Monday, July 06, 2009

The Song is Ended

June 2008 - I sometimes just listen to songs on my iPod, seated in a comfortable chair with a chilled Baltika 3 close to hand. A decent enough way to enjoy the time away from home in a place with nothing in English on TV except for BBC News.

3 years ago, I was in a car with 3 other friends, Philip, his wife Anna, and Martin. We were driving back to Manila after a holiday at a country house in a nearby province.

We were listening to music , mostly tunes from the 90’s, the time when we were in college.

I started feeling wave of sadness and melancholy for some reason. Odd, since the music, Weeezer, Liz Phair, and all, weren’t normally the songs to bring such feelings on.

Then it got to me. 3 of us in the car, Philip, Martin, and I, used to play basketball, a game of 5 per side, together quite a bit when we were at the university. And we played so often with 1 particular person, Albert.

Albert was really into what was classed then as alternative music. I remember sharing tapes with him. He was the only guy amongh my friends who could identify each particular band I’d listen to, and he knew of lots more besides. He was with me in the car once and heard the song Pretty D. In the ensuing conversation, I learned that Tanya Donelly was formerly the lead singer of Belly, and that I'd be doign myself a disservice not to watch her play the guitar.

Albert passed away in 2004, years prior to that trip back to Manila. Martin, Philip, and high went to high school together, and even when we went to separate universities or even after, we moved on to work or, in his case, medical school, we always got together. To drink, to play ball, or just to hang out.

He was one of the smartest among us, Albert was. And quite well rounded. A fairly decent athlete, he could’ve gotten into a varsity team back in high school, only he forgot his gear at home the day of the try outs.

And he was a musician as well. He was the lead for a band, back in our college years. They played ska, guitars, drums and brass, literally a trumpet. A good enough band that they managed to cut an album. He complained at the time they should’ve gotten more airplay only their manager didn’t give enough into the required payola. Oh well.

I remember hanging out at Club Dredd, a couple of times, at its old location in Timog and the later one on Edsa, with him and to watch him and his band perform. The place was the venue for serious local rock and alternative music, the t-shirt and jeans variety. A tribute to true artistic endeavor, named for something only a genuine comic geek would know. The place that played cuts from Chicago and Kalapana, with lovelorn groups of college girls and the singer in black leather pants, was way across town.

He went on to medical school. We all expected him to get through the boards and be a fine doctor, though that wasn’t how things turned out.

When met up once where he related that he got his girlfriend pregnant and that her family didn’t want anything to do with him, and didn’t want him to have anything do to with her or his coming baby. I remember thinking and maybe saying at the time that things could change and even work out in time.

He failed to pass the boards and decided to go to the US to get some room while studying for the next scheduled exam. It was quite a surprise, him not passing. He was sure to get it the next time around.

He passed away in the US. Encephalitis, I heard. Some complication related to hepatitis he caught while we were in high school. I remembered visiting him at home then, about 10 years before that car trip. Hepatitis is contagious enough that we couldn’t actually see him then. We had to dial into the phone in the room he was confined in. He was a bit put off that I only visited him then, weeks after he came down with it. Well, what can you do?

I remembered all that then, in that car on the way to Manila. I just smiled and waited for Martin to play the next song. I really wished he wouldn’t sing along to it. I mean, I got those albums because I liked the way the artists sang it.

A year later, it occurred to me that out there is a child who knows nothing of the father. I like to think that the child would wonder and seek to know. I like to think that all of us would be there to then tell of Albert, one of the smartest of us, who played good basketball, led a good band, and was quite all right with the ladies.

I would like to have told him that Jenny Lewis is as cute a redhead as Tori Amos, and that Katie O isn’t bad at all on stage.

The Other End

April 2008 - I’m into my first weekend in my new job posting, in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Sakhalin Island, Russia. It just occurred to me that in less than a year, I’ve managed to get assigned from one end of the Eurasian continental mass, Aberdeen, Scotland, United Kingdom, to the other. Well, there are at least a couple of things in common - the temperature and people who can’t really speak English.

Like one of my colleagues from the UK described, any if he traveled and farther from home he’d be on his way back.

This is quite the frontier boom town.

The local population is a real mix. There are Caucasian Russians, North Asian Russians, and Japanese and Koreans. Part of Sakhalin Island was held by Japan from the Russo- Japanese war around the start of the 20th century to end of the 2nd World War, when Russian troops successfully captured the island. Korean men were brought over to build infrastructure, and women to entertain the troops. It’s not uncommon to see couples or groups of obviously different ethnic backgrounds, but who all speak Russian.

Then there are the oil industry workers and their families. As one New York Times articles said, the English accents one could hear span the globe from Alaska to Western Australia. I’d certainly add the Philippines to that list, as I noticed on my flight over that most of the Asians were Filipinos.

The buildings are mostly square low rise concrete blocks. No real marvel of architecture, but with less than 9 months in a year available for shipment or construction, it’s a feat to have any multi-storey buildings at all.

The cafĂ© fare - battered fried fish, battered fried chicken breasts, beef goulash or beef stroganoff, which I can’t tell the differences. All are served with mushrooms or pickled vegetable sides. There’s rice, mashed potatoes, and grechka, steamed barley with slices of meat and onions.

Tea time can be with slices of bread with various cheeses, from creamy cheddars to smoky polish varieties.

The soups are really varied and flavorful. There is borsht, which they describe as the best soup in the world. Beef with herbs and sliced vegetables in a tomato base, topped with a dollop of cream. There’s rusolnik, gorokhavi, and korcho, taken with a couple of slices of fresh, dark grain bread.

There are also meat pies, minced beef, or mushrooms and onions, stuffed inside a chiffon cake and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Their sweet cakes, chiffon topped with slices of fresh fruits and sprinkled with finely powdered sugar.

It’s certainly a big country, as one of my colleagues remarked. A local replied with a straight face, “You think so?” He went on to explain that with Kalinigrad on the Baltic Sea and Chukotka by the Barents Straight, Russia spans 10 time zones. Technically, Chukotka should be on the same time zone as Alaska, GMT-12, but to keep themselves sane, they sensibly opted to keep it at GMT+12.

Their media is quite varied. There’s MTV Sakhalin, with dubbed versions of Scrubs (Klinika), Pimp My Ride, and Cribs. There are local reality shows, like Dom (House), on it’s third season. There are your formula sitcoms and dramas like Papa Doshkii (Daddy’s Girls) and Ranielka. Unfortunately for me, with my extremely basic skills, the dialogue is lost on me. The girls are cute though. What I admire about the shows is that the bright and humorous lives are just behind the walls of the dark grey apartment blocks.

While on the street the people can seem so dour, in a comfortable group, their sense of humor does come out to shine.

“The weather’s usually good on a weekday, when you’re stuck at work and can’t do anything to enjoy it. Then it turns bad Friday night to early Monday,” a local colleague said. He added “Though that may be so you don’t feel to bad when you come in to work on the weekend.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


One of my favorite things about multinational assignments is, well, its very definition - the opportunity to work with people from different places. That leads to a rare treat that I hardly ever get to enjoy back home, insulting one another nationality.

- While at work

Scotsman - I can't understand this. It seems to be written by a Filipino.
Filipino - I heard that Scots learn to read at a later age than most.
Englishman - Yeah, like 40.

- Discussing that rare treat for the economy class traveller
American - I've never been upgraded to business class.
Englishman - That's because they know you're an American, and can't appreciate it.

- After getting into an accident and coming to work with a bandage on my face
Scotsman - I don't know much about Filipinos. Aren't you all on boats?
Englishman - I'd be careful, he fights. Look at him.
Filipino - Yeah, when the immigration officer denied my application for asylum, I took exception.
Scotsman - Well, if you gave (the Englishman) over there as a reference, I'm not surprised they denied you. You should feel fortunate that they didn't lock you up.

To be fair though, that last comment is close to the truth for 2 of my British colleagues.

One Scot just returned from a Caribbean cruise, and he mentioned that the majority of the crew were Filipinos, and seemed to be well appreciated and tipped by the other vacationers.

The Englishman related that his first work experience with Filipinos was while working with a supply boat company in Nigeria. Part of his duties was to go out and inspect the various boats, mostly with Filipino crews. On one trip, he found a chiller filled with beer and he straightaway informed the crew that it was against regulations to drink on board. The crew chief replied with a straight face that no, they don't drink on board. He smiled and asked the Englishman if he would care to have one. Carry on the, the Englishman said. He said to me that the Filipinos stood out for making him feel so welcome.

I treasure these moments and stories, that make one feel more unique and less alone all at the same time.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Away Again

This is the first of the couple dozen weekends I can look forward to in Aberdeen, the location of my latest job assignment. This posting is so far the most distant from the land where I was born, a tropical place of palm trees, heat, and humidity.

Aberdeen is in the northeast of Scotland, on the coast facing the North Sea. A summer here means overcast skies and almost certain rain, with perhaps a few hours of direct sunlight.

Woods, low hills, and farms with sheep and cattle surround the city.

Aberdeen is renowned as the granite city of Scotland, and it obligingly looks the part, from the road of King Street, close where I stay, to the bar and restaurant haven of Belmont Street.

The square at Castlegate

Marischal College, the second largest granite building in the world.

Shops and pubs fill the listed buildings of Belmont Street

The similar hues of the streets, structures, and sky certainly aren’t the most immediately enchanting.
As with any place, once must take a closer look to appreciate the different textures and to find the vibrancy in the people themselves and in the things they chose to have around them.
Union Street and the surrounding area form the main retail district.

As one may expect in England, and apparently farther north as well, there are many gardens, public and private.

The people of Aberdeen supported the Scotish resistance against the English, led by Scotland's greatest hero, William Wallace. This statue of the man, overlooking the Union Terrace Gardens, below, presents a more fashionable figure than the woolly and wild-haired character played by Mel Gibson.

The Gordon Highlander museum presents the history of a distinguished military unit that was formed for the Napoleanic Wars and has served the Kingdom for the next 200 years.

The people of Aberdeen may be more fortunate than most to be able to live with so much of their history around them.

And I can’t help but appreciate a place that puts so much thought into their drinking establishments

If one must admit to anything illicit, it may as well be this one.

There are other adventures and attractions throughout Scotland, even other than a plate of haggis, neeps, and taties, and I hope to visit them in time.
Other pictures are located here

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

There is a Season

The mid-term election season in the Philippines is this May and the topic once again turns to the supposed dearth of inspiring or even qualified candidates for the Philippine Senate and other offices. This tri-annual exercise of wailing and gnashing of teeth normally revolves around the following themes:

  • Nationally known but unqualified candidates
  • Traditional politicians and their relatives
  • Political turncoats.

The common conclusions after griping about any or all of these points are:

  • The country is destined to be run by fools who were voted in by imbeciles
  • The elections are a waste of time for any thinking individual because they are dominated by unthinking ones
  • One should leave the country for somewhere else, preferably where they appreciate critical thinking.

I can understand those conclusions from someone who was not able to receive a quality life in the Philippines, like access to housing, food, education, employment, media such as TV and newspapers, and so on. To get those reactions from someone who went to the same or a similar university to where I graduated from is simply embarrassing.

The university I attended was comparatively heavy on liberal arts courses, such as theology, philosophy, and history. The focus was on providing the students with the tools for critical thinking, to equip them not only with knowledge but also with a reasoned faith. The university was also the third most expensive in the country, increasing the likelihood that the best learning resources – cable TV, personal computers, internet connections, trips to other provinces or other countries – were available to the students.

For one to come to the conclusions listed above is to forget all about history and political theory, critical reflection and reasoning.

To avoid limiting officials to members of a particular class, our constitution requires pretty much only citizenship, residency, and literacy to qualify for an elected position. It's simply insensible to bitch about traditional politicians and actors at the same time, since that would imply espousing two opposing ideas.

Besides, what makes Manny Pacquiao, one who worked his way through national and international ranks to become one of the best and most profitable in his profession, any less eligible than a lawyer or a doctor? And we’re hardly unique, with the USA’s former actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger), wrestlers (Jesse Ventura), and, yes, basketball players (Bill Bradley). A notable example is Italy’s Ilona Staller, a former porn star.

Any reasonable evaluation of our previous elected officials would have to be done on their actions once they assumed office. For example, Ferdinand Marcos graduated from the prestigious University of the Philippines College of Law and topped the bar exam.

The essence of politics and governance, especially in a democracy, is to compromise between diverse and in many cases, opposing, interests. These interests may be any or a combination of class, sex, ideology, religion, or region. Shifting alliances and goals are an indivisible part of this activity, especially over decades. This was true with Manuel Quezon, Sergio Osmena, and Jose Laurel, who plotted with and against one another constantly and yet they are all accounted as among our greatest leaders. This twisting and turning are certainly true and no less valid in our own time, if one cares to note the careers of Jose De Venecia, Juan Ponce Enrile, and Blas Ople.

Furthermore, the unending dominance of political families tends to decrease or is absent in economically progressive areas. Compare Surigao del Norte, with brothers for governor and congressman, and Dinagat, with the related governor, congressman, and mayor of the capital. In Batangas, the governor, four congressmen, and mayors of the three chartered cities don't share any last names.

Perceived performance is also a factor. Closer to home, in the 2004 elections for the mayoralty of Quezon City, the first term incumbent, Sonny Belmonte, crushed the previous mayor, Mel Mathay. This was attributed to the difference in the city's delivered services and collected revenues during Belmonte's first term and Mathay's prior three terms. The same is said for the Fernando's dominance of Marikina City.

Why should we think that the pace of improvement is unacceptably slow? Elections are aptly described as a political exercise. PE is a worthy subject if only to teach us there is incremental progress after numerous and regular repetition. What can you expect if you go to the gym once every three years? We’ve been at it only since 1945, and we’ve had our limits on our membership between 1972 and 1986. Put it another way, Americans has been at it every four years since 1789, and they’d be the first to say that they don’t always get it right.

What is sad is that all this information is available for us to see and we have been instructed of how to use this information to come up with reasoned conclusions. What gives us the right to deplore the decisions and abilities of our less affluent and educated countrymen when we ourselves, with all our access to knowledge and opportunity, so easily retreat to mourning and weeping in our valley of tears?

Thursday, December 14, 2006


An article in the Philippine Star about a new columnist reminded of the first time I reacted to a newspaper article, one in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. This was the first and so far the only time I sent a letter to an editor. This was a year and a half ago and I still feel as strongly about the issue then as I do now.

The memory put even more of a spotlight on something I’ve always felt strongly for, writing. Writing was always something I could escape into. To do it the way I wanted took so much of me, took all of my focus, that I had no time or feeling to spare for anything but the act itself. And it was something I once could do well and easily.

One of my friends mentioned once that the act of creation is the only sure way to see one’s self. While that can be interpreted in so many different ways, I do take it to mean that what I choose to write, that which I put myself into, will turn out to be an image of the person that I am.

That thought makes it so tempting to only write of things that are inspirational and true, where there is nothing unresolved. It seems so much nobler to describe the human as to what it could be, to always seek our better angels. It’s far less attractive to write of ignorance and confusion, anger and prejudice, indecision and regret. The result can be fearsome to behold, because that would be myself at my worst, and with no idea how to move beyond that.

But then I’d be a writer, and honest with myself. And that’s a good a start as any.

Monday, December 04, 2006


This was the first and only newspaper article I thought enough to react to. I was working out of the country at the time and I was a fairly frequent Philippine Airlines customer. Reading it the first time it was published wasn't something I relished, but seeing it featured on the main page of the newspaper's website for weeks irritated me enough that I sent this letter to the editor.
This is regarding your article on why you'll never fly with PAL again.

I very much agree with you that there is simply no excuse for shabby and impolite treatment accorded to you by the customer service representative. You gave instructions that were executed on your departing flight and simply botched on your return. You have every right to expect that this error would be rectified. That this error was not rectified does deserve your anger.

But I disagree that the airline and all the people behind it deserve the words you have written in your article.

Over the last nine months I've taken five round trips with Philippine Airlines, two domestic and three international. Out of the ten flights, I've had two delays, one for forty five minutes, and another for three hours. Not a good record at first glance.

But in the same time period, I've also taken three round trips with Singapore Airlines. I had one flight delay for forty five minutes also.

Two out of ten and one out of six aren't too far part, I believe.

I also believe that to relating the customer service representative who did not extend any service to the diligence of the aircraft maintenance technicians is a bit of a stretch. If we ignore the guidelines imposed by international regulators and insurers, there still is PAL's current safety record.

And I've never had a problem with the PAL flight attendants or even ticket office personnel. If there is indeed a culture of rudeness and uncaring pervading the entire organization, I haven't seen it.

That Lucio Tan is a controversial figure doesn't need any elaboration here. But it is also true that in the mid-nineties, he alone was the one who took up the gauntlet of turning PAL from a government corporation to a profitable private enterprise. He did that with no previous experience in the airline industry. The airline just managed to achieve profitability in an environment that includes everything from the 1997 Asian crisis, the 2001 September 11 attack, and the current oil price crunch. That management feat deserves a bit of praise.

PAL is not the cheapest airline. Nor can it claim to have the best service. The airline does have its third world inconveniences, as you put it. And you certainly don't have to live with it.

But I choose to live with PAL. I see it as another image of our third world country. And I think that PAL is better than it once was. I hope to see our country reflect the same improvement.
My opinion hasn't changed with a year and a half gone. This is the first time I've read of PAL's own reaction to Mr. Esposo's article, and his further writings on the subject. I have heard the same stories of PAL flight attendants giving substandard service to passengers seen as overseas domestic workers. Such behavior is inexcuseable.

But I've never seen that happen on the flights I have taken. And since I've never seen it, I feel that I can conclude that to generalize the entire organization is also wrong. And even if such ill manners from flight attendants towards maids are commonplace, then I see the cause less from the company and more from the kind of people that we are. How many well-educated overseas professionals disdain the thought of a Sunday in Singapore's Lucky Plaza mall or Hong Kong's Central district?

We all have been slighted or wronged one way or another. One valid option is to look somewhere else for the right that we want. Equally valid to to see what we have and work it out from there.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Growing Up

I and a lot of my friends couldn’t call ourselves Sunday Catholics. There are more than a few of us who don’t attend to Mass on Sundays or, if we do, it’s to accompany one we care about.

That there are a number of us is odd considering that we grew up in a Catholic institution, with First Friday Masses and Theology classes up to our last semester in college. We were taught the doctrine, history, and philosophy of our faith. Now, quite a few do not participate in the more basic sacraments. A few of my friends even thought of being priests. Now, let’s just say that none of them currently lead a life of even single blessedness.

The reasons we give to profess this contrast vary, from simple rebellion from what we were to a lack of belief in organized religion.

My own reason is simple. It’s just that I don’t get as much out of attending Mass as I think I once did. I feel no inspiration on rambling sermons on topics that have no close relation to me, no sense of community with the pews full of strangers. When I do go, I pretty much just give thanks, for the life I lead and those I have with me. But I can and do just give thanks on my own time, in my own way, and not necessarily on a Sunday.

It occurred to me that I was simply spoiled in my younger years. The Mass was celebrated by members of an order that strives for intelligence and eloquence. The messages are clear and concise, sometimes dramatic and sometimes amusing. And the message was always to a select crowd, grade school kids, high school kids, or even just a single class. Close ages, a narrow demographic, all male, and we all knew on another, some for over a decade.

Those years have long come and gone for me, and I have trouble finding motivation to attend a Mass in the real world, with the masses of people unknown to me, with a priest who tries to speak to all of us but can’t seem to reach me personally.

I can continue to do what I have, to simply remember the days when I attended Mass in the way it was meant to be celebrated, with a community, priest and parishioners, of people familiar with one another and similar hopes and dreams.

Or I can do what one does when one is in the real world, grow up. I know that, now, things aren’t always handed to me at regular intervals. A lot of the time, I have to look for and work to shape things into the way that I want or need. So I know I can find my community, I can find the sense of doing things in the way they are meant to, and reap the joy of having done so.

I just have to.