The Year 2009

January 7, 2010

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. No, I am not referring to the Charles Dickens masterpiece but to 2009 and the country. If this were a kind of travel, this was one hell of a trip for us. Who would have thought that events that happened in the past 12 months would include those that straddled two extremes?

Interestingly, 2009 is in the end part of the first decade of the Third Millennium. I remember us a decade ago welcoming the entry of the new century with all the hoopla and hope attached to major milestones. By the time we reached 2009, however, it became increasingly apparent that we are into more of the same, especially in a country living in a continuing past.

So we may have to accept the reality that the past year and the coming one is not really about the old and the new but is merely, for our country, a continuation of the process of being. But I may have waxed philosophical for several sentences already, so back to the “best of times, worst of times” thing.

Two points stand out in 2009, and I am not talking about the constant, which is the unfortunate way President Arroyo has been handling this country’s affairs and the allegations of corruption hounding her administration. The first point that I may have to start off with is about the worst events of 2009, or should we say events that are worse than the usual “worsts” of past years.

Here, the Maguindanao massacre stands out. The murder of 57 people by members of the powerful Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao is considered the worst election-related violence in the country in decades for several reasons, among them being the brutality of its execution and the number and the kind of personalities executed.

The suspects also included high-ranking officials of local government units, policemen and members of civilian volunteer organizations. The weapons used in the killing and the equipment used in the attempt to hide the crime included government procured firearms and a Maguindanao government-owned back hoe. The victims were women members of a rival clan, two lawyers and 30 journalists.

The worst climate-brought tragedy in decades was the the flooding in Metro Manila and other parts of Luzon in 2009 brought about by typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng. Ondoy brought six-feet floods in Metro Manila in only thirty minutes while Pepeng brought about killer landslides in Northern Luzon. Scenes of families huddled in rooftops surrounded by brownish water will remain for long.

Lest I be accused of mentioning only the “worse worsts,” 2009 also provided us with the “better bests.” There was Manny Pacquiao with his masterful performance in defeating some of the world’s renowned boxers in Ricky Hatton of Britain and Miguel Cotto of Puerto Rico. In the process he won an unprecedented seven world titles in seven divisions and became the toast of the boxing world.

And we did produce other heroes that caught international attention, like Efren Peñaflorida, awarded by the international media giant CNN as its Hero of the Year for 2009. Construction worker Muelmar Magallanes, who died while saving 30 people at the height of typhoon Ondoy, was among Time Magazine’s Top 10 Heroes of the year.

We don’t know what 2010 and the new decade will bring us. Elections will be held in May of that year and the hope is that governance will change for the better with the Arroyo administration finally out. The economy? Peace and order? Climate? Let’s just hope for the best.

(I wrote this for my January 1, 2010 “Candid Thoughts” column for Sun.Star Cebu)


Yuletide Perspectives

December 26, 2009

I used to sit alone on top of the Cebu City mountains on moonlit nights just to immerse myself in the vastness of nature. When the terrain is bald, you see the rough hillsides gradually fall down to the darkness that are the rivers and creeks and then rise up again going up to the other peaks. The mystery deepens with the gray of the surrounding.

Above you, the stars, millions of them, assert themselves even with the moon lighting up the usual brooding blue of the sky. The white orb looks flat at first glance, but becomes three-dimensional once probed deeper. The moon has been there through time, titillating limited minds with the inscrutability of its existence. Mine was no different.

Man has always been puny but often wallows in the illusion of power created by its communities. When you are in the metropolis surrounded by man-made structures and gadgetry, you lose sight of the ethereal and the universal. That is why I always cherish the moments when I commune with the earth and the heavens and be other than human.

One of my better recollections of Christmas happened in one of the mountains overlooking the city. In the village called Patayng Yuta nights take over early and the farmers immediately fall prey to its spell, even on Christmas eves. One time, I just decided to climb the hilltop to watch ignited pyrotechnics rise above the city lights.

I could not recall now how long I sat there. The midnight air was biting despite my thick jacket and my alone-ness added to the coldness that permeated the thick mix of grasses, bushes and trees. But time seemed to fly by as my thought drifted from the man-made—the family left behind, city life, etc.—to the profound—nature, God and creation.

I grew up spending my Christmases in the comfort of home and neighbors. In Sitio Kawayan where I grew up, we children would go caroling, light firecrackers or just watch our elders in their festive mood. In that kind of celebration, the communal is the props. And often, the Christ in Christmas is lost in the passing, though we don’t admit it.

At the back of our present home is a hill topped by towers of two telecom firms. I haven’t climbed the hill at night and don’t intend to do it now. Spending a moment alone in the yard tonight and feeling the cold air on the face while watching the stars would be enough to put in perspective this age-old celebration. A Merry Christmas to one and all!

(I wrote this for my December 24, 2009 Candid Thoughts column in Sun.Star Cebu)

Misa de Gallo

December 16, 2009

I miss the Misa de Gallo. Every Christmas, I promise to attend at least one of these dawn masses but always end up short. No way could I force myself now to wake up at 4 a.m. when I sleep past 12 midnight. But I have fond memories of the ritual, etched in my mind when I was young and when work and family had still to be my preoccupation.

In an age of change, people of my generation may have to be thankful that the Filipino version of the Misa de Gallo has not yet been taken over by commercialization and twisted by foreign influences, like what is happening to the celebration of the Kalag-kalag in large urban centers of the country. I dread to see my kids talk Halloween instead.

One of my early Cebuano short stories published in the old Sun.Star Weekend was on the “sungkaan.” It was about a father who tried teaching his children the rudiments of the game and to enjoy it like he did when he was younger. Eventually, though, his kids found computer games more exciting. Signs of the times, actually.

My recollection of the very early misa de gallo I was in is hazy, but I reckon it was in Argao town where we lived for a few years when my father was assigned there as a Pepsi-Cola salesman. I remember the church, the people and the delicacies (puto or budbod and sikwate) after the mass. And, yes, the darkness of dawn in a rural milieu.

It was while growing up in Sitio Kawayan in Barangay Sambag 2, Cebu City where I developed a better understanding of the ritual and the peripheral feelings that celebrating it evokes. That was when our place was still under the Redemptorist Parish and the priests and parish workers were active in drawing us kids into church activities.

Waking up early was always a struggle, more so walking in the cold dawn air from our place to the church which was, I think, more than a kilometer away (from B. Rodriguez Ext. down to B. Rodriguez proper, crossing to Fuente Osmeña going to Mango Ave. down to Baseline, St. Theresa’s College and finally the church). We did it anyway.

This Christmas, I promise again to attend the Misa de Gallo and fulfill it. I don’t want my two boys to grow up losing a feel of a practice that partly shaped the lives of their parents when they were younger. I know that change is inevitable and eventually the future generations will chart their own paths. But some things need to be handed down to our kids if only to help them grow up to become good Christians.

(I wrote this for my December 17, 2009 Candid Thoughts column in Sun.Star Cebu)

Song Lyrics to Appreciate

December 15, 2009

One of the reasons why the popular “Bisrock” genre is dying is because the Cebuano rock bands failed to appreciate the importance of lyrics in crafting songs. Many of them just couldn’t get out of what has become the formulaic lyrics with double meanings and vulgar songs.

Poetry in the lyrics makes the song timeless. Consider some of my favorites:

“Burnt out ends, of smoky days. The stale, cold smell of morning. A street lamp dies, another night is over. Another day is dawning.” (From the song “Memory,” version of Barry Manilow.)

“And when it seems my dreams have all slipped through my fingers, when they just can’t be found, I turned around and there they are, shining in her eyes.”
(From “Come What May” by Air Supply)

“I wanna lay you down in a bed of roses, for tonight, I sleep in a bed of nails.”
(From “Bed of Roses” by Bon Jovi)

“Matud nila, ikaw dili malipay kay wa akoy bahandi nga kanimo igasa. Gugmang putli mao ray pasalig, maoy bahanding labaw sa bulawan.”
(From “Matud Nila” by Ben Zubiri)

“Daw dahon nga laya, napulak, napadpad. Sama sa damgo nga, sa pagmata, nahanaw.”
(From “Dahon nga Laya” written by Saturnino Villarino)

There are many other samples. You can add yours if you want.

Colon at Night 2

December 14, 2009

I like the inputs of some readers of this blog to the article about Colon. This just means this blog attracts educated and profound readers that makes discussion of subjects interesting.

Near that strip at the corner of Colon and Osmena Blvd. is the corner of Colon and Pelaez Sts. and a few meters away the corner of Pelaez and Sanciangko Sts. In that part of Pelaez are two hotels and some night spots. I usually pass that area to and from Colon.

Pimps and prostitutes are regular fare there at night. At the night spots you often see Caucasians who are most probably clients of the hotel. They can be mostly seen with local women, obviously picked up from among the prostitutes in the place.

I sometimes see a few of the Caucasians at certain times making conversation with young boys that looked like street children. My worry, of course, is that these kids would be victimized by pedophiles.

It was in Pelaez at night that I saw for the first time this cart pushed by a man that sold a kind of seafood in a shell. It must be already cooked and the hard portion had to be broken before the meat could be eaten or brought home. I reckon that it was expensive, but the enticement could be that it was an aphrodisiac.

Colon and its neighboring streets have the look that gives strangers the creeps at night. But that is only on the surface. Tarry longer and the uneasiness disappears.

Not About Mindanao’s Gun Culture

December 11, 2009

As if the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao was not shocking enough, in come the seizures of hoarded armaments in mind-boggling number in this Ampatuan clan enclave. So what kind of monster has the Arroyo administration created in Maguindanao? As days pass, I am getting convinced government has to be put to task for this chaos.

The latest find in the Ampatuan warehouse in Shariff Aquak could meet the needs of a battalion of soldiers, Lt. Col. Michael Samson, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Maguindanao told the Inquirer. Another large cache was dug up days ago in a vacant lot in Ampatuan town. The number of seized guns just continues to grow.

If that doesn’t amaze you, here’s a rundown of the warehouse items seized: 6,500 rounds of ammo for M14 assault rifles, 134 propeller missiles for 81 mm mortar, 131 propeller missiles for 60 mm mortar, six rockets for 90 mm recoilless rifles, three rocket warheads for an MG 520 attack helicopter and 92 rockets for 57 mm recoilless rifles.

A simplistic military description of the listed missiles and ammunition found in the warehouse: sufficient to obliterate a small town. No wonder they were “stunned.” Maj. Randolph Cabangbang, spokesperson of the AFP’s Eastern Mindanao Command said that the Ampatuan private army could dwarf the other similar groups in the country.

How were they able to amass such a large cache of military hardware, most of them “Department of National Defense” issues, thus allowing then to arm a private force with an estimated 2,000 fighters? Why the obsession for sophisticated firearms? And will recent actions be enough to disable the monster the Arroyo government created?

Those armaments took years to accumulate and were either bought or supplied by the government. Consider the linkage between warlordism and control of local political power. The Ampatuan army is composed of civilian volunteer organization members under the police and military that are in turn subservient to the Ampatuans in office.

A big chunk of the cache could also have been bought, which brings us to the evil that is graft and corruption. No doubt about the wealth of the Ampatuans, as shown by those palatial homes that are anomalies in a poor province like Maguindanao. The clan’s riches are still being audited and I`m sure government coffers are among their sources.

Corruption is also obviously what made possible the transfer of the ownership of the DND armaments to private hands. If so, the Ampatuans must have spent a fortune on them and those in the military must have earned a tidy sum. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think about collusion from military higher-ups, judging from the hardware involved.

Gun culture has often been mentioned as the reason for the propensity of Muslim area residents to procure firearms for personal use. I have heard stories of how farmers in some Mindanao towns till their fields with M-16s slung across their backs. But that culture is abetted by government tolerance, which makes our laws on guns laughable.

What the military and police are currently doing against the Ampatuans shows that firearms, at least in Maguindanao, can be seized and warlords can be put to heel if government just puts its mind to it. It’s not about gun culture, then, or even about clan wars and ridos. It’s about government enforcing our laws no matter who gets hurt.

(I wrote this for my December 11, 2009 “Candid Thoughts” column in Sun.Star Cebu)

Tem Adlawan: A Poet’s Death

December 8, 2009

NOT many people know Temistokles “Tem” Adlawan outside of Cebu’s literary circles, but that does not mean his passing should go unnoticed. Tem had his Ernest Hemingway moment, choosing to end his life by himself. He was 79. No, he did not shoot himself with a gun. He was calm like Socrates after drinking the hemlock.

Januar, my fellow columnist and literary writer, rushed to a Cebu City hospital when he heard about what happened to Tem. The scene surrounding his death as pictured by his relatives was tragic as it was fiction-like. But he was already sickly, said Josua, cartoonist and literary writer. His eyes were problematic and he could no longer write.

For writers, the pen is a weapon against life’s tests. When I was under solitary confinement years ago, I asked my captors to provide me pen and paper. I don’t know if my sanity would have survived that ordeal without the things that I later referred to as “my crutch.” Writing helped Tem survive a lonely existence in his twilight years.

I met Tem for the first time at a University of the Philippines creative writing workshop held in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s landing site in Palo, Leyte in the late ‘90s. He was the oldest fellow and the most respected Cebuano writer in the workshop.

Tem was a widower and a part-time habal-habal driver and his folksy ways were noticeable. What I immediately observed in Tem was his love for anything creative. He told me how he would get a high every time he cracks a well-concocted metaphor in a poem he is reading. It caught me off-guard and made me re-assess the efforts I poured in writing my literary pieces. I realized then that I was dealing with an extraordinary writer.

But writing in this country does not pay our bills. Tem got national recognition for his Cebuano poems and yet continued to struggle to eke out a living in Naga. I once visited him in his small hillside hut in Pangdan and his sole cherished possession there, aside from his motorcycle, was the rickety typewriter that documented his genius.

Fellow writers, especially members of the Bathalan-ong Halad sa Dagang, will pay their last respects to a man whose works we appreciated, aptly through a poetry reading. I don’t know if I will be able to go there considering the schedules I have to meet. But personal presence won’t matter if homage transcends physical bounds.

To Tem, may your soul rest in peace now.

(I wrote this for my November 18 “Candid Thoughts” column in Sun.Star Cebu)