General Santos: The City that Sashimi Built

No, not Japan. I haven’t been to anywhere in Japan outside the airport terminals of Osaka-Kansai, Nagoya and Narita…but I would dearly love to roam around that country. Someday, perhaps.

Anyway, this isn’t about a place where Sashimi gets consumed by the ton, but rather, it’s about a place where Tuna is caught by the shipload.

I haven’t been to any other place in Mindanao since I transferred to Manila 10 years ago, except for my hometown, Davao City, and I have sinced missed going around this island playground where I grew up. I’ve seen quite a lot of the island during my younger years, and travelled as far north as Surigao, and as far south as Saranggani; as far east as Davao Oriental and as far west as Zamboanga; as high up as the peak of Mount Apo, and low as the corals of Davao Gulf, plus many places in between.

Ten years after I left, I decided that I have to reacquaint myself with place where I roamed for the first two decades of my existence. When we went home to Davao to celebrate the birthdays of my son and my father in law, I took the chance to “re-explore”.

Our destination this time was the closest major city from Davao. A mere mention of its name would bring two images. One is of men carrying Tuna, almost as big as them, on their shoulders. The second is no other than Manny Pacquiao. The city used to be called Dadiangas, but has been since renamed General Santos, or Gen San as most locals call it.

I’ve been to Gen San more times than my fingers could count during my younger years, though I can’t remember exactly when my first visit was. I just remember that the Kimball Plaza was still the talk of the town back then. Kimball is no more, but other malls have sprouted since then, and I’ve been to those too. It was a boom town, driven by our appetite for sashimi, “kinilaw” and “inihaw na panga”, though I do remember (and felt) that the place stagnated for a while (the time before I left for Manila). I guess it was a side effect of violence in the neighboring provinces back then. The city was far from the war zone of course, but negative publicity can sometimes be as destructive as actual gunfire.

Now more than ten years later, I’m quite pleased to feel that the city is back on its feet. New malls are being put up, and the older ones are now undergoing renovation in order to compete. Car dealerships are thriving too, and most major brands now have a presence, from old timers like Toyota to new comers like Hyundai. Pretty rudimentary economic indicators these may be, it’s enough to tell that investments are coming in. Plus of course the Tuna keeps coming, recession or otherwise.

Still, some things never change. The place is still as hot (literally) as it had always been. I always felt that you can cook sunny side up there by simply breaking an egg over bare ground. The city is mostly barren, and whatever trees grow there seem thin and lanky. I guess it’s because the city sits on hardened volcanic debris spewed forth by the nearby Mount Matutum eons ago.

This being a city that has become almost synonymous with big time fishing, its fish port has become one of its unsuspecting attractions, not so much for history or scenery, but just for the sheer spectacle of seeing huge fish being hauled from the boats. Though I have been to the city many times, I haven’t actually been to the port, so I made it a point to drop by in this visit.

It was just past high noon when we got there, and unfortunately there were no huge tuna being unloaded (we were told the tuna boats dock and unload their catch early in the morning). Even without it though, there was still activity going on at the port, as boats were still unloading other, smaller catch. I spent some time walking around the port, and got the opportunity to witness fishport workers  sorting and packing the catch. I could sense all eyes were looking at me while I was walking around amongst them, with a big, black camera slung around my neck. The  workers were game enough though, to get on with their work (or pretend to do so) while I took pictures of them.

Since Gen San is a mere 3 hours away by car from Davao (if you love your car. You can make it in 2 if you don’t care about its suspension system), it’s easy to zip in and out of the city in a day.  Just try to avoid approaching Davao in rush hour, as inbound traffic in my beloved hometown can get awry in the afternoon.

As usual, I sat at the only seat I like in a car, the driver’s. I was just disappointed though with the state of the highway connecting the two cities. Cemented portions were cracking and scaling, and ashpalted portions grew potholes or outright disintegrated. I remember it was at a much better state the last time I drove there more than a decade ago. I guess a decade of neglect took it’s toll on it, but I see some repairs being started on some sections, so I just hope they fix it all the way. Due to the damage on several stretches, we had to go slower than we usually did in the past.

As we got back into Davao soil, I felt a sense of joy, that I was able to head out into the other parts of the island again, even if it was just the closest major city from where I am. At the same time, I’m excited at the prospect of one day revisting many of the places that I’ve been to in the distant past. ‘Til the next time that I’m home (by the way, I still call Davao “home”).

Clear skies and moderate seas at Gen San's Makar Fish Port

Underway to the high seas

The fishing fleet, at rest in the port, under the searing heat of the midday sun.

A "mothership", and its babies

A squadron, standing three abreast, at the port.

Weighing the catch

Fish stack

Carting away a fishload

A stretch of the highway, from Davao to Gen San

Scenery on the highway. Mount Apo, almost blending with the haze in the horizon, reaches to the clouds on the left side of the picture.

Overlooking Davao Gulf, and the Padada-Malalag area of Davao Del Sur

Hills and shadows

*This trip was taken September 2010

*all photos taken with Olympus E-420 and Zuiko 14-42mm f3.5-5.6, with Cokin ND 8 filter.

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