Friday, November 20, 2009

Some Pictures from Week Seventeen (Habitat Build)

Fired up and ready to build:

Loading gravel:

The assembly line:

Making concrete interlocking blocks:

Moving the scaffolding:

Painting rafters (with a nine-foot pole):

Painting railings:

With homepartners and skilled labor:

After the build, hanging in the 'hood:

Recreation day in the Subic forest:

Our Aeta guide showed us helpful plants and trees:

With an Aeta elder:

Weekend in Mindoro

The Typhoon-Santi-postponed trip happened last weekend and it was worth the wait! We would have had a three-day weekend two weeks ago, and this time it was just an overnight, but it was short and sweet and absolutely wonderful. The bus ride was smooth, and we got on a boat that went directly to White Beach rather than to the main town of Puerto Galera first – it was as if the universe knew we didn’t have a lot of time, so it provided easy travel there and back.

We arrived and stopped at a place for mango shakes and lunch – I had rosti, which was very good (a reflection of the number of German tourists who come!). Saturday is a work day for Mary, but she came to meet us and showed us the theatre-in-progress. It’s really coming along! I hope to go back one more time and see the finished stage. What a great project she has! Mary wrote a grant for solar lighting for the theatre – it wasn’t in the budget – if you want to contribute, check out and then search for the Philippines.

Julie and I got settled at Stairway and went back to White Beach – she wanted to do a little shopping and I wanted to pick up some trash. As I was doing so, a restaurant owner asked Julie what I was doing, and when she told him, he invited me to have a cold beverage (and he also took the bags I filled!).

We then walked back to the beach by Stairway and swam for a while. Sitting on the beach, looking at the water and the islands on the other side, we wondered why it took so long to get ourselves there – Julie has been here since the beginning of September and this was her first beach trip! I’ve had others in between, but I hadn’t been to Mindoro since August, and something about it is very laid back and comfortable.

Mary joined us late in the day, and we watched the sunset (which she doesn’t usually do – I think I would do it often!) with Lars, the founder. I had mentioned brainstorming about marketing to him last time and he does want to talk – but he also is strict about not working on weekends. Maybe next time. I allowed myself to wonder what I would do if he decided he wanted a marketing PCRV who would stay on-site for a couple of months, starting in late winter. I didn’t ponder much beyond posing the question though.

We went to Luca’s for an Italian dinner – again, a nice walk there, under the stars. This time we stayed in the Yellow House, where Stairway guests stay, rather than in Mary’s hut; we went up to the hut for a leisurely breakfast. Both Mary and Julie had served in Macedonia – they didn’t overlap, but they know people and places in common, and although I have talked to each of them, listening to both of them talk to each other gave me more insight. I want to go to Macedonia now!

We might have been able to do the waterfall hike or at least go to the Mangyan village, but instead we just sat on the beach and took a couple of swims and relaxed. We had a final mango shake, and then it was time to go back to Manila. Great visit! Had to get back, though, because the PCVs coming in for the Peace Corps Habitat Build were arriving Sunday evening! I’ll write about that when I get back, but maybe post some pictures now.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Some Pictures from Week Sixteen

The sign says A Walkable City is a Healthy City. Sigh:

Wreath for the Veterans Day ceremony:

The Ambassador wore red:

Bags for Life:

The floodway – the water was up to the tops of the homes:

Some of the homepartners:

To go with the Peace Corps map – the Habitat for Humanity International map:

Marikina home that used the repair kit:

Hillary wuz here:

White Beach, Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Back to the Field

I spent most of these last two days with people from Habitat for Humanity International – the person in charge of Global Engagement/Tithe (yeah, that’s the name) and her fundraiser for the Asian diaspora. We first went to Calauan. It’s the fourth time I’ve made that trip, but it really is a showpiece for what Habitat is doing, and the cleanup of the Pasig River is a good sell. I learn something new every time; we were shown around by a community organizer, who talked about some of the trainings that the new arrivals get. One of the livelihood projects there involves making bags from old newspapers and magazines – I finally bought one. The project has changed somewhat since Ondoy – in addition to the Pasig River squatters, other people who lost their homes will be moved there. There wasn’t as much traffic as there was on the Wednesdays when I’ve been there (Wednesday is a big church day), and with a lot of conversation, the four-hour round trip went quickly.

We then went to Pasig I – this is the build site where I went with the Japanese students, and where our PCV build will be next week. They’ve made a lot of progress since I was there! I’m looking forward to the build. We passed streets where there was a mudline to the second story. Then it was on to the floodway, from which the Pasig I homepartners will be moving. I hadn’t been there yet. First, we went under the bridge; 23 families live there. Everything was wiped away during the floods, and they have rebuild rickety homes with no electricity. Further along the floodway were some more substantial houses, but the ones that weren’t wiped away were still submerged. The people were very friendly; it was rewarding to go there and be reminded who this is all for.

Today, they met with people in the office – media relations, communications, resource development, technical and also with the board – in the morning. I probably could have learned something had I been in the meetings as well! Oh well. I wrote an article for the Peace Corps Response newsletter about the Metro Manila RPCVs’ role in and reaction to Ondoy; I had seen everyone a couple of times this week and interviewed or got a writeup from them.

In the afternoon we went to Marikina – I followed in Hillary Clinton’s footsteps, because we went exactly where she had been the day before! Unfortunately, that’s as close as I got to her (she swore in the new volunteers today, which is pretty cool for them). Unfortunately for her, that is! When I noted elsewhere that Hillary was coming, a friend commented, “is that another hurricane?” Might as well have been! We went to a barangay hall where the shelter repair kits are being handed out – the second phase of the disaster response is repair, in which Habitat is giving lumber and tools to people whose homes were damaged but repairable. We walked along the river and saw several homes with new construction thanks to the kits. The houses had been completely submerged – people spent a day on their roofs, waiting for the water to recede, or ran for higher ground. Then we went to a school that had been an evacuation center and had been the recipient of the toilet build. The toilets are now a permanent part of the school grounds – sustainability! From all those people hanging out on every floor of the school I went to for the toilet build to smiling kids in classrooms and playing in the yard…life goes on.

Swearing-in was here today; in Morocco the new SBDs were sworn in yesterday. The ones who were first-years during my second year are about to COS this coming week, and the people who were sworn-in just before I left are the second-years now…life goes on.

In other news – Mt. Mayon, in the Bicol region, known for its perfect-cone shape, started spewing ash this week. I was thinking of using my remaining vacation to spend a long weekend around there – just as well I haven’t bought a plane ticket yet! Of course, ash doesn’t mean an eruption will follow anytime soon, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Manny Pacquiao is fighting this weekend. The best boxer in the world, pound for pound, they say. I’ll be on the beach, but I think most of the rest of the country will be watching the fight!

I have an RPCV friend who has a job with the census. I have been worried that I won’t be counted – my stuff is in storage! My voter registration and driver’s license have my old Chicago address (this is fine with the state of Illinois). But when the census takers show up there they won’t find me. I wrote to Senator Durbin to ask about this and haven’t heard back. Well, my friend assured me that I will be counted as long as I am in the U.S. on April 1 (interestingly, Peace Corps volunteers overseas are not counted!). For example, if I’m at my sister’s, I’ll be counted there. So the question is – who wants me to be visiting them then? I can be bought!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

The Metro Manila PCRVs were invited to the Ambassador’s Veterans Day Ceremony at the American Cemetery. In some countries, PCVs are invited to the Ambassador’s place for July 4 or for Thanksgiving; in Morocco we were pretty much told to stay away from Embassy people, so it was nice to get an opportunity like this here.

This was my third time at the American Cemetery, a beautiful and peaceful place. I was looking at the maps and saw a man in a wheelchair with an “Airborne” hat. I thanked him for fighting for us and asked him about himself. He said he helped to fight to gain the land on which we were standing now, and that he moved to the Philippines 25 years ago. He said he’s been to the cemetery many times – when he was lonely he would visit his friends here. He would like to be buried here, but right now the protocol doesn’t allow it – he had to have died in the war. It turns out that I was talking with the minister who gave the invocation for the ceremony! I also thanked fellow PCRV Bill, who had served in Vietnam (and hasn’t talked much about it other than to say it was a long year).

The ceremony itself was touching. Sousa marches while people were getting seated. Presentation of colors and the anthems of the Philippines and the U.S. The head of the VA here (the VA’s only foreign office) was the emcee, and we marked the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month with a moment of silence. There was the invocation and then a welcome, including recognition of all of the veteran’s groups present (I got a bit choked up at the Bataan and Corregidor ones). Then Ambassador Kristie Kenney spoke, followed by keynote speaker/former president Fidel Ramos. He got a laugh when he said that it’s said that the most honorable way to die is in battle, but that it’s also okay to die of old age after doing your civic duties, such as paying your taxes on time and voting in the next election. Then the he and the Ambassador did a ceremonial wreath laying (actually they just paused in front of wreaths), and the ceremony closed with “Taps,” which was extremely moving in that setting. All in all very special.

Some interesting things going on at work, too. USAID came back to us and said they would like to fund the relief toilet build. Habitat was past the relief stage and looking for funds for repair and resettlement, so I reluctantly thought it was time to move on, but then an assessment indicated the need for more toilets in Northern Luzon. So I’ve been working on the response to USAID; if we get funds from them it would be big. I was then asked to put together a proposal for water systems in Mindanao. The EU funded 1000 houses as part of a “Peace Build.” Muslims and Christians build together and then live in every other house. The EU grant didn’t cover all of the costs though, so Habitat is looking for a donor to fund the water systems. There are three separate proposals written in three different styles and my job is to put them together into one proposal. I’m really glad to be working on this, especially when I read in the Times that Muslim rebels beheaded someone the other day. We need the Peace Build! I’ve posted a link to the Peace Build web site for those who want to learn more. And for the next two days, I’ll be hosting some visitors from Habitat for Humanity International, taking them to Calauan, FTI (one of the communities in Metro Manila), and an evacuation center that had the toilet build (I haven’t been to that one yet). I guess I have heard the spiel enough that they trust me to give it now!

Another thing that has been taking some time is coordinating the PCV Habitat build, rescheduled due to Ondoy and now set for next Monday through Thursday. We may have as many an eleven people, not all of them every day – PCVs, PCRVs, and a friend. The logistics and arrangements have been time-consuming but I am glad to have organized this event! I don’t know how much time I will have to write, though. Julie and I are going to Mindoro this coming weekend. Then I’ll be hosting the PCVs coming from the south from Sunday through Thursday. Friday night I leave on an overnight bus, and I’ll be gone through November 30! I had been planning to go up to the rice terraces for Thanksgiving since I heard about it when I first got here; decided to take the whole week as vacation and see UNESCO World Heritage site Vigan and other places in Northern Luzon as well. Monday, November 30 is a holiday, so I can have one extra day of travel. When I do have a chance to write, I will have a lot to write about and lots of pictures to post!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Some Pictures from Week Fifteen

The waterfall:

Sunrise silent meditation view:

Nice touches:

One of several meditation pavilions:

Underneath the mango tree:

What healthy blood looks like:

Spa pool:

Ready for a spa treatment:

Spa cuisine:

Rested and rejuvenated:

At the finish line:

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Run for the River

I had hoped to do some running while I was here – bought a new running shirt and shorts to bring with me in anticipation (my summer running clothes are in storage; my winter running clothes were fine while I trained for the Marrakesh half-marathon, and for the half-marathon itself I wore a quick-dri shirt and my quick-dri capris, to be conservative – but the winter running clothes were too heavy for the 5K I did in Southampton in June and I figured they would be here). Most of the runs here begin at 5:30 am (I’ve seen one that started at 7:00 pm, but I was away that weekend) in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City; when I saw one that was downtown, I signed up for it (not that I wouldn’t have gone to Fort Bonifacio, but I liked the idea of being downtown). And I liked the cause – a run for the Pasig River.

Habitat for Humanity Philippines is a partner of the driving force behind the river cleanup, the ABS-CBN Foundation (Habitat is building the homes for them in Calauan) - and Habitat formed a team to run the race, which made it more fun. There’s a track near where I live, but I’ve never been there – you have to get up early or go out late to run, or else it’s too hot and humid (hence the start times for the races). I don’t want to be out that late, and I don’t want to set an alarm just to exercise…all too soon I may have to wake up to an alarm again. So my training consisted of walking to and from the mall every day (or I might have considered running a longer distance).

Julie wouldn’t have gone with me if not for the Habitat team, and I’m glad she did – it was fun to have someone to go to the start with, and we ran together most of the time (we didn’t run with the rest of the team; everyone spread out – but we did have Habitat signage pinned to our backs). We woke up at 4:30 to get to the Quirino Grandstand to meet the rest of the team and pick up our packets (the Quirino Grandstand is where Filipino presidents are sworn in). We crossed the parade ground to check her gear and came back to the starting line just as the Chairman of the Board of Habitat for Humanity, a guest of honor, was shooting the gun for the 6:00 am start. We saw him run to the start line, asked him which race just started and he said the 5K. So we were there just in time! I have never started a race right at the starting line – usually I put myself towards the back of the crowd and allow for 30 to 60 seconds before I actually get to the start line.

I had gone shopping at Makati yesterday (looking for clothes…I just wasn’t ready when I was in the States. I didn’t find anything, but I didn’t run screaming into the night, so I consider that progress. I also had that yummy tuna sashimi appetizer I had had with the Princetonians and sat by the fountain and read for a while, enjoying the quiet and the greenery – it was worth it for that alone! I haven’t given up on the clothes – there are a couple of stores in Shangri-La still to try…another day) and had looked for GU (energy gel) in several stores without success before I remembered that I had brought some with me in anticipation of running! I usually power up right before I run, which helps, but I think three things were even more helpful (in addition to the daily walk to the mall, that is): one, the massage earlier this week at the spa, two, ibuprofen beforehand, which I wouldn’t have thought of if Julie hadn’t mentioned it, and three, Julie herself! The 6:00 start was also helpful – most of the time we ran in the shadow of the skyscrapers, along Roxas Boulevard, a nice, wide street (fun when closed to traffic!). Only the very end was in the sun – and it was so much hotter under the sun and on top of sun-baked asphalt, I didn’t have a finishing kick but I didn’t slow down much either. I finished in 42:36 – not bad! I felt so good afterwards that I spent this afternoon shopping too – this time at Greenhills for more pearls. More, I would consider doing additional 5Ks!

I do notice that the days are shorter than they were when I got here – sunset is at maybe 5:40 and when I arrived it was at about 6:15. No complaints though, after all those years at the very eastern end of the Central Time Zone! I’m still waiting for cooler weather – November is supposed to bring a shift from the habagat (southwest monsoon) to the amihan (northeast monsoon). According to the chart in Lonely Planet, this means the beginning of a long dry season in the Manila area, but according to people I’ve talked to, the southwest monsoon just brings different rains. Ah – the text accompanying the chart says that patterns have been screwy of late, with the rains arriving later and lingering into December. At any rate, it’s not a whole lot cooler – temperatures in the upper 80s most days, and very humid.

Hillary Clinton is coming to the Philippines this week. Last week she was in Morocco and she met with Peace Corps volunteers. Might she want to meet Peace Corps Response volunteers this week?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Thoughts (or Lack Thereof) on Meditation

The spa trip was relaxing, though there wasn’t much downtime. Day 1 – arrival, lunch, massage, stroll on the grounds, live blood analysis, meditation, dinner, stroll, sit under the mango tree, bedtime. Day 2 – sunrise silent meditation, yoga, breakfast, guided walking meditation, lunch, cookies and herbal tea, stroll/sit by the waterfall, dinner, stroll, bedtime. Day 3 – sunrise silent meditation, yoga, swim, breakfast, stroll, sit by the waterfall and mango tree, time to depart. Everything was done at an unhurried pace, and the mealtimes and appointments, though scheduled, were flexible. I didn’t feel overprogrammed, and I did a lot of be-ing instead of reading or thinking or planning the next move. It was that kind of place. Each day also included two hot outdoor showers – ah, hot showers. We experienced all sorts of weather – warm when we got there, cool evening, windy morning (Typhoon Tino?), cool and breezy afternoon, rainy morning and departure - all made more dramatic with the mountains in the background.

Last week in the supermarket I saw a sign for a talk by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. I didn’t think it was the Beatles’ one (it isn’t), but I still thought I would definitely have gone if I weren’t going to the spa - something made me notice. Well, it turned out that before his Tuesday Mall of Asia talk, he stayed at The Farm for three days and (by his own admission) did nothing! On Monday night, he offered to guide a full-moon meditation for the guests – so I saw him anyway! Look up The Art of Living to find out more about him.

As for the meditation – it was great. Joyful, I would even say. Here are some impressions and quotations after-the-fact, for anyone who is trying to incorporate more meditation into your life (and we all should!):
- be nothing, do nothing, want nothing
- embrace everything
- let thoughts pass, like the clouds passing over the moon
- three things – effortless, relaxing/comfortable, before food (or two hours after)
- get a meditation pillow (this one is from me, not him)!
- must be sitting – if sitting you are still conscious – lying down, you may fall asleep – still good, but not conscious (I was later told that this is also for polarity – head is positive and bottom is negative – when you sit, it balances out but when you lie down, it mixes up).

The guided walking meditation was also wonderful; James, the yoga (also top-notch) teacher, led it – and I was the only taker, so it was a private session. I had learned walking meditation before and often took walks along the lake to clear my head – needless to say, James told me to slow down. Take everything in – embrace everything. Use all five senses. When we turned around, he told me to look down in front of me and just use one sense, either smell or hearing, for the way back, and see how much more I take in. When I went back later on a stroll, I was shocked to see how short the path was – we had been on that meditation walk for so long! I really did take it slow.

I’ve been trying to do more meditation, but I haven’t consistently incorporated it into the day. Maybe this will be my transformation from the weekend. Though I could also see taking a quantum leap in eating habits, or dry brushing, or detoxifying, or yoga improvements (e.g., mountain pose with feet together instead of apart – makes a big difference) coming out of this. Or maybe I will just have lasting memories. Whatever the case, I said I would tell my friends – if you can make it here, it’s worth it!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Farm at San Benito

Mary left Mindoro and took the ferry and a bus – I took a jeepney and the MRT and LRT and bus – and we arrived at just about the same time in Lipa City, where we had some coffee at Starbucks and waited for a pickup. It was so good to see her – so much to talk about! Of course, that was only the beginning of a wonderful three days at the spa.

Nobody comes to The Farm by accident – so said the general manager. And everyone leaves a little transformed and ready to do something healthier for themselves. I had seen it in Lonely Planet and I’m glad it was there; it’s not a Lonely Planet kind of place. It was founded by a German, who envisioned it as a retreat for backpackers – he built a five-star resort, which is ultimately not sustainable on backpacker prices. I feel I found it just in time – I suspect the day will come when it will be priced out of reach.
On my own I would have gone for a day. I suggested it to Mary, and after reviewing the packages she suggested the midweek one – two nights; great idea! It was also wonderful to go with her – it’s the kind of place that’s much better shared. She proposed we meet here next year for two weeks – I told her that with the air fare from New York it would still probably be less expensive than many a spa in the States!

So what was so special? Well, everything. The setting is beautiful – winding paths, landscaped palms and ferns, a coconut plantation that produces food, drink, and toiletries, herbs organically grown on site, meditation pavilions in various locations, a mango tree that is an energy vortex, a waterfall grotto that I kept gravitating to, three swimming pools, a jungle path.

The spa was great – they had scheduled a relaxation massage for us, and I chose the dry brushing. I urge you to google dry brushing, buy a dry brush and use it – I will make this a regular practice when I get home. We were both glowing afterwards and I can’t remember the last time my body felt so good. The spa had many other treatments – massages, wraps, scrubs, and the like. Most of the other guests when we were there were expat wives doing multiple treatments every day for a week.

The food was incredible. I hadn’t thought much about the food, but Mary said it was like being on a cruise, and she was right. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and cookies and herbal tea break, one afternoon) took center stage each day and were made up of several courses of artistic vegan creations. Hard to say what my favorite things were – the carrot cake (a la crab cake, not a la the one with the cream cheese frosting), the yam burger, the pear ravioli, the coconut granola? Perhaps more telling, I enjoyed things I never eat – cauliflower, asparagus, beets, mushrooms. Everything was fresh and organic and interestingly prepared and beautifully presented. Breakfast was fresh fruit, granola with nut milk, and an a la carte choice. The other meals had appetizer, soup, salad, main, and dessert. Most of the food was raw, too. The herbal tea was fresh-cut herbs in hot water.

The health part of the spa was interesting. Included in our package was live blood analysis – a drop was pricked and examined under a microscope. My red blood cells are stacked and squished, not roaming free as they should – more water, more fruits, more vegetables are called for. I bought an extra treatment – a mineral clay detox. I am seriously considering going again at the end of my service – Manila is a toxic environment and I could detox before I come home! This was well-timed, just about halfway through.

To be continued….

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Some Pictures from Week Fourteen

Without a window, I spend a lot of time looking at my posters:

The Philippines and the neighborhood:

The Peace Corps has been in all the purple countries – and more!

This poster reminds me of Morocco:

The border between Mandaluyong and Pasig:

The wind from the typhoon downed this bus shelter roof:

The pool at the Intercontinental Makati: