One sunny day when green snakes basked by the dormitory gates, and the warty toads came out of the toilets, and trolls from the adjacent rooms were creating such a ruckus that my headache had a headache too, I decided to go to the mall for some peace and normalcy. The dormitory of the University of the Philippines in Mindanao was situated literally in the boondocks, and it was a 2 kilometer ride down unfinished roads to the highway. The only available transport was the habal-habal: a motorbike turned rough-road-taxi, whose driver ferried up to 4 to 6 passengers at a time.
To the people of Davao, this was a way of life. To me, it was a learning experience. On my first semester at the university, I was literally stuck at the dorm. I did not know how to ride a habal-habal. I was terrified of it, being the size of two normal Davaoeño. When an errant jeep or bus chanced by, I hailed it with so much zest that people thought my armpits were on fire. On one particular day, when I was desperate to get off the mountain, I begged for a ride on a meat delivery truck, and hung on a hook in its cargo bay like one of its produce. I knew, despite my circumstances, that I was blessed, since the truck’s cargo was long delivered and the bay was freshly cleaned.
It took me 7 months before I finally rode my first habal-habal. The driver was kind, and instructed me how to sit, what I could grab on to, and what (on any given occasion) I should never grab on to. I swallowed the frog in my throat and we were off. The rolls around my tummy jiggled as the habal-habal dipped and my thunder thighs bounced so much I thought they’d end up on the driver’s shoulders. I arrived at my destination with only my innards rearranged.
I had fallen off a habal-habal once when I tried to mount it. It was a combination of sleeplessness, a very high back seat and my thunder thighs not cooperating. Still, despite the spectacle I made in front of the driver, I was blessed. I have heard stories of habal-habal accidents, of passengers who flew off the bike, of trips to the hospital with broken bones.
And so, on that particular sunny day, instead of finishing a paper that was due the next day, I headed out for the mall. The habal-habal I rode was a tiny, and I was glad to be its only passenger. When we passed by one of the many durian farms, I told the driver I was writing a paper about durian. He claimed that he knew all about durians, having graduated from Agriculture. For all the five minutes it took from dormitory to highway, he yelled out his scholarly treatises over his shoulder.
I wanted to yell back, to please watch the road, because there were potholes the size of moon craters, but my lungs had gone elsewhere, probably somewhere in the vicinity of my elbows, and I could not speak.
We stopped once in front of a fruit stall and the driver showed me how the native durian, or ‘marang’ as they called it, differed from all the imported ones. As I said, despite the potholes on the road which made the habal-habal skid (which made my fallopian tubes droop down to my knees,) I was blessed. His discourse on durian was exactly what I needed for my paper.
Being indoctrinated to the ways of Davao was good. Born and bred in Manila, I had not known any place as beautiful as Davao in Mindanao. The people here are very kind. However, my romantic notion of living in the quiet countryside flew very quickly out of the window. I learned that the only thing here as abundant as the durian is the karaoke machine, more locally known as the videoke. Multiple videoke shops belt out tiredly redundant songs from Abba like Chiquitita, Mama Mia and Dancing Queen.
On that particular sunny day, after a five minute educational ride from the durian expert / habl-habal driver, I stood on the highway of Mintal amidst other commuters. I was waiting for a taxi to pass by. I could’ve boarded a public utility jeep to get to the mall, but I had a headache, and I wanted to be comfortable, and I was stubborn. Besides the taxi ride cut my travel time by almost 75%. The jeep ride took an hour.
In my hometown in San Juan, Metro Manila, it only took 20 minutes in a jeep to get to the cities of Mandaluyong, Sta. Mesa and Quezon. Here in the vast open space called Davao City going anywhere took hours.
Yes, Davao City, and just the city, is that big. The rest of the Davao province is overwhelming.
The name ‘Mintal’ was initially a source of concern for my father. It was probably because in San Juan, we lived just a few minutes away from the Philippine Mental Hospital – which people had since simply called as ‘Mental.” I assured my father that my Mintal was very different from his Mental.
And so on that sunny day, as I waited for a taxi to rescue me from the vastness of this wondrous place, I felt someone standing beside me. I looked down and saw a very brown weathered face wrinkled in a smile. The old lady proceeded to address me in the local dialect, her voice very soft a first. I told her that I only understood Tagalog, and can she please speak a little louder. The lady was toothless and evidently very happy under her multiple coats. She adjusted her pipes to full volume, and then asked me in Tagalog (because Davaoeños are fluent in Tagalog) from what tribe did fat people like me come from?
I was blessed that day because, despite the giggles of the other commuters on the sidewalk, a taxi just happened to chance by. I hailed it like my armpits were on fire, and dove into it as quickly as my thunder thighs allowed.