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!