Saturday, March 28, 2009

Siquijor and more

I had my first real vacation this month. My girlfriend Lillian flew out from
California to Manila to meet me and we spent a couple days in the big
city, which is big indeed, and crowded - I've read that Metro Manila,
the area comprised of Manila proper and the surrounding cities, has
the highest population density in the world - and dirty and horribly
polluted. I've never been to a place where the pollution has really
bothered me, in the US or otherwise, but after a day in Manila my eyes
were stinging and my nostrils were packed with unidentifiable black
stuff. I'm sure Manila has some charm but it doesn't seem easy to

That's not entirely true, actually. I enjoyed exploring the city,
riding the packed metro rail - which can take you from the
labyrinthine slums to the upscale Makati district in just a couple
minutes - and especially eating whatever food I wanted. I thought
that, after seven months living in places where the closest thing to
American food I could get is McDonald's, I would be desperate to get a
good hamburger and other American staples. But actually what I craved
the most turned out to be spicy food. I think I've mentioned that
Filipino food is hardly ever hot - before I went to Manila I could
count the number of spicy meals I'd had since August on one hand. So
when I got to Manila (and later Dumaguete) I ate shwarma and biryani
and other Indian and Middle Eastern food, spiced up as much as I could
stand. It was unbelievably namit (delicious). When I returned to
Iloilo I went to a grocery store to find some kind of hot sauce so I
wouldn't have to do without spicy food for another half-year. The
store I went to was a big supermarket in the city, easily comparable
to most grocery stores in the US, and they a whopping two kinds of hot
sauce. And one, judging from the ingredients, was more like lightly
spiced water.

So we toured some of Manila, escorted by a friend of Lillian who lives
in the city... we saw Intramuros, the walled Spanish city (which is
now filled with restaurants and surrounded by a golf course), the
trashed Pasig River which drains into equally sludgy Manila Bay, and
the prison where Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, was kept
before his execution. And malls, of course. Lots of malls.

Then we flew out to Dumaguete, a city in the Central Visayas on the
southeast coast of the island of Negros (my training in Bacolod was on
the northwest coast of the same island). I'd never been there, I had
just heard from other volunteers - it was one of the three Peace Corps
training sites - that it was a nice place. And it is. We stayed on the
waterfront, which has a long walkable path running right alongside the
ocean. The city itself is compact and and easy to get around in on
foot (except when the heat is bad, which it was while we were there).
The city is popular with Western expats and is close to Apo Island, a
tiny dot that is supposedly one of the best dive sites in the world. I
wanted to go to Apo but we didn't get there... which turned out to be
entirely okay, as you'll see.

We spent a few days in Duma, gazing out to sea and admiring the
luxurious tricycles (they were roomy and not cobbled-together like the
trikes I ride in Iloilo), spent a dinner with some other Peace Corps
volunteers whose sites are nearby, then headed out across the water to
Siquijor (see-kee-hor), a small rural island a ferry ride from

Siquijor has the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen. As gorgeous as
Guimaras is, Siquijor's coast is the tropical ideal, the kind of scene
you see in postcards and think can't possibly really be that perfect -
long white beaches curving off in the distance with coconut palms
leaning their green fronds toward the gorgeously clear water. Perhaps
the best thing is that the island really is just naturally beautiful -
there are no cities, no manicured exploited beaches, nothing upscale
at all. We stayed in a resort right on the beach for about $15 a
night, drank buko (coconut) juice in hammocks, swam, relaxed, played
with native kids in the sand... and left reluctantly after far too
short a time.

There was an element of danger, however. One day we waded out in the
water and, after getting pretty far out, realized we were surrounded
by evil-looking spiked orbs. I got urchined in the foot and spent a
long time trying to pick out the spines with a needle. The resort made
us pay for band-aids.

Even with the injuries, I'd go back anytime. Especially after the
dirty mess that is Manila, Siquijor was perfect.

Then it was back to Duma, from thence back to Manila, and then the
parting of the ways and return to work for me and school for Lillian.

And that's about how things are now. I just passed my seven-month mark
in the Philippines. It's a weird place.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sa balay ko

I have a house, a little house, H-O-U-S-E. (That's one of the songs
they sing at our preschool.) I moved out of my host family's place on
February 9th, the first day Peace Corps would let me. No more
scheduling around them, no more getting locked out of the house when I
come home late so that I have to pound on the windows and wake up my
lola. No more fish.

My new place is a little house in a subdivision a couple kilometers
from my center. I have pictures: It's fairly decrepit and has
hideous fake-wood paneling on the partition that separates the
sleeping area. There's no furniture except a bed, which my landlord
thankfully left me - otherwise I'd probably be sleeping on the floor
even now because furniture is such a pain to transport. Plus I don't
really spend a lot of time at home - when I'm working there's
generally no time during the day for me to go home for meals or
anything else, and on days off I'm often in the city or out biking

Since I don't usually have time to cook I eat most of my meals at the
market - generally in carinderias, little neighborhood eateries. I was
worried at first that I wouldn't have enough money to "eat out" most
meals, but if I keep myself under p100 per day - which I discovered is
totally doable - I'll actually be spending less money than I was
giving my host family who, if you remember, was giving me only one
meal a day during most of my home stay. And I haven't eaten seafood
since I moved out. When I am at home for meals I usually just make
some kind of noodles (my electric kettle is my most prized possession)
and bread or something simple like that.

So my house is not in the best shape, it's small, and the slatted
windows try but can't quite keep out the insects (I have my mosquito
net up now for the first time since I've been in the Philippines - my
house fronts a low-lying empty field and when it rains my walls get
covered in some little kind of fly seeking refuge). The ants are bad
but I've long since become accustomed to them, and we generally live
together peacefully along with the geckos. For a while frogs were also
getting into my house through the huge gaps underneath my front and
back doors, but I stopped those up in true Peace Corps fashion, with
the cardboard scavenged from packages I've received from home.

I love living on my own. I can come and go whenever I want, I can play
music without headphones (although my laptop's speakers can't drown
out the 90s videoke ballads being belted out at other houses at
night), I can eat without people asking me worriedly "Where's your
rice?", and most importantly I have privacy and a quiet place to rest,
except for the aforementioned videoke sessions across the street. And
revving motorcycles at five am. And the street vendors who seem to
believe that pre-dawn is the best time to vend.

Even after I signed the contract on my house I worried about the cost.
My rent is actually below the Peace Corps limit (my house is cheaper
than I expected because it's farther from the city - it's a couple
kilometers from my center), so I have some money included in the
contract to cover electricity and water, but I kept hearing about how
expensive utilities in Iloilo are so for the first month I was very
careful: I unplugged everything when I wasn't using it, I didn't use
the lights except at night when I absolutely had to, I monitored my
shower- and dishwater usage closely. For water I had a minimum monthly
fee for up to ten cubic meters and for electricity I had p400 in my
contract - any more and I would have to pay out of my own pocket. So I
got my first utilities bill, covering my first three weeks (since I
spent a week on vacation)...

...I had used one cubic meter of water and my electricity bill was p28.