Saturday, October 08, 2005

Disaster country

DEFINITELY, it was the Mother of all Mother Nature Disasters that I’ve ever willingly dumped my skinny earthling anatomy into. The calamity was so ruthlessly devastating and unforgivingly noncompromising that it drove the once-impregnable US military bases scuttling away from the Pacific Ocean—haphazardly dismantled, temporarily orphaned. Before that, Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base have been comfortably lounging in Pampanga and Zambales provinces for more than a century since America and Spain inked the Treaty of Paris in late 1800s.
That Treaty was the Grand Scheme of all Grand Schemes—an epic brinkman’s move that sealed the fate of the New World in the next one-hundred years or so. For a time, it fortified American might in South China Sea. But, well, with Beijing clamming up on Uncle Sam’s achilles’ heel via a shrewed open-door economic policy that the West greedily bit and adhered to, that peerless fort may have already been history, who knows...
Well, it seems like the vaunted and potent, albeit blindly-subservient Chinese workforce is more than comfy with sweating it out for ten-hour/quarter-salary rotation in white man’s factories — against $7/hr x 8/hrs-day grind in a South Dakota plant, for example — and US/European business is cool and happy with the setup, so who cares, right?
America and Europe will continue to breed individual millionaires/billionaires while the world’s hopeless, hapless citizenry remains trapped in credit card/mortgage and food-to-mouth quicksand. It’s a tragic reality that stares at us like a cat’s blank, cold gaze.
So who says there’s still a war of ideologies and/or political thought--capitalism against communism, come on! What we have in our midst are McDonald’s fat, Nike athlete’s foots, Levi’s made-in-Bangladesh, filthy-rich basketball gods, multilingual iPods. We blur the lines, not towards global harmony but deep, deep down individual human greed. They aren’t looking anymore at how you execute a Maoist practicum at an agrarian countryside, or test a Milton Friedman blueprint on urban poor communities. Times they are a-changin’, indeed!
Chuck Oxford, MIT, or Harvard. The Men-in-Black are more interested with your internet-hacking prowess. Economic espionage via information highway is the World War that is already happening. They might not murder your physical self but they already got your soul.
Uhh, I guess, I’m straying from my chosen subject again... But not really. I’m just trying to lead my musings into something that somehow offers me an explanation why things are what they are these days. Why do world powers, giant business, and mighty governments have grown so grossly insensitive and oblivious to human pain and misery. And why human beings have become easy prey and victims...
But, ooopppsss--let me digress... aha, let me go back to my initial discourse. I was actually rambling about what made the US military bases scoot away from Philippine shores... Sorry.

Okay, Philippine Senators—under ex-President Corazon Aquino—voted against the continued stay of the US military bases in the country in early 90s, but I do sincerely believe, that it was the eruption of Mt Pinatubo volcano that finally did it. When Mother Nature casts her wrath, no international agreements or almighty brinkmanship would matter. When The Sky dictates the course of life, it’s all over...
Oh well, I don’t want to, however, paint these hapless pages with sociopolitico-historical blabbery. My last column—dedicated to the passing of my Mother—was apparently very sad. I wanted to wax comical again, but after two days of insane vomitting due to some food poison or something, it’s simply hard to beat deadline with a clownish girth... And how am I suppose to goof around when few thousands of miles away, down south, people are grieving.

“My God, only in the Philippines?!” A Belgian journalist slumped his beaten gut beside his demobilized jeep’s front wheels; the jeep’s windshield broken and crashed by nonstop downpour of lahar (ashfall). “Volcanic eruption, typhoon and flood, tremors every 15 minutes, blackout!” His aeta (pygmy native) assistant seemed more perplexed and puzzled than scared, though. He simply stared at his boss.
I leaned towards the Belgian dude, “There might be a coup d’etat in Manila this week.” That was July 1991. “I’m more concerned about bombings in the city than this volcano, Sir. Take it easy.”
I don’t know, I’ve never really felt—or intimidated—by some danger posed by nature. It had to happen, I had to believe that when it gets me, it’s because it’s God’s will, and that’s it. It was more frightening for me to confront a wayward bullet from a wayward firearm courtesy of a misdirected, wayward human zeal than a flashflood or tremor. What can we do? We can only possibly deal with natural disasters--cushion its wrath’s devastation--before and after the fact.

In the Philippines, however, it’s an entirely different story... There were many instances, especially during the fantastically nonstop military mutinies under Aquino’s term, that gunfires in the streets seemed like stale firecracker and death threats, practical jokes at the office.
A lifeless, mutilated human torso floating by the Pasig River (Manila’s main tributary) or decomposing in some dumpsite — or Rambo-fanatic cops gunning down petty criminals and hoods on a busy public road, in full view of townspeople on broad daylight, was pretty much like ogling over a Hollywood gangland shoot at Jackson Heights in Queens. It’s like, “Okay, sorry for him... we all gotta deal with our own deadends, you know.” Most of these unfortunate souls are “salvaged,” or summarily-executed by either urban Communist guerrillas, private army/vigilantes, paid and/or exasperated policemen or soldiers.
So you think military take-overs are like what we marvel at in a Miramax movie about some African or Southeast Asian hellhole? Nah, it’s all Hollywood.
“So who got the bazooka shells? Mang Juan’s kid, Boboy? He should, that boy sells a lot of Marlboros to those soldiers, anyways... The boy’s day job.” No kidding, kids as young as nine or ten hustled and scurried around and staved off sniper shots and flailing, continuous AK-47 and Galil rifle volleys like Flushing Meadows ballboys at a US Open—vending cigarette sticks, Halls menthols, and tetra-pak fruit juices to troops from either side of the combat zone. We call them, Uziseros. Whenever a big explosion rocked a Loyalist Army position and/or a RAM (reformist fighter) sniper exchange connected, they exuberantly cheered, “Aha! Fourteen to eight! Awright! Ayos!” and then, they shuffled peso bills unto grimy hands, smeared with zinc dirt and parched by urban poor humid. It’s a day-in-the-life, it’s just a day. They treat the human carnage as simply, urban games. No big deal.
You don’t get scared anymore because your fear-reflexes are already numbed by continually being scared. You get immune to it.
Death? Death wasn’t like nothing, it’s not that — so don’t get me wrong. This is a scared and scarred culture that pays homage to their dear departed like heroes and saints, memorialized in endless tearful and ritualistic Church and cemetery visits, for years and years. It is not easy to forget the dead... but why do my people treat human ire and natural misery in such resigned, nonchalant irony and defiance? I am still trying to figure that out... My people never fail to astonish and puzzle me, until now. But, at least, you get what I’m saying, right?
Maybe, that resignation and defiance--which become human acceptance--are the reasons why we survive the physical hardships and emotional agonies of life and living more than those who have seen comfort, warmth, luxury, assurances, protection from the very day of birth to the last gasp of breath leading to death. What do you do when wars and civil strife happen like seasons, hunger pervade like blue skies over dark nights, and calamities strike like sunsets and sunrises? You simply deal with them, and hope that God makes his/her move. Faith is the only impregnable, peerless, unshattering armour that we have within—without that, there is no food at the table, no roof under our heads, no strength to cushion isolation from loved ones, no shield against a berserk gunfire.

In my country, or in most Asian nations—incessant typhoons (aka tropical hurricane/storm) batter and punish our shores and lands for an average of four months a year. Persistent rains—monsoon or storm downpours—flood both cities and barrios for days and weeks and months. Urban folk and rural villagers are rendered homeless and starving for months; medicines and clothing come sporadically, worsened by government corruption and political insensitivity.
But the Philippines is not Japan, Luxembourg, or New Orleans—this is a third world patch that heavily relies on World Bank and IMF doleout and US Aid and European Union relief help. And it’s not at all surprising to witness the poor being neglected by government rescue agencies so that people have learned to fend for themselves. What we in the First World coax over via reality-TV pill — eg, “Survivor,” are household fares in some Pacific island, like my home-country. The canned goods and stuff that are given out at the Mission and the clam chowder soup and tater salad at a Shelter are like salary-day grocery list and/or fiesta food in a Visayas island barangay (village).
Even during a red tide menace, usually happening following typhoon, when fish and seashells are contaminated by toxic chemicals... people gather these supposedly unedible, deadly fish, mussels, oysters, and shrimps and feast on them. During unmitigated flooding, as strong winds batter the streets, we always dined on beansprouts soup with cheap smoked fish (“tuyo” or “tinapa”), dirty white rice, and tap water. Since calamities happen like four to five months a year, we got used to them—we treated Hurricane Katrinas, Ophelias, and Ritas as days-in-the-life. We have to survive them. They’re part of The Blue Sky--they happen. So we treat them as part of life and living.
You see, how do we advocate organic food, environmental sensitivity, to these miserable souls when they don’t even have enough to buy a four-day-old pork or buy a new wood panel to protect their nipa-hut shanties against the storm? How would they worry about catfood or dog shelter when they don’t even have enough for their human limbs? So when they eat dogmeat, it’s because there’s no money for beef or chicken... We don’t throw fish heads or chicken feet, we boil them on garlic and onions and make tasty broth, and these are already called dinners.
That is the very reason why America is seen and treated as Heaven, Paradise, The Dream, The Great White Hope for us poor foreigners. America is where people want to be... Here, we could translate the joy of not having kids by simply adapting cats and dogs; we could amuse our problematic cash-flow lives with 64 cable TV channels; we could gobble up on all imaginable flavors of ice cream and doughnuts to counter depression; we could drive our vehicles to the next block to throw our trash; we could have sex anytime as long as we aren’t serious and we stock up on condoms so we are continually protected and saved; we could stride in a restaurant and get a job in exchange for dinner; we can call ourselves “homeless” and/or “jobless” and still have Shelters for housing and Missions for dinner...
Everything here is so perfect — roads are paved and guided by well-printed road signs, groceries are awash with countless choices of food, canned goods, condiments and what-nots, forests and woods are still rife and ripe with greeneries and healthy trees, rivers and lakes flash like tourist postcards, techno baubles are all over, computer access can be had at a public library etc etc etc. Here, just a gasp of asthma attack in a small eatery or a gash of suspicious smoke, elicit an EMS ambulance, police cars, and firetrucks. Everybody’s gotta be saved, human lives are so important—whether you are homeless with no ready relative around or an undocumented/illegal alien, you gotta be saved first before you are asked about paperwork. Life is foremost.
In my country, you are only allowed to an ER if you have cash money as deposit or health insurance—never mind, if you’re already holding your severed right arm by your teeth, bloodied and all. “I’m sorry, no downpayment, no admittance... don’t ask me, I’m just an employee!” We don’t have Shelters or Missions or food stamps or welfare or attorneys supplied by the government. It’s a hard life.

So when I read about ordinary American citizens — tax-paying, government-obedient, credit-adhering souls — experience the same pain and misery that my people experience, in this country of ballplaying millionaires and consumerist excess, governed by a superpower that vows to save the entire humanity with a flash of its electronic wand... then why do the New Orleans people have to suffer? How do we justify the $45 billion additional spending for war, the senseless killings of young Americans and “hostile enemies” in a foreignland, the ridiculous spending of $4 grand by one individual to watch a rock concert, the endless CNN rhetorics of saving the lives of the poor and the underprivileged and the so-called “oppressed” outside of America in the name of democracy?
So what is first and foremost in America? We have to admit that America isn’t as vaunted and mighty as before anymore. If we can’t protect our people from the rage of Mother Nature — how can we protect this Heaven, this Paradise, this Great White Hope, this Dream from another 9/11?

There is no respectable government in the country where I came from, I can easily readily say that. In fact, my people are raring to kick the current president out.
But the people remain strong and resilient. We have the community to bail us out from disasters—man-made miseries or natural calamities. A neighbor will easily fix your broken window for a bowl of chicken soup if you lend him your new Elvis Presley cassette. You can easily trade your goathead stew for a grilled chicken with just a hello and a smile. Your friends provide you the best visitor’s room in their house, free of charge, as long as you help in doing the laundry by hand or washing the dishes — no washer/dryers, no dishwashers. They are very poor—they can only eat ice cream during Christmas holidays or visit a moviehouse on their birthdays. They don’t own iPods or iMacs. Their homes have no ACs on virulent summer days, or extra roofings on stormy months. They don’t own not many material wealth—but they have God, family, and community.
Because of these simple gifts of humanity — they are happier than most of us in America. They save and protect themselves as a people, as a community. They don’t need to be saved or protected by governments that couldn’t even save or protect their own.
Yes, everything starts and ends with us, the people. We can’t always blame the government for all our miseries. Example, we can’t always blame the gods-up-there for the gas prices just because we can’t drive anymore to the next block to score a six-pack.
The Blue Sky God/dess has a way at showing us that we need to look within than without. When man-made miseries like wars, or natural calamities like hurricanes strike hard--those who survive are those who could eat crickets and bugs, treat bazooka shells like streaming hard rain, take refuge under a beating storm on coconut leaves as blankets and boiled sweet yam leaves as dinner...
Governments will always have their own gargantuan priorities that dwarf the 24/hr-a day cravings of a family of four, wherever you are--in America or in some impoverished wisp of a nation. Wars can be stopped and government concern can be had--but, alas, not by a human plea or initiative, but as always, through Mother Nature.
So let’s listen not only to The Blue Sky’s great, warm sunshine--but also to its dark, angry storm and hurricane. She has the same message to us all. We don’t need a volcano to hammer that out. I tell you, when that happens, it’s ugly. We are too used to comfort to take Mother Nature’s worst mood.