Monday, February 25, 2008


Let us suppose that you are a resident of Lianga and that one morning you back up your car, truck or motorcycle from its garage and suddenly discover that it has developed some form of mechanical problem and needs spare parts and the attention of an expert mechanic. Or you just happen to check your refrigerator, pantry or food stores and notice that they are getting bare as a baby's bottom. You could also be doing a rather major repair or improvement of your house and need to stock up on construction and hardware materials. If you are in any of the situations mentioned above then chances are you may have to start planning a trip to the town of San Francisco in Agusan del Sur.

"SanFranz", as many locals would refer to it, is a 2nd class municipality located some 36 or so kilometers to the southwest of Lianga and is the major commercial, transportation and marketing center in the this part of northeastern Mindanao. It is uniquely located right at the crossroads of the national highway along the Cagayan de Oro-Butuan-Davao axis that provides access to the provinces of Surigao del Sur, Agusan del Sur and Agusan del Norte. This fortunate placement means that San Francisco is a major stopover for people and market goods on the move in this part of the Caraga region as well as a place to do and transact business or avail of the variety of commercial, banking and personal services usually not available in the smaller and less developed towns surrounding it.

When I was a small boy, the town was just a sleepy, frontier rest stop for all travelling the then muddy dirt roads that served as the national highway connecting the cities of Butuan and Davao. It was a logging town, a settlement brought about by the exodus of people into the area seduced by the handsome profits of a logging and timber industry that was exploiting the then vast and untouched virgin forests of the Agusan provinces.

Then in the last three decades, it began to prosper as a commercial and trading center by emphasizing its strategic location. It became a transportation hub, a banking center with the opening of several commercial banks and financial institutions and a prime location for retail and wholesale marketing establishments distributing the much needed commodities and services needed by its expanding population and the residents of nearby municipalities.

Nowadays SanFranz still retains the rustic quality of its frontier origins. The town's general layout remains rough and somewhat crude. There are no high-rise buildings and much of the life of the town is centered on a couple of main streets where most of all the business activity is located. It has also had its share of economic highs and lows over the years.

But it is also a town that wants to grow and is indeed growing, albeit not as much as it wants to. It has launched a bid to become a city but has not yet been able to really get there yet. Like some wayward teenager much too eager to lay claim to manhood and adulthood, its frenzied rush to attain cityhood seems obviously rather premature. Even the casual, first time visitor, while admiring of the town's robust and expanding economy, will readily admit that it is not really up to city status yet but may still get there given enough time and inspired leadership on the part of its local officials.

In the meantime it continues to be a town expecting to becoming more than what it is today. Whether it will achieve that expectation remains to be seen. But for the people of Lianga and the other nearby towns, SanFranz will, in the foreseeable future, remain the place to go for business and trade.

It may not be a city yet or, heaven forbid, may never become a city but for those who consider Butuan or Davao too far away or too expensive to visit, there will always be a SanFranz. It may not be the San Francisco where you, like Tony Bennett, will leave your heart but for those in the countryside eager for the occasional taste of the amenities of city or urban life, it can be, in many ways, just as good as it can get.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Mahjong Thoughts

Yesterday while rummaging around in the storeroom on the second floor of the house in Lianga, I came upon a small, flat wooden box complete with a lid attached to it with broken hinges. It was stained with water spots and the patina of great age. I immediately knew what was inside and as I opened it, a flood of memories came rushing out.

Four people, one square table and some 136 to 144 bone, ivory or plastic tiles with engraved symbols and you have the ingredients of one of the most fascinating, bewildering yet extremely addicting and engrossing games every invented. I should know because I grew up in a world familiar with the clickety-clack of mahjong tiles and until now I remain fascinated by the allure of this ancient Chinese game.

I first learned to play it when I was in high school when my siblings and I would gather round the old dining table in the house in Lianga during summer vacations and pretend to gamble using an ancient tile set that belonged to my paternal grandfather that decades later would end up in the family storeroom. We all eventually managed to catch on to doing the real thing and soon were spending hours first just playing for the fun of it then later on for loose change.

But it was my Lola Emang Yutangco, a spry spitfire of a lady widowed by my paternal grandmother's brother, whose addiction to the game made mahjong a regular part of our regular family get togethers. She was a stern taskmaster and teacher who insisted that we treat the game seriously, to play briskly and with style and finesse. To make sure we do all that, she was not above to making short, sharp rebukes to an erring, dillydallying player or kicking that offending player's shins painfully from underneath the table.

Under her tutelage, my brothers, sisters and I became reasonably proficient mahjong players although none of us really graduated into the high stakes gambling level, a fact our parents doubtlessly were endlessly thankful for. My father did play the game very well and was a formidable opponent when playing for money. But when his children all got into college, he quit cold turkey his occasional night out at the mahjong tables, a difficult sacrifice I can now truly appreciate knowing the addicting allure of this game where winning arguably involves skill combined with plenty of luck.

How much of it is really luck and how much is really card or "tile" sense and skill?

Years of playing the game has taught me that there are cases where you can play badly yet still manage to win when all the breaks and tiles all seem to fall miraculously your way. Or you could still lose miserably even when you seem to be on a roll and have all your tiles set up for the big win and then suddenly Lady Luck turns her back on you and the winning tiles turn coy and snub you.

Personally I believe that Lola Emang had it right when she spoke to me once years ago about what she had learned after a lifetime of playing the game. This was before a series of strokes sapped her first of her strength then eventually snapped her tenacious hold on life and robbed her of the chance to continue to play what she considered a game akin to living life.

"Mahjong is like life," she said. "When you start the game you are dealt your tiles face down. You don't know what they are or how they will play out. You may win big or lose big in the end but what matters is how you play with what you've got. In the end it is not about winning or losing but simply playing the game the best way you can. It is not just about winning. It is also about style and aplomb and the ability to play well even when the odd are against you."

The she would revert to form and snap out, "But play briskly and with no hesitation. Constant delaying and second guessing makes for a poor game. And life is too short for wasting time with poor games...... or poor players."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Little Sunshine

After more than a week of near constant rain and cloudy skies, the sun has finally deigned to show its face in Lianga for the first time today although if one does look up at the sky from anywhere in town, there is always what seems to be a hint of dark mist in the far horizon beyond the sea and behind the thickly forested mountains to the west. One can almost sense that this lull in the wet weather is merely a prelude to still more rain and that the heat and dryness of the coming summer months are still far away despite the fact that the calendar says it is already the middle of February.

With the seasonal rains have come two of the usual plagues that regularly visit the town this time of the year. One is intermittent electrical brownouts caused by disruptions in the power transmission lines of the electric power cooperative supplying power to the Lianga area. When the rains starts thundering down hard accompanied occasionally by gusty winds, electric posts are toppled down and power lines are shorted out or cut by falling trees, tree branches and other debris. Thus when heavy rain comes, it is almost inevitable that a power interruption is forthcoming and the local people have become in many ways used to that fact.

The second consequence of rainy weather, of course, is the further deterioration of Lianga area's already badly dilapidated dirt roads. Travel becomes not only extremely difficult but sometimes made impossible by landslides, flooding and impassable road sections transformed by too much rain into quagmires of mud.

But thank God for the small miracles. At least for today the sun did come out and the chance to get out of the house today on foot and without the obligatory umbrella was indeed a blessing to be savored after days and days of being cooped up indoors. Then there's that sweet, delicately scented, freshly washed quality to the air that one breathes in and the caress of the morning sun on one's face and skin that is like a warm, soothing balm that refreshes the body and spirit.

As I write this post it is already 8 PM and rain is again pouring down. The respite is over and it's back to watching the fat raindrops streak across the glass panes of the windows of the house. It is probably going to be another rainy day tomorrow but for today the sunny interlude was a like an unexpected gift.

Too short yet sweet just the same and extremely nice while it lasted.

Friday, February 15, 2008


I came into the living room of the house in Lianga a week ago and caught my 71 year old mother sitting rigidly on an easy chair, notepad and pen on a coffee table and intently watching something on the television. A new soap opera perhaps? A new game show?

Well, not exactly but to some extent what she was watching had elements of both. She was engrossed in the CNN's coverage of the U.S. presidential primaries, specifically last week's Super Tuesday's primary elections in 24 states where presidential hopefuls from both the Democratic and Republican parties separately contested, in just one day, the votes of the biggest number of state delegates which will ultimately determine the nominees of both parties who will slug it out in the presidential elections in November.

That an election happening in a country thousands of miles away has managed to arouse Mama's interest to the extent that she was glued to the TV set and taking notes like some naive college freshman is ample proof of the intense interest the current political events in the United States is generating all over the world. Why that is happening is, on the surface, is patently clear.

In the world's most powerful and wealthiest democracy, a woman and a black man, for the first time in its history, may have an even chance of becoming the official nominee of a major political party and thus earn the opportunity to run for the presidency of that nation. If that is not enough to make the current U.S. presidential primaries historic, momentous and therefore eminently watchable then add to that a lame duck president of a nation in economic crisis who is struggling to overcome low public approval ratings while his own party is trying to unify itself amidst internal bickering and retain control of the White House come November and you have the makings of a political melodrama that can be engrossing as the ubiquitous, "Tagalized" Korean telenovelas that are so popular on Philippine television.

In Lianga, growing interest in the on-going primaries and the coming presidential elections in the U.S. is giving many local residents a first time awareness of the bewildering complexities and intricacies of American presidential politics. They may not wholly understand the long and arduous process of it all but still they are entranced and captivated by its breadth and magnitude and the glamor and drama of the fast changing, unfolding events.

To me, local interest and engrossment in the U.S. presidential primaries is, by large, a good thing. On one level it may be simply entertainment and a rather shallow fascination with the human drama behind the complex politics but on the other hand, such interest and fascination may be political education of the most subtle kind. What is happening in the United States is simply democracy in action, imperfect and flawed it many be. And seeing how it works or does not work there may lead to eventual self-examination and a new perspective on the nature, culture and dynamics of politics in our own backyard.

If there is one thing that may be evident in closely watching and monitoring the primaries from the perspective of ordinary Filipino in Lianga, it is the simple fact that the vibrancy and vitality of American politics stems from an abiding belief by the majority of Americans in the fundamental power and capacity of the individual citizen, with the judicious exercise of his democratic rights, whether individually and collectively, to be a deciding factor in determining the future course of their country.

This belief in the power of the individual and the collective force of public opinion, naive and unrealistically idealistic it may be to cynics, as expressed primarily through the ballot, is the engine that drives American democracy. What matters is that the people believe that their individual opinions matter and should be expressed openly and decisively without fear or hesitation and with the firm conviction that such opinions could be catalysts for change.

That is why we here in Lianga watch the political spectacle on TV with awe and wonder mixed perhaps with no small degree of envy and jealousy. We too want to matter. We too want our voices to be heard and listened too by those in government and those who want to be in government. We too want a government that fears and respects us. We too want a living, breathing democracy.

But in truth we are just spectators, bystanders watching and waiting in the sidelines. The history of this country is being made in front of our eyes and dreadful things are often being done to the country, supposedly in our name and by our authority, by those we have trusted to lead and serve us while we do or could no nothing. We have become a nation of watchers and spectators, mute, unassertive and impotent.

It is sad therefore to realize that as we see the political process in the U.S. proceed and develop in real time before our eyes, we also were as Filipinos are being reminded again and again of the fundamental fact that for a true democracy to work, wherever it may be, the people living under it must not be afraid to speak out and be heard. There may be a bedlam of voices speaking all at once and it may sound like the chaos of a busy marketplace. But that is exactly how it is supposed to be and it usually and surprisingly manages to work out in the end.

At least most of the time anyway.....

Monday, February 11, 2008


He wants me to call him on the phone at least once a day usually at night before he goes to sleep. When I do we talk about nothing important, just the "I'm doing this" and the "what are you doing" thing. But to him and to me it is more than ritual conversation. It is as important as linking hands from afar and knowing that everything is all right, that the world is as it should be.

He knows he is growing up fast and that he is becoming a young man. His voice has deepened and cracks over the phone as he speaks. Yet he deeply resents the changes. He wants to forever remain a child in a world where growing up is a reality and a curse of life.

His pleasures are simple and evocative of the world he wants to live in. He can spend hours lying down on bed or the sofa while watching cartoons on the television, snack foods within reach to quell any unforeseen hunger or boredom. Or he could be playing with his Gameboy or PSP in one corner, so concentrated on what he is doing that he can be oblivious to the din and distractions of the world. Then when it suits him he can be a ball of energy, running, biking and playing with abandon, sweat falling down his face like rivers.

He is generous, friendly and considerate. He does not pick fights nor does he strike back unless maliciously provoked and even then his anger is quick to pass. He sees the best in people and accepts them as they are. His love for his family is warm, poignant and encompassing.

He says he hates his only brother because the latter often mercilessly taunts and teases him. When that happens he would shout out his frustration and exasperation. But even that "hate" is transitory and superficial. His forgiving nature soon reasserts itself and all is forgiven.

I have often wondered why the Almighty did not make man the way He made this boy. Devoid of malice and bitterness, free from greed and envy, blissfully innocent and seeing the world in bright, wondrous, happy colors. Perhaps this what Man was like before he got thrown out of paradise, before he knew of pain and suffering and knew the meaning of sin and evil which eventually corrupted him and hardened him into what he is now.

When my nephew asks me to call him I always try to do as he asks. Not only for his sake but my own. For he is my reminder of what true innocence and goodness is. He keeps keep me sane in a mad, mad world, a world that remains livable and tolerable inspite of the insanity because there are people like him.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


Yesterday I had the chance to talk to Jun Lala, the young neophyte who happens to be the top ranking member of the Lianga municipal council or Sangguniang Bayan. I had the opportunity to ask him about the direction he and the rest of the municipal government is taking Lianga since taking office after the local elections last May. Jun is part of a group of young, first time politicians who did very well in the polls after running on a platform of reform and change and a fresh perspective on the many problems plaguing the town.

Lianga has always been under the thrall of old style, traditional politicians coming from well entrenched political families and the entry of new faces in to the political arena was, in many ways, a welcome development and a breath of fresh air for many of the townsfolk who were getting distressed by what they see as an alarming decline in economic activity locally.

In the past, municipal officials have tried to focus their efforts on programs to industrialize Lianga and thus try to recapture the glories of the time, many decades ago, when the town was preeminent among its sister municipalities in Surigao del Sur as a trading and market town. The quest for shortcuts to industrialization has led to such attempts, among other things, as to revive the stalled logging industry in Barangay Diatagon and to construct a seaport in Barangay Baucaue, both ongoing projects that are proving to be not only problematic but also may not exactly be what the town may need to resuscitate its faltering economy.

After talking to Jun I was gratified to learn that he has the same view that I and many longtime Lianga observers have held for some time now - that the future of the municipality lies primarily no longer in industrialization but in the areas of local agriculture and ecotourism. Therefore, the bulk of municipal resources must be harnessed to jump start and enhance the development of these two emerging, potential economic strengths. To compete with such progressive towns in the general area such as Barobo and San Francisco, Lianga needs to build on its strengths and being a coastal and agricultural town, the obvious need not to be pointed out or overemphasized.

Lianga is already a weekend destination for local and foreign tourists who want to frolic on its white, sandy beaches and a number of local beach resorts already exist to cater to the that very need. There is a need for government support to encourage the building of more similar and even better facilities as well as the needed service and support industries. The upgrading and improvement of existing road, public utility infrastructures and electronic communication facilities should also be addressed.

That a locally based tourism industry can be definitely created in Lianga is not only possible but imminently achievable since the town has a rich cultural and historical heritage. What is just needed is a program designed to highlight, accentuate and showcase the positive aspects of that heritage.

Agriculture is Jun's primary field of interest. Educated as a veterinarian, he sees government assistance, whether financial or technical in nature, to farmers, livestock raisers and agricultural workers not only as livelihood assistance but, more importantly, as a form of people empowerment. The agricultural sector has also been largely neglected by the local government and left largely to fend for itself so he feels that for the government to give it some focus now is to merely to repay a long overdue debt to what essentially remains a pillar of the local economy.

Translating the rhetoric into action with real and verifiable results in a situation where you may have to fight against institutional inertia, vested political interests and popular cynicism about the capability of politicians to actually deliver on their campaign promises, are obstacles that he knows he has to fight and overcome. But Jun is confident that he and the other young legislators will eventually succeed because they really have to.

It is, in a nutshell, a question of surviving and remaining viable in today's world. And when faced with that critical choice, not to succeed, just like doing nothing, is to accept Lianga's inevitable path to decline and decay. And that is simply something that the people of Lianga cannot accept much less consider or contemplate.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


When I was boy growing up in Lianga in the late 1960's and early 1970's, shopping for new slippers, sandals and a motley of other personal accessories, household items and knickknacks meant a visit to one of two drab, dilapidated-looking buildings located right in the center of town and just across the town church and municipal park. One structure which was just along the shoreline housed the public market, a couple of "carinderia-style" restaurants and a store or two selling fishing supplies and agricultural supplies.

The other building right in front of the church was our usual destination, a collection of adjoining stores all selling dry goods and general merchandise, all owned and operated by Lianga residents originally from the island of Bohol in the Visayas or were of Boholano descent. Fiercely entrepreneurial, they so dominated the dry goods retail market in Lianga that the whole building housing the store spaces they rented from the municipal government was commonly referred to as the "bol-anon" in their honor.

There in dark, cool and often musty shelves they keep and display the wide assortment of goods and products they offer at modest profit to the town folk. Need cooking pots and pans, brooms and dust pans, water pails, dishes, table utensils and decorative items? What about footwear, clothing accessories or cloth and fabrics of all types and kinds? They were also the first to display and sell ready to wear clothes when they became fashionable. They even sold cosmetics, personal hygiene products.

As a group they were often shy and retiring, slow to anger and content to remain in the background of general community life. They were also intensely religious, avid churchgoers and contributed generously to church projects and activities.

For years, business was good for them and Lianga was at its height as a marketing town, a place where you do your buying and trading. It was also a transportation hub for both land and sea craft and the multitude of people that passed through it meant a ready market to be cajoled and enticed. Money came in and business was booming.

But as the last century drew to a close, the rise of nearby new market towns like Barobo and San Francisco who were more ideally located on the Butuan-Davao highway network led to the decline of the retail industry in Lianga. Visitor numbers declined as well as the number of investments and money coming in. Logging operations in the Diatagon area north of Lianga was halted and as incomes dropped or disappeared all together, small scale businesses also suffered greatly.

Nowadays, few of the old Boholano traders are still doing business in Lianga. But it is the Chinese and those of Chinese descent who are the new force to reckon with in the local retail market. And even they are not really doing that well.

But the old and decrepit building they used to occupy is still there and is still called the "bol-anon" by the townspeople. It is sad, in a way, to think that the name reflects the memories of the recent past rather than the reality of the present.

But then is exactly the way things are in Lianga today. It's people still remember and hunger for the good old days and the warm memories of its golden age. The bol-anon, just like the landmark purô or light beacon that stands just beyond the town's shoreline, is another neglected vestige of Lianga's glorious past.

It is past that continues to haunt the collective thoughts of its people today as they struggle to face an uncertain future and strive to recapture the lost glories of the days of old that really should not have been lost in the first place.