When I think of my childhood in Davao, what comes to mind is the time spent with my family. We live by the beach and, in Davao, moving from island to island is super-fast and easy. You could get from the white sand beaches to the mountains in 45 minutes – although traffic has become a bit challenging. I come from a big clan – the Garcias, Macedas and Montemayors – with lots of cousins and aunts, and everyone still gathers together every Sunday.
My mom, Mary Ann Montemayor, has been actively contributing to tourism and trade for Davao’s private sector. Because of that, she gets to work with different Philippine tribes. As a child, I remember her returning from her trips with beautiful jackets crafted by weavers and artisans. I didn’t quite appreciate these treasures at that time as I thought they looked too elaborate for everyday wear. Who knew that years later, I’d be their biggest champion?
My husband, Karlo, served three terms as congressman of the first district of Davao and is currently the Cabinet Secretary. As a politician’s wife, people would come to me for help. They have included Elena, one of my mother’s friends, and her daughter Gigi, who are from the T’boli tribe that lives around Lake Sebu in South Cotabato. Elena would bring me jackets made by the weavers and embroiderers, and I would buy and wear them. Soon my friends were asking about them, so I began posting the jackets on Instagram and selling them in Manila.
When I realized I could help promote Mindanao’s handicrafts through this platform, I was inspired to set up the same business model with other tribes. I work mainly with the T’boli, but also with the Bagobo Tagabawa of Bitaug, Davao del Sur, and around five other tribes in Mindanao. The past few years have seen more Filipinos supporting local brands, artisans and designers.
We now buy with a purpose. And artisans have a say in the matter; they can choose whom to work with and this makes them feel empowered and inspired. I’m so happy to see this surge of patriotism and interest in Philippine weaving. In 2016, I started Kaayo Modern Mindanao. Kaayo means kindness in Visayan, but it is also a superlative meaning “very” – like when you say someone is “guapo kaayo” (very handsome).
We have the basic jackets made in Manila before sending them to Davao for embellishment. One tribe does beading, and another, embroidery. Sometimes, another group weaves the fabric we turn into items or sends us woven or embellished strips, which I incorporate into more wearable pieces. The retail part of the business started last year after SM Aura Premier mall in Manila asked me to do a three-month pop-up store in July.
Then Ayala Malls broached the idea of a Christmas pop-up at Greenbelt 5 in Makati – which is still there at this time. My husband’s job is based in Malacañan Palace, so we relocated to Manila two years ago. I am so blessed that my three kids, aged 12, 9, and 8, had no problems adjusting to the move. But I still fly to Davao at least once a month, since I am the exclusive sub-distributor of Havaianas in southeast Mindanao and I have stores in the region.
Honestly, you can take the girl out of Davao City, but it will always be my home.
When I’m in Davao, I stay with my parents in Insular Village. They live near the newly opened dusitD2 Davao Hotel, where I like to swim a few laps in the pool for about half an hour. After my workout, I’ll have the daing na bangus (fried smoked milkfish) with garlic rice for breakfast. dusitD2 also serves a great ensaymada (cheese and butter roll). Stella Hizon Reyes Drive, Barrio Pampanga
It’s time for a drive to the mountains to visit the Bagobo Klata tribe’s El’lom Weaving Center. The tribespeople have their own business and showroom that’s led by beauty queen Kessia Tar, who is one of their younger members. It’s a good place to buy woven fabric and watch them working the handlooms. Visitors might even get to meet the tribe’s 90-year-old weaver Apo Rita Agon, who is also the keeper of the Bagobo Klata’s weaving secrets.
Lunch at Maa To Ro Native Restaurant, an indigenous Bagobo eatery that’s right beside the weaving center, is next. It’s run by members of the Bagobo Klata clan and there’s live music from an old man playing kulintang, a modern term for an ancient instrumental form of music played on small, horizontal gongs. The eatery whips up a delicious dish of rice, chicken and shrimps steamed in bamboo. It also has pork cooked in leaves, pandan chicken and a unique blue rice they say is a secret recipe. The coffee, made with corn, is very good and they’re really proud of it. Purok Mirasol, Baguio Proper, Baguio District
The Philippine Eagle Center is a must-stop to watch the new show, “Raptors in Flight! A Flight Demonstration of the Philippine Eagle and Other Birds of Prey.” It’s wonderful to see these majestic birds – and they’re huge! The show is held every Saturday at 2pm, but you can also arrange for a private viewing for 30 people on other days. Davao is the home of the Philippine eagle and Philippine Eagle Foundation is trying its best to preserve the species. Malagos-Barangay Road, Baguio District