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Archive for May, 2020

Of Buses, Pasalubongs, and Fiestas: My Laguna Years

So while I have been writing much about my childhood memories of Ilocos, a big portion of my youth I have been meaning to write about were my college years in UP Los Banos.

I was only 15 years old when I went to the “distant” campus of UP Los Banos in College, Laguna. When I applied for the UPCAT, we only put Los Banos as an alternative campus upon the advise of my older brother, Manong Snokum, himself a graduate of BS Architecture from UP Diliman. He said at least we had a good back-up plan should I not get accepted for my first choice of Diliman campus. In fact, it was only our eldest brother Manong Butch who was able to get in immediately because he was an NSDB (now NSTA) scholar in BS Mathematics. Manong Snokum had to transfer from UST on his second semester, while both Ate Marie and Ate Annette ended up trying out and qualifying for UP Baguio and UP Manila, respectively.

Like the rest of NCR students, majority of my batchmates in high school tried out for UP. But when the UPCAT results came out, only 12 of us qualified or were wait-listed. I remember my classmates saying, “May isang Leonin na nakapasa e…d lang namin sure which one”, referring to me and my cousin, Edlyn. Meanwhile, like the rest of them, I also covered my bases and applied for other universities and colleges. By that time, I had already passed the entrance tests for CEU, Miriam College, UST, Ateneo and was in the process of applying for St. Paul. But of course, UP IS UP, and I quickly jumped at the chance to go the State University be it in a “faraway” campus.

Fortunately, my Mom soon realized that a second cousin of hers was married to a UPLB professor and was living in Los Banos. She reconnected with Tita Cora Pe Benito and made arrangements for me to stay with them. Later would I find out that Tita Cora’s husband, Tito Ruben Villareal was actually the Dean of the College of Agriculture and was pretty well-known and respected in the UPLB community. My affiliation with them would eventually influence my future in UP Los Banos.

* * * *

Our first visit to Los Banos became one of many regular treks to Laguna. Once I began studying in UP Los Banos, this routine became a cherished day trip for my parents and younger siblings, and a sort of bonding activity too. They would drive me over for the next schooldays after I spent the weekend with them in Manila.

Back then, it would be an easy 2 hour drive from Quezon City, traversing EDSA and SLEX to Los Banos. Still not much heavy traffic after Magallanes through Taguig-Bicutan-Paranaque area. As you leave Alabang, the long stretch of SLEX would still be lined by rice fields, and after some time, Maria Makiling’s outline would already be visible. That Southern Tagalog mountain range really looked like a giantess lying in repose; from the soft curve of her breasts to her forehead sloping into her long hair. Mt. Makiling with her accompanying Mt. Banahaw and Cristobal was truly majestic.

As we turn into Calamba, the only other slightly “urbanized” area besides Los Banos, we pass by a few fast food restaurants before the hot spring resorts begin to sprout from all sides. Since Mt. Makiling is a dormant volcano, they say those hot springs served as useful vents to let her steam out. Without those hot springs, some scientists claim Makiling could just wake up and become an active volcano again.

Entering Pansol before Los Banos Bayan area, all you can see are hot and cold spring resorts, and that ubiquitous red-brown quarry at the distance. Through the years, I would observe that natural tower-like feature get eroded both by man and by nature’s forces. We pass Camp Eldridge and PCARRD, which now has that shortcut mountain pass into the UPLB campus, I wonder if this is the same shortcut used by incarcerated Los Banos townsfolk when they were evacuating in World War II and needed to cross over to the other side of Laguna de Bay.

Before long, you reach Brgy. Anos where most buko pie, fresh milk and other pasalubong outlets are, and then comes the famous “Crossing”, that landmark intersection which passes as UP Los Banos’ commercial area. Turning right at the corner Mercury Drug at Crossing, you enter into College and the gateway to UP Los Banos.

Unlike the wide, awe-inspiring University Avenue at Diliman, UPLB’s main gate is narrow and simple. The first thing you see upon entering is not the statue commonly known as the “UP Oblation”, but the carabao heads, the symbol of the UP College of Agriculture first established here prior to World War II. Oh, we do have our own Oblation, albeit much smaller in stature, and it’s located at the center of the campus, in front of our Humanities building. But like Diliman, it would please you to know that scattered around the UPLB campus are some artful sculptures too – like the Mariang Makiling which now stands at the bottom of the road going to Forestry, or the “flying” carabao at the Main Library, the Pinay lass with her banga at the Palma bridge pavilion, or the notorious “the Graduate” at the Social Garden (these last two having some weird tales surrounding them, but that’s another story.)

Tito Ruben and Tita Cora’s house was actually off-campus, in a subdivision near the International Rice Research Institute (IRR). Getting to their place, you can take either the long route via Ipil Drive and IRRI, or the steep hill at the back of the Animal Husbandry side which takes you directly to their village after coming downhill. Due to the distance, we had to coordinate rides to and from campus. But with two of my cousins still in high school and my other cousin busy with his fraternity activities, it was quite difficult scheduling rides, especially since I started having my own extra-curricular activities. A few times I had to get rides from friends – the very popular Luistro brothers, Kim and Gianni, of the UPLB soccer fame, or my sweet and very kind kabatch, Noel Cuyno ‘86.

There were days I caught the free shuttle to IRRI then took that wooden trolley contraption locals ride along the train tracks, and walked the rest of the way to Pleasantville. You go from the long line of trees along Ipil Drive to IRRI, then get a very good panoramic view of the experimental rice fields backdropped by the mountains of Mt. Makiling and Mt. Banahaw, and even Mt. Cristobal. The trolley ride was truly an experience – novel and innovative as it is, it was quite fun to have the wind in your hair. That is, until a train comes along and you all have to get off the tracks to let it pass since the train does have the right-of-way. The real challenge is managing not to get sucked in by the train rushing by. You have to cling to the tall grasses at the sides for dear life until then.

Either way, whether I take the Animal Science route or the long IRRI road, those walks usually treated me to the wonder of flying exotic birds, a rabbit crossing the road, or an occasional snake during rainy season. It was also there I learned to navigate by the weather…watching out for the dark clouds hovering above to decide which route I would be taking so I won’t be soaked by the sudden rain. Until now, I still watch out for cloudy days and time my trips accordingly because I hate getting caught in the rains.

Those days you could still hitch a ride from the vehicles going to and from IRRI, when we used hand-signals to indicate to jeepneys where we want to go, when UPLB was a close-knit community where most people are connected and know each other from somewhere, somehow. We were safe and secure, and the worst that could happen was getting recruited to become NPA rebels…that, or experiencing those notorious paranormal incidents UPLB is so famous for. Yes, those were the times when there wasn’t any Mayor Sanchez and his goons, or drug-related rape cases.

After my first year, deciding that I had adjusted well enough, I opted to move to an on-campus dormitory. I managed to get a slot at the foremost Co-Ed dorm, then-called “Men’s Dorm” because it used to be solely for male students. Of course, there were all-girls dorms on campus, like the neighboring Women’s Dorm and St. Therese dorm run by the local parish nuns. But I really wanted to experience the whole Hollywood teeny-bopper college campus life for real and luckily when a sorority sister graduated, I got her token space in the so-called Sigma Deltan room at Men’s.

When I was at my relatives, all I had to worry about was budgeting my weekly allowance and getting home after classes. But at the dorm, I had to budget my allowance for food, my transportation back to Manila, getting to my classes on time, and managing my extra-curricular hours responsibly. I was really on my own, and had to act like a mature adult. During the 1987 and 1989 coup d’etats, we got stranded in UPLB because Metro Manila was in chaos. We had to do our own laundry, scrounge enough extra cash to feed ourselves, and manage to home to Quezon City.

Prior to UP Los Banos, I didn’t know how to commute using public transport. Now, I had to learn to take the bus to and from Laguna. Back then, the premier busline was BLTB (Batangas, Laguna, Tayabas Buslines) of the Potenciano family. Eventually the company folded, and my alternatives were Kapalaran and Superlines plying the whole Laguna and Quezon route. While there were a few aircon buses, mostly it was ordinary, open-window commuters that you catch from Crossing. In summer, it was either you suffocate in the heat inside the bus or keep the windows open and let your face take all the G-Force of SLEX.

If not for the BLTB Pasay route, I sometimes had to take the Lawton trip and get off at the Metropolitan Theater in Manila for a Project 2-3 jeepney. Otherwise, I get off at Alabang for an EDSA bus transfer to Quezon City, usually a Monumento or Fairview-bound trip. Once in QC, I either get off in Cubao or at the corner of Kamias-EDSA. I had to learn these routes and transfers the hard way, because I made a few wrong rides too.

But I remember the Dairy Training and Research Institute (DTRI) milk I used to drink on those long bus trips. The shing-a-ling (local fried noodles) being peddled by vendors hopping on and off the buses, along with an assortment of commercial buko pies, espasol, banana or kamote fritters, etc. My sister, Giselle soon learned about kwek-kwek, those orange-covered eggs that you dip into vinegar, deep-friend day-old chicks, and pansit habhab at those bus terminals too.

Getting around the CALABARZON area with our friends, my sister, Giselle and I were soon introduced to the tradition of fiestas in these parts. Besides parish-led activities, most towns have other festivities that include feeding majority of visitors to their place. As s guest, you are invited to most homes even if they don’t know you and you are obliged to sample their dishes. One thing we noticed during these “culinary rounds” was that most houses served the classic pansit bihon, menudong Tagalog, and fruit salad.

These local delicacies and simple fare soon grew on me, and without the fast food cuisine we got so used to in the city, these were welcome changes. I learned to exchange my favorite Coca-cola for fresh milk, began to like buko pie and local breads from the bakery instead of burgers and pizza, and those long, necessary walks actually did wonders for my legs and gluteus maximus.

But the thing I really loved the most about my Laguna days, was the clean, fresh air, the amazing greenery surrounding you, a closeness to nature that I will always have an affinity for. Nowadays, I take the opportunity to drop by UP Diliman for a regular dose of nature. Sometimes, I get lucky enough to have the time to visit La Mesa Ecopark or the Parks and Wildlife Park of QC.

Every so often, I still trek to Los Banos to reconnect with my past, commune with nature, and to simply ground myself. For it was there I did a lot of growing up. It was there I found, and keep finding myself, when I feel lost and in need of some peace. Most of all, in that valley by Mt. Makiling, I keep finding focus and direction.

Sablayan (Mis)adventures

I am usually stressed out by long, drawn-out travel times with tedious transfers before reaching your destination. But there was a point in my life when my sense of adventure, (or was it my dedication to my advocacies) that made me throw caution to the wind and allow myself to endure the experience.

Region IV-B has always been problematic when it comes to rendering technical assistance because it is composed of several “island” provinces. But bringing all participants to one place like Manila is very costly and oftentimes results in limited representation. Thus, it is admittedly much cheaper if the Resource Person/Speaker is the one to go visit them instead. As it is, even if my invitation is usually via our DSWD regional offices, I always oblige if the respective provincial governments manage to find a budget and organize a training/seminar for their local social welfare officers, regional Federation of Senior Citizens of the Philippines (FSCAP) officers and appointed Office of Senior Citizens Affairs (OSCA) Heads.

Sometime in 2012, I was contacted by the Senior Citizens Focal Person of MIMAROPA because of an invitation from the Provincial Social Welfare Officer of Occidental Mindoro. I had been to Oriental Mindoro before, particularly in Calapan and Naujan, but this was the other side. So apparently, while we flew in from Manila to San Jose where their airport is located, we needed to travel by land to Sablayan which is our venue. Fortunately, our satellite office there managed to provide a vehicle to transport us over rough dirt roads as dust flew all around us. I noticed that there was a clear road network but they were neither paved nor properly asphalted for vehicles. We passed by wide river areas where much quarrying was being done, and I half expected it would partly be for their roadwork at least. Later on I would find out that roadwork and other infrastructure hardly gets finished in these parts because of the harassment from NPA rebels. It was a long ride and by the time we reached the place, we were hungry as hell.

I thought the problematic travel arrangement issues ended with the long bumpy ride, but I was wrong. The lodgings provided us did not even give me a solo room, or at the very least, a double-sharing room with my fellow speaker. I was to share with at least 2 other staff. Then again, the only available accommodation was a small pensionne house which I believe used to be a motel (read: short-time). To make matters worse, the PSWDO did not even speak to the hotel to prepare our noon meal. We had to wait for another two hours before it was served and it wasn’t even tasty at all.

But I remained optimistic, and decided to give our hosts the benefit of the doubt. In the afternoon, I decided to go around and check out the plaza. Mindoro is known for its local indigenous tribe, the Mangyans. They were the original settlers there who thrived in the mountains as well as by the coastlines. But the Tagalogs came over from Batangas and started farming the plains, and they were relegated to the fringes of society.


By sheer luck, there was a small sari-sari store there which sold softdrinks and a bit of ihaw-ihaw. I quickly jumped at the chance of buying myself a good merienda at least. So over grilled hotdogs and Coke, my colleague and “trainee-Resource Speaker”, Weng, planned for our session the next day. Midway through her second hotdog, she barfed it out saying it tasted spoiled. The lady selling the hotdogs offered to replace it, but we had both lost our appetite.

That evening, we were told that we would have to return to Manila via another route, and the MIMAROPA staff would not be accompanying us anymore. They had to stay and do other recognizance work with the satellite office. Weng and I were to travel to Abra de Ilog by bus and from there catch a Ro-Ro for Batangas port. I was already busy computing the hours in my head..it was around two hours from Sablayan to Abra de Ilog, passing by the towns of Sta.Cruz and Mamburao, then another 2 hours at least crossing over water to Batangas port, and finally, another two hours bus ride for Manila.

I honestly felt offended for not having been treated better since I already made the effort to come visit them. The least the organizers could do, both from the PSWDO and Field Office was to take better care of us. But I felt they were acting like it was I who owed them a favor for making this trip. I was already making so many mental notes at this point because several other provinces requested for similar training-seminars during the last regional assembly in Manila (That time, I went to the DSWD MIMAROPA office at Kansas, but they failed to inform me that the real venue was at SWADCAP in Taguig, so that’s another story.) I could only hope that they would treat us better.

So the 4-hour seminar was held at the Senior Citizens Center renovated through the help of then Vice-President Jejomar Binay. To the credit of the senior citizens of the place, it had an office for the OSCA Head, a spacious room for short-term accommodation in case of evacuation, a pantry and another office space for medical missions. The outdoor covered space had a small stage for programs and trainings like ours. The talk went well, mostly clarification on the appointment of OSCA Heads and the real role of FSCAP officers. But the usual controversies dealt with the implementation of the Social Pension program.

Later that day, we had enough time to go around and see their old lighthouse at Presing Park. Dating back when it was used as a look-out for Spanish and Americans alike, the lighthouse has since been refurbished and modernized to continue its vital function. The “parola park” still has some old Spanish cannons from long ago, overlooking the South China Sea and the famous Apo Reef, the so-called center of biodiversity. This is the reason scuba divers flock to Sablayan – it has one of the best diving destinations because of the abundance of marine life. We could have done a glass-bottom boat ride, but once again our hosts failed to arrange for it. I was expecting a decent tour at least, but they couldn’t offer us anything more after seeing that alleged miniature version of the Golden Gate suspension bridge. Later research showed me they actually had an old Spanish church in town and a Sablayan Museum. Oh well…so much for so-called “hosts”.

With nothing else to hope for, Weng and I opted to leave at the earliest possible time. We were told there was a night trip for Abra de Ilog so we could reach Batangas port by dawn. Personally, I would not have risked a nighttime sea-crossing, but we were desperate to get home. Afterwards, sharing my story with a veteran community organizer-friend, he informed me that my greater risk then was travelling at night when NPA rebels could have stopped us. But I didn’t know that fact then. So we grabbed the chance and they sent over some pansit to serve as our baon. Truth be told, that pansit turned out to be spoiled again, but thankfully, we had some drinks to tide us over.

We slept through the bumpy ride to Abra de Ilog, awoke to disembark for the RoRo to Batangas, then slept some more until we reached Manila. It was the best we can do so as not to get hungry. By the time we reached Alabang, we were starving and we scrounged around for the quickest bite so early in the morning. Fortunately, bus terminals always offer something for bus drivers, conductors and travelers alike. There was 3 in 1 coffee, instant noodles, crackers or biscuits, and chips. Before Weng and I went our separate ways (she was going South-bound, home to Cavite), I bought some food to munch on and a drink for the other hour or so to Quezon City. On the North-bound bus home, I heaved a sigh of relief that our misadventure ended the minute we left Sablayan. I just wish I had more pleasant memories of the place.

A Glimpse of Bukidnon

2017 was the last busy year I had for travelling on an assortment of speaking engagements. The downside of my new position at work was that I no longer had much official trips and was compelled to remain in the office as “taong-bahay”. Add to that the fact that I had also reduced my hours spent on advocacy work to focus on family time. Fortunately, by God’s grace and the goodwill of a few close friends, I managed to land a few rackets here and there to keep me sane.

Towards the latter part of the year, I had back-to-back trips to the South to facilitate several workshop-dialogues towards developing a stakeholder’s manual for an elderly program. The audience were from really depressed and remote areas, so we had a great deal of coordinating to do to bring them all to a safe and convenient place. Most of the chosen locations were in urbanized centers of the province with enough facilities, but there were a few times when the best the host-organizers could do was to put us up in seedy pensionne houses and hold our sessions at the available LGU building.

One of our pilot areas was in Region X, specifically Bukidnon province. And while I had the opportunity to go around Southern Mindanao before, particularly the Davao provinces when I was working for the National Amnesty Commission, this was going to be my first time to really see Northern Mindanao. Admittedly, a few years back, I had the occasion of going to Cagayan de Oro and Camiguin island several times. At one point, I was able to make a sidetrip to Dahilayan Adventure Park in Bukidnon to try their zipline. But I had always been curious about Bukidnon and its famed abundance.

My UP Los Banos classmate, Sen. Migs Zubiri used to boast about the rich farmlands of his home province – the sweetest pineapples and horseback riding amongst the cattle on the hills. He proudly portrayed it as the “land of milk and honey”, and perhaps with good reason. Not only were they blessed with fertile agricultural land and sufficient water sources from the rivers and waterfalls from the mountains, high elevation and the passage of very few typhoons granted them good weather all year round.

However, because of Bukidnon’s land-locked and mountainous location, the closest commercial airline entry point was the new Lagunduingan airport by way of Cagayan de Oro. So there we were, coming in by plane and driving through El Salvador in the outskirts of CDO where the airport was actually located. Heavy traffic usually plagues this area but at least the view of the blue sea was a refreshing sight, albeit in between the numerous seafood restaurants which line the road.

Upon reaching the city proper, we headed directly for the bus terminal to catch the earliest trip to take us to Bukidnon. Like Victory and Dagupan buses heading up Northern Luzon, buses here leave within regular intervals, not waiting for the bus to fill up. So besides getting seated comfortably, the aircon bus itself was clean and well-maintained, with its own CR, on-board movies and wifi. Since it was going to be a long 4-hour trip, I managed to buy some food to snack on. Lo and behold, I found the biggest and juiciest grapes this side of the world!

Exiting CDO once more, my eyes were again treated to the beautiful sight of the blue sea. Cagayan de Oro has one of the busiest ports in Mindanao next to Davao. From a distance, we can see that both passenger and cargo shipping lines congest the CDO pier. Leaving the coastline, we suddenly ascend a zig-zagging route and the air changes from hot, humid sea air to a cool, mountain breeze. I am reminded of our summer route from La Union’s beaches going up to Baguio every Holy Week in my youth and the childhood memory made me smile. Soon, pine trees and fog are what I see through my window, and I realize these highlands are a perfect holiday destination because of its cool weather.

In about an hour, we entered Manolo Fortich, best known as the location of Asia’s largest pineapple farm – Del Monte Pineapple Plantation in Camp Philips. Because of its elevation, Manolo Fortich also gives one an idea of the wide expanse of the Mt. Kitanglad mountain range which characterizes Bukidnon. Manolo Fortich is also where the famous Dahilayan Adventure Park is situated. Once touted as having the longest zipline in Asia, it is still a favorite holiday destination of families and tourists.

Along the way, we traversed various croplands planted to rice, corn, sugarcane, and coconut. I am told smaller farms also cultivate bananas and other fruits and vegetables. We crossed some rivers with rampaging waters from the mountains and I can only imagine the power generated by these bodies of water.

After two hours on the road, we reached Malaybalay City, the provincial capital of Bukidnon and its center of political and economic activity. With its government buildings, various transport terminals for buses, inter-municipality jeepneys, and tricycles, it is what would pass as “urbanized” in these parts. The only other “urbanized” place in Bukidnon would be an hour away – Valencia City with the same aura of economic hustle and bustle with its assortment of shops, stores, and restaurants for people passing through. After token stopovers at these main hubs to unload and pick-up passengers, our bus once again traversed the tree-lined mountain roads. At times it opened up into rolling, green hills dotted with free-range horses and cattle gorging on the lush and verdant grass.

Worth mentioning is the fact that we passed through checkpoints where every one was asked to disembark. My legal background has taught me that at checkpoints, one should never to get down from your vehicle, and never let them open your glove or baggage compartment, because anything the authorities wish to confiscate from you should only be in plain sight.

Lining up outside, we were told to show our IDs while the military men boarded our bus to check inside. Only senior citizens were exempted from disembarking, so they stayed inside the bus. There would be a few more of these checkpoints as we continued our travel because Bukidnon and its mountainous areas are also havens for the NPA rebels. It just shows that because the wealth in natural resources doesn’t necessarily translate into reduced poverty for all people, this kind of peace and security situation results.

Nonetheless, I appreciated the times we were stopped and asked to get down for agricultural quarantine issues. We had to dip our shoes in some disinfecting solution placed on mats or rugs so that contamination from Foot and Mouth disease in pigs and avian flu in chicken is prevented. Apparently, the province was afraid of a repeat of an animal epidemic a few years back which gravely depleted their poultry and livestock. These had dire consequences for an agricultural-based province like theirs, so they also impose similar restrictions to protect their crops.

Finally, we reached Maramag and got off at the highway for our provided lodgings. We were staying at the newer building of the only hotel in town because it had a swimming pool and they had a restaurant there. While our accommodations had free breakfast everyday, lunch and dinner were not included. Sadly, there are no fast food restaurants around, so the best thing was to eat at the carinderia stalls at their local wet market. To be honest, I was never a fan of Northern Mindanao cuisine after my bad experience in Camiguin island during my first visit. Except for the famous CDO lechon and occasional seafood buffet sans shrimps, crab, and squid because of my allergies, I was hardly impressed. So I steered clear of the viands I wasn’t accustomed to because even the longganisa and sisig were kinda weird tasting.

Note that Maramag is famous for having the cleanest wet market in the Philippines and has been featured in media often. There are no flies buzzing around, no blood and guts stinking up open canals, no muddy footprints going up and down the stalls. Instead, the beige-brown tiled floors are frequently mopped with disinfectant by designated cleaners. You can smell the Zonrox emanating from their mops as they went about, up and down the whole stretch of the meat section. Truly, it is even cleaner than some fast food restaurants’ floors!

The next day, we headed for the famous RR spring resort near the mighty Pulangi river. This great river has many tributaries and runs through several municipalities of Bukidnon before emptying out to sea. Probably because of its elevation, this river looks more like a mountain lake surrounded by pine trees with its clear, still waters reflecting the sky above.

The whole day workshop-dialogue went well, but since it wasn’t really safe to be going around a place where you are an unfamiliar face, we were told to stay close to our hotel. Not being one of those highly-populated municipal centers, nothing really happens after dinner and at around 7PM, the roads are seemingly abandoned. I opted to take a swim in the hotel pool while my companion took advantage of the cable TV in his room. The next day, we left early to be able to catch our respective flights back to Manila from Cagayan de Oro.

All in all, Bukidnon is a nice place to visit and experience its beauty if only momentarily; perchance to quickly pass through but never to tarry.BukidnonMaramag