Sunday, August 31, 2008

No Water Boy Is He

Friends called me up yesterday to give me the heads up. Our common friend, Prospero "Butch" Pichay Jr., the former Surigao del Sur congressman, apparently was in the news again after almost a year in hibernation for balking at a presidential appointment to head the board of the Local Water Utilities Administration. The LWUA is the government lending institution created to promote and oversee the development of waterworks systems in the provinces all over the country.

The appointment is actually part of the country's political spoils system where supporters of the current political party in power are given cushy and lucrative government positions as rewards for service and loyalty to the party and the President. In the case of Pichay, it was also, in one sense, a consolation prize for being one of the more than a few administration stalwarts who ran for the Senate in the 2007 national elections and dismally lost despite being reputedly one of the biggest spenders for political advertisements in that election's senate race.

Pichay was supposedly set to join fellow losing senatorial candidates Vicente Sotto who was recently tapped to head the Dangerous Drugs Board, Michael Defensor who got appointed chairman of the Presidential Task Force on the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 3 and Ralph Recto who is now director-general of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA). All had to wait for the lapse of the one year prohibition on the appointment of losing candidates to government positions before they could reenter public service.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Signs Of The Times

It is, in many ways, an encouraging sight and clear proof that Lianga residents are finally waking up and taking advantage of the still relatively untapped economic possibilities of ecotourism in their area. It is a small beginning but, as they say, big trees grow from small acorns and this is one development, properly encouraged and directed, that could have enormous potential for becoming something really economically significant for Lianga.

Ever since Lianga tasted prosperity and progress by riding on the coattails of the local logging industry in the 1950's and 60's, it has always seen itself as an emerging industrial town and urban trading center in its part of the province of Surigao del Sur. The last two decades of the last century made the town see the folly of such ambitions as the Lianga Bay Logging Company gradually ceased operations and Lianga began facing economic decline and hardship.

With its fishing industry also in the doldrums because of rampant overfishing and abuse of the local marine ecosystem, it became clear that the town had to reinvent itself and find new ways to stimulate the local economy and bring in revenue from the outside. Only then did many local folks begin to realize that the natural beauty of Lianga's coastal beaches and shores could be a major key to that goal.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Déjà Vu

There is nothing more distressing to my mother and those belonging to her generation than the sight on the television screen of scenes of whole families, men, women and children burdened by personal belongings and fleeing their homes because of war and violent conflict. To others, the pictures and video images may just be ordinary news footage and nothing more. For her and many of the folks here in Lianga, they are painful reminders of similar experiences that have happened to them in the past, like memories seared into their collective consciousness.

Lianga is an old town that happens to be located in an area with a contemporary history replete with episodes of war and violent confrontations between armed groups. As such its streets and public places have been, in the past, battlegrounds where opposing forces fought bloody battles for dominance while the town's hapless citizens cowered behind locked, barricaded doors and windows while the sound of gunfire echoed all over. During such times in its history, many local residents also had recourse to take refuge in the countryside with relatives and friends willing to take them in until it was safe to return to their abandoned homes.

During the early 1970's, for example, two well-armed, politically well-connected local warlords fought for control of wharf and stevedore operations in Barangay Diatagon just 9 kilometers north of Lianga during the height of logging operations in the Lianga area. The dispute erupted into a full-blown war for political and economic dominance as armed goons from both groups fought pitched battles in the town streets and open spaces. The war extended to the coastal sea when gunmen partial to both sides shot at each other while on board small motorized boats and small ships.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Final Solution

It was late afternoonn and Lianga's parliament of the streets was again in session. The hot topic was the recent attacks on some towns and villages made by the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) in North Cotabato and the on-going military operations being conducted by government forces against them.

"There is only one solution to the Muslim problem in Mindanao," a would-be people's representative declared firmly, feeling his oats. "They must be taught a lesson they will understand. Total war against them is the answer. Enough is enough." A murmur of assent came from all around.

"Muslims cannot be trusted," added another regular pseudo-parliamentarian, forefinger up in the air to make his point. "You may think you are negotiating with them for peace but all they want is time to build up their forces to finish all of us off. It's either them or us. Enough talking and negotiating with them. War is what they can only understand so let's give it to them."

A bystander with a a balding crew cut was even more forthright. "The government is pussyfooting again with the MILF," he said. "That is why they despise us. The government is weak. Unleash the army and let the air force bomb all Muslims until they either submit or are totally destroyed. That is the only way."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remembering Ninoy

In 1983, I was a young university student in Cebu dabbling in student activism in a time when being "radical" was fashionable and being labeled "leftist" was a badge of honor. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were still desperately clinging to power after almost 20 years of a conjugal dictatorship and as unrest and discontent spread across the land, the youth in the universities and colleges in the cities became the vanguard of a growing, increasingly strident clamor for democratic change.

I had already been in more than a few rallies and demonstrations in Cebu City and had gotten my name in a few student watch lists. But like so many of the confused young men and women of that turbulent time, my idealism was raw, my political ideology unsure and I was in the protest movement because it was the exciting and adventurous "in" thing to be associated with. To play at revolution and flirt a bit with the radical left was heady wine for many in the academe who saw the leftist forces as offering the only viable alternative to a political system crushed, corrupted and stagnated by almost two decades of authoritarian rule.

That we were aware that the things we were engaged in was dangerous for us was clear. The Marcos dictatorship's deplorable record in the field of human rights was public fact. But the irrepressible idealism of the youth is often accompanied by a false sense of invincibility. It was just, in many ways, a game we played, a pesky David trying to get the measure of Goliath. There was no way we could possibly win but there was glamor and excitement in the act of trying.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Walking Away

He would have been 78 years old last August 14 and few ever doubted that he would live that long. After all he came from hardy, peasant stock, men and women hardened and toughened by the rich soil that they tilled all their lives. His father lived to be 93 and his mother to the ripe age of 84, so who would have thought that he would die at the relatively young age of 66?

If there was one thing my father feared, and he was essentially a man of few fears and doubts, it was the possibility of being struck down by any illness that would lay him low and helpless, a veritable vegetable who would have to be taken cared of - a financial, emotional and physical burden for his his family to carry and endure. He would recoil at the very thought and time and time again he would aver that he would die a quick, peaceful death and that everyone he loved would be spared the agony of seeing him leave this world.

He was also a man capable of quick decisions. He believed in doing what he believed to be right quickly, wholeheartedly and with the minimum of fuss. As such, he was always on the go, a man seemingly always in a hurry and moving as if the normal pace of life was too slow for him.

As a physician he worked quickly and briskly, his diagnoses as intuitive as they are based on common sense and a keen, observant eye. As a surgeon, he wielded the scalpel with speed and precision, often pulling off surgical miracles where lesser doctors have given up all hope.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fiesta Day

August 15 started out cloudy and drizzly but ended up hot and muggy like the previous days. It was not perfect but it was a good day to have a town fiesta and Lianga, true to form, went through the proper motions of doing justice to this annual celebration.

I was up early to survey the festivities and as the day progressed instead of getting caught up in the fiesta spirit, I ended up wondering, as I am sure many other residents did, what the hype and hullabaloo was really all about. Or was I just merely being overly cynical about the whole thing.

Of course, the 15th was essentially just the culmination of several days of cultural and religious activities and programs. The previous day, the traditional parade had already taken place complete with marching bands and street dances. The night before, there had been a musical concert at the municipal park and a live band was scheduled to do a gig at the municipal gymnasium that night. The local folk had also done their best, despite the uncertain economic times and leaner pantries, to prepare their homes and banquet tables for the anticipated horde of guests and hangers-on on fiesta day.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Surfeit Of Faiths

Because the Catholic parish church in Lianga is one of its largest, most imposing public structures and just because the majority of the the local folk are Roman Catholics, many visitors to this town often have the wrong impression that it is a one religion town and that other Christian denominations and other religious faiths have no place here. On the contrary, Lianga society is a hodgepodge of religions and nowadays other faiths, Christian or otherwise, have made significant inroads into what its residents would like to think was, just a decade or so ago, fiercely Catholic country.

On the southwestern edge of the town, the visibly grandiose chapel building of the Iglesia Ni Cristo with its trademarked, narrow-pointed spires proclaims this religious organization's presence and growing religious, political influence. The INC has a significant number of followers in the Lianga area and their willingness to parlay and use that influence by voting as a solid block during elections makes them one of those religious institutions whose approval and support can make a difference in the fortunes of local political candidates making a run for public office.

The more mainstream Protestant Christian faiths as well as the so called "born-again" non-denominational Christian groups may not be as showy or militantly evangelical but their adherents constitute a large part of Lianga's non-Catholic population. Baptists, Lutherans, Adventists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses and their like are all well represented in Lianga society and many of their members belong to the town's more prominent families. Most of them also have chapels and places of worship within the town proper.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

In Memoriam

When I first met him in the 1980's I did not know what to expect. At that time my contact with Americans was largely limited to either gruff, academic types such as exchange students and professors in Cebu City's universities or the occasional rowdy, ebullient serviceman going around that city's tourist destinations. He turned out, to my eternal surprise and delight, to be, well, more Pinoy than most Filipinos I know.

My Auntie Meming, who was my father's favorite first cousin, was part of the wave of Filipino nurses who left this country for the United States in the early 1960's. There she met and married Richard Sowney. They settled down in Philadelphia and eventually had two daughters. Auntie Meming is a vivacious, fast-talking, outspoken, spirited lady while Uncle Dick was, as I knew him, more restrained and deliberate yet a thoroughly affable, mild mannered and likable guy. How they meshed together and managed to keep their marriage solid inspite of the differences in their personalities through the decades has always intrigued me.

Perhaps it was Uncle Dick's deep Irish roots that made the difference. Like most Filipinos, he was a devout Catholic with a deep and abiding respect and devotion for the family. He did not have any difficulty understanding the strong, sentimental ties that bind extended families and their relatives in the Philippines together. It was, in many ways, also an integral part of his own similar cultural milieu.

So after he came here in the 1980's for the first of several visits, I gradually got to know and like him. How can one not develop affection and deep respect for someone who although of a different race and nationality, was so thoroughly comfortable and at ease with a culture not his own; one who accepted new experiences with grace and humility, and who genuinely like people and liked people to like him.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Gearing Up

Near the municipal park, a man is sawing lengths of wooden sticks and hammering them into supports for the canvas awning of his temporary market stall. Nearby, another vendor is laying out his merchandise (kitchenware and household goods) on low tables while his companions unloaded sacks and bundles of more display goods from a small truck.

In the park itself, the concrete benches, iron railings and community stage all look spiffy and sport brand new coats of paint. Even Jose Rizal on his pedestal had a makeover although upon closer examination, I get the notion that he may be a bit nonplussed and uncomfortable to see his coat painted the same shade of brown as the concrete support for the benches around and below him. Poor guy. Obviously someone at the municipal hall was, as usual, trying to cut paint costs at his expense.

On the national highway just beyond the park, a group of municipal employees atop a ladder propped on a truck is fixing a broken streetlight while farther up the road, other workers complete their work on one of the two traditional decorative arches that greet visitors as they enter the town. The other arch on the other side of town remains incomplete, its two unconnected pillars looking forlorn and abandoned on the sides of the road.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Evening Angelus

"Things are not the same as they used to be." The old man sitting by the wooden bench near the bus stop just across Lianga's parish church spat the out words out with disgust. In the gathering gloom of the early evening, the church bells were ringing the Angelus yet a gaggle of teenagers on their way home nonchalantly continued to walk past him, oblivious to everything except the sound of their noisy chatter and laughter.

I pondered this scene several days ago and my sympathies went out to the old man. Times have changed indeed.

When I was a young boy in Lianga in the 1970's, the minute the townspeople heard the bells ring out the evening prayer, tradition dictated that all drop whatever they were doing and everyone endured a minute or so of silence and contemplation (or prayer for those who were so inclined) while standing solemnly facing the general direction of the church and its bell tower.

Vehicles of whatever kind were expected to stop and park momentarily while the whole town seemingly held its collective breath for the duration of the bell ringing until the rhythm of the pealing quickened, reached a crescendo and then an abrupt climax. Then as the final note faded away, the town would suddenly come back to life, the general silence interrupted and cut short as everyone hurried to finish what they have been doing and anxiously prepare for the ending of another day.