Saturday, December 31, 2011


Two things stand out as I look back on life in Baguio in the year 2011 – the Irisan garbage slide that claimed lives and property (and more than that, human dignity), and concrete pouring all over the city. And it doesn’t take much to see the relation between these two incidents.

The Rose Garden would be unveiled soon after its months-long concrete rehabilitation. While some of us would go ohhhh and ahhhh at the sight of a newly erected structure, this early some of us are already missing the earth on which grass and roses use to grow on. The Botanical Garden entrance is currently blocked by a block of concrete, it was such a disturbing sight. Though the tarpaulin showing an artist’s perspective on what it will eventually look like looked pretty, it doesn’t give much comfort again because of the presence of so much concrete.

Naguillian Road has been re-opened following hellish months of heavy traffic and the sight of intimidating concreting machines, but this early I am already missing the much smoother ride of the old road – compared to the newly concreted one that makes it feel like one’s driving down a staircase. Same goes for Quezon Hill’s newly re-opened main road. And really, don’t these road projects involve architects, or anyone with some sense of aesthetics, at all? Don’t they realize that it’s these roads who really welcome our guests to the city? The roads, newly paved (or re-paved) as they are, are ugly. We know make these repairs in quadrilateral portions and I just can’t help but notice how crooked the divisions between the portions are that if this were a kindergarten project the teacher would surely have the pupils redo the whole thing. What, nobody had a ruler when they were making it?

So that was the year that was – so much effort and precious resources being poured into what all seem like a huge waste of time and those same precious resources, while we hear hardly anything about anything being done really make life, all forms of life, in this great city better. Most of the roads repaired really didn’t need it, or if they did, the end results seem to be somewhat worse than the way they were before. The gardens – Rose and Botanical, didn’t really need concrete – they’re gardens, what they needed were plants and trees.

And while brains continue to be racked for new concrete structures to be erected and resulting in more of our natural environment getting wrecked, we hardly hear anything concrete about the more serious problems of the city right now: overpopulation, garbage and the environmental destruction that come with these.

I don’t really want to sound so negative at the beginning of what the Mayans’ claim is the year that the world as we know it would end, but it would be great to be informed of any concrete plans the city has to solve issues more pressing than paving over paved roads. For without it, it may just really be the year that Baguio, as we know and once knew it, would end.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Merry Christmas

*My column in the Dec. 18, 2011 issue of Cordillera Today
After I wrote about the feeding program being conducted by Dr. Mark Ventura and his friend, Henry Carlin, at the Rizal Elementary School, I received a few inquiries from friends who wanted to help in various ways. Some pledged cash to cover the cost of feeding around 70 children at least twice a week, while others offered their help in preparing and serving the food. When Dr. Ventura invited our group to attend the Christmas party he’s putting together for the kids, we immediately thought of what we can contribute.

As artist Bumbo Villanueva, who also showed up at the party with writing materials for each of the children, put it, Mark and Henry have the taking care of the children’s bodies covered already, perhaps what we can do is to help nourish their minds and souls. And so on short notice, we started a book drive hoping to provide at least one book for each of the children.

While I was expecting the usual suspects to respond to the call for donations, I was amazed when it was a grade 6 pupil, whom I’ll call Zia here, who inquired about the drive first. She was one of the participants in this theatre workshop I conducted in a school and she wanted to donate “some” of her books. I told her where she can meet us to drop of her donation, expecting maybe three or four books from her.

Then a virtual stranger sent me a message on Facebook, asking how she can send her donation to us since she’s currently based in Manila and she won’t be making a trip to Baguio until early next year. I suggested sending them via Victory Liner, expecting her to perhaps just promise to bring the books next year when she comes up since all three stations of Victory Liner along Edsa are known to experience heavy traffic practically at all time of the day and making the trip to there to send a couple of books might just too much of a hassle.

Then later that day, I received another message from her that she’s already sent the books. When I picked them up the next day, the books were neatly packed in a brown envelope, including a pack of five still in their original packaging.

My wife and children went through our bookshelves and was able to put together around 15 books to donate to the children. But when it was time to meet up with Zia to receive her donation, I was totally surprised when she showed up with her mom with bag full of books, around 30 of them!

Still, we didn’t have enough to be able to give a book to each of the children. And then we realized, why give them a book each when they can all have access to all of these books if we start a library for them in their school? So with additional sets of books and encyclopaedia brought by one of the members of our group on the day of the party, we made arrangements with the school to start a library right in the Home Economics room where the feeding program was being held twice a week. We thought that in the half hour when Dr. Ventura comes with pots full of food with Jojo Castro with his pots full of hot Chocolate de Batirol, the children can also let their imagination fly by opening a book, writing, drawing, doodling their thoughts using the pencils and notebooks brought by Bumbo and his wife Arlene.

That morning, musicians Ethan Ventura enabled fellow artists Jun Utlieg and Cris Donaal to tell stories to the children with their songs. The children feasted on noodles prepared by Dr. Ventura’s helper, the amazing chef Alma who can whip up wonderful meals even with the most limiting ingredients available. We played games and handed out prizes and gifts to everyone.

At one point, I picked one book from the pile and asked Bumbo to read it to the children. When we were leaving the school after the party, a young girl ran after me and told me that I forgot the book I asked Bumbo to read, and she was giving it back. I told her she could keep it for herself.

I don’t care whether GMA spends Christmas in jail or at home under house arrest, or whether Corona resigns, I am definitely not looking forward to what Lito Lapid would have to say during the impeachment trial. I just had a Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


*My column in the Dec. 11, 2011 issue of Cordillera Today

 I used to worry a lot as a child on Christmas Eve when everyone would start going to bed and my grandmother would make sure the doors were locked for the night. It’s Christmas Eve, and my sock (we didn’t have those fancy Christmas stockings) would be hanging on the wall ready for Santa’s largesse for the year. Hours earlier, I would have struggled not to think of any bad thoughts walking back home from the church, I’d have been extra polite to elders, and perhaps even give extra to last minute carollers - lest Santa counts those last minute transgressions and put me on his naughty list instead.

I would worry about the locked doors because we didn’t have a chimney, and I was told, mainly by television, that’s how Santa Clause made his way inside your home. I knew I would get in trouble if I unlocked the doors, so I would move the sock and hang it by the window instead and this worry about how small my gifts would be since the space between the window slats were too narrow for that die-cast Voltes V action figure, or a skateboard.

I’d wake up the next morning to find the sock filled with candies, sometimes money, and I would forget about the skateboard and Voltes V and just be happy that the night before, Santa did not forget about me.

I don’t remember when Santa stopped sneaking in toys for me on Christmas Eve, I just remember being excited again when it was my children’s turn to try all they can to stay up to finally catch Santa. I felt tears in my eyes when one time, my youngest expressed his concern about how Santa would find his way to our house – it was Christmas eve and we have moved to a house with no fireplace, and there was I locking up the door for the night. This time, I left one window open, the kind that slides to the side leaving space big enough for big old Santa to make his way in.

Through the years, Santa never failed to show up at our house on Christmas Eve to reward my children’s good deeds for the year. Sometimes he would be so generous as to leave really huge toys, and at times you just know that he did his best to provide everyone with something to be happy about at all.

He would almost always leave a letter for each of my five children – reminding them that somebody cares about how they lived their life the past year, and advising them on how to make the coming year even better. There was that one year that he apologized for not being able to give something "big" – it hasn’t been a great year, he said – but hoped that the children would still find happiness in the humble gifts he managed to give them, and reminded them that this did not mean that he cared less at all that year.

Last year, I witnessed the time Santa stopped giving gifts to my two elder children. In the bright morning of that Christmas Day, they found a note from Santa explaining that now that they’ve grown up, it’s time they give up their slots for other children. Their younger siblings felt sad for them. But it really warmed my heart to see the two telling the younger ones not to feel sad at all for why they’ve stopped wishing for toys from Santa on Christmas Eve, and that this only meant that Santa would have more toys for them and other children.

Last year, my younger daughter got a wave board (some kind of a skateboard with only two in-line wheels instead of four) from Santa. But unfortunately, the wave board broke soon after she got it – the screw that held the wheels came off and we couldn’t find them or at least replacement ones that would fit. All year she hoped we’d get her another one. Her birthday came and we still couldn’t afford to get her a new one. Finally, just a month ago, we finally got to replace the broken toy – we were able to get her one that looked exactly like the one from Santa.

Then a funny thing happened – my wife found the missing screws of the broken one and was able to put it back together. My daughter decided to give it to her younger brother instead so they could skate together.

Then one night, while waiting for us to finish rehearsals, they brought out the two wave boards – the new one from us for my daughter and the repaired one from Santa for our youngest son. And when they started skating, my daughter noticed that the wheels of the wave board that Santa gave which her brother was now using lit up in different colors when they turn.

My daughter looked at her new wave board with wheels that don’t light up and then at me quizzically, and I told her that, hey, I’m only her dad, I could never top what Santa could give.

With a shrug and a smile, she got on her wave board, happy that her mom was able to put the one from Santa back together... and just happy for her brother who now has his own wave board.

Later that evening, over dinner, my youngest son tried to remember what Santa said in his letter to him through the years – particularly the one last year where Santa said that he hopes to finally catch him awake so they can have milk and cookies together.

I told him - no promises, but I’ll try to stay up with him to wait for Santa.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Beautiful Baguio?

*my column in the Dec. 4 issue of Cordillera Today

If I would light up our Christmas tree, and perhaps at least the main window of our home with even the cheapest (but still safe) Christmas lights, I calculated that it would cost at least P1,200.00. Nothing fancy - just plain, silver and yellow lights, ones that don’t even blink. I like them that way anyway.

I walk down Session Road and notice the boys busily climbing up ladders and setting up lights that everybody was hoping would not be as offensive to the eyes as last year’s. A night or two later and they were lit. And they don’t make sense - the flower-shaped ones on the center posts would have one side blinking and the other steady. They didn’t make me happy. And they all looked like clutter in the morning.

I digress. Looking at all those lights, I tried to calculate how much they may have cost the City Government. Just the center island infront of Luisa’s has about eight shrubs, each bedecked with lights including some that looked like icicles falling off the leaves. And those shrubs are much bigger than my puny tree at home. What, P1,000, or P1,500 per shrub? I lost count halfway up the road.

A week ago, good friend and musician Ethan Andrew Ventura mentioned a feeding program that his father, paediatrician Mark Ventura and friend Henry Carlin, along with their other friends have been conducting at the Rizal Elementary School. This isn’t one of those feeding programs that really feed the egos of the proponents way more than the intended beneficiaries. Their group has committed to come to the school at least twice a week to feed and provide essential vitamins to undernourished children until the end of the school year. They carefully plan their menu, taking into consideration the precise nutrients that the children need the most.

The average cost per feeding is about P1,000.00, which is enough to provide a meal for at least 70 elementary pupils. A lot of these pupils are noticeably thin, some of them noticeably hungry. According to Ethan, who has been accompanying his father the past few weeks, some of them come to school with just a cup of rice - and absolutely nothing else – as baon. That baon should last them the whole day – morning snack, lunch and afternoon snack. Some of them get too hungry in the morning that they end up eating up that entire cup of rice leaving nothing for lunch and merienda in the afternoon.

The group cannot afford to spend enough money to light up the giant Christmas tree at the bottom of Session Road. They are not a multinational corporation with millions reserved just for “corporate social responsibility” projects. They don’t care about the PR that usually goes with projects such as this one. They don't hang up tarpaulins with their pictures and names in bold letters. They just sincerely care, and care enough to actually make a difference. Just a month or so after starting that program, most of the children have registered significant increases in their weight. Our theatre group, volunteered to cover the cost of one feeding a few days ago. A hundred from one member and fifty from another and eventually we were able to cover the cost of two big pots of sopas. Dr. Ventura provided the vitamins for the day.

The past few months, leaving and going home has been quite an effort for us living in the Naguillian Road area because of the road repairs. A good portion of the national highway is now done and I can’t help but state the obvious – hardly any difference between the road’s before and after states. A lot of people have said that the repairs were a waste of money, unnecessary. There are other roads in the city that are in much worse condition.

We have those waste recycling machines that cost over a hundred million pesos that failed to solve our garbage problem as promised.

The lights, the road repairs, the beautification projects, all that concrete, all those millions of pesos – all to beautify the City of Baguio. But really, how can a city be beautiful when you have children who are literally starving?

To those children at the Rizal Elementary School, it isn’t those gaudy lights and fake snow that make Baguio beautiful. It’s Doc Mark, as we call him, and his pots of sopas and champorado every Tuesday and Thursday.