Monday, June 29, 2009

St. Peter's Day

Today is a Monday and therefore a school day. However it is also St. Peter's Day, a day with obvious Catholic roots. So school was canceled, in the afternoon anyway. All of the students left to go home for lunch and then, one would assume, to church. But no, St. Peter's Day is a day in which everyone goes to the beach. That's right, St. Peter's Day is a day in which the whole town shuts down in the afternoon to swim. You've gotta love this culture!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Projects List Update

Projects I have completed:

  1. Cleanup effort at Guinsaugon Landslide Memorial Chapel involving 30 3rd year CAT-in-training students. Our students joined local government leaders and community members in picking up garbage from around the chapel site. This cleanup effort coincided with St. Bernard’s initiative to prepare the site for the 3rd anniversary commemoration of the tragedy. I am still gathering documentation of this project.
  2. I researched the possibility of creating our own printer ink in hopes of saving my school money on printer cartridges. After getting in touch with a friend well connected to the chemistry community in Minneapolis, MN, I have abandoned this project. They reported it to be impossible with the means available to us here.
  3. Performed analysis of books, along with volunteers from the 4th year, in the SJNHS Library and wrote up a report explicating the data collected. This analysis is meant to serve as a basis for seeking book donations for the school. This was completed January 10th, 2009.
  4. Researched possible library management software, either free or open source. We have selected a final candidate and because of the value of using this program, the library will be getting its first computer.
  5. Worked with family and friends in the U.S. and have thus far obtained 171 new books for the library, including fiction for all reading levels, a number of dictionaries and a complete encyclopedia set.
  6. Worked with other partners in the U.S. for a pen-pal letter exchange and book drive. Fifteen students in the U.S. have collected books and school materials to fill five balikbayan boxes (potentially 350 or more books) and they should be in transit at the time of this writing (June 26, 2009).
  7. Implemented a firewall system that not only protects the computer lab, an invaluable asset to the SJNHS community, from many viruses, hackers and other malicious activities and software. This firewall also blocks inappropriate content, such as pornography and images of violence, from being available to students as well as harmful downloads that could infect computers on the network with viruses.
  8. Implementation of free software SteadyState, a means by which to protect the lab from students changing settings or installing viruses or other unwanted applications.
    1. My ICT co-teacher and I have already installed SteadyState on numerous computers throughout the lab, experimenting with configurations that suit the needs of our lab. SteadyState is “a tool developed by Microsoft that gives administrators enhanced options for configuring shared computers, such as hard drive protection and advanced user management. It is primarily designed for use on computers shared by multiple people, such as internet cafes, schools, libraries etc. SteadyState is the successor to the Shared Computer Toolkit.” –taken from Microsoft website
    2. We have already completed developing a 4 page document of instructions on installing Windows XP from scratch, installing all necessary software and locking it all down with SteadyState. This documentation is written in a way that someone with very little computer experience can fix a computer themselves without relying on the presence of the ICT instructor.
  9. Implementation of a PXE server in the school’s network. This server will greatly decrease the amount of time the ICT teacher will spend doing computer maintenance. Before, it took 4.5 hours to reinstall windows and necessary software per computer. This means that if a virus affects one or more computers, the teacher is already obliged to spend at least 4.5 hours on each computer, or exponentially more, fixing the computers. With the implementation of the PXE server, we can reformat a computer in a matter of ten minutes, thus being able to reformat the entire lab in one day. Ideally, if a student’s computer is misbehaving, we can reformat it back to the original, brand-new state in a matter of ten minutes, hardly interrupting the participation of the student in the class.
Here is a youtube video of the PXE Server in action!

Projects I am currently working on:

  1. Developing a working, semester-long lesson plan, teaching fourth year students the basics of web design using open source, free software.
    1. My co-teacher and I are running a demonstration of the plan and will create the documentation so it can be replicated at other sites.

Projects on the back burner:

  1. I have a contact at the University of Saint Catherine’s in Minneapolis, MN that is interested in starting a book drive and donating books to San Juan National High School. Because we are already working with YCS, we will also distribute any of the collected books fro St. Kate’s throughout Southern Leyte, depending on the shipment size.

Projects in the pipe:

  1. I would like to develop an outline for a “ICT Lab Stewardship Program” wherein, during the school year, I will train 3rd year and fourth year volunteers on the basics of computer hardware and software maintenance, the idea being that, year after year, fourth year students will be able to train 3rd year students before they graduate. I intend to provide documentation with a basic outline of this program for others to follow.
    1. Not only will this provide our highs school with basic computer technicians to service the lab after I leave SJNHS, but also
    2. To provide students with a necessary skill set that they may eventually use these skills outside of school as a means of income generation.

Personal Interest Statement:

As a volunteer with a background in and passion for ICT in the classroom, I see myself leaving a lasting impression on my community by developing easy-to-follow documentation for projects that bring ICT into the classroom in a sustainable way. A lot of online documentation requires a basic knowledge of computer skills and terminology. I intend to put the power of ICT in the hands of anyone who wishes to utilize its potential without the prior know-how. Hopefully this documentation will be easy enough to follow that PCV’s of all sectors can utilize these projects in an easy-to-follow manner.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Twittering in Farsi

I'm not going to reflect too long on the subject; millions out there in the blogosphere are already creating too much content to ingest anyway. I really just wanted to briefly talk about what the June 20th protest in Tehran, and more specifically the way in which media is disseminating information to the outside world, means to me.
I am thousands of miles away from Tehran though I am able to experience instantaneous reporting of primary sources from the protest there. This is the new world order, this is Web 2.0 and this is democracy. When traditional news outlets were banned blocked and exiled from the streets of Tehran, when corroborated information was not available, the Iranian people took to their cell phones, SMSing, using Twitter and posting photos and video from their cell phones online to show the world firsthand the rebirth of a new Iran. This moment in history is as significant as Tienanmen Square, the lunar landing and the Rodney King video. This is the melding of technology, new media and the unyielding human spirit. This is a moment when we can look back on in which nations, cultures and individuals connected without the proxy of a national government, a moment in which information truly became free and democratized, a moment in which the speech, sights and experiences of individuals in an oppressive county could seek refuge and sanctuary in the internet servers in another country thousands of miles away even when those individuals could not leave the barricades of Tehran.
One of the tweets that came out of the twitter feed, a famous quote, read "you can kill the revolutionary but you cannot kill the revolution." Information, knowledge and media are now free and unleashed: the world can now watch and experience simultaneously. This is a great moment in human history. They said that on September 11th we were all Americans. On Saturday June 20th, we were all Iranians.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Happy Independence Day, Philippines!

Happy Birthday, Philippines! Today is independence day here in the Philippines and it's certainly not quite taking shape as I thought it might. Despite my best efforts not to let my American identity dictate my expectations here, I did expect something a little celebratory, but in the provinces, it's just another normal day, a work day for many.
This morning I met my counterpart, Sir Erwin, and a group of students outside my house at 9:00 am to bring the books my grandma sent to the school. We lacked transport, which we sufficiently made up for in manpower. Each student carried an armload of books from my house to the school, about a 12 minute walk away. While we waited outside my house for more students to arrive, Sir Erwin asked one of the students how old the Philippines is today.
"111 years old, sir," he responded.
What!? What about the American and later Japanese occupations? I mean, the Philippines officially was a colony of the United States until July 4, 1946. And why would June 12th be independence day when the Philippines became independent on the 4th of July, a symbolic move on the part of the U.S.?
This takes some explaining. One hundred and eleven years ago today, Emilio Aguinaldo declared independence from the Spanish on June 12th, 1898. Filipinos regard this event as the first and only declaration of independence and view the American presence here as a usually amicable occupation, of which the Philippines had remained independent throughout the duration (this is an inference on my part).
After the United States abdicated sovereignty to the Philippines, the newly-founded Philippines government decided to move the holiday to their self-proclaimed day of independence; but Filipinos are forever gracious and declared July 4th Filipino-American Friendship Day.
I sent out a blanket text to the Filipinos near and dear to me and I did get some interesting responses. I wanted to be sure to share two of them. The two responses come from two highly educated women who continue to inspire me with their wisdom and lovingly critical opinions of their country. The first, "Thank you. I am sad about the situation in my country today. I hope it will get better after the election next year." Text the second, "Thank you Sean, but I still wonder whether we are really independent yet." I do not include these to provoke heated political debate but rather to exemplify the fact that while it's fun and easy to get drunk with your buddies, have a BBQ and blow things up with illegal fireworks from Wisconsin, Missouri or North Carolina like we do in the states, there are people in other countries who spend their independence days contemplating the nature of their democracies and the welfare of their country and it's people. This realization, I must say, was truly moving.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Back To School

As a time-honored tradition, I got my haircut before school started. Sitting in the plastic chair, i felt that same anxiousness I was so familiar with as a student all those years and I began to wonder if all teachers feel that. I'm sure not every teacher goes to Target to get a G.I. Joe or Barbie lunch pale, but they must still experience those same feelings they did when they were kids, picking what design they wanted on their accompanying thermos.
It's wonderful to be back at school, at the time of this writing about a week and one half in. Already the malaise of summer has dissipated and I find I have a reason to wake up every morning. Classes have not yet started, per-se, but I have had some great opportunities both for project preparation and completion.
I would first like to mention and thank Grandma Pickle and her community who donated 171 books to my school on their own dime, which I received about 3 weeks ago. I have also spent months planning with a fellow Namibia program colleague, Emily Negrin, to connect her students in California with my students in a penpal program. Over the months, the penpal program snowballed into a books and materials drive, gifts from her students to ours. I anticipate receiving 5 boxes of books and materials from Emily and her students for our library and the use of our students.
With regards to Gram, her friends and community, Emily and her students, the hardest thing about doing development work is being able to count on people. Many of you have told me that what I am doing is good, a mitzvah and charitable and noble work, but without people like them, people like me are nothing but a drain on the community in which we planned on serving. They pump the lifeblood through my veins and through the veins of my community. With that, I say, and I think we all say, daghan salamat po (many thanks, with respect).
As for other projects that have been keeping me busy, I just finished building a Linux-based firewall called Smoothwall. I have never worked with Linux before and it proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated. All in all, building and introducing the Smoothwall server into our network took a good 7 hours. Smoothwall protects our entire network from hackers, caches data to free up bandwidth, blocks specified content like porn and lets us monitor overall network traffic. My principle, Ma'am Rachel, was very impressed. I would like to be sure to give a special thanks to Dr. Dave in batch 266 for his patience and guidance.
Otherwise, being back at school means hanging out with the students. Here is a video of the fourth year ICT students doing a 20 person human knot on the first day of school.

The kids really make it all worth it. People back home can break their backs getting books to our library and I have spent 9 hour days at school working on computer projects, but the kids really make it all worth it. I feel so much older all of a sudden than I actually am. To conclude this post, Attached is a candid picture Sir Erwin took of me wasting time with some of the fourth year ICT students, showing them pictures from my Europe trip; apparently Aaron has a handsome nose.

Trip to Manila - In-Country Resource Center Training

Every Peace Corps country has an In-Country Resource Center (IRC) and every year, the batch that's been in-country for a year interviews and nominates selected members of the (relatively) new batch to lead the IRC committee for the remainder of the volunteers in the new batch's service. Follow me?
Anyway, I was elected to be an Information Communication Technology (ICT) representative for my entire batch by the former IRC committee and the head of the IRC in Manila. It was time for the old batch (266) to hand over the the baton to us (267) because most of them are leaving in July.
I flew to Manila, catching a 5 a.m. bus from my site to the nearest airport (about a 5.5 hour bus trip) to catch a 2 p.m. flight to Manila (1.3 hour flight) to get a 30minute cab to the pension at which I stayed. I arrived at the airport anyway at 5 p.m.; it was a 12 hour day essentially. It took so long only because of standard procedure delays, etc. Getting ANYWHERE in this country is the biggest hassle. I remember when I thought going up to the Baltimore airport from NOVA used to seem unreasonable.
So anyway, I got to the pension to discover a good friend and fellow PCV, Dom. Seeing as I had never been to Manila before (excluding the one week of initial orientation), and he had, he showed me to the nearest mall, Robinson's. I needed boxers.
Now maybe I have been in the jungle too long, but you could fit something like 3 or 4 of my towns into this mall. We're talking huge. I was absolutely stunned walking around, gaga eyes, slack-jawed, dribble on my t-shirt, you know, the country bumpkin look so commonly witnessed at the Mall of America.
Dom had to bounce so I was left alone for an hour and a half trying to decide where to eat. I kept passing on to the next place because I didn't want to pass up a kind of food I may have forgotten that I really miss. I wound up eating a (by American standards) sub-par burrito, but it tasted mighty fine for not even having had a tortilla in 10 months (I would kill for some Bajio! (Finkelsteins, please see below)).
After that, Karen, one of the other volunteers on the committee, met me at the mall and we had Yellow Cab Pizza with a friend of hers from Manila. Yellow Cab is just about par with any middle of the road pizza place in the states, a notch above Pizza Hut anyway. Basically it's a totally legit pizza...if memory serves me correctly.
Stuffed and wondering where on earth my tolerance for junk food had gone, we ran through the pouring rain back to the pension.
The next day, the committees from 266 and 267 (each with a rep from each sector, education, coastal resource management and children, youth and family services) met and the training commenced. The training basically consisted of here is what we have been working on and here is where you can pick up. The biggest project they had been working on is a volunteer wiki site, which is totally awesome. A wiki works just like wikipedia, but instead of an encyclopedia, its a collection of projects, lesson plans and documentation that is generated by Philippines Peace Corps volunteers for Philippines Peace Corps volunteers. The goal is for volunteers to spend less time planning and more time implimenting. The more content it has, the more useful it is to volunteers in all sections! We are utilizing some really cool technology that I introduced to the already high-tech project, so I felt pretty good about that.
All of batch 266 was in Manila for their close of service (COS) conference the preceding days and some of us went to the Mall of Asia (yeah, I've been to both MOA's, what now!?) for lunch. I had Subway and it never tasted so goooooooood. After the conference, i got to go out on the town with most of the 266ers, many of whom I never thought I would see again whom I had met during pre-service training (PST).
Hanging out with the 266ers at the verge of their homecoming was a lot like hanging out with the graduating seniors. They emanated wisdom and confidence. Except Craig, he emanated jazz hands.
We all went to this place called The Penguin, which had a live ska band open up for a live drum and bass group. I literally haven't seen a live band since I was in Dumaguete last October. Believe it or yes, I danced my tuchus off.
All good things must come to an and and even though Manila has a lot of the comforts of home, trying to do anything there is a hassle and a half, especially since I don't speak Tagalog, the region's dialect. I made it back to little San Juan late Saturday night and hung out with the remaining members of my barkada on the beach, the whole thing to ourselves. It was a glorious reminder of the benefits of small-town living.

*Dear Finks, I think I should get a nickle for every hit my blog gets for the product placement ;)

Judging Miss Gay '09

I had the good fortune of judging a Miss Gay 2009 beauty pageant, "International Gay Showdown Ultimate Reality Show" the Sunday evening before classes started. The pageant was held in honor of the fiesta of the town next door; the communities are very closely tied so the Australian volunteer and I were invited to sit on the panel of judges.

I have judged a fair amount of pageants thus far throughout my service but I had no idea what to expect from a bayot (gay) pageant.
As with every social event, the contest began with a prayer (which involved an interpretive dance by boys in formal wear, white gloves and yellow
schmatas to a Christian folksong in concert with a bamboo crucifix flying around the stage) and the national anthem. The audience all stood and, in all seriousness, sang Lupang Hinirang, the national anthem with a teenage boy in drag stood in as color guard.
After the opening ceremonies, the contestants came out for an introductory number decked out in full drag, flaming bamboo torches and head decorations that resembled the business-end of a broom.

As one can safely assume, flamboyance, fabulousness and fire don't mix and some of those fancy head decorations inevitably caught on fire. I couldn't help but wonder if these antics brought a whole new meaning to "flamer."
It's reasonable, I think, to wonder what the criteria would be for such a pageant. Would there be a swimsuit competition? Talking this aspect over with Melissa, the Australian volunteer, I was assured that they had been properly briefed on tucking and taping strategies (pain is beauty!). What had I got myself into!?
Fortunately, after reviewing the criteria after the opening number, I was relieved to find no mention of swimwear. The categories included, a singing competition, question and answer, formal wear and drama.
Unlike any other competitions over which I had presided, the contestants were competing in groups rather as individuals. The whole thing began to take on the life of a farce.
Each group was assigned a continent (minus Australia) and each contestant represented a country from that region. But while it was a contest, it was all about having fun in the end.
Mga Bayot
I think it's important to take an opportunity to explore the cultural implications of the bayot. As I said, bayot translates to gay, but it also implies so much more. The dichotomy of gender and sex is entirely unacknowledged, by and large, in Philippines culture; the best description I have heard is that "gender is between your ears, sex is between your legs." The concept of the bayot is inclusive of this discernment we like to make in the West though is exclusive to being both sexually attracted to men and portending overt, and I mean overt, feminine characteristics.
Bayots can be found in the wild and are valued and productive members of Philippines society. They are praised for their work ethic, excellent English abilities and creative bents. They are active members of church communities, businesses and schools. However, there seems to be a subtle discrimination in the culture that excludes them as a novelty or utility.
There is no quarter given or wiggleroom whatsoever to explore the spectrum of gender and sexuality and are often viewed as women without the benefits. For example, bayots serve as most heterosexual men's first sexual experience, and this is considered totally hetero. I could be looking into this too deep, but they are also referred to as buok, or pieces, rather than as people. In short, they are often objectified and referred to as bayot rather than their real name. There is often times immense pressure to conform to heterosexual standards once a bayot grows up, leading to failed marriages in a country that does not have a legal means to divorce.
This is sad to me because so many people encourage and nurture their children to express bayot characteristics, as seen here. This child is four years old and, if you were to ask him, he would say that he is bayot and proud of it. He was a helper at the pageant; I couldn't help but wonder what the future has in store for someone of his disposition. Children seem to be given no or little choice and tend to want to gratify the expectations of friends and parents who reinforce the behavior with positive (as in applicative) attention.
I must include that bayots have been some of the most friendly and welcoming people to me here in my community.
Note: This posts relies entirely on observation and is by no means a platform for judgment or cultural realities.

Please be sure to check out the rest of my pictures here!

Conquering Typhoid and Privilege

Well everyone, I've really dropped the ball on keeping this thing updated since I was sick. My illness did turn out to be typhoid as the tell-tale rash appeared after my other symptoms went away and my whole body itched like a madman for three days.
I suppose I have forgot to speculate on how I got typhoid. My host brother was just recovering from typhoid upon my return from Thailand. In Philippine culture, the table is set with community bowls and everyone uses their own eating utensils to dish out food from those bowls. My host brother had used his contaminated spoon and fork in the rice bowl, etc. and I could have easily contracted the liquid borne virus that way. That seems to be the most plausible means of contraction anyway.
During the duration of my illness, I saw two different doctors: a close family friend of my host mom and a close friend of my host dad. Neither of them had much of an idea of a diagnosis as the symptoms are basically those of the worst hangover one can imagine and closely resemble a flue. It wasn't until I called the Peace Corps Medical Officer about the rash that the diagnosis was official. She told me that if the fever returns after the rash, it's dengue, if it does not it was typhoid. I'd rather take typhoid as it doesn't live in one's system as a parasite for the duration of the host's lifetime. Bonus!
While I was sick, I went to the Dr.'s office twice. The second time I went, the lobby was full of patients who looked just as bad, or worse, than I did. I was the last one to arrive at the office but was called in first.
The fact that I was called in before everyone else, including the boy with the chewed up leg who looked like he had just been in a motorcycle accident, can be accounted for in any combination of three reasons. I am unfortunately not at leisure to pinpoint the reason as family friends are involved, though I will generally address the three reasons that typically influence situations like the one I was in.
  • The first is "white privilege." White privilege exists almost everywhere (yes, even in the States) and in so many different forms that it's almost too large a concept to cover in a simple blog post. Oftentimes, especially in former colonial countries, white people are seen as a higher class or priority than people native to that country in particular. This concept, in the Philippines is called "colonial mentality" in collegiate sociology books published by Filipinos for thePhilippines. Colonial systems often teach the indigenous peoples that they are inferior, thereby subjugating them to exploit labor, land and resources unquestioned. To be blunt, the only characteristic that makes me seem like more of a priority over those in my community is the color of my skin, a mishap and stroke of chance over which I had no control. White privilege can be as simple as only being able to find Caucasian-shaded band-aids or as elaborate as constantly being treated as a guest of honor simply because you are white. I experience the latter on a regular basis, being asked to eat at weddings with the V.I.P.'s, not having to stand in lines, being asked to judge pageants, being consulted for a word of expertise concerning a community matter I know nothing about, etc.
A note to those in my community: I want nothing more than to be treated like the average Filipino with no consideration or privilege above anyone else. I would enjoy nothing more than being treated as amember of the community.
  • "American privilege" is a very similar phenomenon though it is tied to nationality more strongly than skin color. There is still a tie to skin color as the broad perception (here in the Philippines) is that a "pure American" is white. Black Americans are not "pure." I don't even want to get into how preposterous a notion this is since a "pure American" was anyone living in North or South America before European colonization. But engaging these kinds of perceptions is another valuable opportunity for the Peace Corps and the diversity that exists within its ranks to dispel myths about the nature of people from the United States and the Americas in general. I do all I can to correct this but it's still an uphill battle.
  • Thirdly and most optimistically, its because of the Compadre system, or system in the Philippines in which family members and close family friends are treated preferentially than the rest of the community. In all honesty, I think that this is the reason why I jumped to the front of the line. In Philippine culture, it would have been disgraceful, a loss of face and a source of shame to make me wait.
In any case, I am well and if anything, grateful to my doctors for their personal touch, care and personal investment.
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