Sunday, December 26, 2010

December Flowers

December Flower/Poinsettia
Its a good thing that the radio and television continuously always announce how many days left until Christmas. Because the weather during December here in the Philippines is just the same as it was in July and I'm always confused by the Christmas songs playing. Without really short days and cold weather it just doesn't seem quite right. 

I had never heard of Poinsettia, that striking showy plant native to Mexico that flowers this time of year, referred to as "December Flower" before. But Filipinos seem to only know it by this name. It's everywhere around here, growing out of doors as I've also never seen before. But then, here in the tropics in December, plenty of other flowers bloom as well!
Poinsettia 8ft. Tall

White & Red Poinsettia
Poinsettia 20ft. Tall
December brings dozens of other flowers into bloom as well, and here's just a small representation (all photos taken during this month of December)...

Unknown Flower
Orange Bouganvillia
White and Red Crown of Thorns
Unknown Swamp Flower
Yucca-Type Plant Blooming
Yellow Canna
Palm Seed Pods
Okay, this last one isn't a flower in bloom but I came across it and couldn't resist snapping it and adding it here since it's quite colorful and interesting. And for a finale, another photo without a December flower, but kids flying their kite upon the cement slab of the solar corn dryer in front of the house, complete with a layer of corn being dried.
Flying the new kite on the solar dryer

Monday, November 1, 2010

Don't Do This At Home

I once went to the hardware store to buy some paint thinner and a pack of cigarettes. I took a 1 gallon glass jug to be filled up with the thinner from a big drum. The cigarettes were for my mom. Yeah, it was a few years ago now, 1958. I was nine years old and this happened just an hour’s drive from San Francisco, California. The world is a much different place now than it was on that day, and I doubt that anyone now living in the US and reading this is able to witness a child buying cigarettes or a flammable liquid in a glass container today. But where I live now, it’s quite common to see a child buying cigarettes or a bottle of rum for a parent, or a liter of gasoline in a glass Pepsi bottle. These things may even be legally prohibited here in the Philippines, but so is having more than 2 people riding on a motorcycle, yet I observe any of these events everyday. 

You have to be on your toes a little bit around here, aware of your surroundings and paying attention to how things work. It’s best not to just sleepwalk through life, in other words. But perhaps that’s just me; I like life to have a little edge to it.
Less than a century ago, there were far fewer laws and regulations in everyone’s lives. These are all meant to make us safer and more comfortable. But as life gets cushier, so do our brains, I think. And come to think of it, a far greater share of the world’s population survive without the aid of legal protective cocoons than what people have become so accustomed to in the Western world.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

History Snippet

The other day I was chatting with a US reader who is a few decades younger than me, and I mentioned something about “Ninoy Aquino, a national hero of the Philippines.
“Oh, you mean that boxer guy?” was the response.
That would be seven-division world champion boxer MANNY PACQUIAO. So, no, not exactly.Manny is a famous sports figure and is known as the boxing pride of the Philippines, but he's not quite of Nelson Mandela proportions.

“Wonderkid” was the moniker that Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. acquired as a Provincial Governor at the age of 29 (while at the same time becoming Secretary General of his party). He’d already been elected as a Municipal Mayor at 22 (a municipality is comparable to a County). A brilliant, gifted politician and charismatic speaker, he went on to become the nation’s youngest ever Senator at 34, in 1967.

Ninoy Aquino on the Stump
Descended from a line of leaders dedicated to Philippine independence, “Ninoy” Aquino fought an unending battle for political reform in the name of the country and people he so fiercely loved…. Aquino maintained that non-violent protest was crucial to sustaining a legitimate democratic movement. His legacy is the “indomitable spirit” and the enduring belief that our “readiness to suffer will light the torch of freedom which can never be put out.”

Marcos at the Height of His Self-Aggrandizing

Ninoy’s senate career began during Ferdinand Marcos’ first term as President, and the two men were pitted against each other from the start. Aquino bedeviled the Marcos regime at every turn with his rapier-like tongue. Marcos declared martial law and suspended habeas corpus in 1971 in his quest to secure leadership for himself; thousands of citizens were rounded up as was Aquino. Ninoy was falsely charged with murder, illegal possession of firearms and sedition and held for 7 years and 7 months. As a private citizen, Aquino protested (even by a 40 day hunger strike) being under trial by a Marcos-appointed military tribunal but was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death by firing squad. In 1980 he suffered 2 heart attacks from a blocked artery, but refused treatment by Philippine doctors for fear of Marcos’ duplicity and controls, preferring to stay in his cell and face death there. The wife of Ferdinand, Imelda, made an unannounced visit to Ninoy’s room with an offer to be flown to the US for medical attention, which he accepted. Thus began a 3 year exile in the US during which he accepted a Fellowship at Harvard. Eventually, his desire to serve his people led him to return to his homeland, no matter what the personal outcome. When he alighted from his plane in Manila in 1983, he took no more than 10 steps on the tarmac before he was shot dead.
Aquino's wife, Corazon, also became a worthy national heroine. Cory has been called everything from “Woman of the Year” (Time Magazine, 1968) to one of the 20 Most Influential Asians of the 20th century (Time Magazine, 1999), The People’s Queen and the Saint of Democracy in the Philippines. When her husband Ninoy was assassinated, she had previously always been a self-proclaimed "plain housewife" and mother, quietly in the background, acquiring no political experience. After his death, the 50 year-old widow was swept up by circumstances, becoming the reluctant leader of the opposition against the now 20 year-long authoritarian rule of the Marcos regime. In the face of escalating public discontent and under pressure from foreign allies (including the US which had previously supported him), Marcos called a snap presidential election for 1986 to try and legitimize his position. The opposition united behind Corazon and she right away proved to be a skilled campaigner and inspiring orator.
The Marcos-controlled Philippine Parliament (a Marcos invention) claimed that he won this election, but Cory's supporters staged massive protests and Marcos was forced to flee the country, accepting asylum in Hawaii.  

Benigno “Noynoy”Aquino III, the 3rd of Ninoy and Cory Aquino's 5 children, was elected this year as the 15th President of the Philippines. It’s been said that his previous stints as Congressman and Senator for nearly 12 years were for the most part un-remarkable. He’s rather soft-spoken, a bachelor and non-drinker. Not your typical national hero profile. He won election because of widespread deep dissatisfaction over his predecessor and Philippine economics in general, but mostly because his mother, Corazon, passed away late last year and brought back again the country’s sentiments toward the Aquino legacy. 

Kris Aquino, born 1971 and the youngest Aquino child, seems like she’s in 1/3 of all television commercials, 1/3 of all Philippines-based TV shows (talk shows like Elen Degeneres’, game shows as in Wheel of Fortune, Deal or No Deal and a couple of entertainment news shows) plus she has over 20 film roles to her name as well as numerous awards. She’s very popular, outspoken and has always been a lightening-rod personality. She obviously was also inspired to achieve popularity, but as of yet not in the same vein of public service as her parents.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


At 3 pm the skies finally filled up and a few drops of rain began to fall. Earlier the day had been calm and warm and I'd staked out another 90 hills for planting new banana suckers in the coming days. 3 is the usual quitting time for the field laborers, so they were going home now, without interruption to their day of field-prep from the rains either. This is the typical pattern for the wet season, nice days, cloud up and rain in the afternoon for awhile with hardly any wind.

But not so for Luzon Island up to the North, for this is typhoon season for them. As usual, typhoons will come onshore from the open waters of the Philippine Sea, then slam into that island while down here on Mindanao we hardly notice a thing; typhoons have never been known to visit this end of the Philippine Archipeligo. Super Typhoon Megi went through Northern Luzon over the past few days, killing ten and leaving untold numbers homeless.

CBS News

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Off and on I've been following the news about the latest Muslim separatist issues as best as I can; it’s a topic on the TV news nearly every night, which of course is in Tagalog. I’ve been struggling to learn the local language of Bisaya and ignore what’s said on the TV news, since it’s from Manila where they only know the “National” language of Tagalog or English. It’s always a bit bizarre when the news broadcast from Manila has an interview with someone from this part of their nation, the island of Mindanao, and an interpreter has to be provided.
  All of the latest problems are always on the island of Mindanao, where I am, which is about the size of Indiana and shaped something like an outlandish prehistoric animal; a lot can happen out to the West and South where the long head and neck are compared to the main body/central highlands where I am. There is a sizeable Muslim population in the city nearest to me, Cagayan de Oro, but unrest is never heard of anywhere here in “Northern Mindanao.

The next large city to the West, Iligan, however, is where stories of international attention were just a couple of years ago. For over ten years there’s been a concerted effort in some of that “head, neck and breast” region for the Muslim population to have at least some autonomy, where their much higher density, history and culture are very entrenched. Right after I moved here, well known TV news reporter Ces Drilon from Manila went into that Muslim region to get some background on a story she was doing and was promptly kidnapped by “members of the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group.” In 2001 a missionary American couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham, were kidnapped and held for about a year in the same region by the same group. In that incident, the government finally stormed in for a precision extraction; the husband, another hostage and many other military personnel were killed during the firefight that ensued. Drilon was released unharmed after about a week; at first there were denials about any ransom having been paid but there was considerable scandal when it was later discovered that there had been a large payment to the captors. Since I’ve been here, in Iligan and another area further to the south, renegade military elements of the Moro Islamic separatist groups have been on killing, bus-burning and hostage-taking sprees. Iligan is where all of the gasoline tanker ships with fuel for the northern part of the island dock and discharge their shipments to be distributed by truck to the rest of this region, including our area. Because of the lockdown in Iligan, trying to capture the renegade dudes, our one local gas station ran out of gasoline and couldn’t get another fill for many days.

Edna has always told me that this part of the island has forever been peaceful and safe, even though there is all this unrest which seems a small distance away. Here, what I might think of as a small distance can take days to actually travel, the roads and geography being what it is. The National Highway is often cut down to one-lane by apartment refrigerator sized holes. Some holes have been present and growing since the first time I visited. What I’ve discovered about how everyone conceives of “peaceful and safe” isn’t necessarily the same thing as I’m accustomed to thinking of. In the province that we’re in, very rarely have I seen a police officer, and I have never observed any military personnel.
There are the ubiquitous uniformed private security guards for every commercial establishment of any consequence, but as imposing as these might at first seem (since they’ll often have heavy guns and a belt full of ammo) they turn out to be about as harmless and mellow as a Wal-Mart greeter, anxious to be helpful and have something to break up the monotony of their endless days without any real criminals to subdue. 

I have heard quite a few people tell Edna not to ever let me go anywhere that she doesn’t also accompany me, as if the presence of this five foot two inch female makes all the real rebel kidnappers think twice about grabbing me. Much of her family’s farm acreage that she manages, as well as her own share, are up the road two kilometers from where we live; like over a mile from here. So I’m not supposed to work there by myself, and I’m certainly not allowed to ever walk there by myself! With only one vehicle, we have yet to work out how I can get in enough hours at the fields to really make a difference. All in all, it’s not what I would consider “safe and peaceful” as I know it from my former life in the US, but on an abstract, existential level, this is also the most peaceful life I’ve ever had. It’s as if all of the local people now know that an Amerikano is in their midst, and this is so rare that surely those terrible and lawless rebels, who of course look like all the rest of the population, must also know this and are certain to be lurking in the shadows now to kidnap such a valuable prize. 
Camp Phillips is the pleasant and perhaps most Westernized community in the whole Philippines. It’s one of the many “Camps” hereabouts, a company town really, owned and run by Del Monte Philippines since about 1935, when expansion of the American fruit canning corporation decided this area of Central Mindanao was ideal for their pineapple plantation. Camp Phillips was designed as their agricultural center of what has become a 720 square mile patchwork of pineapple fields. The usual sprawl and squalidness of most towns and villages here is missing. Wide tree-lined streets and banks of bright lights on the lush soccer field with its well-painted goal posts immediately mark this place as something very unusual for this poor “developing world” country. Shortly after I moved here we got news that the private security patrol guards of Del Monte, who’re the closest thing to a police force around here, questioned two men who were seen lurking around the plaza. Since in this small community where nearly everyone knows everyone else, two unknown guys right away seem suspicious, so they were spotted and apprehended. They admitted to being “deep penetration operatives” of some Moro Liberation group, and after their questioning here they were whisked away to the central municipal jail facilities some kilometers away. No further hard news seems to be available, since there wasn’t anything really crazy to draw the attention of the news media. The reaction of the government was to send a large bus marked “Philippine National Police” to Camp Philips and park it in the main square for a week. Each day, as it was parked in the same exact spot, it collected more and more drawings in the inviting dusty side panels from passersby. So, in no time at all it was obvious that this was only a “show” of police presence, as good as it gets here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Aren't We Farming Yet?

We planted coffee before we knew what we were really doing. It fit most of the criteria we had for a crop we wanted to focus on:
Long-term orchard type crop
Not too intensive to care for
Plants and land-preps for them relatively inexpensive
 A few other crops that are grown around here may have very good returns but also demand huge labor costs and other expensive inputs (fertilizers & pesticides) in a short period of just a 3 or 4 months.
 Actually those first 50 coffee plants were free volunteers that we got from a neighbor. As a newcomer to the tropics, these seemed like an exciting, exotic crop to me, which made them just a little bit more alluring to get involved with. Later on I discovered the local wholesale value for the finished, un-roasted beans, plus the amount of post-harvest work it takes to get them to that point, and the attraction began to fade. Plus, coffee plants take 3 years to begin to bear reasonable sized crops; they’re still far from fully mature. Marketing directly to coffee consumers in the U.S. rather than one of the corporate buyers here, like Nestle, is another business altogether, involving a great deal more volume than we’d have access to for a long time. Something on the order of shipping container loads of the stuff. So, our timid little planting of young coffee seedlings on some of our most marginal slope land hasn’t ever developed beyond that point; after 2 years I’m still waiting to see if we’ll get more than what’s needed for our own consumption.
What did happen soon after this was that we heard about a local grower of a commercially valuable type of banana who was doing well at inter-island export with his crops. We went right away to visit him. We told him we’d already ordered 50 young banana plants and wanted to get some more information from him on growing them if he was agreeable. After he learned that Edna manages her family’s 8 hectares (20 acres) now under cultivation, he turned serious and challenged us to instead, at the least, place a minimum order for 2000 seedlings, enough for one hectare (2.5 acres). Otherwise, he said, we were just playing around at growing these when we ought to be very serious about such a rewarding crop. And, he said, we wouldn’t have fun growing just 50; with the ante up to 2000, things are a good deal more fun. This was actually the plan he himself had followed, starting with a 1.5 hectare planting and then, 14 months later when they matured and gave their first crop, he used the considerable proceeds to expand out right away to fill the 8 additional hectares where we visited him. Now, 3 years after starting his plan, it was very obvious that he was doing quite well, and in the process of yet another, larger expansion at a different location.
So, we went home, feeling both giddy in our heads and sort of sick in our bellies, knowing this was an incredible financial challenge for us to consider. But we also knew that any other plan was not significantly moving us forward financially and that failing to make some sort of drastic change to the management of the farm from its present cropping, which is primarily field corn, was actually going backwards, slowing but surely sinking into a desperate mire of further poverty. 

Making money from growing field corn is the essence of the term oxymoron. The fertilizer companies, the seed companies, the corn buyers, and the banks that often finance all of this activity, they all make money. But the farmers that I observe around here usually operate at a net loss when it comes to this crop. And this is exactly the same scenario for farmers in the U.S. In fact, most of the very same multi-national corporations that American farmers do business with are here in the Philippines as well as most other South-East Asian countries for the same profitable game. Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow, etc. all have offices and sales reps throughout the area. It’s sort of like they know a great way to make easy bucks season after season, so they just have to duplicate their operations wherever farmers are still out in the sun and soil struggling to make a living.