Friday, April 30, 2010

I have no star

“My father is hitting my mother,” one of my boys told me in his plaintive English, “and my mother is died.”
Another girl told me that “When I’m inside [the center], I have to always smile and pretend to be happy.” Later I was helping the same girl with a school assignment. I asked her if she knew this word in her book: “tuberculosis.” “I know it,” she said, “My father died from tuberculosis.”

Sometimes I forget that my kids are in any way abnormal – they smile the same as other children; they play the same. I lose sight of the fact that many of them have been betrayed by the people who should have loved them most, or lost those who did. Recently, without thinking, I asked another of my girls about a scar on her arm, which I said looked like a burn. It was.

She asked me what I thought caused another of her scars, a sharply-defined gash on her leg. When I said I didn’t know, she raised her arm like she was swinging something downward. “Bolo?” I guessed, and she nodded. A bolo is the local version of a machete. “My mother used to…” she said, having trouble explaining, but it was pretty clear.

This past week I helped facilitate a girls’ leadership camp along with several other volunteers. One overcast night before our videoke talent show, one of the girls from my center approached me. She said “Tito, I have no star.” I spent several minutes scouring the sky looking for a star to give her, but aside from the blazing moon, all light above was obscured by clouds. When I finally found one hovering above the trees, she was already asleep.

My kids play and dance and sing, they watch over their adopted siblings, they fall in and out of love and they sleep and wake in a beautiful world. But sometimes it seems like there will always be something or someone that hates them; always something insidious watches them from the shadows, ensuring that they have no stars.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cool like Jimi

The Cherry Blossom Festival in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles

One thing about Filipinos that has consistently impressed me is their seemingly inborn affinity for music. Now, a few months ago I lamented the poor state of popular music in this country, and nothing since then has changed my mind about that. But on an individual level, Filipinos seem to easily and accurately pick up tones and particularly rhythms. Granted, the oft-repeated scene of the Filipino trying to imitate an English song – and failing to get more than one word in five correct – will never stop being comical to me. But give a Filipino an instrument and a few days to practice, and you’ll probably be surprised with his or her progress. (Unless that instrument you give him happens to be my own guitar, in which case after a few days the strings will have all snapped and the body will be split open. Wasn’t happy about that.)

It’s a generalization to praise the musical ability of Filipinos, and it’s actually a common cultural stereotype here, but it’s been borne out many times with my kids. Even the little ones man the tambourines with respectably solid results during performances. I think it all stems from an upbringing that rarely lets a day pass without some kind of song ’n’ dance – it gives them the ability to keep a beat with almost instinctive sureness.

Personally, I couldn’t even nail the simple eight-count when they tried to teach me. Now, normally I don’t perform simply because I hate performing, but the gap between my skills and those of Filipinos is an added incentive to never get onstage and embarrass myself. (I’m sure the fact that Filipinos grow up dancing is one reason they don’t understand why I don’t want to. Or why I can’t master simple routines. Or why the youngest child at my center has better moves than I.)

I won’t deny that the constant emphasis on dancing and singing is wearisome to me. Every event requires some kind of dance performance, usually totally unrelated to the actual event. I’ve literally had to hide at times to avoid performing. I’m sick of turning down requests to help choreograph dances, and I know Filipinos are judging me in some inscrutable way when I don’t want to join the disco.

Disco at Barangay Granada, Bacolod

But all that said, I’ve enjoyed watching my kids hone their skills. My supervisor, unsurprisingly, puts much emphasis on the music program at my center, and that has resulted in a surprisingly robust set of instruments – including several guitars and bandoria (mandolins), a nice drum set, and many smaller pieces. And the kids actually use them on their own initiative: almost every day the music room resounds with guitar riffs and overpoweringly booming drumbeats. (The music room is rather too small to do its job properly.)

I love music, even if I can’t produce it myself, and among my favorite activities at my center are listening to the choir practice and watching my boys rehearse for a performance. Yes, they play the same songs over and over, and frequently their selections are awful; but it’s the fact that they’re playing them with some skill and for the most part without any kind of formal training that makes it enjoyable.

And sometimes they surprise me and pull something decent out of their collective hat. My effort to expose them to good music has been, I’m afraid, mostly a failure – they listen politely and then run back to the easy and bland comforts of Taylor Swift – but every once in a while I have the pleasure of listening to one of them pick his laborious way through the opening notes of “Hotel California” or some other classic.


And just a couple days ago I managed to instill a significant measure of awe in the center’s best guitarist by showing him Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance. After the tassels stopped flying and the warped brilliance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” subsided, I asked him, “Are you going to learn that? Be cool like Jimi?”

And he replied solemnly with the only acceptable answer:


Friday, April 16, 2010

35°C Blues

There’s an old adage that war is long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Sometimes living in a rural town in the Philippines feels the same, only without the terror. (Maybe we’ll get that part during the election next month.) The Philippines is something of a slack country to begin with, and most of the excitement that does go on happens in the cities. Daily life in the outer towns is more or less the same every day, all year round, with only the slowly creeping change of the two seasons to ease the tedium out in the quiet barangays.

This is just restless westerner talk here. I don’t have a lot of the daily responsibilities that many Filipinos have – taking care of a family, running a sari-sari or laundry service, household chores – so often my times outside of work are somewhat empty even by their standards. I suppose I could ease the boredom by buying a television, but sitting through Korean soap operas and interminable Wowowee episodes is the worst possible way to pretend you’re happily occupied.

I could find things to do: I could go somewhere and take photos, bike up the coast, hop a jeep and explore some place I haven’t yet visited. But there’s one major reason I often nix those possibilities, which is the oppressive, pervasive heat.

I can hardly explain how incredibly disheartening and de-motivating the heat can be here. Even being relegated to lying in bed and sweating (and when I arrived in the Philippines, I discovered that I sweat a lot) is better than any kind of activity. Sometimes I dread eating because I know that the metabolic reactions the food induces will push me over that precarious edge and I’ll be drenched in sweat before I finish my sud-an.

The heat here is similar to a Mississippi summer, only it doesn’t change much all year. Yes, there is a dry season and a rainy season, and the rainy season is slightly more tolerable, but the change can’t be more than a scant few degrees. Still it’s enough that, after learning last year about just how brain-frying the summer heat can be, I regarded the current hot season with something approaching apocalyptic resignation. (And conversely, I’m now running on the knowledge that this will be the last hot season I have to suffer through.)

The other factor, of course, is that air conditioning is not so much an option for me here. At home, I mean – I’m rather lucky in that several of the offices at my center, including the one in which I spend most afternoons, have aircon. At least they do in-between the power outages. But aside from the fact that aircon wouldn’t even work in my house (it’s far from airtight), it’s too expensive for me to consider even if I lived in a sealed box.

One of the remarkable things about the heat here is that it lingers like a bad houseguest. I’m sure it’s the same way in Mississippi, but thanks to air conditioning I never really noticed it much. (And in California, well, that state has a reasonable climate so it’s hardly an issue.) Here I walk into my house three hours after the sun sets, and I can feel the heat still radiating from the walls. At ten o’clock at night it doesn’t feel like the temperature has budged one degree since five in the afternoon. I assume that’s because the humidity is always set one notch below “rain.” You know what the worst weather-related feeling is? It’s not when you’re in a heat stupor in the middle of the day, or when you’re doing manual labor in the hot sun with the sweat pouring down like rivers.

No, the worst is when you wake up in the middle of the night, and you know from the sinister silence that there has been a brownout, your fan has shut off and you have hours of dark, stuffy, moist misery ahead of you.

I don’t know if it’s because my years in California gave my body this crazy idea that heat is just this sometime thing, but I seem to have more trouble with the heat than even a lot of other westerners do. I was shocked when another volunteer told me his worst physical challenge in the Philippines is the cold showers. I hate the constant heat here so much that I literally can’t conceive of putting cold water, or anything else, higher on the list of discomforts.

One solution is to scurry to the city and find a frigidly air-conditioned oasis, but that has its own problems. The trip there is guaranteed to be searing, sweaty, probably dusty and, what with all the fumes floating languidly around like clouds come to earth, likely poisonous. And when I get there, I have to face the reality that air conditioning also sucks and will probably make me feel at least a little bit sick. What I really want, and have rarely gotten to experience, is cool, natural air.

The heat is one thing to which I will gleefully bid farewell when I finish my service. I imagine at some point I will remember many of the things I find difficult to deal with here, especially cultural issues, with amusement and some degree of fondness. But not the heat. Never the heat.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Poverty is a gorgeous paint


The woman scans the faces staring down from the ferry decks. As soon as she sees the glint of metal in the morning sun, she drops her oar and dives in after the coin, leaving her infant lying alone in the rickety bangka. By the time she surfaces, her boat has drifted between two others plying the field, and the jostling outriggers threaten to capsize the little craft. She shoves them away angrily, barking insults, before climbing back in and checking on her baby. Her eyes rove back to the ferry…

… And one of the things she sees is a white face half-hidden behind a camera, taking photos of her begging for pesos in the dirty Cebu harbor. Every speck of dirt and missing tooth enhances his photographs. Her precarious situations are opportunities for his canvas, and her poverty is a gorgeous paint.

It’s easy to hide behind a muckraker’s mantra, It Must Be Shown, and usually that’s enough for me to justify documenting slums and beggars and all the decrepitude of an impoverished world. But I’d be kidding myself if I said that was the only reason I want to do it.

The things that we find ugly, pitiable and unjust in the real world become striking art in photographs and other media. Perhaps the pictures provide us with enough distance that we can care about the photo without having to care about the subject, or maybe they can even give us an easy and false sense of empathy.

Not always; often these things are exposed for legitimate reasons, and history has shown that this exposure can change things for the better. I can tell myself that I take and post these photos to show people in the States how some people are forced to live here in the Philippines. And that is true… but I also take an artistic interest in the rust, rags and desperation.

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On these ferries, people often intentionally throw coins into the water rather than to the people in the boats, so that they’ll get to enjoy the dangerous spectacle of the divers. I’m disgusted by this. These people are already on display, and there’s no reason to make them perform tricks so the sharks on B Deck can get their five pesos’ worth of entertainment. That certainly isn’t compassion.

But still I take photos of them doing it. It’s regrettably easy to convince myself that since I’m not the one forcing them to take unnecessary risks, my pictures aren’t doing any further harm; but doing something simply because it doesn’t directly hurt someone isn’t a good reason to do it.


Our consciences are easily soothed, and I don’t doubt that this is one of the primary reasons so many people in the world continue to live in deep destitution. I have actually thought to myself, Well, I’m giving two years of my life in service to this country, so I’m entitled to take these photographs without guilt. I’m doing my part already.

And when you’re justifying callousness with your own works or achievements, something essential and human has been misplaced along the way.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Strange new world


When I arrived in the Philippines, I had a cadre of Filipino Peace Corps staff to coddle my way through the first three months. I had a host family providing my food, eleven other volunteers almost within shouting distance, and ample time to adjust before I was thrown out on my own.

My dad, conversely, only had me for support, so it’s somewhat miraculous that he survived the ordeal. He spent about ten days here and had to dive right in, like the boy above. His trip encompassed the busy Holy Week, so I had to break from my traditional practice of not planning ahead of time. Even so, the fallout of procrastination forced me to change plans once: I had originally wanted to spend some time at Sugar Beach in Sipalay, a place I have yet to visit, but another volunteer’s inquiries revealed that all lodging there was already booked by the time I got around to planning.

The alternative, Siquijor Island, was more than acceptable as an substitute. But to start at the beginning…


Before meeting up with my dad in Manila, I had a PNVSCA (Philippine National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency… or something similar) “sharing session” in Cebu. PNVSCA is a monitoring agency that basically prevents volunteers from working independently. In my opinion, it’s nothing more than an excuse to keep tabs on volunteers and a way for the Philippine government to assert authority over them.

In keeping with their front as a useful agency, once a year they host a sharing session for volunteers in the Visayas and Mindanao (and I believe a separate one for Luzon volunteers). I didn’t attend last year’s session, but I heard some interesting stories about surprise beer and spiked punch. This year Peace Corps called me personally to ask if I’d like to attend. I suspect this is because I had yet to do any Peace Corps-related events (I had wanted to help with the training for last year’s batch, but something conflicted every time I had the chance to apply).

The session was basically a collection of foreign volunteers and a few Filipino volunteers who had worked in other countries. Our goals were to discuss how we could support each other and work cooperatively, and also to tell PNVSCA how to do its job. Practically speaking, not much got done, but it was a good opportunity to meet other volunteers and see who was available near my province. From there I flew straight to Manila.


The above photo is from Cebu, not Manila. I didn’t take any photos in Manila this time, so just imagine that the Cebu garbage is Manila garbage. In reality, Manila’s trash is much deeper. And trashier.

We stayed at the New Solanie Hotel in Malate, situated just a block from the LRT-1. I spent a lot of our time in Manila trying to figure out what there is to do in Manila, long after I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t much. We walked, way more than any sane people in the Philippine hot season should walk. One neat place was Divisoria, a sidewalk bazaar area more crowded and bustling than probably any place I’d been to before.

Other than that, we ate a lot. I brought my dad to an Ethiopian place in Malate, but our order was misinterpreted; instead of getting a full Ethiopian meal, we got chicken curry. And we kept waiting, not sure if there was more food to come, until finally we called for the bill and saw what they had erroneously brought us. We also got always-delicious shwarma, and I couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to visit the Outback at Ayala.

My pasalubong for my dad was also food, sort of: I gave him some kape alamid, graciously procured by mountain-dwelling fellow volunteer Christina. Kape alamid is civet coffee – the stuff that’s partially digested and then excreted by civet cats before being collected and sold for an outrageous markup in Western cafes. The Funnel Mill, the one coffeeshop in Los Angeles that I know served kape alamid (or kopi luwak, the Indonesian name) charged, I believe, $65 a cup. Here in the Philippines, where’s it’s actually produced, it is of course much cheaper – but it’s still four times the cost of regular coffee. I’m not a coffee expert, so I can’t really comment on how it differs, but to me it just tastes like a really good cup of coffee. Not sixty-five bucks good, but quite good. People say the digestive juices of the civet reduce the acidity, or something like that. Personally, I think reusing the beans makes sense simply because the civets are probably better judges of coffee quality than any humans, so the coffee cherries they pick are likely to be the ripest and tastiest.


After Manila we jumped down to Iloilo so my dad could see where I live and work. My center had known he would be visiting, and I had spent the last couple weeks being very vague about exactly when we would be stopping by. I didn’t want them to prepare a presentation or force him to watch the organization’s infamous eight-minute video. Of course, when we did turn up, the kids had painted two banners welcoming him. Luckily that’s as far as it went.

The kids were very excited to meet my father. They’ve always been intensely interested in my family, so actually meeting him was a big deal. We lagaw’d around all the residential houses and met the house mothers, posed for pictures, and generally hung out. I also showed him my house and took him on a tour of the community, which of course didn’t take very long. He did get to meet Honey.


The second day in Iloilo we rambled down to the port area, where children of dubious hygiene leaped into water of indisputable filthiness. They always enjoy mugging for the cameras of foreigners.

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We hopped across the strait to Guimaras, mostly for the pleasant bangka ride. The Jordan port was pretty quiet, but we bought some mangoes and photographed the jeepneys and boats.


Then it was off to Siquijor, the Island of Fire to the Spanish and still feared by many Filipinos as a hive of witch doctors and black magic.

But getting anywhere in the Philippines requires extended travel, and the journey to Siquijor, about two hundred kilometers as the crow flies, took a full day. We took an early boat to Bacolod and then endured the long bus ride across Negros Island to Dumaguete, where we caught the ferry to Siquijor. (This ferry was, I believe, the last of the day, and I didn’t tell my dad but I signed our names in two of the last spots on the passenger manifest. A few minutes later and we’d probably have been spending the night in Duma.) And from the port in Larena, the island’s biggest town with approximately twenty thousand people, we had one last long trike ride to the tiny municipality of San Juan, on the island’s southwest coast.


We stayed at Charisma Beach Resort, just a short walk down from Coral Cay, where I stayed during my last visit. Siquijor was thankfully as beautiful as I remember it being: the beach on which our resort rested may not be as manicured as Boracay’s, but it’s just as gorgeous and less bland and manufactured. And best of all, there weren’t rude outsiders everywhere elbowing their loud way through the locals’ territory. There were some foreigners, of course, but Siquijor has managed so far to largely avoid the development that has made Boracay and other areas sovereign places, plastic palaces far displaced and well-insulated from the real Philippines.


Charisma Resort, which I’d recommend, is run by a Londoner, Daniel, and his Filipina wife, Jeziel. Daniel’s a huge guy, gruffly affable with guests but rather abrasive with his all-Filipino staff. Throughout our entire stay (and even before, when I was making arrangements), Jeziel was extremely kind and helpful. She helped us make our travel plans and arrange my dad’s flight out of Duma and was generally a wonderful presence.


As usual, I got to know some of the local kids. I taught some of them how to snorkel (at first they always wanted to dive deep underwater, totally missing the point) and we played beach volleyball and hung out on a covered raft anchored offshore.

One of the older Filipinos I met had known a Peace Corps volunteer who had lived nearby until recently. (I won’t deny being envious of volunteers who are placed at a site as gorgeous as Siquijor.) He talked about the development of the island; I had thought it was fairly well-preserved for a resort island, but he told me that “Every day, it is becoming Boracay.” I hope that’s not true. Rich people who have no desire to experience the country already have enough luxury bubbles in which to take fantasy vacations. If Siquijor falls, it’ll be a huge loss.


We didn’t “do” a lot on Siquijor, which was by design. During Holy Week there’s a festival up on a mountain, and that’s where the witch doctors supposedly mix up their potions on Black Saturday. We didn’t attend, and to be honest the whole thing seemed like a show for foreigners. I have no more desire to see Filipinos fake culture for the benefit of outsiders.

Instead we spent lazy days swimming, lounging, eating and beachcombing. The water off San Juan is very shallow, and at low tide the sand is exposed many meters offshore. The locals as well as visitors use this time to collect shells and snails.

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Even with all the lazing, we explored more than I did last time I was on the island. We had breakfast one morning at a nifty cafe overlooking Larena, which is sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, and we investigated the little fish markets and eateries in Siquijor Town and San Juan.

But to me, the best things to do in Siquijor are to relax and not worry about doing anything: just enjoy the natural beauty, the clear blue water and the sun setting over Negros Island to the west.

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Unfortunately we had to leave sometime, and after a few days we boarded our fastcraft and headed back to Duma, where my dad flew back to Manila (after a final lunch at Mang Inasal, of which he is now a fan) and then to the States.


There is one more story, about my trip back home from Dumaguete. Traveling here is rarely comfortable, so this is just one more amusing entry in the logbook; but after four hours of waiting for a bus in the dead of night, a sore knee and shoulder from slamming against the window when our driver became overzealous about steering, truly excruciating pains in my legs from being unable to move for hours (we made a rest stop partway through; however, the bus was packed solid and everyone was afraid of losing their spot, so nobody budged), and of course a copious amount of sweating, my only consolation was that the nauseated little boy next to me managed to direct his vomiting into his mother’s lap instead of mine.

Of course, that doesn’t diminish our vacation at all. I had a great time and I’m glad someone in my family was able to visit during my service, to get an idea of what my life is like here. In many ways the Philippines is still a strange new world to me as well, and it’s hard to explain every difference and every quirk just in words and pictures. You have to be here yourself.