death by paper cut

{June 19, 2014}   The Aeta of the Philippines

The main destinations of this year’s YEP expedition were 2 Aeta villages (also known as sitio in the Philippines), one of which is in remote Alunan, Tarlac and the other closer to township is Maporac, Zambales. Other than these sites, side trips were made to Mt Pinatubo and the slums in Baseco, Manila.

The wide spectrum of experiences can be measured in several ways. One way could be by the number of places we put up for the night (tent, home-stay with the villagers in both Alunan and Maporac, a dormitory and a hostel). Another was by the number of people got to know. Yet another could be the different modes of transportation taken (airplane, coach, jeepney, van, four-by-four and bullock cart). And there was walking, lots and lots of walking especially between the villages in Tarlac because that is the most common way to get from one village to another in the hilly ranges of the highlands.

Tarlac 25 - Sitio Sitler

Zambales 2 - Journey to Marporac from Alunan

Tarlac 28 - Sitio Sitler Tarlac 86 - Sitio Alunan - Sweet Potato Farming

Tarlac 120 - Sitio Malabatay Tarlac 121 - Sitio Malabatay

Mostly nomadic and agrarian, the Aeta lived off the fertile land before the eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1991. Until the eruption, they could get by in isolated areas without much contact with others in the lower regions.

However, the massive eruption changed everything because firstly, it wiped out half of the Aeta population we were told and secondly, the eruption has altered the landscape for a long time to come by making it no longer as arable as before.

ecogreen explains:

Aside from causing climate change by cooling temperatures around the world, volcano eruptions also cause havoc on the immediate vicinity where they are located. In 1991, Mt. Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines. Days before the massive explosion, water around Zambales, Tarlac and Pampanga was undrinkable due to sulfur contamination. Ash obscured sunlight which damaged crops and killed farm animals.

Years after the explosion, lahar or mudflow composed of pyroclastic material and water during the rainy season, caused the displacement of thousands of residents.  Agriculture and farming was also at a standstill due to damage sustained by the eruption. What was once fertile and arable land became ash covered and deemed infertile destroying the livelihood of thousands of farmers around the region.

As such, the Aeta had to seek refuge in the lower regions. This inadvertently meant more intermingling with non-Aeta and an irreversible undoing of their quality of life. Although it has been 23 years since the eruption, the Aeta especially the olders ones who survived the eruption speak fondly of their former prosperity with prelapsarian wistfulness. Sitio Sitler for example, a small village in the highlands, had to relocate three times before they managed to settle where they are now.

For a first hand appreciation of the geographical and geological understanding the aftermath of Mt Pintatubo’s eruption, we made a trip to a crater that is now a tourist attraction. To understand how remote it is, this is how one would get there from Manila: a four-hour coach ride from Manila to the town of Santa Juliana, a transfer to a one-hour ride in a four-wheel drive from Santa Juliana to the start of the walking trek, and than a two and a half hour trek towards the crater. That trek to the crater is a mostly flat two-hour walk amongst rocky outcrop in the valley with no shelter and then another twenty to thirty-minute gradual ascend. We started our journey at 4am to reach the crater at 11am.

Mt Pintatubo is not extinct, but dormant. Hot springs in the surrounding area are still bubbling.

Mount Pinatubo 4 Mount Pinatubo 2

Mount Pinatubo 8 Mount Pinatubo 9

Mount Pinatubo 11

Mount Pinatubo 18 Mount Pinatubo 20

The Aeta in the lower regions are more racially diverse and modernised than those in the highlands because of the higher exposure to non-Aeta people, being connected to the power grid and being located closer to townships. Maporac, Zambales describes the former and Alunan, Tarlac the latter. This is not to say that one’s lifestyle is better than the other, it is just different with its own host of pros and cons.

The homestay experience in the villagers’ houses constructed mostly of bamboo was actually quite comfortable. The homes are neatly partitioned with the bedrooms (elevated platforms), kitchen and dining/living areas not unlike the kampongs of Singapore. The houses in Alunan, Tarlac are smaller, but more closely clustered around a civic area while the houses in Maporac, Zambales are more spread out, have a larger compound and sometimes their own outpost toilet and water-pump. 4 days were spent in Alunan and 7 days in Maporac. Maporac was where our core project site was; we helped to catalog their under-used community library and set up a new herbal garden.

Sitler, Tarlac (one-night stay enroute Alunan)

Tarlac 7 - Sitio Sitler Tarlac 5 - Sitio Sitler

Tarlac 15 - Sitio Sitler Tarlac 13 - Sitio Sitler

Tarlac 16 - Sitio Sitler Tarlac 12 - Sitio Sitler

Tarlac 11 - Sitio Sitler

Alunan, Tarlac (three-night homestay)

Tarlac 40 - Sitio Alunan

Tarlac 42 - Sitio Alunan Tarlac 39 - Sitio Alunan

Tarlac 78 - Sitio Alunan Tarlac 84 - Sitio Alunan

Maporac, Zambales (three-night homestay and four more nights at a dormitory located onsite)

Zambales 14 - Sitio Maporac Zambales 12 - Sitio Maporac

Zambales 16 - Sitio Maporac Zambales 18 - Sitio Maporac

Zambales 28 - Sitio Maporac

Being off the power gird, out of range of mobile reception and having limited water supply, the people at Alunan get on by being extremely ingenious and frugal. As city slickers, we did not know the first thing about surviving in such a setting. The Aeta however, showed us that the environment was not hostile, but a rich resource. They showed us how to make fire with bamboo, steam rice in bamboo and of course cook bamboo shoots.

Tarlac 49 - Sitio Alunan - Starting a Fire Tarlac 50 - Sitio Alunan - Starting a Fire

Tarlac 52 - Sitio Alunan - Starting a Fire Tarlac 54 - Sitio Alunan - Bamboo Rice

Tarlac 55 - Sitio Alunan - Bamboo Rice Tarlac 56 - Sitio Alunan - Bamboo Rice

Tarlac 57 - Sitio Alunan - Bamboo Rice

Tarlac 63 - Sitio Alunan - Food Preparation

With more amenities, the folks at Maporac had other resources but are still very in touch with making do with their natural environment. Almost the entire herbal garden was constructed from scratch within four days with bamboo obtained in the vicinity.

Zambales 85 - Maporac Community Garden

Zambales 93 - Maporac Community Garden Zambales 95 - Maporac Community Garden Zambales 94 - Maporac Community Garden

Zambales 102 - Maporac Community Garden Zambales 104 - Maporac Community Garden Zambales 108 - Maporac Community Garden

Zambales 117 - Maporac Community Garden Zambales 120 - Maporac Community Garden

Zambales 122 - Maporac Community Garden

Zambales 128 - Maporac Community Garden

Zambales 131 - Maporac Community Garden

Although the Aeta’s ancestral claim to the general domain is recognised by the government, there are areas that have been bought by developers and privatised for mining purposes such as parts of a river. Because it was the dryer midyear season when we were there in June, the water levels were low. However, the situation has been made worse as the water source is being diverted due to damming, mining and other developments. In fact, the underground wells of Maporac were depleted at certain times of the day during our visit.

Public awareness by activists has been raised to guard the Aeta against encroaching developers as can be seen from this publication in Tagalog.

Zambales 65 - Maporac Library Zambales 66 - Maporac Library

However, in the more remote rural villages such as in Tarlac where the Aeta are illiterate or might not even speak Tagalog, they are more susceptible to deception and exploitation. Arguable, they can lead sustainable lives with subsistence farming, but they are not spared the inflation of the wider economy when the cost of purchasing a buffalo has risen multiple-fold while the value of their cash crops continue to be depressed. In spite of the odds, the Aeta who spoke with us continue to be resilient and hopeful for their future. Humbling indeed.

Tarlac 10 - Sitio Sitler


{April 12, 2014}   Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

Compared to the varied renovation experiences friends have told me about, I think my own experience was a relatively smooth sailing one. We were rather decisive with our furnishing and interior deco choices, the contractor’s quality control is up to par and the time frame was mostly adhered to. There was nothing I had to lose sleep over. More importantly, everyone was so supportive and practically threw things our way especially household appliances.

I’m constantly reminded that the end result is an accumulation of the labour of love of our friends and family and not just a personal project I can claim sole credit for.

Renovation 5 - Hacking

Renovation 25 Living - Progress

Renovation 16 - Balcony

Renovation 18 - Balcony

Renovation 19 - Kitchen

Renovation 20 - Kitchen

Renovation 21 - Dining

Renovation 22 - Dining

{March 23, 2014}   enbloc

enbloc: in a lump or block; as a body or whole; all together.

Enbloc is a household name in Singaporean heartland living characterised by HDB housing where more than 80% of residents call home. The contraction for Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS), Enbloc signifies for many, a herculean and collective move of a sizable portion of an estate to a newly built one. Although the new location is usually not too far from the original site, it is in effect an exodus because of the sheer numbers moving at the same time.

According to HDB, Enbloc is part of the Government’s Estate Renewal Strategy for the older public housing estates. Under SERS, the residents involved are given an opportunity to move from their old flats to new and better flats with fresh 99-year leases, served by modern facilities and set in a familiar neighbourhood.

This also means that from generation to generation all residents are constantly on the move, scrambled like mahjong tiles, without physical structures as memory landmarks. That being said, the scheduled Enbloc for the place I’ve lived for 30 years was literally falling apart and was not a place I’ll be nostalgic about. Somehow because for three decades I mentally compartmentalised living in my former apartment separate from the surrounding neighbourhood – as if suspended in a non-address – I am unable to relate my growing up experience to a fond memory of a particular hawker uncle or provision shop aunty downstairs. Perhaps also because I did not attend school near where I lived, my residential address was mostly a place to rest at night. Childhood friendships were formed along school project deadlines and proximity of classrooms rather than along HDB corridors or around playgrounds.

Still, the process of moving out is worth observing because it is a unifying experience in the national discourse and for the family/HDB unit, it means a period of 4 to 5 years of anticipation from the point of Enbloc notice that incrementally leads up to the stock-taking of the personal inventories, speculation of flat selection (based on order of ballot) and pouring over copious amount of paperwork involving CPF, HDB, mortgage loans in addition to interior designing. Although the new allocated apartment will be in a better condition, it is always smaller in size so re-thinking how the limited space is used is a constant source of contention. Multiply this experience with the hundreds of households grappling with the same issues at the same time, the units estate never felt more familiar with each other. In the meantime, construction work for the new place trudged on.


The process started in 2007 when the affected portion of the neighbourhood were informed that their blocks have been selected for Enbloc. Two years later, we received a letter from HDB to select the flat of choice, depending on what is left by the time it came to our turn.

Enbloc Notice 2007

Documents (1) Waiting in Line

There are two things to look at while waiting for our turn with the HDB officer. Firstly, the listing of available units and secondly the architectural model on display. You can keep an eye out on the flat you want on the screen, but if it the listing changes from blue to yellow then it means it has been taken and you are left with the next viable option, not unlike booking seats for a movie.

Waiting in Line (1)

Teban Vista Model (5) Teban Vista 25 Teban Vista Model (7)

Although the new apartment was selected in 2009, it would not be until mid 2012 that the building was ready for occupancy. In the meantime, people started vacating in droves. By the start of 2012, the efforts to chuck stuff indiscriminately ramped up and everyday I would return home to a new array of pre-own kitsch splayed across the floors that would even obstruct passage ways. Ghetto-like conditions would continue till unit by unit was inspected, locked up and re-possessed by the government.

En Bloc - Moving Out of Old Block 26

En Bloc - Moving Out of Old Block 33 En Bloc - Moving Out of Old Block 21 En Bloc - Moving Out of Old Block 23

En Bloc - Old Block's Trash 11

En Bloc - Old Block's Trash 34 En Bloc - Old Block's Trash 36 En Bloc - Old Block's Trash 18

En Bloc - Old Block's Trash 1

En Bloc - Old Block's Trash 35 En Bloc - Old Block's Trash 2

En Bloc - Old Block's Trash 32 En Bloc - Old Block's Trash 23

En Bloc - Old Block's Trash 9 En Bloc - Old Block's Trash 3 En Bloc - Old Block's Trash 10

Fewer and fewer flats would light up at night that year and eventually, after all units were turned inside out, the blocks were first cordoned by gates and then fenced up all around. Perhaps it was a security measure to prevent unsavoury characters from loitering around, because truth be told, toppled over bottles of beer would be found near the ground floors not belonging to the residents or former residents of the block together with the smell of pee. Soon barbed wires, like the new creepers in town, would curl themselves snugly around these fences.

En Bloc - Moving Out of Old Block 30 En Bloc - Moving Out of Old Block 22 En Bloc - Moving Out of Old Block 31

En Bloc - Moving Out of Old Block 29 Teban Fenced Up 5

Teban Fenced Up 16 Teban Fenced Up 10 Teban Fenced Up 4

I am not quite sure what will happen to these flats. There is a theory that these units will be rented out for a period of time before demolition. And then there are also rumours that a condominium will be built over this site. Either way, the bus that takes me to the new relocated blocks will wind its way around these fences as a constant reminder of urban decay.

Teban Fenced Up 19

Spring Cleaning.

Since I pack and reorganise my stuff more than every once in a while, I don’t normally have to wait till the proverbial spring to do a cleaning. Just so happens that (1) it is also spring this time of the year in places that have the seasons, (2) the Chinese take this time before the new lunar new year to flex their consumerist muscles to replace not so new things with newer things, (3) I’m preparing for a move.

And because I’ve quite recently moved into my current premises just over a year ago, my sorting and packing now mostly consist of reviewing my stuff and evaluating if they pass the new litmus test to warrant the logistical effort for another move.

Some defunct technology that made it from the old place did not pass this litmus test. Before I chuck them out however, I preserved them digitally to mark their once existence and the passing of time.

TDK DVD Burner

TDK DVD Burner 2 TDK DVD Burner 1

Laptops and desktops that had DVD drives could not always have the capability to burn DVDs. These days, slimmer laptops have gotten rid of DVD drives altogether in favour of light-weightness and mobility. Back then however, when storage in thumb-drives and external hard disks were not the common practice, organising and burning data in DVD was the more convenient alternative to floppy disks. Like most devices of its day, the TDK DVD Burner is bulky and heavy.

CompactDrive PD70X

Compact Drive PD70X 2 Compact Drive PD70X 4

Digital photography was not as trigger happy as it is now when storage in memory cards were expensive and limited in capacity. When traveling, it is easy to max out the memory space which created the need to review the images, prioritise what you want and delete the rest. On my 11 day road trip to Central Australia, the CompactDrive was the common storage platform for the memory cards of me and my friends. Being battery operated, the CompactDrive was independent of needing a power source; this was a very important feature on a road trip. If memory serves me well, this CompactDrive costs $300 in the mid 2000s. Someone did a very thorough review of this device which you can look up if you are so inclined.

Nintendo GAME BOY

Nintendo GAME BOY 1

Nintendo GAME BOY 2

Nintendo GAME BOY 3 Nintendo GAME BOY 4

The Nintendo GAME BOY was the game-changer in the time of handheld games. I got my first one in upper Primary and added a secondhand GAME BOY in lower secondary so that I could make use of the two-player functions in some games like Tetris. There were original game cartridges and pirated ones that had 16-in-1 or even 50-in-1. The most advance end-user interface of the mid 1990s was monochrome Dot Matrix. In storage, my GAME BOY units rusted to the core and the batteries leaked, then rusted. Trivia: Watch out for the GAME BOY’s appearance in 1998 Will Smith film – Enemy of the State.

Game Arcade Tokens

Arcade Tokens 2

Arcade Tokens 1

With the use of metal tokens, Game Arcades felt like a casino for kids. There were many different Game Arcades in the 1990s and each fashioned their own tokens. I was never really good at any game. I most enjoyed the multi-player Daytona, that as a group of 6 to 10 friends, was played out more as a virtual bumper car. Wreak-it-Ralph did an excellent job in translating the old school vibe of these places. The last time I played at an arcade, which is more than a decade ago, I found to my bewilderment that the metal tokens have been replaced by stored value cash cards. This signaled the end of an era.

Having a collector’s streak, I was very conscious of not using my last token and collected it instead for keepsake. Into a pouch the tokens went and over the years my collection amassed. It is not exactly a treasure chest now but it can count towards making up part of my Happy Thoughts. The bulkier defunct technology I’ve tossed, this pouch I’m keeping and bringing into our current millennium. Because WyWy Wonderspace had the most extensive network of arcades, I also have with me a number of WyWy tokens as witness to the last vestiges of growing up in the 1990s.

{October 13, 2013}   Fartleks at Bishan Park

Looking back at my track record (linked in mileage in this side bar), I realised that it was 10 years ago that I first started running sustained distances of up to 10km in organised runs. I decided to get of my ass and challenged myself to get fit and reap a host of health benefits.

I was glad that at the opportunity for such a run at the 2003 Terry Fox run (in pre-revamped Sentosa), I had a friend to participate with me. He is a very seasoned runner, so 7km is chicken-feet for him while it was daunting for me. I tried to prepare myself though, and this involved walking/running the route in advance on my own to be physically and mentally ready for the uncharted distance and undulating terrain.

After that, the subsequent 10km runs became manageable. I have not signed up for runs longer than 10km because it usually gets very hot by then and also my feet would feel that they had enough. In recent times, I have not signed up for any organised run firstly because I’m tired of having to pick up a race pack (sometimes at Expo) in advance; secondly, waking up at 5am on Sunday to start a 7am run gets trying; and thirdly, I’m capable of my own runs at comparable distances free-of-charge.

Last week however, I signed up for a 7km run because it was rather different. The annual Great Eastern Women’s Run now has fringe activities and running clinics are one of them. For just $5, you can choose to take part in such a running clinic organised by Polar in the “Come Run With Polar” events at increasing distances of 3km, 5km and 7km.

Come Run with Polar - Bishan Park 1

I promptly signed up for the 7km run when I serendipitously stumbled upon it while browsing the Great Eastern Women’s Run for this year. It was perfect for me at a bargain as I’ve always wanted to cover running ground at Bishan Park.

I achieved all that, and got more than I bargained for because at the start of the run, I was informed that it involves fartlek training and running in stages together. Out of the window went my impression that the run would be at my own pace and completed under an hour.

Since I was already here, I may as well make use of this chance to go beyond my comfort zone and yield all the goodness that running magazines gush about since I would never bring myself to fartlek on my own.

The first 2.6 km was spent going in circles, for good reason. One portion of this circular route was on a landscape bridge where at stretches of 200m or so we did a mix of exercises such as lunges, squats, and others I don’t have a name for. One of which involved lifting my thighs in elaborate arcs to resemble something between climbing huge boulders and a dog marking its territory.

Come Run with Polar - Bishan Park 2

This part of the run was meant to be more intense than I allowed it to be. In any case, I know for sure that the exercise did what it was supposed to do because my thighs ached like they never had in a long time the next day. I had to brace myself to ascend and descend short flights of stairs at work.

The play and pause icons in the map tracked by runkeeper indicates where we stopped and started as a group, usually for a change of pace or exercise.

What no one counted on was to leave Bishan Park, although just for a short while, to climb the overhead bridge and do P.E. type exercises at the void deck across the road. Here, we did exercises to strengthen the back and core muscles. And yes, including the dreaded push-ups – I don’t think I’ve done push-ups since JC.

Come Run with Polar - Bishan Park 3

Having covered about 4km, we returned to Bishan Park for a longer continuous run along its length and made the 3rd stop near the end start/end point for a step workout. After the final 500m burst, we ended with arm exercises.

The whole workout was at no point intimidating. It was as bootcamp only as far as you allowed it to be. The instructor from Polar kept the atmosphere lighthearted and tried his darnest to humorously motivate the bunch of us. All in all, it was enjoyable and if this was organised on a regular basis, I’ll would sign up in a (resting) heart beat.

Come Run with Polar - Bishan Park 4

To top it off, I was one of the three lucky winners to fartlek away with a Polar Heart Rate Monitor at the conclusion of the event.

et cetera