Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

Pictures of robots, and other household essentials

At a conference earlier this year I met the director of another children’s center up in Luzon. He had a bit of experience with Peace Corps volunteers and something about them puzzled him. “Ryan,” he said, “let me ask you a question. Why do Peace Corps volunteers always have their backpacks with them?”

My answer was that PCVs generally have to carry at least three things with them always: water, a payong (umbrella), and a book. That’s a generalization, of course, though I wouldn’t be surprised if many volunteers aside from myself carried around just those items. And more - things accumulate in those pockets. Right now I also have some medications, a list of addresses for people in the States, a leftover plane ticket stub to Honolulu, bug spray, American and Chinese coins, my glasses case, an old camera and a three-months-gone issue of Newsweek from Peace Corps that I’ve been savoring in small doses.

On my trips to the city I usually substitute my laptop case for my backpack. Items gather there too; aside from the usual computer paraphernalia, right now in my case one can find:

  • Five slips of paper with wifi codes from various establishments

  • One DVD of foreign movies and one CD, The Grey Album (a mashup of Jay-Z and the Beatles), given to me by another volunteer who shares my love for the Fab Four
  • One band-aid
  • Un-Aspirin, pseudoephedrine and Benadryl (for flights, mostly)
  • $4.88 in American coins
  • 1 Philippine peso
  • Various communications from Peace Corps
  • A map of “metro” Iloilo and Guimaras
  • A sticker that proclaims “Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime”
  • A shipping receipt from three and a half months ago
  • A small, worn slip of paper that dates back to the California days, on which an unknown author has inscribed:

DIE Slowly


And in my wallet: receipts, coupons never redeemed and checks never cashed, a post-it with the names of Korean restaurants in Iloilo and the email addresses of a Korean friend who promised to show me around Seoul if I ever make it up her way, various official cards from Peace Corps and Philippine agencies, scribbled email addresses of people I’ve forgotten ever meeting, a cigarette foil with the penciled address of a barangay captain I met once in my plaza who swore he had assassins after him, a hospital laboratory report from the day before Christmas assuring me that I was NEGATIVE FOR INTESTINAL PARASITES, dicycloverine Hcl, a phone card I obtained six years ago for a trip to Mexico, and a boat ticket from Manila – the boat I never took – which, on the back, has a list of insurance benefits for travelers injured en route. “Total and irremediable paralysis” and “Loss of both hands at or above the wrists” grants the insured a payment of P40,000. “Loss of all toes of both feet” scores only P6000, or about $120.

I have no chairs, no TV, no table, no fridge. The only things I keep in my front room are my bike and a broken set of garden clippers. I’m low on some things – like most of what you’d expect to find in a normal house – but drowning in others. Throughout the rest of my house are more wifi slips, sales and travel receipts, a cell phone case shaped like a dog on which the name PATRICK is embroidered, a palm-tree souvenir from Boracay, a certificate and medallion shaped like a catfish given to me for judging a dance competition, a wooden mask granted in appreciation for helping to conduct a life skills training, lots of broken things (umbrellas, watch, sunglasses, three sets of headphones), and cards from mayors, governors, chiefs of police and one especially gregarious taxi driver.

I have remembrances given to me by various Filipinos: a glass paperweight with painted dolphins, keychains with rooster or Spongebob Squarepants themes, friendship bracelets, a tiny handkerchief with two bears printed on it along with the wise sayings “You approach people with a tenderheart” and “luck seems to come from out of nowhere,” farewell letters from my first host family in Bacolod, pictures of robots drawn for me by children, a Winnie-the-Pooh badge, and two of my kids’ neatly-labeled fingerprints. Lurking somewhere in digital existence are 4500 or so photos of people, places and steamed duck fetuses.


There is a map of the Philippines over my bed and one of metro Los Angeles on the opposite wall. Near my front window is a flip calendar locked perpetually in January 2009. Hanging in various places are shirts, towels, an old package of spaghetti, and one sock.

A lot of the junk in my house is just that, junk - stuff I haven’t deployed to the trash yet. But there are lots of memories floating among the flotsam – things that remind me of all the good, sad and strange things that have happened the past fourteen months. A few things I’ve jettisoned, burned, given away to people who don’t have any bad associations with them. But many, many more I’ve kept.

I have, as a going-away present from a girl in Bacolod, a little notebook with a picture of a cartoon bear and “BEAR” written below it. Accompanying it is a letter telling me that “i gave you this small notebook with a picture of bear because i want, you always remember me through the picture of bear in exchange of your goodness and kindness while you living here and being a friendly person here.”

When I bid farewell to this country, I may or may not be packing the “small notebook with a picture of bear.” But I will extract all the intangible things that are imbedded in the picture of bear, find places for them in my luggage and pockets, and carry them with me wherever I go next.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Masks of Sugarland


Bacolod’s Masskara festival began in 1980 as a response to the Negros island sugar crash. Nowadays the island is diversified, but the prosperity of Negros was at that point largely dependant on sugar cane, and when the market crashed the population was left without a contingency plan. As a response, instead of wallowing in their ill fortune, the Filipinos put on a festival and wore smiling masks to show that everything would be all right in the end.


It’s a good story and has the added benefit of being true. Today the Masskara celebration still revolves around the mask motif and has become pretty well known throughout the country. The highlights of the days are the dance competitions and, of the nights, the street festivities and live music along Lacson Street.


I appreciate Masskara, mainly because it manages to distinguish itself from the glut of Philippine celebrations by theme if not necessarily content. Unlike Iloilo’s Dinagyang festival, which (judging solely by the one time I’ve attended it) seems to lack focus and is rather hypocritical thematically, celebrating as it does the native culture that is in reality relegated to rural mountain areas and city slums, Masskara seems to have a center around which the festivities revolve: the “bahala na,” come-what-will attitude is really a part of the national character.


I was only in Bacolod for one night this Masskara, but it brought back memories of our pre-service training last year, when we were fresh and excited and hadn’t yet been beaten into hardened, cynical lumps of melancholy. I didn’t take a lot of photos – it was overcast and the light was bad, so I mostly amused myself with taking pictures at slow shutter speeds and seeing what came out the other end.

IMG_9672  IMG_9688

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Papaya sky

Ala Moana in Hawai'i

Sometimes there’s nothing more beautiful than a tropical sunset, the kind during which the entire horizon turns yellow and orange and red as the sun takes its leave and moves on to burn people in other parts of the world. It bestows a peaceful feeling, a comforting assurance that the world is on your side and wants you to be happy. And it’s something that’s been in rare supply lately in this part of the world.

Don’t get me wrong, even in the midst of typhoon season the sun manages to pop its head out from behind the clouds sometimes. Unfortunately, these times coincide rather exactly with my bike rides to work. In a place where it’s hot even when overcast, I don’t appreciate the company.

Except for these times, the past couple weeks has been almost constantly cloudy and wet in my part of the country. Now, we have it pretty easy compared to Luzon, the northern island, which has been slammed by two major typhoons – one of which did an about-face and paid a second visit – in as many weeks. Typhoon Ondoy, the storm that hit while I was in Manila about three weeks ago, inundated the capital and other areas – causing the worst flooding in Manila, they’re saying, in forty years. The next week typhoon Pepeng hit farther north, exacerbating the problem in the more rural areas away from the metropolis. Then it turned around and did it again.

Compared to these disasters – and they were disasters, killing hundreds of people and displacing hundreds of thousands more – the weather in Iloilo has been positively clement. But if you’d told me that one night last week, as I trudged home through the rain with a broken and quite useless umbrella slapping me in the face, I’d have pushed you into a rice field – where you’d be eaten by the crocodiles that, as I’ve solemnly told my kids, live in rice fields.

On a bike trip to Guimaras a few weeks ago, I managed to get the worst of both worlds: I forgot to put on sunscreen and so, over about five or six hours of biking, got a nice red sunburn; and I also managed to get caught in a massive downpour. I had reached the safety of a roadside shelter before the rain started in earnest and spent half an hour or so smiling awkwardly at the group of Filipinos who were also hiding out there. When the rain eased up, I left and they stayed. Not three minutes later I was whimpering in the meager shelter of a large tree, trying in vain to get my umbrella to do something besides be inside-out while buckets of rain fell from above. I dared not face the shame of biking back to where the Filipinos, safe and dry, were no doubt sniggering wildly about the crazy American, ang buong nga cano.

I managed to make it to my destination – a beach, of course – changed out of my wet clothes and dried off before jumping in the ocean. Which makes a whole lot of sense. Crazy American.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Iloilo Rock City

I struggle to think back to those times, so long ago, when I drove to my high school while listening to the John Boy and Billy morning show on 105.9, WXRG. This show always included a multiple-choice quiz to which the answer, invariably, was C. I waited my entire senior year for a caller to get the answer wrong, figuring that the people who listened to John Boy and Billy were the type to not really have their alphabet straight in the first place. The rest of the show consisted, as far as my hazy memory can recall, of John Boy’s obnoxious, wheezing laugh exploding into the mic as the crew members in the background made jokes that the listeners couldn’t hear.

I’m telling this story to make a point, which is: no matter how bad radio may be in the US, Philippine radio is much, much worse.

I’ll put aside the fact that I can’t understand a lot of it thanks to the whole language barrier. I won’t even mention the penchant of Philippine DJs to use Chipmunk-ish sound effects for everything. And the constant, high-pitched laugh track that accompanies any sort of talking? A slight annoyance, all things considered.

No, my problem with Philippine radio is with a minor aspect of the presentation – namely, the music.

Imagine if, in the States, you heard Nickelback every time you turned on the radio. What you’re imagining is, well, the reality of a few years ago. I can only hope that things have moved on a bit since then. But I’m not optimistic.

Now imagine that, every time you turned on a radio, you heard Nickelback, followed by two local covers of the same Nickelback song. That is what Philippine radio is: bad music followed by poor imitations of bad music. It’s like getting stabbed with a pencil, then getting stabbed with the same pencil again, only this time after it has been rubbed with poison ivy.

The music scene in the Philippines is, from my admittedly limited time here, lacking. The most popular songs are Western compositions that are very easy to understand and lack things like artistry and any kind of depth. Like Taylor Swift’s Love Story. Like Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours. Now, I get it – these songs are easily digestible by a population whose first language isn’t English. But the covers? Do we really need a slow-bounce version of Beyonce’s Single Ladies?

The biggest name in Filipino music is Eraserheads, a band named after the mediocre white-noise film by David Lynch. They are commonly referred to as the Philippine equivalent of the Beatles. I presume the connection is that both groups dabble in music, because there are few other similarities. It’s like calling Gary Puckett & The Union Gap the American Beatles, or Bjork the Icelandic Beatles. True story: when the real Beatles came to the Philippines for a gig, they were treated so badly at least a couple of them swore they’d never return.

I’m being harsh because I’m bitter and can’t sing or play any musical instruments myself. And I have heard some good local music – one of my previous coworkers, who has now moved on to focus more completely on his musical career, is a talented singer and guitarist. During the January Dinagyang festival in Iloilo I watched him jam with the drummer of a major Filipino band from the 90s.

And there’s a cool little spot in the city, tucked inside a pension house, where local bands play. Patrons sit on floor cushions and peer through the smoke at the paintings of stylized blue elephants adorning the walls. It’s loud and cramped. Everyone is barefoot. A good reggae band plays there sometimes; other bands play popular favorites, much to the delight of the locals. Once a singer sang a goofy parody of Love Story which, I suspect, many of the customers didn’t quite recognize was a parody – they just enjoyed hearing the familiar tune.

It’s all good, because I have my own collection of music. And when things are getting me down, when I’ve had enough of Akon and Rihanna, when times are dark, there’s only one thing to do: go home, turn off the lights and listen to Donovan.


Friday, October 2, 2009

Manila mornings, Oahu nights

IMG_9257On the ferry from Iloilo to Manila.

IMG_9288There was a Manila Bay cleanup going on. Most of the participants were supervising.



IMG_9322This is Matt. Just kidding, that guy can barely stand up.

IMG_9328  Some kind of cultural show in Honolulu.

IMG_9340Honolulu from our hotel.     


IMG_9343At the Pearl Harbor WWII museum.

IMG_9365USS Arizona memorial.

IMG_9373Waimea Bay on the North Shore.





IMG_9404Hanauma Bay.


IMG_9412Unsurprisingly, I have no normal pictures of Matt.




IMG_9429Sunset at Ala Moana.

IMG_9448Looking over the ocean in Lahaina, Maui.  

IMG_9462The Iao Needle.


IMG_9488Matt harassed this guy for days on end. We finally found him lying on the ground and twitching outside our condo on Maui.

IMG_9513At the summit of Haleakala.

IMG_9515The funny thing is, he’s holding it backwards.


IMG_9542Luau at Wailea.