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.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Adventures in Pinoy Cuisine II

Apparently, this was the weekend of cooking. And Monday counted as an extension of the weekend because it was declared a holiday and we got it off. Anyway, earlier Monday, I used this recipe to make kettle corn. I had heard it could be a messy process, but with this recipe there was no sugar or oil left over. I took a few flying popped kernels to the eye before closing the pot with its lid, but I remain whole and generally uninjured. I heartily recommend this method, and if I were to modify the recipe at all, I’d add a little bit more sugar. Of course, lacking things like measuring spoons, who knows how much I actually put in?

In my halo halo chronicle, I mentioned that I would make leche flan fairly soon. I didn’t anticipate it being quite so soon, two days later, but the opportunity presented itself with my day off and failure to write anything other than this blog entry. I’d had leche flan in halo halos and at Sugarland Hotel in Bacolod. It was delicious, naturally gluten-free, and pretty addictive. And, I saw, not too difficult to make, so why not?

After dinner came the moment I would try out my leche flan recipe. I found several recipes, here, here, and here, but all made unreasonably huge portions in the tradition of Filipino fiesta-sized eating habits. I saw from these, however, that I could steam cook leche flan, and I had just discovered that my rice cooker came with a steaming apparatus to add on. Lacking an oven and not really trusting a “water bath,” that I could steam my way into leche flan was very important. I decided on this recipe, due to its simplicity and portion size, but I had no llanera (Filipino leche flan mould), and even if I did, it wouldn’t fit into the modest rice cooker add-on. So, I made some modifications to this last recipe to accommodate my available materials, including steaming rather than bathing it in water. I bought aluminum muffin tins, which I cut into individual cups so they could be arranged to fit into my steamer. The recipe used makes a good amount of carmelized sugar to line the bottom of each tin. However, as for the custard, it made a little too much, but not outrageously so. Also, I used a 300ml can of condensed milk, largely because it was what is available and because the recipe doesn’t specify, even implying that any size is appropriate. In the future, I believe I will use less so as to minimize waste and because the mixture was quite runny, though I don’t know its proper consistency, and it far surpassed its 30 minute steam time, possibly due to its consistency, possibly due to my steamer.

So, here’s the recipe:

Carmelized Sugar:

1/3 cup brown sugar
1/6 cup water
Dash of salt

On a low heat (my low heat is still pretty high), dissolve the sugar and salt in water. The recipe says not to stir, but it wasn’t dissolving, so I swirled the pan a bit to dissolve it. Pour it into your mould or moulds; it should cover the bottom.

4 egg yolks
1 can of condensed milk (I used 300ml)
1/3 water or milk measured by empty can of condensed milk (I used water)

Break and gently mix egg yolks to avoid bubbly custard. Empty the can of condensed milk into yolks, then put water or milk measured by the same can into the liquid. Mix gently. I went ahead and forgot the vanilla because apparently so did the recipe writer, but still came out with a delicious product. Here I noted that the mixture separates slightly; the condensed milk goes to the bottom, the egg and water stay on top. It never quite converges, and the urge to mix or whip it vigorously is fairly intense. Patience, grasshopper.

Strain the mixture as you fill the tins/your mould. This direction seemed odd to me, and I wanted to skip it for expediency’s sake, but I remembered the flourless chocolate cake debacle of 2008 with Ken, where the recipe called for, but didn’t explain, like this one, a technical aspect of the baking process. The results were dire that time, so, holding with faith, I strained the mixture into the tins, using a spoon to pour rather than dumping from my giant bowl into tiny tins. Turns out, the straining is done so that unintegratable egg bits are strained out rather than left to cook in. Another recipe says not to bother to strain, but I feel good about it. So, always follow directions, and if you’re writing recipes, always explain the rather opaque reasonings behind the processes so fools like me don’t skip it.

Cover tins with tin foil so the flan doesn’t get soaked in the steaming process. The recipe says to steam for 30 minutes, but only around the hour mark was it finally thickening up. I don’t know if that was the runniness of the custard mixture or a failure of my steamer to heat up quickly. Anyway, the time it took in comparison to the time it was supposed to take was a tad ridiculous. My final steam time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Even after all that time, it never firmed up, and the results were unattractive in the extreme. Zeus. I refrigerated my tins overnight, and only then did they stay together when inverted onto a plate.

In case you try this in an oven and get positive results, I'll continue. In my opinion, it should be refrigerated for a long time, though the recipe does not call for this. Then, to remove your leche flan, gently run a knife along the edge of your mould and invert it onto a plate. Here is where many leche flans get destroyed. Mostly I don’t care what it looks like, but maybe next time it’ll be marginally more attractive. This recipe made six small muffin tins worth, with some custard mix left over. So, this is my truly hideous and out of focus individual portion of leche flan.

On the whole, I’m satisfied with the ease of preparation, flavor and portion size of this recipe, but not the cooking time or appearance/consistency of the final product. Next time, I will try not to forget the vanilla. Ultimately, the cook time and final product are cause to pause, but since I’m aware of this for next time, I won’t be dashing off every fifteen minutes to see if it’s ready yet, and I'll modify it to be less runny by adjusting the amount of condensed milk and water/milk added. In the future, I may also forgo the carmelized sugar. While delicious, it's a tad cloying and the custard needs no help to be sweet. I’ll also try to find something to do with the four leftover egg whites. In a past life, maybe I would think nothing of pouring them down the drain in the absence of something to do with them, but here that is more difficult.

Please note that I’ve added to the side of my blog a list of links to recipes I’ve been using, including this one, and recipes I intend to use when the opportunities arise. Some are Filipino recipes, others are not, but do check them out and enjoy. The recipes listed were chosen among the many available for ease of preparation, fewest or most reasonable/logical ingredients (one of the leche flan recipes called for the most expensive [eyeroll] organic eggs, carabao milk and something I’ve never heard of – no thanks), and clarity of direction. As I experiment with these recipes, I will post with results and modifications.

Next: Champorado

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Because the Public Demanded...

Certain fathers who shall remain anonymous won't stop pestering me for a complete pictorial guide to my new apartment. So, in an effort to appease the rabble, I present: My Apartment.

The outside of my apartment, before it was finished. Now it has plants in the little plant area underneath that window, and the area that's all dirt out front is concrete. I call it grapefruit chic.

A before shot of my refrigerator and me, courtesy of Connie, before my refrigerator was turned on and made to work for its place in my swank apartment.

The sala set built by students at my school. Exceptional craftsmanship, as Cassie and Sean noted today, truly beautiful work. Donated by the woodworking department.

My kitchen space with donated furniture. The area where my stove and propane live is particularly pleasing on the eye and makes a lot more space available for preparation. My landpeople's carpenter made it in a matter of days. Also, note the pan with handle as showcased on my stove.

Let's head upstairs.

My still unorganized spare room. The bedframe is there, wa'y mattress, but I'm working on it. Anticipating much welcome guest traffic in that room.

My spacious bedroom, complete with king sized bed and exceptionally pleasing mattress.

My pride, my most used space, the office. My bookshelf, another creation whipped up by the carpenter in mere days, gives me a lot of satisfaction. This is an open area that leads, as you can see, to the balcony.

And that's my apartment. I ordered some fine art prints, laminated as fine art is meant to be in its natural state, and when I get them I plan on enspiffening the office, my bedroom and the living room with them. I also want Filipino art, but am finding it difficult to find.

In technical news, I'm dissatisfied with the performance of this camera. It's a point and shoot Nikon CoolpixL18 with 8 megapixels. I had previously been very happy with its predecessor, also Nikon Coolpix but with 5 megapixels bought in 2005, but this one has less depth, poorer color perception and seems fundamentally incapable of focusing. When I get an electricity converter and can charge it, I will start using my digital SLR, provided I'm not somewhere like a beach where it will get destroyed. Lesson: like a 5th wife, newer, thinner and flashier does not equal better.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Adventures in Pinoy Cuisine

Halo halo: my favorite Filipino food item. Most of my comrades have already posted their obligatory halo halo-themed entries, but I have been waiting for today. From the first time I had a halo halo, at the deeply buried hole-in-the-wall Tablespoon fairly late in training, I knew I was destined to make one - the best one, the ultimate halo-halo; I was going to be the one who made it. The perfection of the halo halo would be my secondary project. This single truth occupied my mind, biding its time through training, through my second homestay, through until today when I had the desired ingredients, the time and the space.

First, let’s look at the anatomy of a halo halo: on a bed of shaved ice, halo halogists across the nation pile any combination of the following ingredients and many, many more: pandan, big tapioca balls, gelatin, corn, garbanzo beans, mungo beans, some other kind of big white bean, pieces of leche flan, coconut strips, jackfruit, banana, mango, ube either in cube or jam form, ube or mango ice cream, cornflakes or puffed rice, condensed milk and sugar. Essentially, whatever’s lying around and convenient goes into the halo halo. While many of these ingredients may seem antithetical to dessert (beans?), I assure you, even the pickiest of palates is pleased by the product. Nonetheless, I have my favorite ingredients, and since moving into my own apartment, I have slowly been amassing these items for my future in halo halo production. Today, as I considered my languishing jar of ube jam, my soaked but purposeless tapioca balls and my fresh batch of strawberry Jell-o, courtesy of Marlene, I knew with certainty that my day had come.

I looked up the recipe for leche flan, and, upon discovering that my rice cooker is also a steamer, I desperately wanted to include it. However, I would have had to go out and find a mould or moulds small enough to fit inside the steaming add-on, so some other day will be the reckoning of the leche flan.

First, and perhaps most stupidly, I decided to crush my ice in the blender I had bought for that express purpose. Any halo halo enthusiast will tell you that the consistency of the ice is key; an ice miscalculation can destroy the entire experience. Well, my blender certainly does not crush ice. What I got was water and some humbled cubes, so I put it in a bowl and put it back in the freezer to see if more time would improve it in its current state. Then I set to work on the other ingredients.

I boiled my tapioca balls, small ones, and that was a success except I have no strainer. So I had hundreds of caviar looking tapioca balls in a puddle of their own juices, drained to the best of my ability with my finger against the lip of a tipping bowl.

I opened a can of condensed milk with my can opener. Or, if we’re being honest, I half opened it before the can opener’s parts sprung apart like teenaged lovers caught by Dad. That was fine, since it was condensed milk and would come out even in its half opened state. But. But, I had a can of whole kernal corn to open. And I had to do it Pinoy style: with a knife and my own brawn. So I gathered my nerve and went at the top of the can with a large, sharp chopping knife for about ten minutes before getting a large enough opening to fit a spoon in. I thought I would die or lose some fingers, but I am in tact and proud of it. Note to self: get a quality can-opener held together by more than the will of its maker.

Then I had three jars to open – ube jam, mungo beans and coconut strips. Twenty minutes later, I had none open and was trying desperately not to succumb to the urge to find a kindly Mormon man to open them. When I gave in and peaked outside, I saw only a man mixing concrete to continue the construction of my building and decided I was on my own. Eventually, I got the (essential) ube jam and the coconut strips open, but not the mungo beans, and considered it a success.

I cut a mango, cut some Jell-o into cubes, and brought out my bowl of water ice to begin the creation: sugar, Jell-o cubes, mango cubes, condensed milk, tapioca caviar, coconut, ube jam, ube ice cream, corn, and I was ready.

With great anticpation and exuberance I tucked in, only to find that my base ingredient, that most essential of items, my ice, was a travesty, an insult to halo halos everywhere. I ate it nonetheless, as the water turned a light opaque ube purple and the remaining ice cubes floated on top like little rounded mocking eyes. It was my first try, and marginally successful despite myriad pitfalls, and I now know that a blender will not suffice in the absence of an ice shaver. Until next time, ultimate halo halo.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Room of One's Own

I’m very pleased to announce that I have moved out of my host family’s house and into my own place. I really appreciate my host family here and everything they’ve done for me since I began service, but I felt that I was a burden to cook for and, though I will likely never know, I think my being in their home displaced someone else, whether a family member or their helper. They were the best host family I could have asked for, and last weekend, with their help and Connie’s, I moved all my stuff one street over to a brand new apartment in the funeral home complex.

When it comes to living quarters, Filipino and American cultures diverge rather sharply. Filipinos sometimes never leave the homes they grew up in until they are married, but often they stay beyond even that. Even though many young Filipinos leave home to work abroad or in Manila, wanting to live on your own is still a foreign concept. Often I am asked if I will be afraid to live alone, especially behind the funeral home because the souls don’t leave the earth for forty days. As I told my co-teacher, “If your neighbors are dead, they are not noisy.” She got a laugh out of it, but I do in fact have live neighbors, including two young Filipino Mormon men on their mission. I haven’t met them yet, but I see them pass my door every morning in their clean, pressed shirts, pants and ties, immaculate even in the rain. The funeral home owners, who are also my landlady and landlord, are also Mormons, so I feel a bit like I’ve moved into the Mormon neighborhood, especially when people find out where I live and ask if I’m also a Mormon. I think the Philippines as a whole is a country very used to missionaries, so their first assumption about most foreigners is that they are missionaries. I had actually never met a Mormon until I moved to the Philippines; now I am living among them.

My new apartment is very nice. It’s part of a row of six adjacent, connected apartments, but only mine and one other are finished; the rest are still being built. The outside is grapefruit colored: yellow with orange trim. I have a downstairs with living space and kitchen, outside laundry area and bathroom. Upstairs I have two bedrooms complete with beds (still working on a mattress for the spare room) and an open space I’ve made into my office. And, of course, my apartment coup: a balcony. It overlooks a rice field, some houses and some trees. As for furniture, I got almost all of it donated – a kitchen table from a department head at school; the bedframes, forthcoming bookshelves and a very nice area for my stove and propane tank that includes storage and counter space, all built specifically for my apartment and me by my landpeople’s employees free of charge; but my favorite, another apartment coup, has been the sala set made by students of the woodworking classes from my school. I know the items weren’t specifically made for me, but it’s really beautiful work and it’s gratifying in general that students, albeit not mine, made them. They have a real talent there, something they can use to build a life if that’s what they want. And now all I can think about is how when I had the opportunity to be in woodshop class in middle school, my classmates made bongs and such. Real charmers, going places.

I just got a real internet connection today, so I will finally post some pictures after being unable to for the past three months. For now, just the views from my balcony. Later, when I have everything set up to my liking, pictures of the inside.

This is the view when looking straight out from the balcony.

This is if you look a bit to the left. That house in the corner is where the missionaries live.

And finally, the little things that keep you smiling: that old Philippine sunset.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Precious Gems

Being an American trying to work in the Philippine education system offers many frustrations and difficulties, not necessarily because of the individuals one works with or teaches, but because of the circumstances of the country, which are myriad and complicated. Often, students reach high school having an unbalanced knowledge of English. Sometimes more advanced concepts in grammar pose no difficulties for them, yet they lack some basic skills. I'm still trying to determine where they are, but what they already know and what they don't seem very arbitrary to me. Plus, as a new teacher, I am unsure in general about where 12 year old ESL students who have been learning English their entire lives "should" be. One of my issues with this last one is that I feel in myself a disparity between being 12 and being in high school. In the States, we have 7th and 8th grade, but here those were eradicated in the first half of the 20th century to cut costs. So, I get to thinking, "well in high school, they should know this certain thing." But it's very different when I think, "at 12, they should know this thing." And that's a hard gap to bridge for me, but I'm working on it.

Anyway, this entry is not meant to be my scathing critique of the Philippine education system or a whinging post about how I toil. I want to say here that today I'm so proud of my Ruby students. Here, the students are arranged into sections in which they will stay for the duration of high school, which is a practice I'm not comfortable with. I teach two sections of mixed levels, Emerald and Garnet. In the afternoon, I teach Diamond, the advanced kids, and Ruby, the so-called slow kids (not my words.) My co-teacher has earned my admiration for her devotion to all her students equally, which was something I did not see in Dumaguete. In Dumaguete, I would hear teachers talking about how much they hated their slower students within those students' hearing range. Here, my co-teacher never loses her temper with Ruby, never leaves them though there may be a staff meeting, never insults or disrespects them. My Ruby students can be more careful and conscientious of their work than any of their peers, Diamond included, and yesterday that really showed in the group work they handed in. I have Ruby as my last class of the day, so I had already corrected the three previous classes' work and knew their scores. Out of ten groups in Ruby, nine got perfect scores on work regarding modal auxillaries. And the only group to get anything wrong only appears to have forgotten to finish a single sentence out of twelve. No other section, mixed or advanced, could near the amazing accomplishment of the Ruby students yesterday.

And they call these students slow. I absolutely disagree.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Peace Corps: Home of the Small Victory

Today I stayed home from school in the afternoon owing to a crippling gluten contamination of my person sometime during lunch. It was the worst single incident I've had since arriving in-country, and I'd forgotten what a raging misery a bad gluten contamination could feel like. When I refrain from fulfilling my obligations due to illness, I always feel like I'm being unproductive and useless, even though I know what would really be unproductive and useless is going to work weak, in pain, and in need of the bathroom for embarrassingly long stretches of time. So, as I lay in my bed alternately recovering and relapsing, I felt that if I wasn't teaching, I could at least be shopping for my new apartment, which was of course ludicrous and untrue. I was equally unable to shop, but I thought all day about what I still need: curtains, pots and pans, a mattress. Mostly though, I began to covet the mirrors I'd seen a few days ago in a glass shop. As far as I can tell, many Filipino homes lack mirrors that aren't personal sized. My batchmates have also noticed a lack of mirrors, so it's not just my imagination. I was very surprised to see mirrors in a shop, mirrors of a respectable size, and as the evening drew near and I regained my strength and my gastrointestinal constitution I set out to go buy one.

Well. I didn't come home with a mirror, but I went out into the marketplace to see what else I could procure, if anything. The following uninteresting anecdote is only understandable if you know that most pans here are metal, with metal handles, so when you cook you must always use a potholder. I just can't be trusted to do that. I'm clumsy, accident-prone, and still bear the marks of various hot objects from the flat in Edinburgh. Know thyself, they say, and I knew myself when my host mom took me shopping this past Saturday and tried to get me to buy one of these disastrous pans. And I probably would have resigned myself to it if, a week or so before, I hadn't seen some with rubber handle covers while visiting Maasin with Connie and encouraged her to buy one of these elusive treasures herself. I did not know, at the time, that I too would be moving out quite imminently.

We marveled over the pans, and she eventually bought one much to my biting envy. I thought I wouldn't be moving out for about a month, but last week, some miscommunication led me to believe I had to move immediately, and, despite the miscommunication not being true, I am now nonetheless set to move out this weekend. Since confirming the move, I've thought of those pans, and how hard it would be to get one in Hilongos, but I kept hope alive when I refused to buy a burn hazard and today, in my mirror-induced jaunt, I found a stack of be-handled pans deep in the marketplace. They were 328 pesos. I wanted that pan as much as I wanted a mirror, more than I wanted a mirror. But I also wanted to leave off that cumbersome extra 28 pesos that would make my change a nightmare. So for the first time ever in country, I bargained successfully, without salivating over the merchandise, and got my pan for 300 pesos. I know, not the boldest bargain, but I'm pretty proud of myself.

Now the fact that I got my pan is a source of intense triumph. I am going to cook things and burn myself only occasionally, not constantly. I found it, by Zeus, and bargained for it too. I showed my host mom, texted Cassie, and am writing a blog entry about it. Somehow, this is very sad, but also very Peace Corps. The subject line was Cassie's reply to my inordinate excitement about pan handles, and it's too true.

Stay tuned for a weekend post about my new digs, hopefully with pictures!

Friday, January 30, 2009


This morning as I sat in bed fiddling on the computer, I had the sensation that someone was on the other side of my wall, inexplicably pushing at it and thus rocking my entire bedroom. Then I realized that it was an earthquake. So, that was my first real one, a tremor in elementary school notwithstanding, and it rather felt like my bed was possessed and gearing up to take me flying across Leyte like a deformed magic carpet. Quick texts to Connie and Cassie confirmed the phenomenon.

So, Leyte, I’ve heard you were the apex of Filipino natural disasters. Typhoons and earthquakes we’ve taken in stride, if muttering complaints; will you soon present us with landslides and a sudden increase in the snake population, as promised?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


This is a momentous day to be an American. It’s a momentous day to be an American of color. I’m sure for most African Americans, today’s emotion is too big to contain on virtual pages or in black and white print. I can’t articulate the feeling of my heart expanding in my chest thinking about how staggering this election has been; I can’t imagine the impact this has on those who lived through and participated during Dr. King’s civil rights era, people who never thought they would live to see today. But today is not about the color of our skin, or even civil rights, which, despite the optimism of the hour, remain issues unresolved. Today is about the United States redeeming itself, rebuilding its potential to be as it should be: a country of freedom and opportunity. It’s about becoming the best it can be and encouraging its citizens to do the same.

Before I began my Peace Corps application, I struggled with the moral dilemma of going abroad and representing a country whose recent governmental policies betrayed my personal ethics. Atrocities like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib as well as the slow but sure chipping away of the various rights of women, immigrants, people of color, the LGBT community and every other private citizen were too troubling to ignore in the decision to serve a country and government which had implemented such violations of human rights, even if that country was my country. In the end, I decided that the spirit of the Peace Corps itself is separate from the agendas of any current or past political policy. Despite its myriad flaws, the ideal Peace Corps nonetheless represents to me a vision of America’s place in the world as one of benevolence, aid and good will. To be a Peace Corps Volunteer at this moment in time, during the transition from despair to hope, is to be suddenly representing a country rising from the ruins of the past eight years.

I had a hard day today. Nothing in particular happened, but the weight of hundreds of the standard PCV frustrations weigh more heavily on some days than others. Today I thought I would burst from the pressure of it, but as I watch 2 million of my countrymen gather at our capital to celebrate a new hour in America’s history, while I am half a world away, serving her in my small way, and I cannot regret being a Peace Corps Volunteer, the daughter of a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, no matter how puffy the mosquito bites on my ankles get or how much my permanently sodden (only) pair of shoes smell.

On September 11th, 2001, I was in math class in tenth grade in Hamburg High School. I remember every subsequent period of the day, and I remember the immediate impact of our nation’s biggest open wound. There was fear and anger and anguish, not the quiet unity of devastation that the media reported. For so long, it seemed that was my place in history. Like my father remembered President Kennedy’s assassination, I remember the burning Twin Towers, and I and my peers were briefly called Generation 9/11 by magazines needing buzzwords. Then seven years later, with sixtysome of my fellow soon-to-be volunteers, I watched President Elect Barack Obama step onto the stage in Chicago to announce his victory, and I knew I would remember November 4th, 2008 with the vast world of difference in emotion than I remember September 11th, but with no less gravity. Today President Obama takes office against seemingly insurmountable odds and the rather unattainable expectations of an economically and emotionally devastated nation, and I’ll remember January 20th, 2009 too. Should my children and grandchildren ever ask which dates around which history and my life pivoted, I will not hesitate.

I went to bed and woke up a little past midnight to catch the inauguration ceremony and President Obama’s speech. I felt like when Aretha Franklin sang, she turned those unnamed and unnamable emotions into powerful music and projected it into world for everyone watching and listening to feel with her. And instead of waxing lyrical on a speech I am in awe of, I will just say hey! He referenced the Philippines!

Welcome, President Obama. We have been waiting for you for as long as American soil has had memory.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Illness Near and Far

The most miserable illness, perhaps, is the illness far from home.

Since early December, I have been battling various incarnations of a malady that has been since dubbed bronchitis with reactive airway; whether or not that’s the right diagnosis now seems moot and rather belated. I spent the holidays sequestered in my bed, coughing and choking with violent force, rather than celebrating. On New Year’s Day, instead of frolicking in the typhoon with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in Padre Burgos, I was admitted to the hospital because my cough had caused me to stop breathing and subsequently my hands to stop following my directives and my face to feel as if it had stopped existing. Connie, kasama extraordinaire, trundled down from Inopacan in the pouring rain to keep me company and make sure I was getting the proper care. A few days later, well enough that sitting upright or walking around a little didn’t threaten to cause me to lose consciousness, I flew to Manila to see the Peace Corps doctors and their colleague in a Manila hospital.

Ultimately by the time I got to Manila, I had gotten over the worst of my illness and there was little to be done other than to prescribe more medicines. The doctor in the hospital told me I would improve slowly and over a long period of time because the climate and air quality are somehow not conducive to quick recovery. However, the Sunday I left for Manila, I woke up with pain in my back and side that has been unexplained and has slowly gotten more and more crippling. I think I may have broken a rib coughing like Megan did once, in which case there’s nothing to be done except take pain medication and hope it goes away. Last night the pain hit a new level, and if this were a pulled muscle as speculated by the doctor in Manila, I don’t think the pain would be getting worse. I can’t say as I know for sure at all what it is, but any movement is agony and when I cough I feel like something sharp is about to puncture my organs.

Anyway, I stayed in Manila for six days. When I first arrived, I was very intimidated because it’s Manila. And I’m pretty much from Leyte. The contrast is staggering: urban jungle vs. actual mountainous jungle. I texted May Lynn, unsure of how close her site is to Manila, but it turns out she was passing through anyway and she met me at the pension and offered to be my kasama. So that Sunday, and the Monday following when I had my doctor’s appointment, May Lynn accompanied me. She showed me around Manila a little bit and we spent a really positive, rejuvenating time together. Being gravely ill for a month can exaggerate all your problems, magnify them and force you to wallow in the negative. Coming to Manila and having May Lynn there, then Marga, then a whole bunch of people from my batch who arrived for an HIV/AIDS workshop, ended up being something I really needed, if only to feel connected again.

On Tuesday, May Lynn had to get back to her site and I had another appointment. Marga from 266, whom we’d known from our Dumaguete days, happened to be in Manila for her own care and took up briefly May Lynn’s kasama duties. She took me to Greenbelt, a really posh mall in the nice part of Manila, and we ate Thai food lunch and talked about the traveling we’d done. Later, loads of people from my batch descended upon the pension, and many, not being Dumaguete people themselves, had never had the pleasure of Marga’s company. She was a big hit.

The first night we were all there, we went as a group to eat dinner at a shwarma restaurant. Megan and Karen and I, admittedly acting rather stupidly considering we were now in the big bad city, not Dumaguete and not Leyte, were passing around Megan’s phone when a man pried it from Karen’s hand. Megan, like someone with a brain, got the hell out of there, but Karen and I, clearly more na├»ve and provincial, stared at the guy like “why did you just take our phone and why don’t you give it back?” The moment seemed to stretch until he made a gesture as if to stab us, so we finally got a clue and turned tail to hurry away. Dan and John and some of the other girls were ahead of us, so we ran to catch up with them and feel a little bit more secure, in a sexist, helpless girl way. It was a jarring moment, and a frightening and sobering one, but it was also a lesson learned and a retrospectively entertaining story.

Over the next two days, I alternately did nothing and went to various appointments while my companions attended their conference. I had wanted to go to museums Marga had recommended, but I was exhausted from pain and illness and activity and never got around to it. In the evenings we got dinner and spent time together, which for my part was much needed and much appreciated. I really do miss people when I’m here; it can be isolating and lonely, made infinitely worse by illness. My last night in Manila, Thursday night, Syd, Dan and I ate dinner with May, our language instructor from training, her adorable daughter and her friend. May and her daughter are arguably the cutest people on the planet, and sometimes I feel like Lenny around cute things so I have to try not to squeeze anything to death. We went to the Mall of Asia, the biggest mall in Asia, the biggest mall I’ve ever seen, the most overwhelming shopping center I have ever been freaked out by, and ate a fine sushi dinner. Throughout my time in Leyte, since first entering service, I have not had a problem with gluten, which is a credit to my host family. Two months in, I had begun to think of it more in the theoretical rather than the immediate. Imagine my surprise about half an hour after a dinner I thought had been safe when I felt the familiar unpleasant twinges of a gluten contamination. In the Mall of Asia. The biggest mall in the entire continent of Asia. A crowded mall the size of my hometown. Well. Readers can imagine subsequent events without my expounding upon them.

On Friday, it was time for me to head back to Leyte. I said goodbye to those who hadn’t already left (some had early morning flights and so I missed them) and made my way to the airport before 10am. I arrived in Tacloban around 1.30, Mrs. Collins’s package of books which I had picked up in the Peace Corps office was the first off the conveyor belt at the airport, and I got on an overpriced jeepney headed for the transport terminal in Tacloban. I waited there until 3 to leave, hungry and unaware that I would be waiting so long, and finally made it back to Hilongos around 6. I spent a leisurely Saturday recovering from travel and yesterday, Sunday, I went to Sogod to visit Cassie and Sheryll, whose company I had been missing for a while.

Turns out, in Bato, I got the worst jeepney driver known to man. I'm fairly sure that I had seventeen heart attacks on the way to Sogod, not to mention the half hour when the jeepney broke down in the middle of nowhere and men had gathered round the jeepney making lewd gestures with their hands in their shorts, where I didn’t know if I was going to make it to either Sogod or back to Hilongos. But, we did manage to careen into Sogod, finally, at noon, my heart hammering in my chest.

I spent the day with Cassie and Sheryll in engrossing conversation and ate one bowl of halo halo. We also decided we have reached the point in our service where it is possible to get cold, and I was bundled to high heaven even though I was in the Philippines. Leyte, it seems, is colder than the rest of the Visayas, and never actually stops raining. Here I note that it’s not the rainy season, but I have not seen a full day go by without a downpour that shakes the foundation. And apparently that’s just how Leyte is. Perhaps this is a contributing factor to the high early termination rate of previous batches’ Leyte volunteers. Anyway, seeing Cassie and Sheryll was also rejuvenating, and I have resolved that in order to keep my sanity, I must see my fellow volunteers more often, even if it involves a lot of travel time and a brain damaged jeepney driver. It is so easy for Connie and I to see each other that I think we become complacent and lazy and end up only seeing each other. Not that I object to seeing her at all, on the contrary, I love seeing her, but it would be good for both of us to see others as well. Which sounds a lot gayer than I intended. I make no apologies. In any case, early in service like this, other volunteers can be our lifelines, and it stands to reason that the more lifelines we have, the stronger we can become in our resolve to stay, to be good volunteers, to complete service and, let’s face it, not to fall apart in the face of illness and turmoil and constant irritants. Next stop, if I can finagle it: Naval with Megan.

So, I’m still sick and missing the familiarity of home during my sickness. I’m still working through some issues I’m having with being here. When I think that there is no way I could possibly stay, I remind myself how much I wanted this, how hard I worked for it, how much I want what comes at the end of it personally, professionally and academically, how much I care about the people I serve alongside, and, possibly most importantly, how little I have to go home to.

In other news, Uncle Ed has died. He did not make it to 2009, but he did make it to age 90. He was my father’s uncle, my grandpa’s brother, and the general consensus in the family was one of little affection for him despite what he provided for us materially. I wonder if he led a lonely life, being a curmudgeon and a miser, and I wonder if it ever occurred to him that if he was neither he could be happier or have more meaningful relationships with the people around him. In any case, I am sorry for my grandpa, because no matter how he acted, Uncle Ed was his brother and my grandpa spent almost eighty-nine years knowing the man. That’s the thing about siblings, I think: your parents die, friends, companions and spouses come and go, your children grow up and leave you, and in the end who you will always have are your siblings. You are always bound to them by common experience, invisible bonds, and at the end of a long life they will have been your only true constant stars. Siblings, even if sometimes you can’t remember if they have a name other than That Dick, are gifts. Uncle Ken, my grandpa’s younger brother, will be giving the eulogy at St. Pete’s this Monday at 10am if anyone who read this in Hamburg is interested in great oration.

So, goodbye Uncle Ed. Thanks for the education. You finally broke out of that nursing home for good.