There I was, one pleasant morning, on a long sweaty walk that started at the Davao City Hall and led to the unimposing Gaisano South Ilustre mall downtown: moving, maybe lost, but moving. Even though according to the locals I actually came close to the Chinatown of the largest city in the world, it was a stretch that struck me as more Western than Oriental: diners and billboards, no teahouses, and no lanterns.
No matter. Why exchange sixty minutes of sun and solitude for anything else? The weather was agreeable, and I was enjoying being a traveler, as opposed to being “just a domestic tourist.” Only briefly did I stop: upon a minor assault of hunger I had breakfast at a McDonald’s at one corner of an intersection. I forgot for one reason or another to take mental note of the streets’ names, a habit I had acquired in Manila. It was something else which I let guide me: the kites being flown above –looking like seven sperm cells in the clear blue sky– or something simpler perhaps, and vaguer, such as an impulsive fearlessness of the unknown. Whatever it is, if the guide disappointed, I still would’ve moved, just moved, in what R.L. Stevenson had once called “the great affair.”
See, I wasn’t intent on arriving anywhere specific. Not yet anyway. Henry D., a stocky middle-aged man from New York who likes Jimmy Buffett and denim shorts and is the owner of a magazine I’m writing for, had set the first of our two scheduled meetings later that evening in an Englishman-owned American burger joint. And coverage of the Araw ng Dabaw festivities would not be until after a few more days. I had the morning and early afternoon to myself, and was thus half-witted enough to prowl downtown Davao –a place which I still knew very little, except for its being heralded as “the most livable city in Asia.”
Looking out through the glass window I observed the absence of Ped Xing signs – the ones motorists in Manila ignored to the dismay of commuters. Where were those yellow signs? This was as unusual to me as the occurrence of here seeing a smooth sunburnt road, one whose noiselessness was broken only by the quick hello-goodbye of a security guard. He greeted the customers. The customers, save for me, greeted him back.
Right across from McDonald’s stood a drab and advertisement-plastered commercial plaza called Times Square, and I was reminded of New York City. Pigeons dove and foraged for what little biodegradable litter there was, and I fantasized about Venice. A bike with a multicoloured umbrella rolled past and I thought of a busy district in Thailand. You see, one needs only to use his imagination and he’d be all over the world.
I resumed my journey on foot and thought it strange that the people walked ever so slowly. Here, rarely did one pedestrian sidestep another. Have they no urgent jobs they must rush off to? No game to catch? Where are the moving cars, and if no one can answer that, what are these stoplights for? These were inappropriately Manila questions, but I was not to be blamed for being presented this world of sterile, style-cramping newness.
This means, of course, that I thought of home oftener than I had expected, or wanted to. I heart-shatteringly pined for my second-hand Penguin Classics and my guitar. I actually missed the people; and the dirt; the traffic; the contemptuous stares; Manila’s notorious unrest. I found that all these were dear to me; being far away, I thought I would become more street-wise? Persevering? Davao felt safe all right, as alleged, as with an anti-depressant that kept one on an even keel.
Seeing Davao’s Chinatown might have changed this impression. I wonder now if it looks like Manila’s infamous Binondo. I wonder if it’s a place just as fresh and just as rotten: alive with unkempt Chinese temples, marble dragons, DVD pirates, sidewalk stalls selling unlabeled bottles of herbal medicine, and wet streets permeated by the pungent smell of soy sauce and sewage. So I’ll keep on moving, and in moving I hope to find what I’m looking for.
Migs Bassig is a graduate of the Ateneo de Manila University who is currently based in Davao City.