Thursday, November 28, 2013

Rich man, poor man

The vehicle reduction ordinance, or the number coding scheme, has been suspended in Baguio for the duration of the on-going Fil-am Golf Tournament. “Why?” My son asked on our way to school today, a Friday, the day we’re not supposed to bring our car to town for our plate ends in 9. For the benefit of more than a thousand golfers and their families and friends who are here for the annual Fil-Am Golf Tournament, I answered.

What’s wrong with making it easy for visitors to our beautiful city to go around town without having to worry about getting their SUVs stopped for having that particular last digit on their license plate on a particular day? It actually makes sense and I am sure that it was easy for the mayor to make the decision.

You know, like how easy it was for them to think of a way to ease the traffic along General Luna Street during the morning rush hour - ban public utility jeeps from passing there. You know, just like it was easy for them to grant SM the permit to mow down a whole forest so they can make the biggest mall in Baguio even bigger, and earn more money in the process. Just like it was easy for them to surrender our streets to Jadewell before, and the market to Uniwide – so that these businesses can do more business and earn more money.

Those who have less in life must have more in law. That’s not the case in our city. Here, those who have more in life are given even more in law and everything else. They don’t see anything wrong in looking the other way when it comes to the concerns of the moneyed.

Thousands have been clamoring to pedestrianize Session Road to help clean the air in the city’s central business district and provide the masses a some relief from carbon monoxide, but since it faced stiff opposition from the business owners in the area, the idea has been shelved. The welfare of a few against that of the greater majority, and for the powers-that-be, the former’s always trumps the latter’s.

Jeepneys carrying two dozens of the city’s children from the eastern part of Baguio on their way to school in the morning must walk the extra couple of hundred meters or so because their ride’s not allowed to enter General Luna Street, so that those comfortably in their cars can be dropped off right at their school’s doorstep. If traffic was the main concern for the decision, then ban the private cars instead and allow the jeeps in, for they carry more people.

What I don’t understand, I shared with my son, is why they find it very easy to make decisions that would benefit those who already have more in life, more often at the expense of those who have less?

In the meantime, be careful when crossing Session Road for the duration of the Fil-Am Golf Tournament: they’ve neglected to paint the pedestrian lanes with stripes for people on foot, and a golfer’s SUV is on its way.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ana’s bonfire (and her father’s portrait of Tacloban)

When she noticed that water was flowing ankle deep into their home, she told everyone in the room, her family, that it was time to leave. She made her way to the door and as she opened it, the water started rising and her along with it. She grabbed on to a branch to avoid getting swept away by the current. She recalled how painful the wind was on her face. She stayed floating for a few minutes, and as rapidly as it rose, it started receding. She didn’t let go of the branch and in just a matter of a couple of minutes, from being in danger of drowning in floodwaters, she realized that she was in danger of falling to her death from her perch on the topmost branch up a kaimito tree some thirty feet up. She looked around and was relieved to see most of her family members grabbing on to the branches of the same tree. But not everyone was there.

Soon after the Typhoon Yolanda left, Jun Fernandez received the news in Baguio – his wife, a daughter and two grandchildren who lived in Tacloban were missing, and were presumed dead, according to eyewitnesses who last saw them. There was no way they could have survived after being swept away by a series of storm surges that brought tree-high waves. His younger daughter was determined, she told her father that she will travel to Tacloban that same night to look for her mother, her Ate and the two children, aged six and four. There was news that the body of her Ate Eva has been found, and Ana wanted to see for herself if the news was true.

Ana would call her father in Baguio after seeing the body of the woman she was told could have been that of her sister. “It’s not her,” she told her father.

After hearing of the situation in Tacloban in the days that followed, and realizing that Ana herself could be putting herself in harm’s way by going there, Jun decided to follow. He has accepted the loss, but wanted to make sure that his daughter Ana was safe. He arrived in Tacloban four days after Ana did. As they prepared to cook some food that night, Ana, together with her aunt who was saved by that kaimito tree, told Jun that the last time they received some relief goods was on the day Ana arrived four days earlier, they have had to stretch that small amount of rice and couple of canned food for four days. A cousin was able to buy rice in between, at P100 per kilo and only after walking for kilometers for hours on end in search of food.

“It was unreal, unbelievable” was how Jun described the scene before him. The dead lay unclaimed, unattended, survivors were preoccupied trying to stay alive to bother with them. The memory of the sight of the bodies of three infants by the road would haunt him forever, he said. One of the infants had an arm missing, along with much of its face. Nobody could ever be prepared for what Jun shared with us, “what can you do? Dogs were trying to stay alive too.”

The story of how one Iglesia ni Cristo church was closed to non-members of this sect. A sister of Jun’s wife was one of those who tried to seek refuge inside one, and was turned away. But not all churches closed its doors, the other non-Iglesia ni Cristo places of worship provided shelter and saved thousands of lives. Even a softdrink warehouse was opened to the people who needed shelter.

“Did that church close its doors on evacuees too?” Jun wondered as he passed a church with its doors closed. He decided to go closer to try to take a look inside and regretted doing so. Peeping through the gap on the church doors, he saw the whole inside of the church filled with lifeless bodies, piled up to three bodies high. That church, filled with evacuees before the typhoon made landfall, turned out to have been inundated in the blink of an eye, drowning everyone inside.

Ninety percent of the population of Barangay 88, according to what Jun gathered on the ground, died. The death toll could very well breach the initial estimate of 10,000 which top government officials have been trying to deny.

For a time, Tacloban was hamleted – nobody in, nobody out. This was due to the alleged infiltration and looting by rebel forces. In one instance, according to news reports, a military convoy bearing relief goods was ambushed by rebels.

Contrary to the picture of inept and uncaring government personnel that the mainstream media have been forcing us to accept, according to Jun, from where he was, he witnessed heroism and selflessness and portraits of self-sacrifice – he saw soldiers, policemen, government workers, themselves exhausted, wounded, hungry, also grieving, who hardly ate or slept to do all they can to ease the suffering of the survivors. There was enough food to go around, that’s true, but there were not enough hands to get them to the victims fast enough. Soldiers would take a bite or two from their own food rations before passing this on to the nearest survivor begging for food. A brief lull in between carrying sacks and boxes of relief goods or people on their backs was an opportunity to close their eyes for a few minutes to rest. On a regular day, we already know how we don’t have enough policemen and soldiers in this country, how we don’t have enough doctors in every town, what more in times like this when many policemen, soldiers are themselves victims? They don’t need to hear every single day how inefficient they were, how badly or wrong they’re doing their jobs. Specially coming from people who saw nothing more than what Cooper or Sanchez or Failon or Enriquez or Tianco chose to show them, in the warmth and comfort of their own homes swiping on a computer screen or clicking on a mouse. What Tacloban needs are extra pairs of hands. 

Photo lifted from Jun Fernandez's Facebook page.
In your opinion, based on what you saw, what could’ve prevented this much destruction, or this many deaths? I asked Jun. Nothing except evacuating whole provinces, he said. There was almost no escape, even those living far inland away from the shores were tossed around by floodwaters and strong winds, overwhelmed by unbelievably strong rains. And Jun points to poverty and the resulting illiteracy of many of our countrymen as an added culprit. The warning they received from the local officials was for a typhoon with potential wind speeds of over “300 kph” and the possibility of “storm surges.” “Kung sinabi nilang parang tsunami, o kaya parang dalawang Ondoy, mas naintindihan siguro naming kung ano’ng klaseng bagyo ang parating,” said one survivor. Tsunami they’ve been hearing a lot on the radio and on television, a “storm surge” is a relatively new concept, if not a totally alien term, for most of them. “300 kph” is just a number. As Jun shared with us, we did not speak to them in a language they could have understood better.

Jun would break down in between telling his story, or would try letting a chuckle out after a rather funny anecdote, or forcing a smile – they were all painful to watch.

Ana wanted to stay longer, stand by the shores of Tacloban in the hope that her mother, her ate Eva and her two children would show up. It would take a long time for anybody who lost a loved one or two, or four, or everyone and everything they had, to accept what happened. Jun and Ana got on the next bus out of Tacloban, and decided to start their own journey towards acceptance and healing.

One particularly cold evening after the typhoon, Ana, gathered some damp wood and started a fire. The soldiers have been trying to get one going, in vain, everything around them was drenched. But Ana, a true Baguio girl who can start a bonfire with her eyes closed, soon had a nice, warm fire going. People started gathering around her bonfire, soldiers gathered more wood and placed them in Ana’s able hands.

For one evening, amidst the destruction, the deaths, the despair and feeling of hopelessness, Ana’s small bonfire lighted up her part of the world, and kept people warm, eased their pain, started the healing of broken hearts. And most importantly, let everyone around her know that they were not alone, that there are people who can help provide some light in this time of darkness, and keep that fire going until the sun rises again tomorrow.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mabuhay tayong mga Pilipino

Every one of us is in search of a handle, something to hold on to, something that can help us comprehend what just happened. Every one of us, victims, acquaintances, friends and relatives of survivors, witnesses, we are all finding it difficult to make sense of what just happened. Typhoon Yolanda, the strongest storm in recent world history, stronger than this storm-ravaged country has ever encountered, left thousands dead, hundreds of thousands injured and homeless, countless communities in total ruins.

Yolanda has vanished, and we can’t direct our anger at something that has ceased to exist. So who do we blame for the misery, the despair, hopelessness, for all this? Armed with an idea of a fraction of the whole scenario, we start point fingers. A reporter, from where he was standing at a particular moment, saw that survivors were left to fend for themselves with no relief operations in sight, corpses lining the streets, survivors desperately trying to survive searching for a morsel to eat or a sip of water. And there we all were like a mob kicking, punching, cursing at all government officials. How can they be so heartless? Where were they? We have no idea and our already conditioned minds fill the gaps for us and conjure images of top government officials comfortable and dry in their warm beds. Or of soldiers sleeping on the job, uncaring. And how, indeed, can someone sleep at night or be so uncaring at a time like this?

But what the reporter didn’t tell us was that he has no idea what was going on beyond his limited field of view. That maybe just a block or two away from where he was standing were a group of weary, hungry, perhaps even injured government employees putting together and distributing food packs to whoever was within their reach at the moment. Or somewhere beyond the nearest rubble could be soldiers immersed in floodwaters carrying women, children and the elderly on their backs to get them to a safer place. They didn’t see that, and they didn’t tell us about that, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

And since this tragedy is so difficult to comprehend, to accept, we will find it hard to accept any answer to all our questions. If we were told that the government officials were there after all, much overwhelmed, yes, but there doing everything they can, we ask another question. How can they have not prepared for something like this?

But who can ever be prepared for something that nobody has ever experienced before? How can anyone prepare when nobody knew what was coming?

The country needs to rise from this tragedy, and it is hard for a weary, injured, heartbroken nation to do so when it continues to receive a beating just days after being at the receiving end of one of the strongest storms in world history. It’s like watching a parent hitting, pinching and screaming at a crying child for hurting himself while playing, being a child. The child certainly didn’t want to get hurt, and most probably the child had no idea that there was protruding rock in his path while he was running, he just didn’t see it coming. The child already suffered a nasty wound, it doesn't make sense to break his heart too.

Let’s stop seeing the government as something detached from ourselves, for we are the government. Like you, Mar too feels for every one of the victims. Like you, Dinky too has not been sleeping well at night, if at all, and would like be able to feed every single one of the victims. Like you, Noynoy too has cried several times in the last few days. Like you, the soldier too would like to be able to get every single one of the survivors out of harm’s way. The policeman from Tacloban would surely start helping everyone around him as soon as he buries his wife, or his child. The barangay captain too after he finds every single member of his missing family.

We are all wounded, some way more so than others, but wounded nonetheless. We all need a hug, a hand to hold, to be reassured that everything will be better tomorrow. And nobody else, not CNN, not the U.N., not Obama nor Her Royal Highness can make us feel better the way we ourselves can.

They need you, you need them, I need you, and you need me. Let’s not turn our backs on each other now. We need each other, let’s hold hands. Don't let go now.

Mabuhay tayong mga Pilipino.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Nature can, nature will and nature has

Other parts of the nation went to bed last night dreading the next day’s news about what Typhoon Yolanda, considered as one of the biggest storms ever to form in world history, will leave in her wake. As the sun was setting yesterday, Yolanda was making landfall in central Philippines, but her tremendous power can be felt hundreds of kilometers away up here in the Cordilleras. It was humbling – with all the illusions of power and greatness people surround themselves with, Yolanda’s presence reminded us that we’re but tiny members of one vast community living on nothing but a dot floating almost defenselessly in the universe.

I overheard this quip in an upscale restaurant a few days ago: I already followed it up with the person in charge, but don’t worry, if he doesn’t act on it, I will make sure you get your permission to cut those trees.

Is it progress when we significantly diminish the quality of life of a community, of human beings in a community, of all living beings in a community? Because that’s the reason they give for the rape of our natural environment – progress. In today’s society, the advocates of this so-called progress, the perpetrators of this rape are called leaders, and the people who call attention to the crime are labeled as troublemakers. The former get pats on the back, plaques of recognition, golf club memberships, fat bank accounts while the latter get smirks, scorn and contempt when the former get stuck in traffic during public demonstrations denouncing the crimes being perpetuated against our mother.

Nature can make the tiniest seed grow into a towering tree, taller than any other living being on this planet. Nature can, from the tiniest cell, create the most amazing and beautiful living beings – a brightly colored flower on the ground, an eagle floating in the air, a gentle giant quietly making its way in the ocean. Nature can inspire us with the most amazing sun rise, nourish us with a gentle rain, or cleanse the air that we breathe.

Nature can, nature will and nature has.

And nature can make the slightest movement deep underground that can result in lives lost and so much destruction and cause ocean waves to rise to unbelievable levels. Nature can cause so much earth to come rushing down a mountainside burying everything and everyone in its path. And now, nature showed us that it can gather enough power from thin air and turn it into what we call a storm, a super typhoon named Yolanda, and all the concrete monuments to crass capitalism, the parking buildings for your SUVs, the expensive high-rise condominiums mean nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Nature can, nature will and nature has.

She lets us take from her, but expects us to leave enough, give back enough, to maintain that delicate balance between what we need to live our lives and what she needs to continue providing for us. All she asks of each one of us is to do what we can to help keep that balance. After all, she is us, we are nature, as trees are, and birds, and turtles and fish, and butterflies, too. The real community we belong to is the one that made our existence possible at all, nature, and not the artificial, “progress”-driven one that we’ve created where life is easily bartered for 13 pieces of silver, where a life-giving tree is a mere obstacle to a bigger mall, where a home for birds and other tiny living beings are never part of the blueprint.

I choose to live my life belonging to, and defending and enhancing the community that made my existence possible at all.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Living room

*my column in the Nov. 3, 2013  issue of Cordillera Today 

The birds are singing, and the sun’s rays are trying to make their way through the clouds. A slight drizzle falls and the crows on the wire fly to a nearby tree to stay dry. It is almost six in the morning on the 2nd of November, 2013, and the city is waking up and I just know that it’s going to be a beautiful day in Baguio. Let me tell you about our home.

We moved to this house in June, the start of the monsoon season. Under this roof we’ve stayed warm and dry through the countless storms that came our way this year, including the latest one which left the country last night.

I wish this column came with pictures, as I want to share with you, dear reader, one of the reasons we chose this house over the other ones we were considering – there was one somewhere in Kennon Road, an apartment on the third floor that offered a magnificent view of Mt. Sto. Tomas and another one, rustic, wooden and lived in which was just a short walk from the center of town. But both of those didn’t have this one thing that this house had – earth space.

The recent rainfall showed me and my son, who has been helping me prepare the soil in one corner of the yard for a vegetable garden, which canal needed further digging and shovelling to make it easy for the water to flow out to the drainage and prevent the beds from being flooded. A variety of seeds have been sowed, and the beds are waiting for them to be ready for transplanting.

And this house has three guava trees, one pear tree, a blue pine tree surrounded by a hedge of bamboo. There’s enough space for a nursery, and we thought we could try to propagate pine seedlings for planting in every available space here and elsewhere.

Earth space – living space. On the driveway there are still traces of chalk drawings – lines for “patintero” and “sikking,” there’s a drawing of the sun, a child’s plea for sunshine. Here we get to spend some time away from LCD monitors and out in the yard. We’ve spun tops, played with marbles, climbed this one guava tree that grew much taller than the others, played fetch with Zeus, our dog, ran around, biked around. We are, indeed, living in this house.

This is our sanctuary, every part of this home is a living room. And in a city that’s fast going down the road of urbanization, a path where money is seen as the source of true happiness, where the scent of pine is indiscriminately bartered for the stench of diesel fumes, a forest replaced with a parking lot, botanical and rose gardens and wide open fields are cemented over, parks are fenced in and gated, where monuments to crass commercialism and a myopic view of beauty are erected with arrogance and conceited belief that they can do better than the magnificent natural beauty that the Creator blessed this city with, it’s nice to have a small corner, a living room you can retreat to.

There are less and less living rooms and more and more lifeless spaces in Baguio, how can the powerful, the influential, the leaders who made this happen expect people to be able to live a life in a lifeless city?

Hold on, I won’t allow what they have done to Baguio ruin this beautiful morning. I see that the slight drizzle made the leaves of the trees and the flowers in the garden glisten, the branches sway to the gentle, cold November breeze, and I see the first batch of vegetable seeds have started to sprout.

Ahh, and there's the answer - if we want more living rooms in Baguio, all we have to do is plant the seeds and make sure they grow.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Commending Domogan

This might come as a surprise to some people, but I do want to commend our mayor for a job well done at the public market, which has always been my favorite place to visit in Baguio City. I have been away for most of the last couple of months and couldn’t believe what I was seeing when I went to market the other day.

First stop, the fish and meat section and I was surprised to see the road going down towards the Baguio City Market Superintendent’s Office completely cleared of illegal vendors. Market goers walked around easily, not having to squeeze themselves in between Divisoria wares and ­ukay-ukay garments spread on the pavement.

From there, I walked up towards Hilltop, usually stopping briefly at that side-street on the left, the only place where I can get salmon. My children dread entering that street when they come with me to the market – aside from salmon, that’s also where one can find meats that perhaps not even a seasoned chef would be able to identify. I always thought that perhaps after the choice cuts are delivered to the meat section, all the other parts go to this area. And while I did miss the out-of-this-world tableau worthy of a scene in a macabre film or novel, having so much breathing space and clean walkways blew me away. Even the passageway at the ukay-ukay alley had much more space now.

I turn towards the new blocks on the block – were those blocks 3 and 4? – which were really nicely laid out and organized. Plus I discovered a new place where one can stop for a quick bite or even a full meal that looked really clean and the sight of igado, dinardaraan and dinakdakan almost made me forget that I had to get home in time to cook dinner. I walked on down towards the hangar market to get my fresh highland produce, reminding myself to return for that pickaxe I saw at the tools section, I need that for the garden.

Not much salad leaves at the hangar the other day, and the ones available didn’t look very good and were very expensive. Still, I got a handful each of ice lettuce, lollo rosso and romaine. Stocked up on garlic, onions and tomatoes too and got a bit of fresh basil and some coriander.

We still had coffee, so I walked past my suki to get some chicken for pinikpikan, and after that, a coconut for gata and unsweetened peanut butter for kare-kare. And with my bayong full of ice cream containers that I use to put meats and fish, reusable bags for the vegetables, I walked up the pedestrian overpass to cross towards Malcolm Square to wait for my jeep home.

With that, I have to give it to the man in City Hall, Mayor Mauricio Domogan, for doing a good job of cleaning and clearing up the market. I surely hope that we can keep the market this way. See, Sir, I simply write about what I see around me – bad or good. This time, it was something really good, and you deserve to be congratulated.

It took me more than an hour to get a ride home, so now I hope that instituting positive reforms in the city’s public transportation system is also in the mayor’s plans. Let’s talk about that next week.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Katarungan para sa mga kababaihan

Nagkataong mayroong press conference nung nakaraang biyernes sa Luisa’s Café sa Session Road habang naroon ako. Panauhin si Monique Wilson, kilalang artista sa entablado at masugid na tagapagtaguyod ng karapatang pangkababaihan at LGBT. Si Monique din ang punong tagapagsalita ng One Billion Rising, o ang malawakang kilusan para sa pagsulong ng mga karapatang pangkababaihan.

Ang pangunahing paksa ng press conference ay hustisya para sa mga kababaihang naging biktima ng karahasang tulad ng pangaabuso sa kamay ng kani-kanilang mga asawa at panggagahasa. Nakakapanlumo ang kwento ng mga tagapagsalita sa press conference, na kinabilangan din ni Mila Singson, ang Secretary-General ng Innabuyog-Gabriela, alyansa ng mga organisasyong pangkababaihan sa Cordilera.

Palala ng palala ang mga insidente ng panggagahasa sa Cordillera. At ang masaklap pa dito, dahil na rin sa kahirapan, madalas na nalulusutan ng mga maysala ang kanilang krimen sa pamamagitan lamang ng pagaalok ng maliit na halaga sa mga biktima. Hindi rin natin masisisi ang mga biktima sa pagtanggap ng mga alok na ito – dahil sa kabulukang umiiral sa ating sistemang panghustisya, karamihan sa kanila ay tuluyan ng nawalan ng tiwala sa ating mga hukom, at dala na rin ng kahirapan, marami ang napipilitang tanggapin ang alok na kabayaran.

Sa hukuman, madalas tayong makarinig ng mga kwento tungkol sa mga biktimang muling nabibiktima ng pambabastos at pangaalipusta sa kamay ng mga hukom at mga abogado. Sino nga namang biktima ang hahayaang muling yurakan ang kanilang dangal at pagkatao habang dinidinig ang kanilang kaso?

One Billion Rising for Justice – pagaaklas ng isang bilyon para sa hustisya, ito ang kampanya ng kilusan para sa darating na February 14. Ngunit makamit man ang pagbabagong hinahangad sa ating sistemang panghustisya, malayo pa rin ang paglalakbay upang makamit n gating mga kababaihan ang tunay na kalayaan mula sa karahasan. At mahalaga ang papel nating mga kalalakihan para tulungan silang makamit ito. Ilang beses mo na bang narinig ang birong “pambayad utang” ang isang anak na babae? Ilang ulit mo na bang narinig, o binigkas, ang mga katagang “kababaeng tao pa naman?” Parang ang isang pagkakamali ay mas malala kung babae ang gumawa. Ilan lang ito sa mga halimbawang nagpapakita ng ating baluktot at maling pagtingin sa mga kababaihan.

Sa ating bansa, malawak pa rin ang pananaw na ang mga babae ay parang bagay lamang na pagaari ng mga lalaki – mapa-ama o tiyuhin, asawa o kasintahan. At dahil sila ang “nagmamay-ari,” maaari nilang gawin sa mga babae anumang gustuhin nila. Ang isang lalaking nakipagtalik sa isang babae ay pilyo, naka-iskor, o macho. Samantalang ang babaeng nakipagtalik sa isang lalaki ay “nagpagamit.” Ang ganitong maling pananaw ang nagbibigay lakas-loob sa mga tarantadong kalalakihan na abusuhin at lapastanganin ang mga kababaihan.

Hindi lang pagbibigay kapangyarihan sa mga kababihan ang kailangan, mahalaga ring baguhin ang kamalayan ng mga kalalakihan dahil mkamit man natin ang repormang hinahangad sa sistemang panghustisya sa ating bansa, magpapatuloy pa rin ang mga abuso’t iba pang uri ng karahasan habang naririyan ang mga tradisyunal na pananaw na matagal nang dapat nabuwag.

Tinanong ako kung ano para sa akin ang ibig-sabihin ng tunay na hustisya para sa mga kababaihan. Medyo nahirapan akong pag-isipan ang sagot. Ano nga kaya ang kailangan upang makamit ito?

Tunay na pagkakapantay-pantay.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Defending Domogan, Mayor of a quarter of Baguio City

*My column in the Oct. 13 issue of Cordillera Today 

A meme floated around social networking websites showed a signage at Burnham Park purportedly warning park-goers that a permit is necessary when exercising at and taking pictures of Burnham Park. This altered photograph was shared around online and that’s how I got to know about it. For those who don’t know what a meme is, defines it as "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." In this case, it was an altered image of an actual signage located at the newly-built fountain of what was once known as the Rose Garden. That photo of the actual signage was shared around too online too, and that’s how I got to know about it.

The first photo is an expression of a sentiment: Burnham Park must remain free and open to the public. It came about after people learned of the charges being imposed by the City Environment and Parks Management Office (CEPMO) on exercise groups that use various areas of the park every morning. They are led by volunteer fitness instructors who, in turn, get a little compensation for their effort from donations from mothers, fathers, senior citizens, in fact people of all ages who attend these exercise sessions. A great alternative to enrolling in any of the swanky expensive fitness gyms in the city that charge an arm and a leg for one to get toned arms and legs. At Burnham Park, one gets to exercise amidst the scent of pine and warmed by the bright Baguio sun rise, for a song, really.

They are making money, and they should pay, was basically how CEPMO summed up their defense of the charges imposed on the groups. Otherwise, individuals who wish to jog around the park or do any other exercise, or hobbyists who wish to take photos of Burnham Park, are free to do so.

Former local media man Jogin Tamayo, now based in Canada, but whose continued advocacy of relevant issues in Baguio makes it seem like he never left, is among the loudest voices protesting this move by the city government. Ryan Olat Mangusan, the Mayor’s “punong-abala” did not take this sitting down, and now the words “libel” and “politically motivated” are being thrown about between the two.

Mangusan’s defense of Domogan was shared around online too, “BURNHAM PARK IS FREE FOR ALL, except those who use the premises for commercial purpose or simply those activities that require paying of fees,” his online announcement claimed. That makes sense, except that the exercise groups do not “require fees,” and thrive on voluntary donations. Besides, we’re not talking about millions of pesos for ERS machines here, nor tens of thousands for a failed fake snow show on Session Road – now these are the things that should merit a charge, a court charge that is.

And who are “these people?” They are citizens of Baguio City, of which Mauricio Domogan is the Mayor, also considered as the so-called “Father of the City.” But the words coming out of City Hall are all but those coming from a father. Mangusan must remember that his boss isn’t only the Mayor of those who voted for him, but of every single citizen of Baguio. Go ahead and enjoy the praises being heaped by your minions, but it is your responsibility to address the issues of everyone else in the city. Remember that only roughly a quarter of the city’s voting population chose our current Mayor, three quarters either chose someone else or did not bother to choose. I remember the barbed words that came out of the Mayor’s office, and family, when people criticized the move of Domogan to unilaterally remove Baguio geographically from Benguet and defied Malacanang’s suspension of classes due to heavy rains not so long ago – these “children” were called “bobo” and “tanga” for looking up to their father for guidance.

Mangusan took offense when the altered photo of the signage at the park spread like meningococcemia online. But really, how different is it from the signs that City Hall put all over the city labelling Baguio as “clean and green?”

So Mangusan, on Domogan’s behalf, launches an attack – against his own boss’ “children.” This just reinforces the belief that our current Mayor is only the Mayor of those who voted for him, those who always agree with him, those who toe his line. And those who show a hint of dissent? They are considered the enemy.

That is not leadership. That is dictatorship.

Oh, and by the way, referring to it, as I did earlier in this article, as “what was once known as the Rose Garden” was not a mistake. It really is hardly a Rose Garden anymore. But that’s another story, but one that’s not too different.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

My high

Newly elected senator, Grace Poe, is reportedly mulling the legalization of marijuana. If this actually gets to the senate floor at all, we can expect deliberations of the same intensity as the debates on RH Bill. I’d love to hear what Tito Sotto would have to say about this. Not.

Off my head, no pun intended, the justification that would be most argued by the pros would be that alcohol, in fact, does way more damage than weed – both on a person’s physical and mental health. The church would probably bring up the morality card again, which would make me wonder why they don’t bring up the same card to call for the banning of alcohol, or public office. Both have been known to result in immorality.

I once puffed and I inhaled, unlike Bill Clinton. Was never a big fan of it, even if, no use pretending otherwise, the beautiful grass grows abundantly in the art community. But whatever effect it’s expected to have, I’ve discovered that a good cup of Benguet coffee brew on a cool yet sunny Baguio morning brings the same kind, in fact even a better high. Or a good book or a good song. All the latter, in fact, never results in a bad trip, unlike the former.

But despite my agreement with some of the pro-cannabis arguments, right now I am against the use of marijuana, let’s get that out. I won’t argue the pros and cons of smoking pot, won’t entertain comparisons between that and any other mind-altering substance. And while I’ve had so many talks with my own children about it, I don’t and won’t judge those who just can’t live without it.

But as far as my own children is concerned, my argument against marijuana is simple: right now, it’s illegal, and to me, the high just isn’t worth the risk. Getting caught with 5 grams or so of it, that’s probably enough for a couple of joints, or one fat one if you’re in the highlands where they commonly come from, can get you more than a decade in jail. Getting caught with more of it, enough to be classified as a pusher or dealer, and that would mean spending the rest of your life in jail. I don’t think freshly brewed Benguet coffee is easily available in Muntinlupa, neither do good books – and it’s really hot in there.

But I am looking forward to how Poe would proceed with the possibility of legalizing pot. But in the meantime, the law says no, and it’s just not worth the risk. Besides, a kilo of Benguet coffee beans is only P200.00, and I don’t have to hide to enjoy it.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Love with all my life, check

It's 7:30 in the morning and I've been up since five. Nothing extraordinary there, five has been my usual waking hour for the past few years. I stop for a moment before refilling my mug. Just finished my third mug of coffee, nothing extraordinary there, really, that's usually how much it takes to get me going every morning. Except that I've heard so many times that I shouldn't be drinking that much coffee. But today's supposed to be a special day, I will go for that fourth mug. And that fifth stick. Not nice.

Anyway, days such as this one are a great time to take stock.

Be married to the perfect life partner, check. Have wonderful children, check, five times. I have traveled quite a bit, but I'd like to be able to see more of the world. Let's put an asterisk on that one.

Write a play, compose a song, paint a picture. Check. Full nudity onstage, asterisk. Maintain that sense of social responsibility when creating art, no to art for art's sake, and certainly never for money and money alone, honor the honorables, expose the what must be exposed, tell stories that must be told, and do all to tell them well, check.

Never compromise principles to please, because it's popular, or for 13 piece of silver, or even a hundred, check that and keep it in check.  

Choose a career path that I can be passionate about, never get bored with, check. And one that can provide the family with financial security. Another asterisk right there.

"You ain't seen nothing yet," the perfect mantra for this day, says a good friend whose turn to sing the song comes in just a couple of weeks or so. I like that, and shall keep that in mind as I write down an outline for a documentary on Cordillera cultural icons and the efforts of a group of young men and women to save sea turtles from extinction.

Love with all my heart. Check.

Other than all of that, it's really all about the five - five wonderful souls that I helped bring into this world. Make sure they will have good memories of how they got to where they're going when they get there. Laugh a lot with them. Make them smile a lot. Allow them to cry when they feel like it, be there to hug them when they do. One of them once wrote me a note that said, "I love you with all my life." Wow. So that's how it feels to be loved that way. That's exactly how much I love them.

So life begins 40, so they say. First day of the rest of it, the remainder of what's left of it. Wait, a message notification on Facebook. "Happy birthday," a dear friend says. Thank you, and thank God for allowing me to still be here today.

Monday, September 16, 2013

In response to Mr. Michael Bengwayan's statement

Mr. Bengwayan, posted the following on Facebook:

"The Fight for the Trees at SM is Far From Over

When I started the fight for the trees at SM by writing a petition that was signed by more than 40,000 people in the streets and more than 8,000 people online and by mobilizing and leading the first and biggest ever environmental protest in Baguio City on January 20, 2011, it was because of three things: first, the trees are our heritage and they are sacred to the people and the land; second, they are ecologically important, and third; they are a legacy to the next generations. The connection of people, culture and environment cannot just be defiled... especially, by an outsider.

Now, as we await the verdict from the Court of Appeals, I am told that some of the closest people who supported the cause, have succumbed to SM. Two have come out in the open accepting SM's position.

I have not given up the fight. SM sent a representative, a nun, to convince me that SM's intentions are good. I do not believe them. Already, the giant pine trees SM attempted to earthball are right there at SM ....DEAD, the others DYING. And SM, even if it redesigns its plan, will still kill trees.

I will wait for the verdict of the higher court and hope it favors us..and the real tree lovers and real people who love Baguio. If we loose, what else is there to do, but continue to protest."

As he is known to delete dissenting comments on his public posts on FB, here's my reply to Mr. Bengwayan's post:

The nun, Sister Fidelis, is not a representative of SM. She was not sent by SM. She sought you out to inform you of an important development.

And no, we have not accepted SM's position. We merely presented what they presented. In fact, we reiterated our position to Mateo and Pe that the case will push through, regardless of their latest action.

Let's stick to the facts.

And while you "wait for the verdict", we continue to work with the legal team, actively, to help in whatever way we can. It would be nice to see you take a more active role in the legal battle for a change.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Saving 133: Talk's cheap, time to start walking

In the beginning of 2012, the city woke up to news that the biggest commercial establishment in Baguio, the one that has forever altered the face and culture of this community, the reason why traffic had to be rerouted at the Central Business District, the reason why so many smaller businesses in Baguio have been forced to close shop for not being able to compete with a Goliath of a competitor, will be further expanding their business by putting up a multi-storey parking and commercial complex on one side of Luneta Hill. That side happened to be where 182 pine and alnus trees were located. One Michael Bengwayan, known environmentalist, started an online petition opposing the killing of those trees. And the people responded – “stop corporate greed, save the trees” was the common battle cry.

In the course of the protest, which has been dragging on to date, other issues against SM have been brought out: unfair labor practices (the question of “contractualization”); the legitimacy of their ownership of the property where SM City Baguio stands (the original title to the property labelled as OCT No. 1 has not been cancelled, and SM to date still doesn’t have a title to the property); the morality of further expanding the already biggest commercial center in the region), etc. But the one goal that surely united the people – save the trees on Luneta Hill.

An environmental case was filed against SM, which was unfortunately dismissed by a local court. An appeal is pending at the Court of Appeals. Currently, SM can go ahead with the removal of the remaining 133 trees on Luneta Hill, since they were able to “earthball” some 49 trees before they acknowledged the court issued Temporary Environmental Protection Order in April, 2012.

The Ayala example at Camp john Hay was often cited in the early months of the protest – the Ayala Technohub was able to minimize their effect on the environment by building around the trees as much as possible. Why can’t SM do the same? Some asked.

Then SM pulls out a rabbit – they are redesigning the expansion, taking into consideration some of the issues raised by various sectors. They have minimized the size of the expansion, saving more than a hundred of the remaining 133 trees in the process. Bien Mateo, Vice President for Operations of SM Supermalls, said that Hans Sy, son of SM founder Henry Sy, instructed his architects to listen to what the protesters are saying. Hence, the redesign to save as many trees as possible.

Reactions have been varied – some welcomed the prospect of being able to save more than a hundred pine trees, considering that at this point, SM can simply go ahead with their original plan and remove all those trees. But others are not happy at all: it’s not just about the trees, they say.

I would still rather that SM completely abandon their expansion plan – give local businesses a fair fighting chance, have them co-exist with the rest of the business community instead of setting out to completely eliminate the competition for that’s just being just plain greedy. Besides, I'm no engineer but I still think that reducing a hill's water absorption capacity, greatly disturbing the fragile eco-system in the area, a hill that stands directly above schools and an already flood-prone road, is not a good idea at all.

So, if there’s anyone out there, particularly from those who are completely rejecting the idea of saving more than a hundred trees in the reduced expansion plan and are screaming their heads off to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court and even filing more cases against SM, who will actually commit to be with us every single time a public demonstration is called for, spend late nights with the legal team in preparation for the various legal battles we face if we do file charges against SM aside from the ongoing environmental case, dig out of their own pockets money for various legal and other relevant incidental expenses, or even just religiously attend the hearings to be updated with status of the case, deal with death threats, lose time for other things in their lives such as time with their family specially children, lose work that brings in income to feed their families, be ostracized and ridiculed by paid hacks who have sold their souls and the integrity of their profession to the devil, almost miss enrolling their children the following school year because the protest movement took so much of their time that they lost money in the process, not to mention get an eviction notice, have their electricity and water service cut...

...then by all means, let’s bring this as far as this will take us. Because that's what it took as far as I'm concerned to take this protest this far. Just let me know when the next rally is, and we, my family and I, will be there. Put your money where your mouth is, as they say. And so should SM. Specially SM.

Otherwise, all of us, SM City Baguio, The Baguio City Government, and the community - talk's cheap, time to start walking.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Option 2: SM City Baguio listens to protesters and redesigns their expansion plan

Right before the recent elections, I received a text message from Sister Fidelis, an Assumption nun and one of the staunch supporters of the protest against SM City Baguio’s expansion plan that will result in the removal of 182 trees on historic Luneta Hill. She had something very important to share with me regarding SM, her message read. We agreed to see each other at the soonest possible time.

I was very excited, since the case we filed against SM along with the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has been dismissed by a local court, and I have been hoping for some good news about our protest. Sis. Fidelis and I wouldn’t see each other until after the elections.

In one post-election gathering, she pulled me aside away from the crowd and shared the news: she had a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Hans Sy, son of tycoon Henry Sy, founder of SM. But I wasn’t prepared for what she had to say, the gist of which was in that meeting, Mr. Sy was able to answer most of the issues that we have been raising against SM. We agreed to meet again soon after so we can discuss what she had just shared with me in more detail and without the distractions of a post-election party.

Some days later, we were having coffee in a fast-food joint along Session Road. And I still couldn’t believe that Sis. Fidelis, one of those who attended almost all of our protest actions against the expansion plan, the one who helped convince a lot of people to join the protest movement, be complainants in the suit and join our call for a boycott of SM City Baguio, seemed to be having a change of heart.

“I got to hear things directly from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, Karlo,” she said to me. I told her that the Hans Sy she was describing to me – patient, calm, mild-mannered, seem to be very different from the Hans Sy I met at the meeting arranged by the late Sec. Jesse Robredo at Camp Crame. The Hans Sy I met there was the stern, unemotional business executive who insisted that removing that many trees for the benefit of one corporation, their corporation, and at the expense of a community’s heritage and future, was justified.

We have always met them, SM, under hostile circumstances – the Baguio City Council hearing, the dialogue in Camp Crame, the court hearings, on the streets when their guards along with the local police would attempt to curtail our right to a peaceful assembly.

“But this time he was just meeting with an older sister,” she said, “so the atmosphere was different.” True, maybe – but I had to remind Sis. Fidelis that the protesters really can’t be blamed for the hostile attitude and the anger in their hearts at the prospect of having their home scarred forever, their heritage and history wantonly desecrated.

Sis. Fidelis narrated how she first tried to set a meeting between herself and Teresita Sy, “she’s our alumna,” the gentle Assumption sister shared, but she never got any reply from Henry Sy’s daughter. Then one day, the office of Mr. Hans Sy got in touch with her and informed her of Mr. Sy’s willingness to see her.

According to Sis. Fidelis, after patiently listening to her enumerate all the issues we’ve been raising against SM, Mr. Sy calmly shared with her their side of the like how  the Deed of Absolute Sale came with a cover letter from the Office of the President authorizing Exec. Secretary Paquito Ochoa to sign in behalf of the President (we’ve always questioned Ochoa’s signature in the deed above the president’s name); and that while they do hire contractual employees, they do this only to augment their regular workforce during peak seasons (we’ve questioned their questionable and alleged unfair labor practices, “contractualization” in particular).

I was not convinced. There were still loopholes in Mr. Sy’s justifications. But, at the end of our coffee talk, Sis. Fidelis informed me of SM’s new plan for the expansion area and asked if I would be willing to sit down with representatives of SM City Baguio for a dialogue. I am, I said, but not as a representative of any group, organization or movement but just as an individual. A meeting was set between Sis. Fidelis, myself and Mr. Bien Mateo, SM Supermalls Vice President for Operations and Mr. Jansen Pe, Mall Manager of SM City Baguio.

It was awkward sitting across the table from the person whom many of us perceived as the “face of the enemy” – Mr. Mateo was the one who presented SM’s expansion plan at the Baguio City Council hearing, he’s the face one always saw on TV justifying the removal of 182 trees for a parking building, next to Henry Sy, to a lot of us, he was the face of SM’s expansion plan.

Mateo opened the meeting with, “we’re bad communicators, we admit that.” I did not contradict him. He went on to say that it was their hope that through dialogues such as this one, SM can better respond to the issues being raised by the protesters. I kept my guard up, and wanted to get into the heart of the matter right away so I asked – what’s on the table?

Mateo talked about how Mr. Hans Sy called for a meeting one day and told them how much he admired the passion and determination of the protest group that have come to be known as the Save 182 Movement. He told his staff that he believed that they would be better off working with this movement, and not against it. Listen to their voices, their issues, take all those into consideration and re-design the expansion plan, Mr. Han Sy was said to have told his people. Some time later, the architects submitted various concepts for the re-design, all of which were attempts to minimize the damage that would be done on the area’s ecosystem, save as many trees as possible, while still serving SM’s intention of addressing the alleged soil erosion issue in the area, and of course to bring additional revenues to the company coffers. From what the architects submitted, Mr. Hans Sy, according to Mateo, chose one concept and gave the go-signal to finalize the blueprints based on that concept.

Do you have a blueprint or at least an artist’s perspective of this new plan? I asked. Not yet, Mateo said, but he did share that the new plan drastically reduced the expansion plan to roughly half its original size, and would save close to a hundred out of the remaining 133 trees in the area. Mateo also said that in a couple of weeks or so, they can present the drawings so I asked if I could bring in more people when they do. I intended to bring to that next meeting the people I have been personal working closely with in the last year and a half that we’ve been struggling to save the trees on Luneta Hill, people who have been there from day one and at almost every single significant event – meetings, court hearings, legal research work, rallies, conferences, etc. 

A date was set and this time, I came with Atty. Chris Donaal, de facto lead counsel of the complainants in the environmental suit filed against SM, Glo Abaeo, president of the Cordillera Global Network, CGN members Gideon Omero and Nelson Alabanza and fellow Open Space, an artist collective, members Ethan Andrew Ventura and Eunice Caburao.

In that next meeting, Mr. Bien Mateo, again accompanied by Mr. Jansen Pe, presented the artist’s perspective of the re-designed expansion plan. Much of the earth space fronting Gov. Pack Road, originally planned to be completely cemented over with a 4-storey commercial complex, will now be left untouched along with the more than one hundred trees therein.

Ideas were floated around from the protesters’ side of the table: can we bring the original number of trees back to 182? Maybe even plant more? Will SM commit that it would really stick to this new design? Can it be turned into a nature park, and that park will be open to the public, even to non-patrons of the mall? Can SM also commit that after this expansion, no more buildings will be erected within the property? Can their mitigating efforts be concentrated within the Central Business District (CBD) where their operation’s effects are more felt? Would they be willing to sponsor serious and carefully-planed urban re-greening efforts in the CBD?

Mr. Mateo, representing SM in that meeting, said yes to all of the above. Lastly, we informed Mr. Mateo and Mr. Pe that this would have nothing to do with the ongoing appeal of the case we filed, currently pending with the Court of Appeals. We reiterated that the case will still be pursued.

SM’s re-design of the expansion plan came as a surprise for after the dismissal of the case by the lower court and despite the appeal filed, the Temporary Environmental Protection Order (TEPO) issued against them has been deemed lifted and there was no legal impediment anymore that would SM from going ahead with the execution of their original expansion plan.

The numbers, in a nutshell are these: there were originally 182 trees, a mix of alnus and pine. SM was able to earthball 49 in April, 2012 prior to their acknowledgment of the TEPO issued, all of these were alnus trees except for one pine tree, leaving a total of 133 still standing on the expansion site. Based on their re-designed plan, out of those remaining 133 around 120 trees, mostly pine, will be left untouched, or only 13 would be affected. There will be much earth space left that can accommodate a number of new plantings that can bring back the number to 182, or even go beyond it.

The re-designed plan was presented to a number of members of the protest movement and so far the reactions have been varied. While some welcomed the prospect of being able to save more than a hundred trees, others rejected the new design outright.

I, personally, after all those late nights with volunteers helping the legal team prepare for the marathon hearings that lasted six months, all the rallies, concerts, symposia, dialogues, confrontations over a period of more than a year, having been threatened with physical harm, having been betrayed by officials in all three branches of the government, having seen how politics reared its ugly head in the struggle to save our city’s environment, how vested interests compromised the integrity of both sides, how trapos and other miscreants tried to appropriate the protest movement for their selfish intentions, I welcome the prospect of saving more than a hundred trees, than losing every single one of them. I welcome the prospect of looking up Luneta Hill today, tomorrow and decades from now, to see a canopy of green instead of a huge soulless chunk of concrete.

The original design of SM City Baguio's expansion plan

Top view of the new design as presented by Mr. Bien Mateo,
Vice President for Operations of SM Supermalls. The  blue shaded area shows the
building footprint of the original design, while the red shaded area shows
the footprint of the new design.
I, personally, joined the protest movement to do what I can to save as much of Baguio’s trees from being needlessly felled. 182 on Luneta Hill. Hundreds more along Marcos Highway being threatened by Moldex. And thousands more inside Camp John Hay and within the Forbes Park forest reservation.

Every tree saved is a victory for the people of Baguio and the environment. More than a hundred trees saved sends the message that we, the people of Baguio, care not only about our own interests today but also that of our children's tomorrow and the heritage that was handed down to us by those who came before us, and that we’re ready to put ourselves on the line to defend all that.

And while one Honorable Mauricio Domogan will always be remembered as the Mayor who said “I cannot do anything” when the people turned to him to save the trees, the Save 182 Movement will always be remembered as that group of individuals from all walks of life who shared one thing in common: they cared, and despite all the odds against them, was able to save more than a hundred trees on Luneta Hill.

Now, let's see if SM will keep its word. And borrowing from Sting, who moved his concert last year from SM-MOA to Smart-Araneta in support of the protest, "we'll be watching you."

Saturday, September 7, 2013

More questions instead of answers: a letter from the Baguio City Engineer’s Office

In June, we started a petition to question certain proposals forwarded by Mayor Mauricio G. Domogan with regards to the development of Burnham Park. We voiced out our opposition to three major issues: the mayor’s proposal to concretize portions of the Melvin Jones Grounds to accommodate the night market currently held along a stretch of Harrison Road; his proposal to install iron gates at the major entrances to the park and the planned privatization of the Baguio Athletic Bowl along with the ongoing commercialization of the park.

We kept the Mayor’s Office and the City Council updated about the petition – the first letter we sent informed them of the online signature gathering effort and the second one gave them an update of the number of signatures we’ve gathered – which included DILG Sec. Mar Roxas’.

We received a letter from the City Council informing us that our petition, including the sentiments expressed therein, has been “noted.” I had no idea what that really meant.

Then I received a letter from the City Engineer’s Office dated August 13, 2013, informing the petitioners of their reply to Mayor Domogan’s letter. Apparently, the mayor forwarded our petition to their office and directed them to address the issues we raised. Odd, for when the aforementioned proposed projects first came out in local newspapers, I don’t remember seeing City Engineer’s Leo C. Bernardez, Jr.’s name. But I guess that’s how it goes at the mayor’s office these days: projects, whether proposed, ongoing or completed, will be announced by the mayor himself to make sure we give the credit where or to whom they want the credit to be given. But when it’s met with opposition, the buck’s passed to another office. Take for example the proposed expansion project of SM City Baguio that put 182 trees on Luneta Hill on death row. Initially, the mayor came out lauding the project as it will, according to both SM and the mayor, and echoed by the local traffic management czar, help ease the traffic in the central business district. But when the opposition to the expansion project came out, all we heard from the mayor was “I cannot do anything” and that his office had nothing to do with the project. That, despite the admission of DENR that the mayor’s office’s endorsement of the expansion project was a key factor in the granting of a tree-cutting, or make that tree-mass murder, permit.

The letter from Engr. Bernardez answered the issues we raised thus:

1. In the construction of a “walkway” along the perimeter of the Melvin Jones Grounds, there will be no “concrete works except for the edges of the walkway to hold the “palo-palo” pavers in place.” They’re now calling it a “walkway,” but we must not forget that this is being done to turn the grounds into a nightly tiangge when the night market is moved to that concretized, okay, “palo-palo” laden “walkway.” In an earlier letter from the City Council, we were reminded that there is in fact an existing ordinance prohibiting the holding of trade fairs inside the park. Let’s not be fooled by semantics: walkways, “palo-palo,” night market, etc. Look at how much earth space we lost when they “renovated” the Rose Garden. And really, what part of “beyond the commerce of man” don’t they understand?

2. In a meeting they had to tackle the putting up of gates around the park, Engr. Bernardez informed us in his letter that said “road entrance/exits,” mind that they’re not calling it “gates,” “shall remain opened at anytime.” His letter further said that it “also recommended the possibility of realigning it from steel gates to steel arches.” I’ve heard this before: there is money available for a project, and even if the project is useless or just plain inane, officials will push through with the project otherwise the money would be returned to the national treasury or the city coffers if they don’t spend it. And what’s wrong with that? That’s still better than spending it on a useless project. They said that the money for the gating proposal will be sourced from the surplus from the government counterpart funding provided for the fencing of Burnham Park. The money’s there, and they’re itching to spend it. What’s the use of putting up gates if they’ll remain open at all times anyway? And now, a proposal to instead spend it on steel arches. They just have to spend it, don’t they? The attitude’s got “Napoles” stamped all over it.

3. And lastly, Engr. Bernardez said that “The Athletic Bowl shall remain under the City’s management. The proposed development of the Athletic Bowl will not be under any private person/entity.” So what are the terms of reference passed by the city council for that set the guidelines in the bidding process? How can we say that the City itself will undertake the development project when at the same time City Hall has in its hands proposals from a Korean-led corporation and two other private engineering firms?

Thank you very much for your letter, Engr. Bernardez, but I must say that in your effort to provide answers, the letter seems to have raised more questions.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

For every centavo they stole

As expected, soon after her surrender, Janet Lim-Napoles got on a wheelchair, and her doctors confirmed that she's suffering from diabetes and needs to be jailed under much better conditions - air-conditioning is a must, so is a refrigerator where she needs to store her medication. That's how it's been since the time of Arroyo's arrest - you see these accused hopping from one media interview or another without any apparent sign of discomfort at all and when the time is right, they suddenly fall ill.

So don't tell us, Mr. President and Mr. Secretary of DILG, that Napoles is not being treated differently from common criminals. If she has to be treated differently, then that treatment would be justified only if it's worse. How many other inmates in Muntinlupa or any of the city jails all over the country are suffering from diabetes or any other debilitating disease? And how many of them can go to the court and say, "I need an air-conditioner in my cell and a refrigerator and if it's not too much to ask, can I be transferred to a much comfortable facility like the Veterans Memorial Hospital or at least Fort Sto. Domingo."

Besides, she and her cohorts in government, after all, did something much worse than what a murderer of one or two committed. In fact, she and her cohorts in government, I believe, did something much worse than what the Ampatuans did. Napoles' misdeeds caused millions of Filipinos to not be able to put food on the table, provide proper health care and education for their children, or any hope at all that they can rise above poverty and live their lives with dignity. Napoles and her cohorts in government spat on the graves of Rizal, Bonifacio and all the other who dedicated their lives for this country and doomed this Bayang Magiliw to generations more of poverty and despair.

For every centavo stolen from the nation's coffers, is a centavo that will not go farm to market roads that can help uplift the lives of our farmers; that's one less centavo so that 80 pupils will not have to be crammed into one tiny classroom in most of our public schools; one less centavo so that we don't need to privatize our public hospitals that would make it even harder for most of us to afford even the most basic health care services; one less centavo so that the government can provide millions of Filipinos with housing so they would not have to suffer the indignity of being referred to as squatters and periodically chased away by armed men and bulldozers.

But we're not talking in centavos here, we're talking about 10 billion pesos. That's only so far what the Commission on Audit knows of. That's only Janet Lim-Napoles, and there's more than one of her kind in our country. If you were to investigate and do research on those two Environmental Recycling System machines in Irisan, you will most certainly discover that they can be had for much less than the 120 million that the city government of Baguio paid for. Now multiply that with every questionable road construction project done all over the country, or every needless concrete structure erected in Baguio's public parks such as the commercial and parking facility at the Botanical Garden and the concreting of much of Rose Garden at Burnham Park. Let's not forget the despicable and very insulting concrete pine tree that once stood at the top of Session Road.

Amusing, but not entirely surprisingly, that both our Mayor, on his second term in his second string of terms, and our newly elected Congressman, despite all the evil that's been uncovered related to the pork barrel, continue to defend it.

While I'm all for the abolition of the pork barrel, I believe that a system should be in place where government money can be spread to every congressional district in the country. Otherwise, Manila imperialism will rear its ugly head. As it is now, the whole country is paying for the comfortable commute of MRT passengers in Metro Manila by way of government subsidies. The pork barrel system is flawed for it gives the power to decide where it goes to one person. Perhaps our congressman, with the support of our mayor, can instead bat for a much higher Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA). While it serves the purpose of spreading the money all voer the country, at least there would be a city council to oversee the way it's spent, or in the case of provinces, a provincial board. This would not totally eradicate corruption, but it would certainly make it harder for the Napoleses of this country to get their hands on it.

But, as long as our leaders see their positions as that of power instead of responsibility and a public trust, as long as contractors agree to the SOP of having a huge portion of the budget for a project go to the pocket of those in power, as long as members of the so-called fourth estate, the media, continue to spread the their lies and receive their envelopes from these politicians in return, as long as most of us continue to receive our own envelopes in exchange for our votes, this country is definitely going nowhere else but further down. See, those corrupt members of our society, those who empower the corrupt, those who benefit from the corrupt system, they may not have stolen as much as Janet, but make no mistake - they too are Napoleses.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Baguio in the time of Napoles

The country’s at a crossroads at the moment: do we finally really go down that “Daang Matuwid” or do we continue on that road much travelled. One Janet Lim-Napoles is now in custody on a kidnapping charge.

The victim is one Benhur Luy who alleged that Napoles and her brother, Reynald Lim, detained him against his will. He’s one of several whistle-blowers that brought the alleged misuse of public funds amounting to about ten billion pesos out in the open. “Misuse” is such a kind word in this case, but let’s go with that. Napoles allegedly masterminded the scam in cahoots with senators and congressmen. Now that’s not news.

While I keep an eye out on the Napoles saga, I keep the other one on the goings-on in my own community – Baguio, the city of pines. They’re not totally unrelated. In fact, the issue of squandering public funds, the people’s money, is at the center of both the Napoles saga and struggle to stop the ongoing rape of Baguio.

Baguio has had its share of battles in it’s a bit over a century-old history as a city. I would have probably joined the clamor of members of the Philippine Assembly to scrap the then planned establishment of this highland R&R destination at the turn of the 20th century. So much money being spent for the benefit of mainly the privileged, the elite, mostly Americans who wanted a respite from the heat of the lowlands particularly during the summer months. The colonial government responded to the opposition by declaring Baguio as the official Summer Capital of the Philippine Islands in 1903, and that made the expenditure official, and therefore, necessary.

The Americans envisioned a city, and needed a visionary to turn that vision into an actual blueprint. Daniel Burnham was given the job to create the Plan of Baguio, which he completed in 1905. The plan included a warning to all of us against the “misdirected initiative of energetic lumbermen” that may “cause the destruction of this beautiful scenery.”

The much revered George Malcolm drafted the city’s charter, that, according to Robert R. Reed in his book, City of Pines: The Origins of Baguio as a Colonial Hill Station and Regional Capital, envisioned a city free from petty politics. In 1909, Baguio officially became a city.

Just a few hours after bombing Pearl Harbor, next on Japan’s scopes was Baguio City. In the morning of December 8, 1941, Philippine time, Japanese planes dropped bombs on Camp John Hay. Before that year ended, Japanese ground troops entered the city and Baguio, along with the rest of the country, was officially under Japanese rule. For the next four years, the city’s residents endured the ruthlessness of Japanese soldiers. Ms. Fe Muller recalled how as a young elementary pupil all of them would be herded to the general area where the Dangwa bus station behind the Baguio Centermall is today to watch the execution of suspected guerrillas and their sympathizers. The gruesome spectacle served as a warning to everyone that a similar fate awaited those who would be found guilty of resisting Japan’s power.

Liberation came on March 15, 1945, but freedom came with a price: the almost complete destruction of the city in the hands of its liberators. The Americans carpet-bombed the city that killed countless innocent civilians including Baguio’s former mayor, Eusebius Halsema. Yet Baguio got back on its feet, and soon regained its status as the country’s top tourist destination.

Such were Baguio’s battles through the years, and Baguio rose to the occasion every single time. In 1990, a lot of people then have given up Baguio for dead after the devastating earthquake on July 16, some even abandoning their homes and leaving the city for good. But thanks to its people, the city was soon brimming with life once again, and was even heralded as the country’s cleanest and greenest city.

Today’s Baguio faces a new battle, this time against the exact same thing that Daniel Burnham warned us about: misdirected initiatives. Baguio’s leaders seem to be determined to turn Baguio, once naturally beautiful known for its healthful climate, into what it’s not: a smog-covered concrete jungle. They’ve cemented much of a rose garden and placed a gate and fences around it, and they want to put up more gates around the park. They want to cement portions of the Melvin Jones grounds to accommodate a permanent tiangge. The Baguio Athletic Bowl is now being handed over to a capitalist for “development.” Several trees stand dead at the Botanical Garden because they encased it inside a concrete parking and commercial building. Equipment costing 120 million pesos hardly made a dent in solving the city’s garbage disposal problem.

All that money, people’s money, being poured into initiatives that would render the city unsustainable. The very taxes that we pay empower them to disregard the sentiments of a community and the future of this city. And the more money there is, the more power our leaders believe they wield. Its pine trees, its heritage and source of pride, beauty and life, are seen merely as a hindrance to development and more concrete structures. 182 of them are on deathrow for being in the way of a parking and commercial building and our mayor says, “I cannot do anything.”

Meanwhile, Janet Lim Napoles surrendered to no less than the president himself. She was then whisked to Camp Crame to be “processed” away from media cameras, transferred the next day to an airconditioned room at the Makati City Jail, then later in the day the court ordered her transfer to a detention facility in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. The “cell” looks more like a furnished apartment amid lush greenery. Pnoy now has the one in a presidential term opportunity to leave a legacy that would be celebrated and honored for generations to come – this is his Bagumbayan moment, his Cry of Balintawak, moment at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport.

And we, citizens of Baguio City, are also at a point of no return. We have two options: we can either sit idly by and watch our city being raped because the rapists believe that with a passive majority, they can easily get away with anything, or we can all stand up and put a stop to this heinous crime, work hard to bring back Baguio's natural beauty, defend its dignity and leave a Baguio that our children’s children can be proud of.

This is our moment, our very own 1904, or 1909, or 1945, or 1990. Only this time, we're not at war against another nation, but against a rotten political system. Only this time, it's not a natural disaster that's causing the destruction of our city but corrupt politicians with a misguided sense of progress and development.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

My sculptor

18 years ago, I was led to believe by a lot of people that I was not, but "Of course you are," she said to me when I told her I didn't think I was ready to handle such a project on my own. Even if I was, I told her, I didn't think the client would choose a 21-year old upstart to handle the launching of their new product line over several established production outfits led by established directors and producers. "Just do it, honey," she said. So with much anxiety, apprehension and self-doubt, but buoyed by her faith in me, I put together my proposal and submitted it to the client.

To cut a long story from long ago short, I did end up producing and directing that project. She was right, I could.

The scene would be repeated over and over again in the next 18 years that followed. Once while writing a play, I noticed how a couple of lines I've written for one character rhymed pretty well and had a rhythm to it, and how I wished I could compose music so I could turn that play into a musical. There she was again, "of course you can!" I did go to a few piano lessons when I was about eight or nine, but I never went beyond memorizing a couple of grade one pieces and didn't really go as far as being being able to read notes well. But with her prodding and encouragement, that musical opened at the Baguio Convention Center in 2003. I have written two musicals and several other songs since.

Once, a cousin of hers asked if she knew anyone who could paint some kind of a mural. She came home that day to tell me that she had volunteered me to do the painting. I had to tell her that this time, she really did go a bit too far - I didn't paint, couldn't draw and couldn't even read my own handwriting at times. "But you can compose images on stage," she said, "I'm sure you can do the same on a four by eight feet canvas." Still, even if I "compose" a visual artwork in my head, I didn't have the skills to paint it myself. "I'm sure you can," she said again without a trace of doubt in her voice. A few days later, the "painting" I finished hung on the wall of cafe along Session Road.

I met her when she was working in Manila for a marketing firm. We moved (moved back, for her) to Baguio the following year and since then, she has taken on so many roles in my life: my producer, my production manager, my actor, my counselor, adviser, motivator, and many, many more. None of the all the things I have done in the last nearly two decades, I am doing now, and have yet to accomplish in the future would have been and be possible if not for her.

She's the sculptor who shaped me into who I am. And I thank her very much.

She's the friend who tells me to go slow when I'm driving too fast, take a deep breath when I'm feeling low, sings silly love songs to me in bed, who never hesitates to allow me that last bite on her burger or last sip from her glass of wine, tells me to straighten my shirt collar and stand straight. She's the best friend I have ever had who never stopped believing in me. She's the girlfriend I love holding hands with while walking down Session Road with or lying beside while reading a book under a tree. She's the mother of all five of our children who would do everything to help them realize their full potential.

She's my wife, RL, and I would like to honor her today, her birthday, and let her know that I am very happy that I am taking this life journey with her - over hills or down valleys, as long as I am taking the walk while holding her hand, I know everything's going to be alright.

Friday, August 9, 2013

True story

There was this restaurant run by a group of friends. Once only a quaint, hole-in-the-wall affair, it slowly grew to become one of the city's most famous restaurants frequented by both locals and tourists. They didn't only serve food, they made sure that every plate that left their kitchen was a work of art. The owners worked hard to set their little cafe apart from the rest.

While they weren't exactly a bar that people go to to get drunk, one day the owners thought that it was time for the restaurant to offer alcoholic beverages beyond wine and beer. So they applied for a liquor license.

They had everything they needed to merit a liquor license. But if you think that having all the requirements that our government needs to grant the license is enough, then you're wrong.

The owners applied for the license and refused to bribe anyone to get it - it was common knowledge that it's how you get things done up there. They had all that's legally required to get one, and they've paid all the legal fees that need to be paid. So they refused to pay "grease money," "padulas," to get the license. And they waited.

One day they got their liquor license - eight years after they first applied for it. That's how long it takes if you follow the rules. That's how long you would have to wait for government to deliver what's due to you if you stay within the bounds of the law.

Really? Eight years? My son asked. Does it really usually take that long? No, of course not, I replied. If you've got everything in place, then it should only take days, a couple of weeks perhaps, for the government to do their inspection, make sure all your other permits are in place and above board. But unfortunately, that's not how things work.

True story.

And that's why corruption is rampant in all levels of government. The bureaucratic red tape all but totally prevents the delivery of services that we're forced to play according to the rules of corrupt public servants. They become our masters, in fact, slaves because they believe their positions are those of power, and not social responsibility. And that's the reason why any call by the people or any attempt by a well-meaning government official to introduce changes that would eliminate red tape, it is met with stiff opposition by those in power. Red tape empowers corrupt public officials.

And corruption is why good roads are dug up and rebuilt for no apparent reason other than fattening the bank accounts of both corrupt public officials and unscrupulous businessmen. It is the reason why gardens are destroyed to make way for ugly, tacky, tasteless concrete structures and steel gates and fences. It is the reason homes were destroyed and lives were lost when a mountain from Irisan of garbage came rushing down the hillsides towards Asin Road. And it is also the reason why the moneyed can get away with the murder of hundreds of trees and the rape of our environment at the expense of our children's future.

So, I told my son, if you're one of those who slip in a 500-peso bill inside your diver's license to get away with illegal parking or driving without a seatbelt on, you're as guilty as the rotten policeman who receives the 500-peso bill. If you're one of those who gave "pangmeryenda" to the guy behind the desk so that you will be prioritized over those who cannot afford to do the same, or are too principled to do so, you're as guilty. If you're the business establishment owner who paid every single signatory on that permit a bribe to run your business, you're as guilty as the every single one of them who signed that piece of paper in return. Or if you're the one who sits idly by, not caring all these things, who even scoffs at the ones who go out in the streets to try to effect changes in our society, then you are indeed as guilty.

Guilty of what? Ruining our lives today and ensuring an even worse future for generations to come.

True story.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Elitist Regime in Baguio

We were excited by the thought that from our new home, the jeepney passes first right by the school of our youngest child, then his manong’s school next. So on the first school day after moving to our new home, I walked our three children to where they can take their respective jeeps – our daughter would have to take another jeep since her school is in another part of the Central Business District.

But the boys’ jeepney took another route and skipped their schools – during the morning rush hour, jeepneys are not allowed along Gen. Luna Road. They had to walk the few blocks from where they got off to their schools. I don’t think they’re the only ones who live in our part of the town who go to those two schools in that area of the Central Business District. Those children, too, would have to walk the extra few blocks because, again, public utility jeeps aren’t allowed along Gen. Luna Road during the morning rush hour. They do this, presumably, to help de-clog that area in the morning.

We’re fortunate enough to have access to a private vehicle. One morning, while driving the kids to school, I noticed the huge cars ahead of me drop one child each to school. Three huge cars, three passengers got to their destination. We'd really rather take the jeep, not only is it cheaper, we also contribute less to the degradation of the air quality and traffic congestion in the area.

So to help ease traffic, they ban vehicles that can carry about 20 persons at a time and allow private cars that bring one student each at a time. Not so long ago, to ease traffic along Session Road, they closed a couple of pedestrian lanes forcing those on foot to walk the extra hundred meters or so to cross to the other side.

Our local government finds it easy to inconvenience the masses to please those who have more in life. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? That those who have less in life should have more in law? Not in Baguio City.

And that’s also why those clamoring for a fully pedestrianized Session Road, or at least just car-less days perhaps, that would result in much cleaner air within the Central Business District, will never get to realize that dream under the present regime in Baguio. The moneyed people are opposed to the idea, and judging from what we see right now: Gen. Luna Road closed to public vehicles so that private car owners will not be inconvenienced in the morning, lesser pedestrian crossings on Session Road so that those million-peso SUVs will not get stuck in traffic, endorsing the cutting of 182 trees for a parking lot for the convenience of those who actually own cars, the ceding of the Athletic Bowl to a private company for the benefit of the investors and those in power more than anyone else… add that to the putting up of gates around a public park because according to the city’s environment and parks department head, we, the masses, do not behave properly in open spaces and that we might just improve our behavior if we’re inside a gated and fenced area like a country club.

Today’s Baguio is for the elite, the rich, the moneyed, much like what the rest of the country thought when the Americans were just starting to establish a hill station in these parts when members of the Philippine Assembly voiced out their opposition to what they believed was a project that would benefit only the elite, the rich, the moneyed.

At least the Americans listened to the sentiments of local legislators then, and made sure that there are amenities in Baguio that would benefit those of moderate means, or the masa. Among them, a public transportation system for those who don’t own cars, those pedestrian crossings on Session Road so that those on foot can also easily navigate the Central Business District, and public open spaces for those who cannot afford a country club membership or a round of golf at Camp John Hay.

I don’t see this regime ever putting the welfare of the masses ahead of the moneyed. We’ve seen too much to expect anything of that sort from them.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Art of Dionne Warwick

She walked towards centerstage like she owned it. She did – Dionne Warwick entered, conquered and owned the UB Gymnasium stage last Thursday. And once again it was proven that at the end of the day, it’s not about hitting those high notes, flashy costumes or fancy theatrics – it’s all about the music and the artist’s commitment to the craft.

Her Philippine concert tour schedule was a challenge – the Manila Hotel on July 20, at the Smart Araneta Coliseum the following day, in Davao on July 23, then zigzag her way up to Baguio on the eve of her July 25 concert in Baguio. Even the vocal chords of the much younger Per Sorensen, one half of the duo Fra Lippo Lippi, gave when he toured the country in 2011, struggling through his hour-long set in a concert brought to Baguio also by Waltrix Productions.

Warwick’s voice was hoarse by the time she stepped on the Baguio stage, but struggle the 72 year-old artist did not. As she said to her audience in her opening spiel, “whatever I’ve got to give, you’re gonna get it.” And get it we did, “it” being a world-class, once-in-a-lifetime performance by one of the "40 biggest hit makers of the entire rock era." She conquered that vocal challenge and performed her songs as if they were meant to be sung with that raspy voice.

Her performance was pure, honest. It was brimming with passion. She was onstage not to show off, most artists fall into that trap when in front of an audience. She was there to share a life-changing experience with her audience. That’s what art’s all about, and that’s what one gets from a true artist such as Dionne Warwick.

She sang her heart out – and connected with her audience individually. I could have sworn that she was singing “keep smiling, keep shining, knowing you can always count on me...” to me, personally. She did look me straight in the eye for a moment during the song, that’s when tears started filling my eyes. She told the story of each song with so much sincerity and heart. I believe it wouldn’t have mattered whether one was a seasoned Warwick fan or a teenager who had no clue as to who this towering figure of a woman on stage was – the performance was a deeply emotional, very intimate experience, it touched everyone. My son couldn’t help but say, “she’s the coolest human being I’ve ever seen on stage.” Or something to that effect. Coming from a 14-year old music buff whose usual musical inclination includes The Beatles, The Doors, XX and the Killers and who has seen Sting perform live, that means a lot.

Waltrix Productions head, Jen Manasala-Bautista, enabler of such world-class concerts in Baguio, shared with me what Warwick whispered into her ear after the performance – “I want to come back here.” I sure hope she does. I’m quite sure my son would save up to pay for his own ticket this time.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Willie Revillame for National Artist

I will not discuss whether Carlo J. Caparas deserved the title of National Artist, there are much better minds out there who can do that. But I do agree with the Supreme Court decision recalling the award given to him and three other artists.

In the late 90's, I was sent by the Baguio Arts Guild as a representative to the National Artist Award pre-selection process. I liked the idea of having artists determine who deserves the award. There were dozens of us artists, cultural workers, representatives of various art institutions and others invited as individuals. We were grouped according to our respective art fields.

Our group, theater, deliberated for hours to come up with a shortlist of theater artists whom we believed deserved the award. The other groups representing the different art fields came up with their own shortlist of candidates coming from their field of expertise.

Then each group presented, and defended their respective candidates in front of all the members of the pre-selection panel. The government can only give the award to so many artists at a time, so the goal of the presentation was to further trim down the shortlists, each containing an average of five or six names, to the least number possible.

The result of the deliberations was one master shortlist of artists, which would then be forwarded to Malacañang for the President's confirmation. The idea was that the President can either confer the award to everyone in the shortlist, or choose some, or none, from that list. He is not supposed to confer the award to any artist who was not endorsed by his peers.

And there lies the anomaly in the way Caparas received his award - he was not endorsed by the panel of artists in the screening process, administered jointly by the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the National Commission on Culture and the Arts. This process is enforced to avoid, or at least minimize politicizing the award, the highest given by our government to artists. Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo apparently didn't think much of, in fact spat on, the artists' opinion when she inserted her own set of candidates.

The following are the criteria to become a National Artist:
- Living artists who have been Filipino citizens for the last ten years prior to nomination as well as those who have died after the establishment of the award in 1972 but were Filipino citizens at the time of their death;
- Artists who have helped build a Filipino sense of nationhood through the content and form of their works;
- Artists who have distinguished themselves by pioneering in a mode of creative expression or style, making an impact on succeeding generations of artists;
- Artists who have created a significant body of works and/or have consistently displayed excellence in the practice of their art form, enriching artistic expression or style; and
- Artists who enjoy broad acceptance through prestigious national and/or international recognition, awards in prestigious national and/or international events, critical acclaim and/or reviews of their works, and/or respect and esteem from peers within an artistic discipline.

These criteria serve as a guide for the CCP and NCCA-led screening process. Perhaps Caparas' string of massacre films "helped build a Filipino sense of nationhood," or earned for himself "awards in prestigious national and/or international events," or "critical acclaim and/or reviews of their works," but the fact remains:  he was not nominated by his peers during the screening process. In the case of one of Caparas' co-awardees, Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, it was not just about the nomination, she was then the chair of one of the institutions tasked to oversee the screening process, the NCCA. Delicadeza must not be in their vocabulary.

Caparas, in a live face off with National Artist Virgilio Almario on television, dismissed the Supreme Court decision and said that at the end of the day, he's still more famous and better known by Filipinos than Almario. 

Hmmm, I suggest we take a second look at the criteria lest Willie Revillame is conferred the National Artist Award for the same reason Caparas believed he deserved it.