15 December, 2009

Reaching Heaven on Earth

Economics, principle no. 1: People Face Trade-offs. “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Except life is not all about economics.
In the mountain province of Carranglan, Nueva Ecija lives a community of people called the Igorots. Not much of their history is known to me. But what I am sure of is this: they have outlived our colonizers, but not our system. Over December, I have spent three days and two nights living with them. The experience garnered from so little a fraction of life equals a year’s worth.
When I and a few others were dropped off by a Sarao jeepney, from which some had to climb their way down from the top, our first glimpse at the scenery left us mesmerized. It was only the beginning. The place was no other like we have seen before. The plentiful mountains hid the rest of the world from us; but there was ample beauty planted on those highlands to quench our thirst for a real adventure.
Atop the mountain we were left at was called Calisitan. A town center to a small barangay of 500, the average distance from each house to another roughly neared a kilometer of rough terrain. After some conversation with the locals of the area, our Formator Ms. Dudj Amor separated everyone into pairs, except for some few others. To each person and pair was assigned a family, to whom our entire lives would then depend on; we were their foster children, and they, our foster parents and siblings. There were several important questions everyone had in mind: Is their food clean? Is it safe to eat them? What if you’re about to go to the CR, is there even one available? Murmurs about sanitary and hygiene relayed through the silent air like fuzzy noises as everyone concerned themselves with the utensils and viands, among others. Seated in old nearly-breaking benches from all four sides, a few hesitated to get a plate and manually select his or her share of the menu from the center table. Nonetheless, since the three day long vacation meant an immersion with the indigenous people, there was little choice but take on the challenge. So everyone did. Some were twice a person; and others, with barely half a plate.

The Physical Challenge

After the banquet, comprised of recently-harvested rice and tasty Native Chicken Adobo, each family headed down from Calisitan to trek through the eskinitas of the jungle rarely visited by people from the city. The unforgiving steep mountains made it hard for ill-equipped visitors like us to descend without slipping. Those who had their fingers crossed earlier were indeed lucky; they only had to walk a few hundred yards to reach safety – their assigned home. But others like I and my pair Virgil had no idea two mountains were ahead of us. After the descent from Calisitan, accompanied by our foster brother Kuya Romy, the adventure had actually just begun. “Nakakalahati na ba tayo? Have we covered half yet?” we asked Kuya Romy with a discreet tone of complaint and exhaustion, after reaching the top of the first uphill. A rhetorical question, it would have been better left unanswered. We were distraught when he replied the unexpected “Hindi pa. Not yet,” to which he even added, “Malayo-layo pa eh. Still a little far from there.” As we went through the trails as old as the Igorots living there, the sound of our deep breaths gasping for more air became more apparent. Covered by the thick uncut grass, visibility of the trail ahead was very limited. Snakes could be everywhere. The nearest hospital cannot save any victim. Kuya Romy however, assured Virgil and me their mountain snakes were more fearful of men, than men were of them. So we continued on the journey fearless, or at least only from the outside. Due to the long walks, our group had to rest several times. But Kuya Romy did not need any of them.

Temporary Settlement
After two gruelling hours, we arrived home. Finally. By then, it felt as if Virgil and I were carrying giant elephants over our shoulders; our legs were dead-tired, unwilling to move any further. We both needed more air, so we decided to sit down and relax for a while as conversations between us and Kuya Romy started. A typical Filipino, they were a family of ten, of whom only seven were present during our visit. Besides Kuya Romy, there was Tatay and Nanay, Kuya Leo and the three kids – Patrick, Arnel, and Eric. The kids were all aged around five to ten, almost ten to fifteen years younger than their two Kuyas. They were our most beloved companions. They would always be with us from that point on. Shortly after being fed by Nanay and Tatay with their own cultivated kamotes (sweet potatoes), the kids, together with Kuya Romy took us to a “little walk” – a visit to their river.

The Dangers
The short but tedious way to that river was one of the most dangerous adventures we had gone through, second to the handle-less Log Bridge we had to cross earlier. There were shaky rocks along the way that had to be climbed up and down. One wrong step could cost us our dear lives, for it meant landing on giant beds of rocks, accompanied by sharp fallen branches. There was no way out for both Virgil and me. It was better safe than sorry; better turtles than Kuya Romy and the kids, who ran through everything like big cats. All they could hear from us was the usual Filipino expression of disbelief, “Grabe!”

Their Lifestyle, Dreams and Aspirations
Many things had happened when we were with the Igorots. On all occasions, there was walking, climbing and descending from the mountains. Visit to Calisitan each day proved inevitable since everybody was called to the town center to gather and celebrate as one community driven by the simplest, most important things in life: love and peace. And to achieve that meant five to six kilometers of up and down the mountains, back and forth each day.
After arriving back home from the “short walk” to the river of danger, we had the chance to talk about life with Kuya Romy. “Sobrang lalakas ninyo. Mas malakas ka pa ata kay Manny Pacquiao. Bakit hindi ka na lang magboxing? Sisikat ka na, kikita ka pa. You people are so resilient. You must be stronger than Manny Pacquiao. Why don’t you do boxing that could earn you fame and fortune?” I asked Kuya Romy to present him with a solution to their tribulations. Truly convinced of what he wants in life, he moved us with his simple but profound answer: “Hindi yan para sa akin. Hindi yan para sa amin. Ang gusto ko ang talento ko, nasa pagtatanim. Yung nakakatulong sa kapwa kong tao. That’s not for me. That’s not for us. What I want is to be able to use all my talents in planting, in cultivating. I want my skill to be able to help people.” To the Igorots, war did not exist. Only petty fights did. A quick look at their language proves this. There is no direct translation for “War” in their lexicon. Christianity has overtaken them completely; brought to them by the Americans during the Second World War, their life is now unlike that of their deceased ancestors, who bathe in senseless tribal bloodlettings.
On the second day, as we were heading back to Calisitan, to their town center for a communal gathering, our curiosity grew over the young boys who were always around – following, talking and playing with us. I asked one of them, “Patrick, how old are you?” He looked at me, giggling. Then a little embarrassed, he laughed away. They did not know exactly. Only their parents and bigger brothers knew their birthdays; and their exact age by retrospective calculation. Time is just an illusion, as Albert Einstein would put it; and to them, it is. Like the followers of Buddha, they ate only when they were hungry and slept only when they were drowsy. It is possible to make life simple if you make it. Only to them, this was a given.
After what seemed forever to reach back, with the last gusts of air, Virgil and I climbed back to the uphill of Calisitan – once more steamed by our very own sweat. After waiting for the others to come to the ritual gathering, a pig was being prepared to be sacrificed for the upcoming banquet. It was killed in front of everyone that afternoon. A swift cut on its chest, followed by a sharp wooden shaft pierced inside of it jacked in and out, the pig could only cry helplessly from the torturous death. It took half a minute before she breathed her last. It was not a quick one, and definitely not fun to watch. For the speechless and terrified visitors, only goosebumps was the chemical reaction.

Communal Gathering
While waiting for supper, an Igorot ritual dance took place in the middle of the town center. Each boy and girl visitor was randomly selected to participate in the circling dance led by a few old tribesmen. After having each one of us dance for at least twice, every respective family was eventually called to step in front, to voice their thoughts and feelings out. For most of us, to speak from within was impossible, especially with the whole community having their eyes on us. We were not like them. Our inner voice kept silent.
Although not free of shame, the parents were able to express well. Some would even speak for twenty minute, only sadly in their native language – which after translation, only took a minute or two to put into Tagalog. Even they were part of the world of ironies. “Nagpapasalamat ako sa pag-uunawa nila sa kalagayan namin, at napagtiyatiyagaan nilang kainin ang kinakain namin. I thank them for their understanding and perseverance, eating what we eat (without complaining),” say most parents. They feed us and thank us afterwards. In Nueva Ecija, the Igorots are closer to heaven. No doubt about that.
At around twelve-midnight, I, Virgil and Kuya Romy started our long journey back home. Everyone did. We all needed to get back. On the way, the full moon was the only light shining over us. Some brought flashlights to cut through darkness, but not everyone was prepared. Taking a shortcut, our group was able to arrive thirty minutes faster than the other day. Instead of sleeping with the rest of the family inside their quarter – on their wooden second deck bed – Virgil and I decided to stay outside, to evade the more uncomfortable constricting space inside.
A little unexpected, tomorrow came winter. Climate change must really be serious. The thinly weaved blankets on us proved inadequate against the early freezing morning.

Blast to the Past
“Was it a dream? It was not.” I tell myself on the third night, as I lay myself to bed – at home in Manila. Sleepless, travel-battered and stressed, I slept almost instantaneously.
Earlier that day, while Virgil remained on bed, I battled the cold weather with charcoal fire from our family’s kitchen. Stealing my blankets, Virgil now had four on him. The air was ever sounder; the freezing wind ever chilling. The Igorots were used to this kind of weather.
The kids were becoming agitated, especially Arnel – because it was the day we would have to leave them. As we packed our bags and headed back to Calisitan, Arnel jokingly pleaded several times. “Kuya, kuya, huwag ka munang uuwi. Brother, brother, please don’t go yet.” he begged me. With reluctance, I could only reply, “Kailangan ko eh. I need to.” adding, “Maninigas lang ako dito sa inyo. I’ll just freeze here with you,” to make fun of the escape from utopia. How ironic, I thought.

Repressed Voice Shouting
We had money, they only had veggies. And yet, our foster families even packed us some to bring home to Manila. We left them not a single penny. They sell their fruits and vegetables at the lowest prices – dictated by the buyer, and not them. They do the labor, but earn even less than the middlemen of markets. We are passive; we don’t help. They have outlived our colonizers, but not our system. But I have never heard them complain.
As we bid the kids farewell, some could not help but climb the hills and be shed in tears. Three days was all it took to hook them; to love us who were more liabilities to them. Patrick, the oldest of the three, was now infuriated. He was always cool with things. We could not understand. He no longer accepted the camera, which he only loved yesterday, hours ago, minutes ago. What the hell is wrong with him? Since when did he become so stubborn? He was in anguish, in unbearable pain, but... so were we.
On my first day back in Manila, I could not help thinking about the dream that had lasted three days and two nights. “But it was not a dream!” I convinced myself over and over – again and again. Finally, during that night, I reminisced on what I have dedicated in a speech to the whole community – the place, the people, and my family – as I was there in the communal gathering. I went smoothly on that sharing program, but it was not everything I wanted them to hear. There was more. With eyes closed, I put myself at the same moment. As if meditating, blending with the flow of immense emotions – with conviction I said, “Ang mga tao dito sa Calisitan, mas abot-kaya ang langit sapagkat hindi lamang kayo nasa mas mataas na lupain, inaaakyat pa ninyo ang mga ito nang walang pawis. At kapag makatingin kayo mula sa itaas ng bundok, paibaba, wala kayong hinagpis sapagkat wala naman talaga kayong naiiwan. Ang lahat nang may halaga ay laging inyo nang dala. You people here in Calisitan are closer to heaven; for not only are you in higher grounds, you also climb your lands without breaking a sweat. And when you are on mountains tops looking down below, you have no need for regrets because you really don’t leave anything behind. Everything that has value is already there with you.” When I opened my eyes and saw light, I realized that life – life is not all about economics. Not in Calisitan – definitely not in heaven.

28 September, 2009

The Memento of the Great Flood of Manila

September 26, 2009, it was the early morning until nearly the end of the day when the rain relentlessly threw its destructive force on the City of Manila. Waves and waves of monsoon rains, along with the devil-storm Ondoy, continuously pounded the city with no mercy. Early on, Taiwan also experienced such a calamity that had claimed the lives of many people. In the Philippines, where the words bahala na (which came from the words bathala na), meaning “Let God decide” is often said, tragedies are usually shone with little luminance.

When the rain came pouring down hard, people let it be. What can you do? Bahala na! This is the Filipino – a carefree race – one that did not really give a heck to what tomorrow might bring. Neither an earthquake, nor a landslide may bring this people down to the pits of intense paranoia. Any nation but not the Filipino! Years of misfortunes under every circumstance from the Spaniards, to the Americans and even to the eruption of Pinatubo could not wipe the smile off His face. During the endless cry of the earth over the heart of Luzon, just when traffic started to jam almost every road that was only passable the day before, did the nation start to realize the dangers and hassles of what was already right there over the sky. The wind was subtle, but the rain had more than enough water to submerge the easily flooded streets, roads, and highways of the city. At around noon, the usual bad news came abruptly, reporting about the terrors of the slow-paced storm that did not seem to show any signs of fainting. Cars, trucks, busses and jeeps, were all immobilized by the dashing rainfall that quickly flooded the routes mostly crossed, like Katipunan and Edsa. Those motorists who were behind and slightly clueless about the situation could only wish for the best: any signs of mobility. But the long wait inside the car was already an indication of something they were all familiar with. Cars stop, either because of accidents or floods. An entirely congested area, together with non-stop rain could only mean the latter.

By early afternoon, people from Marikina, Cainta and other areas like Fairview, started calling for rescue. It was the start of a grim end (of the day) for many, and a mesmerizing sight for those lucky some only watching TV. It is always the poor who takes the big punch, and this dreadful day was no exception. Luzon was slowly drenching, bringing along many homes, livelihoods and even some lives. The poor, who obviously had no choice but build their homes jam-packed in one unlucky rich man’s land, received the most damage. Many would lose almost everything they had worked for in years. Flood waters, joined by the over-flowing creeks and rivers, rose to up to more than a two-story house in some areas. The giver of life ends it as well; and since they say people die bringing nothing with them, the water claims everything. For the majority of survivors, with already so little, they had lost even those superficial things that made them happy. They are often labeled as, “Mga mabababaw” or those who find happiness in small things. And yet, they still became the numero uno victims by a storm that took their little joys.

By around 9pm that day, the rainfall started losing its strength, and some relief could be felt. But it was also around that time, when all the damage inflicted manifested in the news. Rescue operations were slow, as almost always expected from a government that talked more than it acted. Some who called for help even before their parked cars got totally submerged like submarines in the garage, never even had a rescue team coming their way. It was only when the muddy and polluted waters cleared away did the rescues become possible. Calls were made everywhere, and schools like the Ateneo de Manila joined the rescue operations. Internet Medias like the Facebook was extensively used to contact those believed to have been affected by the storm. The school itself became a haven for the less fortunate men, women and children whose homes were drowned like sinking ships; only of course water rising in this case and not homes sinking. To this very moment these words are being type-written, rescue operations by family and friends of those sank by the devil-storm are being carried on without the help of the sluggish government. The poor would hopefully retain their hope in view of humanitarian efforts showing them love and support, since they are very much included in this endeavor.

All that is there to see now is hope, stemming from that little luminance mentioned earlier. In the face of a calamity, the Filipino does not say bahala na anymore. He now gives a helping hand, free of stain and grease unlike His proud and useless administrator. The Filipino is learning to know when to say bahala na and when to act without his government’s often “all-talk” support. A midst this tragedy, He has learned to help His neighbor; a stranger – yet truly a friend, a brother, a sister, a mother and a father. He has succeeded and still is succeeding in being one with God through His neighbors. September 26, 2009 should remain a memento of the great flood that struck Manila, which became both a state of calamity and a state of unity – A True Revolution. The future is finally brighter in darkness.