Friday, April 25, 2014

60s Kaleidoscope: Robert F. Kennedy in Manila


(An excerpt from the author’s memoir.) 

Two months after the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in 1963, a defining moment happened to his younger brother Robert in a school called the Philippine Women's University along Taft Avenue in Manila.

Robert F. Kennedy
RFK visited the girls' school to fulfill a promise made by the late president.  The girls sang a song they had composed for his slain brother.  RFK was visibly moved by the gesture.

It is impossible to chart precisely when a person makes up his mind to run for president of the United States.  Robert Kennedy would not declare for the presidency until March of 1968, but it was likely that it was in the girls' school on Taft Avenue that the idea first crossed his mind.

RFK challenged Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination.  His campaign captured the imagination of the youth.  He fought against poverty, injustice and the war in Vietnam, After a stunning victory in the California primary, he was felled by an assassin's bullets as he traversed a hotel basement after delivering his victory speech.  

Then history took over. The anti-war movement gained momentum and the student revolution engulfed the nation, forcing Johnson eventually to withdraw from seeking reelection.  The rest is history.

Historic changes come to us in many ways.  Some come as tidal waves.  Others creep up slowly.  But whatever their form, they begin as defining moments. 

La Dolce Vita

At around the time that President Kennedy’s Camelot magic was sweeping America in the early 60s, two other events were beginning to take shape that together would converge into a confluence of change that would sweep us to the future.

As with most other events of historical impact, these forces congealed almost by accident – and it would take men of considerable skill and talent first to notice them, and then to turn them into social forces that would change our lives forever.

The first of these revolutionary ideas began to take shape in the mind of Federico Fellini in 1958.  It was then that the Italian filmmaker started developing the concept for a film that would change the trajectory of modern cinema, “La Dolce Vita.”

The film, shot in black and white when color was the preferred medium, ran two minutes short of three hours.  But length was not its most endearing feature.

“La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life)” had Marcelo Mastroianni play a young reporter writing about the escapades of decadent nobility, an emerging class of nouveau riche, a bevy of ambitious starlets, and other interesting life forms that populated the sidewalk cafes along Rome's trendy Via Veneto.  Through seven loosely connected episodes, we follow the journalist Marcello as he watches the girls go by even as he struggles to find meaning in his aimless  life.

Midnight dip at the fountain

Seeking to spice up her bored life, a rich woman played by Anouk Aimee picks up Marcello in her Cadillac and takes him to a run-down house of a prostitute where she thought it would be more exciting to make love.  In another scene that shocked audiences at the time, Sylvia, a statuesque blonde bombshell played by Anita Ekberg, takes Marcello on a midnight dip in the Fontana Trevi, immortalized in yet another movie, “Three Coins in the Fountain.”

The film foreshadowed the breaking down of traditional conventions in the 60s and rewrote our vocabulary as well.  The phrase dolce vita easily became part of the world's lingua franca and would evolve decades later into Ricky Martin's “Livin' la Vida Loca,” or living the crazy life.

In the film, Marcello was supported in his journalistic pursuits by a sidekick photographer named Paparazzo, whose surname in its plural form in Italian would later become emblematic of the hordes of photo journalists who make a living out of selling images of not-so-rich-and-famous celebrities on the rise or on the wane.

The film foretold the cult of celebrity that grips society today.  It was shot in 1959 and premiered in 1960, one year ahead of another film that would show another facet of the revolutionary movements of the decade.

Breakfast at Tiffany's

In 1961, Hollywood screened its romanticized version of Truman Capote's novella which was part of his 1958 “Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories.”  Capote had wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the role of Holly Golightly, a Texas runaway who makes it big in New York living a freewheeling lifestyle, a sort of La Dolce Vita, American style.

Audrey Hepburn
Instead, in one of those flights of fancy that worked remarkably well at the box office, the Hollywood moguls picked Audrey Hepburn to play the part that made it fashionable to wear a tiara while dressed in pearls and a black Givenchy gown, having coffee and a Danish at Tiffany's along New York's fashionable Fifth Avenue after a night out in the city that never sleeps.

The movie glossed over the stark reality of Capote's story, a single woman who feeds off her sugar dads to live la vida loca of the great American dream. Henry Mancini's Oscar-winning rendition of the movie's theme, “Moonriver,” contributed to the film's popularity, but that is not its greatest achievement.  Rather, like Fellini's masterpiece, Capote's “Tiffany's” elevated celebrity to a whole new level of consciousness.

Idealized composite

Capote's Holly Golightly was an idealized composite of his favorite stylish women – not the lovely creatures of Via Veneto – but the cream of American CafĂ© Society, like the celebrity heiress, Gloria Vanderbilt.  “Tiffany's” success also added a glittering layer to Capote's personal lifestyle; suddenly, he was the toast of Manhattan literati, hobnobbing with the rich and famous.

To add more clamor to his growing glamor, Capote threw, in 1966, a masked ball in New York City's famed Plaza Hotel in honor of Washington Post owner and publishes Katherine Graham.  The guests included the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, Frank Sinatra and wife Mia Farrow, and another literary lion, Norman Mailer.

Literati mingled with celebrity to give birth to a new species – glitterati.

The two films that introduced the socially transforming decade of the 60s had begun as concepts in an earlier decade.  They reflected a gathering social upheaval that would transform our culture as well as our politics forever.

American Camelot

It was also in 1958 that a young senator from Massachusetts, having completed his first term, won reelection in a landslide victory that would spark bigger dreams.  That year, John F. Kennedy started working on running for the American presidency in 1960.  On January 20, 1961, he was sworn in as the first Catholic president of the United States, breaking political and religious conventions.

Jackie and John F. Krennedy
Federico Fellini's “La Dolce Vita” had shocked the world; movie fans of Truman Capote's “Breakfast at Tiffany's” were singing “Moonriver;” and John F. Kennedy was less than a month old in the White House.  But the social revolutions the three visionaries spawned would soon converge into the decade of our discontent.

Social ferment

The 60s were a decade of seething social ferment.  The American Deep South was still segregated.  Buses had separated sections for black and white. Restaurants were separate, even toilets.  

Martin Luther King Jr. was still to deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the historic Civil Rights March in Washington D.C.   And America was still to land its first man on the moon.

But the campuses were already beginning to brew an anti-war sentiment that would inhibit Lyndon B. Johnson from seeking a second term as President.  

The great social themes of Fellini and Capote – Cafe Society, paparazzi and its soul mates, celebrity, literati and it present twin, glitterati – came to full bloom in Jack and Jackie Kennedy's American Camelot.  John F. Kennedy himself had first come to national attention as a freshman senator who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage. He pulled together literati and glitterati with an easy grace. 

In the heady days of his American Camelot, no one could have seen the gut-wrenching decade of change that was to come with the turbulent 70s.

Photo credits: RFK,; Hepburn,; Kennedys,

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pope warns vs 'dictatorship of closed heart, mind'

With this contribution from Mercy Abad as guide, we will take a break from our Lenten recollections so that we can do our personal meditations for Holy Week.

March 28, 2014 Credit: Lauren Cater/CNA

VATICAN CITY, Apr 10, 2014 / 07:09 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In his daily homily Pope Francis cautioned faithful against idealizing one’s own way of thinking and encouraged them to be vigilant in prayer, noting that a closed mind leaves no room for God.

“Even today there is a dictatorship of a narrow line of thought” which kills “people’s freedom, their freedom of conscience,” the Pope expressed in his April 10 daily Mass.

Living beyond the 'cold law'

Speaking to those present in the Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse, Pope Francis launched his homily by reflecting on the day’s first reading, taken from Genesis, in which God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, but that he and his descendants would have to observe the Covenant with the Lord.

Looking at this passage, he noted, helps to explain Jesus’ message to the Pharisees in the day’s Gospel, taken from John, in which he calls them liars because they did not listen to the prophets, and reveals that he has existed long before Abraham, for which they attempt to stone him.

Their mistake, the pontiff observed, was to “detach the commandments from the heart of God,” emphasizing how they thought it was enough to merely obey the commandments, which are more than “just a cold law.”

'No place for God in closed hearts, minds'

“This is the drama of the closed heart, the drama of the closed mind, and when the heart is closed, this heart closes the mind, and when the heart and mind are closed there is no place for God,” but only for what we believe should be done, the Pope continued.

“It is a closed way of thinking that is not open to dialogue, to the possibility that there is something else, the possibility that God speaks to us, tells us about His journey, as he did to the prophets,” he emphasized, noting that “these people did not listen to the prophets and did not listen to Jesus.”

Explaining how this attitude is “something greater than a mere stubbornness,” the Roman Pontiff insisted that “No, it is more: it is the idolatry of their own way of thinking.”

'No possibility of dialogue'

Highlighting that “these people had a narrow line of thought and wanted to impose this way of thinking on the people of God,” the Pope drew attention to how “Jesus rebukes them for this” by saying “’You burden the people with many commandments and you do not touch them with your finger.’”

Pope Francis then went on to describe how the theology of the Pharisees “becomes a slave to this pattern, this pattern of thought: a narrow line of thought,” and observed that “there is no possibility of dialogue.”

Continuing, he emphasized that with this mentality “there is no possibility to open up to new things which God brings with the prophets,” stating that “they killed the prophets, these people; they close the door to the promise of God.”

'Dictatorship of narrow thought'

“When this phenomenon of narrow thinking enters human history, how many misfortunes,” he lamented, adding that “we all saw in the last century, the dictatorships of narrow thought, which ended up killing a lot of people, but when they believed they were the overlords, no other form of thought was allowed. This is the way they think.”

Explaining how even now people foster this idolatry of “a narrow line of thought,” Pope Francis emphasized that “today we have to think in this way and if you do not think in this way, you are not modern, you're not open or worse.”

“Often rulers say: ‘I have asked for aid, financial support for this,’ ‘But if you want this help, you have to think in this way and you have to pass this law, and this other law and this other law,” he expressed, noting that type of dictatorship “is the same as these people.”

Stoning freedom of conscience

“It takes up stones to stone the freedom of the people, the freedom of the people, their freedom of conscience, the relationship of the people with God. Today Jesus is Crucified once again.”

Concluding his homily, the Roman Pontiff drew attention to Jesus’ exhortation in front of this narrow-minded thought, stating that it “is always the same: be vigilant and pray; do not be silly, do not buy” into things “you do not need.”

“Be humble and pray, that the Lord always gives us the freedom of an open heart, to receive his Word which is joy and promise and covenant! And with this covenant move forward!”

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Michelangelo of surgery

The delicate hands of Dr. Florencio Q. Lucero, plastic surgeon, carve graceful curves in the space in front of him. He is tracing the sinuous contours of an eyelid as he describes what he regards as “the most stressful of all surgeries” for the plastic surgeon: cosmetic. 

It is most difficult because its success or failure depends, not so much on an objective scientific paradigm, as with most things medical in nature, but on someone else’s subjective sense of beauty – the patient as beholder. 

In that sense, then, cosmetic surgery is the most customer-driven of all medical procedures: its beauty lies in the eyes of the patient.

The Michelangelo of surgery

I had bumped into Dr. Lucero, a classmate in college, in a coffee shop in Ortigas Center.  With him was his wife, Tinette, mother of their three children, 15 years his junior, but looking a good 30 years younger.  

For a moment I wondered if she had been the object of the good doctor’s ministrations, but one does not ask that kind of question – you just assume it as fact.  (By praising her profusely, I was able to elicit an admission from Tinette: she is a walking billboard of her husband’s extraordinary skill!)

Since school, Dr. Lucero had gone on to become one of the most successful plastic surgeons in the country, if not the most famous, at least the most respected.  He was leaving for Singapore in a few days to deliver a lecture on – what else? – cosmetic surgery and to rub elbows with the best and the finest plastic surgeons in our neck of the woods. 

Business strategy as science

I casually mentioned that I was in the middle of writing a business strategy book for budding entrepreneurs and marketing professionals. 

I said Iwould be delighted to include a chapter on the burgeoning industry called cosmetic surgery.  

Tinette was gracious enough to have me over for lunch at home when they returned from Singapore.

“Don’r charge too much!”

Now, over a delicious dessert of mango ice cream swimming in the sweetest mango puree available, Dr. Lucero tells me his life’s story. He wistfully recalls the sage advice of his father, a businessman, who reminded him always not to charge “too much.”  

Medicine is a calling more than a profession, the elder Lucero believed with all his heart, and this value – he would be happy to see now – is deeply imprinted in his son, Dr. Lucero, the plastic surgeon.

Dr. Lucero attributes his expertise, recognized internationally, to his father’s values, to the teachers who mentored him, and to the specialized training he received along the way, covering a period of nine years. 

A surgeon’s surgeon

He had always dreamed of becoming a surgeon – an excellent one – but what brought him to plastic surgery was a series of serendipitous events that led him to what he really liked most to do.

He was a surgeon first of all, and he did the usual internship at the Philippine General Hospital. Along the way he received special training in the United States in reconstructive surgery, specializing in burn patients, a very difficult procedure to master.  

This led to microsurgery, especially among conjoined twins, and then to plastic surgery.  Cosmetic surgery, he explains, is actually a branch of plastic surgery, but he does not recommend it for everyone. 

Surgery as art

“It looks simple, but it is not,” he says over coffee.  It begins with God-given talent, ample amounts of it, “which you can discover along the way,” he says.  
But that is just the beginning.  The raw talent must be honed by training under the masters. Like a sculptor beginning with a block of raw marble, the plastic surgeon masters the craft, turning stone into the stunning masterpieces of a Michelangelo.

“But plastic surgery is immensely more difficult,” he says, “because you are working with living tissue, turning it into a thing of beauty. This is where the aesthetic sense of the cosmetic surgeon comes into play.”  

The artistic eye

He continues: “It begins in the eye, the surgeon’s artistic sense. And it ends in the mind of the patient, her own self image and what she considers beautiful.  

“In the end, it is the patient’s satisfaction with the results of the creative process that brings the ultimate joy to the surgeon – the satisfaction of being able to do beautiful things.”

Over a second cup of delightful espresso, Dr. Lucero continues: “It’s all in the planning. The moment I visualize the plan and draw the lines, the process is practically over. From there on, it is all a matter of technique and procedure.” 

Learning from the masters

For Dr. Lucero, keeping abreast of worldwide trends is the key to the cosmetic surgeon’s art. Occasionally, he is called to the Health Care City in Dubai to perform procedures on some well-heeled European and Middle Eastern clients. 

“Overseas exposure changes your paradigms,” he says.  But it is also important to learn from the masters.

“Abroad, they always refer to the masters. And the younger surgeons not only refer but also defer to the elders. We haven’t learned to do that here.”

To enhance, not change

“Another thing we have to learn is that cosmetic surgery is not meant to change your looks into some celebrity’s looks. It is meant to enhance your natural beauty, to bring back the beauty of your youth.”  

How do you know you are in the hands of a real professional? 

“It pays to do some research,” he says.  “Check the credentials. Talk to previous patients. Is the surgeon certified by the College of Surgeons or by the medical association? Has he had extensive training here and abroad?”

For emphasis, his hands trace delicate curves when he speaks. They glide in the air gracefully, yet confidently. They are the hands of a true master of the craft. 


The latest high-tech machine to join the array of advanced medical equipment is a lipo-sculpting machine. 

Dr. Lucero prefers to call it a body-sculpting machine, for it is dexterous enough to sculpt the human body.  

In his hands, one wonders what magnificent physical sculptures would be created by this marvel of modern medical technology. Michelangelo would be proud of Dr. Lucero’s art: a thing of beauty is a joy forever.

His roots

In spite of these revolutionary developments in modern medicine, Dr. Lucero goes back to his roots. He still likes doing the complete facial treatment, which includes eyelid lifting and eye bag removal as part of a total facial rejuvenation. It’s just the Michelangelo in him.

Before I turned to leave, I remembered to ask him the inevitable question: Why would Filipinas want to have their eyes enlarged, their noses turned up, and their skin whitened?

He just gave me a Mona Lisa smile.


*(Excerpted from a forthcoming book by the author.)

Photo credit: Dr. Florencio Q. Lucero,

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Hemingway’s fascination: Grace under pressure

MARBELLA, Spain - The enduring themes of great literature can readily be classified into three: man against nature, man against man, and man against himself.

Hemingway's "grace under pressure"...
A good example of the first, man against nature, is Sebastian Junger’s A Perfect Storm, a true story made into an equally gripping movie. Captain Ahab’s eternal struggle against Moby Dick is an excellent example from the classics.

The continuing saga of Manny Pacquiao is a perfect example of the second kind, man against man; that is why it mesmerizes us. 

But for sheer grip on the human imagination, nothing surpasses the third, man against himself, for it lays bare the best and the worst in us.  

Grace under pressure

In a sense, elements of man against himself also permeate the first two genres, for man must first conquer himself to win the battle against nature and other men. Hamlet is the classic example. 

In 1959, having written Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway was invited to revisit the Spanish bullfights of his youth.  And so he went back to Spain to relive the glory days of the bullfighters who choreographed life, death and courage in the bloody stage of the Spanish bullring.

Hemingway believed that to relish life a man must stare death in the face. That was what fascinated him about the bullfight---grace under pressure.

In Hemingway’s time, the bullfighters brought the corrida to the major cities of Spain—from Madrid to Malaga, Burgos to Barcelona, Sevilla to Zaragosa, Alicante to Algeciras. 

'The New Matadors'

Through the long, hot Spanish summer, the great matadors traveled the bullfighting circuit, much like the great racing drivers of our time take the Formula 1 season to the great capitals of the world.

The bullfighters had Hemingway to chronicle their exploits for all time. We had Ken W. Purdy, writing for Road & Track magazine, to chronicle the exploits of the great racing drivers of our time.

The perceptive Purdy saw many parallels between the bullfighters and the Grand Prix drivers.  Their natural talents astounded him.


In a paean to these modern bullfighters, Purdy wrote the classic motoring book, The New Matadors. The metaphor was bulls-eye.

As they toured the European circuits, Purdy marveled at the extraordinary abilities of the racing drivers. Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart liked to tease journalists: “I just drive around in circles.”

Driving by the seat of their pants, they not only often threw caution to the wind but also kept a healthy sense of danger to stay alive.

The smell of grass

Even before the first drops of rain blurred his visors, Stewart said, he could sense danger coming the moment he saw umbrellas pop up in the distance. The road ahead would soon be slippery, and he would need to fine-tune his cornering speeds, calibrating precisely the ever-sliding limits of adhesion between four tires and a wet road.

Stewart also knew when another car had gone off the road---because mingled with the heady smell of high-octane gas would be a whiff of freshly cut grass that sliding tires scatter into the wind from the edge of the track.

If Hemingway’s bullfighters treaded the fine line between being graceful and being gored, Purdy’s new matadors knew how to stay on the slippery threshold between being quick and being dead.


 In the early 70s a band of young motoring enthusiasts formed a group called Autofriends to help them put together the technical resources to compete against company-sponsored professional teams in the Philippine car rallies.  One of them, Willie Ingles, caught the eye of the local distributors of Volkswagen, who formed a team to drive a VW Passat at the European World Cup Rally, the world's premier car rally event.

The team went to Germany to get the Passat, and drove it to London for the start at Wembley Stadium. Soon they were in the drive of their lives in the rocky mountains of Spain, after crossing the English Channel and traversing the French countryside. 

They were on their way to the Mediterranean coast for the ferry ride to Africa, where they were to cross the Sahara and then double back to central Europe before careening back to London.

Hell hath no fury

The mountain roads of Spain were tricky.  They heard air horns blaring and headlights flashing behind them in the dust.  They sped up to avoid being overtaken, but the horns and headlights grew more frantic.  

A rally-bred Peugeot pulled alongside the stock Passat, and the Filipinos saw two fuming French girls flailing fists of fury in the air.

Distracted, the Filipinos hit a rock that bent a suspension rod. They had to end it in a Spanish port to ship the Passat back home.

Back in Manila, Ingles regaled his Autofriends with tales of the blazing encounter with the girls of Peugeot.

Kindred souls

Every once in a while Autofriends would gather at the home of ever-gracious hosts Andy and Felice Sta. Maria, sharing stories of days gone by, remembering friends like Lito Saulo, Toti Casas, Cesar Daluz, Pete Syquia, Chuchi Yriarte, Ed Quirino, Albert Adriano, Joven Reyes, Benjie Pua, Sixto Salumbides, Bebot and Ed Roxas, Ed Modesto, Bobby Basa, Noel Plana, Volney Ricafort, and Omboy and Finina Suzara.

Bound by bonds of friendship that transcend racing circuits, they would laugh the night away with tall tales that refuse to die.

In a sense, Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Stewart, and Manny Pacquiao are kindred spirits. We’d love to have them over, if we could, to share stories together---a band of brothers forever.

Photo credit: The last bullfight in Barcelona,

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Last Tango in Argentina

This morning I woke up with a start. I had had a bad dream. I dreamed that because of global warming Mt. Kilimanjaro had lost all her snows and Ernest Hemingway had had to rise from the grave to write a new title for his brilliant short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

If we don’t watch our carbon footprint, the new title might be “The Dried and Frozen Leopard of Kilimanjaro,” or something like that.

Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa. It soars majestically in north-eastern Tanzania on the Indian Ocean coast of central Africa. Its snow-capped peak dominates memory mainly because of Hemingway's 1936 masterpiece. 

Haunting leopard

Hemingway began that story with a haunting introduction:

“Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”

In 2009 Kilimanjaro figured prominently in the news after scientists warned that its famous snows may be gone within five to six decades because of climate change.

Solitary dog

More recently, a group of tourists climbing to the summit spotted a dog and took cell phone photos of it.

A newspaper in Tanzania reported that after reaching the summit, four climbers needed to heed the call of nature. They spotted the dog perched on a rock about a meter away from where they relieved themselves. 

They took pictures and showed these to their guide, who remarked that a similar dog had been sighted ten years ago at one of several stopover camps on the way up.

The trek to the summit takes five to six days. If this was the same dog, the mystery was how it had survived the freezing temperatures on Kilimanjaro.

Rodents who have adapted to the thin air are said to abound near the summit. They could have provided sustenance to the wild dog, or the dog may also have survived foraging for scraps in the camp sites, the tourist guides surmised.

As with Hemingway's leopard, nobody has explained what the dog was seeking at that altitude. A mate, perhaps, to make it to the Mile-High Club? If Hemingway were alive, he might have been inspired to write a sequel to the leopard, this time about the wild African dog.

Coveted peaks

The climb up Kiiimanjaro is considered one of the best treks still available on this planet, snow or no snow. 

Mountaineers rank it among the top seven peaks one must climb in a lifetime to make it to their exclusive club, not to mention the Guinness Book of World Records. 

It is one of the 10 things I must do before acid rain dissolves me. 

I had an urge to book the next tour. The snows may soon be gone. The leopard carcass may have gone with the wind. But I may still find the dog, and--who knows?--the spirit of Hemingway.

I called my travel agent.

A bubbly voice exploded on the phone: “Stationery Travel, may I help you?”

'“Oh, yes. Do you still have tours in Africa?”

“Yes, sir, we just booked a group for the Serengeti Safari. But they do this all the time this time of year, so we can put you on the next one.”

“I had something else in mind, you know, something off the beaten track?”

“What did you have in mind, sir?”

“A trek up Kilimanajaro?”

A pause. Then a deep breath.

“I heard that,” I said.

“Sorry, sir, but we don't have that. The Serengeti Safari is really a lot more fun ... lions, wild buffalo, elephants, giraffe...”

“But that's like going to the zoo ... kid stuff.”

“The lions, sir, are a lot of fun. Sometimes, they chase after your Land Rover.”

“Have they caught any people lately?

“Oh, no, sir. The Land Rovers are much faster.  But it's a wild ride.”

“What about the buffalo? Don't they run faster than the Land Rovers?” I asked, hoping to evoke a chuckle.

Not a whimper. Just a deep breath.  

“How about if I took the Serengeti Safari and leased the Land Rover for the trek up Kilimanjaro? Can you arrange that for me?”

“I'm afraid that is not possible, sir. But what would you be doing up Kilimanoro, if you don't mind my asking, sir?”

“There's this dog they spotted recently near the summit ...”

“Oh, that. I understand the dog is gone, sir. Just disappeared after a Filipino tour group went up to find it. Just disappeared. Vanished into thin air. They must have spooked it. But I understand they found the dried leopard carcass, and the climate scientists have revised their forecast about the snow disappearing. But the Safari is still the better buy, if you ask me, sir.”

I paused to catch my breath.  Darn Filipino tourists.

“I heard that, sir!  Sir…?”

“What about the elephants?”  Visions of British viceroys in India started to dance in my head. “Will the elephants make it to the summit?”

“I'm afraid they won't allow that, sir. These are wild elephants.”

“How long will it take to train them?”

“I'm afraid I don't know, sir, assuming they are willing to do it.”

“Who?” I tried to clarify. “The trainers or the elephants?”

“I'm afraid both of them, sir.”

I dropped the elephant idea. “What about  the giraffe? Do you think they will agree?”

“Who, sir? The trainers or the giraffe?”

“I guess, both. You know, it takes two to tango.”

“We have a tango tour to Argentina, sir, if that suits you better. The tango lessons are free. Shall I book you on that one instead?”

“Only if the senorita will not let me go until I learned to dance the tango.”

“I'm afraid that's not possible, sir.”

“Why not? I heard Antonio Banderas learned to tango in two nights while he was filming 'Evita' with Madonna.”

“Oh, I know about that, sir. I understand they had to learn fast because Melanie Griffith was on her way there fuming mad.”


“Because she knew Antonio already knew how to dance the tango even before he met Madonna.”


Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith:

“It was the reverse, sir. Madonna was the one being taught the tango by Mr. Banderas.”

“And …?”

“It was not clear, whether Mr. Banderas was a poor teacher, or Madonna was a poor student, or both were pretending to be dumb when in fact they were both intelligent.”

I took a deep breath.  What about Evita?”

“What about her, sir?”

“Did she tango?”

“Sir, that was pretty obvious in the movie!”

I took another deep breath. “Okay, then, I'll skip the tango in Argentina and take my chances with the lions.”

Photo credit: David Shankbone, Mr. and Mrs. Antonio Banderas

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Humans breed killer typhoons, say some experts

The devastating ferocity of Super-typhoon “Yolanda,” which struck central Viasayas last November 8, sent many experts and scientists back to the drawing boards.

 'Ring of Fire' exposes most vulnerable spots

Thousands are dead and, for the millions of poor people who survived, the arduous task of rebuilding lives begins.

 It will take tens of billions of pesos to undertake the massive work of reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Breeding monsters

For the long haul, the tasks seem overwhelming.

Scientists believe we are breeding the monster typhoons by our wanton destruction of the environment.

The world is getting warmer, humans are causing it, and governments must take action quickly to stop it, a United Nations panel said in its report in September 2013, barely two months before Yolanda struck.

Humans cause climate change

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said it was 95 percent certain that humans were the cause of global warming. 

As a result of climate change, the panel also warned of a higher risk for heat waves, floods and droughts.

The scientific panel predicted temperatures would rise another 0.3 to 4.8 degrees Celsius (0.5-8.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century and sea levels would rise between 26 and 82 centimeters (10.4 and 32.8 inches) by 2100.

Sinking towns

Scientists had warned in an earlier report that unless we were able to keep global warming below the estimated tipping point of 2.5 degrees Celsius over the next few years, rising sea levels from melting ice will swamp 60 percent of Philippine coastal towns, where more than half the population lives.

A quick scan of the Philippine map shows that most communities ring the islands because fishermen derive their livelihood from the sea.  

Scientists believe that small island states in the oceans could go under water earlier than expected because of rapidly warming climes. 

Summer floods

In Australia, a 30-foot rise in three river systems created an inland sea the size of Germany and France, flooding 40 cities and towns and displacing some 200,000 people in 2011.

In 2010, freakish summer floods wrought havoc in China and Pakistan, while a massive summer heat wave ignited roaring forest fires in Russia, causing damage in the billions of dollars. 

These are some of the drastic effects of climate change, the UN scientists warned. Unless we are able to turn back the tide of global warming, loss of habitat and mass extinction of species may be irreversible.

We have the power

Ironically, the UN scientists noted, the world has the resources and the technology to avert climate catastrophes. It’s the political will that’s missing, observed the UN IPCC, co-winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, together with environmental advocate Al Gore. 

Experts say the number of people affected could double in seven years and reach as high as 200 million once the global warming tipping point is breached. 

The numbers could swell as refugees flee flooded homes, parched lands, typhoon-ravaged areas, and disaster-prone countries in Africa and Pacific island nations including the Philippines.

Hunger stalks the land

The UN climate panel estimated that from one billion to three billion people would suffer drinking water shortages by 2080 and between 200 million and 600 million would go hungry.  

The exhaustive study by some 2,500 scientists from 100 countries found that the Earth was indeed growing warmer from human-caused emissions of so-called greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide, from the burning of fossil fuels like oil and coal. 

These gases form a cover around the globe like a giant greenhouse, trapping the sun’s heat and increasing surface temperatures.

Fossil fuels must be curbed

Farmers along the equator will suffer decreasing crop yields due to drought, the UN panel said. 

Environmental activists and scientists said the first volume of the panel's long-awaited review, released in Stockholm, Sweden on Sept. 27, made it clearer than ever that fossil-fuel burning must be urgently curbed to limit future damage to the climate system.

In a report summary, the IPCC said it was "extremely likely" – a term meaning it was 95% convinced – that humans caused more than half the warming observed over the past 60 years. In its last report in 2007, the panel had rated its conviction at 90%.

'Alarm clock moment'

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said the report's release was "an alarm clock moment for the world."

"To steer humanity out of the high danger zone, governments must step up immediate climate action and craft an agreement in 2015 that helps to scale up" efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, she said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry also urged strong action, labeling the report "yet another wakeup call.”

‘Playing with fire’

"Those who deny the science or choose excuses over action are playing with fire," he said in a statement.

The IPCC document is the first volume in a trilogy summarizing the status of global warming and its impacts. The panel has delivered four previous assessment reports in its 25-year history.

Each edition has pounded out an ever-louder drumbeat to warn that temperatures are rising and the risk to the climate system – in drought, floods, storms and rising seas – is growing.

'Ring of fire'

The panel's projections for 2100 are based on computer models of trends in heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, especially from coal, oil and gas, major energy sources today.

The Philippines is most vulnerable because it lies smack in the Pacific typhoon belt and the archipelago consists of over 7,000 islands sitting on top of the volcanic/earthquake belt called 'the ring of fire."

(Additional climate change analysis for the Philippines was supplied by the author’s management consultancy think tank; e-mail

Photo credit: Pacific "Ring of Fire,"

We’re a disaster waiting to happen any time now

As close to 200 countries began in November 2010 a two-week meeting in Cancun, Mexico, to try to forge an agreement to curb climate change, several international agencies warned that the Philippines remained a disaster waiting to happen—with Metro Manila possibly going under water after just a heavy downpour.  

That disaster is waiting to happen at any time now.

As in earlier meetings in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Bali, Indonesia, a legally binding international agreement did not happen in Cancun to put a cap on carbon emissions scientists believe to be causing global warming and worsening natural disasters.

Moving heaven and earth

As 15,000 government delegates, environmentalists, business leaders and journalists gathered in the Mexican resort, the Philippine government appeared to be moving heaven and earth to avert more catastrophes from impending natural disasters in a desperate race against time in a dangerously warming planet.

On the eve of the Cancun conference, President Benigno Aquino III declared a Global Warming and Climate Change Consciousness Week, calling on the people to adjust their lifestyles to prevent further degrading the environment as temperatures climb, ice melts, seas rise and the climate that nurtured man shifts in unpredictable ways.

Mr. Aquino also ordered the scrapping of the P18.7-billion Laguna Lake rehabilitation project in order to include additional features to remove centuries-old silt, save the watershed, install global positioning mapping, relocate illegal settlers, and provide livelihood programs for displaced fishermen.

Dire warnings

The President’s order came not a day too soon: Some 70,000 fishermen live in 170 coastal villages around the lake area covering 90,000 hectares.

A triple-agency international study has found Metro Manila, together with three other Asian coastal mega cities, in grave danger of killer floods that could devastate them anytime now unless steps are taken fast. An average of 20 typhoons strikes the country yearly.

The government-run Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) issued a similar warning after Typhoon “Ondoy” (international name: Ketsana) unleashed killer floods in 2009 that kept parts of Metro Manila underwater for many months.

Manila sinking below sea level

The state-owned water regulatory agency, Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), has reported that many more parts of Metro Manila have slid below sea level because of sinking water tables. 

It said massive siltation had also greatly reduced the Pasig River’s capacity to drain flood waters into Manila Bay, threatening to swamp the capital after even just a heavy thunderstorm.

An Asian-focused US think tank, Pacific Strategies and Assessments, has accused the Aquino administration of underestimating the threat of natural disasters on the “most vulnerable” part of the country—Metro Manila—and overestimating government preparedness to cope with natural disasters like typhoons, floods and earthquakes in many parts of the country.


A World Bank joint study has found Metro Manila—together with Asia’s biggest mega cities, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City—in grave danger of natural calamities triggered by climate change.

The country is already suffering the quadruple-whammy effects of global warming identified by UN climate scientists: rising sea levels, floods triggered by killer typhoons, dwindling drinking water supplies induced by drought, and shrinking food crops from parched agricultural lands.

A one-meter rise in sea level resulting from melting polar ice caps could put 64 of the country’s 81 provinces—a full 80 percent—in harm’s way, according to the environmental group Greenpeace.

Half of all municipalities at risk

That’s equivalent to 700 million square meters of coastal lands covering half of the country’s 1,610 municipalities, where half of the population depends on seafood as the main source of protein.

In 2006 alone, 3 million Filipinos were directly affected by natural disasters, according to the non government Citizen Disaster Response Center. The number is expected to rise with rising temperatures and sea levels.

A World Bank study done after Typhoons “Ondoy” and “Pepeng” (Parma) struck in 2009, titled “Post Disaster Needs Assessment,” recommended “immediate changes in land-use planning, housing, water management, and environmental protection.”

No time to lose

Another World Bank study, done with the Asian Development Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, titled “Climate Risks and Adaptation in Asian Coastal Mega cities,” warned of climate-induced disasters in Metro Manila unless major steps were taken fast.

The study recommended constructing the Marikina Dam and embankments in the Pasig-Marikina river basin, and improving two major pumping stations serving Metro Manila, located beside the Manggahan River and in the Camanava area (Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas and Valenzuela).

Silting blocks drainage systems

After Ondoy struck, the LLDA disclosed that the lake’s capacity to hold flood waters had been cut drastically by silt dumped by 24 river tributaries from denuded watersheds.

The MWSS has disclosed that many more sections of Metro Manila have slid several feet below sea level because of sinking water tables being rapidly depleted by deep wells.

The agency also reported that massive siltation of the Pasig River has dangerously reduced its capacity to drain Metro Manila of flood waters caused by even minor thunderstorms.

In the central Visayan provinces devastated by Super typhoon Yolanda in November 2013, the work of rebuilding broken lives and ravaged communities continues outside the peripheral vision of Manila—until the next environmental disaster strikes.

(The author is chief executive of a think tank specializing in transforming social, political, cultural and technological trends into business strategy and public policy. Comments are welcome at Marbella International Business Consultancy, e-mail

Photo credit:

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

We rank among most at risk from climate disasters

Poor, tropical nations like the Philippines will be hit harder than rich countries in temperate zones as soaring carbon emissions amplify the risk of conflict, hunger, floods and migration this century, the UN’s expert panel said Monday in a landmark report on the impact of climate change. 

'Yolanda' approaching: Next ones could be stronger

After monster typhoon Yolanda struck central Visayas with devastating fury last November 8, international experts have put on their thinking caps to figure out solutions.

Even so, countries will have to shore up their defenses — for instance, by making water supplies, coastal areas, homes and transport more climate-resilient, the French news agency, Agence France-Presse, reported.

‘Cheap and easy’ remedies

Many of the measures for adapting to climate change are easy and cheap, said the report.

They include reducing water wastage, planting parks to ease heat build-up in cities, and preventing people from settling in places that are exposed to extreme weather events.

Earlier, the Associated Press put together this analysis by international experts and scientists of what we face:

Cooking up a storm

WASHINGTON (AP)—Nature and man together cooked up the disaster in the Philippines.

Geography, meteorology, poverty, shoddy construction, a booming population and, to a much lesser degree, climate change combine to make the Philippines the nation most vulnerable to killer typhoons, according to several scientific studies.

And Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) was one mighty storm.

Storm surges as tall as houses

Yolanda slammed the island nation with a storm surge two stories high and some of the highest winds ever measured in a tropical cyclone—314 kilometers per hour as clocked by US satellites, or 237 kph based on local reports.

“You have a very intense event hitting a very susceptible part of the world. It’s that combination of nature and man,” said tropical meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

 “If one of those ingredients were missing, you wouldn’t have a disaster.”

Half of all storms hit us

The 7,000 islands of the Philippines sit in the middle of the world’s most storm-prone region, which gets some of the biggest typhoons because of vast expanses of warm water that act as fuel and few pieces of land to slow storms down.

Half the storms on an informal list of the strongest ones to hit land in the 20th and 21st centuries ended up striking the Philippines, according to research by Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the Weather Underground.

Storms often hit after they’ve peaked in strength or before they get a chance to, but Yolanda struck when it was at its most powerful, based on US satellite observations, Emanuel said.

Humans more than nature cause it

Humans played a big role in this disaster, too—probably bigger than nature’s, meteorologists said.

University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy figures that 75 to 80 percent of the devastation can be blamed on the human factor.

Meteorologists point to extreme poverty and huge growth in population -- much of it in vulnerable coastal areas with poor construction, including storm shelters that didn’t hold up against Yolanda.

The population of the devastated provincial capital of Tacloban City nearly tripled from about 76,000 to 221,000 in just 40 years.

Flimsy houses

About one-third of Tacloban’s homes have wooden exterior walls. And one in seven homes have grass roofs, according to the census office.

Those factors—especially flimsy construction—were so important that a weaker storm would have still caused almost as much devastation, McNoldy said.

“You end up with this kind of urban time bombs, where cities have doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size in 50 years” without good building standards, said Richard Olson, director of the Extreme Events Institute at Florida International University. “It is, I hate to say, an all-too-familiar pattern.”

Global warming suspect

Scientists say man-made global warming has contributed to rising seas and a general increase in strength in the most powerful tropical cyclones.

But they won’t specifically apply these factors to Yolanda, saying it is impossible to attribute single weather events, like the typhoon, to climate change.

A 2008 study found that in the northwestern Pacific, where Yolanda formed, the top 1 percent of the strongest tropical cyclones over the past 30 years are getting stronger each year—a phenomenon some scientists suspect is a consequence of global warming.

“The strongest storms are getting stronger” said study coauthor James Kossin of the National Climatic Data Center. Yolanda “is what potentially could be a good example of the kind of the things we’re finding.”

Philippine sea rising

Similarly, the Philippines has seen its sea rise nearly half an inch in the past 20 years—about triple the global increase, according to R. Steven Nerem of the University of Colorado. Higher sea levels can add to storm surge, creating slightly greater flooding.

Just as human factors can worsen a disaster, they can also lessen it, through stronger buildings, better warnings and a quicker government response.

Emanuel said poverty-stricken Bangladesh had much bigger losses of life from cyclones in the 1970s than it does now. The international community built strong evacuation shelters that get used frequently, he said.

We’ve got it all

“The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone places on Earth,” said Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado.

“They’ve got it all. They’ve got earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, tropical cyclones, landslides.”

Photo credit: Satellite picture of Yolanda approaching the Philippines.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

UN: Climate change can spark cataclysm, riots

From bad to worse to good: The bad news is, climate change is worsening. The good news is, many remedies will cost little.

More disasters waiting: Typical flood in Manila

Here’s a report from Agence France-Presse, the French news agency: 

YOKOHAMA, Japan (AFP) – Soaring carbon emissions will amplify the risk of conflict, hunger, floods and migration this century, the UN’s expert panel said Monday in a landmark report on the impact of climate change.

Left unchecked, greenhouse gas emissions may cost trillions of dollars in damage to property and ecosystems and in bills for shoring up climate defenses, it said.

The report said the impact of climate change was already being felt and would increase with every additional degree that temperatures rose.

‘Irreversible impacts’

“Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts,” a summary said, in a stark message to policymakers.

The report is the second chapter of the fifth assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up in 1988 to provide neutral, science-based guidance to governments.

“It’s a toolkit for managing climate change, but it also provides a framework for understanding, a mindset for understanding climate change and its implications,” Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution, co-chairman of the group of scientists who authored the document, told AFP.

Political action failed

These hefty documents — running to thousands of pages — have a political impact that can resound for years.

The last overview, published in 2007, earned the panel a co-share in the Nobel Peace Prize and unleashed a wave of political action that strived, but failed, to forge a worldwide treaty on climate change in Copenhagen in 2009.

The new document, unveiled in Yokohama after a five-day meeting, gives the starkest warning yet by the IPCC of extreme consequences from climate change, and delves into greater detail than ever before into the impact at regional level.

Temperatures rising

It builds on previous IPCC forecasts that global temperatures will rise 0.3-4.8 degrees Celsius (0.5-8.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century, on top of roughly 0.7 Celsius since the Industrial Revolution.

Seas will rise by 26-82 centimetres (10-32 inches) by 2100.

Warming of around two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times may cost 0.2-2.0 percent of global annual income, said the new report. UN members have pledged to hammer out a global pact by the end of 2015 to limit warming to 2 C.


The impact amplifies with every degree and beyond 4 C could be disastrous, said the report.

Climate change can drive turbulence and conflict, prompted by migration from newly uninhabitable areas and jockeying for water and food, it said.

“Climate change has a tendency to act as a threat multiplier whatever the current range of stressors is,” said Field.

'Bad outcomes'

“There are many things that make people vulnerable, and when you combine a climate shock with these factors, you can have bad outcomes.”

Rainfall patterns will be disrupted, resulting in a significantly higher flood risk, especially for Europe and Asia — and magnified drought risks will add to water stress in arid, heavily populated areas.

This, in turn, will have consequences for agriculture. Yields of staples such as wheat, rice and corn will be squeezed, just as demand will soar because of population growth.

‘Tipping point’

Climate change will also have a ricochet effect on health, through the spread of mosquito or water-borne diseases and heatwaves.

Vulnerable plant and animal species, especially in fragile coral reefs and Arctic habitats, could be wiped out.

Adding a further grim layer to the warning, the report said the most vulnerable ecosystems faced a potential “tipping point” that could pitch them into unstoppable decline.

Tropical countries more at risk

The report said the danger can be substantially reduced, especially for those alive at the end of the century, if greenhouse-gas emissions are cut swiftly.

Even so, countries will have to shore up their defenses — for instance, by making water supplies, coastal areas, homes and transport more climate-resilient.

Poor, tropical nations will be hit harder than rich countries in temperate zones.

'Cheap and easy' remedies

Many of the measures for adapting to climate change are easy and cheap, said the report.

They include reducing water wastage, planting parks to ease heat build-up in cities, and preventing people from settling in places that are exposed to extreme weather events. - AFP  

Despite the silver lining, the climate future still looks grim.

Photo credit: