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 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.

Smelling the flowers

Before I left the Philippines, my daily schedule was that of a health buff’s. I saw to it that I get at least eight hour of sleep everyday. I had to wake up early, go to the gym and do weights for an hour and a half and a set of cardio exercise for thirty minutes. Not only that, the food I ate were quite healthful. It was supposed to follow a balanced diet scheme my grade two teacher used to paste on our classroom’s wall. I must have milk, and other high protein food sources. I felt I was at the prime of my health. I could jog around the oval field of Iloilo Sport’s Complex five times without any losing my breath. I could swim up to twenty lapses, freestyle, in a mini-Olympic-size pool. Although I was never a member of the college varsity team, I was never competitive when it comes to sports, I believed that one should be physically fit to really enjoy college life and all the things related to it such as intellectual pursuit, extra-curriculars, and other things you can think of. And even though I think smoking is cool, seriously I do, so as drinking, they never became a habit of mine. My health is of prime importance, then.

A month later, I arrived here at Hanoi, Vietnam for a scholarship program. Hanoi is a small city with narrow streets and beautiful parks where one can just stroll around leisurely. The people here are equally carefree like their beautiful city where one can see cafes anywhere he turns with people making hushed gossips, laughs, and savoring their iced black coffee. I remember a note written by my instructor in Comparative Literature at the back of my blue book three years ago. She wrote, “John, slow down and smell the flowers sometimes.” Now I am starting to appreciate it. I have so much time here to reflect and think about my life. I have so much free time that I am starting to have so much sleeping time, much more than the amout I need. Moreover, I don’t get to have any physical activities except for the daily bicycle ride from my apartment to my university. I eat only twice a day because I wake up at around lunch time.

I wonder why I cannot anymore insert daily exercises in my schedule here in Hanoi when I have so much time for myself. I was able to do it with my busy life in Iloilo before, but now it seems that doing it is so much of a burden. I face my laptop monitor much more than the interface I should have with people here to practice my proficiency in the language. In fact, I feel that my fingers are working more than any parts of my body. My brain, excluding, of course.

Well I guess, smelling the flower, as an advice, should be qualified. It must not be just “find time to smell the flowers” but stop for a while to smell the flowers. I think that I have overdone it. My life here has been far too different from my life back in the Philippines. Here, I am a student who has no other job to do but just to study and to study. Although I have always wanted to have a life of a scholar, I can only have rest for so much. I sense that this kind of life is not the kind of life I want to live. I’ve always lived a dynamic life with so many twists and turns in a day. And this kind of lifestyle I have now estranges me from who I really am and what I really want to become.

I have no idea what is the name of this flower

Don’t get me wrong. I know for a fact that a life of a scholar is a difficult and a serious one. Serious in the sense that it demands that you sacrifice your time with your family and for leisure for the pursuit of knowledge, but for somebody who is just starting, like me, the pace can be boring and too slow and dragging sometimes. For now, I just want to have a healthier body, do a re-checking of my schedule and try to go back to my old routines.

However, for tomorrow, I bet that I will wake up quite late again. Around 11:30, 7hours minus GMT. Maybe I can begin with my changed (and better) schedule on Monday. No make it Friday of this week. Or just next Sunday. Next month, promise.

Just give me more time to smell the flowers.

didto sa among dapit

alas tres sa kabuntagon
human sa usa ug tunga ka buwan
nga mi-hanting ug tuna
dili na jud ni intawon mapunggan
ngano man diay
lalim ba ang usa ug tunga ka buwan
nga wala jud ko nakabatyag
ug maingon natong
panagsahong kalami
kanang kamao na gud ka
ayaw na’g paka-arun-ingnon
kamao man kong ing-ana sad
ang imohang ginagukod


ali na ba.
adto na ta og Tambler
aniadto ang mga pirting gwapahang
mga bayhanang
mga birhen ang nawong.
ayaw ko og ingna nga muhuwat pa ka
pag-abot og Glan.
gi-atay ka bay.
unsa mahurot lang jud na imohang
tingalig dili na ka makatiliw niani.

gaano kahirap ang pagsulat ng poetry

kung sino’ng nagsabi na sa poetry
you let things take shape
ay isang hangal.

ito’y di gaya ng
clay na iba’t-iba ang kulay
na sa isang dakot nakagagawa ng
fairy o pagong.

hindi ito basta pagpapatulo ng esperma sa
gabatyang tubig.
ito’y pagpapatulo ng esperma sa
nagnananang sugat.

ang pag-iisip ng saktong
ay paghihintay ng
pagsabog ng mga chocolate hills.

kung iisipin
ang pagbibilang ng metro
ay ‘di mahirap
‘yon eh kung magbibilang ka lang.

ang pagsulat ng poetry ay
isang mahaba-habang
bitbit ang krus
kung mahal na araw

talo na.
nakataas na ang dalawang kamay ko
ayaw nang sumulat ng bolpen ko

kaya ako,
mas nanaisin ko pa ang prose.
ayoko ng poetry.

mahal ko ang poety
gusto kong sumulat ng poetry
nabubuhay ako para sa poetry

titiisin ko ang init ng esperma
hindi ako matatawa
sa fairies
o sa pagong

maghihintay ako
sa rima

mag-aaral ako ng calculus
matalos ko lang
ang tamang metro

hanap ko
ang sarap ng sakit

na dulot ng