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The Collective

I was in a coffee shop in Malate and had picked up one of those hip city lifestyle magazines to peruse while I was waiting for my Americano. I happened upon a blurb about a retail co-op of sorts in Makati that sounded interesting- a mix of café, bar, and art gallery/retail shops in a small corner of the affluent part of the city.

The next time I popped up to Manila I decided to check it out. It’s easy to miss. I walked past it two times before I decided to investigate what looked like a halfway-abandoned dingy shopping mall façade. So imagine my surprise when upon entering the unassuming, grey concrete wall of nothingness that greets one from the street, a quirky, colorful amalgamation of trendy boutiques, eating spots and colorful bicycle repair/silk screening joint greeted me.

The space had an aura of promise as many of the spaces were not open yet or still under construction, but as I cupped my eyes and pressed my face against the glass for further inspection, I was pleasantly surprised. Oh! This will probably be an art gallery- Oh! Love the crazy bags and hats in this store! Funky tattoo shop… And Oh! Cool vintage home store! Are these custom skateboards? And what was open and operational did not disappoint either.

I checked out Vinyl On Vinyl, a (what else) record store and art space that housed their records in what seemed like old arcade consoles, with robot art on the shelves and graphic media dotting the walls; an assault of graffiti colored the corridor it inhabits:

I entered an anonymous cube of a boutique that sold light, cute graphic dresses and kaftans and Indian-inspired chemises. The saleslady and I talked about the neighboring B-Side café and bar, which has become a kind of underground bar for students and “artistas” (celebrities) into electronic and house on the weekends.

At Wabi-Sabi, I chatted with a friendly employee and wolfed down a delicious vegetarian ramen (and at P95, the price was right).

I sauntered into New Old Bikes, the aforementioned vintage bike rehabilitator and silk screen workshop. Various tools hung from the wall and lines of bicycles bearing the classic scoop-handle were propped up against each other, reminding me of De Sica’s Bicycle Thief and something Audrey Hepburn would ride through the streets of Paris. I interrupted an extremely adorable employee to inquire about the graphic prints and silk screen designs that they sell; they make a great shirt of a bicyclist with “Pilipinas” inscribed underneath the design.

Sundae offered not ice cream concoctions but eccentric jewelry and an array of colorful footwear and tops. Hysteric Wacko had interesting tshirt designs, while Hmrm inventively evoked a classroom, varsity sports theme for the denim, shirts and sunglasses it displayed, complete with textbooks and locker-room décor. Another store that drew me in like a firefly to light had a wall chock full of special edition lomographic cameras that I wished I could afford to purchase.

if you are wondering what to get me for Christmas...

I spent about two and a half hours perusing all that The Collective had to offer, and it was a really relaxing, enjoyable way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

To tie this into my Peace Corps experience, it was a nice way to remind myself that while I have had a whirlwind of a ride being a volunteer, it will be a relief not to have it define myself as a person. You get used to saying everyday “I’m a volunteer, I’m a volunteer, I’m a volunteer” ad nauseum to every person wondering what a white girl is doing in the provinces of the Philippines and it wears you down sometimes.

It was great to just be a 25 year old girl window shopping in a city by herself for a change.

Misadventures in Baguio

My friend Stephanie and I decided that for our post-PC trip, we would spend a month in China.

Well, it's only $6 a night, how bad could it be...

Most sought-out locations for newly released volunteers (Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Bali) bear an identical tropical heat to the Philippines, making preparations where packing is concerned relatively simple. These are logical travel destinations, being both cheap and nearby, and the vast majority of our batch will be traipsing around SE Asia come November. Yet, as much as other volunteers are like family, and I am friends with most, I would really rather lick a water buffalo than run into anyone from PC during post-PC travels.

Plus, part of the draw of China is not sweating, not hiking rice paddies, and not dealing with gigantic tropical bugs, mosquitoes, and all of the other uncomfortable frustrations associated with a lot of these countries.

So, Stephanie and I would have to come up with a backpack-full of long sleeves, coats, hats, gloves, and other items that would get us from chilly Beijing to frigid Tibet to a more temperate Yangshuo. And, I was in need of a good pack as well.

The solution: a weekend trip to the northern mountains of Luzon, to Baguio City, where pine trees, crisp breezes, and most importantly, thrift stores (ukay-ukays) prevail.

We didn’t make detailed plans for our trip to Baguio. We’ve become fairly laissez-faire with these types of weekend trips. Just get up and go- I picked the first cheap, decent-looking hostel from one of about eight Philippine Travel Guides that were left in the PC offices, and a seven hour night-bus later, Stef and I stepped into a pleasantly cool Baguio morning to flag down one of the mountain city’s characteristic white 4×4 cabs.

It took the driver some time to figure out that we wanted to get to the Diamond Inn by Session Road, and not a diner.

Stef: Diamond. DIE- MUND INN.

Driver: DIE-er-ner?

Stef: DIIIEE-MMUUUNNDD Inn.

Driver: Ohhh. No DIIEE-nuh? You are not hungry? What DIE-UH-mun?

Stef: Not die-nuh or di-uh-mun. Die-mund Inn. DIAMOND Inn.

Driver: DIE-UUUHHHH-mun? Diiieenn-er-mund?

Stef: Goddamnit, DIAMOND!!!!!

<repeat the above exchange twice more>

Driver: Oh. DIE-UH-mun Inn.

Stef: It’s pronounced DIE-MUND, walang (no) UUUH.

Driver: Haha, you say wrong, its DIE-UUH-MUN.

Stef: It’s an English word!!!

We finally pulled up to the Diamond Inn, or we took the driver’s word for it, because there was no sign and it looked like we were just parked on a random side-street of grimy hovels and open-air barber shops. He pointed down a narrow alley, almost too narrow to walk without your shoulders brushing the brick.

This was the first sign of bad things to come.

We went down the alley, and to the left a staircase appeared, leading to a dimly-lit reception area. An initial, brief visual inspection returned a satisfactory result: a bit dark, a little hodge-podge, but probably not dangerous or grubby enough for us to seek other lodging. We just needed a place to sleep for two nights and would be out most of the time anyway.

We saw the room, which in hindsight was the second sign of bad things to come. It was a small closet of a room squeezed below the staircase, giving it an irregular, sloping ceiling, and it stank of mothballs and stagnant air. It contained a rudimentary steel bunk-bed frame, a small plastic hanging mirror, and not much else.

Being tough Peace Corps volunteers, this was still not enough to dissuade us from its prime location near the ukays and its cheap price ($6.80 a night). We paid for two nights.

Only then did it dawn on us to ask where the CR (bathroom) is. We were led down a short, narrow passage to a tiny area with only two flickering fluorescent lights, enough to illuminate the huge dead cockroach in one sink, another cracked sink, and stained and broken tiles. The light in the shower room was busted, and more dead bugs and mysterious dark stains greeted our eyes as they acclimated to the light pooling in from above the sink. The toilets were… I’ll save your stomach the description.

This may have been a deterring factor. However, I think we both felt as if we had cultivated a superior tolerance for grossness over the past two years. And we had already paid. I silently thanked my short hair; anything that would lessen the amount of time spent in the CR was a precious gift.

We walked around the reception area. In the faint light, we had missed the myriad cages that dotted the space. A snake hovered in the air towards the warm, glowing bulb in its cage. Two parrots, an African Grey and a generic green parrot, bopped their heads at us in another cage, ambivalent towards the handful of enormous Pleistocene-era cockroaches scuttling about in the crick of the wall behind them. Yet another snake sat coiled tightly around itself on its perch, unmoving. Two large goldfish looked out of their tank, bored. Three large, white, translucent fish in another tank swam around each other.

The receptionist told us there is another parrot in the kitchen. We went down some rickety steps into another area plagued by the same lack of light. To our right sat a huge Cockatoo, perched on a stick inside a dungeon of a kitchen. It talked. HERROW! HERROW! HehHehHeehhh….

After we sucked just about all of the entertainment we could get from Diamond’s eccentric menagerie of animals, we headed out in search of coffee for a long day of hard bargaining at the ukay shops.

At the ukays, I found a black, thin, incredibly soft long-sleeved Calvin Klein shirt for 35P. A reporter from a prominent news network interviewed me about ukay shopping, obviously surprised that I responded in Tagalog. That was fun.

We tried on fake (at least I think they are fake? hard to tell) North Face backpacks, bought comfy plaid shirts, fleeces, etc. I got incredibly lucky and found a stylish black TopShop jacket for $12.

But the vast majority of our purchases made us look like we had pillaged an L.L. Bean outlet store.  Functionality was the most important consideration, next to being “not hideous.” We would be donating most of these items after our trip anyways.

Later that afternoon, I was exhausted. A good exhaustion, but exhausted nonetheless. All I really wanted to do was sit in a movie theatre and veg out. We walked up to the mall, and nothing too great was playing- the owl movie, your run-of-the-mill Tagalog rom-com, and something I had never heard of- Splice.

What was this Splice movie? We studied the movie poster. Adrien Brody! We love Adrien Brody. The Pianist? The Darjeeling Limited? We had found our movie.

Well, after an hour and a half enduring a film that should have gone straight to the 1am slot of the SciFi network, Stef and I walked out of the movie theatre, not speaking, wondering what the hell that was all about.

Annoying Scientist Girlfriend mixes her DNA with multiple animals to create ugly, freakish, violent rabbit-headed giant orb-eyed humanoid with nasty chicken legs that she decides to raise as her own because of wishy-washy allusions to a messed-up childhood, and Placating Scientist Boyfriend (that’s YOU, Mr. Brody) first tries to drown it and then ends up having sex with it?!?! And then they bury it alive but it changes GENDERS and emerges only to kill everyone with its spike tail? Adrien Brody is officially on my shitlist. Also, Canada.

Adrien Brody, you are an OSCAR winner, just how could you? It’s like if Meryl Streep started appearing on Jersey Shore or something.

The movie was so perplexedly disturbing (in an I-want-to-curl-up-in-fetal-position-with-my-childhood-stuffed-animal, not in an artsy-noir way) that we had to go stare at the Owl Movie poster for almost ten minutes, seeking solace in the cute owl’s large, animated eyes.

That not being enough, we paid 100P to a mall vendor for a bracelet of cheap jade, pink sparkly baubles, red beads, a Buddha and our astronomical sign, who blessed it in a tin bowl, thinking this would somehow lessen our current freaked-out state. The movie was HORRENDOUS.

As it was dinnertime, we decided a good meal amongst bustling Session Road would probably render our spirits back to some semblance of normal. We shared vegetable wontons, grilled eggplant and one of the most delicious burgers I have had in this country and washed it down with a couple of beers, our good karma bracelets clinking against the glass. We felt a bit better.

We were not looking forward to going back to the Diamond Inn, although we were incredibly sleepy. The Diamond Inn, not being the homiest of establishments, was probably not the best place to go after watching Splice, but we were tired and had no choice.

We shuffled through the alley with our ukay finds, and climbed the stairs past the reception area and animals. The cages of bird, reptile and fish that had earlier been benignly quirky, now seemed sinister.  We continued to our hole of a room, where an ancient foam-green fan had been placed to help with the musty odor.  Our beds were now draped with thin Disney blankets, Winnie the Pooh and Disney Princesses.

I braved the CR only to quickly wash my face and brush my teeth, and even that was difficult, the dead cockroach crept into my peripheral vision. I felt dirtier coming out than I had going in.

Back in the room, I looked at the bed, images of cockroaches and crawly things scrambling about in my mind. I decided to sleep fully-clothed on top of the blanket, curled up as tight as possible. This bed is the perfect receptacle for bedbugs or scabies, I thought. Just two nights! Just two nights!

We shut off the lone light, both mildly uncomfortable but resigned to it. That is, until the noise began.

I had just drifted into a shallow sleep when I was brought to full consciousness by huge thuds against our wall.

BAM! BAAAM!!! BAM BAM BAM!!!!!!!!

Silence. My eyes were fixed to the ceiling (maybe it was the freaky thing from Splice!)

BAM BAM BAMM  BAAM!!!!!!!!

I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, but it went on for HOURS. Every now and then I would here irate yelling in foreign languages. Then, between floor-rattling thuds, drunk men seemed to descend upon the space and proceed to scream at each other. This was bad. Very, very, bad I thought as I clung to my knees, sideways on top of my Disney princess blanket. Oh Jasmine, the Raj’s palace this is not.

I fell into a haggard sleep probably sometime around 3am. Stephanie had gotten up and attempted to sleep on the floor, thinking the banging noises were coming from the ceiling.

I heard her rustling, and sat up.

We discussed the situation for three minutes, and in another five had packed up our things and were securing our money back for the second night.

In other words, we fled. It was 4:30am.

Dawn on Sunday found us bleary eyed, wandering around Burnham Park in search of a hostel I had thought I had seen the day before. We were operating on mere fumes, since the night before our traumatic Diamond experienc we had been on a night bus and had probably gotten only a few hours of weird bus-induced sleep.

Nevertheless, we were in high spirits, just thankful to be rid of the Diamond Inn and all of its dirty strangeness.

The exterior was nice at the first place we found, but the inside was only a few short steps above the Diamond. We moved on.

The second place was really nice, but too nice. Expensive nice. Sigh.

The third place, the Paladin Hotel, was just right. Not a hostel, but a hotel. At this point, I was prepared to throw down some money just for a clean bathroom. It was already 5:45am.

After walking up a wide wooden staircase flanked by mirrored, hunter green walls, we leaned over the reception desk. $15 a night each, with private bathroom and cable tv. Sold.

The receptionist then informed us that we would be charged an early check-in fee since it was before 7:00am.

We stared at her slack-jawed, disheveled, defeated.

“Uum, I will waive the fee. Wait just a moment for your key.”

The room was perfect. Real beds, real sheets, real blankets, real TV, clean bathroom with hot showers, even two clean towels.

We finished our ukay shopping later that day. I bought a big North Face backpack, a sturdy daypack, and a huge, fluffy be-hooded winter coat suitable for Tibet. We went to the silver market and on the way back bought strawberries to eat with my leftover pancakes from our earlier breakfast. By 1:30pm we were splayed out on our beds, watching A Knight’s Tale and Entertainment Tonight and Glee, all courtesy of our beloved cable television in our nice clean hotel room. Later we would venture out to have one of the best Mongolian BBQ dinners ever.

Despite Splice and the Diamond Inn, the trip was very successful.

When friends travel together, it’s hard not to wonder whether they will still be friends after the trip is over. You always hear horror stories of long established, strong friendships devolving into icy acquaintances due to one lousy vacation.

The best thing that came out of our Baguio excursion was the discovery that we are very compatible travel buddies, working together when things go awry. Could come in handy during our month in China- maybe even more so than my $8 poofy Tibet monstrosity of a coat (which I can’t wait to wear somewhere other than my sweltering apartment.)

Well, I Guess it’s Time to Go

My percolator broke.

This is probably the most coveted kitchen item that I own. Good coffee (relatively speaking, of course, i.e. not instant nescafe 3-in-1 sachets) is one of the handful of luxuries that I afford myself at my site.

My friend found the percolator, hiding with a film of dust, behind a faux-decorative molding in the wall at my old house. I thought it was a mere container, and I was ecstatic at the prospect of not having to shell out 1/8 of my living allowance to buy a coffee maker (which I was perfectly prepared to do).

Every couple of months my parents would send me bags of Mayorga coffee, Colombian Supremo or Ethiopian Yirgacheffe or Peruvian Blah-de-Blah along with sections of the Washington Post and fashion magazines. I looked forward to these packages with a rakish glee and would tear into them at my office. My coworkers would eye me suspiciously for the next few hours while I read WaPo articles and sniffed coffee like a drug addict, obviously bewildered at my reaction to a box of foreign goods that did not contain any sugary items or American junkfood, or Victoria Secret body sprays (those are big here).

I go through a very specific ritual in the morning; learned behavior from adolescence- Dad gets up freakishly early, makes coffee and breakfast, waiting for the rest of the family to saunter downstairs where we each slurp at least two cups of coffee while sharing the paper for half an hour.

Here, I make sure to get up early enough to down two cups of coffee, make some oatmeal, and read whatever book I’m into that week at a languorous pace; lingering in my apartment sipping my slight Muscovado-sugared strong coffee flown all the way from Maryland, for just as long as it takes the creeping heat of my apartment to break a few beads of sweat on my brow. Then I know it’s time to get going.

I cling to this routine. And now, it has all gone to shit.

I woke up one morning, made my coffee, and took a sip. Watery. What the? I inspected it… the opaque yellowish tinge of tea glared back at me from the cup. So…so… weak…

I tried again. Busted. So utterly busted. I’m not kidding when I say a cloud of devastation invaded my thoughts when I deduced that my percolator just was not perking the way it had before. I felt like I had lost a friend.

I only have a month left, I thought to myself, resigned.  And I will be in Manila for a lot of that time. This is reassuring.

Because this is how I am making my coffee now and I am not sure how long I can keep it up:

desperation calls for a little ingenuity

Yes, I sit here for 15 minutes each morning, pouring a few splooshes of hot water over a tablespoon or so of coffee grounds, trying not to overwhelm the filters I found at the grocery store hiding behind tubs and tubs of instant coffee. The first time I attempted to finagle a decent cup of coffee this way, I got overexcited and the filter broke and dumped a bunch of grounds into my half-filled cup, forcing me to start over, get creative and balance my small pasta strainer thing between filter and cup.

But by the time I get a full cup, my coffee has tempered into the taste of tepid disappointment. Still better than instant Nescafe, but meh. Gone are the glory days of efficient percolated goodness.

Some may think I am being a little too freakish about my coffee. I also know a handful of people who are coffee experts who will completely understand, because it is their fault for spoiling me (you know who you are! thanks a lot…)

Good thing I bought my ticket home yesterday and will be arriving at DCA on Novermber 29th and can go to places like this and this and this

I'm a delicious fruit just like every other one! Please love me! *sob*

A durian is a fruit. You can see for yourself what it looks like- not going to win any Beauty Contests. And those spines are enough to intimidate your most intrepid of food-seekers.

The durian also has a really bad reputation. Bring up durians in conversation, and people will inevitably hold their noses and tell you how foul they smell.

I was a victim of this widespread misrepresentation. As of two weeks ago, I had eaten duck fetus, but you couldn’t get me near a durian.

How misled I was.

I had my first durian at my friend Stephanie’s house on the island of Mindoro. She adores durians, and actively seeks them out to savor their strange, squishy insides. I decided I wanted a taste.

A durian is nothing like I have ever tasted before- but I LOVED it.

The flavor is this slightly sweet combination of onion and almond. It tastes like a really great cheese spread. Maybe a hint of melon-fruit flavor.

I know. It is weird.

But Stephanie, you can put me on your short list of converts to the cult of the durian. Delicious!

And it doesn’t smell that bad, people. For a population that will readily consume barbecued day-old chicks, chicken feet, fish eyeballs, a blood and intestine soup, and the aforementioned duck fetus, durian should be no big. For real.

Everyone needs a mani/pedi at the office every now and then…

North end of the Underpass

I took this picture on my 3 minute walk to work from my apartment this morning. I unlocked the two sets of gates separating my apartment from the rest of the world, crossed the street and stepped onto the dusty underbelly of the underpass; the culprit behind the blackened soles of my feet at the end of every day.

I see this dog nearly every morning and evening going to and from my office. He seems different than the other street dogs, being all decently fed and such- probably from the handful of sidewalk barbecue carts and lomi houses. Maybe he even gets thrown a fried fish ball or two once in awhile, the scent of which I can never quite get off of my clothes.

The Underpass is an entity all its own, and I began to wonder about the small dramas that unfold under its broad shadow.

At the northern end of it, trike drivers congregate and attempt to lure customers. If it is after lunch time, most of them are contentedly napping in the cabs of their machines, seemingly oblivious to the heat and the racket of traffic and the convergence of all sorts of dirt and muck dredged in by the masses of jeepneys, busses, trucks, motorcycles that lift and mix tiny pollutants and soot from burnt-trash piles of yesteryear.

At more active times of the day, they play checkers and tongits (a Filipino betting game) with bus company employees on makeshift wooden tables of uncertain stability.

For a long time, a large, tattered grey-blue sofa materialized under the south end of the underpass, nudged in just before the elevated road meets the highway again. This became a popular hangout place for teenage boys skipping school or spending a whole Saturday. Four or five boys would pile up on it and climb its arm rests, pushing each other, trying to eke out a place to spend a few hours. They would wave and yell to me on my way to work, and wave and yell to me on my way back from work, subconsciously taking small drags off their cigarettes.

When I walk to the office, I usually look at the ground so as not to catch someone’s eye and be the center of interminable barks of “whereareyougoingwhereareyougoingwhereareyougoingwhereareyougoingwhereareyougoing” that the bus people seem set on attacking me with, even though they see me every day go to the same place, past their bus stations.

Looking at the ground around the underpass, I regularly see bones. Yep, bones. My own little faux archaeological site. Little chips here and there, so small as to be unidentifiable. Mostly metatarsals of chickens. I see the dogs pick them up and happily trot back beside their colossal cement pillar of choice, and greedily gnaw on the last of the last remnants of someone’s merienda.

I live by The Underpass, it is its own community unto itself, no barangay council, no barangay hall, but if a camera crew spent any length of time in this splotch of scraggly, half dead vegetation, ashes of burnt waste, repository of busted tables and abandoned sofas, I wonder what kinds of stories they would discover.

A couple of months ago, I read a really interesting article in the Peace Corps Times about volunteers involved in a fantastic solid waste management project in Guatemala.

Volunteers work with local schools and teach about the importance of properly disposing our waste, reinforcing environmental principles and instilling a sense of pride about a clean, trash-free community.

This particular project also addressed the need for more school buildings.

How?

By having the kids clean and stuff thousands of discarded plastic bottles with residual trash, stack them, wrap them in chicken wire, cover it in cement and BUILD A SCHOOL.

from Pura Vida

Love. It.

An NGO in the area, Pura Vida, was the first to come up with the idea and refine it, as a way of helping displaced people who had lost their homes due to hurricanes, in addition to simultaneously addressing the nasty trash problem that plagues so many developing countries.

Peace Corps volunteers got wind of the idea and ran with it, getting help from the American non-profit Hug it Forward, that helps with both manpower and fundraising.

They made the trash collection into a contest for the students to make it fun, and the process of stuffing and stacking the bottles is so simple that anyone can help in the construction- kids, women’s groups, farmers.

The projects in Guatemala have received a good amount of international attention, with articles from local newspapers, ABC News, and the Discovery Channel’s “Planet Green” offshoot, even the White House blog. And I can see why- this type of innovation has the potential to impact not only Guatemala, but many similar developing countries with waste problems (such as… the Philippines).

photo from Peace Corps Times

The beauty of this is that yes, you can build a school. But if you are a volunteer that is busy with primary projects and not up to building a large structure, you can build smaller things too, like benches or a short wall around a garden.

This is the kind of project that had I more time here, or had I decided to extend my service, that I would undertake. However, the Lions Club of my city is just about ready to begin construction on a new clubhouse. I was able to contact some of the Guatemala volunteers involved in these projects, and the staff at the PC Guatemala country desk were great in sending me resources and contacts.

Information in hand, I pitched this idea to the Lions Club, and this unconventional method got very good reception from the members. If not the whole structure, they may at least attempt to use the method for a wall or two (one humorous fellow suggested they build the CR with bottles and name it after me- pshhhh, thanks!).

In my spare time at the office, I continued to do research. This type of “eco-building” lead me on an internet search that yielded some really cool ideas. This one man built an entire backyard playland for his kids out of plastic bottles:

Trash Playground

And I was astounded at the amount of research being done by architecture schools and firms on using alternative materials, like this stylish glass-bottle wall that creates a stunning whimsical effect on the space:

Nifty, unique way to use light... and trash

So, just thought I would share something that piqued my interest. If you want to donate to a bottle construction school-building project in Guatemala, go to the Hug It Forward website, I am pretty sure they have one or two schools underway at this very moment.

http://bottleschools.com/

http://www.puravidaatitlan.org/english.html

Hopefully I can pass the resources I have gathered to volunteers here in the Philippines who will not be so close to the end of their service, as I am, and can really develop and run with it.

A couple of days ago my sitemate asked if I wanted to go somewhere, anywhere, just get out of the city for a bit. I thought that was a very pleasant idea, and we agreed to meet on Sunday morning and go to Ilijan, where one of my office’s proposed marine protected areas lies.

Of course, it just so happened that Saturday night, a birthday blow-out was exploding just below my window. The videoke machine of bad, bad, horribly awful adult rock and contrived love songs was agonizingly loud, so much so that I could not even hear the audio of a movie I was watching on my laptop; I was smashing the pads of my headphones against my ears in utter exasperation that I swore I almost touched my eardrums, all the while seething and mentally noting all of the heavy objects in my apartment that might make a large enough dent in the machine to bust it up and make sure it never breathes god-awful Billy Ray Cyrus again.

Did I chuck anything out of the window? Well, no, because everything I own of any weight, I would probably regret flinging out of my window in my aurally assaulted, sleep deprived rage. Not even Peter Frampton or Celine Dion could make me drop my fan or my refrigerator out of my window.

I stared at my ceiling until about 4:00 am when I think my body just shut down, probably part of some evolutionary survival mechanism.

Thank god I received a text from Lynn. We had a wonderful time walking around beautiful, rural Ilijan (even though we always happen to pick the muggiest days to go on these sojourns). But at least we weren’t sucking in jeepney exhaust fumes or getting a nice layer of grimestuck to our faces.

A fisherman's boat sits on the deserted beach in Ilijan

I showed Lynn the church where my host sister had gotten married about two years before, the high school where the coastal district sports competition was held last year, we talked to some nice folks who knew me from Bantay Dagat meetings, we walked over the bridge and past the barangay captain’s house, who happened to be walking down his dusty driveway with a smart-looking new haircut, I sucked down a pepsi and Lynn ate a whole bunch of fruit at Bicolandia, my favorite sari-sari store and local eatery in the area. The owner’s grandchildren were happy to see us:

At Bicolandia

We decided to stop at the bakery, where I bought a couple of confections baked with sweet mungo paste, smeared with a thin layer of margarine and topped with a healthy dose of sugar crystals. After taking some pictures of street dogs, we proceeded to a waterfall that my coworkers had shown to me over a year ago.

We didn’t make it to the waterfall (the underbrush had grown so much I could not locate the right path), but we met many friendly faces along the long, relaxing walk up into the mountains.

This is Anjelica, a beautiful, shy girl who politely told me her name and had probably never seen a digital camera in her life.

Anjelica

A view of our path:

winding path through the mountain

These are the things I will most miss about my time here. The everyday things. Simplicity. Seeing kids having fun playing outside. Families laughing and washing their clothes in the creek. Men weaving bamboo on the side of the dirt road. The intense colors of a Philippine mountainside.

The quiet. After the night I had spent, the sheer quietness was absolutely sublime.

Probably a Bad Idea

75% OFF ALL CIRCUMCISIONS COME ON DOWN!!!

Because everyone young boy dreams of a $22.50 circumcision.

Maybe this should be the Peace Corps logo?

I had a meeting in Manila. The time of the meeting was set at 3:30 pm. I was to meet with a prominent Filipino marine biologist, the director of Reef Check Philippines, part of an international organization that trains scuba divers in coral reef assessments.

Reef Check is perfect for my coworkers. The assessment methodology focuses on human impact to the coral ecosystem. In an area focused on economic coastal development and the home of an international pier, this particular training would address the environmental challenges of a Philippine metropolis such as Batangas City.

However, the marine biologist wears many hats and is extremely busy. Not only does he manage Reef Check Philippines, he is a professor at De La Salle University and also works on marine projects with the University of the Philippines. It took me a handful of emails and text messages, and upwards of a month, to schedule this meeting.

A trip to Manila is an opportunity to kill many birds with one stone. The Fisheries Division was in need of maps of two barangays wherein proposed MPAs are situated.

We made our way into the city; our first stop was NAMRIA, the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority, which occupies a large campus situated on a hilly, green area off of a highway. I was impressed with the complexity and modernity of the buildings. They had the academic feel of an American university; the wide wooden halls, the impressive array of antique maps spanning the length of the long corridors, the doors upon doors leading to office upon office, all with very official, scientific names: geodetic divisions, GIS specialists, cartographers, GPS training divisions, and so on. The aura of professionalism was surprising.

That is, until one office sent us to another office for the maps, and that office only sent us to the original office for the very same maps. Finally, we were sent to the fourth floor of another building, where we were told that the only maps they had… we already owned.

These maps are from the fifties, and were done by American consultants who helped set up NAMRIA. Fail.

However, the NAMRIA website says they offer mapping services, and maybe the hydrology division has some maps that we might be able to use.

Where is the hydrology division? Surely it must reside in one of the ten buildings in the immediate environs?

Oh, no, it is across town in a completely separate compound, and we’ll have to snake our way through half of sprawling Manila to get there.

Two thoughts:

1) Wow, I wonder what all of these GIS, GPS, and cartography specialists have done for the past sixty years because it sure seems like they aren’t creating any damn maps (so much for that veneer of academic study and professionalism).

2) Good thing we left really early in the morning and our coral reef meeting isn’t until 3:30pm- we have time to check out the hydrology division, although I was skeptical that this route would prove fruitful given our circuitous wanderings around the main offices.

In the car, my counterpart tells me he needs to quickly drop off a document at an office building in Makati. It is before noon, so we are in no huge rush. I nod my head in acknowledgement from the back seat, and as we come upon the building, my counterpart jumps out of the vehicle, leaving us to idle by the curb and wait.

And wait we do. And wait. And wait…

About 20 minutes later, I get restless and leave the car to check out a SCUBA shop I spotted nearby. I browsed through the clearance wetsuits, checked the prices on fins, noted the selection of rash guards, and made forced small talk with the saleswoman.

A little perplexed, I texted my counterpart. No response. I returned to the car.

Our driver had no idea where my counterpart was either, but he seems not too concerned, and content to nap in the driver’s seat. A little more than an hour later, and I am both frustrated and infuriated, a volatile combination. Our driver is softly snoring, like a five year old after an afternoon snack of warm milk and cookies. Shit.

I finally end up stomping into the office building, eyes to the floor, ignoring the jolly security guards who are leering at me and generally acting like infantile twelve-year-old boys. I am pissed, and shoot them a stony glare that says I am in no mood to deal with silly cultural bullshit right now.

As luck would have it, I see my counterpart coming out of an elevator down the hall. I resist the urge to explode, or kick him in the shins.

In my best trying-really-hard-not-to-display-bouts-of-anger-unbecoming-to-a-representive-of-the-U.S. Peace Corps, I gently ask, through clench teeth, where the *^(^%&* he has been for the past hour and a half.

He was dropping off his resume. The man asked him to take a qualifying test of math and English comprehension questions.

The worst part is that he was smiling, as if he had done nothing wrong. He said he couldn’t very well text me back as he was in the middle of an exam.

A slew of four letter words raced through my mind, and I’m sure it registered on my face, because my counterpart began to look at least slightly sheepish.

The best part of this story occurred five minutes later, as we walked out of the building, and my counterpart announced that he has to go back inside because he needs to take one more part of the test. It is 2pm now. Our coral reef meeting, one that took me a full month to acquire due to scheduling conflicts, was in an hour and a half. And I still had to stop by the Peace Corps main office; my sector manager wanted to talk to me before my meeting.

What could I do? I said if it took longer than half an hour, I’d leave him and have the driver take me to Peace Corps and the meeting by myself.

He was out in 15 minutes, and had the gall to text me demanding where I went after I popped into a coffee shop for a much needed caffeine fix.

I’m in the car, and my counterpart directs the driver to proceed to the Hydrology Division offices across town. It is 2:30pm. My meeting is in an hour, the whole point of coming to Manila.

I ask why we would go to the Hydrology Division if our VERY IMPORTANT meeting is in ONE hour and we are still sitting in traffic. I flatly say that we now have no more time to try and get the maps.

“But what about the maps we needed, what will we do?” my counterpart whined, throwing up his arms in exasperation.

It took every last infinitesimal speck of energy left in my body not to whack him on the back of the head with my binder.

I curtly replied that if he had not taken us on an unexpected detour in which we wasted two hours for no fucking reason, we would have been able to get the maps AND make the meeting, and any human being with a modicum of logic and sense would have inferred from our distance and the time that we would not physically be able to reach the Hydrology Division without being inappropriately late for my meeting.

Well, I did not curse. But I did desert any pretense of equanimity I had adhered to up until point.

He stopped talking, and I made it to the meeting, which went great. And lord knows I was not in the best of moods upon arriving. By the time the meeting ended, an hour and a half later, my spirits were lifted and I tried to forget that just earlier in the day, I was very close to strangling my counterpart.

My counterpart said I was great in the meeting and was proud to be there with me (even if his only participation in said meeting was to dutifully consume three pieces of provided pizza and request for a Coke).

It is amazing how quickly I can go from a wretchedly foul black cloud of negativity to a lighthearted, dizzying cool mist of exhausted happiness.

This type of experience is fairly typical when working on a project. Everything always works out and always gets done- eventually, and maybe not in the most professional of manners.

But it always gets done.

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