Friday, November 23, 2007

Down The River On A Gigantic Doughnut

[This piece was developed out with some ideas of Kit, my friend, for the SARANGGANI SPACE magazine]

Gloomy sky after a heavy rainfall. The air is cold and the soil is sticky along the banks of the Pangi River in New La Union, Maitum. The water slams against the boulders creating threatening splashes and quickening my heartbeat at the thought of careening down these rapids in an inflated inner tubing of a vehicle or salbabida. The contraption looks like a gigantic doughnut with flat rope webs converging in the middle of the hole.

Standing on high ground between two cottages and listening to the deafening current below, I contemplate the stunt I am going to attempt today. Being in a situation I have almost no control of will probably be the most outrageous thing I have ever done in my life. This is exactly why I decide to throw all caution to the wind because if I do not go water tubing now, I know I will regret it forever.

Behind me, a handful of residents mill about a sari-sari store and play billiards. I enter one of the cottages and sit down to partake in the edible fern salad, tinola or native chicken dish, dried fish, and durian laid out on the table. After lunch, I hurry to join the other vacationers back in the van and we speed off to where our guides are waiting.

The bumpy two-kilometer ride down a dirt road ends at an open area. I leave my cellphone and knapsack in the van and then follow the rest passing nipa huts and smiling residents already used to thrill-seekers like us. The narrow wet path has turned my feet soggy so I remove my slippers and continue walking barefoot towards the roaring river that gets louder with each step. We arrive at a sight better than I had been expecting: a river bordered by imposing cliffs overgrown with grass, vines, and trees. This is the Adventurer’s Point.

Waiting knee-deep in the river are our guides, each one holding a salbabida and discussing among themselves which one of us should go with which one of them. The bigger and stronger guides take my heavier companions. Because I am small, I get paired with a young man of about 17 years old. He hands me a bulky orange life vest and a red helmet, and inserts my slippers between the rubber ropes of his salbabida, beside his own slippers.

I step into the surprisingly cold river and am told to sit with my bottom firmly inside the hole and my legs hanging out. I should not lean forward but sit back and distribute my weight to steady the salbabida. I should not also push against the rocks because doing so might injure me.

Off I go towards Makbuluk Junction, anxiously covered in safety gears while my super-confident guide has not even a helmet on. He follows me from behind while holding my salbabida, and steers me along the river. Every time it seems as if I am going to capsize or crash, he pushes me over the rocks in the water and pulls me away from the boulders.

Each time we speed up, turn left or right, or drop down, I shriek, delighting in the twists along the way. The way down the river has become a bump car ride with water splashing all over me. I steady myself for the wet roller coaster ride as my tube rolls over mini waterfalls. I am now absolutely soaked and cannot stop shivering.

Up ahead is Baboy Pinga where a bamboo footbridge has been installed for friends to photograph the action below. I smile broadly for the camera despite tired arms and painful abs, the result of sitting in the same position. Our tubes pass under the bridge and are carried downstream to the next stop, Balite Drop, which is the second chance for friends to take our picture.

By now, the skin on my fingertips looks like the shriveled skin of raisins. With teeth chattering like crazy, I catch up with the rest at the last stop, Batong Piña, where a pineapple used to grow on top of a huge boulder. Our guides signal each other to group by the riverbank where we are given five minutes to stretch our legs and exchange small talk about who fell off their tubes and who suffered the most scrapes.

We then clamber unto our tubes again and let ourselves be carried by the current to the dam site where our journey finally ends. Exhausted, I drag myself to our cottage for a refreshing buko juice and maruyang kamote or fried sweet potato glazed with brown sugar. All these—lunch, merienda, the unforgettable thirty-minute water tubing adventure—only cost a reasonable 250 pesos per head.

With my head still spinning from the incredible experience, I lie down for a minute, hands clasped behind my head. I close my eyes and remember the feel of the ice-cold water around me, the awesome sight of the towering cliffs, and savor the rush and unpredictability of it all.

I cannot help but think that while this is vacation for me, my guide has probably gone down the river uncountable times. Judging from his face, it is work he enjoys tremendously. What started as a past time of a group of friends has now become a source of income—and an ingenious way to enjoy nature without taking anything away. Just pictures. Cool.

How to get to the water tubing site:

Take an air-conditioned van from Bulaong Terminal in General Santos
City to Maitum for P100. Then take a habalhabal ride to New La Union for P25.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Mysterious Shrine, Toke’Alfo

[I wrote this piece from out of a sketchy piece contributed by my friend Patrick for the SARANGGANI SPACE Magazine]

While everybody else is probably still in bed, or just waking up, my friends and I are already on the road headed toward Maasim municipality in Sarangani where we intend to meet Pastor Isla who has promised to guide us to Tampat Shrine. It is a huge pile of rocks left as tribute by people of long ago. But tribute to whom? This is what my friends and I intend to find out.

We arrive at Pastor Isla’s house near the beach in Tinoto at around 6:30 a.m. and after a quick round of introductions, he gets in the car with us. A couple of minutes later he tells Triple, our guide from the governor’s office, to stop the car at a rusty padlocked gate along the General Santos-Sarangani highway.

Pastor Isla points to the other side of the highway where mountains border a ranch as far as the eye can see. Looking closely at the cliffs, we spot the biggest clam in the world, which from our point of view, has become just a speck in the distance but is still clearly visible. Pastor Isla tells us that the clam has been featured several times on national television. He then gets out of the car and calls out loudly to the caretakers of the property on our side of the highway to let us in, because he says in Blaan, “We have come to take a look at Tampat Shrine!”

A boy comes and opens the gate to a vast ranch of thin trees and lots of thorny bushes, but no cattle. The pathway is so uneven that we decide to leave the car some 200 meters away from the gate. In single file, we go down the rocky lane strewn with limestone, and by the time we reach the shore of the Celebes Sea, we are all sweating and thirsty.

We walk along the sandy road with the open sea on our right and on the left, huge slabs of shale lining the shore. Finally, we reach the edge of the shoreline where, behind a cluster of houses, is the strangest pile of rocks I have ever seen. It stands more than three meters high, and we are told, each rock got to this spot through the years as homage to Sultan Falalisan. He was a legendary Blaan who had the ability to navigate the seas on a large kawa or cooking pot. (It is a figurative way of saying that he was such a good navigator that he could sail in any contraption—even a cooking pot.)

From where we are standing beside Tampat Shrine, we see a cove with deep blue waters. Three fishers, each in his own banca or boat, sit motionless waiting for fish to take bait. Triple informs us the area is Sigil Cove, where South Point, a popular diving spot, is located. Tampat Shrine happens to be at the very corner of shoreline where the Celebes Sea meets Saranggani Bay.The Shrine’s location is so ideal that it has become the starting point of the annual swimming competition held during the Sarangani Bay Festival every May. Pointing across the sea, Triple says we are facing the Municipality of Glan, the final destination of the swimming competition, and the southernmost municipality of Sarangani.

Pastor Isla tells us that the piled rocks marking the grave of Sultan Falalisan is called Toke’Alfo, a Blaan phrase meaning, One Coconut Tree. This is strange because I have not seen a single coconut growing along the shore. Pastor Isla explains that according to legend, Al Ma’bat, a Blaan forebear of Sultan Falalisan, planted a coconut tree on the spot where the Shrine now stands.

Just like an improvised light tower, I muse. A coconut or shrine located at the point where the Celebes Sea meets Sarangani Bay could serve as a practical navigational marker! Was the Shrine a navigational marker for seafarers looking for protected deep anchorage for their sea vessels? The South Point area of Sigil Cove looks like an ideal spot.

A salty smell from the rocks permeates Tampat Shrine and I decide to walk around to investigate. Some rocks have pieces of nylon rope or string tied through holes. They are probably anchor weights brought by fishers. Carefully circling the Shrine clockwise, I notice slabs of shale in upright position forming 11 rectangles which are clear of rocks and shrubs. A ramp with a north-to-south orientation leads to the top of the Shrine.

It seems to me that Tampat Shrine is consistent with records of burial practices by seafarers of the Indo-Pacific region. When I studied at University, I remember reading that it was not unusual to build the burial ground of a seafarer with a ramp oriented in a north– south direction leading to the top of the burial ground. In fact, ship captains were buried facing the pole star. Were Sultan Falalisan’s shipmates buried around the Shrine as indicated by these shale-lined rectangles? The women in the hut of the family designated as the Shrine’s caretakers confirm my guess that people have been buried here but they do not know who.

Also interesting are the white banners placed at the top of Tampat Shrine which are clearly mourning flags of Muslim influence. In fact, the family in charge of the Shrine are of Blaan descent but practice Islam. This is quite extraordinary because over the centuries, Lumad tribes have steadfastly stuck to their belief systems despite foreigners settling down and introducing Islam and Christianity. This sense of self-preservation of Mindanao’s Lumads is precisely why the Spanish colonizers failed to convert them.

For a moment I become still, moved by the history of the place. Standing under the tree that is growing beside the Shrine, I face the sea and sense the dead seafarers’ spirits around me. I take some pictures and try to capture the serenity of it all. As we trace our steps back to the car, Pastor Isla begins to tell us the story of Tampat Shrine told to him by his late grandfather:

"A long time ago, a Maguidanaoan merchant, Sultan Falasab, reached the shores of Tinoto. Because his ship needed some repairs, he sent his men to the forest to get rattan vines. On the way to the forest, the men saw a tree house, which was the customary house of Blaans at that time. In the tree house was a small boy and a beautiful girl with very long hair that reached the ground. The men took the girl and brought her to the Sultan.”

“The girl’s name was Foi’Ble and she had four older brothers, Fo’n Bong, Fo’n Tukay, Foi’ Talaot, and Al Ma’bat. The brothers were out hunting in the forest and when they returned to their tree house, they found their sister was gone. Following the footprints leading away from their house, the brothers arrived at the beach where they saw their sister on the Sultan’s ship. Very angry, the brothers shot a volley of arrows towards the ship. When Sultan Falasab saw the brothers, he asked for peace and then asked to marry Foi’Ble because he loved her deeply. The brothers agreed but only after Sultan Falasab paid a dowry equivalent to the number of strands in Foi’Ble’s hair. The Sultan then brought Foi’Ble to Maguindanao where they lived from then on.”

“Sultan Falalisan, who is buried in Tampat Shrine, is the descendant of Foi’Ble and Sultan Falasab. Born out of their union, Sultan Falalisan became a Blaan–Maguindanaon who practiced Islam. He was also a navigator like Sultan Falasab and since Foi’Ble came from Tinoto, Sultan Falalisan had a reason to visit the place time and again. As a navigator, he probably anchored his ship at Sigil Cove, and used the lone coconut tree as his navigational marker. When he died, he was probably buried beneath the coconut tree.”

I can very well imagine that because Sultan Falalisan was highly respected due to his royal lineage and his being an excellent navigator, seafarers visited his grave and lay rocks as tokens of respect. And possibly to also ask for still waters in the coasts they were headed.

Incredibly, the story of Tampat Shrine reveals the intermingling of Blaan and Maguindanaon culture; of the Lumad and Muslim beliefs. The hero, Sultan Falalisan, is the intrepid navigator who charted peace and harmony amidst the currents of cultural diversity. Although Tampat Shrine’s significance may have been lost in our history, its presence reminds us that before we even existed, other people existed. Who knows, this area around the Shrine might have been a bustling harbor once upon a time. I imagine the mountains in the distance full of deer and the shore full of high trees where people used to live. I gaze at the rocky hill formations looming over Tampat Shrine and wonder where the weary seafarers went to rest and sleep.

Time changes many things; people come and go, changing the environment with them. Yet some things resist the change of time, like great men who died but whose stories continue to be told.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Persistent Quest For Water

[This piece was developed from Patrick's notes for SARANGGANI SCAPE Magazine.]

It is mid-afternoon and a little girl of about seven years old is washing clothes at a common faucet where the rest of the community gets its water. She is unaware that my friend and I are taking pictures of her. When the little girl looks up, my friend tries to coax her out of the shyness and bewilderment drawn on her face. Too late. The little girl has turned serious, suddenly very self-conscious. Some adults milling about start to tease her. Candid camera moment lost I think. But just as I am about to give up, the little girl flashes a splendid smile for the camera.

Two years ago, the community here used to draw water with hand pumps installed a short distance from a creek bisecting the neighborhood. The water from the pumps sometimes smelled funny or was cloudy. Waterborne diseases occurred during rainy days. This was the problem of the nearly 200 families who have built their small bamboo houses near the creek that runs through the splendid mountains rising just a couple of meters behind. Living in paradise yet having no clean drinking water.

Around the world, roughly two billion people face the same predicament. As a result, the United Nations has listed access to clean water as one of the 10 Millennium Development Goals. What truly inspires me about the residents of Sapu Padidu, in the municipality of Malapatan, is that they have achieved this goal on their own initiative. Today, I and my friends are visiting the community to listen to the story of their quest for clean water.

We follow Kagawad Eduardo Velasco, our guide, past a makeshift basketball court and three sari-sari stores where some are playing billiards and singing karaoke. We then cross a stream where two naked children are playing. It is uphill from there as we hike up a ridge with on our left, the creek, and on our right, clusters of nipa huts. A couple of meters before the creek disappears into the mountain, a small hill blocks our path. On it stands the water reservoir elevated by four posts. It is, I estimate, about four meters wide and four meters high.

Kagawad Eduardo recounts that building the water reservoir entailed the patient but persistent collection of money from various sources. He traveled back and forth to follow up the water project with national government agencies and non-government organizations, and rallied the support of residents and local government officials.

Unmindful of the heat of the sun, Kagawad Eduardo stands beside the concrete container on the hill and enthusiastically tells us about all the government departments that helped finance the water project. He flashes his big smile and says that the provincial government gave funds for the construction of the water reservoir. The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) also gave funds to construct a much bigger water reservoir at the spring source. On top of that, the provincial government and DPWH shared funds for black plastic pipes to bring water to the community.

I further learn that the local government of Malapatan contributed the use of the municipal dump trucks to transport the materials up the mountain. The problem was how to get to the spring at the bottom of a ravine. This problem was solved by paying men from the barangay to carry sacks of cement through a steep mountain trail covered with thick vegetation. Once the huge concrete container was in place at the spring source, the men carried pipes measuring 20 feet and connected them one by one over a distance of four kilometers along the mountain slopes until the pipes reached the water reservoir near the community. From the main barangay area, the pipes cover an area of about 1.5 kilometers and end at the provincial highway.

The pipes wind through the grass over potholes, rocks, and pools of water, like a big fat snake connecting the communal faucets along the road. Wells, which were once the main source of water, now lie abandoned and forgotten as people prefer doing their laundry and bathing in the strong stream gushing out of the pipes. But because the pipes are not far-reaching enough, the people living across the highway have to walk to get their water from the other side where the pipes are. This inconvenience has been resolved by some who engage in collecting, distributing, and selling the water by the gallon for a handful of pesos.

Needless to say, Kagawad Eduardo and other barangay officials are moving heaven and earth, so to speak, to find more money while saving the remaining barangay funds to add to the funds given by the municipality of Malapatan. When there is enough money, the pipes will be extended across the highway and be connected to the tank nearby which has already been completed with the help of World Vision International. The plan is to connect the tank to more pipes and disperse them around the area in order to meet the needs of the growing community.

Though more money needs to be collected to install more pipes, life has become so much easier because of the pipes already in place. The success story of Sapu Padidu lies in the efforts put into networking, lobbying, proper accounting of funds, and using it only for what it is intended. I predict that those disillusioned with government will find the strong initiative and integrity of the leaders of Sapu Padidu heartwarming and worth emulating a thousand times over.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Macho I Love Yous

[Note: I wrote this piece in May 2002 which got published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s YOUNGBLOOD section and several other publications.This is also my entry to the Filipina Writing Project]

This is for all the Filipinas who have never been kissed, never been touched, no boyfriends, nothing. This is for all the Filipinas accused of having hearts of stone. They include the mahirap maabot (those who are hard-to-get) and the mahilig magpakipot (those who pretend they don’t like a guy but they really do). You secretly delight in men’s existence because they make you feel so special, don’t you? You’re just too proud to admit it! Don’t fret, I am not going to expose your boring love lives. I am not that cruel. I am here to warn you ice queens of the new millennium who have hearts that are whole… still. Don’t succumb to the charms of the typical macho Filipino!

Tell me honestly, who wants a boyfriend who calls females “chicks”? A boyfriend who thinks he is complimenting you by saying you should join a beauty contest because "sayang ang beauty mo"? (Your beauty’s a waste if it isn’t displayed) A boyfriend who asks you every hour where you are and tells you what to wear? A boyfriend who reacts in disbelief, nay, contempt, upon the discovery that “his” girl carried a 20-kilo backpack up Mount Apo or that “his” girl is a black belter in Taekwondo? A boyfriend who insists on paying the bill even if you were the one who asked him out? Worse, a boyfriend who reeks of San Miguel and Marlboro because he can’t live without them?

Ladies, meet the typical macho Filipino who always wants to be stronger, bigger, faster, smarter, taller and older. He is such a pretentious prick on the outside but inside he can be like delicious jelly (sometimes). He doesn’t mind looking foolish slugging your tiny black Gucci bag. (Isn’t that cute?) In a country where PDA (public display of affection) is still largely frowned upon, carrying a girl’s bag is the ultimate gesture of possession. We don’t need to witness couples exchanging sticky French kisses to understand that.

The typical macho Filipino opens doors for you like a real gentleman (uh, security g
uard). He lets you take your seat first in a crowded jeepney and tingles in the anticipation of your shoulder touching his, your hand on his knees, your hair brushing his face and what else. He steals kisses in the dark but never in school, at the market or in church, and especially not in front of your parents. He purposefully walks on the left side of the road, and if you don’t mind, with a protective arm around you to prevent you from being run over by traffic.

The typical macho Filipino is also very creative, (to a certain extent). He scrounges the Internet for poems he doesn’t even understand himself. These he incorporates in mushy love letters that he secretly inserts in your books when you aren’t looking. They are declarations of love he nonchalantly claims to be the author of for he doesn’t k
now that plagiarism is a crime. It is not very unique but the effort is impressive. (What did you expect? A picnic on the moon?)

To impress you some more, he sends you text messages quoted from Pablo Neruda: “I want 2 eat ur lips lyk a pis of almond!” Or, “I dnt knw any odr way of lovin u bt dis. One n w/c der s no I or U. It s so intimate dat ur hand upon my chest s my hand, dat wen I fal aslip, it s ur eyes dat clos.” Pardon my poor translation but Spanish is so much more romantic. Who wouldn’t swoon over someone who calls you his “amanda mia”? (my love) But when you ask him to translate two simple sentences, he doesn’t reply! The farce!

Did you know that Filipinos, aside from the French and the Italians, are one of
the world’s biggest “I-love-you-ers”? It’s just hearsay about the other nationalities but gosh, Filipinos do like to say “I love you” a lot. Ask any girl. The expression has become so over-used that it has almost become a cliché.

I hate to shatter your illusions, but guys? Most of the time, they only mean half of what they say. Good thing we Filipinas are smarter and won’t fall for their gibberish. Remember, God created Eve because she felt that Adam was too dull. And, it is a fact that females live longer (need I elaborate?).

Lately I have been going to Venue a lot to accompany a kababata (childhood f
riend) from Holland who is here to learn Filipino. Also called the Netherlands, Holland is that tiny tulip and cheese country lying perilously below sea level and protected by a complicated network of dikes and dams. It is the country of marijuana, homosexual marriages and euthanasia, moralists like to jest. It is also the country of the lowest abortion rate, by the way.

My kababata who has been immersed in Filipino culture for one month now, says that in more liberated Holland, it takes at least a year before a guy tells a girl that he loves her. Sure, just like in the movies, they think nothing of necking and petting and torrid kissing and sex. But who would have thought that those are only the prerequisites to saying “I love you” (according to my friend)? Strange people, the Dutch.

Here, it is baliktad (different). Guys think they have to say “I love you” over and over again. (That is sooo important. Makes me think of Destiny Child’s “Brown Eyes”: “I know that he loves me ‘cause he told me so…”) Then there is the list of things he feels he has to do. He showers her with gifts of perfume, imported chocolates and jewelry (can’t he be more original?). He takes her out on expensive dinners in De Bonte Koe, Mount Fuji, or Picobello (with his parents’ money of course). He fetches her and brings her to wherever she wants (except his room). Guys, don’t assume that by giving her three red roses a week, she’ll be yours to keep.

Courtship? Relationships? You could call it a test. Only when the Filipina is sure of his everlasting love will she take the risk of doing “it” with him. The problem is that in his excitement and haste, he forgets to use protection. Nine months later…oops! As Drew Barrymore thoughtfully puts it in “Riding in Cars with Boys,”: “Life is really just a couple of days which determines the rest of it.”

Back to the original point of this discussion. While Filipino men find it easy to say, “I love you,” the Dutch dread it. They avoid it like the plague. Uttering those three words is like proposing marriage, my friend explains. In Holland, guys fear the pain of rejection that’s why when he likes you he just says so. “I really, really like you. I want to be with you. ‘I love you’ is such a big word,” she says.

How true. Just because we are pretty, beautiful, gorgeous and stunning don’t mean that you can tell us “I love you” and then expect us to love you in return. How can you say that when you don’t even know how we like to drink our coffee? How can you say that when you don’t even know our dreams, our insecurities or what makes us laugh and cry? You probably love us just because we look sexy in high heels and minis. Just because we look cute when we flash that Close Up smile. Just because others desire us!

All this talk about males and their pathetic attempts at romance makes me want to write something about typical Filipinas. For starters, I will write about Filipinas like myself who won’t say, “I love you,” when by “love” I mean, “I love the full moon” or, “I love Jollibee.” When I say “I love you,” I will really mean it. And, it won’t be just an ordinary “I love you.”

No, no more macho I love yous.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Ode to Ms. Javellana

[Note: When my mother turned 60 we had a big celebration. Old family friends flew in from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. “Ode to Ms. Javellana” is actually an excerpt from my speech during Mama’s 60th birthday, June 6, 2005.]

A couple of days ago, May, my classmate in graduate school, called the house to ask my mother the telephone number of a dorm in Ateneo. May told me she said, “Can I talk to Mrs. Vandenbroeck please?” Ma, who answered the phone, replied, “Mrs. Vandenbroeck? No, Ms. Javellana!” When May told me about the exchange, I laughed and explained to her that one of the many reasons my mother offer for this decision to keep her maiden name is that even though she loves my father, she doesn’t look like a Vandenbroeck and therefore she should not take my father’s name. Heck, my mother has always been Ms. Javellana ever since I can remember which is the reason why when people discover she’s married, Pa often gets addressed as Mr. Javellana.

Many times it has happened that when we have guests over for dinner, the shameless Ms. Javellana nonchalantly removes her bra right in front of us, while everyone’s eating. Then she’ll flap her skirt like it’s some sort of paypay (fan), kay init daw lagi (because she says it’s hot).

Sometimes when I’m having my friends over I have to remind her, “Ma, when they come, let us make our project ha? Ayaw silag i-agaw sa ako ha?” (Don’t take them away from me, okay?) ‘Cause if I don’t tell her that, she’ll keep talking to them and interviewing them about their work, how their parents are doing, etcetera and then my friends and I will never get our work done on time!

Last March when she came to Manila to attend my thesis proposal defense, I was so nervous that she’d join the panel discussion and contribute her own suggestions that I told her about ten times, “Ma don’t ask questions ha? Ma, don’t interrupt ha? Hilom lang ka ha?” (Just keep quiet okay?) So on the day of the defense, Ma was sitting there at the back of the room watching me. She was wearing her glasses and taking down notes of what everyone was saying and nodding her head vigorously. “That’s right,” “Good,” she kept on saying. Hay naku! (Sigh!) My mother can’t keep her mouth shut. She always has to participate in some way.

One story that really cracked me up was when Ma was in college, she saw a suspense movie with a bunch of friends. In one scene, the main actor was being chased by the bad guys and running as fast as he could towards a small plane that was about to take off. Ma was so engrossed in the movie that in the middle of the dark movie house, she stood up and stretched her arms, “Wait!” she shouted and everyone turned to look at her.

When we went to Thailand last year, while Pa was busy attending a meeting, Ma and I joined a tourist group and saw among other things, the famous floating market. We were traveling in a van with a French couple, a Japanese couple, an Indian couple, a Korean family, and a Turkish guy who was interested in the Muslims of Mindanao. I didn’t have the energy to talk with him so I asked Ma if we could switch seats ‘cause I know she doesn’t have to feign interest. She is always genuinely interested in people. So she ended up telling the Turkish guy the story of Mindanao – how the Lumads were tricked into exchanging their land for tobacco first by the Malay settlers, then by the Spaniards. She told him about the struggle for independence by the Bangsamoro and their clashes with the government troops and how the people in Mindanao are so religiously and culturally diverse that everyone practically agrees to disagree. So you see, whatever Ma’s “interventions,” social justice is always, always never far from her mind.

A case in point was when Bayani and I were still little, Ma, Pa, Lola and uncle Ludo went to visit the Vatican. What I remember most of that visit was Mama’s anger. I remember her looking at all the gold and marble, the beautiful paintings on the ceiling, the statues and then lamenting to Papa, “Sus Arnold! Ka datu sa mga pari!” (Arnold! The priests are so rich!) Then she bent over and explained to Bayani and me, “The church got a lot of this wealth from the Philippines that’s why our country is so poor!” That’s typically Mama.

When we moved into our house in Trinidad Greenhills, same thing. Those first few months Ma was always complaining that the house was too big and that it’s ironic that the simple family of Arnold and Norma whose work is to help the community, are now living in a house as big as a church. So then I knew that to get her angry, all I had to do was to tease her, “Ma, lets eat in La Toscana tonight. It’s really a great place. Lami kaayo ang pagkaon. (The food’s delicious.) Medyo mahal pero datu bitaw ka Ma.” (It’s a bit expensive though but that’s okay because you’re rich Ma.) Of course I never got my way if I said that and we’d end up eating dinner in low-key, cheap Dimsum Diner.

When I was about to graduate from college, Ma and Pa would brainwash me, “You know Maya, whatever work you choose, the important thing is that your work should have something to contribute to the society.” It’s my parents’ way of psychologizing me not to leave the Philippines and work abroad to earn lots of money and become rich. It got me thinking that if I did this – go abroad like all my other friends – my parents, especially si Mama, would disown me.

Mind you, it can sometimes get quite stressful having a mother like my mother. When we were living in San Jose, Antique, Ma would always challenge Bayani and me to reason out. She seemed to enjoy provoking us. “Oh, sige pa Maya, ayaw pag-undang ug tubag,” she’d say. (Maya, don’t stop reasoning out.) Invalid answers she’d dismiss and if we gave up in the middle of the debate, we lost.

Nowadays, the stress comes from having to listen to her endless discussions ab
out how to save the watersheds and how to make the multinational plantations adopt more environmentally-friendly ways of cultivation. In the early days of IDIS (Interface Development Interventions), Ma constantly attended the “scoping” meetings wherein representatives from Dole and Stanfilco would answer any questions the community had about the plantations. Such meetings could get very intense due to the conflicting interests of the different stakeholders. Ma would always know what to ask during these “scoping” meetings and she did this which such bravado that often, the representatives from Dole and Stanfilco would be groping to cover up the loop holes but then be rebuffed again by Ms. Javellana who seemed to know everything about the plantations.

The first time Bayani, I and Papa attended such a “scoping” meeting was to support Ma. Sus biliba jud nako sa iya when she’s in her element. (I’m really impressed with her). This is one woman who can’t be fooled, can’t be cheated, knows what to do, what to say. Oh yes, she can be very persistent and frank and aggressive, a fast-thinker and a fast-doer, and that’s precisely the beauty of her. I would never be the person I am today without my mother and I continue to aspire to be like her in many ways.

Happy birthday Ma!

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[Note: When I was ten to sixteen years old, my family lived in San Jose de Buenavista, Antique, a province located on the island of Panay in the Visayas region. Most of the events I describe in the story happened in high school. “Overdosed” was an exercise I had to do for graduate school to practice describing people and events in detail. May 23, 2005]

I’ve only been to church less than ten times in my whole life and I’ve never given much thought to Jesus. Or Mary. Or the Holy Spirit. Or God for that matter. But then we arrived in San Jose, Antique, and not a week passes by without someone making the sign of the cross or asking me if I am a Christian or if my family goes to mass on Sundays. Now, I hardly notice the questions anymore. That’s because I’m studying in a Catholic school.

It’s already several minutes past three o’clock, and inside the hot classroom, the students are getting restless. Melissa Cabaterno is putting on some more strawberry White Musk, Jill Pacheco is combing her hair for the umpteenth time, and George Reyes is putting on more gel. Donna Mae Azurin is hopping from one noisy group to the next, showing off her new blue-green Swatch watch that her Ninong from the States sent her. At the back, Carlos Jose De Vera strums a guitar while Amadeo Innis, Edwin Braga, and Twinkle Paterno belt out an Eraserheads classic: “Di ba? Lang hiya! Pina-asa niya lang akooooo! Letsyeng pag-ibig to-hohohohohohoo! Diyos ko-hooo!” Shella Soccoro laments loudly, “Taas run akun sungay kay wara ko ka simba kahapon!” (My horns are huge because I wasn’t able to go to mass yesterday!)

I glance at the crucifix above the blackboard and look through the open door across the covered court where Jo Ann Maye Niebres and Willymar de la Cruz are flirting. The lovebirds have finally succumbed to all the teasing. Near the stage, Gilbert Cruz, Ryan Alejandro and John Reyes are checking out the girls in Section Hope. I stop drawing flowers on the blackboard and step outside. The perfumes are stifling. What’s taking my friends so long? I look down the corridor and see Amihan Gonzaga and Rita Bonifacio finally rushing toward our classroom. “May, rugya run si Mr. Trillo!” Ami shouts. (May, Mr. Trillo’s here!) Five seconds later, our Theology teacher appears, his six-foot frame filling the doorway. “Class, please stand up. Who wants to lead the prayer?” he asks. As usual, Eliza Pedrona, our class treasurer, steps forward, faces the class, and says the magic words, “Classmates, let us put ourselves in the presence of the Lord.”

Like clockwork, all stop what they are doing and stand up. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit...” The change in atmosphere is striking. Heads are bowed, hands are clasped together, and foreheads wrinkle in concentration. Some close their eyes. “Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven...” Our voices reverberate through the room with such unity and precision, like we’re speaking from the same mouth. In the corner of my eye, I spy Rolita Sorongon praying intently. She is probably thanking God for her perfect score in our math quiz this morning. “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sins against us...” “Sins,” again! It’s supposed to be – “sin”! But nobody seems to notice. “And do not bring us to the test but deliver us from evil, amen.”

“Class, please sit down,” Mr. Trillo says without looking up. From the pile of books that he’s carrying, he chooses the big red one with a mother and child on the cover. He squints and moves the book closer to his eyes so that it covers his entire face, and with his other hand, he scratches his head. One time I counted 10 head scratches in just 30 minutes! He stops scratching and looks down at me like he has heard my thoughts. He puts the book flat on the table and I stare at his bushy eyebrows. They are so thick that they naturally curve at the corners, making him look like Dracula. He smiles and the dimple in his right cheek winks at us.

“Class,” he says, “How was your weekend?” “Fiiiiiine!” the extroverts holler and Mr. Trillo smiles that enchanting smile again. Maybe he does it because he knows that his dimples make him look cute. He turns around and searches for a decent piece of chalk among the nubbins left along the ridge of the blackboard.

Sigh. It’s going to be another long hour about the sacraments and the hierarchy of the church. First come the “laymen,” then the priests, then the bishops, then the cardinals, etc. Why can’t there ever be women priests? The lesson about the Holy Spirit confuses me most. How exactly was it able to make Mary pregnant with Jesus? How was she able to remain a virgin without having had sex? I’m not going to ask these stupid questions of course because I daren’t expose my lack of understanding and get a low grade.

Mr. Trillo finally finds a piece of chalk, he opens the small thin green book with a church on the cover, and starts writing on the blackboard. I wonder what our lesson is going to be about today. Last week, it was about original sin. “Humans are all born sinners,” Mr. Trillo had said, “This is because Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, disobeyed God’s command not to eat from the forbidden apple in the Garden of Eden. Their sin has become humanity’s sin.” And all the while I thought the story of Adam and Eve was just a myth!

Mr. Trillo’s gullibility is such a disappointment sometimes. Does he for instance, really believe that God, like some sort of a magician, created the world in six days? And, heaven and hell and purgatory - are there really such things? Why does everybody call God, “the Father” when “it” is supposed to be sexless? I bet that if the bible had been written in a matriarchal society, Jesus would be a woman and all his apostles would be women, and everybody would be praying to God – “the Mother.”

“Oooh baby I love your way. I wanna be with you night and day.” It’s Mr. Trillo’s phone ringing. He drops the chalk, hurries outside, and closes the door. “Ga? Diin timo run haw?” (Dear? Where are you?) Everybody smirks and eyes roll. Trisha Trillo, Mr. Trillo’s sister, is reading a Sweet Valley High pocketbook, trying to look oblivious. Poor Trisha. And poor us for having teachers who never put their cellphones on silent mode. But that’s typically Saint Angel’s College High School.

I remember that five months ago, I was very excited to study in SAC because mama and papa told me that I’d have to wear a uniform. “Zodat die met weinig kleren niet minderwaardig zullen voelen bij die met veel kleren,” papa explained to me. (So that those who have more clothes won’t make those who own few clothes, feel inferior.) I had to learn the Pambansang Awit and the Panatang Makabayan, among other things. But I had the hardest time getting used to having to pray before and after every subject, joining the Legion of Mary, and going to mass every Sunday because attendance would be checked. It was an endless - sit, stand, respond to priest, sit, respond to priest, sing, kneel, stand! I never imagined church would be this complicated.

Mr. Trillo is still talking on the phone and it’s almost four o’clock. The buzzing in the room is getting louder each second. I skim through my Theology notebook and put my hand on the remaining blank page. It feels cool and smooth. I’m glad I bought a notebook with thick paper so the ink can’t protrude. The last three pages at the end are filled with drawings of black, blue and red flowers with oval petals and leaves. I have to draw each flower in one go - without lifting the pen - otherwise a slight shift will ruin the flow of the ink and I have to start all over again.

The door slams open and I jerk up from my doodling to see Mr. Trillo returning from his chat with his girlfriend. He doesn’t even say sorry for leaving us. “Class, kagahud ba tinyo! Wara lang ko dya isa ka minuto, nagkarambola run mo,” he scolds us. (Class, you’re so noisy! I haven’t been away for one minute and you’re already bouncing off the walls!) I feel like scolding him back for wasting our time. He continues ranting in Kiniray-a and I avoid his angry gaze by keeping mine fixed on his pale blue shirt. I notice the color makes him look younger than his 35 years.

That birthday I remember well because it was the first day of Theology class. After introductions were over, he said, “So, Maya Van-derrr-brooo-ek, you’re from Holland? Your father’s Dutch?” “No sir, he’s a Belgian but we lived in Holland,” I replied, flattered by the attention. Mr. Trillo’s eyes sweep over the room and he says, “Did you know class that in Holland, homosexuals can get married, marijuana is legal, abortion is legal, prostitution is legal, divorce is legal, and euthanasia is legal!” I thought that was a compliment but the shocked expressions on my classmates’ faces told me otherwise.

Mr. Trillo has calmed down and is sitting on top of his desk. He crosses his right foot over his left foot and puts both hands on the table. “Class, do you believe in God?” he asks. What a weird question. Of course, my classmates all believe in God. “Yes, siiiiir!” everyone answers. See? “But how do you know that God exists?” Mr. Trillo prods. “The bible says so! And the bible was written inspired by the Holy Spirit,” Doane Galivero quips. “But what if there is no Bible?” Mr. Trillo persists. Everyone starts talking at the same time and Mr. Trillo seems amused by my classmates’ discomfort. “C’mon class, prove to me that God exists!” he challenges us.

I cannot believe my ears. Is he saying that maybe God does not exist after all? It’s the question that’s been nagging me ever since I entered SAC. For how can we possibly believe in something we cannot see?

“God exists because my mother says so,” Donna Mae tells us. “What if your mother is wrong?” Mr. Trillo says. “Of course not, sir!” Donna Mae frowns. “Mamati gali kaw sa hambal na? Kung magkuon tana na malumpat kaw sa building, malumpat kaw man?” Mr. Trillo teases her. (So you believe everything she says? What if she tells you to jump off a building, will you jump?) Donna Mae opens her mouth, then shrugs and sits down, defeated. “Sir, God exists because he created the world,” Ami says matter-of-factly. Matt Baquero stands up and gestures with his arms like an irritated debater, “Sir, God exists because miracles happen! Miracles happen!” Evohn Nee Batano, who is usually mouse-still, stands up too, and says, “Sir, God exist because there are flowers and trees and birds. Life is proof that God exist!” God “exists” I silently correct her.

“Sir, sir, sir, me, sir! I know the answer!” Rolita is waving her hand in the air and stands up. “God exists because of our FAITH!” she triumphantly declares. “Exactly!” Mr. Trillo claps his hands, “Very good Rolita! God exists because of our FAITH.” Everybody nods and smiles in relief, glad to hear that God exists after all. Then, Mr. Trillo says the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard a teacher say: “You see class, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and all those other dinosaurs, NEVER EXISTED. God just put their bones in the earth to TEST OUR FAITH!” I gape at Mr. Trillo. Suddenly, I can’t wait for the summer vacation to begin when I will finally graduate and leave this crazy school forever.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Killer Roads

[Note: This piece was written a few days after Valentine's day in 2005 and published in Sun Star Davao.]

For more than one week now, I have been going around the house, in school and even in the mall, taking pictures with my brand new digital camera. After my laptop and my mountainbike, it’s my third most expensive possession. In fact, my baby’s so precious that I don’t allow just anyone to touch it. It’s just too bad that with the 16 MB memory card that comes with it, I can only store about 25 pictures and even less if I increase the picture resolution. This didn’t discourage me however from acting like some crazy photographer last Sunday on the Kaputian - Penaplata - Babak mountain-biking trip with Eric, Bagani and Daeclan.

I woke up at 7 a.m. and arrived an hour later at our meeting place in Eric’s house in Malvar St. As usual, Eric was still sleeping. He’s a manager of an Internet shop and only had three hours sleep, so again, I benevolently forgave him. Bagani, my college classmate and perennial mountain-biking buddy, had gone out last night with some girl friends but he made it just on time. And Daeclan, an Irish surfer/environmental scientist was afraid of what he called my Dutch punctuality so he was on time too.

We arrived at Sta. Ana Wharf around 9 o’clock but the boat only left one hour later because something got stuck in its propeller. So while waiting for us to get unstuck, I clicked away. I took everyone’s pictures - and pictures of the other passengers, the kids swimming in the sea, the boats, the birds... Every time the camera’s card was full, I spent five minutes choosing which pictures to delete to make space for new ones. Before I knew it, my camera’s battery drained. Thank God Daeclan pitied me and lent me his batteries.

When we arrived at Kaputian, we quickly ate squid for lunch then filled our water bottles and put on some more sunblock before finally embarking on our killer-road adventure. I had motorbiked the steep roads before on my way home from Isla Reta so I was a bit anxious about having to actually mountainbike them – without a helmet. Bagani warned me that I might fall and smash my head and spill my brains.

Just like he predicted, an accident did happen. In going down the third very steep hill, I stepped on the breaks and almost lost my grip on the wheel. That was so scary. Lesson learned: don’t ever ever break in the middle of a descent.

The others weren’t as lucky though. In careening downhill, Bagani’s rear tire and Eric’s front tire got punctured by the sharp stones. Luckily, neither one of them slipped or got hurt - or spilled their brains. The guys were actually more concerned about their beaten up bikes and were relieved when Deaclan once again came to the rescue with his spare tube and some glue to patch up the holes. I didn’t know anything about fixing bikes so I got out my camera again, secretly happy that I finally got my scoop and record my friends’ close brush with death. (Knock on wood.)

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. Just scores of shrieking smiling kids running after us and an occasional guffaw by people who were amazed that I - a girl - could bike.

Poor Eric had cramps in his legs so at every hill he had to walk up instead of bike up. He was carrying a knapsack with his water bottle and soccer shoes, just in case he could make it on time for soccer practice later. But the pain made him lag so far behind that we had to stop several times so he could catch up.

At one point, five drunkards on a motorbike drove beside Daeclan to ask how much his bike cost. In true good-humored tourist fashion, Daeclan took their picture, which delighted them enormously. A while back, Daeclan had stopped to take a picture of coconuts being dried in the sun to show to his folks back home. Then he told us that before he came to the Philippines, he didn’t know what mangoes looked like. That really cracked me up. But I suppose that if I were in Ireland I’d be stopping to take pictures of apple trees too.

Since Hagimit Falls was along the way farther down a side road, Bagani and Daeclan decided to go there and take some souvenir pictures. While Eric and I waited for them at the shed, we reminisced about some terribly corrupt teachers we were able to get fired in college. A zillion minutes later, Bagani and Daeclan finally emerged with hair dripping from a ‘quick’ swim. I was all sticky and I suppose, stinky as well, and for a moment I wished I could strip like a man and jump into the water too.

But the sun was ready to drop into the ocean and disappear, so we biked on and took the barge to Davao City. It was dark when we finally stopped at Colasas for a chicken barbecue dinner. My butt was sore and the guys’ legs were sore but we felt great. We all agreed that the killer roads weren’t so agonizing after all but the heat was.

Surprisingly, when I got home at around 8 p.m., I wasn’t even sunburned after having biked eighty kilometers! Ah, the magic of sunblock! I swear though that on the next biking trip I’m going to wear a helmet. And I’m definitely bringing a bigger memory card. My Santa Claus is still thinking about whether I deserve it. I hope he reads this.

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Brain Hemmorhage

[Note: This piece was finished Christmas of 2004 and published 2005 in Sun Star Davao.]

Haven’t you noticed? Filipinos are slowly conquering the world! But not with conspicuous guns and bombs and missiles like what the Americans did with Japan, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. All over the world, we Filipinos are cleaning thousands of homes a day from Dubai to China to Amsterdam. We are laying pipelines in Siberia, constructing buildings in Taiwan, mining diamonds in Angola, teaching English in Korea, entertaining in Japan, ‘care-giving’ and ‘nursing’ in America and Canada, and sailing ships in all the world’s oceans. About 8 million of us or one tenth of the country’s citizens, support our families back home by working overseas – and singing, cooking, caring and sweet-talking our way into our employers’ hearts.

It’s easy to see why the Philippines has become the world’s largest source of migrant labor in the world – even larger now than Mexico. It’s because Filipinos smile a lot, are very patient, extremely hardworking and speak good English. Everybody loves us. (But like Sarah Balabagan, we have a zero tolerance for abuse – so don’t ever think about it!)

Time Magazine’s October 4 issue reports that Bahrain’s Prime Minister employs some 50 Filipinos in his own household. He is so fond of the woman who manages them all that he sends her home to the Philippines on vacation every year accompanied by a bodyguard.

There’s that other success story about a 30-year-old Filipino domestic helper who ended up marrying her 60-year-old billionaire Australian employer to the chagrin of his grown up children. He died a couple of months later but she lives on happily filthy rich ever after.

My cousin’s mother, who is a teacher, is currently working as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia for one of the King’s royal cousins. It’s a big household, she says, with various maids of different nationalities to do the cooking, washing, cleaning, and taking care of the children. The maids do everything, even if what their employers need is right in front of them - a glass of water across the table or a book on the couch just an arm’s length away.

Despite her employers’ demands to be served ASAP and their fetish for absolute cleanliness, my auntie is quite happy. She never gets shouted at or mistreated or sexually abused. (Thank God.) She even gets to go on a yearly vacation with the family to England and Las Vegas and visit the Universal Studios and Disneyland!

The mother of Jude, my friend, is also working abroad as a store attendant in Washington D.C. His mother left while he was still in high school and he hasn’t seen her for 10 years. She makes up for her absence by regularly sending her family a huge balikbayan box full of chocolates, medicines, books, clothes, shoes, etc. And every Sunday she calls the house to check up on her children.

Now that the last of Jude’s five brothers is about to graduate from an expensive private school, Jude is urging his mother to come home. She too misses them terribly and can’t wait to hold her granddaughter for the first time. But she says sayang ang pamasahe and she’d rather stay and continue sending money home.

I can’t begin to count how many friends I have whose parents work abroad to send their children to Nursing School who will later on most probably send their children to Nursing School too. Nurses now leave the Philippines at three times the rate at which they matriculate and enter the work force! This story of economic struggle, multiplied thousands of times over, is the story of the Philippines.

Our country of 80 million has a 14 percent unemployment rate and one of the highest poverty indexes in the world (nearly half the population subsists on less than $2 a day.) But now the focus has shifted to the Philippine middle class who also want to get out fast. Doctors, entrepreneurs, managers of big companies, bankers, restaurant owners, disc jockeys – everyone’s taking up Nursing. And the reason is simple: low pay.

In a global salary study done in 2002, the average Filipino nurse earned just $139 a month at home compared to $650 in Singapore, $982 in Saudi Arabia and $1,666 in the United Kingdom. Even Elmer Reyes Jacinto, a doctor who topped the annual medical board exams, wants to move to New York to become a nurse.

But not everybody who is studying Nursing feels the same way. I know plenty of Nursing students who would rather take up Engineering or Mass Communication or Architecture but can’t because they’ve been ‘forced’ by their parents to take up Nursing. The poor dears can’t stand the blood and the gore and the stink.

Fran, a Nursing graduate, tells me horror stories of hospitals with only a handful of nurses to take care of some 1000 patients because all the senior nurses have left to be nurses abroad. This is definitely not a ‘brain drain’ anymore but a ‘brain hemorrhage’!

Experts say however that it’s okay for Filipinos to leave by the droves because by 2005, the population might balloon to 130 million and halting the flow of migrants could make the country explode.

To prevent this ominous ‘bang,’ Newsweek reports that the government continues doing what it does best “licensing workers headed overseas, collecting fees for each departure, regulating a mushrooming labor-brokerage industry and tasking its diplomats to protect a burgeoning expatriate work force based on 56 bilateral treaties with host nations around the world.” This very profitable ‘business’ ensures that every year, Filipino workers pump into the country more than $14 billion!

Perhaps that is why when extremists recently took a Filipino truck driver hostage in Iraq, GMA immediately agreed to withdraw our tiny contingent of soldiers there to win his release. Now, everybody is still waiting for the release of Robert Tarongoy, a Davaoeno, who is being held hostage in Iraq.

Tarongoy slipped out of the country without the knowledge of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). So in an obvious effort to save face, Davao City Hall has announced that it is conducting a house-to-house survey to determine how many persons have gone to work abroad. It has even put up an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) center to help those returning home with problems from their respective jobs.

It kind of reminds me of the past when every now and then, returning OFWs are met with much fanfare at the NAIA and presented with a big cash prize. (For what? For doing their bit in Filipinizing the world of course.)

How times have changed indeed. Only a couple of years ago our government was shamed by its inability to create enough good jobs to keep its people at home. Now, the mentality is: “If you don’t leave this extremely poor and mismanaged country, you must be crazy.” Even my classmates have lost hope! Kim, my best friend, is taking up Nursing and George is studying care-giving while I’m still here teaching English to college students.

I’m crazy I know. Maybe I’ll come to my senses and go abroad to clean other people’s homes and take care of other people’s children when I’m broke and married and have 10 kids to feed.

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Saturday, November 3, 2007

There are 101 Ways To Eat Fruit

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TV Heaven

[Note: This piece was written in December 2004 and published in Sun Star Davao.]

This semestral break, my parents flew to Cambodia, leaving me and Julie, our household helper, home alone. Naturally, when the cats are away, the mice play. These cats, you see, had been ‘depriving’ my brother and me of TV since elementary, afraid it would turn us into anti-social freaks. Four years after college graduation, my parents felt we were old enough to finally have a TV set without getting brainwashed by it. But before we even could jump for joy, my father removed the antenna so that we could only use the TV to watch VHS tapes, DVDs and VCDs – only during weekends.

Now that my parents were finally far far away, Julie and I had a blast watching TV every day. The problem was that we had only four measly channels to choose from: GMA, ABS-CBN, RPN and ABC.

That’s how we ended up watching Marina turn into a human by day and a mermaid by night. Her mother’s mortal enemy, Victoria, is a witch and the mistress of Marina’s father, but in the end he chose Marina’s mother which made Victoria so mad that she turned Marina into a mermaid. To make a long story short, all the bad characters in the movie eventually become good and help Marina fight Victoria. It predictably ends when Marina succeeds in killing Victoria who falls into the sea and turns into foam.

The teleserye’s special effects and the props and costumes were obviously fake. Even the story is not new: poor oppressed girl versus powerful and cruel enemies. The more dramatic, the better: a low profile food server uses a diamond stone with a fairy in it to turn herself into a superhero and fight off the villains (Krystala). My favorite is a Mexican teleserye with a cast of gorgeous Latino men and women who, despite their perfect bodies and faces, always seem to be chasing each other in vain (Gata Salvahe).

In one TV program, teams of movie stars outdo each other in scaling down skyscrapers, lying in caskets, butchering wriggling fish, scrubbing giant statues, and crawling under barbed wires (Extra Challenge). Most hilarious of all is that show where movie stars scandalize each other: “Why don’t you admit right now that your boyfriend is a macho dancer? I saw you two!” “I swear she asked me to have sex with her. Just ask my friends who heard her on speaker phone.” Blah blah. (The Buzz).

These programs would all have been more pleasant to watch if only we viewers didn’t have to sit through 10-minute commercials every 10 minutes. Heck, I get to go to the toilet more than five times every hour!

Prime time television news is no different: Police bust a sleazy bar that prostitutes minors. Police arrest a woman of stealing canned powdered milk for her baby. A boy’s father is beaten up by his neighbors because he beats his son all the time. A military general is accused of being too rich. There’s plenty of sensational incest and rape, bloody murder, and violent robberies and kidnappings with always the same commercials flashed during the breaks. (We get the message already: Brush your teeth! Wash your hair! Wash your face and body! And girls, use feminine hygiene protection!)

Oh yeah, there was the over-hyped visit of Jasmine Trias (who looks very Filipino but when she parts her perfectly formed white teeth, she suddenly becomes so unbelievingly slaaang.) We watched Ara and Joma try to convince us between sobs about who loved the other most unselfishly. Then we watched how Zsa-zsa and Regine’s ‘too sexy’ dresses ruined their role-model-to-the-youth images. The current favorite news is still Saranggani’s Sto. Nino that miraculously sweats oil that when put on a sick body, miraculously cures it.

In between channel surfing to avoid the ads, I watched a couple of award-winning documentaries. ‘Bowling for Columbine’ is about why America is the unsafest country in the world because almost everybody there owns a gun. (It sure made me think twice about studying Nursing just to end up wiping the butt of a senile gun-wielding Kano.)

One of the highlights of ‘Farenheit 9/11’ is when the two planes crashed into the Twin Towers, all flights were canceled in airports across America, stranding thousands of people – including Ricky Martin! Britney Spears does a cameo too including several Senators who run away from Mr. Moore as he chases them and pleads with them to send their children to Iraq.

But these are merely the icebreakers in a serious documentary that puts the biggest blame on the Bushes for the absurdity of America’s war against in Iraq. One American solider writes, “Dear Mr. Moore, words can’t even describe what the movie did to me. You made me realize that we aren’t as free as we think. You made me really understand the propaganda that is fed to us. How arrogant we are.” So much with just one little movie indeed. Watch it.

‘Baraka’ is a breathtaking documentary shot in 24 countries in six continents. According to the description on the box, ‘Mere words don’t do the film justice.’ Well, that’s because there are no words. The film is all pictures, music and natural sounds and is so grrr... slow. Certainly no MTV but a feast for the eyes nevertheless.

David Attenborough’s Nature Explorations renewed my interest in the thousands of crawling, leaping, flying, swimming, and swaying living things that I, the superior human being, usually ignore. The camera zooms in on one species at a time and shows how they court, have sex, give birth, bring up their kids, hunt, eat, fight their enemies, build their houses, sleep, and finally die (not necessarily in this order).

I also had a blast watching Lost Ancient Civilizations – e.g., the Mayas, the Incas, and the Aztecs. These people were already making colossal buildings, mummifying their dead, monitoring time with their exact mathematical calculations, painting, crafting, sculpting amazing works of art while Europe was still in the Dark Ages. And every now and then they’d pierce their tongues and genitals - or simply sacrifice each other - to offer their blood to the Gods. The Royal family had to pierce themselves most often because their blood was the most powerful. Just imagine how less corrupt our government would be if only we’d require all our leaders to pierce their genitals too!

‘Osama’ is a touching documentary about a little girl in Afghanistan who disguises herself as a boy so that she can work and bring home food to her starving mother and grandmother. (FYI: Women in Afghanistan aren’t allowed to work much less be seen in public unless they are with a close male relative.)

‘The Fog of War’ is full of shocking revelations too. It’s a documentary about ‘eleven lessons from the life of Robert McNamara,’ who, during his term as the president of Ford Motors, was one of the world’s highest paid executives. When Kennedy became president, McNamara was appointed Defense Secretary and got paid ‘only $25,000 a month.’

Now that he’s over 85, he admits: “With the massive destruction caused by the fire bombs that flattened Japanese cities, there was no need anymore for America to ‘atomic bomb’ Hiroshima.” (Wow. This is almost like Pope John Paul II saying sorry only 300 years after the Church prosecuted Galileo for insisting that the earth is not the center of the universe.) And for good measure, McNamara adds: “You see, if America had lost World War II, we would have been treated as war criminals.”

Now that he’s over 85, he admits: “With the massive destruction caused by the fire bombs that flattened Japanese cities, there was no need anymore for America to ‘atomic bomb’ Hiroshima.” (Wow. This is almost like Pope John Paul II saying sorry only 300 years after the Church prosecuted Galileo for insisting that the earth is not the center of the universe.) And for good measure, McNamara adds: “You see, if America had lost World War II, we would have been treated as war criminals.”

And since most Americans get no from of exercise, Spurlock limits himself to just 2,000 steps daily (approximately one mile). But first, he visits a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist, a general practitioner, and a dietician who confirm that at 6 feet and 2 inches and weighing 185 1/2 pounds, his health is excellent.

However, after Spurlock gorges on 5,000 calories every day for 12 days, his physicians start to panic. He has gained 17 pounds! Soon after, Spurlock complains of a funny whoozing feeling in his penis. He feels pressure on his chest and he is often depressed for no good reason. He reveals, "It's not hard to eat this food all the time because it tastes good so it makes me feel good. I noticed how I eat some then just a little while later, I’ll be hungry again, and I’ll want more – more, more, more."

At the end of his 30-day ‘experiment,’ Spurlock has gained an astonishing 24 ½ pounds! He says, “My liver turned to fat, my cholesterol shot up 65 points, my body fat percentage went from 11% to 18%. I doubled my risk of coronary heart disease and made myself twice as likely to have heart failure. I felt depressed and exhausted most of the time, my moods swung on a dime, and my sex life was nonexistent. I craved the food more and more when I ate it and I got massive headaches when I didn’t.”

Throughout watching Spurlock eat his Mcmuffins, Mcfries, Mcburgers, Mcsundaes and becoming Mccrazy in the process, viewers are bombarded with shocking statistics: Every day, one in every four Americans eats out. There are 30,000 McDonalds joints strategically located in 100 countries in 6 continents! Yup. McDonalds in-your-face approach is so successful that it now feeds 46 million people worldwide daily!

Does this have anything to do with the 100,000,000 million or 60% OVERWEIGHT American adults? Does this have anything to do with the 400,000 Americans that DIE YEARLY of obesity-related diseases? You bet!

Obesity is the second major cause of preventable deaths in America - second only to smoking. In fact, in 2000, a surgeon declared obesity a national epidemic. A senior editor of a magazine muses that in the future, instead of hectoring only smokers about their addiction, wouldn't it be fair to also publicly hector fat people?

I hope not. "American families eat out all the time and they are paying for it dearly - with their waistlines." But hey, let's not rub it in. We can't expect a super power society that's busy keeping up with the rat race and playing cop all over the world to have time to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner too.

In one interview, a man says that 90% of his solid diet are Big Macs. When he got his first car, the first place he came to was McDonalds where he ate three Big Macs. He liked them so much that he came back at 5 p.m. and ate three more. He came back at 11 p.m., just before McDonald’s closed, and ate another three. He says that that year, he ate 741 Big Macs!

One funny scene shows a group of American grade schoolers guessing the identities of famous people shown on flash cards. They correctly guess George Washington and of course, Ronald McDonald but they are clueless about the identity of the feminine-looking man in the red and white robe. One grade schooler timidly asks, “Is he George Bush?” Nope. Good guess though. It’s Jesus Christ! (- the most famous person in the Philippines!)

The best scene happens when two doctors surgically reduce an obese patient’s stomach to the size of a small apple. While classical music is being played in the background, viewers see the doctors poke metal tubes into his stomach and slowly suck out the heaps of glistening fat.

The patient has hypertension and is a diabetic because he used to drink three to four gallons of softdrinks a day. Lucky him, he won’t have to take insulin anymore after the surgery. He’ll also lose his fat and his high blood pressure.

Come to think of it, I personally know only one ‘obese’ Filipino who is as obese as the obese Americans in ‘Supersize Me.’ I know some fat Filipinos. And I know lots of chubby Filipinos. But obese Filipinos?!

Apparently, they do exist. It’s just that obese Asians don’t look as obese as the obese Americans because Asians have naturally smaller frames. I didn’t know this cultural weight difference so I was quite surprised to read in Time Magazine’s November 8 issue that the number of obese Asians - especially among the urban poor - is steadily increasing. And it’s certainly not because of the food of McDonalds that is fat-laden (but more expensive than America’s McDonalds joints.)

According to Time Magazine, it’s the cheap, tasty and filling and easy to make and to pick up processed food that’s making Asia’s urban poor FAT. They simply can’t afford to buy expensive fresh food that’s why “poor shoppers are more likely to for instance, to end up with unhealthy hot dogs than lean beef, as the sausages are less pricey.”

I noticed however that even if there are vegetables around, we Filipinos usually overcook them and put in lots of carcinogenic Ajinomoto. Or we simply don’t buy vegetables because we were probably spoiled rotten by parents and grandparents who didn’t force us to eat anything we didn’t want to. As long as there’s rice and beef, or rice and pork, or rice and chicken, or rice and fish - vegetables are always our last pick. Add to this the fact that jeepneys drop us of exactly where we tell the drivers to stop because we hate walking even short distances under the scorching sun.

So you see: No exercise, no vegetables, just processed food and fatty food. Laugh at the obese Americans all you want but take a good look at yourself when you’re thirty-five and all your fats come out of hiding.

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Homecoming Tales and Religion Blues

[Note: This piece was written in March 2001 and published same year in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s YOUNGBLOOD section and several other publications.]

I am an NPA and I am glad. (NPA – as in, “no permanent address”). I was born in Mindanao but spent half of my childhood in the Netherlands and the other half in a remote town in the Visayas before eventually returning to Mindanao. After years in Europe it was good, finally, to return to the Philippines, but not without some major adjustments at home, at school, and especially with regard to religion.

Coming home meant paying someone else to do all the cooking, washing and cleaning – things middle-class families in the Netherlands typically do themselves. It meant holding on to my father’s motorbike as we zigzagged to school at break-neck speed unafraid of apprehending cops. It meant walking into our neighbors’ living room anytime to watch television without having to go through the elaborate ritual of asking permission.

After class, my brother and I would join the neighborhood kids and play Patintero on the street till we were covered with dust. Before dinner, my family would admire the green tunnel of Madre de Cacao trees as we strolled to the beach with towels draped over our shoulders. We would noisily swim to our hearts content in the Sulu Sea, pausing only to count down the colorful setting of the sun.

Living in this paradise also meant that I had to learn English, Tagalog and Kiniray-a all at the same time. It meant pretending not to notice the stares (as if I was some bizarre half-breed). There was the unbearable heat and the greedy flies and mosquitoes that feasted on me. Even the endless supply of powdered milk – after having become accustomed to fresh milk – was just one more thing I learned to take in stride.

My parents, perhaps because the peso was worth so much more when they last lived in the Philippines, gave me an allowance so meager that I had to spend every snack break watching my classmates happily cram themselves with delicious junk food. Complaining I seldom did for I reasoned that a measly pack of chips and soft drinks wouldn’t satiate my hunger anyway.

Though I didn’t show it much, I had the longest time getting used to the “unusual” religiosity of the people. Compared to the reserved Dutch, Filipinos were more showy. A day wouldn’t go by without someone making the sign of the cross or mentioning something about their faith, God, Jesus Christ, or the Virgin Mary.

The prospect of studying in a Catholic school seemed no big deal except for wearing a uniform. I was told this was to “prevent the richer students from flaunting their expensive clothes and making the poorer students feel inferior.” How sensitive of them, I remember thinking. Sensitive ha! I had to wake up at six in the morning and go home at five in the afternoon after endless copying from the blackboard.

Gifted with a bad memory, I got headaches from having to memorize the exact definitions of terms only to forget them after the tests. Not to mention the loads of homework I had to do. It was certainly not easy being a fifth grader in the Philippines.

The biggest shock was having to pray before and after every subject. What an entirely new way to go through the day! I just wished they didn’t pray so fast as if they were in a rush to get it over with. But boy was I wrong in thinking that all the praying would end there. My clever teacher checked our attendance to make sure that we didn’t skip mass on Sundays. Being the grade-conscious freak that I was, I had no choice but to politely listen to the priest’s monologue.

As for my classmates, they would talk about growing horns if they even missed just one homily. And to think that in the Netherlands, the only time I went to church was during the weddings and baptisms of my relatives - certainly not every week. My horns must be huge I thought. Not that it bothered me. It was more the never ending standing up and sitting down during mass that got on my nerves. Then there were the religion teachers who had a way of telling us what to believe and what not to believe in a tone that said don’t-you-dare-contradict-me. Second opinions were rebuked with, “The teachings of the church can’t be questioned.” How could I possibly accept this finality when they didn’t even want to listen to what I had to say? Where was critical thinking?

To save myself the embarrassment of being put on the spot, I pretended to be agreeable by nodding my head once in a while like everybody else. I played this part to the limit even during tests writing answers that the teachers wanted to hear but which were not exactly how I felt. The more “saintly” the explanation, the higher the score I discovered.

Ever since Papa started reading to my brother and me from the Children’s Picture Bible, I grew up thinking that the creation story was just well, a meaningful story. It was major culture shock to find out that my classmates and teachers believed the world really was created in six days and that Adam and Eve really were the first man and woman.

What about the Big Bang? That is only a theory. What about the fossils? Oh, God put them on earth to test our faith. Yeah right. No “superior” human beings would want to admit their ancestors were some dumb and ugly apes who got tired of swinging from trees. The religious inputs left me confused for a while. It came to a point when I began to envy my classmates’ unwavering faith. They were so sure of everything.

Nevertheless, all the church-going, was not in vain. I learned some nice songs. Plus, my family began to make it a point to pray before dinner, thanking the farmers and fisher folk for the food on the table. I also developed the habit of trying to pray before sleeping, but always with the door locked. I would lie down and ask myself, “So okay, who did I hurt today?” I would then realize I should not have said this but I should have said that and feel guilty the rest of the night. I would end the prayer saying, “Please help me be a good girl tomorrow.” My Catholic education was a real eye-opener, thank you.

Now I’m back in Mindanao, a fourth year college student with religion still very much on my mind. I am still studying in a Catholic university that requires Theology to be taught to Christians and non-Christians alike. No one is exempted. Thank God my current teacher approaches the subject as “a sharing of religious experiences.” My heart throbs in frustrated anger no more.

According to one teacher, religion is supposed to “avoid misunderstanding in a world that is shrinking towards one global community.” Nice words indeed. But come to think of it, since I’m studying in a Catholic school and since the subject is Theology, the “sharing of religious experiences” is always done from a Catholic point of view – which helps a lot in making me know almost nothing about Islam. I’m sure the majority of students in the Philippines don’t either.

Filipino youth, especially in Mindanao should not grow up ignorant of Islam. We could read books about it. We could interact much more with the Muslim communities around us and visit their mosques. Better still, we could be taught Islam in class. Yes, why not? While we’re at it, why not teach us a little bit of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, etcetera… –isms – after all, we’re Asians too.

Of course, teachers would have to give the world’s religions equal emphasis and trust students to discover that they are alike in many ways. Meaning: puhlease resist the urge to be so dreadfully imposing. Teenagers are old enough to make up their own minds you know.

If you ask me, Comparative Religion will lead to understanding and eventually respecting other people's culture. For how is this possible if we breathe only one religion all the time? Who knows? It might even be part of the long-term solution to the problem in this “Land of Promise” which I plan to make my permanent address.

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Gender Equality in a Patriarchy? Hah!

[Note: This piece was published in Sun Star Davao.]

All women of marriageable age should watch the cartoon, The Impossible Dream. It will make you think twice before getting stuck with a seemingly harmless guy for the rest of your life. He might be one of those machos who have this insane belief that God specially designed mothers and wives to wash the dishes, do the laundry, clean the house, cook and take care of the children.

Everyone knows this is plain baloney. But if you’re the type who takes pleasure in serving the opposite sex, you could of course be the exception. Even then, be warned: he won’t lift a finger despite the fact that you, too, are struggling with a career. Our emancipation has only lead to double burden honey. What did you expect of a society that breeds macho men? Gender equality in a patriarchy? Hah!

The Impossible Dream reminds me of high school when only boys were asked to carry the teacher’s bag, transport a chair from one end of the room to the other end or clean the blackboard. What did they think? That we girls were too weak to handle some measly eraser?

My female friends didn’t seem to mind being treated like invalids. They had a lot more important things on their minds like outdoing each other ala The Scent of A Woman. (If my lungs had been weaker, I would have been the first case of asphyxiation due to overpowering colognes.) They would sashay around campus with comb in hand, stopping every now and then to brush their “crowning glory.”

Boys, whose heads were made of 30% hair and 70% gel didn’t have such a problem. They had this irritating habit of trying to drink themselves to death but succeeded only in getting embarrassingly drunk. Spotting them in a crowd would be easy. Just wait ten or more years and look out for pregnant men. You know what I mean.

A baby boy is wrapped in blue and is given toy cars and guns. A baby girl is wrapped in pink and is given a doll. We call this stereotyping. People do it all the time albeit unconsciously. Which brings us to gender equality in a marriage and inevitably to the first object of scrutiny – fathers.

Like all daughters in love with our fathers, let’s be objective. (Pause). Our fathers are the greatest! They abhor liquor, nicotine, caffeine, softdrinks, and are too practical to gamble their money on sweepstakes and other such vices. And no matter how tempting, queridas have never been part of their vocabulary. Our systematic investigation can attest to that.

Being such saints, our fathers wash their own underwear and water the plants every day. They also set the table and wash the dishes when they see everybody else is busy. Their preoccupation with the family business never prevents them from lengthily discussing with us how our assignments can be improved. No matter how little the effort, in a sense, our fathers have become “house husbands.”

In contrast, our mothers will never anymore be our washing machines, dishwashers and vacuum cleaners. “Ma, it’s your duty, you’re our mother!” we often whine. Hopeless. Paid work has become so satisfying, they don’t have time to fuss about how dirty the house is and how clean they would like it to be. Leave that to household helpers – the indispensable replacements who do menial work for a living. We daughters won’t have to be the “domestically inclined” ever again!

I can already see it. Generations of future teen-agers will have become so accustomed to being “spoon fed,” their parents will be forced to hire professionals who can properly wash the dishes without breaking a plate. Yes, housework will become a separate profession we will have to go to school for. Imagine getting a MDM (Masters in Domestic Management) with specialization in ABA (Amo, Bahay, Anak).

Why not? The international demand for Filipino domestic helpers will make household work one of the most popular courses in the country. Once we’ve monopolized the domestic labor market, we can start demanding higher wages and better working conditions. If not, we’ll threaten a worldwide strike.

Only then will people realize how powerful the experts of soft brooms, cooking pots and kitchen knives can be. Housework will become so highly respected, even men would be clamoring – no, fighting – to do it. But we won’t give them that satisfaction. Housework should remain a job exclusively for women. This will be our punishment to men for treating us as “slaves” for so long.

Sigh. If only gender equality would be this easy.

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