Sunday, September 26, 2010

Encounters from outside the bubble

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This is Manuel. He lives on a beached boat in El Nido, Palawan, because his sister’s husband doesn’t want him in their house. Anybody could see that Manuel is a little, well, cracked: he rambled on (in surprisingly good English) about the history of the United States, asserting several times with misplaced pride that “I am an American.” He told me about his past history as a boxer, which – despite the sagging, aged body I saw – I can believe. My Encounter with Manuel was in August 2009.

In some ways, Peace Corps is a uniquely individual endeavor. Putting aside your Twitter and your Facebook and your international texting, in most ways a volunteer is still cut off from everyone and everything Back Home. You may still be able to find many of the same things – Starbucks is here, and toilet paper, and loads of English – but you’re still in an unfamiliar country. No matter what impression the westernized aspects of the Philippines may give to visitors, rest assured that it isn’t the West.

Of course we don’t fit in, and that means that there’s a certain aura of isolation around foreigners. For me, that aura is necessary: the social aspects of Filipino society can be overwhelming for me and I often need the insulation. But if the bubble is impermeable, and nothing can get in or out – what, then, is the point?

Hence the Encounters: the times when, instead of the outsider breezing by on a cloud and awing the natives, a mutual connection is made. Sometimes Encounters come few and far apart, sometimes they are positive and sometimes negative. Sometimes, as with Manuel, they’re just interesting and slightly bizarre. But in the end, they are among the experiences that have meant the most to me in my time here.

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Raul Fabiantes. I’ve mentioned him before: he’s the Cuyonon who loves having his name propagated around the world through his shipping post. I crossed paths with him and his friends several times during my Christmas stay on Cuyo. They brought me inside a nearby fish-processing facility and showed me the isda and kasag and prawns; they entreated me to stay longer, add them on Facebook and give out my phone number. “Indi pwede,”  I said. I can’t. “My phone number is only for work.”

Raul used to live in my province and his contacts ranged from van drivers to a particular dentist. He urged me to avail of these contacts and I promised I would try. (And I did try: I looked around for his driver buddy at Tagbak terminal before a trip to Caticlan, but apparently he had already moved on to other prospects.)

But Peace Corps isn’t a travel agency, and two years in-country means that volunteers are forced (well, ideally) to integrate into their communities. That means that we have the opportunity to form connections that reach beyond the flash-relationships typical to travelers.

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Kate (aliases: Katherine, Kit-Kit, Kit): one of the smartest people I know, and she was only eleven when I met her. Kate lives in Bacolod on the island of Negros. I had the good fortune of spending three months in her barangay during our training. Kate’s English was excellent, but much more than that, she always had a clever way to explain something I didn’t understand. She helped teach me how to wash my clothes by hand, play countless hand-clap games and patintero, and was one of my constant companions around the neighborhood. She helped me with my Ilonggo and told me stories about aswang and other creatures.

Kate, of course, was much more than an Encounter. She was my early guide to the Philippines and one of my first friends. Unfailingly considerate but frequently mischievous, dirt-poor but brilliant, Kate helped make my first months in-country memorable. It has been almost two years since I lived in her neighborhood, and although I imagine she has changed considerably since then, my vision of her is the same: board-thin, intense black eyes piercing everything around, husky voice laughing at some silly joke.

I’ve had too many Encounters to remember offhand. There was Dimple, the Bacolod girl who bought me Chinese food during the wild Masskara festival; Alicia, the resident old crazy woman in our training barangay, who spoke good English and asked if she could kiss me (I politely declined); the fantastic Filipino Peace Corps staff, who definitely deserve a post of their own.

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And Grimace, the Bacolod boy whose PCV-coined pseudonym derived from his strained but absolutely adorable attempts to grin.

Filipino kindness has been a constant presence since I touched down in August 2008. It’s true that sometimes all the attention can be stressful, but it has also formed perhaps the core of my experience in the Philippines. I’ll remember a lot from my service, but more than anything I’ll recall those times that I call my Encounters – and those, of course, that became more than Encounters.

(Reposted with other "meeting locals" articles at HeadingThere.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Life in five pockets

If you’re American, and you work with Filipino children, they will ask you for stuff. Stuff like your computer, and your camera, and your bicycle; stuff like your money; stuff like your clothing (which they will not wear), your books (which they will not read), and your umbrella (which they will not use, because the spines are rusted and broken and the fabric flaps free). And if you’re a Peace Corps volunteer, they will ask for your backpack.

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So far I’ve managed to avoid bequeathing my backpack to anyone by claiming that it has sentimental value. “Ah,” the Filipino will nod understandingly, “Sentimental value. Okay, then you give me your cell phone.”

Filipinos in my part of the country are polite and kind. Built into the dialect of my province are softeners which are used to blunt the edges of requests and statements: even the intonation plays a big part in suffusing speech with gentleness. But it goes beyond that: Ilonggos are so polite that they even soften Thank Yous (Salamat gid haa!). I guess plain expressions of gratitude are simply too harsh.

So this asking-for-stuff is a bit jarring, and also troublesome: at times it is very obviously a manifestation of the rich-American stereotype. But putting that aside for now, sharing and giving is also a part of the culture here, so much so that young children at my center will give up legitimately-gained sweets to their less fortunate fellows voluntarily. And the same is expected of me: I’ve learned to offer food automatically, not just to friends but to new acquaintances, strangers on buses, and even at times other Americans.

Sometimes fulfilling requests is no problem at all. One girl at my center asked me for my worn-out tsinelas (sandals) as a token of remembrance. She had me write my name on them. Weird but touching.

Other times, granting those requests is either not really possible or somewhat unreasonable. Turning down requests for stuff requires a bit more finesse than a blunt denial: there always has to be some excuse. Ah, I already promised that to someone else. This is remembrance from my friend in the States. Peace Corps bought this for me so I’m not allowed to give it away. And the good old sentimental-value ploy, which I’ve used on more than one occasion.

But in my backpack’s case, it’s actually becoming less of a ploy and more of a truism as time rolls on. It really is a venerable beast, having carried my textbooks through high school, towels and sunscreen through college (and some books then too), and everything imaginable during the Peace Corps stint.

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I’ve abused it to no small degree in the past decade or so, but it has only started showing its age recently. One shoulder strap has started to rip apart, and the foam cushioning is protruding; the inside lining is fraying and thinning; the zippers sometimes don’t perform their job with utmost integrity. It has been discolored and darkened by years of dust, sweat and uncapped highlighters. Last year I thought I had finally killed it when an entire bottle of bike oil burst inside one of the main compartments, but many soakings and washings later the ordeal was just one more scar on its tough flesh.

On a typical day it carries my laptop, a reading book and a notebook, my water bottle, an umbrella and some odds and ends. Right now it’s toting both of my passports, some coupons for Greenwich Pizza (not recommended), a few stray medications, a locker lock for pension houses, numerous ticket stubs for planes and ferries, and a whistle of obscure origin. A green length of yarn decorates the hangloop on top; every volunteer in my batch used these bits of yarn to brand their luggage before our departure from Los Angeles. And my Peace Corps patch is linked to the main zipper – an oddly blatant bit of self-identification, that, but I can’t imagine detaching it now.

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A backpack might be just a backpack, but context dictates usage. I’ve become adept at the one-shoulder swingoff to prove to mall security guards that I’m carrying no firearms or explosives, and also to the front-carry position that allows my payong to cover it more effectively during downpours. I guard it possessively on crowded metro rides in Manila. On short journeys, it’s just roomy enough to fit a change of clothes, laptop or books and DSLR – anymore more and I can almost hear the seams begging for mercy.

Of course, a backpack isn’t actually just a backpack. I could wax poetic on everything a backpack, knapsack or bag-on-a-stick represents, but Kerouac already said it for another generation, and if anything his words are even truer today with our increasingly inescapable modernity. “I promised myself that I would begin a new life,” he wrote in The Dharma Bums, “All over the West, and the mountains in the East, and the desert, I’ll tramp with a rucksack and make it the pure way.” And in Big Sur:
I think of the marvelous belongings in my rucksack like my 25 cent plastic shaker with which I’ve just made the muffin batter but also I’ve used it in the past to drink hot tea, wine, coffee, whisky… And other belongings so valuable compared to the worthlessness of expensive things I’d bought and never used…
Obviously what I just wrote about my laptop and camera is proof enough that I’m not exactly a practicing disciple of Kerouackian asceticism. Neither, strictly speaking, was Kerouac. But things fetter, and more things fetter more, and slinging on a backpack with body and mind otherwise free is a pretty good compromise.

I know that my backpack’s end, or at least its retirement, is probably not too far off. I’m fine with that. It has served me well and faithfully, has outlasted most of my other belongings and even friendships, and it still doggedly shows up to work every day. A rest is well-deserved.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Days of misery and discord

Misery: my own. I’ve been sick recently, sick with some kind of indecisive infection that can’t settle on a consistent pattern of symptoms – instead it tries out a new set every couple days. Today’s not so bad: I’ve got a low-grade fever, heavy tired aches and the remnants of congestion that haven’t been flushed out yet. Two days ago I had only a deep fatigue; the day before, a higher temperature; the two days previous I felt more or less normal; and before that, I had the symptoms of a common cold.

Unfortunately, being sick here means putting up with more than just the symptoms. I’ve been fortunate in that the past week’s skies have been fairly overcast, meaning I haven’t had to deal with the heat of the day exacerbating my fevers. What I have had to put up with are the bugs.

Mosquitoes don’t really bother me – on the rare nights when they’re a major problem, I mostly get bitten just on the feet. It’s the other insects that make some nights sheer torture, and the worst are the rice flies.
I don’t know what they’re really called – I just call them “rice flies” because they tend to congregate around rice fields. I remember riding my bike at dusk and getting mouthfuls of them as I passed by flooded rice paddies; when I’d get home from my ride, my face would be covered in the fly-bits that stuck to my sweat. The flies are tiny and delicate, and I suspect that I’m allergic to something about them because I tend to get sneezing fits when they arrive.

They swarm around lights and cover the walls. To misdirect them, I usually keep my bedroom light off and turn on a light somewhere else. It doesn’t matter much. As soon as all the lights are off and I’m trying to sleep, I feel their tiny bodies alighting on any exposed skin.

It’s not a comfortable situation: in order to sleep I have to be cool, but to be cool I usually have to forgo sheets; and if I forgo sheets, the flies keep me awake with their maddening dances across my flesh. I have a mosquito net, but the flies are small enough to get through – and in any case, the netting blocks my fan and keeps me from cooling down enough for slumber. The result is that, on fly-swarming nights, I sometimes lie awake for hours before I’m cool enough to pull a sheet over me and block the bugs. And that’s only if the power stays on. All part of the fun.


Discord: the greater world’s, apparently. What’s this nonsense about an American pastor threatening to burn the Qur’an on the anniversary of 9/11? He may have called off the conflagration in the end, but Terry Jones is still a fear-mongering bigot of the worst, and most ridiculous, order. His goofy stunt only exposes his own ignorance and prejudice, not to mention cowardice.

On one hand, it’s perhaps lamentable that Jones received the media attention which he no doubt craved. On the other, it’s nice to see pretty universal criticism, including from the US president, the Vatican, and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who earlier upheld the legality of building a mosque/Islam cultural center near Ground Zero in Manhattan.

The saga of the mosque shocked me, not because I figured everyone would be okay with it, but because I discovered that a majority of Americans were opposed to the construction. Putting aside the well-discussed fact that those involved have every right to build their center where they want, the whole ordeal exposes the  fierce exclusionism that seems to characterize a nation which simultaneously and paradoxically takes pride in its motley origins. I’m not one to get sentimental over bits of chiseled stone, but remember the Statue of Liberty? Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Okay, so that has never exactly represented the US’s immigration policies, but it’s still an important ideal.

Yearning to breathe free. Luckily for modern Americans, that phrase is nicely ambiguous. We talk, we Americans, about freedom. A lot. It’s in our anthem, which rhapsodizes on the “land of the free.” It’s on our most widely recognized monument. It has been a means for mobilizing troops and citizenry for war, both legitimate and il-, since the birth of the country. And it has never been entirely true, or even close.

You might argue that one of the US's liberties is freedom of speech, and that Jones had every right to burn whatever book he chooses to burn. Absolutely true, and any forced repression of that right would be a grievous offense. But freedom doesn't just have to be about laws. It's also about things that can't be put to paper.

I recognize that I, as an American, do benefit from more freedoms than the vast majority of people around the world. That is a testament to the people before me who have defended those liberties, and the prescience of certain leaders who have dedicated themselves to their protection.

But it is also true that, as a Caucasian American from a Christian background, I benefit from more freedoms than most of the citizens of my own country. The US prides itself on being multiethnic and diverse, and it is. But those diversities too often exist on different planes, and the idealism of our rhetoric is often betrayed by the realities – realities like inflaming hatred against innocents who subscribe to a different theology than the American norm.

It’s not enough to allow Muslims to build cultural centers, or allow immigrants from poor countries to cross our borders for better prospects, or allow ourselves to feel magnanimous for doing the bare minimum. Until we respect diverse peoples and diverse ways, the country’s ideals will be no more than that, and any nationalistic preaching about our freedoms will be little more than hyperbole.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Block party at Fort San Pedro

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Along the curve of Iloilo’s wharf stand the remnants of a Spanish fort: a statue of Christ, a few steps and a respectable amount of graffiti are all that mark the spot, but next door stands a popular resort/eatery which carries on that questionable European name. Iloilo is an old city, settled early to secure its deepwater port, and many cultural artifacts from the time of Spanish occupation remain – particularly its profusion of venerable cathedrals.

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As with so many places in this overpopulated country, the piers and portside walks fill up in the evenings with emancipated schoolkids and off-the-clock laborers. Barkadas try their fishing luck in the oily waters, children scamper around the rusty pilings, and everyone enjoys the cooling breeze blowing off the Guimaras Strait.
 
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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

No direction for fools

There’s something exquisite in the uncertain: something balanced and delicate, unpredictably perfect and perfectly unpredictable. Maybe it’s just the fact of its immateriality which makes the unknown vibrate with possibility; perhaps it’s the sordid sensual reality of corporeal existence that makes its counterpoint so desirable. Maybe it’s just that our misused brains reject what they interpret and, like a little kid begging for a pull on his dad’s beer, desperately and perversely grope for things they can’t understand.

I’m not talking about any frontier-lust nonsense, where the desire is to know what was previously unknown. What I mean is the desire to not know, the wish to hold in the mind for a single instant a crystal whose edges intersect while remaining untouched, whose straight lines bend without contradiction. What does that mean?

Exactly.

In Peace Corps – because everything, like water to the sea, returns to Peace Corps in the end – this uncertainty seems to battle against a logical tendency of the mind to straighten the skewed and see everything in its proper place. (As if everything has a place.) There’s often delight in “accepting” things that on some level don’t make sense. “That’s just how it is” (and its anthropocentric cousin “That’s just how he/she/they is/are”) is a common phrase often used to dismiss some cultural quirk as naive, silly, illogical, bizarre, backwards, antiquated, token, or pointlessly traditional. It is also a ploy to seem openminded, as in “Filipinos communicate indirectly. That’s just how they are.” Again, this isn’t really what I’m talking about. This is just a way to be arrogant while pretending to be empathetic.

Maybe it’s appropriate that I can’t find exactly the right way to express this affinity for uncertainty. I felt its pleasant prodding when I got on a boat last month and, thanks to lots of contradictory information, didn’t know just where I would dock. I felt no relief or happiness at actually discovering my destination, but for those few hours of indetermination, I seemed to experience a wonderful blurriness in one tiny nook of my mind. The possibilities swirled like a very small cloud of mayflies and I knew that, on my own, I could never catch the right one and know it was right.

This feeling seems to contradict the tenets of evolutionary biology. The basic instinct to survive takes a backseat to the thrill of ambiguity: in its risk-taking perversity, humanity denies its own origins. And perhaps proves its genius.

I think the search for the fulfillment of this desire is probably a common reason, acknowledged or not, for applying to the Peace Corps. Ironically, many parts of my life here are as predictable as the sunrise. The things that were exciting to learn are now routine. Still those nebulous moments occur, and at times I’m bubbled in that clarity-which-isn’t, that belief that as long as I don’t know what’s going on, every atom in the universe is in its perfect place. And when the pointy head of knowledge pops that bubble, all the worries and stresses of trying to make sense of a nonsensical world rush in, clamoring to be entertained. I suppose it’s obvious that these moments should occur more often in an unfamiliar setting, an unfamiliar culture.

So last week during my stay at Batch 269’s Initial Orientation in Cavite, and for the couple days afterward, I had to decide how much I wanted to say to the new trainees, because I didn’t want to deprive them of any of these moments. I ended up saying a lot more than I had previously intended, probably for two major reasons: first, it’s tough to be coldhearted enough to turn down requests for specific information, and the trainees made quite a few such requests; and second, it’s likewise difficult to resist showing off, to some degree, my two years of experience – meager though the sum of my wisdom may be.

(A few sidenotes on IO, because I don’t plan on writing an entire entry about it:
  • It was decent for the most part
  • I like most of the new CYF trainees
  • I’ve already picked out several people who I don’t think will make it through service
  • The new CRMs are a whiny bunch, to make an unfair generalization
  • Peace Corps should stop pampering volunteers quite so much, and that includes my batch
  • The newbies really, really love their laptops and cell phones, like almost disturbingly so
  • The doubling of incoming trainees was a bad idea, or at least an idea that was implemented too abruptly – thanks DC
  • I had no major revelations about my own service, but my respect for the Filipino Peace Corps staff grew ever deeper
  • Swimming in Manila Bay confirmed my long-held suspicion that swimming in Manila Bay is disgusting
  • My major contribution to the conference was introducing more unsuspecting victims to the cardgame Mao
  • Fresh cold milk for breakfast was delightful, and nacho night was a thoughtful touch
  • 90% of the male trainees looked identical to me and I think I’m losing my ability to distinguish between white people – just as some Filipinos couldn’t tell the difference between me and the blond German volunteers who recently bounced from my town
  • Talking informally with a group of current volunteers must be infuriating because we don’t answer anything directly [sorry, Mark]
  • There’s this boardgame called Argue, and it sucks [not sorry, Lillian]
Overall IO score: nacho night.)

As rewarding as the collecting of new experiences and new information can be within the context of working in Peace Corps, sometimes the best moments are the ones in which you can tell yourself, truthfully and peacefully and acceptingly, that you understand nothing. But it’s not bahala na – it’s not leaving fate up to some unseen forces; it’s activity, not passivity, an interaction with the unknown which may be predicated on the acceptance of ignorance, but which itself can be thrillingly dynamic. We’re all of us fools, but sometimes letting that fact guide (or un-guide) our floundering can lead to a greater reward than the dusty accumulation of knowledge.