Thursday, January 29, 2009

Namfrel get-togethers

1: Christmas Party
December 19, 2008
Namfrel office, Makati

Visit Namfrel's new website at

2: Leo's house
January 16, 2009

Our friend and fellow Namfrel volunteer Leo Castro used to be a member of UP's Kontemporaryong Gamelang Pilipino (Kontra-Gapi). (Fun fact: he also used to write for Batibot!) He makes and sells traditional Filipino musical instruments in their house in San Juan. Interested? You can send him a message through

3: Balai Taal
January 24, 2009

Balai Taal is the Concepcion family's sprawling private property in Tagaytay. Visit their website at once it's up again (he he he). We basically invited ourselves to JoeCon's hideaway. It was my second time to visit; the first time the place wasn't even finished. Thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Concepcion's gracious hospitality.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Talk about being held accountable

U.S. President Barack Obama reportedly made 510 promises to the American people during the campaign. A website,, has compiled these promises and made what they call "Obameter," ticking off each promise as they are fulfilled by the new president. Now if only all countries will have the balls to do the same thing to all their elected civil servants, perhaps they will have second thoughts before they try to make the usual hollow promises just to get votes.

Click on the image to see how Obama has fared so far (and it's just his third day!).

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees for 2009

Academy Award Nominees for Best Picture of 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)

Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard)

Milk (Gus Van Sant)

The Reader (Stephen Daldry)

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)

Academy Award Nominees for Best Documentary Feature of 2008

The Betrayal (Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath)

Encounters At The End of the World (Werner Herzog and Henry Kaiser)

The Garden (Scott Hamilton Kennedy)

Man On Wire (James Marsh and Simon Chinn)

Trouble The Water (Tia Lessin and Carl Deal)

Academy Award Nominees for Best Foreign Language Film of 2008

The Baader Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, Sweden)

The Class (Laurent Cantet, France)

Departures (Yojiro Takita, Japan)

Revanche (Gotz Spielmann, Germany)

Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, Israel)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

44. Barack Obama

The Inauguration Address

"My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.

Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."

Praise Song For The Day
Poem by Elizabeth Alexander

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says,“Take out your pencils. Begin.”

We encounter each other in words, Words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; Words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see. Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance. In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

By Rev. Joseph Lowery

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou, who has brought us thus far along the way, thou, who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.

Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand true to thee, oh God, and true to our native land.

We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we've shared this day.

We pray now, oh Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration.

He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national, and indeed the global, fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hands, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations.

Our faith does not shrink though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.

For we know that, Lord, you are able and you're willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds, and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor, of the least of these, and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.

We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that yes we can work together to achieve a more perfect union.

And while we have sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this mountain top, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.

Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little angelic Sasha and Malia.

We go now to walk together as children, pledging that we won't get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone.

With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cat power

The Ad-dressing of Cats
(T.S. Eliot)

You've read of several kinds of Cat,
And my opinion now is that
You should need no interpreter
to understand their character.
You now have learned enough to see
That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind.

For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse -
But all may be described in verse.
You've seen them both at work and games,
And learnt about their proper names,
Their habits and their habitat:
How would you ad-dress a Cat?

So first, your memory I'll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.

Now Dogs pretend they like to fight;
They often bark, more seldom bite;
But yet a Dog is, on the whole,
What you would call a simple soul.
Of course I'm not including Pekes,
And such fantastic canine freaks.
The usual Dog about the Town
Is much inclined to play the clown,
And far from showing too much pride
Is frequently undignified.
He's very easily taken in -
Just chuck him underneath the chin
Or slap his back or shake his paw,
And he will gambol and guffaw.
He's such an easy-going lout,
He'll answer any hail or shout.

Again I must remind you that
A Dog's a Dog - A CAT'S A CAT.

With Cats, some say, one rule is true:
Don't speak till you are spoken to.
Myself, I do not hold with that -
I say, you should ad-dress a Cat.
But always keep in mind that he
Resents familiarity.

I bow, and taking off my hat,
Ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!
But if he is the Cat next door,
Whom I have often met before
(He comes to see me in my flat)
I greet him with an OOPSA CAT!
I've heard them call him James Buz-James -
But we've not got so far as names.
Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream;
And you might now and then supply
Some caviare, or Strassburg Pie,
Some potted grouse, or salmon paste -
He's sure to have his personal taste.
(I know a Cat, who makes a habit
Of eating nothing else but rabbit,
And when he's finished, licks his paws
So's not to waste the onion sauce.)
A Cat's entitled to expect
These evidences of respect.
And so in time you reach your aim,
And finally call him by his NAME.

So this is this, and that is that:
And there's how you AD-DRESS A CAT.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Your friendly neighborhood...

Happy 50th Birthday MOTOWN!

Martha & The Vandellas - Dancing In The Streets

The Four Tops - I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)

The Supremes - You Can't Hurry Love

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles - Tears of a Clown

Stevie Wonder - Superstition

Jackson 5 - I'll Be There / Feelin' Alright

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On / What's Happening Brother

Listen to some more Motown songs HERE (Multiply account required).

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

War war stupid

Masters Of War
(Bob Dylan)

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain.

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion'
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins.

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand over your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead.

Vrbana Bridge

(Jill Sobule)

They stood by the window
And watched the old church
Burn for the second time
The light from the fire
Made her glow like an angel
As she pulled him down and smiled
They lay on the bed
There were shouts all around
They could shut the whole war out
With the squeak of the springs
And tomorrows dreams
And the beating of their hearts.

He would lay his arms down for her
She would forgive his brother's crime
They would do anything
To make it past Vrbana Bridge.

Well he looked up to Jesus
And she looked to the east
Where the sun was soon to rise
She asked for Allah's blessings
To keep them both alive
They had friends in high places
Who could do them a favor
Turn a blind eye
They'd seen so much hate
And death every day
"Let's just let those two walk by."

They would lay their arms down for her
They would forgive his brother's crime
Just for one moment they would
Let them pass Vrbana Bridge.

Through a crack in the wall
Of a sandbagged building
The soldier saw them fall
He said "If love was their only armor
It did no good at all"
They lay for six days
In a final embrace
They had shut the whole war out
The soldier blames the other side
But even he has his doubts.

He would lay down his arms down for her
He would forgive his brother's crime
He would lay down his arms
To let them pass Vrbana Bridge.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The old is new again (part 2): Restoring a grande dame

If you were/are a student in Manila or anywhere in Southern Tagalog, then you've probably been to our church during one of your field trips. If not, then you should come visit anyway. The Basilica of St. Martin de Tours in Taal, Batangas is the biggest catholic church in Asia. Not only is it massive, it's also turning out to be a beauty as well. It wasn't always that way.

I spent my childhood going to mass in this huge cavern of grayness, staring at its bare, unpainted plywood ceiling. At that time, our parish priest was Bishop Salvador Quizon, perhaps the only parish priest known by at least two generations of Taaleños. His tenure started around the time of Vatican II, and it was characterized by a dignified austerity. Monsignor Quizon was beloved by everybody, including myself, but I have to admit that during his time, I would look at the Basilica and think, this place deserves to look more beautiful than it is. When I was in high school, the walls were painted in pastel colors. Inappropriate, I thought, but it made the interiors look bigger, not like the catacombs of years past. Additional chandeliers were also added. Still, they weren't enough.

Not when there are old pictures to prove that the Basilica was truly a jewel once. For starters, there was the ceiling. Old folks have told me that the ceiling used to have elaborate paintings in them, not unlike those in the magnificent chapels and cathedrals in Europe. Indeed, if you've visited the Basilica before, you would have noticed that the ceiling of the altar was elaborately painted (in gray and white) with Biblical figures and European-style motifs. The ceiling of the altar dome is the only part that has survived of the original. It's a pity. It will probably take years and millions of pesos to try to bring back the ceiling to its former glory.

The good news is that restoration of the interiors has started (if indeed it is still ongoing hopefully). I'm not saying that the dear bishop should be blamed--probably just a coincidence--but things really started rolling after he retired in the '90s. And when Cardinal Ratzinger was made Pope a few years ago, then things really started changing.

First, there was the matter of the chapel that serves as repository for the Blessed Sacrament. It became controversial when conservationists protested that the structure planned to be erected in the churchyard will not jibe with the place. I'm all for conservation, but looking at the chapel now, it looks, well...nice! With matching white statues of the Holy Family and St. Martin of Tours near the entrance. I thought everything was tastefully done. Of course, instead of open space, there's this chapel now squatting there, but who's complaining? When I was a student, I used to cut grass in that churchyard. I can just hear students now high-fiving each other because there's one less chore to do.

Inside the church, the most obvious restoration work was done at the main altar. The railing that used to separate the public area and the elevated altar has been reinstalled (the last time it was used, I believe, was in the 60s). The walls are now adorned with elaborate floral patterns, though I'm not sure if they were the original designs, but as they are, they look good. Above the altar and below the cupola from which the main chandelier hangs, the corners have been painted with the images of saints.

Elsewhere around the church, the baptismal area has been similarly restored (when it used to be a mess), the crucifix near the exit has been relocated near the chapel entrance, and the hallway (that used to be the garage) that leads to the chapel has now been opened to the public as direct access to the chapel from outside the Basilica compound.

I'm not sure how extensive the restoration will be, but of course there are still so many things that need to be done, like the original belfry, and if possible, the ceilings.

Not to mention the other things that many people do not know about, like, was there really a tunnel that used to lead from the church to the mansion of Felipe Agoncillo half a kilometer away? Was there really a tunnel that used to lead from the Basilica to the Caysasay chapel a kilometer or so away downhill? I swear if nobody will clear up these long-standing rumors (that have teased the imagination of generations of Taaleños), then this restoration thing will always feel incomplete!

It's not just the church that has changed. I've noticed that in the past few years, there has been a noticeable change in the way ceremonies are held. For example, during the time of Monsignor Quizon, reading the Gospels meant the priest going to the lectern, reading from the Bible, giving his homily, then going back straight to the main table. Simple. Finito. Now, the priest is assisted by something like six people, three to hold candles, and the priest reads the Gospels in a billow of incense smoke. (Before, incense would be used only during really special occasions). I'm not sure if I like this return to elaborate, medieval-style ceremonies. What's next, masses in Latin?

Restoration or no restoration, the Basilica's flock remain faithful and continue to fill the enormous church to capacity every Sunday, especially on religious holidays when it's almost impossible to stake your claim to personal space inside the church. The Basilica remains the grande dame of Batangas. Sitting on top of a hill, it can be seen from surrounding towns. It was erected by the Spanish, not just to announce their arrival and to humble the "Indios" to submission, but also to serve as a lookout point for pirates and other enemies.

The Basilica has dominated the life of my hometown for generations. How can it not? It's this massive thing that's bigger than most malls. I live a minute away from it. We see it from our window. When the clock strikes 6pm, we hear its bell signaling the Angelus. We hear prayers and songs emanating from its speakers every morning. Local politicians jostle for space in its first few pews every Sunday during misa mayor. Bishops come to have mass in it. People from far away visit it regularly, even the Chinese. Celebrity weddings take place in it, mass weddings, baptisms, all the major religious what-have-yous. The church is still the heart and nerve center of this relatively well-preserved Spanish town. It has always been, ever since this town was founded hundreds of years ago.

The town, however, is under threat. Like in many other so-called "heritage towns" in the country, there's always the threat from creeping modernity. I heard there's a plan to build an SM mall in the next town. Does that mean more vehicular traffic? More noise? More toxic fumes from tricycles? God forbid the construction of a fast food joint within the boundaries of my hometown.

But more than any mall or any amount of carbon that can deteriorate antique buildings, possibly the biggest threat to a town like ours is simple apathy towards the care for what is old. I would like to think that Taaleños, having grown up surrounded by all these old, beautiful architecture, would not be heartless enough to let old houses and buildings deteriorate without a fight. But I may be wrong. In the last ten years, many old houses have been torn down, replaced by new structures done "in the style of" the old, but just managed to look cheap. Just last month, I was shocked to find out that the old cinema has been torn down, when just a year ago I saw it still standing (albeit closed for many years already). That cinema used to be a vaudeville theater before the war. I spent a good part of my childhood in that theater, watching double-features. My aunt used to run an authentic panciteria in front of it, complete with back-to-back-style benches and a jukebox by the entrance. Now everything is gone. The public market was restored. Yes, it's easier to find what you're looking for there now, but where are the massive iron gates that used to usher in shoppers? Where's the turn-of-the-century fountain that few from my generation remember?

This problem is compounded by the fact that the generations at the forefront of preserving the town are rapidly graying and decreasing in ranks, with no assurance of "replenishment." Like in most provincial towns in the Philippines, young Taaleños (specifically those who grew up in the poblacion) opt to study, work and live elsewhere in the country (myself included), or in many cases, take their whole families and migrate to America. The ones who are left behind are either out-of-towners who grew up at the outskirts of the heritage town, therefore may not be counted on to help preserve it as they did not really grow up in the place. Or those who did grow up in Taal, but may not care enough about things outside their personal and professional spheres. Or those, many would argue (typically towards provincianos), who were just not fortunate enough or are not bright enough, and simply just "did not make it," and are therefore not expected to care about such lofty things as "heritage" and "preservation." I hope these are not true and would like to be proven wrong.

My greatest fear for our town is that future generations of Taaleños will have nothing to preserve since everything has already been altered or destroyed, not a single thing to evoke even the faintest hint of nostalgia.

(Click any image to see more photos)
(Click any image to see more photos)


Monday, January 5, 2009

The old is new again (part 1): Unearthing a lost church

I'm a huge fan of archaeology, and when it happens in my own backyard, can you just imagine the palpitations and cold sweat?

Every summer when we were kids, we would often go to the town of San Nicolas, five or so kilometers from my hometown of Taal, Batangas, to swim in the Taal Lake, from where we could see Taal Volcano and Mt. Maculot. Near the beach by the roadside, we would often gaze at this massive wall covered with vines and thick vegetation, and would wonder, "what was that?" The old folks would say that it used to be a church, but no one knew for sure since nobody alive saw it as a structure. It had always been a wall, since before World War II, since before the turn of the 20th century, since anybody could recall asking their great grandparents about it.

A couple of months ago, a cousin of mine who lives in San Nicolas said they just had mass at the unearthed church. I was like, "what??" Excavated? Finally? I knew I had to visit and see for myself this place that had always been in the subconscious of many generations of people in our part of Batangas.

It was indeed a church. Tarpaulins put up around the site confirm that the structure was none other than the old church of "Lumang Taal" ("Old Taal"), erected in 1575 under the supervision of Father Diego Espina, an Augustinian friar. It was destroyed in 1754 during a cataclysmic eruption of Taal Volcano.

Indeed, that particular eruption of the volcano has become legendary, not only because it destroyed many towns in its environs, but also because it caused the Taal Lake to rise, submerging the destroyed towns for eternity, depriving future generations of the chance to explore these towns as they are now under the dark waters of the lake. (If you want to read more about Taal Lake and its lost towns, hunt down the excellent "The Mysteries of Taal" published by Anvil). The eruption and the rising tides forced the survivors to relocate the towns of Taal and Lipa to their present sites. The Spanish had since constructed a new church for Taal, the mighty Basilica of St. Martin of Tours, the biggest catholic church in Asia.

Being used to massive Spanish-era churches in the Philippines, I thought the old church was small in comparison. But of course, since these are ruins, there's the possibility that I may have been standing only on the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. What if this was only the belfry? Who knows? (If anybody involved in the excavation is reading this, I would greatly appreciate more information).

I couldn't help but feel privileged to have the whole place to myself when I visited, knowing that for hundreds of years, this place was just a rumor, an enigma. I also couldn't help but imagine how it might have felt like during that fateful day when the volcano exploded. Were there people here when it rained rocks and fire? This was a church after all, a place of refuge in times of distress? How many were killed?

I also thought about the Filipinos who were probably forced to haul all those boulders and corals to build this church. Spanish churches in the Philippines are not just places of worship. They were also graveyards of poor Filipinos forced to work as slaves for the glory of Spain.

Like many towns in this part of Batangas province, the town of San Nicolas used to be just a barrio of Taal. It still feels like a small village. It's that sort of place where young people still refer to young women as "mga dalaga," and to young men as "mga binata," with no hint of irony. Getting a ride to the next town is a longish wait. The main source of livelihood in the town is fishing, specifically tilapia farming. There are well-to-do people in San Nicolas, families whose wealth is determined by how many of their children are currently working in America or in the Middle East.

I walked towards the lakeside and immediately felt the cold wind on my face. We used to swim in these waters, but the old resort has now been abandoned, as the fish pens took over. There's now a decent sort-of park, deserted, probably a nice place to unwind if you're from the city, but I can't imagine the folks around here actually sitting on the benches and marveling at the volcano and the lake that have decided their fate for as long as anyone can remember.

In spite of how the sun shines across its surface, the Taal lake remains a scary beast. It remains mysterious, intriguing. It will no doubt continue to fascinate archaeologists and historians for generations to come, who will only be able to wonder what secrets remain hidden beneath its dark and perilous waters.

(Click any image to see more photos)
(Click any image to see more photos)