Friday, August 18, 2006

Videoke Love

Stop laughing. I love videoke. LOVE it. I have a deep and abiding passion for videoke that I don’t think would even be possible in Canada. In Canada we treat karaoke as something to be ashamed of – we sing it self-consciously, with irony. We abuse karaoke, basically – we laugh at it and hurt its dignity and when we’re done we forget about it until the next time we’re drunk. We’re callous and karaoke deserves so much better.

But here, people love videoke with the passion is deserves. Here people sing it without shame, without irony. People take videoke seriously and sing it with abandon. People in the
Philippines treat videoke right and it rewards them with the freedom to sign, badly or well, the way only an atmosphere of true love can.

But if you’re a Canadian in the
Philippines (you callous brute) and videoke decides to give you a second chance, you’re going to need to take some advice. Hence, three rules for videoke novices:

  1. Knowing a song’s chorus does not mean you know the song. In fact, main melodies are often quite different from the chorus. You can try that song you “think” you know, just realize that the only sociable reaction to the embarrassed silence that ensues when you realize you don’t is to pass the mike off to someone who does.
  2. The key you think a song is in is not the key the videoke machine thinks the song is in. Transpose, or be prepared for some spectacular octave jumps.
  3. Don’t wait to enter your song numbers. You may think you need some time before choosing a song to get into the videoke groove. That is because you’re a videoke novice. Everyone else at your table has 3 or 4 favourites already queued up. So has everybody at all the other tables. So if you hesitate, you’ll be waiting for your songs long after your friends are finished, feeling slightly ridiculous for making people wait so you can sing ‘Piano Man’.

You’ll need some songs, too, and while that’s an intensely personal decision people make within their relationship with videoke, I hope you can learn from the top 17 songs that bring meaning to Megan’s videoke experience:

  1. Total Eclipse of the Heart – Bonny Taylor
  2. Making Love Out of Nothing at All – Air Supply
  3. Like a Prayer – Madonna
  4. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper
  5. Africa – Toto
  6. Without You – Air Supply. (Air Supply is one of those bands most people don’t realize you know until you hear them. I cant’ liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive, if living is without you……)
  7. My Humps – Black Eyed Peas (Ok, I’m a little ashamed of this, even here.)
  8. Material Girl – Madonna
  9. Bang Bang – Sonny and Cher
  10. Eternal Flame – The Bangles
  11. Narda – Kamikaze (I’m trying to learn more Tagalog songs, but there’s so many syllables, so little time.)
  12. Can’t Take My Eyes Off You – Frankie Valli
  13. Piano Man – Billy Joel
  14. It Must Have Been Love – Roxette
  15. Sweet Caroline – Neil Diamond
  16. Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper
  17. I’ll Be – Edwin McCain

There you go – Air Supply, Madonna, and a bunch of one-hit Wonders. Videoke loves me just the way I am :p

Filipino Fruits #Something: Macupa

I was thinking about what Filipino Fruit Rajat would like (there, do you feel better my liege?) and I think Macupa is it. It looks like a bright maroon pear, with white, sponsy flesh and a big round seed in the middle. It’s a bit sour unless you get the ripe ones which have a deep fragrant flavour, almost like eating a particularly delicious rose. It’s hard to describe. But there’s a macupa tree in the yard of my house, so I’ll do some more research and get back to you.

I got laughed at so much for arranging this picture

Roles & Responsabilities

I thought I had gotten used to being conspicuous here in the Philippines. People (especially kids) call out ‘Hey Joe!’ or ‘Americana!’ all the time, but it’s all friendly. I hadn’t realized how used to the way people stare until I was in a mall in Koronadal with Lieka, my SCALA partner, and she was shocked by how everyone was staring at me while I didn’t think they were staring that much.

Still, when I rode into Malaybalay on the bus and a guy on the sidewalk stopped dead, elbowed his friend in the ribs and pointed at my window, I realiazed I might be a bit more conspicuous here than in Manila. Then a couple of weeks ago some elementary-age girls from the neighbourhood stood outside the gate watching me read. They giggled for 15 minutes before asking me to buy a ticket for their school raffle. How could I pass up the chance to win a sari-sari store? (Although it’s telling that the grand prizes are a tricycle and a small store). When I came back out of the house instead of 3 girls there were 9 plus a couple of toddlers. Lots of giggling ensued.

A while later I was back inside and heard my name being called through the open window. I went out on the porche and there were 15 kids crowded around the gate and a little girl in front waving a book and pen. “Megan, Megan!” she called, “Autograph!”

Oh man.

Later that evening my host family was still teasing me for having refused (nicely, I hope) to sign an autograph. “For them it’s like a movie star is living in their neighbourhood! They’ll remember this forever!” I think they get while I don’t’ want to act like a movie star, even if that’s the case, but that doesn’t stop them from teasing me to wave like a pageant queen out of bus windows.

This is the pretty innocuous, friendly end of the spectrum. At the other end you have the Regional SCALA Focal Person announcing, as she introduced my Filipino partner Ronaldo (a trainer from Ilo-ilo) and I to the SCALA team in Malaybalay, that they are soooo lucky because they’re the last set-up to get a Canadian volunteer and future centers will have to make do with two Filipino volunteers. Then she forgot Ronaldo’s name.

Ok, so that’s an extreme example. I was talking to Nocnoc (Ronaldo’s nickname. Filipino nicknames rock! So far I’ve met several Bongs, a Nars, a Dodong and the supremely satisfying Bonky). Anyway, I was talking to Nocnoc because it was bothering me the way the host family always asks me what I’d like to do on the weekends or what I’d like to eat but don’t ask him. I figure he’s a guest here also, but he sees himself more as my host as well. And when we got on the subject of the Focal Person’s comments and the way people address their questions to me instead of him he said that now it’s part of the culture here for a lot of people to treat Westerners like that. He also said that in some ways he thinks it’s a good thing – the fact that Canadians were pushing the SCALA project probably made it more likely to be accepted. His opinion is that it’s harder for Filipinos to refuse a Westerner suggesting a project without feeling ashamed. I don’t know how true that is here, although certainly the head of the DSWD really pushes me front and center (compared to Nocnoc) when he’s trying to sell the project to the Governor or Vice-Governor.

If it is true, I don’t know that I agree with Nocnoc that it’s a good thing. On the one hand, if as Westerners we’re supporting projects that are needed and well-thought out and our involvement makes it more likely those projects are adopted, that might be a positive thing. But how well are we really able to judge that the projects we’re supporting will have a positive impact? And furthermore – I feel it’s a big responsibility to back a project knowing it’s more likely to be accepted because we’re involved rather than based on its merit. I’ve gained a better appreciation here for how resources are finite – in South Cotabato one of the trainers had been taken off her previous job as the social worker for abused women and children to become a SCALA trainer. She thought a replacement would be found for that job but it hadn’t been found yet. Does EWB’s involvement give SCALA a higher priority than it should have based on it’s merits, and if so are we able to, willing to or aware of taking on that responsibility? (It’s a bit of a moot point as EWB has moved out of doing its own projects and into supporting existing local projects, but how does that question extend to other Western development groups?)


Last Friday evening found me eating guacamole with a spoon. I had to, because Noc-noc had dumped all the chips into the bowl and mixed them in. Forget learning to speak Visayan, guacamole is the key to acceptance in my host family ;)

I didn’t really expect people to like it. Martin made it in Iligan and apparently it went over like a lead balloon. People in the Philippines consider avocado to be a fruit, and they either eat it plain or mixed and chilled with sweetened condensed milk as desert. (By the way – try it, it’s delicious!) Whe I said it was treated more like a savoury in Canada people actually gasped.

But now, in 5 days I’ve been asked to make it 3 times and I think my family and the SCALA trainers are well on their way to being addicted! (Even if, reading the recipe before she’s tried it, one of the trainers asked, “so, it’s a type of gravy?” They’ve also decided that the name “guacamole” doesn’t make nearly as much sense as “avocamole” :)

So I’m in Malaybalay, the capital city of the province of Bukidnon. I got here on July 24th so obviously I’m ridiculously behind in posting this blog! My only excuse (but oh, it’s a doozy) is that the center set-up here has been “interesting”, to say the least. (In this case, “interesting” means that on the one hand the trainers here are awesome and strong in both computers and teaching and the center manager has great ideas. On the other hand, we’re still working on getting our set-up budget and the venue prepared and before Wednesday every one of the four identified trainers had full-time jobs that didn’t include training the youth once the center launches. Why yes, there are only 2 working days left before I leave, thanks for asking).

But this is an entry about where I am! Malaybalay is a great city – smaller than the other cities I’ve visited. (I mean, there’s no mall! I know the Ben and Cat are going to freak out if they read that but I haven’t been in a Filipino city yet that didn’t have a mall. ‘Malling’ (window shopping and hanging out at the mall) is a pretty popular pastime here). The city is also very green, apparently the result of a government green-ci
ty campaign. We’re up in the mountains so it’s cooler than almost anywhere else in the Philippines, and cooler than Toronto by a long shot :p Filipinos call Malaybalay the “mini-Baguio”, Baguio being a place in the mountains in Luzon that’s the coldest place in the Philippines. It’s cool enough here (I haven’t seen a thermometer since I arrived so I can’t say how cool except that I need a sweater sometimes and a blanket at night) that pine trees grow, and it’s a little strange for me to see pine trees growing next to huge stands of bamboo in the forests! There’s also a large Indigenous population in the province – 7 different tribes and languages under the umbrella term ‘Bukidnese.’

This is also a mainly agricultural province – Dole and Del Monte both have huge banana and pineapple plantations here (and not only are their export bananas tasteless compared to the local ones, they’re also covered in plastic bags while growing on the tree to prevent blemishes. Sorry!). A lot of the people here either work on the multinational plantations or are subsistence farmers.

The gap between the two typs of farms is huge, as you can imagine. I went with Jo, a population worker for the government, to her home
municipality of Sumilao. It’s about an hour away on the main (only) highway, and then we went another 12 km along a bone-rattling road to the barangay of Lumpiagan. Lumpiagan is one of the poorest barangays in the province. It’s a handful of houses perched on the top of a cliff overlooking a small, deep valley. On the sides of the valley and the cliffs opposite are peoples’ fields. Some of the fields here are on hills so steep I wonder how the farmers keep their footing when they plant or, when they harveset their cabbages how they keep them from rolling down to the bottom of the valley.

Jo was there to give a talk to the barangay youth on how to make banana chips, as part of a livelihood program. I have to wonder though, is knowing how to make banana chips that useful when those youth have to walk 12 kilometers to get to Sumilao to sell them? It’s a hilly road, and Jo says it takes her at least 2 hours to walk if she takes a shortcut over the side of a steep hill. Their remoteness is why most of the youth from the barangay are out of school – the nearest high school is in Sumilao, and if their families can’t afford to board them there high school kids have to spend at least 4 hours a day walking there and back. A lot of them drop out to start farming instead. Jo also told the kids about SCALA and hopefully some of them can take advantage of it. The municipalities have agr
eed to cover the cost of board and lodging for their SCALA participants in Malaybalay as well as the cost of transport to get them there, which for the kids in Lumpiagan is essential.

After visiting Lumpiagan we continued on to a ranch whose manager Jo is friends with. It’s owned by one of the rich families in the area and the difference between it and the farms in Lumiagan was overwhelming. This place was huge – and was raising Kobe beef to sell in Manila for a thousand pesos per kilo. (To give you an idea of the shock of that, regular beef here costs about 100 pesos per kilo). The ranch manager was really knowledgeable about farming in the region and the chance to get on a horse for the first time in a long while was great, but it was an unreal afternoon. Two very different sides of life around Malaybalay, that’s for sure


Steep fields.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

It's RAINING, it's POURING.....

I told Jon that last week it rained for 5 days straight when the tailend of a typhoon passed over Manila and he said he couldn't imagine what a typhoon (even the tailend) looks like. Well, today typhoon "Glenda" is passing by the northeast coast of Luzon (the Island Manila is on) so I can give you a bit of a description. I haven't experienced a typhoon by any means, but it's amazing to me the amount of rain even the outskirts of a typhoon bring!

I woke up this morning and noticed it was darker than normal. (Usually I wake up around 6 to bright sunlight streaming through the curtains, before I hide my head under the sheet and try to get back to sleep for another half hour). But this morning was gray and gloomy. And then I heard it - the unmistakable sound of standing directly under a waterfall. The rain was bucketing down on the tin roof of Sara's apartment - this was no light drizzles or gentle shower. I spared a thought for the clothes I had airing on the line (woohoo! They're being washed for me!) then rolled over and went back to sleep.

When I woke up again there was some anemic sunlight filtering through the clouds but I learnt last week not to be fooled. And indeed, by the time I got into the shower it was pouring again and I had not only the water from the bucket but also the water dripping from the ceiling and the stream coming in from the crack around the window to wash with.

I left the house with my pants rolled up to my knees. Not that the water was that high, but because flipflops kickup water and leave me with lines of splattered mud up the backs of my legs. They are also trecherously slippery, so that I was sliding all over the paved road as I walked.

By this evening though I need my pants rolled up because of the water. The main road through the neighbourhood looks like a river. In the middle of the road the water is only a couple centimeters deep but, at either side of the road are streams of fast-moving brown water, each over a meter wide and ankle-deep! It's amazing to think that this isn't even a real typhoon! The weather website I found describes the winds as "sustained strength of 150 kph near the center and gustiness of up to 185 kph". The center is forcast to pass over the northernmost island of the Philippines, so hopefully the damage won't be too great. I was chatting to a woman who works in a cafe near where I'm staying and she told me that last year when a typhoon passed over Manila her house was flooded up to her chest. She moved all her things up to the top floor and had to swim to get out of her house! Work was cancelled, I guess it's the equivalent of our blizzard days.

Still, the nice thing about the rain is that it cools off completely (it's only 26 degrees right now!) and for the first time since I got here I can almost imagine needing a sweater :)

I'm at the red dot (I think).

Not a typhoon but rain and wind in Iloilo.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


I got a haircut in Koronadal. I didn’t plan to get a haircut, exactly, but it’s funny how those things just happen. I took a wander in the Koronadal public market on Friday, which was a great experience. I thought “It’s amazing how me being on my own makes people much more likely to approach me” and then I realize that maybe it was that being on my own made me much more likely to approach them.

At any rate, as I was wandering down the stalls this guy (Cesar, I later learned) standing in front of his haircutting booth motioned me over yelling “Do you want to get your hair cut?” I’d been thinking about getting a trim, so really what could I say? (Anyone who thinks “No” is an answer – well, you may have a point.) But I said, ‘sure’ and plopped myself down in the chair.

So I’d said “just a trim, to here *gesturing with my hair*. No layers.” I should’ve known from my experiences in Canada that I can never get a cut with no layers. But I wasn’t actually expecting the Mrs. Brady type layering I ended up with first. And then when I asked if he could just cut the longest layer shorter (“Um, I just want my neck cooler?”) I didn’t exactly expect him to make every other layer shorter as well. Here, I’ve drawn you a progression:

Before, during and after.

I think it looks fine, actually, although Sara pointed out last night that when it dries one side is shorter than the other. Whatever, I’m happy with the story ;)
Ask a Filipino!

I haven’t forgotten about the “Ask a Filipino” questions, and I have an answer for Laura’s. Well, sort of. I chatted to an OSY in Iloilo about Laura’s question – “quote question” but this is a huge caveat to say that the second part of this answer is completely coloured by my interpretation because I found it really hard to bring the question up in a way that was clear to them or elicited a whole answer, if that makes sense?

So the straight answer to whether SCALA is seen an international …. Was “Yes, of course” and the reason why is “well, they told us so”. In the introduction to the program that the trainers give the OSY they’re told that the computers come from EWB, what EWB is, and how EWB has been involved since the beginning. And as the guy I was talking to said, “It’s right there in the name. Sharing Computer Access Locally and Abroad. That means international.”
But (and this is where my interpretation comes in) from chatting with him further he mentioned that he sees his peers, the OSY, and the trainers as the ones who make the program work. I think it’s seen as a project that local people (the DSWD staff) deliver, even if the origins are from an international NGO, although I’m not sure. I don’t think EWB is seen as directing the project day-to-day, especially since except for seeing Canadian EWB representatives at graduations our day-to-day presence is practically nil.
I wrote a description of the OSY, Luchie, who I stayed with for a week in Ormoc for a letter to be sent to NDI. I thought I’d post it here along with some other thoughts on the families I’ve stayed with:

Luchie is an OSY who just graduated from SCALA. She lives with her parents and four other brothers and sisters in a small neighbourhood on the outskirts of Ormoc. Her father drives a tricyle, which are still by far my favourite way of getting around.

Luchie's family was so welcoming – every night a crowd of people from the neighbourhood would flock to the living room and try to teach me Cebuano. There was a lot of laughter. Sometimes their hospitality made me a bit uncomfortable, since her family was pretty poor and gave me the best they had. To give you an idea – her family lived in a house that probably wasn't larger than my living room in Canada. My sleeping on the floor of one of the rooms with Luchie and her sister probably meant one more person had to squish onto the floor of the living room to sleep with everyone else. Still, they were the most gracious hosts. I wish I could have stayed longer than a week and gotten to know the family better.

Luchie is one of the brightest successes of the Ormoc centre so far. SCALA training consists of in-class computer training on the Office suite, internet, typing and life-skills (usually for about 3 months) and then an on-the-job placement for another 3 months or so. Luchie had her on-the-job training at the city government's General Services office and was offered full-time employment as a data encoder before her placement had even finished! Although it's interesting that the most important aspect of the SCALA program to her is the mentoring she received from one of the computer trainers. She started the program with very little motivation and kept skipping out on the classes. She says it was the talks she had with MaryAnn, one of the trainers, that really changed her attitude. I was at her graduation when she talked about that experience and by the end both she and MaryAnn were in tears. It was a really touching moment.

Luchie’s family was a big contrast with the family I stayed with in Koronadal. I was staying with Ate Luding, the budget officer at the regional DSWD, and her family. Again her familiy was very welcoming, but very difficult. The most obvious was that they were so much richer – kids in private schools, walls and gates around the house (which is really typical here), tons more food. Her way of hosting was very different too – in Luchie’s house I was always being asked to sit in the best chair, always being accompanied places, whereas Ate Luding had the ‘make our house your own’ way of hosting that I’m more familiar with.

Now, I’m not trying to say that the difference in hosting was related to the difference in income, or really trying to make any conclusions since these experiences are living in just two different families for short periods of time). But it made me wonder about where we learn the most – in Luchie’s house I think I was further outside my comfort zone (or at least further outside the realm of what I was used to). For example, I slept on the floor with two other people and was confronted daily with the fact that they were giving me the best of what they had (for example, probably more food than the rest of them were eating, although I was assured they were getting Food for Work for hosting me from the DSWD). At Ate Luding’s house I was in an environment I found much more familiar – I slept in a large bed I only shared with one other person and I was treated more like one of the family (although still confronted with the fact that the family had cousins living with them who, although the family was paying for their school, also acted as servants, and who objected every time I tried to wash the dishes or help with dinner). I was more able to communicate with Ate Luding though – for starters she spoke excellent English (Luchie’s mother didn’t speak any and my Cebuano is incredibly limited) and she was coming from perhaps a closer experience to mine, having done part of her studying at a University in Wales and working at the DSWD. So my question for you is how do you think one learns more? By being pushed outside your comfort zone or by being pushed less but able to communicate more? Thoughts?

Luchie on the path from her house to the highway

Filipino Fruits, Part 4: Banana-q

Yup, I’m counting this as a fruit. The sweetest, most batter-covered fruit ever.

So the Philippines are kind of mean, in that they export the worst possible variety to us and save all the good ones for themselves. You can tell me it’s because the best ones won’t last on the journey all you want, but that doesn’t change the fact they kind of smirk when they describe just how tasteless their export bananas are ;) Most of the bananas her are small (or tiny, or teensy tiny) and sweet and each a bit different from each other….yummy. And I don’t even like bananas that much!

What I LOVE though, is banana-q. There are banana-q stands in every city I’ve been to, and they sell chunks of banana deep-fried in batter and dipped in sugar. The crust might differ – thin batter or bisquity batter or wonton wrappers, but the basic premise is the same: deep fried and covered in sugar. Mmmmmmmmmm.

Yes, I know I look ridiculous eating...

A banana-q vendor. Dancing :)

So where exactly is Megan?

So a bit of an update on where I am now – I left Iloilo with Lieka, a trainer from a center in Negros Occidental and my SCALA volunteer partner for the set-up, to travel to Koronadal (also known as Marbel) in South Cotabato province. And I guess I should describe what a SCALA Volunteer does! Two SCALA volunteers travel to a city or province capitol once the local government unit (LGUs, usually either the city or provincial government) has been validated to receive SCALA. We stay for about 4 to 6 weeks. We orient the team who will manage the centre (the centre head, the trainers, the youth social worker, the local head of the Department for Social Welfare and Development and the regional focal person for the SCALA project), we train the trainers in the curriculum and we provide technical assistance. (For example, we set-up the computers donated by EWB and explain what will happen if you plug a monitor into the wrong voltage plug. Sometimes we demonstrate that, although we try not to!)

So that’s what I was headed to Koronadal to do. Koronadal is a pretty cool city – fairly small, and surrounded by a ring of low, green mountains. (Including a volcano – how cool is that? Although it has apparently been inactive for hundreds of years, which on the whole is probably a good thing). There’s a much bigger Muslim population in Koronadal than in other cities I’ve been to (it’s quite near to the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao). There’s also some indigenous groups living nearby, like the T’boli, and the city was gearing up to celebrate it’s week-long Tinalak festival when we arrived. (Tinalak is a type of traditional T’boli clothe).

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to stay long enough to see the festival. During our first orientation meetings with the project team, Lieka and I found out the team was a lot less ready for the set-up than usual. For one thing, for a set-up to happen they need to have an approved budget and signed proposal – they had a signed proposal months ago, but then decided they could set-up on a smaller budget. So we had thought they could just revise the already signed proposal for a lesser amount, but it turns out they need to pass it through their legistlative body for approval again and the funds can’t be released until the next budget in August anyway. So needless to say there were some shocked, incredulous faces when Lieka and I explained that the goal of a set-up was for them to be ready to start training their first batch of youth in 4 to 6 weeeks!

So since they wouldn’t have an available budget or a signed proposal before August it was decided to postpone the set-up until the fall. When I talked to my mom about this she asked why we couldn’t just stay and train the trainers anyway, for the sake of helping them? It’s a good question – were we being too inflexible, too focused on the rules rather than on giving the knowledge we had or helping people? I don’t think so, but on the other hand that’s exactly what the center staff were asking us to do. There were a couple of reasons why the decision was made to postpone – the biggest bottleneck for setting up centers is the availability of volunteers. If we had stayed to train the trainers, Lieka probably wouldn’t have been available for mobilization again (her center is not too keen on giving up their trainer more than they have to!) and we still would’ve had to send volunteers back to help the Koronadal center through the other parts of set-up. I could have stayed on my own to do some training, but would that have given the impression that Lieka wasn’t really necessary as long as there was a Canadian around? Also, most of the LGUs already think that all the SCALA volunteers do is train trainers, which is not something we want to reinforce – us orienting and guiding all the members of the center team I think can help improve the center and make it stronger. But if the set-up that’s now scheduled for October doesn’t happen and that was our one chance to teach the trainers the curriculum and thus give that center any chance of being set-up? Then I think these arguments lose some of their strength. So I’m hoping it goes through.

At any rate, Lieka left after a week and a half in Koronadal and I left after 2 weeks, once the computers had arrived and been put into storage. On the plus side, the centre staff (as well as the region’s DSWD director and even the governor – we had a LOT of meetings in those 1 ½ weeks!) seemed understanding of why we were going to leave. I think some of them were even relieved to have more time to prepare. It was a good experience in cross-cultural communication and the Filipino government processes too. To me, “the governor just has to sign the proposal” meant we’d have it in a day. To the people saying that, who knew the processes, there was an implicit “once it’s been read in the legislature 3 times to give her permission to sign.” And it turns out that “the venue is ready” can mean “there are no more renovations to be done on the venue, although the accounting office won’t move out until mid-July” :) It was also nice to have some practice with a set-up – it was a challenge not to take-over in meetings when Lieka would outright ask me to. (I don’t think she feels very comfortable talking in groups). But she’s the one who will be doing this more than me and it was good to realize that I have to get better at encouraging my partner or trying to make our contributions more even so that she gets practice too.

On the other hand – well apart from the fact that it sucks that the center couldn’t get started, I was pretty disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to stay in one place for a while. Thus far the 2 weeks with a family in Koronadal has been the longest I’ve lived in one place, and that’s been a challenge. For one, it’s hard to integrate into a workplace or a family when I’m there for so short a time – I make new relationships with people but I don’t really have time to develop them or sustain them. And it’s kind of exhausting – when I get to a new family or meet new people at work I want to put in more effort at first to get to know them. So I spend time with them over taking personal time for emails or things like that – but when it’s a string of new meetings I’ve found it difficult to carve out my own space. And being hosted adds to that – at first in a place I don’t really know where things are, or how things are done, and people are nice enough to offer to accompany me everywhere. I definitely feel like I’ve become a lot more familiar and integrated into the Philippines as a whole – I can definitely see the difference in how used to the things that are common throughout the country-food, the way of eating, the way of greeting people, even tagalog to a certain extent – I am, but I haven’t really become familiar with one place or one group of people yet.

So yes, biggest personal challenge here by far, I’d say. But I’ll hopefully be going to do another set-up in Bukidnon province at the end of July and that will likely be with on of the trainers from Iloilo who I know fairly well, which is nice. And for the meantime I’ll be working & living with Sara in Manila and there should be some interesting work for the next couple of weeks here. We’ll see how it goes :)

Filipino Fruits Part 3: Hungry like the Wolf*

Ok, you know how I posted about durian a while back? Well I take it all back because durian is soooooooooo gooooooooooooood. Oh, so very very good. So creamy, and the taste changes from one variety to another – one I had was really rich and creamy and another was lighter and more refreshing. Oh, so good. When I went in Davao City to the 24 hour durian stands, I couldn’t remember what I had found so disgusting in the smell. It’s really strong still, but now to me it’s just a hair shy of smelling rotten, so instead it smells sweet and rich.

Oh it smells so gooooood.....

*Because 'Durian' sounds like 'Duran Duran'?.......Hello? Is this thing on?

Filipino Fruits Part 2: Bus Mango

The trip back from Zambales (home of the famous flooded toilet) was the start of a quest to find the best way to eat a mango with nothing but a knife handy. Here, Martin shows off the rudimentary lengthwise peel technique :)

Friday, July 07, 2006

Filipino fruits, Part 1

So on one of the trips to our Iloilo fruit lady Martin & I noticed a strange, scaly-looking fruit. She told us it was ‘atis’ and we bought a couple.

Eating some on the way back to the hotel we were amazed – this is some seriously good fruit. We decided it tasted a bit like very ripe watermelon, only much more addictive. And thus was the nickname ‘crack melon’ born.

Mmmm, crack melon.

Books books books, bubba of books books books….

So I just finished reading Mass, a novel by F. Sionil Jose, a Filipino author. It’s about a youth, Pepe, from a poor village who moves to Manila and is involved in student movements during the Marcos regime. It’s the fifth book in his series about the people from the village told during different time periods. I found it really easy to get into without having read the preceding four books, although I’m definitely going to read them now, which means that you too should go read it. I'll wait here.

At any rate, I won’t try to summarize the book (I only finished it today, it needs to percolate), but I wanted to share this quote, if only because it’s such a strong view. Pepe is describing a slum in Manila where he lives:
“The Barrio was not easy to know – this is what all those researchers and scholars believed; they came with their tired questions, their long-winded interviews. I soon realized we were overstudied, with all that fancy data stored in libraries and in computers. Still, nothing changed.
They came, those do-gooder sociologists, those slumming foreigners maybe because they wanted their troubled consciences salved a bit, maybe because by “studying” us, they would be able to unlock the gates of our hell and welcome us to their paradise.
But they never reached the pith, the core, the heart – it is beyond their perception because they don’t live here, because they are not poor and there is always a way out for them. Look at this artist, Malang, how prettily, how daintily he pictures our homes. If only he had lived here, even just for a week – I wonder how all his pictures would turn out!
All that they will know will be gathered, concluded from comfortable positions which they would not lose no matter how sincere or close they will be to us. Not us – we could not say the many things that strained to be said, what were coiled and seething within.”

A perspective on international development…

I was at dinner with the Iloilo City Development & Social Welfare Officer on my last day at the Iloilo centre. At one point during dinner she said, “I think you don’t have any social problems in Canada.” I was opening my mouth for a discussion of what Canada’s issues are or how they're different from the Philippines, when she continued: “I think you don’t have any problems because you always come here looking for problems.”

Well, huh.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

When language lessons go bad...

Atop, atop, atop masunog!

('The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire!' in illongo.)
So I'm tackling the easy "Ask a Filipino" questions first. (Not to worry Laura, Arthur & Steve - I've been asking around for your questions but I have to get what I've heard straight first!)

So - no more bathrooms broken! I'm so proud. Although Cheryl your question really should have been "Have you become such a kareoke fan in the Philippines that you can sing a Toto song in front of strangers with feeling and heart?" To which the answer would be "Yes, but I can't promise the key is right" ;)

And Emily I think vegetarian here actually does mean you don't eat pork (although a lot of the vegetable dishes have pork or beef in them). Apparently vegetarian means you eat fish though. Or, you can be considered a vegetarian if you ask about vegetarianism while eating a chicken dish. Found that out at lunch today :D

The plan at the beginning of the SCALA Volunteers training was that when it was done Martin & I would travel right away with our set-up partners to two different cities in Mindanao, Illigan and Kotabato. But then it quickly became apparently that not all the trainers had been warned to be ready to leave and that the computer shipments were going to take longer than expected. (The regular shipper went out of business but didn’t tell his clients). So Martin and I were left with a week to kill while we waited to be mobilized. One of the trainers from the Iloilo centre had mentioned that their centre hadn’t been able to use any of it’s funding even though they’ve been operational for a year and didn’t have a technician and had asked Sara to intervene. So Sara sent us for that week.

It was a pretty positive experience, although that may be because we couldn’t stay long enough to see if it bore results or not. Basically, we visited the centre for a week, talking to people to find out what the issues were, what the situation was and should have been, the processes and the people involved. Then we asked for meeting with the people where we raised the issues and asked them to work through what the solution could be and what timeline it could happen on. It seemed like a positive experience; the budget issued seemed to stem in part from a lack of strong advocacy to the budget committee on the importance of the SCALA budget and also maybe a lack of follow-up on the budget status. But people were stepping up to say ‘that’s my role, and I’ll make sure to do this and that in the next week and we should know X by this date’….and for the technician issue they agreed to try to get a technician hired which was more than Martin and I had hoped for. At the same time, it was very strange to have the authority to say what were issues when we hadn’t ever been to the centre before – because we’re from the organization that donated the computers, because we’re from Canada. We listened to what people said the issues were and their solutions were their own but we certainly set the “we want to talk about these issues, we want you to find a solution, we want you to find a timeline” stage.

At any rate, we spent an extra week in Iloilo, which is now one of my favourite cities in the Philippines. It’s got wide avenues with lots of trees and flowers and a river running through the city. The bridges over the river were wide and white and very pretty. Martin and I stayed in a pension house (a hotel basically). Last time we were in a hotel in Ormoc we were both frustrated by how hard it was to integrate or feel at all connected to people, but this time we were able to connect with people and it was really rewarding. The trainers at the centre were great and they and some of the program’s graduates took us to two neighbourhood fiestas one jam-packed Saturday. We played basketball with the workers at the pension house (I only stopped the ball with my face twice!). We bought all our fruit from a certain lady’s stall, and discovered amazing food at a sidewalk stall. Also it was perhaps the first time I started to feel like I could pick out and understand words in a Filipino dialect (Illongo this time), which was really nice. By the end of the week I was even remembering to duck so I wouldn’t hit my face on the cables hanging down from the overpass on the way to the supermarket. Unconscious competence indeed :)

And now, for the photo retrospective of Ilo-ilo! (Anyone have any hints how I can set up my blog so this doesn't take a year to load each time?) And Josh, if you're still counting blog word counts I insist you take into account that a picture is worth a thousand words :p

The trainees in Ilo-ilo

What are they laughing at?

Oh. (Dancing at a barangay festival)

The most picturesque bridge repair ever!

Walking to the San Juan barangay fiesta

Barangay San Juan

You know you're comfortable in a hotel

when you make your own screen door :)

You didn't believe 9 people could fit in one of these, did you?

This food stall served amazing food. The women worked from 5pm to 4am.

This one's for Kir - tofu and melted muscavate (raw) sugar!

Pineapples? Oh, joy.

So the training of SCALA volunteers was in Guimbal, near Iloilo from June 12th to 16th. It was a pretty good time – Sara, Martin and myself and then the Region 6 SCALA focal person (Sir Che, who’s a real character and one of the driving forces behind SCALA), 4 trainers from the region who will be partnering with Martin and I to do centre setups in July and August and two centre heads who have some set-up experience under their belts. It was mostly training on the role of a SCALA volunteer, which is pretty much to support the project team responsible for the new centre (the centre head, the local Social Welfare and Development Officer, the social worker, the regional focal person, and the trainers). When we first arrive we orient the project management team so that they’re clear on the roles they’ll play in the centre and understand the goals of the set-up process (to have the first batch of training start at the end of set-up along with the official centre inauguration). At the same time we lead the team through creating a timeline for the set-up (which hopefully takes 4 to 6 weeks) and try to support/monitor the team through the tasks they’ve set. Also, the SCALA volunteers set up the computers donated by EWB and spend about 4 weeks (ideally) training the trainers in the SCALA curriculum and in teaching techniques.
The number one piece of advice from the two centre heads who have set-up new centres before was “expect the unexpected.” (By the way, Ginny – Lizette & Andrea say ‘Hi!’). That’s ringing true right now since budget issues that make the Koronadal centre not actually ready for set-up mean that Lieka and I are leaving 2 weeks after we arrived. But THAT is another, much more frustrated blog entry. This entry is about pineapples.

So Martin and I left Ormoc with stomachs bursting with mango float. (That’s also another entry – and possibly a lifelong obsession. Oh, mango float. Mmmm). We took a 2 hour ferry to Cebu City, hung around in Cebu for 6 hours, then took a 14 hour overnight ferry to Iloilo. It was surprisingly comfortable, sharing a cosy room with 50 or so of our closest friends. (The room held 150, so I was kind of glad it wasn’t full!)

Before we left Ormoc, Martin & I decided to pick up a Pasalubong gift. Pasalubong is a great Filipino tradition - whenever you travel you bring back the specialty of the place, and each region of the Philippines has its own specialty. Our only previous experience with Pasalubong was when we brought mangos from Zambales (supposed to be some of the sweetest in the Philippines) back to Manila and they were a huge hit. That experience taught us two things – Pasalubong is a great way of making a good first impression, and fruit can be a pasalubong. It turns out only one of those was a good lesson to learn.

So outside the ferry terminal was the “Ormoc Pasalubong Store” and it was overflowing with pineapples. So we assumed (and we did ask someone to confirm!) that the specialty of Ormoc was pineapples. So we bought a bunch (like, 6), and strapped them to Martin’s backpack. When we got to Iloilo Sir Che, the region 6 SCALA focal person picked us up and loaded us into a jeepney. While we were riding he turned to us and said, “Why do you have pineapples?” “They’re for you! For pasalubong!” we replied, all happy that we were getting the hang of the Philippines. He didn’t say anything.

Ok, so I realize this story probably isn’t as funny to you as it was to Sara, who nearly killed herself laughing the first time we told her. But imagine – say you were invited to someone’s house for dinner and you decide to bring flowers so you bring a bunch of dandelions. To someone whose yard has a dandelion problem. Ok, the look that person would give you? That’s pretty similar to the look Sir Che gave us. Turns out there’s a huge pineapple plantation near Iloilo. And the pasalubong from Ormoc is some sort of coconut candy. The funniest bit was that Sir Che kept discreetly leaving his pineapples behind and Martin and I were so proud of having figured out the tradition and so enthousiastic about this delicious pineapple that we totally missed the hint every time. We would run after him, “Sir Che, you forgot the pineapple at the lunch table! Sir Che, you forgot your pineapple in our room!” I’m sure he thought we were mad.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Ben, the EWB Waterloo volunteer in Ghana for the summer has had an awesome idea. He's posted an "Ask a Ghanaian" section to his blog! Stroke of genius! It can be hard for overseas volunteers to share our experiences in a way that inspires people in Canada or makes them feel connected to the people EWB works with overseas. One of the most important experiences we get as volunteers is the chance to talk to and learn from people here. So this is a way for you to share in that experience. It's also a way for you to help me - sometimes I wonder if I'm asking the right questions here, or thinking about everything I could be, so it will be great to get your input!

So welcome to "Ask a Filipino!" Post a question and I'll ask my set-up partner, my host family, or someone I'm working with, then post the answers back. (And head over to to ask a question of a Ghanaian)
So I just finished a week-long training with Filipino SCALA volunteers on how to set up a super-successful SCALA centre! I' m cooling my heels in Ilo-ilo City (and planning to do a monitoring visit to the Ilo-ilo SCALA centre next week) while computer shipping issues are worked out and then I'll be heading to Koronadal in South Cotabato Province, Mindanao in a week to do my first set-up. My partner is Lieza, a very cool trainer from a SCALA centre in Negros Occidontal. Koronadal will be my first chance to stay in one place in the Philippines for longer than two weeks so I'm pretty excited about that! It's been a bit difficult to feel like I'm integrating here as much as I'd like when I'm living in a different place every week or so. Plus I hear the fruit in Mindanao is amazing. I'll have to develop a taste for durian...

...which might be a bit of a challenge, actually. For those of you who don't know what durian is, here's the story of my first (and so far only) encounter. When I was in Grade 10 I visited Kensington Markets & Chinatown in Toronto with my geography class. I ran around with some friends and we decided to buy all the fruits we had never seen before. So we bought lychees and pink dragonfruits and a bunch of others and generally had a wonderful time gorging ourselves. Then as we were heading back to the school bus we saw a big spiky green fruit that was frozen. Could we resist a frozen fruit? Of course not! So we bought one and planned to eat it when it thawed.

We hopped on the bus, stowed the fruit under a seat and proceeded to get stuck in rush hour traffic on the QEW. We sat in the sun in a school bus for an hour, sweating and crawling forward. And then we started to smell diapers. The smell got stronger and stronger - dirty, racid diaper smell. We were all looking to see if we were by a dump, or a garbage truck, wondering WHERE the smell was coming from - and then someone looked under the seat and saw that the durian had thawed.

So apparently durian smells pu-terrific when it's not frozen. There are actually rules here that you can't carry durian in the cabin of a bus or airplane because of the smell! I've also heard that it doesn't taste like it smells - apparently it tastes sort of like creamy nuts, although it generally takes 3 trys to get past the smell. So I'll let you know how tastings one, two and three go!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Behold the Filipino tricycle! Wonder at its bright colours! Rejoice in its ubiquity! Warm to its endearing tin can nature! Marvel at the fact it can hold at least 9 adults! (Although, for the record, I like the Manila tricycles, which look much more like side cars, better than this Ormoc one. Even though they only hold 6 people.)

I promised Cheryl that, if she paid my EWB membership fee for me, I would tell her the story of how I flooded a Filipino bathroom. My third day here. So since she came through on her end (with indecent haste, I might add), here’s the story:

First though, you should understand that when Sara brought Martin & I to this family resort for a few days of SCALA coaching, my eyes just about dropped out of my head. It’s in this tiny village, down a dirt road that ends in a black volcanic sand beach. There were palm trees and frangipani in the garden! We sat in a nipa hut (the traditional Filipino thatched roof hut) to do our work and went swimming in the ocean during the day. I definitely felt conflicted about being there – on the one hand, it was definitely within our stipend, and we got to know the family kids really well. We were invited to their graduation from Vacation Bible School and met all the neighbourhood kids. We also needed a place where we could work. On the other hand, it felt too much like pampering.

Our in-country training

Nonetheless, it was a good quite place to work. And make a bit of a fool of yourself. Here’s some facts about Filipino “comfort rooms”. The toilets aren’t flush, instead you dip a cup into a bucket of water, which is generally standing under a faucet in the stall, and pour it into the bowl to flush. It works pretty well. They’re connected to septic systems that can’t handle toilet paper, so you have to throw your toilet paper in a small bag or garbage can provided. The bucket plus toilet plus garbage can take up quite a bit of room. The toilets usually don’t have toilet seats either, just the bowl rim. So all this explains why, when I was perched on the edge of the toilet I brought my hand down to the bucket to steady myself. But I missed the bucket, and caught the faucet, which fell out of the wall with a clunk and left a jet of water shooting over my knees. So I did what any clearheaded person would do – I tried to push the faucet back into the wall. That didn’t work but I did soak myself with the resulting spray. Then I stuggled to pull my sodden pants up from around my ankles, and rushed out of the rapidly filling bathroom. Straight into a group of girls from the bible camp waiting to use the washroom. I tried to be calm.

-“Um, where’s your counselor? The person in charge?”

One of the girls looked at me, my dripping wet hair, and the water streaming out of the bathroom.

-“Uh-oh,” she said.

-“Yes, uh-oh. But the person in charge? The boss?”

I found the handyman. He didn’t seem to bat an eye when I explained that the water needed to be turned off to the bathroom right away, or when he saw the mini waterfall cascading over the step. He might have, but I don’t think I was picking up on Filipino body language yet :)

Fisherman's boats in Aliminos

Ok - to recap! It’s been a whirlwind of travel since I arrived in the Philippines. The day after I got here we (Martin, an EWB volunteer from UofT, Sara, the long-term EWB volunteer and myself) traveled 5 hours north of Manila to Aliminos, to visit their SCALA centre there. The next day we traveled down the coast a couple of hours to a family resort. We spent a couple of days there training with Sara for the work we’ll be doing later this summer setting up new SCALA centres. Then it was back to Manila for a night, and then on to San Fernando and Cabanatuan City all in the same day.

I spent a week visiting the Cabanatuan centre talking to the different people involved – the city Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) head, the SCALA centre head, the SCALA centre trainers, the out-of-school youth (OSY) taking part in the program, the social workers in the youth division and the employers who take SCALA participants for their job experience placement. I’ll post a better explanation of SCALA soon, so that all those positions make a bit more sense! I was staying with the family of an out-of-school youth in Cabanatuan – the family was wonderful, and huge. I think at least 50 people turned out to the ‘watch the Canadian ride the water buffalo’ event!
Then, thinking I had some unusual fondness for farm animals, they took me around their neighbourhood insisting I take pictures of the goats, the chickens, the dogs, the other water buffalo….it was a full-blown parade :)

Then I was back in Manila for a night before flying to Tacloban with Martin and Sara and then driving 2 hours to Ormoc City. That’s where I’m writing this from. I just finished the first of two weeks I’ll be here, training the Ormoc SCALA centre trainers to use Microsoft Access and FrontPage. After this I’ll take a ferry & bus to Iloilo to train with Martin and Filipino volunteers to become SCALA volunteers (the people who assist the set up of new SCALA centres). Then I will finally, FINALLY get to stop in one place for a while! I’ll be in Loage for a month setting up a centre and then in the region of Mindanao setting up a centre in one of the cities there. I’ll be partnered with a different Filipino volunteer for the two centre setups. Somewhere in there will be time for a midterm check-in with Sara, probably as I travel from Loage to Mindanao, which are at opposite ends of the Philippines. So there’s a lot of traveling around this summer! It’s exciting, but I think one of the challenges for me will be integrating when I’m not in one place for long. The languages here make it more difficult – Tagalog, which I started to learn in Cabanatuan City is widely spoken but isn’t the local dialect in most regions. Visayan, spoken here in Ormoc City, probably won’t help me much in Loage where they speak Ilokano. And then the dialect in Mindanao will be different again.

The jumping around and all the traveling also means that this blog isn’t going to follow any linear, chronological order. I’ve given up before I’ve even begun. Instead, we’ll skip through thoughts and stories as through a daisy field. Won’t that be fun?

Now, lest you think I’m complaining about all the traveling, let me just say that the drive from Tacloban to Ormoc City was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. We drove through mountains, tiny villages, there were caribao (like a water buffalo) and giant hogs grazing at the side of the road, forests of palm trees, and then ended up at the ocean in Ormoc. Yesterday, some of the trainers took Martin & I to Lake Danau, a gorgeous lake in the mountains. I took a video on the way there that I hope will give you an idea of what driving through the countryside is like here. I haven't figured out how to post it - any hints?

A garden on the way to Lake Danau

A caribao!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

It took me 3 tries to spell 'Philippines'

I have a blog! So now the eyes of the internet will focus on me! Because that's the way blogging works, right?

I start training in Toronto on May 6th, and then about a week after that I'll be leaving for the Philippines! I don't know when exactly I'm going (or where, exactly, or what exactly I'll be doing, for that matter), but it's all very exciting. I have half a mind to blog the heck out of this next week - the picking up of prescriptions, the running of errands, the packing, the applying for visas. Then those of you still reading after a week will be rewarded with the good stuff. Sound like a plan?