Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Birthday ni Sean

I spent my 24th birthday in the Philippines. My birthday was a reminded how valued I am here in the community. Friday evening at 5 o'clock, when schools got out, all of the students sang me happy birthday as members of the citizens army training (CAT) program brought me flowers one-by-one. All the way home, students called out to me "happy birthday in advance Sir Sean!" Even as I went out that night on a walk, all the students I saw wished me a happy birthday in advance.
Later Friday night, I went to a small karaoke house called Pajog ni Bebe, or Bebe's hut, with Sir Erwin, Sir Villbon and Sir Roy where we were entertained by live music. After the musicians performed, we had our own chance to play the instruments as the musicians sat back and had a few beers cheering us on. This was the first time I had an opportunity to play the bass since training in Dumaguete, over a year! But I think playing in instrument is like a bicycle, it's easy to get back on and ride.
I woke up Saturday morning, my actual birthday, to my host mom busily preparing all my favorites for lunch: fried chicken, chicken curry, spaghetti in coconut milk with tuna, lichon, fresh apples, mangoes and grapes and of course, her famous chiffon cake with homemade butter-icing. My family here really loves me and my host mom and started calling me son as I have been calling her nanay, or mom. She calls me her menopausal baby :)
Anyway, we sat down for a long lunch and photo-op at about 11a.m.
Please check my Picasa web albums for pictures of the event at home.
All in all it was a very memorable birthday and an event that made me feel at home here more than ever.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Manny "Pacman" Pacquiao

This is the first piece of sports writing I have ever done (and probably ever will do).
People in the United States may not be familiar with Manny "Pacman" Pacquiao, but he is a household name here in the Philippines and a national hero. Today he rewrote boxing history by becoming the first person ever to win seven world titles. He is the welterweight champion, hailing from General Santos, Mindanao, Philippines.
A lot of my friends and family back home might find this surprising, but I have become a casual boxing (as well as ultimate fighting) fan since arriving in the Philippines and I spent today, Sunday, watching Pacquiao's latest match against Puerto Rico's Miguel Cotto.
But the truly remarkable thing about Pacquiao's fights is not what happens inside the ring, but outside and on the streets.
I have been told repeatedly by many different people that when Pacquiao fights, the streets of Manila, a city of almost 1.6 million, are empty and the crime rate drops to zero, according to the Philippines National Police. I can certainly attest to the affect Pacquiao's fights have on my little town: the streets were almost completely empty, accepting children playing games outside, many of them pretending to punch each other. I had decided to go for a little walk just to get out of the house and wait for a couple rounds to advance. It was incredible to walk down a stretch of a few blocks and hear the same TV station tuned in, the sound leaking through the windows and to the street. I could literally walk the entire town and stay updated on the fight. Talk about surround sound. And no matter where I was in town, I could here periodic eruptions of cheers emanating from the auditorium where people where gathered to watch the match as it was meant to be seen, as a crowd.
To many Filipinos, watching Pacquiao is a patriotic obligation and watching him win verges on the spiritual. The best part of the experience is that there are two celebrations when he wins. His fights have most recently been taking place at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and the satellite feed is typically a couple hours late here. All those in attendance in Vegas and watching live on HBO, many times overseas foreign workers (OFW's), or Filipinos working abroad, and expat Filipino-Americans text the verdict back here. Many here celebrate before the match even begins here over the satellite feed and again when he wins on the international rebroadcast.
One of the more humorous aspects of this match was the surname of Cotto. Here, in the Visayan dialect, cotto means lice and coincidentally, Pacquiao does commercials here for Head and Shoulders. We all got a good laugh when posed the question by a co-teacher, "How can Pacquiao expect to win against lice only using Head and Shoulders?"

Saturday, November 14, 2009

How (not) to write about Africa

This is just too good not to share and my friend from Peace Corps, Jasmine Sawers, passed this along to me. It is a satire piece written by Kenyan-born Binyavanga Wainaina. It is a remarkable commentary on Western literary attitudes toward the continent and reveals a lot of ignorance I had participated in when journaling and relating my experiences back home during my study abroad in Namibia and South Africa. I must say that this kind of commentary extends far beyond the continental borders of Africa and is applicable nearly everywhere when writing about the developing world. Below is a video of a reading and a textual transcript following that. I encourage my readers to laugh along with the observations, but also think about in what ways this piece reveals your own attitudes. One of the best ways to help Africa, and the world at large, is by shifting our superiority paradigm as Westerners.

Always use the word "Africa" or "Darkness" or "Safari" in your title. Subtitles may include the words "Zanzibar", "Masai", "Zulu", "Zambezi", "Congo", "Nile", "Big", "Sky", "Shadow", "Drum", "Sun" or "Bygone". Also useful are words such as "Guerrillas", "Timeless", "Primordial" and "Tribal". Note that "People" means Africans who are not black, while "The People" means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts - use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn't care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it - because you care.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can't live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love - take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off intothe sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

African characters drawingAmong your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anythingabout herself in the dialogue except tospeak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).

Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa's situation. But do not be too specific.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the "real Africa", and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing aboutAfrica is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people's property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).

After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa's most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or "conservation area", and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa's rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask howmuch money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.

Readers will be put off if you don't mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical - Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writingabout the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).
You'll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau richeAfricans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out. Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

Text courtesy of

Friday, November 13, 2009

Things Fall Apart - Sayang

So I am trying to crack a dilemma I am currently facing. We have recently done an inventory of our equipment here in the ICT lab and have come up with, among other things, nine dead hard drives. Herein lies the crux of teaching ICT in the developing world: while working technology is a boon for the quality of education, when the parts wither on the vine, so to speak, we are left with nothing but plastics, heavy metals, mercury, lead and silicon, none of which can easily be easily recycled. As these parts gather in landfills, the poisons seep into the ground water and the plastics take an eternity to decompose. At what environmental cost can we price the value of computer-assisted education? We have roughly six dead motherboards, two dead sticks of RAM, said nine hard drives and four dead monitors, all sitting i the lab, waiting for God knows what.
If we were in Minnesota, we could simply bring these parts to the Stillwater prison facility to be recycled by the inmates there. However, we live 10 hours away from the nearest place that could potentially recycle these parts: Cebu City. And I'm not even sure that they have a facility.
I've been thinking about this problem a lot; if we could find a way to recycle, or even downcycle, these parts, computer-assisted education wouldn't put such a heavy toll on the environment and I could sleep a lot better at night. I thought to crowd-source and ask the readership of my blog if they have any ideas for projects or ways to solve this problem. I have readers in 65 countries with almost 2,000 absolutely unique visitors since last January (according to Google Analytics). The web is a powerful tool, no doubt and I hope some of my readers can offer some advice and/or links.
I was thinking that a recycling project, turning these parts into something else, could be a great way to rid our lab of the parts as well as create a small income-generation project for the students involved. Some feasible ideas I have stumbled across thus far:
  1. Hard Drive Platter Windchimes -
  2. Hard Drive Magnetic Art Projects (thanks @unteer)
  3. RAM Stick Keychains -
If any of you, dear readers, find any other ways to either recycle or downcycle our dead computer components, please pass them on as links in the comments section below (so others can find your contribution in subsequent Google searches on the topic).

-Picture taken from

Monday, November 9, 2009

365 Days At Site, 365 Days To Go

Today marks the one year anniversary of my arrival at site. I wish that could be enough said. Its implication carries so much meaning and gravity for me but I cannot count of it my readership reading between those lines, so to speak. Maybe it's not something I can articulate and it may not be something I want to articulate in its fullest capacity. It feels like a personal victory and something I want to keep close to my heart.
But I am not blogging to explain how I don't really want to describe what this milestone means to me. Today I dropped some Aquino's (500 peso bills) and bought the teachers some ice cream to celebrate. One distinction I would like to make is that in Philippines culture, the celebrant is charged with throwing the party, a bit of a reversal of what we do in the US. So I bought ice cream for the teachers as a twofer, my anniversary today, Monday the 9th, and my birthday on Saturday. I am hoping this one-two punch will excuse any big purchases that might be expected the Friday before my bday.
We all had a nice time having a chika, or chit-chat and the teachers couldn't even believe I have been here for a year already! I must say, neither can I.
Time as a measurement (as opposed to a mechanism) expands and contracts when considering different lengths at a time. 365 days into the future seems long though 365 days into the past seems like no time at all, and here I am on the razor's edge in between and in the pocket. Today feels like a magical day: an advent and an ending, and advantage and a blending.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Hot Springs

I joined my host mom and some of her friends today to go to a day-after wedding lunch party in a town nearby. The trip was interesting, however, when we left the party and stopped at a mainit, or hot springs about 20 minutes from out house. I had no idea these springs existed, but it's nice now to know they are there in case any visitors ever feel like a hike. The springs wreaked of sulfur but the smell became less overpowering as my nose became more habituated to it. Anyway, here are some pictures of the springs.

The caretakers of the springs also had a pet monkey with which I was quite enamored.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Barber of Santa Cruz

I went to get my monthly haircut today, at the same place, by the same person. The only difference was that there were two other guys in the salon and I'm usually the only one in there. As the barber began prepping his clippers, comb and razor blade (yes, they use a razor blade to trim the edges and it's awesome!), the two guys came over and just stared at my head. Before this would have just made me uncomfortable or angry but it's all part of the package deal here. Anyway, as the barber started clipping my hair, the two guys just stood in amazement, slack-jawed, staring at my falling hair. I can't even begin to guess at what was going through their heads, if anything at all, but there they were. The barber, totally unfazed by my being there because I'm a regular, told them to have a seat. They backed away slowly, mesmerized by the back of my head. As the barber finished up, the one sitting nearest to me started pointing out spots the barber had missed and the barber graciously went back over those spots. I then paid my 50 pesos (about $1) and left.
I learned today that a haircut can be a communal effort and that I have grown more at ease living the absurdity that is "the fish bowl." In a bizarre way, I think I may miss all the attention when I get back home and become just another white dude.
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