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.