Damo ulum, Dito uran (more food, less rain)

After extensive research* apparently there is no conclusive evidence that weather effects mood. Unless you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (with the amusing acronym – SAD)

But if the weather has stripped you from all your possessions, loved ones and the life you once had, I beg to differ. At the peek of the Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy) 80% of Manila was underwater, with over 200 dead and thousands homeless.

Although Samar was not severely hit by last weekend’s typhoon the wet season has kicked in, and it kicks like a wounded carabao. Another typhoon is brewing, perhaps even a ‘super typhoon’, and no one seems to know exactly when and where it is travelling to.

Bad weather impedes your movement, with inadequate drainage the dirt road that I live on is a soggy, filthy quagmire of plastic garbage and dog ta-e (God I hope they are only dog turds). Like a refugee in my own opisina, I am huddled in a corner to escape the wind and rain (uran). My usually peaceful work vista of an azure blue sea and coconut trees is now a smear of washed out grey and military green.

There is also military green sitting on the corner of the street, with their AK-47s casually slung across their shoulders. They always seem quite jolly, and even happier when I pass in the morning (they’re only ‘uman as Kimmy would say). With the elections next year there has been ‘increased activity’ of NPA (New People’s Army), arson and extra judicial killings. ‘Increased activity’ being a euphemism for some heavy shit is going down in the hills of Samar these days and even in the towns.

I will be the one to keep a low profile (ha ha), listen to the not-so soothing rain and read a good book.

So as we pray for the rain to stop, help put rice on the table for an Asian family in need –  Asia Pacific Disaster Appeal – maraming salamat po. 

Destruction beyond comprehension

Destruction beyond comprehension

 *Read two blogs and the New Scientist online

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The Observed Other (that’s me)*

Delving deep into my undergraduate past I keep on repeating the term ‘Othering’ in my mind these days.

For those of you who didn’t do a Bugger All degree or spent that lecture at the uni bar, Othering theory of identity creation asserts that identity is formed only through the establishment of a boundary recognised by other groups (Deloria I believe, or Derrida … meh, some po-mo wanker). In other words, you are you because you are not ‘them’.

Filipino culture possesses a fascination for outsiders, particularly Americans, but at the same time that friendly fascination is based on misunderstanding and marginalisation fuelled by mass media images of the ideal Westerner.

The smiling children saying ‘Hey Joe’ and asking me where I am going is understandable. I am an oddity here and children don’t have a social filter yet, in short kids are kids and they say the darn’est things.

But it is rare that I go a day without someone telling me I am beautiful, rich and can I help them get a job/husband/send money to them from Australia/America (often being one and the same place). Or my favourite request, can they touch my pointy nose?

This marginalisation and idealism of ‘me’, the great rich White saviour is creating a disturbing effect in my own mind. The terms ‘they, them, those’ slip into my vocabulary creating an additional barrier. I have appropriated some Pinoy-isms and love the Philippines but at the same time draw a boundary around my self-constructed ideal of ‘me’.

Although I am put on a pedestal for being different they (them, those urgh, I hate that term) expect me to be the same. At 29 with no husband, no children, no church and only one brother (explaining that I have step-siblings oh my god…) I don’t fit the social construct and shock many locals with my lack of concern not having a husband at this age.

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin

With the constant gaze of the town upon me, it also brings to mind Observation theory. I now have a slightly inhibited gait when I walk, overanalysing the swing my arms and movement of my chest. The mere fact that I am even
cognisant of the way that I walk is crazy and would only ever happen at home if I walked past a group of men at night.

I leave in November, just before the next batch of Peace Corps arrives. I hope the real ‘Joes’ are not too precious about their personal space, have robust egos that can take personal comments and most importantly have a good sense of humour.

*Warning: this is my most self indulgent, wanky and whimsical post yet – you have been warned

Bits and pieces of existence in Samar

If you are looking for profound cultural insights and keen observations you’re at the wrong corner of cyberspace (why does no one use that term anymore?)

I think I’m running low on go-go juice and I ain’t talking about the always obtainable Tanduay Rum which is cheaper than water.

My family has come and gone and they gave me a much needed break from blackouts, work and flushing my ta-e away with buckets of water. And for those of wondering the fate of porky, she feed the neighbourhood and my father was incredibly impressed. What better way can a daughter show her love and gratitude to her Dad’s tolerance and understanding over all these years? Get the man a pig; a tasty, dead pig.

It’s funny the information that you absorb in your surroundings without even realising. Although Dad was well pleased, I was very unimpressed with my lechonerro. I thought to myself when he was cooking, “That is too hot and he is turning too quickly.”

Like when I watch sport during the Olympics and I’m suddenly an expert in synchronised diving or table tennis; I’m now an authority on cooking whole pigs.

Two months of trabaho left and I gripped by two diametrically opposed states of mind, “Oh crap” and “F’k yeah!” The latter is the side of me that is sick of the same conversations (“Where is your companion?”, “You’re a Mormon ma’am?”, “Where are you going?”); the multiple sets of eyes that are constantly on me where ever I go and whatever I do; and the shittiest music played on repeat for hours (My my my myyy Poker face … Umbrella ella ella eh eeh eh…).  And I miss the amazing bunch of freaks I call my friends and family back home, sometimes I’d kill for a Margaret River shiraz, perving on boys with scruffy hair at the Courtie and a crumpet dripping in butter.

But the “Oh crap!” is I still have so much to see and do here and the clock now has an audible tick. I doubt I’ll have time to see the stunning rock formations of Biri or go spelunking in Western Samar. More importantly I can see so many marketing opportunities for SPPI that I just don’t have time to get off the ground. Hopefully another AYAD can carry the torch.

My suggestion to the next intrepid volunteer that ventures here, bring the mother of all ipod docking stations to blast any tropical depressions away.

A fresh pair of eyes in the swamp

I have recently adopted an intern at the Grameen Bank of Catarman and taken him under my wing.

He literally got of the plane from Sweden and I plunged him head first into life in a developing country. Rust-bucket ferries that leave 3 hours late, pedicabs with children hanging off the roof, torrential downpours and a bunch of drunken Aussie volunteers on a deserted island. Mabuhay to the Philippines Sir Mam Po.

Seeing Joel gasp with amazement at more than 4 people on a motorbike and the marvellously pimped-up jeepneys made me realised how indoctrinated I have become to life in the provs. Having a child/chicken/bag of dried fish in my lap, crammed into some form of uncomfortable type of public transport has become such a day-to-day occurrence for me it has become ‘normal’.

It’s been over 3 months since I arrived in Catarman, and if you told me when I arrived that I could live without a fridge, flushing toilet, real coffee and lovely shoes I would have thought you were insane. And that my home could be walang (without) power and water for either minutes or several days sounds like an impossible existence.

But the longer I am here, the more I realise how much I have. In Sydney in my uncle’s garage is a fabulous array of handbags*, treasured books and curios from around the world. And the voyages I’ve had to collect those trinkets are even more precious. Most of my colleagues have not seen as much of the Philippines as I have already, let alone the world.

Although my colleagues will never have the material wealth or the international adventures I’ve had, there are aspects of Pilipino rural life I am envious of. The tightness of the family unit, the understanding of needing a true life/work balance and an innocence.

Seeing that word on the screen sounds patronising, but my English vocabulary appears to be shrinking here and I can’t think of a better word so I will elaborate with a situation. Joel and I witnessed some spectacularly bad karaoke while having dinner. Rather than snide comments that you would expect in either of our home countries, there is a type of respect in the crowd. Everyone is entitled to their moment of glory.

Many business meetings I’ve had here have involved singing, games, dancing or giggling about ‘gwapo’ (attractive men). There is a lack of inhibition which is really beautiful.

I’ve had many frustrations and stressful situations lately but having a fresh perspective through different eyes has reminded me to truly value and embrace my time in the swamp. 

* Of course I value my family and friends more than stuff, but you are not kept in my uncle’s garage and that would have broken the flow of that lovely mental picture. Miss you xx

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.