Chasing after happiness (even on a habal-habal) is a lifelong pursuit

(Before we said goodbye to 2007, I wrote a piece for the newspaper that summed up my thoughts on a story I did months earlier about a remote village in Mindanao with no electricity. The New Year’s Eve essay [it came out two days before January 1st] also served as a backgrounder on what happened before and after the actual coverage took place [please refer to my previous blog post to read the story in full].

(Like all backgrounders, it didn’t see print and was stored in my mind’s data bank until we were asked by the editor sometime before Christmas to write a short and uplifting piece culled from our own experiences. Since I live for these occasions, I jumped at the chance to write something that not only veered from the usual stuff I do, but also served as a source of inspiration for myself and for other people who cared to read and take the story’s message to heart.

(In case you miss it the first time around, I’m sharing it with you again. Wherever we find ourselves in, let us bear in mind that there’s plenty to be thankful for. Barring extremely unfortunate moments, each of us have had our share of beautiful experiences. As a whole, we’ve had a good run and, if the fates allow, will continue to have even more in the months and years to come.)

(Project Thankful)

(Project Thankful)

THROUGH THE YEARS, I’VE COME across a number of supposedly fabulous people who try to put on fulfilled, happy faces, but deep down you could somehow sense that something is amiss in their shallow, miserable lives.

In contrast, I had the opportunity to travel earlier this year to a remote, God-forsaken mountain barangay in Shariff Kabunsuan, Mindanao composed of indigenous people called Tirurays.

The day we came, the people—both young and old—were in a jubilant mood since they were just discovering for themselves the wonders of electricity, thanks to individual solar panels provided by the USAID. Each family has to pay for the panels in easy installments over the next three years.

The solar cells were enough for each household to power several lights for a couple of hours, a radio and a small electric fan.

Habal-habal: ride at your own risk!

Habal-habal: ride at your own risk!

We reached the barangay on a dump truck late in the afternoon. In full tribal garb, the people greeted us with dances and ethnic music coming from traditional instruments like bells and gongs.

In lieu of fresh garlands, they welcomed us with woven necklaces they themselves made. Through it all, I couldn’t help but feel like a long-lost member of Tiruray royalty.

It’s probably safe to say that with or without electricity, this people live a hard life. For one, they have no running water, much less a water-sealed toilet, that I had to set aside my morning rituals until we had reached Cotabato City the next evening.

Most of these folks are subsistence farmers who have to walk or ride on horseback for several miles down rugged and muddy mountain trails just to get to the nearest bus stop—if there’s a bus at all!—to transport their produce.

Risky

I experienced it for myself, riding in what they call Skylabs or habal-habal—motorcycles that have been reconfigured to fit in four to six people including the driver. It was, indeed, a far cry from the stretch limo I once cruised in with a group of Filipino journalists in Las Vegas.

Now I know what it feels like to join a motocross. As we zigzagged our way through driving rain and occasional bursts of lightning, with only several feet separating us from Kingdom Come in the form of steep ravines, I really thought I was going to die.

(Project Thankful)

(Project Thankful)

And if one is brave enough to venture into the mountains, he’s better off leaving the car or jeepney behind. Apart from the Skylabs, which charge an arm and a leg, the vehicle of choice in the hinterlands of Shariff Kabunsuan and Maguindanao is either a big sturdy bus or, like the way we came in, a dump truck.

The problem was that it had rained the entire night and throughout the next day so the driver of the dump truck refused to drive us back to the municipio. He would rather stay put for fear of his truck getting stuck in the mud along the way. I had no choice but to hold on tight and leave my fate entirely to God and the Skylab driver.

The night before, during dinner, I was touched to find out that the village leaders even went through the trouble of having several chickens slaughtered (the stuff must have cost them a small fortune) to cook tinola for us city folks.

Yet what I saw in their faces amazed and inspired me no end—a spontaneous kind of joy mixed with hope that things were going to get a bit better because of the availability, no matter how limited, of electricity.

(Project Thankful)

(Project Thankful)

Children as well as the lone barangay teacher and his wife were beside themselves with excitement as the kids could now study way into the night, while their moms tended to various forms of livelihood projects such as basket weaving under a specially made fluorescent light.

For granted

Imagine, stuff we urbanites normally take for granted were now within easy reach of these people: they no longer had to go down the mountain and charge their cell phones in the town since charging was now just a plug away; meetings and village dances (you’d be amazed at their pirated repertoire, which included Beyonce, Black Eyed Peas, Pussycat Dolls and, of course, Madonna!) no longer had to be confined during the day.

Of course, the presence of electricity wasn’t some sort of magic wand that could instantly wipe all their troubles away. For all I know, some of them might be more miserable now that they have access to it.

Still, with such a development, the pros still outweigh the cons. Indeed, I can go on and on about how happy and optimistic they have become, but the points of my story are:

We’re far luckier and blessed than most other people; We do not know the value of certain things (and loved ones) that we normally take for granted—electricity and running water, for instance—until we lose them completely; You are as happy as you allow yourself to be. In other words, you determine your own happiness.

You’re gravely mistaken if you depend on others for it; You can thrive, if not bloom, wherever you’re planted, be it in Manila, Cebu, or Shariff Kabunsuan; You can’t change certain situations (and that includes dead-end jobs, impossible co-workers, nosy neighbors, fair-weather friends and corrupt governments), but you can certainly change the way you view or deal with such situations; Finally, despite the bummers that come our way with unexpected regularity both as individuals and as a nation, life is beautiful and too precious to fritter away brooding over certain things, events and people we can never ever change—at least, not for the moment.

(Project Thankful)

(Project Thankful)

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