Friday, July 9, 2010

One monochrome Sunday

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Kalibo is the capital of Aklan province. It’s the dirtiest place I’ve visited in the Philippines: trikes are common everywhere, but Kalibo’s air is so thick with pungent fumes that it makes Manila’s pervasive-but-more-diffuse air pollution seem almost tolerable. Like many locations in the Philippines, Kalibo actually suffers from a surfeit of transportation – or at least an uneven demand that leaves the streets choked with empty, exhaust-spewing motorcycles during off-hours.

The same is true of Iloilo City when it comes to jeepneys: while the constant stream of vehicles makes it easy to get around the metro area, for most of the day these jeeps scurry about at quarter-capacity or less. Coupled with construction projects that crawl along at the pace sang ba-o, the result is excessive traffic and smog-blackened streets and sidewalks.
 
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As I knelt along the highway to photograph this flower outside a local residence, ancient buses piled high with luggage and canvas bags roared by just behind me. It’s surprising that some of these buses, with their metal sides pierced through by long years of rusting and abuse, can limp along at all – much less traverse the rough hilly roads north of Iloilo. But they stumble on, swaying precariously as they dodge pedal trikes and dogs.

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I came across this man hacking at something hidden in the shoulder-high weeds along the roadside. The rains have finally started after an unusually long, hot and dry summer, and the province is greening again at last. Away from the cities, the Philippines can be beautifully lush and alive; rain transforms the shriveled rice fields into meadowy pockets, and the yawning mountain valleys seem to absorb all the grime kicked up by bustling humans.

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Without fail I make this mistake: letting my arm hang out the sunside window during long bus rides. Inevitably I arrive at my destination with one arm manifesting a festive swath of red, while the other retains its blotchy brownish hue.

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Many of the families in my town are familiar with me because I taught at my center’s preschool during my first year at site. It’s very common for me to hear calls of “Tito Ryan!” coming from windows and porches; frequently the shout of one of my former students will cause a scurrying of younger siblings to grab a look. These boys are the brothers of a preschool student, since graduated. They were only too happy to mug for pictures…

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… and they called a couple of their elders to join them. The man on the right is likely their grandfather, but in a typically sprawling Filipino family it can be difficult to tell exactly how everybody is related. (I never figured out all the relationships in my second host family.) Usually Filipinos extend their gracious thanks for my taking their pictures, although really I should – and do – thank them for allowing me the privilege.

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This fellow, also in the previous photo, is what Filipinos refer to as a “special child” (sometimes regardless of age). Among rural families there seems to be little knowledge of how to deal with special-needs children, in the sense of capacitating them to live fulfilling and independent or semi-independent lives. My friend above, like many with mental handicaps, is likely to live a fairly cloistered life on his family’s compound and subsist only on his relatives’ professionally-uninformed support. That support is far from negligible, however: families often lavish real affection on their special children, treating them with respect and love. This may be one of the positive aspects of the stereotypical bahala na fatalism, allowing parents and siblings to accept a difficult situation instead of bemoaning their luck and becoming resentful about their added responsibilities.

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Just like westerners who don kimono and saris, young Filipinos are keen to adopt glamorous exocultural fashions like the ones they see in western exports, like the Hollywood-dominated blockbuster films that make it to their theaters. These Aviator-wannabes are a relatively benign result of borrowing, but one of my boys has done his best to compile a legitimate facsimile of the British chav look, complete with oversized foam trucker hat and the shiniest sneakers in town.

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