Two guys share a smoke from a distance. They quickly toss the butts away when I pass them. Proof yet again that the most civilized people I know are often dirt poor, hungry, pushed by society into being monstrous. “There’s no dignity in being poor.” This debate has been running between me and an octogenarian for years now. He tells me I’m giving excuses, trying to look for silver linings to prettify a picture, to contain the objective reality. I am about to concede. Perhaps he is right. But isn’t this nice? Sharing a smoke with a friend, the last bastion of civility in fantastic conditions.

In Defense of Alienation: The Road to Freedom.

Dear Don,

Your article on yesterday’s Youngblood column really captivated me. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve referred to you in the familiar, as opposed to the formal. Your words were once mine and so I feel a deep sense of recognition–mine, of your current disposition, and yours, of what mine used to be. I appreciate your honestly and your openness to questions. These are foundations one must nurture to build a spine to tread a course that’s uniquely your own. I hear that in your writing and the sound is sweet, similar to the sound of a flowing creek in the mountainside.

Your desire for freedom, for the triumph of good over the many injustices that plague our fellow men and women really moves me. It’s the world’s way of saying that sometimes we do not have to be like Atlas, carrying the weight of the world solely on our shoulders. I am selfish at times and I bear it forgetting that there are others, like you, who share this anxiety, this dis-ease over the way things are. In your own essay of what you know to be (un)freedom, I hear you ask, sometimes angrily (and rightfully so): WHY? Why must things be the way they are? Why are we so complacent when we could all be asking the same of the world? I hear in your voice the alienation that Marx so clearly identified and though his words have been used and abused so callously, I ask that you trust what you’ve felt yourself. Ignore, for a moment, the din of critics, of our teachers, of theories and books–even of our friends who might call us out on being so predictable. In the quiet room of your mind, allow yourself the feeling of being alone, of being alien–to others–but never to yourself. Nurture what the poet Rainer Rilke calls, solitude.

In this choice of ours to care so much and to hold so firmly to our convictions, we will often need the gifts afforded by our solitude. Many will criticize you for your questioning and regard you as a gadfly without even giving you the courtesy of a question as a premise for a conversation. Already you are being told that your youth and inexperience do not qualify you to come to these conclusions.

You are being told that the same academic institution that gave you the freedom of choice, to think or not to think, lacked in educating you for “the real world.”  The same people whose taxes funded your education now doubt the gifts they’ve endowed you with. Really? Well. Thousands of students pass through those academic halls year-in and year-out. How many of them have given a thought to their lives? How many of them have probed beyond the necessary yet mundane realities of their days? I am not even asking how many of them have thought of the real value of being young and Filipino in a country like ours. I am only curious to know if the multitude has chosen to think, just THINK, as you clearly have.

They’ve asked you to learn the ropes of life so you can fix institutions, like UP, and make them run better, then they close by counselling you against giving excuses. I agree, you must never dish those out. We have no room in our hungry, burning bellies, for excuses–so do not listen to theirs, no matter how seemingly well-meaning they are. It is the folly of the elders who perceive themselves wise to tell the young that they must fix what they have left broken. Learn early on to distinguish between the truly wise and the mediocre.

Your responsibility, as a student, is to get an education. So get one. Learn as much as you can from your professors who are generous to share their knowledge, their reading lists, their own musings. But beware of their dogmas. We all have them but it is not our place as teachers to replicate them into sweaters for you to wear until they become second skin. They are for you to try on, to cut, and form into other things. Discard them completely if they do not answer what calls to you in the dead of night. Relish the feel of ideas coming over you when you least expect it. Enjoy the pleasures of good books and find, for your own sanity, a pool of friends to speak with about everything and nothing. Bounce off each other extremes of trivial, noteworthy, and sacrilegious over good music, cheap oily food, and long nights spent asking–always, asking–“WHY?”

For each of our failings, we will be judged according to our alma maters. The critics will deem our schools lacking, catering only to the few, coddling the elite. Those who cry out in our defense will do so with the added pinch of nostalgia, claiming these institutions are not what they were in some heyday of yore. Right.

Our critics ask the university to find you employment. They consider your education only as good as the value that society gives you in accordance with your pay-check. Here you can already learn much about our country. The value of an education in the Philippines is so cheap and shallow, at least until it earns you higher figures.

Grow up or grow bitter? What kind of life is this that narrows choices down this way? It’s as if you’re being asked to grow familiar with your anxiety and certain of regret. Please, I implore you, do not pay heed to these commands just yet. Instead, listen. Listen because even the oldest, most jaded, most cynical, of our people still harbour hopes and it is our responsibility to acknowledge them. They will not always admit this, of course, but if you allow them to respond to earnest questions, they will betray their own self-image and remember what it was that once gave them a spring in their step. This, my friend, is the true gift both generations give to one another. It is the privilege of both the old and the young–a shared right of passage that allows both to bloom, one into the grace of old age and the other into the fertile grounded-ness of the present.

You will need to apply the praxis you speak of because it is the only way to do justice to all our shared hopes and visions. Praxis will allow you to test the certainty of theory against the uncertainty of the world. Our words in the academe are our only economy and grounding them on substance is what ensures the integrity of our institutions. This is not blind allegiance to the academy but rather, a bold acceptance of the scholarly life–however difficult it may be to live our questions.

Everyone thinks those who don’t do, teach or study, as you and I have chosen. They may be wrong but if our output isn’t commensurate to the task of expanding knowledge and exploring the depths of meaning, then we are just as they say we are.

In practice, you will enjoy the chance to try different things. There will be an option to fail and I hope you do, preferably on a magnanimous scale that shakes you out of your stupor, out of your comfort. If it breaks you completely, you will have defined “struggle,” overcome it, and you’ll no longer accept it for it’s own sake.

You will triumph in the end because you will still be YOU–you with the questions, the one who nags this country back to its senses. I know you will succeed.

In the meantime, thank you for this rare chance at authenticity. You’ve given me much to think of and aspire to. Here’s hoping our path’s cross one day and when they do, I hope the road finds us both a step closer to freedom.



A Place to Dwell.

It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out — difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads. Hello rumination. Hello insomnia. – No Time to Think by Kate Murphy for the NYT.

It’s really true, you know. I fail at life more times than I would like but I guess the remainder of the year ought to be spent doing right by those I’ve failed, including myself.

I was sitting in a cab today trying to stay alert on the way to a friend’s house. I was calculating the many ways this ride could go wrong and figuring out what I could do in case something, anything, happens. The recent spike in criminality that’s been all over the news has done much to feed my already fattened anxieties. Yet, despite my insistence on being present, I found myself drafting an essay on lost time, second chances, and the necessity of making mistakes. I promised myself that I would find the time to write it all down but this seems to be one promise I keep breaking just because it’s so hard to sit with one’s self and deal.

Ever since I started working for government again, I put up a wall between myself and the world and chose to write my observations elsewhere. There’s a market out there that feeds on insecurity and mistakes genuine questions for ineptitude in government service, so I figured, why risk being open and honest about work? Since social networking has hastened both the flow of information and stupidity, I worried about how my own curiosity might trigger a backlash causing people to criticize what I know they don’t understand.

But isn’t that condescension, too? Let me try not to worry so much about my audience and remember, instead, a time when I believed in my readers–because I know you are all wise. You will see past my petty anxiety and understand what I’m trying to say.

Two hours into a Monday I am already dreading the thought of drafting my weekly task list. It’s a mix of things I’ve been putting off, things I have to get a hold of, and things I cannot know yet because they will surprise me. Something will always come up.

I am lucky this time to work with an uncanny bunch of believers. I trust that they are good people who genuinely work because they know it’s a mission, it’s a vocation. But then why is there still that itch to keep questions in mind? Why don’t I sleep soundly knowing all of this?

I feel all of this overwhelms me because I don’t write honestly anymore. So I return to the original purpose of keeping this site–apart from telling stories. I’m compelled to write about my experiences because they unsettle me and while I know I can’t write my way to solutions, it does a great deal to just get this load off my chest.



The sky over the sea in Dauis, Bohol.

The pace of travel has quickened so much that I am unable to slow down and compose myself. There is so much joy passing through me and each day unravels itself like a gift.

I’m in an airport again, waiting to get home. There will be time on the flight for composure and writing.

This? This is just proof of life–because I miss, most of all, writing for me.


Climbing Advice.Great advice from climbers at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. At times, I feel my work–and the adventures I tend to find myself having–to be akin to climbing mountains.

It’s not enough that we are courageous. Exercising prudence matters too.

Embarking on another long journey. Hope this time I might be prepared as I was when I was in India–at least to handle what might come.

What is Gained in the Telling.

I submitted this piece to the Iligan National Writer’s Workshop–they responded positively and I should have been on a plane today, setting off to learn at the feet of writers whose words give meaning and voice to the regions of the Philippines. Unfortunately, the road couldn’t lead to Iligan as I am scheduled for a visa interview tomorrow.

My heart’s a bit broken over this. Writing means a lot to me and this week would have been a great opportunity to improve my craft. But anyway, there will be other opportunities.


What is Gained in the Telling.

Ti nalaka ti pannakasapulna, nalaka met ti pannakapukawna.
What is easily acquired is easily lost.

The language poured into me without even a sieve between us.

My grandmother, tugging at my arms, would lead me through the maze of the Baguio Public Market. We would go from dark, dingy alleys to the bright luminescence of the butcher’s strip, globes of incandescent lamps hanging over chunks of meat. I watched the sweat trickle down from their faces. Their eyes glimmered in recognition of my grandmother, who at five feet tall maintained her poise and lady-like demeanor. She would smile knowingly at them triggering a collective gesture of meat sorting. They knew which cuts she would need to make her month-lasting adobo, a dish my sisters and I loved and feared at the same time. How long could meat really last—vinegar or no? At some point in my childhood, when I was still young enough to allow fantasy to take over reason, I courted the possibility that my grandmother had employed magic in her kitchen. We were by no means affluent yet we never ran out of food. The refrigerator was always bursting at the seams, jars of jam and butter struggling to keep the door ajar.

Back at the market, the smell of day-butchered pig wafted in the air. I was too young to be self-conscious but old enough to know how embarrassed my grandmother would be if I spat or vomited on account of it. There would be none of that. If you are old enough to go to the market, an accomplice of the Lady of the House, then the nonsense of nausea is dealt with in silence. I swallowed to keep from throwing up and made a nary a sound for fear of breakfast sputtering out along with my words.

So, I learned to listen. The Iloko words my grandmother used to conduct her business didn’t easily arrest me, at first. These were exigencies of living in Benguet. English could not be the sole currency in this economy of words because a lot of those who spoke it were no longer the tillers of the land. The missionaries had come to preach the Good Word and under their tutelage, the local Kankana-ey and vernacular Iloko, were submerged in a bigger pool of language, English defining the perimeter and slowly moving into the heart of the people’s being. It was faith after all that the Catholics preached—faith to conquer, to banish the savage. There was some salvation being preached here but my grandmother knew that nothing, not even God, could save a farmer from the lowlands where nothing of value grew. Their English might have rooted itself deeply in their expression but it could not beat the indigenous wisdom of knowing the planting season like someone who had lived it.

Life within the language is also worth noting. I knew the words only passively and I struggled to forget them. Gentle as my grandmother might have been in her use of the language to acquire goods, my mother was not so. She said so few things in that tongue but her words captured me, locked me in submission. I knew the dragon in her when she said her piece in Iloko.

“Agtalna kan.”

Roughly translated, the phrase commands the listener to have peace—but when voiced by an angry mother to quell my own childish rebelliousness, I knew I could not have any. I carried the weight of her words on my shoulders for as long as I could remember. I gained no interest in learning to say things in the language that oppressed me as a child. I feared that inhabiting it might render me oppressive, too. Who would want to pass that on? The fear, the anxiety, the secret bond between mother and child that wounds, that breaks.

She stopped using that tongue in my adolescence. Perhaps she thought I had outgrown the need to be told off. Naturally, I hadn’t but it relieved me to not be reprimanded in public, in this language or another.

When my grandmother died, I was all of eighteen. Only now made aware of the value of a regional language, of a vocabulary that colored my growing years. When she was cremated, I worried that the words burned with her. I was saddened to see the language carried over to the grave.

At least I thought this was the end.

Lately, I have been visiting the mountains in search of butchers who might know my kind of meat from others. They are few and far between but once they slice the meat, partitioning the animal and designating which of its parts I must claim, I surprise them with conversation. They are baffled at first, watching someone with fair skin speak a tongue so seemingly foreign but also lived in, accent and all. I am invited for gin in their homes. The spirits leap out of glasses in homage to those that have gone before us.

In between drinks they tell elaborate tales in Iloko and I am astonished by my comprehension. I have never heard some of these words before but they speak to a side of me I have never really attempted to know.

What is easily acquired is easily lost.


Difficult Questions: What I Struggle to Understand.

New Path

The deeper I go into this line of work I’m in, the more I realize the need to constantly examine what it is I truly believe in. There are many voices that speak up and all of them are equally correct, the challenge is to listen to the one that speaks closest to the truth in my heart.

A few days ago, after a 12-hour bus ride back home, I stole time to think about nothing. Sometimes the mind needs to be stilled. The fast pace of decision-making and reaction often compels me to speed up my absorption of information. Countless hours I now recall having wasted worrying about the amount of things I don’t yet know and could if I only kept still enough to read–but even then, the lists I draw up overwhelm me. Everything that interests me deeply offers an embarrassment of riches in the form of text that’s all yearning to be processed somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind.

Yesterday, though, in the attempt to return to the beginner’s mind, I flipped channels and paused to watch Whale Wars. In it I saw passionate individuals driving a van into the heart of the Faroese Islands during a festival known as the Grind. During this event, the people of the islands set out to sea capturing and killing pilot whales to retrieve meat for their survival. In the course of time, this practice has formed what is now their culture and though there are multiple ways of surviving apart from hunting whale, it’s become something symbolic for them. Naturally, this is questioned by members of the Sea Shepherd who have made it their mission to prevent humans from killing whales.

This may not be the best example of its kind but before dozing off last night, I recall understanding (profoundly!) a very simple truth: People act according to what they value and though values change over time, they aren’t always immediately right or wrong. Again, perhaps Whale Wars is really not the best example because if I had used Rwanda instead as an issue to ponder, I would have said with absolute certainty that the massacre of Tutsi’s by the Hutu majority was just wrong, TOTALLY wrong. [Excuse my digression but this is still something I'm trying to grasp.]

But yes, interests and values. We all have these as human beings and the more deeply I work with communities–both in the grassroots and middle-management, even top-leader groups–the more clear it is to me that a judgment of right and wrong is not the first recourse…at least I should teach myself this.

If I’ve learned anything from history it’s that our judgments have compelled us to act in certain ways that have often excluded and marginalized more people as opposed to liberating them.

When I was younger, I knew I had a lot of angst–some I’ve carried over into my adulthood–and I used to think angst alone and a sense of right and wrong were enough to realize certain fundamental things about being…but now I’m not so sure.

My anger has kept the fire in my belly burning but experience has tempered my desire to cast blame and I’m now beginning to see a different side of justice that my younger self would never have contemplated–something I still struggle with today and am often blind to understanding. It’s the possibility of reconciliation knowing fully what the crimes have been but understanding that moving forward requires not forgetfulness but embracing persons in their totality as human beings.

I often think of what dignity truly means and how, as we restore this to the poorest among us, there should also be room to view those that hurt us as greater than the crimes they commit.

It’s so difficult–especially because often, our biggest problems are ethical ones that hang on the balance of social justice. It’s usually the case that we know the perpetrators of poverty and the wardens of corruption–but as I look them in the eye, I feel my own blood-stained hands and ponder the depth of my own complicity. How much of these collective sins are my own? What don’t I say that allows things to go on as they are, that sows hatred instead of goodness?

If there’s anything worth praying for this Lenten season, it’s probably this. I hope to examine Christ’s passion and anticipate Easter, desiring only that I might come to the faintest understanding of what it truly means to be fully alive and present to fellow men and women whom I encounter—the hope also is that I preserve the essence of the encounter that I might discern better and judge less.