Trekking through the election storm

‘The room, the gate, the hallway, the building – they all seemed to have shrunk in size and impact for me. Everything felt smaller.’

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MY YOUNGER brother and I arrived at a polling precinct in the Metro at around 6:15 in the morning on Monday, May 13. There weren’t many people yet. Laptops were placed on a long wooden table at the right wing of the elementary school building. Volunteers distributed pieces of paper where voters had to write their full name and birthday that served as references in determining their designated room numbers. It was smooth. I was hopeful and ecstatic because I’d get to practice my right to choose the future leaders of my beloved country, the Philippines.

Room 207. Cluster 404A. Second floor.

“Please prepare your ID if you have one with you,” one of the volunteers announced as he went out of the room, “it’s for easier processing.”

I checked my company ID inside my pocket with a blue lace. While I was waiting in line, I saw my name and my relatives’ names posted on the wall outside the classroom. I felt great that I was at the right location.

There were only eight of us waiting in line. I saw familiar faces: a former grade school teacher, a neighbor, an old classmate. It was as if I travelled back in time twenty years ago. The room, the gate, the hallway, the building – they all seemed to have shrunk in size and impact for me. Everything felt smaller.

After 2 minutes, the line started to move. The room had the capacity of taking in 12 voters simultaneously: 3 rows, 4 columns. Then, I presented my ID to the election officer.

Zenarosa, po,” I uttered. “Benre.

“Let’s check,” the officer said as she was scanning a binder with names in it. “There you are… please sign here, sir.”

And sign I did.

Like a dove that’s about to land on a pure, uncontaminated surface, I patiently examined the chamber and decided to sit at a corner at the lower right to avoid any distraction. I positioned the long folder to cover my ballot and I started to shade the small circle beside the name of my chosen candidates.

For senators, I only picked 5; for city councilors 2. I also voted for mayor and vice mayor and congressman and party list.

The marker wasn’t a regular ballpoint pen; it gave me an impression that it’s a pentel pen. The markings can be seen on the other side of the ballot. Is it normal? I asked myself. What if because of the intensity of the markings my votes become invalid?

It took me about 10 minutes to finish the whole selection process and scrutinize the ballot. But for some reason, my hands were shaking. I don’t know if it’s because of a cup of 3-in-1 coffee I sipped earlier that day, or it’s just because my whole being understands that what I was doing was so sacred and precious and crucial to nation-building and the fate of the future generation. That voting wasn’t a banal act, but if done solemnly can bring an enduring metamorphosis.

I carefully held the ballot with my two hands and headed towards the line for the Vote-Counting Machine (VCM). I made sure that the ballot didn’t have any fold or damage. But the voters who were ahead of me in the line experienced some troubles. The ballot of a man in his thirties was rejected by the VCM. The man tried to insert the ballot to the machine multiple times, but it wasn’t effective. Later they realized that his ballot was tainted with what looked like an ink at its top section that prevented the machine from accepting it. The officer told him that they’ll just take note of what happened in their minutes on a bond paper. Disheartened, the man hurriedly left. But they forgot to get his name.

Similar scenarios occurred to two other voters in the polling precinct. The VCM didn’t process their votes. Their ballots got stuck. It could be because of the quality of the paper, the other voters said. They speculated that the machine and the paper were incompatible. Receipts weren’t generated.

Frustration started to surface inside and outside the classroom. More and more people were arriving. We’re delayed. And people started to complain…

It’s around 6:40 AM. When it was my time to slip the ballot to the machine, I secretly prayed for my vote to be successfully read. I really wanted to cast my vote especially for party list. And it worked just fine. I reviewed the receipt and it showed the correct list of candidates I chose. I was grateful.

But it didn’t stop there.

While waiting outside the room for my brother to finish casting his vote, I saw senior citizens and PWDs going up and down the stairs.

“Lola, let me help you,” I told one of them. She was moving slowly, and it was evident that she was having a hard time. The episode pinched my heart.

 “Thank you, but I can manage,” she answered while going down one step at a time. She smiled at me. I let her be.

Weren’t the PWDs and senior citizens supposed to vote at the ground floor for it to be easier for them? Can you imagine being in their shoes at that moment? They just want to be active participants in our society. Why should we make it harder for them to do just that?

Later that day, I joined a party of passionate and vibrant trekkers and mountain climbers from Marikina City. I was on vacation leave. For 2 days and 1 night, we embarked on a journey towards Mt. Daraitan and Tinipak River in the heart of Sierra Madre in Tanay, Rizal. Most of the time during our trip, there was no mobile signal. I was clueless on what’s going in the elections. Ultimately, I turned off my phone.

On Tuesday night, while resting when I returned home, news and updates about the elections were everywhere.

As I dived deeper into the online conversations and headlines, three topics got my attention: “Ang bobo ng mga Pilipino”, “Nag-budots lang nanalo na?”, “Jejomar Binay fails to vote after ballot rejected by vote-counting machine.”

The third one brought me an epiphany. It was somehow similar to what happened to other voters in our precinct on the election day.

According to the Comelec’s resolution: “No replacement ballot shall be issued to a voter whose ballot is rejected by the VCM except if the rejection of the ballot is not due to the fault of the voter.” Clearly, it wasn’t the man’s fault that his ballot got rejected. He should have been issued a replacement ballot. But before he left, he wasn’t informed of this option. Definitely, there were lapses.

How about the defective SD cards? The substandard markers? And more importantly, the 7-hour delay in transmitting voting data into the transparency server?

If we want a more decent and impressive voter turnout in the next elections, the systems and processes we’re implementing should be revisited. We should also investigate the hardware and software we’re using and inquire if the budget allotted to the conduct of our elections is being spent to meet our ideals.

Filipinos deserve the best. If we want to elect the most deserving individuals in our midst for leadership positions and for the voting population to have greater confidence in our elections, the whole voting experience should be credible and dependable and transparent.

As of this writing, the partial and unofficial election results are at about 96%. We know we can do it faster and better. The glitches and maltreatment of some of our PWDs and senior citizens and below standard equipment are surmountable. Yes, our country’s facing so many trials. In order for us to spark real transformations and trek our way to the other side of the mountain, we should also go beyond ourselves and our expectations.

Every election symbolizes a new beginning, a revolutionary hope. Isn’t it intelligent and sensible to start change there?

Dear Kuya Manny: Please retire at 60

‘Sports breathes from hope and to engage in sports is a way to relieve the different forms of stress of life. However, if used the improper way, it can be lethal. A promise of solace can be turned into a nightmare that can haunt the minds of people. That’s exactly what you did, Kuya.’

Dear Kuya Manny,

In a true Filipino fashion, can I call you ‘Kuya’ since I’ve always seen you as an older brother? How are you? How are the bruises? I hope you’re recovering well.

I learned that you had another bout when my sister’s husband called and inquired about its result while we’re having lunch last Sunday.

“Have you watched the fight?” my sister asked while holding her smartphone. “Who won?”

“What fight?” I responded.

“The Pacquiao fight” she replied. “You don’t know?”

I paused for a moment not just because of cluelessness but also because every little reason why I stopped caring about any news about you all came back to me. The horror you single-handedly inflicted into my consciousness three years ago saw the light of the tunnel again. Piece by piece. Detail by detail. Pound for pound.

May 3, 2015. Sunday. “The Fight of the Century.” It’s you versus Floyd Mayweather Jr. SM Megamall Cinema 3. Pay per view. 2 tickets. I was sitting next to my younger brother Ronnel. The 12-round match has ended. Jimmy Lennon Jr. announced the winner. Cheers were replaced by sighs. Nobody wanted to leave the theater. We were shocked. “Is that it?” the old man sitting across me shouted in exasperation. We waited for the climax of the movie pictured mentally by hundreds of millions of fans all over the world: Mayweather, the nemesis – blank-faced, defeated on the canvas after being hit by you in a barrage of uppercuts and right hooks. It never happened.

No, it’s not that we lost that made it unforgettable. It’s the difficult truth hidden behind the curtain that consumed me. You made me despise boxing. The sport died for me on that day.

During a post-fight interview, you revealed that you had entered that fight with a pre-existing shoulder injury and then further injured that area during the fourth round of the contest. When I heard this, my heart wanted to explode. I couldn’t believe it. It felt like I have been deceived with my two eyes wide open by you, the same man who had told in his pre-fight interview: “Don’t get nervous… I’m the one fighting, so relax.”

I watched every possible discussion that one can view online because of the hype everyone has poured for that momentous event. Boxing greats, analysts, and even superstars from other sports became involved and gave their take on who would emerge victorious. It was billed as the modern era’s Joe Frazier versus Muhammad Ali contest. But nobody saw it coming – the lie of the century.

Kuya, it was the first time in my entire life that I decided to buy tickets and watch a fight of yours on pay per view. I had watched all your previous fights on tv and on Youtube. To me and probably just like the million others around the world, it was an attempt to be part of history; to be able to tell myself decades later, if God will permit, that I was there with you in every blow, in every jab, in every hook. It was my humble way of supporting you. But again, I was wrong. You and your camp had a different view the entire time. The world expected a clash of titans with no injury report divulged to the public. Everyone assumed that you were at 100% or almost at the peak of your strength and so tickets have been sold out.

Kuya Manny, a few days after your Mayweather fight, I tried to convince myself that you had hidden the truth for the fight to not be postponed because the other camp might use it a reason to back out. I understand that you had been luring Mayweather for the fight to be realized for so many years. Is that more important than your integrity, reputation and dignity as a man? And just like that, you moved on from one fight to another as if nothing happened.

Sports breathes from hope and to engage in sports is a way to relieve the different forms of stress of life. However, if used the improper way, it can be lethal. A promise of solace can be turned into a nightmare that can haunt the minds of people. That’s exactly what you did, Kuya.

But who am I compared to your greatness? Why should I hold a grudge to you after everything that you’ve done? Is it too hard to forgive another human being and forget all the heartaches?

Whenever I see you in the news or whenever your name surfaces in my conversations with my colleagues and friends, I remember how you made me feel. You brought another exceptional dimension to the word “Filipino” in the international stage. You’re “The Filipino Pride” and “The People’s Champ” and you’ve shown the world what we’re made of.

Yours is a beautiful rags-to-riches story: a mighty warrior who became affluent because of his grit, passion, persistence, and determination. As a storyteller, I fell in love with it. Is it too much to ask for a story book ending in your part?

In his final NBA game, your good friend Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant astoundingly scored 60 points on 22 of 50 shooting against Utah Jazz in 2016. A number of spectators were standing and jumping in the Staples Center arena out of excitement. The mood was festive. Hollywood A-listers were in attendance. He was blessed with an epic ending which is rare for sports legends in history. He retired a winner. After bagging your 60th career win, you have the power to retire a champion.

At 2:43 of the 7th round, you convincingly showed the world what’s left in your tank after defeating the much younger Argentine boxer Lucas Matthysse by TKO and earned the WBA Welterweight title.

But just like a younger brother to his kuya, I hope you retire now from boxing and enjoy more time with your family and loved ones. I’m worried that you might seriously get hurt on your next fight and bid goodbye to the sport you’re passionate about because your mind and body have given up on you. I’m concerned about how your wife Jinkee, your kids, and mommy Dionisia would react if they’ll see you in an unspeakable state. You have nothing else to prove.

Also, please reach out to the LGBTQ+ community and all of those you have offended before. Embrace them with open arms and patiently search for the common ground for us to move forward. I believe you have the heart to spark a real change to the sufferings of our fellowmen. I pray that your health will be at its summit to battle against the more valuable, salient, and pressing issues and challenges that we face as a people in the future. Because your loss is our loss and your win is our win.

Finally, I hope you lend your ears this time.

Sincerely yours,

Ben

(Various versions of this piece appeared on The Sports Column, Read Boxing, Boxing Insider, and United States Sports Academy’s The Sport Digest in July, 2018.)

Running after a Big Bag Wolf

‘Some intellectuals claim that we are not a reading people, but I believe that’s inaccurate’

HAVE YOU ever been to a novel place where you felt like you want to stay there forever?

That is exactly what I experienced when I arrived at the World Trade Center in Pasay City more than a week ago to chase the first ever Big Bad Wolf event in the country.

It’s the brainchild of BookXcess leads Andrew Yap and Jacqueline Ng, whose main mission is to extend the doors of opportunity to book readers and book lovers who normally couldn’t afford to buy one.

As soon as I stepped foot on the entrance of the building at around one in the morning, a pleasant aroma greeted me which emanated from the smorgasbord of books stationed per category across the 2-hectare floor area of the venue. The chill in my body was something I’ve never experienced before from the throngs of book sales I had been to.

“This one is different,” I said to myself. “A glimpse of heaven.”

I can still recall how my eyes glowed like the sun when I saw the sea of people walking and running and pushing their carts with the same exhilaration I’ve been curbing inside for days leading to opening day. I even thought for a moment that I was in an airport when I saw that some of the shoppers were carrying large bags and boxes, as if they’re going to travel to a remote destination or roam around the world.

The mood was convivial. Pop songs encompassed the enclosed space. The ushers wore their best smiles and first-rate patience. A stranger handed me his own basket. I unhurriedly checked the piles of titles from the right wing of the entryway to the section close to the center.

I read the texts written on the back covers. I smelled them. Secretly. Memoirs. Novels. Non-fiction.

I bought a total of 8 books for about P1,800: Asne Seierstad’s One of Us, David J. Linden’s Touch, Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, Scott Christianson’s 100 Documents that Changed the World, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of A LionDivisadero, and a winner of the Booker Prize, The English Patient.

While the books being sold at the Big Bad Wolf are “remaindered” and launched about 6 months or one year ago (which is why they are priced 60% to 80% lower than in regular bookstores), I still can’t help but feel sorry for the scarce presence of Filipino literature in this mammoth book sale.

As I was about to pay at the cashier, I thought: “Would it be possible to see Filipino authors’ works being sold and showcased at a colossal and noteworthy affair like this someday? Will they be received the same way as J.K. Rowling and R.R. Martin?”

Truth be told, most of the of books I currently have were written by foreign authors. While I read F.H. Batacan, Bob Ong, Laurel Fantauzzo, and Miguel Syjuco, my ignorance on the content, tone, voice and structure of the worlds created by National Artists for Literature F. Sionil Jose, Nick Joaquin, Cirilo F. Bautista and the others is undeniable. I was in high school when I first heard of their names because we were required to read snippets of their artistry in our Filipino class. But when we graduated, and with no quizzes to take, time passed by, and I forgot about them.

When you visit a branch of the Phlippines’ biggest bookstore these days, the themes of their top selling local books revolve around these 3: how to fall in love, how to move on, and how to be loved by your crush. These are the thin, self-help, mind-numbing books that can leave one to ask: “Hanggang dito na lang ba tayo (Is this all we’re capable of)?

The day after I watched his interview with Boy Abunda for National Arts Month, I swiftly searched for copies of National Artist Virgilio Almario’s poem collections in a luxurious mall just a couple of kilometers away from our home. I was appalled that I did not find any trace of his genius; instead I saw Leavs, Faudets, and Kaurs taking over the shelves.

In the face of globalization, English is considered as the most valuable means of communication. As Filipinos, we take pride in our level of proficiency in this language. But with it comes the growing practice of degrading our roots and creativity, and the maltreatment of Filipino poems, essays, and novels, labelling them as corny, subpar, and insignificant. We have so many writers and creators who are discouraged by the feedback they receive from the people around them. There’s no money in writing. It’s useless. You’ll just be a slave all your life. Don’t waste your time in nonsense. Art is dead.

Jose Rizal once said: “On this battlefield man has no better weapon than his intelligence, no other force but his heart.”

Literature and the arts are the soul and heart of a country. They help us unravel some of the unspoken, subdued, and hidden truths around us so that we may understand ourselves better and be introduced to the richness of our history, which will fuel us to act, reevaluate our views, or change our course if the situation demands for it.

If we do not embrace our own gifts and treasures, and if we forget who we are, we may end up cruising on a highway with no direction or maps as references, and unknowingly get into a collision with our fellow travellers.

Some intellectuals claim that we are not a reading people, but I believe that’s inaccurate. I am convinced that we’re still searching for that spark of transcendence, of the drive to take another sound, earnest look at our dying local publishing industry.

We have to change our mindset that the works of foreign authors are innately superior and finer and more magnificent than what we can produce. We have to debunk the colonial mentality that’s deeply ingrained in our culture, or else we’ll live in an endless search for our identity.

Not everyone can declare that they ran after a Big Bad Wolf at one in the morning on a Saturday. With all the courage I have, I did, and I hope you do, too. Forever.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com’s IMHO on February 24, 2018.)

Photo credit: http://www.bigbadwolfbooks.com

Mayon volcano and its remains in memory

‘As I held a cup of chili-pili ice cream with the Cagsawa Ruins as my backdrop, I glanced at Kuya. The unfamiliarity and awkwardness forged by his long absence vanished instantaneously.’

WHENEVER I see Mayon volcano in the news these days because of its eruption, I don’t just see ashes and smoke compulsively kissing the sky or lava flowing down its slope. I don’t just sense the fear, pain, or panic of its surrounding residents. It also reminds me of my eldest brother.

In May of last year, the day after one of my sisters got married in Daet, Camarines Norte, I, together with my eldest brother Kuya Oni, his wife and two kids, and my youngest brother Ronnel went on a journey to transform the Google images in our heads into a real one of Mayon, one of the nominees for 2008 New 7 Wonders of Nature located in Albay in the Bicol region about 500 kilometers south of Manila.

I can still clearly remember how I jumped from one humongous rock to another in my attempt to capture the quintessential shot of its perfect cone as Kazuo Ishiguro’s captivating words in his book, The Remains of the Day, flashed in my memory: “What is pertinent is the calmness of beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.”

It was not a spur-of-the-moment decision but a planned adventure to witness with our own eyes Mayon’s grandiosity. Spending time with our kuya – an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) in Qatar – is unpredictable. Sometimes, it would take two or 3 years before we see each other again.

“Who would like to join us tomorrow?” Kuya Oni asked the other members of my family. “Let’s finalize it tonight.”

“Where are we going?” I asked him with excitement.

“To Mayon, Ben,” he answered. “Prepare your things, we’ll leave early in the morning.”

“At last, we’ll see the ‘perfect cone’!” I said.

This conversation may just be a mundane for you. But not for us.

When my father died about a couple of decades ago, Kuya had to mature fast and help my mother in taking care of the family. He was still in college then and I was 9. I was oblivious to the encumbrance that had been swiftly heaped on his shoulders. I thought my father would return someday, that he just had to rest for a while. But after months passed by, little by little, the reality of his death dawned on me.

Kuya was a force of nature, a stratovolcano like Mayon if you will, with his periodic eruptions. In his attempt to discipline us, he imposed his own version of martial law at home. Don’t play outside when it’s already dark or when it’s raining. Take a nap in the afternoon after school. Don’t get into a fight with your siblings. No noise or chitchat. Buy me this and that. When I call out your name, run and stand in front of me.

When you’re a child and you’re forced to stay inside the house while your playmates are enjoying basketball or you hear them giggling and shouting at the top of their lungs under the pouring rain, you question everything even though you’re frightened. Why is he doing this to us?

We didn’t talk that much. He was preoccupied with a lot of things: work, relationship, friends. Looking back, I couldn’t recall a time he divulged his true self or his softer side to me. Rather, there was a wall I couldn’t get through. But as I grew older, I understood why he was like that.

He had to project a strong image for us or else we could have broken down. We needed a source of inspiration, courage, and strength and he provided all that. He finished his degree on time and he is continuously developing himself as a professional in a foreign land. In college, he was considered as one of the outstanding students in his electrical engineering class. The back cover of his thesis is scribbled with praises on how well he handled himself with his peers, professors, and yes, even admirers. He achieved a lot despite the financial challenges he had to face.

During our trip to Mayon, while driving, he made jokes about the distinct smell which emanated from the rows of carabao poop at the side of the road. Like a TV announcer, he gave a blow-by-blow update on the remaining time before we reached our destination. We screamed when we had a first look of the cone-shaped land formation at the right side of our car as we cruised the highway. But seconds later, to our dismay, the vision disappeared as clouds devoured the volcano.

As I held a cup of chili-pili ice cream with the Cagsawa Ruins as my backdrop, I glanced at Kuya. The unfamiliarity and awkwardness forged by his long absence vanished instantaneously. I saw him smile while he carried his daughter and I smiled back at them. It was then that it occurred to me how much he has changed in his ways, actions, and temper. I sensed calmness, peace, and serenity in his eyes. Time and distance indubitably help us transform ourselves for the better.

While Mayon continues to spew multi-storey plumes of smoke and ash and hurl pyroclastic material down its slopes, I don’t just see its wrath. What it reminds me more than anything is that one crisp afternoon in May of last year. It was that peculiar, tranquil moment when I, together with my eldest kuya, stared at Mayon with a sense of hope that someday, if given a chance, we’ll go on another adventure together, share stories of triumphs and failures, and invigorate the sleeping strands between us hanging above the vast ocean or the incalculable, free-flowing molten lava.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com’s IMHO on February 3, 2018.)

Grappling Rappler

‘The question then is: Will they let their names be dragged into a pit of shame by illegally operating or by cheating the Filipino public? Will they directly sell their integrity to foreign influence? Is it worth the risk after their years of “bar none” services?’

IT’S FRIDAY and the company where I was working was on dress down. I chose to wear a pair of jeans and a black shirt. But as I was riding the northbound MRT-3 train, I looked around and wondered if there were other passengers wearing the same colour of shirt as I do. There were few of them and I sensed that they were also curious. Yes, curious if my wearing black is a form of support on the Black Friday Protest for Freedom action organised by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). The NUJP earlier severely criticized the Securites and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) decision revoking the registration of the leading news website Rappler. 

In their website, it’s indicated that Rappler comes from the root words “rap” (to discuss) and “ripple” (to make waves). Without a doubt, they are making waves these days not of stories of various personalities they cover, or of news reports about other entities, but the legality of their existence. When the SEC and Rappler issue broke, I sulked. I couldn’t believe that such incident can happen to one of the media organisations I look up to. Some of the most respected, prominent, and award-winning journalists and writers I know work for or are connected with Rappler. Maria Ressa. Marites Vitug. Chay Hofileña. Glenda Gloria. Patricia Evangelista. 

The question then is: Will they let their names be dragged into a pit of shame by illegally operating or by cheating the Filipino public? Will they directly sell their integrity to foreign influence? Is it worth the risk after their years of “bar none” services? 

While the SEC decision was not final and executory, with the political climate the Philippines has, the possibility for the case to reach the halls of the Supreme Court is not startling. But online forums and the comments section have been filled with opinions. For them, Rappler has reached its final destination.

“Maria Ressa is wearing a victim’s cloak” a netizen commented. “In need of attention just like the previous president.” Some of my Facebook friends also despised Rappler for their alleged violation. Suddenly, constitutional experts rose on the occasion. They are doomed, one added. But did they first read the 21-page decision of the SEC before expressing their thoughts online? Did they examine the facts before judging those who side and believe in Rappler as ‘Yellowtards’ and fools?

I’ve seen it before and I am seeing it again. In our attempt to simplify things, we resort to one-liners, labels, and generalizations. These do not accomplish anything but create more divisions. 

In his book Blink, renowned journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell wrote: “We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.”

When Rappler published my opinion piece about the subpar MRT-3 train services, some of the commenters were quick to assume that I was a paid writer whose objective was to discredit the actions of the government in addressing the transport system issue. They even judged me as just another Rappler writer who doesn’t see the good in the current administration, its achievements. Without conducting a simple Google search or patiently reading the whole piece, they came up with their own conclusions. These are classic examples of false and uninformed accusations online. 

Because the truth is I care about my country. We write because we believe that something can be done, that there’s still hope, and that those in power didn’t fully shut their ears to listen to another point of view, to fresh perspectives. For a democracy to work, there should be checks and balances and the media play a valuable role in guarding and being the platform for people to practice their right to speech and expression. Yes, they put their lives, their principles on the line. 

With everything’s that’s going on, it’s easy to be swayed by the popular, the majority opinion. Some choose to stay silent because of fear and inconvenience. If indeed Rappler intentionally committed grave contraventions against the provisions of the constitution and that they should be held liable, let the courts decide about it. If they published malicious articles beyond the ethical standards of journalism, which are meant to degrade or disparage a public official and put him or her in bad light, file cases. Let’s recognise the proper forums backed by existing laws and give emphasis on due process. 

Opposing opinions can coexist without us losing our humanity in the process with respect. It can be done without grappling the pens and the mouths of our fellowmen who cry for truth, freedom and justice whether we agree with them or not. Because in the end, while we are busy figuring out how others are different from us with all their ideals and perspectives, we forget to listen, to read, to research, and ultimately, to convince ourselves that in times like this, it’s best to pause and pray for our country with a black shirt on or whatever colour we believe we represent. 

Finding Ica and the search for online delicadeza

‘Can I tell these to him or her in person?’

AS THE missing posters of 17-year-old Ica Policarpio with the hashtag #FindIca went viral on social media sites, speculations ruled the public’s consciousness. Sympathy poured for Ica’s family, which has been magnified and deemed serious with the participation of some celebrities in search of a teenager they do not know personally. But with it were excruciating judgments.

She surely eloped with her boyfriend, one declared. Worse, another one added, she’s been kidnapped, raped, killed and then dumped in a creek or river somewhere just like the others. 

When I read these pronouncements, I sulked. I linked my hands at the back of my head with disgust and my appetite to finish reading Miguel Syjuco’s book titled Ilustrado during the holidays has been halted. I went into a familiar state nowadays of those who consume social media for entertainment, news, and expression. It’s the state of puzzlement with the current condition of human behavior, motivations, and values tainted by indifference, insensitivity and lack of natural affection that we witness online. And then, questions arose out of nowhere. 

How did some of us become this harsh online? When did some of us start fashioning careless, lethargic comments to our fellowmen without having full knowledge of the context, the background, and the facts of the trending topic? Why didn’t we consider the subject herself, of her possible reaction after the smoke vanished and the stream of emotions died down? Why did we forget the cinch fact that Ica is a minor and must be given special care and treatment? 

Days after interviews with some of the members of her family have been conducted and the online world still starving with answers, a netizen’s tweet helped find her. 

It’s the 23rd of December. A selfie captured her sitting behind a group of girls while reading a book just outside a coffee shop in a mall. She was all by herself and was later found crying at a carinderia in San Pablo City. Evidently, she’s lost and was going through a “deep emotional distress”.

It was a sweet, mirthful news which ended her more than 60-kilometer journey from Muntinlupa City to Laguna province. Her father immediately asked for understanding and appealed for privacy. But it wasn’t a fairy tale that saw its conclusion with a simple “happily ever after.” No, not when your sympathizers at one point have been fed with fake news and lies in the past. 

Reactions surfaced on my feed. Triumph. Empathy. Tears. Smileys. Doubt. Demands. Closure. 

From a beloved figure, some people described Ica as “papansin,” “bratinella,” and “spoiled brat” among others. Her name has been ridiculed and dragged to the pit of shame online. We deserve an explanation, one of my Facebook friends posted with a hint that Ica probably had taken on a dare called ‘Game of 72’ which involves challenging a friend to go missing for 72 hours without providing any information or update to the family and make certain they panic. 

Have you ever wondered about it? 

As we welcomed the new year based on Gregorian calendar, an opinion poll conducted by Gallup International ranked the Philippines as the third-happiest country in the world. This reaffirmed our optimism and belief that there are still millions of reasons to cheer for. But this is being overshadowed by those moments when we find ourselves actively bullying and ridiculing an individual online. 

Yes, there are hardships all around us. Yes, we face multisectoral challenges that can never be solved by the strongman in Malacañang alone. Yes, our patience is on the brink of exploding brought by the inefficient services we experience everyday of our lives. Yes, we’re tired. But these do not give us the license to be rude to a stranger online. These do not warrant us to be unfair, to be blinded to reason and justice. 

The comments section and our “What’s on your mind” space became our modern day diaries: personal yet at times destructive. We saw avenues for our frustrations, rants, and uninformed opinions to exist. We freely share, post, and treat them as mere constellation of “words” which do not have the capacity to kill someone. But no, we unknowingly commit an unspeakable heinous crime every time we forget that behind each name or photo or poster is a person who just like us has dreams, aspirations, and identity; that similarly, that person has vulnerabilities and is facing battles deep within him or her. 

In every interaction, online or not, politeness, respect and delicadeza are valuable. Before we post or comment, we should first pause and ask ourselves: Can I tell these to him or her in person?

Ica made us realize how limited our grasp is of the reality, of our understanding of the mental health in our country, and how some of us lose ourselves believing that we are entitled for a clamant, elaborate, and intricate explanation on what really had transpired on a trending topic even if the party we cared for asked for space and privacy.

In the future, God willing, when she’s ready and the pain no longer rests in her heart and soul, Ica may go back and choose to have a glimpse at the news reports, the articles, and the posts with hashtag #FindIca on her disappearance. And on that day, at that moment, I would like to tell her that even if I’m a stranger to her, I would like her to remember that she’s not alone. ‘Every teenager is both a hero and a failure,’ Syjuco said in Ilustrado. ‘When we become adults we have to choose where in the middle we’ll be.’ No matter what, she should never give up. Instead, she should be a hero to herself and those around her. I’m glad she found her way back home. Every time, she should remind herself that with God’s help and mercy, she can. 

The buried giant embodied in our trains

‘Another point to consider is the psychological impact of witnessing a suicide attempt or a gory accident. What if there are children on the scene? What if they become traumatized? There is also the concern that such suicide attempts or accidents would happen too often that they become considered as part of the normal… We’ve gone through a lot to be deprived of quality services from the government. We have all felt defeated at one point.’

IT WAS a blistering hot afternoon when my northbound Metro Rail Transit (MRT3) train stopped at the Santolan station longer than usual. It’s around 2:40 pm. I was on my way to work. The crowd was not that thick.

After 6 minutes, an announcement was made. I did not understand the message because of the static noise coming out of the speaker. Anxious, I closed the book I was reading. It was a holiday because of the ASEAN Summit 2017.

The train doors remained open. I looked outside to know what’s going on. Not again, I said. A few seconds later, the train’s door closed but I still wondered what had happened.

Accident

Later that day, I heard two of my colleagues talk about news on MRT3. After hearing the details, to my horror, I realized that the delay of the train operations earlier that day was not because of another glitch or a technical problem, but because of a serious accident at the MRT3 Ayala station.

Around 2:30 pm. Woman. 24. Fainted. Fell on the railway tracks. Severed right arm. Cut near her armpit.

I was shocked. I couldn’t utter a word.

At that moment, I remembered another appalling MRT3 incident that occurred in March this year. I was also on my way to work and about to get into the entrance to buy a ticket when I observed that the train was not moving. It was stuck. The entrance had been blocked. Lines of passengers were nowhere to be found. Confusion and chaos were evident.

Out of curiosity, I asked one of the passengers who was forced to get off the train earlier that afternoon, “Sir, what happened?” He responded, “A man jumped onto the rails.”

Why do such incidents keep on happening?

In a 2013 ABS-CBN report, Pinky Webb wrote: “MRT general manager Al Vitangcol said they initially planned to put up screen doors only in 3 MRT stations, namely Taft Avenue, Shaw Boulevard, and North Avenue, by the end of the year…However, because of the recent incident, they will eventually construct the platform screen doors in all 13 stations of the MRT.”

Four years later, not a single station has been installed with a protective barrier.

How many lives have to be lost for the MRT management and the government to seriously act on this? How many more limbs or arms should be injured for those in power to act on commuters’ safety?

Another point to consider is the psychological impact of witnessing a suicide attempt or a gory accident. What if there are children on the scene? What if they become traumatized? There is also the concern that such suicide attempts or accidents would happen too often that they become considered as part of the normal.

We’ve gone through a lot to be deprived of quality services from the government. We have all felt defeated at one point.

The buried giant

I understand that there’s no shortcut in getting funds for platform screen doors or other security and safety upgrades for our trains. But, isn’t it just a matter of prioritization, political will, and accountability?

It has been said that the transport system of a country is a reliable barometer of its advancement, growth, and prosperity. We should aim to be a model of efficient and safe transport systems and services like our other neighbors in Southeast Asia.

But while waiting for that time to come, I hope that we don’t forget our frustrations and challenge those in power to make a difference for the future of our country and for the prevention of suicide attempts and accidents involving our trains.

As what Kazuo Ishiguro write in The Buried Giant, which I was holding inside the train at the Santolan station: “For in this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past – even the recent one.”

Let’s all recognize and courageously face our society’s buried giants one mist at a time.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com, IMHO, Opinion, on the 16th of November, 2017.)