Monday, October 25, 2010


Even during summer, you can only fly to Baguio City, the Philippine’s most popular mountain resort city, at the right time of the day – too early or too late, Loakan’s short runway would likely be shrouded by clouds.

We made one such flight accompanying then military chief Gen. Lisandro Abadia on one of his speaking engagements.

The event was at an old, wooden hotel along Kennon Road, at the edge of town.

Visitors were welcomed by a massive painting of an eerie hallway, faded with age and marked by what appeared to be like short streaks of light which at first glance, we thought were scratches on the canvass. The wooden floor creaked in exertion, and despite the number of people attending the convention, the hotel seemed hauntingly sad and empty.

Near the end of the general’s speech, we went off looking for the restroom, which turned out to be at the very end of a narrow corridor. I felt an odd, unexplainable sensation. I was sure I was alone, then not. Walking back to the ballroom, I felt my hair stand, the skin on my face and hands tingling. I couldn’t wait to get out of that hotel. And on the way out, I noticed that that painting hanging on the lobby was of the hallway with the restroom.

Baguio City is well-known for ghosts. Many friends who went there as unbelievers have returned convinced spirits roamed there.

A dear colleague, Bobby Burgos, then president of the Philippine National Police Press Corps, was so sure ghost tales are meant for children that he kept casting a scary web on the group’s younger female reporters, warning about “visitors” coming in their rooms at Teachers Camp that night.

He consented to be left behind at Teachers Camp, saying he needed a nap, as we left to explore Session Road. We thought it hilarious that a group of journalists covering coup attempts and local wars felt the need to stay close together because of some old wives’ tales.

Bobby got his nap but was roused because he thought we were back. He was upset thinking someone was playing tricks on him. Known to regularly pack a pistol, he demanded that the “culprit” show himself. As he was brushing his teeth, he saw someone walk past behind him through the bathroom mirror. There was no one. It happened several more times.

When we got back to Teachers Camp Bobby was sitting forlornly on a bench at the gate. We’ve never seen him happier to see us. From his tale, we learned it’s wrong to try scaring a ghost.

Even before Americans introduced their version of Halloween in the Philippines, young kids especially in the Tagalog-speaking regions, were already engaged in “nangaluluwa” – serenading homes and pretending to be wandering spirits.

For many, nothing is scarier than death or angry spirits. But as my elders are wont to say, “don’t be scared of the dead, it’s the living you should be more scared of”.

Fear is a powerful tool to influence, control people. Many here live with the dread of losing jobs or homes, of seeing Muslims aboard planes or walking into New York buildings. They’re afraid of blacks swimming in public pools, of Latinos “invading” their communities or government telling people what to do. The list could be endless, limited only by our forebodings and insecurities.

So like the pagans we celebrate Halloween because nothing overcomes fear more potently than humor and gaiety. That’s why I’m going to be at the National Mall this weekend to join Stephen Colbert’s Keep the Fear Alive (that’ll be held simultaneously with Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity).

There’s something inherently funny about people trying to feed on our fears, deliberately offering no solutions except pointing to people they say should be blamed for our misery.

We all have our phantoms – my hair still stands recalling the encounters in Baguio – but that doesn’t mean we can’t laugh and have fun at their expense.

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