Saturday, May 24, 2014


SPENDING two consecutive days in a Cebu City private hospital gave me a brainstorm. What if, instead of adding new wings for clinics, the latest in facilities and more parking space, hospitals made space for walking parks, gyms and wellness centers?

What if, instead of ornamentals, pretty rocks and stone angels, trees, herbs and medicinal plants turned hospital gardens into communal green larders where folks can take a cutting or two for their own gardens?

Among community extension workers, this is the wisdom: one’s service is completed when one becomes redundant in people’s lives.

But hospitals never become irrelevant. Step inside and you will be back again. You will return for “regular” visits and become a captured, if reluctant, enrollee for life until death signs the certificate for final release.

In a kid’s mental map of the neighborhood, hospitals represent health. But today’s medical complexes are Byzantine bureaucracies enshrining sickness and pathology.

That must be why many of us go to hospitals only when we absolutely have to. It’s a state of mind created not by the fear of contamination lurking in the unnaturally bright and antiseptic corridors but by the overwhelming certainty that we can only be healthy again as soon as we put miles between us and these edifices dedicated to a dubious god of wellness.

Joining the lunch hour queue at the cafeteria, I wondered at the schizophrenia dissecting hospital culture: posters inside elevators exhorting hygiene and exercise; softdrinks, 24-hour vending machines and skinless longganiza as cafeteria come-ons.

Seeing hospitals through the eyes of an ailing loved one makes me harsh and blinds me to the operating principle behind these institutions: free will. Hospital administrators express this best by a terse sign posted outside elevators: using the stairs is better for your health.

The long line of people that never ebbs outside elevators is my answer: on the drug of free choice, people often choose the easier, but not always the better, way.

Without education, free will is a risk and a threat to us. I realize this as I listen to a nephrologist advise a septuagenarian that dieting should have begun 50 years ago. In my 20s, what occupied my days? Novels, deadlines, a boyfriend; certainly not calorie-counting or busting hereditary curses.

Shouldn’t more kindergarten teachers invite a nephrologist to speak to kids who may not yet even know how to spell the word?

A room full of intelligent, open and curious five-year-olds should be challenging enough for a specialist. Like kids, kidneys come in “terrible twos.” These are shaped like a bean and become no bigger than an adult fist.

“Bones can break,” goes the Internet, “Muscles can waste away and the brain can sleep without risk to life”. But you need the Dynamic Duo kapowing and kablasting their way past all the junk so that we are fine, inside and outside.

That’s a story worth keeping in the annals of childhood. Of course, a hospital stroll can also be as elucidating, specially past the kidney unit and the dialysis room where the patients binge on lechon while their blood is filtered by machines.

But this is hardly education, just free will, frittered away in a setting that beds medical care and wellness like patients on separate cots.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 25, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Monday, May 19, 2014

Green magic

GARDENS are green cabinets in this country.

I got reacquainted with the small garden that came with the house we purchased more than a decade ago. Distracted by the heat, I doubted our plants fared better in the heat wave.

Watering the garden at dawn and twilight these past days made me realize how a lot of stuff I eat and drink come from a plot that I can cross in ten strides (I’m five foot in height): kamunggay (horseradish), sili (bell and wild pepper) fruit and leaves, tanglad (lemongrass), bayabas (the Bisaya variety, meaning small and wild), tambis (waterapple), green tea, wachichao (cat’s whiskers), mangagaw and ampalaya (bitter gourd).

Passersby and kids biking or roaming around the village pick the guavas for impromptu snacks. Children pick the kamunggay to bring home or sell, a fact that does not bother us because there are always more than we need. Lemongrass is popular with our neighbors, too. From them, we also get guyabano leaves, goto cola and other nameless leaves with curing properties.

I’m fortunate to live with a companion who can make anything grow. But even if Yaya did not pour attention to our garden the way other helpers tend their cell phone and Facebook messages, I think our garden will still thrive.

Over the years, we’ve buried several cats, a rabbit, and assorted parts of rats and birds left by our predatory friends. We also leave kitchen waste to fertilize the Mactan variety of soil, which is crumbly and fit for quarries rather than gardens.

Aside from sun, rain, soil and compost, the thing that’s going for our garden is the idea behind it. The “magic square meter garden,” as introduced by agriculture specialists of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, stems from the idea that backyard space can meet the nutrition needs of a family, wrote Dr. Florentino S. Solon, then the executive director of the Nutrition Center of the Philippines (NCP).

In a paper for the Vegetable Improvement Gardening Workshop at Bangkok, Thailand and Shanhua, Taiwan, Republic of China on Apr. 22-26, 1985, Solon wrote that homeowners can benefit from what they grow in a land as small as one square meter.

To ensure that home gardens create real magic for urban green thumbs with little space and time, Solon observed that the vegetables and root crops grown should be of the “plant, forget and harvest” variety.

Watching condominiums mushroom around and change urban space, I wonder how magic square gardens thrive today. In our village, I know we are not alone in making green space, no matter how small the lots and cramped the space. The expensive herbal infusions sold in cafés and specialty stores can be grown in the same frappé plastic cups you can take home and reuse.

While Solon wrote that home and school gardens were promoted to supplement nutrient deficiency in the 1970s-80s, many today grow greens in their front- or backyards to fight life-threatening ailments. During rainy season, when dengue cases are on the rise, mangagaw (salingkapaw in the southern uplands) is boiled and drank for its anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties, including the ability to raise blood platelets.

A roadside weed, the mangagaw is cultivated in pots by homeowners that would like to have a ready supply that won’t be watered by village cats and dogs. Not endorsed by doctors but attested to by those who used and benefitted from it, the mangagaw is part of the poor man’s pharmacopeia.

Guyabano is another rising star. A decoction made from boiling its leaves is said to cure many scourges from bedbugs and lice to cancer. Leaves placed on the mattress or inside the pillowcase give a good night’s rest. Juice from the fruit is said to be good for the liver.

Even if you feel safer with a doctor sticking pins and needles into you, a home garden will still yield pandan, tanglad and guyabano drinks that are free of additives, birds and birdsong to ease the soul, and all the shade you need as our planet warms. Bring home green magic.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 18, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, May 10, 2014


“HALOK (kiss)” on Fridays, the feast day, usually entails lining up behind many visitors of the replica of the original image of the Sto. Niño at the Basilica.

“Kissing the image” is not the best translation for the practice, pursued by different people for different reasons in different ways.

The image is encased in glass, stone and wood. Unlike other life-sized icons whose paint is worn away by years of penitent rubbing to reveal dark, stained wood, the Holy Infant image is still mint, bestowing on visitors a smile lurking in its eyes and half-tilted mouth.

Only the marble tiles that have sunk to the ground in front of the image tell tales about the feet shuffling over the years.

To hear oldtimers describe it, the practice of “kissing” the image used to be so convoluted and drawn-out, the visitors spilled outside of the Basilica and snaked round the block. The “halok” was in itself a pilgrimage, with visitors from outside Cebu spending a day or more to keep their “panaad (vow)”.

Today, guards keep the line moving by asking visitors to abbreviate their “halok” (often pronounced as “hawk” in keeping with the city practice of shortening a word to ease pronunciation). The longer personal prayers can be uttered at the sides of the shrine, whose glass panels allow visitors a glimpse of the left and right profiles of the image.

In the queue is a mixture of locals and tourists. Clothes and conversation are not the only way to tell apart the two groups. Tourists are attached to their cameras and smartphones. Their casual attire says that the “halok” is just another stopover, perhaps between getting dried mango in Guadalupe and dried fish in Taboan and cooling in the beaches in Mactan.

The young man in front of me took several selfies during the 15-minute queue last Friday. I did not want to spoil his selfies or end up on his Facebook wall so whenever his arm raised the smartphone, I ducked away, weaving side to side like an old boxer trying to stay in the game.

My “drunken master” routine amused someone. When I ducked, I felt someone touch my behind. Turning, I saw a man long past middle age. In the airless corridor, he looked even more wilted than my collar.

But when the touch was repeated, I could no longer dismiss the “accident”. Quickly turning around, I caught my tapper red-handed: a small girl in a shiny pink dress that looked new except that it was halfway down her waist.

Either she was a late child or a granddaughter of the couple behind me. The girl just can’t stand still, her grandmother apologized.

I forgave this tiny creature for mistaking my substantial behind for one of the balloons vendors carry around the Basilica. Balloons, popcorn, snapshots by a roving photographer: when I was a girl, a day in the Basilica meant all these three.

Today’s kids can choose fatter, nicer balloons that resemble popular cartoon characters. I’m glad the practice of releasing balloons to bring petitions skyward has lost favor. If I had a Dora the Explorer balloon that escaped to the sky and later, ended in the sea, it would be the end of the world for me, as it would be for the sea creatures unable to dive back or eat after swallowing the deflated balloon.

The salty yellow popcorn in its cellophane bag is gone. The frenzy of finger-licking and greasy stains left on new clothes were reasons why wise parents always posed their children before photographers as soon as they got to the Basilica, not later.

Yes, in the age of digital cameras, the “maniniyot” survives. Roaming the Pilgrim Center, these men and their cameras may be vintage curiosities to the selfie generation. Watching a photographer coax a human whirlwind into standing still and flashing several missing teeth that will end in a family album (another curio), I think the “maniniyot” documents down the ages what sets apart the devotion to the Sto. Niño: its attraction for children and families.

When it was nearly our turn before the icon, the little girl was cradled by her grandfather while her grandmother took from her bag two hand towels for wiping the glass panel. These will be shared with folks back home, a form of “extended” kiss.

During their first visit to the shrine, the grandmother remembered that she had carried the infant: “Now, she’s walking.”

Some kisses do linger.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 11, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Dangerous pastime

“You do not die for being bad, you die/ For being available.”

The line is read by Detective Inspector John Rebus, the creation of Ian Rankin, Scottish writer of mystery novels I am currently reading, rather, grasping at in this arid summer of research and writing.

Rebus, a good cop who cannot abide by rules and authorities, is, in the 12th novel of the series, “The Falls,” about to be sidelined by age and obsolescence.

He is after all a cop for whom “email” is a misspelled word. And yet, even though his younger, e-savvy colleagues lead in investigating cybercrimes in Edinburgh, Rebus knows that evil in any form respects MO (modus operandi).

A victim, for instance, must first of all be available.

Growing up, I’ve always heard the imperative—“be home before dark”—as a truism that one’s family represents sanctuary, specially after nightfall when the unmasking and undoing of men and women begin.

Yet, in this age of “domestics” (Rebus’s copshop talk for domestic violence), one risks being abused, trafficked or killed by the very people one lives with.

Thanks to the encroachment of computers and the Internet on personal space, “homes” are now the best settings for crimes. Who is never at “home,” these websites we favor as our hangouts and sanctuaries?

From Apr. 30 to May 1, teams composed of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) arrested 58 Filipinos suspected of involvement in an online scam for “sextortion,” reported Rappler.

The operations, which included police officials from Scotland and Hong Kong, rounded up the suspects in Taguig City, Laguna and the Bicol region.

The cybercrime syndicate is connected to the death of a teenager in Scotland. Last July 15, Daniel Perry, 17, of Dunfermline, Scotland, jumped to his death from the Forth Road Bridge.

The BBC News reported that the police in Fife were investigating claims that Perry was egged on to kill himself after he was unable to pay money to a social media website that was blackmailing to expose his involvement in explicit webcam recordings.

The PNP and the Interpol explained the MO of the busted sextortion ring: suspects created fake social website accounts, pretending to be attractive females to engage foreign males in chatting and later, cybersex. The webcam chats were recorded. The victims were then threatened that the videos would be uploaded unless they paid from US$500 to $2,000.

The video would be deleted after money was sent to the Philippines by Western Union. Authorities said the syndicate operated the online scam for four years.

Perry, an apprentice mechanic, pleaded at first and then said he would kill himself if his video went online. The blackmailers emailed back, “Kill yourself mate,” reported Rappler. Less than an hour after, Perry took his life.

The callousness is a far cry from the friendship initiated by Perry’s online “pal”. He thought he was corresponding with a girl of his age. Security experts interviewed by BBC News said that after romance blooms, the online friend coaxes the victim to take his clothes off.

Like Rebus, I would not wholly trust a person met online. Yet, this wariness is absent in many young people who view the virtual world as their playing field.

Some take risks not from naivete but defiance and a desire for provocation. On Facebook, a school “barkada” once reenacted a slasher scene. These students were well-behaved and diligent in class. Watching the gore drip from their “violated” and “massacred” bodies, I wondered how the images would be perceived by strangers, specially by predators.

In the 14th novel, “A Question of Blood,” Rebus comes upon the vlog of a Goth teen who invites the world wide web to watch her in her bedroom through a live feed from a webcam attached to her computer.

“WELCOME TO MY DARKNES!” is the name of the vlog promoted by “Myss Teri—visit my 100% non-pornographic (sorry, guys!) home page!”.

Thinking how the site will draw the hunters out there, Rebus comments: “A dangerous pastime.”

Retorts his younger partner: “Maybe that’s why she likes it.”

( 01973226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 4, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”