Welcome! I'm Brad, a retired American high school teacher who has been living in Cabanatuan City, the Philippines for more than three years. My adoptive/adopted Filipino family, the Javier-Aldonza-Guevarra-Academia clan, the kind staff at the hotel across the street where I used to live, and the Raguindin family, under whose roof I now live, have been friends and helpmates to me during this time; thanks to them for letting me describe here their trials, successes, heartaches, celebrations, passions, so that American readers can get an idea of Filipino life. It has, for the most part, been a very enjoyable stay. I post every four to ten days, y'all. Tap the lower floors above for earlier posts, and, as ever, click the pics to embiggen them!

You can reach Brad Smith at boan.song@gmail.com

Most billboard holders in Cab City now lack advertising, evidence of the virus's impact on the economy here.


Public Assistance

Three evenings back, Jheng received a call that her great uncle, the father of Sonny's wife Jasmine, had been involved in a trike accident and needed to be taken to a hospital. With the help of family, Jheng took him to one, only to find it was full due to Covid cases; she was directed to the public hospital on the Maharlika, where the great uncle was admitted. He had a nasty wound to the head, and, after that wound had been tended to, the MRI showed there was a little bleeding beneath the skull, so the doctor said he should remain in the hospital under observation for a couple of days.

Which he did. Jheng needed to be the main provider during her great uncle's stay, bringing food to the patient and his elderly wife, as well as filling out endless paperwork, paperwork for the hospital, for the public insurance provider PhilHealth, for who knows what else. When one receives public assistance in the Philippines, one pays for it with finger cramps. Sonny and Jasmine are in Solano, a six-hour drive to the north, and Covid restrictions will keep them there, so this has been Jheng's full-time job for the last three days. I loaned her the Avanza to make the job a little easier for her.

Yesterday morning the poor man still had a swollen face, but the internal bleeding had evidently resolved itself, and the doctor said he was ready for discharge. Getting discharged from a public hospital is apparently an involved procedure here; someone told Jheng that many patients were being discharged from the hospital that day, and she and her great uncle would have to wait. They waited until it was dark outside, and then it became apparent that the patient would be spending one more night in the hospital.

Back in Massachusetts, had been used to the 2-hour waits at the DMV for a license renewal. As I wrote a few postings ago, the immigration office in Palayan is efficiently run and I could take care of my business there fairly speedily -- but for the most part, government business of almost every kind here does not plod; it crawls. Nearly three years after acquiring a car, I'm still driving with temporary plates. Had been told it would take at least two years for the "official plates" to arrive; I'm still waiting. Jheng recently needed copies of the birth certificates of her children to get them re-enrolled in school. She arrived very early, and then waited a solid day at the documents office.

It seems illogical to say so, but the public bureaucracies in the Philippines seem at once bloated . . . and understaffed. At any rate, Jheng's great uncle got to go home today.


Days of Delta

At the end of September only two countries in the world will have no in-class learning at all for public school students: Venezuela and the Philippines. Don't know what's going on in the government halls of Caracas, for Venezuela is pretty far down the list of countries most affected by the virus. Dividing the population by the number of deaths attributed to the disease, I find that in Venezuela 1 in 6,703 have died of Covid. In the U.S., that stat is 1 in 490.

For a lengthy part of the history of this disease, the Philippines surpassed all other East Asian countries in mortality, but in recent months that has changed, mostly thanks to the Delta variant. For two or three months over the summer, Covid cases spiked alarmingly in Indonesia and Malaysia, and now those two countries top the mortality list in East Asia: to date, 1 in 1, 556 Malaysians, and 1 in 1,990 Indonesians, have died of Covid. This is a ghoulish kind of statistic, I know, but I think there are good reasons for the folks at Worldometer (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/) to include it in their Covid stats. For one, it offers a pretty fair assessment of each national government's effort (through regulations, restrictions, media, etc.), and of each health system's ability, to keep citizens safe or at any rate alive during these perilous times, and this may be instructive for other countries.

And what is that stat for the Philippines? 1 in 3,513. Yes, we are now well below the number of deaths per capita found in Malaysia or Indonesia, so why the continued prohibition on in-class learning here? That had me thinking, until I looked at the charts for the number of active cases in the three countries. This number has declined for about a month in Malaysia; in Indonesia the number has plummeted over the same period. But in the Philippines the number of active cases is still on a sharp rise. It seems Delta has yet to do its dirtiest work here. Perhaps the government in Manila will be able to green-light in-class learning later in the school year, but it feels it has its hands tied for now.

(photo by Jheng)

Here's Aaron working away at his modules back in June. More modules are on the way, Aaron! Jheng watches over her three children as they complete these, helping them through the stickier questions. She brings a week's worth of completed modules to the schools for the teachers' perusal and picks up a new set; and she must do this three times a week, because each grade has a different drop-off/pick-up time. Jheng does errands for me and still delivers longganisa, but she doesn't have a nine-to-five job and is able to manage. In those households where parents do have nine-to-five jobs, this module business must be grueling.

. . . And with a mortality rate seven times that of the Philippines, with active cases still rising in number in most states, the U.S. is opening its schools -- only to have more than a thousand of them shut down soon thereafter, due to breakouts of positive cases, if what I've read is correct. There'll be a rough time in the schools Stateside for however many months this thing continues -- in the country at large, a rough and increasingly divided time, thanks to the hullabaloo over mask mandates and vaccine mandates. Well. This is to be expected, maybe, in a place where a sizable portion of the population is heavily swayed by the proclamations of a death cult masquerading as a political party. Call out Trumpists and the Q-clueless everywhere, friends. (I had one opportunity to do so here, a few weeks ago, with an expat from Seattle. It got loud after he claimed more than 100,000 had died due to the vaccines. Without question, we provided decent entertainment to the Kenny Rogers Restaurant customers at the SM Mall.)



Well, weather-wise things got pretty hairy, and in quite a hurry. Two mornings ago there was suddenly a typhoon at the Philippines' door. Jolina (intl. name Conson) had developed from an unimpressive low pressure area the previous evening into a minimal, but very well-formed whirligig, with an expected path that would have it putting at least a crimp in the Wednesday of pretty much everyone in the archipeligo north of Mindanao and east of the long, westward-jutting island of Palawan. 

Jolina on Monday. (The Star)

As these whirligigs tend to do (at least the ones not labeled "supertyphoons"), it started fraying and then unraveling a bit as it proceeded over land, but Jolina maintained its typhoon strength throughout its journey up the Visayas (the power grid down there is a mess right now, and probably will be a mess for some days to come). By the time Jolina arrived at Luzon, she had become a tropical storm, and, fortunately for us Cabanatuans, she decided to take a left turn at the province of Batangas, just south of Metro Manila.

Twelve people are reported missing in the central islands of the Visayas. Southern Luzon -- the Bicol region and the area in and around Metro Manila -- received 6+ inches of rain as well as buffeting winds. Where I am, about a hundred kilometers north of Manila, there was rain all day, some of it very heavy, but not much wind beyond a stiff breeze. Considering the facts that this was a direct hit and that the storm passed over many islands, I think we should be thankful that Jolina did not carry the punch or deliver the death and destruction of Ida, the storm that affected the eastern U.S. last week. Or hold a candle to the vicious Yolanda, which destroyed the city of Tacloban and killed more than 9,000 people in the Visayas eight years ago.

2013. A part of Tacloban, after Yolanda. (GlobalGiving)

In calling them "whirligigs," I'm not trying to make light of these storms, by the way; the term sprang into my head, I think, partly because of their appearance in satellite images, partly because their erratic behavior reminds me of a child's spinning toy -- and partly, maybe, out of a sense that in their path we can store up on essentials, take shelter, even attempt to flee the onslaught, but essentially we're all as helpless as children. With the arrival of September, I've noticed the cyclones are forming farther to the south. Jolina developed in tandem with another storm, named Kiko (int'l name Chanthu), and the weather bureau PAGASA thinks Kiko will brush the northern tip of Luzon on Friday before crossing the South China Sea and slamming into mainland China as a powerful typhoon.


The (Many) Philippines

Filipino people are more ethnically diverse than the famous "melting pot" in my own native land. They belong to more than 185 Austronesian ethnolinguistic groups, each group having its own culture, language, history. There are dominant groups, and over the centuries assimilation in varying degrees to these groups has taken place among minority populations in different areas, on different islands -- but perhaps not as much as you would think. Remember, these are an insular people; the country is an archipeligo of more than 7,600 islands, more than 2,000 of which are inhabited. This "insularity" has no doubt helped to preserve the languages and cultures here.

A couple of examples from Jheng's experience will illustrate the, what, non-homogeneity of Filipinos. Jheng's father-in-law, my friend Larry, comes from Llanera, a municipality only a half hour from where I'm typing, but a burg that was settled by and is currently inhabited by not Tagalog but Ilocano people. Larry is fluent in Tagalog and pretty good in English, but his first language is Iloko. Jheng has recalled for me the times she, her husband, their children, and Larry and Lori traveled to Llanera for family reunions of Larry's side of the family, and how after the meals, during which Tagalog was politely spoken, the menfolk would pull up hampers filled with ice and bottles of beer and start conversing in a language she did not understand. (I've been to Llanera with Larry, and next to the hampers I met a number of men who spoke a smidgen of English to pretty good English. One man in law enforcement showed me his .45 caliber pistol and asked me if I wanted to take a shot; said thank you no, the recoil would probably break my wrist.)

Two or three months ago, Jheng, James, and Mariel traveled to the Metro Manila city of Paranaque to visit with their father and the grandmother who had traveled up to see them from the island of Leyte in the Visayas -- an area encompassing most of the islands between Luzon and Mindanao. The grandmother speaks only the Visayan language of Waray with which she grew up; the father ran away from home to the big city when he was a boy, so he speaks Tagalog well. And, yes, during their visit the siblings needed their father to act as interpreter when they communicated with their grandmother.


This map should be of some help, American reader. Keep in mind that the vast majority of languages in the Philippines are not represented here: these are simply the largest of the ethnolinguistic groups. Also not represented here are the diasporas of people from one language group who have settled in the region of another language group: for example, Larry's Ilocano brethren, whose Llanera is situated in a Tagalog-speaking region.


These languages, by the way, have very little in common with one another. I have noticed, in my years here, that Cebuano has some Tagalog words (or maybe it is Tagalog that has some Cebuano words), but they are still very different languages. Here is "I love you" in Jheng's Tagalog: Mahal kita. In Cebuano: Gihigugma tika. In Jheng's grandmother's Waray-waray: Pina-ura ta ikaw. In Larry's Iloko: Ay ayaten ka.

Tagalog is the lingua franca of the islands. It is taught in the Tagalog-speaking region as English is taught in American schools, but outside the region it is now taught very intensively, with the aim (if sometimes not the result) of making non-Tagalog speakers fluent Tagalog speakers. As for English, which is also taught in all the schools, it can and does serve as an auxiliary lingua franca between language groups. Emphasis in children's learning, though, is placed on Tagalog -- as the main tie that binds this happy Babel of peoples into a functioning democracy. 






Cooking with Gas

Keeping an eye on developments in Louisiana and Kabul. Today a mass is being said for Jheng's deceased husband Larry in San Jose City; she and the children are up there in the Avanza for a couple of days. No need for them to get tested and go through paperwork in order to travel: SJC belongs to the same province as Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija.

Before she left Jheng helped me to equip my new cooking area: gas range, gas tank, pans, a wok, bowls, knives, sieve, spachelor, other implements of destruction, as Arlo Guthrie might say. Had been wanting to cook my own meals for quite a while; I finally asked Cousin Ritz to convey this desire to Don-Don and Aiza -- to save my landlords the discomfiture of having to turn me down to my face, if the request could not be granted. You see, the house, along with other properties apparently, is owned by Don-Don's mom, who has been living in the U.K. for the last twenty years. She wants her son to act as a caretaker for this property; pretty much the entire place has been mothballed except for the master bedroom on the first floor, which is being rented to me (Don-Don, Aiza, and the children live in an outbuilding fronted by the sari-sari store). I have spoken with Adonis's mom on the phone, and she seems to be a very nice lady, but I've come to realize she has some fixed ideas about how she wants this property to be maintained.

Perhaps after checking in with his mom, Don-Don said I could use the dirty kitchen for my cooking needs. Was not familiar with the term "dirty kitchen" before coming to the Philippines, but here every big house seems to have such a place, a kind of anteroom at the back with a sink and counter space. The family's pet birds and a washing machine are kept in this particular dirty kitchen -- and now my cooking station, too.

Felt a little foolish for not having asked earlier, of course. For the past several months I could have been eating healthier fare than what I have been eating. Ah well. Had a nice omelette stuffed with steamed vegetables this morning; my fridge contains the drumsticks on tap for tonight's meal.


The President Who Would Be Vice President

At the height of the thunderstorm late yesterday afternoon, I noticed that closeby lightning strikes were coming in at a rate of four or five per minute. That was a lot of noise! We lost power, but crews thankfully got us back up and running after about an hour without electricity. It is 4pm the next day and there are distant boomings to the east; the doppler shows more storms incoming, riding on an easterly flow.

The rainy season won't come to an end until sometime in October. It's during the second half of this season, already well under way, that typhoons tend to spring up and endanger the islands with a frequency not seen in other months of the year. Yes, the Atlantic confines cyclonic development in its neighborhood to a few months of the year, but the Pacific can churn up these whirligigs in any month -- this past April Luzon had a close brush with a big one. To be sure, they are infrequent from November to June, but even then they can come a-knocking.

So far so good on the typhoon front throughout the Philippines, this summer. The Pacific has been delivering them true to form, but has been sending them north of here -- to Taiwan and mainland China, to the Olympics in Japan. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (call it PAGASA: everybody does) is keeping a very close eye on weather developments to the east of the islands, though; be sure of that.



President Duterte and Vice President Robredo. (The Filipino Times)

It might surprise American readers that often in the Philippines the president and vice president elected by the people belong to different political parties. This is because the two don't run on a political "ticket"; there is a separate election for each of the two positions. There are five major political parties and many smaller ones, and it stands to reason that political animals of different stripes will usually be holding these positions in any given term.

Such is the case today. President Rodrigo Duterte belongs to the Hugpong sa Tawong Lungsod (translated roughly: City Group of the People) and Leni Robredo belongs to the Liberal Party. These two political parties have each led a coalition of parties for many years, and these two coalitions, the most powerful political groups in the land, do not get along with each other. It should come as no surprise that Rodrigo and Leni do not get along with each other either.

It became customary early in the history of the republic for the newly elected president to offer the newly elected vice president a portfolio in his or her cabinet. President Duterte offered Vice President Robredo Housing and Urban Development, which she accepted. Eight months later Robredo resigned from the post, because Duterte had banned her from attending cabinet meetings. At the meetings, Robredo had been vocal in her opposition to several Duterte initiatives, including the violent crackdown on drug dealing which began at the very start of their terms. Banned from cabinet meetings, she said she could no longer effectively do her job as a cabinet secretary. She retained the vice presidency, but the main source of her political power in the executive was gone. In a public statement just after she resigned her cabinet position, Robredo had this to say: "With this resignation, you can expect that I will continue to support the positive initiatives of this administration and oppose those that are inimical to the people's interest." And since that time she has been a very public oppositional voice against the government in which she holds the number 2 position.

Interesting, no? Here's something else that is interesting: today President Duterte accepted his party's nomination to run for vice president in next May's general elections. The Philippine Constitution forbids a president from running for a second six-year term, and, unlike a recent president of another democratic country, Duterte is one who will abide by his country's constitution -- so . . . why not the vice presidency? American reader, he will be the odds-on favorite to win the vice presidency next May. Despite widespread criticism -- both international and domestic -- of his drug war, Duterte is a very popular president with approval ratings above 70% throughout his tenure.

And given the poor performance of the Liberal Party's coalition in the 2019 mid-terms, the Liberal party's presidential candidate, which may be Leni Robredo, will have an uphill battle to fight. As for the City Group of the People, the possible nominees for president most in the news are Senator "Bong" Go, special assistant to the president in Duterte's first three years before winning a senate seat in the mid-terms; the president's own daughter Sarah Duterte, presently the mayor of the Mindanao city of Davao; and Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a former senator and son of the man who, unlike the Trumpster, actually did manage to turn a democracy into one-man rule, an autocracy which lasted for 14 years before the "People Power Revolution" drove him into exile in 1986.

The May elections, and the run-up to them, will be interesting, for sure.



Would Be Nice to See This Thing Just Go Away

American schoolchildren already back in the classroom are, I read the other day, spreading Covid. Now, it seems that the Delta variant, in addition to being very transmissible, also more readily causes serious illness in children than do other iterations of this disease; and this is surely not the time for Republican political leaders to check their education and common sense at the door in an effort to score political points with the more radicalized members of their base. But Filipino reader, this is exactly what many Republican leaders are doing. Eight Republican governors have banned public school districts from requiring students and staff to wear masks on campus.

In America, the political right seems to have trapped itself in negative feedback loops involving citizens, politicians, and right-wing media outlets. Liberty is extolled to the skies, while responsibility of one citizen for another is laughed off. Immigrants, especially non-white immigrants, arouse suspicion and even fear in the minds of these people. And so much else. Filipino reader, the political left in America has faults as well, but this banning of mask mandates in schools, when infection rates are soaring, in the name of "liberty" is, what, nakakahiya.

One of the most disgraceful of these Republican leaders is not a governor but a U.S. senator from Texas, Ted Cruz. This is the politician who flew with his family to Cancun at the height of a crisis caused by a freak snowstorm in his state (you may remember the story). Recently, his very vocal support of the ban on mask mandates in schools illustrates well the hypocrisy on increasing display among Republican leaders caught up in the aformentioned feedback loops: you see, Mr. Cruz's children all go to a private school that, you guessed it, has a mask mandate.

American reader, the virus has not been politicized in the Philippines, but I would not be surprised to see it become politicized in the coming run-up to the once-in-six-years general election to be held next May. Yet if the virus does get bandied about in the upcoming debates, I'm pretty certain it will not lead to a situation as caustic and dangerous as the situation you are facing over there.

To give you a thumbnail sketch of the current circumstances on Luzon, Covid-wise: testing this week in Metro Manila puts the positive rate there at above 20%. Daily new infections and deaths have been rising in number in the metro region for almost a month, thanks to the Delta variant. And Delta has burst the lockdown cordons surrounding Metro Manila: it is heading north, more virulently, it seems, on the western side of the island. Makeshift Covid wards are being prepared in Tarlac, San Fernando, and Olongapo due to the fast uptick in cases in those cities. Cabanatuan is on the eastern side of Luzon, but restrictions have been tightened here: sit-down dining in restaurants ended (again) last week; stiff and certain fines are imposed on anyone in public not wearing a mask. Throughout the island, travel between provinces is being restricted to those who have a. been tested just before the trip and b. filled out the appropriate paperwork at barangay and municipal offices.

In-class learning here? There is none, and the government has not offered any timeline on when it may return.

Yes, I'm worried there will be another island-wide lockdown like the one we had last spring and summer. But I'm worried more about those friends I've made here who still don't have access to a vaccine: inoculations outside of Metro Manila are still restricted to people on the "priorities list" -- old folks like me, people involved in medical work, government employees, the indigent. Most people up here are still waiting.




An exhausted frontliner on break somewhere in Metro Manila. (Philstar.com)



Winds have shifted from the southwest to the east, and two weeks of monsoon weather are history. It's likely this period of monsoon was at least partially responsible for the bug afflicting Jheng's side of the duplex right now: Mama Luz seems to have recovered, but James, Lara, and Jheng are still coughing and feverish. Had time this afternoon, so I drove up to Palayan, where dragon fruit, chock-full of good things for an infirm human body, is still in season. The woman in charge of the fruit stand where I stopped convinced me to buy also a nice-looking, very large papaya that came in at 2 kgs.! Six dragon fruit and the humungous papaya cost less than P250, about $5 American. These I dropped off with Jheng before heading home, errand of mercy completed.

What's in the bucket and on display beside it is dragon fruit (the fruit hanging in net bags are pomelos). The girl is the stand owner's daughter.

On a completely different note: in the early 1980's, after taking a masters degree at Northeastern U., I spent three years in Wuhan, China -- yes, that Wuhan, China -- teaching English in two institutes of higher learning across town from each other. In this program set up by the Chinese government, foreign teachers were offered free plane rides home and back at the time of summer break, and I took advantage of this perk, keeping my sight-seeing excursions confined to the three weeks off at spring festival.

Back in those pre-internet days, as a teacher there I felt quite unconnected to loved ones at home and to what was happening back in the States, hence the strong desire to pop back Stateside for the 10-week summer break. American magazines at the English departments where I worked usually arrived weeks after they were published; the only fairly up-to-date news available from beyond China's borders was in the U.K.'s international version of The Guardian, which arrived two or three days after publication on onion-skin paper, and which often didn't have a great deal of U.S. news in it. Communication with loved ones and friends, outside of a handful of long-distance phone calls over those three years, happened through letter-writing. I remember well the weekly trips to the post office; Chinese stamps and envelopes had no sticky substance on them then, and each post office had a large paste-pot in the middle of its foyer, into which I dabbed stamps before pressing them onto my envelopes, and sealed envelopes using my dabbed fingers.

In the present, thanks largely to the virus that came out of Wuhan and spread everywhere, I haven't been able to visit the States for two years. But, quite the opposite to my experience in China, throughout my stay Phlipside I have remained very much "connected," thanks to the digital world we now live in. I have a wide-screen Acer desktop with 8 gigs, and I go places with it. Newscasts across the political spectrum, from Fox to Democracy Now!, are available to me online within hours of their appearance in the U.S. If you are Stateside, all the podcasts you can listen to I can listen to; I'm a fan of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History, and look forward to new installments of Useful Idiots, The Bulwark,  FiveThirtyEight, Unf*cking the Republic, and two or three of the podcasts from Crooked Media -- mostly leftish, but if you've been following this blog for a while, you already know I'm something of a lefty, eh. (What's the old saying? If you're young and conservative you don't have a heart, and if you're old and liberal you don't have a head? I guess I don't have a head.)

This Acer machine's best gift to me in the way of connection, though, are the weekly sit-downs I have with my sons Bart and Jeff. Sometimes Jeff has with him his lovely wife and/or his beautiful baby daughter; heck, more than once I've chatted with my restrained but friendly ex. To see them and speak with them from halfway round the planet: I don't think that young teacher in China imagined such a possibility was not very many years away.  . . . We catch up on the week's developments, talk about upcoming choices to be made, joke with each other; and in almost every session we have together, they help me to fine-tune, indeed in some cases to alter a bit, a perspective I've gained from all those other voices talking at me from the cyber-ether.

Postings from February 20 to August 3 of this year are available on the 6th Floor (just click at the top of the page).