Saturday, September 30, 2006

Weather Talk

As Typhoon "Milenyo"” (international name: Xangsane) battered Luzon, Lianga sweltered through hot and humid days. It seemed like storm had sucked all of the heat and humidity over the Pacific Ocean and dumped it all over our part of the country while it wrecked its destruction up north.

The scenes of flooding and general devastation in the areas hit by the storm shown on national TV were appalling. But for us here, they highlighted one single fact: the area around where Lianga is located has relatively been spared by any form of really violent weather disturbances for more than at least a decade now and for this the local people have a lot to be thankful for.

Old timers here tell us that decades ago, tropical storms used to make regular and periodic visits to our area particularly during the latter part of every year but it seems that the weather patterns have changed over time and the storm track has moved up farther north. I am no weatherman but in the ten years or so I have been in Lianga, I could remember only of one occasion where a typhoon did pass by near Lianga and did some damage to the local infrastructure but certainly, in no way, on the same scale as the devastation Milenyo left behind.Call it luck or merely the consquences of climate change but we have been spared this time the unfortunate fate of our unlucky countrymen up in the north.

A typhoon like Milenyo hitting our part of Mindanao would probably cause a disaster of major proportions and because of the remoteness of our area, disaster response and aid from the government would be surely slow and greatly inadequate. Thousands will probably be killed or injured and the damage to infrastructure and agriculture will be catastrophic.

So as we here watch the pictures and videos of the storm damage in Manila and its surrounding areas, one thing is in our minds. Spare us the bad weather, please. Heat and high humidity? Bring it on!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Taking Chances

"Please, kuya, find me a chat friend, a foreigner," she pleaded as I just sat there amused while at the same time bemused by the request.

I was helping out a relative whose computer had a minor software problem and was testing it by going online and chatting with somebody from Indonesia when a young house helper saw what I was doing and then she popped the question.

The rationale for the request was obvious. She wanted to get to know a foreigner, preferably rich, at least by local standards, marry him and escape the poverty that is condemning her and the rest of her family to a life of drudgery and hopelessness. She has seen others of her kind do the same thing and have done well indeed. But it is also true that many others who also tried the same path ended up broken physically and mentally, poor as ever, and worst of all in many cases, dead.

I did not have the heart to talk ker out of it. After all, what alternatives are there for her to take? One often has to play the cards life has dealt him the best way he can and winning or losing the game of life is all about taking risks. Some of the choices may riskier than others but as in gambling, the higher the risks the higher the rewards.

I felt like a bastard then but I promised the young helper I would help her find her chat friend. And when I said so, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Hoping Against Hope

Just less than a year before the scheduled local and national elections, the news on national TV, radio and the print media has, for the past weeks, expectedly been dominated by reportage on the developments in political arena. A quick review of these reports indicate two major aspects of the coming elections which, predictably, will define the nature and texture of Philippine politics in the future as it had in the recent past.

Firstly, the political dynasties that have dominate the political landscape will remain the forces to contend with in the coming elections and they will be very difficult if not impossible to defeat and overthrow. Not with the wealth and political influence they control both on the local and national level.

Secondly, show business personalities will again be gunning for both local and national positions and this time with a vengeance. I was flabbergasted when I saw the long list of this new breed of politicians. Ever since Joseph Estrada swaggered his way to the presidency and after Fernando Poe, Jr. gave Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo a scare in the last presidential elections, every one else in the entertainment industry seems to be salivating at the prospect of banking on their popularity and launching a new career in politics.

In Lianga, the situation is very much less dramatic or colorful. It is in fact boring as hell. But then political contests in this town have always been, to a larger extent in recent years, cut and dried affairs where elections are decided more on other mundane things such as blood and clan relationships, money and logistics or the lack of it and political patronage rather than the candidate's actual character, track record and party or political ideology.

Like in most things, the town seems to be caught in some time warp. The same faces and names are going to be in the ballots, the same tired slogans and empty political promises will again be made and the charade will be played out to its inevitable and pointless end.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Communication Failure

Of the major technological innovations introduced in Lianga, none has had a greater impact on the day to day lives of its people than the advent of modern mobile phone communications. The ubiquitous cell phone has become so much a fixture in our daily lives that to imagine ourselves without it is to think the unthinkable. Many people, who had managed to go for decades before without ever seeing a cell site tower much less imagine a phone that can fit in the palm your hand, which you can carry around you wherever you go and yet call to anywhere in the world, now feel naked and helpless without it.

It all boils down to the need for people to be able to freely communicate with other people and not be limited by actual physical contact or proximity. Filipinos, probably more than most other nationalities, are great communicators and will try anything that will keep them in contact with their loved ones and the cell phone has become the technological miracle that makes this possible.

And, by golly, you cannot only call but also sent text and multimedia messages, surf the Web, play electronic games, pay your bills, access banking services, do shopping and a lot more. In the future, we are told that the cell phone will be the all-purpose electronic genie that redefine the way man will live, work and play.

That may be what will happen indeed but one wonders whether in the rush to immerse ourselves in the wonders of the wireless, digital world we may be missing out something more tangible and more real.

I have seen families in Lianga gathered together in the living room after dinner watching TV or just hanging out in each other's company. A seemingly cozy picture of family togetherness until you look closely and see each of them furiously fiddling with their cell phones; each lost in their own electronic universe and totally ignoring each other's presence.

And what about families and friends who communicate more through their phones rather than spend time to actually and physically touch base and renew relationships by actually communicating in the real, non-virtual and old fashioned, traditional sense?

Real human relationships may need more than easy access to instant digital communication in order to survive and flourish. And time spent to get actually in touch with others may not be precious time wasted but time wisely spent.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Sea People

Lianga, like many coastal communities, has a love-hate relationship with the sea. The local people know that it feeds them and provides livelihoods for many. But somewhere deep within their common psyche is also an irrational fear of the sea as a fundamental force of nature, fickle and unpredictable as a woman, and capable of unleashing the awesome power of wind and water that can wreck havoc and destruction upon their homes and communities and indiscriminately take their lives and the lives of their loved ones. This deep and primeval fear finds manifestations in many different forms but none fascinates me more than the enduring legends of the sea people.

The local lore is replete with stories and tales of the mythical residents of the underwater world, who depending upon the perspective of the storyteller, can be gentle and benevolent creatures aiding fortunate local residents in times of distress in the sea or vengeful and malevolent monsters who demand yearly tributes and sacrifices in the form of human lives. Old timers also talk of local residents kidnapped by the "ukoy", a particularly nasty, humanoid sea monster, who then condemns these unfortunates to eternal slavery underneath the blue-green waters of the deep.

Interestingly, the mermaid, classically depicted in many cultures as a woman with fish fins instead of legs, also abound in the shallow coastal waters if the stories of old fishermen and the grizzled mariners in their motorized boats are to be believed. Many of them even offer food and incantations to these fishy humans in the hope of a safe journey or a bountiful catch.

Without a doubt, there is no scientific evidence to support the existence of the sea people. They exist only in the realm of the imagination and, perhaps, in the collective subconscious of a people needing to understand, in their own limited way, the mystery, complexity and the massive power of the sea and the ocean.

But I have traveled by boat along Lianga's coast many times and I can understand how easily one can be seduced by these old legends. The flash of a white topped wave or the rolling dance of a rogue dolphin or the flitting shadow of a fast traveling fish can be taken for a mermaid from a distance. Or perhaps one can think that the rough brushing against your leg by a clump of seaweed or some harmless sea creature while you are swimming in deep water is the touch of the dreaded ukoy.

Either way, the myth can suddenly and terrifyingly take on reality and for a heartstopping moment there, you are almost certain that the sea people have come for you.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Digital Dinosaur

In the late 1990's when I began to get seriously interested in computers and information technology, I tried to get all of the relevant reading and instructional materials available on the market and started to get down to some serious reading.

After a day or so of really intense study, I managed to borrow the use of a computer with a dial-up internet connection boasting the then dizzying access speed of 56 Kbps and attempted to do some internet surfing. The results were predictably catastrophic.

I did not only get lost somewhere in the midst of the Web's labyrinth of digital paths and highways but I even managed, to the horror of the computer's owner, to screw up so many of his internet browser's settings that he had to spend many futile hours trying to repair the damage and ended up having to reinstall the whole thing. Thereafter, he banned me from even getting near his computer and capped his indignation at what I had done by refusing to talk to me or receive my calls for weeks.

I eventually did, however, through the long and bitter process of trial and error, become adequately proficient in the use of computers and IT technology but I still cringe in embarrassment when I recall the many instances in the past when, inspite of my vast ignorance about such things, my tendency to foolishly forge ahead and tinker with the new technology led to swift, certain and inevitable disaster.

That is why I envy kids today and how they seem to be naturally bred to accept, interact and live their lives in conjunction with the personal computer and all the other spin-offs of the digital age. They are naturals. I, on the other hand, and like so many others, can only struggle to keep up.

So when you are forty something and not in any way an overaged computer geek and you are desperately trying to make sense of the flood of gibberish on your computer screen in an internet cafe, never be ashamed turn to the snotty kid playing online games next to you. Ten to one, he can solve your problem in a jiffy.

And take note of the patronizing look in his eyes when he helps you out. He's thinking, "Dude, how can somebody as old as that be so useless!"

Saturday, September 16, 2006

When Love Is Not Enough

But how could I.....

Change the feelings imbibed within
Erase the scars that caused pain

When I could never see you again
If only I could...then I would
L. A.

It sits there on the computer table, a small and pinkish stuffed teddy bear. It is cute in some generic way but is not unlike many other stuffed animal toys that you would find in an ordinary gift shop or novelty store; the kind you would send as a gift with flowers or a greeting card.

But ordinary it is not, as I learned recently. Because the bear has a story. A tale of unrequited love.

The story is of an intelligent, young man who met an even younger girl some years ago. The man fell desperately and hopelessly for the girl. The girl, of just 16 years, overwhelmed by his passion and ardor, returned his affection. The affair blossomed for a while but in time the girl realized that her affection for the young man fell short of love. She tried to break up the relationship but the man fought back with frenzied wooing complete with flowers, gifts and passionate poems expressing undying love.

The girl relented and the love affair stumbled on for while until the she finally and with great honesty ended it much to the despair and sorrow of our young man. Heartbroken, he has learned to accept the breakup and struggles to live on with the memory of his lost love.

I never have much use for love stories especially those of the fictional kind. But real stories of love have a compelling allure of their own. They speak to the heart and that basic and deepest core within us that rejects the cynical viewpoint of those who deride the idea of romance or the emotion of love as a human delusion or invention.

So whenever I look that stuffed bear, I see not the toy but something else. I see the remains of what was once a man's obsession with love and the tragic story of that love that was freely and passionately given but, unfortunately, was never returned in kind.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Some good things and blessings, if you can call it that, can come to you in the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected places.

Several days ago while driving over the hot, dusty and potholed road that connects Lianga with its neighboring town of Barobo, I was miserable as hell.

The midafternoon sun was gleefully baking the outside of the car, the air conditioning was not working and I was perspiring like a pig inside the stifling interior while the car lurched and jolted slowly from one maddening deep hole to another. Cursing out loud is something I seldom do but that time I was doing it with gusto and no small amount of heartfelt fervor.

I had drank my fill of more than half a dozen cups of coffee while visiting a friend in Barobo so by the time I reached the outskirts of Lianga, my bladder was itching to explode. I found a nice shady spot by the side of the highway where I could relive myself and suddenly, in front of me and where I had least expected it, unfolded a scenery of serene and haunting beauty. In my mind I still can see it clearly.

Green ricefields stretching out in front of me, blue skies peeping through a fine haze of white, layered clouds and below, the outline of thinly forested hills tinted blue by the distance and framed by stretches of stately coconut trees. The car engine was off, no other vehicles were passing through and only the murmur of babbling water from a nearby creek and the chirping of distant birds could be heard. And, as if on cue, a cool, refreshing breeze heavy with the scent of fresh, green grass swept away the lingering heat of the fading sun.

My God! I had passed this spot countless of times before but I never saw the magnificence before me. How could I be so blind?

I simply stood there and drank it all with my senses. How long I remained there transfixed I do not remember but I finally somehow managed to shake myself loose, walk away and resume my journey quietly home.

Moments like these are pleasant interludes in our lives. They are of great value, leave lasting impressions and lingering memories. They are reminders that while life can be shitty most of the time, thankfully, there can be moments of great beauty that do help break the monotony and the drudgery of it all.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Wake Up Call

The Catholic Church continues to be the dominant religious force to reckon with in Lianga but it is clear that it has lost a lot of the strength, vigor and vitality it used to have in the past. In fact some local pundits are saying that where it not for the hundreds of babies the Church baptizes every year into the faith, Lianga would probably now be lost to the Protestant churches or the other non-Catholic evangelical faiths that are slowly but firmly gaining a foothold in the town and which are making their presence felt more and more over the years.

Since, in the Philippine setting, religious authority translates into social, political and cultural influence over the community, what is seen as a gradual but constant erosion of the Church's once supreme authority over local religious life is beginning to worry a lot of its leaders in the clergy and the layman community who see the Church as the sole guardian of the moral and spiritual life of the nation.

In the case of Lianga, many politicians and community leaders now regularly and actively court the political support of these other religious groups who have become aware of their emerging influence and who have began to play more assertive roles in the community. This is something the Church leaders worry a lot about but worry is all they can do at this point. Theirs is no longer the only show in town and in truth, they have only themselves to blame for it.

The main reason for the decline in Church power and influence can be traced to the degree it has become divorced from the day to day lives of the people and the community. The inability of the institution and its teachings to adjust to the changing times and, therefore, remain relevant in the context of modern life has led to its being sidelined by many Catholics, particularly the young, who see their faith merely as an anachronism and, thus, a hindrance or nuisance rather than as a source of spiritual strength and inspiration in their lives.

Yet the institutional Church together with the clergy have remained largely complacent and unheeding to the call to address the issues of reform and modernization. And it has failed miserably in many ways to reach out and makes its presence felt in the daily lives of the faithful. It has, instead, chosen to become a largely impersonal and aloof entity perceived by many to be separated and out of touch with the community of believers.

Catholicism in Lianga is indeed alive but certainly not kicking as it should be. It has become a religion of rote and habit, of ceremony and pageantry and but sadly lacking the fire, warmth and the vibrant fervor of an energized, growing and living faith.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Filipino Diaspora

There is something gravely unsettling about the on-going flood of Filipino nurses going abroad in search of higher pay and better economic opportunities. The migration is not, in itself, something new. Over the decades, our nurses have always been in great demand overseas but the sheer volume of them on their way out of the country now and the resulting negative impact this has over the nation's public health care services is becoming alarming.

The Philippines may be running out of experienced nursing personnel but worse than that, it may be also running out of doctors. Many in the medical profession have opted to take the previously unthinkable step of studying nursing in order to escape what many of them see as a bleak economic future for them here. After all, when many doctors, particularly the thousands in the government service, earn only as much as an ordinary, middle-level civil servant, the prospect of a dollar paycheck even as a "lowly" nurse abroad can be temptingly attractive in these times of great economic hardship.

My father, who spent many years as a physician in the public health service, would have been appalled by the present state of the profession he had served so well. When he was still alive, he had always fought and lobbied for better pay and better working conditions not only for doctors but also for nurses, pharmacists, nursing aides and all others working in the local health service. In a time when no doctor would want to work in a rural, backwater town like Lianga, he buttonholed local government officials to subsidize salaries, improve local hospital facilities and even personally recruited physicians to participate in the government's rural health programs. The local district hospital serving Lianga today is a testament to the success of his unceasing crusade to bring the benefits of modern health care to the rural countryside.

But even he would have been helpless in finding ways to help staunch the hemorrhage of medical talent going abroad today. One cannot promote patriotism on an empty stomach and the chance to make real the dreams of a better life and greater financial security cannot compete against selfless and noble altruism.

But to blind ourselves to what is happening is to ignore the gradual destruction of the very soul of this nation. I know many of those who are now in far away lands in search of a better future for themselves and their families. They are family, relatives, friends and acquaintances. They are the among the best, the most productive, the most highly educated of our people and would have been a vital and essential component in our struggle to build a brighter future for the Filipino nation.

The physician, including all those in the allied medical professions, have always occupied a very honored position in Filipino society. They are looked upon as healers and respected for their important role in fighting disease and promoting health in the community. It is sad to see that even they have been reduced to become like us, mere ordinary mortals struggling to survive on meager paychecks and even meager hopes for a way out of crushing financial hardship.

A doctor friend, who once had a private practice and who later served in the government as well, summed it up for me recently. "My more than ten years of university education," he said, " has entitled me to an income that my small family can barely survive on. Don't talk to me about the dignity of the medical profession and the nobility of public service. I have been there. There is no nobility in poverty." A year ago he graduated from nursing school and eight months later he was in the United Kingdom working as a nurse.

Argue about that.

Thursday, September 7, 2006

The Chinese In My Life

I cannot run away from them. They are there in everything that I do. When I pick the foods I eat, when I choose what I wear, when I select what I read, when I decide which movies to see or TV channels to view and they even have a hand in the way I think about and perceive the world I live in. They, in no small measure, even determined, from birth, how I would look like. Without a doubt, they are my single greatest influence. Who are they? They are the Chinese in the my life.

My paternal grandmother's father was a pure blooded Chinaman who started it all, not that I blame him or anything. That made my grandmother a Chinese mestiza who did not even have the decency to learn how to speak Chinese; a most unfortunate circumstance which led to many embarassing situations decades later when, in many instances, Chinese individuals, thinking I am one of them, hurled gibberish in my direction while I just stood there stupefied and uncomprehending.

My father also looked distinctly Chinese and even had to live with a Chinese nickname. He too, like me, unfortunately never learned the language except for some choice words which he used only when making fun at Chinese speaking relatives and which are extremely difficult to translate accurately into spoken English, and only out of the hearing of curious children.

Then came the horror of horrors. Both of my father's daughters married into families of Chinese descent, one of them even a pure blooded Chinoy or Chinese pinoy at that. A case of like blood attracting each other? Who knows, but the end result is a series of offspring from both families sporting the undeniable physical features of their distinctive lineage. And, lo, the circle was complete. I was trapped like a cricket in a Chinese cricket box.

Over the years, however, I have learned to come to terms with the Chinese influence in my life. It even has real advantages which I often exploit shamelessly. Like getting discounts at some Chinese owned stores or basking in the misleading impression of others that I, although only partly Chinese and not the full-blooded, genuine article, must be also filthy rich like so many of that race.

I have even learned to brag to others about it. When one is the inheritor of one of the world's oldest existing civilizations which is also today's emerging world superpower, one must be proud of one's blood ancestry. Let the others grow green with envy at us. Compared to us Chinese, they are only barbarians, after all.

Monday, September 4, 2006

Paradise Lost

When I was a student for many years in the city, whenever I thought about Lianga, it was always the sea and its beaches that come to my mind.

In those days, the beaches around the town were not yet popular weekend destinations and most of them were still pristine and unspoiled, little slices of tropical paradise for those who chose to venture there.

No seaside cottages marred the landscapes, no feet breaking the perfect smoothness of the sand, no weekenders choking the water's edge and no loud electronic music polluting the air. Nothing except the blue sky, the stretches of white sand, the brooding coconut trees hidden in shadows , the gentle breeze and the silence broken only by the hissing of the surf of the restless sea.

These are fond memories of things past, of places that time have changed. They exist now only as images and impressions in the mind.

Nowadays I seldom visit these places of my youth. When I do, I do not recognize them anymore. They are new to me. I do still remember how they use to be. That to me is enough.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Good, Clean Fun

One of the things I like about children is their ability to let themselves go and find fun in the most unlikely times and places. That could mean anything from frolicking in the rain on the first heavy downpour after a hot summer season, to playing house in the backyard with the oddest and weirdest assortment of scavenged materials pilfered from who knows where, to betting against each other in games of chance using a tattered and incomplete deck of cards or just dressing up after raiding an dusty closet or storage box of discarded clothes and accessories.

There is a single-mindedness about this pursuit of fun that always amazes me and transports me back in time to those days when I too was just as obsessed with the joy and exuberance of just being alive; when the world was so inviting, so freshly beckoning and magical.

Kids today may have their computer online games, their portable gaming consoles and mp3 players, cell phones and cable TV, but it is still heartwarming to see them, at least once in a while, have fun the old fashioned way, as these pictures will show.

It is always good to know that even today, when growing up can be so complicated, children can still be children at heart.

Friday, September 1, 2006

Day's End

One of the pleasures of living in a coastal town like Lianga is the chance to do some strolling by sea especially in the late afternoon when the searing sun has lost most of its raging heat and the sea breeze is at its gentlest and most refreshing.

As the shadows lengthen and darkness claim the land, one can watch the sun die in the mountains west of the town. And in the midst of its dying, when conditions are right, an incredible display of bursting, burning hues and colors of rich yellow and fiery red fading to pale, pastel colors can light up the western sky and can stun the unwary spectator. But the incredible spectacle lasts only for a few minutes and suddenly darkness falls and night is upon the world.

In Lianga, I have been privileged to have witnessed more than a few of these glorious sunsets. Of one thing I am certain. The best ones, the most beautiful sunsets I had seen are those you never planned or make time to see.

It is always the unexpected ones, those that catch you by surprise, that can take your breath away. The colors always seemed richer, the hues more vivid and vibrant, the effect more stunning. And as the glorious colors fade and the clouds darken, one is conscious only of a quiet feeling of exultation and gratitude. A privilege given and taken.

Nowadays I take sunsets as they come. Like people, they are all similar in some ways and different in many other ways. But they are all beautiful just the same.