MANILA, December 24, 2003 (STAR) PENMAN By Butch Dalisay - I found myself last Sunday afternoon reading the papers on a park bench in front of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Tagbilaran, Bohol, beneath a tree on which what must have been a thousand birds were roosting and, well, doing what birds do. I suppose I was lucky to emerge unscathed, sitting there like a willing target for yesterday’s bird seed, but I was unexpectedly enjoying the moment and the scenery: The ghostly white statue of Rizal, the gathering twilight and the flickering lamps, the clumps of men and boys huddled over games of chess, the young couples posing in front of distinctly pre-digicam, pre-MMS park photographers toting tank-like Pentaxes and Minoltas. From within the cathedral wafted the words of a Mass in a language I did not speak but could understand.

Across the street stood the Bohol Provincial Capitol, among the most modest but tastefully refurbished capitol buildings I’ve come across in these islands, in stark contrast to the architectural monstrosities I’ve seen elsewhere (among them the mock-Moorish provincial capitol in Puerto Princesa, Palawan). On its pediment was inscribed, in appropriately classic capitals: "Erected for the administration of a civil state devoted to well-being." A pang of sadness coursed through me, sensing that this was the best description of government I’d yet come across, and the perfect thought for everyone to ponder in light of next year’s elections.

The reverie was broken by sirens blaring from a corner of the plaza; the crowd stirred, trying to form a nucleus, a vanguard. As soon as the source of the noisemaking emerged, the masses surged forward, like fillings to a magnet. A motorcade of SUVs and pickups, escorted and heralded by Tagbilaran’s Finest, swept across my view. I could see pairs of what could only have been movie stars standing on each vehicle like wedding-cake couples, waving airily to the crowd – the guys in basketball uniforms, the girls in glittering gowns, player and muse; posters taped to the sides of the jeeps announced a celebrity basketball game scheduled to take place that same evening in a local gym. I could make out only Cesar Montano among the many faces, and – could it be, yes it could – Jinggoy Estrada, whom I last saw complaining about his poor health, presumably the undeserved result of prolonged and unjust detention. Ah, the rejuvenative wonders of fresh air, indeed! Jinggoy was beaming, looking fit enough to do murder on the basketball court.

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I was in Bohol for the first time myself, there to attend an annual debriefing of the University of the Philippines’ volunteer teachers in the Visayas and Mindanao – the cadres of what we call our Pahinungod (or, roughly, "offering") program. These Pahinungod volunteers are young, bright, and dedicated UP graduates who have chosen to forgo more attractive options in favor of teaching high school subjects in the farthest reaches of the archipelago – on remote islands, up mountain trails, in places where even the Department of Education has yet to gain a foothold. (The DepEd is a major sponsor and partner of the program, and Pahinungod volunteers often work in tandem with DepEd teachers.) Once, on a visit to Tawi-Tawi, UP Visayas’ indefatigable Pahinungod coordinator, Prof. Ben Gamala, nearly lost his life at sea when his boat lost its way for hours in stormy weather and finally found its bearings with 15 minutes of gas to spare.

That weekend, we gathered 25 volunteers from the Visayas-Mindanao area for a two-day meeting where they could share their experiences, vent their frustrations and accumulated tensions (with the help of UP psychologists on staff), and recharge their batteries.

Typical of the Pahinungod experience is the emergence of a high school in Kidawa, a barangay 38 kilometers away from its mother town of Laak in Compostela Valley in Mindanao, and a former battleground between the AFP and NPA. With the help of UP volunteers, the residents themselves built a schoolhouse, bayanihan-style, and soon accepted students as old as Pedring Curada, 27. To young volunteer Maidy and the 22 other Gurong Pahinungods before her in Kidawa, the sacrifice of teaching in a place where they have to make do without cell phones and even radios is well worth it. The school once so rudimentary they called it a "poultry house" has now produced 55 graduates, counts over 170 students in its current roster, and has spurred the community to seek other improvements like electricity and irrigation. I’ll tell you more about this inspiring program in forthcoming columns.

The venue for our conference was a discovery in itself – the Dream Island Resort on Pangangan Island, in the town of Calape about an hour’s drive on the national highway from downtown Tagbilaran. Most visitors to Bohol, I gathered, don’t venture farther than the swanky resorts on Panglao Island, much closer to the airport. But Pangangan is a serious option to consider for budget-conscious conventioneers. The place is clean and comfortable, the food good, and the scenery spectacular – including a long, mangrove-lined earthen causeway, built by the Japanese during the last war, that connects island to mainland. Call proprietor Sam Regual – a nice guy who’ll cheerfully pick you up at the airport and drive you back in his pick-up – at 0919-2181988 for details of how to get there.

Being in Bohol, we took the obligatory trip to the Chocolate Hills, approaching them from the less commonly viewed Sagbayan side. They were picturesque, of course, and well worth the visit. But we were eager to see the island’s other sights, and our party of 53 (yes, 53) people returned to our rickety and "aircon-free" but serviceable wooden bus for a jaunt past Baclayon (famous for its 1595 church, and for whale- and dolphin-watching) to Loboc.

In Loboc stands the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," erected during the Marcos years. It’s a modern steel and concrete bridge spanning the Loboc River, and it might have done wonders for the local economy except for one small but awfully obvious problem: it was never finished, because it would have run smack into the side of Loboc’s famous church, built in 1602 and one of its most famous landmarks, truly a national heritage site.

How any engineer or planner could actually have imagined gutting a 400-year-old church to let a bridge pass through defies reason, especially when it’s just as obvious that pushing the bridge just another 500 meters back would have neatly solved everything. It’s not like Loboc is so badly pressed for urban space – nor that the river would be unfordable anywhere else – that this bridge had to be put up just exactly where it is. There’s a fishy story there somewhere, and my prime suspect is politics, the only force mindless and crass enough to produce absurdities like this.

The world-renowned Loboc Children’s Choir was, ironically, performing in Manila when we were in their hometown, so we never got to hear these kids, but Loboc has other consolations for the tourist: The bug-eyed tarsiers (which sadly must be stressed to pieces from all the handling they get, and whose caught-in-the-headlights countenance, I’m convinced, is the cumulative effect of a thousand camera flashes), and an environmentally and psychologically gentler cruise on a roomy raft down the river, toward two small but pretty waterfalls, and back. It was this milky-green Loboc River, our guide informed us, whose deep water was being eyed by parched Cebu to augment its diminishing supply; resolute opposition spearheaded by NGOs put a stop to that idea.

Having been born on an island myself, I found much of Bohol very close to home; but as homes go, Bohol is a very well-kept one, as a province that still calls its pretty municipal halls presidencias should be. Never mind the odd bird or politico you might meet in the plaza.

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Penman readers who have been fol- lowing the saga of our virtual adoptee, kidney patient Dionisio Ulep, will be glad and relieved to know that he finally underwent a transplant last week, receiving a kidney from his daughter Mariel. Both have been doing well.

The transplant was performed by able doctors at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute, under the watchful eye of NKTI’s executive director, Dr. Enrique T. Ona. Seeing how badly the Uleps were suffering – kidney failure and the constant dialysis it requires really guts more than the patient – Dr. Ona took a personal interest in the case and made sure that, while observing standard procedures, Dionisio was cared for as well as possible, medically and bureaucratically. I have to thank Ona’s deputy as well, Dr. Aileen Riego-Javier, for helping the Uleps along through very difficult periods and processes. The Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office footed a good part of the bill for the operation, but literally dozens of donors – many of them anonymous, a good number of them Penman readers – have been contributing to Dionisio’s cause over the past year. (Dr. Ona is mounting a campaign for higher Philhealth contributions, to meet actual demand for medical services; we pay far more, he reminds us, for cell phone loads. I think I’ll support him in this cause.)

Dionisio, you’ll recall, was a chauffeur who would now be dead were it not for the superhuman love and courage of his wife Risa, an OFW who gave up her job in Hong Kong to care for her husband and their three children. Risa has braved all manner of humiliation and indifference, knocking on the doors of senators and other strangers for the money that would see her husband through another week. Her most recent encounter came when, like a telenovela, financial complications arose on the virtual eve of the operation and she had to beg an agency to release the money it had pledged, only to be screamed at by an office functionary; all she could do then was weep, but her persistence paid off, and the operation pushed through.

As any kidney transplant recipient (or relative of one) would know, Dionisio is far from being out of the woods; post-operative medication is just as crucial and can be as expensive as things were before the operation. At least he now has a real fighting chance, thanks to his daughter, his wife, and all of you fine people who have given the Uleps the best Christmas they’ve had in years. If you can still spare some cash, please make a direct deposit to the savings account of Florita Ulep, BPI Baclaran, account no. 0375-1338-22, and help us see this story through to a happy ending.

This way, at least we can be sure that something good will be coming out of 2004.

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Send e-mail to Butch Dalisay at penmanila@yahoo.com.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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