It is an understatement if I say that because of the lowly coconut husk I was able to wiggle out from the mud of poverty and hurdle all the obstacles to achieve a decent education. There's a lot more that the coconut husk has done to change my life. I grope for words to express that not only has it brought me immeasurable happiness, it has also brought me glory, prestige and dignity.
First, let me explain my background. I was born in a bamboo hut by the edge of a coconut plantation overlooking a creek with woven coconut fronds salirap as roofing and coco lumber as posts. At the age of 12, I learned how to climb the coconut tree for fun or to gather the matured nuts that we made into copra product. I particularly relished very much the butong (young nuts with sweet water and tender meats) and the sweet tuba (fresh sap extracted from the unopened inflorescence) which my father used to gather every morning. Cooked foods with tuno (coconut milk) mixed with fish, kamunggay leaves and mungo or young corn, flaked fried or grilled fish and sili leaves were some of the viands I liked to eat. Most native delicacies such as the puto maya, biko, budbud, binignit also called tabudlo and bibingka (rice cake) among many others will not be complete without tuno.
The many other uses of this tree of life are: the tukog coco frond midrib utilized as brooms or occasionally the dried remnants of the inflorescences we call butay. We used the coconut husks for scrubbing or polishing the floor while the soft fibers were used for wiping our bottom parts like what we do now with toilet tissue paper.
Swimming in the river or sea would be fun using the dried undeveloped nuts ( bu-ang) as floater or lifesaver. In kindling fire by rubbing briskly two well dried bamboo sticks, we used the dried soft fiber as starter. For firewood, we used coco shells and husks, the shells processed into charcoal and utilized for making arts and crafts. The fibers are used as sound absorber, for making ropes, mats and as an ingredient in the composition of spring beds. In line with gardening, coco coir dust is commonly used now as soil conditioner.
When traveling in the night or for looking something in the evening, and in gathering sea foods in low tide moonless nights we used the matured dried bundled fronds as torch (sulo). For our toys, the tender young fronds still yellowish in color can be woven into birds, grasshoppers and balls and can be made into floral arrangements. The same young leaves, until to this day are used as palaspas on Palm Sundays and among the Visayans, they are woven into puso, the art of cooking rice for special occasions. Among the Pangasinensis, they make patupat, using young woven leaves in rectangular shape with glutinous rice cooked in boiling sugar cane juice.
Apart from utilizing the midribs for brooms, they are also woven into baskets as fruit trays and or many other uses. Recently, the so-called Virgin oil, extracted solely from coconut milk, is now known worldwide as cure-all most especially for cancer. The many other uses of coconut oil are for cooking, for lamp light, for making laundry or bath soap and as herbal body massage. Other more important products for desserts are the coco jam, buko salad, macapuno and coco gel (nata de coco) among many others.
Then, let me recall the incident about the coconut husk (bunot). This was just after the Philippine liberation from the Japanese occupation in World War II when classes resumed in Grade VI to prepare us for high school. Just a day before graduation, our teacher-in-charge asked us one by one about our ambitions. One said, she wants to be a teacher so that she can educate the poor people. Everyone clapped their hands. Another said he wants to be an engineer, third one a medical doctor, next a nurse, a Mayor, etc. Each time one mentioned his or her ambition, all of us clapped our hands. A very boastful, glib-tongued boy was heavily applauded when he said he wants to be an airplane pilot and added that every time he would pass over our town, he would drop plenty of money.
When it was my turn I just stood up but dumfounded. With truth and honesty in mind, I can not imagine how I will be able to acquire a higher education knowing that there were no high school or much less college institutions in all four municipalities of Camotes Island. Only those who can afford to pursue higher studies can go to Cebu City which will take two days and one night by sailboat. My thoughts focused on our very poor family – with a “no read, no write” mother and a father who can just barely read and write the local dialect. With regards to my father, I also recorded in my mind his sermons about his lifestyle, wearing G-strings (bahag) when in the farm and in the house changing only into purontong shorts when going to town. He also tried to instill in our minds the way he loved and served his parents with sincerity - gathering fresh shrimps ulang, crabs or whatever fish he caught from the river, picking wild fruits and or digging root crops for their meals, made copra, furrowed the fields, fixed their bamboo hut, fetched water and all. When he got married, he never wore his bahag again but showed us the old bamboo tube with a tear in his eye keeping it as souvenir where he used to keep his purontong shorts.
My mind wandered further to our way of life in a farm not our own which is about two kilometers away from the town subsisting on corn grits, bananas, coconuts, sweet potato, cassava and other root crops as the staple food of the poor and whatever small fish, salted ( ginamos) or dried (bulad), fresh water shrimps (ulang) or clams (tuway) from the river we can gather mixed with vegetables like kamunggay, banana heart ( puso ng saging) , bamboo shoots ( dabong) and other wild plants as viand.
I was entirely speechless, with no idea on what will I be. More so, looking at myself barefooted with spreading dirty toes like dried ginger corms, wearing short pant recycled from the fatigue uniform and shirt out of a parachute acquired from the American soldiers. It seemed I was out of my mind for a while when all of a sudden my daydreaming was interrupted by my teacher's louder voice this time asking me again about my ambition. Now, with the presence of mind looking around my classmates' eyes all focused on me prodding sarcastically, in a barely audible andtrembling voice, I said, “Ma'am, I don't know. I have no ambition.”
Immediately loud laughters reverberated all around the classroom with not a single clap but boos and insulting catcalls. So I just sat down with bitter tears rolling down my cheeks. After my teacher has composed herself from the verge of laughing, she said, “So you're like a coconut husk floating in the lake without a rudder”, a phrase which I will never forget “till death do us part”. She further added that “wherever the wind blows, there you go”.
It came also to my mind one incident when one member of our group cleaners every Friday afternoon, struck my head with the coconut husk we used for polishing the floor and also when we can not answer immediately the questions, our teacher used to say “Use your coconut husk” referring to our head and or mind. Challenged, I swore to myself silently that I should have a rudder.
When news circulated that classes will resume and that about five of my classmates will be going to Cebu City to study high school, I told my mother about my desire to go also. “But we have no money. Where will you stay? What about your clothing, food and shoes? Where will you study? We have no friends or relatives there.” These were the questions that my mother and elder sister addressed to me.
But all those thoughts did not discourage me. With the determination to earn money, I made some souvenir items like coin purses and doilies out of matured ipil-ipil seeds which I sold to the American soldiers still stationed in Tudela at that time. I also peddled cooked sweet potatoes (camote), guavas and ripe tundan and or cooked saba bananas which the soldiers loved to eat. Apart from the money I earned, in exchange for services, I was able also to acquire some fatigue uniforms, camouflage of a canon and parachute which my elder sister then sewed into short pants and shirts for me.
With the "coconut husk" analogy still seriously stuck into my mind, I remembered my mother's prodding to do something to improve our lifestyle. This was in World War II during the Japanese occupation when we used to look for whatever subsistence we can find in the remote communities over the hills, mountains and valleys of Camotes Island. When tired we would rest by a roadside under the canopy of large balite and at times the duhat trees, and with a deep breath of sigh, she would always remind me the story of her life after a brief oracion in Latin that as the eldest, she has to take care of her younger brothers and most especially when her mother died, her strict step mother connived with her father's old concept that girls need not go to school but just stay in the house. Willful but in a mildl tone, she would always say “Serapion, because of my shortcomings and being illiterate, do something to uplift our dignity, get the comforts of life, show to the world your name with flying colors but make them through honest means”. With the aim of becoming an asset not a liability, I promised to heed my mother's desires.
Adding to our lame duck situation, our family was divided into three when World War II broke out - I was with my mother, married elder sister and two younger brothers in Tudela making me my mother's partner as bread winner at about age 13. My father with two brothers and a sister were in the hinterlands of Davao and two elder brothers in Quezon City . Fortunately, all of us survived the war and reunited after the liberation.
Feeling rich with the P35.00 I earned from selling souvenirs and fruits among others, I packed up my three fatigue short pants, three recycled shirts, a buri palm mat banig, some root crops, a few pieces of coconuts and a bundle of firewood which I believed can be of help. It made me feel happy further when my mother hinted she will go with me. There was one problem though - I don't know where to stay in the city.
The banca (sailboat) was the only means of transportation during those days. When we arrived in Cebu City at about one o'clock in the afternoon, I felt somewhat fidgety, but excited. Obviously innocent, the men manning the sailboat told me to kiss and kneel in front of the buoys floating about twenty meters away from the boat when they learned that it was my first time to come to the city. But when I told them it's impossible for me to go near because of my inability to swim, all of them burst into laughter. Of course, I was sorry and ashamed for my being ignorant. However, I felt stronger and determined anyway. Friends and relatives of my classmates and all the other passengers met them and in no time, they were all gone.
We were the only passengers left, so my mother then decided to leave me at first in the banca. At about 5 p.m. my mother came back, told me to bundle up our belongings and we hurriedly left. We walked probably about two kilometers dodging cars and tartanillas as we crossed the busy streets. I can't forget the incident that when we hastily crossed the railroad trying to avoid the approaching train, all of a sudden it blurted out its deafening whistle causing me to tremble and shout in fear feeling as if my world was shattered.
After I was able to recover from the shock and still slightly trembling, we continued walking and skirted the walls of the cemetery until we found this bamboo hut on a vacant lot under a bamboo groove just opposite in the corner of the cemetery. The homeowner, Mr. Patalinghug, was recognized by my mother as one of my sister's suitors some years back when he was still single as one of the assistants of the Salamankero troupe that performed magic tricks during our town fiestas. Married to a dressmaker, I also learned that Mr. Patalinghug was the black sheep in the family and has neglected his studies. His brothers and sisters were all professionals – medical doctors, nurses, architects and engineers. With the Patalinghug's family situation, the more I was touched with the coconut husk vividly pictured in my mind.
Now I realized how awe-inspiring my mother was for her bravery, for in spite of her being “no-read-no-write”, she was able to find her way to and from the pier.
Not withstanding the lack of facilities like toilet, kitchen and water supply among others, I felt at home with the Patalinghugs for they were all good to me. This was probably because I took care of fetching water from the neighborhood, gathering firewood around the vacant lots, do the cooking, cleaning the yard, running errands for the market and whatever work to be done. Saturdays and Sundays, I copied, drew and made an album of dress designs from the fashion catalogue Mrs. Patalinghug used to rent daily. For all the things I did for them, they treated me well even more than their own brothers and sisters.
Cebu City High School (now Abellana National High School ) where I enrolled in first year is more than two kilometers away from my abode. Barefooted in fatigue short pants, I have to walk across the cemetery, follow the defunct railroad, a market place, skirt the sidewalk of a main thoroughfare past a war-torn university and shopping center and turn around a corner with a chapel and elementary school before reaching my school grounds.
Coming from a town devoid of cars and or trucks, radio, newspapers and modern facilities, I felt somewhat nervous, shy and awkward. Somehow, I felt I was pushed by God to put aside shame, pride and prejudice. This was also learned from my mother's bravery and courage. Of course, I was quite nervous the first time
I have been to a city school - a large school at that with thousands of enrollees as against our town with only one class per grade. I felt so small looking at the students in their new attire, neat and clean complete with shoes, bags, books and other paraphernalia. Getting lost in a crowd with a mild headache due probably to excitement, I tried my best to join the crowd, and asked where to enroll in first year. I think I queued five times on wrong lines before I finally found the right teacher. I paid two pesos matriculation fee and twelve pesos tuition fee. There were 14 sections in the 1 st year and I was assigned in Section 11.
Having been devastated during the Japanese occupation, our school buildings had no walls. Five to six classes were held in each dilapidated building divided only by old blackboards mostly recycled plywood. Some classes were held under the large acacia trees, exposed to dust or mud when it rains. Without chairs or desks to sit on, some of us brought stools while the lazy ones have to stand or squat. We were then called the “Cebu City High School turtles.”
At the end of the first semester, when our teacher-in-charge announced that those who got an average grade of 80% and above will be accelerated to second year for the second semester, I felt somewhat tense but when my name was announced with the average grade of 80.5 %, excited I almost fell down my improvised stool. But my joy was shortened when the rich looking girl, English speaking at that, complained striking on me with insults. Pointing an accusing finger to our teacher and then to me, she said, “How did that poor, barefooted provinciano Serapion pass when he is only a houseboy who can hardly speak English?” Immediately our teacher answered - “but according to my records, based on all the exams, he passed”. Shedding tears of joy coiled like a millipede, I silently thanked God for having an honest, truly sincere teacher who was not infected with the corrupt practices of favoritism. Thoughts came to my mind again about the rudder probably starting to develop in my coconut husk.
The accelerated students to second year were composed of five sections and although I was at the last section, I felt this time I have a rudder now, though sailing on a rough sea. I also felt a bit more confident when I met another accelerated barefooted houseboy, Bernabe Lentejas from Samar as a classmate. True to the saying “Birds of the same feather flock together”, we became barkada . Just the same we were not free from insults. In one occasion, excited to join the Rizal Day parade, we went ahead of the line of our class. Our leader then shouted at us, “Hey, you poor barefooted ones, stay at the back”. Unaware of the cruel world, we just smiled still happy, enjoying with pride for having been a part of the celebration.
On many occasions, we were the object of “joy-picking or as a laughing stock” such as throwing an object on us, clicking our ears with their fingers or pinning at our backs a piece of paper with the note “For Sale” and at times, tying our shirt to the chair. There was also a time, that when I stood up to answer my teacher's question, a prankster behind me quietly removed my stool and when I stumbled down, everybody enjoyed laughing. Since then, we always tried to stay in front of the teacher. At times also during recess, some of the hardy boys would poke fun chasing after us, so we just went around the acacia trees or entirely kept distance by staying inside the chapel. To think of it deeply at this writing, I can hardly imagine how we survived – the insults, the heat of the asphalt on our bare feet, the lack of facilities like books and or notebooks, hungry at times and the hard works we rendered for our Landlords. Still vivid in my mind until to this day, God has indeed made us entirely without pride and we never complained, much less fought back our detractors.
There was a time when I almost fainted due to hunger. This was when I just rushed to school without eating because the family I was serving with nine children did not leave any food for me. Normally, I leave some food in the clay pot but probably all of them were hungry, they scoured every food morsels. So, at times I went to school with just water in my stomach. Fortunately, sometimes my cousin would share me some bread.
Letter with an Angel
My other friend, who also came from a poor family but wore old slippers, told me about a letter addressed to Modesta Metilla. I considered him an angel because at that time letters were not delivered but just posted on the wall outside the post office.
It was his habit to read whatever notices were posted on the walls. I told him that must be for my mother so I hastily went to claim it. Fortunately, it came from my brother in Manila and since then we wrote to each other.
Excited to see Manila after the closing of school, I packed up my belongings, the same short pants and shirts wrapped in a buri mat and as usual without shoes, I boarded the M/V Masthead Knot bound for Manila . I had 15-peso coins minus the 12-peso fare for the boat, all I had was P3.00. That was the last week of June, 1946.
Upon arrival at the North Harbor pier, fearing a bit, I did not go down most especially I did not know how to speak Tagalog. I recalled that when I boarded Cebu pier, most people spoke in Visayan but on approaching Manila Bay , they were talking in Tagalog. Knowing I was the only passenger left in the boat, slowly I went down and approached the “barker” calling passengers for Quiapo, Sampaloc. Hearing the word Sampaloc, I immediately took the seat in front beside the driver and showed him the address written in a crumpled piece of paper - #11-A Kamuning Rd. , Quezon City near Sampaloc Avenue . “Oh, yes that is Sampaloc Avenue but in Quezon City ” commented the driver. Fortunately, most drivers at that time were honest. He told me to just go down in Balik-balik which is in the district of Sampaloc, Manila.
When we reached their terminal, he called for a truck going to Kamuning. Most means of transportation at that time were 3 X 4 army trucks without roofing. When I reached Kamuning, at first I hesitated to go down until the driver told me they were going back to Quiapo. Again in Kamuning, I had a hard time looking for the address because the Kamuning Road is different from the Kamuning First, K-2 nd , K-3rd, and or the K-A, K-B, etc. Finally, I found the No. 11 in Kamuning Rd. , a big house which I thought owned by my brother. When I asked the maid cleaning the weeds in front of the house, the lady looking at the window shouted and told her to go inside, reminding her not to talk to strangers leaving me with no one to talk to. In a short while however, I saw a foot path on a vacant lot beside the house. Sensing this might be the place, I followed the grassy foot path leading to the interior where there were two squatter houses hidden by some banana plants along MERALCO electric line about 50 meters away from Kamuning Road. When I asked the old lady cutting some of the old leaves of the bananas, she immediately removed her inverted cigarette with the lighted end inside her mouth and shouted at her neighbor “Pareng Juaning, may naghahanap sa ‘yo” referring to my brother Juanito. When I saw my brother coming out of his improvised house made out of scraps of plywood and canvass roofing obviously salvaged from the American army depot, I shed tears while hugging him.
The following day, after breakfast of pan de sal and a cup of coffee with milk which in our standard in Tudela is food for the rich, tears of joy rolled down my checks. Then my brother told me to get ready for the pamasyal in Manila . Riding with pride and happiness experiencing the breezy air in his top down jeep which he acquired just after he was honorably discharged as one of the guerillas under the American army, my brother took me to Quiapo, pass over Pasig river, Luneta, the Escolta with its known skyscraper at that time and other places of interest. Not used to heavy crowd, when we went down for a while in Quiapo, I felt dizzy probably because of the people rushing about as if walking round and round. Passing Espana extension in coming back, when I asked about that white imposing edifice he said was Quezon Institute, its large grounds struck me nice, so I told him my desire to enroll there. Bursting into laughter, he told me that it's a hospital for the T.B. patients. Of course, I have just to pardon myself because in Cebu City , we have many institutes such as the Southern Institute which later became Southern College and the Cebu Institute of Technology among others.
With the coconut husk again in my mind, I requested my brother to let me study high school. Without asking preferences, he enrolled me in third year night school in Quezon Memorial College . This time, he bought me a pair of hand-made shoes made out of canvass remnants, probably salvaged from the American depot made by those sidewalk shoemakers. Laughing at myself now, I can just imagine how awkward I was then. The following day, I suffered calluses so I requested my brother to buy me a slipper. After my wounds healed I wore again my shoes with cutout papers around my feet.
In spite of the lack of books and other materials, my grades then were satisfactory. One of my classmates Dulce Talosig from Cagayan province who lived in a squatter's area, excelled in all her subjects in spite of her work as a dressmaker. We became friends then for we both lived in a squatter's area. The saying still holds true that “Birds of the same feather flock together”. Some of the better off classmates however were friendly to us, probably because we readily cooperated with whatever activities we did in school and that we shared whatever knowledge we had. On one occasion, one of our classmates Miss Dumlao knowing that we always had no extra money, invited us to a movie. I will never forget what my brother told her when she asked permission to take me out to a movie, “Take care of my brother, he might get lost”.
Just a week before graduation day, when our principal announced the five honored students, I felt as if floating in the clouds when my name was mentioned having garnered the Third Place after Dulce Talosig as Valedictorian and also our close friend Jose de Leon as Salutatorian. The Director requested me to prepare a speech as Class Historian, but because of my timidity and inferiority complex, I declined the offer. I just said to myself that I will do something in other ways to show that I deserved the honor. Still feeling that inferiority complex, I can just say that we were only “big frogs in a small pond.” Any way, without knowing it, that was probably God's will in the second attempt to harness a rudder for my coconut husk and thank God, there was no discrimination in spite of my being apparently in a low class society.
Feeling lonesome as usual, not one from my family attended the graduation rites. My brother who worked as a jeepney driver was not able to come and until now I still can imagine how funny I was with a large coat and tie borrowed from a neighbor. Fortunately or unfortunately, no one took a picture of me. It's so sad to think of it now, but anyway I have to thank the Lord for making me still strong.
Saturdays and Sundays, I worked as a waiter in a country club. A first timer, I still have to learn how to place the plates, glass, fork and spoons. I tried to entertain my customers even in halting Tagalog or English. One very funny incident was when a customer ordered fried chicken. So I immediately went to the kitchen to place the order. After about twenty minutes, while going the rounds, my customer getting impatient reminded me about his order. Immediately I went back to the kitchen but when I saw the cook still undressing it, I went back to my customer and told him “Sir, the cook is still removing the chicken's feathers.” It so happen, our floor manager heard what I said. Immediately she called me and at the back of the counter, scolded me, pinched my ears and said “Why did you tell them the cook is still undressing the chicken?” When I reasoned out what to answer, she immediately said “Very easy, just tell them its coming”. So, I went back to my customer and told them “Sir, it's coming” trying my best to smile. This has taught me a lesson on telling a white lie. Even if the cook is still in the market, you have to tell your customers, “it's coming”. By the way there were no prepared dressed chickens at that time but just live ones usually placed in a coop.
In college, I enrolled at Far Eastern University majoring in Chemical Engineering which was newly offered as a course. Feeling already the fangs of hardships with my brother's jobless situation, I was forced to stop not even finishing the first semester. So, we left for Davao to join with our parents.
There in the hinterlands of Bansalan, Davao near the foot of Mt. Apo, we made kaingins, cut logs and planted corn, coconut, cacao, vegetables and other agricultural products. Although I love nature and its wilderness teemed with monkeys, eagles, kalaw birds (hornbills), kagwangs (flying lemur), wild pigs, deers, lizards, pythons and many other birds and animals including the world famous orchid Waling-waling and many other endemic plants, I still felt my life was unfulfilled.
When I read a news item that emergency teachers were wanted and that high school graduates may apply, I immediately went to Davao City to take the qualifying exam. Although I got only 75% , I still felt fortunate. After one week training, because we didn't have political backing I was assigned in a remote place Sarangani Island among the native Bagobos, Manobos, Terurays and Calagans. Receiving P100.00 a month, I took summer classes on vacation and after two years the emergency teachers including me were replaced with professional graduates from the Visayas and Luzon . So, I continued my studies taking evening classes while working as hospital attendant, waiter in a restaurant and as clerk typist in Compania Maritima. Having finished the ETC course, I resigned from Compania Maritima. Probably because of my efficiency and devotion to work as Assistant to the Chief Clerk, I will never forget what the Assistant Manager told me, “Why will you resign? Have you heard of a teacher who got rich? Take up accounting and we will guarantee to give you a high position with a high salary”. But because of my love for teaching, I applied again as a teacher. This time I was assigned to Dalawinon, a barrio about five kilometers away from the town of Bansalan , now Davao del Sur, without a school building but just a list of prospective Grade 1 pupils.
Apart from teaching, I have to organize a PTA and proud to say, I was able to acquire a two hectare school site and a two room semi-permanent building all donated by the people of the community. I stayed there for five years and when I passed the Civil Service Exam, I became a permanent teacher. I can say this must be my third attempt to harness a rudder.
Back to Manila
When I learned the program on “study-now-pay-later” under the Department of Education for teachers who want to obtain a higher degree, I took the opportunity of taking summer classes in Baguio Vacation Normal School . While in Quezon City where I stayed, I met the Secretary to the Supt. of Schools of Quezon City who told me they were in need of teachers most especially Civil Service Eligible. I took the opportunity of applying and I was assigned in Kamuning Elem. School as a teacher in Grade V and V1. Challenged and being a “PROMDI”, I worked hard to win the friendship of the teachers and most especially the trust and confidence of the principal by reporting to school morning and afternoon – helped improve the landscaping and beautification of the garden, helped in the formulation of the program of activities of the school and did the arranging and or decorating the stage when needed for seminar-workshops and many others. With the aim of improving the efficiency rating of the school, I organized a Boy Scout troop that became famous not only in Quezon City but also Metro Manila, a choral group, a Junior Garden Club, a dance troupe and an Art club that was at par with private schools, being an active member of the Philippine Art Educator's Association.
In scouting, I was able to produce two outstanding Boy Scouts of Metro Manila, my choral group performed in City wide programs, radio and television and won in one of the choral competitions in the Division level. The K.E.S. Junior Garden Club became popular nationwide with the flower and garden shows I organized with a model Greenhouse project. One of the works of a member of my Art Club was chosen as cover of the Panorama magazine and the Dance troupe became popular for having performed in school as well as district programs and in televisions. I'm proud to mention that the famous singer and celebrity Dr. Nonoy Zuniga was under me in scouting, garden club and choral group when he was in Grade V and V1.
In scouting I have been a Woodbadge Course Title holder under the Boy Scout of the Philippines and a title holder of the Order of the Arrow, the highest rank in scouting under the Boy Scout of America, Far East Council. I was also an active member of the Quezon City Teachers Choral Society, the Philippine Folk Dance Society and the Philippine Art Educators Association during my stay in Kamuning Elem. School . In 1971, I was awarded Most Outstanding Classroom Teacher of the Division of Quezon City under the auspices of the Rotary Club of Cubao and the Quezon City Parent Teachers Association. Later I was promoted principal but assigned to a squatter's area.
Because of my active participation in garden clubs and achievements in line with gardening and horticulture, I was taken by the members of the Mga Lingkod Bayan Ladies Association to manage Aurora Gardens , a project of the former First Lady Imelda Marcos. I was invited to write about ornamental plants in the leading newspapers in Metro Manila. I then became a garden columnist of Manila Times, the defunct Evening News and Daily Mirror, the Times Journal, occasionally the Panorama, Bulletin and the Philippine Star, the Starweek Magazine and the Philippine Daily Inquirer. For three years, I was a garden columnist of the Woman's Home Companion magazine.
Turning the tide of my life, SM Shoemart, offered me a commercial space at first in the Makati Mall and then in Cubao Mall engaged in selling plant arts like bonsai, dishgardens, terrariums, flower arrangements and other garden accessories. This has inspired me to go into ornamental business and flower shop operation which is now an emerging industry not only in the Philippines but most especially in advance countries throughout the world.
Specializing in plant arts and with the idea of disseminating bonsai culture, tray landscaping, terrarium making, Ikebana and flower arrangement with Flowershop operation, waterfall zen garden and cement pot making among others as a means of livelihood, I conduct seminar-workshops regularly. With my involvement in shows and or exhibits, I have now a collection of plaques, trophies and other awards for landscaping and individual plants and as speaker-demonstrators in various plant arts among various organizations like the Rotary, Jaycees, Lions and Soroptimists among others.
Mett in the cover of Agriculture Magazine
I initiated the founding of the Philippine Bonsai Society, the Cactus and Succulent Society and the Ikenobo Ikebana Society of Davao. Still currently involved in the Philippine Orchid Society and the Philippine Horticultural Society as Honorary Member, I am also member of the Ikebana International, Manila Chapter and currently President of the Ikenobo Ikebana Society of Manila . As an active member of these associations, I met friends who are multi-millionaires and professionals who live in Forbes Park , Dasmarinas Village and Ayala Alabang Village among other abode of the upper level of the society. To recall in particular, true to what my Assistant Manager in Compania Maritima told me to take up accounting, some of my friends living in Forbes Park who are connected with the famous Accounting Firm SGV, have no less than three cars with swimming pools and palatial homes. Well, no regrets, I am still proud to say that I think I have earned and enriched a good name.
For my involvement in the development of horticulture and environmental concerns, I was awarded Most Outstanding Citizen of Tudela, Cebu in 1978 and Most Outstanding Bansaleno in 1999 during the 47 th Araw ng Bansalan under the Municipal Government of Bansalan, Davao del Sur together with Jay Sonza for Radio and Television, Jojo Adlawan for Music as one of the artists in Miss Saigon, Henrylito Tacio for Print Media as writer in the Readers Digest, Mr. Batalla for developing the Bansalan Dam and water supply and Mr. Arches for Business and Industry. As Grand Tribute to Filipino Achievers Whos Who in the Philippines, in 2002 I was one of the awardees in the National Achievement Excellence Awards under the auspices of the National Consumers Foundation held in the Philippine International Convention Center; a Golden Scroll Awardee for Education 2003 Asia Pacific Awards held in Ateneo University Theater under the auspices of the National Consumers Affairs Foundation and Pasasalamat Award for Outstanding Retired Teachers as Faculty of Kamuning Elem.School under the auspices of the Grand Alumni Homecoming 2003.
It was never my dream of traveling abroad knowing it is only for the moneyed people. But because of my knowledge in Bonsai and Ikebana, a certain Mr. Pacagnella of Bologna , Italy , requested me to help him trim and repot his bonsai and to give lecture-demonstration in Ikebana among his friends in Italy . Sensing my doubts and apprehensions, he said, “No problem, I can provide you free round trip plane ticket, accommodation and service fee.” And added, “I can even let you travel the whole of Europe ”.
It was a culture shock for me that on arrival in Bologna , Italy , the Italians didn't shake hands with me after I was introduced. I felt offended with the thought that they probably look down on Asians or, was it because of my brown color? Any way I dismissed that idea and just went on working in the garden.
I soon discovered that a knowledge of Ikebana and bonsai commands respect. That was when Pacagnella arranged for me to demonstrate bonsai and Ikebana to the public. Held in an auditorium, more than 200 people attended, all in formal attire. After my demonstrations, they came up the stage, gathered all around me for picture taking. Since that time, whenever we meet, they greeted me with a bow. That made me feel like a celebrity with invitations for lunches, dinners and other occasions.
In 1987, the government of Salo in Lago de Garda , Italy , held an Oriental Arts exhibits that included bonsai, Ikebana, calligraphy, origami and ancient artifacts from Asian countries. The Italian Bonsai Society headed by Pacagnella requested me to demonstrate bonsai and Ikebana. To recall, when I approached some of the ladies arranging their Ikebana exhibits, I was snubbed. The following day, just after my lecture-demonstrations, they became very friendly and requested me to help with their arrangements. Sincerely apologizing for not recognizing me the day before, I was then highly respected and the best part of it, I was one of those honored as special guests of the City Mayor together with the Japanese Consul General and high ranking officials.
Taking a train to Germany to visit my nieces and nephews, Pacagnella got me a first class cubicle with two double deck beds. Wanting to befriend the other passengers, I introduced myself that I came from the Philippines . I could sense in their eyes a “cold reception” attitude, but when I added that I was invited to Italy to demonstrate bonsai and Ikebana, their faces changed to a “welcome mood”. We then had a lively conversation and I later learned that the young man I have been talking to was a stage actor on his way to Germany to perform a play. Before we parted, we exchanged names and addresses, feeling happy that Ikebana and bonsai has indeed helped me develop international friendship.
With credentials as Professor in Ikenobo Ikebana and expertise in ornamental gardening and other plant arts, I was able to travel not only in many parts of my own country but also to the U.S.A., Hongkong, Bangkok, Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Gold Coast, New Zealand, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Germany, Holland, apart from Italy and Switzerland among many other countries.
At this moment, I wish that my mother, father and teachers are alive today. I could have showed them how I developed my own rudder and I could have invited them to ride with me safely in my coconut husk to enjoy the sights of the proverbial “Garden of Eden.” I can now also proudly say that poverty is not a hindrance to education.
I know they are up there “somewhere over the rainbow” probably now happily smiling seeing my name written in gold in the hardy coconut husk enthroned in a pedestal of success.
Thank you Lord for all these Blessings!
Mett with top Ikebana professor of Japan.