Fittingly, it's Memorial Day Weekend; and I say "fittingly" because once again we went aventuring on a continuous quest to help fellow veterans, especially our WWII Filipino comrades. This time we went to Tagum, a pleasant town about an hour’s drive north of Davao City.
We spent the first night in Davao City in the Marco Polo Hotel. Believe me, it is high-end. We suffered sticker shock when the concierge announced the rate, about $300 for the two of us. Needless to say, we talked them into a 30% discount. About the only good thing I’ll say about that place is I had a stunning view of the city and the bay from my window eight stories up.
As far as amenities, pretty much any U.S. Air Force Visiting Airmen’s Quarters has more to offer. For example, the last senior NCO room I stayed in had a lazyboy lounger, a fridge with plenty of affordable goodies (not so affordable in the Marco Polo!), an iron and ironing board, Internet access, plus soap, shampoo and towels. The Marco Polo can’t compete with that by any means, although they tried to bribe us with a plate of fruit and a complimentary breakfast.
Davao City is a big bustling port town – not nearly as big as Manila – and it’s certainly much more appealing than the capital on many levels. DC has wide clean boulevards and unlike Manila, the streets are pristine and the pavement smooth. Why can’t Manila be like that? It’s not simply a question of size either – it’s more about city planning and management – by comparison, Davao City has a grid of wide streets that keeps traffic moving by providing more than one way to get from point A to point B. Manila has a few large boulevards that limit a driver’s options. Outside of the main thoroughfares, Manila is a rabbit warren of confusing alley-like side streets. A driver in Manila leaves the primary routes at his own risk, and it’ll never change because it would mean razing thousands of buildings to fix it. Manila will always choke on its traffic and it will only get worse. Sigh.
A row of taxis was lined up outside the hotel. For just over $20 one of them agreed to take us the 55 km north to Tagum. The road north eventually leads hundreds of miles to Butuan; for our relatively short distance it followed the coast until just before reaching Tagum where we veered inland.
I enjoyed the leapfrog driving it takes to make the trip in just about an hour. There are scores of lumbering semi-trucks on the mostly two-lane concrete national highway, so our driver, and all the drivers for that matter, play a well-coordinated game of chicken with each other. Driving like that would never work in the structured traffic of the USA, but drivers here are cut from a different bolt. It seems like chaos, but in fact Filipino drivers are, if not skilled, at least used to the give-and-take required to drive in a place where stop signs and traffic signals are rare.
For all the heavy traffic, the road to Tagum is in remarkably good shape. The cheaply made roads around here tend to break down quickly under the weight of trucks, so I will assume that there is less corruption in Davao – more of the allotted construction money actually goes INTO construction – what else can I think?
Admittedly, I was a bit leery about going to Davao. It seems I hear about a bomb going off in the city or outlying areas every few months. One of the first things I noticed down there is the ubiquitous presence of police and soldiers. They man checkpoints and are stationed anyplace that might conceivably bring trouble. I’ve always felt a kinship for security personnel after my experiences with that sort of work in the military. I make it a point to nod and say hello. In Manila and Pampanga the cops are sullen and usually simply stare or even glare at me when I try to acknowledge them. In Davao, without exception, every time I said hello and smiled at a cop or soldier they smiled back and waved. I always felt comfortable around them, like we are all on the same side. Around here I feel unwelcome and despised by the police. Perhaps they are resentful for some reason?
(Dang it! I took my cam with me, but after having not used it for so long I had it set on low resolution. All my pics came out fuzzy. Oh well. Live and learn).
We awaited the grand commander of the local WWII veterans, Mr. Cirpo, at a prearranged site, the Tagum City Hall. We sat in the shade of an acacia until someone came and took us around back to a brand new covered pavilion, part of a newly built community center. I was surprised to see a sea of veterans and their families waiting for us. We strolled up to them and several of the old fellows proudly came to attention and saluted. I snapped off my best marine salute. They were thrilled at my show of respect. I’ve said it a million times, I love being around these wonderful old fellas. They are THE best!
We rolled up our sleeves and went to work. First, however, Doc gave the group our spiel, thanking them for their service and for inviting us, and letting them know who we are, and exactly what we were there to do for them. Each commander then gave his own speech. These leaders were a huge help; they pulled no punches in explaining exactly what the limitations of their cases might be, based on our assessment of their situations.
Over the next few days, we sat side-by-side at a small table under that huge open-air pavilion poring over each veteran or widow’s stacks of documents, most of their papers yellow and brittle with age. It sounds tedious, and it is, but I never lose sight that each person sitting next to me expects my best, and I do my best to give it to them. At times I feel like a combination of lawyer, detective and bureaucrat. It’s tough, but it can be rewarding too. There’s not much I wouldn’t do to help these folks; I just wish my own government felt the same.
Just like the rest of Davao that I observed, Tagum is CLEAN, . . . AND the streets are WIDE! It is remarkable to me that even the side and secondary lanes are very broad. Tagum is a fairly big place and I have never seen a town of its size in the Philippines with such wide streets. How did they do this? I asked Mr. Cirpo about it. He claims that way back in the late 60s, before there even was a Tagum City, the local far-sighted planners decided to lay out a grid of amply expansive streets. For years these super-wide streets were just gravel and dirt roads, but eventually they were paved as the city grew into its streets. Incredibly, most of the narrowest of Tagum’s myriad streets are wider than Angeles City’s primary main drag, MacArthur Boulevard.
As far as the cleanliness, I cannot praise them enough for that local trait. I wish Angelenos would follow the Davaweno example. Around here I have to studiously NOT look at the mounds of trash everywhere. For instance, go to any of the four bridges fording the Abacan River in Angeles City and look out at what should be a beautiful vista, instead what you’ll see is garbage and flotsam. It’s sad, and MY personal solution is to simply NOT look at it. The Davawenos seem to have instinctive self-discipline and awareness when it comes to disposing of their refuse. I never saw a scrap of paper on any of the streets and gutters of Tagum. I asked Mr. Cirpo about this and he didn’t even have an answer, so apparently it’s not even something they think about. They are just clean people. I applaud them.
Tagum boasts the largest set of rosary beads in the world, or so the locals claim. Mr. Cirpo was anxious for us to see them, and being an old altar boy I wanted to check them out myself. He and his grandson drove us out to the new Catholic Church. I say new, but it could be several years old. It’s design and look is certainly modern. It has a castle-like appearance that to me looks a bit Disneyesque. With its understated Floridian-like exterior coloring, it certainly doesn’t resemble the Old Spanish style cathedrals, although it is impressive in a vibrant unique way.
The morning we visited happened to be the same day that the bishop was ordaining the new pastor; at least I think that’s what was going on. We found a parking spot near the entrance and squeezed into it. There were scores of soldiers and cops on hand, with many more stationed on street corners and along the route to the church. Once again I greeted each soldier and police officer and they amiably returned my greeting with a hearty “good morning sir!” What a wonderful change from the glum glares I’m used to getting around here.
The gigantic rosary was behind the massive church. We walked around back and immediately noticed a large open-armed Jesus statue with a sacred heart prominently displayed on His chest. It looks rather Egyptian-like – Christ’s body is framed by a large red pyramid-shaped backdrop and Jesus himself is styled as an upside down triangle to counter the shape of the reddish triangular background. All this looks down at the humongous rosary beads made of sculpted wood connected by large chains. If I’d have had the time, I would have loved to have prayed a quick rosary; alas, such is my life. The pictures I took are blurry, but I include them to provide at least the gist of what I saw.
Mr. Cirpo is 80 years old. He’s as thin as a rail and gets around better than I do. As I’ve said before though, these old folks are the ones to talk to if you want to get the feel of a place. As we drove around, he bantered non-stop, giving us a continuous history lesson and enthusiastically answering all our questions. Without him, our view of Tagum City would have been pallid and one-dimensional.
For instance, he informed us that before The War that area of the Philippines was heavily settled with thousands of Japanese. In fact, he said that Davao City was known as Little Tokyo. I did some reading and learned that the Japanese came in their droves because of the opportunities afforded at the turn of the century by the newly arrived American colonizers. Ironically, we Yanks encouraged them to come in and help develop the Davao wilderness agriculturally. A Japanese grower developed a superior type of hemp that became world-renowned and brought a lot of money into Davao.
When the war started in 1941 there were almost 14,000 Japanese living there. Naturally, Japan concentrated a lot of their interest on the area; but soon, any goodwill that preexisted the war was destroyed by their cruelty. Mr. Cirpo was just 15 in 1941 when he and his family were forced onto a concentration camp. His dad died in the camp due to their cruelty; he expired from complications of a beating and from poor medical care. Once old enough, Cirpo escaped and joined the local resistance as a private in the guerrillas. He proudly displays two shrapnel wounds on his left knee and right elbow, although the VA refuses to acknowledge them -- typical of the Veterans Administration when it comes to the way they deal with these honorable old gentlemen.
He and his grandson drove us out to the huge Ayala Plantation, originally owned by International Harvester. On the way, we passed by the site of the new City Hall located to the southwest of Tagum City. Evidently they have already outgrown their old one. I’m not surprised; the place really seems to be thriving with industry and optimism.
Mr. Cirpo pointed out huge groves of bananas and coconuts. He proudly states that no one can possibly starve in Tagum, so fertile is the land in that area. “You can always find something to eat,” he declares. Plantation workers are among the highest paid in the area, making around $6 a day in a place where most laborers make half that. If you find that stunning, you are probably a Westerner. Check this out, my buddy Edgar, an over-qualified electrician (he has an electrical engineering degree) makes just $10 a day working at a foreign-owned hotel here in Pampanga.
Like clockwork, it rained every afternoon we were there. After learning this the hard way, we did our touring in the morning when it was invariably bright and sunny with just a smattering of clouds to portend the coming showers. Take note: if you plan on coming to the Philippines this time of the year, especially to Davao, bring an umbrella, or be where you want to be by about 2 p.m.
One last note: The Molave Hotel is a great place to stay while in Tagum City. For just $12 a night we had almost everything we had at the Marco Polo, including cable TV. In fact, I was able to catch the final two nights of American Idol. (Taylor Hicks won, but -- MY opinion -- the two best singers were Chris and Yamin!) Oh, a word of warning, the Molave does NOT have hot water, so once again I found myself showering out of a bucket, splashing breathtakingly cold water over my head; but for the money why not!?