Friday, March 03, 2006

Help is on the Way

Cold winter morning, a ghostly cold woke me up. GUINSAUGON, Leyte, Philippines - Rescue workers searched a sea of mud in vain Saturday for survivors of a landslide that killed up to 1,800 people. In November 1991, I was in the nearby Romblon province to cover a similar tragedy – close to 6,000 people were killed in floods and landslides triggered by a tropical storm. A balding, mutilated mountain – bastardized by logging concessions – collapsed in a deadly avalanche of mud and rocks and buried townspeople, almost in a lightning-quick swath of flashflood. DEATH.
That, however, was simply one of the many horrors and agonies that fed my once-insatiable thirst for fastbreaking, “scoop” news for more than 20 years before I finally said, “It’s over… I’m tired, I want my peace.” I touched down at JFK Airport on my 38th birthday, and vowed never to look back again. I was wrong. My spirit never left my home-country, my soul never abandoned my people. I still feel the pain… so fresh, so real, so alive within me.
Like nightmarish déjà vu that keeps on flashing, intermittently… Many moments, while caught in the midst of it all—like a hungry prizefighter trapped in a perfumed muck of youth zeal, seeker’s persistence, and professional devotion – I wanted to complain, I wanted to heap blame, I wanted to scream. But then, first of all, I had to write the story. I had to beat them to the scoop, I had to be the best in my chosen vocation. I had to temporarily freeze my heart and craft words to articulate the numbing stench of rotten flesh, the eerie howl of the grieving, the hellish sight of wasted humanity. No tears usually fell from my wearied eyes, but I clearly felt my heart bleeding profusely, there was no way to stop the pain. My frozen fingers couldn’t move, my mind was blank like spent AK-47 shells. But I had to write the story.
On that November day, as thunderstorm continued to roar, me and dozens of media colleagues roamed puddles and puddles of mud gripped by corpses and cadavers in various states of decomposition and mutilation to double-check our facts. Did the words and photographs that we excised and gathered mean to ease the torment and heal wounds or feed media network vanity? An island away, in a hotel room, few hours hence, I downed my sorrow with a bottle of gin and wept like a child. In the dead of night, I heard a government official rambled on the radio. “ Help is on the way…”

I heard the words before—over and over and over again – from dearly anointed Presidents and their trusted spokespersons. Almost five months each year, massive typhoons ravage the islands; each time after the fact, I heard the words — “Help is on the way…”— like a superbly-delivered line from a prepared speech.
A day after the Feb 17 disaster, the same drained, exasperated words cluttered out of current Philippine president Gloria M. Arroyo’s mouth. “Help is on the way... from the sea, land, air.” If she could only summon the gods, with the grandest and most effective official statements, she would. I am very sure. The PR writer should earn a bonus trip to Disneyland next year, plus a Hummer, for a job well done... Just pronounce the right, most appropriate words fitted for the situation. Politicians have mastered the drill. The people have short memory, anyways… throw them USAID sacks of rice and Oxfam sardines, they’ll nurse their wounds via a complete meal, sans chicken noodle soup from the European Union.
Why can’t these “leaders” go sink their holier-than-thou bodies deep down the mud and go tell the dead that, yes, “Help is on the way?” These same hapless ordinary people whose grimy, greasy hands they shook during election carnivals in front of overzealous cameras. How many times did these Harvard and MIT-schooled royalty wash and soak and rinse their hands with imported disinfectants after campaign soirees... because their heathen hands need to be cared for, because they are leaders, because they are kings and queens?
Kings and queens don’t get buried under a landslide, kings and queens don’t grieve. Their tears are made of liquid gold.

I woke up on that same Saturday morning with a barrage of emails from friends and acquaintances from all over, “Pasckie, are your relatives in the Philippines okay? Are they safe?”
My relatives are safe. They are some of the few privileged souls who are able to secure and protect themselves from tragedies of this magnitude. I am one of the few privileged souls coming from a very poor country outside the gilded gates of America who is able to secure myself with a heater, salmon grill dinner, 100+ channel cable TV, warm bed, and dial-911 for emergency.
My heart is so used and abused by these yearly visitations of human misery that I feel that I kind of lost my individual self deep down a sea of collective sorrow. The reason why ramen soup tastes better than steamed lobster in some instances? The reason why written words and “Bonfires for Peace” mean so much? It’s because I know a few more extra dollars and a few more tired bones and sleepless nights mean a little bit of comfort for those who need them. One day, the words and the bonfires will cheer and warm the hearts of those who really really need them. I just have to do it…
I can’t imagine myself whining over a broken sidemirror, unwashed winter boots, uncollected garbage, ice on the streets, or toxicity on my frozen fish. My energy doesn’t come from my bones and veins, it comes from my spirit – just like how we all love to rattle off Gandhi’s immortal rant, “Strength doesn’t come from physical energy. It comes from indomitable will.”
Why are we talking about Mardi Gras’ revival in New Orleans? Why do we worry about the cancellation, postponement or mellowing down of party-time, more than we work ways to help residents in their full recovery? What about West Virginia’s miners, Iraq invasion’s orphans, health benefits of those who can’t afford them? It’s amazing how the average person in the US of A work to death – thereby neglecting faith and family – to pay the bills or save up for the next consumerist bauble, then each time a holiday comes along, we drink and get drugged like there’s no tomorrow. Partytime!
“Party” in other cultures, mean families and friends and neighbors – young and old – converged on a singular dinner table, morning till nighttime. “Party” has evolved to mean, “Get smashed from 10pm to dawn…” If you don’t, then you are so uncool.
Was St Patrick the patron saint of the alcoholics, and did they originally hold Mardis Gras in Rio de Janeiro to party all day, all night or to celebrate the spirits of grain harvest and ample rain? I still wonder, in oblique cluenessness, why is it they call alcoholic beverages as “spirits”?
What will make the First World wake up—how many WTC tragedies, New Orleans calamities – will shake this vaunted continent before we emerge from the stupor?

The magnificently impoverished people in the countrysides, the tearful faces of children who had to wave their fathers and mothers goodbye – sending their beloved to the deserts of Saudi Arabia and kitchen sinks of London and freezing canneries of Alaska so they could secure food on the table, sturdy roofs above heads, and a future...
Should we immigrants come home when what we see when we set foot in our home-country are rows and rows of corpses clothed in mud, rows and rows of GI-sheet shanties sustaining hold of the earth as storm winds shake them, children as young as five selling flowers and cigarette sticks on the streets for measly coins until aftermidnight...
What can we do when they bury a bullet at your back, when they shut your mouth away with an electric leash, when they mute your pen with physical torture... We immigrants fly to America, the bastion of freedom and democracy, and say our piece so the miseries and pain from little countries like ours will be heard, so the gods channel aid in terms of sturdy houses, and health benefits, and more jobs that stop parents to work abroad.

Why do I hate the war. The memories of those places, of those faces—make me cringe at just the mere thought of billions of money spent on bombing villages and killing people, billions of money spent on cutting down trees so they could rev up the economy of those who could build and buy cool houses...
What is “heaven,” what is nirvana, what is everlasting peace, when you can’t do anything anymore to help those who breathe and feel pain and joy, when you can’t do anything anymore to help comfort the downtrodden? How many years do we still have to consume and waste away, how many dead people inspire and urge us to hit the road and make things happen when the truth is—we can’t sacrifice the comfort of the couch, the many conveniences of this life?
“Help is on the way?” What help? Is she going to resurrect the lives of the dead with a box of milk from a Forbes Top 1000 company? Vials and vials of Tylenols from Washington? Plaster band aids to gaping wounds courtesy of billionaires’ spare change?

Who wants to talk about “I am going through a lot of emotional shit lately?” Failing heaters or showers without hot water, or vehicles that conk out, or rental back-accounts, or laptops that suck, or “I cant do that gig because...” or “pass that joint, we deserve to chill a bit.”
As I struggled to finish this column, a gas buildup in a coal mine in San Juan de Sabinas in Mexico triggered a pre-dawn explosion, trapping 65 miners. A day after, five TV news networks alternated in telling—in absurd amusement or silent horror—the story of a man in Florida who bludgeoned his roomie to death over an argument concerning toilet papers. This as bombs continue to pulverize Iraqi villages, as Asheville’s peace activists stage a March 19 rally to help stop the killings – as highly-paid macho men on shiny microphones ogled over Beyonce Knowles’ voluptuous curves as she sang The Star-Spangled Banner at NBA’s All-Star Games in Houston.
Damn, I want to feel that fistful of mud that buried those beautiful people. Just that. That alone makes me want to live longer and longer and longer – because the grime and the dirt are so real, so alive than the temporal glimmer of all the marquees and neons of all the main streets and times squares of my American Daydream. One day The Blue Sky God/dess will help me stop that one landslide, and then the dream will be over. Then it’s peace within me, at last.
Now I gotta start working on the remaining pages of The Indie’s March issue... The weatherperson says temp is 20s. Bundle up, be careful of the impending sleet, stock up on toilet papers.
What the hell.


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