happy thoughts and worthy causes

My Idyllic Camotes

Camotes island in Cebu will always have a special corner in my heart. I went there not in the best of conditions, emotionally and psychologically, but came back stronger and with more than I expected.

The trip was a consequence of a Child Rights training racket which was referred to me by a friend. It would entail giving a comprehensive seminar to the island’s local government officials and community leaders. It was for at least a week, 3 batches of 2-day sessions. And I was to be hosted at the only completed and furnished “resort” which had a beach-front view.

The trip was like the classic “plane, train and automobile” kind. Only, I went by plane, boat and motorcycle to reach my final destination. My travel began with an early morning flight from Manila to Cebu. Upon landing, I needed to catch the first boat from the nearby pier to the “big” Camotes Island. I wasn’t told there was a much faster hydrofoil fastcraft available, so I took the wooden inter-island boats which are critically filled to the point of overloading before launching off. I reached one end of the Island from mainland Cebu, but still had to do a “cross-country” island motorcycle ride to the other end of the big island.

I learned later that the hydrofoil went to the other big island – for Santiago or San Francisco-bound tourists only, but I needed to go to Tudela in Poro to get to the other island of Pilar. I was met in Tudela by a couple of volunteer Moms from Kawit, and was directed to waiting motorcycles nearby. This “habal-habal” was commissioned for our “special” trip. Still, it’s 3pax to a motorcycle, driver included, and I had to share my ride with my assistant-companion Doray while the 2 Moms rode the other one.

Over rough dirt roads we flew. It was a bumpy ride but “Kuya driver” deftly maneuvered his motorbike over potholes and slippery gravel. I thought my innards had a fine shaking already, but lo and behold, our rough rides weren’t over!

Having reached the end of Poro island, we jumped into a motorized banca to cross over to Kawit in Pilar, the last island of Camotes. And yes, that final leg was the worse! We faced big waves in the open sea crossing over to Pilar and our little banca sputtered along courageously. I have to admit, I experienced big waves island-hopping in Alaminos’ Hundred Islands and coming back from Sipaway island in San Carlos City, but those 20 to 30 minutes to Kawit were by far the longest half an hour of my life. (I would not have any other similar experience until we visited Palaui island in Sta.Ana, Cagayan years later…but that’s another adventure story.)

Enroute to Kawit, as our little boat crested wave after wave, I felt like vomiting but held my breath instead. It didn’t help that we were told to help bail out water that kept splashing into the banca. Seawind blowing, spindrifts flying into my face, I valiantly bailed out water while praying to high heavens to spare me a watery grave. I now understand adrenaline junkies, because you never feel more alive as when you are risking your life. There is also nothing like fear to get your head on right, because you begin thinking of what really matters most.

Finally, we reached the white sand beaches of Kawit. I got off the banca into the clear waters teeming with small fishes. My knees were still all wobbly, but I was amazed by the natural beauty of the place. There was none of the dark gray sand of the Northern Luzon beaches I grew up with. These white sand beaches are rare in the coastal provinces of my childhood and I only remember them from distant places like Bolinao in Pangasinan and Pagudpud in Ilocos Norte. I guess the Visayas has more of them because they have a multitude of islands in an area constantly battered by typhoons and strong waves, pulverizing corals and seashells alike to form these wonderful bleached grains.

I didn’t really have much in terms of expectation, I knew it was a poor community, not yet developed as proven by the rough roads and limited forms of transportation available. While there was electricity on the island, it was not stable or regularly supplied yet. Residents are still compelled to have generators for light and power. And the “resort” itself was still unfinished, except for a few rooms, a large common activity area, and a small store for snacks or basic necessities. Fortunately, there was airconditioning in the room and freshwater supply in the private toilet/bath. Those were my bare minimum requirements and was content enough with our accommodations.

Happily, I was also informed that my regular Coke or Pepsi was available at the resort store should I want it. It’s my only vice and I usually need a softdrink when I do my lectures and talks. While there was no cable TV, the typical island entertainment was drinking and videoke. Since I was allergic to alcohol, I turned to a nightly concert with some of the villagers instead. Surprisingly, after lecturing the whole day, my voice was still good for some singing.

There were other perks of course. I had a beachside view everyday from the moment I woke up, to the whole-day seminar sessions we conducted. Gentle seabreezes blew in fresh air and there were enough island vegetation for some shade. There were fruit-bearing trees like coconut, mangoes, santol, star-apple, and edible shrubs like bananas, papaya and cassava. I enjoyed spectacular sunsets and was lulled to sleep by the sound of waves rushing to shore as the tide came in. Towards the middle of the island, I was told there were caves and mini-waterfalls. Unlike other islands, Pilar island is self-sufficient because it had a fresh water source from its mountains. In fact, in the other big island, there was an actual freshwater lake – Lake Danao.

I had enough time for a morning swim each day, so I took full advantage of it. I walked the beach each day, the sand still littered with corals, seashells, starfish, and brittle-stars. Crabs and an occasional sea urchin threaten my feet on the sand, but those colorful tropical fishes kept me company during my swim. Blue, green, and yellow fishes zoomed past me as I snorkeled at the nearby rocks. And you just know these are still genuine, unadulterated beaches because the white sand are not yet powder-soft in some places, granulized corals and shells are still quite visible and unfortunately hurt your bare feet. Knee-high water has small fishes swimming about because of the seaweed growing abundantly near the shore. Nearby, mangrove areas are still preserved providing safe haven for other sea creatures to grow their young. This apparent care of preserving the island’s natural resources significantly contribute to the island-community’s self-sufficiency.

Had I not been allergic to half of the seafood offerings, it would have been a culinary heaven. I could not enjoy the shrimps, prawns, crabs, or lobsters they offered. I did try the grilled giant squid or “lumot” just to be polite and because I knew I reacted least to it. Nevertheless, I quickly chased it down with Coke and my antihistamine medicine just in case. I did enjoy the freshest of seaweed in all its varieties – stringy, worm-like, grape-type. I tried the different kinds of clams, mussels, scallops, oysters, and other mollusks I wasn’t familiar with. There was even a unique edible seashell from the conch family which they said was a real delicacy because it was seasonal. The deep-sea fishes were also a real treat. They are really tasty and flavorful compared to freshwater fish. There is what the locals call “isdang-bato” which are monstrous-looking with their protruding jawlines and really sharp teeth. They look like they came straight from Jurassic Park and I am even afraid to eat them because they look like they’re the ones about to eat me. Some are really scaly and perfect for grilling, while the smooth-skinned ones are good for soup-based dishes.

Sometimes, some of the villagers would bring back some bananas, guavas, mangoes or santol to pass around and eat during the afternoon sessions. It was more than as snack but a way of staying awake as well, because there was no overflowing coffee or candies in these parts. They would leave a bunch of these goodies for me at the end of the day, and sometimes they were good for a midnight snack or just something to munch on while doing the nightly videoke.

Initially, I thought the change of scenery was great for my physical well-being. I was getting some fresh air away from the city pollution, some sunshine instead of being locked-up inside the office everyday, and regular exercise with all the morning swimming I was doing. I was also getting a healthier diet of fresh fish and native chicken instead of all the harmful meats and cold-cuts which were my staples back home.  But there was more than the unhealthy food I was eating that was actually making me unwell back home, of course. Home life just wasn’t as conducive to a positive mindset and I was feeling unappreciated and taken for granted. Unconsciously, I was treating myself the same way and was not taking care of my health.

On this distant island, the people were treating me better than any five-star resort-hotel. I actually felt like royalty even with the humble accommodations I had because of how the people valued my well-being. They would tell me what fresh fish would be available because the returning fishermen gave us first dibs. Then women would ask how I would like it cooked and would recommend different styles and carefully explain to me why its best grilled, soup-based, and kinilaw or ceviche. Occasionally, a group would come by and offer the freshest seaweed they gathered. The mothers once made their kids collect the famed seasonal mollusk as special fare so I can taste it. I loved the regular, friendly interaction with the locals. I was learning from them just as they were learning everyday from my lectures. Neither of us were taking each other for granted, and we both considered our meetings and conversations as significant. But none was as life-changing as speaking with the person who would remain on my mind long after I had departed from the island – the resort owner’s youngest daughter who took care of us during our stay.

After lunch, after each morning session, I would ask her for a bottle of Coke or Pepsi at her small refreshment shack before starting my next lecture. After the second day, she would automatically hand me a cold bottle of Pepsi after my lunch. I smiled at her anticipating my needs like that. It was the first time in a long time that someone seemed to be paying attention to me.

There were times she would join us for the videoke singing, not drinking alcoholic beverages herself. We would talk for hours about life on the island, its unspoiled beaches, many undiscovered touristy spots, including the difficulty of travel via the scheduled boat rides and its accompanying dangers at sea. It was the first time I heard about the “pito-pito” myth, where islanders believe bad weather usually takes 7 days or 7 weeks, and you have no choice but get stuck on the island. I told her of my work, how I got there doing what I was doing, seemingly simple and altruistic considering my impressive education at the country’s State university. She thought me kind and smart, and I thought she was refreshingly cheerful and quite sexy in her pajamas or jogging pants which she opted to wear to avoid mosquito bites. Yes, some of the vegetation and dark corners also attract mosquitoes even with the seabreeze blowing.

Soon, I was waking up at dawn not just for sunrise, but to see her drive up on her motorbike and prepare the resort for the day’s activities. She would turn-off the generator or check if it still had gasoline, check the watertank if there’s enough supply for our morning showers, and turn off all the other safety lights around the resort. I noticed she would purposedly pass by our room and I began to time my exit from my room so I would also catch her walking by. She would watch out for me like a lifeguard while I take my morning swim. On rare occasions, she would join me combing the beaches for seashells and starfishes to throw back to the sea. And once, I was nipped by a hermit crab which I mistakenly picked up as an empty shell, and she laughed her lilting laughter. She repeatedly warned me to watch out for the sea urchins or “tuyom” which I might step on. I asked her about those weird starfish-like creatures which had long arms littering the beach and which turned out to be brittlestars. On those blissful early mornings, I was lucky enough to see an actual sand dollar and even a squishy sea cucumber.

No matter how busy and tiring the day was, the view of the sunset by the beach always left me amazingly refreshed and envigorated. The fiery sky on the horizon, with its palette of red, orange, and yellow hues, signified the culmination of another meaningful and productive day. You cannot help but feel reflective, meditative even, but always grateful. I was beginning to remember what I was worth as a person again.

And as my week in Camotes began to wind down, she said she regretted not taking me around to the other spots worth seeing – the waterfalls and the inland caves. I, on the other hand, promised to come back because the island was so memorable for me. I was happy enough to have reached such a wonderful place and to have made new friendships.

She saw me off at the pantalan for the boat to take us to Ormoc, Leyte this time which was nearer at this point. From there, we were to take a ship back to Cebu.

Our goodbye was an awkward hug and simple peck on the cheek. But like that swing we danced during one videoke night, it seemed to promise something more. I couldn’t shrug off the strange feeling at this point because I remembered my weird dream about her. it was about her touching my feet (I am rather sensitive about having my feet touched), where she explained that “she was just checking how far this would take us”. I woke up so confused and wondering what the dream meant because I hardly knew her.

We texted all throughout my trip back to Cebu, trading messages on how much farther land was because the open sea scared me. Thankfully there was a cellphone signal at different points. By the time we were at the airport in Cebu, I somehow knew I was taking back more from Camotes. For that brief stint as a training facilitator, I was on my way to healing, to finding myself again. I found my way back by bravely moving forward with my heart.

“The campus in November:

Lush greenery thriving under the season’s rains,

I sit under this tree,

Engulfed by the cool air heralding

the coming holidays.

The new semester signals

new beginnings, fresh starts once again.

Ours was a mere continuation

of months, even a few years,

of knowing,

Yet now facing a different chapter in our lives.

Fear set in from the uncertainty,

but the opportunity called for courage and faith,

So in that moment of revelation,

we were gifted by an answer

we both longed for.”


Memories of Guimaras

“Morning Sun slowly rising over the horizon,

A chilly breeze blows in from the sea

like your breath I feel on my nape.

This half-lit scene is a memory smelling of freshly-caught fish,

the taste of salt on my tongue,

and your warm skin underneath me.

So I yearn again for those days

of promise and new beginnings…”

(memories of Guimaras)

GPL 10/31/2022

UPLB Ghost Stories

UPLB Campus

Tinaguriang one of the most haunted places in the Phils ang UP Los Banos. Pero supernatural occurrences dun ay hindi lamang dahil sa mga alaala ng WW2, kundi dahil na rin sa kababalaghan mula sa kalikasan. Sa totoo lng, mas malaki ang campus ng UPLB sa UP Diliman dahil kasama dito ang lupain hanggang IRRI at at UPOU sa may Bay, at pati na rin sa bundok Makiling lagpas ng College of Forestry, Boy Scouts Jamboree, Natl HS for the Arts, tagos sa PCARRD na ngayon ay shortcut na papuntang highway at Los Banos Bayan.

On campus, naglipana pa ang nalalakihang puno ng acacia, kapok, mangga at iba pang hardwood. Napalilibutan din kami ng mga creeks na tagusan ng tubig mula sa bundok, kaya marami ring mga tulay na gawa pa bago ng gyera. Sa dami ng malalaking puno, hindi mo alam kng alin ang may naninirahan, kaya natuto kaming gumalang sa nature.

Nung minsan ginabi kami ng mga kaklase ko from a group study session. Wala na jeeps nuon so kadilakad na kami. Buti mga 3-4 kami pabalik ng dorms sa campus. Nung nandun na kami sa may Palma Bridge may sumitsit. Akala ko sa may kapok tree sa side ng PhySci bldg, pero may sumitsit uli sa may kanan ng tulay at nakatinginan na kami. Tumigil na sa pagkukwento yng maingay naming bading. ‘Narinig nyo yun?’, tanong ko. pero hindi na nila ako sinagot at medyo binikisan ag paglalakad. nung mas malapit na kami dun sa malaking puno sa may auditorium, mas malakas yng sitsit kaya pare-pareho kaming dun napatingin. Madilim yng audi, wlang ilaw, at makapal ang mga dahon ng puno. Wala ka makita kundi kadiliman. Bgla kaming sabay2x karipas ng takbo across Baker’s Field (version namin ng Sunken Garden) papuntang dorms. Swerte nung isa, sa Women’s dorm sya at pinakamalapit, 2 kaming diretso sa Men’s, at pinakamalas yng bading naming friend kasi sa Coop Housing pa sya.

Dyan din sa Baker’s Field, malapit sa Baker Hall, may experience yng mga Vanguard (officers ng ROTC) during their early AM jogging. Tuwing rainy season, malamig at nagiging foggy yng campus. Minsan daw na makulimlim at medyo umaambon, ambon na umaga, nagja-jogging yng mga Vanguards na hindi bababa sa 10 lalaking macho. Doing the usual greetings-chanting sila, ‘good morning ladies of Women’s Dorm,’ good morning, ladies of Men’s Dorm…’ tapos nung malapit sa Baker Hall mismo, may bgla silang nakitang kasabay nila na grupo…isang pulutong ng nagma-marchang mga sundalong Hapon! Kitang-kita nila lahat, halata sa lumang uniporme circa 1940s, yng sumbrerong Japanese cap na may takip sa tenga, yng baril na may bayoneta sa dulo! Karipas daw silang lhat ng takbo pauwi ng barracks nila sa may Grandstand.

Dahil nga ginawang concentration camp ang buong UPLB campus nung Japanese Occupation, hindi maiwasang may mga kakaiba dito. Sa mismong Baker Hall na dati naming gym/PE bldg, marami daw kinulong at tortured. Kaya sa basement kng saan storage ng mga sports equipment, super creepy daw talga. Dun nga sa 2nd flr, may malalaking open windows, minsan daw ay may nakikitang white lady na nakadungaw kht gabi na at wlang ilaw dun. Yng kapatid ko, gumimik ng inuman ksama ang friends sa Field isang gabi. Bgla silang inabot ng ulan, e ang pinakamalapit silungan yng Baker Hall. Nkatayo daw sila sa harap dun sa may sementong canopy, tuloy ang kwentuhan at tawanan. Bgla daw may umamoy na super baho..amoy organic na nabubulok. Ang sabi nga nung isa sa kanila, parang naaagnas na bangkay. Nangilabot na daw sila at nagsitakbuhan papuntang Student Union na malapit sa Auditorium.

They said there wasn’t much to see this side of Negros, the Cebuano-speaking side of Occidental which probably should’ve been part of Oriental already. San Carlos City is much like its Negros Occidental sister towns – planted to sugarcane and privileged to have access to coconut lands up Mt. Kanlaon. In the recent years, prawn farming had also become popular in these parts. But like the rest of Negros Oriental, they consider themselves the “poorer”, working class side of Negros Occidental.

My sister married a San Carlos native and ended up living there to start their family. Years later, after my Bar Exams, we decided to take a Negros island tour. With my then partner, who hails from Dumaguete, my Mom and stewardess sister tagged along for the trip. We flew in from Manila via Dumaguete, and drove up to San Carlos City where we were met by my older sister. My nephews and niece were excited to see us and wanted to show us around their town. But there really wasn’t much to do and with a single tricycle ride, one would’ve been able to see the whole city already. So my youngest nephew suggested a Sipaway Island Day Tour. The 15 year old was so eager that he arranged everything himself – from negotiating for a boat, to arranging for our picnic food, the whole itinerary.

Like all boat rides, it’s ideal to take sail in the early morning when the waters are calm and the tide is seemingly low. We got to the port area around 6AM where our boatman was already waiting. They said the trip would take only 15 minutes to the island itself, and a couple of more minutes to circle the whole island. Composed just 2 barangays, the 7-kilometer island from tip-to-tip can be traversed in less than a day. I hear the newly-paved roads are now perfect for some biking too.

At the time we visited, there was only one resort being developed – the Whispering Palms owned by a foreigner who married a local. It was meant to have all the usual amenities, even a mini-zoo and aviary for kids. Still under construction, it wasn’t ready for guests yet. Later on, I heard there were other more reasonably-priced resorts that got established, including ones perfect for some “glamping”. The local government also promised that electrification and a clean water source would follow, and I am glad that actually got accomplished.

Much like other “young and isolated” islands in these parts, Sipaway boasts of cream-colored sand. Though not powdery-soft like Boracay, the white sands still had that pristine charm. Full of seashells and crushed coral, it was proof that the waters around the island were teeming with life. True enough, when my niece and nephews went swimming, they confirmed the place was perfect for some snorkeling.

The blue-green waters were so clear you could see starfishes of various colors at the seabed. There was minimal seaweed you can get entangled with, but shells and corals were enough hiding places for the different marine creatures. Besides fish, there were stingrays, eels, an occasional octopus and crabs. Unfortunately, there were also sea urchins whose spines can be very painful if stepped on. But sitting on the beach, enjoying the sun and the gentle sea breeze while listening to the sound of the waves lapping at the shore is priceless enough.

We were later taken to a secluded area with much shallower waters. It was like a private beach where one can swim and sunbathe in peace. Since it was also near the marshes where the mangroves abound, I noticed a few jellyfish floating around. The boatmen said these small jellyfish were eaten as delicacies, soaked in vinegar and mixed with spices “kinilaw” style. It’s a good thing there weren’t any big ones, those box-type, Portuguese Man-of-War jellyfish, I commented warily. Just then, one of the boys assisting the boatman gestured into the water. I saw a white cellophane-like material floating about near the boat where we were swimming. Just then, the boys grabbed one of the poles and started poking at the white seeming “plastic” to raise it up from the waters. It turned out to be a gigantic jellyfish! My sisters screamed and all rushed to get in the boat lest there were others around. One sting from one these box jellyfish can inject enough toxins to kill you, especially if you have allergies like me.

That encounter pretty much ended our swimming fun and we decided to continue touring the rest of the island. The wetlands surrounding Sipaway was not only a haven for various crustaceans like shrimp and crabs, they served as a sanctuary for birds as well. I wondered if the island can be turned into something like Cebu’s Olango island to support migratory birds.

The foliage of the vegetation was so dense, mangroves interspersed with some Nipa, I once again remarked it’s a good thing no crocodiles lived there like in the Florida everglades and Louisiana bayous. The boatman laughed and said in Tagalog, “Ay meron din, ma’am…minsan meron kami nakakasalubong na mga buwaya dyan kapag nangingisda o nangunguha ng alimango.” I forgot the Philippines is known for its salt-water crocodiles seen in Palawan and the Visayas-Mindanao regions. And with that, our Sipaway island adventure concluded as my sisters insisted we sail back to port already.

Or so I thought…because even in the early afternoon, a distant rain shower ensued. You can’t imagine what a little wind can do to cause some waves. As our little motorized banca approached the pantalan, the waters became rather choppy and prevented our smooth return. Even as we were eventually able to dock safely, getting off the rocking boat was another thing. And I knew my sisters’ squeals were not of fun or excitement anymore.

When people hear about Ormoc, they think of 3 things – that devastating flood of yore, the recent earthquakes which plagued Leyte and their showbiz couple mayor and congresswoman. But I remember it mostly for an amazing mountain lake I visited once – Lake Danao.

I first visited Leyte in the 1990s for the wedding of my law school classmate and sorority sister who was a native of Ormoc. We took a Manila-Tacloban flight, then a 2-hour van trip to Ormoc City. At the time, the place was more or less developed, but not as urbanized as Tacloban. Nonetheless, it was a known fishing port, a travel hub for those enroute to Cebu, and a commercial center for this side of Leyte.

The highlight of our trip though was the pre-wedding picnic-party at the famed Lake Danao. It used to be called “Lake Imelda”, probably in honor of the former First Lady who is a Leyte native. By a Presidential decree in the 1970s, it became a nature reserve and subsequently put under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) law.

With an elevation similar to Tagaytay, the mountain lake is usually covered in fog, even when it wasn’t raining. My friend said it reminded her of New Zealand. As we drove up the rough and unpaved “dirt” road, the temperatures slowly cooled and the vegetation gradually thickened. Endemic hardwood trees abound, those tropical mountain plants like wild ferns, jungle orchids, and even edibles like berries, mangoes, bananas, papayas, guavas, as well as root crops like cassava, ube, gabi, and kamote grow all-around in a natural hodge-podge. In the cool weather, I was willing to bet some vegetables would likewise grow abundantly here.

When we finally reached the top, it looked like a scene straight out of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – a virtual replica of the “misty mountains”. There was a great panoramic view of the lake, tranquil green waters surrounded by the lush verdant mountain range. Momentarily covered by thick mist, possibly because of the light showers, it soon cleared enough to show its great expanse.

Apparently, this is part of the Amandiwen range with a nearby dormant volcano Mt.Janagdan which also boasts of another mountain lake – Lake Janagdan. But while Mt. Janagdan is a genuine crater lake, Lake Danao is considered a “graben” or depression caused by the active Leyte Fault. It is also suspected that it is previously part of bigger crater lake caused by ancient volcanic eruptions. A fresh water source, Lake Danao supplies the adjoining towns and is essential for some nearby farmlands.

The lake waters were so eerily still, like glass mirroring its surroundings, hence its green color. They say Lake Danao is the deepest portion of a previous crater lake which got reduced through the centuries. This explains why there are some wetlands and marshes around Lake Danao still. Besides the usual forest creatures like deer and wild boar, there is a wide variety of birds that can be found here. There are hornbills, parakeets, owls and pigeons.

Although it appeared a bit neglected, the location had been developed as a tourist spot-park area. The facilities were still intact and useable by visitors for family picnics. A few years later, during the earthquakes, this place will suffer some damage when deep cracks appeared on the road up, and nearby areas had some landslides. Nowadays, I hear they have installed floating huts on the lake itself. 

From atop the viewing deck, we trekked down to the lake shore. The other wedding guests consisted of some German friends of the groom, and they braved the cold waters for a swim. They noted that the lake was pretty deep and when they dove down, they can’t see much despite its clear waters. We were told that its unknown depths is actually one of the big mysteries of this guitar-shaped mountain lake. Many have tried to measure it, but were unsuccessful to reach its bottom.

Locals say a possible awakening of the nearby dormant volcano or earthquakes caused by the active Leyte Fault is a danger for the adjoining areas. But like all awesome things, Lake Danao with its unique beauty comes an uncertainty that is difficulty to fathom, and people will always live with some degree of risk under it.


Dear Former Colleague,

You asked how we have been faring here in our part of the world. Not too well, if I can be honest with you.

With the continuing health and economic crisis brought about by the COVID19 pandemic, there has been regular and consistent support for our medical frontliners who are at the forefront of this battle. However, there are many other players who are not as recognized or appreciated for their valuable contributions such as our beloved social workers.

Early on, many of our brethren knew they would be one of those who will be called upon to continue rendering service in spite of the dangers of infection. Not only as part of the public service, but as genuine development workers tasked with uplifting the quality of life of others, the general welfare of our countrymen had to take precedence. Both regular and MOA social workers of the DSWD became part of the valuable Social Amelioration Program (SAP) distributions, while some welcomed returning OFWs and processed numerous Locally-Stranded Individuals (LSIs), and others continued to serve at our Crisis Intervention Units (CIUs) providing financial assistance to vulnerable clients

So while medical frontliners were being lauded for their sacrifice, and the police and the military manning our checkpoints garnered much sympathy of risking their lives, we did not hear much about our poor social workers going down into the communities with no or limited protective gear (initially some were compelled to buy their own masks and gloves), risking their health and of their families who they went home to after each dangerous exposure. COVID Testing then was not the norm, and some social workers and Special Disbursement Officers (SDOs) were forced to shell out from their own pockets thousands of hard-earned money to spend for their own swabtests.

Such insensitivity amounted to abuse when poor MOA/COS workers could not avail of the Alternative Work Arrangement (AWA) prescribed by the Civil Service Commission for regular employees in government. As such, it was the MOA/COS social workers who were time and again sent to the battlefront, without proper life insurance or healthcare, nor the benefit of tenure, with the threat of insubordination and not being renewed hanging over their heads.

Meanwhile, DSWD Management just like the leadership of this poor nation, were late with their crucial decision-making. Knowing fully well of the health risks our DSWD social workers were being exposed to, they failed to institute the much-needed interventions early on. While testing was allegedly not allowed due to Department budgetary concerns, a well-coordinated referral system to institutions like Philippine Red Cross, Quezon City Health Department, the UP Health Service or even the Marikina LGU testing facility could have been undertaken. It took the DSWD employees union SWEAP to intervene and initiate initial rapid-testing of Central Office employees since there was no efficient contact tracing and health status reporting being conducted then at the workplace as fellow personnel began infecting each other. Without the support and sense of urgency of the DSWD officials, any proposed guidelines and concrete interventions took months before being implemented. By then, there were already five (5) COVID-related deaths amongst our colleagues – an asthmatic MOA who continued to do field work because AWA was not allowed, an exhausted SAP frontliner who succumbed to cardiac arrest, a driver who had comorbidities but was unknowingly exposed to an infected co-worker. At least two of these DSWD employees died of COVID possibly due to exposure in the field or in the office itself, while 2 others were due to the exhaustion and stress of SAP distribution.

I continue to lament the fate of my poor colleagues in the DSWD. Not only are the MOA/COS being subjected to these unnecessary COVID risks, they suffer in silence for non-renewal of contracts, late signing of their contracts resulting in unpaid rendered service, delayed salaries, and no hazard pay, not even the legally-mandated Magna Carta of Public Social Workers. And now with the Mandanas ruling and the impending threat of devolution, many of our social workers will be displaced when the budget of some social services and programs are transferred to the LGUs. At a time of great health and economic upheaval because of COVID, the DSWD Management will be contributing more numbers to the poor by adding its own employees to the sector. The Philippine government is technically throwing the very same people it tasked to raise marginalized sectors from the quagmire of poverty to the same quicksand of economic vulnerability.

Of late, a young social worker from NCR was murdered, and speculations point to his being a SDO tasked with handling money. The employees union SWEAP has unfortunately been linked to red-tagged organizations and SWEAP officers are now being harassed and charged administratively. Things are going from bad to worse. Perish the thought it gets even worst.

We ask that media turn its attention to the plight of our dear social workers and highlight their struggles too. We ask that professional associations of social workers, PASWI, ADSWI, and NASWEI, show their support and rally the troops for their common goals. Most of all, we ask the DSWD Management and the Philippine government to be accountable and to do their part, just as our social workers have been faithfully doing since Day 1 of this COVID pandemic.

Be well, stay safe where you are, dear Colleague. Please pray and remain hopeful for the Philippines.

Your Development Worker Friend

10 Pinoy Things You Will Miss Abroad

There are many things about the Philippines and fellow Filipinos we take for granted. And only when we are abroad in other countries do we realize the value of these things. Here are 10 very “Pinoy” things I really missed when I was travelling abroad.

  1. There are no “salubongs” or welcoming committee when you arrive in another country. – Unless you are in a Tour Group or organized conference there is no “welcoming committee” once you land at the airport. You are expected to get yourself to your own hotel or conference venue by your own efforts. If you are lucky, there might be a hotel shuttle to pick you up, but that’s it as far as friendly “salubongs” get. In Jakarta and New Delhi, taxis were available but we were warned about the notoriety of these drivers taking advantage of foreigners. Yet we had no choice but take taxis to the hotel anyway.
  2. The same goes for “hatids” or send-offs – Foreigners don’t usually take the time off work just so they can take you to the airport or train station to say goodbye. They are not big on send-offs as Filipinos, so be ready to take yourself to the airport. In the Philippines, it’s not just your immediate family but the whole barangay who is willing to take you to the airport or bus terminal.
  3. Don’t expect the same level of hospitality – Pinoys are naturally friendly and accommodating. When a foreigner gets lost and asks for help, we willingly assist and are genuinely polite. Abroad, if you get lost, it’s not very easy to ask for directions since not everyone speaks English or are just not as polite or helpful. Remember this when you see those “tambays at the kanto” back home who can give you clear directions while speaking English. I arrived on a Sunday in Geneva and the streets were actually deserted; the few people walking about on their way to their weekend jobs did not speak English.
  4. Kindness/Helpfulness Isn’t Automatically Extended to Strangers – On MRT and LRT trains here, if it gets too cramped and you get tossed about, fellow passengers would even hold you up and keep you steady by allowing you to hang on unto their arms. In other countries, especially in the West, don’t expect to even get help with your luggage because everyone just minds their own business. Landing in Schipol in Amsterdam and Changi airport in Singapore, I had to lug around my own baggage unto the trains for the necessary transfers. No one offered to help at all.
  5. Catholic Churches are not that Easy to Find – Since majority of the Filipino population are Catholics and very religious, in the Philippines every other block or barangay has a church or chapel. But religion is not really the norm in other countries especially in those modern, highly industrialized nations. They may be Christian, but there are so many other Protestant denominations, so don’t expect to easily find a Catholic church nearby. In Hong Kong, we had to leave the island to find one, while in Geneva, I had to cross the river to hear mass. Never thought an ordinary Sunday routine would become such a chore when a church is not so accessible.
  6. Various toiletries and beauty products are not available everywhere. – I was in Indonesia several times and one of the most troublesome aspects of my extended stays is my supplies running out. But when I go to groceries, pharmacies or even malls, there just aren’t enough choices or brands for some personal hygiene products. In Manila, whole racks are filled with various sanitary products. In Surabaya, there is just one small corner for alcohol, sanitizers, cotton balls, etc. but no or limited cologne, hand or body lotions, even scented talcum powders. My friend explained that there isn’t much market for beauty products because in the predominantly Muslim country with conservative practices, women are not encouraged to spend so much on personal toiletries.
  7. How Baths and Showers Are Important – Either because of the cold weather or difficult water supply, other countries don’t put a premium on regular baths or showers unlike Filipinos. Some foreigner friends often ask why PInoys take showers all the time. In Melbourne, my hotel’s staff complained that the Filipinos use up their stored water because we needed to take showers twice a day. Once in a Bali red light district I was doing research in, the working women there shared they loved Pinoy seamen because they are always so clean and smell good unlike their other foreign customers.
  8. Free drinking water isn’t available in all restaurants – Filipinorestaurants and food establishments usually offer free drinking water the minute you sit down and haven’t even ordered anything. If you order other beverages, this glass of water doesn’t usually get touched and simply go to waste. Abroad, tap water isn’t really offered and if you ask for water, they will give you something bottled and get charged for it. Since Hong Kong island has limited freshwater and must get it from the mainland, you don’t automatically get water at your table. If you ask for it, they give you bottled water which you have to pay for. Otherwise, what you get is the free and unlimited hot tea.
  9. Filipino food is What I Missed Most – Our standard condiments on the table like patis or bagoong are not readily available abroad. Restaurants just have the usual salt and pepper, or the occasional paprika. If you’re lucky enough to find an Asian establishment, you may get the rare soy sauce. But no amount of gravy can make up for the lack of the usual condiments and sawsawan in foreign cuisine. It’s just not the same if your grilled pork belly doesn’t have that calamansi and toyo dip. No matter how thick that steak is, somehow it’s just too bland without the Asian soy sauce that makes it more special.
  10. Pinoy takes on commercial fastfood are better – Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in the Philippines has free-glowing gravy, but in Singapore there was none of that! At the Night time Safari, we were going to take an early dinner when we were served hot sauce to go with the chicken. Meanwhile, when we were in Jakarta, we went to eat at a local Wendy’s and ordered the usual burgers. However, these burgers tasted so different…as if the meat wasn’t properly sauted in onions and garlic. It just tasted too “beefy”. No wonder our Jollibee is such a hit abroad. Foreigners actually marvel at our Pinoy-styled sweet spaghetti. I guess they also don’t realize some Pinoys actually use tamis-anghang ketchup when cooking spaghetti instead of the sour tasting all-tomato based sauces.

Over-all these are the very Filipino stuff that really make you feel homesick for the Philippines. But if it’s any comfort, somehow, somewhere, you always seem to find a kababayan anywhere in the world. And that is good material for another day…


The CARAGA region is one place I haven’t been to very often. I made two short visits to Butuan before and both were for senior citizens activities. I haven’t been back there since then, but I was able to make the most of my earlier trips to discover Butuan’s historical significance.

I was warned that Butuan gets pretty flooded every rainy season, so I better time my visit during the dry months. This flooding is not surprising since the great Agusan River traverses a big portion of the densely populated area of Butuan City. There is a theory that the various criss-crossing tributaries like the Masao river and Agusan Pequeno river accumulated so much alluvium through the centuries that it became the land mass that is now Agusan and Butuan. The marshes and swamplands also became a perfect environment for a variety of animals, shells and crustaceans, birds, fishes, and of course – the famous Philippine crocodiles. This is after all the home province of Lolong, the largest captured crocodile.

Any real-life Philippine history lesson should include an actual visit to Butuan. The National Museum there is one of the first inter-active museums in the country and houses valuable relics from the past. These historical and cultural artifacts come from one of the Philippines’  richest archeological digs, stemming even from prehistoric times. There are actually ancient stone and metal implements, woodworks and potteries from the pre-colonial era. These proves that there really was a pretty sophisticated civilization even before the Spaniards came to our islands.

The other famous museum which is a must-see in Butuan is the Balangay Shrine. Several of these wooden boats have been found in the area of Libertad and are thought to be the major transports which took our ancestors from their homelands to the Philippine islands. Made of sturdy, water-resistant wooden planks, amazingly put together without any metal nails, these 15 meters long by 3 meter-wide boats are known as “Balangays”.  Imagine these boats travelling across high seas, withstanding storms, carrying a few good men and women with the most adventurous spirits with the hope of beginning new lives elsewhere into the unknown.

Near the Masao river is the Bood Promontory, a wooded area on top of a hill where Magellan was thought to have held the first mass. As such, there is a memorial of sorts, some metal and cement sculpture depicting that historical event. Now known as the Bood Promontory Ecopark, it serves as a nursery and tree park, with fishponds, a hanging bridge, and lots of natural, open space perfect for relaxing. Together with Magellan’s Landing, the Banza church ruins and other old churches, these are markers of how hard the Spanish tried to establish themselves here.

Butuan’s connection with the past is truly extra-ordinary. The latest tourist attraction is on a private property, the Bequibel Shell Midden, which the National Museum considers an unusual archeological dig –  the shell midden which goes down several meters into the ground. This site is in the middle of a large expanse of agricultural land, some distance from any waterway. Yet the existence of the shell midden is proof that once upon a time, the area was near a river or tributary. However, centuries of river flow has accumulated enough alluvium to form the landlocked farmland and for the waterway to disappear. Shell middens are actually pre-historic garbage dump-sites – while majority are the disposed shells of seashells eaten by our ancestors, these actually include remnants of other food eaten like animal bones, botanical material, human excrement, and various other refuse. These waste materials can be carbon-dated and can tell us much about the culture and way of life of our ancestors.

Being the marshland that it is, seafood abounds in the local menu. However, I am allergic to shrimps, crabs, or squid, and can only partake of the fresh fish. Butuan is where I tasted one of the best kinilaw na tangguigue served in the form of “sinuglaw” – combination of sinugba or grilled pork and kinilaw or fish ceviche. In these parts, I was also offered classic Mindanao fruits like marang, a type of breadfruit similar to langka, and durian, that stinky but tasty fruit grown only in Philippine, Thailand and Indonesian varieties. I also tasted a unique kind of suman – their sticky rice cake is cooked not just with coconut milk, but with a tinge of ginger. And as in Cebu and Davao, this suman is served with mangoes and hot tsokolate.

The place where I stayed called “Goat-To-Geder” hotel and restaurant was also quite popular for its chevon-based dishes. Sadly, even as the Ilocano that I am, I can only tolerate kalderetang kambing and nothing else. This preference for goat meat is something we share with our South East Asian neighbor, Indonesia, just like their various rice cakes and coconut milk-infused dishes. I remember from my travels that there is even a Malaysian version of our local halo-halo. But more than our similarity in cuisine, the Bahasa language has commonalities with our local dialects, particularly up north, in Ilocano and Kapampangan. So while evidence of the first landings and human settlements were in these parts of Mindanao, who is to say our ancestors did not venture as far up north and reached Luzon.

For anyone seeking true Philippine history through travel, Butuan should be your first stop. It is possible that this is where it all began, or better yet, it can give you a view into the past from where we are in the present. Butuan’s historical sites and museums can give you an idea how these islands first became populated, not by wild savages Spanish colonialists portrayed us to be, but as the civilized communities that lived in communion with nature. It is here in Butuan that shows our ancestors as a proud ancient people who were ever grateful for nature’s gifts like the alluvium from its rivers and springs, giving them living space for settlements, as well as rich, fertile lands for cultivation. But more than anything, these remnants of the past which continue to be discovered and dug up to this day, should remind us of our glorious pre-colonial cultural heritage. In fact, do drop by and take a look at the replica of the Golden Tara if you need more convincing.

Halloween Stories 2020

Sunday at the Park: Paco Cemetery

Besides old churches and ancestral houses, mahilig din ako bumisita ng mga heritage sites like historical cemeteries. One time I was coming back from Malate, dumaan yng driver sa may Sta. Ana area pauwi. Napansin ko yng Paco Park which was a field trip destination nung bata pa kami.Sinabihan ko yng driver ko na dumaan muna kami at papasyalan ko itong lumang sementeryo na itinayo pa nung panahon ng Kastila. In fact, nilibing dun ang 3 pari ng GOMBURZA at pati si Rizal nung bagong execute pa lng. Nung nagkaroon ng cholera epidemic sa Manila, marami ring nilibing dun dahil hindi na kasya sa mga sementeryong mas malapit sa Intramuros.Katatapos lng ng last morning mass, so nag-alisan na ang mga nagsimba. Sinarado na rin yng chapel kng saan nagmimisa. Kaunting tao lng ang nasa loob ng Paco Park, yng bantay sa entrance fee booth, yng gwardiya na nasa may gate, at yng isa o dalwang hardinero o tiga-linis. Dalawa kaming pumasok ng driver ko, umikot sa ground area, sa mga lumang libingan na nadikit sa pader, picture 2x.Maganda ang view sa taas ng walls, mala-Intramuros, at Instagramable din. Naiwan na sa baba yng driver ko habang umakyat ako at sinundan yng paikot na walls. Naka-3/4 nako ng ikot, pabalik na sa may simbahan kng saan yng babaan nang may narinig akong footsteps sa likod ko. Tuloy ang lakad ko, pero parang may sumusunod sa akin, yng yabag ng paa e parang nage-echo na sapatos dun s cobblestones. Weird kasi paano mageecho Kung open air nga yng taas ng walls ng sementeryo.Tanghaling tapat yun, tirik din ang araw, nang bglang naramdaman ko ang malamig na ihip ng hangin sa likod ko. Tumayo ang buhok sa batok ko at balahibo sa arms. Binilisan ko ang lakad ko kasi parang may something sa likuran ko. Di ko kinayang tumingin, pero nagsalita ako sa isip ko at sinabi ng, ‘pasensya na po sa istorbo… Aalis nako.’ so Dali-Dali akong bumaba, pero nasa likod yung hagdan, so malayo-layo pa yng lalakarin papuntang gate palabas. This time wla ako naririnig na echo ng footsteps na sumusunod, pero parang may mga nakatingin mula sa taas, sa ibabaw ng walls. Hindi ko rin tiningnan, nakayuko na lng ako habang naglalakad.Pagdating ko s gate, nandun lahat ng tauhan ng park – yng teller ng tickets, yng guard, at yng 2 hardinero/tiga-linis. Nasilip ko din na naghihintay na sa may sasakyan yng driver ko. Ako lng talga ang galing sa loob ng Paco Park…walang ibang Tao sa loob.

Manila Hauntings

Besides London sa UK, isa yata kilala worldwide na most haunted cities ang Maynila. Kung tutuusin, understandable naman kasi nga sobra ang sinapit ng Pinas, Lalo na ang capital, nung panahon ng WW2. Kwento ng Daddy ko nuon, sumakay daw pamilya nya ng tren mula sa Tutuban, siksikan na mga tao, makatakas lng bago gawing “open city” ang Maynila. Meaning kasi baka maging “free-for-All” ang labanan ng Hapon at mga Amerikano, bahala na madamay ang civilians. At ganun na nga nangyari; kawawa ang mga naiwan sa siyudad. Kahit yng mga mayayaman na ayaw daw iwan mga malalaking Bahay nila sa Malate area. Pagkatapos kunin at patayin mga kalalakihan ng mga pamilya, gahasain mga kababaihan, susunugin pa daw mga Bahay. Meron pa daw iipunin silang lahat sa mga simbahan tapos, sisilaban yng simbahan pagkatapos silang ikulong dun. Pagpasok ng mga Amerikano, tuloy ang labanan at ayaw din talga sumuko ng mga Hapon. May mga naipit sa barilan at tinamaan ng sniper fire (isa nga dyan yng pamilya ng dating Pres. Quirino). Naging desperado ang mga Amerikano kaya wla na rin silang pakundangan sa pagbagsak ng mga bomba sa Maynila. Ubos ang mga gusali at kabahayan. Sabi nila, mula daw sa Quiapo church, across Pasig river, naging tanaw mo daw all the way to Manila Bay kasi “flattened” daw talga. Kung napunta kayo dun sa Intramuros dun sa may Memorial ng massacre of Manila, makikita nyo gaano karami talga ang mga namatay, including mga bata at sanggol.Kaya siguro hindi rin nakagugulat kng may mga kwento2x ang mga nakatira sa Maynila kht na mga bagong tayong Bahay na, at mataas na rin ang populasyon. Sabi nga ng Mama ko, kht nung nagaaral pa sila sa kolehiyo nung 50s, yng tinirhan nilang magpipinsan na apartment sa Sampaloc e may nagpaparamdam..May mga naririnig silang yabag at ingay kht wlang ibang tao sa Bahay na kasama nila. Itong pinsan ni Wifey, may Bahay din sa Balic-Balic…kwento ng katiwalang tiga-bantay, may nakikitang anino minsan sa hagdan. Minsan parang may naglalakad sa taas kahit wlang tao sa mga kwarto. Buti matapang si Manang kasi hindi madalas lumuwas sa Maynila ang mag-anak mula sa Cagayan.Eto naman friend ko, nakatira sa may Blumentritt malapit sa Espana. Luma na yng hilera ng mga kabahayan nila kasi mga early settlers after the war. May makikipot na daan at eskinita sa lugar nila. Kwento ng mga tiga-Brgy nila, sa dulo ng isang eskinita may nagpapakita daw na pari na pugot ang ulo. Kahit nailawan na ng bagong poste at hindi na gaanong madilim, may mga naglalarong bata daw na nakikita yng paring wlang ulo.Eto naman mga bagong dorms na paupahan lagpas ng UST malapit na sa Recto, may mga kwento din. May Kwento itong bunso namin nung nagre-review sila for the Board Exams. syempre puyatan blues.. lagi daw silang may naririnig sa kusina tuwing disoras ng gabi. Kalansing ng mga pinggan o baso. Minsan narinig nilang parang tunog ng kutsarita tumatama sa tasa at naglakas-loob ang isa sa kanilang silipin kng ano ba talga yun. Nakita daw nya isang tasa sa dining table at may isang kutsarita na parang naghahalo ng kape…umiikot itong magisa.

Manila Hauntings 2 (Kwento ni May)

Nkwento ko sa friend kong si May tungkol dito sa THSG na ito at yng latest kong entry abt Manila. Naalala nya tuloy yng experience nya nung tumira daw sila sa may Balic2x.Nangupahan daw sila dun ng partner nya nung nagbubuntis pa sya. So same description ng mga lumang bahay sa lugar, medyo malalaki kaya may space parentahan na extra rooms. Minsan daw gabi, nakaupo sya sa may lumang hagdanan nila. Tanaw daw nya yng bakuran ng tapat nilang bahay. May nakita syang malaking puting aso na akala nya alaga lng ng kapit-bahay nila. Nagulat daw sya nung bgla itong nagtransform at naging matandang babae, yng kapitbahay nila!Isang gabi naman, galing sa inuman itong anak na lalaki ng landlady nila. Isa syang malaking mama at medyo may katabaan pa. Medyo lasing at dun na sana matutulog sa sala, kaya binuksan nya yng bintana para may hangin. Eto yng mga malalaking capiz windows na sinauna, tapos may outer metal grills lng. Bgla daw tumambad sa kanya yng matandang babae n kalahati lng yng katawan, at may malalaking pakpak! Tumatama daw yng mga pakpak sa bintana, na parang sinasadyang gambalain sila kasi ang lakas ng tunog. Nagising nga sila lhat at nagsilabasan s kwarto. Nasalubong nilang patakbo sa loob papuntang mga kwarto yng anak ng landlady…nahimasmasan daw sa pagkalasing.