Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An OFW as a Philippine Tourist

by Carmelita C. Ballesteros

I worked in Singapore in 2008 without going home for a whole year. I’d feel homesick every now and then, but there was plenty of work to occupy myself… To make up for lost time, I splurged my annual leave and spent most of December 2008 with my extended family members as well as friends. One of the things we did together was tour Luzon from south to north.

It was wonderful getting re-acquainted with my grandkids as well as exploring my own country and heritage. No small thanks to my Malaysian friends Soo Fun and Michael who came to visit for a week.

Are you a stranger in the country of your birth? Are you a stranger in your parents’ or grandparents’ hometown? Do find time to tour around the Philippines. It isn’t as awful as the newspapers paint it.

True, traffic jams are everywhere in Manila and other big cities. But the strawberry jam and the ube jam of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Baguio City and Tagaytay City are enticing, tempting, and mouth-watering rewards, enough to make you exclaim, “It’s a glimpse of heaven!”
Heaven isn’t the traffic jam. It isn’t the rusty roofs of houses. Neither is it the pollution in cities. Heaven is the kindness, simplicity, and sweetness of rural folk in the countryside. Heaven is friendship and family togetherness that you can experience only in the Philippines.

Last December, my friends Soo Fun and Michael visited the Philippines. Michael actually comes and goes to Manila for business trips, but has never gone around as a tourist. His wife Soo Fun was visiting the Philippines for the first time.

Soo Fun and Michael are Malaysians who live and work in Singapore as permanent residents. I am an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) teaching in a Singaporean university.

I’m a homebody and I travel around the Philippines only when it’s an official trip. So when my friend Soo Fun came to visit as a tourist, I was a tourist myself.

My son, daughter-in-law, and sister took turns driving for us. We drove around Metro Manila, Cavite, then on to Vigan, Ilocos Sur. On the way back to Manila, we drove up to Baguio City from Vigan.

Then we did some shopping and eating in Metro Manila, drove around Tagaytay City, and finally, we went on an arts excursion to Angono, Rizal and Paete, Laguna.

Day 1, Manila. We posed in front of Jose Rizal’s monument at the Luneta Park. As Soo Fun and Michael asked questions about Jose Rizal, I began to realize my being a Filipino in a deeper sense.
Carol, Soo Fun, and Carmel in front of Rizal's monument in Luneta.

Trying to explain to foreigners who Rizal was, what he did and didn’t do, and why he chose to live and die the way he had was mutually enlightening.

Our next stop was the Manila Cathedral. While a wedding ceremony was going on, the next wedding party was already waiting at the back. The Manila Cathedral is probably the most-booked church for weddings in the Philippines.
Michael, who loves doors, windows, and benches/chairs, couldn’t resist having his picture taken beside one of the wooden doors at the Manila Cathedral.

From the Manila Cathedral, we walked to Fort Santiago where Jose Rizal was incarcerated by the Spaniards. While entering the premises, we noticed security guards or patrol officers dressed as ‘guardias civiles.’ A ‘guardia civil’ was a police officer during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines.

I was most impressed with the footpath which Rizal had taken on his way to his execution from Fort Santiago to Luneta. The path had Rizal’s footsteps etched on it.

Michael observed, “Rizal wasn’t a tall man, was he? And he must have been walking slowly.”

“I guess you wouldn’t run as you head towards your execution,” I replied. Quietly, I asked myself what Rizal was thinking of as he walked towards Luneta, certain that death was waiting. Did he recite his “Mi Ultimo Adios” as he walked meditatively to Luneta?

Driving from Makati to Manila and back to Makati took the whole day. (Soo Fun and Michael stayed in a hotel in Makati.) There was a humongous traffic jam caused by the anti-Chacha rally mounted by a multi-sectoral group.

It was during this rally that Senator Mar Roxas declaimed using expletives against the Arroyo administration. He was criticized by some, but he didn’t apologize. Actually, the ordinary Filipino loved him for doing so.

Speaking of political unrest, Michael and Soo Fun narrated that Malaysia and Singapore had had its share of uncertain times, too.

Day 2, Cavite and Ilocos Sur. It was a looong 13-hour drive from Cavite in Southern Luzon to Vigan in Northern Luzon. We made several stops along the way, though.

I particularly wanted to go to Vigan so I could visit with a long-time friend, Sister Fidelisa Portillo, SPC, of the Paulinian Congregation in the Philippines. She had been inviting me and my family to visit with her in Vigan since the turn of the 21st century!

We arrived at the gate of the school where Sister Fidelisa is posted, St. Paul College of Ilocos Sur, at 12 midnight. The alert security guards immediately opened the gates and guided us to our sleeping quarters.

They were simple rooms with the basic necessities, including biscuits, mineral water, towels, soap, and shampoo. They were simple, cozy rooms with welcoming and warm curtains which were probably sewn by the nuns themselves.

Day 3, Vigan and Baguio City. Breakfast the morning after was a riotous affair with Sister Celine Santos, the president of the school, entertaining us with humorous anecdotes.

Carmel, Sr. Celine, Michael, Soo Fun, and Sr. Fidelisa.

Can you imagine a breakfast of fried rice fragrant with garlic, steaming coffee, and Vigan longanisa (pork sausage) with vinegar dip in the happy company of family and friends?
It’s enough to make you feel as if you’ve had a glimpse of heaven! It sure was a happy Sunday, our reward after a long day’s drive.

What makes Vigan longanisa extraordinary? What makes the vinegar dip that goes with it a must?

Vigan longanisa is extraordinary because it’s made of lean pork, garlic, onions, black pepper, vinegar, and other ingredients. It hardly has any fat because it’s hung to dry under the sun for at least four hours.

Cooking Vigan longanisa is done by simmering it in water over low fire until the water evaporates. The casing is pricked all the while so that the remaining fat is released in which it is fried until it’s golden brown.

The vinegar dip consists of sugar cane vinegar with crushed garlic, chopped onions, ground black pepper, chili pepper, and salt. You could use tomato catsup or fresh tomatoes, but it is the vinegar dip that makes eating Vigan longanisa a supreme experience.

We said grace, then started eating and chatting. It was mostly Sister Celine Santos, SPC, talking but we didn’t mind. Her hilarious anecdotes and vivacious personality were amazing. And she’s past 70! I guess it’s the reason she looks as if she’s only 50.

Sister Celine is the president of St. Paul College of Ilocos Sur. SPCIS, for short, celebrated its 100th year in December 2005. It has had a long and illustrious presence in Ilocos Sur, molding the Ilocano youth around its charism, “The love of Christ urges us.”

(If you are interested in youth exchange or immersion programs, please email Sister Fidelisa at fidelisaportillo@yahoo.com)

After breakfast, we headed toward Bantay and Vigan, had a calesa ride, bought some souvenirs and goodies, and took pictures, of course. We went back to the school, heard Sunday mass together with the faculty and staff, and had a sumptuous lunch at the Sisters’ convent.

At 1:00 p.m., we were on our way back to Manila. My son decided to take a side trip to Baguio City by taking the Naguillian Road in Bauang, La Union. It was a smooth ride up although there were zigzag stretches of road to negotiate. The mountains, the clouds, the fog, and the setting sun were spectacular views to behold.

Baguio City was cold and windy! It was also unbelievably crowded. There were people everywhere – shopping, walking, eating, taking pictures, driving – all enjoying the 15 degree Celsius temperature of Baguio City.

After a quick supper, we headed down to Manila and arrived a little after midnight. It was Monday morning already. We dropped off Michael and Soo Fun at their hotel in Makati, agreeing to meet later in the afternoon to go shopping for pearl jewelry in Metro Manila.

Day 4, Manila. Pearl jewelry? I couldn’t believe the range of fabulous designs, colors, and affordability of pearl jewelry in the Philippines. For example, a really elegant necklace can be yours at the price of USD20!

Soo Fun loved pearl jewelry and had a grand time shopping for pearl presents as well as pearl keepsakes for herself. She and my daughter-in-law shopped till the shops closed!

(With her husband in tow, Soo Fun had another pearl shopping spree! No, she didn’t re-sell them. She gave most of them to family and friends in Singapore and Malaysia as Christmas presents.)

Day 5, Tagaytay City. Since Tagaytay is only an hour and a half away from Manila, we spent the next day exploring the hills and valleys and nooks of Tagaytay. My sister picked up Soo Fun from the hotel, then met up with my daughter-in-law and me. Driving up to Tagaytay, we were excited that we were having a girls’ outing.

Tagaytay was cool and windy although less cold than Baguio. Because it was a little cloudy, our view of Taal Volcano was not as sharp as on a clear day. It was also too windy to stay outdoors and contemplate the volcano in the middle of the lake.

The pictures we snapped showed us clutching our shawls and sweaters with our hair being blown by the wind in every direction. Funny pictures they were and I’d rather you didn’t see them.

Day 6, Angono, Rizal and Paete, Laguna. We planned to go to Villa Escudero in San Pablo City, but we gave it up after learning that there was no cultural show on a weekday. Instead, we decided to have an art excursion to Angono, Rizal and Paete, Laguna.

My son insisted that we go to Angono, Rizal. He fondly remembers his art excursion to Angono when he was a college student at San Beda College in Mendiola, Manila.

Angono, Rizal is a small town by a river. Its narrow streets and slow-moving traffic are not exactly encouraging. However, it’s also the home of many artists such as Nemesio Miranda and Jose Blanco.

My daughter-in-law had attended art lessons by Nemesio Miranda, popularly known as Nemiranda. So our first stop was his home cum gallery or the Nemiranda Arthouse. The entrance fee was less than one US dollar. It was worth every centavo we paid.

Nemiranda’s art house is like a typical Filipino house made of wood, bamboo, and concrete. But it’s atypical because it’s a house where an artist lives with his wife and children. At the end of the gallery, some pieces were for sale. Soo Fun fell in love with a simple painting of a small house in a farm. It exuded innocence, purity, tranquility, and joy.

We negotiated for a good price and left with the painting bubble-wrapped, ready to travel by air.
Our next stop was Jose Blanco’s Family Museum. My son said the Blanco house he had visited during his college days was a sprawling bahay-kubo which looked like an informal art school where everybody was painting in every corner.

Today, the sprawling bahay-kubo has been replaced by a concrete building which serves as the museum as well as home of the Blancos.

Jose Blanco, a fine arts graduate of the University of Santo Tomas in 1955, was a fisherman’s son. Jose himself fished to raise his tuition money. He devoted his art to the depiction of rural life in Angono and around the Philippines. An art critic, Alice Guillermo, has labeled Blanco’s murals of rural scenes as ‘folk realism.’

His murals are like blown-up photo snapshots as regards faithfulness to details. In a mural depicting a town fiesta, each face was unique and individual. A mural showing a garbage dump made you cringe at the sight of flies and worms.

The most amazing thing about Jose Blanco and his family is that his seven children as well as his wife all paint! None of them had formal painting lessons. They didn’t need to. They have had the best teacher – Jose Blanco himself.

The time we spent together as family and friends inside the museum was priceless. The entrance fee, a little over one US dollar, was embarrassingly cheap! Our guide, a cousin of the Blanco children, had asked us not to take pictures because the flash of the camera could damage the paintings. We complied willingly.

Hungry after two art stops, we hurried to the nearby Balao-Balao Restaurant. It turned out to be another art house. While waiting for our order, we toured the gallery on the ground and second floors.

I was so taken by a wooden sculpture which looked like a blanket cradle from afar. Upon inspection, it was a mother rocking her child to sleep and it was aptly titled, “Sa Ugoy ng Duyan.”

Soon enough, our table was laden with food. Starving, we had ordered food fit to feed a battalion: chicken sour stew, frog legs, deer meat, and the restaurant’s specialty. We were both amazed and delighted when a huge wok (talyasi, in Tagalog) was wheeled in by two waiters. The freshly-cooked rice was topped with chicken and pork adobo, shrimps, mussels, salted red egg, and vegetables.

We ate till we were stuffed. In addition to the main courses, we had soda drinks, bottled water, ice cream, and halu-halo, a concoction of sweets with milk and shaved ice. We couldn’t believe that the banquet which fed six adults and two kids, plus the gallery tour, cost us as little as USD36.00!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Removal of documentary stamp tax on OFW remittances pushed

We ought to support this move.

02/12/2009 09:02 PM

MANILA, Philippines — Militant lawmakers on Thursday pushed for the removal of the documentary stamp tax (DST) on all monetary remittances from Filipinos abroad to their families in the Philippines.

A bill filed by representatives of party-list groups Gabriela, Bayan Muna and Anakpawis sought to scrap the tax amid complaints by OFWs that the DST on their remittances was an added financial burden. The tax is estimated to reach US$1.5 million or P70.5 million per month.

House Bill 5862 proposes the removal of the documentary stamp tax on all remittances from Filipinos abroad by repealing Section 181 of Republic Act 8424 or the "Tax Reform Act of 1997."

The authors of the bill are Gabriela Reps. Luzviminda Ilagan and Liza Maza, Bayan Muna Reps. Satur Ocampo and Teodoro CasiƱo and Anakpawis Rep. Rafael Mariano.

They stressed that the removal of the tax would “serve as proof of the State's high regard for the huge sacrifices of all Filipino migrants and ensure that their hard-earned monies fully go to their families, putting their interests and welfare over and above revenue generation and other interests of private businesses and even of the government."

At present, the government charges a DST of 0.15 percent for every US$200 remittance. Banks have been collecting this since the enactment of RA 8424 and money transfer organizations are now following suit, said the lawmakers.

Considering that OFW remittances average US$1 billion monthly, this DST collection would mean US$1.5 million or P70.5 million at $1:P47 exchange rate monthly in DST revenue of the government, the lawmakers said.

In contrast to the huge profits and other benefits enjoyed by banks, money transfer operators and the government from OFW remittances, OFWs and their families continue to tighten their belts to make do with the average monthly remittance of US$340 or P15,980 at $1:P47 exchange rate, they said.

Citing data from the National Statistics Office Survey of OFWs, the lawmakers noted that since 1995, around 71 percent of workers' remittances have been sent home as cash, of which 70 percent passed through the banks.

The share of cash remittances coursed through the banks has been increasing from 65 percent in 1995 to 76 percent in 2002.

The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas estimates that banks now capture 90 percent of total remittances, up from 80 percent several years ago. Total remittances in 2007 were estimated to have reached $15 billion, seven percent more than in 2006.

In a press statement, the lawmakers acknowledged that the pricing for remittance services among banks was quite competitive.

In the US, where most Filipino remittances come from or are channeled through, service charges for remittances range from US$7 to US$8 for credit to account transactions; US$10 to US$12 for credit other bank service; US$8 to US$12 for advice and pay services (within Metro Manila); and US$12 to US$15 for door-to-door services (within Metro Manila).

Philippine bank charges range from $5 (book transfer within one bank, foreign accounts to local branch account) to $16 on the high-end, which can include door-to-door courier delivery. Door-to-door operations add an increment cost of at least $2 to remittance price. - D'Jay Lazaro, GMANews.TV



Saturday, February 7, 2009

Gov't may lift ban on sending OFWs to Iraq, Nigeria

02/06/2009 | 07:55 PM

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines will reassess its current ban on sending workers to Iraq, Nigeria and Lebanon and may lift it in areas with lower security risks because of the global economic crisis, the vice president said Friday.

The country's economy is largely dependent on its overseas workers, with some 8.7 million out of 90 million Filipinos working abroad. The government said $14.45 billion was sent home in 2007— about 10 percent of the gross domestic product. It has projected 2008 remittances will hit $15.7 billion.

Vice President Noli de Castro, who is also the presidential adviser on migrant workers, said security has reportedly improved in the economic centers of Iraq, Nigeria and Lebanon.

He said a selective lifting of the ban is being considered "to widen our overseas employment market in the light of the global economic crisis."

A lifting of the ban is only being considered in places with high employment opportunities, and it would remain in areas still considered high-risk zones, de Castro said in a statement.

A team headed by Roy Cimatu, special envoy to the Middle East, will leave soon to reassess the security risks in the three countries, Department of Foreign Affairs officials said.

In a meeting with de Castro last month, Iraqi officials urged the Philippines to send workers to help with the reconstruction of their country, where up to 10 million new jobs are available, the statement said.

The Philippines banned its citizens from working in Iraq in July 2004 after insurgents abducted and threatened to behead Filipino truck driver Angelo dela Cruz. He was released after President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo agreed to withdraw the Philippines' small military contingent in Iraq — a decision strongly criticized by Washington and other coalition allies.

Labor Secretary Marianito Roque said about 10,000 Filipinos work in two US military camps in Iraq without permission from the government.

Some 3,800 Filipinos work in Nigeria's bustling oil industry. Arroyo banned additional workers from going there in 2007 after gunmen kidnapped scores of foreign workers, including dozens of Filipinos.

The Philippines also prohibited the deployment of its workers to Lebanon after war broke out in July 2006. - AP