“I have tried in my own way to be free.”

June 7, 2013

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Manila Sky at 5am

Filipina Katie here.  I am flying through the air from Manila to Calbayog, West Samar.  We have been in Makati, Manila for just under a week. I should have started this long ago, but our days were so packed and I had very little quiet time to reflect and write.  Our trip has been a whirlwind thus far.  We landed in Manila and promptly lost Chad in the first 5 minutes

at the airport.  Whoopsie, what a good start!  The three girls (Mililani, Shanda and I) moved through customs and Chad was still nowhere to be found.  When you arrive in a new country you usually feel lost and incompetent, you don’t know what to expect or how to read your surroundings and it can be quite intimidating.  However, this time I was just excited. We did eventually find Chad, who was waiting patiently with all of our luggage.  When we stepped outside into further chaos, Lito arrived from Consuelo (and oh, Consuelo is the organization through which I am volunteering this summer…they have locations in Hawai`i and throughout the Philippines) to scoop us up.  Once in the car, nervousness morphed into exhilaration and everyone started chattering and peppering Lito with questions about the city.  We arrived at the condo and were shocked at the luxuriousness of our new digs.  What had we done to deserve such grand treatment?  As we entered the condo, the smells of breakfast and coffee wafted through our senses and we turned the corner to the dining room to discover an amazing spread of fruit, bread, eggs, and sausage.  Michelle, a worker from Consuelo was sent to “settle” us in and make breakfast.  I must 

Imageadmit I was immediately thrown off by having what was seemingly, a servant girl.  I realize that this is common in the Philippines, and that she is likely paid very well (or at least fairly) by Consuelo, but the power dynamic was foreign and uncomfortable for me and the others.  Every time we wanted something (another cup of coffee, some more water) we would jump up to get it so that she didn’t have to.  She stayed in the kitchen until I invited her to join us.  She later was an amazing help to us, assisting us with little things like directions, helping us exchange money, and most importantly, securing our cellphones, something we could not have done without her.

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Corn and Burrrr. Healthy dinner. 🙂

Our first few days were filled with logistical tasks…getting oriented to the area, purchasing phones, and meeting the Consuelo staff.  My favorite little anecdote is from the first few hours in Makati.  We were eating our breakfast and Michelle kept referring to “Sir Jon” (as in Jon, the Executive Director of Consuelo), but she said it very quickly so that the words seemed to run together.  Chad finally leaned into me and whispered, “Who in the hell is Sergio?!?!”  I nearly spit out my mango laughing.  It was then that I knew we were in for a very entertaining few months.  That moment birthed Chad’s new nickname, “Sir Chad.”  🙂 The 1st night we grabbed some weird food choices, beer, and ate and chatted by the pool.  It was silly and fun and then we were in bed by 8pm.  Here is a silly video of us all videoing each other.  We are weird.  

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUb6FWBOVLc&feature=em-upload_owner

Despite being in a foreign country, we were in such a swanky location that culture shock wasn’t as prevalent initially. Not that I’m complaining – we loved the pool, the gym, the wi-fi…but Makati is hardly representative of the Philippines as a whole.

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Running in Makati!

On Sunday Chad and I ventured out to run in Makati.  I had been warned about running, not only as a woman, but as a very, very white woman.  I braved the busy streets, dodging cars and leers from every man we encountered.  I only saw 4 other runners, all 4 of which were men.  It made me jealous to watch Chad, as he easily blended in and didn’t have to endure the endless staring, except when we were running side by side and the staring rebounded off of me onto him. I felt like a zoo animal. Still, I enjoy running in a new city and love that it teaches me my surroundings.

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At the outdoor market!

Jon (ahem, I mean Sir John…ahem, I mean Sergio), took us to an outdoor bazaar with super delicious food and beautiful local crafts.  Gorgeous bags, blankets, jewelry – this girl was in heaven.  These are the kinds of unique things I like to take home as souvenirs.  Afterward, Jon took the shopping a bit further, taking us to an indoor bazaar called Green Hills.

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Shanda and her frogs. 🙂
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Enjoying Halo Halo amidst our shopping break

Green Hills basically equals every girl’s dreamland…uber cheap clothing, shoes, jewelry, accessories.  I honestly feared Shanda would have a stroke out of pure glee.  Row after row of booths with women yelling, “Hi, Ma’am!  You buy, Ma’am!”  With the Filipina accent, “Ma’am ends up sounding like a cross between mom and mum.  It is super endearing.  We saw some funny stuff – in particular we saw “frog purses” – real frogs made into purses and change purses.  These freaked Shanda out to a hilarious degree.  I even tried to buy one stealthily, with plans to plant it in her pack so when she got to Baguio (her site), she would get a little frog surprise!  Ha!  But…she caught me.  😛  We shopped until we dropped (literally) and then went home to freshen up, as Jon was taking us to a fancy schmancy dinner with the rest of the Consuelo team.

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MANGO STICKY RICE. AMAZING.

The dinner was delicious and the staff was really funny.  I quickly formed a bond with Mia, an attorney that has done a ton of work with human trafficking.  In fact, she used to do trafficking raids, which is very dangerous work.  I loved hearing her stories and we had a lot in common.  I’m very impressed with the intelligence and ease of the Consuelo staff.  They all seem very lively and appear to have wonderful working relationships.  I will also say that we had the best dessert I think I have EVER had…mango sticky rice.  TO DIE FOR good.  I believe I am going to be about 400 lbs. upon my return to the states.  We went back to the condo after eating feeling full, fat, guilty and exhausted.

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The crew enjoying our Filipino snacks!
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Saint Augustine – oldest church in the Philippines (1574)

On Monday we ventured back to Green Hills (we couldn’t help it – it was calling us!) and then were shuttled to the Consuelo office for a short orientation.  Everyone was so unbelievably friendly.  They seem like a really fun staff.  After the presentation, they presented us with popular Filipino street food – kwek kwek, banana-cue, fish balls, turon, and Taho.  The drinks here are soooo syrup-y sweet I can hardly drink them!  I really enjoyed the banana-cue and the kwek kwek.  And it was very thoughtful of Consuelo to do that for us.  I feel like we are being fed every hour! On Tuesday, we had a free day – our only one of the week.  I spent the morning getting a visa extension, which actually turned out to be pretty simple. Philippines!!!!!! 100Reuban (Consuelo sent Reuban with me in case I had language issues) showed me more of Manila – Manila Bay, Lunita Park, Intramoros, St. Augustine Cathedral (the oldest church in Manila) , and Manila Cathedral.  It was beautiful!

 

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Manila Cathedral

After, I went to a nearby coffee shop for breakfast where I journaled and people watched.  Or I really should say, where people watched me.  As I mentioned before, because of our initial location, the culture shock I had long expected didn’t really occur initially.  But the one thing that I could not escape were the stares….ohhhhhhh the stares.  Everywhere I went, I felt like a walking spectacle.  Like a one-legged albino sloth (or something equally stare-worthy).  Of course, I expected to get funny looks because of my obvious not-belongingness (don’t you enjoy how I make up fancy words solely for your reading pleasure?) but I sorely underestimated the intensity.  People literally do double-takes when I pass them.  Men look me up and down slowly, in the creepiest way you can imagine.  Children are endlessly curious about me, and I find their reaction the most fun.  One little girl (maybe 3 years old) reached out to pet my hair while in line at the supermarket.  She seemed to simply marvel at it.

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Street view of Manila

When I am with the others, it is less intense, though still ever-present.  But the few times I found myself walking or running alone, it was exaggerated.   I ran an errand at the local mall, and a group of teenage girls came up to me, in a fit of giggles, asking me to take a picture.  I assumed they wanted me to take a picture of them, but no…they gathered around me, posing.  This happened a few times in Makati, but never with the group.  There really is strength in numbers, I suppose.  Or strength in brown people, as the others like to joke.  😉  I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever get used to all of this attention.  Hilariously enough, as I am writing this, a 12 year old (ish) girl is taking a picture of me with her phone, I kid you not. 

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Chad, Shanda, and I!

Hmmm…I got distracted again.  Tuesday.  Chad, Shanda and I finished out our free afternoon at the Ayala Museum.  It was actually really lovely!  They had an amazing diorama exhibit depicting the history of the Philippines.  We celebrated the end of our last free day with a glass of wine in the courtyard and talked story about our trip so far.  The next day we packed up and headed to our new place, the St. Giles Hotel.  We 3 girls immediately missed our condo.  What can I say…they spoil us rotten and we start taking things for granted!  We 3 girls were put in a teeny tiny room and Chad of course (ever the Sir Chad) was given his own room.  This was probably my hardest day in the Philippines thus far.  I think I was starting to really need some…space.  We 3 girls all also shared a room at the condo so all day every day, I was around people.  The only time I was alone was to shower and sometimes, there was even another girl simultaneously doing her makeup.  It was exhausting.  On Wednesday I think I reached my breaking point.  I did not sleep well and was tired, grumpy and not in a good place to sit in a conference room for 8 hours.  I was really missing my Joe and when I got a super sweet email from him, I cried.  The internet at the hotel was spotty, so I had not been able to talk to him for several days (we are communicating via wi-fi only).  Chad asked me, “What’s wrong with the girls today?” as he was always in a super well-rested, fantastic mood (can you hear the jealously ooooozing from my writing?  :P).  I finally explained to him that he had the luxury of closing his door or going to his own room to write, watch tv, relax and sleep without any interruption.  Not that I didn’t enjoy my time with the girls, or love our slumber-party style chatter right as the lights when out before bed…I did.  I am just used to more down time, more time to myself, and after 5 days, I was in a state.  To top things off, the conference was nearly 90% in Tagalog, which of course is understandable, but it is very VERY difficult to sit in a conference for 8 hours not knowing what anyone is saying.  By around 4pm, we four were all ready to lose it.  And when we broke into small groups, it was highly awkward, as they would very sweetly try to accommodate us by speaking English, but it slowed them down and we all felt responsible.  So, that day was tough.  

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Sing/dance competition!

We were supposed to attend both dinner with the conference group and a “social hour.”  I was dreading it.  All I wanted to do was crawl into bed and lapse into a Tagalog-free coma.  However, I am pleased to report that “social hour” completely turned my day around.  We played fun, silly games with the group, which required no language skills (only laughter) and got to judge a sing/dance competition put on by each individual group (CAPIN, Healthy Start, PRP, etc.).  It was ADORABLE and oh-so-funny! WePhilippines!!!!!! 131 loved it.  They forced us to participate, so we chanted “E hō mai” which I have to admit was pretty hilarious.  Here I am, the whitest girl in the world, attending a conference all day in Tagalog, trying to learn the most basic words in the language, whilst studying Waray Waray in my spare time, and then trying to learn a Hawaiian chant in about 10 minutes to perform in from of about 100 people.  I’m sure I butchered it, but I sure did try.  😛   We had a lot of fun though, hanging with the groups and seeing how creative they were.

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CAPIN member rapping for us!
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All happy about it! BEFORE we eat it. 😛
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Haha. Chad’s face is priceless.

After the performances, Nic (Consuelo program Director) had a treat for us.  Except “treat” is a most unacceptable word.  You guessed it, Balut.  Chad and I had made a pact that if presented with the opportunity; we had to go for it.  If you do not know what it is, immediately youtube it.  Just to give you an idea, it was featured as a challenge on Fear Factor.  We somehow sweet-talked (read: begged and guilt-tripped) Mili and Shanda into doing it with us.  They taught us how to eat it properly, step by step.  As gross as it looked, I was able to stomach it.  Chad however…Chad ate only the yolk…and then promptly threw up!  Hahahaha!  They got a kick out of that.  Even though it wasn’t my favorite thing in the world, I’m glad we did it.  It seems like a once-in-a-lifetime kinda thing, and that is when you know you have to just say YES. 

After the balut-eating party, Nic offered to take us on a short stroll through the red-light district, since it was literally right next to our hotel.  I was exhausted after a super long day, but again, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  I think living in the Philippines is going to give me a serious case of  “What-if-I-miss-something-awesome?” 😛  Though I’ve worked with some serious abuse and trafficking cases, never in my life have I seen it so up close and personal.  What a world.  As soon as we stepped out of the hotel, a girl propositioned Nic.  As we walked the ONE square block around the hotel, we must have seen about 50 prostitutes of varying ages.  Some very, VERY young.  We passed a bar with more white men than I had seen in 5 days, sitting with really young Filipina girls.  I felt sick.  We passed a 40 yr. old (or so) white American and I saw him put his hand on the girl’s butt and say, “So are we going to my hotel now or what?”  It took about everything I had not to punch him in the face….or somewhere else.  But all we could do was walk.  We passed a girl sitting on the side of the road holding a bloody towel to her forehead, obviously hurt.  Women with babies on their hips came begging and to not give them money was the worst feeling in the world.  Nic had warned us not to give to beggars, as we are obvious targets and as soon as you give to one, 100 more will come out of the woodwork and surround you.  Even though I knew this to be true, it was so very hard not to give to them.  I’m not a bleeding-heart social worker for nothing, after all.  We ended up back at the hotel and I just couldn’t shake the creepy feeling.  Nic told us that some girls go as low as 1,000 pesos (about $23) and that someone like me would go for about 45,000 pesos ($1,500) because I would be a novelty.  I went back to the hotel heavy-hearted, feeling like no matter what I do, I can’t save everyone.  While I needed to see it, it was incredibly hard for me.  This issue cuts so deep with me that sometimes I can’t believe I have chosen to pursue it.  But I also feel like, how could I not pursue it?  I don’t really have a choice.  I just have to.   

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Running through Manila!
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Along the Pasiq promenade!

The next day Chad and I woke up early to hit the road.  We decided to run down to the Pasiq River, an area Nic had mentioned.  It was so interesting and fun to run somewhere new, though the staring was at an all-time high.  We took pictures and ran along the promenade.  I wonder what it will be like to run in my site, especially since I won’t have my running partner in crime.  😛  This area was poorer and across the river from St. Giles.  We only saw one other runner, and everyone else looked at us (ok, me) as if we had two heads.  We had fun, anyway. Watch a silly video of our running here: 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpgY218Mpgs&feature=youtu.be

For the rest of the conference, we broke into small groups according to the kind of work we’d be doing.  While the other 3 braved the visa extension debacle that I had already taken care of, I once again found myself sitting in a room, not understanding anything.  Thankfully, because of a good night’s sleep and a great morning run, I was in a better mood.  Not so thankfully, I began having stomach issues that day.  I was surprised it started so early, as I had taken every precaution possible.  Probiotics and Imodium and I became fast friends.  I hardly ate anything that day, which believe me, is a feat in a room full of Filipinos.  They were continuously feeding us.  A mere 2 hours after the enormous buffet breakfast, a plate landed in front of me with a cheeseburger and fries.  I asked the women next to me, “Is this lunch already???” (it was only 10am), to which they replied, “No!  Snack!” and began happily munching away at their burger.  Too funny.

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“Seelly” Filipinos

The conference ended and we took turns taking pictures together.  I noticed they were all doing stuffy pictures so at one point I yelled, “Silly picture now!” and they all turned to stare at me blankly.  I made a silly face to demonstrate and they all laughed and yelled, “Seeeeeeelly! Oo!”  (Oo means “yes”).  From then on every

Philippines!!!!!! 163 other picture we took was “Seelly.”   I learned long ago that silliness and laughter go a long way when you don’t know the language.  Especially with Filipinos, because they love to have fun. 🙂  My group also sang a sweet song (complete with a rap) at the closing ceremony that was about the work that they do.  You can watch a short video of it here, if you want to! 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9KX5hh-CEs&feature=youtu.be

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Gonna miss these two!
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We’re making pig-faces because we ate pig-face. Pretty, huh?
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What am I gonna do without a Sir Chad???

  The last night the 4 of us decided to go to one last supper together.  We found a tiny little Mexican restaurant around the corner from our hotel.  We ate, we made toasts, and talked about our trip and our future plans.  Chad and I also tried pig-face. No I am not kidding. We are being verrrrry daring with our food choices so far!  We are, in all honesty, an unlikely group.  Mililani is nearly 50 and the only Native Hawaiian, as well as the only one with children.  I imagine she sometimes felt out of place amongst us.  Chad was the only male among 3 women, and the only Public Health representative, so I imagine he sometimes felt out of place amongst us.  Shanda was the only undergrad and the youngest of the group at only 22, so I imagine that she too sometimes felt out of place amongst us.  And then there’s me – the only (bright) white chick, the only non-local (of Hawai`i) and the only one with a spouse left behind at home.  I sometimes felt that they did not understand what it felt like to be so intensely noticed and stared at everywhere we went, or how much I was missing my husband…so as you can see, I too sometimes felt out of place amongst us.  Somehow though, it worked.  We bonded over the course of the week and I will sincerely miss them.  We had a lot of laughs, a lot of good conversations, and I know I can count on them if something goes wrong here or if I just need to call and complain or vent my frustrations.  I feel so honored to go through this experience with such amazing and supportive people at my side.  What if I had been sent on this trip with total duds?!!??!  😛  I am confident that they will have an amazing experience and I’m impressed with each of them in different ways.  We leave for our individual sites tomorrow and I cannot wait to hear their stories.  And with that, I will sign off.  Phew!  I need to write every few days instead of all in one sitting.  Until next time, makadi!

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2 Responses to ““I have tried in my own way to be free.””

  1. Jeanie said

    I read every word. What an amazing opportunity for you. I had already checked out the strange thing you ate. Wow!! Keep up the blog.

    Like

  2. Aw, thank you for reading, Jeanie! 🙂

    Like

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