Friday, May 27, 2005

60 Days, But Who's Counting?

It seems some days that time just doesn't pass quickly enough. Other times, I can't believe the time that has passed. I've now been in the Philippines 60 days! I've managed to survive (I have 13 more days to go until I am officially sworn in) living on this bubble we know as training. The cramped confines of my temporary home. The family of Ipis (cockroaches) that lives in my bathroom after 9 p.m. Dodging Jeepneys running across a national highway each morning to get to school. The pollution. The smells of burning plastics in the back yard garbage pile. Summer temps hovering at 100. Barking host family dogs. The TV at full blast, always.

Though they are a lot harder to see right now, there have been good times, too. The children who greet me in the neighborhood when I come home from school. Especially little Julia, who likes to call out "Tita Julia, Tita Julia." The man who yells "Taho" and carries two large metal cannisters balanced on a pole. (He stops at our house to sell Taho - a bean curd breakfast, sort of like a tofu yogurt - to us for five pesos. It is 'Oh so masirap!'). Cooking Tortelloni for my host family and having them discover the cheesy surprise in the middle of each pasta for the first time. The half-English, half-Tagalog chikka-chikka (small talk) over the dinner table with my family. Discovering new Tagalog words every day. Eating a daily lunch for only 25 pesos (about 50 cents) at our favorite local eatery at the host family cantina of my language instructor. Escaping the heat in the AirCon room of my fellow cluster mate, Kelly O'Brien. Yes, she has air conditioning! A midnight swim with fellow PCVs at the hot springs pool at a Los Banos hotel we use for training.

In less than two weeks, I will swear to God to defend the Constitution of the United States and officially become a volunteer. And in many ways, this will be just the beginning of my journey here. I will no longer have the comfort of fellow Americans within reach. (The nearest volunteer will be an hour away). And I will be left to my own devices in a strange place with people and a culture I barely know. Though it is both terrifying and exciting, I look forward to finally starting what I came here to do: to immerse myself in a foreign culture, speak the language and try to do some good in the world. Let the games begin.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Half-Man, Half-Bird

Lest you think I have lost my mind, I will tell you upfront that I am in fact still sane. But my host sister told me the wildest story last night with a straight face. Some Filipinos believe in the Aswang, half-men, half-bird creatures that swoop in the dark of night and steal the fetuses of pregnant women! They also like to eat little children! Aubrey and her husband, Michael, of course assured me that we were safe -- they have the skeleton tail of a sting ray to protect us. No joke. Garlic works, too, I'm told!

Akin to our vampires, the legend of the Aswang was born in the Visayas region in the southern Philippines. According to the folklore, Aswangs have bloodshot eyes from staying up all night looking for their prey. Aubrey says they also have fangs and like to suck blood. Sound familiar? The cool thing is that they can change from animal to human form and back whenever they want so as not to be discovered. Pigs, dogs and black birds are popular disguises for the Aswang. Aubrey says she's never seen one...but claims one was flying outside her bedroom window recently! Is it time to call in Mulder and Scully?

And in case you wanted to know more about these elusive monsters, Hollywood has kindly provided a horror film called, appropriately, Aswang (1994). Check it out!

Friday, May 13, 2005

In the Land of Butanding

So there I was, ready with fins, snorkel and mask. The spotter yelled, Go, Go, Go and I slipped off the skiff and into the waters of the South China Sea. I opened my eyes to stare in the face of the biggest fish I've ever seen! The butanding (whale shark) had a mouth more than four feet wide and a body perhaps 35 to 40 feet long! What an awesome sight. They are big, lumbering, sweet creatures. They are brownish-gray and covered in white spots. They look like sharks but are the size of whales. We swam close enough to touch them and followed them until they swam deeper under the surface. They seemed not to mind too much having a bunch of crazy tourists (me, three other PCVs and two German tourists) swimming by their side.

The butanding are my new neighbors in Donsol, Sorsogon, which will be my home for the next two years. The butanding were discovered off the waters of Donsol in 1998 and the Philippine government moved quickly to declare the area an eco-tourism area to prevent poaching. The whale sharks put Donsol on the map. The town is only one of a few places in the world where you can swim with the whale sharks. Their presence makes my new home a special place. I'm already comtemplating making them my secondary project at site - perhaps an environmental education program and mass cleanup (badly needed) of the beaches near town. Anyone have any ideas about how to get the kids excited about cleaning up the environment, please send them along.

I flew from Manila last Sunday with a fellow volunteer, Pauline, and landed in Naga, in the Bicol region of the Philippines, on a single landing strip in the middle of rice fields surrounded by beautiful mountains. A three-hour bus ride (including time to fix the flat tire!) later, Pauline and I parted ways in Legaspi City, the closest city to my rural site. She headed north to Bucacay, I, south to Donsol. My new supervisor picked me up at the airport and was eager to show off one of the regions most magnificent sites, Mount Mayan volcano. They call it the "perfect" volcano...and it is! Stunning. We took in the view from an observation point halfway up the volcano before heading to Donsol.

The road to Donsol winds up and over hills and is shaded by trees along the route. An old cemetery with family crypts sits at the edge of town. The "downtown" has two main thoroughfares, San Jose Street and Tres Marias Drive. My host family lives on Tres Marias Drive, just down the street from the high school where I will work.

The rest of the town has small little streets lined with mostly bahay kubo, native Filipino houses (huts) made of bamboo. Very simple homes. There is a new, grandly built Catholic church in town, St. Joseph's, and a dilapidated public hospital at the top of a hill with very little equipment, medicine and no bed sheets!

There is a palengke (market) in the center of town with lots of fresh fish and veggies. There is a pizza joint called Nanay's (Mother's) and a karoake bar called the Whale Shark. There is a simple concrete pier with street lamps that runs along the waterfront, where small bahay kubos stand on stilts in a couple of feet of water and surrounded by mangroves. There is garbage everywhere though I did see a group collecting some trash in one swampy residential area. A good sign?

Donsol is a gold mine waiting to happen. A local congressman managed to get some infrastructure put in -- a bridge from town to the beaches, where two modest resorts with huts are operating to cater to tourists who come from all over the world to see the butanding. The road to Donsol was also paved a few years ago. You used to have to hike in when the weather was bad! A river runs under the new bridge headed north to an area where you can take a skiff to view thousands of fireflies at night, another tourist attraction trying to take off. Much of the future of this sleepy little town rests on its potential as a tourist destination.

Here are some more pictures of my new hometown:

A welcome sign was hastily posted while I made my first visit to the high school.

Local kids in Donsol clowning for my camera

A shelter at the local beach. The sand is gray and a bit dirty-looking. Residents burn trash on the sand.

Here's a street near the palengke in the center of town

From left to right, teachers Muriel, Marilyn and Marla were my tour guides for the day

This is a little "harbor" area near the town center

Another view of the harbor. The house in the back is typical of the bahay kubo in town.

A view from the bridge of the downtown waterfront

Friday, May 06, 2005

Pupantang Sa Donsol

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I will be on the road this week and finally getting a break from training. I will be flying to Donsol, my permanent site for a visit with my new host family and the people I will work with over the next two years. Very excited to finally see my destination!

The downside is that I am not likely to have access to the Internet for a week. So I hope you will all be patient and wait for my return and a new blog post!

I stay a night in Manila on Saturday and then fly out Sunday morning to Bicol. Another volunteer and I are going to an apparently popular restaurant in Manila called The Hobbit. The staff is entirely made up of dwarfs! (Seriously, no joke).

I'll be returning next Saturday. Sorry, no emails or posts until then. Text me if you want!


Drinks on the House

All you residents of 112 Willow, take notice: This is about drinking. Filipinos have this thing called barcadas or drinking circles. Not unlike the U.S. but a bit more organized and instead of binges, it's more of constant thing. Days at a time, instead of a one night bender. Men drink openly in circles outside, while women often hold their drinking circles inside -- in the kitchen and out of sight. Gin and San Miguel beer are the drinks of choice.

Here's how it works: Someone is selected to be the "tandero." That person pours the shots. There is one shot glass that is passed around the circle. The tandero pours shot after shot for his barkada, or drinking buddies. All of this cannot happen of course without eating food. Pulutan -- which includes delicacies like dog meat, chicken feet and fried beetles -- is only eaten while drinking. Our version of cheese and crackers? The drinking and eating continues until the last Filipino or Filipina is left standing.

I've exposed to this bit of culture with my host family though I have not yet been invited to join a circle. I am told it will happen some day and it's a delicate thing to refuse. (No smirks from 112 Willow, please). It's a practice that is deeply embedded in the culture and refusing to take part upon invitation and without a good reason could alienate you from the group. Talk about peer pressure! Wish me luck.

Here are some additional pics I haven't posted. More to come.

This is Myles, my language and culture teacher. She is just 23! The guy next to her is Kehl, a bit of a nut.

Here is the view from a nice restaurant on the water in Los Banos.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Kumusta kayo???

For those of you who read my blog religiously (and that's what I expect!), you may have noticed that I haven't posted in a while. I could dream up some romantic reason...but actually not much has happened in the last week. We have been busy studying and enthusiastically doing our "Community Entry" tools!

I realized I haven't shared a lot about where I live. I am staying with my host family in a subdivision (yes, they got the idea from Americans) called Vanessa Homes. It is a mix of big homes and little shacks. Fires to burn the garbage (there is no collection service) are a daily occurrence from house to house. We had a brush fire behind my house last weekend - but apparently that's no big deal. I asked if we should call the Fire Department and my family looked at me funny: What Fire Department? Okay, then.

Roosters crow, ducks waddle in and out of Mary's kitchen. Cockroachs dive bomb me while I study and listen to videogames at the same time. I say the word "mainit" a hundred times a day. That means it's hot outside. I sweat and brush away the flies. I try to speak broken Tagalog with my family and the neighbors. The kids greet me on my way home each day. "Hello Tita Julia!" They want to speak English and I speak back in Tagalog.

I live with my host family in this house on Tackawanna Street. My friend Mary lives down the block. We have two dogs, Obit and Geppetto. This is my tatay (host father). This is my nanay (host mother) and a neighbor. This Ate Julie and Jason (host mom and brother) at the pool.

Today at school, a bunch of the summer school kids were helping me study for my Tagalog test (yes, I passed!)

Okay, more later. My teacher is calling me. Ingat kayo.