Pinoys, possessions and privacy

Those of you who know me are aware that I am a ferociously independent person. I left home to study when I was 18, lived alone in a studio apartment for years and hate people touching me in my sleep. In short, “don’t touch my stuff!”

One of my hardest adjustments in the Philippines is the lack of personal space and privacy. Not surprising in a country where the average family size is six, with a birth rate much higher in poorer regions like Samar. Privacy is a luxury that doesn’t exist here.

This also seems to manifest in Pinoys treating your possessions as theirs: rearranging your shelves at home or files on your desk, borrowing your headphones, mouse-pad, Tupperware without asking and general stuff-touching activities.

There is also an alarming lack of personal space for my Western sensibilities. If you have ever travelled on a jeepney, tricycle or the MRT in peak-hour you know what I’m talking about.

One of my more comical personal space invasions was my first day of work. I walked to work denying all pedicab offers due to my fear of the deep fried banana and white rice diet catching up with me. I arrived at work with laptop, water bottle and text books in tow dripping with sweat. The treasure of the Board smiles at me sympathetically, touches my glistening brow, and then rubs my sweat between her fingers, “You’re not use to this climate yet.” 
It only dawns on me later that a complete stranger has just rubbed and played with the sweat off my face!

Another Pinoy trait that I found exasperating at first was the eternal question, “Where are you going (paka in ka)?” “None of your God-damn business” is my in-built Sydneysider retort. After a while I realised that the phrase is like “How are you?” You don’t want a real update on a person’s mental or medical wellbeing; it’s simply a polite greeting. It’s a form of placing you in society, an extension of kinship which is particularly important in the provinces.

With my mabusag (white skin) and waray (nothing) Waray  Waray language skills I will never belong here, nor do I intend to. When living in a foreign country you have a subconscious values audit, what do I appropriate and what do I stay true to?

I share my food, lend my things, hold hands with my workmates in town, accept comments about my body during workshops, eat with my hands (which is awesome) and generally go with the flow. But I draw the line at touching me in my sleep, walang ‘just friends’ spooning with the mabusag!

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City mouse, country mouse

Once again I have a totally unsustainable way of dealing with the swamp, I ran away to Manila for a night of clubbing.

I see my hometown of Newcastle as a bit of a backwater, so why I thought a ‘remote’ assignment was for me I still can’t quite fathom. However the pollution, the traffic and the expenses associated with living in a teaming mass of a city is also not ideal.

I do plunge into a sort of consumerist frenzy when I get out of the provs, eating salads, going to the movies, window shopping. Even rather pedestrian Australian wines taste like manna from heaven.

And so to the club – which was more like a mini-entertainment centre with a rather impressive rig and mirror ball. Between 9-11pm there was free beer, and a terrible cliché, for what seemed like hours three Aussie drained the beer tap in a massive empty hall.

Reminiscent of the more trendy clubs in Sydney the main purpose of the evening seemed to be seen there. Of course there were some local die-hard fans of James Zabiela, and a smattering of expats but it’s a sad indictment that a world-class DJ set ends with only half the crowd remaining. True he pumped out 3 ½ hour set of delicious and unrelenting electronica but Manila – harden the f’k up!

If I can be in the front for 5 hours straight, walang any artificial assistance meron giardia, anyone can. Pay respect to an artist when it is due.

As an aside, despite the rather high cover fee and classy looking clientele my friend had her bag snatched from the dance floor. That could happen in any city in the world, but it sort of hit home that we are not in Kansas anymore. Crime is more prevalent and dangerous here, even the ‘safety’ of an expensive nightclub you have to keep half an eye out and look out for your friends.

Once again typing this blog on laptop during a brown-out, hope we have power at some stage today *sigh – mini pity party*

Additional: posted this blog one week after it was written due to chronic brown-outs.  Damn swamp 😉

Tourism and Typhoons

I have survived my first typhoon in Donsol with a steady supply of fresh seafood, mangos and Tanduay rum, it was tough (biro lang – just kidding).

It was a concern that our collective funds were dwindling, the power and phone reception was sketchy and we had walang idea when we could leave. Later on we heard 27 people had lost their lives so our inconvenience was measured by local tragedy.

Donsol, home of the butanding (whale sharks) is one of the Philippine’s most famous tourist destinations. But I believe that there is a far greater threat to tourism in the Philippines than ‘states of calamity’.

It’s clear from the Wow Philippines to the revamped Awesome Philippines tourism campaigns that The Philippines is seeking the still elusive foreign tourism dollar. Apart from some intrepid divers, surfers and the ever-present sex tourists, Philippines is not on your average traveller’s radar.

From an Australian perspective, there are no ridiculously cheap flights here like there is to other Asian destinations like Thailand or the cliché Aussie destination of Bali.

Once you are here the public transport system although extensive is a minefield of non-connecting trips, scamming tricycle drivers and conflicting information. For example, travelling from the business hub of Bicol, Naga City to a major port of Matnog took 3 buses, 1 jeepney and me instinctively not listening to a tricycle driver who said there was no jeepney (but he could give me a ‘special trip’…). Getting to Donsol from Matnog was a similar adventure of mitigating how much I was being overcharged and personal safety concerns.

If the transport infrastructure improves, some of the needs for a viable tourism industry are here – white sand beaches, incredibly friendly and English-speaking locals, stunning natural beauty. But part of the charm of Philz is that you know you are off the beaten path, walang white people clutching their Lonely Planets wearing Birkenstocks with socks, you just have to be prepared for a variety of calamities along the way.

The only way in and out of Donsol

The only way in and out of Donsol

Chasing a fake rabbit

Yesterday was one of those days that did not turn out the way I planed, like everyday here really. My neighbour invited me to a guest lecture of Jun Lozada, the man who caused a minor riot at the airport the other morning. He is the star witness of the ZTE deal, a complex maze of corruption involving more money that is fathomable in such a poor country.

He shared the personal side of being a whistle blower and the impact on his wife and five children. Jun said he was offered 100 Mil Pesos and would retain his position in the cabinet if he kept quiet, “came back to the fold” and apologised to GMA.

Instead he is a man on the run, protected by nuns (seriously, only in the Philippines) and can face up to 11 charges when he returns to Manila.

When asked how he could walk away from so much money, Jun told the story of a greyhound that ran away from its owner. The dog was well looked after, winning all of his races but discovers that “the rabbit I was chasing was not real at all,” he then asked “what are the ‘real rabbits’ in your life?”

A simple metaphor, but made me ponder my own ‘rabbits’. The fake rabbit was certainly my no longer satisfying job in Sydney, but how real is my current ‘rabbit’? Why am I volunteering? What am I doing here? The desire is borne from my altruistic nature but it is not a selfless act by any means, I was in search of a challenge. The assignment and remote location gives me time and space to reflect upon the rabbits I am yet to seek.

Jun was unsettling jovial and relaxed for a man on the run

Jun was unsettling jovial and relaxed for a man on the run

Crucifixion: A great day out with the kids

Needless to say in a religious country like the Philippines, Easter is a big deal. In Pampanga and surrounding towns in Luzon this manifests in self flagellation and real crucifixions.

Personally I had a very rough start to the day; I was paying penance for eating from a baymaree the night before and was having internal self flagellation. But praise the Lord for Gastrostop, I was on my way in the back of a truck with the rest of the volunteers to one of the strangest events I have ever seen.

The scale of the religious devotees carrying crosses in the searing heat and flagellants was well beyond what I expected. Hundreds of people scattered across roads from town to town to endure suffering, becoming “little Christs” by following the teachings of the Saints to achieve a higher degree of holiness.

So was I moved by their devotion, disgusted by the gore, gripped with voyeuristic anticipation as the nail was driven deep into human flesh? Not really, the whole atmosphere was more like the Royal Easter Show; simply replace the carnival rides with crucifixions.

Kids were on their dad’s shoulders with ice creams, locals posing for photos, eating corn or fish on a stick – a nice family day out. No nannas in shawls wailing, revered silence, rosaries gripped between blistered fingers. Perhaps long ago that was the case, I wouldn’t say it has been overly commercialised either, no souvenir t-shirts that say “I went to self flagellation and all I got was this bloody t-shirts” (bad pun intended).  Give it time.

You can have your ice cream after the self flagellation

You can have your ice cream after the self flagellation

Sex in Cebu City

No sooner am I beginning to settle into the country life, I got to taste of urban hustle and bustle by attending the Volunteer Sharing Session in Cebu City. And taste I did – Starbucks, salad and red wine, oh my!

After sitting around for couple of days sharing our feelings on butcher’s paper ‘Let’s talk about communication…’ I was concerned that I was going to gain nothing from the epic 14hr land/sea voyage there. But as I discovered many years ago, I learn best when it involves alcohol and a thumping bass.

A fellow AYAD and I met up with her host family’s daughter who is studying nursing in Cebu. Hitting the club scene with her girlfriends we talked about our failed relationships, dating, their experiences being a single parent and checking out the local talent.

But what struck me as really sad is that the all intend to find work overseas when they graduate. Only 38% of births in the Philippines are attended by skilled health professionals. There is no simple answer to the brain drain that the Philippines are in the grip of, education and health care professionals are ridiculously underpaid.

The future nurses also talked about the need for safe sex education, particularly in the regional areas, 10% of mothers in this country are under 18 years old (population is around 90 million … you do the maths). They were very passionate about change, but if they leave – the whole cycle begins again.*

Despite their struggles and the country’s woes, the girls laughed, drank and danced the night away. Looking for love and happiness in a big city is universal.

*Get the Pinoy perspective with an interesting blog on House Bill 5043,  the Reproductive Health and Population Development Act of 2008.

Jen-esis 1

Attending a Filipino wedding was always going to be an interesting experience for this little heathen. A disciple of Bill Hicks and a believer of Richard Dawkins, I was stranded on a tropical island with 100 churchy-types of my own free will.

Talking to one of the two pastors who presided over the wedding (yep, two priests) began well, we had a shared interest in Samar’s history and helping the poor. In fact I felt like we had more in common than not until he mentioned his new cause “curing and preventing” homosexuality.  His wife was virulently homophobic saying how they are lobbying against the anti-discrimination act and how it is “one of the greatest issues in the country” (corruption and poverty would have been my guess).

Did I step up and defend the rights of anyone to love who they damn well please? Pragmatic Jen kicked in and realised there was literally no escape from the island and I let the issue slide (cultural sensitivity 1: personal moral compass 0).

Later that evening I met a friend of my neighbour who invited me. As is the Filipino way, I answered a barrage of questions about my income, past relationships, religion, politics, but this time I decided not to self-edit so heavily. When explaining that I did not practice any religion she said, “You may not be a Christian but you follow Jesus’ teachings in your own way so I think you will go to heaven.”

My neighbour smiled and looked me in the eye; “No you will not, the only way to pass through the gates of heaven is through Jesus …” thus the great debate of my eternal salvation began. After watching my soul bounce back and forth like a tennis match, I decided to go for a walk by the sea.

Down by the water I found the real party, the groom’s camp brother and his fellow ‘ladies’ who loved my accent and taught me ‘gay language’. And here lies the paradox, the Philippines loves gays. They are popular performers on TV and are widely tolerated or accepted in this exceptionally religious society.

I have learnt a lot about the Philippines through my weekend with homophobic and homosexual Christians. Also, always take a good book to read, or you will be left to read The Good Book.

The learning and unlearning begins

Life here in Catarman is unfathomably different to Australia. Poverty is incomprehensible until you are submerged in it. Even then I will always be an outsider observing from a safe distance. 

I truly believe the average Australian has no idea how wealthy we are. Who I would consider poor in Australia can still drink water from the tap and often will own a fridge, television, a car or maybe all three.* Here you are considered wealthy if you own any of those items; my manager does not own a fridge or a car for example (but she has a TV, and people seem quite concerned that I do not want to own one).

This is forcing me to rethink and redefine poverty and what it is to be considered poor; not only the immediate physical implications of poverty (health, shelter, education) but the mental limitations, lack of self worth and the social stigma. Northern Samar has a large population of rural poor who earn P3000 per month for a family of five (just under AU$100) and only 48% of children finish Elementary School.

I am facing my own social boundaries with the colour of my skin (and my height boundaries getting in and out of tricycles and pedicabs). I met an academic yesterday who said I was the nicest white person he has ever talked to. “White people are arrogant, they think that they own us,” said Freddy who lectures in social studies at UEP. After the initial language barriers, I am also up against centuries of Western oppression and a bloody history of enslavement. In short, white people are pricks.  

 *I’m not including Indigenous Australians in this assertion. Poverty in Australia is as harsh and real as it is in developing countries. Whilst only 20% of Caucasian Australians die before 65, 70% of Indigenous people do.