Sunday, February 14, 2010

14, 100 reloaded and two love stories

February 14 was never really a special day for me and my wife – any given day can turn into Valentine’s Day in a beautiful city like Baguio. Here in Baguio, sometimes just walking hand in hand with your loved one to where you take your jeep to go home can turn into a most romantic stroll through afternoon sun-kissed flower gardens and trees. At times Mother Nature may even treat you to a dramatic display of fog gently rolling in, skimming just above the lake where other lovers in boats come in and out of view to tell their stories.

But, it is Valentine’s Day, and while I most probably won’t be wearing red, I thought I’d share with you an article I wrote last July as my wife, RL, and I celebrated our 14th year together, just weeks away from Baguio’s 100th, with a little alteration, to retell the story of two of my greatest loves. So here it is 14, 100, reloaded …

Our 14th year, no precious stones, no grand getaways, just an evening with friends, an evening of whisky and brandy and chicharon, at an exhibit opening and at table number one in Luisa’s on Session Road. A beer brought over from Rumours next door. Acquaintances slip in and out. Monsoon rains raging outside. “Really?” this paper’s editor-in-chief asked, in between brandy refills, “14 years? This calls for a toast!” And so we raised our glasses for the sixth or seventh or eighth time last night. We have been raising our glasses to Baguio, our dreams for Baguio and our resolve to realize those dreams, all night. In my mind, I’m writing a song…

Nung una kitang makilala, aking mahal, ang aking puso’y nabihag ng ‘yong kariktan. Magmula noon, ‘di ko na kayang mawalay sa’yo. Kafagway sa yakap mo ako’y hihimlay, pinapawi mo’ng lumbay na aking taglay… Kafagway. In my mind the word Kafagway and my wife’s name crossfade.
So there, it’s been 14 years since the day we decided to spend the rest of our lives together, and that life has been closely intertwined with Baguio's last 14 years, or perhaps the last one hundred. And then, another song…

“Halimuyak ng mga pino nariyan na, nagsasabing ako’y malapit na. Ilang sandal na lang, akin na’ng masisilayan – kabundukang nababalot ng dilaw at luntian. Patungo sa puso ng Cordillera, daang malapit sa mga ulap, puno ng talinhaga. Dugo at pawis ang gumuhit ng ‘yong kasaysayan, walang sawa kong tatahakin ang ‘yong kagandahan”
It’s been quite an adventure – we’ve lived in a rundown apartment tucked away in a corner in Campo Sioco (named after one of the fathers of the city), in a friend’s house in Mines View (which once offered a magnificent view of vestiges of Baguio’s gold rush in its early years), in Gen. Luna and Gen. Malvar streets (reminders of Baguio’s role in our nation’s struggle for independence). We now live on Asin Road, a stone’s throw away from the Ifugao carvers’ village, and just a little further down the road is Asin’s famous hot springs (which has drawn visitors since the time of the Spaniards). For 14 years we have walked the streets of Baguio, saw the construction of tall buildings and flyovers that ruined the beautiful skyline, the transformation of Camp John Hay and the deterioration of the Baguio Convention Center. Malls sprouting one after another in different parts of the city, the closing down of theaters along Session Road, a snatcher being chased by the police and young men hurting each other for no reason. And we told these stories to the community, my wife and I. We staged plays that we believed asked relevant questions, that provoked, inspired, painted the real picture. We made films that reminded all of us of the city’s beautiful history. We’ve tried to voice out the aspirations of the community, its heartaches, its dreams…

“Ang mithiin ng Baguio, isapuso mo, itaguyod mo, isulong mo
Ang kailangan ng Baguio, ikaw at ako.”

Here’s wishing you a special Valentine’s Day. As for me and my wife, we’ve got each other – her and I, and Baguio, that’s all we need for an all-year Valentine.

As for Baguio, well, what she needs is you and I.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Stop and smell the roses

Stalls selling RTW, miscellaneous export overruns, and shoes from Marikina. Big tents set up by telecom and cigarette companies and those nifty gift items they give away and amusing promotional gimmicks they come up with to grab the attention of passers-by. Rows and rows of food stalls selling shawarma, sweet corn-on-the-cob, and barbecue.Free rock concerts that hopefully won’t result in brawls between intoxicated under-aged members of rival gangs.

Sure, there’s the occasional stall actually selling plants and flowers, usually outnumbered by stalls selling plastic flowers and other fake plants.

Because of the way it has evolved through the years, these are the things that usually come to mind when you mention Panagbenga, or the Baguio Flower Festival. Sadly, it has ceased to be a celebration of Baguio’s natural beauty and has become a mere month-long tiangge. It seems like the only thing that somehow still relates to anything floral are the parades, and even those now showcase fake flowers made of plastic and crepe paper.

Add to that the sight of politicians, since according to the guidelines issued by the organizers, political parties will actually be allowed to participate in the float parade as long as they “don’t shake the hands of spectators so as not to disrupt the flow of the parade.” Great.

If this trend continues, then we might as well stop calling it the Bagiuo Flower Festival and call it simply, the Baguio Festival, or maybe The-Festival-That-Just-Happens-to-be-Held-in-Baguio.

A century and a half ago, when the Spaniards finally succeeded in conquering this part of the Cordilleras with the intention of getting their hands on the area’s riches, particularly gold, they were stunned by Benguet’s sheer beauty: its magnificent skyline, its healthful climate, the presence of plants, flowers and vegetables that do not grow elsewhere in the country, all of these made the colonizers turn their attention to the creation of a health resort, or a hill station in what was then known as Kafagway.

So you would think that a festival called Panagbenga would be a celebration of that distinct natural beauty that captivated our colonizers more than a hundred years ago - those sunflowers that begin to blanket the mountainsides in November, the roses that grow so succulently all year round, the marigolds, snapdragons, carnations, daisies, lilies that can be found all over Baguio.

Or maybe at least call attention to the simply beautiful but sadly slowly vanishing Benguet Lily, endemic to this part of the country, which dies when taken out of its natural environment (very much like the city itself).

Not so long ago, we took a walk around the city’s downtown area to take photos of whatever flowers we may find along the way, and were amazed by the number of different species, as shown in the photos, that can be found just within Baguio’s Central Business District.

Yup, they’re there, taken for granted, mostly unnoticed.

Which makes one think, why do they keep on coming up with “new, innovative ideas” that are supposed to make the festival better, when Panagbenga’s, or the Baguio Flower Festival’s supposed raison d’etre can be found all over the place? Stop and smell the roses that are right under your noses.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Children of Coroz

I first met the children of Coroz last November, 2009 when I joined the team of artists from the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) on a visit to three areas affected by last year’s devastating typhoons for art therapy sessions. We spent two days in Coroz, Tublay, Benguet and at the end of the second day, I knew I would be going back there some time soon. I did last Friday.

I needed help, so I broached the idea to members of our theater group, Open Space, and after getting the commitment of some of the members, my wife, RL, solicited the help of the Fernando & Rosa Bautista (FRB) Foundation through Ms. Kristine Bautista-Sameon, who almost immediately agreed to the proposal: a workshop that will introduce the children to the wonderful world of theater and hopes to help the community in Coroz put together their very own theater group.

In the more than 20 years that I have been in theater, I have been to countless workshops, both as a student and a facilitator. As a young boy of 10, I learned about props making in that very first workshop I attended at my mother’s Workshop for Creative Survival. In that workshop, we turned what mostly seemed like garbage into backdrops and hand props: a two-dimensional 10-foot by 30-foot landscape made of discarded computer printouts (some of which we recycled into notebooks and photo albums), a lion headdress made out of shredded newspapers, etc. I learned about group dynamics exercises in several teen theater workshops at the CCP and in one held by actors from the Royal Shakespeare Academy, I learned about method acting. Up north and in the mountains of Baguio and the Cordilleras, I have conducted creative dramatics workshops for children in Baguio, Kabayan, Banawe and Ilocos Norte. I would never forget that the boy from Laoag whom his mother described as having been very shy, even antisocial, all his life. I cast him as the lead performer in that workshop’s culminating activity and his mother couldn’t believe her eyes as she watched her son take center stage to tell his story. In Kabayan, the theater group that the Cordillera Green Network helped put together through its workshops, one of which I was fortunate enough to have been a part of, has been staging plays that are entertaining while at the same time thought-provoking and educational.

These experiences, and the countless possibilities it can open up in the individual, are what I wanted to share with the children of Coroz.

And so last Friday, with my wife, stage actress RL-Abella-Altomonte, fellow theater artists Ro Quintos, Jeff Coronado and Eunice Caburao, together with photographer Jojo Lamaria and whom I believe is my theater-bound 11 year-old son, Leon, at half-past eight in the morning, we were waiting along the highway somewhere in Tublay for the jeepney that was hired by the FRB Foundation to take us through that rugged dirt road to Coroz.

The FRB team, led by Ms. Sameon included social workers of the foundation, its scholar-barbers and cosmeticians who will be providing free haircuts to the children and bags and bags of goodies (clothes, food, etc.), soon arrived and another 30 minutes later, we were being welcomed by the excited elementary pupils at the school grounds.

After starting the day with morning snacks, the workshop proper began with warm-up exercises and vocalization. The day’s session aims to simply introduce them to theater, and we opened with a conversation about plays they’ve seen (they haven’t and most of them had no idea what a stage play is), their favorite movies, stories, etc.

We then introduced them to what I believe are the four major elements of theater – idea/story, space, artist, and last but not the least, audience. And then the fun began – group dynamics exercises to emphasize the concepts of collaboration and cooperation which are very important in a collaborative art form such as theater.

Before the morning was over, we had the kids going “onstage” and infront of an audience to tell their personal stories and dreams: most of them want to become teachers, nurses and policemen, several dream of becoming missionaries... one of them want to become the president of our country.

After lunch we brought out the paints and brushes and canvases and encouraged the pupils to imagine themselves as the persons they want to become, and how that person relates to the community – and two hours later the school grounds was covered with paintings of teachers in classrooms, policemen and nurses helping those in need, missionaries working with the community in building houses, and at the end of the day, after several free haircuts and after handing out gifts, we knew we would have to come back again soon.

And when we do, our next task would be: bring a whole performance to Coroz to show them what they themselves can do on their own some time in the near future – tell their very own stories.