Monday, May 24, 2010

The final turn

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Gigante!” Paho yells, his outsized four-year old’s head lolling as he runs away from me, feigning fear of the giant. When I was still new at site, Paho’s fear was real: he thought my curly hair was a bird’s nest, and any creature wearing a nest on its head was no friend of his.

A year and a half later, Paho (not his real name; for the sake of privacy I’ve replaced all the names in this post, logically, with the names of fruits) knows me well. Usually his first words are a request to be thrown around like a rag doll; his options are palibuton (I spin him around in a circle), baliskad (flip him upside-down), taas-taas (toss him into the air, almost but not quite letting go at the zenith) and baboy-baboy (I grab his wrists and ankles and swing him like a trussed pig-pig). When Paho gets excited he rubs his semi-kalbo (“semi-bald” – that is, crew-cut) head frantically, swings his arms around like a homuncular dervish and yells in rapid-fire Ilonggo. And he gets excited a lot – by birds, food, his playmates; anything that moves and some things that don’t. Yesterday I lifted him over a fence so he could watch a tractor shift earth, and judging from what I was able to translate of his babble, he thought it was a mountain-building machine.

Duhat is near Paho’s age but of a different temperament: she’s quiet, seemingly contemplative, and unpredictable. I can usually guess Paho’s reaction to seeing me, but I never know if Duhat will shy away, studiously ignore me, or come near and grab my hand. Duhat is fairly new at my site, though her older sister has been living there for a long time already. One thing distinguishes her from nearly every other child at the center – she has dark skin and is of least partial native descent. Members of native minority groups like the Ati and the Eta face serious disadvantages in the Philippines. Many still live in poor, rural mountain settings; those that live in cities can usually be found begging on the streets or serving for low pay as household assistants. In a country that treasures light skin, Duhat provided a poignant moment a couple months ago when her house mother thanked some guests from Hong Kong for treating her “daughter” the same as any other child. Such equitability is unusual.

There are well over a hundred children at my center; I know all their names, most of their personalities, and we engage in our personal routines on a daily basis. One girl always asks me, “Tito, do you want to eat pato?” “Yeeeeeeesss.” Another always presents the query “How much you doing?”, to which the correct answer is “None of the above.” Never mind coherency.

One girl jokingly (or maybe seriously) calls me “ugly duckling.” Another has named me “Tito Ba-o,” meaning “Uncle Turtle.” Thanks again to my curly hair, I’m often referred to as “Boy Kulot” - “Curly Boy.” Some of the older ones just call me kuya, “brother,” and it’s to them that I’ve gotten closest.

My first real friend at site was a girl, Pomelo, who wrote me a since-neglected Ilonggo-English dictionary, memorized the names and ages of my family members, and is one of only two children to whom I’ve bestowed my much-requested phone number. Pomelo is a brilliant dancer; while I see her now only sporadically thanks to her busy school schedule, I always look forward to her graceful performances at events. When my fellow volunteer Laura visited my site for a week last May to help out with our sports festival, we stayed up most nights at my center’s guest house, talking and practicing Ilonggo with Pomelo. She was the first of my kids who felt something like a peer.

Bayabas, again, is a different sort, the diametric opposite of Pomelo’s poise and manners. We have a long-running joke between us about my trips around the Philippines; he has composed a song about the law-law lagawan nga kano, the loser do-nothing American, and the many “vacations” I’ve taken around the country. (Many of which have been work-related, in my defense.) Bayabas often acts like a typical teenage Filipino, meaning he’s kulang sa pansin (attention-seeking), sabad (obnoxious) and whatever the Ilonggo term is for “too cool for school.” He’s not a good student, but he’s extremely clever; he understands how things work, he remembers where to find everything, and he’s the first person I go to when I need to know where a particular person is or how to seek something out for a project. In a practical way, he’s very perceptive.

Sandiya tells me about her on-and-off boyfriend, her family troubles, her insecurities – and she demands similar information from me. Sometimes she’ll see me staring off into space and tell me she knows what I’m thinking about. She’s frequently right. Often she is frustrated with herself or others; her hand has been tender for months after punching a wall in a fit of anger, but she refuses to see a doctor. She is sometimes tamad (lazy), usually mabuot (kind), and she always wears a trucker hat that reads “Magic Blink.”

Probably my closest friend among the kids is Pinya, a sweet, proper girl who has already shed a tear for my eventual departure. She’s a bit sensitive and shy, one of the few Filipinas I’ve met who is reluctant to get up and dance at the first strains of music; she may be one of that rare breed, the introvert, and as a kindred spirit I appreciate her personality. At sixteen she is still waiting for her first kiss, but her crush lives in my neighborhood, and I think she might not be waiting much longer. I will be missing Pinya’s eighteenth-birthday debut next year, but she has already invited herself to be a bridesmaid at my wedding.

These are just six examples out of dozens. I never expected to get so attached to the kids at my site, and now the prospect of leaving them in another half-year is a melancholic thought. I’m pretty sure I will be ready, in most ways, to head off in November. But it’ll be real tough to stand at my center’s gate, bid halong to the Ilonggos, pagbantay to the Cebuanos and ingat to the Tagalogs, hear them respond with the English “Take care,” and make the final turn away from what has become, in many ways, my Filipino family.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Golden dusty days

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The classic Peace Corps motivational curve: sky-high at Staging, sloping downward as training wears on for three months, spiking suddenly at the beginning of service and bottoming out just as quickly… then a two-year climb along an almost imperceptible upward grade, with peaks and valleys disrupting the landscape along the way.

At one of our trainings, Peace Corps encouraged us to chart our motivation as our service wore on. Aside from my generally positive view of training (thanks to a great training site, good host family and wonderful trainers), my graph more or less follows the common pattern.

This is a chart. There are many like it but this one is mine.

At 1, after long months of wrestling with PC paperwork and and medical misery (four blood tests and a harrowing ride through wisdom-teeth removal agony), I was ready and enthusiastic to get overseas. Training was lots of exciting firsts, of course: bucket baths, dusty jeepney rides, intriguing new foods. I enjoyed training and learned a lot, but after three months I was pretty well ready to get going with my actual service.

Unfortunately, the beginning of my service (2) was miserable: my center gave me little help finding a workable schedule and worthwhile jobs, I got some nice eye infections, and my new host family was less than hospitable.

Luckily I had my first real vacation in February and March (3), and discovered the joys of Siquijor. But then it was right back to a summer of uncompleted projects and frustrating cultural barriers which culminated in the death of my grandmother at the end of June (4).

A couple months afterwards I flew to Hawai’i to see some of my family (5), which was a much-needed break from Peace Corps. Working started becoming easier, I got into the slow rhythm of Philippine life, and I actually enjoyed the holidays; to top it off (6), we were able to get our SLRs in January, giving me a project that I was genuinely excited about.

After that the frustration of organizing our girls’ leadership camp, and the incredible heat, wore on me for a couple months (7), but my dad’s vacation in the Philippines (as well as the completion of the camp) has given me a boost (8). For the future, a couple more immediate projects and the prospect of more traveling – I have a good number of vacation days accumulated and I have to use them by August, because we’re not allowed to travel for the last three months of service – should keep the line relatively buoyed.

It’s kind of sad to look at the chart and see that most of the downs are work-related and most of the ups are vacations, but that’s kind of how it goes here: projects are difficult to start and harder to finish, and there are constant disruptions thanks to outside events and cultural issues. But I can say that there has definitely been a lot of work-related improvement in the past year and a half. Things aren’t nearly as frustrating, I understand a lot more about communicating appropriately and planning efficiently, and navigating the sea of obstacles that surrounds any new project isn’t quite as daunting. And besides, vacations aren’t just about getting away from it all – they’re often really about understanding the Philippines, having new cultural experiences, meeting people and seeing what the country is like outside of workspace.

Averaging out the past few months, I’m now predictably in a general state somewhere between the golden dusty days of our arrival and the deep valleys that accompanied the worst of times. The trend has been generally upwards: life now is more settled, more comfortable. I don’t expect the line to top out in my last half-year – some things that were new and exciting have since gotten wearisome, and the post-PC future looms, seductive and unknowable – but then, I never expected my line to be flat; and anyway, lots of dips and ramps just make for a more thrilling ride.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

You always end up on Ledesma Street

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When Filipinos ask me about what I miss from the States, my answer is predictable and culturally appropriate: I miss my family. I miss my home. I miss seasons and cold weather and southern food. That’s as far as I usually go with my answer. There are many other things I miss, but I’m not sure Filipinos would quite understand. I don’t quite understand myself.

I miss gas station convenience stores. Those in the Philippines sometimes have a small auto-supplies store attached, but I want rows of dangerous junk food, vibrating Icee machines and soda fountains. I want to drive up to a gas station, jump inside, grab a Dr. Pepper and Doritos, and be out in under two minutes.

Monterey, CA (2007)

I miss accurate maps and knowing the names of streets. Every road in Iloilo City is Ledesma Street to me because it’s almost the only name I remember from the time when I cared about such things. I say it with the same blatantly nonchalant inaccuracy of a Filipino letting you know that an event will start at noon, when of course it won’t start until at least two in the afternoon: I say it, knowing even as I do that it’s meaningless. I used to carry a map of Iloilo City around with me everywhere; now I go by landmarks and memory. Ask me for directions and I’ll use large buildings, Jollibees and the one traffic light to direct you.

I don’t particularly miss grocery stores, but I do miss vending machines. I’ve always been a fan of non-human transactions – I rejoiced when Wal-Mart started testing self-checkouts – but here, everything always has a human element, and I suspect that automation would get low scores from Filipinos in any case. Relationships aren’t just important here, they’re what holds the society together. And there’s no relationship between me and a button.

Central Park, New York City (2006)

I dearly miss parks – real parks, not the Spanish-inspired (or Spanish-built) flat geometric plazas that offer nothing of interest and nary a bit of shade. I miss parks with trees and benches under them; I miss ponds that aren’t contained by concrete, twisting paths that obscure the mysteries ahead, and rusting swing-sets.

I don’t miss television – which in any case I could have here if I wanted. I mourn, however, the dearth of decent movies. I was spoiled by Los Angeles, of course, but here only the bitterest of the blockbuster dregs seem to make it into theaters. (Don’t get me started on the Philippine popular-film industry.) I will say, however, that Philippine theaters – like their airplanes and their people – are generally more inviting and cleaner than western ones.

It’s a weird truth that sometimes the little things are the ones you miss the most. I think it has something to do with resignation: if you’ve signed up for two years overseas, you’ve resigned yourself to unfamiliar food, lack of hot water and reliable power, inefficient transportation, questionable medical services and hamstrung personal freedoms. But you didn’t think about the lack of vending machines beforehand: that did not enter the equation when you accepted the invitation. You didn’t grill your Peace Corps interviewer on the availability of Icee machines (did you?), so while their non-presence might not be exactly a surprise, it is nevertheless a disappointment at some deep level of the psyche. And you worried about remembering the names of the people you met at Staging, not the names of roads in some city you’d never heard of; you were concerned about getting lost in the bustle of starting a new life, not in the tangled, congested lanes of a town that street signs forgot.

But it’s okay: you can’t really get lost, because – anyway – you always end up on Ledesma Street.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The last tree on earth

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At the end of the ro-ro port in Bacolod lives the last tree on earth. This tree, really no more than a little scrubby shrub, pokes its defiantly green head above a rubbled landscape of concrete and rock: no other green thing, no colorful petal can be seen. A single foot could stomp it out. A mild flood could drown it or tear up its desperate roots. It bends in the sea breezes sweeping in from the ocean; supple it is, but slim – it is an emaciated, lonely sentinel for the four hundred thousand humans in the City of Smiles. But still it hangs on to its doubtful existence.

Or perhaps it doesn’t. Eighteen months ago it was a charming reminder of nature’s tenacity, but for all I know it has by now been swept away, crushed, toppled, desiccated, poisoned, burned or starved – as with the people it guarded, reality weighed heavy on its bowed head.

In the developed world, societies are finally beginning to brush off the coal dust, fan away the fumes and take their first tentative steps away from the obliging and deadly bits of the planet that have offered themselves up in immolation for the progress of our race. By now, the momentum of the green movement is probably sufficient to ensure renewable energy a significant and permanent place in the machinery of the world. Whether that’s enough to salvage the situation is another question.

Regardless, it is clear that environmental awareness is far greater in many countries than in years past – at least with regard to visceral waste and tangible destruction. Rivers are being restored; smog in metros is dissipating; the very real benefits of developing with nature, rather than entombing it in concrete or tossing it into the furnace, are becoming evident. Putting aside the gorilla-in-the-room of climate change, life in many places around the globe will probably get pleasanter, at least superficially, in the decades to come. Clear blue skies: fresh, clean water.

Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, CA

None of that applies to the “developing world” – a moniker I hesitate to use, since it implies forward momentum and refutes the stagnation or decline happening in places like the Philippines. It’s in countries like this, not in stable nations with functional infrastructure already in place, where converting to environmentally-friendly measures seems to offer the biggest obstacles.

Accurate environmental information is rare here – fitting for a country that has plundered its own resources and been plundered by others for so many years. Current (but not for much longer) president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was recently gifted with an environmental accolade, the Teddy Roosevelt International Conservation Award, for her “work” in protecting marine resources in the Coral Triangle. That is, to be blunt, a farce of epic proportions.

Yet in rural settings, “green” is actually and surprisingly an institutional word – the sangguniang barangay (the local board of officials) is often tasked with implementing environmental programs, and a “Green Brigade” is a common project of the sangguniang kabataan (the barangay youth board). But like so many aspects of policy in the Philippines, these measures are usually only for show. The Green Brigade is a more self-important beautification committee – which would be good, except in my experience they rarely beautify anything except their own CVs.

Another common measure, one I was at first surprised to see so prevalent in the Philippines, is waste management in the form of trash segregation. Even small municipalities will often have separate disposal facilities for recyclable and landfill trash. Whether this program is actually followed, I can’t say from personal experience. What I can say is that the means of trash disposal are woefully inadequate – good luck finding a usable garbage can that isn’t simply an open container open to the dispersing wind. The result, in nearly every place I’ve visited in the country, is a huge amount of garbage littering the ground and waterways. This isn’t just in Manila or other cities, where the amount of trash probably simply overwhelms the system; it’s almost totally pervasive. Canals used for channeling rainwater are regularly choked with refuse, and colorful discarded cartons, papers and other scraps are stomped underfoot until the ground has a deviously festive aspect.

Perhaps the biggest issue isn’t the lack of infrastructure, but the lack of education. My coworkers were confused when they saw me regulating my water use while washing dishes… in the midst of a major drought. I regularly skewer my kids with stern looks when they nonchalantly toss a candy wrapper on the ground when a trash can is only meters away, but they’re just kids being kids; when adults do the same thing – when they toss cigarette butts in the streets and throw plastic wrappers out the sides of moving jeeps – it’s evident that there is a deeper problem at play here.

Venice Beach, CA

I struggle to be culturally aware with regard to this issue. To me, littering is something that is self-evidently damaging, but it’s easy to forget that I have been taught such for over two decades. To someone who hasn’t, maybe throwing that garbage off the dock might not seem like a big deal – after all, that person will probably never see it again; problem solved. I’m not an environmental volunteer and it would be presumptive for me to make accusations against people whose culture is unfamiliar. However, it’s clear that great strides need to be taken to save the natural beauty and resources of the Philippines.

There is one great issue that could either complicate or (ironically) aid this reform, and that is the poverty inherent in great swathes of the country. As linked to a lack of education, poverty is certainly one of the causes of a dearth of environmental stewardship. As poverty is reduced (if it is reduced), environmentalism will hopefully become the mainstream topic it has become elsewhere.

However, what’s vital is that the society and culture grow with environmentalism. One of the tragedies of the United States was that our ascent to the top of the global economy was largely accomplished independently of concern for the earth itself. The result, which continues to echo today, was economic vibrancy and environmental disaster.

Since environmentalism is better-understood and certainly better-respected today, countries that are still developing have the opportunity to build their various infrastructures with the help of green technology. Nope, it’s not fair, after the western world has already reaped the benefits of easy progress without accountability. But it is necessary. If there is any justice in the world (and with environmental talks progressing – or regressing – as they have, sometimes that seems doubtful), wealthy nations will play a major role in helping developing regions modernize sustainably. Pipe dreams, perhaps; the trick is to convince people that it’s in everyone’s best interest to protect the only habitat we’ve got.

And this should not be a case of the rich stepping in with gift bags for the poor despondent. Rich countries have a lot to learn from the Philippines and other nations – perhaps not in terms of policy, but in individual resource management.

It seems contradictory, but there are environmental lessons to be had from Filipinos. They are ingeniously inventive when resources are limited. I believe this usually stems from necessity, not awareness of environmental issues, but anyone who has watched a team of Filipinos cobble together a tent complex from tarps, bamboo and rocks, as they did for our girls’ leadership camp last week, has to be impressed with their resourcefulness.

Granada, Bacolod, Philippines

A while back I bemoaned a lack of creativity in Filipino art, but the same does not apply in matters like this: I’m consistently impressed with the ability of Filipinos to identify nonstandard ways to solve practical problems. At this point, sometimes I don’t even try to help out in these situations, because I know they’ll find a much more solid, and cheaper, solution than I ever could. Why? Because they live in a world where thrift and ingenuity matter on an individual level. Many people can’t just buy their way out of a difficult situation – they can only use the things on hand. What if this kind of intelligence became commonplace in developed countries? The level of waste could be staggeringly reduced.

The situation in the Philippines epitomizes my view of the worldwide environmental situation: I have great faith in the ability of individuals and concerned groups to identify and invent brilliant ways to reduce waste, cut emissions, conserve vital habitats and generally live harmoniously with nature, with the understanding that we’re just renting a room or two in the big apartment. What I have less faith in is the willingness of the people with power, those with the means to make the environmental movement matter on a global scale – not just governments but corporations and even influential individuals – to invite some hardships in with what they see as “only” a painfully earned, long-term payoff.

The solutions are there – every kid in sub-Saharan rural Africa cobbling together a wind turbine to power lights for his unelectrified hut is a testament to that, and every Filipino who whips together a workable tent with found materials confirms it. The rich world needs to look at these examples with due humility and respect, understand that we all have lessons to learn from each other, and most importantly, recognize that with a mutual effort flowers can return to a concrete earth, and that the last tree in the world might have life running through it yet.

Malibu, CA

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hey sunshine!

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One of the great things about Peace Corps is that eventually you get a sense of something like but not necessarily lowered expectations. That sounds negative but it’s really not: what it really implies is simply the difference between a controlled, predictable world and one that is rather uncoordinated, rough around the edges, and never quite on time.

From my experience (I realize that is an unnecessary disclaimer by now, but inevitably a volunteer in Romania will read this and, index finger aloft, proclaim that his or her service is not like that), Peace Corps is not a place for perfectionists or the tightly-wound. It may well help alleviate these conditions – nothing is a better cure for extreme punctuality than living in a place where one of the most ubiquitous English phrases is “wait for a while” – but by the six-month mark, you’d better have a clear understanding that understanding will never be quite clear, and a firm plan to never expect plans to be firm.

Certain things will probably always be stressful. I’ve spent the past three months or so working with other volunteers on a weeklong girls’ leadership camp involving four centers, and up until its completion two days ago, I could never assume that things would go smoothly at all. Trying to confirm the participants from my center was the most frustrating: girls kept dropping out after our confirmation deadline, so it was a constant scramble to find substitutes to meet our quota. One house mother neglected to inform me until a month after our camp roster was “finalized” that – surprise – one of her girls couldn’t attend because she was taking a summer class. Another girl showed up on the roster for a different camp planned for the same time; I found this out less than a week before our camp started.

But by now I expect complications, even if frequently I can’t predict exactly what the complications will be. Once you accept the fundamental differences between a shifting, relative society – one in which many people can’t count on anything, like having a job or eating regularly – and one that is laid down and squared off smartly with rulers and clocks, the merits of each tend to stand independently.

I’m sure a common comment by volunteers is that, by living without many of the comforts of home, one tends to appreciate better the comforts that are available. Taking stuff for granted, you know – the scourge of the west.

What I’ve been thinking about recently is how much more it took, in the States, to bestow satisfaction. Every day I ate food I liked, and so “good food” was my benchmark. Sometimes I had to choke down okra or even seafood, but those were the exceptions; and on the other hand, only really good food was special. Well, now I eat slimy okra and lukewarm fried fish (and it’s only lukewarm because the air temperature keeps it from getting cold) most days, and that has become my benchmark. Now a soup with tiny bits of pork, a single piece of chicken adobo, or a cold glass of Coke has become special. And when I get these things, it makes me very happy indeed: they’re small blips above the trend line.

Another disclaimer: I eat in Iloilo City a lot. More than I should. Most of my money goes towards tasty city food (whereas if I only ate in my own town, I’d have a big budget surplus every month). I'm not yet at the point where I can eat food I dislike without feeling some sense, however slight, of resignation.
But without a doubt I appreciate food more than I ever have before. Many things I tried to avoid eating in the States – oatmeal, onions, raisins – are frequent parts of my diet now. I’m still picky by Filipino standards, and I’m infamous at my center for flatly refusing to eat bananas, but many things don’t seem so yucky to me anymore.

And meryenda, the twice-daily snacks that are in their own way as important as the full meals themselves: I usually ignore the compulsion to eat a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack when I’m on my own, but when I’m with Filipinos I secretly hope someone will produce ibos or tinapay or some plastic-wrapped fat-infused concoction. In Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson explains what he sees as the ability of the English to be charmingly delighted by something as simple as a cup of tea and a biscuit. That’s how I often feel about meryenda: delighted.

And food is far from the only source of small pleasures. From a more professional (or volunteeral, if you will) standpoint, plans that run their course smoothly – or even just one bit of a bigger plan that runs smoothly – are catalysts for this delight. In preparation for the aforementioned girls’ camp, I left instructions with a coworker, my counterpart for the camp, to bring along a few items when she accompanied the girls to our venue. (I had to leave the previous day to set up tents, meet with the other volunteers, and generally try to ensure that no major disasters would derail the occasion.) When she showed up with all the items intact, I had that stab of delight: within this very small snippet of a much larger blueprint, things fit together as planned.

There are hundreds of these little happinesses: the daily greetings from my friendly neighbors, a decent internet connection, coffee that isn’t instant or sugar-heavy 3-in-1, a new tropical fruit to try. Sometimes all it takes is a small concession on the part of a daily burden – securing a seat on the shady side of a jeepney or a little downpour that dissipates the worst of the day’s heat. Even waking up drowsily with sunshine, before the world has had time to start baking, can be wonderful.

The real test will be when my service is over and I return to all those comforts I’ve done without or had only sporadically. It’s probably inevitable that, to some extent, my old benchmarks will be restored and little comforts become again the status quo. I hope that will not be the case. Regardless, that time still seems a long way off, and for now I’ll enjoy these little things as they come.