Tuesday, April 26, 2005

A few mouths to feed

I apologize in advance for the schizophrenic nature of my blog entries: from wine drinking to water safety to starving children. But I'm learning that such is life in the Peace Corps, a bumpy roller coaster ride in a strange land.

So here goes. One of our tasks during training to is to make a presentation to members of the community about a particularly pressing local issue and try to engage them in ways they might help the situation. After speaking with several officials, my little cluster decided to focus on malnutrition and how it affects children in school.

More than 30 percent of school-aged children in the Philippines are malnourished and our little barangay is no different. Today, we saw how true that really is. We joined a public health nurse as she made house to house visits to children targetted because they are severely malnourished. The barangay tries to help and has a feeding program -- rice, bread and sometimes milk -- for the poorest of the poor. The nurse also tries to educate the moms and offers free health care -- though she says the families rarely take advantage of the health care. They used to just deliver the meals to the homes until they discovered the fathers would come home and eat the food meant for the kids. So now they stay and watch the children eat and take pictures to document their work.

We visited a 6-year-old with cerebral palsy, another boy with a heart condition, and the nurse explained that both were severely underweight and stunted. The 6-year-old was no bigger than a 1-year-old in the U.S., weighing far less than a typical toddler. Our next house call was to a squatter home -- these are makeshift huts crowded together on illegally obtained land. (Of course we have squatters in the U.S.) In my barangay, there are many squatters living along the railroad tracks that run through town and in the back of a subdivision near the rice fields. Whole families live in a single, tiny shack. Sanitation is a huge problem. It makes my host family situation all that much brighter.

At one "home" we stopped to check on an 8-year-old girl the nurse is keeping an eye on. She was about 20 inches long, and perhaps about 10 pounds. She had sunken eyes, a distended belly and bones for limbs. She can no longer sit or stand on her own. There is a right angle in her spine -- she was dropped and it fractured and remains bent. She had bruises on her thighs and back. The nurse said she was a "lost cause" and would die soon. She lives down the street from me in the barangay. I'd never seen a starving child up close like that. We stroked her hair and she cried and shook. The rest of the family seemed like they had been well-fed -- her aunt was even chubby -- so it appears to be some weird case of abuse.

The hardest part is to walk away and not do something. Either there is no money to look after the girl or there are too many children like her to do anything about just one child. I couldn't get a straight answer. So she will die there -- and the nurse says it will be soon. I so badly wanted to call someone and have them swoop in and take her away to a hospital. My language and culture teacher said there was no one to call. There is a social services department but it is apparently too overwhelmed to deal with individual cases. So the kid is doomed.

She is perhaps the saddest case here in the barangay and I imagine there are many more like her. But there are other children living with varying degrees of malnutrition. They will live but will be stunted intellectually and physically.

We have to give a presentation so we decided to present to a sixth-grade summer school class and their parents and talk about nutrition. Just really an educational seminar. It seems like not much and it feels insane to have a discussion about eating more vegatables when an 8-year-old girl is dying down the street. But perhaps it will do some good. The very fact that they are in school means they are much better off than many kids. Only 7 out of 10 kids here make it to the sixth grade. The rest are elementary school drop-outs.

Some of us feel guilty about using this community for training. There are certain things we are required to "practice" or learn without really delivering any substantial benefit to the community. I find it strange but we are trying to do as much as we can while we are here. Some say the Filipinos don't expect much from us and are just happy to talk to us. I don't buy it.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Water Safety training aka Beach Day!

To teach us how to be safe in the water, we had to go out 100 yards in a skiff, jump out, tread water and climb back in the boat. That was water safety! The rest of the day (last Thursday) was spent hanging out at the beach at Porto Azul, a nice resort south of Manila. The sand was brown but the water blue and there was a view of the Taal volcano in the distance. It was the first time I'd scene the coast since arriving in the Philippines nearly a month ago. It was a nice respite from our hectic training schedule and from my small polluted barangay, where I spend most of my days now for training!

Check out the pics:

Volunteers Mary Owen (Detroit) and Erin McNeff (Connecticut) hanging on the beach
The view from the Beach: the active volcano, Taal, is across the bay from Porto Azul
The beach at Porto Azul resort
My Peace Corps friends: Josh (Alaska), Kelly (Pittsburgh), Erin (Connecticut), Mary (Detroit), me and Kate (upstate New York, near Rhinebeck)
Me and Ate Dolor, our hub site manager

A Day at the Market

Mary, Kelly and I toured the open air market in Los Banos yesterday. Lots of flopping fish, hanging body parts and flies on chicken. A pretty hectic scene. Check out these pics:

Pig anyone? Hooves hanging at the Los Banos market
These fish have seen better days!
A woman filets at live Tilapia

Friday, April 22, 2005

And the envelope please...

Finally, a destination. I learned last night I will be assigned to a high school in Donsol in Sorsogon on the southern Luzon peninsula known as Bicol. (Get those maps out!) Donsol is a small rural fishing village on the coast (Yes!) It is an hour each from Sorsogon City and Legaspi, small cities in the region. I don't know much about Donsol, other than it is famous for the prevalence of whale sharks (relax, they're vegetarians!) and it gets groups of eco-tourists and scuba divers. It is fairly close to Mount Mayon, one of the Philippines' most dangerous but beautiful volcanoes.

The plus side is the beauty of the area and the nearby ocean. Volunteers in Bicol love the place. The down side will be the sleepy nature of the village and I will have to get used to that. Perhaps there will be weekend trips to the big cities! I also have to learn another language in addition to Tagalog. They also speak Bikol, a local dialect. Lots of studying the first few months.

My job will be to help the teachers improve English teaching and to work with the school journalism program. If you're curious, check out the local tourism web sites: http://www.sorsogontourism.com/ and http://www.wowbicol.com/basic_facts_sorsogon.htm and http://www.sorsogonweb.com/

We still have another six weeks of training before I get to Donsol, but I will be visiting the site within the next couple of weeks. So more to come...

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The American Dream

Jason has a dream. He's 17 and a high school graduate with good grades. He wants to go to college and study nursing - the one course of study that will give him the best chance of finding a job in America. It is his American Dream, Filipino-style.
He's bright, articulate and driven. He will make it someday.

On this day, though, his future is uncertain. The government-sponsored college savings fund his aunt has been contributing to since he was a child is bankrupt, another product of Philippine governmental corruption. His plight is shared by thousands of other young aspiring Filipinos today. Jason discovered the lack of funds only yesterday, in the same week he was to enroll in a private college specializing in nursing studies. The dream he was about to embark on this June -- to be the first in his family to attend college -- will have to be put on hold. There is no money to send him to school.

Jason is my host brother. Just last week, we spoke about how important it was for him to go to college. At 17, he knows his goals in life. He is wise beyond his years. Because of the shortage of nurses in the U.S., Jason knows a degree in nursing could land him a job and a ticket to America. The money he makes there can be sent back home to support his family. It's a lot of pressure on a 17-year-old kid. He understands this, too.

This somehow seems so unfair. A right of passage many Americans take for granted is so elusive to kids like Jason. Yet, it was within his grasp and a government plagued by corruption and debt snatched it away. And yet I'm sure I will encounter many more stories like Jason's along my way here, each one as heartbreaking as the other. Perhaps someday it will make some sense.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Barangay winos!

Okay, so it didn't take me long to find the wine! Mary (one of my cluster mates) and I stumbled upon a liquor store in our little barangay. And what do you know? They carried a bottle of Yellow Tail shiraz for 385 pesos! Gotta love the Aussies.(That's roughly $7.50, a fortune here. For example, that money would be me a large meal a day for a week or more at local restaurants.) We broke down and splurged and hid the bottle in Mary's bag. Felt like a couple of teen-agers sneaking liquor under our parents' noses! It is rare for women in the Philippines to drink -- outside of Manila. We're not supposed to order alcohol at restaurants, etc. We're trying to respect that in public...but the Yellow Tail was a bit too tempting to pass up.

So we snuck the bottle into one of our other cluster mates' host family house -- Kelly was placed in a "mansion" here in the barangay when the Peace Corps got desperate for another host family. She has a large bedroom and air condition and a flush toilet and a shower!!! We hate her! :) Anyway, it's not the typical host family stay but the Peace Corps needed one last family and couldn't find one, so Kelly lucked out in getting a "rich" family. We used her spacious bedroom as a study hall last night and shared some wine. Sneaky.

Don't get me wrong about the host families. It turns out that mine is really nice and they have been more than hospitable to me. (Ate Julie even insisted on doing my laundry for me this weekend!) I only share my thoughts about the living arrangment because it is so shockingly different from our own back home. I feel bad complaining because they do have so little and as the son-in-law, Michael, told me yesterday, 'We are poor, but none of us is sick and that is all that matters.' I also feel guilty that I have my own bedroom in the house when my host mom and dad sleep on the floor in the sala (living room). It doesn't make sense except that the Peace Corps wants us to live at the economic level of the people we will be helping and that means living with folks who don't have a room to spare. The tradeoff is that they sleep on the floor to host a PCV and hopefully earn a little extra money to feed the family and get some experience from living with an American. Just thought I'd throw that out. I don't want you to think I am not aware of their sacrifices, too, to have me here.

I had my first Tagalog test today and it's a relief to be over. It was tough but beginning to understand a little of the structure of the language. I think I passed but will find out soon. We'll be learning more verbs this week so hopefully I can start saying more than I'm hungry, let's eat and I have to go to the bathroom! It feels like we're in the first grade. We had to describe our families using Tagalog and I'm sure I sounded like a moron! Oh well. By the way Ed, my teacher asked me what you did for a living as part of my test! Rocket scientist, siya. :)

We took a "field trip" this afternoon to the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos. It was a really pretty campus and nice museum, etc. The center is dedicated to researching better ways to grow rice to feed the world's ever-growing population. It's supported by many nations, including the U.S., and was actually really informative. I had no idea how many people eat rice as the main staple of their diets -- about 3 billion! I know you are all thinking...fascinating. But I can relate now that I eat rice three times a day. For example, almusal (breakfast) was one egg, rice and fried bangus (milk fish). And kape. Instant kape. God, what I would give for a nice grande skinny latte. Michael, got any Starbucks cards left??? Instant kape (coffee) is the rule of thumb here. I'm adjusting to it. Better than no kape.

On Thursday, we are traveling with our large group to somewhere outside of Manila -- a beach day. They are calling it "water safety training" but it sounds like a day at the beach to me. Can't wait. We haven't had a chance to do any swimming and the nearby bay is polluted so the beach trip is our big chance. Our barangay actually is known as a resort location with many hot springs. We're going to try one out one of these days but not sure how a hot spring is going to feel in 90-plus degrees. We'll see. Thursday night, we'll find out our permanent assignments. Please keep your fingers crossed that I am assigned to a beautiful beach area somewhere. I'm hoping for Bikol or Palawan.

Okay, off to get a pedicure for 99 pesos or $2! A splurge on my Peace Corps salary...but hey, you gotta treat yourself sometimes. I need a little pampering these days.

Ingat for now,

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Saving the Birds

One of the common sites in my little barangay is a little old man who tries to sell live birds -- Tikling -- on the side of the road. He catches the pretty little things in the rice fields behind our village and strings them up by their legs (sorry, Catherine) and hangs them from a pole. Those who cannot afford chicken buy them from him for supper. He sometimes catches boa constrictors, too, and sells those for food. My little cluster met him the other day and rescued the birds. We paid him 150 pesos or about $3 for them and used our medical scissors to set them free. I am happy to report that they all lived, but sad to report that the man just went out and caught more birds! Our host families thought we were all silly and it became the talk of the neighborhood. Hey, at least we tried.

Such is daily life in my little barangay. On Wednesday, we will spend about four days at the hub site in Los Banos with the rest of our bigger group. I'm looking forward to some time away from the barangay. Lakeview Hotel looks like a four-star set-up now! They have flushing toilets and showers there. Toilet paper, too. Yippee!

Last night, I cooked dinner for my family. I cooked Hawaiian chicken and they liked it but then told me that they had something exactly like it in Filipino cooking, minus the pineapples. Oh well, I tried. Anybody have any ideas for good "American" recipes that don't have to be made with an oven (we don't have one!)? They family wants to try American foods and I hardly ever cook American dishes. All ideas welcome! I think they were surprised that I cooked. They think Americans really don't know how to do things like cooking, cleaning and washing clothes. They were surprised I knew how to wash dishes and that I would actually do that. The perception is that we are all rich, which of course is true compared to most Filipino families. One of my family members said he was surprised that a rich American could do these things -- don't we all have cooks, maids, etc.? Hmmm.

To prepare dinner, Ate Julie took me to the palengke, a market in the nearby town center. It was very cool. Live fish flopping about on tables. Veggies, fruits, a mango shake stand...chicken and pig heads. Very hectic, with tricyles rushing through the little alleyways, spewing exhaust all over the food. Yum. Ate Julie was teaching me how to bargain and how to ask for things and how to pay. I've got a lot to learn about doing simple stuff like this. I really need to practice my Tagalog. I'm having trouble remembering things. Alas....

Ingat (take care),

Friday, April 15, 2005

Maligayang Kaarawan Catherine!

It's April 15 and the day Catherine Quayle was born. So first, Maligayang Kaarawan to Catherine! :) Have a wonderful birthday. Wish I was there to help you celebrate.
This will be a someone short note kasi pagod na pagod ako -- that's "because I'm very tired" in Tagalog!
I'm learning a little Tagalog each day -- we have four hours of classroom instruction in the morning and my 38-year-old brain is fried from all the new language. But it is a fun language to learn and relatively easy to understand. It's remembering all the new words that is a bit tough. I have a very good teacher, Myles, who is also a lot of fun. This afternoon, we took a field trip to UP Los Banyos, one of the state universities near here. It was a nice respite from the pollution to be on a college campus. It's not quite what we think of in terms of pretty campuses but it's large and spacious and there are very few Jeepneys! We're going to be observing some summer school courses there in the next week or so and we needed to meet with some of the department chairs -- all part of our afternoon training. We went to the dairy there at the College of Agriculture and I bought some blue cheese. The Filipinos think cheese is Cheeze Whiz. Uh, Tracey, are you sure you don't have any Filipino ancestors??? Anyway, I've been craving real cheese and the college students make it there as an experiment. I'll let you know how it tastes!
Coleen, 4, and Dazzel, 6, (see their cute pictures below) celebrated birthdays this week so we had a little party yesterday. Ate Julie cooked spaghetti and the kids had birthday cakes. We sang Happy Birthday (in English) and the men sat around and played Tong-its (like poker). Kuya Deo (my host tatay or host dad) said he couldn't break out the booze because of the kids, but I heard he's fond of gin and orange Tang! This Sunday, I believe, Deo & Julie and the kids and I are going ice skating. Sunday is my day to spend with my Filipino "pamilya." I have school six days a week from 8 to 5!
I usually wake up around 5 each morning when the "host dogs" start barking at each other and the neighbor dogs. I'm not sure what the purpose of these dogs are...they are chained up outside 24/7 and don't seem to make good pets and the bark like crazy every evening and early morning. Hmm. They eat our leftovers but basically survive on a rice diet -- like most Filipinos!
Did I mention I eat a lot of rice? Yesterday, Ate Julie fixed chocolate rice or Champorado? Sort of like a soupy chocolate rice concoction. You eat it with dried fish that's then fried. Don't ask me why! Something about the salt and sweet tastes together. Not sure how I feel about the dried fish but the chocolate rice was tasty.
Okay, to those of you sending notes, emails, thanks so much. I will do my best to answer them all.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Me in a Tricycle!


Watching the sunset in Cavite, near Manila


Mabuhay from the Philippines! It's Tuesday, April 12, in a small barangay outside Los Banos, Laguna, south of Manila. I'm writing from an Internet Cafe where the kids play video games and blast pop music. Today is the fourth day of living with my host family, the Alcasids. After the initial shock, we are getting along fine. They are happy to have me and to cook for me -- even though I'm a vegetarian! (Filipinos don't like to eat vegetables!!) Nonetheless, Ate Julie is a good cook and makes sure I am eating well. Rice at every meal! All seven of us live in a small cement house with two bedrooms -- one for me and one for them! It feels very strange. I am spoiled. I sit down and they move a fan to cool me off. Ate (honorific) Julie does all the cooking though she is starting to let me do the dishes. I plan to cook them dinner one night, too. Maybe something like my famous vegetarian chili -- though I'm not sure if they would like it.

I've learned all over again how to take a bath and go to the bathroom, Filipino-style. Bathing consists of cold water, a big dipper and a bar of soap and squatting. And let's just say the toilet doesn't flush by itself. It needs a little help from a bucket of water! :) Oh, and did I mention, no toilet paper?

At 6 this morning -- I get up early here because of the barking host family dogs and roosters running about the neighborhood -- I washed clothes - an hour-long chore -- squatting, scrubbing, rinsing and hanging to dry. Ate Julie had to show me how to rinse well -- I think she was worried I wasn't quite doing it right.

We live in a small barangay that is pretty urban in feel. There are Jeepneys -- half-Jeep, half-truck -- equivalent to New York's yellow cabs -- everywhere. You can take a Jeepney or a motorized Tricycle -- it's a motorcycle with a little cab on the side to sit in. Fun! But you have to be prepared to inhate fumes up close and personal. There are no sidewalks so you also must dodge Jeepneys and Trikes in the road as you walk along the main street of the barangay.

My family has two adorable children at home -- Colleen and Dazzel. Here they are: Me and Dazzel and Colleen. They are sweet and wait for me to arrive home from classes each day and hug me and call me Ate Julie. It is heartwarming to see there two little faces. So cute! I will post pictures soon.

Since this is my first post, I will end it here and try to update on a regular basis with more journal entries.