Tuesday, May 27, 2014

No thanks to government

This is my column today, May 27,  2014.


I know Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma was just doing his job when he asserted yesterday that government is on track in so far as rehabilitation of Yolanda-ravaged areas is concerned.  He even cited a World Bank report which supposedly said it was happy with the way the rehabilitation programs have been conducted by government. 
I have great respect for Coloma and I think he is one of the few remaining people in government with solid credibility on account of the fact that he has no vested interest.  He is an academic and business leader who has no political ambitions.  It is very obvious that the poor guy only wants to serve.
But Coloma’s defense of the government’s continuing dismal failure to respond effectively to the needs of Yolanda victims must be rebuffed.  Actually, a separate news item yesterday already did so.  Budget Secretary Butch Abad was quoted in reports as saying that more than half of the pledges for the Yolanda rehabilitation program from foreign donors have yet to materialize.  In effect, he was saying that government does not have the money yet.  Ergo, the rehabilitation program is stalled.
Criticism against the slow pace and the absence of a comprehensive and strategic rehabilitation plan for Yolanda-ravaged areas is not really news; everyone has been complaining about these things for months now.  Before Rehabiliation Czar Ping Lacson got sidetracked by the Napolist Scandal, he was also bellyaching about how certain government officials and departments were dragging their feet on the the rehabilitation program.  Even the President himself apologized to students in Manila for the slow response.
I don’t know why people in government seemed to have changed tunes all of a sudden.  It is possible that the sudden revision of talking points have to do with the runup to the State of the Nation Address or perhaps because of the foreign media attention caused by the World Economic Forum and other recent events.
Government can cite all the fluff, statistics, and data it wants but all these will not negate nor refute actual experience on the ground.  As C.S. Lewis wisely said, a man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument.  I am not sure how many times Coloma and other members of the Aquino government have visited Tacloban since that fateful day of November 8, 2014 when the supertyphoon brought Tacloban City and many towns in the Visayas prostrate on the ground, but I have personally been travelling back and forth to Leyte at least twice a month in the last six months and know for a fact that the very much hyped-up rehabilitation efforts have yet to be seen, felt, smelled, and touched.
I have talked to victims of the super typhoon, to community leaders, to local officials, to priests and nuns, etc.  I have wept with families who have lost everything including family members who have not been found yet.  I have helped put together funds for various small community projects, helped put together medical missions, even organized a small project to buy modest gifts for graduates of a public elementary school in Tacloban that lost more than 20 percent of graduating class to Yolanda. 
Oh sure, the cities and towns in Leyte and Samar have been slowly getting back on their feet.  Many buildings and houses have been renovated, there is electricity in most places, and many of the business establishments have started to reopen.  But I am not sure government can really take credit for the small signs of recovery.  Most of the help come from family members and private organizations.
First, because large areas still remain a silent but powerful proof of government inaction—the debris of the massive destruction can still be seen to this day.   Second, because thousands of people still live in tents and makeshift houses.  Most of the bunkhouses were allegedly appropriated by government employees and their relatives; not that there were many bunkhouses to begin with—everyone admitted that the numbers were not adequate to house the victims.  Third, there is hunger and desperation etched on people’s faces.  Source of livelihood is still uncertain.  Fourth, in all of my visits to Tacloban, I have passed through the same airport terminal that has barely seen any improvement in the last three months; so much so that passengers kid about how the ruins are being preserved as some kind of a tourist attraction.  And this is replicated many times over in many places and centers.
Yes, Tacloban and the cities and towns are hobbling again—slowly and gingerly.  Filipinos are resilient despite lack of determined government support.  Let’s not add insult to injury by taking credit for their valiant efforts to help themselves.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Being mindful of others

This is my column today, May 25, 2014.

A colleague in the human resource management profession wrote about it in another daily recently, but it is a topic that has been in my mind in the last few years.  In fact, I considered it as subject for a dissertation except that I was hobbled by the lack of a reliable survey instrument.  I am referring to what my colleague referred to as the dismal lack of “mindfulness” among many people today.  There are just too many people in the world who seem to have no regard for other people. 
I am afraid that if we don’t make a deliberate and conscious effort to teach our young how to behave in communal spaces and show respect for the time and the efforts of other people around us, this lack of mindfulness will fester and eventually lead to the collapse of the very values and traits that we are supposed to be proud of, and known for, as Filipinos.
Let me present 10 things we can do, or conversely, stop doing, as a sign of respect or courtesy to other people.  
First, we can stop treating chairs in churches, terminals, parks, etc, like they were our personal properties just because we got there ahead of others.  I have seen how people would automatically claim chairs in public places - put their bags, jackets, or books on the seats beside them in so that others could not occupy them.  Thus, in many airports, one can see many people standing on aisles or sitting on the floor because chairs have been claimed by others for their bags and other personal things. 
Second, I hope motorists learn to give way to each other particularly at junctions when a two or three lane street begins to narrow down into a one lane alley.  Logically, people should simply take turns.  But most Filipino motorists are seemingly unable to comprehend the concept of “taking turns.”  The end result is that everyone gets stuck in traffic.
Third, I wish that people would automatically occupy only the left side of an escalator keeping the right lane free for those who are in a hurry and want to run or still climb the escalator like it were a stationary stairway. 
Fourth, I wish people would pay heed to public warnings and reminders.  For example, it always astounds me why we cannot seem to get organized when boarding airplanes.  Regardless of the number of times ground personnel ask people to stay seated and wait for their seat numbers or groups to be called, people still tend to cram the boarding gates as soon as it is made known that boarding is about to begin. The same impatience is displayed as soon as planes land – people start to stand up and retrieve their hand-carried baggage even before the plane is officially parked.
Fifth, I really wish parents would have the maturity and courtesy of taking bawling children out of churches particularly during the consecration.  It’s just disrespectful to others who wish to worship in peace and with solemnity.
Sixth, although most restaurants who offer buffet food post warnings about leftover charges, the truth is that many people still get more food than they can consume.  They end up wasting the food such as wrapping them in napkins and throwing them in the bathroom.  I’ve seen many people do what they thought were creative tricks such as hiding leftover food under fruit peelings or seafood shells.
Seventh, I wish people would always make it a habit to put their phones in silent mode when in public places such as moviehouses, churches, or even restaurants.  Or for that matter, learn to keep their phone conversations to a minimum while in public because, really, the world does not have to know the latest indiscretions of your friends or the awful things your househelp did yesterday.
Eighth, when transacting at an ATM and particularly when there is a long line, I wish people would have the courtesy of planning their moves to help move the queue faster and more efficiently.  It’s just frustrating when after standing in line for an hour, the person in front of you starts searching her bag for her ATM card only when she got in front of the machine; or worse, counts the money the machine coughed up thrice, and stashes the bills into separate wallets, pockets, and compartments of her bag while still holding up the queue.
Ninth, I wish groups who want to document their bonding moments realize that not everybody has to take pictures using their own personal cameras and phones.  It’s admittedly a small matter, but when there are other groups that also want to have their pictures taken at the site, or when the group is blocking the way, the inconvenience it causes to others can be major. The person with the better camera can just tag everyone else in social networking sites anyway.
And tenth, I really wish people in social networking sites don’t take liberties tagging other people in photos that promote products or dubious announcements, or indiscriminately share unverified information, or for that matter, use social networking sites as their emotional garbage can. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Department of harm

This is my column today, May 20, 2014.


It’s as if the last four decades have not happened; as if we haven’t learned anything at all about HIV and AIDS and how best to manage the pandemic.  It’s as if the gazillions of money the world has poured into understanding the many psychological, social, and cultural factors that hamper prevention of infections have not produced any valuable lessons that we can learn from, as most other countries have.  
The Philippine government, through the Department of Health, plans to implement mandatory HIV testing so that those who “may have risk for HIV...can be properly counselled on what to do.”  Health Department spokesperson Eric Tayag confirmed in a television interview that government is now working out the details as to how to make compulsory testing possible.  According to rumours, mandatory HIV testing will be initially imposed among specific “target populations” a move that should ring alarm bells everywhere as it is an open invitation for human rights violations and for institutionalization of prejudice against certain communities and individuals.  Mandatory testing was the knee-jerk reaction in the eighties and the nineties when very little information about the pandemic was available and leaders were reacting from fear and panic. 
As can be expected, there is massive objection to the plan.  First, because it is against the law!  Mandatory HIV testing is not allowed in the country by virtue of the National HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Law that was passed in the nineties.  
There are many reasons why mandatory HIV testing is dangerous.  But I will leave it up to the experts, the activists who have been working on the ground for many decades now to explain why.  Below is an abridged version of the statement of civil society groups involved in anti-AIDS advocacy work called Network to Stop AIDS Philippines.     
The Department of Health proposal to enforce mandatory HIV testing demonstrates that among those involved in addressing the HIV epidemic in the Philippines, the health agency is by far the most backward and the most out-of-tune.
The problem lies with the agency’s leadership. Within the agency, there are units and officials who stepped up, owned the problem, and pushed for evidence-based initiatives that are on the right track. But these efforts are severely undermined by Secretary Ona’s obstinate and incomprehensible obsession with archaic and stigmatizing proposals.
Compulsory HIV testing is one of them. It’s wrong in many levels: it is illegal, ineffective, ignorant, and dangerous.  The current legal framework allows for various modes of HIV testing, but they have to be voluntary and confidential. This is clearly rights-based, but this is also premised on existing evidence that coercive modes of HIV testing actually result in a decrease in the coverage of testing - those who need to get tested fear discrimination and abuse, so they hide underground once authorities require HIV testing. This fear is not unfounded, as HIV-related stigma and discrimination remain unaddressed in the Philippines. Imposing compulsory testing is operationally problematic (also unnecessarily costly) and it encourages human rights abuses. Even DOH possesses evidence that show the complexity of Filipino sexual behaviour. In a concentrated epidemic among men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgenders, who do you actually require to get tested?
This population does not conveniently fit whatever stereotypical images that Sec. Ona may have about the community. By definition, this sexual behavior includes any man who engaged or engages in sexual acts with other men - the heterosexual partners of transgender people; those who do not consider themselves as gay but engages in sex with other men; even the heterosexual ex-congressman whose life story was featured in a TV show a few years ago where he admitted to engage in transactional sex with a ‘bakla’ to support his schooling. Would DOH require all of them to get tested? The agency is also in possession of data that shows that a significant portion of men who have sex with men and transgender people have female sexual partners—would they be required to get tested, too?
Given this complexity, how does Sec. Ona intend to find those who’ll be required to get tested? This could easily be translated into a witch hunt, and going by the statements made by some LGU officials, that’s precisely what this will result into. There are alternatives to compulsory testing, one of which is community-led HIV testing. For the last four years, collaboration between community groups and government-run HIV testing facilities has intensified, and this accounts for the increase in the uptake on HIV testing. A recently conducted review by international and local HIV experts of existing HIV interventions being implemented in the Philippines has cited this model as an effective approach in a concentrated epidemic. Incidentally, the same review, which was already accepted by the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC) that Sec. Ona himself chairs, has already warned authorities against coercive HIV measures, including mandatory testing.
 Yet Sec. Ona seems to be blind to what the situation is, what the evidence says, and what needs to be done. It’s not a question of knowledge or awareness—he has had several interactions and dialogues with community groups where various issues were discussed, from stigma to gaps in testing and other services. But he refuses to listen. He refuses to acknowledge that as Chair of PNAC, he should be leading the HIV response; he has, unfortunately, been a delinquent chair. There is also an ongoing anti-retroviral stock out issue, one that he is probably unaware of; if it were not for the initiative of a community group to import medicines, supplies for May would have been severely inadequate. There are requests for him to talk to Mayors to encourage them to fund local HIV programs, or for DOH to launch a stigma reduction campaign on HIV testing, and yet he refused to act on these proposals.
The problem is not simply about increasing uptake of HIV testing. There’s a more fundamental issue: it’s Secretary Ona himself.



Sunday, May 18, 2014

Too much democracy?

This is my column today, May 18, 2014.


We wanted to take the train from the airport to the city, but we didn’t find the counter that sold the three-day public transportation pass for tourists so we opted to take a taxi instead.  We braced ourselves for the worst, forgetting that not all airports are like the Ninoy Aquino International Airport where taxi drivers fleece tourists and new arrivals for a living.  We stepped out of Changi Airport to find a row of taxis all available to take anyone to any point in Singapore.  The driver of the taxi at the head of the line even got out to open the trunk and assist us with our luggage.  My son told him the hotel we were going to and very casually asked how much he would be charging us.  The driver smiled and politely told my son that he would be charging us based on what will be on the meter.  And then the inevitable side comment:  “We don’t do here in Singapore what taxi drivers do in the Philippines.”  And he went on to explain how his license would be revoked if he was found guilty of overcharging passengers.  How taxi drivers treat passengers is just one of the many ways in which our country suffers by comparison against this small country.
It turns out the driver was a retired executive of a global financial firm; a former HR Director, no less.  He said he was very familiar with the Philippines as he had the chance to visit the country a number of times in the seventies and eighties to do massive recruitment.  “We had special preference for Filipinos,” he said. 
Apparently, driving a taxi was more of a pastime for him, something he did to pass time in his retirement years (Singapore strictly adheres to equal employment opportunity guidelines so one can actually spot many senior citizens working even in fastfood restaurants and even in the streets).  He said driving a taxi in Singapore was a relatively easy job.  As we cruised through Singapore’s wide, clean, picturesque thoroughfares, I couldn’t help but agree with him.  There was less aggravation as there was hardly any traffic.  People obeyed traffic rules and everyone seemed courteous.  If the same conditions were present in Manila, I, too, would not mind driving a taxi when I retire as I happen to like driving and talking to people. 
The last time I was in Singapore prior to this trip was in 2012 but it seemed ages ago given the many new developments that have sprouted all around.  There is a construction site practically everywhere; it seems they don’t let up at all.  For instance, they were building yet again a new loop in their subway system.  I expected traffic congestion around the construction areas but found none.  The driver explained that teamwork is something that is inherent among Singaporeans.  Instead of complaining and contributing to the aggravation, they end up helping everyone ease up the inconvenience.   He illustrated his point by explaining that the hotel we were staying in was directly in front of a major construction site (the Bencoolen Terminal of the new metro train loop); thus the hotel had to use a side alley as entrance which means all the other business establishments were also inconvenienced.  We in the Philippines would have reacted to a similar situation in a completely different way.  First, there would have been a lot of objections; people would demand that the plan be revised so that they could be spared the inconvenience.  People would flail away and demand that other alternatives be pursued instead and get senators or congressmen who are relatives or friends or who owe them a favour to do public hearings or put stumbling blocks.  Someone might even go to court to get a temporary restraining order.  And if, by chance, the project would get started despite all the screeching and recriminations, everyone else would add to the aggravation by insisting on doing things the old way and putting personal comfort and interest above everything else. 
“Filipinos are good people, but you have too much democracy,” the driver told me as his parting shot.  This wasn’t the first time I heard a Singaporean make that comment about us, Filipinos.  In fact, I think the comment was first made by Lee Kuan Yew.  In the past, though, I tended to scoff at the comment.  I used to think that people who didn’t understand the cultural context around our preoccupation with democracy have no business talking down on us. 
But then again, one cannot help but notice the way our neighbours have galloped ahead of us with single-minded aggressiveness. And then if we think about how all those implicated in the Napolist scandal have used democracy and freedom of expression to muddle the issue further or to extricate themselves from the whole stinking mess, one cannot help but wonder if the Singaporeans were right about us, after all.



Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Bent over backwards

This is my column today, May 13, 2014. 


One of the Internet memes that struck me recently, which I reposted in my social networking accounts, and consequently reposted by many of my friends, was that joke about how Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs should look like if it were revisited today.  The base of the triangle which represented the hierarchy had been revised to include a need seemingly more basic than biological needs – WIFI or wireless internet connection.  The meme was supposed to be a joke, but it felt true particularly since many people now seem to live primarily in social networking sites.  I know quite a number of people whose survival seems to be dependent on their being able to access the Internet; they begin displaying withdrawal symptoms if they are unable to do so even for just a single day.
It is actually understandable.  Practically everything we need to know can be sourced through the Internet – from complex questions such as how to split the atom, to pressing concerns such as where to buy a reasonably-priced hand-held portable x-mount that would enable people to take selfies using their cellular phones, and even more mundane trivia such as the last time Nora Aunor won an acting award.  We can book flights and hotels, check traffic congestion, and even stalk people we admire, thanks to the Internet.  And because of social networking sites, we can be updated with what everyone else is busy with (including what they had for merienda) as well as who they are annoyed with at any given time. 
That is, if one has a decent Internet connection, which in this country is hard to come by. 
But if it is any consolation, at least we now know that the snail-paced Internet connection at our homes and offices is something that everyone in this country suffers from.   Three separate reports released by independent bodies were unanimous in their observation: We have in this country one of the lowest Internet speed in the world, in fact the lowest in ASEAN.  To make matters worse, we also have the most expensive Internet connection.  In short, we’ve been bent over backwards for the longest time by our telecommunications companies who have been charging people an arm and a leg for services that stinks.  Ouch.
Of course not many people have been aware that our telcos have been having their way with us for the longest time.  Most of us have been conditioned to think that misery is our birthright; thus, we are even supposed to be grateful to big business for the snail-paced connections that most of us have.  Why, just the other day, I chanced upon a niece huddled over her laptop at 2 o’clock in the morning.  She was desperately trying to upload pictures to her Facebook account because she said it was only during that hour when Internet connectivity was faster.  And yet she was subscribed to a plan that was marketed as fast and reliable.  When I told her to write a complaint she balked – the last time she did, she got faster speed but would get disconnected every few minutes.  She thought slow but available was much better than fast but unreliable.  Oh, the compromises we are made to live with.  And yet, our telcos pester us with reminders every single time our accounts are due – they text and call even at the most unholy hour, urging us to pay up or else.
Of course I have had my share of similar aggravations.  Truth to tell, we’ve changed our Internet service provided at home three times already in the last five years and we still continue to experience problems.  We’ve changed from canopy, to wi-max, to cable – and so far, we remain unhappy.  We now have three pocket wi-fi subscribed to three different providers in addition to having a wi-max connection at home.  We basically shift from one provider to another depending on which one is working faster or better at any given time.  We’ve also made arrangement with our neighbors to share Internet connections when necessary.  Yes, we are spending a lot for Internet connectivity at home.  It’s an arrangement that stinks to high heavens and smacks of unfairness, but it’s much better to just part with good money than have hypertension attacks everyday due to aggravation.
What is government doing about this? Where are the bleeding hearts in the senate and in congress who, in the last campaign, promised to take up the cudgels for consumers? I know that Senator Bam Aquino issued a press statement calling for an inquiry into the matter.  As can be expected, nothing came out of it.  The senator hardly has any gravitas to be noticed. 
Lest we forget, our telcos are the most successful companies in the country and are part of the business empires of the most politically-connected businessmen in the country.  I doubt if anyone really wants to cross swords with them.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Responsible parenting

This is my column today, May 11, 2014.



Allow me, first, a little digression.
The maiden is supposed to be very shy, she rarely shows herself in her full glory.  I’ve been coming to Legaspi City for many years for business and some pleasure, and I can count with my fingers the actual number of times that I have seen Magayon fully—with nary a wisp of cloud to obstruct the view.  But last Friday morning seemed like one of those mornings when the Gods woke up in a really good mood and everything was all right with the world.  The whole of Bicolandia was cloudless and Magayon, or Mount Mayon as most people refer to the volcano, seemed like she was silently showing off her full splendour.  And what a breathtaking, majestic sight she was.
Perhaps because Magayon was always shrouded in clouds in my past visits, I didn’t realise then just how pervasive her presence in Legaspi really is.  One could actually see and feel her imposing presence wherever one was in the city.  As we drove to the airport, I felt like she was a powerful presence that played hovered over us.  We would drive through a section of the city with medium rise buildings that would hide her from sight, but we’d turn a corner... and there she would be again, looming before us.  It was also the first time that I appreciated the location of the Legaspi airport; the waiting lounge has a good view of the perfect cone.  In other airports, ground crew would shepherd arriving passengers quickly to the arrival area as soon as they got out of the plane, purportedly for safety reasons.  In Legaspi, it seems the crew have learned their efforts would be futile on days when Magayon was showing off—passengers inevitably turned around and marvelled at the volcano, most of them whipping out cameras and having their pictures taken right there and then at the tarmac, under the punishing heat of the sun, but with one of the world’s majestic views behind them.
I was at the Legaspi airport early for my flight back to Manila last Friday so I was able to get a first row seat at the departure lounge, with an unobstructed view of the tarmac, the runway, and Mayon Volcano.  The TV set was on, of course, and it was showing some travel show that featured the volcano.  Many people were more engrossed on the TV set, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the subject of the show was actually already before them for their appreciation.  
Unfortunately, I was in a very public place, and in this country that means being held captive by all kinds of bizarre, amusing, and sometimes aggravating circumstances caused by others.  In this particular morning, it was courtesy of two kids, obviously siblings who must have been 3 and 4.  They were running around the lounge, squealing and bumping into luggage and people as if the whole place were their personal playpen.  Of course they were just being kids and I am sure there were people who found their behavior quite endearing, the way I did in the first two minutes.  But when they started crashing into my hand-carried baggage which contained my laptop, I started to give them a disapproving look.  The kids moved to an area which had two of those glass-encased scale models of some resort being developed in Legaspi.  In other places, these scale models would be on tables at least three feet high from the ground so mature people can get to appreciate them without stooping down, but at the Legaspi airport, the scale models were barely a foot from the ground.  The two kids started leaning, hugging, and then climbing on the glass-encased tables and my mind started to see imminent disaster.  The glass could shatter and harm the kids so I stood up and told the kids to stay away.  What do you know, the mother of the kids came forward and gave me one of those withering looks as if I just maltreated her kids instead of saving them from an accident that was just waiting to happen.
Incidents like this are quite common in public places such as churches, malls, restaurants, department stores, and groceries.  There are just too many parents out there who do not seem to understand the responsibilities involved in bringing their children to public places.  They allow their children to run around in church even during the consecration and do not even take them out when they start bawling due to hunger, discomfort, or just being scared of being exposed to too many people.  There was an incident in a mall recently where a child broke a glass barrier and fell down several floors below.  Many parents even allow their children to play in escalators or elevators as if these were rollercoasters.  I can understand a hapless parent unable to pacify a child who is screaming inside an airplane – it’s one of those situations where the options are very limited and in those situations, I choose to fully empathize, although I honestly think parents should be prepare for such eventualities and bring on board the stuff that would pacify a child.  But I cannot help but judge parents who allow their kids to run amuck in churches, restaurants, and lounges.
That being said, I do think that there is still space for some empathy when kids are just being kids such as when they fidget, or be extra inquisitive or curious as to ask too many questions that can distract others, or whimper, or even cry a little.  I think everyone understands that disciplining or rearing a child to behave appropriately in public is a process that takes time and practice.  The requirement, however, is that parents must be sensitive to others.  And this means, being prepared, being vigilant, and always being willing to respect other people’s spaces even within communal or public areas.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Rites of May

This is my column today, May 4, 2014.

While on official business in the South towards the weekend, I chanced upon a Flores de Mayo activity inside a church one afternoon. The sight of kids streaming into the churchyard bearing flowers to be offered to the Virgin at the altar brought back powerful memories of many May afternoons spent in my hometown in Leyte where Flores de Mayo activities were an annual preoccupation that marked summer along with flying kites, climbing trees, making halo-halo with ice crushed manually using a kuskusan, and watching the grownups make fools of themselves in the various “benefit dances” (public disco that were supposed to be fund raising events) held in street corners at night. 
I thought of how my young nephews and nieces in Manila are spending their summer this year alternately sitting in front of the television set, the x-box machine, or their laptops.  Their parents - and this harassed uncle – are forced to intervene by introducing supposedly more productive pursuits that inevitably cost money such as trips to the beach or the mall.  When we were kids, we never ran out of activities during summer.  In fact, there was not enough time to do the many things we wanted to do.
First there was the Flores de Mayo.  In my hometown, this was not just a religious activity; this was a cultural tradition that got passed on through generations.  Each district put up a kapilya (makeshift chapel) on a roadside and families took turns being sponsors of the day for the whole month.  Being a sponsor meant being in charge of “decorating” the kapilya and yes, feeding the children merienda after the novena.  Decorating the kapilya was always an experiment in creativity – people used curtains, palm fronds, trees and branches, and yes, flowers.  Sometimes, the kapilya looked like an altar worthy of veneration; other times it would resemble a temple in the middle of a jungle.  The merienda was likewise a hit or miss proposition; part of the thrill was anticipation – sometimes, it was a feast of local kakanin, other times, it was just candies.
An important part of the novena was the offering of flowers to the Virgin and the shower of petals towards the end when everyone sang “Adios”.  Children would scour the whole town every afternoon picking flowers that they would offer to the Virgin and preparing small boxes of petals and cut leaves for the adios.  Kids being kids, the whole congregation would often break into fits of giggling when some naughty kid would sneak in ground leaves of plants that emitted foul odour forcing everyone to cover their noses and avoid being showered with the offending debris while trying to sing farewell to the Virgin. 
The grownups would also descend at the kapilya to partake of merienda and for shots of tuba (local coconut wine) but only after the novena.  And once everyone had their fill of the merienda, the procession to bring the wooden cross and the image of the Virgin to the residence of the next day’s sponsor would commence.  The procession was a display of homemade lanterns and spirited and often off-key singing of Dios ti salvi, Maria....  The districts had their own groupings for the Flores de Mayo but various community organizations likewise put up their own.  In particular, the bachelors and bachelorettes in our hometown engaged in a friendly competition as to which group had a more organized and more colourful Flores de Mayo and the nightly novenas did not only culminate in a festival of homemade delicacies and colourful processions, but often in “benefit dances” some featuring live bands which they called “combos.”  The whole town would therefore come alive at night as the various processions crisscrossed and intersected at various junctions.
Summer was also kite flying season.  We were fortunate to grow up in a town that faced the Pacific Ocean and powerful winds blew eastward all day long.  Back then, we made our own kites.  Sometimes, we pooled resources to make bigger kites – one time I remembered we succeeded in building a kite as big as a truck although it was a real challenge getting the darn thing airborne.  When I was a child, the competition focused on which created the loudest droning noise, which one could hold as many “letters” (strips of paper that were sent airborne through the string), etc.  Today, I understand the competition has become more brutal, with kites being made to fight with each other airborne and the winner ending up owning the losing kite. 
Summer was also time to learn some skills.  In my hometown, this meant swimming (the beach was within walking distance and we usually started our day by spending an hour or two there), strumming the guitar, or some native crafts such as learning how to build a bamboo toy gun with ground wet paper as bullets.  We also spent afternoons climbing santol, mango, star apple, or balimbing trees.  On weekends, or when we had extra time, we would ride our bikes to someone’s grandparents’ coconut farm and we would feast on young coconuts.  This was how I learned to climb tall coconut trees, open them, and yes, fashion spoons and scoopers out of coconut husks.
Every summer, an aunt who had a sizable rice plantation would sponsor a pinipig (rice crispy) party and we would all bring tents and sleeping bags to her farm.  After dinner, they would harvest rice, burn the stalks to roast the palay, and then pound the grains manually using a giant mortar and pestle.  The result would be crispy and fragrant pinipig.  We would pour carabao’s milk over the pinipig, add sugar, and enjoy the delightful concoction while swapping horror stories and watching fireflies dance around the trees.
Today, I understand families guard their trees and sell the fruits, there hardly any coconut trees left thanks to the super typhoon, and pinipig is bought ready to eat from stores.  Our kids learn culture through our stories, and sometimes, vicariously.