I know I’ve talked about jeepneys in my blogs before, but I have a love/hate fascination with them, and I think they’re the perfect representation of Filipino culture.

Through jeepneys, you can understand so many things about the Philippines.


History: Jeepneys are a product of the American military occupation in the Philippines – it was the vehicle we used and developed here.


Filipino Ingenuity and Creativity: Adapting it to be a form of public transportation, and they’re so colorful!  There’s really no uniformity to them – they’re so customizable according to the whims of the driver.  The horns can have bizarre sounds, they have quirky names and artwork, religious icons and adornments, and many even have bright colorful lights that make them look like parties on wheels after dark.  Some even have karaoke capabilities.


Cultural Values: To pay in a jeepney, you pass your fare to the driver through other passengers.  This demonstrates both communal cooperation and trust (how does the driver know everyone’s paid?  He doesn’t!).


Social Need: Cheap Transport.  The cheapest option for getting around.


Social Problem:   The constant starting and stopping to let passengers on and off is the cause of tons of traffic jams.  And they’re the cause of tons of traffic accidents too.  I’ve also read that they’re the cause of 85% of the exhaust pollution in Metro Manila, and Manila is the 4th most polluted city in the world.  So, serious health concerns here, with asthma and accidents.


They’re eye catching but annoying, and I’m in awe of them (how does anyone know which one to get on or where it’s going?!?) and in fear of them (please don’t hit me crazy jeepney rounding the corner like a maniac.)  But for all that I feel they categorize Filipino culture, I’ve read that they may not be around for much longer.  There are some initiatives seeking to replace them with a more modern, electric model that would aim to keep prices low because they’d be comprised of fewer parts.  (Jeepneys are big clanking metal messes of parts.)  We’ll see – maybe I was here to see the last of the era of the jeepneys.  Maybe next time I come here to visit they’ll be gone.  I don’t know if I’d be sad or relieved….probably both.

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Interfaith Experiences

At Illinois Wesleyan I’m a Multifaith Ambassador employed through Evelyn Chapel (I help to plan interfaith programming for our campus and to engage with the various religious and nonreligious groups at IWU to build an appreciation for the religious diversity on our campus and in our world), so I’ve been especially sensitive and interested in the religious elements of this culture I’ve found myself in here in the Philippines.  Of course, I’ve been doing my internship in an explicitly Catholic school, but the culture of this country has in itself been a Catholic Immersion experience for me.  I’ll be sharing a little bit about what I’ve learned about Filipino Catholicism and religion, as well as sharing some of my personal connections to the Catholicism here.

[But first, for those who are not familiar with the term, here’s the pitch:]

The Interfaith movement tries to establish bonds between people of different faiths (and non-faiths) by allowing them to see places of commonality and shared values.  Although it does not say that all religions are the same and of equal standing (there is room for respectful criticism), and it also seeks to tactfully explore places of profound difference between people of different faiths, trying to create narratives of shared understanding is a major step towards building relationships between people with different beliefs.  In our world where religion is so often used to build walls between people, scapegoat groups as “the Other” and then justify violence and discrimination against a group of people based on misconceptions and rumors about what they belief, personal experience with a foreign faith tradition and exploring places of commonality between your beliefs and theirs is vitally important.


I don’t know much about mainstream Catholicism for which to compare to how the Filipinos practice their faith, but I believe their Crucifixions during Holy Week are specific to the Philippines.  Yes – some devotees will nail themselves to a cross and torture themselves to show their devotion, and it’s actually a popular pilgrimage site as a spectator event.  I suppose it’s not the only religious expression of devotion that an outsider might observe as torture.  Among the Lakota, Crow, and other Plains tribes, for example, young men will pierce their chests and backs during the Sun Dance, and attach themselves to a center post or to a chain of buffalo skulls with sinew or leather and dance until the skin tears free from the weight.

There are different holy icons  and images of Jesus and Mary here and well, such as the Santo Nino (Christ as a child), The Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Black Nazarene (Crucifixion Jesus bearing the weight of the Cross), Mother of All, Queen of Virgins, etc.  We were told that the images of Santo Nino and the Black Nazarene are especially popular here because Filipinos, culturally, possess both a childlike exuberance and have a narrative of suffering and oppression, so both of these images are ones they can identify with.  In fact, there’s a pilgrimage to the Black Nazarene at a Church in Quiapo (within Metro Manila) each January.  It’s believed that if you have an ailment and you wipe a cloth from the statue to your sickness, you’ll be cured.  Ironically, this festival is so popular that some die in the stampede to get to the healing statue.


Although Islam predates Catholicism in the Philippines by 300 years, Islam and Protestantism are not the only salient minority faiths here.  Among them is Iglesia ni Christo – the “Church of Christ.”  I had never heard of it before coming here, but I see it’s churches (uniform in their design) everywhere.  It is a Christian religion that originated in the Philippines as an offshoot of Catholicism, but places less emphasis on the Virgin Mary and includes some other interesting elements.  The Wikipedia page for Iglesia ni Christo states:

“The Iglesia ni Cristo proclaims itself to be the one true church and says that it is the restoration of the original church founded by Jesus and that all other Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant sects, are apostates. INC doctrine cites that the official registration of the Church with the Government of the Philippine Islands on July 27, 1914, by Felix Manalo—upheld by its members to be the last messenger of God—was an act of divine providence and the fulfillment of biblical prophecy concerning the reestablishment of the Church of Christ in the Far East concurrent with the coming of the Seventh seal marking the end of days.”

Most mainstream Catholics here see Iglesia ni Christo as a kind of cult, and we were told that in political elections all the followers vote how their leader votes (so politicians often try to win over the leaders.)  We were also told that during disasters, such as during Typhoon Yolanda two years ago,  only members of Iglesia ni Christo were allowed to seek shelter in the church, which was on high ground.  The rest of the population was excluded and denied help.

I’ve also seen some interesting religious fusion in Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown.


A fusion of Catholicism, Daoism, and Buddhism in Binondo


The Catholicism here is something I’ve wondered at, actually: the atmosphere of lingering resentment over the historical exploitation from foreign powers leaves me questioning the strong convictions and faith in this country.  I have often wondered about the deeply-held Christian faith of African-Americans in the United States as well, because I know that the history of their religion in relation to their culture is also one of compulsion, just as it was in relation to our indigenous Native American peoples in the States.   The Native American history of compulsory conversion to the Christian faith and of banning the practice of their native religion, however, has in the modern day birthed a strong movement to return to the faith of their ancestors and regain some of the culture that was taken from them.  I suppose though, I can connect this to the revival of Wicca and Neopaganism today.  There have been some criticisms that the historical narrative of ancient Goddess traditions are based more on myth an scholarship, and in her seminal work “The Spiral Dance,” author Starhawk writes:

“The idea seems to be that if they can disprove our origin story, they can invalidate our spirituality […] In reality, […] the truth of our experience is valid whether it has roots thousands of years old or thirty minutes old. […] What gives [our tradition] validity is how it works for us now, in the moment, not whether or not someone has worshipped this particular image in the past.”

Perhaps in the same way, modern Catholicism for Filipinos is an expression of their current culture as the culmination of their history and national experience.  And that douesn’t discount the validity or genuine nature of their faith.

In my time here, I’ve been able to experience quite a few things that are very much in line with my own beliefs amidst a very Catholic environment, and with other Catholics!  While I’m still trying to come up with a good term to describe what I believe, the best I’ve been able to manage so far is “Neo-pagan Humanist.”  I identify a lot with the teachings of Wicca, which is a nature-based religion and a revival of pre-Christian Celtic traditions (hence the “Neo-pagan”).  I have also had quite a bit of influence from Native American, especially Lakota, religious beliefs, as my father used to live and teach on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and I was raised with some of the impact it had made on him.   However, the awareness of my own white skin and my unwillingness to be appropriative of a culture that I cannot lay claim to makes me more comfortable with Celtic shamanism and beliefs than with Lakota ritual.    What it comes down to is the reverence I give to the Earth/nature and to the Goddess-concept as sacred things, and these are what I’ve been able to connect to during my time here.






Goddess decor at Nursia


In the Convent Gardens


During the graduation ceremony at Nursia

One of the first things we experienced here was a send-off/graduation ritual of a Women’s training at Nursia Institute of Women’s Studies, where we’re staying.  I was shocked to see a dance given by the graduates to the tune of “We All Come from the Goddess” – a song I discovered in Pagan circles.  Yet there were nuns among those dancing, and another Sister singing along in the audience!  Nursia actually has a lot of Goddess imagery as décor.  St. Scho has surprised me like that – not only does this very Catholic school have such an emphasis on Women’s empowerment using the Goddess metaphor, but the value it places on nature and Mother Earth is also very spiritual in nature and something I can connect with.  When we stayed at the St.Scholastica’s Convent in Baguio in June, there were many beautiful gardens that had signs talking about the sacredness of the Earth and the reverence we should have for Her.  Our group even did Shibashi together – a Japanese form of meditation that focuses on being one with nature.  I absolutely loved it, and I asked for a copy of the tape of Sister Mary John leading the meditation. 11705340_10206034653178733_4327850972395059296_n Of course, I’ve gotten to get one-on-one with nature here through the rice planting and tree planting trips.  Getting into the dirt and mud is always somewhat of a spiritual experience for me, but that was heightened by me getting to lead a prayer in Tanauan before our tree planting.  It was a “Four Directions Prayer,” modeled off of Native American traditions, with appeals to the Spirits of the Four Directions.  This is something I’m familiar with from Lakota and Wiccan ritual, so I was more than happy leading the prayer.



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I’ve gotten to know a lot about Benedictine values by being at St. Scholastica’s these past two months, especially about service, stewardship, and student leadership.  (I was even given a beautiful Benedictine Medal!  Supposedly wearing it is supposed to keep you safe.  Maybe St. Benedict only does so if you pray to him, but I know the prayers by heart now after hearing them so often, so maybe that counts.)  St. Scholastica’s motto is “Ora et Labora,” which means “Prayer and Work.”  Although this has an explicitly Christian connotation, I was actually able to connect it to a concept found in Wicca, called “acting in accord.”  This relates to the practice of magick (spelled with a “k” to distinguish it from the concept of pulling rabbits out of hats), which is about raising focused energy towards a goal or intent.  It’s like a very active form of prayer, wherein one decides to ask for something or express gratitude towards something, expresses that focus in a tangible way (like scattering coins on an altar or lighting green and gold candles if your desire is to attract some much-needed money into your life), and then raising energy (through dance, drumming, or song) to be released out into the universe with that focus attached to it.  (Even if you don’t buy into the metaphysical laws believed to be in place here, it’s nonetheless an effective means to articulate what it is you want and then allows you to put work into acknowledging your goal, which keeps you thinking about it and looking for opportunities or ready to act).  The “acting in accord” concept comes into play by saying that it is not enough to do a ritual to send off this energy and then hope it’ll work to your advantage – you then have to follow it up with actions that will allow opportunity to enter your life. (like going out and networking/sending out resumes if you want to get a job offer instead of staying home in your PJs to watch reruns of FRIENDS).  It’s the “buying the ticket” part of hoping to win the lottery, and that’s how I personally connect to the phrase “Ora et Labora.”


On campus at St. Scho – billboard size!

Of course, there have been some places of interreligious friction when our values are not shared, as is to be expected.  For instance, I do not put the same emphasis on obedience as something to be aspired to as some people here do, and my views on abortion and divorce in cases where the health, safety, and wellbeing of the mother or wife (or husband!) are threatened are different from some of the people I’ve spoken to here who believe that under no circumstances can a life brought into existence by God or two people having become one under the eyes of the Lord can be destroyed.  But I’ve found ways to maintain my respect and friendships despite these differences.  It has given me an appreciation of how secular our country truly is, though.  With Christian convictions being a prerequisite to win enough of the popular vote to get into office and “Under God” being retained in our Pledge of Allegiance, I sometimes complain that our country is not as secular as it should be by claiming “separation of Church and State.”  But here in the Philippines, Catholicism is as much a part of their culture as are dishes made with fish and served with rice – religious phrases are inscribed on the sides of jeepneys and pedicabs and rosaries hang from the rearview mirror in registered taxis (dangling behind the icons of saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus which are affixed to the dashboard). I hear the noon prayer every day at St. Scholastica’s College, naturally, but the noon prayer is also played over the PA system in shopping malls!  Even though I knew from the start I’d be interning at a Benedictine affiliated college, I have been blown away by just how Catholic the school is.  There is not an intra-office form that can be submitted or a presentation given (no matter how mundane or practical the topic) without referencing God and living in a Christ-centered way.  St. Scholastica’s College truly lives out one of their favorite phrases: “That in all things, God may be glorified.”  At times that has created a conflict for me: how “Catholic” do I present myself here? I don’t want to appear hypocritical or disrespect my own beliefs by portraying Christian amongst people who actually hold those Catholic convictions, but I know it’s what’s expected.  Do I assimilate to the culture or preserve my own?

It has certainly been an immersion I’ve gotten a lot out of, and I can’t wait to come back to campus and share all I’ve learned here.

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What I’ve Been Doing Lately…

I cannot believe that this is my last week here!  Oh my goodness.  It’s really been a challenge to my perception of how time has passed, because it feels like I’ve been here forever, but I can remember the events of several weeks ago as if they happened yesterday.  I have several things to do before I leave (and many more blog posts I’ve been brainstorming in my notebook that I need to publish!) but for now I’ll give an account of what I’ve been doing recently.

Last week Kelsey and I facilitated a Student Leadership Training for the first and second year student leaders.  The hierarchy of St. Scho is interesting.  As far as Student Affairs go, the Deans and faculty of the Student Affairs Office are obviously on top.  Under them is the Student Council, and then the Batch Reps (one for each class year), and then the Council of Representatives, which include the course reps for all the batches.  For example, each major has a representative for their year, like a 1st year MassComm rep, 1st year Accountancy rep, and so on.  There is also a Council of Student Leaders who are leaders and the executive officers of student organizations.  But Kelsey and I got to give a leadership training workshop to the underclassmen course reps in the Council of Representatives, which was actually really fun.  Kelsey and I have both been a part of various leadership things at IWU (such as participating in the First Year Leadership Institute during our freshman year and becoming members of the National Society of Leadership and Success in our sophomore year) so we were able to draw on some of the resources we had been given as participants in these programs.  Among them were fun activities designed to teach lessons about leadership (like trust and cooperation) – we put together a cup stacking activity (using only strings and a rubber band) and a blind obstacle course for the girls.






This past Saturday, Ms. Mae, our advisor and the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, took Kelsey and I to her home in Las Pinas City to see the 220 year old Bamboo Organ – the only one in the world, and yes it’s exactly what it sounds like – an organ made entirely out of bamboo.  There was even a wedding going on in the church when we got there, so we were able to observe some Filipino wedding rituals from the balcony and hear the organ being played. 11873801_10206104410762629_7095468810856450487_n


We also got to go to the opening night of Cinemalaya, an annual independent Film Festival for Filipino and Southeast Asian films.  Opening night was free, so a ton of people were there.  Kelsey and I really felt like a part of the local community going to the opening night of this thing with everyone else.  It was help at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which is a gorgeous place, and we were wowed by the experience.  I can definitely say that we were not expecting a full orchestra and a musical/dance performance in an extravagant world-class theatre when we were invited along to see a movie.  But I’m not complaining!








The opening movie was titled “Taklub,” which means “Trap.”  (All the Filipino movies have English subtitles, for which we were glad).  It was an artistic portrayal of the struggles that people in Tacloban (which is in the Visayas, the central island chain south of here) are still dealing with in the aftermath of the superstorm that happened more than a year ago.  Typhoon Yolanda (internationally known as Typhoon Haiyan) hit in November of 2013, and was one of the worst storms in recorded history. It killed more than 6,300 in the Philippines.

The title refers to the fact that people are still trapped there, in Tacloban and elsewhere, while for a year nothing has been done.  While talking to a MassComm student from St. Scho after the movie, we were told that many people think that because this isn’t in the news anymore that everything is fine – but it’s not.  Most disaster relief focuses on the emergency response phase and then disappears when the world loses interest.  For communities in Tacloban that are still in shambles – consisting of a now quasi-permanent “tent city” made up of tarps and lean-tos fashioned out of corrugated steel sheets, little has been done in the way of sustainable relief.  The government can only do so much, especially as only 7% of Filipinos are eligible to pay taxes (according to Thomas Graham, author of The Genius of the Poor: A Journey with Gawad Kalinga). These families have already experiences so much loss, but living in such vulnerable, unprotected areas keeps them at risk – dangers include landslides, flash floods, tropical storms, and tsunamis, as well as malnourishment, illness, and disease.

I was especially affected by one scene in the movie where a mother who has lost 3 of her 4 children goes to take advantage of the free DNA testing that is being offered in a government building so as to try to match her with some of the bodies that were too decomposed to be identifiable. When she’s told that they could not find a match, she goes into a rage before breaking down into sobs: “You mean to tell me that out of the hundreds of people in that mass grave, my kids aren’t there?  I’ve been lighting candles there for a year and they’re not there?!”  This goes to show that the survivors of Yolanda are still experiencing loss – this mother can’t get closure, that father’s wife and five children perished in a fire caused by a kerosene lamp in the tent they had been living in, etc.

Although this isn’t a movie I would have wanted to go see otherwise, I’m really glad I got to learn more about the situation in the south, and the horrible tragedy that this country is still trying to recover from and cope with.

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(Still More) Cultural Observations

I just keep a running list of these in my notebook to jot things down as I learn them or experience them.  Every day I learn more interesting things about Pinoy culture.

–           Speaking loudly/raising your voice isn’t done here.  I don’t mean angry shouting, I mean the “I need to tell the jeepney driver where I want to be dropped off so he knows how much to charge me – over the sound of traffic” or “I’m a Starbucks employee who needs to alert the person whose name is on this cup that their order is ready – over the sound of aerating milk and coffeehouse chatter” situations.  People really don’t adjust the volume of their normal speaking voices to accommodate to the situation.  The only people I’ve heard raising their voice are pedicab drivers trying to gather customers, vendors advertising their wares, or “barkers.”

–           “Barkers” are the ones who wade into traffic for you to flag down a taxi.  Sometimes they’ll do this without you asking and despite you not wanting them to, because then it’s customary to tip them and if they see you trying to flag down a taxi they’ll do it more assertively and then ask for money.  Additionally, sometimes vans will pay barkers to find them passengers.  These vans function as multi-customer, multi-destination taxi services, so they like to fill up before charting a route to hit all the destinations.

–           Jeepneys function as “hop on, hop off” transportation, so naturally the back is left open for passengers to come and go quickly.  This means, however, that when jeepneys are stopped dead in a traffic jam, beggars will sometimes jump on to “shine shoes” or ask for money from their captive audience – always hopping off again before the vehicle starts moving.

–         11229766_10205727621743139_6757189816348985399_n  Cornerside roosters.  You see them everywhere, either under wire cages or with a tether around their leg to keep them from straying.  I asked if they were being kept as pets or food, but the answer was neither: they’re for cockfighting.  Not only is this a popular sport here in the Philippines, it’s perfectly legal as well.

–           Beware of the Higad: It’s a good thing that we were with a local when we first encountered these little caterpillars.  They look like the harmless worms that turn into butterflies that Kelsey and I are familiar with, but these ones are poisonous and skin contact with them would lead to a painful stinging rash.  Unfortunately, they’re apt to fall from the trees on St. Scho’s campus, so certain sections under the trees are roped off.  Doesn’t mean they don’t migrate once on the ground, though, so you have to keep a lookout for these guys.  No incidents yet, and with two weeks to go before we leave, I hope we can keep it that way.

–           Fun fact: despite the Catholic character of this nation, Islam actually predates Catholicism in the Philippines by ~300 years.

–           A noon prayer is played every day.  And not just in St. Scho – in malls too.  I don’t know many of the Catholic prayers, but I can identify the Hail Mary and Glory to the Father in there, at least.  Some malls we’ve been in even hold Church services on Sundays – one mall has a permanent Church building on its grounds, and some just gather around an Icon in a hallway.

–           Cockroaches. *sigh* They’re inescapable.  On the street, in restaurants sometimes, on the walls…

–           Paper is sized differently here.  Well, some of it is.  It’s not something you would think about, that “standard paper size” wouldn’t be what you’re accustomed to, but the question “will my folders accommodate standard sized documents in foreign countries” will now be added to the list of things I think about before I travel.

–           Taking the hand of a respected person and bowing to touch it to your forehead is something that is done here. So far I’ve only seen this applied to older women, so maybe it’s gendered.  Being at St. Scho, my first glimpses of it were of students doing this to the nuns and I wondered if it was a Catholic or a cultural thing, but I’ve learned that it’s Filipino.  I think it means you’re seeking a blessing from that person.

–           Christmas décor is up all year round in some places, and the Christmas season starts in September and lasts for three/four months.  Filipinos seriously love Christmas.

–           Oftentimes traffic authorities look like a team of bandits about to hold up your car and rob you, because they all wear bandannas over their faces.  This is because of the exhaust and pollution concentrated on expressways.  It’s impossible to breathe on a heavily trafficked road.

–           As such, asthma is a major health concern here.  It seems everyone has it, and has it bad: one of the friends we made here was actually hospitalized recently after an asthma attack.

–           I know I’ve talked about the traffic before, but it’s really crazy, and people do whatever the hell they want (especially pedicabs and motorcyclists).  Run a red light you don’t feel like waiting for? Sure.  Go the wrong way on a one way?  Why not?  It’s so bad – one student from St. Scho was actually just hit while crossing the street last week when a jeepney ran a red.  And then he tried to flee the scene and ran over her foot in the process.  Luckily the passengers inside held him accountable, but it turns out that he didn’t even have a license because of similar incidents in the past, and he didn’t have any money to pay to this girl or her family in damages.

–           Lines….I’m still not sure how they work here.  Or rather, they don’t.  People just swarm, and cut you off if you’re waiting patiently and orderly, even if you got there before them.  It’s really annoying.  People will just push in front of you, and I never know what to say or how to assert myself, because the rudeness just continues to shock me and leave me speechless.

–           I suspect that in Tagalog, the him/her signifier is gender neutral.  Sometimes when people talk to us in English, they mix those two up, and I know the formality of “po,” which functions like “Sir,” is gender-neutral and can be used towards a man or woman.

–           Taxis will sometimes try to talk to you before you get in to ask where you’re trying to go, because many times taxis will refuse to take you there, or will try to charge you more (not based on the meter) if you’re going to a place they think will have heavy traffic.  They’re not supposed to, but many will try to anyway.  It’s very annoying to be waiting for a taxi, finally manage to flag one down, and then have it refuse your destination and drive away.

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We’ve gotten the chance to go along on some interesting community exposure and outreach trips during our time here.  St. Scho has two service-learning/community outreach classes that are required of first and second year students: the Scholastican National Service Training Program ([S]NSTP) and their Lay Apostolate Program. The NSTP is something that the Philippine government requires for all schools, and it provides students with the opportunity to engage with the oppressed and marginalized groups in society through community service and urban and rural exposure.  The Lay Apostolate Program, however, is specific to St. Scholastica’s (also required to graduate) and is a deepening of this experience through an individual community assignment and student-developed action program, as well as a further way to explore the ethics and spirituality around service.  I’ve learned a lot through my exposure to the communities I’ve seen here, and I’ve gotten to experience a ton that a normal tourist would never see. I’m so glad I was able to be a part of seeing this side of the Philippines.  Below I’ll share my experiences at a political rally concerning land rights in Taguig City, being hosted by a rice farming community in Pampanga, and visiting a Women’s Prison in Mandaluyong.


Politics in Taguig

A few weeks ago, the College Outreach Center of St. Scholastica’s invited Kelsey and I along to a rally in Taguig City – a residential area in MetroManila, but outside of the city proper.  It was a very poor community far off the beaten tracks for tourists or visitors.  Kelsey and I turned quite a few heads while walking through the narrow streets lined with shambling structures and children playing marbles in the cracks in the pavement.c

Taguig is comprised of eight districts (called barangays) that were at one time a military reservation and the subject of Proclamation No. 172 issued under former president Corazon Aquino.  This 1987 proclamation passed ownership of the land onto the residents in the eight barangays at the time, but as of today only 30% of people living there have titles proving that they (or their families from whom they have inherited) were the beneficiaries of the time and own the land they live in.  As it currently stands, investors have their eyes on the land surrounding Taguig and wish to buy it and develop it – their plans include building a casino and hotel for rich investors who want a retreat from urban Manila.  The government seems all too happy to sell it and allow the demolition of homes and communities where thousands of families currently live, unless the populace can mobilize to push for titles and recognition of the ownership that was granted to them decades ago.

We met with leaders of the Western Bicutan Chapter of ALMATAG, a groundswell movement fighting for land rights among the Taguig barangays, in one of their homes in this community, and we marched with them to a nondescript amphitheater in the city center where hundreds of the community members were gathered to learn about the issue and how to petition the government to issue their rightful titles or apply for one.  Although to my over-privileged Western eyes this looked like a maze of dirty alleyways filled with lean-to’s and shacks or bare concrete structures, here were hundreds of people fighting for their homes, their community, the land that was rightfully theirs, and consequently their livelihood, and seeking out education about how to make a difference.  It was very humbling for my own perspective, and an eye-opening introduction to “the Philippine poor” as people with dignity and a sense of pride in their home and community.10501776_10205791124330664_101498491852585882_n

It reminded me a bit of the issues regarding land rights for our own North American indigenous peoples, and how the government continuously tries to violate its own treaties with the Native tribes who have to fight to be recognized as sovereign.  Most recently, the big issue was over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would have run through the Ogalala Aquifer in Lakota reservations in South Dakota, a water source that provides a good portion of America with clean drinking water, and sacred land to the Lakota.  Although that battle was won, land rights violations regarding mining, hazardous waste dumping, and seizure continue to be common in tribal reservation land.

In this exposure experience, I also learned quite a bit about the politics of the Philippines, which is notoriously corrupt.  During the SLT in Baguio I attended several weeks ago, Prof. Rita Cucio described Philippine politics with the acronym “EPPPAL,” evoking a Filipino expression meaning something akin to “thick-skinned” or “stone-faced,” and standing for:


E litist

P ersonality Oriented

P ragmatic and Opportunistic

P atronage Politics

A narchic Dynasties

L andlordism and Warlordism


Some of these, like the first two, are familiar to Americans (although that’s not the Filipino perception – I’ll discuss this).  Some of these, however, are problems more specific to the Philippines.  For example, “pragmatic and opportunistic” refers to the fact that many politicians will switch parties after being elected to office – catering to the population that will get them elected on popular vote and then changing loyalties.  It’s said that everyone is “for the poor” when campaigning, because the very poor make up 70% of the population, but when in power they’ll capitalize on those that will fund them and help them stay in power.  Which brings me to the patronage system.  Apparently it’s not uncommon for politicians in office to dole out favors to people in the community as if they’re being funded out of pocket – look, I helped this man’s ailing mother with her hospital bills, and I helped this mother with funds to repair her home after the flood damage – I’m a nice person!  In reality, these favors are ways of obligating votes from the populace with government money entrusted to them from public coffers.  Hard-earned taxed income goes not into community development, public services and infrastructure like it’s intended, but is depleted by corrupt politicians who use it to secure votes for re-elections.  Politics here, despite being “democratic,” also appear to be dynasties: if you look at the people who are currently in office, chances are they have several relatives who preceded them or are current officials aside them.  This is a challenge to the system of checks and balances: how can you be fair and impartial towards the activities of your brother or father?  How can you blow the whistle on a cousin or uncle who helped you get your position?  It’s also a challenge because oftentimes legacy politicians are elected when their only qualification for office is their last name.  Finally, some even resort to bullying, intimidation, and the employ of private armies to protect themselves – sometimes even outright murder – to be elected or to stay in office.  Although the human rights violations and martial law under President Ferdinand Marcos are fairly well-known, one of the most recent renowned cases of this was the presidency of Gloria Macpagal-Arroyo (2001-2010).   By the end of her terms in office, she was suspected of extrajudicial killings, torture and illegal arrests, and even rumored involvement in the Maguindinao Massacre in the South that led to the murder of 57 people, 34 of the journalists who were would-be whistle-blowers on corruption.

Much to my amusement, American politics were held as the standard for good democracy in the presentation I sat in on.  We were hailed for our minimal corruption, and the clarity and directness of our politicians who participate in debates so everyone knows where they stand on issues and where they can be trusted to say what they mean.  Although we don’t practice anything as extreme as party-switching and one can generally expect certain things from Democrats and Republicans (there is no such rigid party system here and much of any one candidate’s platform is a mystery), I had to reluctantly inform the presenter and the other students that things were not quite so rosy here.

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Rice Planting in Pampanga


The rice field waiting to be planted

Getting to spend a day in Barangay San Pablo with the rice farmers was such an interesting experience.  For me, an outsider and a foreigner, spending 20 minutes in the rice paddies bending over, squelching through mud that tried to cement my feet into place and was unwilling to relinquish my rain boots, and sweating under the hot sun was bearable and even kind of fun.  I relished it as a picture-taking opportunity, knowing it would be something cool to show people back home what I had done.  However, thinking about the that hard labor as an all-day, every-day way of life for farmers in Pampanga and throughout the rural countryside made me feel so guilty and privileged.  Trying to answer Tatay’s (“Father,” the leader of his community’s Farming Coalition Group who hosted us) questions about agriculture in the States made me uncomfortable with the wealth of the place I come from.  In the States, farming can be high-tech – tractors that drive themselves and have programs that tell it where to plant what crop.  Here they do not even have tractors.  They have man-powered machines and carabao plows.  Also, I think farming in the States tends to be romanticized as the quintessential American lifestyle which espouses all of the values of the Heartland – simplicity, hard work, and honest occupation over love of land.  Farmers are a patriotic bunch, the good ‘ol Country boys.  Here in the Philippines, it seems that being a farmer is the equivalent of being a peasant – farming is for the distastefully uneducated and backward people, and even makes one suspicious!  (Tatay told us about government raids that had been done in the area and in his home, because any organized rural group such as his Farming Coalition is suspected of rebellion.) 11817232_10206044881074424_7036047091109497601_n

Of course, we also heard about the struggles due to corruption.  One of the successes of the organized group of farmer’s was getting their voices heard about their need for irrigation and running water.  A dam was built, but now that water is being used to make a profit for the chairman in charge of routing the water – a necessary resource hard-won and meant to be shared by everyone is being withheld and used as extortion.  I was also moved when Tatay was asking Kelsey and I about our college education and telling us that he had wanted to go to school, but his father had not been able to afford to give him an education.  Kelsey and I pay tuition in a sum that would boggle the minds of even middle-class Filipinos.  How could I not be moved and feel guilty over my good fortune and his missed opportunity?  (Of course, Kelsey and I both receive substantial scholarships and are eligible to borrow from the government and repay our loans after graduation.  Although student loan debt in the US can be crippling and life-long, we at least have the option to take the consequences and invest in our education – something Tatay was not able to do.)

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But despite all these differences and feeling worlds apart in this rural rice farming community from our private university life in the States, I was amused to find myself singing along to Passenger and Demi Lovato playing on the phones of one of the laborers they employ to help with the fields.  Maybe we aren’t so different after all.


A carabao, the Philippine beast of burden

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Correctional Institute for Women in Mandaluyong

I got so much out of this experience.  I had heard that Filipino jails are really bad, but that’s not what I found at all (although I was shocked at the lax security – just having to check our bags and belongings and going through a cursory pat down, but no metal detectors!).  The prison was just like a community, and we entered while they were having a videoke hour.  The inmates have one of three color tshirts, which indicate the length of their sentence and the level of security they have, but other than that, it could have been a village anywhere else in Metro Manila.  We sat down for an Orientation and learned about the jail, but afterwards we got the chance to speak with one of the teachers there (who was an inmate herself).  Many of the women there are very poor and unable to read or write.  Many of them are victims of their situation and circumstance or scapegoats – too poor and illiterate to defend themselves or to afford a lawyer.  Many of them are also mothers – some of whom had children too young to remember them when they were put away and who worry how their children will receive them when their sentence ends.  But because there are so many mothers and family is important, they get a 3 minute call to immediate family every day, just to check in.  They also allow inmates to Skype with their family if they’re from provinces and visiting is hard, or to leave the jail (accompanied, of course) to attend the funeral of loved ones who may have died.  While in prison, these women are being taught skills (like how to read and write) and other livelihood things – many women make products that can be sold, and they get to send a portion of their sales home to their families.

I’m really impressed by how hopeful these women are, and rightly so.  They’re learning skills, and there will be opportunities for them when they get released.  In the United States, however, there are so few opportunities for ex-offenders: they’re unemployable and ineligible for government assistance in food and housing.  “Rehabilitation” efforts are often futile because of the limits that exist for those with a criminal history.  Oftentimes there’s no other course of action but to fall back into desperate measures to make a living, and then they’re hit with a renewed sentence and they go right back into the system.  Here in the Philippines, there are many ways to make a living on “unofficial” work: as a seamstress, a laundress, a factory worker, a pedicab driver, the owner of a cornerside sari-sari store, etc.  While unregulated work in the Philippines can sometimes present problems in and of themselves, it certainly helps the oppressed and provides an advantage we don’t have in America.  Although we claim to be “the land of the free,” we have a major problem in our prison system, and boast the highest number of incarcerated citizens in the world. So visiting the women in Mandaluyong was a nice change of pace.


Bonus: Tanauan Tree Planting

Although this isn’t really “Outreach,” we also had a day of going south to the Batangas province and visiting St. Scholastica’s Farm and Mini-Forest in Tanauan with some German high school students who are visiting from a Gymnasium in St. Otillien.   After a short trek up a hill through lush tropical forest, we emerged to breathtaking views of Lake Taal – seeing the Lake and the Volcano from another view than when we looked down on them while in Tagaytay.  It was a beautiful day, and after taking in the sights and snacking, the group of us took a little tree to plant somewhere in the forest.  It’s so cool to think that that little tree will grow tall and remain on Philippine soil long after I have left it.  I feel that I’ve left a mark on this country, albeit in a small way.

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Touristy Things!

In my last post I talked about all the ways in which Kelsey and I are not tourists, but let’s not forget that we are still visitors in a foreign country and in a major metropolitan city!  In our time here, these are some of the fun sightseeing and touristy things we’ve done on our freetime and during cultural exposure trips with Ms. Mae and others:


Intramuros: The Historic Walled City

Intramuros was the old Spanish settlement from colonial days, and there are many historical things to see there, such as Fort Santiago, St. Agustin Church and The Church of Manila, and the Rizal Shrine.  Although Intramuros is a tourist hotspot, complete with calesa rides (horse-drawn carriages) and guards whose uniform is reminiscent of the colonial era, Intramuros is also a living part of Manila where people reside and go to school.  Even the historic churches still hold masses and weddings – they are far from museums.  But speaking of museums, we went to a great one in Intramuros: The Bahay Tsinoy, or “House of the Filipino-Chinese,” which catalogued the history of Chinese influence and immigration into the Philippines in a very visually appealing way.


The Church of Manila


A calesa


The Intramuros guard uniform


In the Bahay Tsinoy Museum

The Manila Zoo

I really like visiting zoos, and although we were told by the locals that the zoo isn’t very nice, Kelsey and I really enjoyed it.  It was styled as a botanical garden amongst the animal exhibits, so I thought it was a very pretty place.


This zoo has a river!


On which you can apparently rent boats

Manila Ocean Park

I’ve been to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, but I prefer the Manila Ocean Park here.  (Not to mention it’s cheaper).  The package that we bought, which was the equivalent of about $12, included a sea lion show, access to the Jellyfish exhibit, the Oceanarium (complete with a tunnel through the aquarium), a sting ray and shark encounter, and a behind-the-scenes look at the breeding tanks, labs, and aquarium equipment.

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Rizal Park, aka “Luneta”

I think this is Manila’s largest green space, and there’s a lot to see and do here.  We saw the “Dancing Fountain,” the statue of Jose Rizal, the revolutionary and national hero, where his remains are entombed, the Chinese and Japanese gardens, and the Orchidarium/Butterfly Pavilion.  We were also lucky enough to visit on a Sunday afternoon when there was a free concert being held at the open-air amphitheater, which showcased Filipino music, dance, and dress from various periods of its history and multiple regions.  We saw different indigenous tribal dances and dress, the Islamically-influenced southern regions, the Spanish era, and much more – even contemporary dances set to a modern pop song about the Philippines during which one of the dancers ran across the stage trailing a giant Philippine flag behind him.


The Rizal tomb


In the Orchidarium

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Roxas Blvd and Manila Bay

This scenic walk is not too far from where we’re staying.

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Malls: The National Pastime!

We’ve had the occasion to visit quite a few malls, of which the Philippines has many.  It is the “unofficial” national pastime: really, anywhere you can get out of the heat and into shade and air conditioning, they flock to it here (and understandably so).

We’ve seen the huge and hectic SM Mall of Asia, or “MOA” (only the third biggest mall in the Philippines!), Robinson’s Place (where we’ve gone several times for the restaurants), and our favorites: Glorietta and Greenbelt in Makati  (they’re connected).  Glorietta has everything MOA offers (except the view, theme park, and ice-skating rink), but it’s less crowded and laid out in a way that’s easier to understand.  Plus, it’s connected to Greenbelt, which is a very aesthetically pleasing place (it has a koi pond park and carabao statues you can play on!).  Even though Greenbelt is very high-end and full of stores above the price range Kelsey and I are comfortable with, it’s nice to walk around, and it’s home to one of our favorite restaurants here – the beautiful and charming Mary Grace that has the best “Lemon Santi” dessert I’ve ever had.


At the Mall of Asia, along the coast




Inside Greenbelt, looking out at the Gardens


You can see why it’s called Greenbelt




Can we please take this restaurant home with us?


The atmosphere is so wonderful


Mary Grace’s outside seating is equally pretty

Tour of Laguna Province

We also got the chance to take a day trip to a province to the south of Manila with some of the St. Scho faculty.  We got to see Los Banos, a town famous for its Buko Pies (the coconut version of its American apple inspiration) and its volcanic hotsprings.  It’s also the home of UPLB – the University of the Philippines Los Banos campus, right next to where our IWU friends are doing their internship at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).  We also went through Liliw, the footwear capital of the Philippines, Pila (an archeological hotspot for Chinese white clay pottery shards that have caused historians to reevaluate their estimates of when trade with China began here), and Paete, known for its paper mache handicrafts and excellent woodcarvings.  During our tour through the province we got to see many old churches and a town fiesta celebration.  My favorite church was the one in Paete which was all lit up for the Fiesta of St. James the Apostle and which had two fascinating portraits of St. Christopher.


A portrait of St. Christopher was commissioned, but it looked too Filipino for the Spanish priests’ tastes


So a replacement was commissioned and showed him as more “acceptably European” and hung over the old one. The original was discovered when the paintings were being removed during a period of renovation on the Church


The Church of Lilio (The old Spanish spelling of Liliw)



Dyed chicks are a popular take-home from fiestas



Before we leave, Ms. Mae has also promised to take us to Binondo here in Manila (the world’s first and oldest Chinatown) for a food tour, the National Museum in Rizal Park, and the famous Bamboo Organ in Las Pinas City where she lives.

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A Day in the Life (Travel size? No thank you!)

In the month and a half since Kelsey and I have been here, I think we’ve assimilated fairly well into living a Filipino lifestyle.  Sometimes I’ve questioned my role here (Am I a tourist? I’m not a resident…but…) so I wanted to delve into some of the things that I’ve adopted in order to adapt to this climate and culture.  Especially since (as an update to how my last post left off) Kelsey and I now have shiny and official Philippine-issued ID cards showing our status as resident aliens.  We were issued them when we got our visa extensions processed (successfully!) at the Bureau of Immigration.


Is this flirtatious enough?

So what should one do to get by here?  Here are some of the essentials:

First off, there are five things I never leave “home” without: a handkerchief, a folding fan, an umbrella, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper.  The first two, I learned within a few days of settling in here, are carried around just about everywhere (and I do mean carried – held in the hand within easy reach).  They’re a necessity for mopping up the sweat that will inevitably drip down your face and neck, and for bringing some kind of relief from the heavy and inescapable wall of humidity.  The folding fans I’m talking about are, of course, the hand-held Oriental-type ones, and despite the frequency with which I’ve used the one I bought here, I still can’t flip it open coquettishly. Oh well.


Forced into the sun during an earthquake drill at St. Scho – the umbrellas went up all around. (Photo courtesy of Kelsey Maka)

Umbrellas, the next item on the list, are also a necessity.  Rain or shine, you use your umbrella every day (and often for both rain and shine within the same day).  Philippine weather, especially in this time of the year when typhoons bring tropical storms and heavy rains, is highly unpredictable.  Even if the sky is perfectly blue and clear in the morning, one can almost expect gray skies and showers in the afternoon or evening, so you should never gamble on the day staying nice and deciding to leave your umbrella at home.  But umbrellas here have a second purpose: shade.  The sun can be unrelenting, and I’ve learned that Filipinos really hate being out in the sun.  Most of this is due to ideas about beauty, I think: namely that light, fair skin is attractive and dark, tan skin is not (skin whitening creams are popular here).  So of course, Filipinos avoid being out in the sun where they might tan.  I find this amusing, and I’ve shared this with the friends I’ve made here as well: in America, tan skin is typically seen as the most desirable, and pale girls will sunbathe or pay to go to tanning salons in order to darken their skin.  Here, it’s the opposite.  But for someone like me who burns more easily than I tan, hiding under the shade of an umbrella in sunny weather is wonderful.  If only I could bring this habit back to the States without turning heads and having people think I was crazy for having an umbrella open under clear skies.

Finally, toilet paper and hand sanitizer are necessary because – you guessed it – TP and soap are not commonly provided in public restrooms.  The few places Kelsey and I have found that provide both have been moments of excitement for us, because it means not having to carry our purses along with us and use our own supply that we have to buy ourselves.  I never thought I could be so excited about toilet paper and hand soap, but then I guess that’s life.


Home Sweet Home

So what about the “home” I alluded to earlier?  For these two months, Kelsey and I have been staying in St. Scho’s Institute of Women’s Studies, nicknamed “Nursia” (after the birthplace of St. Benedict).  Nursia is right across the street from campus (although it’s a walled campus, so we have a short walk to the main entrance gate on another street).  The accommodations at Nursia are actually very nice (we even have an aircon unit in our room, although we can only use it between 8pm and 6am), and the atmosphere is a mix between dorm and apartment.  Our room is a double that Kelsey and I share – with two desks and a wardrobe we share.  We also have the corner room, so double the windows and natural light!  There’s a kitchen downstairs (our rooms are on the third floor) and offices and a library on the ground floor.  Although Metro Manila isn’t the safest place to be (you really can’t go anywhere without seeing the homeless and street children begging), Nursia is in a very safe compound.  Residents themselves don’t even have keys to the gate – you ring a bell and someone will come to let you in if you’re authorized to be there.  After dark, security guards are stationed in the small little courtyard just inside the gate, so we can sleep well knowing that no one is going to climb the walls and break in.


The view from the 3rd floor balcony right outside our room

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Speaking of after dark, we do have a curfew at Nursia – 10pm.  When we were first told about the curfew, Kelsey and I were both a little shocked, but considering how conservative the culture here is and that half of the college girls living here are high school age by our standards, it makes some sense.  Besides, we never really have a reason to be out past 10pm anyway – neither Kelsey nor I are the nightlife type, and we wouldn’t want to be out on the street late at night.  So every night we’re in our room in time to hear the vendors out there advertising their wares – for example, at shortly past 10pm every night we can hear one man shouting the distinctive baying cry of “BaLUUUUT.  BaLUUUUT.”  Neither of us have any desire to meet him outside and buy though – experiencing balut once was enough.

The one downside to Nursia is that it lacks wifi, so Kelsey and I have become connoisseurs of local cafes where we can buy desserts, snacks, or beverages and bring our laptops to stay awhile and connect.  All my photos on Facebook and every one of these blog posts have been uploaded at one of those cute cafes (although wifi is still pretty unreliable, and sometimes we’ve had to roam between two or three cafes when we have things to accomplish using the internet and the wifi cuts out at the café we were at…these migrations can be quite expensive when we have to subsequently buy more things in order to stay and use their internet).  Many of the cafes we’ve visited here have a distinctive style that we love and would love to bring back to the US: there are little cubicles (for lack of a better word) that are usually curtained off with beads or colorful string, and you remove your shoes and sit in the little rooms on pillows provided, and then eat and work on your laptop at a small little table at the perfect height for one sitting on the floor.  It’s a super cute setup, although after a while the pillows are not padding enough to cushion you from the hardwood floor (and we are always there “for a while,” but we put up with numb behinds for the wifi).  Our favorite cafes are Café Travel (for the desserts), Noriter (for the décor), and SHP Bibimbab – our most favorite of all (for the food, reliability of the wifi, friendly service, and atmosphere).  We have spent more than one full day at Bibimbab when we have free days, paying into lunch, snacks, dinner, and desserts in order to stay and use the wifi.  They know us well by now.


Cafe Travel




SHP Bibimbab!

We also have a pretty good grasp by now on community resources, and where to find the things we need.  Our mainstays are the SM Department Store, Mercury Drug, and The National Bookstore.  SM is our go-to for beauty supplies, accessories, and clothes, as well as for certain home goods.  It’s where I went when I needed a better umbrella, decided I could use a water bottle, found out I needed pants (see previous post about how shorts/capri-length things are not appropriate for a work environment here) and more practical shoes, and found my essential handkerchief.  As a bonus, they also have a “Kultura” section that sells souvenirs and handicrafts.  They’re mall prices, so more expensive, but a convenient location for us to buy our “pasalubong” to take home to family and friends.

Mercury Drug is our pharmacy and etc. store.  It’s where we buy our toilet paper, hand sanitizer, nail polish remover, and medications.  And finally, The National Bookstore is where we find the office and school supplies we need, as well as the occasional craft supplies.  When my highlighter ran out of ink and I found a hole in my purse, I went there to buy needles and thread and replacement writing supplies.  They also have an array of adorable notebooks and filing folders that Kelsey and I bought from – school supplies are so much cheaper and cuter here, and we’re just saving time and money by buying here (although it comes at the expense of room in our suitcase…).  Of course, The National Bookstore also sells books, but I have miraculously resisted the temptation to buy, because I know I won’t have room in my suitcase, and the popular fiction novels are just as expensive here as they are in the States.

We have a place very close to us where we take our laundry every two weeks or so, and for under $5 we’ll get it back a few days later washed and folded nicely in the bag we brought it in.  One thing I wish I would have known before coming here, though, is that the laundry does take a few days to “process” because it’s not self-service.  So if there’s something you use every day that would need to be washed, like pajamas or your bath towel, you really need to have a spare to use in the meantime, and to alternate between them.

Kelsey and I have also fallen into the habit of taking a “merienda” – a snack break between lunch and supper.  St. Scholastica’s has a well-stocked canteen full of food stalls and vendors, so finding cheap and yummy snacks right on campus is no issue.  Filipinos love food, so the merienda is firmly entrenched in the culture and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a meeting or an event in the late afternoon here (or even late morning) that doesn’t serve snacks or allow time for breaks to go get snacks.


The set for Nunsense

As for what we actually do here at St. Scho, it really depends on the day and the week.  We’re getting experience doing a broad range of things, but these are some of the mainstays that I do – Kelsey’s schedule is different.  Wednesdays I operate Camera 2 for the talk show Nunsense Makes Sense – I’ve learned about things like “headroom” and “looking space,” and it’s really fun being part of the production crew and seeing what goes into making a television broadcast.  Tuesdays and Thursdays I spend time in the Outreach Center, usually grading student reflections on how they’ve been encountering issues surrounding the reality of poverty in this country.  I like doing this because I get to use some of what I’ve learned as a Sociology major in prompting them to challenge their misconceptions about the “laziness” of the poor, and to reflect on some of the underlying external factors that limit opportunities to success.  I’ve also gone on some community fieldtrips with the Outreach Center which have deepened my understanding of poverty here and given me exposure to depressed communities that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten.  The highlights so far though, have been taking over Mrs. Becky’s Women’s Studies class for two days and getting to introduce her students to the distinctions and nuances of sex and gender and the social construction of gender, and planning and facilitating a Student Leadership Training session for first and second year student representatives with Kelsey.  It has just confirmed for me that teaching and giving presentations/talking to groups is something I really enjoy doing and something I have a knack for.

If you’re reading this and ever find yourself wanting to visit the Philippines, I hope you can find value in reading some of the things we’ve learned while we’ve been here – and don’t forget your handkerchief and umbrella!

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Echoes of Colonialism: A Brief History Lesson

One thing I had been wondering about here came out of comparing the Philippines with Mexico, as both were colonized by Spain at around the same historical period, and I can see similarities in the traces and legacy left on the culture.  However, Mexico speaks Spanish and here they speak English.  Yes, the USA has also had influence in the Philippines, but it’s the same with Mexico, and they’re much closer to us! So why is it that here they don’t speak Spanish?  (Many have Hispanic last names as a result of colonization and the assignment of names to the indigenous people, but they are not pronounced in a typical Spanish way – for example, the double L, instead of making a “y” sound as it does in Spanish-speaking countries, is rolled.  “Castillo” here is pronounced “Castilio,” and even the names of Spanish dishes are pronounced “tortilia” or “quesadilia.”)

I’ve learned that this is because the Spanish purposefully prevented the Filipinos from learning their language, as keeping them ignorant would impose a class difference and discourage an uprising.  The Americans had a different approach for the Philippines, and established the school system here where English was the language of instruction.  Filipino (the standardized form of Tagalog, although the two terms are used interchangeably) has been the Official Language of the Philippines since their independence, but everyone here still knows at least a little English (the more education they’ve completed, the more fluent they are).  Consequently, the attitude towards Spain is still a hostile one for the cruelty they suffered under 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, and the feeling towards Americans is one of gratitude – something along the lines of “we owe our independence to them, they educated us,” etc…somehow forgetting that Americans have also been “colonizers” and at war with the Philippines at different points in history.

Attitudes toward Japan are mixed.  One thing I’ve learned here is that the Japanese also bombed Manila Bay during WWII shortly after bombing Pearl Harbor. The Philippines was an American Territory during that time, so it was in an effort to hurt the American presence in Asia, and the Philippines became an arena for conflict that they were not directly involved in.  During that time, the Philippines came under Japanese control for 3 years while the Americans fought hard to get it back, and it was messy (to say the least) for the Filipinos caught in the middle – there were many casualties, and many who are old enough to remember that time still lament all of Old Manila that was destroyed.  Very little survived that time, and many of the beautiful and historical old buildings are no longer in existence.  Although many Filipinos go abroad to Japan now and relations are better, there is still some tension between Japan and the Philippines.  Most Filipinos who go to Japan do so as entertainers, and I think there’s some stigma – the Japanese look down on the Filipinos there as inferior. (Of course, their two cultures are very different as well: the Japanese are very uptight and efficient, and Filipinos tend to be more relaxed and leisurely.  These two values understandably conflict.)

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Culture Shock at the Post Office

I recently had quite a significant culture shock moment from a most unexpected place.  And really, that makes sense: culture shock comes upon you when you couldn’t have imagined things going any differently from your expectations and then you suddenly find that you have no idea how to manage and your world is turned upside down for a while.17009_10206008529645661_2301701360437459229_n

My plan for the day seemed simple enough: I had received a package from home and I had to go to the post office with the care-of designee from St. Scho to retrieve it, and while I was there I planned to mail the stack of postcards I’d been accumulating in my time here.  Accomplishing those two things took all morning.  And I couldn’t have prepared myself for the experience.


First off, parcel pick-up took us to the basement of the post office, where I had to pay PhP 100 when I turned in the slip that had notified me that I had a package to retrieve.  After handing over my ID and signing a form, we were told to wait while they looked for my package.  After they found it, we had to go over to another counter while they opened it to inspect it.  Ms. Mae, the care-of designee for the parcel, told me they had to see if there was anything of value in there that I’d have to pay taxes on, like jewelry or new clothes.  Since I was only expecting a few extra Milwaukee/Wisconsin themed trinkets like magnets and keychains to give as gifts to people I’d befriended and worked with here, I wasn’t worried.  However, the first thing the postal worker unwrapped in the package was a small Wisconsin-shaped block of cheese, so I ended up having to pay PhP 1,701 in tax and duty on the parcel – about $40.  Of course, that was only after having to fill out more forms and wait again for three postal workers to argue about my package in rapid-fire Tagalog.  I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but they sounded frustrated, and Ms. Mae seemed a bit stressed about their conversation as well.

After paying the wholly unexpected tax, which hurt my soul all the more because PhP 1,700 is enough to live off of for a week here, even at 3 meals a day, we went upstairs to mail my postcards and be done with it.  After asking at one window, and waiting in line at another, we finally found the correct window to inquire about foreign mail.  I handed the postal worker my stack of postcards, and she was going to put them through a machine that would stamp the postage value on them, but Ms. Mae told her that I wanted stamps.  (I had let her know I also wanted to get stamps and mail my postcards when we went to pick up the parcel).  This seemed to agitate the worker, and Ms. Mae again asked me “meter or stamps”?  Thinking that it wouldn’t be too much extra effort to buy the real stamps to send home on my postcards, I said stamps would be fine.  This angered the worker still further, and she and Ms. Mae were having a somewhat heated conversation in Tagalog, after which she passed a large sheet of stamps and a small pot under the window towards us.  Unbeknownst to me, stamps here in the Philippines are not adhesive – you have to glue each one on individually, and postcards to the US are PhP 13 – so one PhP 10 stamp and three PhP 1 stamps per card.  This took me so off-guard, and I couldn’t even figure out how to get glue out of the pot with the little plastic applicator she had provided, so Ms. Mae patiently glued on the stamps for each of the 14 items I was mailing.

I felt so bad –I had not realized how much of a hassle it would be to get a package here (I didn’t even expect to have to go to the post office, because I’ve ordered things internationally from Amazon that have arrived at my door with the customs declaration taped to the outside), and when I included Ms. Mae as the designee from St. Scho on the address I gave my dad, I implicated her in this process.  Then I replied “stamps” to what I thought was a simple “either/or” question and created even more trouble for her and the employees here.  And all the while, each step required lengthy conversations in Tagalog which I did not understand and which seemed angry (on the part of the postal workers, directed towards me).  I felt so confused and thrown off today, not understanding the process, the work it took to accomplish fairly straightforward things, or the conversations taking place about me.  I couldn’t even understand how to affix the stamps to the postcards!  On the one hand, I’m so glad Ms. Mae was with me, but I feel terrible for subjecting her to all of the hassle.

Tomorrow I get another taste of bureaucracy, and I’m not sure what to expect, as Ms. Mae hardly bat an eyelash at today’s post office hassle, but she’s praying for us for the ordeal we’ll face tomorrow.  We have to go to the Immigration Office to renew our visas, as the ones we were issued are only good for 59, and we’re staying for a total of 63 days.  Originally we were advised to pay a fine for overstaying 4 days at the airport when we arrived to go through customs and catch our flight home, but after I looked into it I realized that on our visas (which are not the standard 30 day pass that the above situation would have been viable for) overstaying would have been a serious offense, we would have been detained in the airport jail, prevented from leaving the country, and gotten black marks on our records.  So after subsequent follow-up I got confirmation that we really do need to have our visas extended – even though it means paying for the default 30 day extension that we’ll only use 4 days of.  I’m preparing for tomorrow to be a lot of long lines and red tape, but hopefully at the end of it all we’ll be cleared to stay in the country until our return flight.  Fingers crossed!

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Homestay #2: Castillo Family Edition!

Last weekend was another wonderful experience for Kelsey and I.11221699_10205970814622809_7454445128427792525_n  It was a long weekend, as we had Friday off for the Eid (politicians are trying to get the Muslim vote) so Kelsey and I went to Makati to visit the Ayala Museum.  They had some spectacular collections of pre-hispanic Filipino gold artefacts and from the pottery trade with China, Japan, Thailand, and other Asian countries, but my favorite feature of this museum was the second floor, which was dedicated to displaying Philippine history through a succession of dioramas.  After seeing it I was really able to more accurately locate myself as an American within the context of the history and culture of the nation I am a guest in.

Saturday was a reunion, as the four student interns from IWU placed at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos (to the south of us) came through Manila to pick us up for a trip going north to Bulacan where our four other friends were placed at Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm.  “Gawad Kalinga” means “to give care” in Filipino: it is an organization aimed at addressing the class inequalities of Philippine society by helping the poor help themselves.  The Enchanted Farm is the for-profit branch of GK and is a center for social entrepreneurship and developing businesses that aim for a positive social impact, not just profit.  We toured the farm and learned about their philosophies, and then got to catch up with our fellow IWU students about what their internships have been like thus far.


Together again!

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The family shrine


The Castillo home


Kelsey sings her heart out

On the way back, we were dropped off to meet our second homestay family in Mandaluyong City.  Our connection to the Castillo family came through their daughter, Khamylle, who is the President of the SSC Student Council and one of the students we’ve befriended.  She has two brothers as well: one older (David) and one younger (Benedict, or just Bene), as well as two wonderful parents: Edwynn and Grace.  She also lives with some of her extended family on her mother’s side: her grandmother, and aunts, uncles, and cousins as well.  We came into their home in the midst of a birthday celebration, and they had turned the warehouse they owned next to the house into a videoke party.  (Videoke, or “Video Kareoke” is huge here and they had rented a videoke machine for 24 hours, which we got to sing for hours on, and it was wonderful.)

We went to mass with them on Sunday morning at the San Felipe Neri Parish – unlike the service we went to with Mrs. Becky, this one was in Tagolog.  But it was still neat to observe the rituals.  I also really enjoyed seeing the colorful vendors lined up at the entrance to the parish grounds who were selling candles, religious icons and medallions, and jasmine flowers (known here as sampaguita) – the national flower of the Philippines which is strung and commonly sold on the street.  It is often used as an offering or as an adornment for the religious statues on public and family shrines


San Felipe Neri Parish


Inside the church


The colorful vendor stalls on the church grounds




An example of sampaguita used to adorn a religious icon



One of the ingredients used in Bicol Express – coconut milk, fresh-pressed at the market that morning!

After church, Mrs. Grace taught us how to make Bicol Express, the dish Kelsey and I had agreed was our favorite after sampling a wide variety of Filipino fare.


Cooking the Bicol Express


The finished product!


Suman being sold


Khamylle demonstrating how to eat suman


Trying balut

This was a weekend of food – the Castillo family battered us with questions about what we had and hadn’t yet tried and then took it upon themselves to fill in the gaps.  They bought us santol, an incredibly refreshing fruit that I’m not sure has an English translation, biko, and suman – sticky rice wrapped in a palm leaf and eaten by dipping it in sugar.   Much to my chagrin, we also – finally – experienced the rite of passage that is balut.  Balut is a common street food here (and a delicacy!) that consists of an aged and fertilized duck egg, which is then boiled.  To eat it, you peel a small hole in the bottom of the egg, sip out the fluid, then peel off the rest to bite into your partially developed duck embryo – feathers, beak, and all.  I was able to take a few tiny nibbles before I lost my nerve and started dissecting it like it was a science project – which is really what it looks like.

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(Left to right around the table): David, Kelsey, Me, Khamylle, Grace, and Edwynn

The Castillos also took us to dinner at the Kanin Club, where they ordered a whole spread of Filipino dishes for us to try and which we shared family-style.  It ended with a twist on two beloved Filipino desserts: halo-halo (the shaved ice mixture) and turon, which is a banana rolled in brown sugar and deep-fried.  We had halo-halo turon: deep-fried “halos” topped by ube ice cream.  It was heavenly, and we left dinner that evening feeling very full and very satisfied, glowing from the generosity and hospitality that we had been shown. 11040171_1032902416721299_9041385102830087917_n (1) Staying with the Castillo family was a weekend of laughter and love, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

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