Dark green forests and plantations, rolling hillsides dotted with the metallic roof tops of local sugar cane farms and homesteads. Uneven tarmac, and battered shop awnings displaying adverts from bygone eras for hot chocolate, soap powders and cigarette brands. School children, immaculately dressed, walking hand in hand along the roadside, taxis, bicycles and spluttering trucks whirling inches past them.
I could be back in Uganda 15 years ago, but in fact am in the Philippines city of Davao.
It is the largest city in the world in terms of sheer geography, but where I am, more towards the outskirts, you do not feel much of the effects of urban sprawl, and the comparables here with the sights and sounds recalled from time spent in Africa are striking.
The tropical latitude shared by the Philippines and the part of East Africa that I know best, mean that from the moment you step off the plane in Davao (located in the south of the country, an hour and a half flight from its capital, Manila, in the north) you experience the uplifting smell of equatorial life, its warmth, moisture and its connections with nature. A permanent background noise of birdsong and grasshopper symphony follow you about, day and night.
Even the extra sweet margarine, the thinly densed bread, and the combination of table condiments – wet, clumpy salt refusing to be shaken from its pot, and ‘hot sauce’, dark red in colour, and lethal – are reminiscent of times spent breakfasting in Uganda. And so I have revelled this week in quickly adjusting to that familiar offering of a combination eggs, bananas and bread being presented as your nutritional kickstarter each morning.
Actually, since arriving in the Philippines, I’ve been spoilt for choice on each food sitting…
In addition to African carbo-staples, garlic rice is a must for any Filipino breakfast diner. Fish of all varieties and styles (“smoked bangus” being popular where I was staying, although I was somehow never fully ready to give this a go at 6am each morning) is also a vital component to most breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.
Inbetween sittings too, my colleagues this week have also insisted on producing mid morning and mid afternoon “snacks”, which were often substantial meals in themselves. For a country that houses many millions of people living very marginalised and vulnerable existences, there is still a whole hearted commitment by all to ensure food plays a central role in day to day life – particularly so when visitors are involved.
Over the past 4 days, amongst main meals of bbq chicken, beef, catfish, grouper fish and about a kilo of rice (in various forms, a particular favourite being as a dessert with dates) I have also “snacked” on purple yam dessert, yellow cassava cake, crispy pig cheek, fried cassava bread, pork entrails with black lentils, coconut rice cakes and chocolate brownies (with cassava) as well as drank copious cups of moringa tea, lemon tea, durian coffee and a selection of equally sweet fresh juices. As my sister-in-law would say, “stick a fork in me, I’m done”.
I am now back in Manila where, contrary to the week’s culinary theme so far, a meal with a colleague this evening was rounded off with a Starbucks coffee and banoffee pie, overlooking the city bay and the dazzling lights of Manila’s many sky scrapers.
It has been a good trip. The main purpose of which was to meet with CARE’s main NGO partner here, and to visit their programmes which support farmer cooperatives in rural parts of the country. All of which has provided a fascinating insight into how effective community enterprise development works, and has a future in global and local development agendas.
I head home with lots of ideas on that front, a re-kindled nostalgia for my days spent in Uganda (and a sense of how very similar and interconnected countries across this particular latitude of the world really are), but also with a belly full of what can only be described as African-Asian fusion cuisine at its finest.