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February 23 2012 5 23 /02 /February /2012 14:37


                        The Waterlogged Files #05


                             “Meet the Madcap Mayor of Zamboanga”


                                                    By Charles C. Keeley Jr.



 Editor’s Note: The following article was written by the author a few weeks before Mayor Cesar Climaco was felled by an assassin’s bullet in Zambanga City on Nov. 14 last year. It describe the late mayor’s antics and unique way of running his constituency. As of this writing, the assassination is still being investigated by government authorities.




Have you ever spent a night in a tree house? Y can for free in romantic Zamboanga beside the Sulu Sea.

Just  ask the mayor for the keys.

It is as simple as that, and a 40₵ motorcycle cab ride. Unless of course he decides to personally escort you to Pasonanca Par, four miles from city hall, where the Tree House was built in 1960 during Mayor Cesar C. Climaco’s first term in office.

And if this eccentric 68-year-old politician decides to push aside the paperwork he signs officially “C,3” and take you there himself you are in for a treat. And so are lots of children along the way.

Zamboanga City is at the southern tip of Mindanao island, second largest in the beautiful, bronze-skinned women and the sea gypsies with sun-bleached hair who peddle shells from the small canoe-like boats they live in along the sea wall of the wonderful and picturesque old hotel Lantaka.

A major regional port city of 400,000,  Zamboanga’s population is one third Muslim. It has been a colonial Spanish bastion and a turn-of-the-century headquarters for American military governors like Generals Leonard Wood and John “Blackjack” Pershing.  In 1945, other American soldiers landed at a nearby “Yellow “Beach” to defeat Japanese forces here. A least 60 diverse religious and ethnic minority groups call Zamboanga home and the city is 100 miles closer to Indonesia and Borneo than it is to Manila, its Philippine capital 460  miles (90 minutes by jet) away. It exudes exotica and not the least is madcap Mayor Climaco.


Sexy Senior Citizen


‘I’m not a dirty old man. I am a sexy senior citizen,’ the bumper sticker fixed to the front of his desk tells visitors. He is also the most popular mayor in Zamboanga’ flamboyant history, winning the last election in 1980 with a 73 percent of the vote though he represents a regional party in opposition to Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos’s  dominant political machine.

Climaco loves parks. He also loves tree houses. He even has one in his own back yard, decorated as a den where he conducts a great deal of business. It is built around two jackfruit trees and he proudly picks the produce from his easy chair.

But his real pride is the Tree House in Pasonanca Park for ‘tourists on a shoe string budget.”

It is also used by many local honeymooners and, says Climaco, “we guarantee them  mother’s day exactly nine months later.” The registry book in his office, which shows frequent occupancy, lists guests from Poland, West Germany, Japan, Australia, Sweden, India, and Czechoslovakia so far in 1984. “We get more nationalities than the United Nations,” he explains later as we bump across town toward the Tree House in his baby blue unmarked jeep. The mayor’s shoulder length whispy white hair blows in the steaming hot and humid air. He talks incessantly about the need for cheap tourist accommodations even though my air conditioned room at the Lantaka Hotel by the Sea costs only $12.

            As we near the park, and later along nearby mountainous jungle roads, the mayor is preoccupied sailing wrapped candies out onto the road when children are gathered happily to await his passing after hearing his driver honk the jeep’s tinny horn. “They don’t vote, do they?” I suggest as we bounce high over a rain filled pothole. “No, but they smile,” he says. C, 3 has already a collection of one liners. They fly forth like his candies.

            Like why did he build Zamboanga’s Tree House?

             “Sometimes it pays to have a crazy mayor,” is his quick response, along with another grin. Tucked snugly in his belt is a toy plastic pistol, the mayor’s personal mockery of the Philippine military and politicians’ habit of wearing weapons in public. He is said to be the only major politician in the country who travels about with no entourage of  guards and aides. Indeed, most of the time he drives a Honda motorcycle.


                                                  The Tree House


            Now we are at the tree house. A crowd of laughing children races toward us. Ignoring for once, Mayor Climaco heads straight for the spiral metal staircase that winds upward some 30 feet to the thatched wooden structure. “Has he ever stayed there?” “I inaugurated it,” he laughs. “I won’t tell you who with.” For many years Climaco’s wife and five children have lived in the United States. He has three sons, two doctors and a lawyer, all living in Illinois. He and they exchange frequent visits, he says.

            “A boy has not had a wholesome childhood unless he has slept in a tree,” pronounces the mayor as he reaches the top step and unlocks the door. Inside are a small but full bath and a combination bedroom-living room. All the furniture has been privately donated along wit a stereo, a refrigerator, two bunk like window seats that convert to beds, kitchen utensils, bedding and even a telephone. A clock ticks quietly on one wall.

The mayor just stands there and grins, his arms spread wide. There is no need to ask  what I think about it. He already knows what he thinks and that is what counts when it comes to tree houses.

IF you want to use it he’d be happy for you to be his guest. Also in Pasonanca Park are three huge swimming pools fed by fresh, rushing mountain streams. A huge convention center across the road is near completion and should be in use by 1985. Just write for reservations to Mayor Climaco, City Hall, Zambanga City or Philippine Ministry of Tourism office at the Lantaka Hotel, Zamboanga City, Philippines. The mayor’s energetic and overworked secretary says two days notice will usually assure anyone a booking. But you can only stay two nights. And since the Tree House is open to the public between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. you can’t always use it privately between those hours. But, that’s the only restriction. Otherwise it’s yours free though there’s a box for donations.


                                                A Lot to See and Do


When you come down out of the spreading acacia Tree House, there’s a lot to see and do in Zamboanga. The bustling port and open air market, beside city hall, are as fascinating as any in Asia. Badjaos, or sea gypsies, putter around the harbor in their tiny dugout canoes, or “vintas.” There’s a fine swimming beach with sprinklings of pink coral in the sand at Santa Cruz Island, a 20-minute boat ride away. Fort Pilar, built in 1635 reflects much of Zamboanga’s history of defense against Muslim, Dutch, and Portuguese invaders. Silvery onion-domed mosques and towering spires of churches also mark the city’s rich heritage. Rio Hondo, across a  wooden bridge over a deep, narrow river, is a vast Muslim colony of rickety shacks on stilts above muddy, mangrove swamps. Local lodging, apart from the Tree House, is at the refurbished “three star”  Lantaka Hotel beside the water where an orchestra plays nightly on an outdoor patio while guests dance and dine on a magnificent four course seafood dinner costing $2.85. The new Zamboanga Plaza hotel, high above the city, offers a fine view and equally attractive prices as well as a casino.

Meanwhile, Mayor Climaco already is back in his jeep waving for me to hurry. He’s anxious to show off his newest park, high in the green hills behind the “five star” Zamboanga Hotel, the city’s most expensive. Candies again are raining along the roadside as we climb while the mayor shouts orders to workers along the way about tree watering and post digging.




On one hill is a shiny new windmill and a pump spouting water to a new grove of fruit trees. I talked the Australian ambassador into donating that,” says Climaco. “The American ambassador gets to donate the next  one. We have already given him the specifications.” Zamboangueños call Climaco “Superman” with some justification. He gets things done. The social priority of those things might be open to debate. But apparently not much.

Like the stations of the cross he has built along the final mile of the steep road winding up the mountain at the end of his new park. “I built 15 stations,” he exclaims joyfully, jumping out of the jeep to inspect  a rock sculpture he has commissioned. “But the archbishop would only bless 14 of them. Want to know why?” I did, of course. “Because the 15th is a comfort station.”

Almost four hours after my 5 minute appointment began we are at the front of the front porch of my hotel. “Next time, you stay in the Tree House,” orders the mayor, handling me a bag of “chico” fruit from a tree in his yard. “If it’s full you stay in my tree house.” He gives me his card.

A few days later, on a long, long Philippine Airlines plane ride back across the Pacific, I read it. I should have known: “Cesar C. Climaco,” it says in the center. In each corner are the two words. Clockwise  they read: “No phone,” “No home,” “No address” and “No money.”

And even more charm than his Tree House.


Charles C. Keeley Jr. is a Los Angeles free lance writer. In 1983 he won the Pacific Area Travel Association ‘s Best Magazine story award. He writes for numerous U.S. newspapers and airline inflight magazines.


Note: The newspaper’s or magazine’s name was a bit blurred, and we were unable to acknowledge the source of this excellent piece. Our regrets to the writer and editor.

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  • : antoniofermin's name
  • : See Deep South through folktales and literature, see the clash between Christians and Moros, see its history through tradition and myths, see Zambanga's mestizos as they fought against their Spanish colonizers, see how the Zamboanguenos sieze the strongest Spanish fort in the Visayas and Mindanao, see the new Imperialist U.S.A. trample the Zamboanga revolutionarios by starving the people, see the horror and terror of the dictator Marcos's martial law, & see ethnic cleansing in the evil regime.
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