Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bringing out one of Baguio's greatest treasures (and it isn't the longest longganisa)

In the last 13 years since I made Baguio my permanent place residence, I have lived in various parts of the city – three times in three different houses in San Luis Village along Asin Road. During one really strong typhoon in 2001, San Luis was inundated with landslides, one of which brought down a house killing several persons. The house we were living in then was also hit by a landslide, but fortunately the slide, which buried the driveway in 3 feet of mud, stopped right at our doorstep. We didn’t have electricity for days and water was scarce since water delivery trucks couldn’t come near our house. This had the whole family carrying buckets and whatever else can contain water trooping down the road where there was a spring to collect water. But despite all that, at the height of the typhoon when I braved the weather to get some supplies from town, the sight of our Barangay officials armed with shovels and what-have-you immediately clearing out parts of the road that’s been blocked by a landslide, or evacuating families living in danger zones was comforting.

I must mention that I was also really impressed by then San Luis Barangay Captain Corazon Arizala. Back then, Kapitana, as almost everyone called her, was always seen out in the streets directing her people in cleaning up the Barangay, sweeping the streets, painting the sidewalks. On that stormy day 8 years ago, I saw her right in the middle of the street, her raincoat barely doing its job of keeping her dry, screaming at the top of her voice that there would be no merienda break yet for the volunteers who were clearing out the debris from the landslides for there they still had much to do. And then she proceeded to get her hands dirty by directly helping out in the clearing operation.

Seeing our barangay officials at work made tragedies such as what just befell our city a little bit more bearable.

Last week, even before Pepeng wreaked havoc in the city and while Ondoy was putting much of Metro Manila underwater, my wife was driving down Asin Road on her way home when suddenly there was a traffic build up just some meters from our house. A motorist on his way up the opposite way stopped and informed my wife that a landslide just blocked the road 50-100 meters down. When my wife reached our house, I got into the car to go to town, expecting traffic along Asin Road. But as soon as I got out of our driveway, I was surprised to see an empty road with hardly any cars in it. Curiously (just like any “usyosero”), I went down the road instead of up towards town to see exactly what happened, and there they were, just minutes after the landslide: San Luis’ valiant barangay officials (wasn’t sure if they were tanods or kagawads) and some volunteers shoveling mud and chopping down fallen tree branches out of the way. I believe Kapitana is not our current barangay chair anymore, but the tradition of public service that she initiated surely lives on.

Then Pepeng came and last Thursday. My wife and I were on our way to town to get some groceries and knowing that the kind of rain that the city was getting that day would certainly cause a lot of damage, we brought our cameras to document whatever came our way. At the bottom of Quezon Hill’s main road along Naguillian Road, the sight of the City Camp lagoon underwater made us stop to take photos of the area. Seeing that cars were still making their way down Queen of Peace, we decided to get a closer view and drove down towards the lagoon and on our way down, we saw several men in uniform yellow raincoats making their way down the same road. After taking more photos of the flood, we decided to go around town first to look around before making our way to the supermarket. Earlier that day, we heard that Marcos highway had been closed due to landslides and we saw video footages of the rampaging Balili river. Off to Marcos Highway, but after reaching the turning point in Green Valley, we were met with really heavy rains and strong winds that shook our car, so we decided to turn back towards the city. We proceeded to the area where the footage of a raging Balili was taken and we were really impressed by the presence of so many ambulances, rescue vehicles and police along KM 3 in La Trinidad. Balili frighteningly raged on but there they were, the city’s Samaritans, clearing our blocked roadways, assisting and evacuating people, sans tv cameras, sans relief goods with politicians’ names stuck to them.

This we can say: the damage Pepeng inflicted on Baguio will never get as much attention as the havoc Ondoy wreaked on Metro Manila. We didn’t have celebrities on rooftops waiting to be rescued, and that’s probably why while last week my Facebook wall was flooded with calls for donations and volunteers for relief operations to help the victims of Ondoy in Metro Manila, at the height of Pepeng in Northern Luzon, those same calls, this time to help victims in the Cordilleras, were buried under the usual clutter of Mafia Wars invitations and inane online quizzes.
Our deepest condolences go to the victims and their families up here, and our gratitude goes out to to the city’s rescue volunteers, the police and certain barangay officials who, as I said, helped a lot in making this calamity a little bit easier to bear.

But, if there’s a silver lining to all this, I must say that this tragedy brought out one of Baguio’s greatest treasures: its sense of community.

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