Welcome! I'm Brad, a retired American high school teacher who has been living in Cabanatuan City, the Philippines two and a half years. My adoptive/adopted Filipino family, the Javier-Aldonza-Guevarra-Academia clan, as well as the kind staff at the hotel where I 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'll post at least once a week. Tap the lower floors above for earlier posts, and, as ever, click the pics to embiggen them!

Jheng with niece Zoey.

9.21.20

Cabanatuan

Cabanatuan City (aka Cab City, aka Cabsy) has been home for me for three years now, and it's about time I placed a short entry's focus on the place. Sitting at latitude 15.4865 north, or about 1,065 miles north of the equator, the city has a tropical climate, and the dry and rainy seasons attendant to such a climate. Moving around the globe on its line of latitude, one finds Guatemala and Belize, the Caribbean island of Dominica, the Cape Verde Islands, Eritrea, the Indian city of Panaj . . . .  Cab City is well inland on Luzon, the fifteenth largest island in the world; it takes a Cabanatuanite three hours to drive to the closest point on the ocean accessible by car, Dingalan on the east coast. Despite its inland location, its elevation is only 37 meters, thanks to its situation on the Pampanga River. Should the Antarctic ice sheet have a catastrophic meltdown, the ocean will come to us, in other words.

Cabanatuan is the most populous city of its province, Nueva Ecija, with a 2015 population of a little more than 302,000. Like Boston in Massachusetts, it is surrounded by "bedroom communities," and its population during a workday is close to 1,000,000. Unlike Boston, Cab City has no high rises, no subway system, and no school buses. When I came here, there was one traffic light; there are now three or four.

(flickr.com)

(TripAdvisor)

Oh, and also unlike Boston, this is a sprawling city, covering 75 square miles. Driving its length on the Maharlika will take you more than an hour.

As with all Philippine cities, Cabanatuan is divided into administrative districts called barangays (baRANgais). I live in Bitas, Jheng lives in Bantug Norte: altogether there are 89 barangays in Cabanatuan City. Eight elected barangay council members administer to the needs of barangay residents and enforce barangay rules. These "villages within the city" cultivate feelings of community and even solidarity among barangay residents; most barangays in Cab City have their own elementary schools, their own "covered courts" for sports and barangay gatherings, their own festivals . . . .

Barangay Bitas is close to the northern edge of Cabsy. It's quieter here, the life slower here, the streets more verdant here, than what one finds in most other barangays of the city. And that suits me. Never really took to apartment-living in the hurly-burly of Boston during my student years. Outside my door at dusk, here in Bitas, bats veer silently about against an indigo sky. The aroma of Aiza's cooking, or of Mama Cita's cooking across the street, is in the air. I can take a walk knowing I won't be struck by a stray trike, will cross paths only with young couples and old guys like me, fellow Barangay Bitans, also out for a walk, whom I'll greet in passing with a "Maganda gabi!"

9.15.20

South China Sea Blues

Scarborough Shoal. (Daily Tribune)

After so many years of being out of touch, a good friend from my graduate school days and I are communicating with each other once again. Her roots are in Greece, and after earning a PhD. in the UK she became a professor of English at a university in Greece, publishing several books on English Renaissance literature. After supplying each other with timelines of our exploits over the past few decades, we fell to discussing (via email) the pandemic, American politics, other topics of note in the world today. Recently she has written of tensions in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, an issue I confessed I had been unaware of. It seems Turkey, under that autocratic strongman Erdogan, is making claims on Greece's economic maritime zone, a zone delineated by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty between Greece and Turkey. Turkey, it seems, wants to drill in these waters; Greece is adamant that Turkey will not drill there. Well, the strongman's threatening noises over this debacle have, in the past year or two, been joined by provocative acts, such as the ramming of a Greek patrol boat by a Turkish coast guard vessel. There is a real possibility of armed conflict between the two countries.

A similar instance of territorial aggression is taking place in the South China Sea; it involves not the claims of one nation upon the maritime territory of another, but the claims of one nation upon the maritime territory of four nations. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea determined that countries had exclusive economic rights to maritime resources within 200 miles of their shore. China's nine-dash line, depicting its own claims to maritime territory, encompasses James Shoal off the coast of Malaysia, which is more than 1,000 miles from the large Chinese island of Hainan!

This nine-dash line was first drawn by the Kuomintang regime of Chiang Kai-shek, then adopted by the CCP after the Communist Revolution. And with the recent rapid growth of its navy, China has shown a keenness to exercise its sovereignty over this vast maritime territory that stretches well within the 200-mile zones of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.

(Reseau International)

Scarborough Shoal, a large atoll 150 miles off the west coast of Luzon, had been a destination for Filipino fishermen for hundreds of years. Not any longer: since 2012, the Chinese navy has maintained a presence in the vicinity of the shoal, and they have used water cannon against any Philippine fishing vessel whose captain has the temerity to approach the shoal. In 2013 the Philippines brought the matter to the UN's Permanent Court of Arbitration, but the Chinese government refused to participate in this arbitration. The five arbitrators of the tribunal that was convened unanimously agreed that China had violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines; furthermore, the tribunal ruled that China's nine-dash line had no legal basis. The Chinese government rejected the findings of the court. To this day, Chinese government vessels keep Filipino fishermen away from Scarborough Shoal.

Within the nine-dash line, China has pushed Vietnamese fishermen out of the Paracel Islands and has established military bases in the Spratly Islands. Chinese "island reclamation" projects are underway in the Spratlys, acres of lagoon becoming dry land, reef systems destroyed. Chinese vessels have rammed a number of Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Philippine fishing boats. In a particularly vicious incident last summer, a large Chinese fishing vessel rammed a Philippine wooden fishing boat, then left 22 Filipinos, whose ship had gone down, to fend for themselves in the water.  They were rescued by a Vietnamese fishing boat six hours later with no loss of life.

(straitstimes.com)

Anti-China sentiment is strong in the Philippines, but for the past several years the government has relied heavily on Chinese investments and Chinese loans. As for the United States, it has declared that shipping lanes in the South China Sea must remain open and that ships must not be impeded by inspections. The United States Pacific Command now has the South China Sea as its top priority, regularly sends military vessels into it, and *flash* just two weeks ago a People's Liberation Army spokeman warned of possible "accidents" happening between American and Chinese naval forces. Well, I can't fault the Americans for getting involved. The strength of the combined navies of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines is only a very small fraction of that of the Chinese navy. And the nine-dash line is fraudulent as well as redolent of the imperialistic ambition that China itself has castigated and fought against for the last century. The South China Sea should remain free, you ask me.

I was meeting with a couple of advanced Chinese learners of English some time ago, and I brought up the nine-dash line during discussion time. We talked about Chinese maritime history, China's need for oil (large reserves of which are thought to lie under the South China Sea), and the neighboring countries' reliance on fisheries in the disputed territory. I did learn quite a bit from the conversation. One of the students eventually said, "It's called the South China Sea, right? So it belongs to China." My quick-thinking was working reasonably well in that class, I guess; I brought up on the screen the map of a big stretch of water labeled "Gulf of Mexico." I asked, "Does Mexico have exclusive rights to the fish, the oil, the minerals of this entire body of water?" Many Chinese people when embarrassed laugh; I waited for this student's laughter to subside before he said, "No, I guess not."

https://amti.csis.org/incident-at-reed-bank-a-crisis-in-the-philippines-china-policy/

https://www.cnnphilippines.com/news/2020/6/9/China-build-air-naval-bases-Scarborough-Shoal.html

https://www.eaglenews.ph/philippines-china-in-fresh-row-over-scarborough-shoal/

https://vietnamtimes.org.vn/philippines-minister-chinas-nine-dash-line-is-a-fabrication-23802.html

https://www.brookings.edu/articles/xi-jinping-and-chinas-maritime-policy/

https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-08-28/China-warns-U-S-to-stop-provocation-in-South-China-Sea-TjxwiZC05G/index.html

9.13.20

Grandpasville

Son Jeff's lovely Anna gave birth prematurely five days ago to a snippet of a girl not much more than two pounds in weight. The OB/GYN folks told Jeff and Anna the baby, Mirah, looked well for a human being so tiny, and complications are not foreseen -- yet special precautions are needed for 6 1/2-month premies, and Mirah will reside in the NICU for several weeks before going home. Of course, Mom and Dad will be making the commute to her bassinetside daily.

Can only guess at the emotions that washed over Anna and Jeff as they experienced this. Me? I'm a grandfather for the first time and feel pretty fine about it! Look forward to visiting in a few months, when Covid concerns are behind us, and holding her!

Cutting the cord.

Back Phlipside, all is well and not nearly as exciting. Jheng still buys and sells most days, and I spend days reading, preparing lessons, playing with children and animals . . . .  Jheng and I made the trip to town for provisions this morning, and in the car she told me a brother-in-law of mine has been texting with Auntie Des for a while. Both good people; I hope they hit it off! Lara, Janiah, and Aaron are already involving themselves in school projects ahead of the Oct. 5 start of remote-learning classes, and Jheng's younger sister Mariel, not a public schooler, has been taking high school classes online for a while.

I'm learning from the Facebook postings of my former colleagues at Leominster High School that being on the other side of remote-learning, when one has a hundred or more students, is no easy chore. I hope they, as well as the children's Filipino teachers, have no more than a term or two of it. Vaccine, vaccine, who's got the vaccine? Apparently a few are now in the third phase of trials. Except for a period of time decades back, after a bad car accident, when I was good and hooked on morphine on a hospital's stryker frame, I have never more looked forward to a needle.

Poor Chucky. Not a suitable subject for the sisters' make-up practice, I think.

The afternoon rains have not come now for a few days here in central Luzon, but they'll be back: the rainy season ends several weeks from now. Typhoons can strike any month of the year, but in this season of high typhoon frequency all of the pinwheels have so far tracked north of us, threatening China, the Koreas, and Japan. One or two earthquakes above 4 on the Richter scale occur daily in the islands, but Luzon has not experienced any perceptible ground-shaking for a long while. All the volcanoes are quiet.

9.4.20

Graft and Corruption

No problems at the immigration office. They took a little more than P10,000 from me and made a six-month visa extension official. Odd, but I seem to pay a different amount each time I go there. Six months ago it was 7K and change; one year ago it was more than 13K. Foreign visas, at any rate, have been reinstated; Duterte declared restrictions that limitet the tourist trade had to be lifted, because those restrictions were hurting the economy as much as anything else in these days of Covid.

The changes in price for the visa could well be due to changes made over the past several months in the various fees involved in the issuance of a visa, of course. But stories told to me by friends, and, well, my own experience, have informed me that corruption among the powerful and not so powerful in the Philippines is widespread. Kickbacks, embezzlement, extortion, fraud, book-cooking, expense-padding, nepotism, skimming, bribery, influence peddling, cronyism . . . are all alive and well in the islands.

You remember Mr. Sherwin, whose agency got me a car loan? Jheng received a call from him a couple of weeks ago in which he said it was urgent that I deposit in his account P45,000 (almost $1,000) due to unpaid payments and "collection fees" levied by Toyota. Jheng explained to him that the two payments not made during the period of ECQ (the strictest of quarantines) were transferred to the end of the payment period by the car company, as the company had made clear in a public announcement. "And what exactly are these 'collection fees'?" Jheng asked. Sherwin's answer was muddled and didn't make sense to Jheng. I wrote a terse email to Sherwin stating that Jheng and I kept careful records of our payments to him, and that we were looking for a lawyer to investigate this matter. Sherwin replied that he "respected" my decision to procure a lawyer, but that this was "not a big problem, really." Neither Jheng nor I have heard from him since.

Jheng is looking for a lawyer; we're both pretty certain Sherwin is an unsavory character. Moreover, his downtown office has closed, and we know that he is being investigated for business practices incommensurate with the consulting license he holds. Should he also be investigated for attempted extortion? A desperate person makes desperate mistakes. Yup, we need a lawyer.

To move on. Let me tell you of an experience I had four years ago, during my second school vacation in the Philippines. I was staying at Pacific Waves Resort about five miles north of Caloocan (pronounced Cal-o-O-can), where Jheng and Mich had an apartment -- they were working at a food processing plant there, while Lara, Janiah, and Aaron remained behind with grandparents in Cabanatuan and San Jose City. Jheng and Mich had spent a day and a night at Pacific Waves with me (I rented a room for them), and we were heading back to Caloocan the next day when it occurred to me that the last number of my rental's license plate forbade me from driving in Metro Manila on that day of the week. (Yes, this policy is still in effect; it is meant to reduce traffic in a very traffic-plagued city.) I asked Jheng and Mich if Caloocan were a part of Metro Manila. They both thought it wasn't.

But it was. Shortly after entering Caloocan we were pulled over by a traffic enforcement officer. Both of my friends told me hurriedly, before I opened the window, that either I could have the car impounded or I could hand over to the nice man P500. I pulled out a 500-note and stuck my hand out the window with it, smiling. The man gave me a sinister sneer and turned his back on the car. This is when I learned something about bribery etiquette. The women in hushed tones told me to hide it, fold it in a piece of paper, and Jheng pushed at me some paper she had ripped off a package. I folded up the yellow denomination, then folded the paper around it, allowing a small bit of yellow to show. The man gruffly accepted this and waved us on.

In the two or three miles from the Caloocan line to Jheng and Mich's apartment we were pulled over a total of three times, twice by traffic enforcement officers and once by a genuine pulis (policeman). The policeman was kind and jovial, unlike the other two actually willing to listen to Jheng and Mich's explanation that they did not know Caloocan was a part of Metro Manila. And the man gave us a motorcycle escort to the foot of Jheng and Mich's street, so that we would not be pulled over yet again. But like the other two, he accepted my P500 bribe. Fifteen hundred pesos in all, or thirty dollars -- not very much for a long-tenured school teacher from Massachusetts. But for Mich, who has a four-year degree in food services, it would have been three days' pay; for Jheng, it would have been nearly four days' pay.

(Investvine)

A German NGO, Transparency International, measures public perception of corruption within countries across the globe. In the Asia Pacific region, New Zealand comes in first; its population believes little corruption occurs there, it seems, and the NGO awards it with an 87, whatever that number actually means. The Philippines comes in at a 34, and the average score for the region is 45.

Both the government and the people here understand that corruption is a problem. The government's anti-corruption task force has grown over the past few years and has had a number of successes -- the most recent large success being its discovery that billions of pesos have been siphoned away, in a number of different fraudulent transactions, from PhilHealth, the nation's public health care insurance provider. The agency's directors are all on leave while several investigative groups attempt to locate the money and the people within the agency responsible for this criminal enterprise.

Well, I'm guessing if Trump by hook or by crook gets another four years, Transparency International will find several reasons to darken the U.S.'s shade on its map in the coming years (the U.S. scored a 69 in 2019). As for the Philippines, corruption seems to be in the grain, and it will be a long slog to get out of the 30's, and then a long, long slog to get out of the 40's, and so on, if you would have the work of a German NGO be your measuring stick.

Traffic enforcement officers. (Rappler)

8.25.20

Additions to the Family

Jheng's cousin, close friend, confidante, and duplex-mate Mirasol is going to have a baby with her longtime boyfriend Arvin! They're both very much excited. Mira went in to see an OB/GYN specialist yesterday; it is too early to determine the baby's sex, but the pregnancy seems to be moving along well.  . . . And I might as well use this space to let my readers know that I am to be a grandfather for the first time in December; Jeff and Anna will have a baby girl, and the name they are leaning toward right now is Mirah! I don't think Mirasol and Arvin have yet considered names -- they must still be getting used to the idea that they are going to be parents. This season of new life is most welcome after the recent losses of Bernie and Montero. 

On another note, ridiculously large thunderheads roll up and down Luzon most afternoons now. A downpour I watched about a week ago was the strongest rain I had ever seen, it seemed to me, like a valve opened wide on every square inch. Thankfully, the drainage is very good in this part of Barangay Bitas. The drainage is not so good at the duplex in Barangay Bantug Norte -- but at least the duplex stands on relatively high ground. The widening of the highway stopped within a half mile of the duplex due to the pandemic, by the way. When the work starts again after this hiatus is anybody's guess.

On yet another note, the visas of foreign residents were "withdrawn" by the Duterte administration shortly after the quarantines kicked in, and I'm not really sure what my legal status is here right now. (He, he.) My last visa has an expiration date of 8/26, so Jheng and I are making the run up to the immigration office in Palayan tomorrow to see what's what. There has been no outflux of foreign nationals from the Philippines, but the announcement about the visas has given these last few months a "living in limbo" feel to them.

8.16.20

Improving Health and Sputnik V

Well, that was a jolly two or three weeks. The fever disappeared five days ago; I'm left with a much-diminished cough and a stiff neck in the morning. These too will pass. Thank you, thank you Filipino friends, for running my errands and cooking for me! I would have been in a tough spot, if it hadn't been for you.

Jheng, while not fetching and cooking for me, has kept busy selling meat and produce. She'll have this opportunity for a while, probably -- Cabanatuan has been placed back on General Quarantine, and the Sangitan Market is not reopening any time soon. She seems to specialize in longganisa, the Filipino sausage, now, and preps 30 kilograms of "longga" each day.

More restrictive quarantines are going into effect in many parts of the islands. The case line and death line are not flattening here but becoming steeper, and health care workers are being hit especially hard. "The Philippines is crying," as Rodrigo Duterte puts it.

Yikes, how we've changed.

Duterte signed an agreement with Russia months ago to gain access for the Filipino people to a Russian Covid vaccine. And now Sputnik V, developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, is coming down the pike, as you have probably read. ("Sputnik" to remind us that as it was with satellites, so it is with vaccines: the Russians are first. The "V" signifies "vaccine" and not the number 5, by the way.) As with many other potential vaccines around the world, this one is in Phase 3 of its trials, but the Russian government is so confident of its efficacy and safety that it has already made the vaccine available to Russian health care workers and teachers.

The Philippine government has been told that it will be provided with the data from Phases 1 and 2; and with Philippine FDA approval (forthcoming), 500 to 1000 Filipinos will take part in the Phase 3 trials of this vaccine. If all goes well, massive shipments of Sputnik V to the Philippines will begin sometime in November.

American medical authorities are leery of the value of this upstart candidate, and understandably so; not even WHO has yet seen any of the literature from Phases 1 and 2. I'll be keeping a close eye on developments regarding this vaccine, for sure.

(RDIF)

https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2020/08/616290/sputnik-v-no-means-verifying-russias-claim

https://www.rt.com/russia/497707-russian-vaccine-sputnik-v-website/

https://cnnphilippines.com/videos/2020/8/13/PH--Russia-in-talks-about-clinical-trials-of-Sputnik-V.html

8.7.20

B l a h

"It is what it is," the dumbest, most unfeeling president in modern American history said to that Axios interviewer, and the thought that I was going to use the words of that silly but dangerous man (who deserves several presidential superlatives in addition to the ones above, none of them good) to describe my own situation sent chills a little stronger than the ones I've now grown used to feeling coursing through my body.

So I won't use those words. The symptoms returned a day or two after the last posting, and they've been with me for about a week. Nothing severe, but enough fever to make me muddle-headed, enough coughing to keep me from tutoring, and headaches strong enough to occasionally send me under covers in my darkened room. My appetite is good, and Jheng, Aunt Des, and Mama Aiza have sent me tasty dishes: thank you, kind women! As happens with plenty of blokes, my, uh, manly courage departs when I become sick, and the support is appreciated more than you may know.

So I'm "on hold" now, trying to keep my room clean, reading when I can, watching movies on Netflix. Recommending to you The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for a smart movie. In the wider world, President Duterte is placing Metro Manila back on Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine, and claims he would have gone the full monty (take out the "modified") if the government could afford another period of time in which most people were not working. The hospitals in Manila are overcrowded, the country has officially gone into a recession, China is sending warships into places where they should not be in the South China Sea . . . .  Not much in the way of good news here.

And I know there's not much good news back in the U.S. It's these kinds of times in which we need to tune into own own individual senses of curiosity and wonder, I think, for the emotional well-being they bring -- tune into our sense of righteousness, too, if we are to effect change for the better.

Cheetah at the cat food (Jheng finally found some in that big store).

7.30.20

Rain Wash Over Us

A huge churning low to the west of the islands is pulling up wet weather. The Cabanatuan sky this morning was a study in light and dark grays; now the rain is falling in sheets. Deep rumblings of thunder to the south.

My low-grade fever and headaches departed two days ago, and the cough is now manageable. Probably just a tropical bug against which I hadn't yet grown adequate defenses. If it was COVID, the virus certainly didn't take to me the way it took to Jeff. Jeff, by the way, has lost his cough and was feeling fine when I spoke with him Monday morning.

 The rainy season lasts from June to the first part of October in the Philippines. Actual rain occurs mainly just in the afternoons and evenings, and it makes an appearance not every day but most days. Not surprisingly, these are the months when incidences of illness climb: respiratory infections, stomach bugs, dengue, vague malaises. COVID of course has only increased the sense that an assault on the body may be lying in wait around the next corner.

Governor Benjamin Diokno, head of Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, believes that "the worst is over," with regard to COVID in the country, according to a piece in the Manila Times today. I punched up the worldometer stats for the Philippines, found no sign of a flattening of the "active cases" curve. The number of active cases is a little over 60,000, the number of deaths a little over 2,000. American readers, you cannot be much impressed by those numbers, I know, but here they have everyone's attention.

Up in San Jose City today: Lara with Cousin Zoey, Larry and Lori's newest grandchild.

And, over in Murca . . . well, Republicans finally put something on the table in the way of COVID relief. And House Speaker Pelosi's characterization of this HEALS Act as "pathetic" seems about right to me. It does not extend the eviction moratorium, and it lowers the unemployment assistance currently offered -- so as not to disincentivise a return to work, Republicans blithely explain. Truly, $600 a week does not go very far in most parts of the U.S. Now it is "too much"? And you're willing to let millions of Americans become homeless with cold weather not very far away?

One hopes the Democrats will be able to win important concessions before the bill goes to the White House.

Find earlier posts on the 4th Floor!