By Nikki Rivera Gomez

AS a Promdi (that’s someone “from the province” for you), I’m no stranger to spending Christmases away from my home in Davao City.

When I was growing up, for example, my family and I would spend Christmas Day in Daliao, Toril, where my cousins lived. That was how it’s always been, us motoring to their house all the way from ours in Matina, a trip that, road potholes and all, took forever to take.

But it was all worth it because the entire day would be spent watching the local hands roast a lechon (roasted pig)or butcher a goat, listening to my dad and my Tito Tonying swap adventure stories over their afternoon coffees, and sitting at the back of the car as my brother Bubu and cousin Bebot would drive around what used to be a very sleepy, simple, and silent town.

Those were the days.

A few times long ago, we would spend Christmas at a beach in Samal. There’s a decent place called Paradise Island Park and Beach Resort off the coast of Babak in Samal Island. Paradise, as Dabawenyos fondly refer to it, is accessible, affordable, and well-maintained by the Rodriguez family. Spending Christmas Day in any of its well-appointed cottages was always a win-win decision.

Today, as I write this, I am with family and some friends in Malaybalay, Bukidnon. It is Christmas Day, once again, and we are enjoying the excellent road conditions, the panorama of expansive pineapple plantations, and the sight of ranch houses that dot the countryside.

I have a soft spot for Bukidnon. It conjures up images of ancestral estates, great balete trees, grazing cattle, and ranchers on horseback.

I remember, sometime during my years in government when I visited the office of the province’s longest-serving and multi-awarded governor, Carlos O. Fortich, I was amused at the long row of leather boots resting beneath a wooden console table. Fortich, who died two years ago at the age of 83, was a swashbuckling, pigtailed politician well-loved by his constituents and feared by his adversaries. He commanded respect everywhere.

Also around that time in the early 1990s, I was in a single-engine plane heading back to Davao. A thunderstorm was approaching fast, forcing our pilot to land on an obscure airstrip in Nasuli, about 20 kilometers from where we’re staying now in Malaybalay. I recall the dark clouds, waiting it out on the damp grass, and chatting idly with the foreigners who used to run the nearby linguistics school until the brightening sky finally cleared us for take-off.  

These memories occupied my mind as we set out yesterday on a two-car convoy across the Davao-Bukidnon Road. We wolf down a sumptuous lunch of beef bacon, lots of eggs, and lavish frittatas at Pilgrim Cafe in Marilog, a rustic high-altitude popular destination. And then, we proceed first through Quezon, then through Musuan – the Central Mindanao University’s Carabao Center, famed for its dairy products, is closed, to our dismay – then through Valencia, and then finally to Malaybalay where we make a quick stop at the Benedictine Monastery of the Transfiguration.

That last one was noteworthy not only for the sheer solemnity of the grounds but for the pyramidical shape of the Church, designed by no less than the 1990 National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin.

Today, we sped off to Manolo Fortich, some 57 kms. northwest of Malaybalay, in hopes of sampling the steaks at the Del Monte Golf Clubhouse. That would have been a Yuletide treat for us all, except that the clubhouse was closed for the holidays. We settle for some passable beef roast and tossed salads at Tootsie’s, a nearby resto.

We then hied off to Dahilayan, which is really a string of outdoor establishments catering to domestic and foreign tourists. The crowds and queues are discouraging, particularly at a time like Covid, and so we huddle instead at a café table for cold brews. Still discontented, we explore more uphill sites for their crisp, fresh air, thick fog, and periodic rain. Christmas has never been more in character here.

Tomorrow morning, home-brewed coffee and good company await us at a friend’s residence here in Malaybalay. A longtime banana exporter, he has offered to bring us to the heart of his 650-ha. plantation in Lantapan where we can shoot the breeze and savor the elements that have been kind and generous to Mindanao’s agriculture.

It promises to be a good day.

About the Columnist

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Mr. Nikki Rivera Gomez is a published author and communications adviser. He writes from his hometown, Davao City.