Thursday, June 18, 2009

Words we need to integrate into the English language

When we finally return from our long hiatus in the Philippines we will have to learn to adjust back to the quicker pace of life, not eating rice at every meal and the weather. We will probably ease into these things like spending a month hanging out on a family member's couch instead of finding a job or eating rice twice a day instead of going cold turkey or hiding under a heap of blankets instead of wearing summer attire in a snow storm. Then there will be other things that have become a part of us. I hope that skills like being able to eat every grain of rice off of my plate with my hands or hand washing my clothes will never disappear and that I have acquired some of the friendly and hospitable spirit of the Pilipino people. One of the things that Rebeka and I discuss frequently is language because Rebeka (BA in French) is nearly obsessed with it and I have a healthy interest in it. One of the conversations we have frequently is about adding Tagalog words to the English language to make it more efficient and fun. The one Tagalog word that most US Americans know is boondock (English) or bundok (Tagalog). The US American meaning of this is a rural, remote place and the Tagalog meaning is mountain. While bundok wouldn't make our list of best Tagalog words to integrate into English it is a starting place. So I expect everyone to study this list and be ready by the time we return to the States so you don't miss a beat.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Close of Service Conference

Is there really a better way to bring closure to something like Peace Corps than spend 3 days at a resort with waterslides, paintball, wireless internet, and air conditioning? Well only if it includes a clown, hot air ballon, and an elephant but that would be ridiculous. Our last official Peace Corps event went smoothly and we are now ready to assimilate back into America. I'm sure there will be akward moments when we point directions with our lips or speak in fragmented English/Tagalog or maybe just get frustrated because we can't find a sweet enough mango but I feel for the most part that transitioning from the Philippines to America is an easier task than many other countries in the world. Our countdown is about six weeks before we leave our site and head to Manila to fill out paperwork to make the end of our service official.

Batch 266

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


So there we were one night, sitting in front of the computer screen, connected to the Internet in this untamed and wild country that people call the Philippines. Our conversation somehow drifted to discussing what the pre-colonial Philippines was like and before we knew it wikipedia was answering all of our questions. The subject we found most interesting through this discussion though was the implications of a pre-Spanish writing system. Rebeka and I had both heard of this writing system previously but hadn't really took the time to understand its importance since it disappeared over 250 years ago. There is little in terms of concrete evidence or archaeological remnants of the script but there are enough pieces to put together a story. The old Tagalog script (Baybayin) is believed to have originated in Java, Indonesia and through trade routes made its way to the Philippines where it became widely used. There are currently three pre-Spanish artifacts that have the script written on them. The most famous is the Laguna Copperplate which is a record of a contract dispute. There are many references to Hindu/Buddhist culture found in the Laguna Copperplate which is alarming to historians since many of them believed that the Philippines was an isolated and primitive society prior to Spanish colonization. The lack of artifacts using the Baybayin script is most likely due to the fact that instead of writing on metal surfaces people used leaves and wood which have decomposed. The other problem could be people hoarding these artifacts in private collections. The second main source of information regarding the Baybayin script is found in the documents of the early Spanish priests. The priests commented on how they were amazed that it seemed all men, women, and children were literate in the Baybayin script. The priests had to spend a good amount of their time deciphering the script so they could communicate to Pilipinos and they left behind detailed accounts of their observations.

The last source of information is the Mangyan people that still to this day use variations of Baybayin. The Mangyans are composed of multiple indigenous people groups that have retained many parts of their culture such as their writing, weaving/basket making, and lifestyle in general. The Mangyan use the script for personnel correspondence and poetry.

So after we completed our informal research on the topic we started to practice our Baybayin script writing skills which led us to our Baybayin translation skills. The writing part is easy but the translation is incredibly difficult. The Baybayin script isn't like the Roman alphabet to say the least. The Baybayin script to start has five vowels and seventeen consonants but there are approximately 45 symbols. So why are there 22 letters and approximately 45 symbols? The simple answer is the written language is based on syllables not letters like the Roman alphabet. So for example the word asawa in Tagalog means spouse and in the Roman alphabet it contains five separate letters but in Baybayin the written word asawa contains 3 characters. One character corresponds to the letter a, one character corresponds to the sound sa and one character corresponds to the sound wa. A difficulty when reading Baybayin is that characters for the vowel i and e are the same and the character for o and u are the same. So when your reading you have to know the language well enough to use the right vowel. The trickiest part though has to be that a single consonant cannot be written by itself. So for example the word nakaw in Tagalog means to steal but when it is written in Baybayin it is just naka (the character for na and the character for ka) since a consonant cannot be written independently, you have to fill in the blank correctly. Last but not least is the fact that words or sentences are not separated by space or periods in Baybayin, it is just one continuous thought. So your left with a large number of syllables jumbled together with consonants missing and you need to make a coherent message from it when your reading. A great example of this is the following:

hu wa ka da na ka
(First symbol corresponds to first sound, second symbol to second sound, etc.)

So, hu wa ka da na ka is actually huwag ka da nakaw which means don't steal or also known as the seventh commandant in the Catholic Church.

If I haven't provided enough information in this blog or it is incoherent, please check out:

Ang Baybayin - A great website if this interests you
The Tagalog Script
Ating Baybayin - This site translates Tagalog into Baybayin

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Local Ball


Deja vu, it's 1999 at a high school basketball game and Steve's going in for a lay-up.... but, no it's 2009 and thing are different: Steve's uniform is custom made and bright blue with Rockista
written across the front, I'm sitting on a concrete step, not nice wooden bleachers, it's REALLY hot outside, nothing like a semi-toasty gym in the middle of winter, and Steve's teammate is our vice-mayor. Gotta love local basketball leagues.

Basketball is the most popular sport and everyone comes out to watch the evening games. Everyone stands on the border of the court (and sometimes in it) loudly cheering their team. Or cheering anyone; some of the ladies just like to yell. Steve is always a crowd favorite and I can't help but laugh at the oohhhs and ahhhhs he receives every time he moves and the whoops of joy he gets for blocking a shot.

Wonder if he'll miss the enthusiasm if he plays in the States. I don't know many men's leagues that have fans who even clap, much less yell every time he dribbles.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


When many Americans hear the word "uniform" blood pressures rise and fists clench. Everyone is ready to defend her individuality. A country that was born from a Declaration of Independence is unlikely to embrace anything that creates too much similarity or conformity amongst its population. I remember sympathizing with friends who had to wear uniforms to their private schools and silently thanking my parents for always keeping me in wear-what-you-want public school.
So now, we've been in a land of uniforms for two years. Of course the students wear uniforms in school as do the teachers. But consistency in dress goes far beyond the classroom. Steve's co-workers at the Municipal Hall have uniforms, as well as the employees of every grocery store, bank, department store and bus company. These are real uniforms too, its not like everyone's wearing black pants and a white button down. Uniforms are made from the same material (usually a bright polyester) and sewn in an identical pattern. Short dresses are popular in the supermarket and at department stores, and teachers and bank staff often have a pencil skirt and a fitted top with embroidery or special buttons.
So what is the significance of the uniforms? For me it's a sign of sameness, conformity, group identification. Things that scare Americans. It seems that in the States our value, our worth is often derived from our individuality. He's amazing he can do ______. He got a 1500 on the SAT. She went to Harvard and graduated in the top 10, etc., etc. Here it is important that one belongs, that one has connections.
The uniformity also applies to daily activities and routines. If someone comes to your house you offer them something to drink and something to eat. If it is your birthday you treat friends and co-workers to lunch or meryenda (snack). If you have an activity or event it will continue until everyone has shared or presented.
Recently a woman came to Steve's office selling snacks. Steve wanted to buy lumpia (it's kind of like an egg roll, but smaller and tastier), but everyone else in his office was buying cheese-filled donuts (yup, cheese is sweet here). Steve had to get the donut. Noone would let him buy the lumpia. Everyone was going to eat donut!
So, we haven't started wearing uniforms to work and we still have our odd, non-conforming behaviors (its inevitable!), but we've grown to like the sameness. Knowing the expected behaviors and routines is wonderful! When someone comes to see us we make some iced tea and offer bread and peanut butter. When there's a meeting at school I text Steve to let him know I don't know when I'll be home, but I will be. When it's our birthday we take pansit to the office. Going with the flow does make sense sometimes.

Friday, March 27, 2009

the grass is always greener somewhere else (or at least the flowers are prettier)

It's time for graduation and this means hours of marching and singing practice (I think our seniors are singing five songs tomorrow?), signing of last minute forms, putting together a year book, and (of course!) decorating the school. As the teachers were busy preparing for graduation tomorrow I was completely distracted by the large washing tub full of orchids.
Of course in Vermont orchids are a rare expensive houseplant known for their love of humidity and the difficulty they pose to those who try to keep them. Here an orchid is nothing special. If I asked any of my co-workers if they'd rather have an orchid or a rose all would choose the rose. One of my great disappointments is that I still have never seen an orchid in its natural environment. Of course I understand why people pick them and keep them at their houses, but I still wish they were out in the wild proliferating.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Welcome to the Philippines

It was sometime in late January that Rebeka’s sister, Leanna announced that she would be coming to visit us for two weeks the following month. After Rebeka and I discussed all the places we wanted to take her and all the different types of food we wanted to make her eat we realized that we had quite a few things to do before she arrived. The checklist was composed of things like make a packing list which included ear plugs (roosters are loud before the crack of dawn and long after), we had to buy an air mattress, we had to call in favors from our co-workers to get transportation around our town, and we had to think of all the things that might be mildly to traumatically disturbing for somebody fresh off the plane and warn her about it. I’m glad to say we were very successful at accomplishing our checklist and the fourteen days Leanna visited were great and they went something like this:

Day 1: Rebeka and I arrived at the International airport around 10 pm and were a little lost at first, we asked where arrivals were and somebody would point in a vague direction and then we would ask for directions again. Eventually we reached the waiting area for arrivals and we had a good laugh, if you’ve ever seen the movie Children of Men, then think of the refugee camps (but with happy people), if you haven’t seen it yet then watch it and you’ll understand what I mean. The arrivals area is composed of a lot of people waiting in a small area with a handful of food vendors mixed in between. The area is outside which means it’s hot and the best part is you’re fenced in. The waiting area is separated from the terminal by a chain linked fence which gives it an odd feel. However we eventually saw Leanna and found a taxi driver that drove us about a kilometer until he realized we weren’t going to pay him the flat rate of 300 pesos (6 dollars) to drive us to the hotel. He was nice about the whole thing and dropped us off at the nearest gas station where we found a taxi driver willing to turn on his meter so we made it to the hotel for the normal 100 peso fare. Then it was bedtime.

Day 2: I have to admit we went to Starbucks for breakfast partly for convenience and partly because it is one of two places in Manila to get bagels. In our defense, Manila is seriously lacking Filipino food so we purposely avoid it. After our bagel fix we went to buy airline tickets for later that week and then started on the way to our place. First we took a taxi to the bus station, and then a three hour bus ride, then an hour van ride, and finally a ten minute walk to our front door. Once we were at our place we helped Leanna unpack the numerous supplies that she brought us and then walked to the market to buy dinner. As we were walking to the market we had a lot of looks and questions as to why there was a new foreigner in town and if she was married and had kids. At the market we bought tuna steaks and a pile of vegetables and found the best vendor ever. While most people sell deep fried flour and quail eggs from their modified pedal bike/kitchens we were able to find one selling calamari. Rebeka and I were a little shocked by this since we had never seen it before but it is a welcome addition to our list of potential mid-afternoon snacks. Anyways we made our way home and ate freshly caught tuna and freshly picked tomatoes.

Day 3: After feeding Leanna a breakfast of Tagalog bananas (the little ones that we love) and local peanut butter Rebeka led Leanna off to school. Leanna met all of Rebeka’s co-teachers, and more than two hundred of her students and answered lots of personal questions about her husband, kids and job. The students were especially interested in Leanna’s work as a police officer and the fact that she had kids (our lack of children is still a shock to most people a continuous topic of discussion). The teachers loved Leanna’s pasalubong (gift from home) and had fun practicing their English with her and comparing Leanna and Rebeka’s noses, skin color and size. In the afternoon we headed into town to admire the old Spanish-style houses in town and attend a handag (special party) for my supervisor’s son’s christening.

Day 4: We ventured to the southern part of our town this day with the help of my supervisor. Our initial plan was to go hiking and then go to the ocean afterwards but my supervisor wanted to do things in the opposite order so we changed plans. The ocean area is one of the town’s marine parks and it’s a secluded and quiet place backed by tall cliffs. We ended up spending most of the day at the ocean taking pictures and snorkeling. It was a rainy day and the water visibility wasn’t great but we were able to see quite a few different species of fish while snorkeling (including a lion fish that Leanna spotted). On our way home my supervisor told us to meet him early the next morning so we could go bird watching in a barangay near his house.

(Wow! The tropics)

(A couple of fisherman)
(Rebeka's new favorite animal, really)

Day 5: We woke up plenty early and walked to the municipal hall to meet my supervisor in the twilight of the morning. My supervisor arrived with the police, a couple of illegal fishers, and a lot of dulong (really small fish). While some police officers fed the illegal fishers breakfast and other ones questioned Leanna about how much money she makes in the US, my supervisor was making a statement about the apprehension of the illegal fishers and why they were arrested (they were using a net with holes that are too small). At some point my supervisor told us it was time to go so we got into his jeep and started down the highway. As we got close to the place my supervisor told us that he couldn’t give us a ride back and he had to go back to the police station immediately. We were taken back a little because the place is about ten miles from town and a little in the bush but we decided that the worse case scenario would be to walk back to the highway so we continued on. The bird viewing area is a work in progress in terms of infrastructure but there are numerous birds that use the area as a feeding ground. We saw a lot of herons and terns when we went but there is supposedly a resident sea eagle in the area also. Before we left a guy that lives near the birding area told us where to go and the normal fee for transportation and we didn’t have a problem.

Day 6: We traveled back to Manila via van, bus, and taxi before we dropped off our excess baggage at a hotel because we were on our way to the Visayas (middle part of the country). We arrived at the airport without a problem and made it onto our afternoon flight with no glitches which was a change of pace since we have had a handful of complications traveling by airplane here. Our flight was just over an hour long and we landed in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental, which is a mix of a college town and an expat hangout. That night we walked along Rizal Boulevard which is lined with old trees along the ocean on one side and restaurants and hotels on the other.

Day 7: Our destination on this day was Twin Lakes National Park north of Dumaguete. Our trip started off with a bus ride on the main highway where we witnessed washed out roads and destroyed houses due to recent flooding. Before too long the bus conductor told us to get off that this was our stop. We got off and noticed we were in the middle of nowhere. There wasn’t even a house in view, only three guys standing across the road next to a waiting shed. “Where are you going.” one of them shouted. We replied with “Twin Lakes” and they said they could help. They told us the price for transportation which was the right price and we said ok lets go. The ride was uphill almost the entire way and the road was rough to say the least. We stopped three times on our way to the top, once we stopped so one of the guys could drop of food at his house, then we stopped so they could buy cigarettes and place lottery bets, and our last stop wasn’t at the top but rather in front of a giant pile of debris. “Landslide.” was the word we heard and then they told us we would have to walk the rest of the way which ended up being for the better anyways. The park was composed of steep mountains, valleys, lakes, trees, and on this day landslides. On our way to the lakes we passed by four different places where the road was covered in debris, the storms that had brought rain earlier in the week must have been strong. The lakes were almost at the top of the mountain and it was a great place to relax after the hike. We sat around next to the lake for a little while before our journey back down the mountain where we found our drivers waiting just where we had earlier left them.

(One of the twin lakes)

(This was the road)


Day 8: After spending the previous day in the forest we decided to go to Apo Island on day 8. Apo Island is renowned for its coral reefs and is one of the best snorkeling sites in the country. We took a bus heading south of Duamaguete and once again the bus conductor told us to get off here but this time there were signs pointing us in the right direction. We walked down to the beach and a woman approached us asking if we needed a boat to Apo, after we told her yes she found a driver and we were on our way. The ride was wetter than we expected but I guess not too big of a deal since we were planning on spending the day in the water anyways. After we landed on Apo the boat driver’s mother told us how to get to the snorkeling site. We walked down the beach to the Marine Park and got into the water and it was an amazing sight. It was probably one of the most unique things I’ve seen in my life. There was coral and only coral present, no room for sand or rock and the coral was multiple colors, sizes, and types. The fish present were a mirror of the coral variety and there isn’t a way to explain how amazing it was. The only way to appreciate it is to go snorkeling other places and then go to Apo; the images will speak for themselves. On our way back to Dumaguete Leanna tried to befriend a monkey for sale but it wasn’t a very friendly monkey, it only hissed, it didn’t draw blood.

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(Nice monkey)

(Apo Island in the distance)

Day 9: In the morning we scoped out the local market for mangoes and locally made products. We bought a couple of kilos of mangoes and spent the morning relaxing since we were catching a boat to Siquijor (a different island) in the afternoon. We went to a café for lunch that became a second home for us in Dumaguete because it had good prices, the food was good, and they had foreign things like cheesecake and apple crumble. In the afternoon we took the fastcraft boat to Siquijor which wasn’t the scariest ferry ride I’ve been on in the Philippines but we had a moment where a guy pulled Leanna’s hair accidentally when he jumped from the wave that hit the side of the boat. By the end of the boat ride there were a few knees knocking for sure. When we landed in Siquijor we got a tricycle to the place where we were staying. The place is called JJ’s Café and it is currently under construction. The owners are renting out their beach front house while they finish building the rest of the resort. The top half of the house was being used by a couple from Switzerland and we stayed in the bottom half. The house, which has a wrap around deck, sits in a beautiful spot with powdery sand and a calm ocean. We relaxed that afternoon and then ate dinner at their restaurant which had some of the best food I’ve eaten in the Philippines.

(Big empty beach on Siquijor)

Day 10: We spent this day relaxing: we woke up a little later than normal and ate a brunch time meal before we went out for a walk along the beach. The area has a beautiful setting and isn’t built up as much as many resort areas. After our beach walk we took out a Bangka for a ride and paddled around for a couple hours before we returned to the beach house to sit on the deck and eat mangoes!

(Who doesn't wish they had an ocean front school)

(How cold is it where you are right now?)

(We roughed it in the place on the left)

Day 11: The night before we had arranged for a driver to meet us at 9am to take us on the tour of the island. The first place we stopped was a large church and convent that dwarfed the rest of the town. The town was a little place and I think that everyone in the town could have comfortably lived inside the church. The church is one of the Baroque Churches in the Philippines and supposedly one of the oldest. After our brief stop at the church we made our way to Cambughay Waterfalls. The waterfalls were composed of multiple sets ranging from 4-12 feet tall. It was a great spot to take pictures and that explains why we now have 1000 different pictures of the same place. We ate lunch at the falls and then continued on without swimming since it wasn’t warm enough at eighty something degrees. We left the waterfalls and our two non-Filipino guides lead us down some rough roads and got us lost without getting us lost (we were on the right road but one of them thought we were somewhere else on the map). We somehow arrived at the Bandila-an Nature Center directly in the heart of Siquijor and decided to get out for a walk. The center is completely abandoned but impressive none the less. The park is thickly forested rainforest with a handful of narrow walking trails that crisscrosses through it. We took the trail called the Little Waterfall and found ourselves deep in the jungle pretty quickly. It was the type of jungle where the sun has trouble penetrating (the real stuff). Our hike was a great unexpected surprise and we thought it was the ending of our day, but when we stopped at an intersection on the way back a guy jumped in the vehicle and asked us if we wanted to go to the butterfly sanctuary so we made one last stop. The butterfly sanctuary is small but impressive since it is operated by a single guy that had previously worked at a conservation organization on a different island. The small area housed quite a few different species and it was easy to get pictures of them all. The day came to an end when the guides dropped us off at our new hotel just a little after sunset.

(Our driver/guide team were scouting out the road ahead)

(Nice thick jungle)

Day 12: We were ready to go at 5 am and hoping to catch a ferry back to Dumaguete. The previous day we had been told by multiple people that many of the ferries had been canceled due to bad weather and we were worried everybody would be there early trying to get the ferry. An English couple we had met the night before told us they had met a guy that was on a fastcraft ferry that day and a window broke on the ferry and it started to take on water so the crew ordered everyone to put on their life jackets. So we were in our privately hired van on our way to the pier with thoughts of SOS dancing in our heads when we arrived to a guy saying canceled. Our van driver told us there was another pier further away with a 6 am departure time also so we said go for it. He drove plenty fast enough for us to get there in time to ride a passenger/cargo ferry which took twice as long but wasn’t easily disturbed by the waves. The bottom of the ferry had a piece of heavy machinery stored in it and we passengers rode on the top deck. The ride was much smoother even though it took twice as long. The rest of the day was less exciting as we returned to the market in Dumaguete to purchase souvenirs.

(After a day of shopping)

Day 13: We had a mid morning flight from Dumaguete to Manila and decided to spend the day in Manila’s colonial district, Intramuros. This area is known for its architecture and it was the heart of Spanish occupation. We spent the day walking through parks and taking pictures of buildings and forts. The day ended with us in Robinson’s Ermita Mall which is a huge mall with any and everything in it. After all the shopping was done we went to our hotel to pack everything up and take a deep breath after the last two weeks.

(Park in Manila)

(What an intersection!)

(Rizal Park)

(The Manila Cathederel in the background)

(Don't really know what to say)

(The old and the older)

( If he's 6'4" how big is that drum?)

Day 14: Good byes