Archive for September, 2009

I Try to Focus on the Positive…But There Are Heartaches Too

Posted in Inner Thoughts with tags , , , on September 30, 2009 by Ruffy Biazon

A few days ago I wrote about how uplifted I was at the outpouring generosity of people who extended helping hands to the victims of typhoon Ondoy. I wrote about the heroism of those who gave even their own lives for others. My eyes moisten when I tell and re-tell the stories of generosity, bravery and sacrifice rising above the misery brought about by the floodwaters of Ondoy.

But it seems that even optimism sometimes gets defeated and discouragement prevails. My eyes still get moist but it’s not because of stories of victory over adversity but because of situations and incidents that drain away all positive energy in me.

Earlier, I wrote about how the best in people are brought out in times like these. I did not mention it before but I’m saying it now, situations like this also bring out the worst in people.

Like our enterprising countrymen who saw the opportunity to earn during this crisis by ferrying people aboard bancas and other improvised floating devices and charging a fee. My constituents tell me that they are charged Fifty Pesos (P 50 ) per head for that ferry service traveling a distance that they used to pay Fifteen Pesos (P 15) for. It’s sad that in this time of need, there are those who take advantage of the situation.

Another instance where the dark side of people come out is seen during the distribution of relief goods. There are those who get more than their share, often resorting to lying, stealing or bullying. People who line up more than once, or in instances where pre-distributed stubs are given out, insist that they just lost their stub and demand to be given relief or swipe the goods straight from the delivery trucks.

An incident happened in one of the evacuation centers here involving a well-known NGO. As the group of the NGO arrived to hand out relief goods, they were met by an eager throng of people all wanting to get the packs of relief goods. The staff of the NGO tried to impose order and told the people to line up to receive the goods. But the people refused to fall in line, and started pushing towards the NGO staff and the relief packs.

The crowd grew more impatient and rowdy and the situation became tense. The NGO staff decided to leave without distributing the goods.

In another incident, two evacuees got into an argument about the relief goods. Tempers grew hot and eventually they had a fight. After a couple of minutes, one walked away and the other had to be carried away straight to the hospital. He was stabbed. Over relief goods.

One would think that such behavior is due to the depressing situation the people are in in the evacuation centers. But even on the other side of the fence—those who give the relief—there are people who show their dark streaks. Workers who, instead of distributing stubs fairly, either choose only those close to them or worse, hoard it for themselves; or pilferages of donated goods by those entrusted with them…these are things that just leave you wondering how people can be so numb to the plight of others while unjustly helping themselves to the goods which were not meant for them.

But as one who has the official and moral responsibility to look after welfare of my constituents, my heartache is most deep when I go home at the end of day, eat a hot meal, take a shower and drop myself on my comfortable bed and then think of the hardship that thousands of my constituents are suffering that moment.

I try to console myself thinking that I was able to make their lives a little bearable, but any consolation immediately crumbles as I remember many more who have yet to receive any assistance.

My constituents are more than just statistics of evacuees to me. Neither are they just votes to go after come election time. Having spent almost nine years as their representative in Congress, I know many of them by name or recognize their faces. I have developed a relationship with my constituents through constant and regular interaction with them through my projects and dialogues. Many of them had me as their wedding sponsor, godfather to their child’s baptism, invited me to their birthday parties and family reunions.

Nowadays my cellphone beeps every few minutes as I receive messages pleading for the delivery of relief goods to my hungry, thirsty and tired constituents. My email and Facebook accounts are no different, with messages calling, crying for help.

It really is a depressing situation. I have tried to put up a brave front and try to focus on the positive. But one can only do so much to avoid giving in. The feeling is not far removed from a situation that we sometimes experience as parents. Imagine this—you have four children all of whom are hungry. But you can only afford to buy food for three. The agony of such a dilemma is the same as the agony now.

What makes it worse and more painful is that not all people know and understand the situation I and others like me are in. What most people only know is that we have the responsibility to respond and any shortcoming is unconscionable. Suspicions about politicians doing relief operations only for votes, accusations of government officials holding back on resources or being choosy on who to give relief to add to the heartache. But it’s part of the job, so all one can do is swallow and continue the work.

Focus on the good. That’s what I keep telling myself. Just focus on the good and do your job well. But once in a while, I think I’m entitled loosen the pressure valve. This job has its fulfilling moments. But it also has heartaches. It is an emotional rollercoaster ride, but thank God, it always ends with hope. Because I end the day with a prayer.


There’s a New Game in Town—the Blame Claim Game

Posted in Governance, Politics and Politicians with tags , , on September 29, 2009 by Ruffy Biazon

After a tragedy, calamity or monumental failure in government, the game usually played in the aftermath is something we already know—the Blame Game.

But in the aftermath of Ondoy, there’s a new game in town–the Blame Claim Game.

And just like all the previous “innovative” ideas that he presented in performing his job as Chairman of the MMDA, Bayani Fernando, Presidential aspirant, is introducing this new game.

He tries to assume responsibility of the Ondoy tragedy by asking people to blame him ( ). “Blame me, rather than blame God”, he said in Pilipino.

But I think it is ridiculous for Chairman Fernando to call attention to himself by claiming the blame for the disastrous flood brought about by Ondoy. This calamity brought about by Ondoy is much bigger than him and he does not enjoy singular responsibility for the any failure of government in the face of the typhoon.

Although it is true that his many years in the MMDA only resulted in the failure to address the perennial flood problem of Metro Manila.

BUt it is more ridiculous for him to make a pitch for his presidential campaign by saying that if there is no leadership with political will (using his campaign line), this will happen again and again. It is ridiculous because he already had his chance to use his much-publicized political will for so many years in the MMDA but he still failed. In fact, he’s saying now that he is to blame!

But more than just ridiculous but already insulting is his refusal to resign his post in spite of claiming the blame for the tragedy. He should be informed of what the Premier of Taiwan did in the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot. Because of public dissatisfaction of how the government bungled the response to Morakot, President Ma Ying-jeou along with a couple of cabinet ministers resigned. ( )

Now if Chairman wants to talk about political will, he should take a lesson first from the Taiwanese.

A Great Day–September 27, 2009

Posted in Inner Thoughts with tags , , on September 28, 2009 by Ruffy Biazon

It was a good day yesterday. In fact, I would say it was a great day!

Usually, I reserve my Sundays for my family, taking the time to play with them, have lunch or dinner, or go to the mall. But yesterday, inspite of being a Sunday, I left the house while they were still sleeping and when I got home ( which was actually Monday already), they are already in dreamland.

Eight out of the nine barnagays in my district were under water. People traveled the streets in bancas, making the scene similar to Venice, except that instead of gondolas, people were riding in fishing bancas. Around 1,900 families, or an estimate of 10,000 persons, were living in evacuation centers with little food and dismal sanitary conditions. More people were trapped in their homes, finding shelter on the roof instead of under.

But it was a great day. Why?

Well, it was great because in spite of the gloomy weather, disastrous conditions and me being torn from my usual routine with my family, it was a day that Filipinos showed their best qualities and virtues that made everyday people extraordinary heroes.

I refuse to acknowledge the sorrow and pain brought about by the loss of life and property during the storm. I refuse to give in to the anger at incompetence and neglect which led to delayed disaster response and failure to prepare. I do not want to highlight that which is depressing but rather encourage everyone with what is inspiring.

Yesterday was good because of the various stories of good Samaritans, people who extended their hands to help a fellow human being. Like those soldiers and CAFGU who gave up their lives in order for others to live. Or that video I saw in Youtube and Facebook, where a man jumped from a roof into swirling waters which had cars floating and bumping against each other in order to reach a woman in danger. Or the people who opened their homes to strangers who were stranded by the rising flood waters. There are so many stories during the attack of Ondoy that makes you proud to be a Filipino, proud to be human.

My own experience with these heroes compel me to praise them and give them honor.

Since my district was badly devastated and thousands of my constituents were suffering, my father and I immediately activated our relief operations and assembled relief packs for those in the evacuation centers. Using funds available to our offices, we purchased foodstuffs for distribution to the victims of the typhoon and floods.

Realizing that the people needed many more items other than food, and that our available resources were already depleted, I sent out a call for donations through my Facebook account and text messages to friends.

Admittedly, I wasn’t really expecting much, especially that other groups like the Red Cross and the NGOs of the big media networks were already receiving donations. Add to that the fact that people have low regard and trust for politicians, I was actually expecting to receive responses from friends.

But I was pleasantly surprised to find out that by lunch time that day, donations were coming in not just from friends, but from complete strangers. They said they simply heard the call for donations and felt they had to respond. Actually, it is the good nature of these people which led them to give.

I instructed my staff to give acknowledgment receipts to those donate, but they were puzzled why others did not even bother to wait for the receipts. Still, others even refused to identify themselves.

But I owe it to those people who went out of their comfort zones and gave for others. I will make sure that those who gave will be recognized, not just in the interest of giving them due recognition but also for transparency. After all, it is they who should be given credit. I was just a conduit.

In fact, even those who did not come to my office to donate something specific, as long as they are diligent taxpayers, they have already done their part because a majority of the funds we used to prepare relief goods were funds allocated to our office by the government. We are mere administrators of those funds.

As we went around the evacuation centers, my concern that we will run out of goods to deliver was eased. With each passing hour, more contributions came in. For a while, I was worried that our staff would be overwhelmed. My family members were already lending their hands. But that concern too, was allayed because volunteer workers started coming in.

People who were not even part of my district gave and came, simply because they wanted to be of help to their fellowman. People of such character are heroes in my book.

Am proud to have known these people. I am even prouder to serve them. It was a great day yesterday, September 27, 2009. No amount of destruction, death and deluge will take that away. In the coming days, while there is much work to be done, I will continue to be inspired by these good people. Heroes, really.

My Ho Chi Minh City List

Posted in Inner Thoughts, Travel with tags , , , on September 22, 2009 by Ruffy Biazon

10 Things that Makes Ho Chi Minh City Better than Metro Manila

1. Their pedestrian sidewalks are wide.

2. They have tree-lined streets.

3. They have well-maintained and landscaping in center islands.

4. They don’t have ridiculously colored “roadside furniture” (pink fences and pink toilets), as MMDA calls theirs.

5. There are trash bins at almost every corner.

6. They have many parks with lush greenery and tall trees scattered around the city.

7. They don’t have traffic enforcers but somehow the flow of vehicles is continuous.

8. They don’t have maniacal bus and jeepney drivers clogging their roadways.

9. Even with the millions of motorcycles on the road, there isn’t a single one with a modified muffler to make the motorcycle noisier.

10. Even with the millions of motorcycles on the road, the air is much more breathable than Metro Manila.

10 Things I Observed as a Pedestrian in ho Chi Minh City

1. Motorcycle riders in Ho Chi Minh City, young or old, man or woman, are skilled at avoiding pedestrians.
2. Pedestrian sidewalks serve as alternate routes in case of traffic congestion.
3. A motorcycle can be used to deliver furniture, big boxes, flower arrangements and even a huge glass panes. No need for delivery trucks.
4. A family of four can fit comfortably on a motorbike. And it is allowed by the law, as long as the children are below 7 years old.
5. Few people use the pedestrian sidewalks walking to their destination. Motorcycles are the main mode of mobility. Even on sidewalks.
6. Even construction workers have their own motorcycles to go to work.
7. There is valet parking at some establishments. The valets are skilled not only in driving but also Tetris..that’s how they park the motorcycles.
8. The traffic lights are just a suggestion.
9. If you want to teach your child about how blood cells flow in the body, let them observe the flow of motorcycle traffic in the streets of HCMC. It’s pretty much like that.
10. There are many sidewalk eateries. But they all use kiddie size tables and chairs.

My Pedestrian Experience in Ho Chi Minh City

Posted in Inner Thoughts, Travel with tags , , , on September 20, 2009 by Ruffy Biazon

It was a Sunday and my wife and I agreed that she could stay in bed longer while I go out for a photo safari in the streets of Ho Chi Minh.

I donned my most comfortable shoes, put a spare battery, memory cards, Vietnamese money in small denominations, cellphone and a small map in my multi-pocket cargo pants. I stepped out of the hotel around 7:00 AM, expecting to take photos of the empty streets.

But the moment I got out of the front driveway of the hotel, I realized that I was wrong. Early Sunday morning in Ho Chi Minh does not equate with empty streets. It was more like business as usual, meaning that the streets are still populated by the continuous flow of motorcycles. I guess taking a photo of an empty HCMC street is out of the question.

I walked towards the direction I plotted out in my map. Good thing I earned my orienteering badge when I was a Boy Scout. My first target was the Saigon Opera House which was just about a hundred meters away from our hotel. In our hotel room, there were a couple of old photographs of the Opera House taken several decades ago. I wanted to do some comparisons.

When I got to the building, there was a set up for what seemed to be a concert. Chairs were lined up like a theater in front of the main entrance, and a sound system set up with massive speakers was ready for the performance. There was no one else around except the sound technician, who apparently likes Kenny G. One of the jazz musician’s top hits in the 80’s was playing over and over again. The song filled the whole square, to the delight of no one in particular except the technician.

After spending several minutes and more than a dozen frames, I continued my walk. I passed what seemed to be a main avenue of the city with small parks in the center island. I came to a rotunda which I took a video of two days ago, amused at how the throngs of motorcycles weaved in and out of the rotunda in what seemed to be chaos, but at the same time an exercise of concerted riding skills of the riders.

blog_IMG_0007The rotunda is just a stone’s throw away from the People’s Committee Building, which I think is the City Hall. Beautiful architecture, European inspired. A statue of Ho Chi Minh stands in a park in front of the building, depicting the Vietnamese leader with a young child in his protective arms. Typical propaganda material.

blog_IMG_0033I took more than a few photos, including a self-portrait using my point and shoot held my extended arms. I had my bulky digital SLR for my more “artistic” shots while I used my digital point and shoot for my typical “tourist” shots. One more benefit with the point and shoot is that it has video capabilities.

My next destination was the Reunification Palace which was several blocks away. It was a pleasurable walk, however, because of the many sights and sounds I encountered along the way. As a photographer, it is always interesting to see the daily life of a foreign city, especially the areas outside the usual tourist routes. I took delight in watching Ho Chi Minh City life go by.

After several blocks and minutes, I heard loud music playing, the kind which I usually hear playing in Chinese variety shows on cable TV back home. I then notice that there was an increasing number of people on red shirts moving about. Being used to public gatherings, I sensed that there was something going on up ahead. Perhaps a political mass action? That would be an excellent photo subject. My pace became faster.

blog_IMG_0072Nearing a corner, I saw that a park was up ahead, one with big trees and lush greenery. More people in red. I then noticed that there was writing on their shirts. I strain to read it. I forget what was written as I do this write up, but when I read it, I guessed it to be some local bank.

blog_IMG_0062I arrived at the park where a stage was set up, and some children were performing a dance in front of about four hundred people in red shirts and more people who I presumed were regular park goers. I couldn’t make out what were written in the streamers and other posters but from what I saw onstage, this seemed to be some promotional event of an insurance company. I walked around in the park taking some photos before continuing with my itinerary.

blog_IMG_0074It turns out that the Reunification Palace was across the park. I walked to towards the building which was in the middle of a huge piece of land surrounded by tall fences. I could see the “palace” but to me, it didn’t look like a palace, or at least as what I expected it to be. Having seen the palaces in Bangkok, Thailand and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I was expecting the same. The Reunification Palace looked to me like a huge embassy. I took some pictures and didn’t bother to go in. I did notice, however that there were some military relics scattered around the grounds.

I walked on to my next destination, the War Remnants Museum. That was actually my main destination, having been keenly interested in the Vietnam War even when I was a kid. It was about four more blocks away. Again, it wasn’t a boring walk, since there were sights to see along the way.

After a about 10 minutes, I arrived at the museum. I stood at the corner outside the museum compound to rest and watch the intersection. Somehow, Ho Chi Minh intersections has become somewhat of entertaining for me. Watching people cross the street and the motorcycles dodge each other through the intersections amused me.

Then a guy sitting on his motorcycle (he wasn’t riding, just sitting there) said, “Hello!…Hello!….War Museum there!”, pointing to the building. I smiled at him. Thn he said, “You can cross now”. I looked left and right and saw motorcycles coming toward the intersection without seeming to slow down. “You can cross now”, he repeated.

Is he trying to amuse himself by luring me to cross the street and see me get run over by a motorcycle? Or is he genuinely trying to help me. Well, I remembered the advice of other people people who have survived the streets of HCMC. “Walk…and they will swerve around you…”

So I took the step of faith…got off the sidewalk and fixed my eyes on the opposite corner, walking in a steady stride. After a few seconds, I got to the other side…like Jesus walking on water.

blog_P1020413I entered the gate of the museum, paid the entrance and felt like a kid in a toy store as I walked among the war relics there…reminders of a war where a poor nation of farmers beat a super power of the world. Of course, I took photos left and right.

After walking around the displays outside the building, I entered the museum proper where there were more displays of weapons, bombs, ammunition, clothing and photos of the war.

blog_P1020410I entered a room where a sign was displayed beside the entrance: “The Scars of War”. In the simple display cases in the room, photographs of the ravages of war were displayed. Most sobering were those of the effects of the Americans’ use of Agent Orange, an example of chemical warfare.

The high rate of birth defects among the people of Vietnam which were exposed to Agent Orange was shocking. Most of all, the photos of Vietnamese with grotesque deformities was truly moving. The photos of the devastated forests, farms and landscape were compelling. One will understand why there is pain among Vietnamese when they remember the effects of America’s intrusion into their lives more than four decades ago.

Makes you think about America’s war on terror and their presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.

blog_P1020404I spent quite some time in the museum. My previous interest in the Vietnam War was now sobered by the perspective coming from the Vietnamese people. Yesterday I had seen how they were forced to go underground for their safety and protection, now I had seen how they had suffered during and after the war. Truly, this experience will be one of those which will be forever etched in my memory and serve as a lesson on man’s ability to be cruel and to be steadfast.

With more than just photos in my cameras to bring home with me, but more importantly lessons for my mind and soul, I began my walk back to the hotel.

I passed a different route, going through another park which was obviously a Sunday destination for many citizens of Ho Chi Minh City. I was headed for the Notre Dame Cathedral, located just after the park from the museum.

As I was going through the park, I noticed that more than a few times, groups of people, mostly young, sitting on the grass in the park, seemed to be looking at me as I passed by. I could sense that they were looking at me with interest, not a few times giggling as they looked at me.

I began to get conscious, thinking of the reason why. I could think of a few:

1. My fly must have been open. But no, I checked, it was closed.
2. They must be thinking how silly of me to carry two cameras, one hanging on my neck, the other in my hands.
3. They must be wondering how this Asian became so big. I did not see a single overweight Vietnamese man, while I am “American size”.
4. They might have been wondering why I was sweating it out walking instead of riding a motorcycle.
5. They might have wanted me to take their photo.

blog_P1020421I arrived at the cathedral. By this time, the sun was already shining high in the sky, so I kind of rushed myself in taking photos. Besides, I had to get back to the hotel to join my wife for lunch. After a few minutes, I continued my walk back to the hotel.

It was around 10:30 in the morning and I had been walking for more than three hours. I don’t know how far it was, but I’m pretty sure, it was enough to count as exercise. Along the way, I was able to take in Ho Chi Minh City more than what I could have if I had taken a cab to the places I went to.