Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On the Impressive Ingenuity of Less Interesting Philippine Fauna

Ants. Like a nosy neighbor, they will expose every weakness in your tidiness, every flaw in your careful Ziplocking, every distraction that yielded a moment’s inattention to crumbling foodstuffs. Into the life you thought you’d sealed so meticulously they soldier, a line of steadfast, tireless marchers searching out all the suspect morsels and convenient crannies that could be exploited for their own gains. Case #19,284,651,028: In my extensive toilet kit I included a small tube containing those tools which would someday help me repair my glasses. After two months here, I had reason to use the tiny screwdriver within, not for my glasses but for my death-rattling hard drive, and when I dug around to find the tube, what I found was a new ant colony. They had bitten through this hard plastic tube and lain eggs in the bottom. The hypothesis was that because ants are attracted to magnetic fields, perhaps they could not resist the sensual pull of a tiny screwdriver, but upon inspection I noted that they couldn’t care less about that piece of metal workmanship. In fact they seemed to avoid it like it was the smelly girl in a small class. They did nothing but attend to those eggs nesting in the bottom of my tube. Because I am mean-spirited and often cruel, I drove them out, killed their young and attempted to salvage what was left of my admittedly crude and now destroyed eyeglass repair kit. But they were not to be defeated. The determination, the ambition, the sheer pluck of the ant tribe is unrivaled. They came back, over hours and hours their numbers did not dwindle and their drive did not wane though I had lain waste to their home and their comrades. I admired them, I respected them, but I couldn’t live with them. I surrendered. I threw that tube and its contents, minus the tiny screwdriver, into the garbage, and presume they are living their ordered, pestilent lives in a quaint, homey sewage drain somewhere that’s else.

Rats are a less respectable lower lifeform. They come in the night like all your doubts and shames plaguing you, except instead of your strength and dignity, they ravage things you were keeping, things you can understand would tempt the appetite of a wee beastie, and things you can’t imagine could possibly appeal even to the starving. Upon my arrival here, I stashed many things in my closet, and had no cause to revisit them until last month when I visited my permanent site. Though I knew the rats were in there because they kept me up at night with their taunting scratches, I thought my things were safe. More fool I. When I opened that closet door, which I’d taped shut in a futile attempt to keep those little bastards out, I found that they’d ripped open my bags of Jolly Ranchers that I was keeping in case of children. Melted Jolly Rancher goo was all over everything, most of which I was able to salvage, but my crippled volunteer handbook I bade a regretful farewell. This, I thought, was the last of my travails with rats. They could make their home in my closet, but they had nothing more to consume, so once again I put their residence amongst my belongings out of my mind. Tonight I had reason again to dig around in my toilet kit, where I found they’d bitten through the mesh of one pocket, made off with several foil packets of Advil Cold & Sinus, and proceeded, I assume, to get extremely high off them. I found the discarded packets littering the floor, each pill removed apparently with both care and zeal. I can’t really imagine the effects of dozens of Advil Cold & Sinus pills, my favorite form of medication for ills from which I often suffer, I might add, on just a few rats. Back home, pharmacies now make you show your license and sign a release form just to buy Advil Cold & Sinus. Turns out any bit-rate drug addict who barely passed chemistry can make meth out of enough of it. Do rats like to party, I wonder, and are they jonesing for more? Or are they dead and waiting to stink up my bedroom? The final insult, among my empty, half-eaten stash of Ziploc bags and ragged, chewed toilet kit, was my Diva Cup. My silicone savior, my fearless feminine fanny fortress, had also fallen victim to the insatiable appetites of enemy rodentia. I feel only smug satisfaction that they have likely suffered a foamy, bleeding, drawn-out death by overdose.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Classics: books you want to have read without having to read them. I’ve spent enough time laboring over tiresome and painful materials written by such authors as Henry Fielding, Aphra Behn, Gustave Flaubert, Daniel Defoe and more to be wary of the term “classics.” I often thought in the past that while it would be nice and gratifying to my intellectual ego to catch many literary references plucked from the pages of the classics, my emotional well-being could be preserved greatly by not being subjected to the tedium of actually reading them.

But ask me how many times I’ve read Jane Eyre since I was ten. Ask Marlene how quickly I reread it when I found a tattered copy discarded in a hostel outside of Galway. Ask me how the last conversation between Jane and Mr. Rochester goes, ask me what Charlotte Bronte’s pen name was, ask me anything you want about that book and I will know the answer. It’s one of the greatest books of all time, a work of art unhindered by its age. What about The Picture of Dorian Gray? How could I refuse? And after so many rave reviews of Pride and Prejudice by a certain Jessie last year, cloistered and insular as we were in Hayes, I bought it, packed it, and two days ago finished it to my great satisfaction.

I’m still suspicious of the classics. I’ve been burned by Henry James, John Milton, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton. But what about the E. M. Forsters in there, the Mark Twains, the A.A Milnes, J.R.R Tolkiens and C.S. Lewises? Though contemporary fiction may be my preferred diet, I can't ignore the greats of the past.

For all of that, there’s Gutenberg.org. Some of you have already been aware of its existence for some time, and others like me are just shaking its golden hand for the first time. It’s a database of thousands of books which are so old they are no longer copyrighted. Gutenberg.org brings these books into the computers and minds of people like me who are 1) too lazy to buy or borrow a book, 2) impatient and want it now or 3) really far from a good selection of books written in English. Last night I saved twenty-five books and I don’t expect they’ll be the last I mine from this resource. I’d run out of reading material and was in a state of quiet panic. I knew you could get some classics online for free, so decided to look for more. Hello, Gutenberg.org.

Currently starting on The Call of the Wild. I’ve got the other most important London, three more Austen novels, six Dumas novels whose order of sequence is unnecessarily difficult to decipher, a couple of Dickens novels that I’ll attempt to work through though I’ve never been successful before, a Tolstoy and a Dostoevsky for posterity, Homer’s epics, another Bronte sister, Twain, Eliot, Hesse, Hawthorne and Burnett. Of course I prefer the flip of the page and the smell of a book long on a shelf, the crisp print on cool, bound sheets, the weight of escapism contained in my hands, but what I’ve got, this virtual paper, will suffice in the circumstances. In actual book form I have almost twenty mostly contemporary novels coming at me from the States to look forward to, and I’m running a list on the side of this blog of books I’ve read while here. Three down, ~50 to go. In reading we become better writers, and I must learn from the old masters as well as the new.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

12 Minutes of Gold

Thanks for saying it, Colin Powell: There is nothing wrong with being Muslim in America.

Among all the other strong and truthful assertions in this interview, Powell gives a powerful and moving rebuke to those who would have voters believe that a Muslim cannot be and will never be American. Barack Obama is a Christian, Powell says, but if he were a Muslim, so what? Powell asks: should a seven or eight year old American Muslim child not dream of being President of the United States? Muslims can die for our country, but not lead it? Republican politicians have been demonizing and otherizing those of the Islamic faith for too long. This has been the refrain of many sane Americans for as long as Obama has been campaigning, but no political figure before Powell has been willing to address it publicly. I have admired Powell since he had the courage and dignity to step down from his position as Secretary of State in light of the deceptions perpetrated during this vile war; he is a man of integrity deserving of our esteem. His endorsement of Barack Obama, for the reasons he has given in the interview above, is a boon for this campaign and this candidate, and I can only hope that those undecided voters who have heretofore supported and admired Colin Powell as I have will sincerely meditate on the wisdom of voting for Barack Obama instead of paying heed to the desperate attempts of a racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, war-mongering madman to discredit and demonize his opponent.

This is solely my opinion and not that of the Peace Corps or the US government.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Thor's Righteous Fury

Last night around 1 am I woke to the most intense storm I have ever experienced. The rain was deafening and the lightning quick and close, each answering thunderbolt shaking the foundation of this concrete house. I lay awake imagining the force of each in combination would rend the house in two, and I didn't even get a warning text from John Borja.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Reflections on Teaching in Dumaguete

All of us in Dumaguete have really been feeling the burn of training over the past few (grueling) weeks. Turns out Peace Corps Philippines has one of the world’s longest pre-service training periods, and this is a fairly new development. Why they would want exhausted and increasingly disgruntled trainees is beyond me, but the pressure should ease fairly soon as training winds down and we prepare for the big move.

My students and I have just recently begun to have a freer relationship with each other. Despite the rocky start in technical training and during practicum, I’ve been able to have a positive experience lately and I can almost let myself believe that I may have reached some students in some way, even if it wasn’t in “learning English.” I don’t really think I could have made a true difference in language with them in so short a time, but I received some notes from students my last two days with them that were really appreciative of a few of my techniques. It was gratifying to know that I hadn’t employed the ideas I’d had in vain and that students could gain from those ideas. I hope that they can take with them the knowledge that a teacher can and will give you patient, individual attention and that questions will be met with care and thought.

One of the goals of Peace Corps is that through our work, we can dispel some stereotypes of Americans and people from our communities can understand Americans better. This is not, in my opinion the most important of Peace Corps’ goals, but it’s one I face as a person of color. Of course one of the stereotypes of Americans is that we are all white. While I’ve been teaching here in Dumaguete, no student has asked me my ethnicity or put me on the defensive about my nationality the way adults have. I don’t know how it will be in Hilongos, but that has been something I’ve really appreciated. Maybe another thing these students can take from my time with them is that not all Americans are white and we are still legitimate Americans. From talking with other Asian-American volunteers, I know that no matter how long I stay here, I will still face confusion and even rejection on a racial level, but I’m heartened by these students’ reaction to me and cautiously hopeful that my students in Hilongos will be similar. If not, I can spend the next two years proving my legitimacy. My American street cred.

I wish I’d had my camera on me on Thursday, but my batteries were dead. At the end of my second class, the students put on a despedida, a farewell show, for me, and it was really touching that they’d do all this work and put on a whole show for me, complete with guitars, drums, karaoke machine. Of course I’ve already mentioned how musical a people the Filipinos are, so I shouldn’t have been so surprised when they sang nine songs, two in Cebuano, and did two dances. The nature of dancing here has not been something I’ve written about yet because I didn’t quite know how. Basically, at any kind of celebration, any at all, there will be many dances, and they’re very dirty. The dancers could be the most conservative people you know in a conservative country, but a dance comes on and they’re gyrating and undulating and rubbing on each other and being generally very scandalous. This happens in school, church, wherever. I’m not kidding. So that was the first dance they danced for me. The second dance, called “Papaya,” is absolutely the opposite, a kind of dance remniscient of the white man shuffle as immortalized in the fine Will Smith feature Hitch. You just point with your fingers to the left, to the right, up, down and then shake them a little bit. I suspect rhythmless, non-Filipino influence for this particular travesty, and of course it was the only dance fit for me, a rhythmless non-Filipino, to be cajoled into performing. So they dragged me up there, and with two much more talented students flanking me, I did this finger pointing dance in front of forty-five other students and my co-teacher, not to mention my technical trainer, Rustum, who was there evaluating my performance as a teacher. Luckily he couldn’t have evaluated me on my dance technique because another student soon dragged him up there to join us. This would be funnier to those reading if you knew Rustum, whose most assumed pose is one where he hides half his face behind his hands and looks generally like a shy mouse. Many pictures were taken on many mobile phones and in twenty years, maybe they won’t know my name or what I taught them about metaphors, but they’ll remember how I managed to butcher even the Papaya dance.

Yesterday I was supposed to teach at Negros Oriental National High School for the last time, but there was some confusion as to whether or not class was actually happening, so I spent my two class periods just hanging around my students. I got one more mini despidida in each class and gave out the pasalubong (thinking of you gifts, generally food) I’d brought them. I have been surprised at how well they seem to have enjoyed my time with them, surprised and gratified, and I am optimistic about my future as a teacher in a way I couldn’t be when I first started this venture. Teaching is a performance, it’s the smile you put on and energy you put out even when you don’t think you have it in you, every single day, every single class period. And the reward you get is the respect and esteem of your colleagues and students, and if you’re very lucky, the knowledge that you helped someone in some small way in the process.

It has only been in the past two weeks that I’ve grown more comfortable and confident inhabiting the role of teacher. Only that recently have I been feeling less like I’m going to melt in front of the class from nerves and more like I’m prepared to give my lesson and elicit positive responses. The nature of practicum is that we are not stable forces in the classroom, so I have always felt that what we give the students, and indeed, the teachers we’re paired with, is not exactly a fair amount of time and energy. We are spread so thinly between our myriad tasks that the students don’t necessarily receive the focus they deserve, and for that I feel like I’ve let them down. I’m moving on to Hilongos just when I’ve finally begun to build a rapport with these students, just in time to feel like I’m leaving them dangling. I feel beholden to them, yet there’s nothing I can do to ease that, and there was never going to be. I was always going to leave Negros Oriental National High School in late October and Dumaguete in November.

Do I still have apprehension about teaching in general? Of course. Am I nervous about starting from scratch with 240 new students come November? Only when I’m breathing. Am I up for the challenge? Always.

a cappella

Less than a quarter of my first class, in a classroom that isn't ours. I love disorganization and miscommunication.

Peace: the most popular Filipino photo pose

Some of my students and me, my last day

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Insert Possibly Obscure Kate Bush Reference Here

On Sunday, Dan, Syd, Sean, Sheryll, Dave, Heather and I took a multicab from Dumaguete through Sibulan and into San Jose, where we proceeded to scale the mountain so we could eventually get to Twin Lakes. Twin Lakes is a national park preserving a pair of crater lakes virtually untouched by human hands. Getting to the park was most of the adventure, if you can call it that. It wasn’t a fun adventure, at any rate. Let me back up: it was fun and scenic to be going up a mountain and being able to see gorgeous untouched flora, the coasts, the mountains, the sea and Cebu in the distance. It was fun the first time our lawnmower engine-powered vehicle stuttered to a stop and we had to get out and push it, running, up the steepest parts of the mountain. It was even fun to repeat it a second time with Sheryll having hopped into the cab at a crucial moment to take quick snapshots of the rest of us scrambling in after her, the cab gaining necessary momentum. It was decidedly less fun when we had to do this seven or eight times and I eventually became a shaking, nauseated mess while other, more vigorous people soldiered on without complaint. After about an hour and a half of this arduous journey up the mountain, we finally got to the park, where I lay out composing myself and focusing on not exposing my breakfast to my batchmates. Marga from batch 266 also caught up with us after a mix up where we accidentally left her in Sibulan, and from there we hiked up the steepest part of the mountain, sans running and sans pushing a multicab, to get to the first of the Twin Lakes: Balinsasayao.

We took in a leisurely lunch that greatly improved my mood and physical capabilities. I thought we were going to hang around the lake a little, maybe swim despite the signs that instructed us not to, but as soon as lunch was over people packed up their things and started on another trek. People don’t like to tell me things in advance, so after some time I asked just what in the hell we were doing instead of enjoying this fine fine lake, and it turned out we were bypassing it entirely in order to spend our time at Lake Danao. Getting there unwounded and alive proved to be my greatest victory of the day; the entire hike was made on slippery and often precarious rocks. I would call my survival a triumph, but mostly it was just a relief. Marga took the wiser route: renting a kayak and coasting most of the way there.

Once we were there, it was amazing. The water was absolutely still and clear. We were the only people there. Barring Syd and Sean, we got into the lake and puttered around, basking in the perfect serenity of the location. Most tourist sites are so teeming with civilization, the bad kind, that one cannot possibly enjoy oneself properly, but here we were isolated, alone and content. I was reminded of Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, summer 2005, when we’d gone so early in the morning out of necessity that we were the only ones there. I would have liked to have spent more time at Danao, but I guess my companions got restless, and we soon left the water for a short viewing of where we’d just been from an observatory tower, and then we headed back to Balinsasayao and home. We’d left at 8am, were back in Dumaguete at 3pm, and I managed to feel as if I’d both run myself into the ground and experienced nothing special. It was beautiful and untouched and lovely, but also physically demanding to the point of unpleasantness, which may just cancel each other out. I saw it, I did it, and that’s the end of some experiences, I suppose.

On the way up the mountain, San Jose model farm

Sheryll on some steps that we didn't know would later be hiking foundation. Ironically, the picture taken right before this one has her mid-stumble, a prophecy for the ages


Lake Balinsasayao

Sean and a manstance I presume he deemed sufficiently safe to assume on those rocks

Heather, Syd, Sheryll, Dan and Dave, having finally made it

Dan and the clear waters of Lake Danao

Danao from the observatory

An amazing photo where it looks like I've pissed myself

Monday, October 6, 2008

That Leyte Feeling

So at an ungodly hour on the 28th of September we trundled ourselves and a fraction of our hefty belongings into a bus and traveled to Bacolod to meet our fates. The Peace Corps staff were deprived of torturing us Dumaguete people by an office accident: we learned the locations of our permanent sites almost immediately upon registration because someone mistakenly placed a paper with our site names on it in our registration packets, so we didn't have to wait for the Peace Corps "find your site" game. So that’s my big news: my permanent site is Hilongos, Leyte, in the typhoon belt.

We stayed in Bacolod for the Supervisor’s Conference until Wednesday, October 1st doing extremely dry and exhausting things. I met my supervisor, Mrs. Proserpina V. Rubio, the head of the Communication Arts department at my school, Hilongos National Vocational School. Leyte being all the way in the Eastern Visayas, I feel like we took a camel, answered riddles and sacrificed seven virgins to get there, but we eventually made it there about lunchtime on Thursday.

Hilongos is an intimate coastal town of about 50,000 people, which makes it a large town or small city. I didn’t have time to find any beaches, but I’m assured that there are some. I don’t suppose that there is much going on there, but I’m sure that in what I suspect will be my precious little free time, I will find something to do. Ten out of twelve of us Dumaguete education volunteers were placed on Leyte (although Dan and Megan are technically on Billiran), so I won’t be far from many of those who have become my dear companions these past eight weeks.

My new host mom is known and respected throughout the town. All I have to say is “I’m staying with Vivian,” and people know who I’m talking about and where I will be. She is a very nice woman and is being especially solicitous to my diet needs. She has many siblings, and I met quite a few of them, in particular another teacher at HNVS. My first night there, Mama Vivian took me to a wake service, where I met her sisters and some other people in the town. The wake service was for a 90-year-old neighbor, and mourners were crowded inside and outside the house. The musical aspect of Filipino culture came out in particular relief during the wake; in under forty minutes, those in attendance sang no fewer than eleven songs. Filipinos in general are very accomplished singers and music-makers, and it is not unusual to hear them sing as they go about their business around the house or around town, and they’re very sincere about it. Cynics in America would call the same behavior schizophrenia and cross the street to avoid it, but here an entire busload of people will sing along to soft rock hits on the radio and no one is fazed.

I spent the majority of my time in Hilongos at the school, but managed not to speak to a single student. Hilongos National Vocation School is, as you might imagine, a place where students can learn a useful trade in case they don’t continue their educations in college. Some courses are dressmaking, electronic repair, automotives, IT and furniture and cabinet making. The student population is about 1700, and I will be teaching four first-year classes of varying proficiency in English per day. There are sixty students to a class, which will no doubt prove a challenge in learning names. In addition to my 20 hours per week of teaching, which is spread out between the hours of 7am and 5pm, I have to implement a community project or two during my service, so I’m not exactly seeing the famed Peace Corps down time.

In some bad news, we lost another trainee to family tragedy and Sally fell in the pool at the hotel and is now in Manila awaiting surgery – three pins will be inserted …somewhere and she will spend the rest of the time until swearing-in there in Manila doing rehab. The good news is that she will not be going home because of this, but our cluster will feel like she’s our phantom limb. Luckily her permanent site is her current practicum site here in Dumaguete, so she doesn’t necessarily have to do all the checking out and assessments we had to do for our own.

After so much travel and and so many travails, I am back in Dumaguete with not a single rest day in a couple weeks and only a two hour reprieve in language class. I feel like staging a mutiny because we got two of our Sundays taken from us, and between them an incredibly hectic, exhausting week, but what’s done is done and I have to get ready to start this train on its tracks. Three more weeks of training in Dumaguete, one week of another tedious conference in Bacolod, this time with all of 267 in attendance so at least that will be fun, and then we swear in and these two years will finally commence.

The oldest and tallest Spanish belltower on Leyte is in my town

And I just thought this was really funny