The Slums of Davao part 2 – Goodbye Philippines

Looking over at a shore line of squatter houses in Davao
Looking over at a shore line of squatter houses in Davao (click to enlarge)

People from the slums are the most friendly people in The Philippines

I walked the beach that no tourists go. Greeted people for the last time as they waved and called over to me. A group of ladies were taking a bucket shower in their t-shirts and a handful of giggles rose up. The reason I know few tourists go here is because very few of the children came running up to me asking for money. Nor did that annoying V-shaped pose for a photograph.

Children playing in a mix of sewage and sea water
Children playing in a mix of sewage and sea water

Life in a Filipino slum

Most children ignored me and continued playing. Only here the playground is a mix of sand, sea and sewage. The stilt houses have built-in bathrooms that empty onto the sand below. During low tide the waste trickles down the shore to the sea. The place doesn’t smell bad. In fact it’s actually got quite a soapy smell. It’s morning time and many people are washing.

“The smell in the air is more of the sea, and of wet wood with a hint of detergent.”

One of the things in a slum I always try to do is greet everyone. The old will often wait for you to say hello first, and then will burst into a smile. The young approach often times repeating the same “Hello Joe!” phrase over and over.

Joe is derived from the USA troops during WWII – GI Joe. All male foreigners are called “Joe!”

The teenagers are as any teen in the world usually is – moody. Then there are the people with dyed hair, bloodshot eyes that gathers in a group.

Dealing with the bad element in a slum

Such a group was gathered in a circle by a boat raised high for the tide to come in. They were playing cards. Camera in hand I walked up and got a few solemn stares from the type of people you probably don’t want to meet late at night in the city center. But here I was in their backyard big camera in hand, mobile phone bulging out of my shorts, and an air of no fear across my face.

“What are you doing?” I asked peering over the huddled group.

Boats raised high in Davao waiting for the tide to come in
Boats raised high in Davao waiting for the tide to come in

A lessor minion gleamed up with stoned eyes. “Cards!”

“The others took turns in looking up at me, at my camera, at my pocket, my shoes and my daypack.”

“Joe, you join us?”

I waved at one guy and then looked at the cards before raising my eyebrows and making the Filipino “oh oh” sound.

“Not today thank you, I am late. Just taking a walk around. But, thank you.”

Getting permission, and paying respect

What I had done was let them know what I was doing. That I was no threat, and I had balls. If I’d walked by and started photographing them, it might have been different. If I’d just walked by and ignored them; some might have followed. Who knows. But what I do know is that for me, my system works.

Slum hospitality at its best

I continued walking along the shore until I got to a sea barrier. An old man extended a hand and helped me climb up. On the other side were two men knee-deep in the sea.  They looked up in surprise and then greeted me. I asked if they were fishing.

One man looked embarrassed and just nodded. The other understood nothing of what I said. I repeated again as a wave crashed down. The first man shook his head this time.

“No fish,” he said putting his hand in a plastic bag. He pulled out a small crab, but struggled with the word for it. I answered for him.

“Yes crab,” he said glancing at his friend with the remembered word. “Food for family.”

I smiled and walked on.

Never have I met such friendly people

Some teenage girls called out from far under a stilt house, ” Picture, Picture.”

I obliged as they straightened out their hair. Pulled creases from their dresses and broke out into posed smiles. I was too far away for a good shot. But it made them happy to see me photographing them.

Two men searching for crabs to eat in Davao City
Two men searching for crabs to eat in Davao City

My time was running out. I had an appointment to keep elsewhere. Yet, deep down in truth; I really wanted to spend the day in the squatter slum. I passed by the two crab fishing men again and gave them a wave.

“You have peso?” called up the first man.

I shook my head.

Without hesitation the first man nodded in a sympathetic way. “You no money too …”

I nodded. “I have no job. Just picture picture.”

He nodded back with a smile.

Finding common ground

I think that I know why I like the slums or squatter camps. These are the people who are often decent and honest. They are just trying to survive with what they have. They look out for each other. They have to; no one else will.

They are looked down upon by the rest of society. They are pushed further and further away from the city whenever possible. Further and further out of sight.

Yet, these are the very people, I feel, that are the real genuine people of the world. When you have nothing, you only have yourself. So why lie? These are the people who greeted me with more genuine hospitality than in any of the cities, malls or even hotels. Not just in The Philippines, but all over the world.

Why are the people with nothing so much more genuine than the people with something?

These people who so many look down upon and push away also have something I don’t. Something so valuable that’s eluded me my whole life. They have a place called home.

I wish them well, and I hope no one takes their home away.

Two young girls play on a broken down watch tower along the shore in Davao City
Two young girls play on a broken down watch-tower along the shore in Davao City (click to enlarge)

Few people like to think about this type of place, nor even associate themselves with it or the people there.

I hate to break it to you, but I’d rather spend time in a slum with people talking to me. The other choice is walking around alone in a pristine mall, having beers with aged young girl seeking expats, equally drunk backpackers or the tropical resort tourists where the dollar rules. The common link is going all day without one person saying a genuine hello.

There are good people in The Philippines, but it’s becoming a rarity. Such are the times, and such are the choices people make.

Search the rural areas and the slums and you will find good people. They are endangered, treat them well.

And, so this is it. My final journal entry from The Philippines.

Thank you to the people who said hello …

Hotel search at the Longest Way Home

Planning on booking a hotel room in The Philippines?

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I recommend you try my own hotel search for The Philippines.


Coming soon:

New year update for the new destination on The Longest Way Home as I enter the 7th year

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41 Replies to “The Slums of Davao part 2 – Goodbye Philippines”

  1. I’m impressed with your ability to interact with people of a different culture. I’ve never known Filipinos to be particularly friendly. Perhaps that’s because when I meet them, they’re always living in a country other than their own, usually working in servile positions. I’ve never wanted to visit the Phillipines. I’ll read more of your posts. Maybe some day I’ll change my mind.

    1. Hopefully you will change you mind :) People working overseas are often quite different than when they live at home. Many Filipinos are forced to leave their families for years so that the people back home may have an education, and eat. I think at last count over 10% of the population works overseas.

  2. Thanks for this insight. Its been great discovering your blog. One of a kind. Looking forward to the next chapter!

  3. I so love your descriptive writing. I felt like I too, was saying goodbye to the Philippines. Must say though, you have gained a sense of street smarts and honor for the culture that make your presence accepted time and time again. Safe travels.

  4. Yes, what Lainie said! Very nice piece. Reminded me to keep smiling (I usually do) and making eye contact with folks. That’s where the real connection is.

    Thanks for posting. :)

  5. Sad you are leaving us! :(
    What a wonderful journey though, thank you for sharing.
    Looking forward to reading about your new destination.
    Safe travels!

  6. Dave, I’m like Cristine, “Sad you are leaving us!” I also came here to the Philippines almost the same time you did I guess, in 2008. I chose to live and develop some farming in Bukidnon Province, Mindanao Island… just a few hours North from Davao. In these farmlands, the simple people of the countryside are just like those you describe in the city slums: honest, open, friendly and truly a joy to be around all the time. I’ve been very comfortable here, and it is a little sad that it hasn’t quite worked out for your own home to be here, but your quest is of course, different than mine.

    I’ve been reading your posts about the Philippines with a vengeance, enjoying every second and certainly needing to budget time to get to even more of your journey postings! Your post on “How to Spot Fake Stuff”, hosting venues and the like are all so very helpful. Overall, your whole web-presence has made me re-think what I want to do with my abilities and outlet as a writer and photographer, both of which are novice abilities of mine but not without potential I hope.

    I’ve been living with a filipina and her extended family and still feel the same as you did when you wrote awhile back about the feeling of a lack of social integration; heck, I’m still referred to as the “amerikano” daily! A feeling of loneliness or alone-ness permeates often. My question is then, is this the same all over the world?

    I do still enjoy my life here immensely and never look back wistfully to where it was I once came from. The weather, the people and the scenery/culture in this day and age are just too amazing. I’m sure very similar to what you’ve observed many times in many more locations than I will ever see!

    Thanks Dave, for all that you’ve done on here that inspires me and all that you’ve introduced me to (Great Modern Travelers, etc.)

    1. Charles, glad that you’ve found the site helpful. In fact I am very glad.

      Is there any place on earth where you can integrate socially? I would have to say yes. With your own culture. But I guess that’s not what we mean. I think it’s easier in some parts of the world than others. Stigma’s of race, religion and citizenship follow nearly everyone everywhere. It is a fact of the world. I don’t think it’s ever going to be 100% integration. But getting to a point where people within the community where you live don’t “assume” would be good. I think this is possible. I am trying.

      I don’t think the answers are the same for everyone. I think finding people you can have social fun and communicate with are important. It’s nearly like being a new person at a new school. You need to start over and find a best friend, people to eat with, chat and laugh with outside an extended family. Once you have that, I think it become easier. Hope that helps!

      Glad you found those Great Modern Travelers. Hopefully some more will crop up in the future. Hopefully things for you will work out well here. It’s not easy at the best of times. But, then again who ever said it would be.

      And, hopefully you’ll keep following along here!

    2. Hi Charles, Try to learn the language so that you can interact with the locals and you will not feel lonely.;)

  7. Dave,

    I had an amazing time reading your blogs and it is sad you’re leaving the Philippines. Then again, thank you for telling the world about our country in your own honest and humble point of view. It was truly wonderful journeying with you through your blog. Safe travels!

  8. Good luck on your continuing journey. I can relate to many statements in your articles, especially the differences between the city folk and the true Pinoy. We’ll be moving to our farm in Quezon soon (not soon enough). Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  9. “When you have nothing, you only have yourself.”

    gave me goosebumps…

    happy new year Dave… and wishing you safety and more fun on your next destination…

    see you on the road… 3 months from now ill be leaving everything behind again to be on the road…

    thanks for sharing your story…

  10. Yes, passing rights are essential when entering a neighborhood. You deed to be seen being “nodded” into a place for the tension over your presence to subside. “Oh, he talked to Joe, he said hi to me,” simple greetings go a long way in such circumstances. I also liked whay you did with the tough guys. 80 percent of being a tough guy seems to be thinking that other people think that you are tough and are afraid of you. When someone shows you that they are not scared it seems to put them in a position: either they give you their OK or they have to challenge you. Good thing that it seems vastly easier just to nod you in and not worry about you any more. The only exceptionto this are slums that are truly run by criminal elements — though I believe that these are far rarer than are reported.

  11. Where is your next adventure? I’ve enjoyed reading your Philippines posts. Best of luck as you move to your next destination!

  12. oh no! talk about bittersweet.. will miss ur posts from the Philippines but excited to see what new stories are in store! bon voyage and i wish u well.. but am still PISSED OFF you’re not in KL already.. u git! :P

  13. I have only recently found your blog but am excited to read more posts like this one. I agree with the contentment that comes with socializing with the locals with the least. I’ve found the same & it’s what I am always searching for. Best wishes on your travels!

  14. Very interesting. I had you bookmarked along with about seven other blogs from the Philippines. I wish you well as you have a different and quite refreshing perspective on life in the Philippines.

    For some reason I am smiling to myself (as old men are wont to do sometimes) thinking about two people with whom I crossed paths many years ago. I met an old busted down Irish engineer in the Sudan many years ago who was truly fond of saying that “he had never met anyone who did not have a problem”. I finally got it after many months of listening to Fergus repeating this statement like a mantra; I used to feel lonesome for my family back in the States during the evenings .

    My eldest daughter joined a Buddhist Monastery back in the early eighties; After about a year I went upstate to visit her along with my wife (staunch Catholic woman from Luzon) and tried to articulate my sense of unease and frustration about my daughter’s decision with some of the nuns. One old nun had this truly serene smile as I was ranting and raving, and explained to me the “first Great Noble Truth”; she summarized it by saying that”life is difficult and full of pain and hardship”. I was absolutely stunned into silence (by it’s simplicity) as if she had hit me squarely between the eyes. My daughter is still living happily as a nun and I guess this old man has learned to live with difficulties and challenges by using acceptance.

    I have no doubt but that the vast majority of the squatters that you met in Davao use the same methods to get on with life.

    I believe you have a great spirit young man and I have no doubt that if I were a younger man I would have no problem sitting on a high stool with you and having an old ramble over a cold beer.

    Life does go on though, so I will wish you good luck and may you travel safely.



    1. Something about “old dogs and new tricks”??

      I learned a while back that refusing to learn new tricks can leave you sitting up at that bar alone. Not bad some of the time. Heck, many people even enjoy it. But, I do know we can’t be everyone, nor tell them how to live their lives.

      I don’t want to be living in a Buddhist community. I’ve seen it, and experienced it in other countries. But, I know it makes some people happy. Maybe for all the reasons I am not thinking about. I think so long as you daughter knows you are still their for her, and you tell her, should thing fall apart, then things will be fine.

      I like the saying about life not being easy, followed by “whoever said it was going to be easy?”

      So perhaps this sits well with your Irish friend in the Sudan. Everyone has a problem indeed. It would be kinda boring if we didn’t eh?

      Thank you for the good words Jody, keep reading. We might cross paths one day and it certainly sounds like you’d be a good person to sit at a bar with and exchange some “war” stories with!

      Stay in touch

  15. You’d be surprised at our famous cab drivers. They are known to return your exact change, and any stuff you left in their vehicle. Life here is simpler than in other cities. We’re more laidback in personality as well. Sometimes, too laidback for other visitors (wide grin).

    Happy traveling.


      1. Oh? Which one got to you more? The strictly no smoking zone over the whole city? Or the no-liquor-after-two-in-the-morning restrictions? :-))))))))

        1. Ha ha. Although it’s a cliche, but there is no where like Davao in all of the Philippines. It’s run very differently, I wish some of the other towns were run the same way!

          1. Sigh, it is a dream come true where we’ve arrived, far from the 70s when this used to be a chaotic place. Governing a huge area like this is an enormous undertaking, and done successfully well. The formula, however, is difficult to mix and may be different for other places.

            And I hope you noticed how extra clean our city is. It’s like you don’t even want to spit on the road. LOL

            Am catching up on your travel, Dave. Give me time. I am awake at midnights when everybody’s snoring in the city.

            And I like what I am reading. An honest-to-goodness appraisal of your travel experiences, with none of the baggage-filled biases tourists often bring once they arrive.

            Thank you for that.

            My, I do write lengthily, do I. Must control myself. Tsk tsk.

  16. This post on the squatters is too romanticised. There is a hard life going on here that you don’t do justice to. As for them being wonderfully friendly people; that is my experience in slums too. Its wrong to say that such warmth is dying though. Outside of the main cities, people retain a friendliness to make one never want to leave.
    As for going off the beaten track, only on a mountain bike (or a horse) can you take to the real trails that criss-cross the rural landscape. There you’ll see the smallest hamlets that still appear from another age. ALL housing is local materials (coco, bamboo and nippa). You’ll see carabou towing carts that don’t even have wheels (they run on bamboo skids). Its a world of chickens, goats, pigs and, yes, warm, smiling faces.
    For a foreigner to stroll into their midst would be a shock for them and they’d be suspicious. But come through on a mountain bike and there is only welcome. The bike becomes more than just a tranport.


    1. I would agree that taking a bike though the Philippine countryside would indeed get you many great looks and responses. As it would in most parts of the world. In rural Philippines there are no slums. Poor areas, sustenance living, yes. Slums in relation to the context of this article are within major cities, in this case Davao.

  17. I just returned from a 5 week tour around The Philippines & agree with most of what you have written. Having walked into the Agdao area of Davao at night looking for my friends house I was amazed at the amount of help & hopitality I received. Offers to use the internet, cold drinks, assistance from neighbours who went to find my friend. This kindness prevailed almost everywhere I travelled with only the occassional deadbeat trying to take advantage. Filipino society seems to be the complete opposite of our over regulated, permitted, taxed & paranoid west. Freedom still exists there with an attitude of mutual co-operation to make things work. What The Philippines lacks in refinement the people make up in their generosity. Salamat Pinoy for making my visit so memorable.

  18. Hey Dave!

    Glad you’ve visited our home.I’m literally living in the neighborhood you’ve featured here.And I still am for 22 years now. Oh, and I’m still 22 by the way. I’m not proud nor remorseful about living there. I’m just dumbfounded that you’ve seen the beauty of my neighbors despite the poverty conundrum. Thank you for that.
    I don’t know why we haven’t left yet though I’m already a banker. Maybe it’s the people though the vicinity is really depressing. I’m also emotionally attached because I’ve already built memories and started my dreams from scratch there. It’s really difficult to become successful when you came from a slum like that because you are prejudged thus, you have lesser access for opportunities in education and career.
    Anyway, good for you that our belligerent youth didn’t pick on you during your visit. I’ve gone through that phase too and I must say, we still put our best foot whenever strangers drop by in our area especially foreigners.
    Hope you’ll visit soon and I’ll be glad to show you the neighborhood myself.


  19. wow. your website is a good inspirationa and i’m happy about what i’ve read about your reviews for the philippines, where i’m from. i wish u the best on your travels and hope that u find the home you’ve been looking for.

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