Thursday, February 11, 2010

Belated Farewell

It is no secret that I am no longer serving in Peace Corps Philippines. I returned home to Buffalo in May, my emotions raw, bitter and frayed by what I termed "Peace Corps warfare" - a steaming conglomeration of unreasonable rules enforced with arbitrary levels of harshness, the failure of the medical unit to provide adequate and timely care, and a constipated, sometimes unnavigable bureaucracy. For my own mental and physical health, I made my life's hardest decision and terminated my service. The decision to join the Peace Corps and to serve in the Philippines was far easier than the one that ended that service.

That decision, torturous though it was, was the correct one. I spent the summer recovering my health, both physical and mental - the throat-closing cough would persist for several months, but the haunting spectre of my service on my psyche passed within two months. I got a job at Toys R Us, I moved into my own apartment, I applied to MFA programs in creative writing, and I got on with my life, a post-service purgatory.

Of course I have regrets. By the light of nostalgia, to paraphrase Kundera, I remember the esctatic exuberance of life in the Philippines, life with my friends and my co-teacher and my host family and my students on their good days. I prefer not to dwell on those things that made my departure so necessary. I regret that circumstances were not such that I could finish service and be well at the same time. I regret not following the path I'd lain out for myself, the path other PCVs and I were supposed to follow together. I regret prematurely leaving my co-teacher and my students. I regret the loss of the experience I had so badly wanted.

What I do not regret is going in the first place. The people I met, the experiences we shared, the knowledge I gained about myself and the Philippines were invaluable. Like so many Peace Corps Volunteers and Peace Corps hopefuls, my desire to serve and travel was a zealous burn. Only in going did I learn how misplaced that desire was, how ill-suited I was to weathering Peace Corps warfare and certain realities of service. But the Philippines is always with me - I eat silog on a regular basis and recently tried my hand at leche flan again, I pine for fruits and desserts I just can't have, I consider the Pinoy "third party" method of disagreement a valid option, I mix my Cebuano with my Thai and contemplate the necessity of pasalubog. I was profoundly affected by my time in the Philippines, as all PCVs are affected by their countries of service. In some ways, I am better for this - my efforts to better understand the religious life persist, as does my disdain for the American propensity toward celebrity worship in the face of far graver needs. In other ways, I wonder how long it will take me to shuffle off the Philippine shadow - whereas before service I was unfazed by, say, cinematic sensuality, I am now uncomforable with sexual content in films or even kissing on TV, a product of living in a more conservative society. I suppose we cannot pick and choose how we will integrate our experiences, and reconciling my Philippine life with my American one is my ongoing personal project, even eight months after I left.

I did not, however, storm into this blog again just to wax on about my personal changes and post-service progress. What I wanted to write is this: I am so proud of my fellow PCVs from batch 267. They have done a tremendous job in the face of their own adversity, in whatever form that adversity presents itself. Whether they are Ed volunteers, CYF or CRM, they have made personal strides as well as professional ones. I am so happy for all their small and large triumphs, I sympathize with their setbacks, and I rejoice in their strength of character. They do what I could not.

This will be the final entry in this blog. I considered resurrecting it as a more personal, non-Peace Corps related blog, but I find the subjects of my life to be not terribly blogworthy, and the internet does not need another idiot riding the waves, thinking the mundanity and minutiae of their every days are somehow compelling.

I am signing out. Good luck, Peace Corps Philippines 267. You make me so proud.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Courting Controversy

I wash dishes and think about Mormons. I get a great towering pile going, sling on my headphones, grab a sponge and contemplate the Angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith in Western New York, in my neck of those vast American woods. At this point I wonder, “How can anything holy have happened there?” Smoke-belching industry and lake-effect snow aren’t altogether conducive to divine epiphanies, breeding instead a cellular nihilism and sense of defeat. I wonder what trick of history made Utah the territory of choice for trailblazing Latter-Day Saints rather than where the Angel Moroni first struck down on the earthly plane. Already populated by too many Catholics, I suppose, staunch, with deep set roots. Same as the Philippines.

I don’t wash dishes and think about Mormons on purpose, really. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers universally speak of how Peace Corps service changed them. What subtle shift in paradigm, in priorities, differentiates them in the present from them in the past? The Peace Corps Volunteer must expect that the foundation on which his or her character is built to crack, but must not try to anticipate the cause or the pattern. The fractures I unexpectedly find myself straddling involve an involuntary but compulsive deliberation on Mormons.

Mormons, I think, Latter-Day Saints. I think about the missionaries who live next door, who pass my apartment in their clean pressed clothes, how they sometimes wave, sometimes don’t. I think of the church beyond my school, the wide empty expanse of it, the few people who enter and exit. I think about my landlady’s smile, a permanent fixture on her face, beaming out from behind the desk in the funeral home showroom. I think about my dad saying “they were persecuted,” I think about all the long talks I’ve had with my LDS batchmate, and I think about how no matter how many talks we have, or whether or not I complete my own mission to befriend the missionaries, I will never understand the history, the culture, the context of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

This expands, as I lean into particularly stubborn food debris with the force of my various arm joints, as I squeeze more soap onto the task, into a wider contemplation of moral philosophies, personal ethics, those structures of organizing the internal that some people call religious belief. That I lack formal religious education in any faith is not a testament to a lack of personal integrity or moral code; I feel that I have those in abundance, and that they are fast and rigid. I know too the difference between belief in theory and belief in practice, whether one’s belief is religious, philosophical, political, or otherwise uncategorized.

Before Peace Corps, I would have said that I accepted all people of any religion or lack thereof. Not tolerate, but accept. I would have said that people’s beliefs are their own, and as long as they did not push them onto me, and I didn’t push mine onto them, that everyone is free, encouraged, to have diverse belief systems. My hypocrisy was that I inwardly disdained of certain religions; I’d fiercely defend the right to ascribe to them, get my hackles up if others displayed intolerance, yet I’d scoff at the reality of our differences.

I’m not sure it’s possible to live long-term in the Philippines and not spend a great deal of time deeply contemplating religion. The Spanish were wildly successful in their conversion of Filipinos to Catholicism; those who are not Catholic are still largely Christian, with a good percentage of them Mormon. The Muslim minority is marginalized and almost invisible, only mentioned with a sneer, pushed into spaces of poverty and disenfranchisement. The story of religion in this country is one fraught with colonization and resentment, but the conclusion I have come to in my long hours in solitude, scrubbing pans, surfing Mormon websites, is not a condemnation, or a manifestation of my previous religious superiority complex.

My personal revelation is this: I respect religions.

It may seem simple, or simplistic, but it’s a deep fissure in my foundation. Maybe that’s the wrong metaphor. Maybe there was a divisive fracture in my character before, broken, uneven ground, and the Philippines, with its Catholic baby saints and one of forty-seven worldwide official LDS temples, healed that fracture, made me whole. Made me see that religion is not a collective delusion but a set of beliefs as valid as my own to live one’s life by. I may not believe it, I may not agree with it or the political presences of individual factions, I may still be struck dumb by some outwardly religious individuals’ personal corruption, but I can see now the strength of community, of faith, that religious beliefs cultivate. And I think faith is a beautiful thing.

I am still trying to become better at accepting. I am still repulsed by some of the atrocities done in God’s name, or the policies and practices that some religious leaders espouse. I don’t think I have to accept those things to accept the basic fact that all religions, at their core, encourage their followers to treat each other and themselves with love. I think my becoming better is an ongoing personal struggle that will never be completely won, but now I am not fighting my words like I was before, when I spoke only what I knew I should believe. Now my gut is aligned with my mind.

The saturation of my Philippine life with various permutations of Christianity has also made me contemplate more seriously my own religious and philosophical orientation, which I was rather unwilling to do in the beginning but have, obviously, become more comfortable with. I don’t feel the need for an organized institution to give credibility to my own personal moral compass, but one of the powers of religion that I had hitherto been blind to was a sense of community. I would not be averse to finding affirmation with like-minded people in the distant future when I return, beaten, bruised, but triumphant, to the land where the Angel Moroni first lit the night.

So, for your enjoyment, the Belief-o-Matic, which, I assure you, is much more comprehensive and genuine than any quiz currently inundating Facebook with its inanity.

Monday, April 27, 2009

How April's Been Treating Me

I just got back from three weeks away from site. The first week, holy week, Cassie and I took for vacation on Pangalo, an island just off of Bohol. Bohol has a great deal to recommend it, not the least of which are my favorite things ever, tarsiers. They are the smallest…monkey-like animals in the world. After Bohol, we did more Peace Corps training on Mactan, a small island just off of Cebu. It was good to see the volunteers I’m very far from, but otherwise, the extra training isn’t worth a blog entry.

Because I can’t possibly ruminate now on the past three weeks concisely, or even clearly now that time has passed with so much packed into each single day, I will just post what everyone really wants: picspam.

Me on a rock on Alona Beach, Panglao, a place almost exclusively populated by Germans.

Cassie and I holding on to these European honey bees at Bohol Bee Farm, an organic farming complex. I especially like how my camera couldn't regulate its own exposure.

Bohol Bee Farm's livelihood project. Local women weave goods like curtains, bags, placements and many other things.

Tarsier - what I really am in my private life. Also: seriously, they're the size of a hamster. More camera dissatisfaction: This is the best of 22 shots, only 3 decent, and none in focus. Others got pictures easily. Arg!

The Chocolate Hills. There are over 1200 of them, and they're way cooler than you'd think they would be.

Cassie at the hanging bridge on Bohol.

Mactan Shrine, which commemorates Magellan's death at Lapu Lapu's hands

Julie at Cebu's Toaist Temple

One of the Philippines' most beloved saints, Santo Nino. Viva pit senor!

More pictures at Facebook, if you're savvy.

My dad arrived in Cebu on Friday night. We came back to my site last night, Sunday, and we'll be having visitors like Syd and Connie over the next few days, then going down to Padre Burgos until next Saturday, when he'll be off back to Cebu in time for his flight back to the States the next day.

School begins again in June. I'm taking May to prepare a remedial reading program to implement at my school. Cautiously hopeful for a more positive upcoming school year.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Class of 2009

Today was Hilongos National Vocational School's 2009 commencement ceremony. About 270 students graduated today.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

That Cultural Exchange Thing

I mentioned briefly in my last post that I'm a participant in Coverdell World Wise Schools. Through this program, I'm matched with a classroom in the States and we can correspond as we wish, sharing pictures and stories. Hopefully, this results in students at home learning about a new culture along with their volunteers.

When I got a packet of letters from students in my World Wise Schools match, I was really impressed to see how much thought they had put into the questions they asked me and what they wanted to know about the Philippines and Philippine culture. Their questions were more intelligent and thoughtful than some of the questions I field from adults more than twice their age and experience.

I spent the afternoon answering the questions which recurred most often throughout the letters I received, and some questions I thought were really important. I couldn't answer them all, but I got to almost 20 of them and it occurred to me that some of the questions and answers deserved to be posted here. So, here are some questions from middle school students in New Jersey, and my humble answers to them. Warning: this is gonna be a long one, folks.

How can ordinary teenagers make a difference in the world?

Making a difference starts in your own community. The world is big and there are problems at your doorstep as well as half a world away. I wish I had done more volunteering closer to home, since I believe that volunteering in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter makes a greater direct, immediate impact on those in need at home than Peace Corps does abroad. There are many volunteer opportunities available if you just look: Habitat for Humanity, SPCA, 4H, various other community volunteer organizations designed for young people like the YES program, and, when you’re no longer teenagers, Americorps or Teach for America. You can also do adopt-a-highway programs, arrange a litter clean up, or try to start composting and organic farming or gardening. If there are causes you care about like fundraising for diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS or autism, there are opportunities for that as well. With time, energy and care, you can contribute to the wellbeing of your community in far greater ways than you can probably imagine.

Are you a better person for joining the Peace Corps?

Absolutely not! I am trying to become a more patient person, a more compassionate person, more understanding and more empathetic. Living in a different culture provides me opportunities to become better in those ways, but I have to work on it myself. However, I think the root of this question does not lie in what we are trying to develop within ourselves, but in buying into the essential nobility of joining the Peace Corps, which is a grave fallacy. We who join Peace Corps do have altruistic reasons for joining, but our reasons are not all selfless either. Of course there will be the people who say “I just want to help people!” Frankly, they're lying. As you can see from my answer about making a difference, you don’t have to go far to help people. Some volunteers want professional experience, some want to travel no matter where, some want high adventure, some want a totally different experience than most of their peers. My foremost reason for joining the Peace Corps was to be involved in something positive for the world, to put good karma into the ether in any way that I could help. I wanted to do HIV/AIDS education work, which I haven’t had a chance to do yet, and I wanted to provide individual attention to students who may struggle in English class. But I also wanted the teaching experience, I wanted to learn about a new culture, I wanted to experience completely new things, I wanted to travel, and I’m not ashamed of that. No Peace Corps Volunteer is any better a person than the volunteers and community organizers who devote their time to making the world a better place from home.

Did you want to be placed in the Philippines?

The Peace Corps has an extremely long, tedious and difficult application process which is too boring to explain. To put it simply: you don’t get to request where you will go. You may put in geographical preferences, like Eastern Europe or Latin America, and you can put where you don’t want to go, but because of your skills set, which determines what job sector you’re qualified for, and your medical needs, which determines which countries you can or cannot be sent to, you are never guaranteed anything as far as your geographical preference. They may even put you exactly where you didn’t want to go, but this shouldn’t be a deterrent. My father served in the Peace Corps during the Vietnam war, and he wanted to go to French-speaking Africa, and he didn’t want to go anywhere near the war. Well, they sent him to Thailand, right next to Vietnam, and he had the time of his life.

Personally, I wanted to go to Thailand because it’s part of my heritage and I speak Thai. Turns out, this is exactly why I was barred from ever going to Thailand with the Peace Corps. They want their volunteers to experience a totally new culture. Once I knew this, I put as my preference, like my father before me, Francophone West Africa. The Peace Corps was recruiting for French speakers, they were excited about my desire to serve in Africa, which is where the fewest people want to go, and I was nominated for a program in Francophone West Africa. However, during my long medical screening process, I found out that I’m unable to eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley and rye), and I could not go to West Africa as a result. Peace Corps decided to send me to Southeast Asia, reminding me that it wouldn’t be Thailand, and in the end I was extremely happy to come to the Philippines.

What do you miss about America?

Of course I miss my friends and family. 27 months is a long time to be apart from them. I’m missing out on weddings, funerals, births, many crucial moments in the lives of my loved ones because I made the decision to be here. I knew that at the outset, of course, but faced with the reality of missing these moments, these people, it’s much harder to shrug off the time factor.

The other big thing I miss is food. Since I’m gluten intolerant, it’s not always easy for me to eat here, though of course not as difficult as it would be in other parts of the world. Filipinos have been very much influenced by 400 years of Spanish rule and 50 years of US occupation. That means that they use many Western ingredients that I can’t have, and because of the threat of contamination, it’s even harder for me. If something I am able to eat, like a fried fish, is touching a breaded piece of pork, or was fried in oil that previously fried something battered by flour, then I can’t eat it. I have been able to remain healthy here, but only through vigilance and discipline and culinary abstinence. So I miss the food I can get easily at home: gluten-free breads, cereals and desserts; peanut butter; Thai food; sushi; candy, chips and junk food.

Do you speak a foreign language? Do you speak Filipino?

Any foreign language? I grew up speaking both English and Thai in my house, and I spent about five years studying French in middle and high school.

There are hundreds of languages and dialects in the Philippines. English and Filipino, which is actually Tagalog, are listed as official languages. When my group of volunteers, Philippines batch 267, got here, we were split into three geographical and linguistic groups which would determine where our permanent sites would ultimately be. My group was sent to Dumaguete on Negros Oriental, part of the Visayas (Vi-SY-ahs). For three months, we spent intensive classtime learning Cebuano, or Visaya, or Bisaya. Cebuano has 20 million native speakers throughout the Visayan islands and greater Philippines, whereas Tagalog has 11 million.

Because the Philippines has such a high rate of moderate English proficiency, it is possible to get by without learning a Filipino language very well. Some volunteers never speak it at all. As a teacher, I am obligated to speak English all day at work, so learning is especially difficult for English Education volunteers because they aren’t as immersed in the language as volunteers in other sectors in the Philippines, coastal resource management (CRM) and children, youth and families (CYF).

What do you do in your spare time?

I read a lot of books. I have been here for almost eight months now, and I am currently reading my 23rd book since arriving in country. This is more than I’ve read for pleasure since I was in middle school myself. It’s very satisfying to have the time to read what you want, for whatever reason you want. I also use the internet a lot, and I try to spend time writing. Some weekends, I visit other volunteers relatively close to me.

Do the Philippines have seasons?

The Philippines have basically two seasons: ting-uwan (rainy season) and ting-init (hot season). It is both rainy and hot during both seasons, but the intensity of the rain during ting-uwan is shocking, as is the intensity of the heat during ting-init.

Over the course of the year, there are other mga ting (seasons), like ting-ani (harvest season), ting-prutas (fruit season), ting-bagyo (typhoon season), ting-mangga (mango season), and so on and so forth. Anyting goes. We have a joke among the Peace Corps volunteers: we’ll add the word ting before anything. It’s always ting-uncomfortable, we’ll say of the weather. It’s ting-ako na (season of me, now).

What kinds of sports and music are popular in the Philippines?

Basketball is a big, big past time here. If there isn’t a decent basketball court in every neighborhood, there’s at least a makeshift one. There are informal games all the time, and plenty of people from the neighborhood or community will come to watch. My host brother would turn the TV to a sports channel and watch basketball, past games and present, all day, and then watch shows about basketball players. Philippines national obsession. With the emergence of Manny Pacquiao, Filipino boxing legend and recent defeater of Oscar De La Hoya, boxing has gained popularity.

Filipinos love all kinds of music, without irony. Celine Dion, Queen, Mariah Carey, the Star Wars theme, Christmas music no matter the ting, the Carpenters, stadium evangelical gospel, anything. Videoke (karaoke with moving pictures of anything you can think of on the screen) is another national obsession, and you can hear it all the time. My students particularly enjoy current American hip-hop, and it can be heard at all times, and they frequently prepare dance numbers to it.

What is Filipino food like? Do you like it?

Filipinos eat white rice at every meal, even breakfast. For some volunteers, this is a big adjustment and sometimes one which they will never get used to or come to enjoy. Personally, because I am used to eating rice regularly and because I can’t eat common items like bread or flour, I really prefer to eat rice anyway, so it’s not a problem for me. Filipino main dishes are usually fried or boiled, they often contain a lot of fish and pork, and their main seasonings are salt and soy sauce. Because soy sauce contains gluten, sometimes my host families had trouble finding things to make for me. However, with a little imagination, they were able to remove the soy sauce or substitute it with something safe for me. I like many Filipino foods, but because of my dietary restrictions I am often limited in what I can have and how it can be flavored, resulting in the same kinds of bland dishes over and over. Now that I live on my own, I can make my own food, and generally I wouldn’t describe it as Filipino. I am, however, very much into eating and making Filipino desserts.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


This weekend, Connie arranged a birthday party for me at her house in Inopacan. She prepared an unbelievable epic of a meal, worthy of the Philippines, including a killer buko salad and a make-your-own halo halo buffet. Sean and Cassie came up from the depths of Southern Leyte, and Syd was there, whom I haven’t seen since we were both in Manila for different reasons in January. She brought Matt, a volunteer from batch 266 who also lives on Leyte. It was amazing to reconnect with everyone together. In classic Pinoy fashion, we ate our meal and snacks and desserts over a six hour period and went home clutching our bellies, satisfied.

Connie cooking up some bean sprouts

Me, Sean, Connie, Cassie, Connie's feast and a kind of inverted tapestry of the Last Supper

Me and some key halo halo ingredients before this gorgeous group of PCVs sang Happy Birthday to me. Who needs cake when you have halo halo?

Syd, Sean, Matt and Cassie building their ultimate halo halos

Syd digging mightily on her halo halo

On my actual birthday, it was like the universe had decided to take it easy on me. At school, which is finished for the summer at this point, I only collected tests, and the Ruby students were joking with me and making me laugh. I got an order of one of my favorite Pinoy snacks, puto cheese, which is like a cupcake except made of rice flour so I can actually eat it. It’s not always there, so when I saw the little stacked mountain of them at the bakeshop I inwardly rejoiced. I got three packages I’d been waiting for, and a series of letters from my World Wise Schools students in New Jersey, which were very pleasing to receive and read. I'm preparing a response to almost 20 common questions the students have about service and the Philippines. I’ve been introspective about service lately, and I’ve also been having to write about it in various forms, and having to do that makes me articulate my challenges and successes and helps me to navigate them. That evening after work, I ate as many puto cheeses as I wanted, had pad Thai for dinner, and waited to feel 23. I’m still waiting.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Insects, Amphibians, and Fowl, Oh My

Last night seemed particularly dedicated to animals of the unexciting variety. Since moving into my own place, I have noticed at night the appearance of a certain kind of insect whose continued existence beyond its prehistoric origins can only be credited to the fact that it appears to be made of armor. This insect, I have no idea what it is, possibly some ancestor of the modern beetle, is about a centimeter big and inspires no fear whatsoever. It can be startling when it flies around without warning, but it is not gross, slimy, or covered in millions of legs, nor do thousands swarm when there is food around. Prior to last night, there had only ever been one, I’m assuming the same single, mentally challenged, armor plated creature careening comically into walls, the computer screen, my person, and landing with a surprisingly clear and heavy thud on the floor. Last night, as I went to bed, I noticed about five had gathered to convene on my office wall. I paid no mind other than to be briefly concerned that this may turn into an infestation, and as I moved to turn off the office light, I heard, even though the din whose description is forthcoming, the dull smack of a little armored body losing purchase on the wall and falling, not to its death, only to the ground. For some, there is just no evolution.

Being in the Philippines has come with lessons, shifting priorities, surprising new skills. I now know there is no added authenticity in suffering or going without as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I also know how to open a tin can with only a knife and some gumption. Another thing I now know: roosters crow any damn time they please. As far as I can tell, this means regularly, as in every few seconds, throughout the daylight hours, and at least hourly in the moonlight ones. There may be nothing more infuriating to me than the spluttering, cackling, 60-year-old smokers’ hack crows of the cocks at all hours of the night, particularly when trying to fall asleep and stay asleep. The hours between 4 am and 6 am are particularly brutal, and usually I’m out of bed around 5 simply because the cocks have destroyed anything resembling sleep at that point. I don’t think those people in the States who haven’t grown up on a farm can truly appreciate how piercing, how penetrating the shriek of a rooster, nay, many, many roosters in one’s immediate vicinity, can be. There are many in a sort of courtyard just behind my apartment, which my bedroom window conveniently faces, and the result is that it often sounds as if these roosters are sitting like the devil on my shoulder, issuing forth with gusto their shrill, grating screeches into my weary, abused ears.

So, that’s the routine of my life – go to bed trying to ignore these devils, stay asleep through their crusades against night silence, wake with resigned displeasure to their calls when the sun’s not yet spilling over the horizon.

Last night, all that changed. Around 9 pm, when I usually start my slow move toward that lofty ambition of going to bed and sleeping, something new happened in that courtyard behind my apartment, where any sounds issued are amplified in my acoustic theatre of a bedroom. That something new was a veritable army of toads engaging in the first night of what I can only project is their mating season. The sound of them, not unpleasant, is constant and uniform enough not to cause irritation, but it is loud enough to ring in my ears, echo in my bedroom, and block out any campaigns the crowing cocks and barking dogs may have had against the sleep of the Hilongos citizenry. So, despite the reprieve from the cocks, despite the deafening white noise toad sex apparently offers, I couldn’t sleep. At 11 pm their ardor abruptly – very abruptly, as if their cessation was timed, rehearsed and flawlessly executed in perfect unison - cooled, causing the vicinity’s proud cocks to attempt to catch up on that whole two hours of crowing the dull roar of the mating toads had thwarted. From this point onwards the toads began stopping and starting in even intervals, each hard-won silence soon shattered by the penetrating, phlegmatic shrieks of half a dozen posturing cocks. I woke before five this morning to that pattern still in effect – the ebb and flow of the sweet sex sessions of libidinous toads, the piercing crows of all local roosters. By 5:30 am the toads, no doubt exhausted and sore, stopped their amphibian lovemaking, one assumes for the day, and the cocks had their stage back.

I wonder how long toad mating season lasts?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Yesterday morning, I was concerned enough about dehydration, pain and my vomiting to check into the hospital. Soon after I got a room, I learned I would get a roommate – a woman about to give birth. She and her husband, a man from Switzerland who speaks excellent Bisaya, unlike most other foreigners, myself included, gave me the impression that they’d been waiting for this for a long time. The husband kept repeating “Today I’m going to be a father.”

While I lay in bed working around the splint a nurse had taped onto my left hand and tangled in my IV tubes, alternately rereading The Cider House Rules and watching some of the worst movies ever made on HBO, the couple had their baby in another room. The dad came in to get something and said it was all finished, they did a C-section.

“Boy or girl?” I asked.

“Yes!” he said. “Oh, girl.”

“Good,” I said, “congratulations.”

The rest of the evening came with visitors and well-wishers and calls from German speakers. I had no overnight kasama, though Connie offered, and my counterpart offered her daughter Nor-vith, but I knew there was room for only one kasama: the new mother’s, and rightly so. And I was self-sufficient, able to get me and my fluids to the bathroom and back with one working hand. So, after my counterpart left, I was the new family’s observer, the silence from the other side of the room.

Nicole, 7.5 lbs, possessor of a future long, coveted white person nose like mine, spent the evening being rocked and cooed at and, it seemed to me, generally hassled. She is a calm baby, not given to crying, and I couldn’t help but wonder from my place against the far wall if this harassment was altogether what she would have wanted from her first few hours of life. When I looked at her, I couldn’t fathom how new she was, how small and open. How serene and unafraid. I imagined that at just a few hours old she knew everything; that we all did, once, and by living lost our knowledge, gained ignorance and anxiety. When voices rang in my ears, when noise scraped them raw, I winced for the newness of Nicole’s.

The world is loud. And so sharp and bright, beautiful and painful.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Rain in Spain's Former Colony the Philippines

It started raining like it was the end of the world today, and I thought I could capture it on video. Turns out the intensity of neither the visual nor the audio translate well, but I thought I'd post anyway. I apologize for the DSL line running through the image; such is the price of internet.

I would like to remind the Philippines: it's ting-init now, not ting-uwan. Get it right. Anyway, I think neither ting is the accurate ting. I think it's always ting-uncomfortable. I hear ting-prutas is on its way though, and I approve.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Adventures in Pinoy Cuisine III

The Philippines is a country that takes eating very seriously. This means taking snack, or merienda, between each meal. Often snack is something sweet and full of gluten, sometimes it’s just fruit, and other times it’s a full on meal. Champorado is a popular snack item here, and unlike some recurring snacks, I never got sick of it. When I first had champorado made by my host family’s house helper in Dumaguete, I fell in love.

Champorado is basically chocolate rice pudding. How could anyone resist? However, I soon learned that not all champorado are created equal, and despite the ease of preparation and varied recipe options, it is easy to mess up champorado. For example, burning the chocolate is never advised and will result in an entirely ruined batch. I also prefer a thick champorado, not a runny one, and too little sugar or too much tablea, cocoa tablets, can also ruin your champorado. Some of my batchmates were also familiar with it as a breakfast food, but were not thrilled about it, even saying that it didn't taste like chocolate. I concluded that they had not had good champorado.

In Dumaguete I’d seen tablea for sale all over, but since coming to live in Hilongos, I hadn’t seen any. Today I resolved to find some and buy it so I could try my hand at my own champorado. I bought oversized tablea because I asked the tindera, the saleswoman, which made the best champorado and she indicated a set of them made in Hindang, the next town north.

I chose this recipe because it’s simple, straightforward and looked easy and delicious. This is another recipe that I think looks as clear, possibly easier for those in the states. The following is the recipe I chose and my modifications.

4-5 pieces of tablea (blocks of pure cocoa the circumference of nickels – I think bakers’ chocolate or plain unsweetened cocoa as in the alternate recipe could substitute) melted in ½ cup of water
1 cup of rice (many recipes call for sweet rice but I don’t know which kind is sweet and I have 5 kilos of rice right here, why buy more?)
2 ½ cups of water
½ cup of brown sugar
¼ can of evaporated milk

As I mentioned, I bought oversized tablea, about double the size of regular ones. I broke up two and melted these with the ½ cup of water in my makeshift double boiler because I’ve burned chocolate in the past and have no low heat with this stove. When I make this in the future, I might use a fraction less tablea, maybe 1 ½ or 1 ¾.

Cook the rice with the 2 ½ cups of water in a saucepan, stirring constantly. I didn’t stir constantly, but frequently. When the rice is translucent, add sugar and melted tablea. It looked like it was still swimming in water when I added the sugar and tablea, but this seems to have had no ill effects.

Cook until rice is tender. Add sugar and water to taste. I added two more spoonfuls of sugar and no water. The recipe says to add evaporated milk to individual portions, but I’d been instructed by the house helper in Dumaguete to add either evaporated or condensed milk (I can’t remember) during the cooking. I added about a quarter can of evaporated milk (can was 410ml) and am pleased with the results. Someday, I may forgo the sugar and evaporated milk and add only condensed milk. Anyway, during this stage, stir frequently and be careful about burning the chocolate. I used my lowest un-low heat and it still bubbled, threatened to boil, but it ended up fine and unburnt.

When finished, take it off heat, cover it, and set it aside to cool, to expand and to thicken. Not the prettiest dessert you've ever seen, but well worth it, and should be eaten while still hot. This recipe makes 3 or 4 servings.

EDIT: This is possibly even better in the morning, after a night in the fridge. I added more evaporated milk and water, broke up the gelatinous mass it had become, and reheated. The result was a lighter, fluffier champorado than it had been the night before.