Friday, February 20, 2009


She said her name is Monique. She’s 18 years old and is from Manolo Fortich in Bukidnon. She went to Cagayan de Oro and lived with an aunt who funded her college education. She wanted to be a nurse and enrolled in one of the city’s colleges while selling health care products in a shopping mall during her free time.

She met the man who became her boyfriend at the mall when she was 17 and he was 43. “We went out on dates for six months before I surrendered my virginity,” she said in Cebuano. For six months they only kissed and groped each other, she said. “The first time was very painful and there was blood.”

She fell in love and forgot about her studies. Her aunt found out about the relationship and literally kicked her out of the house. She lived with a friend and continued with the liaison with the man until she got tired of it and found another lover, a lesbian classmate. “We did not do it,” she said giggling.

A friend introduced her to a gay recruiter of a “promotions” company from Quezon City. The promoter brought her and at least 30 other girls to the city. She arrived in November in Metro Manila and stayed in an air-conditioned apartment unit where her manager fed her, taught her how to dance, dress and entertain men.

Her brown complexion must also change, she was told. “We were given medicine to take to make us white,” she said. She said the cost of the medicines – tablets, injectables, whitening lotions – was listed and charged to their account. They were not allowed to go out the house or to have contact to the outside world.

“I am brown, morena, but now I am like an Amerikana,” she said. “Even my armpits are already white because of all the medicines I was taking,” she said beaming. She said her mother may not even recognize her anymore.

She said she misses her mother and her five younger sisters. “I am the eldest. I just learned that I have a two-month old sister now,” she said. Her mother, who was pregnant when Monique left for Manila, has a small store in their village while her father is a carpenter working in Saudi Arabia.

Once in December she escaped from the house after a “friend” from Cebu came to Manila and brought her to the Mall of Asia, Greenbelt and Libis. “We ended having sex in a motel,” she said, adding that it was her first time after several months.

After three months in her managers’ apartment unit she was deemed ready to be sent to one of the famous videoke bars in the city. She was lent several pairs of underwear, shoes, sexy dresses and a make-up kit. “I don’t know how to paint my face and what to wear, so I was given a yaya,” she said.

Her small bag contains a flashlight, a lighter, her make-up kit, a fold of tissue paper, a sanitary napkin, a small bottle of alcohol, a small bottle of mouthwash, a pen and a small piece of paper. “We don’t carry condoms,” she said, adding that the establishment provides it when the girls entertain clients in a VIP room.

She earns at least a thousand pesos a night on lean days and an average of P20,000 when there are more customers. “I don’t ask for tips or tell the clients how much we charge for sex. They already know,” she said. She receives a minimum of P5,000 for sex and gets at least P1,000 for just talking with clients.

“I made use of my two years of college in my work,” she said laughing. She speaks English aside from Cebuano. It’s hard to learn Filipino, she said. She wants to read newspapers and makes it a point to watch news on television. “Most of our clients talk business and politics here. We must have something to say para dili morag tanga,” Monique said.

Is she not affected by the global economic crisis? She said her friends told her business was better in the past. “They could make P50,000 a night or even for every client,” she said. In the meantime, she said, she has to make do with an average P200,000 monthly income. “I am just new here, the other girls, who have regular clients, are doing better,” she said.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Death, dying and the endless crying

(For Lola Nanay)

I've been always fascinated with death and dying and the rituals, especially the crying, that come with it.

I keep an old photograph of family members standing (and posing) around the casket of an uncle. I was not supposed to be in the photo, but the town photographer forgot to ask me to move aside. So there I was (actually only my head, from neck up), on the right side of the frame, looking sideways straight at the camera, eyes wide, stunned by the electronic flash.

I keep another photograph (in sepia) of people posing outside our old church with an open casket where a dead man (supposedly my great, great grandfather) was lying as if he was sleeping (yes, it's a cliche, but he really looked like he was just having a siesta).

Back there in our old hometown, I've always wondered what the men who take the body of those who die do with it before putting it inside the casket. Some older cousins told me then that the men remove the blood and the intestines and replace it with cotton.

I've always refused to eat dinuguan during a wake.

I was in fourth or fifth grade when two of my brothers - Rhoel and Joel - died. I was there beside them when they had their last breath. My mother told me to kiss them goodbye. I did, and held their hands until they were cold. I did not cry.

I've always believe that my brothers did not leave me. Even until now, I continue to believe that they continue to be around. When the thought comes to mind, it's really embarrassing especially when one is in the middle of something intimate.

(A visit to the old hometown is never complete until I light a candle on my brothers' tomb.)

When I was a sacristan, I saw a number of people die. The priest would always ask me to bring the holy water and the crhism (the holy oil) when he administers the last rites, be it early in the morning, late afternoon, or in the middle of the night.

I also used to pass by the old morgue behind the hospital, on the foot of a hill, in the middle of the night when everything was dark and silent. I can still smell in my mind the aroma of formalin that wafts with the cold breeze as the church bells toll 8 p.m. while rush home from visiting a girlfriend, who later turned out to be a distant cousin.

During those days, I became an expert in tolling the bells when someone dies. For kids, the tolling goes like this: Ting (smallest bell), Tang (middle size), Dong. For adult males: Dong, Tang, Ting. For women: Tang, Ting, Dong.

As a "missionary-in-training" in the countryside, I had my share of baptizing children who were about to die of diarrhea, malaria, and the many diseases we failed to understand during that time. As a reporter later in my life, I witnessed death in so many forms: accidents, killings, suicides, wars, etc.

And I've always wondered what's in the mind of people who are left behind, those who cry out loud as if it's the end of the world, those who try to hold on their tears, those who just stand there in silence.

I have my own share of friends, comrades, relatives, family members who died. I've always wanted to shed a tear or two, but almost all the time I find it hard to cry. I understand the pain of losing someone, I understand the emptiness inside, the pain that starts somewhere in the throat that slowly dries, but I find it hard to cry.

Blessed are they who died ahead of us. At least they won't be here anymore to witness the suffering of those who lost their jobs, those who will lose their brains trying to find enough cash to pay the next bill, those who will keep on guessing what will happen next.

I have been always fascinated with death and dying and the rituals that come with it. I continue to decipher the source of this fascination as I undergo more rituals as another family member leaves for the unknown.

Now I know where the dead people's blood and entrails go, but I still don't eat dinuguan during wakes. I seldom eat during wakes.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Tourism in the time of kidnappings

I happened to pass by the old Intramuros in Manila late last month. There, on the walls of the old city, was a huge banner inviting people to an exhibit of culture and beauty of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Early this week, Ilocos Rep. Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos, urged the government to invest in "tourism development" as part of its “list of priorities” in line with the proposed P300 billion peso economic stimulus package.

On the same day Marcos delivered his speech, gunmen snatched two people in the province of Basilan, a place with pristine beaches and virgin forests, a place that could be ideal for tourism.

Spate of kidnappings

The kidnap victims are simple people trying to eke a living by working for a small organization that is engaged in "micro-finance" in the province.

The gunmen on a motorcycle took Leah Patris and Ahmad Ilang about 6 p.m. in the village of Upper Benengbengan in Sumisip town in Basilan this week.

Last week, gunmen also took a nine-year old boy and a midwife in Lamitan, also in Basilan. Earlier, a bakeshop owner and three teachers were taken in nearby Zamboanga City. They were also taken to Basilan.

At least more than a dozen people, including three workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross, are in the hands of bandits in the provinces of Sulu and Basilan.


I agree with Marcos when he said that government's stimulus package "is welcome and sensible...but it will only work if the plan is sound and the priorities are right.”

Marcos may be right when he proposed that "aggressive promotion and the development of the country’s tourism industry" can help the country weather the global financial crisis.

Before thinking of aggressive promotion and tourism, the government must, however, first address the problem of kidnappings in the south. It is not easy to talk about the beauty of Zamboanga's sunset, the sweetness of Sulu's durian and the idyllic beaches of Basilan as people cower in fear.