supermarkets. The aroma gets up your nose until you become accustomed to it. However, I doubt that there was any danger of a deadly assault with a Durian. Just the smell then. While the plump female security guard poked around in our bags with a stick, I was looking through the hotel’s floor-to-ceiling glass facade at the opulent interior. Palm trees and polished marble seemed to be the tone of the establishment. Staying at an equivalent hotel in Europe would have been way, way outside my budget, so I was excited about the 13 nights of luxury that lay ahead.

Having passed the halfhearted security poke-around, we entered the glass door of paradise, which were held open for us by eager door men that greeted us like old friends. I found it strange that their over-familiar approach made me mildly uncomfortable. I guess I’m used to the more reserved couldn’t-care-less attitude of hotel staff in Europe. I almost preferred that to this friendly approach. If the staff were insolent then I would have been comfortable with the usual feeling of righteous indignation. Adjusting my attitude, I approached the group of smartly uniformed, brightly smiling men and women behind the reception desk. It was difficult to know which one to approach first. I selected the one in the middle just to be fair.
“Good morning ma’am, good morning sirrr” came the familiar friendly greeting.
“Good morning”, I smiled back, but it only served to lessen the smile on her face. I think my smile must resemble some sort of richtus grin that unnerves people. I pushed past the awkward moment.
“I have a reservation for Regan”, I said and, after she had scanned the current bookings, the receptionist smiled again, bravely this time.
“Yes, sirrr. Staying for thirrrteen nights?”
“Yes, I expect so”, I replied with a subtle innuendo that inferred: ‘We will just have to see how well you do with the service. Maybe I’ll stay…and maybe I won’t. I reserve the right to become righteously indignant and leave on a whim. Your friendly attitude doesn’t fool me for a moment.’
After I had flashed my credit card and signed the check-in card I realised that she was talking at me. I think it was breakfast times, location and how to operate the wifi, but I was becoming concerned about the whereabouts of my luggage, so I wasn’t listening to her. She was still smiling at me, so I assumed that my richtus grin was still in place…or at least some semblance of a pleasant facial expression. When she appeared to be finished, I looked around glossy lobby, trying to locate my luggage, but there was no sign of it.
“Where would I find my luggage?” I asked as if she would know.
“You will have a luggage slip, sirrr. Just give that to the porter and he will take you to your room.”
‘Oh bollocks!’ I thought. ‘Where did I put the luggage slip?’ I began to search frantically about my person, in all pockets, shaking out the passport in case it had been slipped in there.I found Cathy admiring a palm tree.
“Did you see where I put the luggage slip?”
“Yes, hon, you put it in with your papers.”
Of course! My subconscious mind had filed it with my other important papers in the plastic wallet folder that I carried with me. I located the crucial item and handed it to the porter who suddenly produced my luggage seemingly out of nowhere. He was still smiling. I wondered if he had continued smiling since I had seen him last or whether his smile slipped when no-one was looking, turning to a scowl as he thought about all the ‘rich’ foreigners taking advantage of him. I chose to believe in the general good nature of all Filipinos and went with the first theory of continual smiling. He called a lift for us and we were elevated to the 16th floor. The porter asked for the door card key and opened the door with a flourish, wafting us in side with his gloved hand. It suddenly occurred to me that I would have to tip this man or he might return to stab us while we slept. I hunted in my pockets for a suitable tip and came up with a P500 (£10) note. By this time I was trying to make up for my lack of generosity with the porter at the airport by over-tipping all who crossed my path. I could see that Cathy was keeping a weather eye on this generous streak. After the porter had shown us the room (which we could see for ourselves), pointed out the hiding place of the bar fridge and safe (which we could find for ourselves) and demonstrated how the taps worked in the bathroom, he moved to the door and I knew the moment had come for me to slip him the tip in the most deft manner possible, but it still seemed awkward. There was only the nuance of surprise on his face as he was presented with the generous tip, but he covered it well. I guess if he showed surprise then the guest would take it as a sign that the tip was excessive and that wouldn’t bode well for the next opportunity. Little did he know that there wouldn’t be a next opportunity. I couldn’t see that I would have any use for a porter until I left the hotel and even then I would do my best to avoid all but my own contact with my suitcases.

The room was everything I had expected it to be. Solid Dark wood furnishings around a room twice the size of the ‘suite’ we had left behind that morning. The bed was king-sized and the bathroom marble tiled and very well appointed, complete with a strange squirty nozzle at the back of the toilet that moved into position at the touch of a button. This was quite a surprise when one is not quite familiar with such a device and is peering closely at it as it slides into position. The end result is a wet face as it sprays upwards the moment it slots into position. Placing a bottom above it is a much better idea, but of course we didn’t know that at the time. It was one of the features that had not been demonstrated by the porter. Perhaps they were watching on closed circuit TV and had a good laugh when unsuspecting guests were squirted in the face by the bidet feature. If it didn’t get the observer in the face, then it would flood the floor next to the toilet. The toilet itself was of the ridiculous American design with a flat puddle of water in the bowl. This has the effect of showing you what you have ‘done’ before it can be flushed away. Handy for diagnosing any ailments through examination of bowel excretions, but otherwise vulgar and pointless.

I stood at the floor-to-ceiling glass window and watched the traffic negotiating the crossroad sixteen stories below. I was fascinated by the Jeepneys. Like multi-coloured caterpillars, they inched their way up the roads, stopping at intervals to pick up passengers. There appeared to be no demarcated pick-up areas. Passengers seemed to be picked up wherever they happen to hail the Jeepney driver, who will then stop in an instant, but Cathy told me that passengers should look for a loading/unloading zone where the Jeepney can pick them up. As with most other rules and regulations in the Philippines, this one seemed to be subject to interpretation. I watched as a Jeepney stopped at a traffic light and some passengers hopped out while others clambered in. The pedestrians insinuated themselves into the traffic with few qualms. I watched them boldy step out in front of a Jeepney, which would slam on the brakes to avoid hitting them. I could feel the heat of the day radiating inward from the window glass and was thankful for the air-conditioner, which whispered in the background, maintaining a steady 24 degrees. Cathy was used to living in a temperature averaging 29 degrees, so I estimated that 24 was a good compromise between her world and mine, but she still seemed to be very aware of the cold. She had once again laid out all the chocolates on the bed and was apparently counting them presumably in an effort to decide how many would be given to all the friends and relatives. She squirrelled half of them away in the bar fridge and kept the rest in the thermo-bag.
“Hon, I will take these for my cousin and my friends in Bucana.”
“Sure. You do whatever you like with them. I bought them for you, but it’s very generous to give some away to your family and friends.”
“Did you buy cigarettes for my friends, hon?”
“No”, I replied, a little peeved that my best effort was being taken for granted. What had I expected? Somewhere at the back of my mind a little voice was warning me that I was giving too much, but I ignored it. It was bringing her pleasure and would bring pleasure to her friends and relatives too, so it was worth it.
“I did look at the duty free section at the airport, but the cigarettes were so expensive that I figured that we could buy them here.”
“Yes, hon, we can buy them here. I know the brands they like.”
That was settled then. I left Cathy counting her stash and went downstairs to draw some money at a cash machine that I had seen on one corner of the crossroad. Things were turning out better than expected.

© 2016


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