Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Philippines: Davao City, Mindanao Part 1

Sheila had traveled to many places within the Philippines, but never to Davao City located on the island of Mindanao. Mindanao is the southernmost island of the country’s three main island groups – the other’s being Luzon in the north, and the Visayas at the center. It is the second largest of the Philippines 7,107 islands, and the 19th largest in the world – roughly 4,000 square miles larger than Ireland, to get a perspective. Known for its natural wonders, it has pristine beaches, waterfalls, caves, and volcanoes (Mount Apo, a volcanic mountain, is the largest in the Philippines, at an altitude of 2954 meters, or 9692 feet).

Sheila really wanted to go to Davao City, and asked if I would consider traveling there. My initial thought was, “Is it safe?” Because, sadly, the island of Mindanao, which has a significant Muslim population in an otherwise predominantly Catholic country, is also known for its political turmoil which, sporadically, results in kidnappings, bombings, and political-related violence caused by Islamic separatist groups such as Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – yes, MILF. Couldn’t they rearrange the acronym for that?

And according to the U.S. State Department website, “U.S. Government employees must seek special permission for travel to Mindanao or the Sulu Archipelago. Travelers to these areas should remain vigilant and avoid congregating in public areas. Some foreigners who reside in or visit Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago hire their own security.”


After some research, however, it appeared that much of Mindanao was relatively safe. And that most of the violence occurs in the Muslim populated provinces located in or around the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), an autonomous region with its own government, created in 1986. Despite this - mainly because of our country’s security advisories which instill fear, and because of the negative media coverage that the island receives - many expats and tourists tend to avoid Mindanao in its entirety.

The U.S. State Department, as well as our media, tends to over-hype security concerns. It’s unfair to stereotype or deem an entire region dangerous due to some isolated incidents. If I have learned anything from traveling it’s this: The world is not as dangerous as the media makes it out to be. Now I’m not saying that all travel advisories are a sham or that dangerous places don’t exist – there are situations and/or areas that warrant legitimate concern – however, what I am saying is that our habituation to fear essentially obnubilates reason and inhibits our ability to think logically, and from reaching our own conclusions. This culture of fear which is manufactured and disseminated by our media, and, sometimes government, thus deters some people from traveling to certain destinations that they may want to travel.

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A case in point would be the recent study by CQ Press which labeled my hometown of St. Louis to be the most dangerous city in the U.S. Every year our media jumps for joy when these rankings are revealed. The chances of me being a victim of a violent crime in St. Louis is very slim. Look, I’m just as likely, if not more, to be a victim of a violent crime in St. Louis as I would be in Mindanao, or in the rest of the Philippines for that matter. I guarantee it. But you’re not going to see travel advisories that warn people from going to a St. Louis Cardinal’s baseball game; from getting frozen custard from Ted Drews; or from taking a walk along the riverfront, etc. Every city in every country has its share of dangerous areas; just be smart and avoid them.

Davao City, Mindanao

In the end, Sheila and I bought the plane tickets and traveled to Davao City.

I refrained from telling my parents that I was going to Mindanao because they tend to research the places that I travel, and I was afraid that after a quick Google Search for information related to Davao City, Mindanao, that they would be subjected to a bombardment of negative media coverage. From my research, as I mentioned earlier, it appeared that Davao City was safe; however, on March 4, 2003, a bomb exploded in Davao International Airport, killing 20 people. Despite that this occurred 7.5 years ago, I didn’t want my parents to be aware of it. Thus, as an overly protective first born child, I kept them from being exposed to such fear mongering fallacies which suggests that it’s unsafe to travel to Mindanao. . .

. . . until, of course, Sheila updated our whereabouts on Facebook from her BlackBerry cell phone.

Damn you, technology. Damn you.

After Sheila and I arrived in Davao, a loud and obnoxious Caucasian male (I think he was from Texas) who’d been sitting behind us blabbering during the entire flight to his Filipino co-worker (who didn’t appear to be listening) about oil and stocks, made a comment to Sheila as we were waiting in line to exit the plane.

“What is that, Facebook?” He said to Sheila, as she was indeed updating our whereabouts through the popular social network service. “The whole world is obsessed with Facebook. What do I need Facebook for? It’s a waste of time.”

There was a brief moment of silence.

Um . . . awkward!

The bully’s comments felt as an intrusion, really. What an unbelievably gall thing to say to someone, especially to someone you don’t even know. But that’s what bullies do, they bully. However, today this bully met his match. Because little did he know that this petite, pretty Filipina girl can be a bully herself, if tested. He didn’t know who he was messing with.

As I was debating whether or not I should say something, Sheila didn’t skip a beat.

“Aww,” she sarcastically sounded off. “And I was going to add you as a friend.” All of the passengers must have been listening, because everyone began roaring with laughter.

“Oh, yeah?” He said, caught off guard. “Well, ha, uh, uh.” But his comeback couldn’t contend with the passenger’s loud laughter which drowned out his response.

Boom, roasted!

Once outside we quickly grabbed a taxi. We had arranged to stay with some of Sheila’s extended family, who most graciously agreed to host us. Our taxi driver didn’t speak Tagalog, but Visayan (the official name is Cebuano but I’ve never heard anyone who’s called it that), the second most spoken language in the Philippines and the language which is widely spoken throughout Mindanao.

Before our taxi was allowed to exit the airport parking lot, security guards armed with large weapons approached our vehicle. They asked for our last names. Apparently, before any vehicles are allowed to leave the airport, all passengers must reveal their last names to the guards for security purposes. However, they didn’t ask for any identification, which sort of defeats the purpose, no? I guess they weren’t familiar with the phrase “Trust, but verify.” This makes it quite feasible for anyone to simply lie. Not that I, personally, would ever lie to a man strapped with a large, sophisticated looking firearm, which, I have to say, looked more like a weapon to hunt down Godzilla than a mere mortal terrorist. But you would think that the guards, at the very least, would check our identification to make sure that we were telling the truth.

In any case, it’s always a bit disconcerting to see security guards in the country carrying weapons. Makes you think that the frontline is everywhere, just as the travel advisories will have you believe.


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