Friday, October 17, 2014

Unfinished Business

Nothing irritates and distresses me more intellectually and emotionally than fellow Filipinos who should be old enough to know better and should be well-informed enough to understand clearly but who are quick to say to my face that the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution was a failed revolution because the ideals, principles and objectives it had fought for remains unfulfilled and unrealized 28 years hence.

I can be considerate of those who are too young to have been discerning witnesses if not actual participants in the crucial events of those historic few days in February of 1986 and have not bothered to really familiarize themselves with unbiased and accurate accounts of what was clearly one of the most important defining events in the recent history of this country. It is often all too easy to dismiss or, even worse, actually belittle and consider insignificant something that one does not truly understand or know enough about.

I can also disregard the fence-sitters who, 28 years ago, never did commit themselves and merely waited to see which side would prevail in the end and only then loudly proclaim themselves to be wholly, in body and spirit, to have been with the winning side from the very beginning. They did not matter three decades ago and sadly, despite their noisy protestations, still remain irrelevant to this very day.

Finally, I can discount the die hard apologists for the Marcos dictatorship who even nowadays still cling to their delusion that the more than two decades of Apo Ferdinand's authoritarian rule was the best thing that ever happened to this country, the very same people who still desperately peddle like inveterate hucksters their own revised and doctored version of the events leading to EDSA uprising. As far as they are concerned the so called Yellow Revolution will always be just an ill-advised coup d'état, a disastrous putsch that really changed and achieved nothing except unjustly removing from power the one man they all worship as the greatest leader in Philippine history.

But for the rest of us who were privileged to have truly lived through those monumental few days in February of 1986 there can be no excuse for not being able to fully understand and appreciate, after the passing of almost three decades, the true implications if not the true meaning of the EDSA people power revolt 28 years ago. For in truth, the revolution we thought we had already won then is, in reality, is still sadly being fought today and the final outcome, far from being an assured and certain victory, remains largely in doubt.

Any dedicated student of politics and history always comes to the sad yet inevitable conclusion that all revolutions and uprisings whether it is of the armed and violent kind or the peaceful and civilian-backed variety of which EDSA 1986 is the primary model, remains basically and fundamentally incomplete as a transformative event even when it has achieved its primary objective of overthrowing what may have been popularly perceived to be a tyrannical and despotic government. The period immediately following such a successful change in power is often a tumultuous and chaotic time and can plunge a nation into grave crisis and bloody conflict.

The ensuing aftermath of the wave of protests, riots and and civil wars of the so called Arab Spring in many countries in the tumultuous Middle East which began in 2010 clearly illustrates this point. The mere overthrow of a hated government or political leader rarely solves the political, economic and social problems of a country plagued by massive unrest and general discontent. As in the case of a severe yet curable physical disease in a patient, a good doctor will always be cognizant of the reality that, even with proper medication and treatment, the sufferer often gets worse before getting better, if he does survives the ordeal.

The critical difference between a failed revolution and a successful one that insures the emergence of a viable and resurgent democracy and the inevitable economic progress and prosperity that comes with that positive development is clearly the continued, widespread political awareness and vigilant, keen participation by the citizens of a country in the long, protracted and peaceful process of the rebuilding of that nation. In short, truly successful revolutions are actually continuing phenomena that virtually never end and are constantly being fought on a day to day basis in the ongoing life of a people.

If many of us who were there when the 1986 EDSA revolution was being waged now feel that that very revolution has failed us and that it has not given us the democratic utopia that we, for almost three decades now, have so desperately hoped, dreamed of and fought for then perhaps we should ask ourselves if we have since then until today have remained true and faithful to the very same ideals and principles that had motivated us to risk everything to be, if not physically but at least in spirit, with the multitudes rallying on the streets of Metro Manila and all over the country almost three decades ago, all demanding for democratic change. Have we stopped agitating and protesting too soon?

The EDSA People Power Revolt of 1986 was a desperate call to action for the Filipino people that was supposed to initiate a long and protracted process of revolutionary change that was meant to be sustained and powered by the nation's long festering hunger and yearning for true democracy and a society that was just, peaceful and truly prosperous. It was never meant to be the beginning and the end of such a struggle.

So let us stop all the finger-pointing and the blame games. The dream of EDSA 1986 continues to remain a dream to this day because we Filipinos collectively as a people have not been worthy of its legacy.

In the heady days after Marcos fled the country, we celebrated and congratulated ourselves for the victory we have not really in actuality even completely won.  We left the streets, laid down the banners and stilled our voices too soon. We became complacent, blinded by the "victory" we thought we had miraculously won against overwhelming odds. Then we let the unscrupulous and the venal including the all the corrupt ghosts of what was dysfunctional about our political past steal our glorious revolution from us.


Note:

I prepared this post to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the Edsa People Power Revolution last February but inadvertently lost the draft stored in a Microsoft Word document file that got buried among many other abandoned files tucked in the innards of one of the hard drives of my desktop computer.

I was lucky to accidentally rediscover and recover it recently and decided to post it now trusting in my belief that its message remains relevant many months after it was supposed to come out.

I do apologize for my long absence from this blog, I am back and remain determined to to keep updating it and more frequently if possible. As always, I am grateful for the emails, comments and suggestions I continue to receive from readers of this blog.

I have always said that I write primarily for my own personal satisfaction (a form of therapy, if you can call it that) but I am not only flattered and emotionally gratified but also greatly humbled to know that there are people out there in cyberspace who continue to tell me (often to my surprise and wary disbelief) that I should write more.

So please keep your emails and comments coming. In more ways than one, they always brighten my day.

As a footnote, I decided to give this blog a new and hopefully more simplified, streamlined and uncluttered look. It is my hope that I have succeeded in doing so but if not, the fault is entirely mine.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

The Pindang Revisited

I was among the more fortunate to have had the opportunity to sample a sinfully diverse selection from the cornucopia of festive culinary delights traditionally offered by most Filipinos to family members, relatives and friends for copious, if not gluttonous, consumption during the recent Christmas and New Year celebrations. That meant mouthfuls of the ever ubiquitous ham (of several kinds), repeated generous servings of pasta thick with sauces of both the red and white varieties including one or two others of an indeterminate shade in between these two extremes, countless portions of chicken thighs and wings both roasted or fried in batter and slices of fish either grilled, steamed or stewed with fresh veggies in the traditional way.

I have not even included in the first list list the obligatory chocolate and cheese cakes, whole wheat bread loaves with raisins, chocolate doughnuts, bibingkang kanin (rice cakes topped with caramelized coconut cream), empanadas (pastry stuffed with meat, vegetables and egg slices) and a multitude of other desserts and side dishes. The often excessive enthusiasm and unusual profligacy even normally frugal Filipino families put into preparing for the orgies of feasting during the Yuletide and year-ender festivities never ceases to amaze me.

Yet for the breakfasts whether it is near the end of the old year, the beginning of the new one or anytime for that matter, nothing for me still conjures the most gustatory anticipation and the exquisite mouthwatering thrill than the scrumptious, sweet-salty crunchy goodness of my mother's homemade pindang.

I have written some years ago of this sun-dried meat delicacy (see here) and have described how much a sentimental part of my rather rural and countryside lifestyle here in Lianga this quintessential Filipino dish was, is and will always be. Pindang can be made from pork meat or beef (carabao or water buffalo beef, in particular, yields a dark, chewy pindang) But the best pindang, in my view (an opinion greatly influenced by my late father), is made from the meat of the wild pig.

In my early childhood during the 1960's and 70's, these undomesticated cousins of the porkers which we used to raise in our backyard here in Lianga roamed the then still dense forests around the foothills that surrounded this town and its sister communities. Once in a while, the hunters would come to town and sell off the carcasses of the wild pigs they had shot or caught in traps along the thickly forested mountain trails. From these fierce and savagely combative, stiff-bristled, tusked versions of the more docile swine ordinary folks like me were more acquainted with came the dark meat that was highly sought after by many locals.

The pindang from the wild pig was leaner, less fatty and, therefore, tougher than those sourced from the usual pork but there was a gamey and subtle pungent flavor to it that was strangely irresistible to the taste buds unless you are one of the more picky or less adventurous souls who are repelled by its rather exotic taste and aroma. Nowadays, of course, wild pig meat is a rarity and I have no idea if there is even anyone here who still makes pindang from it.

Even Mama at present seldom makes pindang any more from freshly slaughtered pig meat (like she used to do so in the past). The reason is that the work that goes into the preparation process is as laborious as it is tedious. The meat has to be cleaned thoroughly and meticulously separated from the skin and fat layers and then sliced into thin, manageable slices. The tough and largely inedible connective tissues must also be excised using a sharp knife and a deft surgeon's touch.

The less choice and tougher cuts of pork meat may also require tenderizing which meant cutting them across the grain and then pounding the cuts to submission with a specially made meat mallet equipped with a wicked metal head whose striking surface was scored by rows of rather blunt and shallow spikes. The dull, pounding sound it made when used had a rather ominous, emphatic thud to it that usually caused me, as a young lad, to shudder every time with a vague sense of apprehension.


The meat slices are then marinated in equal amounts of salt and sugar finished off with a dusting of choice spices and then set out to dry for a day or so in the hot sun and warm air on improvised frames made of chicken wire and bamboo supports which were hanged from vacant clotheslines. When sufficiently dried to a dark hue and hard waxy consistency, they were then packed into sealed plastic containers and stored in the refrigerator, ready anytime to be pan fired or broiled in charcoal when desired.

Now in her seventies, Mama has ingeniously found a way to let us, her children and grandchildren, enjoy pindang with the minimum of fuss and and effort. When visiting the city, she buys from meat shops several kilos of pork belly meat cut bacon style into long and thin strips. She marinates the meat and then dries them in the sun in the usual way. Served piping hot after being deep fried in oil, this new version of the classic pindang is now a much sought after taste treat whenever our family gets together.

Crisp to the bite and golden-brown like bacon, the hint of sweetness is contrasted by the slight salty tang, the whole gamut of flavors enhanced by the juicy fat layers in the meat. It is not, of course, the classic pindang of old but it is a more than worthy approximation or substitute for an old yet beloved meaty breakfast treat whose rustic yet seductive appeal continues to wow the taste buds of generations past and present in this part of the world.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Tree

It has been reported in the American news media the past week or so that an elementary school in Frisco, Texas in the United States has banned the use of Christmas trees within its premises and has also forbidden students to use the colors red and green in its annual winter party.  The principal of the school explained that the the local Board of Education is enforcing the policy that "no religious belief or non-belief shall be promoted by the district and its employees" and that the school "didn't want to offend any families and since each family donates money (to the party), (it) feels that this is the best policy."

The ban surprisingly came just after Texas Governor Rick Perry signed recently into law the so called Merry Christmas Bill which essentially allows students and school staff to freely discuss and celebrate holidays as they please. Many parents and concerned Texas residents have been outraged and have angrily spoken up to condemn what they felt was political correctness carried to the extreme by the administrative staff of the Nichols Elementary School .

In Lianga like everywhere else in the Philippines and in most Christian nations all over the world, nothing else epitomizes and symbolizes the Yuletide season than the ubiquitous Christmas tree. In this town, it is even a more common component of the traditional Christmas dressing-up of homes than the more indigenous Filipino parol (Christmas star) or belen (nativity crèche or tableau), a fact that quickly is obvious to someone who takes the time to go around and visit the houses of relatives, friends and acquaintances here this Yuletide season.

I have always been fascinated since early childhood with Christmas trees and have wondered even as a young boy how something so clearly alien and foreign to the early founding cultures of this nation can be so quickly accepted and assimilated by us Filipinos as an essential requirement of our contemporary Christmas celebrations. After all, what do trees of spruce, fir or pine have to do with this tropical country? Especially the ones bedecked in twinkling lights, ribbons, red balls and other trimmings, candy canes, angel and reindeer figurines, and whose evergreen branches gleam with painted glitters and the simulated dusting of fake snow and ice.

Most historians point to 16th century Germany as the time and place for the first verifiable records detailing the use of decorated trees to commemorate and symbolize Christmas. Apparently the practice quickly spread through Europe and Great Britain. In the then English colonies of North America which would eventually become the United States, German immigrants introduced and promoted the custom and Yule trees become part and parcel of the Christmas lore and legend in that nation. American colonization of the Philippines in the early 20th century and more than a century of American influence ensured that Filipinos became quickly enamored of Yule trees, however patently strange and absurd they must have originally been to our forbears.

These same experts and most folklorists speculate that the first use of Christmas trees was a consequence of early pagan or animist religious beliefs (adopted and integrated later into Christianity) which include the worship of trees and tree groves associated with mythic gods and other supernatural beings. In the Philippine context, the belief in tree spirits and other unnatural creatures both benign and malignant who reside in trees and forests is also endemic in traditional cultures and such superstitions remain stubbornly embedded in the Christian and Catholic and even Muslim faiths of Filipinos today.

Thus it is easy to hypothesize why the practice and tradition of putting up Christmas trees this time of the year became so easily accepted here in this country. What better way can there be to ensure good fortune and good luck for the coming new year than the setting up in the main room of one's house of what essentially amounts to a shrine to all good spirits and the invisible yet powerful guardians of nature, enticing them to enter the home and bless and protect all of its occupants from all forms of harm and misfortune.

Ironically, the pre-Christian and therefore "pagan" origins of the practice of putting up Christmas trees (and its gradual integration into modern Christmas symbology) has led to heated debates in many countries particularly the the United States on whether the custom should be considered religious or secular in nature. For the Roman Catholic Church, however, two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have tacitly affirmed acceptance of the Yuletide tree tradition. John Paul II, in particular, has referred to it as a symbol of the birth of Christ and of "the tree of life" that has "blossomed in the desert of humanity."

Of course, in the Philippine setting, the Christmas tree tradition has adapted to the realities and nuances of both the local setting and native cultures. Fir, spruce and pine has given way to local substitutes from bamboo, palm or coconut fronds to garden shrubs of all types. In the more urbanized areas where access to living trees or shrubs is difficult, the use of artificial trees ingeniously made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), aluminum and even optical fibers is widespread. My mother's Christmas tree now is even made of Magkono (Philippine ironwood) branches artfully arranged and festooned with the traditional trimmings and glitters.

Yet no matter what type and manner these now durable symbols of the Christmas spirit are made of and how they are decorated and embellished, it is clear to me that much of our sentimental attachment to Christmas trees can be universally traced to mankind's subconscious fascination and admiration for the ability of evergreen conifers like pine, spruce or firs to not only survive yet even flourish in the harsh and freezing cold of winter. Even in the tropical clime we here in the Philippines are born and used to, no image is more evocative of Christmas than the mental picture of magnificent pine or fir trees, their branches heavy with the weight of powdery white frost, standing majestically still and silent in the midst of snow covered landscapes underneath the twinkling stars of a clear winter night.

The Christmas tree is certainly a tradition borrowed (or imposed in the opinion of many) from other cultures not our own. But perhaps, in the deepest recesses of our Pinoy hearts, just like in the hearts of all men of peace and goodwill all over the world, there has always been a universal need for a tangible symbol of the deep human longing and yearning for some degree of hope and surety that, in spite of  the all the chaos, conflict and despair existing in the world through out the ages, there is always a chance for something better, something worth living and working for in the dawning of a new year and in the immediate future to come. The evergreen tree standing proudly and defying the inhospitable cold of winter is clearly a potent and appropriate icon for that.

In this sense, the Yuletide tree is both pre-Christian and Christian, both secular and religious. It is also, for us Filipinos, a tradition while seemingly anomalous, yet is also not necessarily in contradiction to the spirit of our native cultures. The decorated trees (both natural and synthetic) that stand in the living rooms of our homes in Christmastime are, in the secular sense, unintentional monuments to our innate optimism as a people, illuminated symbols trumpeting our resolve to continue to strive and move on despite all the trials and challenges we as individuals and as a people have faced and will continue face ahead. In the religious sense, they can be viewed and understood in many diverse yet not necessarily contradictory and complementary ways.


The controversy and debate on whether this custom or practice impinges upon religious freedom or the doctrine of the separation of church and state is therefore, as I see it, pointless as it is unnecessarily divisive when the priority should be for universal unity and tolerance despite our intrinsic differences as unique peoples and cultures. Christmas, both as an idea and as an actual celebration, please bear in mind, will always be for all the wide-eyed and trusting children that are in all of us irregardless of our actual ages and our individual religious or political persuasions. Myth, legend and a sense of magical wonder will always be an invaluable part of it

We should all see to it that it will stay that way always.

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My prayers and best wishes go out to all of you who have followed this blog for the past six years or so. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you wherever you may be.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Dying Beautifully

Seventeen years ago my father died peacefully in his sleep and in the manner he always said he wanted  to leave this world - without fuss, without unnecessary pain and without subjecting his family to the rigors and demands of a death coming only after a protracted and prolonged bout with some dreaded and debilitating disease.

He had lived a rich and full life, most of it lived in the service of others. He had been a physician and healer for most of his life, a rare artist with the surgeon's knife, a tool which he wielded with such consummate skill and panache that stories of the many medical miracles he had wrought in the operating room in his time are still being told and even embellished to this day among old-timers here in Lianga.

When he went to sleep on that night many many years ago and did not wake up at dawn as he normally did for the most of his life, he was already a much loved and respected man in this town. In death, lying serenely in bed with the bed covers unrumpled and with nary a trace of discomfort on his face, he was the picture of a man who had left life with no regrets and with no hint of bitterness or ambivalence. It was the way he always wanted to go, quietly and quickly.

It has often been taken as an article of the wisdom of the ancients that a man reaps what he sows.  Thus it is a sure consequence of divine justice for a man to pass on to the next world in a way that is commensurate with the manner in which he had lived his life. Bloodthirsty warmongers and merciless killers of men are believed to be fated to end their lives just as violently and in the same sickeningly bloody fashion with which they gleefully dispatched from life their helpless victims.

Those less savage in nature yet still grossly insensitive and cruelly callous to the sensibilities and emotional needs of others while still living are doomed with facing the prospect of the gut-wrenching process of being suddenly snatched from life into death alone, lonely, neglected, uncared-for and forgotten. Good and loving men, on the other hand, are said to be deserving of calm, peaceful and comfortable deaths, their passing greatly mourned and the memory of their lives and works long remembered and never forgotten.

Dying the death one deserves or wants is, of course, never a sure thing and there are many instances and ways of losing one's life which, from the point of view of those who have been left behind, offer no logical or rational context from which to draw even small comfort or emotional closure from. Take for example the death of thousands of innocents as a result of the fury of Typhoon Yolanda in the Visayas recently.  Where indeed, many of the survivors ask, is the divine reason and justification for the seemingly random yet massively wanton destruction and loss of life foisted on this nation in the wake of that natural disaster.

Yet Jose Yu Otagan's remarkably calm and serene exit from life in the early morning hours of December 20 exactly seventeen years ago to this day is remarkable in itself because, unlike most ordinary men, he got exactly the death he wanted, desired and which he had, in his very private and intimately vulnerable moments, so earnestly asked for. Dying the way he did also helped his family and relatives cope with the sudden and crushing pain of unexpectedly losing him just when he was on the verge of enjoying the golden years of his full retirement from almost three decades of caring for the medical needs of others.


Perhaps his passing on, the way he did, does prove in one shining instance that there is indeed, in the great divine plan that determines the secret workings of the vast cosmos within which we live out our current existence, a great karmic law that does reward the virtuous and, in the same arcane, seemingly whimsical yet sure manner, punish evildoers by granting men, the death they so truly and so gloriously deserve. Perhaps, the granting of such a gift is never automatic and mandatory but set in motion by a divinely benevolent will akin to the granting of divine grace, a favor given unexpectedly yet never arbitrarily as a manifestation of the Creator's love and His recognition of a particular mortal life lived in an exemplary manner.

If that is indeed the case then perhaps, after eternal life and admittance to heaven and paradise, the grant of a beautiful death may be the gift of the greatest and inestimable value. For the dying it lessens beyond doubt the trauma of the transition from one life to the other. For the living it affirms their faith and trust not only in the Maker of all life but also in the spiritual rewards of a life lived justly and unselfishly.

In life we who still live may be different in many things but we are all the same in the inevitability of our death and exit from this life. How we die may be as important as how we live our lives and those who die beautiful deaths may be the most blessed among us.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Dangerous

A video of a recent news interview of Rodrigo Duterte, Davao City's maverick mayor, emotionally recounting his impressions of the chaotic situation in typhoon ravaged Tacloban City after he had led a group of Davao based rescue and aid workers who were among the first responders in Leyte is going viral on YouTube and Facebook. A single posting of that same video on Facebook (one of many posted and shared on that site) that I viewed yesterday evening had already garnered more than 8,000 likes and almost 2000 comments.

In that interview, a visibly emotionally wrought Duterte struggling to keep control of himself told reporters that in his view the state of national calamity declared by President Benigno Aquino III "was not enough" and that "there has to be a state of emergency because there is no local government functioning" in the stricken areas. "The people," he insisted, "have no electricity, no food, no water... all their dead are on the streets... the survivors are looking at the heavens.. Those that they depend on, the police, the army, and even the social workers of the government, all of them are victims, all of them are dead. Even the police and the army there are dead... God must have been somewhere else ... or that He forgot that there is a planet called Earth."

The short, grim monologue punctuated on a several instances by pungent swear words and curses in both Tagalog and Bisaya (which he was clearly trying in vain to suppress) ended with a fervent plea for help in any form or manner for all the victims of Typhoon Yolanda. "We have to help," he said. "No matter what, no matter how little."

Mayor Duterte is, of course, well known for his brash, unorthodox and iron-fisted management style as chief executive of the local government in Davao City particularly in his pet areas of crime prevention and control and the maintenance of local peace and order. He is widely credited and cited for making Davao, which used to be haven for criminals and lawlessness in the 1980's, one of the safest cities in Southeast Asia yet himself remains a favorite target for condemnations and criticisms from human rights groups like Amnesty International who have accused him of tacitly encouraging if not out-rightly supporting the extrajudicial killings of criminals and crime suspects within his jurisdiction.

In the past, Duterte has been portrayed as being not adverse or hesitant to using a tart tongue, or worse, a quick fistic blow or even a series of punches to chastise and discipline in public erring officials and constituents. He is so respected (or feared, depending on who you talk to) for his public image as a overzealous, trigger happy yet thoroughly effective crime fighter by many Filipinos in and outside of Davao that he has been given the sobriquet "The Punisher" in 2002 by Time magazine in reference to the fictional vigilante anti-hero character popularized in Marvel comic books.

It also seems that this rather pugnacious and pugilistic nature has been inherited by the members of the family political dynasty with which he has ruled Davao for decades. His daughter, Sarah Duterte-Carpio, who was mayor of the city from 2010 until 2013 was thrust into the national spotlight after punching in the head a regional trial court sheriff during an altercation in connection with the demolition of a shantytown in the city during her term.

In the case of the recent news interview, however, one cannot refrain from feeling sympathy (even empathy) and grudging admiration for the man. Here is a local government official from a city far away from Tacloban, obviously with his own local concerns and problems, who responded immediately, on his own initiative, to the unfolding tragedy happening in another distant city and who quickly managed to mobilize and get a rescue and assistance team into the disaster area even before other agencies and groups from the national government (who should have been there first) could get their act together.

Obviously he was among the first public officials to actually wade into the battered and ravaged ruins of what used to be eastern Leyte and among the first to personally see and evaluate, from a first person perspective, the true horror, the depth and extent of the tragedy of the massive destruction left by Yolanda. One can forgive him for becoming emotional while recalling what must have been an searingly agonizing experience. One can also forgive and ignore the curses and the swear words. He was clearly entitled to them being the man he is and in view of the raw honesty of the emotions one can clearly see in his face and demeanor as he was speaking out.

In truth, his voice in that interview was and remains among the only few from so many other official voices, mostly blurting out lame and inane excuses or trying finger-point blame, that made clear sense and which, with brutal honesty, has publicly highlighted the same unanswered questions which the Filipino nation and the rest of world have been asking since Typhoon Yolanda had come and gone. How could the national government of this country and its local officials in the Visayas region not been able to adequately and properly prepare for the onslaught of one of the strongest storms in history in spite of clear warnings and up to date forecasts from meteorologists many days before it made landfall? 


Why was the initial response of the Philippine government to the devastation in the critically hit areas been so spotty and slow? Didn't high officials of the Aquino administration, including the President himself, made public assurances and even boasted on the national news media in the days before Yolanda hit that its agencies and personnel were already prepared and its logistical assets properly positioned to deal with the impending calamity?

Focus back on "the Punisher" from Davao who dropped everything and immediately organized and sent a relief team to go quickly into the disaster zone, the same man who, in order to make sure that his group can arrive quickly and safely in the Tacloban area, had supposedly given instructions for his rescue team members to shoot down any looters and lawless elements who may seek to harass or rob the Davao contingent.  Duterte later however clarified that the order was to merely "shoot in the legs" and not to kill but only incapacitate would-be assailants or ambushers in self-defense.

The mayor also pointed out in the same interview to what may be a valid point and something even President Aquino in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour has acknowledged. This is the fact that the local governments in the typhoon hit communities have been virtually decimated and therefore no longer exist and has ceased to function. This means that unless the national government steps in and immediately assume de facto emergency control on the ground (for the meantime at least), there can be no quick, efficient and organized rescue, relief and rehabilitation program that can properly take off no matter how much local and foreign aid and assistance is available.

Finally, Duterte also harped in the same interview on the need for a strong local government with the political will to enforce forced evacuations of its constituents living in critically vulnerable locations in the face of a looming natural disaster such as a super typhoon. He stressed that with a proper warning from the national government and if it would be necessary, he would personally manhandle and drag residents of his city who are unwilling to evacuate from their homes to safer locations. That requires, he emphasized, that a viable contingency plan for such scenarios must already exist for local disaster preparedness officials and that a major part of it must include designated avenues and easy routes for access to already prepared and clearly identified evacuation centers and refuge areas.

There is no doubt in my mind that Davao mayor, because of the interview which has been seen by countless Filipinos all over the country, is now being seen as an admirable if not heroic figure, an exemplary leader in the face of what is perceived as a government that on all levels is coming across as inept, indecisive and incompetent. After all, he is not only making sense, he has actually done something for the victims of Yolanda and did it fearlessly well to the limits of his capability and capacity.


Why not elect this man and make him President? This is what majority of the almost two thousand comments I read to the Facebook post showing the interview video said or implied. Even those who were not so slavish in their praise had only favorable words for the man.

Why not indeed. In one sense, we do need men like Rodrigo Duterte who are strong, decisive and fearless leaders of men, leaders who are not afraid to do what must be done even if the weak-hearted and timid among us may shout caution and restraint or quibble with legalities and procedural technicalities.

In that same view, we do need charismatic and paternalistic leaders who will really lead this country and, if need be, pull us painfully by our very ears in the path and direction of the peace, progress and prosperity he envisions for us even if there are those, rightly or wrongly, who may want to go somewhere else or through a different route altogether. We need another Lee Kuan Yew (or heaven forbid, for those who are rabid Marcos apologists, another less corrupt yet no less resolute Ferdinand Marcos), a strong man with a heart of gold, a will of iron, nerves of steel and brass balls. Filipinos do still dream and fervently pray for a political savior, a Messiah, to take this country out of the clutches of the corrupt, the mediocre and the incompetent who have been misleading the nation for so long while enriching themselves and their cronies at its expense.

Rodrigo Duterte could be that man. For many he does certainly fit the bill. That is why I believe today, in my heart and mind, that the Punisher from Davao City is a very dangerous man.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Guilt

I spent most of Nov. 9 watching television. I started with CNN and later moved on to the local Filipino channels. All were, as expected, trying to outdo each other in airing the most gruesome and shocking pictures and videos of the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) in the central Philippines and the Visayas region particularly in the now beat-up and battered city of Tacloban on the island of Leyte.

I immediately realized how news worthy the emerging disaster in the Visayas was when I began seeing and hearing on-site reportage by noted CNN journalists Paula Hancocks and Andrew Stevens. Hancocks, in particular, was repeatedly cited by the news network in its initial breaking news bulletins as the first foreign correspondent to fly in to Tacloban and report live from there.

By early afternoon, more and more news updates have slowly began painting an emerging picture of the unprecedented extent of the horrendous destruction visited in many of the affected areas.  In my mind, as well as in the minds of the millions of other Filipinos all over the country who were monitoring the news media, it gradually became clear that in almost all of the lovely, tropical islands comprising the central Philippines, a calamity of unimaginable proportions caused by what has been described by meteorologists as one of the strongest typhoons in recorded history, was become more and more apparent.

In Lianga which belongs to northern Mindanao but in actuality is much farther south of the Samar and Leyte provinces where Yolanda made its initial landfall, the passing of the storm on the early hours of Friday (Nov. 8) as it barreled its way northwest from the warm waters of the south Pacific (which had given birth to it) was manifested only by heavy rains, menacing dark clouds and occasional wind gusts which were never strong enough to cause serious damage and which quickly died down as the morning waxed and waned. In fact, by noontime, the cloudy skies thinned and the sun came out by late afternoon.

Of course, like most Filipinos living in the eastern portions of the country and who were projected by weather forecasters to have more than a decent chance of being caught in the path of Yolanda's fury, residents here were not remiss in making the necessary precautions and preparations. After all, Lianga is a coastal town facing the great Pacific Ocean. It was no stranger to storms and typhoons. Just less than a year ago, they had seen with their own eyes Typhoon Pablo (international name: Bopha) not only manhandle portions of Compostela Valley and the Davao provinces just south of them but also gave this town a thrashing it had not experienced since time immemorial.

In many towns and population centers along the eastern coast of the province of Surigao del Sur (to which Lianga belongs) from Hinatuan in the south to Tandag City in the north, people living in high risk areas were told to evacuate and seek refuge in evacuation centers the day before. Local government officials urged their constituents to stock up on the basic necessities and monitor the progress of the approaching storm.

This time, however,  Yolanda merely breezed through far away at sea and without hesitation decided to strike with her full strength much farther up north. The Leyte and Samar provinces including Cebu and Bohol (still trying to recover in the aftermath of the recent magnitude 7.2 earthquake) got clobbered first as Yolanda maintained her swift rampage northwest across the center of the Philippine archipelago and eventually exited just north of Palawan just more than 24 hours after she struck land.

Chance? Fate? Divine intervention? Who knows? Perhaps high up in the sky or somewhere in the cosmos, in the infinite realms where divine beings play with the lives of mortals, a pair of dice was thrown or a ball thrown into a spinning roulette wheel and Lianga came out a winner.

Yet for many people here including myself, there is a vague, yet lingering, nagging sense of guilt. We here, after all, are alive and well and yet so many others not far away have perished or have lost many of those they loved the most. We still have our homes and our communities intact and whole while so many others not far away have seen theirs bruised, battered and even ripped to shreds. Our lives remain virtually untouched and undisturbed yet so many others not far away just had their lives turned upside down and their immediate futures made tragic, dark and uncertain.

We here in Lianga were indeed lucky and that perhaps is the reason why many of us here, whether we admit it or not, have been touched in our hearts and minds by twinges of momentary guilt undeserved though it may be. Because it is clear that we have been, in the case of Typhoon Yolanda, extremely damned lucky and, in truth, have been favored by Lady Luck so many times over in the past in the face of impending and imminent natural disasters while so many others, God only knows why, have not been as blessed or as fortunate.

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

40 Days

Yesterday, the 25th day of September marked the end of the traditional forty day mourning period following the death of Lianga Vice-Mayor Robert "Jun" Lala Jr who passed away last August 17. His family, relatives, supporters and friends commemorated the event with a morning mass at the Sto. Niño Parish Church after which everyone proceeded to the Lianga public cemetery to visit and pray at his grave. The Lala family later hosted lunch for all of the mourners and guests at the Lala residence.

Casual research on my part reveals that the significance of the forty day mourning period for deceased individuals especially for Catholics in the Philippines is rooted more in custom and tradition rather than in actual religious or church doctrine. The number 40 is important in biblical numerology and is mentioned often in the Bible. The great flood of Noah, for example, lasted for 40 days and nights. The people of Israel led by Moses wandered for 40 years in the wilderness after leaving Egypt after the Exodus. Jesus was said to have fasted for 40 days after he was baptized by John the Baptist and tradition holds that he ascended to heaven only after 40 days had passed after his resurrection.

Many Filipinos whether they are Catholics or not believe that a person's soul after death wanders the world and may visit the various places that have significance in its previous life.  Only after forty days will it be called to judgement and thereafter be allowed to ascend to heaven, descend to hell or be incarcerated in purgatory. This belief in so called "lingering souls" has been hotly debated in many religious circles and there are many priests and theologians to this day who still cannot agree whether it has any real basis in Christian doctrine.

The idea that souls do linger on earth for forty days after death is especially well accepted among Eastern Orthodox Christians.  Many scholars however believe that this belief is rooted in pre-Christian and pagan Slavic religions and was only later on incorporated into the Orthodox faith. The Slavs are an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group from which almost over half of the modern population of Europe can trace their descent.

Personally, I find the idea of being forced to earthbound exile (temporary though it may be) for more than a month after dying, as a nebulous and immaterial spirit, rather a ridiculous if not a distressing concept. If the transition from life to death is indeed, as most religions aver, merely a portal to another kind of life or plane of existence then to believe that a recently released spirit or soul has no choice but to flit here and there aimlessly akin to a lost and orphaned child for such a significant period of time, condemned obviously to merely witness unfolding events yet remain basically impotent and unable to materially change or influence them in any way seems only, in my view, to point an accusing finger to an Almighty Creator who in his omnipotence may also be a playful yet inherently cruel jokester.

Unless, of course, the ultimate purpose of all wandering spirits is merely to constantly haunt and scare the bejesus out of the majority of us, living mortals, who are clearly inveterate and unrepentant sinners, in which case I will start believing in ghosts and goblins.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Minding The Legacy

When Surigao del Sur Governor Johnny Pimentel appointed and swore into office Marie Gene Lala as the newest member of Lianga's municipal council last September 9, he may have been largely motivated by the need to pay tribute to her recently deceased husband, Robert "Jun" Lala Jr, who was the town's vice-mayor when he passed away last August 17. But the governor may have wittingly done the people of Lianga a great service.

When Jun Lala died in office after just over a month of serving his second full term as head of Lianga's Sangguniang Bayan or municipal council, Dot Tejero who was the highest ranking council member automatically succeeded him to that office thus opening up a vacancy in the eight man legislative body. The law empowers the provincial governor to appoint a person to fill up the vacant position for the remaining portion of the unexpired term which ends in 2016.

In the past, the choice of who to appoint has always been subject to the pressures and requirements of political expediency and provincial governors have always used the rather discretionary nature of this particular appointing authority as an integral part of the much entrenched system of patronage politics that is a bitter and undesirable reality of the dysfunctional political system of this country.  I have written a previous blog post some time ago about this which can be seen here.

In the case of Jun Lala who was much revered and respected by many here in Lianga, it appears that Gov. Pimentel, who is a party mate of the late vice-mayor in the ruling Liberal Party, may have felt less inclined to hand over such a juicy position (said to be worth, at the very least, almost P50,000 in monthly salaries and benefits for almost a full term of three years) to just any of his political henchmen and cronies here in Lianga without arousing the passionate ire of the late vice-mayor's considerable number of relatives and supporters who cannot be faulted for insisting that the vacancy be filled in by someone worthy of minding and continuing Jun Lala's political legacy.

To be charitable and fair about it, it can also be said that the governor did have much respect and felt perhaps no small degree of personal affection for the late vice-mayor and was therefore more than amendable to elevating someone to the municipal council who was not only acceptable to Jun Lala's family and supporters but also one who is clearly identified with his style and philosophy of public service

Now, I know Gene Lala personally and while she is certainly still quite young and a virtual unknown in Lianga politics, what many here don't know is that she comes, like her late husband who comes a well known political clan in Lianga, from a family and clan very prominent in local politics in the town of Sapang Dalaga in Misamis Oriental and thus is keenly attuned to the realities and nuances of being constantly in the political limelight.  She is highly educated, extremely approachable, well-mannered and firmly shares many of Jun Lala's core values and principles.

I have always, as a matter of principle, spoken out against the practice of appointing, in the aftermath of the death of a serving elected official, any of his family members to vacant government positions. Such a practice in my view, is violative of the principles underlying democratic and republican governments. Public office, as I see it, is always a public trust and therefore cannot be inherited or claimed as a matter of right by virtue of blood or familial relations.

Yet in the case of Gene Lala, I may have to make an exception. Knowing the rather shadowy characters and dubious quality of the other persons and individuals here in Lianga (and most people here know who they are) who have been identified to have actively lobbied with Gov. Pimentel for the empty seat in the council, Gene is beyond doubt one of the better and wiser choices he could have made. The fact that she happens to be the wife of the late Jun Lala may actually work to her advantage because she can bank, if she needs to, on the residual popularity of her fallen husband and massive outpouring of sympathy for her and her family in the aftermath of his death.

There are parallels, of course, being drawn here in Lianga between Gene Lala and Leni Robredo, the wife of the late Jesse Robredo, the extremely popular, former secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), who was catapulted to a seat in the lower house of Congress (representing her district in Camarines Sur) in the wake of her husband's tragic death in a plane crash last year. I find such comparisons cute but trite.


What is however true in the case of both women, who have been forced by unfortunate circumstances to become neophyte politicians by popular clamor, is that they have to perform their duties and responsibilities as first time legislators under the highest of expectations and the greatest of pressures to do well.  It would not be easy for both of them to now live under constant public scrutiny and being now always held up to the high standards set by their husbands' sterling political track records.

For Gene Lala, of course, it is important for her to realize that she can never be the consummate politician that her husband was. She will have to become her own man and chart her own course as a public servant in the almost three years she will have to serve while at the same time build upon the legacy of service her late husband has left behind. It is a formidable and daunting task and one that I would not have wished on anyone so unassuming and so self-effacing.

But the kind of burdens that fate often places so whimsically on the shoulders of ordinary men or women, all of us included, at critical times can be intimidatingly difficult to bear much less easy to comprehend as to their reason or cause. What really matters in the end is how well we carry all the many different crosses we all must bear as we individually trudge our own courses through life.

In Gene's case, however, she is both paradoxically blessed and cursed. On one hand there is the honor and prestige as well as the perks and benefits of public office. Yet she must also face up to the crushing responsibility of living up to the extraordinary legacy of public service her husband had left behind. What Jun Lala had wanted to accomplish for Lianga is now essentially her personal responsibility to eventually give tangible substance and concrete reality to.


The people of Lianga can only hope and pray that she will be, in the months and years ahead, be proven more than equal to the enormous task set before her.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dengue

It used to be that in Lianga a bout with fever unless it was determined to be really a high grade one where one's body temperature rises to at least 39 degrees centigrade or higher, it was considered more of a nuisance rather than anything really serious. Nothing that regular doses of paracetamol or any of the other antipyretic drugs that help reduce fever cannot remedy in conjunction with rest and increased fluid or water intake.

The exception, of course, was made for children (especially the very young), the elderly and those already in poor health who even  in the more remote and far flung barangays or villages are immediately rushed to the local health center or hospital.  That is, if their families have the financial resources and the capability to do so. Otherwise, it may be up to the local mananambal (the local folk healer or practitioner of traditional medicine) to come up with some cure hopefully by using the appropriate herbal remedies and not some form of arcane yet useless sorcery.

Nowadays, any instance of elevated body temperature in both adults and children can now be a cause for panic. This is because there has been, for the past few months, an outbreak of dengue fever in this town and this health scourge has claimed several lives including that of the municipal vice-mayor of Lianga, Robert "Jun" Lala Jr., who passed away last August 17.

Now dengue, for those who know little or nothing about this deadly tropical disease, results from the bite of mosquitoes from the genus Aedes particularly the A. aegypti which is said to be responsible for transmitting the virus that causes the fever.  After an incubation period that can last from a few days to two weeks, the infected individual will often experience high fever, muscular aches and pains and perhaps a measles-like rash.

If the patient survives the critical phase where there may be complications like fluid accumulation in the abdomen and chest, gastrointestinal bleeding, shock or (if dengue hemorrhagic fever develops as it occasionally does in about 5 percent of cases) severe internal bleeding then recovery begins to occur after about four to seven days. Children often suffer a higher risk of complications although paradoxically the initial symptoms may be mild.

Mortality rates in the case of dengue cases are said to range from just one to five percent but it is clearly prompt and competent medical care that can spell the difference between pulling through and dying from it. In rural and provincial areas like Lianga where specialized care for seriously ill dengue patients including blood transfusion facilities are not available, that can be a major problem.

In the week following the death of Vice-Mayor Lala, an epidemiology team sent by the Region XIII regional office of the Department of Health  (DOH) in Butuan City had detected critically high levels in the population densities of mosquitoes noted for the transmission of the dengue virus in many areas around the town. The same team had recommended fogging operations which was carried out a few days later but even then they still warned residents that the outbreak will continue unless repeated fogging operations are scheduled and that local health authorities lead and assist the local townspeople in identifying and cleaning up mosquito breeding sites.


The tragedy, of course, of the dengue outbreak in Lianga was not only in the several deaths that have been clearly attributed to the disease but also in the fact that the municipal government and local health officials have been inexplicably slow in responding to the emerging health crisis when it first started.  It is, for example, recommended procedure for municipal health offices in the event of a confirmed dengue case in their areas to immediately raise local alert levels, to quickly institute monitoring procedures and undertake preemptive measures designed to identify and sanitize dengue hot spots in their localities.  If so needed, the technical assistance of the DOH regional office could have been sought and requested.

In the case of this town which has not been exactly a stranger to similar but more milder and smaller outbreaks in the past, it would have been logical for the local health office under Dr. Leo Sarmen, to quickly move to seek the assistance of the municipal government (under his brother, Mayor Roy Sarmen) and the DOH regional office in Butuan in order to fight and nip the outbreak in the bud before more local residents could have been infected and lives lost. Instead, I had been reliably informed that the DOH epidemiology personnel came to Lianga on their own initiative and only after receiving reports of the dengue cases here directly from concerned local residents.

Perhaps the majority of the townspeople here should also share part of the blame for the general indifference that allowed the outbreak to grow and eventually claim lives.  In the aftermath of the initial fogging operations supervised by the DOH, there were reports of locations within the town that were confirmed to be ideal mosquito breeding sites. In one incident, technicians handling the fogging machines found in the backyard of one of the houses just a short distance from my own residence a large pile of assorted glass bottles, many of them containing water residue which could provide an optimum breeding environment for mosquito larvae.


At this time, the number of dengue cases within the municipality are said to be tapering off and but even local health officials are not keen on declaring it as being over any time soon. They are however hoping that the number of dengue victims and fatalities from the disease will eventually fall to zero as more and more local residents have taken the DOH health alerts to heart and have began to clean up their immediate environments aside from making sure that suspected dengue patients quickly get the specialized medical attention and care that they may urgently need.

Personally, I now see the recent and ongoing dengue outbreak in Lianga as a sobering lesson in how lives can be needlessly lost and an entire town thrown into helpless panic because of a local government and its health officials who were caught napping and unprepared in the face of a sudden public health crisis. It also illustrates pointedly how a more civic minded local population could have helped avert a serious disease outbreak simply by cleaning up its immediate environment and observing the most basic of sanitation procedures - actions that, as individuals and as members of any self-respecting and health-conscious community, people here should have been doing regularly, as a matter of course.

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Monday, September 2, 2013

Gone Too Soon

As Christians we are taught as an article of faith that the ways of God are often mysterious and far beyond our limited and mortal comprehension, that there are many painful hurtful things and events that transpire in our everyday lives that may prove difficult for us to accept as part and parcel of the divine plan that we believe determines the direction and course of our existence in this world.

One such event was the passing away of Lianga Vice-Mayor Robert Lala Jr. (known affectionately to his relatives, friends and constituents as Jun or Junjun) last August 17, 2013 as a result of complications arising from a short but deadly bout with dengue fever.  His death was a sobering shock to all those who knew him because there were few men like him who lived life to the fullest and who found joy and laughter in everything he did.

I knew Jun intimately not only because he was a first cousin but because we virtually grew up together.  In Lianga and later on in Cebu City, I saw him grow up from being a lovable, tousled-haired and pint-sized kid with no hint of the seeds of greatness laying dormant inside him to the much beloved and much esteemed public servant that he eventually would became.  In the course of the long and difficult process that characterized the period between these two different stages in his life, Jun never lost the innate optimism, the unquestioning and limitless zest for life and the yen to help others that so distinguished him from his contemporaries and for which, in my view, he will always be remembered.

Like so many people who knew Jun when he was much younger, I could never have anticipated or could have predicted that he would metamorphose into the effective politician and much loved public figure he would later become. Perhaps we were too distracted by his too obvious love for fun and laughter and the fact that in public he was known more for his abilities as the natural comic, the consummate all-round entertainer and the perennial life of the party.  It seemed then to those who thought they knew him best that he was not serious enough and lacked the focus, the clear goal and the commitment to that goal that was necessary to become truly successful in life.

In 2007, he quickly proved to everyone who had underestimated him that underneath the fun-loving and seemingly unpromising exterior he had the guts, the motivation and the vision to become, in his time, Lianga's most promising political leader.  In him everything came together, the affable easygoing personality, the hereto once underestimated yet naturally astute political skills, the dedication to public service and a manifest sense of destiny, all giving rise to a meteoric ascent to political preeminence yet unprecedented in Lianga's long and colorful history.

After gaining a seat in the municipal council just barely six years ago with the highest number of votes an aspiring council member had ever gotten in any previous local election in Lianga, Jun Lala began to distinguish himself not only as politician's politician but also a leader with that most rare and sought after of qualities; a politician who felt compelled to adhere to a deeply held core of moral and ethical principles that exclusively guided and determined all his actions and the direction and thrust of his public life.

In many instances, the compulsion to do what he felt was right even when it went against the norm and against the needs of political expediency would lead to him being beset by obstacles and challenges (and in one case at least caused threats to be raised against his own life) which he could have easily avoided had he been content to remain merely "one of the boys".  That he was still able to inspire and mold, when needed, an effective consensus among his political peers and achieve many of the goals he had set for himself and the municipal council he would eventually lead and then go on to become Lianga's most outstanding municipal vice-mayor to date was a clear testament to the persuasive force of his personality and the latent leadership skills that many thought he never had.

He would also from time to time bank on his considerable populist appeal and personal popularity especially from Lianga's outlying barangays and communities to be able to push through policy initiatives and government programs that more timid and tentative town officials could not dare to suggest much less espouse and actively support. This vast reservoir of goodwill and mutual affection among the ordinary people was something he carefully and meticulously nurtured and in many critical instances it was able provide him with the political clout that few municipal officials in this town both past and present ever had.

The massive outpouring of grief and the deeply felt sense of loss among the townspeople of Lianga that Jun Lala's sudden demise generated was humbling in terms of both its scope and intensity. In the wake held at his home in Lianga that lasted for over a week, the multitudes came, the crowd filling the house to bursting and spilling over into the lawn and the street beyond it, to pay their respects, mourn his passing and condole with his family.  They came from near and far, from all walks of life, and all of them expressing the same feelings of great personal loss.

On the last night of his wake last August 25 , thousands filled the cavernous interior of Lianga's municipal gymnasium in order to pay their last respects to him and his memory.  It was an event never before witnessed in Lianga, a spontaneous manifestation of the affection and respect for a fallen leader, the depth and breadth of which caught even his family and close relatives by surprise.  Many of those who came stayed until the early hours of the next day and still chose to accompany the massive throng of mourners who joined the funeral procession that finally laid him to rest at a cemetery plot he himself had acquired over a year ago on the southern end of Lianga public cemetery, a location close to to the town's sandy shoreline and sheltered by coconut trees, aptly appropriate as his final abode because of the serene beauty of its windy isolation.

Jun had clearly touched a multitude of lives in one way or the other.  He had been kind to others and had helped many when they needed help.  Their grief was touchingly honest as well as intensely personal.  Yet for the majority of them, Jun Lala was also the immediately recognizable face of an honest, conscientious and concerned local government looking after their needs and fighting for their welfare, something that many of us who have become jaded and inured to the rampant corruption and venality in the public service have come to believe, before he entered public service, no longer existed.

His death has in effect become a double tragedy for the people of Lianga.  On one hand, there was the personal loss felt for a man who was loved because he was a good man who loved others and who took upon himself the opportunity to serve his community unstintingly and wholeheartedly.  Yet in life he also helped revive and restore our faith in honest and responsible governance, in the hope that good and principled political leadership is possible when the right men and women are elected to office.  With him gone from us, therefore, we have come to realize how much more than the man we have lost.  We have lost a symbol, a rallying point and a visible embodiment in human form of all our hopes and dreams for a better and brighter Lianga.

In the end, the question of why such a tragedy has occurred and how it can be explained, understood and finally accepted begins to pale in significance and importance as we, who Jun Lala has left behind, begin to address the more relevant issue.  How do we insure that his life and his personal and political legacy will continue to have meaning and relevance in the weeks, months, years and decades to come.  For it is not enough that we all merely mourn and grieve for his memory.  Surely there is something more to remembering him than just that.

Perhaps it behooves us who are still here to realize that Jun's death points us to the very reason why he was so loved and esteemed and why his passing away has become so much of a personal tragedy for all of us. During his short yet remarkable public life, Jun has always and consistently made it a deeply personal mission the unenviable task of convincing his constituents that the greatness of Lianga, whether in the memories of the past or as a much desired goal for the future, has never depended and will never depend solely on the quality of its political leadership but more importantly on the collective character and attitude of its people.

Time and time again, he would decry the worrisome predilection of the local people to put too much of the burden of leading Lianga to progress and prosperity on the shoulders of its elected leaders.  He had always believed that the town in particular and the country in general will never truly move on and achieve true growth and development unless the ordinary people take up the cudgels themselves, endure and make sacrifices, and do their share in the massive work that has to be done.

In countless public speeches and in private talks with friends and confidants, he has always made emphatically clear his conviction that it is never enough for a community or a nation to have good leaders.  It must ideally also have good citizens who are all committed not only to their own small and petty concerns but even more so to the achievement of what is to the greater good and what was in the greater interest and the better welfare of all.

Much has been said about Jun Lala, the man and the public servant, as being in the same mold as that of another deceased yet also beloved government official, in particular the late Jesse Robredo, the former Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, whose first death anniversary was incidentally commemorated just a day or so of Jun's passing away.  Both were much admired political leaders who died tragically too young and who were widely known for their personal integrity, humility, charisma and dedication to a brand of people-centered "tsinelas" public service that runs counter to the arrogance, amorality and corruption that is the norm in the political life of this country.

Indeed we must mourn and grieve for such good men and good public servants because in life and even in death they gave us more than hope in our country and its future.  They have shown us clearly and by the vivid example of their lives how our own lives, whether we be leaders ourselves or merely ordinary citizens, should be really lived.  We mourn then because deep down inside, in our hearts of hearts, we see in them our very own selves at our very best, at our most noble and at our most inspiring.

If and only for that very reason then, the question of why Jun Lala had been taken so soon from us can be set aside and laid to rest like him.  His life of only four decades and of it just less than a decade lived in the arena of public service does seem startlingly short and abrupt and even incomplete.  But in one sense it was more than enough.

More than enough to awaken us and open our eyes, more than enough to shake us out of our lethargy and apathy, more than enough to inspire and motivate us to become better and greater than what we already are and more than enough to make us realize that we too can rise to excellence if we choose to do so.  Good men and good leaders may come and go but their memory and legacy lives and continues in those who follow and emulate them.  Jun will forever continue to live in those who, in tribute to him and in recognition of his greatness, will strive to live by the same principles he had always lived by and in doing so move heaven and earth to see to it that all of his hopes and dreams for Lianga will finally come true.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

Too Fast And Gone Awry

If you are a visitor or tourist planning to visit Surigao del Sur, then it would be fair to assume, if you have done your research or have asked those in the know about the places and locations worth visiting here, that you would come up with a list at the top of which would be the names of the province's top three tourist destinations. That would be the Tinuy-an Falls of Bislig, the Enchanted River of Hinatuan and the Bretania Islands of San Agustin.

The first two on the list have their own unique allure and particular points of interest but I have always felt a more sentimental attachment to the islands (or more accurately islets) of Bretania for the simple reason that the jump-off point for reaching the islets is just a half-hour's drive from Lianga where I live and because my paternal grandparents were actually from the small barangay or village of Salvacion which is just thee kilometers away from Barangay Bretania which happens to be the coastal village on whose coastal waters the now fabled islets lay scattered like a loose spray of emerald green jewels floating on a blue-green sea.

In the past few years, Bretania has seen tumultuous changes brought about by the sudden influx of visitors drawn initially by word of mouth to the pristine and unspoiled beauty of its islets, their white sand beaches and crystal clear waters.  Nowadays, of course, news about Bretania on the internet and aggressive advertising on the part of local tourism agencies had seen a dramatic increase in the volume of tourist arrivals.

In just over half a decade, I have seen the barangay explosively transformed from a quiet and sleepy fishing village to a hodgepodge of beach resorts crowding each other along a stretch of sandy coastline.  The seaside area had been cleared of most residential houses years ago and most of the locals relocated to a new village site a short distance farther inland.  Where the old houses used to be is now a patchwork of new infrastructure development ranging from the crude and simple to the elaborately ambitious as the area's landowners (both old and new) vie and compete with each other for what is clearly a burgeoning tourist trade.

I have written several posts in the past about Bretania and its lovely islets (see herehere and here).  But I have not yet updated the readers of this blog on how the growing popularity of the islets and the resulting influx of visitors eager to sample its unique seascape and other scenic attractions have changed the area. These changes have, in my view, sadly not been all for the better.

As one with extensive familial roots and deep emotional ties to the area, I have always been in favor of developing the Bretania islets tremendous tourism potential.  Like so many of its very own local people, I had envisioned many years ago the Bretania area as the nucleus of a growing and expanding tourism industry that would take advantage of this part of the Surigao del Sur province's unmatched beaches and unrivaled coastal scenery.

But the tourism development would have to be tailored, in the view of many concerned residents here including myself, to insure that it would primarily benefit the local people and the local economy while at the same time preserve the integrity and viability of the same natural wonders and the unique natural environment that have made this part of the world a veritable tropical paradise.  In both cases, the present situation in Bretania may be not proceeding exactly as it ideally should. I have been visiting the place every now and then and I have seen with my own eyes what seems to me like a tourism destination expanding too fast and in what may be the wrong directions.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of having been invited to a series of consultative meetings called by the municipal government of San Agustin (which has overall jurisdiction over Barangay Bretania) and attended by the many private landowners, barangay officials and other parties which have private and community interests in the Bretania area.  In the vigorous discussions that characterized the said meetings, a series of basic points in a general tourism development plan was agreed upon which was envisioned to be later formally embodied in a special municipal ordinance.

The dominant consensus then was to adopt a strict eco-tourism model to whatever tourism infrastructure may be built within the barangay and its surrounding area.  All efforts must be made to protect and preserve the pristine condition of the local scenic attractions and limit the impact of any infrastructure development on the natural environment.  Adequate sanitation and waste disposal facilities and procedures were to be given top priority by the municipal government and barangay officials. Landowners also agreed that a portion of their landholdings will be utilized for an access road that will traverse the western side of the barangay opposite that of the shoreline thus opening all areas within the community and connecting them to the main national highway.

Today, little of what was agreed upon in those meetings has been implemented.  Instead, the mad rush by local stakeholders and outside investors to put up resorts and visitor facilities and take advantage of the area's growing popularity as a tourist destination has led to an every man for himself situation where the big losers are the natural environment and the area's native residents while the local municipal and barangay governments have inexplicably stood idly by.

A quick tour of Barangay Bretania today will clearly show this sad state of affairs.  The main road connecting the village to Barangay Salvacion and the national highway remains a narrow, poorly maintained, three kilometer stretch of dirt road pockmarked here and there by potholes and mud puddles.  The promised access road along the western side of the resorts development area adjacent to a protected mangrove forest remains unfinished and that what has so far been completed is no more than an undulating ribbon of poorly compacted dirt suited more to four-wheel drive vehicles than anything else.

Despite the heavy visitor traffic especially on weekends, the seacoast side, lined with beach resorts of every type, is a confusing, topsy-turvy mess, the weed-choked access trails winding through coconut trees and open spaces cluttered with unused building materials and debris.  There seems to be little order or organization evident or proof of a coherent, generalized development plan being strictly followed.

The poor state of the existing access roads and trails particularly to those resorts and real estate properties located farthest from the national highway have also led to complaints by the owners and developers of these same properties.  They say that it is only the more easily accessible areas who are cornering most of the visitor traffic and that some of these resorts near the entry point have actually been putting up barriers and fences that discourage vacationers and visitors from proceeding further inland.

Near the entrance to the development area, there is evidence of extensive building and earth moving activities.  This area is adjacent to the La Entrada Resort said to belong to Manuel Alameda, the current provincial vice-governor of Surigao del Sur and another resort still under construction said to be being funded by Philip Pichay, the incumbent Congressional representative of the province's 1st district.

Both resorts (high-end facilities by local standards) have been panned by concerned local residents and environmentalists who are worried that the unrestricted expansion of resort facilities into what are essentially mangrove forest reserves which should be protected by law may have dire, negative environmental consequences.  These same critics have voiced the opinion that the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) should be more vigilant in seeing to it that the Bretania area's sensitive flora and environmental ecosystems are shielded from improper and perhaps too aggressive infrastructure development.

It is evident, that the quick rush by many landowners and resort developers in Bretania, who may have felt hemmed in by the limited space available for the expansion of their visitor facilities, to start building structures on the mangrove sites surrounding the main barangay site and shoreline may be the best proof that the original plan for an eco-tourism model for the development of the entire Bretania area has been practically trashed. What is even more worrying is not only have the local governments having jurisdiction there have allowed this to happen but that it may be high government officials with financial interests and real estate investments in Bretania who are at the forefront of this incursions into what should be protected areas.

The current situation in Bretania and the fabled islets it shelters is, in my view, very clear.  The present and future potential of this now increasingly popular scenic attraction and vacation destination is limitless and but that can only be sustained for the future if the municipal and barangay governments there work hand in hand with landowners, stakeholders, investors and the local people.  They all must come up with a coherent, viable and doable development plan for the area, one that seeks not only maximum profits from the visitor trade but, more so, one that preserves the natural beauty and allure of the islets and the very land and coastline that sustains and protects them.

I was in Bretania some days ago and it happened to one of those glorious, sunny mornings.  From the seashore of the village where the large, wooden motorboats with their bamboo outriggers stretched out like bird wings lay moored, their gaily painted hulls bobbing up and down in tune with the gentle surf, the islets reveal themselves, gleaming bluish-green in the near horizon, their beaches gleaming like white, misty ribbons in the distance.

These same boats will be, their owners and operators were hoping, soon chugging their way to sea and around the islets, their decks loaded with eager passengers. But the competition between boat operators for paying customers is fierce and just as unrelenting as the mad scramble between resort owners to draw in visitors to stay in their cottages and sample their restaurant fare.

As I made my way home and out into the highway, a convoy of cars and vans began snaking their way in, slowly and in a single file along the Salvacion-Bretania road.  Yes, Bretania is indeed becoming increasing popular and developing fast.  The question that many here is asking is at what cost and if it is the kind of development that its people want or really need now and for the future.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Remembering Dick and Jane

Surprisingly, I still can clearly picture them to this very day in my mind's eye.  Worn, a bit dog-eared, musty smelling yet well cared for.  Thin, paper-bound readers based on the Dick and Jane series of reading books some versions of which were then popularly used by Catholic private schools in the late 1960's and the early 1970's.

I was at that time just barely five years old and they were my first introduction to the world of reading.  The books belonged to my older brother and sister who were already in the first and second grades of elementary school but when the sudden mood would strike me, I would clumsily leaf through them, look at the brightly colored illustrations and slowly trace one finger over the large printed text below them while trying to silently mouth out the words.

Look at Dick and Jane.  See them play.  See Spot run.  Dick and Jane were, of course, brother and sister.  Spot was their dog.  Puff was their cat.  Sally was their baby sister.  Together with their parents and friends they lived happy and fun lives in a neighborhood that was reminiscent of my childish understanding of what was the best of post-World War II, white and middle-class, suburban Middle America.

It helped that the illustrations I saw that were idealized depictions of an America of a long and bygone era, of a time even before I was born because it was essentially the same America I saw affirmed in the old movies I occasionally watched with the rest of the family in the movie houses of that time and on late afternoon motion picture reruns on the newfangled color television set our immediate neighbor in the city owned and whose flickering images we could barely make out when we stood on tiptoes and peered into their living room from our vantage point just outside their first story window.

Nowadays, of course, the Dick and Jane readers are considered passé.  In an age that stresses political correctness, racial equality and multiculturalism, they have become embarrassingly irrelevant and culturally insensitive.  They have value only as collectible historical curios and it is said that well preserved first editions of these books can be worth $200 or more.

Whatever the deficiencies and inadequacies these readers had, they did much to arouse my interest in reading.  These readers were the first to beckon and introduce me the wonderful world of books.  They cajoled and enticed me to set my then small, wobbly and ungainly feet firmly on a path of reading and learning I  was never to venture away from.  They started me on a habit that eventually became a consuming obsession that was to open my mind to a vast and unlimited universe of untapped knowledge and boundless imagination.

I remembered the Dick and Jane books when I learned yesterday that President Benigno Aquino III had just signed into law Republic Act 10556 which declares every November 27 of every year as "Araw Ng Pagbabasa" (Day of Reading) which seeks to highlight government programs to promote literacy and reading skills among students all over the country. November 27 is actually the birth date of the late Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., the President's father who everyone knows is considered a national hero in the Philippines for his opposition to the Marcos dictatorship in the 1970's and the early 1980's.  He was well known as a book lover and he would have been extremely pleased to have his birth anniversary commemorated every year in such a manner.

I find it sadly ironic that, in a world where practically all of the greatest flowerings of of human creativity in the field of literature and the written word since the dawn of recorded history can be had and made available in an instant to almost anyone anywhere, the habit of reading as well as the inclination to read has become so largely passé and irrelevant like the Dick and Jane books I was once so enthralled with.

Yet the youth of today in this country, except for a few and lucky minority, have only disdain if not contempt for the written and printed word.  They prefer the multi-sensual and multimedia titillation and appeal of cable television and the internet.  They prefer empty, virtual experiences that leave nothing to the imagination, that fail to stimulate the mind and force it to think and ponder.  They have essentially become mental sponges absorbing all yet producing little that is singularly creative or original in return.


It is high time that the government should try to encourage and promote healthy reading habits in its schools and among all Filipinos irregardless of their age and level of education.  It does not matter if one has to thumb through the pages of real books or merely flick through with a finger on a touchscreen or through a mouse cursor on a computer monitor the virtual pages of an e-book or e-magazine.  What matters is that everyone, particularly the young, rediscovers once more the pleasures, the wonders and rewards of reading.

Nowadays, in fact, I do most of my reading on an e-book reader on a tablet PC.  That is not because I like it more that way but because it is easier (and cheaper!) to get new books and other reading items through digital files than through the actual acquisition of the real materials themselves.

But there is nothing that appeals to me more and gives me more tangible and tactile pleasure than the feel of an honest to goodness, real book in my hands.  Ah! The warm, smooth and papery texture of the pages, the clean, fresh, inky scent of new books or the musty yet appealing aroma of well-worn but well-loved and much thumbed-though ones.  In the end, these are all the same to me.

Merely an inviting prelude, a sensual appetizer to the unfettered worlds of  fun, adventure and learning that I am about to jump heedlessly into.

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