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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!