Wednesday, May 28, 2008

School Visit

The Lianga Central Elementary School is located in a square shaped, walled compound right smack in the center of the town and just a short distance from the municipal or town hall. A day or so ago, I took the chance during one of my infrequent strolls through different parts of the town to pay the school a visit and see how it is gearing up for the opening of the new school year next month.

Like all public schools all over the country, the town's grade school buildings are totally enclosed in concrete walls with sections on which the names of local residents who in the past who have been school benefactors are prominently displayed, some of the names were familiar to me while others were barely recognizable, most of them probably belonging to persons long gone and whose moment of generosity have managed to lent them, through their names written in concrete, some measure of immortality.

Except for the main building and its two separate wings, most of the structures in the compound are relatively new and probably constructed in the past decade or so. They are simple, roofed, square and rectangular cubes of wood and concrete, brightly painted yet strangely characterless, their blank, outside walls often emblazoned with slogans and the names of local education officials and teachers.

It is the old main building at the end of the long paved path from the main gate that always draws my attention. It is an elevated, single story, wooden structure that was built in the post-World War II era, its venerable appearance proclaiming decades of use and abuse.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Passing Of The Old Guard

The news had apparently been buzzing around in Lianga since early morning yesterday but I got wind of it just as I was sitting down at the lunch table. The mayor of Lianga, Vicente "Belos" Pedrozo, had passed away that early morning after a prolonged bout with illness. He had been undergoing intensive medical treatment in Davao City for some time now and had been reported several times to be in critical condition.

Pedrozo, if my memory serves me right, is the first mayor in Lianga's long history to die while in office and his untimely demise comes as a shock and a disappointment for many here in Lianga who, despite his rather pugnacious nature and checkered political career, had hoped that his brand of tough, no nonsense leadership would provide the impetus for positive change in this town which has been trying to revive a faltering and declining economy, and achieve some degree of sustainable progress and development.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

At Last?

After the World Bank scratched a loan package for the Philippines which included almost a billion pesos worth of road infrastructure projects for the Surigao del Sur area some time ago, local residents in the Lianga area have almost lost all hope that they would, at least within their lifetime, be able to experience what it is like to travel on modern, concrete paved roads and highways. The fact that the said loan package was withdrawn because of allegations of bidding irregularities, excessive overpricing of materials and other anomalous issues served only to strengthen the general conviction here that the road network serving the Lianga area would probably remain one of the most dilapidated and most poorly maintained road systems in the country for years to come.

That may no longer be the case soon if we are to believe the promises coming from the provincial government in Tandag and the local offices of the government's Department of Public Works and Highways. It seems that national government funding for the concreting of the national highway road network in the Lianga - San Agustin - Marihatag area has already been approved and that actual work on the massive project will be commencing soon. In fact, according to DPWH officials, preparatory work has already began and that the entire project is slated for completion before the end of 2010.

That may be true but the truth of the matter is that if residents of the above mentioned municipalities are more than a bit impatient to see the actual road concreting work to begin they could not be blamed for being less than forbearing. They have gone through decades of false promises from a whole generation of politicians who all have promised them a modern highway system and had been rebuffed time and time again.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

False Alarm

"U.S. Geological Society predicts a 6.8 magnitude earthquake will hit Philippine plates tonight. Please be calm and be alert. This text message is from Hawaii state emergency preparedness office. Please pass (no harm in being prepared) let's pray that this will not happen."

This was the text or SMS message (reproduced above in its entirety) I received on my mobile phone several days ago. It turned out that thousands of other Filipinos all over the country that very same day had also received the same message. In the Philippines where mobile phone SMS texting is second nature to millions of people, that was like igniting a brush fire in a bone dry forest during the hottest time of the year.

Very soon, everyone was aware of the so called "news" and in many areas of the country plenty of people, especially the more gullible ones, were thrown into panic because of what was apparently an impending calamity of earthshaking proportions. It was only when evening news programs on national television started broadcasting interviews with Phivolcs (Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology) officials labeling the text message as a hoax when the general unease and anxiety felt all over slowly subsided.

Perhaps the pictures and videos of the horrific damage left by the massive earthquake that recently hit central China recently made it easier to convince Filipinos that a similar catastrophe is about to happen in the country.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

An Inconsolable Loss

My young nephew, Josh, lost his cellphone yesterday at the beach. It does not matter now how it was lost. It could have been stolen from the family car where he put it while he was frolicking in the waves or it could have fallen somewhere while he was changing clothes. What matters is that he has lost something that is important to him and he is inconsolable because of it.

For a teenager like him a cellphone is more than a piece of electronic hardware. It is a lifeline to friends and acquaintances. It is the means by which he delves in and keeps in touch with the virtual web that binds and encompasses the world we all live in today. Without it he is, in one sense, naked and powerless, unable to plug in into the pulse of the world.

He is Superman without his superpowers, the Flash without his lightning speed, the Green Lantern without his power ring and Batman without his costume and utility belt. If that is not a tragedy of enormous proportions then nothing is, at least for a young man like him.

To some people, the cellphone is a toy, a piece of technological magic that serves to amuse and entertain them. To others it is a tool to be used, a glorified calculator and communication device that makes life easier and work more convenient. Some see it as a status symbol, something to show off or brag about, a measure of status within the group.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Summers Past

When I was a young child in the 1970's, having fun alone or with friends and playmates during summer vacations in Lianga meant being resourceful to the max. There was yet no television, no game consoles (portable or otherwise), no iPod's and Mp3 players, and, of course, no computers. The Internet as we know it now was still a dream that smacked of science fiction.

Commercially available toys were few and usually horrendously expensive, so we, children, made our own. Blocks of wood, scavenged metal sheets, discarded rubber slippers and a few odds and ends became toy trucks and cars complete with serviceable doors and windows and equipped with spring suspensions. Boys pulled their creations behind them with strings and ran races with them.

We made elastic rubber strips and tree branches into deadly slingshots which we used to hunt small birds and other small creatures or shoot down all manner of fruits from stingy neighbors' fruit trees. Bamboo sticks, colored paper sheets, homemade paste and string became kites of every size, color and shape which we flew in the backyard of the house or along the shoreline of the town during the summer season.

When we played house with friends and relatives, we built with our own hands small shacks out of spare wood, discarded plywood sections and sheet metal roofing behind the house and actually spent hours pretending to live inside them. The structures would stand for days until they collapse on their own or my parents would raise hell and they would eventually be dismantled over our tearful protests.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Hogging The Road

It is something that you see in Lianga a lot especially when the day is about to end and the heat of the afternoon sun is fading into the sudden coolness of the early evening. Streets and thoroughfares suddenly converted in a flash into playgrounds and playing areas for all manners of sports and games. Currently, the favorites are badminton and basketball although in one part of town I have seen table tennis tables out in the open too.

For basketball, the hoops and backboards are mounted on movable, wooden scaffoldings. For badminton enthusiasts, all it takes are two makeshift supports to hold the net and then its game on. The games often go on into the evening and played amidst the glare of streetlights or temporary floodlighting.

One can, of course, point out to that fact that there is a dearth of sports facilities available in the town for sports aficionados as the reason why the town streets are being used for such, well, unusual purposes. But the truth of the matter is that the local folk here consider the streets are virtual extensions of their houses and neighborhoods and thus their use or misuse for purposes other than vehicular traffic is essentially, in their view, justifiable.

This attitude extends to other aspects of local community life. Houses are often built with sections extending almost into the edge of streets in defiance of building codes, swallowing sidewalks in the process. During funerals, birthday celebrations, local festivities and the like, residents often arbitrarily close off whole street sections and do their celebrating and gathering on the street complete with canvass tents, plastic chairs and tables.

Rowdy parties spilling out into the street outside residences are not uncommon. Impromptu beer and liquor drinking sessions on hastily arranged tables and chairs occupying half or the whole of a street in front of houses are also a common occurrence.

Visitors from the city are often amazed if not irritated at this rather proprietary attitude Lianga residents have for their streets and roadways. They see it as a negative aspect of provincialism and a regrettable lack of civic pride and civic responsibility. But it is an attitude that is deeply rooted in the consciousness of a community that is inspite of the advent of the 21st century, remains, in many ways, rather insular, provincial and extremely suspicious of others and outsiders who may not share their world view.

Motorists after turning a corner and seeing these temporary sports venues or street gatherings blocking their way have no choice but to simply shrug their shoulders or shake their heads in bewilderment, quickly reverse their vehicles and go find another circuitous way to get where they want to go. To offend local sensibilities by protesting to the local authorities would not be advisable.

Perhaps it is just a question of balance. After all, in the normal world, motorists in their mighty beasts of metal and rubber are the undisputed masters of the roads and highways. In Lianga they happen to be the low men on the totem pole.

In this town, the ordinary guy walking or hogging the streets is still king.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Land From The Sea

A first time visitor to Lianga, who strolls through the town and pauses to check out the public market, the restaurants, retail stores and the bus terminal just in front of the Catholic church and the municipal park, will hardly notice that much of the land he is standing on used to be part of the coastal sea and where the relentless, pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean once met the shallow waters and sandy beaches of the town.

Only in the northern and southern ends of the town can the visitor seen for himself the traces of the town's original shoreline. Much of the town center from the business district to the public market and beyond have been reclaimed from the sea over the decades since the later part of the last century.

When I was a small kid, motorized boats and canoes with outriggers would be tied up and anchored in the back of the family house which was constructed just on the town shoreline within a stone throw from the church. During the stormy season from December until February of every year, much of the rear of the house particularly the kitchen would be exposed to the fury of the waves and the salty lash of stinging surf.

When the town started reclaiming land from the sea in the late 1960's, some residents including my father who had a lot of foresight, followed suit and started expanding their home lots by taking land from the sea. The procedure was labor intensive, costly and time consuming.

First, one built a sea wall or dike to mark the boundaries of the area to reclaim. Then you hire laborers to fill the empty space in between with rocks and small boulders taken from the tidal marshland which had plenty of them. Above this rock layer you eventually had to pour tons of dirt taken from dirt and gravel quarries until you get your needed elevation from the sea.

My father eventually more than doubled the original land area of his lot but it was a long, gradual and tedious process. The labor was manual and much of the shoreline beyond his house was tidal marshland, littered with rusting metal plates and debris dating back to the Second World War when American warships and planes blasted and sank Japanese ships and transports during the American reconquest of the Philippines in 1944. There was even a still fully formed hulk of a small Japanese ship that used to sit in the shallow waters beyond the backyard of our house that had to be dismantled using acetylene torches before the reclamation project could proceed.

The municipal government used the same process but on a grander scale and with the use of large earthmoving equipment. The initial phase completed in the late 1960's created the land that was later used for the public market, the old municipal gymnasium, commercial buildings and the bus terminal. The next phase completed only recently reclaimed more land from beyond the market, an expanse of land largely unoccupied today except for a couple of seafood and fastfood restaurants and the makeshift building housing the municipal fire station.

Some of the local folk have expressed criticism of the reclamation projects particularly the more recent phase which according to them have greatly damaged the old tidal flats and marshlands that used to stretch the whole length of the town along its shoreline. Those marshlands, according to them, which would be fully exposed only during periods of low tide form part of an extended marine ecosystem that used to be teeming with both animal and plant marine life.

The extensive quarrying of the rocks and boulders that used to abound in plenty throughout the tidal flatlands have, in their view, have destroyed a large part of what used to be a sanctuary for small fishes, shellfish, marine invertebrates, sea grasses and other forms of exotic sea life. And the tragedy of it all, as they see it, is that the land gained by the town from the reclamation projects have not really be utilized to their full advantage and nor they form a part of a comprehensive development plan for Lianga.

Personally, I do have more than a bit of sympathy for their arguments. An environmentally destructive or damaging project such as land reclamation from the sea must be justified in terms of the absolute need for new land or form a part of a viable, achievable and ongoing land development program. This is even more important for a town like Lianga which depends so much upon the sea for its economic livelihood.

In my father's case, the land he has reclaimed from the sea is now a far cry from the mess of rocks and dirt it once used to be. It is now a lush garden covered in green grass and planted with ornamental plants, vegetables and fruit trees. The papaya trees bear especially luscious fruits much sought after by many who have seen and tasted them. And the rear of the family house is now safe from the stormy moods and occasional fickle anger of the sea.

If that is not putting land from the sea to good use than I don't know what is.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Leadership Vacuum

If there is something in a state of ferment in Lianga nowadays, it is local politics. And the cause is clear and easy to pinpoint. Nature abhors a vacuum and when a center of power in the political system of a town like Lianga is weakened or diminished in one way or the other, other competing forces within that system seek to expand into the void that has been created.

For weeks now, the town's incumbent mayor, Vicente Pedrozo, has been laid low by an undisclosed illness and therefore has been absent from his office at the town hall. Reports indicate that he is presently undergoing intensive medical treatment in Davao City and nothing has been said as to when and if he can return to office.

This is a rather unfortunate turn of events for Mayor Pedrozo who, after winning a convincing mandate in in the 2007 local elections, was just starting out to define the kind of legacy he wants to leave to the people of Lianga. And it does not also bode well for the townsfolk who have been banking on the desperate hope that Pedrozo, despite a checkered political career, would be able to provide the strong leadership that would finally put the town back on the road to progress and development.

Left temporarily on the helm of the town government are Vice-Mayor Roy Sarmen and the members of the municipal council who are understandably trying to continue to continue to function under an atmosphere of uncertainty and political tension. With so many among them interested in gunning for the mayoralty and other elective positions in the coming 2010 general elections, the present absence and incapacity of the chief executive is ushering in a situation ripe for political intrigue, bickering, backstabbing and maneuvering that the people of Lianga was still supposed to be spared for at least more than a year yet.

Mayor Perdrozo has been repeatedly quoted as saying that he will not seek a second term and this announcement has, in effect, opened wide the gates for would be pretenders and contenders for the mayoralty to make their initial moves in anticipation of the coming local polls. His present incapacity has simply added urgency to what is already a potentially volatile and intensely unstable political situation.

As the political factions and personalities at the town hall struggle for dominance and control of the local levers of power, one wonders if the municipal government will still be able to find the time or the energy to attend to the needs of its constituents or, more importantly, provide a coherent and unified leadership for the town in the months ahead. Perhaps as early as now, the people of Lianga better resign themselves to the fact that little or nothing of significance will be accomplished by this political administration by the end of its term.

Of course, I may be speaking out of turn. It is possible that Mayor Perdrozo may make a full recovery and quiet things down at the town hall by reclaiming the office he was elected to. I sincerely hopes he will be able to do that and at the soonest possible time. Or by a miracle or stroke of conscience, local officials will rally around their ailing chief executive and work together to realize whatever vision he has for the town and its future.

Otherwise, his continued absence from office in addition to the narrow-mindedness, timidity and opportunism of most of the people he has left in charge will only serve to aggravate the crisis of leadership at the town hall and will sully whatever positive accomplishments are left of the political legacy he seeks to leave behind.

And the people of Lianga, who have held such high expectations for his administration, will again be doomed to disappointment as they have been disappointed at previous administrations for countless times in the past.