A Pale Blue Dot*

These days, two major themes dominate the news: violence and climate change. There is endless news about wars, bomb explosions, vehicles mowing down pedestrians, or armed men shooting or randomly stabbing people to death. Every day, too, you can hear news about how huge parts of forests are being cleared, the thinning ice sheets, the rising temperature, or the extinction of a species. Regardless whether you watch the local or international news, you are sure to find at least one story connected to either of these two.

Times like these, I cannot help feeling fearful for the future — if humankind even still has one considering the rate of how people destroy each other and nature in the name of politics, power, and so-called progress. If only people realized that all those are insignificant in the grander scheme of things.

In 1994, Carl Sagan, an American cosmologist and author wrote the book, “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space,”* and in it, he gave a different perspective of Earth, a perspective I wish all people would appreciate.

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That tiny speck suspended in a sunbeam is our home.  Photo taken by Voyager 1 in 1990. (NASA)

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.

On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner.

How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.

Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Let Them Have Drugs

During a lecture with my Filipino students on how to improve Quezon City:
Me: Kung magkaroon kayo ng posisyon sa gobyerno, anong gagawin niyo para maayos ang lungsod niyo?
Student1 (17 y/o): Babarilin ko yung mga drug addicts para mawala na sila. [sabay nag-muestra na parang may hawak na baril tapos biglang sabi ng “bang! bang! bang!”]
Me: Eh paano kung malaking bahagdan o lahat ng tao sa Quezon City naging addict, papatayin mo silang lahat?
Student 1: Opo! hahaha!
Me: Paano kung tignan mo rin yung ugat mismo ng problema? Bakit ba sila nagiging addict? Anong nagtulak sa kanila para gawin yun? Merong ugnay din ‘yan sa lipunan eh.
Student2 (12 y/o): Ma’am, yung iba kasi walang trabaho kaya gumagamit o nagbebenta na lang sila nun. Yung iba, kulang sa edukasyon [tungkol sa droga].

Discussion went on to rehabilitation facilites and how getting addicts detoxed could be another solution. I then briefly relayed to them the story of a documentary I saw several years ago on National Geographic Channel. It was about this facility called Insite located in Downtown Eastside, in Vancouver, Canada.

Insite is a place for (mostly marginalized) drug addicts where they can satisfy their addiction safely without getting entangled with the law. The facility is not like some dark alley or a run-down building where addicts can shoot up. Rather, the site looks like a decent office space with a nice reception area and well-lit cubicles for its patients. Instead of having a desktop computer, a document tray, or a telephone, however, each cubicle has a huge mirror, which lets the addict see their reflections. Except for the illicit drugs, everything that an addict needs is provided by Insite: needles, tourniquets, tubing, etc. It even has a medical staff to guide the addicts find their veins or prevent them from overdosing. The facility also offers counseling and detox treatments, which its administrators hope would lead their clients to the road of recovery. This public health facility has helped a lot of drug users get off the streets, lower cases of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, and in many cases, get the dependents get unhooked on illicit drugs themselves.

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photo taken from the Insite website

The students were shocked (as I was too when I first watched it) to hear about the existence of such a facility. They were not completely convinced about its effectiveness, but they did consider some of its advantages, and I guess that was a good start: people considering new (and non-violent), albeit controversial solutions to a social problem that affects a lot of countries all over the world.

Here in the Philippines, the biggest agenda of the current administration under Rodrigo Duterte is eliminating the drug menace, which has seen both the surrender of thousands of drug dependents and pushers, and the death of thousands as well, including some who are not in any way connected to the drug world. With the administration hell bent on winning its drug war, I wonder if lawmakers and the Filipino population too, would ever be open enough to give Canada’s radical solution an iota of consideration – not now though because this massive campaign against drugs garners so much public support – but perhaps in the future. Would it be viable to try out such a solution? Or would it only legitimize and even encourage drug use? What do you think?

Behind Malacañan’s Walls

 

There are quite a number of historical structures scattered in Manila.  Numerous churches, government and commercial buildings, plazas and monuments have been silent witnesses to the events of the past and continue to be such to those that shape the future of this capital city.  All of these sites have their own share of stories, mysteries, and even scandals, but none of them hold as much power as the one that houses the head of state – Malacañan Palace.

Malacañan Palace (or simply Malacañan) has not always been the official residence and workplace of Philippine presidents.  It started out as a private summerhouse in 1750 and was later on occupied by different Spanish and American governors.  It was only in 1935 during President Manuel L. Quezon’s time that Malacañan became the residence of presidents.  Some such as the country’s first female president, Corazon Aquino; Fidel Ramos; Joseph Estrada; Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III; and current President, Rodrigo Duterte, have opted to stay out of the Main Palace and occupied mansions and guest houses located within the Malacañan Complex instead.

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Kalayaan Hall

Malacañan Palace is not open to the public; however, a part of it is.  The Presidential Museum and Library located in Kalayaan Hall offers its visitors a peek not only into the building’s history but also of that of the nation’s itself.

I had been meaning to pay the Museum a visit for years now as a part of my quest to rediscover Manila.  Unfortunately, due to time constraints and priorities, the plan had always been pushed aside.  My sister said that I, together with my mother, had actually already been inside the main Palace when it was reopened to the public after the EDSA People Power Revolution.  Sadly, I have no memories of it because I was still too young.  This then gave me another reason to have a tour of this historical structure.

My sister and I arrived at the Malacañan Complex on a hot and quiet afternoon.  The place was not exactly what I had imagined it to be:  I had no idea that the Palace was inside a residential district.  All along, I thought it was in an exclusive compound and that it was heavily secured by guarded gates.  Well, it was secured all right as one cannot simply enter without being inspected by security personnel, but it felt like I was merely entering any other subdivision in the metro.  Inside the district, there was the San Miguel Church, some parks and markers (which are in need of some improvements and clean-up) and even some friendly neighborhood sari-sari stores.

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Old Waiting Room

 

When we got to Kalayaan Hall, only a handful of visitors were present.  They were mostly children accompanied by their guardians and a few other individuals as well.

While waiting for the tour to start, we were all asked to stay in the Old Waiting Room, the main reception area for the guests.  I was expecting that it was here that a brief presentation about the Palace’s evolution would take place as part of the tour’s introduction.  Unfortunately, the presentation of the story of the Palace’s beginnings never took place.  What did was the visitors’ (the group with the children) annoying selfie sessions, which would continue until the end of the tour.

Have a peek at some pieces of Malacañan’s past.

 

The Old Waiting Room

There are two of these – one is where the tour visitors are made to wait, and the other is where campaign materials of presidential and vice-presidential candidates are kept – from posters, shirts, flyers to buttons, baller IDs, and even candies.   A music player is present to play the famous and very catchy campaign jingle of Ramon Magsaysay, “Mambo Magsaysay,” which transports guests to the 1950s.   

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The Old Governor’s Office

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The furniture set used by Ferdinand Marcos when he declared Martial Law in 1972 is displayed here, as well as an antique TV, which shows the video of Marcos announcing the imposition of Martial Law, and the replica of PD 1081, among other things. 

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A replica of the pen used to sign the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in 2014

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The Osmena Cabinet Room

 

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Many of the chandeliers there are made of Czech crystal.  Cleaning a chandelier can take up to one and a half months!  It also should be supervised by the Presidential Security Group just to make sure nothing gets broken or stolen.  The Czech crystal chandeliers plus the hard wood heavily used for furniture, flooring, and ceiling certainly give Malacanan an elegant and luxurious feel.

 

 

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Quirino Council of State Room

 

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The Old Vice President’s Office

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The Main Hall, the Northeast amd Southeast Galleries

It served various purposes over the decades: as bedrooms, then into offices, and then as a function hall where dinners and lavish parties during the Marcos era were held.  Now, it houses shelves and shelves of books, busts, attires, and other memorabilia.  An area on the same floor has a dedicated section for Cory Aquino and for her son, now former President Noynoy.

 

 

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A blackboard containing a sketch of Camp Crame and EDSA.  Drawn by Fabian Ver, Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) during Marcos’ time, this shows the map where the protesters against the dictatorship of Marcos were gathered.  All it took was a go signal from Marcos and AFP probably would have obligingly bombed these areas.  

 

Every corner of Kalayaan Hall is replete with history, details I never learned from textbooks.  Being in the same room and halls where women and men of power once walked in left me with a strange mix of wonder, satisfaction, awe, and disgust.  And this came from visiting just one building in the Malacanang Complex.

Overall, the experience was a pleasant one.  It would have been better though if the tour guide had answered some of my questions relating to the Marcoses instead of evading them.  After all, I was there to learn more about history and his job was to enlighten the guests.  I understand his dodging my question about Duterte, but the previous one I think he should not have. I guess he was just being careful especially these two names were hot issues at that time.

What new stories would Malacañan weave this time for the newly elected Chief Executive?  What secrets would its walls keep?  History will reveal in time.

 

For inquiries and reservations, contact the Presidential Museum and Library through its official website.

 

Of Monsters and Men and Trolls

So, a week after election day, social media has (almost) gotten back its sanity, huh? This year’s election has definitely brought out the monster in many people: you’ve got supporters wishing for women to be gang raped, for families to be murdered, and for people’s brains to scatter on the sidewalk. And of course, there were also those who were so quick to insult and denigrate others (and then post Bible quotes later on!). And all these for what? To “defend” their candidates against those who do not share their political views! Social media has revealed much about the candidates and, un/fortunately, about friends, relatives, and acquaintances as well. I wonder how things will be in 2022.

Change Is Coming*

 

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Nothing is certain. The politician you are heavily accusing of corruption now could become the leader that could usher in PH’s golden age. The politician you staunchly support and go great lengths to defend could become the one who would rip the country apart and drag everything to a pool of mud. And that politician you’ve dismissed because you think would die soon might actually live much longer than what you had expected. We will never know, really! It’s curious how uncertainty can be so certain, no? But one thing is definite though: change is indeed coming regardless of who sits in Malacañang. We can only hope that that change is a good one.

 

*Note:  Although it is used by a Presidentiable as a slogan, the title of this blog entry is not in any way an endorsement of the said candidate.  

Imagine, Manila

“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” – Jonathan Swift

“I’ve been to the Philippines, but only in Palawan.  It was goorrgeeous!  You should go there!”  A foreigner I met once in one of my travels encouraged the other foreigners who were with us that afternoon.  He couldn’t stop praising the beauty of the island.  Being the only Filipina in the group, I naturally felt proud.  And then he said, “I actually went to Manila one time.  The traffic was insane!  It was chaos out there!  Kinda messy too.”    He didn’t elaborate further, and I was glad that he no longer did.  As someone who lives in Metro Manila, I know too well what he was talking about.

Congested traffic – what’s new?  Improvements to public transportation are being introduced such as more modern buses, but generally, the situation has remained the same.  In addition, we still have problems concerning garbage disposal, pollution, flooding, neglected sidewalks and bridges, informal settlers, the destruction of heritage buildings, just to name a few.

Everyone knows the plagues that ail Metro Manila, and yet the same problems occur every year just the same; it’s only the leaders who sit in the city halls who do change.  Lack of political will, the absence of cooperation between the leaders and the citizens, a corrupted system may all be the main culprits, but quite possibly too, the absence of a strong vision.  What do we really want our cities to look like?  To be like?

Often, many social projects are short-term, and are coterminous with the leader in charge.  When that politician is replaced and another is elected, a completely new set of projects are carried out, and the previous administration’s – even if its projects are actually effective – are no longer continued, which actually wastes a lot of time and resources.

Some projects are also not studied carefully first before executing them.  For instance, constructing numerous footbridges in one stretch of road only to remove all of them in the end because a new MRT line is soon going to be built can be considered neither efficient nor practical.

Government projects should be done with the citizens in mind and how these are going to affect the whole system for years to come; actions should not be based solely on convenience.  When it comes to providing infrastructure and social services, “YOLO” should not be the guiding principle of leaders.  Think long-term, please!

Recently, a video has gone viral on social media, and it invites people to envisage a new Manila, a better one.  Aptly titled, Redesign Manila, this video, according to its creators from Go Motions Productions, “aims to showcase and invite Filipinos to re-imagine and revive beautiful Manila.”

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While not all may see the Manila in the video as the best version of what the city could be, what is beautiful here is not the video itself, but the challenge that the production team has posed to the people who view it.   It dares people to think of a better situation, making others see that it is a possibility and that people should not simply accept the way things are at the moment.  There is a call to IMAGINE, to create a VISION, and that is what is important.  Albert Einstein could not have said it any better:

“Logic will get you from A to B.  Imagination will take you everywhere.”

Now, whether that imagination that the citizens and leaders of Metro Manila have conjured will remain a fantasy or not, is all up to us.

 

 

 

For more information on Redesign Manila, visit its Facebook page.
Other sites you might find interesting:
On pedestrian welfare: Walk Manila
On Heritage Conservation: Metamorphosis, Escolta, Heritage Conservation Society, Heritage Conservation Society Youth

On the Road to Progress

How to get to P. Guevarra St? I wondered after my friends and I had set a place where we could all meet and catch up on things. I knew it was somewhere in San Juan but didn’t know how to get myself from where I live to that place. As many other people of this day and age, the Internet was my go-to reference.

A map of Metro Manila popped up on the screen showing the path I should take to get to my destination. Accompanying the map was a written description: Take R-7, go straight to Yada-Yada Ave., turn right on Blah-Blah St., and so on and so forth. On the map, it looked fairly easy. I planned my trip: Take the MRT, get off at Santolan, and then just take a taxi to take me directly to the place. According to Google Maps, this almost 20km trip would more or less take me 45 minutes.

But Google Maps is not a Manileña. It is ignorant to the ills of the streets and public transportation system of the city. With the long queues that plague the MRT stations, and the insufferable traffic situation in every corner imaginable, the trip would take far longer than Google Maps had calculated. Taking the taxi, too, meant that I had to shell out a couple of hundred pesos even if the distance was only short considering how highly probable it was to be stuck in a gridlock.

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photo: creativemanila.com

Suddenly, I terribly missed something I got to experience in my one of my travels abroad – Germany’s excellent public transportation system.

I recently had the opportunity to go to Germany a while back, and I got to visit many remarkable places during my stay there.  It has many well-preserved historical buildings, museums, restaurants, entertainment centers, shops, and tourist destinations.  It’s also clean and organized.  Despite its many attractions, the things that appealed to me the most are the simple things, the basic features that a healthy city should have – beautiful parks, sidewalks, bike lanes, (functioning!) traffic lights, pedestrian lanes, garbage bins, and the brightest star of them all, a highly efficient mass transport system.

Being used to riding only jeeps, FX, and MRT, I must admit that initially, the country’s transport system confused me.   Although commuting in other countries wasn’t new to me, it had been a long time since I did some traveling abroad.   The confusion at one point even turned into fear when I knew that I had to go places all by myself  because 1) there was no one who could accompany me tour the city and 2) I wanted to challenge myself and try something I would not typically do even if it meant getting lost and/or getting lost in translation.

Germany has various modes of public transportation: U-bahn (subway), S-bahn (railway similar to MRT), trams, buses, the ICE (regional trains), and taxis, and all are integrated (except for the taxis).   One ticket will allow you to ride any (Tickets for the ICE are a little different, though) and they can be bought from vending machines in all the U-bahn and S-bahn stations, central bus and train stations, and even inside the trams and buses themselves.  Because vending machines are widely available, there’s no more need to queue to buy tickets.

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Time is also highly valued there: all modes of transportation have strict schedules to follow.   When a train is meant to arrive in 3 minutes, it really is going to arrive in three minutes.  In case it arrives earlier than the intended schedule, let’s say, a minute earlier, it won’t immediately go.  Instead, it will wait for that one minute to be up; that’s the time that it would start running.

Everything is meticulously planned, and everything is religiously carried out.  Street signs are clear, and there are maps and information services available.  Their public transport system is so convenient that even if you are not familiar with the place, you can easily find your way around.  In Berlin, where I spent majority of my stay, the company that runs the transport system BVG has a website and an app, which you can visit or download.  You can plot your journey using either of the two, so you would exactly know how to get to your destination down to the last minute.  If you’re old school or don’t have a smart phone like me, a handy map will do just fine.

Transportation in and the streets of Berlin are commuter-friendly that even persons with disabilities (PWDs) and the elderly will have no difficulty traveling at all.  Not a single overpass is in sight, but pedestrian lanes are everywhere.  Traffic lights are present in almost every corner, too.  Some buses also tilt, so that it can level with the sidewalk, allowing PWDs, the elderly, and people with huge luggage, strollers, bicycles, and dogs to enter and exit the vehicle hassle-free.

I cannot express how I loved commuting in Berlin – something I cannot say for Metro Manila, unfortunately.  Whenever I was out touring Berlin,  I kept on thinking “Hey, this can be done in QC” or “Why can’t we have this feature in Manila?” or “Why can’t the city government have the political will to clean up the sidewalks?  Why can’t the government construct sidewalks?!?”

Majority of the metro is sadly unsafe for commuters and pedestrians.  Buses and jeeps act as if they own the road, and private vehicles continue to swell in number, choking the roads (and no, making them wider is not the best solution!)

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Despite an on-going road repair and having only 1 lane functioning, cars in this area never got entangled with each other.  Many roads there are narrow, and yet there was never a time when I saw any one of them congested.  

If traffic is an indication of economic progress, then Metro Manila should be extremely prosperous by now.  However, that is not the case.  The city is not abundant in wealth but in countless of people constantly late for work and appointments, harassed and tired even before getting to their destinations; tons of exhaust gases that attack the lungs, and a great deal of wastage of – ironically – money.  Every day, people have to battle with this urban monster, which seems to worsen every year.  It has gotten so bad, in fact, that two months ago, many urbanites (including I) suffered several hours of horrendous gridlock, which has come to be known as “Carmageddon.”   Although heavy rain was partly to blame, it was mostly due to poor drainage system, absence of enforcers, and moreover, lack of discipline for some motorists and pedestrians alike.

Being stuck in terrible traffic is sadly becoming the norm in Metro Manila.  Road constructions and water pipe repairs that take forever to finish, jaywalkers, no proper PUV stops and stations, and poor railway maintenance are just some of the main causes of a commuter’s hellish everyday travel experience, which should NOT be.

While it is obvious that the government has not done its part in building proper infrastructures and enforcing the law, motorists and pedestrians are also to blame.  People do not know how to discipline themselves; road courtesy and consideration are brushed aside.  Motorcycles and jeeps use the sidewalks as an escape from the traffic jam.   When a person doesn’t have any parking space, she/he uses the street as her/his garage.  Drivers overtake and create their own counter flow!  Dios mio!

I remember someone telling me before that in the Netherlands, when trams arrive late even for a minute or two, people would immediately write to the authorities to express their dissatisfaction.  But here in Metro Manila, people have endured it for so long, and even when people are already crying out, complaints land on deaf ears.  Someone who learned about the Carmageddon in Manila while I was in Berlin asked me this:  Isn’t that a cause for a revolution already?  It should be!

Having a properly working and inclusive public transportation system is the lifeline of any place.  It is the vein from which the blood flows to the heart of the city and beyond.   The metro’s traffic problem is something that both the government and the people should resolve unless we really want to see the heart stop beating soon.

 

A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars.  It is where the rich use public transportation.

~ para­phrased from Enrique Peñalosa, for­mer Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia