Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dad Visits the Philippines

For the picture gallery of the trip, click here!
Months of waiting and my dad finally arrived; two short weeks and he is now back in Phoenix. Needless to say we had a very fun, meaningful time together, traveling throughout the central Visayas.
He arrived in Tacloban where he met me on a very raining morning at 7:10. After getting the baggage sorted out, we jumped onto a jeepney and realized we were, in fact, sitting next to each other for the first time in 17 months.
We met up with a friend for a day in the city, seeing Imelda Marcos' infamous Santo Nino Shrine wherein she kept the Marcos' many gifts from Asia and beyond, including this very fancy chair made of 100% silver than our tour guide encouraged dad to sit in. The museum also includes collections of ivory given by Mao Zedong, tiled Gucci leather walls imported from Italy, Austrian crystal chandeliers, a fountain made of local corals and a chair used by the Pope. Unfortunately, her legendary shoe collection is kept in Manila.
After the museum, we went for a pretty fancy Italian dinner, the likes of which are quite uncommon for Peace Corps volunteers, and we gorged ourselves on fine pastas and delicious wine.
After our Tacloban excursion, we headed down to San Juan to join the teachers in celebrating their Christmas party and to partake in a celebration of our own:
Interesting side story, dad had taken so many photos since I had last recharged the camera that the battery had been dead all day. After lighting the candles for the last evening of Hanukkah, I tried turning the camera back on, hoping we could capture this moment. The camera turned on, took one photo and then died again. This, my friends and family, was our own little Hanukkah miracle in the Philippines. Please appreciate how the last picture was of our Hanukkah celebration and the next is of the Pig roast we dove into that same week.
The Christmas party provided a few firsts for dad: his first time meeting my counterpart, Sir Erwin, my supervisor, Ma'am Rachel and my old friend, Mr. Lechon (roast pig)!
After leaving my site the day after the Christmas party, we embarked on a 16 hour excursion through Cebu City to Dumaguete so Dad could meet my tita, my host-auntie who took such great care of me throughout my pre-service training. Dad was enchanted with Dumaguete. On our way back to my site, we stopped for a night in Cebu City so dad could get a truly "urban" experience.
We spent Christmas eve with my host family, joining them for the midnight mass and returning home for the noche buena, or meal at midnight. Waking on Christmas, we immediately started eating and didn't really finish until we passed out later in the night. The one break from feasting and drinking we had was going to the celebratory Christmas day cock fights. Dad said he had more fun watching the people than the actual fights.
For the sake of relevance, as this is my blog and not my father's, I will spare the rest of the itinerary and details.
It meant the world to me that dad came all the way to the Philippines to see me, my family and my projects. I cannot express the pride and validation I felt when I gave him a tour of the school and the computer lab especially. Dad and I have never needed a preoccupation to spend time together. We have become adept at both deep and shallow conversation with nothing but time on our hands; I believe it has to do with the hours upon hours we have spent in the car together during road trips.
I can't express my gratitude to the time, money and sheer willpower this trip required; it single-handedly legitimated my efforts here and made me feel as though I had not been living in a vacuum for the last 17 months.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hanukkah, Night 4

This afternoon I found a children's book which my grandma sent me, explaining Hanukkah. I gave it to my host mom to read as she has always shown interest in my religious (read cultural) observances and the book did a great job of simply explaining the Hanukkah story.
She read the book and immediately started asking me questions about my family's traditions, as I always described my family as being reform and more lax than conservative Jews.
I decided I would finally bring down the menorah and show her the motions.
Mommy Esper is a very devout Catholic and a pillar of faith in my community. However, she is possibly the most respectful person I have ever met regarding different faiths, with a natural curiosity and reverence for learning others' beliefs ("As long as you believe in God," she always says). She was very excited when I brought down the menorah.
After reviewing the book again before I started lighting the candles, she called the menorah and shamus by name and took a real interest in the Hebrew prayer that I have had memorized since I was a kid. I thought for a minute and said it has something to do with "God bless...Hanukkah." It was good enough for both of us.
After indicating after the prayer that that was about it, we both sat near the menorah and I reminisced about Bubby's latkes in Vegas, dreidel games Colin and I invinted as children and, of course, geld (chocolate coins).
I also explained a Jewish teaching that my good friend Emmy told me when we were in Namibia together (she's the one who donated five boxes of books). I took a match, lit it and said that in the Jewish tradition, fire represents God as it always points to Him. No matter which way you direct the match, the flame will always point up. She said that that is the reason why they light candles during mass for prayer.
We decided that once you whittle away the little differences, Catholicism and Judaism really had a lot in common -- both pointing to God. And there it was. She and I solved the World's pains and agony in our little rural town in the Philippines.

Father and Son

My dad is leaving for the Phoenix Skyharbor airport in less than 12 hours. He will fly to Honolulu and catch a connecting flight to Manila, stay the evening in Manila and catch another flight to Tacloban, where I will be waiting.
Indeed, the endless months of anticipation have finally come down to the last two days. Tomorrow morning, I will head to Tacloban, stay the night, and wait for my dad at the airport early the next morning.
I cannot convey the excitement I am feeling. He will be here a little under two weeks, during which time we will visit my host family in Dumaguete (my first time back since training), Cebu City and make it back to San Juan in time for Christmas Eve with my family here. It's going to be a bit hectic, but the hours of transportation will give us a chance to do what we love best: yakking it up while heading down the open road (or ferry route as the case may be).
Aside from the general enthusiasm I feel about seeing my dad again, I am looking forward to his visit regarding two aspects in particular.
This trip will be his first to a developing country. This experience will be his first encountering absolute poverty, seeing some things that seem outlandish and exotic and, if I can get him drunk, his first time to eat balut (boiled duck fetus).
Secondly, he is the standard by which my growth and changes will be measured. After the last 16 months or so, I am certain I have changed, developed and grown in ways I cannot imagine, of which I have lost track. I am excited to see what shocks or surprises him that I see as being completely normative. To what have I become jaded? I will learn from my dad's reactions.
I may not update the blog for a while as he and I will be on the road, but I promise there will be pictures.
P.S. Dear mishpuka, I promise he will return in one piece.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hanukkah in the Philippines, take 2

Tonight marks the first night of Hanukkah and, like last year, I have chosen to celebrate privately in my room. Thanks to Grandma Pickle for the menorah and candles that were meant to arrive just in time last year but wound up arriving in plenty of time this year!
I added some other goodies sent by the moms (the Chieftains and stocking) and a snowman from Malena, to complete the holiday mood.

Update: I spent the evening watching the candles burn down and texting the other Jewish volunteers. Most of them forgot but we had a shared communal moment through SMS.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Digital Divide or Should I Bring a Laptop for Peace Corps?

"Should I bring a laptop?"

This might be one of the most common questions asked by people leaving to join the Peace Corps and there really is no correct answer. However, from my own experience, having a laptop was infinitely valuable.

I served in the Republic of the Republic of the Philippines, a technologically advanced country as far as the developing world goes. There are a lot of buzz words and phrases in development, one of which is the "digital divide". The digital divide essentially states:

The term digital divide refers to the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all. It includes the imbalances in physical access to technology as well as the imbalances in resources and skills needed to effectively participate as a digital citizen.

The digital divide, and Peace Corps service in general, often conjures images of Africa, of stick huts, of telecommunications technology not exceeding that of the Pony Express. And of course, in some parts of Africa, and in some service assignments, this is true. However, my experience serving in the Philippines was quite different.

Most of Southeast Asia has benefited greatly from the .com bubble, which burst in '99, '00. During the bubble, millions and millions of dollars worth of fiber optic cables were strewn throughout SE Asia as the Asian Tiger markets attracted seemingly endless capitol investments in manufacturing and telecommunications infrastructure from around the world. As the Asian Tigers collapsed, so the .com bubble burst. Much like the railroad boom and bust of the 19th Century, which left thousands of dirt cheap and accessible railroad lines networking the United States, so had SE Asia millions of miles of fiber optics built by companies now long gone.The skeletal remains of late 20th Century telecom technology was then cheap, accessible and ubiquitous. For example, when I got to site, my students were already addicted to facebook, playing Farmville, using twitter and keeping a blog.

When I left for the Philippines to begin my Peace Corps service in the education sector, teaching high school, I decided against bringing a laptop for a number of reasons:

  1. Theft, the laptop being a liability

  2. Unreliable power/inconsistent voltage

  3. An obvious economic disparity between myself and my host family

  4. To idealistically ween myself from the technological dependence I developed in college

However, after my first month of Pre-Service training (PST), it was obvious that I needed to get a laptop. In my opinion, it is essential for Peace Corps volunteers to have a latop as they are assuming the role of a professional development worker. Indeed, for as many reports, projects, lesson planning and countless hours of boredom every volunteer inevitably encounters, a laptop is virtually essential.

I wound up buying an Asus eee PC 900 after a month into training. Netbooks are the perfect computers for volunteers as they are small, inexpensive and often times running Linux, which is impervious to the abundant viruses in developing countries. Recent developments in internet technology, essentially Web 2.0, give the netbook a leg up as social networking, photo sharing, online versions of Word and Excel and many other traditionally desktop-based computing has moved to the cloud and are free. Of course this all requires an internet connection.

The digital divide was nowhere to be seen in my small, rural community of about 5,000. I lived 10 hours from the nearest movie theater, yet I had wifi both at home at at my host agency, which indicates broadband, but not necessarily fast internet. I had a download speed of about 30 Kbps; downloading a 10 minute youtube video typically took 3+ hours, but it's internet nonetheless. This speed is definately fast enough to run cloud-based apps, such as gmail, yahoo mail, google docs, blogging engines and other services like Skype phone calls, delicious and evernote.

In fact, I highly recommend doing most of one's work in the cloud while in the Peace Corps. For example, I keep all my word, excel and powerpoint files in google docs because they are always backed up there. Power-loss is frequent and working on documents on the cloud is a great way to protect one's self from data loss due to power-outages. Secondly, theft is always a possibility and if one's laptop is stolen, the documents and photos are safe and backed up on the cloud.

This brings me to another important topic: backup. Backup is easier now more than ever, with external hard drive prices plummeting and online backup solutions like Carbonite and Mozy gaining popularity.

When leaving for Peace Corps, it's a great idea to leave backups of all your important files at home in a safe place. I brought my entire photo library with me on an external hard drive and I accidentally formatted the drive; just because something is stored on an external drive does not make it backed up! Fortunately I burned backup DVDs of my photo library and left them at home and can restore them when I get back. But I was photoless during my service.Now that services like Carbonite are available, I would suggest doing a full online backup, so all your data is safe in the cloud, for the full two years at $50 a year. Priceless assurance that if your laptop is stolen or destroyed during service, everything will still be there.

This ain't your grandpa's Peace Corps. The digital divide in many regions of the world is shrinking with the same rapidity that governs Moore's law. There is no reason to limit one's potential output because he/she didn't bring a computer. Chances are, many people in the communities to be served will have plenty of access themselves.

A Day at the Beach with the 4th Year

Saturday, November 28, I joined my fourth year and Sir Erwin on a beach outing. We went to our favorite spot (and the only sandy spot for many kilometers), PNOC, referred to as "penok" but stands for Philippine National Oil Corporation, who owns the lot.
The decision to go to the beach that Saturday afternoon was made at about 5:00 p.m. the evening before and I didn't know it was happening until about an hour before, when I received a text from my counterpart, Sir Erwin. This is usually how I find out about things and I have learned to be quite flexible.
Anyway, I took some transport out and met the students and sir Erwin already preparing BBQ fish, caught fresh that morning, and other delectables: kinilaw papaya, dugo sa baboy (congealed and BBQ'd pigs blood), pancit and butong salad.
We stayed out until about 5:30 when the sun started to go down. We had a blast: eating, playing games, building sand volcanoes (see below), having a chika, singing, eating.
To see more pictures from that day, please check out my picasa web album.

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