Saturday, May 14, 2011

Two Weeks with Ma'am Shea!

I don't even know where to begin trying to describe my trip to the Philippines! My expectations were completely blown away and I had opportunities to be a part of Filipino culture that I never thought possible. I was visiting my friend Shea, who is a Peace Corps
Each pin represents a city I spent some time in.
Volunteer and is six months away from reaching two years of service. She is teaching English to high school kids on the island of Marinduque in the heart of the country. Her dedication to the kids she works with is truly inspirational  and her ability to learn fluent Tagalog is even more impressive! Everywhere we go, taxi drivers or cashiers would be shocked that a blonde American girl was razzing them in their native language. It was great.

Well, let's get down to business! I want to try to encapsulate the two weeks I was in the Philippines into a blog post, and there is no way I'll do it justice, but I'm going to try for posterity's sake.

When I first arrived, I got off the plane and single-handedly made my way to the hostel. This sounds daunting but Shea is a serious girl scout and made sure I was prepared to explain myself to the taxi driver. I arrived at the Pension Natividad hostel and got my bunk in the women's dorms. It was a little after midnight when I checked in. After a few hours of sleep, I was awakened by a Shea sneaking into bed with me! She had just spent nine hours getting to Manila by tricycle, boat, and bus!
A view of the Mayon volcano after we touched down.

The next morning, we had plans to go to Legazpi. The Philippines are a network of islands and are therefore incredibly laborious to navigate - illustrated by the 9-hour trek Shea took to get to Manila! Anyway, we had made plans to catch a flight from Manila to Legazpi to save ourselves time. I met Shea's friend Keith, another Peace Corps Volunteer,  (PCV) and we all made our way to Legazpi for a week of water safety and environmental education classes for local kids in Salvacion, a city named for the salvation it provides during destructive volcanic eruptions nearby.

Keith in a Filipino tricyle!
Before our trip to Salvacion, we were meeting up with more volunteers in Sorsagon. We met Kaitlin and Laurel and Laurel’s host family invited us to their bahay kubo, a mountain house. I was expecting a modest little cabin, but we hiked up a ways and saw a brand-new bamboo house with a wrap-around porch. The host father explained that he was clearing an area to start a coffee plantation and used the bamboo to build the house.
Kaitlin on our way to the bahay kubo
The gorgeous house made of bamboo
Shea about to relax on the hammock with a view of the coffee plants
Beautiful view of the ocean
A little friend I made along the way
We went back to Laurel’s new house and had tuna sandwiches, rum and fruit smoothies, and cookies Laurel made! We went to bed early to prepare for the incredible events the next day.

We woke up at  4:30am to catch jeepneys to see the whale sharks! It was bright but rainy and warm by the time we got a ride and we all hopped on top of the jeep for a better view. I sort of felt like we were in a parade because all the locals would stop and stare at the foreigners (us!) on top. I also learned that women do not top ride for the most part, so the fact that we preferred the view from the top was also shocking.
We found our way to the whale sharks and paid for our registration and rental fees and then sat on the beach for a while to relax and tan. I enjoyed a halo halo, a dessert made of shaved ice, noodles (!), condensed milk, mango, corn (!!), and corn flakes. It was no ice cream cone, but it was refreshing in the heat, and the condensed milk of course made it sweet and tasty.
Laurel, Kaitlin, Shayla, Shea, and me ready to see the whale sharks!
After we boarded the boat, we had a lot of trouble seeing the whale sharks. The men driving the boat and keeping a lookout for whale sharks said the whale sharks were being shy. We finally came to a site where the whale sharks were feeding (on plankton, not humans) and jumped in. I was slow getting off the boat because everyone jumped in and started kicking frantically, so I was okay with not getting kicked in the face and perhaps not seeing the whale sharks the first time. I was looking around with my snorkel and only saw the spotted ocean floor. I came up for air and heard Shea’s voice: “Heather! It is right under you!” So, that spotted ocean floor was really the whale shark’s spotted back! It was so shocking to be so close to a creature that could be confused with the ocean floor! They are truly remarkable creatures. We found a few more as the day went on and had better views of the side and fins.

On our way home from the whale sharks, we took van to Laurel’s site. There were three guys in the back who weren’t Filipino: an Austrian and two Canadians. They were incredibly obnoxious and stereotypical westerners. One ate a mango by biting into it, skin and all, even after Shea warned them that the skin is related to poison oak and can cause stomach and skin problems.
Nice people throwing buckets of water at our flaming tire
After smelling burning rubber for a while, we pulled over because people were yelling the word for “fire” in Tagalog. The van filled with smoke and I leapt out of the van, losing a shoe. I really thought the van was going to explode! Everyone got out safely and Kaitlin even grabbed my shoe on her way out! Everyone at the stop started throwing buckets of water at the back right tire, which was now legitimately flaming. We were all safe and just got into another jeep. The non-PCV people in the van were all a little surprised that there was no police involvement: nobody asked for our names or contact information.
Our beachfront!
A view of the volcano in the distance
Our home for the week!

We joked that we were on The Real World when we saw the house and had to pick rooms.
Pretty little Charlotte was there all week to keep us company.
Breathtaking sunsets!
Shea's hand and a FROG. I had no idea they could be that big!
The inviting table at Glenda's house.
The next day, we slept in until about 10am and started our journey to Salvacion via Legazpi for water safety. Glenda welcomed us into her home with banana bread and iced tea. Her house is amazing! She’s a retired teacher and nurse practitioner. She’s Filipina and met her husband when he was a PCV. After they married, they went back to the Philippines for another few years to volunteer together. Their house is beautiful! It is right on the beach with a view of the Mayon volcano out of their wall of windows. We got to stay in their “guest house” which was a two-bedroom house also on the beach. This was their original house before the built their current one. For dinner, we had rice, bicol express, green beans in a curry sauce, and chicken with potatoes. Very tasty!

Woke up to one of the volunteers playing B.B. King singing the blues. It was so mellow and a great way to wake up! We had oatmeal and coffee, got our bathing suits on, and went to a local pool. We worried about the chemicals, but they just filled the pool with fresh water – kinda gross. The kids were so great. I’ve never worked with 6-13 year-olds who were such fast learners and didn’t cry or throw tantrums when they didn’t get their way. Some were terrified of the water and didn’t want to put more than their feet in. By the end of the day, all the kids were submerged, blowing bubbles, and at least moving themselves along the side of the pool. 
Mel is planning how she is going to make these Filipinos into superstar swimmers.
Brian and Chris tell the kids that safety is the most important part of the camp!
This is how the kids got to us each day!
A shivering boy uses an MSU t-shirt to dry off with Shea's help.
Shea getting the kids to play in the water. They're very motivated by the opportunity to splash her!
Storytime during the environmental awareness workshop
Brian teaching us how to make tortillas
 For the rest of the water safety seminar, I decided that my skin infection on my ankle would probably not benefit from swimming in the pool with kids. Since the pool was a little too small for all the kids and volunteers, we split the kids into groups and I took whichever group was sitting out for a little while and played games like Simon Says.  There was a huge language barrier on top of the cultural differences. Kids are taught to do whatever their teachers say, without questioning. Getting the kids to play and have fun in front of me was a stretch. By the end of the day, they even taught me a Filipino game!

Woke up around 6am  as usual and had breakfast of leftover fajitas from the night before. Tasty! It was raining, so we got off to a later start. I stayed out of the pool and pop quizzed the kids with math problems for a little bit and then made up a story for “story time”. I felt like my stories were a. boring and b. not understood anyway, so I got some of the more outgoing kids to start telling stories in Tagalog. It was adorable.
We went to Glenda’s for lunch and had fried tuna with lots of bones, a lot of rice, and a cabbage and snap pea salad on top. And mangoes! The mangoes really deserve a post of their own. They are so soft and juicy – absolutely incredibly delicious.

This morning, Glenda also started me on antibiotics for my skin infection I got from tripping over a rope on the beach. I visited her clinic and received enough for three days. I ended up making a donation at the end of our stay to make up for taking medication from the barangay, or neighborhood.
In the afternoon, I went to the barangay’s mother’s society with Mel and Keith. The mothers have a business selling “garbags” or bags made from colorful candy wrappers, less eloquently known as garbage. I was going to write descriptions of the products, but instead was surprised that all the board members from the mother’s society were there to greet us. I was able to meet the artists and do interviews with Glenda’s translation. Keith ordered a pair of sandals and we watched as they were sewn and sized right in front of us.
Our final view of Salvacion! The gate is a volcano!
On our last day in Salvacion, the leaders of the summer camp decided we would do a beach clean-up for a short time in the morning to learn about recycling and to teach kids about what can happen in the community when trash isn’t disposed of properly. I learned that most Filipinos simply burn their garbage instead of recycling or taking it to a dump. This causes pollution in the long run, but also causes asthma and other conditions for people, especially children, in the more immediate timeframe. During the clean-up on this beautiful beach, we found razor cartridges, toothbrushes, broken shards of glass bottles, ceramics, and lots of plastic packaging. It turned out that there was a dump up the river a little ways, and when it was flooded, all the garbage came pouring down the waterways that fed into the ocean. It was an important lesson for me, and also for the kids who live in the area.

Shea and I left after the clean-up to catch our ride to the airport. Glenda arranged for a tricycle to take us and our luggage directly to the airport instead of making it to the city and jumping on the next form of transportation.

When we arrived in Manila, we saw Kaitlin at the hostel and met a girl from MSU named Tricia. We went out for lunch and then decided to all get facials at the mall: a luxurious break from the sweaty work we’d been doing! I thought it would be a soothing and relaxing experience, but they actually squeeze every single pore on your face trying to remove your gunk. It is painful! First, you wash your face, then you lay down and the woman massages your face with lotion. This part feels great. Then, the woman starts suctioning away at your pores with a little tool that looks like it belongs in a dentist’s office. They steam your face, put a towel over it, and then go back to scraping more. I mistakenly decided to try my first threading experience at the same time and it was even more painful!
The Peace Corps crew at the bacla karaoke bar
Reunited at last-- me and Shea!!
All the baclas on stage entertaining the crowd.
A dramatic Celine Dion cover
Something a bit more spirited.
A Motown cover band in the Philippines! Perfecto!
Mo, at the bar
The girls taking a break from the dance floor
Me and Shea
Shea, traipsing around the bar!
We did a little shopping and then went back to the hostel to get ready for a night out in Manila. We went out with a big Peace Corps group and visted a bacla, a gay transvestite, karaoke bar. Baclas are one of the most perplexing cultural differences that I encountered. Boys who are gay are raised as baclas, which is seen as being it’s own gender in a way. Baclas are thought of as comedians and entertainment, but not taken seriously by other Filipinos. I also learned that baclas are often prostitutes for men in the Philippines. It doesn’t make a man gay if he has sex with a bacla, and cheating on wives is not as frowned upon as it is in American culture.
Anyway, we went to another bar after karaoke and found a club with a live band playing Motown and soul! We ordered more drinks and danced with the Filipinos. It was great! We stayed out until about 4am and were going to try to get on a bus immediately afterward, but crashed at the hostel for a few hours of sleep, followed by showers, breakfast, and packing.

The trip to Shea’s island was so long! We took a taxi to a bus station in Manila, then a bus to a ship, and a ship to Marinduque. Once we arrived, it was chaos getting off the boat and we walked swiftly over to the tricycles. I could tell Shea was well known in the area because we kept hearing “Ma’am Shea!” from different people she’d worked with. Shea found a tricyle driver she recognized and he drove us to her host family’s house. I  was incredulous at their hospitality! We arrived around 11pm, and her host mom still set out an entire meal for us and stayed up to chat for a little while. Shea introduced me to her kitties and they didn’t bother me at all, thanks to the wonders of allergy meds.
Preparing the wall for a world map!
In the morning, we met up with some of the kids from Shea’s environmental club. We were going to paint a huge world map on the side of a building, but first had to scrape off the old paint from the last project. We started with bamboo sticks, but then moved on to using real scraping equipment, metal spatulas, and sandpaper. Later on in the day, Shea’s host mom made us fried bananas! They were so good and we enjoyed our afternoon merienda, or snack, on the patio.

We had about ten kids helping us prepare the building and paint a large rectangle, but Shea wanted her class to be able to help during the school year, so she postponed the activity so she’d have more help painting the world map. I’m so excited to see how it turns out!

After a few days of working at Shea’s school, she introduced me to a Norwegian Missionary Association (NMA) volunteer named Anders, and his co-worker Tokz. They are working on an eco-tourism project to promote hiking on the island for travelers. They asked if we’d like to join on a hike, and we were very enthusiastic. Then, we found out that we’d be camping outside after the hike, that there would be no water available after the ascent, so we’d have to bring our own, and even later, discovered that it was not just a hike, but a mountain climb to the peak of the second highest mountain on the island!

Tokz gave us a packing list that included closed-toe shoes and socks. I didn’t have any shoes—just sandals—so Shea and I rummaged through her collection of shoes, asked her host mom if she had extras in my unbelievably large size (9) and we didn’t come up with anything. It was too late to try going anywhere else considering we were on an island with no mall, so we went grocery shopping for trail snacks. While we were food shopping, we came across a shop selling knock-off Converse All-Stars and I jumped to snap up a pair. The women running the shop were incredibly nice and came down on the price when Shea spoke with them in Tagalog and explained that she was teaching the kids on the island.

The next morning, we met up with Tokz and Anders along with a group of about ten mountain climbers from Manila. This was a group of Filipino Senate staff members! Wow! We also found out this morning that the trail was partially unblazed, so it would be a rough climb. I’d never gone mountain climbing before, but the exercise, fresh air, and mountain views were magnificent! Our thighs were screaming as we hoisted ourselves uphill and we took breaks once in a while so the shaking would subside and we could catch our breath.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the hike!
We started the hike at a community center that a local resort had donated to the island. I thought this method of keeping tabs on those in need was interesting - and would be considered a huge privacy breach in the US.
Anders found a praying mantis!
Just starting off! A view of the Japanese resort.
Goin' up
We stopped here for lunch .
Found some goat friends just hanging out.
Anders and Shea showing a depression on the stone from doing laundry
My super fly shoes and my spoons for the coconut!
You use a slice as a spoon, how earth-friendly ;)
Our lunch feast!
I could feel every stick, stone, and boulder through my thin shoe soles, but I kept thinking that our Filipino trail guide was wearing nothing but rubber sandals! My journal from the day after describes my feelings of “grueling pain” but I think I was being dramatic.

A few of the men set up our tents for us while Shea, Lennie, and I frolicked around the mountaintop and enjoyed the sunset while delicately stepping over wild cow dung heaps. When we got back to the camp site, we realized our tent was on an incline. We realigned ourselves so that our feet pointed downhill, but the downside was that we didn’t have enough room to completely stretch our bodies out! The ground was incredibly lumpy and uncomfortable. We were trapped in our little stinky tent, but we were warm and happy that it wasn’t raining. Then, what else? It started raining! The wind was fierce and blew our tent around to the point that if we drifted off to sleep, the force of the wind would blow the tent side into our heads to wake us up.

Then I heard the distinct sound of a wild cow getting closer. The lowing seemed to be getting more irritated and persistent, while I was hiding in the tent and causing endless headaches for Shea—“They are going to stampede and squash our heads in this tent!” and other predictions that didn’t materialize.
Beautiful views on our way up
Shea pondering life and the universe
Our campsite, right on the top of the mountain!

Here's Leinne, happy to be done climbing!
Maybe this isn't what you came here to see, but I spent the entire trip avoiding stepping in these: dung heaps.
Shea and Leinne showing off their yoga skills
Incredible sunset.

Me, jumping for joy!
Hiding in the tent after no sleep, but glad the rain is letting up.
At daybreak, it was still raining, though not as violently. The view was possibly even more breathtaking with a misty cover over it. We had breakfast of fried dried baby fish, rice, spam, and some other things. We then began our descent, which even more painful to me than the ascent. The treadless shoes I was wearing slipped on every rock and I had to use all my calf muscles to brace myself, as well as my thighs during each step down. I had to take a ridiculous number of breaks on the way down to steady my shaky legs. I blame the shoes, but it was a combination of the shoes and just generally not having worked out those muscles recently.
A fine reward: a coconut and water to splash around in. Fantastic! The peak we climbed is in the backgroumd.
After we finally made it down, and many empty threats of staying on the mountain forever and starting my own civilization rather than move my muscles again, we got into a truck that took us to a ocean cove where the proprietors had rice, fish, and vegetables ready for us, as well as fresh buko, or coconut! The cove had a great little dock that Shea and I ran over to, dipped our toes in, and decided we needed to take a dip. We both jumped in with our clothes on and the cool, clean salt water was just what we needed to wash the stenches and filth off our bods.

Eventually we made it back to Manila and Shea and I decided it was time for massages. The great part of this is that spa services are shamefully cheap, like less than $20 for an hour-long Balinese massage that removed two days worth of thigh fatigue. During our girl fest in Manila, we also went shopping, saw Sucker Punch in the iMax theater, got dark chocolate-peanut butter smoothies at a peanut butter shop, and had delicious middle eastern food!

I miss it so much already! Shea was honestly the best tour guide possible and made sure that I got to see her work, hang out with other Peace Corps people, get my dance on, meet her incredible family, spontaneously hike a mountain, spontaneously attend a wedding and house blessing, enjoy the craziness of urban Manila (I want to be a Manilianaire!) and most importantly, spend time with one of my closest friends! I’m still in shock every time I try to recap the trip. It was a huge eye opener to how fortunate I am to live with all the western comforts I start taking for granted, and made me enthusiastic to get back into activism for causes I believe in. I hope I can stay involved with the Philippines for a long time to come. 

More to come: one of the highlights of the trip was the Moriones festival on Shea's island. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. LOVED reading about your adventure. I can't wait until we can have one together! :)