Oh sadness!


The Scream by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch

I rode my bike to a friend’s house in one of the districts in Hanoi. I fixed the room I’ll be staying in for the next eight months. I had to transfer the refrigerator from the ground floor to the floor upstairs as well as to unscrew my bed on the second floor and bring it down to my room on the ground floor, and I had to do the same process, this time in reverse: re-screwing it. I also had to bring several paintings to her mother’s atelier in the third floor. Vietnamese houses have this peculiar architectural idiosyncrasy. They are very narrow and very tall. Houses with more than four floors are the norm, not only that, one has to use the equally narrow stairs just to reach any of the top floors.

After that, I had to ride my bicycle back to my present apartment.

I just arrived in my room, and for a long time, I never felt this tired. I decided to open my emails and write something about my day. Then it occurred to me that I am sad. Solitude, or too much of it, without me expounding on this thesis, can be so devastating. I’ve been so used to being alone that I thought I’ve gone so numb and would never feel loneliness anymore. But right now, after a very long time, I’m so down.

I still receive SMSs from the Philippines, but they are getting more scarce each day. Maybe I just fear being forgotten, being taken for granted, being thought of as non-existent.


I tried to turn on my Windows media player and listen to the songs I ripped from the CDs my friends gave me, but they made me even sadder. The humming of the air conditioning unit even added to this emptiness. I’m scared of waking up one day realizing that nobody really cares for me because I sought for insignificant things in life instead of valuing the things that really matter–my family, the person I am currently involved with and whom I love so much, my friends.

How easily was I lured by worldly things. Is success more important that the moments I share with my family in South Cotabato? For Christ’s sake, I know the answer! But why am I still choosing this over the most important people in my life.

Is sadness just one of the sacrifices I have to offer, notwithstanding my family for the name of success? I think it is laughable.

Oh God, I’m sad.

The Philippines as a failed state (?)

In the recently released report called Failed State Index made by the Fund for Peace Foundation and the magazine Foreign Policy, the Philippines ranked number 56 out of 177 countries that were included in the list. This gave the Philippines a high vulnerability rating. The most vulnerable state in the world is Sudan followed by Iraq and Somalia while the most sustainable states in the world, mostly coming from Scandinavian countries are led by Norway, Finland, and Sweden.

The index rank was based on the indicators identified by the researchers as necessary in creating or maintaining a stable state.

Social Indicators 1. Mounting Demographic Pressures
2. Massive Movement of Refugees or Internally Displaced Persons creating

Complex Humanitarian Emergencies 3. Legacy of Vengeance-Seeking Group Grievance or Group Paranoia
4. Chronic and Sustained Human Flight

Economic Indicators 5. Uneven Economic Development along Group Lines
6. Sharp and/or Severe Economic Decline

Political Indicators 7. Criminalization and/or Delegitimization of the State
8. Progressive Deterioration of Public Services
9. Suspension or Arbitrary Application of the Rule of Law and Widespread

Violation of Human Rights10. Security Apparatus Operates as a “State Within a State”
11. Rise of Factionalized Elites
12. Intervention of Other States or External Political Actors

██ Alert

██ Warning

██ Moderate

██ Sustainable

██ No Information / Dependent Territory

Source: Fund for Peace Foundation

Based on these criteria, the Philippines scored 8.32; the highest possible is 12. The higher the score of a country is the more vulnerable it is for collapse. Norway, the most stable state in the world got a 1.73 overall score while Sudan scored 11.37. However, Fund for Peace said that people in countries that figured in the top spots of the Failed State Index should not panic since this kind of study does not seek to predict when the state will collapse or whether it will disintegrate in the near future. This study will help national policy makes to look into the indicators and try to improve on them if they want their countries to survive strife, famine and all other issues pertaining to national security.

I am very skeptical when it comes to surveys done by western organizations to gauge my country’s, say, human rights index, happiness index, enjoyment as regards sex index, or all other kinds of indexes including this recently released Failed State Index. Not that they are unreliable, in fact, they make sense and are helpful with regard investment policies, economic decisions, or healthcare reform. However, methodology-wise, these American/European based research group failed to take into account other factors (or indicators, as they say) such as cultural diversities and other factors that we simply cannot give numerical value such as ties within smaller social structures or the spiritual dimensions of the community. Moreover, as most of my more radical friends would passionately believe, studies like this are West-centric, that is to say, the perspective used to look at things are that of a white man with all the trappings of his biases and putting forward the interest of rich and developed nations, which, up to a certain degree, I agree.

I once had a conversation with Dr. Raul Pertierra, a professor of Anthropology who teaches in UP, Ateneo, and La Salle. He told me that the Philippines is far from being a failed state. Although its institutions are near-failures if not utter failures, other aspects of the society remain intact such as the family, church, and smaller units of the community. However this won’t be for long. With parents going abroad to provide food and send children to school, the present Filipino family is now more vulnerable than ever; the the people having less confidence with the Roman Catholic Church and its leaders, the Church will not hold on for long as well.

Now what is in store for the Philippines? This blog entry will not attempt to give a grand solution to this problem. In fact the writer of this blog is as confused and as disillusioned as any Filipino anywhere in the world. Still, I’d gamble my all for this country. For what is forthcoming is a new breed of Filipinos who are more aware, more responsible, and with bigger dreams for this country. I’ll stake everything on this country’s youths.

Iloilo ang banwa ko

I first heard my mother singing this song to my little sister as a lullaby. For me then, it sounded so sad, so melancholic. She sang it as if she’s been far away from home for so long a time that only being physically present in the place could her longing be quenched. And indeed she was.

Iloilo ang Banwa ko ginahingadlan
Matam-is nga pulong ang akon gin mat-an
Dili ko ikaw bulagan banwa kong nahamut-an
Ikaw ang gintuna-an sang kalipayan

Ilonggo ako nga tunay nga nagapuyo sa higad sang baybay
Manami magkiay-kiay sa tagipusuon bug-os nga kalipay

The other person I heard singing this song was a Japanese student from Tokyo University. She was taking up Philippine Studies with concentration on Hiligaynon and the culture of Iloilo. I was surprised because she could memorize the lyrics and sang it with almost perfect accent. Even though my parents were both in Iloilo, and I spent four years as a student and a year as an instructor in the University of the Philippines Visayas in Miagao, my accent when I speak the local language is still heavily Cebuano. In some times, some Ilonggo even mistook me as Tagalog.

I must say Iloilo charmed me. I learned to love its hot and humid atmosphere and even basked under its unforgiving sun. I love its rocky shores and how the breeze blowing from its seas burned me and bestowed on me my brown skin.

Belfry of Jaro Cathedral

Man is wired by evolution to seek for the place where he was born. It’s like an instinct such that of green sea turtles: they always go back to the exact spot where they were hatched and in that same spot lay their eggs that will continue the whole cycle. The same is true for me or for anyone who traces his root in that small patch of land in the heart of the Philippines. Iloilo has this charm that only the experience of being in the place can explain. It has this warmth that a bowl of hot La Paz batchoy can give meaning to. It has this grandeur that the churches of Molo, Miagao, San Jose, or Jaro Cathedral can expound on. It has this life and love that only an Ilonggo can let you feel.

Jeepneys along Calle Real

A walk along Calle Real will bring you back to the late Spanish era when sugar barons built impressive houses matched with intricate facades and imposing columns. These proud structures are remnants of once ruling borguoisie and the booming sugar industry that ended as soon as the second world war was concluded.

Skyline of Iloilo City

Museo Iloilo that houses artifacts and contemporary arts by Ilonggo artists

Iloilo City is not a big city in terms of land area, roughly 70 square kilometers, but it’s an urban jungle of its own that will give a newcomer a harrowing experience of its circuitous and narrow roads. Friends of mine who have been to Iloilo City told me that the city has come to a dead-end as far as growth is concerned because it simply cannot expand. And I concede. Iloilo City is one of those few Philippine cities that have maintained its unique charm. Not that is has economically stagnated, it has remained loyal to its identity. It’s a hybrid city of urban growth, cultural dynamism, and rather conservative atmosphere. This narrow strip of land boasts seven big universities that rival other good universities in the country. Its people are one of the most literate and educated in the nation.

Iloilo shaped me as individual. It was in one of its sleepy towns, in Miagao, where a big chunk of my intellectual growth took place. It has made me aware that a big world out there is awaiting for a young man like me; nevertheless, it also made me realize that the bigger challenge to conquer is how to allow dreamers like me, young students, make their own yearnings possible.

And, true to its epithet as the “City of Love” (which I used to think as very funny if not downright pathetic), it’s also where I found the love of my life.

Language has its limitation. And it has reached its limit when it attempted to describe with words this city. As for me, a man who dreams to be a citizen of the world, I may have reached countries that once I was only able to picture out in my mind, and cities I thought I could only visit in my imagination, I still would want go back to that small city in one of the islands in the Pacific and hear a Latin mass in one of its churches, eat a bowl of batchoy in Tienda Lapaz, buy 12 pieces of the most delicious bibingka in the world for 20 pesos (0.50 USD) in Tanza, or just watch a Jaro-CPU-Ungka jeep pass by.

I have not anymore heard my mother sing that song for quite a long time. After all her children, five of us, left for Iloilo to get our college degrees, and our youngest sister whom we plan to have her high school also in Iloilo, she stopped singing the song. But like any Ilonggo, I know that she also one would want to go back to that beautiful city one day.

And maybe by that time Iloilo and banwa ko will not anymore be as melancholic as I remember her singing it.

Photos courtesy of Bernardo Arellano III, a former schoolmate in UP Visayas.

Iloilo City, 21-06-2008

It was supposed to be one of those cloudy days. The sky was dark, not unusual especially that the rainy season has already begun several weeks ago. The Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) raised a signal number one for Bicol Region and the rest of the Metropolitan Manila. The agency forecast that the eye of the typhoon with a sustained wind speed of 74kph will pass the town of Tayabas, Quezon sometime during the midday.

And things started to change.

Since PAGASA releases its forecast every six hours, the typhoon, which is as idiosyncratic as the rest of us, suddenly started to redirect its course and instead moved toward central Philippines. It battered the coast of Romblon and capsized the 23,824-ton Sulpicio Lines ferry, M/V Princess of Stars imperiling the lives of its eight hundred plus passengers. Official reports feared hundreds of dead as the scant number of survivors were rescued.

The province of Iloilo was worst hit and suffered 101 deaths; the death toll, however, will still increase dramatically as there are reported missing cases. As of press time, there is a total of 229 dead persons not counting the victims of the capsized ferry.

For a long time, Iloilo has not experienced a calamity of such enormity. According to a friend of mine, flood water rose in a unexpectedly fast rate forcing families to seek refuge on their rooftops or climb trees.

An arial view of Jaro, Iloilo City after being ravaged by Frank (Fengshen)

I lived in Iloilo City for five years of my life. One of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to where one can experience a rare coming in together of cultural dynamism, urban atmosphere, and a relaxed lifestyle. For me, it was a city that could rival Salzburg, Munich, or even Paris. Its people are one of the most intelligent, open-minded, and optimistic group I know.

While watching in Youtube.com the aftermath of the typhoon, I was wondering if Iloilo can still recover from this mess. Not surprisingly, amid the cars eaten up by flood I saw people who continued to remain hopeful. I saw smiling faces while they unload a speed boat from a truck to be used for rescue operations; I saw kids bathing under the downpours; I saw hope at its purest form. I saw ordinary Filipino who do not easily surrender from life’s adversities.

“John, are you okay there?” Asked my friend who is in Iloilo right now. “Don’t worry about us here, nagsaka na lang kami sa second floor with our things kay grabe ang baha (We placed all our things on the second floor because the water is too deep). Maski wala kami tubi kag kuryente, diri ayos lang, ginsugo ko nila kagina to buy water,hehehe, nakalab-ot ko sa Molo (Even if we don’t have water and electricity, do not worry about us here. They asked me to buy water this morning, I reached Molo). My friend stays in Jaro, a district in Iloilo which suffered worst because of its low elevation.

One thing, this experience taught man never to take his position complacently. While I was still in Iloilo, life was so good and so comfortable that in a way it’s making the people believe in false security as if nothing bad could happen. But this was proved untrue by the events these past days.

I still would want to see an Iloilo City that is as vibrant as when I left it, although maybe it will have changed by that time, but I just want to go back to that city and be infected with the hopeful disposition of the Ilonggos.

How maong (blue jeans) survived redefinitions

I was seven years old then when my mother first bought me a pair of jeans. It was some sort of a milestone in my life since I thought then that only old men can wear maong pants. And since my mother bought me a pair, I took it like she’s welcoming me to the adult world. Mind you, I was seven years old that time. It was very cheap, I think. It never cost her more than 150 pesos; however,  a hundred fifty pesos for a pants was already expensive as far as the standard of living in our place was concerned. I knew some of my grade one classmates were envious of my luck since it was uncommon before to see grade one students wearing pants much less blue jeans.

That pair of jeans looked funny by today’s taste: it was meant to be worn as a high-waisted pants, that has ample leg room for two seven-year-olds and a very narrow hole for the feet to pass through. I remember that the brand name had the logo of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers which was the most popular kid’s series during the early 90s.

In the Philippine pop culture, maong pants used to symbolize youth rebellion, then women empowerment, and now that they have become mainstream, anybody from the lowly construction workers to the top business executives don a pair of a Made in China imitation of a Versace blue jeans or the ubiquitous red tabs of Levi’s 501.

I remember, in 2003 when I took the University of the Philippines College Admission Test (UPCAT), there was one article in the reading comprehension part that talked about the culture of blue jeans with Filipino college students, and I think that it’s also true with the rest of the world’s universities. It talked about how maong pants have evolved in terms not only in terms of the designs but also of the meanings they convey as well as the utilitarian functions of this kind of clothing.

Whereas in the earlier years of the invention of the hardy blue jeans in California that’s made of durable canvas with rivets in areas of much stress worn by gold miners, blue jeans even become a symbol of democratization of consumption. Although underlying realities still exist such as only the middle class can afford (at least in Third World countries such as the Philippines) to buy a pair of Levi’s costing more than 2,000 pesos (50 USD); nevertheless, the culture of wearing blue was still successful in creating an artificial appearance of democracy, which I think is good enough for now. Wearing them narrowed the divide that cut across the fashion taste between the rich, middle class Atenista/LaSallista market and the masa, promdi, bakya crowd.

When Filipino women started to wear maong in the middle of the last century, they have discovered freedom in the comfortable but fashionable maong. And with it came mobility, access to work, and a call for equality with men.

The functions of maong also changed. Before, the clothing apparel was limited to their use as working clothes worn of manual workers that could offer protection from deplorable working conditions, now wearing a blue jeans in the annual board meeting is not anymore as out of place as it used to be.

I bought my first pair of Levi’s pants during the latter year of my college life after working as a student assistant. Whereas before, wearing my first blue jeans meant entering a world of adults of my imagination, that act of buying pants this time that cost me several months of working as a messenger/typist/draftsman in the different offices in the university was an initiation rites for my entrance in the working class world.

Maong pants or blue jeans have come a long way. But one thing is sure, it will survive countless future redefinitions.

Romanticizing a Stone Age man (or woman)

If you’re asked which button to press: rewind, pause, fast forward, as the question goes in one of those pathetic bulletins in Friendster, a friend, that is, in Friendster, whom I do not really know and keeps me wondering how we became friends, answered rewind and pause.

The answer tells something about how retrogressive most of us are. And there is nothing wrong about it only if we do not sacrifice our today by thinking of what could have been had we done something different in the past or how good the past was and how nice it is to live in a bygone good ol’ days. The past being so unlike today because then the world was less polluted, the river pristine, the ladies lady-like, and the gentlemen knightly. Meaning, the farther we are back through time, the better things are. If the extension is gone further, man is more of what he really should be because he is more attached with his origin. He and nature are one both working symbiotically together as entities approaching near perfection. Unadulaterated. Man in his purest form.

With this kind of thinking, it’s not anymore odd why we find ourselves in awe every time a news comes out about a newly “discovered” tribe deep in the forest of the Amazon or a Stone Age-like community existing in the tropical mountains of South Cotabato, Philippines. We think of them as our last hope to see a reflection of ourselves before civilization encroached our purity and the “goodness” we once had. We, in a literary sense, romanticized these tribes. Granting they are not hoaxes (as most of these discoveries are hoaxes, e.g., the Tasadays who are members of a civilized tribe but were used by Marcos as an anthropological showcase deemed as the “Greatest Anthropological Discovery of the 20th Century” so as to detract critics of his corrupt administration or a “lost tribe” of warriors near the Brazilian-Peruvian border that was reported a few months ago which as it turned out, the story is only half true as authorities have known about this particular tribe since 1910), I do not see the point why, if they have a choice, we do not want them to be “corrupted”, here it means to experience what civilization can offer. If we are trying to hold on to that certain purity we are so protective of which we have long ago lost, then why do we place the burden on these people who are as eligible as we are for the comfort, not to mention the challenges, that this world can offer?

In a post modernist sense, the process of romanticizing makes our subjects prisoners of our ideals. We, in the process, are denying them of a basic right to define themselves using the bigger world as a basis. We give them a preconceived definition of who they are because we are insecure of our present situation. We want to keep them in their “pure” state because by doing so we retain a certain part of our past that we can never revisit.

And this certain preoccupation with the past, without any conscious effort to learn from the mistakes committed by its actors, makes the process of romanticizing an exercise in futility. Not only that, it is also a selfish process.

The Tasaday Community

As in the case of the Tasadays, the lost tribes, the good ol’ days, etc., they shall remain victims of our post-modernist tendencies. They’ll remain static as if frozen in time, but only inside our minds, because in truth, they were gone a long time ago. They’ve escaped our ruthless definition. They have dynamically made themselves remnants of the past, a bouillabaisse of the present, and who knows what the future will bring.

A portrait of my grandmother


My grandmother looks fascinated every time I take her picture, but she doesn’t like to be photographed she told me. I took this photo more than a year ago after a very lengthy prodding. For her, the idea of dressing up for a photo-op is absurd. But since I am his favorite grandson (I suppose so), although she was reluctant, I was able to convince her to wear this dress and pose for a portrait.

A Portrait of my grandmother

I call her Lola Leoning. She’s my father’s mother. I spent the first three years or so of my life with her and my father’s younger sister. After that, my parents brought me back to Mindanao where I was reunited with my other siblings. I seldom visited her since then not until I left for college to study in Iloilo. Not that I was shocked, but the first time I saw her after so many years of being away caused my childhood memory of her to be confused with the now-frail grandmother who was even running to meet me after I alighted off a provincial bus. She has more gray hair, wrinkly face and arms, and she seemed to have gotten shorter.

I am all aware what happens to one’s body once old age seeps in, but it appeared that in my mind I took my grandmother an exception to the rule. I do not want her to grow old. I just want her to remain able, strong, and a smart woman I remember her to be. Although she still is the hard-headed, self reliant, and articulate woman that I know, I can’t deny that a lot of things would never be the same again. She’s turning 84 this July but I cannot remember a time she celebrated her birthday. Maybe that is the way for her to defy her age, but I don’t feel she is consciously trying to avoid old age. She, for me, is aging gracefully. I can still remember the time when I went with her to register for the 2004 elections. Since one of her children was running for public office in another municipality, she had to register herself in that place. And that means walking several kilometers aside from the bumpy tricycle ride we both had to endure just to make sure her son wouldn’t have two fewer of the total votes he would get. Along the way, while we were walking, I volunteered to hold her hand but she shoved it away. We passed by dried up rice paddies and ravines under the scorching sun still she maintained her composure as if to tell me “hey young man, I’ve been doing these things and walking through this way all my life.” It was she who even asked me if I was all right.

I was surprised that she knew a lot of people in that place; she even chatted with two middle-aged women before going inside the registration booth. While I was filling out the form, my grandmother approached me, handed to me her blank form and asked me in Kiniray-a, the language she speaks, to read and translate for her what was written. It tore my heart. She never had a chance to learn how to read and to write. It explained why she didn’t react every time we watch the nightly news programs in Filipino when ordinarily she would voice her opinion if we were listening to AM news program in Hiligaynon, or why she keeps a thick Bible inside her room but I never saw her reading it even if she is a devout Catholic.

I just thought that there are a lot more things to know about my Lola Leoning. She smiled coyly in front of the camera as the last requirement to complete the registration and was fascinated with her picture on the monitor of the computer. Then she told me it was time to leave.

A year after that, when I bought my first digital camera, I took pictures of her and saw the same fascinated face.

For me she’ll never grow old.