Friday, March 28, 2008

Counting Blessings

Four morsels of humanity, four still small yet rapidly growing human souls and I was so glad to see all of them together. Even just this once.

It is a sad fact of life that as the years go by and family members put up their own separate families, it is becoming more and more difficult to find the opportunities and occasions to justify getting the extended family together in one place in order to touch base and just spend time in each other's company. This is especially true in families like us separated not only by distance but by time zones as well.

But last week, except for two siblings in the United States, we all did get together and it was an especially poignant reunion of sorts. My mother was leaving for another short visit to the U.S. right after the Holy Week and the gathering was, in one sense, a send off.

I was especially gratified to see three of my nephews and my one niece together again (the other niece and one other nephew live in the U.S.). Not yet having children of my own, I miss them dearly and any chance to be with them all together is indeed a rare treat, one unfortunately that may be getting more difficult to arrange as they are rapidly growing up and soon will be living increasingly separate lives.

Binjo, at 14 years, is already the quintessential teenager. He is struggling like so many of his peers in finding his own place and identity in the world yet the incipient anger and frustrations of the adolescent years surging like tempests in others his age is thankfully muted in him. His capacity to find joy in life and relish the company of his cousins and extended family, to receive and give affection while restrained and downplayed is still strong in him. Beneath the thin veneer of growing sophistication and facade of teenage indifference is still the wide eyed, impressionable and exuberant child I once knew and held in my arms.

Josh, at 12 years, is already, despite his tender years, a sensible, well grounded and well mannered young man. That does not mean that he is perfect. He too has his foibles and idiosyncrasies but probably would have, among his cousins, the best chance of getting through the storms of adolescence relatively unscathed. But then silent waters do run deep and Josh can be as deep and silent as the best of them.

Muriel who recently had her 10th birthday, is the proverbial dragon in the family. Female she may be but she has enough personality and spite to overshadow all her male cousins put together. She can vent out her anger with fighting words like a fire monster spitting out flames. She can also kick and punch with gusto when provoked. But she can also be, when the mood upon her, endearing, cuddly and affectionate. Hot or cold or just warm, she remains always more than a handful.

Iam , although 13 years old already, is the darling of the family. He remains what he has always been, a sweet, innocent child in an already young man's body. He is the real Peter Pan, the embodiment of the best of the child that used to be inside all of us, fated never to grow old, jaded and cynical, instead he happily views the world through rose colored glasses and rejoices in the magnificent vistas and panoramas often he alone can see. His presence is always a joy to be savored, a spot of sunshine on cloudy days.

I don't really know what the future really holds for all of them but one thing is very clear. They, in many ways, are our family's investment in the future. They represent what is left of our faith and optimism in tomorrow. Thus by getting them together, we are like the miser greedily counting and rejoicing in his hoarded treasures and rejoicing in their priceless splendor.

It has been said that to live a joyful and happy life, one must count his blessings and not his misfortunes, to rejoice in the good things and disregard the bad. I then look and marvel at my mother's grandchildren, all four of then plus the two that may be far away but still with us in spirit and bound to us across the vast distance by mutual affection. Then I realize that despite of all of life's bitter disappointments and its daunting challenges, we remain truly and essentially blessed.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Artificial Life

A couple of months ago, my nephew introduced me to the world of online internet gaming. In my case it was RAN Online, a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) gaining popularity in Lianga and introduced in the Philippines by internet game publisher, IP e-Games. It also publishes other online games locally with improbable titles such as Granada Espada, O2 Jam, Supreme Destiny and Audition Dance Battle.

The game concept is basically simple even for one with little or no previous knowledge about internet gaming or computer technology. You simply go online at the local internet cafe where the game has been installed in their computers or install the game yourself in your own system after downloading the game installer for free. Then you log into the game, create an online character or avatar and then you are set to immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, vistas and, of course, the battles and conflicts of the virtual RAN universe.

It is a universe gone fantastically mad, where the rules and limitations of the real world may not apply or can be circumvented at will. This world is a place of magic and sorcery, powerful monsters and evil villains that you on your own or, better still, with the help of fellow online players have to vanquish and destroy in order to restore order and sanity to the virtual world.

Failure, defeat or death in battle are nothing to be feared since all three are simply temporary and inconvenient interludes to an eternity of chances to try and try again. There is no death in this universe, just unlimited chances at resurrection and restoration. One merely restarts and resume the action where he left off. One can wish that the real world can be as forgiving or as generous.

As you traverse the overt and hidden places of this imaginary world you make contact and cement friendships, form parties, gangs and guilds with fellow players from all over through their avatars or characters. Or you can simply duel with each other for supremacy and domination of the game world.

Not all is about fighting though. You can engage in virtual commerce through the hunting, buying and selling of virtual game items like skill scrolls, weapons, armors and potions. You can choose to accumulate virtual gold to supply your avatar or characters with the game items you desire or, like many players who prefer to make real money in the real world, sell the same virtual items for real money to fellow game fanatics.

After all the internet game publishers make their money the same way through their selling of game cards you can use to "top up" your game accounts. You then can use the credits to buy virtual items for your characters at their "e-store", not a bad marketing strategy since the game is essentially "free" to play. The RAN Online universe may be imaginary but like the real thing it still runs on money and gold, both of the virtual and real kind. Nothing after all, even in the realms of the imagination, is truly for free.

I can understand the allure of the MMORPG's and why my nephews as well as thousands of others, most of them teenagers and adolescents like them, are attracted and even "addicted" to them. This is classic escapism of the digital kind. Dark, gothic fairy tales brought to life by computer and electronic magic for those willing to pay for the privilege of living someone else's distorted version of reality.

There is admittedly something fascinating and attractive in the stylized violence, simplistic (corrupted?) moral code and surrealism of the world of RAN and the other MMORPG''s. It is like being in a Japanese anime graphic novel, the violence and conflict made essentially beautiful and artistically mesmerizing by itself, totally separated and insulated from both its cause and effect. Gore and bloodshed made esthetically pleasing and an art in itself.

"It's just a game!", my nephew would say while wondering out loud what the fuss is all about.

I look at the young faces in the internet cafes in Lianga, eyes intent on the flickering action on their monitor screen, their fingers dancing on mouse and keyboard, the outside world temporarily set aside, forgotten and irrelevant. Mountains out of molehills?

I wonder.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Disquieting News

Since yesterday evening, the people of Lianga could not stop talking about it. Early this morning when I got out of the house for a short stroll, I could see friends and neighbors already outside their houses and getting together in small groups at the street corners to discuss the startling news.

Ramil Tolentino, the 37 year old scion of one of Lianga's more well known families, was caught together with four other suspects by law enforcement personnel in Cagayan de Oro City after a bungled attempt to rob a commercial establishment in that city late Sunday night (see SunStar Cagayan de Oro story). Ramil was a former branch manager of the Enterprise Bank, a rural bank and micro-financing company based in Lianga. Two of the other arrested suspects are from Lianga's neighboring town of Barobo while the fourth hails from San Agustin which is the next town north of here. All these towns including Lianga belong to the province of Surigao del Sur.

The shock and disbelief with which local residents greeted the disquieting news is not surprising since Tolentino in particular as well as one of the other suspects are not only well known locally but are also related by consanguinity and affinity to many of the townpeople here. When a local boy from a rather prominent local family, whose father happens to be a former municipal councilman and now a businessman of note, goes spectacularly bad then that is, in the case of small towns like Lianga, earthshaking news indeed and one that will get the local rumor and gossip mills roaring and spinning for weeks to come.

They are many here who say that Ramil's alleged involvement in the reported robbery attempt could be the consequence of an unfortunate methamphetamine drug habit which he has been struggling with for years now. If that is indeed the case then his case is certainly not that an uncommon story and he is simply one among the countless of others whose lives and the lives of their families have been damaged if not destroyed and ruined by this insidious narcotic.

I had been told almost a decade ago by a police official specializing in narcotics and drug enforcement in Butuan City that Lianga, despite its small size and remote location, was on their watchlist of towns in Surigao del Sur with a seriously emerging drug abuse problem particularly among its youth and young adult population. Since that time, successive political administrations who have controlled Lianga have made a lot of noises and promises to fight the problem and meet it head on.

The case of Ramil Tolentino is proof positive that nothing really concrete or substantial has really been achieved. Methampetamines or "shabu" as it is locally known remains the popular drug of choice among the many immersed in Lianga's drug culture which draws in not only those from the poor and uneducated masses but also those from the more affluent of town society.

The town, in recent years, has been trying to shake off its image as a hotbed of the local Communist insurgency and has been desperately trying to project itself as a safe, alternative destination for local and foreign tourists interested in sampling the area's pristine beaches and ecotourism sites. The Tolentino incident and the reports of it in both the local and national media will not bode well for the town's attempt to build a new image for itself. Neither will it help moves to combat the public perception of the province of Surigao del Sur as a breeding ground for lawless and criminal elements.

Publicity experts say that in most cases any form of publicity, even bad or negative ones, is still publicity. In this case, it would not be far off the mark to say that this is one form of negative publicity the town of Lianga, the province of Surigao del Sur and most importantly, the families of the suspects now in custody in Cagayan de Oro City, if given the choice, would rather do without.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Clueless or Lost?

It has been almost a year since the May 2007 local and national elections and a lot of my friends and acquaintances from outside Lianga have been asking me how the municipal government under the administration of Mayor Vicente "Belos" Pedrozo is faring in getting the town back on the path of progress and development after years, decades actually, of economic decline.

Pedrozo had won a convincing electoral victory in 2007 over then incumbent mayor, Felino Pantaleon, Jr., by running under a political platform promising honest, corruption free, responsive and proactive governance in contrast to a then incumbent political administration he characterized as corruption ridden and unable to provide the impetus for positive change and progress for Lianga. He also brought with him to power a couple of young, new faces in the Sangguniang Bayan or municipal council that a lot of local voters thought would provide new perspectives and approaches to the host of problems plaguing the town as well as infuse new blood and vitality into the local legislative process.

It is therefore sad to note, and this is a view shared by many here, that the high expectations engendered by the change in the local political administration last year has to this date been largely unfulfilled. That is not to say that nothing has been actually done by the new political leadership. Some changes, particularly in the areas of tightening fiscal control and instituting procedural changes in the town hall's fiscal processes so as to eliminate if not minimize the abuse and misuse of government funds have been implemented with some positive results.

Yet many of the old problems remains, foremost among them is still the prevailing lack of a clear and coherent vision of what the future should be for Lianga. This lack of a rational, concrete and well-studied blueprint for the future progress and development of the town goes beyond the periodic yet merely formulaic and standardized developmental planning usually initiated by "expert" outsiders from both national and provincial government agencies. It should evolve from thorough consultations with the local people and be based on a clear and unbiased assessment of the town's specific economic strengths, weaknesses and peculiar characteristics.

What we have now in the municipal government is a cacophony of voices and interests all voicing their own solutions and visions for the municipality. All sound and fury, grandstanding and eloquent (and not so eloquent) rhetoric, often signifying nothing substantial, useful and practical. Those few who do speak out with clear voices and sound ideas are often drowned out in the babble of nonsense, lost in the sea of noisy mediocrity and selfish interests, political or otherwise.

What exists is a governance of trial and error, of reactive and certainly not "proactive" politics. And that is exactly why Lianga is going nowhere. It is like a patient just out of intensive care and recovering from a deadly illness but neither getting worse or better but just "middling". And just getting by is simply not what the voters here wanted when they gave their mandate to the Pedrozo administration last year.

What Mayor Pedrozo must realize is that good governance goes beyond mere houscleaning and streamlining of the town government. For a local government to be effective, it must not only, at least in the case of Lianga, provide the environment for positive change and progress but also initiate and nurture the impetus for change as well. That is the essence of being "proactive", a word currently much used and abused in Philippine politics.

The mayor has been quoted many times are being focused on leaving a "lasting legacy of good governance" for Lianga. A clear, unequivocal and definite statement of his vision for a progressive Lianga in the years ahead and concrete steps towards the achievement of that vision would be the centerpiece of better legacy he can leave behind.

It is also a legacy he must start putting in place as soon as possible because time is essentially running out. By this time next year, everyone's focus will shift to preparations for the 2010 national and local polls. In the noise and distractions, wheeling and dealing and shifting political loyalties of a pre-election period, no such undertaking requiring undivided focus and attention will be feasible or sustainable. Now is the time for him and his administration to get their act together and get down to work.

Enough of the slogans and half-measures. In truth, Lianga has had more than enough of both for a long, long time already.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Wet World

Upon returning to Lianga last Thursday afternoon after a short trip to the town of San Agustin some 26 kilometers away, I came upon a sight I have not seen before. What I saw were streets in the center of town awash with muddy water flowing like rivers into already overflowing canals and drainage ditches. Lianga was getting flooded.

I knew it had been raining almost constantly the past week or so before that and since early morning of that very day, the rain had been coming down in torrents interspersed with short periods of relatively light showers that can often lull one into believing that the deluge is finally coming to an end but, in reality, are actually periods of relative calm before the heavy downpour begins again.

Meteorologists are blaming the northeast monsoon winds for the persistent wet weather in the northeastern Mindanao area where Lianga is located but many old-timers here are saying that the weather patterns are changing and that the current rainy weather which has become more and more prevalent this time of the year for the last decade or so is indicative of the changing global climate brought about by global warming and other factors directly linked to human abuse and destruction of the natural environment.

The good thing is that whatever flooding Lianga is experiencing nowadays is largely transient and temporary. It's relative nearness to the sea ensures that excess water eventually manages to find ways to escape confinement and as the volume of rain slackens, the flood waters recede relatively quickly as well.

Still the vision of Lianga streets turned to muddy and flooded rivers was a new and rather disturbing sight for me and a grim harbinger of what may be in store for the town if these rains continue unabated. I had seen nearby towns like Barobo and San Francisco get positively flooded just by several hours of hard rain. But not Lianga.

Perhaps times are indeed changing.

Friday, March 7, 2008

A Bol-anon World

On a post in this blog titled "Bol-anon" which happened to be about the enterprising natives of the island of Bohol in the Visayas whose indomitable entrepreneurial spirit has made a distinct and valuable contribution to the history and development of Lianga as a town in this part of Mindanao, I recently saw a comment sent by Jerry Sisican, a Filipino expatriate currently working in the United Kingdom and who blogs about all things Bol-anon in his blog, "Bohol On My Mind"(

Jerry tells us in his blog that he is of Bol-anon or Boholano stock and actually grew up and went to school in Bohol. He is even married to a Boholana. One obviously cannot get more Bol-anon than that.

It might interest Jerry to know that my maternal grandmother was a native of Kudtong, Candijay also in Bohol whose family resettled in Surigao del Sur during the early years of the last century. She later got married to a farmer and found a new home in what is now the municipality of Bayabas. Until her untimely death in the early 1980's, she remained fiercely proud of her Bol-anon heritage, maintained close contact and ties with relatives back in her native province and made it a point to regularly visit her birthplace whenever she could.

My Lola Dingding represented the best qualities of the Bol-anon. She was deeply religious yet her Catholicism transcended more than mere adherence and blind obedience to religious dogma. Her's was a faith that sprung naturally and instinctively from the heart and flowed out from a warm, generous and forgiving nature that saw giving aid and assistance in time of need to both acquaintances and strangers alike not as obligatory actions imposed by religion but as acts born of compassion and an unshakable belief in the fundamental goodness of all men.

She was also was extremely hardworking. Like most of the local Bol-anons, she opened a general merchandise store which she operated successfully for many years. She managed to do that while at the same time helping her husband manage their landholdings and raise six children, one of whom became my mother. She was also a major influence on the lives of her grandchildren and her extended family and in her later years became the matriarch of her own clan.

No small task for a frail-looking, soft spoken, extremely petite woman who, despite being less than five feet in height, possessed a driving, get-it-done personality that made her seem larger than life. She eventually lived to see her children and grandchildren thrive and prosper by following and sticking to the values of her Bol-anon upbringing. One son even became a prominent doctor and politician and ended up a congressman and provincial governor of her adopted province.

Looking back now I have realized that much of the personal qualities we have always been told by our elders as essential to success in life like thrift, religious faith, industry, love and devotion to family, generosity, honesty and personal integrity are the same qualities most Bol-anons as a people take to heart and place great premium on. This is the reason why most of them, wherever they go, whether here or anywhere else in the world, always do well and become esteemed and valued members of their adopted communities.

Part of me will always be Bol-anon because of Lola Dingding and that is something I will always be proud of. My memories of her are also warm memories redolent of the unforgettable impressions, smells, sounds and sights of the Bohol I had visited occasionally over the years and the magnificent people that inhabit that island province. Magnificent people whose subdued yet magnificent lives have touched the lives of so many others practically everywhere.

By the way, Jerry says he knows somebody surnamed Mercado in Lianga. He might be tickled pink to know that I do know the Mercado family and their family and ours have been friends for years.

It is wonderful and heartwarming to confirm once again an amazing yet undeniable fact, that for those who are Bol-anon in one way or the other, vast distances count for nothing and that it's indeed a small, small world out there.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Visit ToTandag

It took me almost three hours to get there. Three hours from Lianga to traverse 89 kilometers of mostly muddy and potholed dirt tracks made worse by weeks of intermittent rain and ongoing road construction.

The toll on the body and mind by such an arduous journey seemed too high a price to pay for a chance to visit once again this capital of the province of Surigao del Sur. But family and filial obligations are of paramount importance. My mother wanted to visit my younger sister whose husband and family live in Tandag and I was essentially just along for the ride.

It has been, however, many months since I last visited Tandag and my visit a couple of days ago was my first since it recently declared itself a city. Thus I was, in many ways, eager and anxious to see the new changes taking place there after the change in its legal status. So as soon as I had the chance, I started looking the new city over.

That changes have happened and are taking place cannot be denied. There is some new infrastructure going up and there is a certain residual degree of optimism and civic pride that can be sensed in the local people as one goes about the streets and alleyways.

The provincial government is not just renovating but practically building a new, more grandiose capitol building on the site of the old one. And nearer the sea, the new city government is reclaiming part of the coast and building a long concrete dike that would usher in the completion of a "boardwalk" along the seashore where local residents can promenade and enjoy the late afternoon and early evening breeze while leaving enough space for the construction of new commercial buildings and complexes.

But beneath the thin veneer of its new status as a city, I cannot shake off the personal perception that Tandag is really, by and large, still the same town I knew in the past. There is still enough of the old provincialism and the lingering vestiges of its rural and municipal past to give it enough of a patina or look akin to that of a country bumpkin crashing a high society bash and trying out the affectations and dress of an urban sophisticate while not quite succeeding to completely convince the party crowd.

Like many similar towns much to eager to jump the fast and easy way to cityhood essentially by legislative fiat, it seems to be neither here nor there and has actually more in common with the pretender to a royal throne uneasily wearing the crown and the habiliments of majesty while constantly worrying and wondering in the back of his mind if anyone watching him closely can detect the humbug beneath the kingly disguise.

Perhaps the great expectations of cityhood will be enough to mobilize the city government and citizens of Tandag to strive more and do more, a case of the effect providing the impetus for the cause. It has happened elsewhere and it can happen there. All it takes is some form of inspired leadership with great political will, a motivated citizenry, a realistic, achievable and sustainable program of development and, of course, plenty of the right kind of luck.

Whether Tandag will become more than what it is today remains to be seen, however. There is certainly and unquestionably great potential for its future growth and progress. It may not be there yet but it may eventually get time. The change in status to cityhood could be the first step. Making sure that the new city will eventually be deserving of its new status and title is obviously next.

Otherwise it will just be another would be city on the long list of would be cities all over the country who have moved too fast and precipitously too soon only to end up nowhere just as fast.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Tasty, Heavenly Treat

It is basically a unprepossessing fish. Broad, stumpy body covered in dark, thick, leathery skin and often with bony outgrowths on the head that in some species extends out like horns hence the English name, unicorn fish, after the mythical horned horse. But grilled over hot coals until parts of the thick skin is a bit charred and served while still piping hot, the "gangis", as it is locally known, can be a gastronomic feast of heavenly delight.

Decades ago, this denizen of the shallow coastal reefs was unknown as a food delicacy except to fishermen and residents of the coastal villages and towns in the Lianga area. In the cities and urban centers, it was ignored even detested because of its thick, relatively tough skin and strong fishy smell. But as more and more people got hooked on its taste, the fish has become a gourmet treat and prices have risen sharply until in Lianga it averages at around P120 to P140 per kilo. And since a prime specimen can grow to more than a kilo, buying one can be an expensive treat indeed for the average income earner.

The secret of the allure of the gangis is in its firm, fatty, succulent flesh. It can be prepared and cooked in many different ways but for the majority of its devotees, it is best simply grilled over hot coals with the minimum of fuss. When served hot, the abdomen or belly area is the place to start because the layers of juicy fish fat there imparts to the fish meat an amazing cacophony of flavors which I can compare to eating juicy and freshly cooked lechon or roasted pig meat.

The more hardened gangis fanatics also like to feast on its intestines and internal organs which they claim is even more tasty than the flesh. That is something I have not been able to have the stomach or the will to do but those who have done so swear that the innards represent a taste treat superior to anything else the fish can offer. One of these days I may really try it.

Lianga is well known for the quality and availability of a wide variety of fish and all manner of seafood caught or gathered from the bounty of its coastal sea. But for sheer richness of taste, finger licking goodness and unrivaled good eating, the gangis, despite its unpretentious looks, is definitely among King Neptune's top finned wonders and a taste treat visitors to Lianga will keep coming back for more.