Slow Season In Sambal Country

An edited version was first published by GMA Online during this year’s Eid on June 15. Special thanks to editors Lou Albano and Bing Marchadesch for running the piece.

Indonesia is like a magical alternate Philippines. From the sky, it looks like my beloved country in every way: lights and highways and the sea on the peripheries, residential houses, skyscrapers and looming thunderclouds on the horizon. When you finally land at the airport, you feel all the more at home because the airport looks just as modern as our very own Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and even has three terminals, just like ours.

But once you get inside the airport, you become a bit disoriented by the sweet scent of cloves left by kretek smoke on people’s clothes, and by the strange yet familiar language coming out of the speakers. Bahasa Indonesia and Filipino share many words together: kanan, dua, sinta, dalamhati, mahal, which indicate a much deeper connection than Anggun and Gudang Garam. As far back as the Madjapahit Empire in precolonial Philippines, we’ve enjoyed a rich history with our Indonesian brothers, as ancient trade records in Butuan, Davao and other parts of Mindanao have borne out.

At 2 million square kilometers in size and with a population of more than 260 million, Indonesia is a much larger version of the Philippines. A sense of expanse is immediately palpable in its public spaces. For one, the Soekarno-Hatta Airport is HUGE, almost seven square miles in size, roughly equivalent to 300 football fields!

However, I was even more surprised to discover that, according to Wikipedia, the Philippines actually has more people per square kilometer (40,000) than Indonesia (only 144). Which was probably why I felt the country had a lot more breathing space, not just physically but psychologically. Being an hour behind Manila, Indonesia felt slower in many ways. People looked somewhat more relaxed and took their time with their activities, something that you’d typically associate with rural living, but was the case even in cosmopolitan Jakarta.

Perhaps it was also because I arrived on the third day of Ramadan, the slowest season in the Islamic world, when Muslims fasted, spent much of their days in prayer, read the Koran, and basically acknowledged that there is more to this world than just eating, drinking, being merry, and working to death.

Being a Muslim living in Quezon City, I’ve always wanted to experience Ramadan in a Muslim- majority nation, even for just a few days. Allah was merciful and finally granted my wish in the form of my best friend Ging, who agreed to sponsor my trip to Jakarta as a special token of our profound and amazing 34-year sisterhood. She’d been working in Jakarta for the last 2 years and already had an excellent command of conversational Bahasa, so I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect tour guide!

A small but awesome side note about my friend’s residence in Central Jakarta where I stayed for the next few days: Ging lives in a very modern building where a small village, complete with roads, trees and two-storey homes with garages, actually sits on top of its 10th floor!

 

JKT 10th flr screenshot
The future of urban living: mini-Forbes park on the 10th floor

Jaywalker’s Paradise

Many of my friends who’ve been to Jakarta only remember the wide stretch of highways, toll routes, and Dutch-influenced architecture lining these massive roads. Indeed, Jakarta will disappoint if you’re in a taxi or car the whole time. Jakarta is best when walked, slowly (as is any other city, in my opinion!)

On one edge of their massive highway in Central Jakarta, ojeks (motorcyclists) waited for passengers, and not a few offered me their services as I negotiated the roads. After all, I was the only tourist crazy enough to be walking along major thoroughfares – and even cross it without using a pedestrian lane (because there was no such thing for at least another mile around). I’m one of those idiots who will cross a road in Manila even when cars are coming at me at 60 kilometers per hour, but thankfully, Allah has kept me alive long enough to bring me to the jaywalker’s paradise that is Jakarta.

I was astounded by the patience displayed by Indonesian motorists as they slowed down to let me jaywalk on their busy roads. Even if I were walking with a cane, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference; they would’ve still waited for me to get to the other side of the road, when my fellow Filipinos back home would’ve simply run me over and boasted about it to their neighbors.

At one point, I came upon a railroad crossing, its gate closed. Even the train was slow to arrive, so I walked across the tracks while the motorists stared. My death-defying walk ironically took me to a cemetery, where for some bizarre reason, I quickly glimpsed from my peripheral vision, a familiar name on a tombstone: the name of my favorite Indonesian writer whose book made me ugly-cry inside an Ikot jeep in UP Diliman during my freshman year: Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who wrote an unforgettable epic love story called This Earth Of Mankind and turned it into 3 more books dubbed as The Buru Quartet.

Holy Grounds

It would’ve been difficult for me to appreciate the cavernous wonders of Istiqlal Mosque without Ging, who interviewed our non-English-speaking Muslim guide as he led us barefoot inside the mosque and told us about the place. I’d always entertained the conceit that I could easily connect to a fellow Muslim anywhere in the world by virtue of our shared religion, but this notion fell apart that day, as I could only smile and nod to our guide’s strained efforts at English (and inwardly, tear my hair for not knowing enough languages!)

Istiqlal Mosque was built for 17 years and completed in the 1970s to celebrate Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch. Non-Muslims are welcome to visit the holy grounds as long as they dress modestly. Aside from its pedigree as an important place visited by many heads of state from around the world, the mosque is a true sanctuary for the country’s downtrodden. Those with nowhere else to go or wanting to seek divine wisdom for their problems stay in Istiqlal for as long as three months, their food, shelter and toilet needs all covered during their stay.

Right in front of the mosque is the Jakarta Cathedral, whose parishioners use the mosque’s parking lot for overflow traffic on Sundays and other Catholic holidays. Peaceful coexistence is the norm, reminding me of a similarly amazing sight back home: that of the Golden Mosque, just across the street from Quiapo Church, whose parishioners buy DVDs, dusters and other wares from Muslim vendors in the area.

Unfortunately, a fragile peace exists in other parts of Indonesia (as is also the case in the Philippines), with Surabaya province that time just having been wracked by three church bombings, disturbingly carried out by extremist couples and their very own children as young as 7 years old. The specter of extremism, a possible response to some perceived excess and slight from modern society, has begun to loom much larger all over the world and is needing a much more concerted effort from global players to contain.

Mall Culture

Walking around the vicinity of Thamrin City, I saw that the restaurants were open but most had their shades and curtains on the whole day. I was told that they do so out of consideration for passers-by who are observing puasa (fasting) on Ramadan.

I didn’t notice any other unusual sight for the day. That part of Central Jakarta looked like Ortigas Center. There was even a Shangri-La Hotel nearby. In front of our building was an Ascott and the Grand Indonesia Mall, a good place to go people-watching.

If conservatism is determined by the length of sleeve or hem, then Indonesians are quite conservative. But there is sophistication in their style, and a desire to heighten, not hide, their beauty, which is somewhat at odds with the much more severe sensibility of middle-eastern Islam. The women wear colorful hijabs (veils) loosely over tunic blouses, jeans, and pumps, heels or sneakers, though I was surprised to see one or two flaunting some skin now and then (most likely, non-Muslim). The men were typical jeans and shirt or hoodie-wearing blokes, just like ours back home. This made me realize that there are many other ways of being Muslim, and I’m liking the kikay Indonesian version a lot.

One other thing I noticed about the Indonesian women was how they loved their eyelash extensions and cream baths with a passion!

While Ging was at work, I decided to meet my long-time Indonesian friend, Amelia, at an office she shared with her half-Filipino husband Yosef. She had just come from a long commute while I’d gotten lost in the streets of East Kuningan looking for her address, so it didn’t take us too long to decide to just go to the mall and do the cream bath thing to destress.

What we had was basically a hair spa treatment that also offered a head and half-body massage, a hot trend in Jakarta. Seated side by side together inside the salon, Amelia and I caught up with each other’s lives while salon attendants gave us soothing head, arm and back rubs. What a pleasure that was!

A trip to any mall wouldn’t be complete without a detour to the grocery, and an Indonesian grocery is a food lover’s paradise. Shelves are stacked with so many products, mostly local. I would want to keep getting my kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), java arabica coffee (as we know, Indonesian coffee is world-class), soto betawi (instant noodle variant), salak (snake fruit), kripik (kropek – and my Allah, they have all types!) or sambal fix back home. While I was happy that the franchise for Alfamart (a popular Indonesian convenience store) had already been bought by SM, the store doesn’t actually carry Indonesian products as of this time. I hope this great injustice on my taste buds can be addressed soon!

Ramadan From A City Girl’s View

I’ve always had a bit of a struggle observing Ramadan in a predominantly non-Muslim nation, which is why it was such a pleasure to hear from Maya, my new Indonesian friend, about how Ramadan is observed in predominantly Muslim Jakarta.

She says that every morning she wakes up very early at 2:30 for the sahoor meal, which is the only meal she will have the whole day. “I’ll have some fried rice and chicken nugget or even Indomie instant noodles,” she says. “Before sahoor, children in my area will hit their kentongan (small bamboo drum) and bucket, and yell the word “sahoor” to wake us all up.”

After the morning prayer, Maya goes to work. During Ramadan, however, many companies have shorter office hours. Usually, work will end earlier than usual, by 4pm or so in the afternoon. By dusk, people will be spilling into the restaurants to wait for 6pm, when the iftar, the meal to break the fast, will be taken. This is signaled by an Arabic prayer that’s put on every loudspeaker in the city.

I will never forget one iftar moment at a Burger King joint. As early as 5pm, Muslims observing the fast, including a young boy, had already ordered their food. It waited on trays in front of them as they sat together in groups, or by their lonesome. But everyone, even the young boy, was able to contain their hunger and patiently wait for 6pm to arrive. It was so surreal to witness this collective manifestation of piety and compassion for the hungry and the poor in a most unlikely place – where food is supposed to be consumed right away. In a sense, it takes the word “fast food” to a whole new level!

Food trip

On one occasion, Ging brought me to a padang restaurant near her office. The padang concept comes from an Indonesian city of the same name in West Sumatra where they serve the dishes in two ways: pesang (order) where the viands are stacked on top of one another at a display window and a customer points to the dishes he wants to have, or hidang (serve), which is when people have a sit-down dinner and confronted by an array of mouth-watering dishes already set upon a table. You’re given a plate and a serving of rice, and you’re ready to go. You only pay for the viands you consume.

At around 6pm, the sound of the Arabic prayer broke through the restaurant loudspeakers, and everyone uttered their prayers, took a sip of water and prepared to have their dinner.

Ging and I ate practically everything that was there: ayam gulai (chicken curry); rendang daging (spicy beef), kikil sambal cabe hijau (green chili), gulai otak (ox brain), sayur daun singkong (cassava leaves), sambal pete (green beans), sambal kentang (potatoes), kripik kentang balado (spicy potato chips), sambal udang (shrimp paste), sate padang (grilled chicken), paru goring padang (lung), and cumi-cumi gulai (squid).

On one other occasion, Ging brought me to an iftar buffet at the Marriott hotel in Kuningan. There was no real difference from our hotel buffets back home, except for the unbelievable price. The eat-all-you-can buffet amounted to the equivalent of only about P300 per head!

A Weekend In Jogja

Almost 600 kilometers away from Jakarta is a city called Jogjakarta in Central Java. Fondly nicknamed Jogja, the city is famous for being a university town and academic hub, as well as being a take-off spot for those visiting the ancient sites of Borobudur and Prambanan located at the outskirts.

From the 8th floor of the Grand Quality Hotel where we stayed, Jogja reminded me so much of Cagayan De Oro, with its greenery and low-rise buildings cupped by a basin-shaped expanse. Unfortunately, our otherwise uninterrupted view of the sky was marred by haze due to volcanic ash from Mount Merapi, which was on Level 2 alert, effectively dashing our hopes of ever seeing Borobodur, which lay near the foot of the volcano.

The young vibe was very strong in this town, and it was only apt that my millennial Filipino-Indonesian niece Mitzi was to show us around. She brought us to the Jogja National Museum to attend a major international exhibit called Art Jog, where we excitedly spotted the works of three Filipino artists: my fellow musician friend Wawi Navarroza; Ronald Ventura; and Jigger Cruz.

DCIM101GOPROGOPR0483.
Art by Jigger Cruz

 I was especially moved by an interactive installation that involved shadows, another one with a room full of flowers painstakingly made from tissue paper, and another one that featured a huge breathing stone.

JKT jogja art shadow
Me and the ghost writer

 

On our second day at Jogja, we visited Prambanan temple, about a 15-minute drive from the hotel. The bas-reliefs on the stones, dating back all the way to the 9th century, told the story of Ramayana and the perpetual one-upmanship happening between gods and demons as they constantly tricked each other. Each temple housed one of the following gods and their incarnations: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and my favorite little god Nandi, a water buffalo that was the messenger of the gods. In Nandi’s low temple, I quietly made a wish as I ran my hand across its smooth body made of ancient volcanic stone, and felt a calm energy go through my body: perhaps the wish had been successfully sent, after all!

 

PHOTO 13 jogja prambanan ging me
At Prambanan Temple, a 9th-century wonder made of stones stacked like legos

After a quiet afternoon at the ancient ruins of Ratu Boko, a 15-minute drive from Prambanan, we decided to have an early dinner at a hole-in-the-wall back in Jogja that served the region’s most famous delicacy: gudeg, made from unripe jackfruit – yes, langka! – and slow-cooked in palm sugar and coconut milk. Variants may contain chicken, beef and hard-boiled egg, and look just like our adobo. This dish is sold in cans or clay pots wrapped in cloth.

JOGJA malioboro

At Malioboro Road, a bigger version of our very own Divisoria, with endless stalls selling batik clothes, bags, and other wares

The Other Philippines

There is still so much to explore in Indonesia, at prices that didn’t ruin you. The airfare to Jakarta from Manila is a little steep if you don’t avail of a promo flight, but once you get here, the prices of things seem to diminish without effect on quality or experience. In Malioboro Road at Jogja, I was able to buy quality printed t-shirts for less than P100, while back in Jakarta, my grocery items set me back by less than a thousand pesos.

Unfortunately, I met a terrible problem at the airport as I was checking into my flight back to Manila: Excess Baggage!

That unfortunate hitch notwithstanding (the only one I had throughout the whole trip, praise Allah), I still think my Ramadan holiday in Indonesia has been one of my most perfect vacations ever, and it could be for anybody else wanting to experience this country like never before.

So, terima kasih to my best friend Ging, my cousin Allan and his daughter Mitzi, my college friends Amelia and Yosef, my new Indonesian friends Maya, Dina and her crew, and of course, Indonesia itself, for ever giving way to this crazy jaywalking Filipino traveler!

 

***

In Love With Filipino

The Filipino language is beautiful. It draws its poignancy from a vast catalog of shared experiences, which, while universal, have different priority levels in the speaker’s mind.

For instance, the first two sentences I usually hear as a guest or wayfarer in a Filipino’s home are: kumusta ka na? Nakakain ka na ba? The guest is represented by the article “ka.” He or she is the priority in the speaker’s mind.

The Filipino’s emphasis on “ka” is nothing short of legendary. It’s so unique that it is even appended to other words to denote the sharing: kapuso (one heart), kapamilya (one family), or kapatid (sibling). There is a selflessness about this language, a determined willingness to connect and make everyone part of his or her life which I (and the rest of the world) so love.

I’ve been in love with Filipino for as long as I can remember. It’s my main spoken language, and my secondary written language (for economic reasons, I use English like many Filipinos).

As my main verbal tool, Filipino allows me to connect my body to the world. My mind understands my secondary language better, but the rest of my body – my bones, my heart, my spine, my stomach – resonates only to Filipino. You can scream “fuck you” at me all day long and to me, it remains an abstraction. But say “putang ina” once and my heart begins to palpitate in anxiety.

Or say “iniibig kita” and my stomach will start acting up again. Disoriented, I will accidentally brush the table napkin across the little candle and start a small fire in my hand, all over again.

If you hear me singing in Filipino, it means I’m communicating to you not just with all of my heart, but with all of me.

Tonight, I’ll be singing my dear friend Mesandel Virtusio (Ayer) Arguelles’ poem “Kasama” (meaning “companion” but “with you” feels closer to its truth) as well as another Filipino song I composed at Conspiracy Garden Café in Quezon City for the launch of his poetry album Namamatay Ang Mga Nagmamahal, the sale proceeds of which will go to a non-profit called ALAB.

AYER with us
Ayer (in the middle, signing his book somewhere in UP Diliman, circa 2000). I’m cute and chubby on the far left, beside fellow writers Jerry Gracio, Marc Gaba, Jowee Delos Reyes, Ernan Munoz, Jing Panganiban, Allan Popa, Bernice Roldan, Mabi David and Chingbee Cruz.

It’s been a while since I last sang in Filipino and been emotionally “naked” in front of an audience. But having recently celebrated my 42nd birthday, I’ve since grown more confident of my emotional “body,” sculpted by heartbreak and toned by acceptance and equanimity: we are all just passing through, friends.

The poem “Kasama” is from one of Ayer’s books Menos Kuwarto (Pithaya Press, 2002).

Other like-minded writer-artists selected poems from his works to turn into song. They are: Khrisczen Agres, Cucay Pagdilao, Ian Paolo Acosta, Joseph and Rachi Saguid, Keith Bustamante, Marvin Laureta, Valene Lagunzad, Lolito Go, Vincenz Serrano, Regine Cabato, Bobby Balingit, Ryan Reyes and Apol Sta. Maria.

Except for Vince, a dear friend from an almost-forgotten time in my life when I lived and breathed poetry, and Bobby, a remarkable rock-guitar wielding painter I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing during my days at Pulp Magazine, all of these names are new to me. I’m looking forward to saying “putang ina” later to all of them (but only because they’re amazing!)

Namamatay Ang Mga Nagmamahal (roughly: Those Who Love Die) will be launched tonight, March 24 (Sat), 6pm at Conspiracy Garden Café, 59 Visayas Avenue, Quezon City. Gate is PHP200.

WATCH MUSIC VIDEO OF “KASAMA” BELOW:
https://youtu.be/dAlYyc9dcDQ

READ A REVIEW HERE:
http://cnnphilippines.com/life/culture/literature/2018/03/23/mesandel-virtusio-arguelles-launch.html

 

Starting A Fire

PHOTO breaking glass ceiling
This is not easy for me to write, because I personally know at least two friends whose parents were either brutally killed or tortured under the last dictatorship. The father of one of my bestest friends was shot by the military and his body was dragged down a mountain in Mindanao. I’ve witnessed first-hand how the lives of the family left behind can be turned upside down by such a horrible crime and its irreversible physical, emotional and psychological effect on their personality and well-being. Believe me, this narrative has affected me so much more than you can imagine.

But I’m also trying to understand why certain sectors of our society are okay with living under a dictatorship.

Those who were oppressed by the last dictatorship was just one sector out of many. I can personally attest that the whole nation did not suffer. My mother’s family, a poor family from Tuguegarao, did not suffer under the military regime. The cost of living was low and life was as regimented as they preferred under this regime.

My mother’s family was the type of poor that wanted to enjoy a simple life by expending the least amount of effort participating in society. They have no grand ambitions of changing the world, much more changing themselves. They are content to react to their environment, which is why they prefer a relatively stable environment with some semblance of peace and order. They are content to let an external force dictate how they should live.

How was such passivity formed? The poor in my family had a reactive mindset because they didn’t have the advantages of wealth and higher education like other people. They had no real control over their lives. For example, even if we wanted to move to a better neighborhood, we couldn’t do so. We didn’t have the money to pay a higher rent. We also had no control over the food we ate. We didn’t have a backyard where we could grow our own food. Nobody was entrepreneurial in the family. So my mother’s family liked to see order in the little things. In the affordable price of bigas per kilo. In the public schools where their kids went to school virtually for free. In the nightly curfews that disciplined their own kids without them exerting any more effort after a hard day’s work at the patahian (at least they only needed to worry about the petty crime during the day). They also liked to feel national pride, in seeing their head of state eloquently discuss political issues with foreigners on TV. In seeing athletes win international games and feeling those triumphs vicariously.

The poor in my family didn’t want to grow their own produce, or build their own school to send their kids to, or be the head of state debating with the foreigners on TV. They thought it was too hard. They were content to stay in the sidelines and react to their environment. They felt a quiet joy in staying passive.

I’ve never believed it was laziness. I’m talking about intelligent and articulate relatives who know more about current events than I. It’s just that they chose not to choose. It’s actually a great way to live. It made so much sense. I mean, would you want to live in a different house everyday? Every day, your life is a chemical equation needing to be balanced and you are constantly figuring out where you can fit.(I guess most of us with a sense of adventure would, but remember, we are just one sector out of many).

By having order and structure around them, those with a reactive mindset at least have a choice to start going above their poverty if they wished. It’s akin to being more productive at work because your desk is clean and organized, for example. Unfortunately, while members of my family became aware of that choice, they didn’t use it to their advantage. They just wanted to keep doing the same thing every day. They continued to be poor.

My family is just one example. I can imagine there are thousands of other such families out there. This sector of our society is a sleeping giant. Imagine if everybody suddenly woke up and realized they could be so much more than they imagine. They could grow not just their own produce, but own a whole marketplace so they could get rich. They could build their own school themselves, or even become the very head of state that they so admire on TV.

Unfortunately, however, it will have to take a fire to wake them up.

I’ll attempt to illustrate what this means. Some years ago, we were living in an old condominium. The condo units were very close to each other; the next front door was less than five feet away.

One night, we saw flames coming out of our neighbor’s balcony, which was beside ours. We knocked on their front door and offered to help extinguish the flames, which were coming from a washing machine that had somehow short-circuited because the neighbor had neglected to turn it off. To be clear, it wasn’t an unconditional magnanimous offer based on some deep moral value. If we didn’t help them, we too were fucked!

The flames were extinguished in no time. Our neighbor and her sister (and us by extension) were finally safe. But something else about the house deeply bothered us.

There was filth everywhere. Imagine one of those troubled houses in an episode of Hoarders. That was how dirty our neighbor’s house was. In all the years they were there, our poor neighbors never bothered to clean up and look after themselves.

In the end, they never got the chance to clean up anything. The landlord got so furious that he evicted them that very same day for being a hazard to the other tenants in the building.

Every person in this story was reactive. Even the landlord. Nothing proactive was ever happening. A small fire was what was needed to shake things up.

I think if we were to be really honest with ourselves, most of us are just like them, or started out like them, merely reacting to life. We are heavily reliant on an external force like a church or a job to put some structure in our lives. Only my writer and artist friends or people who think deeply every day seem to have that special capacity to invent their own structure and method of controlling their lives without having to use any leverage from a wealthy family or network.

The poor in my family don’t have these skills of discernment. Even those that got an activist education in a state school still chose to remain passive. To change one’s thinking is the most difficult task of all. I myself couldn’t discern things for myself properly until a fire shook me up as an adolescent.

The fire was metaphorical. It was from inside the heart. I was sent away to live with my father’s family to get a better education, and had to be separated from my mother. That fire started me on a journey of creative expression in order to put some structure in a life that I had absolutely no control of as a young girl.

I think a similar kind of fire needs to happen in our society. We invented airplanes and do amazing figure skating on ice, surely we can do this as well! Social influencers in the religious community have this potential. They can offer the structure and support that poor people need in order to take control of their own lives. I can see that some of these influencers are doing that already by helping their poor laymen get rich, both materially and spiritually, with livelihood opportunities governed by a strong moral compass. Local governments, in their ideal form, are also a great source of empowerment for Filipinos. Their community programs can teach critical thinking to Filipinos so that they can start questioning everything around them – and then acting on providing answers to those questions themselves. Schools of course, always have the potential to wake people up, but most schools don’t offer that leverage and instead promote herd mentality and whatever is most convenient for the business interests of those who run them.

This is what I gently tell members of my family, or a friend who’s poor and lacking in discernment: if you don’t have a fire in your heart, or never did suffer any actual fires that turned your life around, it’s okay. Jolting yourself wide awake is the hardest thing to do without an alarm with a plastic hand slapping you again and again. But there are workarounds and tricks you can apply to discipline yourself. If I wanted to take control of my health, for instance, I’d roll out a mat in my room every morning after waking up. It’s a start. Even if I don’t get any yoga done on the mat, at least the mat was unfolded. It’s there. Then you’ll start worrying about the mat getting dusty. Just let your personality quirks and need for control kick in. After a while, you’ll be forcing yourself to use the goddamn mat just because it’s there. A good habit will slowly be formed.

Starting a fire in the mind is like laying down that mat. If you see everyone else doing it, you will follow, especially if following and obeying has been your lot your whole life. You walk up the path that others are walking on until you get to a fork in the mountain pass. Now, you’ll be forced to decide which direction to take. Whether it’s a community program teaching you a new skill, a church that exposes you to entrepreneurial-minded people, or an old yoga mat, it’s your life. The dictator of your own life should be none other than yourself. If you keep doing this often enough (for 10,000 hours according to some research), you will actually get better and better at running your own life.

Meanwhile, what do I, a minority member of a reactive majority, need to do? Eventhough life is short and time is always in short supply, I still want to take part in life’s battles. But I choose battles I can win precisely because my time is in short supply.

The battle I can win one person at a time, as a working class person, is to give moral support to the poor in my family. To just get them walking on this different path of self-empowerment. That they can control their lives not only in small ways, but in big ways. To challenge their thinking, but never in a confrontational way. To be always kind and respectful of their views and to never belittle their modest ambitions. To help whenever I can financially, but never overextend my charity to the the point that I’m constantly guilt-tripping those I help.

The battle that churches, local governments, wealthy political and business families, media, multinational companies, and generally those with a huge network of support and clout, can fight is not just to wake up poor, reactive people but provide them with actual financial or livelihood support to inspire them to wake up and change their lives into a beautiful journey worth actually waking up to every day.

Yes, the bigger you are in society, the bigger your responsibility. Now I understand why Dante’s bottom rung of inferno is populated by the bottoms of these people.

I’ve assessed my own network and my own capacities. I know I’m powerful in some ways, but not as powerful and influential as some of my friends who own businesses, have political networks or are generally part of the elite that runs the country. I have no problem helping one person at a time from within my immediate circle. With my music and writing, I hope to make the journey both an inspiring and pleasant one for me and for those I help. This is both a civic duty and a personal pleasure.

But to more ambitious friends who are part of huge networks and of government, I understand it’s a more complicated path because of the sheer volume of the work and the people involved. Even if you’re dealing with just one sector, that one sector is comprised of thousands of individuals, each with their personalities and quirks. How do you strike a harmonious balance with all these people? It’s a huge challenge, but I’m confident that the fire in your hearts will help you forge on despite all the difficulties you may face. I wish you all the best and may you carry out your mandate with kindness, compassion and most importantly, a proactive, progressive approach to empowering your sector.

To those who have the power but don’t use it to build a useful fire to wake people up, all I can say is that you’re lucky to have 100 years living like kings and queens on this earth. The rest of eternity you’ll have to spend wailing in agony as your bottom gets fried to a crisp again and again.

This time, you will be the reactive majority. You will have no control of anyone or anything. This fire will wake you up for sure, but by then it will be too late.

 

 

The Man With 9 Lives

me and CJ 2017
Me and Chris, December 8, 2017. Pasensya na po at pasmado na ang kumuha ng selfie!

This is Chris, 44. Conqueror of 9 near-death experiences. Has a rare hereditary condition that predisposes him to tumors and cancers throughout his life.

Yet here he is, looking good, alive and fulfilled in every way. I am one of the lucky hundreds of Filipinos working for him right now. He’s employed close to eight thousand since he started his BPO company in 2007.

He’s amazing. I say so not because he’s my boss, but – hello there. Wouldn’t you think the same if someone were this invincible?

I write about Chris in a time of much disbelief and grief over the sudden passing of friends and colleagues, not yet forty or fifty years of age, leaving family, young children and infinite possibility behind.

Why is he still alive when others have lost after just their first or second battle with illness?

Easy to attribute his fortunate situation to wealth and living in a first-world environment that provides easy access to world-class care. I thought so too in the beginning.

But as I got to know him better, I’ve realized there’s so much more to that.

Here’s me entertaining possible thoughts running through your head right now:

Maybe he’s got so much to live for.

Yes. He’s got a wife and two young boys he loves very much. He can afford anything and everything he wants. But my own mother, who loved me and my two sisters very much, died anyway from the first major illness that struck her at age 48. We weren’t as wealthy, but not exactly poor either. She could’ve lived longer. It still breaks my heart to this day.

Maybe he’s a cheerful, optimistic person with a strong mindset.

Yes. But a friend my age who died this year was also very cheerful, optimistic and strong-minded. She was very spiritual. Yet she too died too soon.

Maybe he watches what he eats.

Kind of. But he started a more restrictive eating regimen only this year when he was diagnosed as a diabetic, after a long time of bad eating when he’d binge, lose weight, then binge again. So it wasn’t just his diet.

Maybe he’s just lucky, PA-Q!

Yes and no. Chris is a successful entrepreneur who believes in numbers. There is a structure and a science to what he does and what keeps him alive.

For you to understand how he’s not only kept himself alive but grown stronger with each new adversity, you have to get inside his head and heart. Leave your judgment by the door and wear it again on your way out if you like. I did just that and my view of life, of health and wellness, of the deeper reasons behind what truly keeps us alive, was given better illumination.

I think he’s amazing and I really think his story might help stop all my friends and young people all over the world from dying too soon and leaving people like me cursing in shocked disbelief each time.

PS: For the past year, I’ve been helping Chris write his autobiography. We’ve finished the first draft of his book and put up a website (www.justkeepgoing.com). We are currently in the middle of the book feedback process from friends and strangers alike.

 

 

A Soft Guide For People Who Think Too Much And Thus Get Depressed

It’s soft because I don’t want to be hard on myself anymore.

Everyday, I think too much.

A long time ago, it was an advantage. Thanks to my ability to think too much about an abstract idea or a piece of melody, I was able to win awards, travel abroad and even earn a decent living.

But now, in this world where everything is increasingly unpredictable and uncertain, I don’t know if it’s still an advantage.

For instance, when I read a rant by a friend on Facebook about someone she doesn’t name, my mind starts calibrating stuff. Was I the one who caused her to feel that way? What did I do? Why did she have to go so public with it? Why didn’t she talk to me first? And so on.

Even though I’m not even sure it’s about me.

Also, the moment I lose a job or a contract, I literally go crazy. I get terrible headaches that I have to sleep off for hours. When I wake up from this so-called rest, my mind turns itself back on and just like that, I’m crazy again.

I worry about what to eat tomorrow, even though I already have food on the table today. I worry about what to pay my subcontractor, even though I haven’t talked to him yet about my project. I worry about my children’s tuition fees, even though I just paid. I worry about my credit card bill, even though it’s just a number. I cry over the travels I would no longer have, without even checking my email for the seat sale available.

PAQshet right? Why am I allowing myself to suffer this way, and over the most trivial of things? Why am I not thinking about happiness, music, philosophy, contributing to life and making a difference instead – on top of enjoying my family and my children?

It’s because. I. think. too. much.

When all these worries combine, I lose my appetite, get headaches and I sleep through the meals I should be having. It’s accumulated so much that I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror these days without wincing. Where did that crow’s feet come from? Why do I have so much white hair already? I shouldn’t be aging so fast!

So today, to guide myself to stop thinking too much and enjoy life a bit more, I’ve come up with the following items of advice. It’s really for me and tailored to my personality na hindi masyadong balat sibuyas haha! Do take at your own risk, because you will be hit hard for sure (as I’ve been hit like a bullet to the brain), although I’ve swallowed some of these pieces of advice already and haven’t felt any side effects so far. At least, not yet.

1. It’s Not About You

Stop being so self-interested. The world doesn’t revolve around you. You may have won awards and have a Forbes-approved last name shit, but nobody really cares haha. You’re going to die too. Just shake your head and continue scrolling down.

2. If it IS about you, confront the source right away.

My intuition about people and situations is pretty strong. There was one instance when I came across a rant on Facebook by a friend, and I strongly felt it was directed at me. I quickly messaged her. Not to my surprise, she responded and unloaded. We both felt better afterwards, and we’re still great friends to this day.

I hate losing friends because I didn’t respond. So when you can, reach out and touch base. I don’t mean in a manly way, but you know. Do unto others and shit.

3. Don’t worry about what you can’t control.

Many times, I’ve been guilty of letting other people or situations decide for me, so that when things don’t pan out, I can instantly blame them and feel better about myself. It’s such a lazy-ass tactic. I used to think it offers relief from worry, but what actually happens is that I then use the surplus energy to blame others and feel great about my “judgement.” This is stupid because it destroys otherwise healthy relationships, whether personal or professional.

A better approach would be to take charge of your own life, and when things don’t turn out the way you expect, reassess what went wrong and move on.

Better said than done, I know, but a helpful exercise is to live one hour and one issue at a time. Will you starve to death in the next hour? Will your electricity be cut off in the next next hour? Will you need to evacuate to safety? I can say with at least 65% certainty that the answer for most of you would be NO. So what the hell is wrong with you? Stop worrying about the future and focus on NOW.

4. Do what you love every two hours.

A lot of my anxiety actually comes from not finishing anything I need to do because I have a lot of anxiety! What a messed-up, dissonant loop I always put myself in!

I’ve found it helpful to organize my life in two-hour stretches, because it’s the running time of a typical movie! I spend two hours watching a movie, which I love, so why not do it for all my other activities as well?

You won’t believe how much you can accomplish in two hours. I was able to write this essay under two hours and managed to organize all my utility bills as well!

For the next stretch, I’m going to watch a documentary, and then start composing music. I’ll look out the window once in a while to see the sky. I don’t want to be one of these people who miss out on skies because they’re looking at computer screens all day long. Unless you have a screensaver of a Manila Bay sunset, but that’s pathetic…I’m thinking TOO. MUCH. AGAIN.

Just look out your PAQ-ing window already PLEASE!

5. Be with people who love you.

It’s a no-brainer, but it’s actually hard to do. First of all, just who are these people who love you? Sure, they accept you for who you are and shit, but what do they actually do for you? Do they help you reach your goal? Do they value your time? Do they inspire you to be more and do more?

I used to be a very needy person. I clung like a leech to people who I sensed some value in (yeah, I’m like that Bela Padilla character in that movie!)

But guess what? People are intelligent. They know when you are being too much already. So they start shrugging you off. They start saying no to you. Then poor you, you run and lock yourself inside your room and cry the whole day because you feel dejected, rejected.

What have you done?

You haven’t done ANYTHING biatch and that’s the problem.

People have their own burdens in life too, so why add to that by being needy? Be considerate. Carry your own burden, make it light for yourself first. Don’t spread yourself too thin and help others to boost your own sense of helpfulness when you can’t even help yourself.

Please love yourself first, so others will love you in return.

As much as you can, reach out to others only if you have a pabaon of cheer, good vibes, solid advice and prayers. I have a great friend who holds my hand and prays for me whenever I’m feeling down or sick. It’s so beautiful. I’m very hashtag blessed!

6. Choose your battles very well.

My one and only battle in life is LOVE. I know it sounds corny, but it really is.

When I was 12 years old, I wrote a letter to God and put it under my pillow. One of the things I requested from Him is to get me married to a decent guy who will love me for a long time.

A lot of my women friends who are single and empowered might laugh when I tell them this story. Marriage was really a major dream for me. I wanted to share my life with someone. I wanted to live the Grand Narrative, as one of my poet friends called it. You know – being a girl, getting your period, turning into a woman, getting married, having children, and so on.

I was born this way, says Lady Gaga, so I will live this way. A woman, wife, mother. I can’t think of any other life for me. Your own life will be different too, my friend. Embrace it.

In my case, it’s so HARD to be a woman, much more to be a woman who has chosen this battlefield called LOVE. It’s hard to be nurturing when you’ve had little sleep from breastfeeding all night, to give your husband a kiss when you’re just too paking tired, to organize your household when you are trying to organize your own unruly thoughts for a writing or musical project.

And the hardest part: to love people when one can’t even love herself properly.

But I’ve chosen this battle and I shall continue to fight, down to my last pair of panties!

7. Get yourself a sense of humor.

I’m not naturally funny.  I tend to take everything too seriously that if you tell me you own the Eiffel Tower and show me a receipt written in French, I will believe you right away!

But guess what? Not a problem anymore! I have a lot of funny friends and I steal their jokes! Then they catch me stealing their jokes and only then do I give them credit! I find it sweet that they really take their time to catch me stealing their jokes. They care about me that way.

Use your brain to memorize some jokes or two. It will come in handy, like right now!

My favorite joke is an Erap joke.

(while in the shower) Erap: Loi, walang shampoo dito, abutan mo naman ako.
(Loi, there’s no shampoo here, hand me the bottle)

(Loi hands him a bottle).

(Erap screams)

Erap: Loi, ano ba itong binigay mo? Hindi ko magamit!
(Loi, what did you give me? I can’t use it!)

Loi: Bakit?
(Why?)

Erap: Eh sabi sa bote, FOR DRY HAIR!
(It says in the bottle: FOR DRY HAIR!)

HAPPY WEEKEND EVERYONE!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maningning Among The Stars

Lunchtime, 1994, UP Diliman in CASAA, a popular cafeteria in campus, was as always, so packed that you would have to share your table with people you didn’t know.

I was sitting with my Singing Ambassadors choirmate Pearl, who was sitting with a soft-spoken girl who looked no more than 12. She looked so small and fragile and her eyes were distant even then. She reminded me of a delicate bird. Pearl introduced her to me as Maningning.

Maningning had a sketchpad with her. She looked at me intensely and remarked that my eyes were beautiful. Then, she started sketching on her pad. When she was done, she signed and handed me the sketch.

20170928_190834 maningning

I kept the artwork, and this is how it looks like, 22 years later. It’s pockmarked and aged, but I’m so glad it’s still here. She really was able to capture my eyes back then, and how my hair fell across my face. Eventhough we’d just met when she drew me, I thought she already knew me well because of how I looked so much like her sketch. What a talented artist she was!

Later on, I would meet her again, and again. My close artist friends knew her. She was a multi-faceted artist, but despite her gigantic talents, she remained quiet and humble. I would later learn that she wrote the poem “Dumaan Ako,” which Joey Ayala turned into a song, and is one of my favorite songs ever.

Unfortunately for all of us, Maningning went away too soon. But her parents, Alma and Mario Miclat, and many friends in the art and literary circles have made sure that her memory lives on through an annual trilingual (Filipino, English and Chinese) poetry writing competition in her honor.

On September 28, 2017, the Maningning Miclat Foundation will be awarding the winners of the competition in a ceremony at the Abelardo Hall Auditorium, College of Music, UP Diliman. Maningning’s younger sister, UP Professor Banaue Miclat-Janssen, soprano, will perform with Kammerchor Manila (KM) in a concert back to back with the awarding of this year’s poetry winners.

Highlight of the concert is “Ginugunita Kita,” the signature song of a highly acclaimed music and poetry performance of the same title staged at the Cultural Center of the Philippines a couple of years back. That production, which also saw the release of a CD of the same title, featured Miclat-Janssen performing poems by her sister, set to music by acclaimed composer Jesse Lucas. For the Abelardo event, “Ginugunita Kita” is arranged by Villanueva for choral rendition by KM and Miclat-Janssen.

On its 15th year, the Maningning Awards’ grand winners for poetry in Filipino, English and Chinese shall receive a trophy by sculptor Julie Lluch plus a P28,000.00 check. They will also receive choice books from the Miclat family collection. Excerpts from the winning poems will be read by no less than the poets Gémino H. Abad, Michael Coroza, Alice Chang Chi and Grace Hsieh Hsing Lee.

The event is open to the public for free. However, the Maningning Miclat Art Foundation, a non-stock, non-profit organization, welcomes your support and contributions to help carry on its mission of encouraging creativity among the youth and recognizing and nurturing their talents in poetry and the arts For particulars, contact 0918-9057311. Email maningningfoundation@gmail.com

 

Happy New Year, From The “Late” PA-Q

Today, September 21, 2017, marks the Islamic New Year for many Muslims like myself around the world. It’s different for us because we follow the moon, not the sun.

The Islamic Calendar actually began in 622 AD, the year the Prophet and his followers migrated from Mecca to Medina in the Middle East to escape oppression many moons ago. So today actually marks the start of our commemoration of that glorious moment of freedom in our history.

On this very day as well, fellow Filipinos will be staging protest rallies to commemorate the declaration of Martial Law in 1971, when then President Marcos ruled with an iron hand all over the country. Today will be a different kind of remembrance for Filipinos who suffered the deadlier brunt of his rule.

But today, allow me to share something more philosophical rather than political. I’d like to talk more about this universal concept called Time, and how huge swaths of humanity are operating on a totally different calendar.

I’ve been governed by both these two calendars, or timelines as you may, as someone who practices Islam in a non-Islamic society.

I’ve observed that time moves very differently in this paradigm. When I get up, I’m not going to rush to work. I will go through my rituals of ablution, of rolling the prayer mat, of bowing, prostrating, and being grateful for yet another day I’ve been given, yet another chance to stand before Allah. It’s a deliberate slowness which, frankly, is really very difficult to cultivate when people around you are observing a different calendar.

I see life like a turtle. Of course, I’m not a turtle but I look at the world as though I will be living for a hundred more years. Because if a turtle can live for a hundred years, why not us? As human life gets prolonged more and more each day by inroads in science and technology, we are becoming more and more like the turtle in terms of its lifespan. Maybe millennials would prefer the life expectancy of handsome, twinkly vampires more than that of turtles. But you get my point.

When you operate on that turtle or that Twilight kind of timeline, it changes the way you live your life. You become more soulful, more loving. You appreciate everything around you even more. I love it. I love surveying everything around me. I love looking at the mango tree in the backyard ripen every summer and observe how it ripened a little later this year. I love laughing about how the mangoes fall on our roof at night, waking us all up. I love following the seasons and witnessing my little girl complaining of growing pains in her leg. I love being in tune with the earth, with nature, with the fruits of my womb as a mother, and savoring every second.

The timeline that most people are on these days is too fast for me. Everyone is wired and interconnected. The instagramming of time is really a big deal these days. Capturing every moment, seizing it as quickly as possible, and moving on to the next moment. It’s all so breathless.

I’m not at all concerned about accumulating moments. I can never scroll through an Instagram account without falling asleep midway, for example. I’d rather just take a classic snapshot and look at it over and over, so to say. I’m all about stretching a beautiful moment into infinity.

I need my breath. I really like taking my time. When I pray five times a day, this is what I’m really doing. It’s my refuge from the relentless ticking of clocks everywhere. Prayer is where I can safely be slow and not be penalized for it.

I truly lament the tacit penalization of slow people in our society now. When you’re not fast enough, you’re replaced. When you’re not fast enough to respond, you’ve “missed out” on an opportunity. I’ve seen it happen to people in the media industry where I work. Some are literally dropping dead like flies from overwork. It’s really sad, but because our society has chosen to operate on a different timeline, these unfortunate things occur.

These days, the only way for most people to get their time back is to “buy” it. If they are wealthy, they can literally buy time. They can hire laborers to do the heavy lifting so they can enjoy life at a much slower pace (or faster pace, if they’re into sports tourism). Or they work like flies for 6 months to make the kind of money that would allow them to “buy” the rest of the year. I don’t have anything against this, but I’m really idealistic, if not somewhat naïve. Because I’d really love for all of humanity to operate on a similar timeline without having to buy anything. Yeah, I’m a kumbaya kind of girl, I am now realizing!

One option available for me is to simply move to an Islamic country where the pace of life matches my own. Right now, however, that choice is very difficult to make, with our children currently enrolled in programs here in Quezon City and with me doing much of my work in my current environment. Also, I am in an interfaith marriage, which is an example of diversity at work. I really embrace this in a very personal way, no matter how tremendously difficult it is. Without this challenge, I can never be a better turtle, after all.

So to everyone today, happy new year from me, a person who is always late to everything. But thanks to people like me who are operating on a different timeline, you are actually enjoying a holiday today, mader-PAQers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Household Hero Day

As the famous essay by the late Pulitzer-winning Filipino writer Alex Tizon pointed out, there are slaves in our midst today.

On my street alone, there are around four or five slaves. I know because I counted the friends of my kasambahay E in our area. These modern-day slaves make anywhere between PHP2500 to PHP4000 a month doing all-around work for their masters. Some unfortunate ones work for free their whole lives by virtue of being a blood relative or close to a blood relative (like Tizon’s case) with nowhere else to go. The chores they do may include washing the soiled underwear of their very adult and very capable masters, a terrible task I will never inflict on my worst enemy.

Day-offs are not optional – their requests can be easily refused, and they have no choice but to work on Saturdays or Sundays while the whole city is having a field day watching all the pretty Alexes and unpretty Empoys get it on the big screen. Merienda is also not part of their life; they have to make kaltas from their meager suweldo to buy themselves some pieces of pan de coco or fishballs to give themselves energy to serve their masters, often little kids who like to kick them in the face for fun.

The Kasambahay Law, which is supposed to provide protection for house help by requiring their employers to remit SSS or Pag-Ibig benefits every month, among other things, is easily circumvented. When the kasambahay starts to demand his or her rights, the master can simply refuse the demand, and the slave is asked to stay or leave. But in reality, there is only one choice, because in many cases the master will simply not offer any monetary support to enable the slave to make the decision to leave.

Ano ka sinuswerte?

Yes, slavery is very much alive and kicking in the Philippines!

If you are a master, like me, you can say what you want. You can say that our kasambahays are human and can therefore become abusive too. You can say that they are scheming and manipulative and use their employment as stepping stones to greener pastures. You can say that they filched money and food and clothing and twisted your kid’s arm one time and so they had to be let go. You can say that they are too frisky, that’s why they easily get pregnant after every boyfriend and must be let go. You have your own problems too and can’t be burdened by the lives of others.

Say anything to make you sleep at night.

But the reality is: you are the master. As Raymond Lauchengco (or Marco Sison?) once said: you’ve got the power, nothing’s gonna get in your waaaayyyy…

Seriously.

You got the money to pay them; they don’t. You are on a higher plane of existence than they are in terms of educational background, networks and overall bourgeois experiences like travels to foreign countries and knowledge of other languages; they don’t (except maybe a phrase or two from some malibog foreigners they met on Tinder). And because you’ve got the power, you also hold the key to improving (or destroying) your relationship with them.

However, there are a few complaints that every master will dread to make, such as: they kidnapped my child for ransom, abused her while I was away working. Or: there was an accident. In that case, I will pray for you. I will even cry for you, damn it. But I will also take a long, hard look at your situation. Something terrible went wrong in your journey. Aside from simple kamalasan, what happened to your leverage of higher education, social status and discernment? What happened to your power? I want to understand.

Could it very well be that you did not have enough money to pay them, but that you badly needed a helping hand? In that case, you must ask them what they want so they will work for you for free. It could also very well be that you had so much money to pay them that you thought you owned them and they could be your personal robots working 24/7. In that case, you must still ask them what they want so that they will really work for you for that much money. Ask them gently and nicely.

If you don’t do this, they will leave, in most cases, as they should. If you block the door to prevent them from leaving, that automatically makes you an oppressor and I hate oppressors like the lice that infested my hair when I was eight years old. If I hear about it (about your being such a louse), me and my kasambahay E will find a way to make them escape. (Yes, we’ve helped a few escape their oppressive masters, and I’m prouder of this fact than all my other accomplishments in life).

Today is an apt day to ask the following questions, if you are employing a kasambahay:

1. Are you treating him/her more as a slave or as a friend?

2. Is he or she happy with you? Do you laugh or cry together?

3. Have you done enough homework as employer to mitigate any accidents from happening with your kasambahay? Do you know about his/her health or physical disabilities, for instance? Can you properly discern if he/she’s the right fit for your home?

4. Does he/she have ample time to rest from her chores?

5. Is he/she happy with your work arrangement?

6. Does he/she eat thrice a day plus merienda? Will you afford whatever diet he/she’s on?

7. Are you willing to do his/her chores yourself, if he/she’s unable to for whatever reason?

8. If he/she starts to fail and grow old, are you willing to continue providing support?

9. Can you support his/her dreams and goals one step at a time? Are you willing to let him/her go when the time comes?

True love is letting go, or so they say. But how can you let go if you never really loved your fellow human being as yourself in the first place?

Today, more than any other day, will be a great day to love your kasambahay as yourself, because I’ll recognize you as a National Household Hero and memorialize you on my blog for all time.

August 28, 2017
UP Village
My heroes are small but very relateable

Coming from a poor family in Palawan, my kasambahay L asked to study so she could work abroad. Now, she’s in Europe as a language interpreter and earning more than me hahahuhu! Give me and my husband our PA-Qing medal!