Thursday, December 17, 2009

Smogtown baby

Some places stick with you long after you leave them, but not many literally stick to you. Manila does. Bum around the metro for a few days and you’ll be picking the city out of your fingernails and rubbing it from your eyes, coughing back up all the black poison air you’ve swallowed.

Last week I stood at the border between Manila and the Outside. The boundary should have been invisible, just a line on a political map, but in actuality it was all too clear. What I saw: on one side of me, a brilliant blue sky spotted by a few bright scudding clouds; on the other, a forbidding dark grey wall of smog, solid as any of the concrete and steel that’s been haphazardly thrown up on what used to be a jungle island.


Much of the steel goes to Makati. This is the district of Metro Manila where the rich people live. There’s no wall around Makati, but in my head I always imagine it as having one. When Typhoon Ondoy hit in September, one national newspaper devoted a large article to a big-name Filipino actor puttering around in his boat and saving people. Reminds me of Sean Penn in New Orleans after Katrina – except that the people this guy was “saving” were his equally famous and rich actor friends. Salamat sa Dyos!

Outside of the delusion district, Manila is one big reality. It’s dirty, certainly, but not dirty in any conventional way: there’s something sticky and unwashable about the filth in Manila, a tropical adhesion which coats the jagged sidewalks that look vomited up by some cement volcano, the few sad and scraggly trees, the glossy posters advertising the girls at a GRO bar. The madly colored jeepneys can’t escape it, and even that other universe, the domain of those with means, is stained with it – glance up at the Hyatt hotel in Malate during daytime and you’ll see what the flashy neon distracts you from at night: a creeping, insidious blackness spreading across the flat, dull facade. The desperation of the streets has become too dense, and can only diffuse upwards.

Those streets look bad and smell worse, bathed in a solution of chunky stagnant water and urine, spotted with dead dogs, live rats and human excrement. They are a home for many, and I know I’m trespassing when I step over sleeping bodies on my way to buy my coffee or take pictures with my expensive camera. As an American, as a white person, I don’t belong here.

But: as an American, as a white person, I do. Manila is a terrible place for many Filipinos, but a haven for all those westerners looking for kicks. As I’m browsing the ubiquitous stands of pirated movies, often the first thing I’m asked is “Porn, sir?” When I’m offered a woman – if the seller is discreet; sometimes they’re blunter about the services they’re peddling – how can I tell them that I’m not interested, that I’m not one of them? A few dozen years, many pounds and a significant amount of personal grooming might differentiate me from the grubby old white men looking for a young Filipina to wrap themselves around, but to many ManileƱos there’s no difference at all. If I’m not interested, maybe I’m just being superior; if I can’t spare a coin for a begging street kid, maybe I’m just being greedy.

Begging? Not good enough in Manila. In a land of so many competing have-nots, even the penniless and powerless must have something to sell – broken trinkets, wood carvings, dejected flowers.


One of my favorite images of the Philippines involves a child and a flower: in a park in Iloilo, I watched as a little girl spied a pretty flower on the ground and tottered over to investigate. Her irritated mother called her, but the girl ignored the shrill, annoyed noise: she had something more interesting to heed. The most important thing in her world at that moment was admiring a flower, and I envied her singlemindedness.

And one of my least favorite images of the Philippines involves a child and a flower: they were both on the wrong side of a taxi window. The girl, standing with torrential Manila rain running down her ragged long hair, beckoned for me to buy her soaking sampaguita flowers. The cabbie reached back and locked my door, and I looked away: just another smogtown baby drowning.

I’ve complained often about a lack of privacy in the Philippines, but my life is shuttered and soundproof compared to the drama staged every day in the streets of the capital. Countless times I’ve ducked my head away from something I’ve seen, something my western mind views as shameful. I quicken my step and mutter an apology when I turn a corner and a woman is defecating on the sidewalk in front of me; I avert my eyes and scuttle by the old man taking a bath from a public faucet along the baywalk.

And they are shameful, these things: not the fact that they are done but because they are done out of necessity, a lack of choice. Confined to malnourishment, illness, poverty, the poor of Manila’s ignored and unpoliced streets face only one law, that of mandatory debasement.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Electric Radio Machine!

It shames me sometimes to think that, not too long ago, Peace Corps volunteers didn’t have cell phones or the internet. (They did have motorcycles, and that assuages my shame somewhat.) Not only do I have these things, my kids have these things. My orphaned and neglected children have Facebook accounts. They ask me for Friendster “codes” and I have to admit that I don’t know what they’re talking about. They show me how to do things on my cell phone. The only thing that recently has made me more feel out of touch was when The Office started making pop-culture jokes that I don’t understand.

I don’t begrudge my kids their Friendster and Facebook. Really, they use these websites for their actual purpose – making and communicating with friends. I mainly use Facebook as a repository for interesting and/or ethnic names in an attempt to make myself seem more worldly. I routinely cull the Smiths and Joneses.

Just the fact that I can use Facebook in a developing country – every day if I really wanted (which I don’t), since my center has an internet connection – shows how the world has changed since the Peace Corps was inaugurated in 1961.

In my head, New York City in 1961 was a little hamlet bustling with horse-drawn buggies. Australia had not yet been discovered. Sears & Roebuck catalogues, instead of featuring the newest iPods and Android cell phones, had black and white drawings of state-of-the-art manual wheat threshers, and on the back page ran a splendid, hand-colored advertisement for the “revolutionary new communication medium – yours for only $XX plus shipping and handling – the amazing Electric Radio Machine!”


I wasn’t around back then, so these are just guesses. Regardless of their accuracy, the fact remains: things have changed. I’m in the Philippines and I’m writing this on my laptop computer. I can use my cell phone at any time to cross the nine thousand miles between “home” and home. (It’s way too expensive for me to do that much, though.) Wifi access is an hour away in Iloilo City.

I use all these things, but I sometimes feel guilty that I do. Every new communication apparatus gathers our little human islands closer together, stretching the skin of the earth tight and snipping off the excess, throwing it out into the void from which mysteries and riddles cannot escape. It seems like the world is shrinking so fast, and with it the spirit of adventure, the sense of the unknown lurking just over the horizon.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Earth, sea


Monterey, California


Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic


La Jolla, California


Malibu, California


Siquijor, Philippines


San Francisco, California


Biloxi, Mississippi


Gulfport, Mississippi


Guimaras, Philippines


Palawan, Philippines


Honolulu, Hawai’i


Wailea, Hawai’i


Ka’anapali, Hawai’i

Venice Pier

Venice Beach, California

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Admit that the waters around you have grown

And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you is worth saving

Then you’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times, they are a-changin’.


7107 is a very important number to Filipinos. It represents the fragments of a whole – the bits that, when put together, form a country and a people. 7107 is the number that gives life and livelihood to 90 million Filipinos: it is the number of islands in the Philippine archipelago.

It’s a number that, thanks to rampant environmental abuse, may need to be revised in the not-so-distant future.

El Nido, Palawan

As an American who has known the same number of states his entire life, the prospect of losing one seems bizarre – even the states which I don’t like to publicly admit are actually such. (“Oh, Texas,” I tell Filipinos, “That’s still part of Mexico.”) But if one dropped off like a gangrenous toe, we Americans would still have plenty of space to dump the refugees. Filipinos have no such luxury.

Living on islands has made me realize the real urgency of the environmental crisis. I live in Iloilo, a low province. If ocean levels rise a meter or two from melting polar ice and warming-and-expanding seawater, I don’t know that my town, which is miles inland now, will still be above the waves. And the Philippines does not have room for expansion: they’ve got almost a third of the American population in an area the size of one of our bigger states (and not Alaska or Texas, either).

It’s popular to blame global warming on large industrialized nations – Russia, increasingly China, and especially the US. It’s a trend which is, depressingly, apropos of the recent past. The Philippines of course has its own environmental sins – and they are, relative to the nation’s diminutive size and global stature, fairly massive. Stewardship of the earth here is, to blatantly generalize, a joke.

Manila Bay

The sad fact is that the citizens of the Philippines, aided admittedly by centuries of exploitation by outsiders, are ruining their own home in many ways, and that sucks: a beautiful country is being drowned in garbage and choked in smog. But the US and Russia and China, among others, are ruining other people’s nations as well, and that’s downright un-neighborly.

“Green living” is becoming mainstream, and on an individual level that is a wonderful thing… but it will only go so far. The world needs institutional change now. It needs the powers that be to stop using an imagined, manufactured “uncertainty” about global warming as a hedge against endangering their own interests. It needs countries to act: to recognize that without sweeping changes, the future earth will not be the world we know. It will not necessarily be a good place for humans.

The situation is deadly serious. The excesses of a few nations worldwide are literally drowning their little cousins: the Philippines, the Maldives and other island chains are at risk of losing major amounts of land, in the best case, and disappearing altogether in the worst.

It’s difficult to imagine, because in our post-MAD world nations don’t disappear like a magician’s dove. What could possibly result in the complete loss – as in the outright destruction - of a country?

In 2005, I flew out to California for my sophomore year at Pepperdine only a day or two before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I stayed up late every night, anxiously reading any news I could find online about the hurricane. One thing spooked me more than anything else: an alert advising people to abandon ship at once, because in the aftermath of such a powerful storm – sans power, water, medical care, and everything else we generally consider necessary these days, like designer clothing and espresso-based specialty beverages – conditions would “make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”

Bay St. Louis, MS

That’s a bold pronouncement to make, especially by NOAA. But they made it. And Katrina didn’t turn out to be the end of New Orleans, but during those long hours while the levees fell and bodies swirled in the filthy eddies, I remember reading apocalyptic predictions that New Orleans would become the first major urban area in the United States to be destroyed – and utterly unrecoverable.

The New Orleans metropolitan area has fewer than two million people. When Katrina hit, there was fear, and hysteria, and outrage when people who could have been saved weren’t saved.

Where is the fear now, and the hysteria? Where, especially, is the outrage? In just a few days will begin the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, where a successor-treaty to the Kyoto Protocol will begin to be formulated. But who or what will speak there? Corporations and their politicians? The deep pockets stuffed with dollars, yuan, rupees and euros? What about the voices of the more than four billion people who don’t live in China or the US or Russia – or the hundreds of millions living in those three countries whose own voices are drowned out in the relentless cacophony of clattering machines and shouting traders, the high-pitched shriek of Progress at Any Cost?

Progress indeed: the progression of gases into the skies and metal and plastic into dying forests. And the progression of the sea to recover what it once owned fully. Since we obviously cannot take care of our land, the ocean will take it back.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Forever will we climb the monkey bars


The saddest characteristic of children is that they become adults. This transformation is unfortunate but doggedly pervasive: few manage to avoid it altogether. Grass-stained shirts become neatly pressed suits, once-colorful breakfast cereal turns monochrome, and the important businesses of exploring and experimenting are overshadowed by clocks and little bits of paper with the portraits of dead people.

We celebrate this transformation with birthdays, bar mitzvahs, coming-of-age celebrations. In the Philippines, an eighteenth-birthday debut is, for girls, a major event. In the US we mark the years with privileges: driving at sixteen, voting at eighteen – and at twenty-one, the right to imbibe alcohol, which ironically is probably the only means some people have to return to a more fantastic time of immaturity and ignorance.

Except children aren’t immature, they’re just more honest than adults: they laugh when they want to laugh, cry when they feel like crying. It’s adults who are mixed up, who hide things: we laugh when we really want to cry.


Neither are kids ignorant. What we take for granted, they’re only just discovering – and discovering with a sense of wonder that their elders have long since misplaced in their alphabetized filing cabinets. Ask me about the Grand Canyon and I will give you this description: “It’s so big and beautiful, and if you fall down to the bottom, you might die.” I stole that line from a five-year old girl, a preschooler. I’ve never heard a better synopsis.

Kids have their responsibilities, just like adults. They’re the ones who make sure new insects get thoroughly examined. They test rain puddles for surface tension and viscosity. Their experiments on centripetal motion are unparalleled, though usually conducted on old rusting playground equipment. The differences between their work and that of adults are these: kids like their jobs, they’re usually really good at them, and, beyond perhaps some name-calling and rock-throwing, they rarely intentionally hurt others to achieve their ends.

I try to emulate kids sometimes. I don’t keep a planner, because I tell myself that if I have to write down my daily schedule and responsibilities in order to remember them, then my life has become too structured, too complicated, and I need to simplify. But then Peace Corps gets on my case about forgetting my third straight monthly call-in, and I meekly apologize and add a reminder on my cell phone.

That’s what being an adult is: placating other adults. (I know this because I’m already twenty-four and, to quote Bill Watterson’s Calvin, a lifetime of experience has left me bitter and cynical.) We’re all nervous, tightly-wound bundles of civility, afraid to say what we think – unless we have enough money to make other people care about what we think; and then what we think is usually something devised to make ourselves more money.

I tiptoe around other adults every day, making sure there’s a thick insulation of polite falsities and forced smiles between us. I think I’ve learned to comport myself rather well, which is very distressing to me. I can feel the kids’ disapproving stares: What is he thinking, I imagine them wondering. We know he sings goofy songs and throws our sandals in trees and acts like a general fool around us. Why the act?

I hate to perform. I hate singing, dancing, acting, even just speaking in front of an audience. I think my center is, finally, beginning to realize this, likely because I’ve told several of my coworkers exactly so in as many words. They don’t understand it. Neither do they understand that I’m acting all the time around them. Maybe that’s why I’m so opposed to public performance: I’m already doing it - no need to double up.

Sometimes, though, we do drop the act. Maybe we suddenly realize that a lonely tree really needs climbing, or that work can wait because we just saw an awesome stickbug crawling into a bush. Imagine the contribution to world cuisine if we actually went through with all the food experiments that go through our heads. These are small steps; when the Swing Long Jump becomes an Olympic event, we will have arrived at last at a happier, more enlightened time.


As for me, I’ll continue singing my goofy songs for the kids, but I’ll maintain my adult act as well. So society dictates, and my mind isn’t free enough to break free of its chains. But if the world were to suddenly end, I hope I would not be caught sitting in an office - how depressing to have one’s last vision be lines in a ledger or cells in a spreadsheet. Let me spend my final moments instead dangling upside-down on bright red monkey bars, feeling the glorious dizzying headrush while my cell phone, wallet, keys, all the reminders of a sterile, cold adulthood fall out of my pockets to be swallowed by the living earth below.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Shooting up in wharf-town

Wharves are tailor-made for photographers. They have everything you could want in a picture: gorgeous vivid rust, cheeky wharf rats and the sea.

The general decrepitude of wharves is one of their main draws. Everything is coarser and more tactile here: the flaking paint on a boat’s prow, the jagged oxidized red metal of poles that look ready to snap in two. Even the ocean is more textured, cut into furrows by the wakes of passing ferries and tugs.

Wharves are far from the boring smoothness, the glossy plastic facade of wealth. Mansions are flat and lifeless – I certainly learned that from living in Malibu. But wharves have a character of movement and change: a dynamism riding on the salty sea air.













Thursday, November 12, 2009

I remember this

My boat is sliding through dirty brown water towards the port of Cebu. It is early and the air is already hot; smog hangs over the city, smudging the distant cars traversing the bridge to Mactan Island. I’m wide awake after fourteen hours of sea breezes and rocking waves. We are leaning on the railing, a hundred Filipinos and I, watching the people below. They are begging from their little bangkas, their outrigger boats. They hold out their hands, asking for food or money; women with tangled wild hair leave their children sleeping in the prows and dive smoothly for the coins shining in the morning sun. It is a small flotilla assaulting our ferry; the boats carve out their territory and the men and women banter back and forth, all the while keeping an eye out for the glint of metal. They pick out my white face at once, though we are thirty feet above the ocean.

And this: I’m sitting on a rocky outcropping in Palawan. I’ve been here for hours, staring out at the islands, watching the angry clouds gather and disperse and gather again. It rains and rains. The ledge I’m sitting under only protects me partly from the storm. I was supposed to take a boat out to those islands today, but I’m here instead, waiting out the sun. On the mainland I know there are expatriates and travelers exploring the shores, but nobody disturbs my offshore rock except a lone Filipino fisherman, and I can believe there is no El Nido town, no Palawan, nothing except the volcanic hills sprouting out of the ocean in front of me.

And this, a memory repeated and layered, blurred at the margins, vague and variable but essentially true: warm darkness, the smell of smoke. Voices flying into one another, clamoring, jabbering, laughing. Someone has an out-of-tune guitar and half the words to a Bob Marley song. Our lights are stars and the burning ends of cigarettes. Nothing is distinct, nothing is solid, and the tropical night weighs on my eyes.

I have the quick images, the snapshots: an old woman’s beautiful toothless smile, sugarcane burning, ten thousand floating tsinelas in Manila Bay. Yellow mango, green mango. Roadside sari-saris, ten in a row, identical: Norma Store, Nonong Store, Stela Store. Slum kids diving into oil-strewn wharf water. Rattling rusty buses. A trisikel driver with one eye and hunchbacked children begging for pesos. Scars. Brown skin, dark eyes, startled looks.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Reading in the Philippines is a tricky business sometimes. As an essentially solitary activity, reading is often a catalyst for concern on the part of friendly Filipinos who worry that their American friends are sad and lonely because they’re tucked into a corner, nose in a book. (The same goes for Americans who are not dancing at a party or bar – they must be depressed.) It’s a wonderful expression of the Filipino mindset of concern for guests and friends, but sometimes it makes reading impossible – especially when you don’t want to offend Filipinos by showing a preference for books over their company.

Another concern is the price of books. New ones often approach the cost of books in the US – say P350 for a pocket paperback, the equivalent of about 7USD. That amount can buy ten meals at a local carinderia. Luckily there are used bookstores at many malls, and that’s where I do most of my book shopping. Several other volunteers on or near my island are avid readers and we exchange books once in a while. Sometimes the pickings are indeed slim (I was once greatly tempted to buy the Hanson biography Mmmbop to the Top to complement Ice by Ice, the Vanilla Ice autobio), but after more than a year I’ve got stacks of interesting books in my house. A good thing, since the only books I brought from home were five by Kerouac (Big Sur, On the Road, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and Tristessa). Aside from these – which are all fantastic – the following are a few of the best I’ve read in the past fifteen months.

A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah) – an autobiographical account of Beah’s experience as a child soldier in West Africa and his reintegration into society. It reminds me of a true-life Beasts of No Nation – simply written, starkly nightmarish.

Whiteman (Tony D’Souza) – also set in Africa; tells the story of a young American volunteer trying to figure out the customs of an unfamiliar society. Sound familiar? I kept coming across strangely resonant elements in the book, which is billed as a novel. And sure enough, I looked up D’Souza’s background afterwards and it turns out he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d’Ivoire.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Haruki Murakami)Blind Willow is a compelling collection of enigmatic, creative short stories that (for the most part) thankfully manage to sidestep the pointless, tiresome weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness that plagued a previous Murakami collection, The Elephant Vanishes.

The Road (Cormac McCarthy) – a postapocalyptic journey through burning America that is, unusually, neither nostalgic nor silly. The Road has gotten a boatload of acclaim since its release, and it is quite warranted.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson) – one of those books I should have read long ago, Thompson’s drug-fueled journey hurtles through Sin City in prose that miraculously keeps pace with the author’s fevered brain.

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource (Marq Villiers) – a scientific study of the movement of water throughout the world – its uses, misuses, and the consequences of a growing population on a finite resource already strained in many parts of the globe. Much fascinating talk about cubic-meters-per-second and aquifer depletion, as well as a lot of information on historical water projects, like the water-theft that allowed (and allows) Los Angeles to rise from desert.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie) – two citizens of Mao’s communist China face reeducation on a remote mountain during the Cultural Revolution. Sijie is somewhat of an authority on the subject, having been reeducated himself in the 1970s.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller) – the author tells about her British-expat childhood and youth in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. It’s a story about two things: her ill-starred, alcoholic, unstable mother, and the white separatism that resulted, for Fuller, in an African life displaced from everything African.

These are all great reads, but sometimes it’s more fun to talk about the books that were disappointing or just plain awful. Who could predict that Fell in Love with a Band (Chris Handyside), the epic tale of the White Stripes’ rise to prominence, would be just as mediocre as, well, all the other music writing in the world? Or that Paperback Original (Will Rhode) could actually be even more generic and mundane than the cover’s synopsis, which is: “When the traveling ends, and the drugs wear off, the writing must begin”? (I use this book as a mousepad.)

The worst are the letdowns by authors I admire. It’s hard to believe that Tim O’Brien, creator of the staggeringly fantastic The Things They Carried (in my mind perhaps the second-best book about war I’ve ever read, after Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms), could pen a sludgy, gimmicky mess like In the Lake of the Woods. And even after reading the wonderful Breakfast of Champions, Bluebeard, Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, the scattered-to-oblivion God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater almost makes me question the genius of Kurt Vonnegut. Almost.


The Best

A Separate Reality (Carlos Castaneda)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson)

A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah)

Mother Tongue (Bill Bryson)

Whiteman (Tony D’Souza)

Bluebeard (Kurt Vonnegut)

Ice by Ice (Vanilla Ice)

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Haruki Murakami)

The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource (Marq Villiers)

Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut)

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie)

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller)


The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)

July, July (Tim O’Brien)

Don’t Stop the Carnival (Herman Wouk)

Chang and Eng (Darin Strauss)

A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson)

The Lost Continent (Bill Bryson)

Hooking Up (Tom Wolfe)

Mr. China (Tim Clissold)

China Boy (Gus Lee)

Vanity of Duluoz (Jack Kerouac)

Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese (Mike Nelson)

Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste (Lester Bangs)

Nickel and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich)

The Liars’ Club (Mary Karr)

Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss)

The Awakening (Kate Chopin)

Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center (Eric Darton)

12,000 Miles in the Nick of Time (Mark Jacobson)

Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn)

Two Years in the Melting Pot (Liu Zongren)

Spit in the Ocean #7: All About Kesey (Ed McClanahan, ed.)

Native Son (Richard Wright)

Kim (Rudyard Kipling)

The Audacity of Hope (Barack Obama)

Breadfruit (Celestine Hitiura Vaite)

Falling Off the Map (Pico Iyer)

Notes from a Small Island (Bill Bryson)

My Freshman Year (Rebekah Nathan)

Selling Ben Cheever (Ben Cheever)

The Key (Junichiro Tanizaki)

The Quiet American (Graham Greene)

Light in August (William Faulkner)

My Sky Blue Trades (Sven Birkerts)

Motoring with Mohammed (Eric Hansen)

Geisha, a Life (Mineko Iwasaki)

No good

The Binding Chair (Kathryn Harrison)

Fell in Love with a Band (Chris Handyside)

Shalimar the Clown (Salman Rushdie)

Man’s Fate (Andre Malroux)

Native Speaker (Chang-Rae Lee)

Among Warriors (Pamela Logan)

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (Kurt Vonnegut)

Paperback Original (Will Rhode)

Boy Island (Camden Joy)

In the Lake of the Woods (Tim O’Brien)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

“Times cannot erase the friendship that your heart recorded”

The past week has been somewhat of a flurry of activity – I’ve accompanied my kids to a song and dance competition, a children’s rights activity day (for Children’s Month, October), a Halloween party at my center, and a little celebration for my birthday on November 1.

I’ve seen dozens and dozens of dance performances since I’ve been here, and I’ll see countless more before my time is up. This one was slightly different, however – rather than bog-standard hip-hop performances, this one showcased traditional dances And by traditional, I mean “highly influenced by and on occasion taken directly from the Americans and Spanish.” My own kids performed an intricate dance involving the synchronized movements of dancers between moving bamboo logs. There’s a name for the dance but I can’t recall it at the moment. It’s very impressive when done right.

Later I asked my coworker a question about the performance. I knew the dance was from pre-colonial times; “So why, if the dance is supposed to be traditional,” I asked, “do the dancers use makeup to whiten their skin?”


She couldn’t answer. Another coworker pointed out another incongruity: the Iloilo Dinagyang festival is supposed to celebrate the Philippines’ native history, but they also use the occasion to venerate Catholic saints. This kind of cultural mixing is everywhere in this country, and more often then not no attempt is made to reconcile or even explain it. Many Filipinos, despite professing a devotion to Christianity, also believe in mystic healing and supernatural beings. (Their “aswang” are particularly grotesque; Filipinos often call them “witches", but they’re a far cry from the wart-nosed old ladies of the Western imagination. They have the form of beautiful women, but from the waist down they have no bodies, just entrails streaming along as they fly. They have long tongues which they extend down the throats of pregnant women to eat their babies, which, if you pass by the anatomical impossibilities here, is pretty spooky. Other popular creatures include kapri, which are tree-like beings, and “white ladies,” who – well, actually I don’t know what the white ladies are supposed to do. I think they just make token appearances outside windows late at night.)

Moving on. The Children’s Month activity was long, long, long, but kids from my center got a chance to perform for kids from other places, which is always good. Our youth band was mostly a miss thanks to faulty sound equipment, but nobody seemed to particularly care.


Our Halloween party, which was actually the day before Halloween, was loud and crowded, and I left early because I was dead tired and sick of people screaming at me over the music to take their picture. As soon as I take out my camera here, the clamoring begins. It’s constant, as if your ears are being buzzed by something loud, shrill and obnoxious, like The B-52s.

On Halloween I went to the city and blew a week’s worth of food money to buy candy for my kids, all hundred-plus of them. I barely made it to my center before bedtime; I was waylaid by an extravagantly drunk neighbor who insisted I come over for a drink and chicken slathered in ketchup.

On my birthday – my sixth straight, I realized, away from home – I was surprised by a little celebration my kids and a coworker had arranged. It was nice, mostly because it involved no dance numbers, no speeches, and no surprise announcements that I would be responsible for providing entertainment. We spent the afternoon eating, taking pictures and playing games. One of my girls drew a portrait of me as a gift and several others wrote me letters. They contain such nuggets of wisdom and half-English as the following:

  • “Always remember that times cannot erase the friendship that your heart recorded.”
  • “We hope that you do not change your attitude because I like to be fun with you. Sorry if my writing is so ugly.”
  • “Many learnings I’ve learned to you because I like American People.”
  • “Thank you 4 being one of my arch enemy. Hehehe”  

 The only problem with the day was a typical one: miscommunication. The celebration only involved a dozen or so kids, and it seems that some of those not participating – children and coworkers - assumed I had arranged the whole thing and neglected to invite them. Ay, dyos ko.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2009