Maita Gomez: The Queen and I

Maita at the Ateneo de Davao University talking on the economic lies of mining. (www.ecoteneo.org)

Maita at the Ateneo de Davao University talking on the economic lies of mining. (www.ecoteneo.org)

“Hapi birthday my dear Rodne.”

That was the last text message I received from Maita.

Yes, I did not know her at first.

The first time I heard her name was when I was still a volunteer for a mining policy reform campaign in 2008. She was interested to work for the campaign.

After two years, I met her in a cozy office of Action for Economic Reforms (AER), the home of a transparency in extractive industries campaign called Bantay Kita. I was tasked to assist her in a series of fora and focused group discussions on the economics and transparency in the mining industry.

I wanted to know more about her. I admit, before going to the office of Bantay Kita, I googled her name online and explored the web to learn more about this woman – the ordinariness of her extraordinary life.

I asked Fr. Archie Casey, a Scottish missionary, and my superior Jaybee Garganera about this  ‘queen reformist turned economist’ and how to deal with her. They just smiled and at least I felt relieved.

Intimidating. That was my first impression. But when she stared back at me and called me by my first name with her husky voice coupled with a real smile, I know our work would be full of adventures.

Together with her assistant, we took a small plane to Tablas Island, spent a night in a simple bed and breakfast called Pearl’s Cafe and the next morning prepared brewed coffee for us – she brought with her a french press!

Our boat trip to Sibuyan Island was full of surprises – surprises of knowing her inner beauty – intelligence, wisdom, generosity and simplicity. She was flexible. The island people loved her not because she was a celebrity but being a down to earth woman – from politicians, the religious to the plain housewives, fishers and farmers.

Real joy ride with the queen on our way to Dagubdob Falls (Sibuyan Island, Romblon).

Real joy ride with the queen on our way to Dagubdob Falls (Sibuyan Island, Romblon).

After rounds of meetings with the townsfolk, we decided to refresh ourselves. I grabbed my father’s motorcycle and drove Maita and a woman guide to the still undeveloped Dagubdob Falls. There, she marveled at the beauty of nature. For me, it was the right time ask her on how she became so interested with environmental issues especially mining.

She looked at me and answered: “Rodne, it’s so unfair, it should be just and fair.” Then she looked at us again, one by one, shook her head and said: “Never permit the miners destroy your island.” She smiled again held a pitcher plant and drank fresh water from one pitcher.

Maita drinking fresh water from a pitcher plant in Dagubdob Falls.

Maita drinking fresh water from a pitcher plant in Dagubdob Falls.

We need to catch the plane in Tablas Island which would leave mid-morning. The mayor of San Fernando town offered a speedboat and at 4 o’clock in the morning we found ourselves crossing the rough Sibuyan Sea. I had second thoughts, a 63 year old woman and a former beauty queen, crossing Sibuyan Sea?

After two hours, we were in the middle of the notorious nautical highway, with 3-5 meters high waves. I was consistently asking Maita and her assistant if they were okay. Staring at her, I saw no fear. Minutes later, flying fishes were literally flying into and over the boat. I felt a little nervousness – what if sharks and barracudas would fly over our boat? Maita was still calm despite the cold – we were all wet, five of us – the other two are the boat operators.

One hour passed, we got lost. The captain of the boat could not remember where we ought to dock. But thanks God, I know my geography and the mysterious Kalatong mountain showed up. It helped us located the airport by the beach.

A four-hour travel, indeed! We reached Tablas Island and Maita was smiling at us while saying like: “Oh, we are here. We had a great boat ride, isn’t it?.” Of course, her assistant was relieved and fear was gone.

I was then tempted to ask her if she were afraid. If my memory is right, she answered back, “Why would I be afraid? You have to face all these if you want to serve the people. If it is your time, then it is your time – it is natural.”

And the rest is history.

She became a  mother, a grandmother, an adviser. She accepted me as I am.

I was unable to thank her for the lessons I learned from our conversations, work-related or personal – even love life.

Madam Maita, wherever you are, I want you to know that:

I cannot again ask you to ask me if I smoke, you would know my answer (“Yes, I am a second hand smoker.”), and we would burst into laughter.

I shall miss that moment when you felt cold and you asked for my coat. I was really worried about you that day in Ateneo de Davao University.

How I wish to go back to that paradise island in Lumot Lake where Mother Nature where the earth, air, wind and fire are felt as one – from the moment I left Manila to the last minute of the travel, you never stopped guiding me.

I shall miss all our activities together, the humor and the wisdom, plus the one-liners which tickled our minds yet challenging our beliefs and perspectives.

Next year, no Maita shall greet me on my birthday, but your greetings last June shall be forever.

You mat not be able to cross the stormy Sibuyan Sea but I am sure you are now smoothly sailing to eternity.

You may not be able to drink from a pitcher plant but I am sure you are now drinking from the fountain of life.

You may not be able to go back to that island in Lumot Lake but I am sure you shall reach the paradise reserved for a hero like you.

Thank you for becoming part of my life.

What I know is that she became a successful environment advocate who left a great challenge to all of us: we cannot just monetize our natural resources to satisfy the greed of the few.

Maita may be as gentle as the zephyr’s touch but if one is oppressed, she is as fierce as the big and strong waves of a stormy sea.

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