Seeking small stories

Seal of Muntinlupa City / Wikicommons hero Ramon F Velasquez

Seal of Muntinlupa City / Wikicommons hero Ramon F Velasquez

Last week found me sweating rosary beats while stuck in a jeepney on a national road in Muntinlupa with minutes ticking closer to noon and farther from 9:30, when I was supposed to be there to interview a local official.

It was not entirely my fault. The concept of Metro Manila as a unified megalopolis lulled me into forgetting that EDSA traffic and the lack of an efficient public transportation means southern Metro Manila  might as well be another country, or the other side of the moon.

So, three and a half hours later, a litany of SMS apologies to my source and muttered curses at traffic and the very idea of commuting in general.

Despite that, I love field work. Having cut my teeth in the halls of the Senate, I have always felt I skipped a logical first step in journalism: covering murders and robberies and being deployed to faraway places for local stories. I’m grateful that I got to cover national news months after I started but it was always great to be away from a desk.

It isn’t even being away from Manila that makes being in the field fun.

More often than not, it’s the little things that won’t even make it to the story. Like election violence down the road while monitoring the news in a motel in Cavite (it was already in the news and there was little we could do about it anymore) or a kid chasing ducks along a river in a resettlement area in North Cotabato (later being chased by said ducks because ducks don’t give a fuck).

Or, in this case, having lomi and Mountain Dew with staff of the city’s waste management program. I made my interview with 15 minutes to spare before my source had to leave for a meeting but he told me to stay to continue the interview when he came back.

In the meantime, small talk with the staff. After safe topics like the distance between Muntinlupa and Quezon City came gossip about how the city’s former mayor left the local government in disarray. One lady said their office had nothing left after the transition except desks. They had a fax machine, but someone took home the paper and ink.

The new mayor even had to use a monobloc chair for a while because his predecessor supposedly took the chair from his office. Unsubstantiated, of course, but there you go.

What struck me most, though, was an elder member of the staff  who mixed small talk with stories about the city’s waste management program.

He eagerly produced brochures and even fired up the office computer (the only one) to show me bioreactors and compost curing schedules. He was not trying to show off, though, or trying to impress a reporter.

This was a man actually excited about his job and eager to flood me with minutae about composting because he wanted to share something awesome. (As a farmer’s son, I actually do find composting somewhat awesome.)

“I saw an ordinance from Angeles City where they moved all junk shops to one part of the city. I wonder if we could do that,” he said without being prompted.

This led to a discussion among the staff about a discontinued program (now being revived) to monitor junk shops in the city for compliance with waste disposal and recovery laws.

“The problem sometimes is that some mayors scrap a program even though it’s good just because it was started by someone else,” another member of the staff said. He left soon after because he had to prepare for a government activity the next day, a Saturday, during which he would essentially be working for free.

I found out later that they had all had to work without pay for a few months while the new administration tried to put the city’s finances in order.

It was interesting to listen to especially since the perception of local government employees is either of lazy relatives and friends of people in power or of rude ladies who use office hours to clean their nails and take care of personal errands.

I’m sure enough of those exist to reinforce the stereotype, but it’s nice to know that there are others who actually do care about their jobs.

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6 responses to “Seeking small stories

  1. It’s actually revealing to get to talk with staff–the people behind the big shots or titled personages. And it’s even greater when you hear how dedicated they are to what they’re doing.

    • Exactly. I mean, officials are expected to at least appear competent and dedicated, so that’s normal. But it’s the staff that does most of the work and I’m glad they didn’t see it as just a job.

  2. I’m lucky that I don’t have to do that. I can’t actually, since we have to be objective. But I do get nervous about getting facts and quotes, and the story itself, wrong. I don’t think that ever really goes away.

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