Thursday, January 31, 2008

One More Time (Again) For The Road

It's the same, old and sad story. Intermittent heavy rains have been drenching the Lianga area for weeks now. When that happens, as it always does this time every year, the result is always inevitable. We get quagmires, enormous potholes and vehicle-busting, rocky terrain in what the government may call roads but what are actually innovative torture tracks designed to reduce all types of vehicles to complete mechanical wrecks and the people in them to shell shocked, quivering masses of exhausted and traumatized flesh and bone.

I have been complaining about the sad state of the roads in our part of the country for some time now and I sometimes feel that I have virtually worn out that issue. But the truth is these "baaaad roads", as my 14 year old nephew calls them, have become so much a normal part of travelling in the Lianga area almost all year round that somebody just has to keep on harping on the subject in the hope that someone important up there in the provincial capital of Tandag or in Manila gets fed up and finally does something about it.

There is a limit to what the local people here can endure and what they have to go through on their trips out of town and going back is simply too much. The "national highway" they travel on with such difficulty is an anachronism. It simply should not be existing the way it is. Not even in this rather remote corner of the nation where most of the other towns and cities already enjoy the benefits of fast, convenient and efficient travel on modern, concrete roads and bridges.

The officials from the government's Department of Public Works and Highways in Tandag are quick to point out to the wet and rainy weather as the primary cause of the road woes in the Lianga and San Agustin area. They also cite on-going concreting programs in some road sections as a contributing factor. All this problems, they say are temporary and will disappear with the completion of the entire road concreting program in 2010.

Forgive me but all that is simply a bunch of bulls__t! Whether there is rain or hot, dry weather, the roads in Lianga have always been for the most time very poorly maintained. I should know because I travel regularly and, like so many of the local residents, have suffered because of it. On the matter of road maintenance it has always been, as far as the DPWH is concerned, a question of it doing too little, too late or nothing at all.

It is true that some degree of inconvenience to the public can be expected as a result of the ongoing road works in the San Agustin area. But any fool with two normal eyes and a sound mind who actually goes to visit there can see that all that muddy mess is more the result of wanton disregard for the safety and convenience of the travelling public in favor of efforts to complete the entire concreting project at the least cost than due to unpredictable or unforeseen wet weather. Thus travellers have to endure kilometers of unstable, muddy road surfaces which can turn into vehicle traps during heavy rains.

My wish nowadays, if I were to take the government's word for it, is that after 2010, I will be able to nostalgically remember the muddy, potholed and rocky roads of Lianga as the nightmarish memories of days gone by and not as bitter reminders of harsh day to day reality. But until that wish comes true, people here like me will have to come to terms with the depressing fact that travelling in this part of the world will continue to be the mind numbing, physically battering and hellish experience one wants to forget but unfortunately cannot.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


The tallest toog tree in the country, according to the Tree Preservation Foundation of the Philippines, Inc. in 1980, can be found in Barangay Alegria in the town of San Francisco in Agusan del Sur. That toog tree, Petersianthus quadrialatus (Merr.), sometimes known in the lumber trade as Philippine rosewood, towers just over the side of the national highway, its thick, leathery trunk rising majestically straight up to the sky like a gigantic wooden column crowned at its top by a fringe of branches and leaves.

Many years ago, the base of the tree was fenced in and a memorial marker neatly placed commemorating the distinct honor given to it but over the years little of the original fence is left and the marker has been neglected and left to deteriorate. The area immediately around the tree is overgrown with weeds and shrubs. So unless you are a local or someone in the know, you would probably not know that the tree, despite its size, is something more special still.

It is sad that something as magnificent and unique as this living monument can be so forgotten and just taken for granted. I often pass it by on the way to San Francisco and on the way back to Lianga and every time I am still irresistibly compelled to take a glance at it and marvel at its sheer size and grandeur. There are other tall toog trees in the same area and even many more in Lianga and nearby but there is something about the symmetry and immensity of that tree that distinguishes it from all the rest. Even if it is not really the country's tallest among its peers it certainly deserves to be given the recognition and protection that it deserves.

Instead it just stands there forlorn, disregarded, seemingly vulnerable, a king of trees without a court, an incongruous anomaly set amidst residential houses and a busy thoroughfare.

But then it is a sad fact of life that the things we have most or think we have too much of are the same things we tend to belittle or ignore. This part of the country, for example, particularly the Caraga region to which Lianga and the province of Surigao del Sur belongs, happens to still possess one of the few remaining stretches of virgin timberlands in the country. That is something we have always taken for granted.

But it is a vital resource that is quickly being dissipated by rampant and uncontrolled logging and environmentally unfriendly infrastructure programs. Lianga, for example, together with its sister municipalities of San Miguel, San Agustin and Marihatag which all share common borders with lush and untouched forests have in the past and until today continue to remain victims of the gradual yet persistent destruction of their vital forest preserves. The environmental impact of that is now being felt by these municpalities as evidenced by the often massive flooding in many areas during heavy rains and the gradual disappearance of once prolific flora and fauna, many of whom are extremely rare and indigenous to the locality.

In other countries who all once had extensive forest cover but have lost all or most of them, trees and forests have become treasures of inestimable value to be cherished and protected. People visit them, commune and get back in touch with nature in their company and immortalize them in pictures, words and songs. We, on the other hand who still have plenty of such treasures, squander them like loose change and with nary a thought for the future consequences of such abuse and neglect.

If the toog tree in Alegria is a prime example of how we treat our natural treasures then we either don't deserve to have them in the first place or have absolutely no right to complain now or in the future when the catastrophic consequences of our own stupidity and shortsightedness hit us all or our descendants straight in the face.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Worshipping In Lianga

For Roman Catholics in Lianga, at least for those among them conscious of their religious obligations, Sundays mean getting up early in the morning in order to prepare for the Sunday mass at 6:30 AM. They have to because that mass happens to be the only one held regularly for the day for the reason that Lianga parish has more than a dozen other small barangays or villages belonging to it and the parish priest has a full schedule going the rounds and saying masses at all of the small chapels in these communities.

My parents, especially my mother, are devout Catholics so from an early age my siblings and I were expected on Sunday mornings to wake up early, shower, get dressed and be ready to leave for church before the frenetic pealing of the church bells signaled the start of the mass. The local parish church is often full of worshippers on Sundays and seating spaces on the pews were always at a premium. So getting there a bit early before the last minute rush was always advisable unless you want to do penance by standing on the aisles for the entire duration of mass.

But it seems to me now when I look back on those days that despite my strict religious upbringing, I was, like any other normal young child, never really cowed, made docile and made to sit still for long by fear and awe for the religious power and majesty I was taught was embodied in the celebration of the Eucharist. I fidgeted, squirmed with impatience and found ingenious ways to get away, sneak out of the church and out of the watching eyes of my parents then find my playmates and spend the rest of the mass playing with them in the church courtyard.

Whatever guilt I used to feel guilty about missing out on the mass later on was however mitigated by the gradual realization as I grew older that socializing while attending mass, in Lianga at least, is certainly not something being done only by children and teenagers but even by adults although not overtly. They have simply much more refined ways of doing it while at the same time giving the appearance of enthusiastic participation in community religious worship.

The truth is, in Lianga like in many small towns, going to church on the Sabbath is not only a religious act but a social event as well. People dress up in their best clothes and expect to spend time to chat, touch base and enjoy the company of friends and acquaintances before the mass starts, at dull interludes during the ceremonies and before walking back to their homes after. The chance to do some civilized gossiping and swapping of all the latest, juicy community news is often a temptation too hard to resist even in the midst of the solemnity of such occasions.

During the stretches of long, droning and boring sermons, for example, it is a common habit of many churchgoers, particularly the males, to make a surreptitious, discrete exit via the side doors and meet up with contemporaries for a smoke or two and some schmoozing. At the end of the homily, there is a quick, concerted and hasty dash back to the pews. The chatting is not over, however. It resumes after the communion when the priest and lay ministers are busy with the rest of the parishioners and finally ends when the faithful are called for the final blessing. Then it's quick, hurried goodbyes as everyone bustles home to quell the quiet rumbling of stomachs anxious for that long delayed breakfast.

The women do their best gossiping before the mass while waiting for the priest to make his appearance and after the mass while the parishioners are making their way home. They often gather in small groups chattering away and making most of the brief time they have for chatting by the quality and variety of the chatter. They have to be fast yet thorough about it though because the other members of the family are often already very eager to go home, get fed, change clothes and enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Such behavior, while not certainly ideal for a community of believers gathered in collective worship of the Almighty, is, in my view, only a natural manifestation of the gregarious nature of the human animal and the extremely close personal ties and the spirit of community solidarity that exist between residents of small towns like Lianga. I have attended masses in the city and have been more than a bit disappointed at their rather impersonal nature and apparent lack of a prevailing feeling of community togetherness and unity among the worshippers. After the final blessing, everyone goes home alone and anonymously.

I prefer the boisterous and ebullient atmosphere of Lianga's Sunday worshippers streaming out of the church and slowly making their way home after mass, their voices loud and strident and their laughter and bonhomie natural and unrestrained. It is, to my mind, more than natural. It is also very much more real and tangible.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Highway Thievery

A couple of months ago, Vicente "BB" Pimentel, the provincial governor of Surigao del Sur, was present at the completion and inauguration of a key project in Lianga which was the installation of street lights along the national highway passing through the heart of the town. It was a development welcomed by the residents of Lianga who have felt for some time now that the poor lighting along many portions of the highway within and just outside the town have made them unsafe for traveling at night and a magnet for the perpetration of various forms of criminality against the local folk.

The streetlights are still there nowadays but many of them no longer light up at dusk and serve no more purpose than to stand prettily on the sides of the highway at night while town residents blindly grope their way to and from their houses aided only by the feeble beams of light from their flashlights. The absence of proper streetlighting has also done wonders for the town's crime rate because local criminals have become emboldened again to commit more petty burglaries in the dead of night while town folk avoid the darkened streets for fear of being mobbed or accosted by unsavory characters.

The reason why the streetlights are not functioning is simple but simply outrageous and even ridiculous and laughable if the consequences of that fact are not serious. Enterprising thieves, with the skill and daring of Ali Baba and his forty cohorts, have dug up the underground copper cables supplying electricity to many of the streetlights and have spirited them away to who knows where. Informed sources say the cables fetch a hefty price at unscrupulous scrap metal merchants where a kilo of the same copper wire can net the thieves almost a thousand pesos.

One wonders how it is possible for scoundrels to excavate buried wiring along the sides of the national highway and steal them from right under the noses of the police and local security forces. And what about the confirmed stories of metal scavengers cannibalizing highway guardrails, steel bolts and metal reinforcements for wooden bridges and even road and traffic signs? Who is stealing these items that may mean the difference between life and death for the thousands of local people who regularly travel and commute along the roads and highways of this part of the country?

Rumors of "inside jobs" and collusion between the perpetrators of these thieveries and law enforcement personnel have remained merely just conjectures and there has been no real investigation into who is responsible for these crimes and what is being done to discourage and prevent them from happening. One wonders exactly what's the real score here and no one from the local government or the police is talking much less doing something about it.

Methinks that part of this problem has to do with the corrupt yet pervasive belief among the people here that if something belongs to the government or is put there for public use, it is also something that can be "abused" or "misused" with relative impunity. With so much apparent and visible corruption among public officials in government, to "appropriate" government property for one's use or personal profit can therefore be condoned since it is funded by "people's money" and actually belongs to the people whether one is a taxpayer or not. In other words, it is simply just a little payback.

Hell! It's just another variation of the classic "stealing from the rich and giving it to the poor" thing, the "rich" here referring to the politicians in government who are believed to be there merely to enrich and fatten themselves up at the expense of the powerless and poverty stricken masses. That may be true but stealing public property to get back at grafters is a bit too much off the mark.

This hogwash aside, it is imperative that the problem should be considered an urgent police matter to be addressed and resolved at the soonest possible time. Otherwise dire consequences may result because of inaction or any form of procrastination.

When streetlights go black in the night, steel guardrails disappear like magic and wooden bridges shed their bolts and metal fixtures secretly like snakes shed their skins then something smells horribly fishy and rotten somewhere and that somewhere, most certainly, is not in Denmark.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Living With Insurgency (Reprise)

Angie from Davao City writes, "I'm originally born & live in Davao City.My husband live in San Miguel Surigao Del Sur.In we going to his birthplace,we can pass by at your lungsod Lianga.Lianga should I say,is a very beautiful province,even though we just passing by...Thats what people always think that provinces here in Mindanao is very dangerous & very poor,some other point is true."

"But even in the City,there's danger & poor people.Thats the reality of life.We should inform people in some other places here in the Philippines that we are very nice place to go.Have beautiful nature,out of pollution in the City.I'm so proud of you to be proud to your hometown.Keep it up..."

Angie's comment on the post "Living With Insurgency" (which I reproduce here unedited and its entirety) speaks volumes about the certain degree of resentment a lot of residents in Mindanao feel about the general perception of people in Luzon and the Visayas that Mindanao is a very turbulent, dangerous and unsafe place to live in. As a native of Mindanao, I always feel disappointed and frustrated that many Filipinos from the other parts of the archipelago have such a myopic if not distorted view of what is the real situation in the southern Philippines.

One can blame the news media (most of them based in Metro Manila), especially print and television, for painting such a grim picture of what life is supposed to be here. By reporting so extensively and so graphically on the admittedly serious peace and order problems of a few places in the island, there now exists a general misconception in the minds of many uninformed nonresidents of Mindanao that this is a territory largely populated by bloodthirsty savages and cutthroats and where war and conflict is always the natural order of the day.

What is ignored is the fact that the peace and order situation in most locations in the south is relatively good and the quality of life definitely better than in most areas of the central and northern Philippines.

One can also blame a defective education system for failing to inculcate in the young and the not so young a deeper understanding and appreciation of the rich historical legacy and cultural diversity of Mindanao and its vital importance in the social, economic and political life of the Filipino nation. It is sad and tragic that a country already geographically divided into so many islands can also be just as divided in thought and that so many of its own citizens are lacking in awareness and appreciation of the multiplicity of peoples and cultures that inhabit it.

It is true that insurgency is a problem in Mindanao. But insurgency is a problem present almost all over the country. It is a problem deeply rooted in poverty, ignorance, the lack of opportunities, social injustice and a weak, corrupt and ineffective government unable to respond to the urgent needs of the majority of its constituents particularly those in the far flung provinces and the rural countryside.

But Mindanao is also a land of great promise, of great beauty as well as enormous potential and possibilities. Life and living there can be peaceful, sublime and extremely rewarding. Its existing problems are the consequence of a hodgepodge of peoples and different cultures simply trying to finding ways to survive and co-exist in tolerance and peace. With time, patience and perseverance, there is optimism that the such a goal, however difficult and problematic, can be achievable.

So when the average Joe in Lianga worries about something, he worries more about his job, the problems facing the local economy and his shrinking income rather than waste time fretting about the communist or Muslim insurgency. Those he can deal with and he has been dealing with them successfully for decades already.

He also knows that he is lucky to live in what many foreigners consider to be paradise. And since no paradise can be without at least a serpent then the insurgency situation can be considered as one serpent he has learned, over time, to live and co-exist with.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Sto. Niño Mystique

Two steps forward then one step back. Not exactly an efficient way to get where you're going but if you are dancing in the streets of Cebu City to honor the the Sto. Niño or the Child Jesus during the Sinulog Festival on the 20th of this month then you are doing it exactly right. At least that was the way I did it when I too was a regular participant in that yearly festival many years ago.

Roman Catholics in Lianga also share with the Cebuanos a common devotion to the Child Jesus, also the town's patron saint. Its feast day in January is an occasion for celebration, a mini-fiesta, if you will, since the actual town fiesta is commemorated in the middle of August. To distinguish it from the regular fiesta, the town celebrates it as Araw Ng Lianga and socio-cultural activities and street dances are the highlights of the day long affair.

The drawing power and popularity of the Santo Niño as a symbol of religious faith among Filipinos even in Lianga is something that has always fascinated me over the years. This representation of Jesus Christ as a child could not be, in the strict sense, be a saint since that is a title reserved for actual human beings of exceptional sanctity and holiness who have gone to their heavenly reward. Yet because of its phenomenal popularity and the sheer devotion of its devotees, it has, in one sense, acquired a persona that can be considered separate from that of the adult Jesus Christ who is, by Catholic doctrine, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Perhaps there is something appealing in this personification of God in the form of an innocent, cuddly yet mischievous child. This can be gleaned from the many legends and stories about the Sto. Niño de Cebu which depicts it as one not above the playing of harmless pranks on its followers and the faithful while at the same time very generous in its dispensation of spiritual and temporal favors.

In Lianga, old folks also tell stories of the Child Jesus appearing in various disguises in order to directly intervene in human affairs during times of crisis. Bad weather and accidents at sea were said to have been averted by its intercession. Illnesses and disease have been supposedly cured by praying to it or by mere contact with its image or figure. On the other hand, it has also been described as not hesitant to severely punish sinners and those that have defiled its image or have ridiculed the religious rites and ceremonies made in its honor.

There are those who say that the reasons for the quick and enthusiastic acceptance of the devotion to the Sto. Niño can be traced back to earlier, pre-Spanish animistic beliefs predominant among the original inhabitants of the Philippine islands which were integrated and fused into the new Christian religion by the early Spanish friars. After all, the veneration of childlike deities or divine beings incarnated in the form of a small child is something not exactly rare in many religious beliefs in many parts of the world.

But irregardless of its origins, the cult of the devotion to the Sto. Niño is, in many distinct ways, uniquely Filipino. It is an integral part of the practice of Roman Catholicism in the Philippines and something that must be accepted for its rich history and colorful heritage.

In Lianga, the persona and the image of the Child Jesus remains a powerful symbol of the Catholic faith here. So it is, in a way, rather fitting and proper that it is in street dances where participants, in vividly colorful, ethnic costumes, traditionally give it the homage and adoration it is due. The swirling panorama of color and pageantry of the street dances is exactly what a child, even in divine form, would be most pleased to be honored and entertained with.

Two steps forward then one step back. Looks like a huge waste of energy if you really stop to think about it. But when you are caught in the excitement and religious fervor of the dances, it simply feels like the obvious and exhilarating thing to do. That plus the relentless pounding of the drums goading the dancers along, the slapping rhythm of countless feet on the pavement and the shouts of revelry and celebration.

This is Filipino Catholicism mixed with the pagan and the primitive echoes and influences of the distant past. It is religion expressed in rhythmic movement and exultation. And it is, certainly, even for the nonbeliever, not a bad way to let off some steam and have a rollicking, good time.

Hala bira! Pit Senyor!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Living With Insurgency

When I am in the city and whenever people learn I am from Lianga and Surigao del Sur, one of the usual questions I am always asked is how do the people of my town and province deal, on a day to day basis, with the communist insurgency problem with which our part of the country is so identified with. The query is asked, often unwittingly, in a condescending or overly sympathetic manner as if I happen to come from a place totally ravaged and devastated by war and conflict. Poor, unfortunate me.

Maybe I should have the nerve to tell them outright that I was actually in greater danger of being injured or killed by reckless drivers or preyed upon by criminals in their city than being dealt the same unfortunate fate in my town or province as a result of rebel or insurgent activity. Most people in the urban centers, particularly in Metro Manila, just don't have any idea of what is happening in Mindanao in general and much more so in such a remote province as Surigao del Sur.

It is a fact that there is an insurgency problem in Surigao del Sur in general and in Lianga in particular. It has been a problem there for over two decades now. It has waxed and waned over the years but widespread poverty, the lack of economic opportunities in the area particularly in the rural countryside and the failure of government to address perceived social inequalities and provide basic services to the rural folk, has made it a permanent fixture in the lives of the local people.

But I, like most of the residents in Lianga and our province, have never felt personally threatened, on a daily basis, by that fact. I travel freely and regularly throughout Surigao del Sur in both private vehicles and public transports yet I worry more about the poor state of the roads and the possibility of road accidents than being shot at or harmed in any manner by communist rebels.

The populism with which the local communist rebels cloth their activities largely prevents them, at least in the Surigao del Sur setting, from engaging in random terroristic attacks against unarmed civilians. So unless you have done them or their supporters harm or have been convicted by revolutionary courts of "crimes against the people" you are more than likely never to see a communist rebel much less have contact with one.

Dealing with obtrusive military checkpoints and discourteous, trigger-happy government soldiers, on the other hand, used to pose a greater danger to one's personal safety and peace of mind in the past but cases of grave misconduct by government forces have declined somewhat in the recent years although it remains something to be constantly vigilant about. The importance of always having the proper identification cards and other proofs of identity is always a must and can prevent unnecessary delays and unwarranted aggravation when traveling here.

That is not to say that the on-going insurgency problem does not pose any danger at all to the ordinary guy living in or just visiting Lianga. One can get caught accidentally in the crossfire between government and rebel forces and may become part of the collateral damage but the risk of getting involved in such an incident would actually be lesser than the possibility of becoming a helpless victim of some form of criminal activity in an urban setting like Manila.

Thus living and working in Lianga is certainly as "safe" as it can be under the circumstances and visiting it is obviously not as crazy or foolhardy as most pampered city dwellers think it is. Like everything in this world, it is all relative and a matter of.....well.....perspective.

So I always tell my friends and relatives planning to visit me in Lianga for the first time not to worry too much about their personal safety while staying here. Chances are the only negative consequences to their physical wellbeing as a result of their sojourn here would be a bad case of sunburn on their backs and extremities covered with insect and mosquito bites.

So far, I have not been wrong or way off the mark. At least not yet.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hail Britania!

It was a rainy, misty and cold morning but even then the panorama before me was still spectacular and breathtaking. A deserted beach, a few small boats sitting on the sand, the calm, blue-green waters of the Pacific below the pale haze of thinning, milky gray rainclouds, and in the distance a couple of small islands set like green encrusted jewels on the coastal waters.

That was just a couple of days ago and I was standing on the seashore of Barangay Britania in the municipality of San Agustin some twenty or so kilometers north of Lianga. Directly in front of me and some fifteen minutes by motorized boat from the shore was Boslon, the first of the already well known Britania islands, with its dazzling white beach and crystal clear waters.

There are several other islands, each with their own unique attractions and between them are pristine waters teeming with magnificent coral formations and exotic marine life. A boat ride where you go island hopping would be, without a doubt, the highlight of any visit to this tourist destination.

For someone who has visited the islands many times. I have always felt that the islands were not just geological formations of exceptional beauty. They have a mystical hold that went far beyond mere sentimentalism. They are akin to sentient, living and breathing organisms that have existed since time immemorial and whose constant brooding presence provided a reassurance and an affirmation of Mother Nature's benevolence and abiding generosity towards man.

Over the past decade or so, the rampant quarrying of sand and pebbles from some of the Britania islands have saddened many who wanted the government to exert measures to preserve their pristine and unspoiled nature. Dynamite fishing and the use of chemical poisons have caused widespread damage to the extensive coral reefs that made the area a haven for fish and all kinds of marine flora and fauna.

There is, however, a continuing albeit protracted and seemingly half-hearted program by both the San Agustin municipal government and the Department of Tourism to develop the entire Bretania area into a tourism destination. Much of it has been rhetoric but there is some optimism that something may eventually be accomplished if the residents of the barangay can get their act together and decided what they really want to happen to their village by the sea. All it takes is a deep appreciation of the priceless natural treasures that they have in their islands on the sea and the acceptance of their obligation and duty to preserve and protect these treasures for the future.

It was raining when I took this pictures but the images in my mind were not of the islands appearing like green, ghostly images wreathed in mist beneath the overcast sky. I saw the islands as they should be seen, like green, shimmering emeralds on blue baize gloriously bathed in the blazing hot rays of the midsummer sun, their white beaches glinting like ivory teeth in the distance.

Then I remembered the boat rides there, the clean and transparent waters hissing and bubbling in the boat's wake, the islands like green gems in the near distance and around and beneath the shadow of our sea craft the wide, table-like outcrops of living coral seemingly close enough to touch in the glassy clear waters, so clear that you can see up to more than twenty feet below you.

Then there are the islands, the bleached white, powder like fineness of the sand on the beaches, the exotic, dark green vegetation that covers most of them, their splendid isolation and pristine nature and the dark, cool and refreshingly clean comfort of their waters as you plunged into them. Truly natural treasures of the most intoxicating kind.

Britiania may be just another impoverished barangay in this part of Mindanao, a small agricultural and fishing village one hardly sees noted in local maps and travel guides. It seems to be one of those places where nothing really happens and where there is nowhere to go. But with the islands and their exceptional tourism potential, it may have the last laugh yet.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Flying High

When I was a boy, getting the chance to go by passenger plane from Mindanao to any point in the Visayas or Luzon and vice versa was the ultimate in traveling luxury. Air fares at that time and until recently were prohibitively high and only the lucky ones with the extra money to spend could afford to plunk it down for a plane seat while the rest of us had to content ourselves with uncomfortable, overnight passage on the slow, smelly and notoriously unreliable inter-island passenger and cargo ships of those days.

The ease with which one can buy a plane ticket nowadays and proceed to the airport, jump on a passenger jet and be, in an hour or so, in Cebu or Manila never ceases to amaze someone like me who was brought up to think that flying was only for the rich and whose first plane ride, way back in the early 1970's, was on a lumbering, turboprop aircraft of dubious vintage flying off a dusty, dirt runway in what is now the city of Bislig in Surigao del Sur. In many ways I was even luckier than most of my less fortunate contemporaries whose experiences with air travel was confined solely to what they saw on foreign movies and eventually television.

The opening up of domestic air routes to competing airline companies and the resulting reduction in the cost of plane fares has wrought a minor revolution in the way many Filipinos in my part of the world now travel. More and more people can now afford to fly since that alternative has become more practical and affordable. Commuting by aircraft for many in Lianga has become a viable choice.

While on the Butuan City to Manila jet service recently, I happened to be seated across a family of three, a tiny girl of four with her young parents, all on their way to pay the child's paternal grandparents a visit in the nation's capital. It was the first plane ride for all of them.

The young parents were understandably nervous, the father was fidgety while the mother kept fiddling with her child's seat belt. But the girl was lost in the wonders of the miracle of flight that was unfolding before her.

Her face was pressed against the glass of the aircraft window, eyes drinking in the panorama of the land and sea peeping through huge gaps between wispy, white, cottony clouds that floated lazily below us. It was clearly the high experience of her short life and for a moment I sat back and empathized with her and remembered how exciting too it all was for me the first time when I, then a naive, small town boy, got to fly and see the world from on high.

But that was a different world world back then and a different time. The world was much, much larger then, traveling long distances was long and arduous, and the lure and romance of flight was for a privileged few.

The world has moved on and circumstances have changed making air travel within the reach of more and more people. For that I am, like so many of us here in our small part of the world to whom flying as a means of regular travel used to be merely a pipe dream, extremely and thankfully glad.

Friday, January 11, 2008

What Now?

Upon arriving in Lianga after being absent for over two weeks, the first questions I asked my contacts here all concerned the status of the military offensive in the hinterlands of Diatagon, a large, populous barangay or village just nine or so kilometers north of my town. In the weeks before I left, the government operations against New People's Army rebels were going full blast inspite of the then approaching Yuletide season and evacuees from the mountain barangays were streaming into temporary evacuation centers in Diatagon and in two other villages belonging to the nearby municipality of San Agustin.

The Philippine government's unilateral declaration of a cessation of offensive operations against communist insurgents nationwide in deference to the Christmas and New Year festivities has clearly been instrumental in the lowering of tensions in the areas affected by the conflict. Most if not all of the evacuees have returned to their homes as government troops have stood down and assumed their habitual defensive positions in the military encampments and population centers.

The big question in everyone's mind here in Lianga is what is going to happen as the period of the holiday truce expires. Is there going to be a resumption of hostilities which could lead once again to the problems sired by the pre-Yuletide offensive or has the military offensive been effectively halted and stopped for the immediate future?

The feedback I have been getting from various sources is ambivalent at best. There are those who say that a resumption of the military operations is inevitable because there are economic interests close to the political leadership eager to seize control of the timber and mineral rich areas currently under the sway and influence of the rebel insurgents. They also say that the military is also keen to avenge the casualties it has suffered in the initial phase of the offensive and is blaming local human rights groups and left-leaning organizations for waging a very effective propaganda campaign in the local and national media in support of the NPA that has cast government soldiers unfairly as the villains in the conflict.

But many also claim that the military and the government does not have the resources and the political will to push through and complete the destruction of the heavy rebel influence in the area. They cite the example of the military offensive in the nearby Andap valley in 2005 which was stalled and halted prematurely after about a month or so of intensive military operations which resulted in heavy casualties for both the government and the rebels.

The air of uncertainty that hangs over the remote mountain villages of Diatagon is something its people and the residents of the Lianga area can definitely do without. It is positively not doing the local economy good or contributing to the development of what is already one of the most depressed and backward areas in the whole country.

The ball is now, therefore, in the government's hands. What's next? What now then?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Antipolo Mornings

Waking up early in Antipolo City in Rizal province, especially on late December mornings, is like getting up to a blast of cold wind from the frigid north. It is cold enough to rudely wake up what is half asleep in your body and mind and jerk you to full wakefulness by the time you sit up in bed and your feet touch the chilly bedroom floor.

I should know. I was in Antipolo City from December 21 to January 7 after deciding to celebrate Christmas and the New Year with Mari and her family. Two weeks away from family and friends and, of course, Lianga, and something I have not done for a really long time.

From the bed you stumble to the bedroom door, unlock it and stagger outside, the chill of the morning having no trouble getting through the thin fabric of your pajamas. You then watch your breath condense into vapor, wispy streaks of mist like the low lying fog that covers the tops of the hilly landscape that is so characteristic of the city.

In many ways, I was only occasionally homesick of Lianga during the more than two weeks I spent there. There is a lot of the provincial ambiance of the rural countryside that remains in Antipolo particularly in the suburbs off the center of the city. Even the city itself feels a bit provincial and has the flavor of many of the small yet progressive cities that dot the surroundings of major urban centers in Mindanao like Davao or Cagayan de Oro City.

But Antipolo is only a short distance from the nation's centers of political and economic power. All it takes it a short drive (minus the traffic, of course) and you are in the national capital. It lies in the shadow of Metro Manila and that is what makes the difference.

So as I stood those many mornings outside Mari's house in the outskirts of the city gulping in the cold, wet morning air, I marvel at the panorama of green, misty hills amidst the urban sprawl of houses and buildings. It may sometimes feel like Lianga but that is a delusion. All you have to do is listen to the rumble and noise of the traffic that never ceases outside the main highway outside the main gate and the loud whining of the passenger planes that pass overhead on their way to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

That is when I get somewhat homesick and pine for Lianga that seems, at those times, so far away.