Monday, December 7, 2015

Bohol Climate Walk: 100 Kilometers and Beyond

At Plaza Rizal after reading our call, before hitting the road--before any injuries

At around 2AM on Saturday, November 28th, 2015, I crawled into my sleeping bag, pulled the mosquito net over my head, closed my eyes and lulled myself to sleep with images of a bright morning and an energetic me, all while chanting the mantra “Goodness, please take this pain away” and unknowingly muttering “mama” every five seconds or so.

Earlier that day, 11 of us embarked on a 100-kilometer walk from Tagbilaran to Anda to show solidarity with the People’s Pilgrimage from Rome to Paris, helping raise awareness on efforts to uphold global climate justice. We were joined by two pilgrims along the way and lost one who had to attend to fatherly duties. About 20 kilometers, over 7 hours and a litany of prayers and expletives later, 12 of us made it to a hut in a mangrove forest in Loay, Bohol, the first of two evening stops for the Bohol Climate Walk.

I made the commitment to write about this experience but I’ve ended up postponing it over and over again because I’m stumped about where to begin. I don’t want to turn this into a long blow-by-blow about what happened from Friday through Monday as that’s just not how I write. This morning, though, as I was about to take my thought-filled shower, seconds after getting up from bed, I was greeted by a throbbing feeling in my calf. It was an electric sort of pain that felt so damn fresh—just as it felt when I woke up in Anda last Monday, merely hours after completing the walk. It was a lightbulb moment that made me decide I’m going to start by writing about pain.

This didn’t only happen today. I had a similar episode yesterday and all the mornings since and during the walk, but today it was exceptionally strong. I guess it’s because I went back to Anda yesterday to go swimming—remedying the frustration I had from last Monday when we had to leave too early and I only spent less than ten minutes in the water. Nevertheless, this series of daily pangs has, on more than one occasion, led me to worry that this might be permanent. A friend and fellow climate walker from Negros Island, April, has pains from badly sprained and wounded feet. She Couchsurfed in my home for a few days, and nearly every morning since returning to the city, she said something like, “What if this pain never goes away?” I thought, “Perhaps this is the universe’s way of reminding us that the work towards achieving global climate justice is far from over.” You know how they say it’s an honor when a friend shares their pain with you and how we should consider ourselves lucky for the ability to empathize? Is this pain a sign that the Earth is sharing her pain with me? Should I feel honored about waking up each morning knowing I’ll be walking everywhere with this perpetual cramp-like feeling because I’m doing the Earth some sort of favor? Well, that sounds rather pompous, doesn’t it?

Single file moving out of Dimiao, full from lunch

A few weeks ago, while the walk was still being organized and I was whining to myself about how I hadn’t taken measures to make myself physically fit for it, I remembered something I read several years ago entitled “Steps Toward Inner Peace.”  It was a transcript of a conversation between a Los Angeles-based radio show and an elderly woman called Peace Pilgrim, who abandoned all her earthly belongings, changed her name, and walked across the United States of America for 28 years to call attention to the need for peace and global reconciliation. She began walking at the age of 45. “Surely,” I thought, “If she walked over 40,000 kilometers for 28 years, I could manage a meager hundred over three days.” While I couldn’t commit my whole life to walking as Peace Pilgrim did, perhaps making a bit of noise with 18 other walkers was a decent attempt at drawing attention to the concerns we all have for our common home. It’s also a way to show the world that a few people are capable of emerging from their chairs and doing something beyond sharing and liking—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Over the course of three days, water, mefenamic acid, stick-on pain relievers (Salonpas), word games, and expletives became our best friends. You see, if you walk under the scorching sun with a ground temperature of about 30 Degrees Celsius for days on end, while carrying a huge backpack, it doesn’t matter how passionate you are about a cause, there will be profanity—in huge bulks at a time—especially when you feel like you’ve been walking 30 kilometers and the next yellow marker says it’s only been 17. Throw in some existential questions here and there, and it’s a proper party. On our second day of walking, from our lunch stop in Dimiao to our second evening stop in Garcia Hernandez, while I was quietly chanting “Forces of the Earth, help me,” I heard someone ask “Why are we really here?” To which someone promptly responded, “For climate justice.” She retorted, “No, I mean why are we really alive?” An eerie silence followed, paving the way for some deep contemplation. That wasn’t the only question thrown around. There were others like, “Who am I doing all I’m doing for?” and “What else is there to life but pain and suffering?”

By the third day, the last and longest stretch in the entire walk, a few of us had gotten bored with taking our word games seriously that we found solace in mocking them. Any prudish sensitivities on day one had been completely destroyed by then and every expletive we could think of was blurted out. This wonderfully proved, at least for me and the small bunch of people I walked with on the first half of day three, that the research by Keele University on the hypoalgesic effect of swearing is true beyond reasonable doubt. I can’t count the number of times I heard people say “F*ck climate change!” And I agree with it. Not the climate justice movement, of course, but the things that are causing climate change to happen and its subsequent effects. What sort of human being appreciates global hunger, mass extinction of species, and frequent category 5 tropical cyclones?

I’m sure none of us could have made it through that long and painful walk without holding on to anything dear or feeling connected to something bigger than ourselves. For all of us, it was the need to raise awareness that our common home—our only home—is being threatened and we need to protect it. And yet, for some of us who needed an extra push or a spike to our water, the thought of walking in solidarity with refugees helped a great deal. One walker named Dexter helped us visualize, while we were in an almost pitch-black road stretch with no houses or street lights, the plight of the people fleeing Syria in search of a new home, towing babies and belongings crossing countries and encountering unnecessary hostility along the way. How utterly convenient were our circumstances compared to theirs? At least we had a choice. We could have said “no more” at any time. We could have just flagged a yellow bus and headed back to the city with nothing but a mildly bruised ego. What's that compared to the imminent death refugees would face if they were to cut their stride midway? I felt I owed it to myself to allow my body to taste a tiny bit of what they continue to go through to this day—the Syrians, Iraquis, Rohingya, Eritreans and others. They leave their homes to look for other places on Earth that might be more welcoming. And at least today there are still real patches of green and oases here and there. Let us not await the day that these things will be nothing but metaphors and memories. Let us not await the day the Earth will cease to welcome us.

Buko break by the Loay-Lila border

Hitting the white sands of Anda’s Quinale Beach at 1:22AM, the eight of us who walked the last stretch were high as kites from the natural painkillers our bodies had released for us. My legs were so badly beaten that they were almost completely numb. I knew my calves were forty steps away from bursting into bloody bits of tenderized lean muscle but I somehow felt fine. After the obligatory fits of screaming and swearing, we officially ended the 3-day walk with a small interfaith circle where we held each other’s hands and savored a moment of silence to celebrate our feat and to hold our cause in our thoughts. While there were sighs of relief that we had finally finished our self-imposed ordeal, I felt that there was a collective acknowledgement that this was not the end. The real climate walk had only just begun.

As I write this, the pain continues to throb. Since I sat down to hammer on my keyboard, I have stood up thrice to stretch my legs and keep them from becoming difficult to walk with. Nobody was spared. Some have sprains; some have cuts; some have blistered feet; and some even have chafed bikini lines. People ask, “was it worth it?” Of course it was! And having to live several more days with this pain as a reminder of what I did is a reward compared to what I would experience if I continue to remain blind to Earth’s plight. I know (and hope) this pain will go away sooner or later but our work isn’t over until the justice we seek is achieved—until humanity comes to terms with the fact that we don’t have another Earth and we are doing things that are causing it to kill us.

I had a conversation with April long before the Bohol Climate Walk was cooked up and we both agreed that the Earth could kick humanity out if it wants to. Moreover, it will always find a way to heal itself no matter how irreparably damaged and barren it may look like. We don’t say we must take care of the Earth so baobab trees can live through the next three millennia in their towering majesty or so that Mt. Fuji will remain pretty. We say we need to take care of the Earth because we want it to be livable for future generations of humans to come. We're doing this for us. It is we who need saving because our survival as a species is at stake in all this.

By getting hurt during the walk, I was reminded of where the pain would end up if humanity continues to allow irresponsible capitalism and greed to reign. When the body gets infected by a virus, its immune system does things to deactivate or eliminate it. Right now we are collectively behaving like a virus and our planet is trying to cure itself by killing us. And, make no mistake about it: if we don't change for the better, we will perish. But it's not too late. We can still make a full U-turn and start contributing to an alternative solution that doesn't involve the extinction of the Homo sapiens.

Let us not wait for another Haiyan or Ebola pandemic. The time to act is now. Make some noise. Lobby your legislative body to adopt ethical and environment-friendly measures. Say no to coal and nuclear, and say yes only to renewable energy sources. Refuse single-use plastics in favor of reusable ones. Put that candy wrapper in your pocket. Big or small, each voice and each action taken contributes to the global effort. One day, your great, great, great granddaughter will celebrate her seventh birthday in a rich meadow with fresh air and butterflies dancing in the breeze. She will have a smile on her face, free from fear and hate. Such a wonderful thought, right? It can only happen if we stand up now to restore justice for the Earth and all living beings.  L

Thanks galore:  To the Bohol Outdoor Adventure Team (BOAT) for the planning, prep, and walk support. To Bohol Goodwill Volunteers, Inc. for some of the meals. To Mr. Marjune Placencia and Ms. Beryl Lupot for helping us cope with our injuries. To Mr. James Mahinay and family for arranging our dinner and stay in Loay. To Mayor Rina Salazar for the rescue in Lila. To Mr. Joel Dahiroc and Mrs. Cherry Dahiroc for opening your doors to us in Dimiao and for the awesome lunch. To Dr. Edna Villaruel and Mrs. Aleth Jeanjaquet for welcoming us, feeding us with a wonderful dinner, and giving us cozy beds to rest on before our final stretch—also to Mr. Richard “Yahman” Jeanjaquet for arranging our stay and meal at such short notice. To Dr. Joanne Flores and Ms. Rain Calimbayan for the refreshments. To Mr. Robin Gurney of Coco Loco Café in Anda for the wonderful breakfast after our walk. To Ms. Kim Lim-Adams of Dapdap Beach for welcoming us in Anda and cheering on us throughout the walk. To Ms. Jhacky Curambao for the beautiful little post-walk tokens. To everyone who supported us.

The walk finishers shortly after reaching Anda at 1:22 AM on Monday, 30 November 2015
L-R: Jammy, Kins, Ludwig, April, Sherwin, Liza, Yahman, Weng

Get to know us, walk with us, and follow our strides here:

Most of this entry's text appears as it is published on the December 6, 2015 issue of Lifestyle Bohol of the Bohol Chronicle.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

a few thoughts on religiously-motivated violence

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of religiously motivated violence is that it's an excuse to advance a group's political agenda. It has always been my interpretation of the actions of groups in the southern part of the Philippines who scream "return Mindanao to the Muslims!" when they kill people, even their fellow Muslims who don't accept their principles and support their cause. This example happening very close to me has been scrutinised time and time again by political analysts and sociological researchers and they almost always come up with the same answers. However, coming from another research perspective, I believe this repetitive finding is a little biased and it is driven by a pursuit for political correctness

Someone I know once said that sometimes we have to accept that some perpetrators of religiously motivated violence are actually driven by religion. And this is quite possibly true. We might say that theirs is an extremist, fanatic, fundamentalist and depraved interpretation of religious scrupture, but it is of religious nature nonetheless. This is perhaps something that we have to accept. Of course, the extremist wing is not monolithic and we cannot make one analysis that will define all groups but we cannot discount the idea that some of these people are actually sincere and deeply misguided and that they actually believe their acts are sanctioned by God. Of course, we cannot blame other people who practice their faiths in peace when they disown these perpetrators. For example, I, as a Quaker, as a Christian would denounce as heavily un-Christian the Anti-Balaka movement (a Christian militia formed in the Central African Republic who forcibly convert Muslims to Christianity or kill them), the Ku Klux Klan and the Westboro Baptist Church. These groups have perpetrated violence against people in the name of Christ just as ISIS and al-Qaeda commit violence in the name of God. Another example is the 969 Movement of Burma (an extremist Buddhist group composed of lay men and monks dedicated to preserving Buddhist ethnic and religious purity by committing murder in the guise of spreading Buddhist principles, they are one of the groups committing violence against the Rohingya people). And then there's the Kahane Chai (a Jewish purist group that murders non-Jews in Israel and Palestine to advance Zionist principles).

I must say that even if extremism in the name of Islam is to be condemned, I believe it is unfair that it is the only kind that receives world-wide attention. There are also groups claiming to be Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus and other faiths who are worthy of our condemnation. The attention solely and almost exclusively on ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and such groups who scream "Allahu Akbar" for the wrong reasons has caused the misinformed chunk of the human population to develop an aversion to those who practice real, peaceful Islam that is truly devoted to God.

Religiously motivated violence is a thorn in our feet and to say that it is causing us inconvenience is a major understatement. It not only creates widows and orphans and broken spirits, it also causes those who live by true and peaceful faith to be mistaken for the perpetrators and to be treated with disdain on the basis of the way they communicate with the Divine, and at times by extension, their ethnicity. However, hope is not lost. As I said in my most recent essay expressing my pain about the shootings in France, the bombings in Lebanon and Iraq, and the ongoing violence in Syria, as long as groups that believe in peace exist, or as long as there is a single person in this world who truly believes in peace and walks the path of genuine love and kindness and compassion, there is hope that all this violence will end.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

On Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, the End We Work for and the New Beginning We Dream of

I woke up this morning to a flood of text messages asking me if I had read about the bombings in Paris. Barely awake at the outset, I was instantly driven to full alertness by the pain in my chest caused by the CNN article I was reading. It spoke of over a hundred casualties in France–lives taken by men masquerading around as servants of God. I messaged nearly everyone I knew in that country, or otherwise checked their safety status on Facebook and pried on their profile for any signs of activity to check if they were alive and physically unharmed. Why do I specify the harm I was worried about as “physical”?  Well, I suppose anyone living in and around Paris would suffer from some sort of harm after something like that happens. In fact, this harm even extends across the globe. This harm affects us all. Only sociopaths and those with emotional illnesses will refuse to feel at least some amount of pain or commiseration from hearing news like that. Even as a Vipassana practitioner who has trained himself to live with the concept of Earthly impermanence, my chest was filled with sorrow and it still is. It is hurting very badly right now as I am writing this.

Each response contributed small chunks of relief to my pain until I gave off a big sigh earlier tonight when I learned that all my friends and acquaintances living in France are well. But even that did not make the pain go away. A sigh for your friends is a sigh for your friends, but I still feel for those who may never get to sigh the same way I did. I think of those who may have had to sit in tears, staring at an unoccupied chair during their Saturday breakfast because their partners/children/parents/friends never returned home after the concert or their night out. I think of people who have had to cry themselves to sleep while staring at the ghostly shadow cast by the curtains on the side of the bed that belonged to their partners who have instead been laid to rest elsewhere, never to wake the next morning to greet them with a kiss and a smile.

On top of all this, there were other bomb blasts elsewhere in the world—in Beirut where over 40 people died, and another one in Baghdad where over 20 died. This made my level of pain shoot up to an almost unbearable level. Why did it never show up as a priority post on my Facebook and Twitter feed? Is the world so utterly defeated and hopeless about the Middle East that bombings there turn very few heads and gain little media attention? Has the world suddenly calmed down and accepted mass murders in places like Iraq and Lebanon as normal phenomena not worthy of sympathy (or prayers)? I refuse to accept this. And this isn’t just because I’m a peace worker and I have spent time in the Middle East but because, goodness, West Asians are no less human than Europeans. This brings back to memory the sheer indifference of social media about the massacre that happened at a school in Kenya in April where 147 people were gunned to death by Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based extremist group. Did Facebook activate its Mark as Safe feature? Did the Twittersphere and Instagramsphere fill up with hashtag rallies? Ponder on this really hard.

While I'm on the topic of gravity, I'd like to touch the issue of numbers because this seems to be a common defence for people when asked about why nobody talked about the last two days' events. They say things like: "Oh, but they didn't reach a hundred deaths, Ludwig." "But, Ludwig, there were less than 50 deaths in each of those blasts." And the absolute worst: "Ludwig, in Paris, there were over a hundred dead and they weren't just French; an American girl was killed, too! You know how Paris is such a tourist magnet." Really? Should I go ahead and remind you of the Kenyan tragedy? What's the difference between bombs killing 20 or 40, and rifles taking over a hundred lives? One life lost to a gunshot or blast or stabbing is already too much. We even wail at deaths caused by natural disasters. In any case, mothers will still be weeping over their deceased children’s clothing. A husband somewhere will still be hugging his dead wife’s favourite scarf. Unframed photographs will still have blots from the tears shed on them. Why? Because lives were lost unnaturally—violently. That’s the bare truth. And we don’t say American Lives or European lives or Arab Lives or African Lives or Christian lives or Muslim lives or Jewish lives or Buddhist or Hindu or Jain or Pagan lives were lost. Human lives. Lives of people who had mothers and fathers—of those who may have had brothers or sisters, or sons or daughters. Lives just like yours. Just like mine.

I condemn these murders just as you, dear reader, would. I cry foul over people who have the audacity to use the name of God to commit senseless acts of violence and crimes against humanity, but I’m not going big on expressions of censure. There are several opinions going around the internet about theories of accountability and I will not jump into that pond. Let not my lack of indignation, however, lead you to believe that I don’t feel strongly about condemning violence and murder. If anything is as strong as the pain I feel, it is deep and seething anger. But I will not allow it to consume the bulk of this piece of writing. That has already been done by countless writers all over the world and I feel no need to publish my own version of the same thing. I am writing this to express something quite the opposite: hope.

Tonight when I sleep, I will probably have a nightmare with flashing images of a café in Paris where people get shot and bleed from their heads and torsos. But it will only be a nightmare. It’s bad but not as horrible as the reality that some people are forced to live in. I’m sure a few, if not all, of them would gladly trade their reality for my nightmares if only to put a stop to their very real suffering. At least it only takes an hour of meditation to rid my mind of the horrors of a bad dream. Real life is much crueller for a lot of people and it takes way more to ease their pain. It takes going through the end and beginning anew. This “end” may be interpreted in a myriad of ways. It can mean ending your relationship with what was once your home by moving away and starting fresh elsewhere, as refugees are aiming to do. And, sadly, it can even mean the end of this life by voluntarily embracing death and beginning the afterlife—if you believe in that sort of thing.

But what “end” do I really mean? I speak of the ultimate end of global violence. Not just bombings and murder. Not even just the end of beatings and bullying and things like that. This “end” extends to the destruction of every form of violence, physical or otherwise—the end of war, of subjugation, of hate, of the concept of “us and them,” of social injustice and of all forms of inequality. Only when this happens will a new beginning emerge. Only when this happens will we truly have peace. And not “peace” that constitutes ceasefires, treaties, or laws providing appeasement. I’m talking about real, lasting global harmony where justice is the norm—where poverty and excess are things of the past, where guns are nothing but museum artifacts and knives stay in kitchens and gardens. I’m talking about a brand new day when people wouldn't need to pray to ask for peace but instead pray to be thankful for it—where love, kindness and compassion are the answers to “What religion do you subscribe to?” I know this will probably not happen in my lifetime. Probably not in my children’s or even my grandchildren’s lifetimes. However, I believe it will happen. As long as there is a single person in this world who genuinely believes in peace and walks the path of universal love, there is hope.

Friday, October 16, 2015

I haven't shaved my head yet and here's why...

It's October, the month for the Global Awareness of Breast Cancer and support for the advancement of its medical research. I usually shave my head around this time to show solidarity for those suffering (or have suffered) the illness. However, I have intentionally put it off until the week is over because I do not want to be mistaken as a supporter of Rodrigo Duterte's candidacy for the Philippine presidency. I do not condone summary executions and human rights violations and I am NOT sorry.

Politics is about choosing lesser evils, I know. And I further acknowledge that Duterte has major plus points for me because he supports progressive ideas such as divorce, mandatory reproductive health education and same-sex marriage. However, I draw the line at killing people. In my book, that qualifies neither as a progressive idea nor a lesser evil--most especially without fair trial. I was and still am a staunch advocate of the abolition of the death penalty and I am not about to passively recant my position by voting for someone who delivers capital punishment on a whim.

I have many good friends and family members who support him and if you, dear reader, are one of them, I still have FULL RESPECT for you and your choices. I do not intend to create a rift between us just because of our differences in political opinion. Just don't push me to adopt your views because the chances of pigs growing wings and taking flight is much fatter than me shading that ring next to Duterte's name.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Two Years Since 7.2

Today in 2013, while I was enjoying what was supposed to be a 2-hour extension to my usual 8-hour slumber, silently thanking the Muslims for affording the rest of us Filipinos another day of relaxation as they celebrated the Feast of the Sacrifice, I was awakened by a violent tremor. For nearly half a minute, right after discovering that walking or standing up was not possible, I held on to my bed post as images of the ground swallowing the house and ending my 23-year Earthly existence flashed through my mind. Thankfully, my whole family lived through the disaster and our home in the city was left intact. Others were not as fortunate. During its 34-second stint, the quake claimed homes, bridges, churches and 222 human lives, leaving some of us survivors to literally eat dust before we could begin to pick ourselves up. It has been two years since then and Bohol has largely recovered but some things may never return to the way they were. Bridges and homes have had to be demolished and rebuilt from scratch. And goodness knows you can't put coral rocks back together if they've been pulverised. A billion sacks of rice and the whites of two million chicken eggs will do us no good this time. We have all had to live with changes--some more difficult to accept than others--but at least our spirits are strong. That has been proven true. The earthquake and the subsequent Super Typhoon Haiyan, which happened less than a month later, were stark reminders of the sheer impermanence of Earthly existence and the utter futility of the identities and labels we carry around and destroy each other over. In the end, we are all just people. Yesterday, we were born; now, we live; tomorrow, we die. Whether you believe in anything beyond death, why should we say we are more important than another person when our skulls are just as easily pierced by a spade as any other man or woman walking this Earth? Why raise our sense of value over our fellow human beings'? We are all of the same substance, anyway.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Your Attention, Please!

In a largely globalised world shaped by a myriad of different and constantly changing opinions fed to us by mass media’s various manifestations, it still comes as a surprise to me how certain indubitably significant events and places could possibly be overlooked.  I went to the Indonesian provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh a little over two years ago and bore witness to the effects of both past and on-going conflict between civilians, armed militant groups and the government, and it baffled me how something as globally attention-worthy as that could possibly have escaped me for the last 23 years of my life.  The only time Aceh was ever in my face on a news item was after it was levelled by a devastating tsunami back in 2004, but that was it.  In part, I could probably be blamed for not digging into the world of global concerns enough, but, in my defence, not enough people and media are talking about it.  And while I didn’t have any qualms about learning of the stampede that happened in a temple in India or Iraq’s first free parliamentary elections since 1958, it just struck me painfully how a struggling place that could have used a little more attention from the world was only afforded it when the worst possible thing happened and yet again deprived of it when the world thought it was over.

I recently visited the southern terrestrial lump of the Philippines called Mindanao to visit the United Religions Initiative’s (URI) cooperation circles (CC) there and to witness a culmination activity for the International Peace Advocacy Month of September.  Mindanao is another place that has so much global attention-worthy on-goings yet is constantly overlooked unless another American or European disappears there.  I’m over giving analogies like “Aceh is to Indonesia as Mindanao is to the Philippines.”  The two may have certain parallels but one can only derive so much information by relying on them. Besides, they both lack attention on the international stage, anyway.

Now, admittedly, one can’t grasp what’s going on in an area unless they go there and listen to locals' stories and immerse in local life, but wouldn’t it at least be helpful if more people were to give the place a little more attention?  I admit that I, too, was largely ignorant about Mindanao.  I live in the Philippines and yet I know very little more than my foreign friends who only ever hear or read the word “Mindanao” on their governments’ list of places to avoid.  It’s sad but true.  And I think this lack of understanding is the reason why it’s so easy to make assumptions about the place.  There’s a saying that goes, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” and it’s true.  This little knowledge is what causes presidents to declare all-out wars, armed independence fighters to be branded as terrorists, and certain people to be collectively perceived as inherently violent simply because they profess a particular faith that is different from that of the country’s majority.  It’s sad, really.