Field Notes N-12

Let us call this the BSL, and it is a code for this place beyond the hills but leads to other hills.

In the scheme of things, it is part of the big city in Central Philippines, another one of those metros that breed wealth and wretchedness.

The structure of wealth in these parts is a mirror image of the same structure of wealth we see in other places in this country.

The result, of course, is wretchedness of the same kind.

The poor who make it big—but not bigger than the big people—become the model poor, and they are exhibited as proofs of the wonders of Philippine democracy.

Let us make use of crude geography here: these hills are where the sun rises, and so they must be in the eastern portion.

Yonder, towards the west, is the big city—or the big cities—with their ports and their sea.

So the ports and the cities and the sea are in the west, while the hills and the poor are in the east.

Except for this monolith of a landmark in these parts, a hotel known for its world-class cuisine, amenities, and buffet dinners for those who can afford.

Those who do not have some hundreds for a single meal, they better get out. A habal-habal driver’s earnings for a day are not even sufficient to pay for just one meal. So much for disparity.

You get past this hotel, up into the hinterlands, up into forestlands before you hit several other landmarks for the rich are hovels sandwiched between hills. If you do not look hard enough, you will not see the squatters’ homes.

From the highway, these are hidden by homes that squatted first, according to the community story, and which induced others to seek a parcel of a land in those shoulders of hills that rolls into creeks and a deep crevice in between hills.

From today’s standards of steps, I calculate between 350-400 steps from its deepest part, the steps leading to the highway. An inexperienced step-climber cannot negotiate the steps in one try.

The cemented steps are a bit too far apart from each other. The steps are made for giants—or those runners that can negotiate one stride with your three strides in a quick dash. I think of the Oscar Pistorius here, yes, that Blade Runner of a guy before the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in his home.

The steps do not have the sophistication of the more natural 300-step Lourdes Grotto in Baguio City, nor the 3003-step Linabo Peak in Dipolog City.

The steps are a crude patchwork of cement and some stone, or sometimes just gravel and sand and cement put together to give access to people whose shanties have been built on the hillsides.

Even those who live there cannot navigate that steep incline. Stopping points to catch your breath are in between, not because there was one at all, but because one must not forget to live while living in these parts.

From the rows of houses up on the other hill just a stone’s throw away, an informant tells me a man in his 40s was murdered in May, during the elections.

“Looks like it was an election-related violence,” he tells me.

There is that matter-of-factliness in his voice, and it unnerves me so.

To be killed in this country during the election season when the heat of summer blends with the heat of the election contests of money and will and family honor is a normalized normal.

People simply die during the elections—or they are killed, murdered, salvaged.

The water system is crude as well, with plastic water pipes in blue or black hanging on trees, on the sides of shanties, on rooftops, and just exposed to the elements.

This is the crudest water system I have ever seen in a developed city that prides itself to be landmark of history, Christianity, business, and plain common sense.

No, there is no common sense in water pipes in blue or black hanging like clotheslines in a community so close to the seat of power—either from a capitol or from a mayor’s city hall.

“There will be elections in October,” Jovie Sales tells me. He is an informant I have hired to bring me around, and introduce me to people. A former army man he left the service because he says, he was just tired going around.

One night, on the second night of my hiring him to serve as my night watchman, he brought an unlicensed pistol, perhaps taken from some place in Danao.

“What are you going to do that for?” I accost him.

“For our protection,” he says. “I saw three males last night in their hoodies so no one would recognize them. I believe these are the people who stole the derby roosters.” 

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