Friday, February 20, 2009

There Goes the Neighborhood & JS Prom 2009

I will be telling this narrative slightly out of order but I think it makes more sense, as you will hopefully agree.
So here goes, my name is Sean and I will be your tour guide this afternoon. Please make sure to fasten your bicycle helmets, apply plenty of sunscreen and dawn your polarized sunglasses (proud of me mom?) as we will be touring the Philippines country-side by bike. As a side note, bicycles are the only permitted means by which Peace Corps volunteers may transport themselves; motorcycle accidents were, at one time, the leading cause of death among volunteers, it may very well be massive overdoses of Coca-Cola since. Now that we are prepared, making sure we all have our cameras, a full battery and a healthy sense of humor about ourselves, let's depart from the house and head out north. As I said, I live in town. Just around the corner, we can see "downtown," the only main road that goes through my town and the avenue where all the shops are. This is the main drag at about 9:30 a.m. This is rush hour. There is a store on the left where I buy soap, toothpaste (proud of me mom?), guitar strings, chocolate and load for my phone. To the right is the town church, which I hope most of you have seen in albums previously posted to Picasa; it dates back to the Spanish times, and is super old, I think from the 1800's. I know that some have this image that Peace Corps volunteers only live in stick huts in little rural villages, but that idea is simple not true. Volunteers serve in every kind of social and developmental environment; many volunteers here live in cities and live only seven minutes from night clubs, but that does not devalue the contributions they are making to their schools that need as much help as those in rural communities. Well, maybe it does, I don't know.

This images above are two very important buildings in town. The one on the left is the post office (and other government-type offices) that was built by the Japanese as a garrison during WWII. During the Japanese occupation, according to Sir Erwin's grandmother, an officer was riding horseback in her barrangay (like a neighborhood, the smallest unit of governance) when he was attacked by Filipino rebels. Everyone in that barrangay was then collected and held prisoner in the church, across the street from this garrison. Japanese occupation has quite a few horror stories, one such story involves Japanese soldiers using babies for bayonet practice, tossing them in the air and stabbing them. The Japanese are now committed to atoning by donating computers and heavy machinery. The second building above, to the right, is the town auditorium. Every event is held in this auditorium, including the Junior/Senior Prom and the Miss I.T. beauty pageant; the auditorium is the oldest building in town, built by the Spanish forever ago (proud of me Augsburg history department?).
Continuing on, crossing the river about a 4-5 minute ride outside of town, we come to a little country chapel surrounded by a rice field. When on the buses, you see these all over. It's nice, on evening trips, to pass by them, the sun setting and people inside holding prayer services, the insides all lit up with candles. We will see this chapel a little later in a video. This chapel is literally less than a 10 minute bike ride from my house. While I do live in town, I must be realistic about the immensity (or lack there of) of what is meant by "town." Indeed, "town" is a well-demarcated area and everything beyond is, well, rice and coconut trees. It's easy to say that I'm a rural volunteer, but how rural am I? This I cannot exactly figure.

This is a typical rural house, made of wood, native palms, bamboo and corrugated metal sheets. These are not unlike the materials used on the house in which I live sans bamboo and palm. Also, mine has a cement foundation.
Another country home off in this distance. No doubt this family tends the rice fields that lead up to it.
Alright kiddos, we have biked outside of town, through the next town to the north and are now in a massive series of rice fields. This is a picture of one of the many Inglesia ni Cristo churches that are ubiquitous throughout the Philippines. They are always immaculately white and I have no idea how they manage...divine intervention? This is the same scene as the panorama picture at the top of this post.
And finally, we will about-face and head south of my town, stopping by the park where I will go to sit with students or try to finagle some alone time late at night after all the students have gone to bed. Here is what it looks like to bike back into town, so to speak I suppose.

So this, to the right, is the park, back in the center of town. This is the public forum where families bring their children and play in the grass. The sun in this country is so insanely hot, being so close to the equator, that I constantly wonder why they did not plant any trees for shade in the park. I mean seriously, it is often too hot to go outside mid-day (and it's February!). The sun feels like a broiler. I have never felt anything like it.
The view of the stars from the park on a clear evening is indescribably beautiful. I mean, we are literally 3-4 hours from the closest city. There has been only one other place in my life where I have seen the stars more clearly, and that was in Namibia during my rural homestay. But the stars here are so brilliant and clear that one could seemingly reach out and touch them, expecting them to feel like little studded diamonds fastened to a black-velvet cloth.
Okay campers, enough time at the park. We will not head south, out of town, to see some beautiful coastline and some rice terraces.

If we will look to the left, we see rice terraces backing up to the densely forested volcano which overlooks our humble town and, to the right, a stream that runs down from the jungle-laden volcano and off into the bay to the right.
Well, you may want to see more, but your faithful tour guide is kapoy, or tired now, and wants to go home, sit in the hammock and tell you of last night, the Junior/Senior Prom. Coke anyone?
So last night was the Junior/Senior Prom, or simply put, JS Prom. Roughly 450-500 students came, dressed in their best, to dance, to schmooze, to simply have a good time. During the first part, where the hundreds of students walked down an aisle in pairs, the male teachers, myself, and Melissa, the Australian volunteer, all went out for some libations (it was a hot night, what do you expect!?). Upon returning, the students were doled out box dinners of tuna sandwiches, fried chicken and rice. The teachers table had their own...refreshments. We had a big pot of gin and Tang with sliced apples in the mix. I would sure as hell have gone to my own high school prom if there was fried chicken and gin.
Tangent, ahem, so the students had their box dinners and socialized in large groups, according to year. The juniors wore pink and the seniors wore blue. Here is a picture of the juniors, not because I like them more but because the pic I got of the seniors came out blurry. See the people in the bleachers to the left? Both sides of the auditorium were filled with parents, watching their students' every move. Probably because of the Fried Chicken.
After the dinner and the socializing, each section of each grade made dance presentations, usually to swing music, which should not imply swing dancing. Filipino teenagers love nothing more than to cut-a-rug American-club style. The presentations were very entertaining; it was obvious that the students had worked on them a long time. Finally, after the presentations, the students got what they came for: a disco. WAITAMINUTE! You mean to tell me they disco!? Well, not really. It's more like a club scene, they just call it a disco. Observe:

So, as you can see, it's less of a disco and more like a...Filipino style Bar Mitzvah.
It was a real fun time. The best thing about being the Peace Corps volunteer and teacher is how popular I am. I could walk into the middle of the dance and just start dancing. In seconds there would be a group of students around me, emulating every dorky dance move I could muster. This is the closest I will ever come to celebrity status. I even got to hang out with the prom queen, by request! Look at the tie! Look at how good it looks! I did it myself after an hour of practice with a downloaded how-to YouTube video (proud of me dad?). The Internet is almost necessary for the, ahem, professional volunteers these days.
We danced and danced and danced until about midnight. I made good friends with the DJ and he played a few tracks of Girl Talk for me, both he and the students loved it! Looks like Girl Talk will be the next big DJ in the Philippines! They absolutely love club music here, which is kind of neat.
Well friends, it has been real. I was privileged to give you a tour of the neighborhood and regale you with stories from my experience at the JS Prom. This has been a long post and, if you have made it down this far, I appreciate it and thank you.
There are more pictures from both my bike trip as well as the prom on my Picasa page.
Next week it's back to classes and trying to get some statistical data from our library collection. I don't just go to pageants, proms and bike around, I do actually do work around here.
Until next time, much love from the equator.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Miss IT Beauty Contest and Valentines Day at Padre Burgos

Greetings again friends! Your faithful blogger just sat down at his laptop to pound out the happenings of the past few days when ants started to spew forth from every nook and crevice of his laptop! Oh, but readers, I was ferocious in my handling of them; with my mighty index finger of my left hand and a lighter in my right, I knocked off the intruders and torched them into oblivion! What a sight, I must assure you dear readers, for as the first wave ran out into their impending inferno, hundreds more followed in their fated path. It was a blood bath, the likes of which neither Bilbo Baggins nor Saint George could ever imagine. I have won the battle, oh yes, and am poised, ever ready, for the oncoming war. Unfortunately, my laptop, infested while I was gone, was at the head of my bed. My bed now has issues. Bummer.
Aside from my ant problem, I spent the last two evenings contemplating the Peace Corps motto, "The toughest job you'll ever love." Damn straight.
Friday night, I was invited by the local provincial college, SLSU, to judge "Miss I.T. 2009," a beauty pageant with contests who are also students of the I.T. college. So of course I accepted. Here I just want to mention that beauty pageants are something of a cultural phenomenon here in the Philippines, a time-honored tradition celebrated for any and every reason and category, as will become obvious. Interestingly enough, my first impressions when I first entered the auditorium was that the judging tables each had a computer. Yes, Miss I.T. was going to be judged using information technology. How deliciously geeky! Unfortunately, the computer program the students has made, "Pageant Scores Version 1.0" or something like that, crashed after the first round. Back to paper and, I suppose, back to the drawing board. I'm certain I will get to test-drive version 2.0 next year. Creating that program, which actually looked very nice, was a very brave and courageous first attempt at a very creative way of judging beauty pageants. A+ for innovation and effort.
But this was not a software pageant, it was a BEAUTY pageant! This picture was our first introduction to the "beauties" (interpret quotes as you wish). For some reason, the introduction was superhero themed and all the contestants were dressed as seemingly exhibitionist superheros. If anyone has been to Madison Halloween, it was like that, for real.
There were a number of different competitions including the superhero costume motif, swimsuit, casual wear, formal gown and interview. To be polite, I will skip many of the details, but I laughed, I cried, in short, I judged. The easiest part of it all, for me, was that I did not know any of the contestants, so singling out a winner was kind of well, more or less easy. Here is a picture of me, Melissa, the Australian volunteer (who also judged), the other judges and the top-three winners (I'm the super-tall white dude with the pointy nose).
Even as I write this, I am still fighting off ants, which are crawling up my legs from when I knocked many of them to the floor. They really should cut it out, though it is a smart strategy as I absolutely refuse to torch my own legs.
As I was saying, after the pageant, there was a Valentine's Day disco (they call all dances here discos), held the Friday night before. Melissa and I stayed for that; in Namibia I was laughed at when I danced, here, I am imitated :)
Saturday morning, I left with Melissa to Padre Burgos to meet up with some other Australian volunteers at a resort. They are all SCUBA certified and I was BEER certified, so it all worked out, they swam with sea turtles, I stayed on shore with a beer, reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a gift from my brother (Colin, it makes more sense when read under such circumstances). This is a picture of the beach when the sun shown for about 30minutes. The darker spots in the water is live coral. Cool, huh?
I seriously need to upgrade to napalm for these ants! This is insane!
Below are some more beauty shots from Padre. It really is this constantly beautiful here. Padre is not a whole lot unlike my own site, it's just secluded and I can feel like I'm on vacation (even for one night) when I go there.

Please view the rest of my Burgos photos on my Picasa page. Otherwise, the food was good, the company was good and the time spent usik-usik mga sa oras, or "killing time" was excellent. At the resort, there were 5 Aussies I was with, plus a Norwegian, a Spaniard and a few others. I was the only American.
Sitting on the veranda today, talking with the Spaniard, who has been a student in Beijing for the last two and one half years and was just on vaca, I had an epiphany.
It occurred to me that, there on the veranda sat two citizens of the two countries that colonized, exploited or otherwise utilized the resources of the Philippines from the mid 1500's to the end of WWII. I don't know what it means but it felt significant somehow, in a way that I cannot really find an appropriate word to express the feeling. Something having to do with irony, shock, a little horror and being grateful for witnessing such a perspective. She and I did not discuss it, it was but a quiet realization.
My last Friday and Saturday nights were hilarious, relaxing and just what the doctor ordered. It is truly a privilege to be where I am, doing what I am doing, and even while on vacation, I never cease to be thankful for the opportunities to meet such fine people just "travelling through."

"The toughest job you'll ever love," yeah, it totally is.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In the Classroom

This is a panoramic view of my school's yard. When it rains, there is a river that flows through the middle and the dirt paths are all washed away into mud-pools down the hill.

From now until March 26th, graduation day, I will teach first year English with Ma'am Airen (read Irene). Today, finished our unit on poetry, rhyme and rhythm. We used the Philippine national anthem (translated from Filipino to English) and the U.S. national anthem to look at the inherent rhythm in the English language. After guiding the students in a rousing rendition of "Lupang Hinirang" (the title of the Philippines anthem), Ma'am Airene reviewed the historical context in which the anthem was written; it was written during the "Revolutionary Period" by Jose Palma in 1898, when the Filipinos began revolting against the Spanish colonial power present here for 333 years. The tune itself is a march and is super up-tempo. The "Lupang Hinirang" is sung every morning before classes begin, but in Filipino. Much to my surprise, the students had never been introduced to an English translation. After the historical context, Ma'am and I unlocked some of the more difficult words in order to facilitate the students' understanding of the song. We asked if any of the students knew what Liberty is. "Milk?" one student responded. And this, friends, is how I learned that the brand of milk here, advertised on TV, is called Liberty Milk. The class had a good laugh when Ma'am and I explained what it means. I look huge in this picture; I always forget how tall I am until I see myself in a picture. Below is a video I took of the students singing.

Here is the English translation of the song:

Land of the morning, child of the sun returning,
With fervour burning, thee do our souls adore.

Land dear and holy, cradle of noble heroes
Ne'er shall invaders trample thy scared shore.

Even within the skies and through thy clouds
And o'er thy hills and sea. Do we behold the radiance,
Feel the throb of glorious liberty.

Thy banner, dear to all our hearts
Its sun and stars alight,
O never shall its shining field
Be dimmed by tyrant's might!

Beautiful land of love, O land of light,
In thine embrace 'tis rapture to lie.
But it is glory ever, when thou art wronged,
For us, thy sons, to suffer and die.

After Ma'am Airene's explanation, I asked the students if they knew that the Philippines and the U.S. have a commonality in their history and, more specifically, in the history of their respective national anthems. None of them did. I told them that the United States was once too a colony, but of the English, and that our national anthem, written by Francis Scott Key, came from our efforts to insure independence.
After taking apart the words (as many of them are too archaic for a ESL learners to understand), I asked them what the song was about. "War." It had never occurred to me before, yet in light of their inspiring, optimistic and lively anthem, it made sense that ours might come across as somber and sad-sounding.
Notice that we use paper to hang information on the board. There is no money or materials for handouts, which makes creating these visual aids imperative.
Working with Ma'm Airene is a real privilege. She has a lot of enthusiasm and is inspiring when it comes to working with the students, who are mostly 12. I have little experience being around people this age and she is an excellent mentor. We have started to develop a co-teaching chemistry and she is really supportive of the ideas I bring to the table whenever we lesson plan. She is the kind of co-teacher I had hoped for while in training.

So, Monday through Thursday, I teach three hours a day with Ma'am Airene in the mornings and one hour a day with Sir Erwin in the afternoon. Every Friday I teach exclusively with Sir Erwin.
Currently, Sir and I are teaching the fourth year students how to create web sites using free, open source software, called KompoZer. They are really having a good time it seems. Currently, they are in the midst of teaching each other aspects of web creation through presentations. Sir and I have made English the medium of our instruction for web design (as ICT does not require the students to use English across the board; this is not an English classroom after all). We justify this with the fact that nearly 70% of the internet is in English. This picture is taken during one of the presentations. We do have a digital projector that was donated to us, but it has no bulb. The bulbs are quite expensive, our aspirations limited only by our budget. Students must gather around the computer monitors for the presentation. Everyday I am thankful I have been put in a place with an ICT lab and that these students are afforded the opportunities to learn on the machines here.

On a previous post I have provided you with a schedule, hopefully this provides you with a concrete image of my day-to-day.

I am also working with a teacher, and former PC Philippines volunteer, in PA. He and I have been in contact about ways in which our students can interact. I hope that the media presented on this blog are a good start.
Really, the internet has become the essential to for the Peace Corps volunteer.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Combating Boredom

[plot spoiler: this is just me complaining, there is nothing worthwhile in this post]

Today I was pushed to my limits in terms of my threshold for boredom.
I woke up at six quite by accident and couldn't sleep. It might have been the thousands of roosters and church bells across the street. I noticed that my fan wasn't spinning. "Didn't I turn it on last night?" I though. Well, this is usually how I discover that we're in the midst of a brownout, black out, walay kuriente. The winds were blowing so hard and the rain was coming down in sheets and the combination must have knocked out the power lines. If we lose power, it's almost a sure thing that we've lost running water too. Heavy rains usually knocks out my town's cistern. Indeed, we had no running water or electricity for most of the day.
This in and of itself is no problem; the catch is that it has been pooring rain all day. I was trapped inside the house with little to do. But you know, come to think of it, there would be little for me to do even if I could leave the house. Most certainly I would be out in the hammock instead of pacing in the kitchen like a madman reading, listening to my iPod...yeah, I had the good fortune to have charged my iPod yesterday! So know what I did? I laid in bed for five hours, finishing up Dreams from my Father (1995), the first book of Barack Obama in audiobook format.
I now know so much about him, 7 hours worth anyway. He has a great voice for audiobooks, he read it himself.
Otherwise, I wasted my life on the internet and listened to The Who ad nauseum. Two years of this will certainly kill me. This rain is driving me mad. Cultural isolation is driving me mad. Even The Who has started to drive me mad.
It will be fine as soon as the weather improves (which it has yet to do since December).
Fortunately I have over 2 hours of political podcasts to listen to to. It's the only thing I've been looking forward to all day.
Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps