Fact, Fiction and Fantasy: Of Dan Brown and Francis Tolentino

There is too much noise these days on Dan Brown’s depiction of Manila in his latest best-selling novel Inferno, where Brown’s character, Dr Sienna Brooks, a 32-year old English doctor on a humanitarian mission described Manila as the “gates of hell”.

Infernocover_2561264a

A GMA News Online report gives us a glimpse of what transpired in the novel:

“When the group settled in among the throngs in the city of Manila—the most densely populated city on earth—Sienna could only gape in horror. She had never seen poverty on this scale.”
 
Brown then enumerated what Sienna saw: hungry kids gazing at her “with desolate eyes,” “six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, and a horrifying sex trade, whose workers consisted primarily of young children, many of whom had been sold to pimps by parents who took solace in knowing that at least their children would be fed.”
 
The book also mentioned panhandlers and pickpockets, and how Sienna “could see humanity overrun by its primal instinct for survival. When they face desperation … human beings become animals.”
 
Sienna, like many visitors to Manila, also saw her surroundings as “a kind of shantytown—a city made of pieces of corrugated metal and cardboard propped up and held together” with “wails of crying babies and the stench of human excrement” in the air. She saw herself as having “run through the gates of hell.”
The otherwise quiet MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino was quick to send Brown an open letter expressing disappointment over how Metropolitan Manila was described in the novel, The Professional Heckler however was as quick to write a parodied reply of Dan Brown to Tolentino’s letter. Needless to say, social media channels were abuzzed with #GatesofHell #ReplaceManilawithGatesofHell hashtags. Journalists, broadcasters, social commentators and a Malacanang spokesperson had a field day.
 
What is fact and what is fiction in Dan Brown’s novel then? Is it right for people to take offense in Brown’s fictional characterization of Manila? Is MMDA’s Tolentino a better fantasy writer by stating that Manila is actually “the gateway to heaven”? Let us scan recent headlines, sans election-related stories to see what’s in fact a fact.
 
 
Poverty, prostitution, pollution and traffic jams are facts of life in any urban city of the world. Fantasy is to escape such reality. Why don’t we just take it as it is and move on. Better yet, especially for those working in government, step up and do more to save our metro from further decay. At least Erap, the new Manila mayor recognizes this as fact.
 
Like what I posted in one of the online discussion boards, Hell’s Kitchen is already in New York, so why bother?

Re-discovering public transportation

After more than 10 years of car dependency, I recently went back to commuting to work and re-discovered, gladly, the joys and travails of public transportation.

Trigger

The universe conspired for all these to happen: it was the cold drizzling month of December, my old car’s air conditioning was broken, expenses for the holidays are shooting up and- the Philippine Business for the Environment launched around that time, together with Honda Philippines an eco-safe driving campaign dubbed as 1’M Blue for Blue Skies- and I happened to be present during its launch at the Ayala Museum.

It was of course the broken air conditioning that forced me to put on my walking shoes and commute to work while my car spent some time in the auto repair shop. The December weather was the encouraging factor to use public transportation while the frequent drizzle discouraged me to use my car and risk getting stuck inside in the event that it rains (although let me confess that I did try it once and it was terrible- I was sweating inside and I can’t clear my windshield of fog that formed while I was driving). The PBE-Honda campaign, I must say, kept me going until today even though my car is back to its tip-top shape. Needless to say, the savings I generated were also good motivators.

 Trade Off

There are trade-offs in taking public transportation, especially in Metro Manila where there is no real public transportation system to speak of. Then there is the missing walking paths for pedestrians, the possibility of long and winding queues, the unsafe conditions of public vehicles and exposure to bad elements: pollution and petty crimes.

Gain

But my experience recently allowed me to discover the gains in commuting to work: less expenses for gas (P1,000/week) , toll fees (P118/P84)  and parking fees (P125/day); more relaxed travel (social media time while commuting or- sleeping time); faster travel (GTE vans take the Skyway and less time spent negotiating one’s way looking for an empty parking slot); and the sweetest of them all- more savings (Pxx,xxx).  More importantly, choosing public transportation over driving to work reduces my carbon footprint. That’s one big cheers for blue skies!

A devel­oped coun­try is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use pub­lic trans­port
– para­phrased from Enrique Penalosa, for­mer Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia

Wish List

I guess I am just lucky that commuting to work- from Paranaque to Makati and back- is easy and convenient. All it takes is a short walk to the jeepney stop, a short ride to the shuttle terminal, and some 20-45 minutes travel to Makati CBD depending on the traffic situation. Going home is a lot easier as it takes only another short walk to Makati Medical Center where the shuttle to Paranaque holds its terminal. The other GTE terminals are located at the Ayala Car Park Center behind Hotel Intercontinental (this one’s always crowded) and beside Landmark, near the Glorietta 2 entrance.

But for some people commuting remains a challenge as it is difficult, dirty and dangerous. For cleaner and bluer skies, we need more integrated, safe and cheap public transportation system that encourages car owners to leave their motor vehicles in their garage and take the public transport instead. Or for shorter travels, there is always the healthy bicycles.

End Notes

GTE is short for Garage to Terminal Utility Vehicle Express. It is a relatively new Filipino invention taking after the success of FX (another Filipino invention). GTEs are more systematic than FX because it travels strictly from point to point, unlike FX which is just an air conditioned jeepney. Therefore, GTEs are more fuel efficient than FX.

GTE fare from Paranaque to Makati via Skyway is a measly P60.

Trivia: I read this somewhere but just can’t find the original article online. When the government was busy thinking (yes, sometimes they do that) about a name to call the GTEs, they had a serious dilemma. One suggestion was to use Terminal to Terminal or TT for short but it was junked as it sounds like a male appendage. So another bright man (or maybe woman) suggested to use Point to Point or PP but it was again dropped because this time it sounds like that member of female anatomy. Later on, perhaps after several long meetings and heated debates, they settled on the term GTE. Applause!

Sottocopied*

Honorable Senators:

I am one of thousands of concerned Filipino citizens protesting the disreputable conduct of Senate Majority Leader Tito Sotto. I call on the Senate Committee on Ethics and Privileges to address this important issue of ethics, integrity, and accountability. I believe Senator Sotto’s speeches unethically plagiarized and illegally infringed on intellectual copyright laws in the Philippines and in countries with whom we are connected through the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

I believe Sotto’s subsequent denials insulted the intelligence and dignity of Filipinos everywhere, and that his threats to censor his critics with the Cybercrime Act constitute an abuse of power and an attack on free speech. I believe that the Senate Committee on Ethics and Privileges has the right, the mandate, and the courage to censure their colleague.

I believe in Philippine democracy, and call on you, the leaders we elected, to ensure its proper, just, and ethical function.

*See original here.

It’s a MMM World!

In order to survive, man has to discover and produce everything he needs, which means that he has to alter his background and adapt it to his needs. Nature has not equipped him for adapting himself to his background in the manner of animals. From the most primitive cultures to the most advanced civilizations, man has had to manufacture things; his well-being depends on his success at production. The lowest human tribe cannot survive without that alleged source of pollution: fire.– Ayn Rand

Students from the University of the Philippines Department of Mining, Metallurgical and Materials Engineering (UP-DMMME) were in Mindanao on 17-25 October, on a roadshow to introduce their respective courses to junior and senior high school students. They visited a number of public and private high schools in Davao, General Santos and Koronadal to encourage every high school student they meet to invest in a career either as a Mining Engineer, Metallurgical Engineer or Materials Engineer – by taking the next UP College Admission Test (UPCAT) which is set every year in August, and ticking any of the three mentioned courses as the preferred academic program.

A few members of the Soccsksargen Bloggers fortunately had the chance to meet with them over dinner as they made their pitch to us bloggers.  Listening to them would make one realize that indeed, we owe many of the comforts of modern lifestyle to MMM (triple M as they are called in UP). Every little thing we have – from kitchen utensils to electronic gadgets, toilet fixtures to transportation, food processing to medicine to green energy- are all products of, or influenced by an engineering that unfortunately not everyone is familiar with. The MMM roadshow did well in introducing their courses and at the same time, in conveying that what cannot be grown must have been mined (Lesson #1).

In a nutshell, mining engineers plan and design the safe and efficient extraction and processing of minerals, and process it for additional value. Metallurgical engineers would be involved in the processing of ores and refining or fabrication of metals. Materials engineers on the other hand, develops new materials by combining metals with other materials.

It is timely that college students reach out to their high school peers to quell some negative image of mining as often portrayed in and quite lopsidedly by mass media. Lesson #2: not everything you see, read or hear is entirely true.

By talking to high school students, they have presented an interesting perspective on one of the hottest topics today- mining. What better way to understand the industry and the profession than hearing it firsthand from these young apprentices. Lesson #3: in searching for the truth, it wouldn’t hurt to ask first the opinion of specialists.

It was important that the roadshow was held in Mindanao. As a US Intelligence Report was quoted in this news item, Mindanao’s mineral endowment can be as much as one trillion USD. By inviting young people from Mindanao to take up MMM engineering courses, it suggests that locals would not only benefit from a mining boom, but more importantly, it is an invitation for them to become responsible for the future of mining activities in their own land. Mining is as much about unlocking a potential and unleashing opportunities as building partnerships and committing to shared responsibilities. We often hear the saying ‘it takes a community to raise a child’. Similarly, it takes a community to build, operate and close a mine (Lesson #4).

The roadshow ends with a challenge to the high school audience. Mineral wealth is like a person’s talent. It should be developed and utilized; otherwise it will remain as unused potential and it would then become a total waste. As they say, we have to cash in on what we have and use the money to improve our lot, and that of the generation after us.

Whatever career path those high school students will eventually choose, or course that they take up in college, it is important that they start investing in themselves. Not only by studying hard or passing college admission exams but also by involving themselves in discussions that will affect and shape their future.  Lesson #5: the real gold mine is in each of us.

Cast of characters: John Carlo Dela Cruz (Mining), Patricia Aina Louise Tan (Mining), Ariane Barranco (Metallurgical) and Kiboy Tabada (Materials). Students from UP National Institute of Geological Sciences (UP-NIGS) Jolly Joyce Sulapas and Nichole Pada also formed part of the team to provide context of the Philippines’ geological landscape and natural wealth. The team was accompanied by Mining Engineer and faculty adviser Juan Fidel Calaywan.

Meeting Mati

Mati, Davao Oriental- We spent our holy week break at this south-eastern part of the Philippine archipelago facing the Philippine Sea and the vast Pacific Ocean. Not coincidentally, this family trip was literally a trip down memory lane, at least for the oldies in the group, since Mati had been part of our family history, my folks having met there and three of us brothers were born in Mati. Unfortunately, we moved to Cotabato City before I would have turned three years old that explains why I don’t have any memory at all of this quaint little town (now city) which I write down as my birthplace whenever I fill out a form that asks for it. This trip to Mati was long overdue, especially for me who have not been back since the day we moved out in the early 80s.

A screenshot of Dahican Beach in google Maps showing its long stretch of white powdery sand, the inviting torquiose sea and the coconut plantations guarding the Dahican Beach

Online Check

Like meeting someone for the first time, I did all the background check on Mati online. Logically, most of the travel preparations were also made through the internet. In this digital age, travel has really become a bliss. Mati government’s official website was not very helpful. It is a literal bulletin board, no more no less. It is not interactive, it does not offer helpful travel information and its directory of restaurants and resorts does not link users to a particular establishment’s website. Fail.

Luckily, bloggers and online travel magazines rescued the otherwise scant information about Mati on the web. This article by Nina Tirol-Zialcita gives not only an exciting and exacting narrative of her travel to Mati but also a montage of great photos. Then there is the soulfully romantic travel story by Nathalie Tomada published in PhilStar.com giving both historical tidbits and future prospects of this faraway paradise. And when it rains, it pours! I stumbled on Travels & Interests, Amazing Davao, and tons of tips and tricks to Mati from my award-winning and prolific travel blogger-friend and Davao Oriental-born Olan. Thanks to Google, and to our local bloggers, I found a wealth of travel information about Mati. I also received a long email from my local friend listing all the things I can do- eat, visit, drink- while in Mati. Now these are the kind of links that should be featured in a local government tourism website!

Booking

I did my reservations after checking out the most interesting places written about Mati. Considering that we will be traveling as a big group with kids in tow, I deliberately skipped the island camping trips and kept a mental note of where to go next when I will be back in Mati. Belatedly, I discovered (online of course!) Joji Alcantara’s breathtaking photos of and Journeying James’ journey to Waniban Island, a truly secret paradise that attracts a wanderer like a magnet to a steel.

For accommodations, I chose the quiet Tropical Kanakbai that promises a secluded and pampered vacation like no other. Unfortunately, all other days are taken so I just decided to stay here for a day and move to Botona Dahican Beach Resort the next day. I called both resorts, placed my reservations and paid reservation fees through BPI and BDO online. Sweet and no sweat! For our vehicle requirement, Davao has plenty of car rental providers but this one I found to be the cheapest and thankfully reliable.

Eye Ball

Finally the big day arrived. Our driver came 30 minutes before the appointed time. It is a new Grandia, sparklingly clean inside and out. That gives me a sort of assurance that we have a responsible driver with us.

Some three hours later, we were welcomed by the sight of Pujada Bay, and a geological formation popularly known as the Sleeping Dinosaur. After a hearty lunch at my aunt’s place, we proceeded to Tropical Kanakbai, our home for the night.

Kanakbai delivered on its promise. It is located at the far beach end of a coconut plantation. It is quiet (before we arrived), there are plenty of lounge chairs and hammocks hanging between tall trees, the beach is just a few steps away from the guest house, and there’s plenty of space for kids to run around.

There are only 2 guest houses with each guest house having two big bedrooms with large king-sized beds and toilets complete with the usual toiletries found in respectable hotels. The rooms are on the second floor, with a veranda that offers a good view of the landscaped garden, the white sand beach and the deep blue sea beyond. At the ground floor is an open air (minimal walls), open space (no dividers) living room cum kitchen cum dining area. The living room has comfortable couches and satellite TV while the kitchen is equipped with cooking and dining utensils, a coffeemaker (bring your own ground beans though but flowing instant coffee is available all day all night), hot and cold water dispenser, refrigerator- all the works! The biggest surprise was each guest house is assigned with one all-around helper who can cook your meals, do the dishes and keep the place tidy. There is also a billiard table and some gym weights, perhaps for a last minute work-out to get that beach body tone. For kids, a wading pool can be had. It is a good enough diversion to keep the kids happy and wet especially when parents shy away from the heat of the midday sun. Kanakbai is a perfect place for couples in honeymoon, solo travelers on a retreat and big families like ours.

The Botona Dahican Beach Resort on the other hand is a stark contrast. I’m sure Botona had its heyday as a charming little resort but poor maintenance of its existing facilities has deterioted the whole place. But Botona is also sky apart from Kanakbai in terms of fees. So I guess we get what we paid for.

And the Dahican Beach? Wow, the photos can tell you more than the words that I can put in.

All in all, it was a memorable trip down Mati, my birthplace, my home once. In this age of the Internet, travel has become more convenient and people have become more trustful. We trust that the websites we visit are real and not hacks, we trust our bank system that payments will reach the faraway resorts, we trust the van rental service and the designated driver, we trust Google Maps and the mapmakers, we trust the the bloggers and their stories.

The Internet has admittedly changed the way we travel. But some things remain the same, maybe better – we still have trust in humanity.

This is our epiphany.

Silence does not give us Peace

Letters To Mindanao condemn the merciless murder of Cris Bual, land acquisition superindentent of Sagittarius Mines, Inc. who was killed on Friday, 16 September 2011 in Davao City.

The senseless act of taking another person’s life is never ever acceptable- for whatever reason except by legitimate authority and based on a judicial decision of a duly constituted authority.

Violence in any form should be condemned. Barbarism has no place in a civilized society, not in Asia’s most livable city most especially. I am however appalled by the silence from almost all fronts of civil society. No one seems to care anymore. Have we been desensitized by gruesome murders that we are no longer affected when another gunman hits a helpless victim? Is it already an acceptable thing to die violently in front of your own backyard, some few meters away from your family, and in full view of your spouse? If not, then why are you not making any noise? It is one thing to mourn because someone had died. It is another thing to be indignant in mourning because someone was subjected to a violent and senseless death.

In the end, we the living are the ultimate victims. Anyone of us can be the next target. Anyone of us can be gunned down. Anyone can just take our life, and walk away like nothing has happened- without remorse, without conscience. I know because my family had been there. The gunman just walked away, just like  that, as Cris’ gunman did, when my father was shot dead, in broad daylight. In Mindanao.

Silence does not give us peace. It emboldens the evil. It creates a murderous world. It breeds impunity.

Once you’ve been struck by violence, you acquire companions that never leave you entirely: Suspicion, Fear, Anxiety, Despair, Joylessness. The natural smile is taken from you and the natural pleasures you once enjoyed lose their appeal. The citywas ruined…and he would leave it soon. Only, where would they settle now? Where would they find happiness? Where would he feel safe?

- Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel, 2010

Condemn the killings. Make noise so that the law enforcers can hear us and will have sleepless nights solving all crimes. Make noise so loud that it can turn the wheels of Justice. Or loud  enough that the perpetrator may be bothered by his conscience. Break the silence so that the mastermind will not feel victorious.

Make noise that our leaders may finally find it in their hearts to listen and protect its people.