On Monuments of Nature (and of Men)

The memory refuses to go away and begs to be written about.

One night during our last vacation in Catanduanes two years ago, my husband and I were walking back to our inn in the capital town of Virac, when a distinct smell wafted through the air. I found it fragrant; the hubby said it was pungent. On a middle ground, we both thought it was intoxicatingly strong! The smell emanated from a huge tree.

The morning after, as we went out to go about the day’s business, we passed by the same tree. The smell was gone, but on the ground was a carpet of tiny white flowers – the source of the previous night’s sensory experience. The blooms fell from a huge dita tree which, judging from its height and thick, gnarled trunk, must really be old. Nearby, a middle-aged man wielding a broom was ridding the ground of the fallen leaves and blooms. I had to ask him if he knew how long the tree has been there. He smiled and said he didn’t know, but that it has been there even before he was born. But one thing he knew for sure: the tree provided wood used for building coffins.

The tree trunk, gnarled with age
The tree, profuse with blooms
The carpet of fallen flowers

The mighty dita looms tall and strong beside a molave tree (designated as the Belmonte Tree) in the municipal plaza, dwarfing the nearby Juan M. Alberto Memorial Building which, in contrast, is now abandoned and largely dilapidated. On the same ground stands a bust dedicated to the late provincial Governor Juan M. Alberto, who rose to national prominence during the Marcos regime, along with his brothers, Jose (Congressman, 1957 – 1972) and Vicente (Governor, 1967 – 1986).

The molave and dita trees are hardy landmarks
The dita tree next to the JMA Memorial Building
A tribute to the late Governor from his friend, the island poet Jose A. Tablizo.
The corroded dedication plaque from a former leader.
The marker on this molave tree says: “The seedling of this tree was planted by the Hon. Gov. Deogracias Belmonte of the Sub-province of Catanduanes on December 15, 1937 in the observance of Arbor Day.”

Sometime later, I had the chance to trawl the internet for some information on the dita tree. There must be more to it than just being a coffin material. What I found proved that it is a very interesting tree, a great natural gift to men. A true monument by any standards.

Origin and other names

The tree is known botanically as Alstonia scholaris, in honor of the English botanist Professor Charles Alston. The word scholaris was added because the bark of the tree is used for writing tables and blackboards; thus, it is also called the Blackboard Tree. In India, it is widely known as Saptaparni, from the Sanskrit words, Sapta (meaning seven) and parni (meaning leaves) because its leaves are often in bunches of seven around the stem, forming a star-like pattern.

It is also infamously called the Devil’s Tree in Western India, where tribes believe that the tree is home to evil spirits. Sitting or even passing under its shade is often shunned.

The tree is believed to originate from India and other Southeast Asian countries. In the Philippines, it can be found far north in Cagayan up to Palawan and Mindanao, and in almost all islands and forested provinces.

Medicinal Properties

The bark, leaves, and roots of the dita are reported to have antioxidant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and many other curative properties. In some parts of India, there is an annual ritual involving mass drinking of the decoction of its bitter bark, which is believed to boost the immune system and prevent diseases.

Nuisance Tree or Tree of Life?

The dita may have earned a bad name as the Devil’s Tree and is considered a nuisance by many for dumping dried leaves on the ground that need back-breaking cleaning. But to some families in Bagong Silang, Quezon City, the tree became a lifeline during the onslaught of Ondoy in 2009. To avoid being swept away by floodwaters, 37 persons clung to a dita tree. All seven families – including a two-month-old baby — were saved.  Read the full story here. 

Quezon City councilor Alfred Vargas proposed a resolution recognizing the tree as “a tree of life.” “It was just a tree but it now stands for the people’s hope and ability to move on. I think they have moved on and have accepted what happened before,” the councilor said.

This story stoked my interest back to that tree in the Virac plaza after the serious damage of super typhoon Rolly on Catanduanes. Seeing photos of the typhoon aftermath, I wondered if it was able to withstand nature’s wrath this time. Three weeks after Rolly’s landfall, I talked to a friend based in Virac to know how things are holding up. Still weary after the harrowing experience, she nevertheless assured me that greening has started;  trees all over are developing new sprouts.

And that dita tree?

She said it’s still there. A little shaken, but still standing strong.

Like a true heritage tree.

Why howling Catanduanes always shines through

[This article was published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 20, 2010. I am reposting it now – 10 years after –  in light of the recent devastation wrought by Super Typhoon Rolly on my province.  I want to share memories of how beautiful the island was before it was brought to its knees by the strongest tropical cyclone ever to hit the country. Catanduanes had sprung back from similar crises in the past, and the rebound may take longer this time, given the extent of the damage. Yet, with the strong faith and character of its people and with help coming from all sectors, there is no doubt that it will show its “Happy Island” face to the world in due course.]

***

I have ambivalent feelings about my province, Catanduanes, being called “Land of the Howling Winds.” On one hand, I’m helpless because the unflattering moniker rings true. Catanduanes lies in the typhoon belt and is often talked about in the same breath as inclement weather.

On the other hand, I’m in denial because the description is, after all, only half-true. On warmer days, when the winds whisper rather than howl, Catanduanes shakes off this tag and transforms itself into the idyllic place that it truly is. This emerald isle lying east of the Bicol Peninsula is the perfect hideaway; the place to be to savor nature in its largely unspoiled state, reconnect with one’s historical and religious heritage, and experience the rustic charm of island living, plus the true Bicolano zest for life.

Life is a beach

Getting to Catanduanes by plane from Manila takes less than an hour. Shortly before touchdown at the Virac airport, one gets a visual treat from thousands of feet above sea level: a glimpse of the western coastline makes one giddy at the prospects of living it up on this island with its stretches of amazing beaches. Catanduanes may have earned its merits primarily as a surfing destination, but there are countless other possibilities for the less daring. From the capital town of Virac, a roughly 11-kilometer drive through tertiary roads to the southern tip of the island brings one to the oft-visited resorts in Igang, Antipolo, Balite, or Marilima.

Twin Rocks Resort in Virac
Time and tide conspired to form this arch in Batag, Virac. Locals call this Pier of the Encantos.

Twin Rocks Resort in Igang is known for its postcard-pretty scenes and classy amenities, while Mamangal Beach in Balite offers perhaps the most stunning sunset view on that part of the island. The gentle waves here are ideal for skimboarding and the powdery white sand compels you to take off your flip-flops and stroll barefoot. Off the beaten path, it is quite likely that you’ll discover an undeveloped beachfront where the only footprints you’ll see on the sand are your own. No hawkers, no curious onlookers; just the peace and quiet you need to recharge your tired body and weary soul. A hammock and a book will make excellent buddies. Remember to bring your snorkeling gear because it will be hard to resist the urge to explore the beauty that lies beneath the crystal-clear waters.

Sunset in Mamangal
A skimboarder calls it a day at Mamangal

Other parts of the island beckon with their own beach attractions. You’ll run out of fingers counting the exciting options. We were told to allot more time on our next visit to check out Amenia and Pasa Tiempo Resorts in San Andres, Toytoy Beach in Caramoran, Soboc Beach in Panganiban, and the different resorts in Puraran, the surfing area located in Baras town.

Nature’s gifts

The province is dominated by a mountain chain – a rugged terrain that is a great come-on to adventure-seekers. From Virac, we headed towards Bato and dropped by Maribina Falls where we found early-morning picnickers already enjoying the cool waters gushing from the multi-tiered cascades. Again, the decision was prompted by the proximity of the place; otherwise, we would have wanted to explore other well-known waterfalls such as Binanuahan or Nahulugan Falls in Gigmoto.

Maribina Falls

The Virac–Bato route is accessible by jeepneys or tricycles, which are the readily available public commutes on the island. There are also private vans for hire, but my personal choice for navigating this picturesque route is the motorbike. Nothing beats a leisurely ride while taking in the cool mountain air coming from one side and getting a panoramic view of the sea on the other—and feeling the wind against your face, blowing all your urban cares away.

Taking the opposite direction to the town of San Andres, the sceneries are just as enchanting. The winding trail approaching Lictin is lined with lush vegetation and is a favorite stopover for spelunkers who usually visit the Luyang Cave.

From here, one can drive farther west to the Agojo Fish and Maritime Sanctuary. A boat ride around the protected area allows visitors to view colorful species of fish and corals. In Codon, the development of a RORO port holds great promise. When completed, it is expected to boost tourism in Catanduanes through a shorter link to Camarines Sur.

RORO port development in Codon, San Andres

A short distance from Codon is the Munagbunag Cave located along the road near Mayngaway. Camera buffs will have a grand time capturing the mystifying images found in the various chambers of this cave. The cliffs outside the cave offer a great view of the Codon Point and nearby Camarines Sur, which should not be missed.

Exploring Munagbunag Cave
View from a cliff outside Munagbunag Cave

When the sun sets and night creeps in, it is time yet for a unique sensory experience during your island visit. If you find yourself somewhere near Hilawan or the densely forested area near the Luyang Cave in Lictin, San Andres, pause and enjoy the symphony of crickets and the dance of fireflies – luxuries that are not quite possible in places that are choked with pollution. Your knowledge of asterisms will also come in handy when you do a little game of connect-the-dots as you try to trace the patterns of the flickering diamonds in the clear night sky. These memories will go with you anywhere, long after you’ve left the island.

Hispanic heritage

It has been centuries since the Spanish conquistadores set foot on Catanduanes, but the Hispanic influence still runs deep into the Catandungan character. Words of Spanish origin have found their way into the dialect, Castilian-sounding family names are common, and islanders are known to be deeply religious. Most barrios have chapels or ermitas, which folks use for religious functions. People can keep track of time through the tolling of church bells.

In the town of Bato, for example, folks wake up at the crack of dawn to the pealing of the Bato church bell. The Baroque-inspired church is an imposing structure by the riverside, its thick walls built with mortar and coral stones that have withstood the ravages of time and the elements. It took more than 50 years to build and was completed in 1883.

St. John the Baptist Church in Bato
Moss-covered detail of the St. John the Baptist Church in Bato
A secret hideaway in Barrio Bote, Bato

About 15 minutes away is the Batalay shrine, which houses the first cross erected on the island. It marks the burial site of Fr. Diego de Herrera, an Augustinian priest who led an expedition in 1576 that was shipwrecked off Batalay and who was later martyred by the natives. On the same site, a spring flows with water that locals believe can cure certain illnesses.

Barrio Batong Paloway in San Andres is another popular pilgrimage site owing to a stone image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Different stories related to the image and its miracles are being floated to this day. The common thread, however, is that the stone has grown in size but the image embedded in it has not been distorted. Details like Mama Mary’s hair and her thumb peeping through her blue mantle which, in the past, reportedly required a magnifying glass to see, are now clearly visible to the naked eye.

Fiesta Island

Perhaps, the most evident trace of Spanish culture here is the observance of fiestas. After completing the novena to their patron saints, townsfolk pull out all the stops in merrymaking. No town fiesta is complete without a civic parade and marching bands, local beauty contests, and the vesper ball. The latter is where the locals and homecoming guests prove they can be hot at cha-cha (the ballroom staple, not the political maneuver), which appears to be the favorite beat to show off their innate sense of rhythm.

The usual fiesta fare includes gulay na gabi or laing, dinuguan, humba, grilled tuna or other fishermen’s catch, and steamed crabs locally known as an-it. I, for one, always leave room for dessert. The other temptations I can resist, but not santan (coco jam with pili nuts) and latik, the Bicolano version of the suman, which comes with a to-die-for sauce made of sugar, coconut cream, and anise flavoring. The best part about fiestas here is that they don’t come with RSVPs. Be bold and invite yourself. You will be treated like a much-awaited guest.

One might wonder how the Catandunganons who experience the wrath of the monsoon winds as if on schedule can be so warm and gracious. I used to ask the same question too, until I met an old man who quipped, “ga tullo man sana pag ga ullan” (it only leaks when it rains). He didn’t even know it, but his wisdom and the unique way by which he articulated his words had hit home. The double “ll” in the dialect is sounded like a vowel somewhat similar to, but not exactly like the Spanish pronunciation of “pollo”, a curiosity that’s a spot-on clue to a person’s island roots.

Tess Herrmann, a Virac-based resort owner, shares a related perspective. While showing me around her beach property, she pointed to the coconut saplings at different stages of growth and started to relate them to the storms that hit the island, “These younger ones here came after Reming, while those taller ones after Loleng,” and pointed to others as the sprouts after similar destructive storms. “They remind me not to lose hope, but to rise up to the challenge by building and planting even more than what had been destroyed,” she added.

Indeed, the howling winds may blow away roofs, flatten crops, and make life difficult at times on this side of the archipelago, but resilience seems to be one word coined especially for Catandunganons. Theirs is a lesson in accepting things we cannot change and in viewing the glass as half-full — mindsets that make a world of difference when things get a bit too complicated.

ON THE HORIZON

Where the sky meets earth – yes, the horizon – is a whimsical space. It evokes varying perspectives, depending on the viewer’s mindset and how he looks at what’s before his eyes.

“On the Horizon,” the first exhibit hosted by the Ocular Gallery, sets the stage for a vibrant mix of young, emerging, and established Filipino visual artists, where each one reveals his or her personal experiences with, and affection (or lack of it) for certain objects or events affecting our physical, social, and political milieu.

Expect to see varying and unique aesthetics in this maiden event curated by young art enthusiasts. The exhibit will run until November 10, 2020 at the Ocular Gallery, #240 Aguirre Ave., BF Homes Paraňaque City.

Some of the Featured Artists and their Works:

Farley del Rosario is a young contemporary artist known for his faux naïf style that exudes childlike simplicity and frankness. He has been commissioned to do cover illustrations for prestigious publications and many children’s books that have been nominated for special awards. He was named one of Nokia’s 10 Most Exciting Young Artists in 2009. Now based in Olongapo, he was instrumental in the launching of PICASO (Pro-Community Initiatives of Concerned Artists in Subic (Bay) and Olongapo). The group is involved in uplifting the local arts and culture through meaningful advocacy, such as livelihood, conservation, and community development projects.

Archie Oclos knows whereof he paints. Many of his large-scale works depict socio-political issues and the plight of farmers and indigenous people. Coming from a family of farmhands and fisherfolk and growing up in a working-class family in Catanduanes, he had seen the struggles of the underrepresented, facing issues such as land ownership and even fatal encounters with armed forces. He brings this truth to the public through street art — a free, very accessible, and very powerful medium. Archie has participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions over the last few years. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts in Painting from the University of the Philippines. He was a recipient of the 2018 Thirteen Artists Awards of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.


The artist’s depiction of the sad plight of our farmers — that overworked and underpaid segment of our societyand local agriculture, in general.

Dex Fernandez is an artist who has successfully balanced both street and gallery art into producing socio-political mind trips. Through “Garapata,” a cartoon character inspired by a dog tick, he has showcased his art in street murals, stickers, and coffee bags – mixing deep and superficial views infused with his characteristic humor. He has participated in gallery exhibits not only in the Philippines, but also in Paris, Berlin, Taipei, and Hong Kong.

Anton Belardo, also known as Jellyfish Kisses, asserts herself as “trans” and “queer.” The self-affirming pronouncement also brings to light the numerous discriminatory issues faced by the LGBTQ community, which she represents. Creating art helped her fight depression as early as high school, with the full support of her father who indulged her interests, even for overtly girly things. Sadly, her father died when Anton was just 11.  On to adulthood, Anton felt the full impact of bullying, humiliation, and trauma related to her gender choice. Jellyfish Kisses has thus become her alter ego, to courageously project her inner self to the world – vulnerabilities and all — without fear of judgment.

View the rest of the featured artists and their works at https://www.facebook.com/oculargallery

For inquiries, call +63 956 7625 793 or e-mail oculargallery@gmail.com

Quieting the Monkey Mind

In the last five months, outdoors has ceased to become a safe place. Out there, who knows what infectious viruses you can catch in the air, in the surfaces you touch, and from the people you come in contact with.

And so we hole ourselves up at home with our loved ones and risk going out only for the essentials. But even during quarantine, disquiet follows. The media blares about alarming developments and figures from all over the world. And there’s the unsettling boredom; the limited freedom to do what we’ve been used to; the fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. There is so much ‘noise’ even inside the home.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that many have turned to meditation to calm down the monkey mind or that part of the brain that gets easily distracted. Meditation allows one to retreat into that inner sanctuary that is the quiet mind. If you need one more intervention to reduce stress, please click here to find out why you should include meditation in your must-do list.

In my own private sphere, I try to practice Shen Zhen meditation as often as I can,  particularly the form called Awakening the Soul, a simple sitting meditation practice that aims to still the mind and drive doubts and worries away. It combines movements and beautiful contemplations as shown in the following demonstration.

Sometime soon, I hope to be able to do a separate post on the poetry behind each of the movements of this beautiful meditation form.

I have also come upon YOQI, which combines yoga and qigong. Like qigong, it involves almost effortless movements. Like yoga, it harnesses energy as a source of vitality and healing. It also incorporates tapping into different body meridian points to activate and balance the flow of qi or vital life force.

It helps that teacher Marissa does a great job of explaining the hows and whys of each movement as you will see in the following video.

Hope you find these videos worth watching and use these mindfulness practices today and even beyond the pandemic period. Use them to kiss that locked-down feeling goodbye and tap into that inner power to still the mind and keep the balance within.

You’ll thank yourself for it.

I Went Loca in Gumaca

(NOTE: This is a throwback piece, originally posted under Facebook Notes, May 2011)

 

Until I got invited by the Quezon Tourism Office to join their San Isidro Festival Cultural Trail, I had always associated the May 15 celebration with just the Pahiyas in Lucban. But three more exciting harvest festivals on the same day? Of course I said yes in a heartbeat!

May 15th this year fell on a Sunday, so the humongous crowd was expected. Pahiyas in the morning didn’t disappoint with its dazzling colors and the aroma of longganisang Lucban. It would have been fun to experience Agawan Festival in Sariaya and grab at goodies hanging on bamboo branches called bagacays; but we had been there on the 13th for a walking tour of the ancestral houses and the Buri Products Fashion Show. The prospect of scuffling for suman at the Mayohan Festival in Tayabas had to be skipped; we spent the previous day there visiting many historic landmarks, including the awesome Malagonlong Bridge, the oldest stone bridge built in the province in 1840.

The Araña’t Baluarte in Gumaca more than made up for the missed Sariaya and Tayabas Festivals. The festival got its name from Spanish terms referring to the farm produce neatly arranged in chandeliers (arañas) that hang on bamboo arches (baluartes).

A typical arana set-up
A typical araña set-up

 

This year, the people of Gumaca put up 17 creatively decorated baluartes along selected streets as their usual way of thanking their patron saint San Isidro for a bountiful harvest. Earlier in the afternoon, we joined the pamasyalan, a leisurely walk through all the baluartes. Along the way, various groups offered fruits, drinks, and all sorts of native delicacies to the promenaders as part of their thanksgiving ritual. I sensed this was a prelude to something even more exciting.

Some of the good stuff that await promenaders during the Pamasyalan
Some of the good stuff that await promenaders during the Pamasyalan

 

All arañas are fair game during the festival. At around 4 pm, a procession passes by all the arches; once the image of San Isidro goes past, it is the signal that the crowd can jump, tug, and grab at whatever produce they fancy.  I couldn’t imagine myself joining the fray and I didn’t want to risk getting a serious bump from a 2-kilo squash falling on my head, so I was prepared to just watch and take pictures of the free-for-all.

Baluarte No. 16 before the agawan
Baluarte No. 16 before the agawan

 

And then someone made this PA: “Pakiusap lang po sa lahat, huwag na po sana kayo makipag-agawan sa baluarte 16. Ipaubaya na po natin ito sa mga bisita nating mga taga media. Yung mga barangay tanod po, paki-alalayan lang po ang mga bisita natin.”

Such a thoughtful gesture. But there was a problem.

Wala raw pong dalang lalagyan ang mga taga media. Mga barangay tanod, pakibigyan lang po sila ng mga sako.”

Before I could say OMG, sacks were passed around and someone handed me a huge plastic bag, the size used for a week’s worth of laundry.  From a distance, I could see the procession approaching and I almost missed a barangay tanod’s question. “Ma’am, ano po ang gusto ninyong kunin”?  “Maski ano,” I replied, but then my eyes fell on a nice walis tinting tied to a pole. Mamang BT saw that look on my face. “Ilan po gusto ninyo”? “Ay, isa lang,” I said. Mamang BT was not convinced and quickly bundled three walis tintings.

 

In the commotion, I didn’t notice who handed me a buri hat, and then another offered a flower fashioned from wood shavings. Cool! I posed for a picture with Kelly Bautista, Culture and the Arts Promotions Officer of the Provincial Tourism Office.

Clueless me with Kelly Bautista of the Quezon Tourism Office
Clueless me with Kelly Bautista of the Quezon Tourism Office

 

By this time, the image of San Isidro was just a few feet away. Heads were alternately looking up to mark their target harvests, and down to check the procession.

The image of San Isidro passing through Baluarte No. 16
The image of San Isidro Labrador passing through Baluarte No. 16

 

When the image finally went past our baluarte, mayhem broke loose. I decided to stay on the sides for fear of being crushed, but then things started to find their place into my plastic bag. Mamang BT threw in a big bunch of sitaw; a woman dropped an armful of suman, some student volunteers dunked in corn, then  tomatoes, eggplants, squash, more sitaw, bananas, sweet potatoes. I went crazy!

Shoot mo dito!
Shoot mo dito!

 

No, I got nervous! The bag was almost full and I figured I’d need at least five people to carry my loot. I begged my well-meaning friends to not add any more stuff. A woman tried to reassure me that things will be OK once the bag finds its way into the van.

Oh, my gulay! Masakit na ulo ko sa dami nito!
Oh, my gulay! Masakit na ulo ko sa dami nito!

 

But I just did what I had to do. To a young boy holding an empty sack, I gave as much sitaw and other veggies I could grab from the bag; soon his companions were asking for their share, so the eggplants and bananas had to go. An old woman asked for some tomatoes; but those tomatoes were so nice and plump…what the heck, good-bye salsa!

 

Mamang BT noticed the small crowd forming around me and promptly sealed my bag. “Tama na po, wala nang matitira sa bisita natin.” I checked my walis tintings. They’re still there. So I’m OK.

 

It’s been more than a week, but I still couldn’t help chuckling at this experience. It was such a blast!

 

And everything in that bag tasted good! Thank you, Gumaca. Thank you, Gillian and Kelly for the invitation. Thank you, San Isidro.

 

Hope you invite me again next year. I promise I’ll bring my own heavy-duty sack, and at least five able-bodied carriers.

 

Mga daglî sa panahon ng lockdown

Uy, may paanyaya ang Rappler. Sumulat daw ng kuwento na iikot sa COVID-19. Daglî ang tawag nila rito sa maiikling kuwento na katumbas ng “flash fiction” sa Ingles. Karaniwan ay binubuo ito ng 200 hanggang 400 na salita.

Pero ang hirit nila, kailangan daw 19 salita lang ang dapat gamitin.

Basahin dito ang paanyaya at ilang kaalaman tungkol sa daglî.

Narito naman ang mga kuwento ko:

Frontliner

Ayun siya, nasa unang hanay ng depensa. Pagod, kapos sa panangga. Nanganganib tamaan ng corona. Nasaan na ang ayuda?

Practice lang

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Meyor. Meyor who?

Ako’y nagising. Nawala si Yorme pati isang sakong bigas sa panaginip ko.

Quarantine

Gising, ligo, almusal, linis, Facebook, TV, tanghalian, balita, sandaling idlip, kain, Netflix, TikTok, hapunan, palaisipan, dasal, tulog. Bukas uli.

Ambag?

Nagkulong sa lungga para iwas hawa. Sanlibo’t isang dasal na delubyo’y matapos na. Nag-alcohol, nag-distancing. May oras na nagmura.

Apat lang muna. Sana may kasunod pa.

(Photo credits: Rappler)

NOTE: My apologies to readers who do not speak nor understand Tagalog. This post demands that I express myself in my native tongue.

Where there’s a will…

A few days back, I saw a Facebook post about a doctor from the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) requesting kids to create “Get Well” cards to be given out to COVID-19 patients. While the doctor thought of this as a creative and meaningful activity for children, she said that it was not limited to young minds. It was an opportunity offered to others as well, who want to express their support to the isolated patients and frontline health workers.

After quickly checking my arts and crafts supplies, I thought this was something I could do. On Day 1, I had some cards printed with encouraging messages. After cutting them to appropriate sizes, I counted 48 cards. Not bad for one day.

On Day 2, I gathered colorful images to go with the cards. And then it dawned on me that I might have a problem sending them over to RITM c/o Dr. Nicole Perreras, the doctor who made the request. No courier service would be willing to deliver them to a hospital designated to care for COVID-19 patients. Unfortunately, the e-mail provided as the forwarding address for the card designs could no longer receive additional messages. A happy problem it seemed, as it meant that there were a lot of responses to the good doctor.

It also meant that I may not make more cards, since they could not be delivered anyway.

And so I share them here, hoping that somehow they may help uplift the spirits of their intended recipients.

These ones are from the “Spring Blossoms” set.

And these are from the “Winged Inspirations” set.


To our dear COVID warriors, if you are viewing these now from your hospital bed, know that I prayed for you while I was making each card. Nothing could make me happier than having you get one of those cards in your breakfast tray as intended, and keep them for your own later. But for now, know that a lot of people have you in their thoughts and prayers for your quick recovery.

Please keep the faith, get out of that hospital bed soon — and when you can, inspire us with your story of healing.

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When love is mightier than the COVID-19 threat

Dr. Oscar Enriquez is a US-based Filipino who perfectly embodies the expression “You can take a man out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of a man.”  He has settled in the US for half of his life, but won’t miss any chance to go back and help out the less fortunate in Catanduanes, his place of origin.

In December 2018, as president of the United Catanduanes San Diego (UCSD), a nonprofit charitable organization, he met with other concerned Catandunganons based in California, and proposed to organize an independent medical and humanitarian mission that will bring its services to the remote areas of Catanduanes. The project will be funded through sponsorships and donations from charitable groups and friends. It was targeted to be held in February 2020;  hence, the name “Gift of Love” Medical and Humanitarian Mission.

A Gift of Love from United Catanduanes San Diego and Friends (Photo by Rodolfo Go Alonte, UCSD)

Shortly after that meeting, the system was set in motion. Fundraising activities yielded overwhelming support from family and friends with roots from Catanduanes. Sponsorships were arranged with UCSD, Catanduanes Association USA, Texan Friends of Catanduanes, and the Waraynon Initiative Network. A gesture from UCSD supporters Rod and Rose Alonte was particularly heart-touching. The Alonte couple, who lost their daughter just before Thanksgiving, chose to graciously channel the bereavement cash donations into the mission.

Dolly Dalusong, a UCSD member from Los Angeles, connected with Isaiah’s Rock, a nonprofit Christian Ministry in Chino, California, which generously responded with boxes of T-shirts and toiletries. She personally sent the items in balikbayan boxes to Catanduanes months before the start of the mission.

The generated funds were used to procure medicines and various basic goods. Dr. Enriquez shares that “countless times we had to go to different discount stores to check what were on sale and send them to Catanduanes.” This went on for almost a year, until it was time for the US-based volunteers to fly to Manila.

And then, the unexpected happened.

A few days before the mission’s scheduled kickoff, a provincial memorandum was issued ‘momentarily’ suspending all foreign-assisted medical and humanitarian missions until proper health authorities declare the country free from the threats of COVID-19. Faced with the odds that all the time and resources they put into their first project might come to naught, Dr. Enriquez, was in total shock.

Fortunately, Msgr. Manolo de los Santos, Bishop of the Archdiocese of Virac, intervened in their favor. He allowed the group to use the different parishes in the province as distribution hubs for their non-medical “Gift of Love” packs filled with health kits, toiletries, school supplies, T-shirts, slippers, reading glasses, and other goods. In compliance with the memorandum, medicines and medical-related supplies were to be dropped at each town’s rural health unit (RHU) to avoid mass gatherings that could cause health risks.

Another divine stroke came in the form of support extended by the couple Manuel and Sonia Romero, who offered their warehouse as a repacking venue for the various goods. The couple also allowed their construction trucks to be used for mobilization during the mission.

The organizers and volunteers wasted no time in changing the distribution strategy to cover as much ground within their five-day mission. Day 1 was slotted for the capital town of Virac where they visited the provincial jail and entrusted to the jail warden personal hygiene kits meant for detainees awaiting trial. Their visit to an elementary school in this town, upon the request of the school principal, brought priceless smiles on the faces of children who were gifted with new backpacks, school supplies, and imported sweet treats.

All 11 municipal health offices, including this one in Virac, received several boxes of medicines and medical supplies. (Photo by Rodolfo Go Alonte, UCSD)
Priceless smiles from the benefactor and the recipients. UCSD president Dr. Oscar Enriquez with some of the children who got new knapsacks and school supplies. (Photo by Biet Pastor, UCSD)
They got new school bags, slippers, and chocolates, too. A young girl eagerly awaits her share of sweet treats from a volunteer. (Photo by Rodolfo Go Alonte, UCSD)

Day 2 brought the group to Gigmoto and Baras towns. In Baras, they combined logistics with the LGU’s “Konsulta sa Barangay” healthcare project initiated by Baras Mayor Paolo Teves and TGP Partylist Cong. Bong Teves Jr., where medicines and related supplies intended for this town were put to valuable use. In two fishing villages in Baras, families were visibly pleased with the timely assistance they received, which included staples such as rice and sugar. For several days, strong waves had prevented them from fishing and earning from their trade.

Working in tandem with the LGU-initiated “Konsulta sa Barangay” to render basic health services in Baras (Photo by Rodolfo Go Alonte, UCSD)

 Day 3 was set for Viga, Bagamanoc, and Panganiban towns. Day 4 covered Caramoran, Pandan, and San Andres. The last day of the humanitarian mission was spent in San Miguel and Bato. A grueling schedule that did not leave out any of the 11 municipalities —truly, a tough act to follow. Each town was given its share of material assistance in various forms. Even after the mission, boxes of medicines, school bags, health kits, including dental supplies that were not used, had to be stored for safekeeping and future use.

The coronavirus threat that presented itself at a most inopportune time turned out to be a catalyst for even better outcome. In similar undertakings in the past, people from far-flung barrios had to start out early, spend for their travel to the capital town, and wait in long lines before they would be attended to. The “Gift of Love” project enabled the resources to be delivered to them at the expense of the mission team. The RHUs, for some time after the mission, will have stocks of medicines at their disposal.

All told, hundreds of families benefited from the love and compassion shown by this group of Catandunganons who may have chosen to settle in the Land of Uncle Sam, but have no qualms about sharing their blessings with their kababayan.

The mission had its challenges. Lessons were learned. Yet, ultimately, the humane objective was met. The “Gift of Love” prevailed, because in most happy stories, love conquers all. It was a first for UCSD and Friends, but it certainly won’t be the last.

They love Catanduanes! Project organizers join local volunteers in a souvenir photo during the “Gift of Love” humanitarian mission. (Photo by Rodolfo Go Alonte, UCSD)

(Those who want to participate in the next Gift of Love Medical, Dental, Surgical, and Humanitarian Mission as sponsors, donors, or volunteers, please visit the United Catanduanes San Diego page on Facebook.)

Synchronicity and Epiphany, My Thoughts Exactly

Two days ago, my low-maintenance kamuning plant was all leaves. It has not bloomed for quite some time, so I was pleasantly surprised to see radiant bursts of white where only green used to be. Kamuning (Murraya paniculata) is also known as orange jasmine. Today I learned why the name is ironic. Kamuning is not actually related to the jasmine plant species but is more closely related to oranges. That explains the citrusy sweet smell of its flowers. The word ‘orange’ in its name has nothing to do with color either, because the flowers are all white.

Whatever I have in pots do not constitute a garden; and unfortunately for me, I don’t have a green thumb. The last time a plant surprised me with blooms was seven years ago. It held so much significance with my state of being then, that it merited a blog post. Please click here to read about it.

Remembering that experience, I had to put some meaning into what I regard as another instance of synchronicity. I found online sources that say orange jasmine flowers symbolize good luck and optimism, which is why they are an ideal gift for someone who needs support and motivation in life. Thank you, Universe, for that gift!

My search also led me to a site dedicated to Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. Aurobindo was an Indian philosopher, yogi, and poet, among other things. He developed a practice called Integral Yoga and along with his spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfassa (whom he referred to as “The Mother”) founded the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

The site has a section on the spiritual significance of flowers. The entry on the significance of orange jasmine has this interesting reference to the flower as “Peace in the vital.”

My understanding of the message:

  • Peace is a state of quietude where no disturbance can come.
  • Vital refers to our life force and has four aspects: (1) mental, which is expressed in thoughts, speech, emotions, desires, and other movements of the physical being; (2) emotional, which is the seat of various feelings; (3) central, which seats our stronger longings such as ambition, pride, fear, love of fame, attractions and repulsions, desires, passions and many vital energies; and (4) the lower vital, which deals with small desires and feelings we have in daily life, such as food, comfort, vanity, sexual desires, recognition, anger, blame, etc.
  • Behind all the vital nature in man lies a “true” vital. Unlike the four aspects previously mentioned, which are all seated on the surface and therefore limited and transient, this true vital is immobile, all powerful, all knowledgeable, and limitless. It represents the Divine Warrior in each one of us – without ego, pure, and perfect.
  • Peace can be attained not through circumstances surrounding us, but through inner contact with a higher consciousness. All our vitals are necessary to make us whole, but they are of value only if they have been purified and guided by the spiritual light and power. Peace in the vital depends not on circumstances or surroundings but on the inner contact with a higher consciousness. If we have peace in our lives, then cleaning the vitals becomes easy.
  • Put the Peace, feel the Peace, live the Peace, know the Peace.

Wishing everyone a blessed Feast of the Epiphany!

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Christmas in Paradise, Part 3

FIRE

Nightlife in Boracay won’t be complete without fire dancers. Combining dance moves and fire twirling requires long training and seamless execution. While highly fascinating to spectators, it can also be dangerous. The expression ‘playing with fire’ reminds us not to mess around with something really dangerous, as we could get burned.

Fire dancing has an interesting history that traces its origin to the Polynesians who used the practice as a tribal wartime ritual.  Swinging the poi or “ball on a string” developed wrist strength and flexibility needed in handling weapons. As it spread to different parts of the world, fire dancing was used for other purposes, including storytelling, festive celebrations, art, and even healing.  

Fire symbolizes many things to different people and cultures. On one end it represents passion, creativity, and desire; on the other end it stands for consuming heat and destruction. In the spiritual aspect, fire is used to symbolize hope, rebirth, and infinity as in “eternal flame.”

Whatever stage of life we are in, passion and compassion should never leave us. But just like the fire that glows brightest at night, it is in those darkest moments (and yes, our senior years) that we need to keep our inner fire burning.

Let’s seek what lights our fire. And whatever it is, may it be with the intent to make not just our own lives, but also those of others, better. Let’s be with those who fan our flames. Let’s feed our passion and remember to share our creative gifts with others.