The Compromise of Heights

Nonfiction by | September 6, 2015

In the southern part of Davao City, there were as many coconut trees as there were rustic houses. The trees proudly stood at different heights and formed dancing shadows on our rooftops.

If one drove south and traversed the span of General McArthur Highway, he or she would encounter the expanse of green spires to the right and the so-called rich kids of my high school alma mater, Ateneo de Davao, to the left. Up ahead, Mt. Apo stood as a majestic background, forming a splendid tapestry behind a then emerging urban space.

When I was younger, I believed that a skyline spoke of a city’s own wealth and progress. And in more ways than one, this was true given that the skyscrapers of New York and Chicago were often objects of fascination in Hollywood movies during my time. To me, greater heights meant greater progress — in the same manner that a rural area’s development meant a Jollibee store opening doors for the first time to people close to its proximity.

It was no surprise that a few years before the year 2000, I became an 8-year old witness to how people regarded the Marco Polo building as a sacred symbol of Davao’s ability to keep up with the modern times. Everything beyond it, however, was still flat. This observation made me conclude that my hometown has only humble beginnings and a slow pace for progress.

I grew up believing in the rumors that my hometown was considered the largest city in the entire world in terms of land area and that its water quality was only second best to another city somewhere in Europe. I honestly do not know if those two things were ever real or if they still hold true today.

To say that I am completely head over heels for Davao is a difficult thing because I know little to nothing about its context and history. To this day, I still mix up the street names in the uptown area. It does not bother me to not know the name of the man who became the mayor before Ben de Guzman. Most of all, I still despise the creamy taste of durian and its overwhelming stench that condemns my cultural indifference.

Fresh out of college, I packed my bags and rode a plane to the vast land of Quezon City, where I ascended the hill of Loyola Heights to start on a different journey on my own.

For four years outside of Davao, I’ve formed my own relationship with the Metro, riding the ups and downs of living in the capital along the way.

Here, I’ve often been mistaken as a Chinese migrant based on the appearance of my eyes. When I correct people by telling them I am from Davao, I am inevitably asked to validate the truth about the city’s cleanliness and safety. They wonder if my hometown is indeed a safe haven they have always imagined, a crowning jewel in a “war-torn” island. They ask me about Duterte, a man with, according to them, political advancements and moral aggression that make him worthy of the country’s presidency. When I am not asked about the taste of durian, I am asked to flaunt my strange accent that is, as they say, uniquely “Mindanao”.

Because of them, I am burdened to remember Davao in fleeting moments and miss it sorely in the process. Aside from these encounters, I catch myself thinking of my hometown whenever I endure the long LRT-MRT lines or when I am rejected by picky taxi drivers. I also miss Davao when I am stuck along EDSA Highway or when I walk along Taft Avenue, feeling unsafe and vulnerable.

My latest engagement has brought me to live on the 41st floor of a high-rise condominium in Malate, where its towering height transports me to a different reality.

From this floor, it is not only the skyline of Makati that brings out its bright lights in the evening, boasting its modernity to neighboring cities. For the past two years in this building, I’ve been watching my hometown unfold before my eyes, not through postcards, but through admiration and applause on social media. News on Davao’s urban features and political direction go viral and find a home in my newsfeed. People praise and defend the city for what it is, separating itself from the rest of its urban counterparts. I smile afterwards.

I only see Davao at least twice a year nowadays — during Christmas or any other month I am allowed to come home. In my recent trips, I have seen the gradual transformation of my hometown. Buildings are starting to sprout here and there while the skyline is slowly starting to take its own southern shape in front of a distant Mt. Apo.

Even our own backyard has been completely overturned. There are no more coconut trees to tower at a certain height and form a natural shade over our heads. They have long been replaced by two large shopping malls, one of which I enter frequently just to enjoy the free air-conditioning. I can’t complain about the commercial uproar because even our garden has been turned into a restaurant that caters to hungry people looking for fried tuna tail paksiw from Monday to Saturday. If you traverse south along McArthur Highway, you would still see a bunch of kids from Ateneo de Davao who are often branded as elitist, but the green patches to your right are mostly sparse nowadays.

After detaching myself from the cradle I call home, I realized it was naive of me to box in my city’s entirety based on heights and the absence of a skyline. There is a compromise in this kind of thinking — one that limits my mindset and senses from experiencing the entirety of my hometown and the pieces that matter more: the people, the breathing spaces, and the way of life.

I recollect all these thoughts right now as I am on the 41st floor of my satellite home in Malate. I think of Davao, the city I never chose but shaped my outlook on life in ways I cannot possibly count. I think of its safety that fuses seamlessly with the growing urban lifestyle. I think of its emerging skyline and my diminishing need to see it through heights. I think of the things that make it special. Whenever I remember Davao City, I think of its open breathing spaces — a place where I know my heart will always be in the right place.

John Patrick Allanegui, born and raised in Davao City, is the managing editor of Verstehen.

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