We stood at the foot of a tree-studded hill in Calinan. Mia, my classmate, seemed just as eager as I was to climb it, as we looked at the steep path we were about to take. I took the lead, with each mindful step at every convenient tree root that stuck out like nature’s staircase. It was clear that there was a trodden path ahead, as the rest of the hill was filled with cogon grass and trees too close to each other to walk through. About a third of the climb, sweat started to soak my neck and back. The Saturday afternoon sun wasn’t the one to blame, as the path was mostly shaded by mahogany trees that lined the hill. I remembered Troy, my classmate, saying that he used to climb this same hill every week for his taekwondo training. Despite being half my size, Mia managed to keep up with me and after a hundred sweaty steps and dirt-covered limbs, we reached the top. It was anticlimactic. I thought I would hear Howard Shore’s “Concerning Hobbits” at the supposedly majestic sight, but the feeling was mundane, at best. At least I got to feel what it must be like to train as a taekwondo athlete.
We rested just right on the path we took and had a chat. She opened up to me and wondered if she was worthy as a scholar of UP. I mean, how am I supposed to answer? I was at the edge during that semester and years later I would shift from my computer course to creative writing. I was just as, if not more, anxious as she was. All I told her was that everyone has their own insecurities, and how we adapt to them is how we succeed. Or at least that’s what I thought I said. I was a naive 19-year-old back then.
But the hill wasn’t why we were here.
One requirement for Comm 3, Effective Speech Communication, was to interview a community. The pairwork task was mostly focused on the techniques, methods, and ethics of interviewing. Simple enough. The harder part, however, was selecting what community I should go to. The only places that I was familiar with in Davao were the Roxas Avenue-Mintal jeepney travel route and their adjacent landmarks like Gaisano Mall and Ateneo de Davao University. So communities within the city were a no-go. I thought about going back to my hometown, Banaybanay in Davao Oriental for it, but I didn’t want to think about the fuss of bringing a girl back home. Mia was probably thinking the same thing as well. The only idea that we agreed upon, after much deliberation, is to visit a nameless dam in Calinan. The climb up the hill was just an excursion after a long ride from Calinan market.
Yes, it doesn’t have a name. Even Google couldn’t provide an answer. We agreed on it because it was the only place we were both familiar with in Davao. We had both been to a half-built resort owned by Troy’s uncle right next to the dam. We could’ve just been casual about it and interviewed anyone in the Mintal market, but we were UP students chasing excellence even if it meant a dangerous journey to the Calinan outskirts. Damn, we were really trying hard.
We took the same steps in our descent and walked towards the dam, as dry and rusty as we had seen before. On the reservoir side was a knee-deep stream and the downstream hardly had any water in it. What it had, however, were large rocks and patches of cogon grass, as if the last time it had water flowing was a decade ago. The concrete parts of the dam itself were covered in green and yellow slimy moss. The metal gears, screws, and platings were caked in orange rust. There were no maintenance buildings, no workers in the vicinity, and no cable lines for power. Just an antiquated, derelict structure.
So imagine my surprise when I found out that it was still working.
The fact came from the villagers near the dam, who seemed watchful of the two young visitors. It was as if they hadn’t seen another soul in years. We ignored them for a while but appreciated that we didn’t have to search hard for anyone for the interview. After about an hour of chatting, it was about three in the afternoon so we hopped through the large rocks on the downstream side towards the village when we saw one of the women standing beside the dam as if she were waiting for us. When she thought we could hear her, she said, “Why did you climb that hill? It’s extremely dangerous up there!”
My nonchalant heart suddenly jumped. The woman’s words sounded more concerning when a few of her fellow villagers walking by suddenly turned to us as if their everyday activities shifted into our supposed trespass.
“Why is it dangerous?” Mia asked.
“There are tulisan up there!” the woman answered.
Bandits? I felt a sudden and more sinister atmosphere in the area. Up there on the hill, it was a deafening silence, and we didn’t feel any souls hiding, waiting to pounce on us and have their way.
We were led to a sort of a wooden shed in which the woman, accompanied by her husband and some of her neighbors, told us that the hill and the nearby dam are witnesses to robbery, rape, and murder. The woman, as she relayed her story to us, spoke in hushed tones as if talking about it loudly would attract the malicious entities that lurk in the place. She mentioned a couple who were attacked when they were taking a bath at the reservoir. Then she answered no further questions about the matter, emphasizing that we should avoid that place from now on.
Duterte would win the elections as president the following year. When the rumors of him running for the presidency ran rife, the posts, images, or testaments on social media of how peaceful Davao City is also increased. Oppressive policing aside, the city was indeed relatively peaceful. But with their focus on urban security, it seemed they had forgotten that the dam, the village, and the hill were still part of their jurisdiction. So it seemed that the wicked lurked in the outskirts, away from the public.
As soon as I returned to my boarding house, I went online to search for any reported crimes in Calinan. The villagers in the nearby dam treated the atrocities as frequent occurrences so surely the authorities or the local news have information about it, right? The internet said no. But, I couldn’t blame the lack of coverage. Most of the news on TV is focused on the National Capital Region so local reports are mainly available only in the local news, amidst the titillating and sensationalized gossip about Filipino celebrities.
What made me more uncomfortable about all of this is that even though it was clear that the villagers were fearful about what was happening near them, they just agreed to avoid being involved when it happens. As the woman spoke of the couple, I imagined that if one of them had screamed, the villagers could’ve heard them. Perhaps they thought that apprehending the criminals at the scene would have consequences they were not willing to face, so they simply chose to be deaf to what happened. They had no reason to kid us. The woman stood there waiting when we were hopping on the large rocks as if we were her children caught lollygagging in the middle of the night.
But am I being a hypocrite? Because after the trip, I wished that we could’ve just settled for points of interest within the Mintal neighborhood of UP and be done with it. Screw grades and all that. I admit that Davao would’ve felt safer for me if I didn’t know what was happening near the dam. Bliss in ignorance was something I couldn’t deny. I would’ve just been fine with nothing but fascination that the dam was still working. I felt this not because I don’t feel pity, but because like those villagers, I was just as powerless. How could a listless, uninspired 19-year-old college student be able to do anything about that situation? How could I have made things better in that place when even the local police didn’t seem to help? And what about the local government?
I don’t see myself returning to that dam anytime in the foreseeable future. I can’t see myself willfully continuing to ignore what was happening on that hill. My conscience would be banging my head until it couldn’t be ignored anymore. But, years later, I still think about the dam, and how on earth it is still working. I think about the villagers, who kindly offered to take us home as one of them owned a jeepney that delivers the village’s vegetable produce to the Mintal market.
Carl Undag proudly lives in a small town in Banaybanay, Davao Oriental. He is currently completing his BA English course in UP Mindanao to fulfill his dream of writing a novel.
Editor’s Note: The research project referred to in the essay was conducted in 2015. We assure the public that UP Mindanao has since created a Research Ethics Committee and is currently implementing a standard protocol on all research on human subjects conducted by its community.