downstream: reflections on the book and a gathering to reimagine water

July 2018

An article for Great Lakes Water Works / Water Allies at the University of Toronto.

downstream is a collection of writings by scholars, artists, scientists and activists who together understand that our shared human need for clean water is vital to building peace and good relationships with one another. I had heard of this research-creation project in my time on Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver) as a student at the University of British Columbia. Having just moved to the East Coast recently with my family, it was a joy to be invited by Water Allies at the University of Toronto to read the book and moderate a panel discussion with the editors who were to join us from the West Coast. The gathering downstream was held at New College on the winter evening of January 25th 2018 and was attended by a diverse mix of about 30 people from across disciplines including local environmentalists, artists, family and friends from a meditation community I practice with.

downstream2Rita Wong and Dorothy Christian open the book with an invitation to tell our own water stories. In doing so we begin to name our commitments to the places, peoples and waters we belong to and who sustain us: “when we tell stories of ourselves, we also tell stories of the waters that move through us” (p.7). Inspired by Rita’s own recollections on her ancestral and gifted names, I thought of my own: I was born and raised in Manila (“where there are mangroves”), whose mother tongues include both Tagalog (“from the river”) and Hokkien from my grandparents who migrated from a fishing village in Fujian, China. In the same spirit we invited participants in the gathering to sit around in a circle, share their names and those of water bodies they cared for or are dear to them. We heard of the Great Lakes, ravines, ponds, a glass of water, dried wells, storms and Oceans. Each small water story was poignant, as if in telling them each person was naming themselves as being intricately connected to water. This round of introductions also served as an acknowledgment that we all live and work in the city of Tkaronto, the Mohawk place name to mean “where there are trees in water”.

Lee Maracle, member of the Sto:lo Nation and one of the most celebrated authors in Canada, writes in the book that it takes radical Humility to understand this insight: “WATER OWNS ITSELF.” In fact, we do not own anything. She says, “I do not have rights. I have obligations.” Lee’s message becomes central to the book and inspires the various voices I hear across the chapters; her message is a guide too for how one can read: one needs humility to become a respectful recipient of what is shared in the book, much of which is sacred knowledge. In my own mind I recall humility as being ‘magpakumbaba’ in Filipino: to offer to go low, to move down, downstream. Humility can be a practice of listening and of “speaking nearby”, forms of indirectness as expounded so poetically by Vietnamese filmmaker and scholar, Trinh T. Minh-ha (p.237). It is in the power of humility to challenge the limits and violence of intellect, logic and reason over body and spirit; and humility opens us up to consider other ways of reimagining, relating and being with water. The book features a refreshing selection of creative-critical projects such as dancing and moving with water by Allanah Young Leon, Denise Marie Nadeau and Seongh Odhiambo Horne; Basira Island’s artistic experiments with floating ice books down the river to scatter seeds along the banks; puppet theatre and storytelling by Cathy Stubington; and the ways water walks are ceremonies as taught and explained by Indigenous elders Renée Elizabeth Mzinegiizhigo-kwe Bédard and Violet Caibaiosai. Astrida Neimanis asks us how one can think with water, inviting water to be a collaborator and interlocutor in our own work.

“Could the sacred be what is missing in much of how we do critical scholarship and activism?”

In the panel I shared a story of how I first caught sight of posters about the Great Lakes Water Walk. They were not in the halls of the university, corridors of critical research and scholarship, but I saw them hung in the Multi-Faith Centre where different communities gather regularly for prayer. I asked, “Could the sacred be what is missing in much of how we do critical scholarship and activism?” The book celebrates decolonial work not only as efforts founded and grounded on responsibility, reciprocity and relationships, but also on Reverence. I think of the power of song and singing to the water as taught by Violet Cabaiosai in the book, by Grandmother Josephine Mandamin and the Water Walkers, and consider how much of this is missing in what Dorothy calls our “so-called secular society.” During the panel Rita and Dorothy shared photos from Standing Rock on the screen, where banners beckoned everyone in big bold letters to DEFEND THE SACRED. As one of the participants raised, it may indeed be challenging to speak of the ‘sacred’ as notions of it are often wrapped in religious dogma and entangled in violent histories. The pages of the book, however, brim with sacred knowledge as did the intimate accounts of ceremony recounted by Dorothy in person. In the book as it was in the gathering, the sacred returns back to the centre—a place where Dorothy invites us to love the land as much as does.

Much of the work on water is moved by a vital sense of urgency, an understanding that life itself depends on protecting and caring for water. The compounding socio-ecological crises of the world today are made clear in the book by Melina Laboucan Massimo’s reports of the damage wrecked by the tar sands in her homelands, the planetary distress signals written by Alanna Mitchell, and Wang Ping’s evocative poetry “Tsunami Chant”. This also became obvious at the gathering, with a participant sharing about the current news of water shortage in South Africa and Rita’s own ongoing involvement with resisting the construction of the Site C dam in British Columbia. In light of this urgency, however, Rita shared the frustrations she has had in galvanizing her own community to show up in solidarity with First Nations-led actions for water, as does Janey Lew’s book chapter on “Asian Canadians In/Action with Water”. As an overseas Filipina, I understood. There are the difficulties of fumbling through layered generations of migrations within the Filipino diaspora, complex differences cutting across our own communities along the lines of class, gender and regional identities, and the persisting unfamiliarity of settler colonialism among many of us in Turtle Island. Daunting and heartbreaking the task may often be to invite our own families and communities to learn to be guests and unsettlers on this land, I also remember that the book downstream is in itself a celebration of interdisciplinary writing and intercultural collaboration. Like the circle of seats gathered to hear Rita and Dorothy, the book perhaps expresses what alliances for water may be and become.

downstream1A week after the panel at New College, I reconnected with my friend Yishin Khoo who attended the event. We both felt the need to continue sharing our water stories with one another. Could my work in typhoon-stricken coastal communities in the Philippines, and her work re-learning Chinese philosophies on water, shape our own practices of renewing our connection with Nibi (water) in Tkaronto? There is much we realized each of us already understands about water’s teachings of Humility and Reverence from our own cultural knowledges. Before we parted she wrote the following words down on my notebook: “飲水思源”, an old Chinese verse that says, “when drinking water, remember its source.” I thought how beautifully fitting in the spirit of the work water asks us to do. I believe this is what Rita and Dorothy aspires to share with us when they wrote: “We hope that the book fuels your spirit in the watery times to come” (p.18).


Christian, D., & Wong, R. (Eds.). (2017). downstream: reimagining water. Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

so many dead, a prayer bloom

“In this world we live in, where there is no more rule of law, no wrong and no right, how would you stay alive without spirituality?” A baylan (healer-leader) asks me, looking me straight in the eyes. She did not blink, a woman who breathes the brutality of death on Lumad bodies, hers and others, and on their ancestral lands. In the first hundred days of the newly elected president, the country has been ridden with bullets and over 700 dead-heavy bodies: pedicab drivers, students, a man at the corner, at the wrong place at the wrong time, drug addicts who turned themselves in, with hands up, and shot. The poor and the Indigenous have long been marked for death by neglect and dispossession; today they remain kill-able by the Philippine State’s ‘war on drugs’ and by a society that has already sanctioned police brutality as a means to deliver the change they were promised. No, I do not consent. “The violence is rising in the cities”, I lamented. She nodded: but the terror has been all too familiar for them in the Bangsamoro.


The darkness is heavy. And despair maims all forms of activism. I am convinced the baylan, in her decades of political activism, leading peace talks, shielding her people and the sovereignty of their lands, could not have stayed alive without simple faith first in the strength, goodness and wholeness of her own inner self —lakas, kabutihan at kabuuan ng loob. I take her heed for my own medicine in Manila, where even breathing is bleak and tiring. My friend and I have this to offer, “Ang Busilak ng Panalangin Para sa Kaginhawaan”, to Filipina/os who also wish to hold themselves and others in well-being in this time of relentless impunity. – 08/16 Maynila


[click image to download]

Ang Busilak Ng Panalangin

bayang mahal

because being taught to sing to a marching band, and being asked to die by a firing squad, are deep wounds we have been festering in our heart/mind. is poverty a medal for righteousness? is having to leave home to work overseas heroic? is to survive or die a super typhoon a noble feat?

over a quick chat at the start of the new year, kuya joey shared a few more thoughtful revisions to Lupang Hinirang (in addition to those sung in this video) as we continue to tamper with the philippine national anthem :) i share his writing and my translations below.

[metro: 4 6]

bayang magiliw
perlas ng silanganan
alab ng puso
sa dibdib mo’y buhay

to my dear gentle people
a pearl of the east
the heart’s pulse beats alive in your chest

lupang hinirang
duyan ka ng magiting
sa manlulupig
di ka pasisiil

blessed earth
you cradle the noble and those of courage
to those who prey on you
you will not be beaten down

sa dagat | at bundok sa simoy |
at sa langit mong bughaw
may dilag ang tula | at awit
sa paglayang minamahal

from the oceans to the mountains
from the breeze to your blue skies
there is beauty in the poetry you sing
for the freedom we love

ang kislap ng watawat mo’y tagumpay |
na nagniningning
ang bituin at araw niya |
kailanpama’y di magdidilim

the stars and the sun shine of your victory
and will never fade into darkness

lupa ng araw ng
luwalhati’t pagsinta
buhay ay langit sa piling mo
aming ligaya na pag may nang-aapi naaapi
ang mamatay magmahal ng dahil sa iyo.

land of sun
of blazing passion
life is heaven by your side
and for whenever anyone is oppressed,
our joy is to love, is to keep loving because of you.

typhoon hagupit

Mga kaibigan at kalakbay,

Habang papalapit nanaman ang isang napakalakas na bagyo, ako’y napuno ng pag-aalala at takot para sa mga bayan na nasalanta ng Yolanda noong nakaraang taon lamang. Ang mga maliliit na barangay sa tabing dagat, ang ating mga mangingisda, magsasaka, magniniyog, ang mga nanay at mga bata. Mula rito sa Vancouver, para akong nag-call center agent at tinawagan ang mga community partners sa Leyte at Samar nitong nakaraang mga araw. Maraming nakapaghanda na, ngunit may pangamba at takot pa rin sa tinig ng aking mga kaibigan. Mayroong tunay na galak din na sila’y naaalala at hindi nag-iisa sa mga panahong ito. 

Nagising ako nitong umaga na mabigat at madilim ang pakiramdam, tulad ng makulimlim na langit dito sa kabilang dulo ng mundo…

Hanggang sa malakas akong hinila pabalik sa isang sulok ng aking kwarto, nilatag ang mat, at naisipang gumalaw sabay ang aking hininga. Agad-agad ay lumambot at bumukas ang aking gitnang-puso, lumuha ng tuluyan, at inalay ang aking lungkot at mga takot. Hinalik ang nuo sa lupa, pinaabot ang dibdib sa langit. At mula rito, madaling dumaloy muli ang liwanag at lakas, na inaalay ko ng buong-buo sa ating mga kababayan.

Huwag matakot, hindi tayo nag-iisa. Sana’y sama-sama tayong mag-alay ng ating buong puso’t isipan, ng ating buong paghinga at paggalaw, para sa ating kapwa.

Mabuhay! Mabuhay tayong lahat!


para sa mundong palestino

bago nagsimula ang isang kilusan ng pakikisama, pakikiramay at pakikibaka kasama ang mundong palestino nitong ika-7 ng agosto 2014, nilatag namin ang aming mga mat sa rotondo ng tomas morato, at kami’y nagsanay ng Yoga. pinalilibutan ng mga sasakyan, ingay, at kaguluhan ng mundo, kami ay handang magsanay tungo sa kagandahang loob. sa ilalim ng bukas na langit, at sa ibabaw ng matindig na lupa. para sa matinding pagdurusa sa gaza, inaalay namin ang aming hinga, paggalaw, ang aming buong puso’t isipan, ang aming buong pagkatao. kami’y kasama sa pagtawag sa kapayapaan, ng paghilom, at ng pagrespeto sa buong sangkatauhan!  kami’y naririto na.yesterday we took Yoga out into the streets. not to practice under the shade of trees, with clean crisp air, or on soft green grass. instead we rolled our mats out on the tomas morato rotonda (the boy scouts’ memorial circle in quezon city), with cars honking and driving all around us, and with the noise, pain, and confusion in the world held deep within us. this was by far our most difficult and most incredible practice yet! inhale, breathe in all the suffering, the death and the terror in. you can do it, your hearts are strong! pause, hold it in. and exhale, breathe all of that out! out of you, out, out, out, release them. inhale, open your heart wider now, draw the pains of war away from gaza, take it away from them. your heart is strong! pause, hold the deep darkness in. exhale, breathe all of that out! not a bit left in you! release. tears started streaming down our faces. trembling, blazing bright, we kept our eyes closed, the inner gaze kept within. we continued to breathe long and deep, all together now. for the next 30 minutes, we continued to move with our breath, flowing through a string of asanas. each moment the focus was held deep within. remember why you are here! remember why you are here! each movement opened the heart, moved life, breath and power all throughout our bodies. each time we looked up, there was blue sky and white clouds high up above to greet us! and each time we planted the foot down, there was the strong earth beneath us! breathing, moving, breathing, moving, sending Life and Peace to those suffering in the war. we then laid down in savasana, in a complete surrender, in complete trust that we now have our role to play –and we will play it well!

‘Yoga’ means ‘Oneness.’ pagbubuo, pagsasama-sama, paghihilom. bitak-bitak tayong lahat ngayon. ang isip wala sa katawan, ang puso nakakaligtaan. hindi lang tayo watak-watak sa ating sariling kalooban, pero pati na rin sa ating mga pamilya, komunidad, sa ating bansa, at sa buong mundo! panahon na para ipagbuo muli ang lahat-lahat.  — Yoga continued from our seated meditation, and out, as we joined a larger group of activists and artists coming together calling for an end to the war in gaza. there were also our filipino children, present for the children of palestine. it is now time when i become you. and you become me. your pain i feel, and mine you feel too. we are all coming together now.


statements were read condemning the war. songs were sung for peace. candles were lit too for a beautiful vigil. we were also gladly invited to come forward and share ourselves with everyone. without a name or an official affiliation, our team of yogis formed a line in front and together moved into Warrior 1, Tindig Bagani. the front leg kneeling, the back leg pressing straight and strong into the earth, rooting deep into our seated foundation. we breathed our strong hearts forward, and floated our arms up towards the sky, gazing up, offering our truth, said loud and clear. Buhay Para Sa Gaza! (Life For Gaza!) Pagkakaisa Para Sa Palestina! (Unity For Palestine!) Paggalang Sa Sangkatauhan! (Respect For All of Humanity!) and this is our role to play, for all of humanity.

[photos from the action] 

ang pag-uulat ni Len Olea: “Filipinos join call to stop US-backed Israeli attacks on Gaza”

on solidarity & community yoga

pakikitungo, pakikisama, pakikiramay. relating to each other, being together, feeling together, all becomes a living practice. and that is how i understand ‘work’ —it is nothing more than a way to live; it is action; it is everyday activism that is inspired for transformation.

when we awaken to the pains we have created within us, the brokenness in our own relations, and the injustices we perpetuate in our own societies, charity becomes an insufficient way to give. somehow we cannot afford the mediocrity of handing out ‘tokens’, or indulge in the fleeting feeling of ‘self-righteousness’ in giving. if true transformation is the ideal, then solidarity in turn becomes a more lasting and empowering way to live.


my undergraduate years have given me many opportunities to explore and experiment with these ideas ( having later returned to the philippines to work on a variety of community development projects, every trip to visit a community, every home i am invited to stay in, and every project we partner for, continue to be moments to live solidarity. pakikitungo, pakikisama, pakikiramay. relating to each other, being together, feeling together, all becomes a living practice. and that is how i understand ‘work’ —it is nothing more than a way to live; it is action; it is everyday activism that is inspired for transformation.


ritualyoga too, i have grown to learn in the past years, is another transformative way to live. ‘doing’ yoga has become less of attending a class, less of a physical work-out, less of ‘me-time’, and now much more of a commitment to a daily inner work.
teaching yoga too has become a little less of an appointment, a little less of a task on a ‘to-do list’ (although i am still constantly reflecting on my attitudes towards teaching!), and now much more of choosing to be actively part of community transformation.
yoga has grown for me more and more to become an everyday movement, an everyday practice, enacted live, that seeks to transform nothing more than my very own self. and when my inner work fills me full, i naturally step out into the world to join others.


in the past year, i have joined many other yoga teachers in metro manila in leading community classes by-donation. it is difficult to size-up the entire movement today, as these classes are often unpublicised, not formalised, and mushrooming in the most unexpected spaces (almost ‘guerrilla-style’ as some would say!). the principle that guides it is that of ‘energy exchange’ —the teacher gives of her/his time to lead and hold a class together, and the students give what they wish and are able to in return for the gift of practice. it can also be explained as seva, as jivamukti yoga teacher nancy explains it, when she offers ‘free’ classes in exchange for supporting an advocacy.


these spaces and moments open up to a wide range of transformative possibilities!
rather than seeing the class as a commodity that s/he is entitled to as a client or customer, a student instead approaches the teacher as a companion, kasama, in a practice. a teacher is invited to enter a community of friends (and strangers!) whose own interest, zeal and passion self-sustains their own practice, and which is hardly dependent on the teacher’s availability. (our students have in fact, more than once, gathered together for ‘solo practice’ in the teacher’s absence! and had fun leading their own savasana at the end!) in these classes by-donation, a teacher is enabled to serve individuals who otherwise would not be able to financially sustain a regular yoga practice in a commercial studio. a teacher too is taught to have faith in the students’ generosity, in that s/he will be always be abundantly rewarded —perhaps quite like in an ‘economics of giving’ that is founded on a trust in prosperity, and not in lack. and more radically, the teacher is reminded that s/he is NOT engaged in charity (i.e. NOT engaged in a self-righteous act of reaching out to disempowered individuals), but instead, engaged in brief moments of solidarity when everyone in the room, for the next hour or so, join together as equals in a practice that profoundly empowers their own lives.


1st anniv
this month of july 2014, our growing community celebrates its 1st year anniversary of practising yoga together. i offer this piece as a little reflection of what it was like to teach them, to witness the tremendous growth in everyone, and to learn from everything we have gone through together. today the group’s own enthusiasm has called 5 other teachers to offer them classes almost daily! fuelled by nothing more than the students’ own passion, sustained by everyone’s generosity, and belief in their own empowerment.
here we offer our own stories too:

people of the storm 2

after the storm, the laundry. people are picking themselves up, over 3 months after yolanda. my regular visits to leyte reveal new roofs hammered a nail at a time. farmers and carabaos tilling their fields one step after the other, rice stalks planted one by one in neat lines. bangon visayas! tindog tacloban! buhat mayorga! every city, municipio, and sitio is still called and cheered on to stand up.

the world remains here in our islands. the UNFPA, the UNHCR, Catholic Relief Services, the Children’s Fund, the Samaritan’s Purse, the World Food Program, Tzu Chi, the Korean army engineers working under the noontime heat, the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières.

there are perhaps countless more who, like us, work quietly without name, without uniform nor ID. it is like moving through a movie of a war zone or a battle field. after all yolanda has been declared a national state of emergency. time is a real race here, and no real work can be accomplished lazy and lacking in compassion.

working through all the rubble, unlike anything many of us has ever lived through, i needed to see myself in this place and moment. a conscious inquiry into my own relations now to a people of a storm.
with our jeep’s windows rolled down, i taste a smell of the sun. the sea breeze now calm. the scent of rain and soil, and wood burning. quickly i was back in a pick-up truck driving down farm roads in uganda. and then suddenly, sitting in a cramped bus rolling through the guatemalan highlands. the whole world arrived in a single moment. with us here in the visayas, alive in the midst of our misery and decay.

a stranded boat and an orphan. huge fishing vessels crushed over entire houses. and this boy who we met in the town plaza lost his mother to the storm. a man who lost 17 in his family in a day. a doktora and her midwives who attended to a mother in labour while yolanda shook their birth clinic in a mad fury. an employee of the department of education clung hard to his toddlers while waves surged through their neighborhood; the very next day, with a limping leg, he resumed to work in a crazed 1-man search for their public school teachers.
though our team was tasked with a job order to deliver relief operations, and assist local leaders in their post-disaster recovery and rehabilitation plans, moments like these still hold me in a muting shock. the heart shaken — all of this i must understand! how can we bring each other down when such noble courage breathes fire in so many among us? later i write and make images to make some meaning out of these collected stories.

to be vulnerable and poor is an injustice.
on our way out of leyte our van caught up with a large surge of protestors gathering outside the tacloban city hall. “saan po kayo galing?” where are you from? most of them came from samar, another island province ravaged too by fiercest waves and winds to ever hit landfall in recorded history. to us they reported: “not much help reaches us.” “we do not need more rice; we need money.” “where do we live now?” everyone gathered there were survivors-protestors: claiming their right to life, to survival, and to a life better than the one of poverty they already had before the storm. how do we rise –out of mounds of concrete, steel bars and cables, and out of the tangled circuitry of powers that keep a few mighty and bind many low down to their dirty knees?

people of the storm

2 months since yolanda. it’s my 1st time to land in leyte. i arrive and do not spend too much time in tacloban city –2 ships crashing on top of entire villages, an oil tank dredged over to someone’s backyard, a city that appears to have been bombed over and over, by explosions made purely of the fiercest winds, ocean waves, and terrifying rain. instead i ride out farther down the coastline, town after town, to understand what else had happened.

20140105-141904.jpgpalo, santa fe, tolosa, tanauan, dulag, pastrana, dagami, javier, alang alang, barugo. my eyes simply could not understand. outside the city death still screams everywhere. where vast coconut plantations were are now endless fields of matchsticks sticking out of the ground. rice fields turned into dark swamps. iron sheets must have flown in the wind like rolls of toilet paper. wooden huts crumbled now swallowed whole by the earth. concrete walls crushed like styrofoam. once in a while a waft of decay would still blow by.

people of rice.
one step at a time, i saw farmers walk through their fields planting rice again in time for the harvest in march, while thunder clouds still loom over us.
people of copra.
fallen coconuts have been collected, piled up, broken, the white meat readied for the last burning. centuries of enslavement. this is all the farmers know to do, scraping a handful of coins for backbreaking harvest, faces blackened by smoke. yolanda has killed all the landlords’ trees, maybe now the farmers are freed — but what do they do next? perhaps they never knew.

people of the storm.20140106-000702.jpg
the main roads have all been cleared. military trucks collect endless mounds of debris. i’ve visited many town halls, and municipal social workers say no one goes hungry now. we drove through small dirt roads to go deeper into villages. relief goods come in abundant loads; all barangays are fed. but houses are still wrecked, leaking and flooded. tents are hot in the day and cold at night. no one speaks of the need for ‘counselling’, but the same fear grips them when rain again begins to pour. angels and marias stand over mass graves to look over the dead; names are each handwritten on pieces of wood. a statue of the christ standing on imelda’s mansion on the mountain top is miraculously unscathed; it once looked out with arms open to the sea, but now he faces us inland.

20140106-000727.jpgwala man kaming problema dito. bago man mag yolanda gutom na kami.” (we don’t have problems here. even before yolanda hit us we were already hungry.) a parish priest rebuilding his church for st francis of assisi talks to me about poverty. the roof has been shredded and ripped off like carton, and the padre still celebrates a packed sunday mass. his homily was weeping uncontrollably at the lectern. “mabuti maging pobre. matagal na kaming survivor” (it’s good to be poor. we have long been survivors), he tells me for some consolation.

philippine flags tied to bamboo poles are raised on top of trees, ripped rooftops, and broken electric poles. a strange sea of fluttering flags, i thought: well, no one needs to be told we are in the philippines. but they seem to call out to the world: UNFPA, UNHCR, World Food Program, USAID, Tzu Chi, UNDP, the Korean Army Engineers… all of them and many many more are here. the flags rally everyone to stand up on their feet. “bangon leyte.” “tindig palo.” “bangon javier.”bangon pilipinas.” stand up, stand up tall, they say.

through the twisted queues in the manila airport 3 days ago, i stood by a tall foreigner pacing restless for a seat in the next flight. his ID showed he’s part of the red cross medical team. spotting his rolled up outdoor gear, i thought i smelled the pine trees of british columbia for a bit. we could have been classmates. we exchanged the warmest of smiles; his had a glow of sleepless exhaustion, and mine of deepest gratitude. i wanted to wrap my short arms around this giant to say: “maraming salamat, thank you for being here.”

now on my return flight i watch an old man sweep in the tacloban airport. without any walls or glass windows, airplane fumes blow straight at us in the waiting grounds. i watch manong and his thin dark frame gently piling grey dust with his broom. i start to cry, watching his slow persistence, the futility of cleaning an endless stream of dirt. just like other men who hammer new iron sheets over their broken house frames, one nail at a time. repetition, work, effort. to forget for a moment the 10,000 lives gone, missing, buried, rotting all underneath us. how long before we fall again? how long before we rise back up?

on walking

walking is incredibly liberating.

to do without the metallic chunks of a vehicle, of keys, coins, gas, and grease, and to do with just your own body. with just your own two legs, each foot touching the ground beneath, moving you forward.

vancouver taught me to walk, very far to get to places. it was usually a stroll, hardly unpleasant. with bags of books and groceries, or on winding foot paths through a forest, or skipping along the city streets under the rain. those walks were not always solitary; often it would be a walk holding mahal‘s hand in mine. or with a large crowd chanting, parading, marching together through closed streets. i think these walks gave us all a joy, a strange euphoria, knowing that we could go far and that we could do much with nothing much really, but just by being on foot.

manila too is teaching me to walk. in the lack of well constructed sidewalks, it is a game of balancing over cracked cement, strewn debris and garbage; the pedestrian needs to find one’s way through squatting vendors, rusting fences, and past other rushing bodies. every step my feet take is a moment of awakening –even to the passing smell of piss, the sudden belch of smog, or to the sight of campaign posters melting over crumbling walls. it is hardly a stroll here, but walking has become ever more my practice on staying present. on foot you awaken to realities alive all around you.

maglakad, maglakad… caminando, caminando…


“La utopía está en el horizonte. Me acerco dos pasos, ella se aleja dos pasos más. Camino diez pasos y el horizonte se corre diez pasos más allá. Por mucho que yo camine nunca la voy a alcanzar. ¿Para qué sirve la utopía? Sirve para eso: para caminar.”

“Utopia lies in the horizon. When I draw two steps near her, she retreats two steps away. If I walk ten steps forward, she swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how much I walk, I can never reach her. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? So we keep walking.” — Eduardo Galeano

walking is a practice.

at maintaining presence, of moving, to keep moving, with intention and in wakefulness. one cannot walk not knowing where s/he’s headed; but even if it seems that another, better world is not anywhere nearer, the steps one takes are just as real. also beautiful.

Imageonce a man whom his students call Thay (or teacher) also taught me how to walk. he lived in vietnam during the great war, fully awake to all the tremendous pains inflicted on his land and people. he was nominated by dr martin luther king for the nobel peace prize, for his courageous heart that spoke against the war. today an old teacher, he continues to walk –one foot, and the next, one at a time– with all those who wish to walk too. to heal, including the earth beneath our feet.

listen, listen to cries of battle

R.A. No. 8371 is the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997 in the philippines.

many have asked, ‘what has happened all these years?’ and evidently the media (skipping over ‘cultural festivals’, postcards, and other touristic representations of indigeneity) is still haunted by stories of human dignity and lives lost at the cost of extracted wealth and other colonial endeavours.

i sense that ‘indigeneity’ remains absent in mainstream filipino thought. translated into tagalog, the word ‘katutubo‘ maybe paints the idea better. this person, like a root, a shoot, was planted and grown from this land. no, it does not spell primitivity, inferiority, nor poverty. and although indigeneity is not always visibly ‘marked’ in the philippines (unlike the vivid racial divides at play in latin america), it still remains a powerful and real cultural-political identity here.

i do not claim an indigenous identity. born from a mix (una mezcla) of chinese migrants and a distant visayan bloodline, my life is of many scattered bases and of different tongues. and although mobility and migration do not contradict an indigenous identity (i am still in awe of the scale of the cordillera diaspora worldwide, and of peoples’ constant movement across sierra madres, towns and rivers here), a single particular landscape has not held me, nor shaped me and my ancestors for millenia. unlike those of indigenous peoples.

my recent immersion in community development work with indigenous groups in the philippines has reminded me of one urgent practice: to keep reflecting on my role in all these struggles.

Estado | batas | tao
the intersecting battles with the state, on rights, and for people’s lives on the ground

many of these fierce battles –whether against deforestation, hunger, displacement, illiteracy, or other ills– intersect across many fronts. the battle is not always a tribe’s clenched fist against a faceless bureaucracy or monstrous machinery rolling in a protected area; but it is also a wrestle within one’s own village, within one’s own family, and often with one’s own self. the battle cry can be loud like the budyong (conchshell), blown by people calling to belong to a nation, to be remembered as co-human beings, and to be heard by all; but the battle cry is also for reawakening memories buried deep within or long erased by another. laws, policies, and other covenants founded on mutual respect and trust, meant to protect and uphold, already exist in plenty. they are bound in books, published, and read in courts. but where do we all draw the power to put them in practice?

it seems that these battles can be fought standing in a circle with weapons facing out; but they are also fought with dances and prayers to gather forces we cannot see. and the most terrifying ones are also fought with eyes closed gazing in.

these battles are not mine.

the unearthing of burial grounds to make way for a golf course does not desecrate the bones of my grandfather. i do not know how to hold my palm out to beg for coins, uprooted and a wandering beggar in my very own home. my mind does not understand that a flattened mountain is my mother’s breast cut off. these battles are not mine; they are those of indigenous peoples in the philippines, and shared by every single indigenous community worldwide. these battles are not mine, but they are mine to witness, with my entire being, with eyes that refuse to look away, and with a heart that will continue to listen, listen, and listen, like a purse of memories that promises not to burst, that promises to keep all these stories safe inside, so long as there are those who never tire to tell them.

i cannot be apart from these battles. nor can you, indigenous or not. none of us can ever stand far away; every single one of us is a part of all this.