Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Some months ago, whilst patronizing the local Big Mak burger stand, I became involved in a conversation about traveling. Leia, one of the young clerks at said burger stand, had never been out of her country, just like most of her fellows (and mine). We discussed the places in the world which we’d most like to visit – Southeast Asia for me, and Africa. I told Leia I wanted to see more cultures, learn about how the world grinds its gears. I wanted to climb to holy places, listen to a hundred varied tongues, watch the sun set over deserts and mountains and oceans.

After which she professed a desire most of all to go to Australia because “I know they have many kangaroos there!”

I felt a kind of pity for naive Leia then, an amused and friendly scorn. Of all the fantastic places in the world, all the mystical unknown things to see, what she most wanted was to glimpse an animal already overexposed on nature programs and popular advertising. How sad! How unworldly!

It was only after a bit of reflection that I realized her desire was every bit as legitimate as mine. Maybe more so: too often what I think of as traveling is really about achieving goals or milestones. If one of your goals is to visit a Tibetan monastery, and you achieve that goal and leave with nothing other than proof of visiting a Tibetan monastery, you’ve got nothing but a checkmark that you can show off to other people.

But if you’re really, really excited about seeing kangaroos, what more reason do you need to book the ticket?


“I have seen Satan,” announced the wife of my supervisor. Now, my supervisor’s wife is one of those people whose English is very good – she’s a teacher – but who I can never quite understand completely. Somehow tiny bits of meaning fall out, like little screws from a precision machine, making the whole conversation dysfunctional.

On this occasion I believe, but am not quite sure, that she was talking about the birth of her first child, and the pain thereof which gave her visions. Regardless, one thing was clear: she had seen Satan.

”The height of Satan is only five feet,” she continued. “He has a light complexion and very glaring eyes. He has a horn like this,” holding up her thumb for size comparison, “and a tail.” She went on to describe the tortured souls he presided over in Hell.

”I see from your eyes – you don’t believe me,” she told me composedly. I protested weakly that I did.

“I have seen Mama Mary as well. She is very beautiful. Her skin is so soft. She is very beautiful…”

Monday, July 13, 2009


Most Filipinos are connected through the common and official language of Tagalog (or Filipino, to be politically correct; “Tagalog” implies a regional bias), which has echoes in many of the country’s regional dialects. Many words in Ilonggo (or Hiligaynon, again to be politically correct) are the same as in Tagalog and many more are similar, but often shortened: the Filipino bulaklak (flower) becomes bulak in Ilonggo; lumilipad (to fly) is cut to lupad; palaka (frog) shrinks to paka.

The result is that many people speak two languages that are separate but also similar in many ways. Naturally the mixing of the two languages results in a certain linguistic confusion when trying to distinguish between the two. Frequently I will ask whether a particular word is Tagalog or Ilonggo and get conflicting responses. Some people will say Tagalog, some will say Ilonggo, some will say Kinaray-a or another other nearby dialect. The line between languages often isn’t distinct even among locals.

Moreover, even regional dialects can vary from province to province or even town to town. Some of the words we learned during our pre-service training are totally unknown to my coworkers: they couldn’t make heads or tails of abyon, the word we were taught for friend (they always use migo or miga, from the Spanish), although I’ve talked to other volunteers in the Ilonggo region who use the word normally. Many of my kids didn’t recognize butigone, the word I learned for liar; they use tigalon.

Conflicting definitions of words are common as well. Everyone seems to agree that buong means crazy, but I was told that buong-buong means something more like silly. Others have told me that no, buong-buong means very crazy, following the doubling-for-emphasis pattern. Incidentally, I’m a big fan of the doubling. I frequently double words that have no business being doubled just for fun: dance becomes saot-saot, fly turns into lupad-lupad. These just complement the existing double-verbs, like chikka-chikka (chat), libot-libot or lagaw-lagaw (stroll), picture-picture (to photograph), and balik-balik (which means to go back and forth between two locations. Balik means to return, so actually the doubling makes complete sense here).

Another element of Ilonggo that I love are the succinct slangy phrases that say a lot in few words. Maupod ka means something like you are going/coming with, but it can stand on its own in context. Example:

”Makadto kami sa tinapayan. Maupod ka?” (“We’re going to the bakery. Are you coming with us?”)

The best thing is that there’s not even a verb in the sentence. Upod just means “with.”

Another phrase I’m fond of is waay gid, which can mean never or absolutely not. Gid is an emphasizer and waay usually means no or nothing, but it’s used in other ways too – waay siya means he/she is not here.

Ilonggo is a fun language to learn in a lot of ways, but it’s also very frustrating for me sometimes. The structure is often totally different from English or the Romance languages, and since we never learned proper grammar (our language training was more focused on conversation), it’s easy to get confused. I’m huya (shy) about speaking to adults in the local language – they’re appreciative of the effort, but they also very much enjoy mocking foreign attempts to speak dialect. It’s much easier for me to converse with kids. As far as listening comprehension goes, it totally depends on who I’m listening to: I can often easily understand conversations between my coworkers, but others are simply incomprehensible to me because of unfamiliar accents or words and the speed at which they speak.