Monday, April 30, 2007
I arrived at 6:34 am in Cagayan De Oro City. I remember the exact time because just before the plane came to a complete stop, the lead flight attendant on that PAL trip thanked us for our business and proudly announced that we arrived six minutes ahead of our scheduled 6:40am arrival at CDO. (And it was something to be proud of: the supposed 5pm arrival of the Cebu Pacific flight of our bosses arrived at least half an hour late and our Cebu Pacific flight out of CDO the following day was delayed for at least an hour!)
Feeling like a host of the travel show Lonely Planet, I set out for my solo journey to Malaybalay City, with Lester’s instructions tucked safely in the inbox of my phone- which was dangerously close to being lowbatt.
From the airport, I took a cab to the Agora bus terminal. I thought the cost of the trip which Lester informed me about- P200- was a bit exorbitant but I soon realized that the bus terminal was about a good 10, 15 kilometers away. The initial glimpse of Cagayan De Oro City I got through that first cab ride gave me the impression of that is was really a booming city- big high-end real estate developments, seemingly newly-built roads and shortcuts, and a mall that, on bad days said my cabbie, delayed travel by as much as 50 minutes.
I arrived at the Agora station, a busy hub of buses going to various points of Mindanao. I quickly got into an air conditioned bus bound for Valencia, the city after Lester’s. The bus was just three-fourths full so I feared that it may take a while before it pulls out of the terminal. Luckily, they leave every half hour so despite the empty seats, we were on our way.
If our plan were to proceed as laid out, I was supposed to arrive in Malaybalay City by 10am, go on a tour of the city with Lester, have lunch from 12-1, then proceed to the last leg of our tour, then be in the bus back to CDO, in order for me to meet my bosses in time for their 5pm arrival.
Lester said that all I had to do in the bus was sleep. I did plan to sleep- considering that I left the house at 3am to make it to the 5:10am flight. But I didn’t get to sleep because I was so giddy with excitement that I didn’t want to miss a single millimeter of the view. As it turned out I initially sat on the wrong side of the bus; for the best view- sit anywhere in the column of seats behind the driver.
Through out the 88-kilometer, 2-hour trip from CDO to Malaybalay, I was treated with an almost uninterrupted view of rolling terrain (above, in Manolo Fortich town), meandering mountainside passes, and lush greenery occasionally bisected by small rivers and creeks (below, in Impasugong town). And of course vast expanse of land dedicated to pineapple and bananas (below).
I left CDO at around 7:30am and arrived in Malaybalay City terminal a little before 10. At first I got confused whether I was supposed to alight in Malaybalay or in Valencia. Good thing Lester was quick to respond to my query via SMS. In not more than 15 minutes after landing in the bus terminal in his turf, we were off. (Below, my first upclose encounter with a mosque in Mindanao.)
Malaybalay is the capital of Bukidnon. It’s a city which still feels like a small town or a small town that just happened to be called a city. Everything seems so accessible, within reach, compressed in a set dimension of space, and yet it didn’t seem the least bit stifling.
As doctors are wont to do, I wasn’t able to take off my hat as a physician nor as a public health professional. While Lester and I were updating ourselves about where this classmate is, who is doing what, our conversations were periodically dotted with discussions on the local health system in his city. In fact, if not for our trip to the Monastery of the Transfiguration, my time in Malaybalay would appear to be an official study trip for either UP or GK!
Among the highlights of my visit:
My peek into the Bethel Baptist Hospital, just within the poblacion district where I met Dr. Asuncion, a family and community medicine specialist and the hospital’s medical director, Lester’s erstwhile boss under whom he practiced for sometime before joining the city health department. The hospital is an oasis in the middle of what seemed to be an area in need of expert medical care. The staff seemed really competent and inspired to work for the patients who seek their advice and care.
My crash course of the Malaybalay health system- from visiting various health centers to reliving a part of the PGH experience through a short tour of their provincial hospital to the sneaking a quick look at their herbal medicine syrup laboratory (for sampalok-luya-kalamansi cough medication) to the very impressive Malaybalay Emergency Rescue Unit, the city’s version of the US’s 911, just the second of its kind in the whole of Mindanao.
Our drive through the GK villages in Malaybalay, with houses very much unlike those I have seen in Luzon and some parts of Mindanao (above and below)…
And a really high highlight, our drive to the Monastery of the Transfiguration, just ten minutes from the city proper. A divine complex tucked away from much of “civilization” with an amazing new chapel whose interiors will really bring out the pious among all of us and an even more amazing vista wrapped around it which made me feel and taste a little bit of heaven…
Snippets of joy still: meeting their city mayor, eating at a funky joint called Mindy’s, stopovers near the capitol grounds (below), catching a glimpse of their city health office, all the warm smiles and handshakes and invitations to comeback and stay longer…
This is my own Amazing Race: Malaybalay edition. One of the most unforgettable half-days of my life. Arguably comparable to any half-day city tour I have ever taken in Singapore, Hong Kong, New York or San Francisco. And I have had an excellent driver, Kuya Mulong (below) and an excellent tourist guide in the guise of a doctor, my friend Lester, who relocated there in Malaybalay soon after the August 2005 Philippine boards, to live in an area where he did not have family nor friends, serving as a physician for people he did not really have much initial connection with, a move that baffled me when I came to know about it.
Now I know why.
I last stepped foot in Mindanao in May of 1997, with that week-long trip limited to within the city limits of Davao. From the amazingly spartan yet hardy Philippine Eagle Center in Malagos to the inviting sparkle of the waters off Samal Island- I have been smitten. What I saw then was enough for me to forget the horrors flashed on tv as the aftermath of the Ipil pillaging came to people’s attention two years prior.
Fast-forward to 2007. In a span of a decade, Mindanao has enjoyed a season of good, positive news punctuated by senseless acts of violence that made it retreat two steps back just as it has advanced three. While many Mindanaoans would lay claim to the fact that at the end of the day their island is still a lot safer than, say, Manila, Mindanao has yet to be released from that mad tangle of negative travel advisories and misperceptions from locals and foreigners alike.
With her reputation preceding her wherever and whenever her name is spoken, Mindanao the beautiful is being shunned like an enchanted lady.
A week after our Bicol sojourn, we find ourselves tasked to undertake another Gawad Kalusugan-related activity, in Mindanao this time. Our team was to participate in the third Highway of Peace (HOPE) Caravan. The HOPE Caravan is an annual event which brings together GK volunteers and partners all over Mindanao at a convergence area of great significance. The first HOPE Caravan gathered GK heroes in Datu Paglas in Maguindanao where the promise of peace and the coming alleviation of poverty was celebrated. Participant to the second HOPE Caravan met in Camp Abu Bakar in Maguindanao (above, left), to witness how the miracle of GK has helped rebuild the lives of our war-weary Islamic brothers and sisters by way of their new 170-plus houses built by many a Christian Filipino from Mindanao and beyond. The third HOPE Caravan, I came to know later, was an expression of further solidarity of Mindanaoans- with Muslim Filipinos building houses for the poorest of the poor Christians in Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte.
The night before the main convergence of volunteers in Kapatagan, we attended a HOPE Assembly at the Corpus Christi gymnasium in Cagayan De Oro City. The three-hour long event was a recollection of sorts, a spiritual pep rally, if you may, for the assembled crowd, about several hundred strong, and many of whom were to leave the following morning for an approximately 3-hour, 100+ km-drive from CDO, Misamis Oriental to Kapatagan, in Lanao del Norte. Having had a very long day already by the time the night’s activity began at around 8:30pm, I thought I will be struggling to keep awake. But the night’s main speakers- our boss Dr. Joe Yamamoto of the GK Board and Mari Oquinena of the GK1MB (1 Milyong Bayani) team sure made staying up more than worthwhile.
I take home two things from that evening.
I. Many people- including my sister- were worried about this Mindanao trip. There were people asking Mari whether it was safe to be traveling through Mindanao. But that was precisely the reason why the caravan was being undertaken: because peace is still an issue in Mindanao. Else, said Mari, there would no reason anymore for the annual caravans to be launched. That people converge in remote and not-the-most hospitable of places is a simple, symbolic gesture of our collective willingness to risk all for peace.
II. The country is gripped with election fever and its very, very palpable in Mindanao, because of or despite its thousand-plus-kilometer distance from the capital. Admittedly, there is a brewing cynicism in our population no thanks to questionable governance and the electoral process. And since many Filipinos are not being inspired to hope by the current crop of candidates, efforts of ordinary Filipinos doing the groundwork (including GK) are perceived to eventually amount to nothing. But the message of the HOPE Caravan is- whoever gets elected, we will continue the work at hand. If the leaders who will win are sympathetic to the people with whom GK works- all the more the work of GK will flourish. If the leaders who will win are skeptics and non-believers, GK volunteers and partners should work even harder to swim against the current to make the emergency that is poverty slowly but surely a thing of the past.
Talk is cheap. Tama na ang salita. Oras na para tumaya. Love of country IS love of God.
The following day, while it was still dark, we began the journey to Kapatagan from CDO, ahead of the main caravan. It was kilometer after kilometer of arguably the best continuous set of roads I have ever traveled on, with an almost unbroken view of the coastline and the sparkling water beyond it. In the thick of the summer season, there are innumerable rice paddies remarkably lush and green. Banana trees were planted so close to each other but each had trunks of amazing girth. Coconut trees soared in abundance. There are pockets of industrialization and high level of commerce- from Iligan’s cement-producing facilities to El Salvador’s Asia Brewery plant. All are testament to the richness of the land and the potential of its people.
We reached Kapatagan after about three hours of traffic jam-free land travel from Cagayan De Oro. To get to the Brgy. Waterfalls Gawad Kalinga Village we still trekked on a good kilometer of a mixture of dirt roads with stretched partly paved off the Maharlika Highway. The site already has about forty GK houses. And yes, a God-hewn waterfalls graces the area. Rarely did we see patched of land that were not green or lush or beautiful surrounding the site. Even in its state of (in my urban mind) isolation, beauty abounded and the promise of a bountiful life is impossible to remain only as such.
We conducted a mini-medical mission in the area, mostly just dispensing simple medical advice to the residents, directing them to seek consult at their local health centers and bigger medical centers if need be, and answering health inquiries. We served at least 50 patients the three hours we were in the site, thanks to the local CFC teams of Mindanao and health workers from the Dep Ed.
Saturday, April 28, 2007
If you think I loathed this trip, let me make my point clearer:
I LOVED EVERY KILOMETER, EVERY MINUTE OF IT.
The experience was quite new to me. I am used to big city fancy architecture- the likes of which you see in Makati, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas. But nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in my 26-year-life has come close to the majesty of the breathtaking mountains, hills, and valleys, rushing waters, towering trees, terraced rice fields, craggy facades, and the calming mountain air of Bontoc and its environs like Sagada and Talubin. It’s like hurtling down a rabbit’s hole into a hidden Eden, its vivid cultured nestled far away from the mangling of urban ideals of “development” and “progress.”
From the top: Being impromptu guests at the wedding reception of the governor's daughter; trekking down to Talubin, site of our medical mission; rendering service to residents; the river skimming Talubin.
Now I understand why city folks, upon hearing of a three-day weekend, would drop everything and herd themselves to this remote corner of the Philippines. As one member of our team put it- you can see God’s signature in every tree, every shrub, every pebble, every drop of the river that runs through here.
From the top: The only way to travel enroute to Sagada; Sagada's rice terraces
And yet Eden is not so immune from the world’s ailments- physical and otherwise.
The burden of the burgeoning population is taking its toll on the land. Land is not given adequate time to recuperate after harvest. In so doing, people, too, are overworked, making them prone to a variety of illness. On the flipside, rice fields are being sold at breakneck speed to be converted to housing areas.
Bontoc town proper, early morning.
Those who do remain faithful to their centuries-old way of life are forced to co-exist too closely with their animals, so much so that they seem to be feeding from the same trough. Inevitably, the waste products they produce go through the same fate: they remain unprocessed, fouling a supposedly pristine river.
Swathes of forestlands are falling prey to slash-and-burn practitioners. Their handiwork is visible in not a few areas where forest cover has been lost with the grave consequence of erosion not far behind.
This place for the most part has escaped the pillaging of opportunistic lowlanders. Unfortunately, poverty has forced the hand of the people to harm the land that feeds them. For too long it remained a land forgotten and ignored, a showcase of government ineptitude.
I hope in some way we were able to fill the chasm between imperial Manila and this immensely bountiful place.
The trip home was more ‘humane’- we had the luxury of riding in an air-conditioned bus. Lucky for us because a light drizzle veiled us the first hour or so of our trip. But somehow the glass pane that separated me from the environment we were in was more stifling than protective.
The bus stopped. I looked to my right. It was raining but there was enough raindrop-less space in the pane to capture the scenery beside me. So I took the shot. This shot.
We took the same road home as we did when we first came to Bontoc. Of course it was no less rocky, unpaved, and landslide-debris-littered. The winding mountainside pass still hardly admitted two-way traffic. The same scenery accompanied us as we trudged homeward. And yet it’s a visual feast I never grew tired of. Just when you thought you’ve seen them all, a detail will pop out: of that terraced rice field, or the meandering river; from those quaint houses or the soaring pine trees; the wild flowers abloom or the birds hovering about the largely overcast sky.
(Above: Sidetrip to the Banawe Rice Terraces)
Now I know how it feels to be enchanted.
It’s been roughly 36 hours since we got back to Manila. Odd as it may sound, the sight of so many vehicles on the road or people milling about takes some getting used to again. God knows I paused for about two seconds before I snapped into action and actually got the car to start.
This trip placed me in that pensive-pondering mood. Somehow, despite the admittedly exhausting trip, it recharged my spiritual batteries. For a second there, I thought of actually moving to Mountain Province. I know my services will be most appreciated and welcome by people living there, 387-odd kilometers away from Manila.
Reality reeled me in though: while I survived four days without TV and newspapers and a working flush and I contented myself with surfing through WAP to find out who got the boot in American Idol and it was a thrill of a lifetime to ride atop a jeepney as it negotiated the roads of Bontoc and Sagada, I don’t know how long I can endure their very modest and basic living conditions. Of course the place isn’t all poverty- it has a Mister Donut branch, mind you- but it still won’t be… home.
Paradise is in peril. Yet I trust that somehow I can still do something even though I am here in the city. And more comforting is the glimmer of optimism I have in its residents and leaders who are more than willing to take up the cudgels and save their way of life themselves.
Hopefully, I will be back soon enough, often enough to experience this paradise on earth.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
That’s how long our car has been with us. *sigh*
I know it may sound elitist to be wistful about a luxury that many a Filipino commuter survives without. But replace the concept of the car with, say, a househelp (still elitist?), a favorite shirt, or migrating to the States for good- then you may somehow get a glimpse of the sinkhole I am in now.
He arrived when we I was in college, a suitable companion-and-soon-to-be replacement for our then 10-year old 1987 box-type Lancer. Part of the perks of my father’s employment in the pharmaceutical industry. I learned to drive using the Lancer but I learned to love to drive with our Honda.
I remember the first time my father allowed me to drive the Honda. It was I believe several months after I became really comfortable driving the Lancer. The latter is unquestionable replete with un-Honda characteristics- it’s steering will was tough to maneuver, the stick shift had a mind of its own, the pedals were equally rebellious. Despite these, Lancer- in fairness to it- planted in me the seeds of loving to drive.
Then came The Chance To Drive Honda. Pop and I took Honda out of our subdivision and drove into the national highway. Really now, Honda is the direct anti-thesis of our Lancer: the slightest nudge turned the wheel this way and that; the stick shift willfully allowed the gears to be changed with (too much) ease; the pedals were too obedient to the point that I had a hard time balancing the pressures to be exerted on the clutch and the gas as I started the car or changed gears. In short, that first trip left much to be desired, with my dad and I not being the best of pals for a day or two after that.
And so Lancer became my more constant companion, until it found a new home elsewhere. I eventually mastered driving Honda- within our village initially, usually because of errands and the Sunday mass drives.
Honda did nurture my love for driving, especially when my dad eventually let me use it full time a little after med school ended. I’ve had so many (mis)adventures aboard that car that I hesitate to mention since this blog is accessible to my parents. (Don’t worry mom and pop, I am usually a careful driver hehe.) I love driving so much that I claim to be a taxi driver in my past life.
Looking back now, however, I actually spent more time in it as a passenger. From being fetched from, taken to, and visited by my parents in my boarding house in UP Village in Diliman, to being caught unintentionally beating the red light in Katipunan Avenue en route to my college graduation ceremonies. During med school, my parents were still fetching me from, taking me to, and visiting me in my med school dorm (with laundry and groceries and cleaning materials and a lot of patience in tow!)
In a way, it has helped nurture our faith as a family. From the simple trip of going to church 10 minutes away, to pilgrimages to Manaoag, Pink Sisters Convent in Tagaytay and the shrine of Mary Mediatrix in Lipa City- Honda’s taken us there.
From the accomplishment of common everyday tasks of buying groceries to the invaluable duties of taking my grandmother to her twice-weekly dialysis sessions and visiting Anne with supplies on hand when items among the latter would be lacking.
Honda has brought us to weddings, funerals, baptisms, reunions, graduations, oath-taking ceremonies. He brought back balikbayans from the NAIA and brought migrants to the airport. He gave rides to our neighbors, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, classmates, officemates, real friends, user-friendly friends, acquaintances, and strangers.
His windshield has so many stickers of various shapes and sizes and colors from various organizations, roadways, subdivision property managers, the LTO, compounds, and complexes that many security guards believe that their subdivision or building’s sticker has GOT to be there on that windshield which makes making the Honda halt unnecessary.
He’s been hit, bumped, scratched, honked at, cursed, pummeled by Milenyo, pelted by small stones falling from the back of a truck hauling gravel, splashed at, edged out. But the worse thing that happened to me while driving was a flat tire on the C5 - Bagong Ilog flyover in Pasig City.
He has taken me to school- as a student before and as a teacher now. He has taken me to dates, endured my excessive perfume sprays, taken me home afterwards always by my lonesome, endured my rants, endured my singing, heard my prayers, if not prayed with me.
Over the past two years it has become an extension of Ian. When things are really toxic, Honda is where I eat, sleep/ nap, make my reports, read books, discuss work with officemates, hatch plans to save humanity, keep my trash, hide from the world as I drive as if I am invisible and invincible, walk, or rather, drive my faith.
Honda has taught me how to be more mature (don’t drink and drive!), responsible (insurance! 5k checkup!), considerate (give way whenever possible!), kind (thanks to GK and Lingkod!), humble (asking for directions is NOT unmanly!), prayerful (Manila traffic + Ian behind the wheel = need for increased prayer time!).
Too many words said for a 10-year old car, eh?
Yeah, words are all one has after parting with a gem of a car that Honda is or was. I just sold the car yesterday to a buy-and-sell businessman. It won’t be for family use he intimated. It’s a good thing for Honda, of course, since all bumps and bruises and scatches here and imperfections there will be healed in time for the next owner to bring him home. It’s a good thing for us as well. We might be getting a new car. But of course, Honda- he is irreplaceable.
The odometer read 205,765 kilometers. That’s the distance we’ve covered from the time Honda took my father into his driver’s seat in 1997 until I alighted from it for the last time yesterday morning in Park Square 1. Those digits could very well represent the number of memories with which the car is involved. Those digits arguably stand for the amount of blessings we’ve received by way of Honda. A number that may approximate the quantity of people he helped directly or indirectly as he went about his travels.
To me, 205,765 is probably the number of times I’d think of him over the next few weeks or so.
Thank you and God speed, Honda. May your next 205,765 kilometers on the road be as safe as the ones you’ve had with us. Bon voyage.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
As you all very well know, I am campaigning for candidates of the Ang Kapatiran Party- Paredes-Sison-Bautista for senator. I am constantly tempted to brandish my campaign materials and give everyone an orientation on why Kapatiran is worthy of our votes. But I couldn’t, because my actions maybe misinterpreted as part of the GK-CFC stance on whom to endorse among the senatoriables. So in the spirit of obedience, I held back my campaigning.
But lo and behold, God really works within the desires of your heart! A CFC tito was handing out Kapatiran leaflets soon after Koko Pimentel left! Amazing! He was doing a great job, much better had I relied on doing the campaigning myself.
For our stay in Naga, the leaders were kind enough to arrange our stay at the Camarines Sur Watersports Complex (CWC). Open to the public beginning January of this year, it boasts of world-class wakeboarding facilities which made it the logical option to host the 2008 International Wakeboarding Championships.
The beach-like ambiance is family-friendly, where one can stay in any of the numerous bungalow-type or container-van-type cabanas. Given its still-limited operating experience, however, the services rendered by the hospitality team is nothing to rave about, from the drought of warmth and smiles to faulty showers to the unavailability of non-pirated DVDs for rent.
We initially planned to leave for Manila 6am the following morning but we ended up choosing to leave at around 8am. Another huge driving task loomed ahead which all three of us happily shared. What was originally thought to be an approximately 10-hour drive turned out to be 15 hours long given the terrible traffic jams in Candelaria, Sto Tomas and the SLEX which is currently being renovated.
Of course stopping to buy pasalubong also takes time.
As well paying homage again to Bigg’s Sipocot where we finally caught and had cordon bleu for breakfast.
And then stopping again to admire the waters which skirt the towns of Gumaca, Atimonan, Lopez, Plaridel…
Posing beside the boundary marker between Atimonan and Gumaca…
Having lunch in Remy’s Carinderia just off the Atimonan-Gumaca border…
Meet-and-greet with the mermaid in Plaridel town in Quezon…
Admiring the amazing roadside scenery in Pagbilao…
From Honda running as if it were brand new, to the absence of any road mishaps; from having dispensed quality medical care to participants in the Bayani Challenge, to the bonus of knowing other Ang Kapatiran supporters; from staying in comfortable accommodations to having taken all the photos I wanted, to having many good memories rush back to me when I saw Bicol for the first time, with my dad, when he took me to a work-related trip in the summer of 1991- it was a series of fortunate events that really proved how God works within the desires of our hearts.
Before Honda has stayed long enough in our parking area to rest after all the traveling his not-so-young engine endured from Manila to Bicol and back, he finds himself taking me to the airport to catch the 5.10am PAL flight to Cagayan De Oro City for yet another trip of a lifetime.
Mindanao beckons. I answer.