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Hometown Visit: Davao

by Cheekie Albay

I was born in Davao, raised in Davao, and after close to a decade of living in Metro Manila, eventually returned to Davao. But I’ve always felt like an outsider here.

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As a kid growing up in the ‘90s, I consumed a steady diet of Western media and realized pretty early in life that my world was leagues away from the world of Lelaina Pierce in Reality Bites or that of the gang in Friends. I dreamed of going to cool places and meeting cool people and saying cool things with the quick, dry wit of a Gen X character, and the more I devoured these shows and movies and books, the more I felt out of place in my unassuming, unambitious hometown.

When I moved to Manila for university, I embraced the big, bustling world that had suddenly opened itself up to me. It wasn’t Laney’s Houston or the Friends gang’s New York, but it was new, it was messy, and it was exciting.

After studying and subsequently working in Manila for nine years, during which I gave birth to my son and later parted ways with his father, I went back home to Davao so I could take care of my son myself with the help of my family. But I wasn’t ready to go back at all. It felt like a defeat, somehow, like I had given up and settled for something familiar way too early, just as I was hitting my stride.

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But there I was: From being a young, promising, independently living writer who was carving a path for herself in Manila, I had gone back to Davao, back to being someone’s daughter who used to be overweight, back to being someone’s grade school classmate who used to sport braces and fugly hair, back to being someone’s student in high school who used to swipe chocolate candies from the teacher’s desk. And I felt more like an outsider than I had ever felt before.

That was a long time ago, though. It’s been eight years since I returned to Davao, and a lot has happened since then—both to the city and to me. It’s no longer the unassuming, unambitious hometown of my youth, and neither am I the sullen, sulky kid who rarely felt like she belonged.

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Today, there are a number of places where I can go to in Davao and feel like I fit in. I can step inside the sun-drenched space that is Sea Green Café + Boutique Rooms and enjoy a healthy meal with nothing but a book for company. I can camp out at a corner spot in Glasshouse Coffee and spend an afternoon staring idly out at the landscaped garden just beyond the clear walls. I can go to Huckleberry Southern Kitchen & Bar on a weeknight and promise myself that I’ll only stay for an hour, yet end up swilling sangrias and swapping stories well up to midnight. I can meet friends at Suazo, an alterna-watering hole with a space for live music and a rooftop for open-air lounging that is, to me, that bar in the ‘80s American sitcom Cheers—a place “where everybody knows your name.”

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On weekends, I can decide on a whim to take a 15- to 30-minute boat ride to any of the resorts in Samal Island, splay out on the hot white sand for hours interrupted only by swim breaks, and be back home before dinnertime. Or I can go the other extreme and experience a little bit of Baguio with just a two-hour drive up to the town of BuDa—a tourist getaway so-named since it’s along the highway linking Bukidnon and Davao—where the air is cool, where trees are all around, and where I once went on an unplanned, yet immensely exhilarating, hike with friends. (It is easily one of my favorite experiences from the past year.)

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Even wandering into the grimy downtown streets at night is a welcome escape. I can venture into the long stretch of the Roxas Night Market to pick out dirt-cheap snacks from the food stalls or fish out musty treasures from the ukay-ukay heaps. I can turn into San Pedro Street, home to three of the city’s landmarks—San Pedro Cathedral, Sangguniang Panlungsod ng Dabaw, and City Hall of Davao—and blend in with all manner of local, tourist, hawker, and peddler. It is in these streets filled with strangers where I can embrace my anonymity, and where I no longer feel as acutely aware of myself.

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Some of the places I now love sprouted up in Davao City only within the last five years. Davao has grown considerably in that span of time, welcoming more buildings, residences, commercial establishments, and as a consequence, more traffic jams, too—the bane of any developing city. But even with all these developments, not to mention the national attention it has gotten as the hometown of the country’s current president, Davao still feels like a small town.

If you’re a tourist who’s used to metropolitan cities, you will no doubt say the same. Maybe because here, there aren’t many high-rises jostling for supremacy in your sightline. Maybe because here, you get to gawk at magnificent sunsets in clear, unpolluted skies. Maybe because here, good food is affordable and beer can be had on the cheap. Maybe because here, cab drivers aren’t assholes and they actually give you back your change. Maybe because here, the pace is slower, the temperaments kinder, and the people aren’t pushing and muttering past you in their hurry to get things done. Maybe because here, you can actually slow down enough to hear yourself think.

Maybe it’s all of the above. And if these are what make Davao seem small, then maybe small is not a bad thing to be.

IMAGE: Cheekie Albay

I’ve been back home for eight years now and, while it took some getting used to, I have grown to appreciate the calmness, kindness, clarity, and simplicity this city seems to run on—precisely the things that make it seem small.

To be honest, I still feel like an outsider here, but I realize now that I’ll always feel like an outsider, wherever I end up. It’s not because I don’t belong in any one place; it’s because I simply belong inside my head more. Wherever I go, I’ll always be one part participant, seeking out thrill and squeezing into the thick of the crowd, and one part observer, standing off to the side and quietly taking down notes. It’s how I’m able to enter any one place with an inquisitive eye and a lens of wonder. It’s how I’m able to talk to you about this now.

If you ever find yourself in my neck of the woods, hit me up. I’m enough of an outsider and enough of an insider to understand what you seek, so we can figure out where to go and discover this city—together.

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About Cheekie
Cheekie Albay is a freelance writer, editor, and communications consultant based in Davao City. When she’s not stringing words together, she likes to get lost in music, literally get lost in new places, make the people around her happy, and laugh in the boring old face of the patriarchy. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram: @cheekiealbay.

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