July 29, 2009
Let me say this at the outset that today was an unforgettable day. It started off when Kenny came by at 5 AM to pick me up from the hotel so we could go jogging. I was looking forward to this all along since I hadn’t had a proper run in a while. He took me to a sports complex where there was an outdoor track, tennis courts, basketball courts, and other sports facilities. I enjoyed my pleasant jog amongst the multitude of Filipinos squeezing in a workout right before work/school and before the scorching sun could make its presence felt. After working out, we walked by the seashore for a bit and Kenny elaborated more on the plight of the Mindanao. As I have mentioned, he is an informed, intelligent, and very mature guy. After having succumbed to another photo-snapping frenzy, we made our way to the Silsala community center. Since we were pretty hungry, I grabbed a delcious breakfast at the center while Dr. Madale proceeded to read my fortune through my signature and thenar (palm) creases. Fortunately, he had only good things to say. Also, I got to learn more about how he met is current wife. Kenny and I dubbed his wooing and dating strategies as the Madale Method. We all had a good laugh. Following breakfast, I gained permission from Dr. Russell to go visit the Ataneo de Zamboango University School of Medicine (http://som.adzu.edu.ph/).
I had been meaning to find out more about the way medical education is structured here and after reviewing the AZUSOM model last night, I was thoroughly excited about the opportunity to learn more. We first met the University President, Father Antonio, who was extremely generous with his time and in his humble approach as he assured me that he would do everything he could to help secure my participation in the University. He proceeded to arrange a meeting with the Dean of Medicine. I headed on over to the medical school, which is on the same campus as their other education programs (elementary, high school, college, and graduate school). The Philippines’ educational institutions aren’t as rigidly separated as those in the United States so its common to have campuses combined. At the medical school, one of the students gave us a quick tour of their school. I toured the library to find similar textbooks that we use at Feinberg (School of Medicine, Northwestern University) but they were all old editions. We are extremely lucky and blessed in the US to have the facilities and privileges that we do as medical students. After the tour, I got a chance to speak to the Dean of Medicine, Dr. Christobel, who was on his way to the public hospital.
Dr. Christobel was extremely nice and made time in his schedule to meet with me later in the day and also invited me to come to the hospital to shadow his students. While driving over, he explained his school’s revolutionary model, which is only shared by a total of 7 other medical schools in the entire world. They refer to their model as the “Community-based Medical School Model”. Instead of the traditional didactic and clinical tracks, the students primarily learn through a Problem Based Learning approach within a community context. The students are divided up into groups once they are admitted where each group is assigned a community to work with for the next four years. The school tries to emphasize the importance of public health values and principles in their medical education as the students learn to be facilitators in the community’s empowerment. Additionally, the school recruits local students in order to encourage their retention in their communities and prevent a “brain drain”. Concurrently, while they engage in their medical training in the community model approach, the students pursue their Masters in Public Health degrees. Essentially, AZUSOM is an MD/MPH school. I love their model and values (interesting video: http://som.adzu.edu.ph/newsupdates/index.php?id=1).
Dr. Christobel brought us over to the hospital where he introduced us to the medical students on their internship rotations. The students were wonderful to talk to as they explained a lot about their curriculum and their particular experiences. Then, they presented the cases they were assigned in the Pediatric ward and the ICU. Again, not to deingrate conditions in the Philippines, we Americans are extremely lucky for the standards and facilities that we enjoy. Despite the many disparities that exist in the US, we have successfully stamped out infectious diseases like TB, Malaria, and Polio while improving our neonatal health. Some of the children were suffering from diseases as a result of viral and bacterial intestinal infections, nutritional deficiencies, and poor hygiene and were all squeezed into one hall with beds lined up side to side. Some of these things would make headlines in the US if discovered in our healthcare system. Unfortunately, the Philippines is burdened with both infectious diseases and lifestyle one like diabetes and hypertension. To illustrate this point, I saw a DOTS treatment clinic for TB patients for the first time in my life outside of medical literature. This would be a great place to come and learn more about clinical medicine and I think the training would be extremely valuable.
After thanking the gracious medical students, Kenny and I had lunch at Plameras, a local hot spot. I enjoyed a beef steak, baked clams, and a Knickerbocker for desert. Yummy! Since we had a few hours to burn before my meeting with Dean Christobel, we had the unenviable task in refining my overgrowing hair and beard before I lost my celebrity appeal. We headed to a Filipino salon where I met some interesting hair stylists—to say the least. I got a scalp treatment, a body massage, a hair cut, a shave, and a manicure (without the glossy shine, not a fan, sorry!) all for a price less than that of a haircut in the US. Amazing! After getting my make-over, I met with Dean Christobel to discuss my possible partnership with the institution and I also spoke with another Physician who explained more about their community-based approach. I am excited about the possibility of working with their program. So, anyone who has ideas on obtaining grant money for the Philippines, please give me a shout out. Following my thoroughly engaing and intellectually stimulating day at the medical school, we were able to meet a few of Kenny’s college professors (he had attended Ataneo for college) and also check out a gallery showcasing old artifacts and items belonging to the school. Before we headed back to Silsala, we also stopped by a Cathedral. Again, a well constructed beautiful set-up was the main attraction. As I mentioned before, I don’t like going into places of worship without the intention to pray. This time I did want to pray so I stepped in. After prayer, I spoke to Kenny more about our views on religion and role of faith in people’s lives. As you can imagine, I was pretty tired and hungry by now so we decided to go to Silsala for dinner.
Once I stepped into the center, people didn’t recognize me at first because of my changed appearance but everyone was extremely pleased with my choice including my many young admirers. :) After yet another delicious dinner, I headed back to the hotel. Kenny is going to spend the night here tonight too since we want to practice the dance routine for the Jai Ho song in Slumdog Millionaire. We wanted to perform for the kids as a way to entertain them and show them our gratitude for having invited us. I can’t dance to save my life….this should be rather interesting.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Today started out with a minor frustration. While I was dinning for breakfast at the hotel restaurant, I was furiously typing away my previous day’s entry as explained before. Merrilyn, a program affiliate with one of the NGO’s here (she also will be taking over next year as the Philippines director of the PYLP), also joined me for breakfast. We chatted a bit about our interests and our families. She is a very sweet woman who is ready and willing to help anyone she can. After speaking to her, I realized we had to get going to the community center for the day’s program, so I decided to publish my entry but was disappointed to find my Internet connection lost. Apparently, the hotel changes the network keys in the morning so they can charge daily for providing internet access. The lost connection wiped out my entry and I had not saved it on my computer. Disaster! While I was meddling with the computer, our driver had arrived. I wasn’t too disappointed since I knew I would have time during the day to compose a new entry. That’s exactly what I did!
We arrived a bit late to the community center—again! I guess I am definitely living up to my billing as a South Asian. Don’t worry, the program’s start is not contingent upon our arrival. Although, It just would be nice to go on time. In any case, the first item on the agenda was a debate on the current conflict in Mindanao. The students were divided into 3 groups: questioning group, for group, and against group. The quesioning group proposed the questions of interest while the other two debated. After the question was thoroughly presented and debated, the student groups rotated roles to tackle a new issue or topic. It was fascinating to see them become so emotional and passionate about their positions. Well, naturally in their excitement, some of them forgot their words and others spoke too fast among many other consequences of competitive debating atmosphere. Overall, they did a terrific job in handling the issues, as some of them were extremely sensitive. Afterwards, they received feedback from the directors of the program and other distinguished community leaders on how to better improve their debating skills. After the debate, the students had snacks. As I mentioned before, they eat like 5x a day with 2 snack breaks (called Marienda) thrown in with the 3 regular meals. Following some delicious snacks, they listened to a panel of speakers including a Muslim Professor, a Christian Priest, an inter-faith representative, and the student representative of PYLP Alumni, and awoman who had been kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaab (a rebel group). The panel’s underlying theme was how to best resolve the conflict in the Mindanao. All of the speakers provided interesting interpretations and unique approaches to mediate the conflict but the common point was that they all need to work together and help others understand the realities on the ground instead of engaging in hatred.
The panel discussion gave way to another organic and delicious lunch. I get really hungry all the time (as some of you know all too well), so the food was more than adequate in satiating my expanding appetite. After lunch, the students had an organization fair where different student-based community orginzations presented for the students to attract support for their initiaitives and give the PYLP students access to new resources. I think this was a great idea! The PYLP kids had a blast, at least that’s what it seemed like form my end.
Today, I had been walking around the community center more so than before and this was largely due to my ailing stomach. I definitely feel like I am slowly falling victim to international gastric stresses. I hope my poor tummy can hang on for a few more days so I can enjoy this delicious food before I leave. Forgive me but I feel awfully disgusted right now. As I am typing this in the hotel lobby, I saw a pimp and a foreigner walk in with a woman. This is definitely a prostitute exchange. The pimp is enjoying some drinks at the bar while the man has taken the woman upstairs. Unbelievable! I need to take my mind off it, so I’ll try to finish writing about my day.
While walking around, I ran into my basketball friends from the other day. I learned that they all live and work at the community center compound. It was fun talking to them and learning a little bit about their lives. Believe it or not, I got a lot out of them with their broken English and my complete ineptitude with the local languages. They instructed me to meet them later in the day to play with them again. Basketball and me equals happiness. :) So, at 5, I walked on over with my new friend Kenny to the basket ball courts. A little bit about Kenny….
Kenny is a PYLP alumni from 6 years ago and he is currently working in banking even though he concentrated in Radio, Television, and Film for his Bachelor’s degree. He told me that the wants to pursue his journalistic aspirations by going for a Master’s in Journalism after he is done with his banking term. He said that he might apply to Medill at Northwestern University—which made me really happy. Kenny is a very humble, kind, and interesting guy. He asks probing questions and is very respectful in his approach. I am always attracted to individuals who are outgoing and are comfortable in their own skins. We became friends right away. He even gave Dr. Russell and me a tour around the community center. He took pictures of us so that we would have beautiful ones to show off to our friends once we get back to the US. Also, he arranged for us to meet the Director for the Turkish-Philippino School nearby. The school concentrates on math and science education with an emphasis on universal values of human understanding. The Director was extremely amicable and forthcoming in talking about his school’s mission, Turkey’s role, and his own reasons for coming to the Philippines to lead a school to serve the Philippino children. It was a useful and informative site visit. Anyways, Kenny and I chatted on and off all day about everything from politics and religion to our ambitions and career goals. Yeah, it does quite seem like I have a man-crush on Kenny. That may be true because he is a heck of a guy. He reminds me a lot of Noman Tahir, a representative from a Scottish Muslim organization who came to visit CAIR-Chicago late last year. Kenny and I will be going running in the morning and he has volunteered to show me around town to make sure I soak in everything here. He lives and works in Manila but is back for the PYLP Follow On in Zamboanga City. He also gets to see his parents since he is originally from here, so he was definitely elated about that. I am really happy that he will be sticking around the rest of the week since I have another friend with whom to just chat away and go exploring.
The rest of the day was filled with me going and playing basketball and engaging in or more like hearing Dr. Madale’s experiences and stories. He is another interesting person. By the way, Dr. Russell uses the word “interesting” as a compliment for those who she likes a lot. I am proud to say that she had dubbed me “interesting” from the start. At dinner, I enjoyed another local fruit called losantos ( I may be misremembering the name). In any case, it was delicious of course. During dinner, I also discussed with Dr. Madale about a possible Fulbright Fewllowship in the Philippines and he seemed excited about the idea and would be willing to support me in my application. Awesome, another good option to have. It is amazing how the most rewarding opportunities come about in the places you least expect. This invitation to do a workshop for a youth program has turned out to be much more: a vacation, an educational experience, and a cultural exchange. Following dinner, we sat in the audience to watch the kids perform dances for everyone. I was very impressed with their talents and their creativity. I have lots of pictures highlighting this. Then, we returned on home to the hotel. I must head to bed now and I still need to make up my day’s worth of prayers. Until tomorrow, palum magan kaibigun ko (good bye my friends!)!
Monday, July 27, 2009
Firstly let me apologize for submitting this post a bit later than I would’ve liked. You can thank my unbearable fatigue and certain Internet mishaps for that. I am actually rewriting this post after having lost it…
Finally, I can tell you all about the Philippine Youth Leadership Program since today was the first official day of the PYLP Follow On Program. The PYLP is a United States State Department sponsored initiative designed to encourage and promote inter-ethnic dialogue and conflict resolution amongst the various religious (mostly Christian and Muslim) and indigenous groups in the war embattled region of Mindanao. As I alluded to before, the Philippines government has been involved in a large-scale armed conflict with the Muslim separatist groups for a while now. The rebels are asking for complete severance from Manila and want complete independence as opposed to the loose semi-autonomy that exists in the region. The main group, MILF (Morros Islamic Liberation Front), is carrying out bombings, kidnappings, and guerilla warfare against the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Expectedly, such conflict terrorizes and impacts civilians in a very destructive way. Most people in the volatile regions live with the fear of mortars landing in front of their houses and constant evacuations—not a pleasant way to live. Interestingly enough, the manner in which the conflict is conducted is quite a contrast to the patterns and moulds we’re used to hearing about. Apparently, the rebels are not afraid to hide here and are as visible as the never-ending Sulu Sea enveloping the Island. It seems that this particular dynamic arises from the fact that these rebels consider this region their rightful homeland and their efforts as a way to protect their homes. Historically, the Muslim-dominated regions have enjoyed relative autonomy both under Spanish rule (largely because they were difficult to conquer) and US colonization. Thus, as one can imagine, being forced into a geographical and political union with the other islands was seen as a huge encroachment on their sovereignty. Nonetheless, armed conflicts rarely help and advance the true objectives of the people for whom they claim to be fighting. The conflict also has some peculiar twists that I find fascinating as an observer. The Philippine army is rendered inept in the unfamiliar terrain of the region, which serves as an inviting opportunity for the smaller but powerful rebel forces to capitalize on such vulnerability. This sounds awfully similar to the American military failures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Interestingly enough, the newspapers reported that two days ago that the Philippine army’s ammunition stocks have been depleted so severely that Manila has entered into a cease-fire agreement with the rebels. Yupp, they’ve run out of guns. Who knew?!? Don’t you worry, people will be suffering soon enough because we have plenty of marauding and selfish governments ready to assure that gun supply isn’t the reason for peace. On the flip side of things, both warring parties have openly and explicitly asked for US assistance in mediating the conflict. In fact, the rebels have agreed to renounce links with other terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in exchange for support. I didn’t realize to the scale to which the US is expected to police the world. I always figured that we forcibly intervene for our own selfish pursuits but that is a gross simplification of global dynamics and regional influences. I guess, I’ll leave the intricacies of the matter to the political scientists here.
With that “brief” sketch of the conflict out of the way, one can only imagine the destructive impact that this can have on the youth. The US stepped in to empower the communities here by developing youth leaders through several programs including the PYLP. The PYLP is a very comprehensive and selective program that is run through cooperation amongst many NGOs and institutions in the Philippines and Northern-Illinois University (NIU) on the State side. High school students are recruited from all over the Mindenao region and are invited to a rigorous application process. Everything from academic achievement, community service, extracurricular commitments, vision for the future, to language ability are thoroughly scrutinized and analyzed for compatibility. The program is so well received to the point parents and families engage in chicanery by producing spurious birth certificates and documents to by pass qualifying criteria. Naga told me that there are many instances of such drama. After being selected for interviews, the applicants are subjected to an involved interview process with the admissions committee akin to the Fulbright Fellowship. Following interviews, the selected applicants are brought to the US at NIU to engage in a month long training program. During the month, they learn leadership skills and gain confidence through targeted workshops, community service, site visits, foster families, and lectures etc… Actually, that is how I got involved because I was invited to do one of the workshops during the month and absolutely enjoyed working with these bright and highly engaged students. The students then bring back their newfound skills and experiences to their respective communities to engage in service projects to empower their communities. They are heavily supported by the PYLP network of organizations and institutions. Isn’t that awesome?! I feel extremely proud as an American to be funding something like this with my tax dollars. Apparently, we fund similar programs in other countries including Afghanistan and Iraq. Wow! I just wish that initiatives like this got more press and support than our bomb-dropping campaigns. The PYLP has been in action for 6-years now and Dr. Russell told me that she got a 3-year renewal on the grant. Awesome! We do some good after all! Yay! So, this week’s program is a reunion of sorts for the kids sent to the US. They are all invited to come back and share their experiences and obtain the support they need for moving ahead. I will be keeping you all updated on the activities as the days proceed.
Today, we were a tad bit late getting to the Silsala community center largely because of me forgetting that we were in the Philippines not the US. I needed to print out documents for my workshop and that involved finding a place that has a USB reader with a capable printer and then finding a Xerox machine to run copies. A process that would’ve taken 10 minutes tops in the US took 30 minutes! Sometimes, we take our conveniences and progress for granted. I am sure if some of us spent more time abroad, we would rejoice and quit complaining. After reaching the community center, we began the introductory session, which featured opening remarks by Dr. Nagasure Madale (Naga) and Dr. Russell (She is a tenured professor of Anthropology with a specific expertise in the Philippines at NIU so naturally she was dubbed as the director of the program), testimonials from previous PYLP alumni, and solidarity prayers. Hearing the testimonials was particularly heart warming since these were participants from 6 years ago sharing the role that PYLP played in their lives in terms of their development and maturation. I could literally write pages about these testimonials themselves but don’t worry I won’t. :) After the opening program, it was my turn up at bat. Light, Cameras, and Action….
As I mentioned previously, I was responsible for leading a workshop. The topic and framework was left entirely up to me. The workshop entitled Spiritually-based Activism: Fueling Inspiration and Overcoming Challenges was designed with the intention to precipitate the excitement and inspiration that lays dormant in us due to the self-imposed and socially-imposed barriers that exist as one is growing through the challenges of youth. I wanted to make my talk very interactive so I had the students do a self-identity exercise, which helped illustrate to them that they are influenced by many things and are much more than the labels that people ascribe to them. Following that, we discussed a few religious narratives to see how others have employed their spirituality and belief system to empower the global community. From what I gather, the students really enjoyed the activities. I also threw in my words of encouragement. Of course, I spoke more than I should have. Lol I know some of you are chuckling at reading this. Yes, I did shower them with my rosy and “cheesy” views. Honestly, I feel extremely proud of the kids since they are so highly engaged and active. They treated me respectfully and appreciatively for which I am definitely grateful. I just hope I did some good today.
Following my workshop, we had lunch. I enjoyed some rice, fried chicken, organic salad (veggies farmed at the Sisila community center), mangoes (yummy) and a fruit called Santos. Oh man, Santos tastes sour and sweet like sour patch kids. Sooo good! After lunch, the students split into four groups to go to various private schools in the area to help campaign for the week’s service project (a brainchild of one of the past PYLP alumni). The service project was called “operation shoe-box” in which High School students were expected to donate school supplies and a letter of peace and encouragement for the indigent peoples in the public schools of the region. This gave me an opportunity to see the kids in action speaking passionately and cogently for a venerable cause. Also, I got to check out the other High Schools in the area. It was pretty amazing I must say. And I have to mention my Hollywood (or as Gerald would say my Bollywood) stardom with the girls at these schools. Apparently, me being different and having the Philippino desired features makes me a hot shot with the girls here. Embarrassed in even communicating this via a public blog, the girls were swooning over me and were utterly fascinated with me. Literally, all you needed were the paparazzi to complete my celebrity. Dr. Russell and I just laughed it off. Quite cute, if I must admit. Anyways, enough with my vanity. As we were returning to the community center, I treated my group of students to a local ice cream creation called Knickerbocker or Halo Halo. It was fruits and ice cream in a cup and was absolutely delicious. Thoroughly spent, we were all pretty fatigued once returning to the community center.
At the community center, I met Martha Buckley (the US embassy representative) and we chatted a bit. We had a few hours before dinner. So, while the kids were debriefing, I decided to get some exercise in. I went out for a jog and was extremely exhausted a half-mile in. The humid air and the hilly path are elements that I am not quite used to. Once realizing that the path was extremely muddy, I tried an alternative route and came upon a basketball court. I joined in a game with a few locals and we had plenty of fun. I got to exercise and made some new friends. Also, a Philippino who is 6 inches shorter and wore sandals did school me. Well, as my buddies at NU know, I gamble way too much on defense and that’s what burned me. However, I did hold my own on offense. :) I can’t wait to play with them again. Being thoroughly exhausted and panting vigorously, I returned to the community center for a quick shower and dinner. Dinner was delicious! I had calamari, fried fish, rice, organic salad, a potato dish, and some mangoes. Yummy! At dinner, I got a chance to talk to Martha more about her experience as a diplomat. She was quite impressed with my ambitions and particular career route. She also suggested that I look into employment through the Foreign Service as a Physician if I really like traveling and different cultures. Good to know that this option exists. Later, I joined a few of the girls out in the courtyard. They were all already feeling sad that they had to leave their friends once again. They also told me about their lives in their respective communities. Some of them told me about the constant fear, flying mortars, and evacuations that they have to live with on an everyday basis. Hearing young people talk about such pervasive violence produces strong and vivid feelings for me: anger and extreme sadness to name a few. Anger at the perpetrators and sadness for those suffering. I would expand on this but I really can’t bring myself to do it because, honestly, it will just be too heart wrenching.
After joking and bantering with the kids, I got a ride to our hotel. I was soo exhausted and had a headache brewing that I could only bring myself to check my e-mail and do nothing else. I fell asleep right away and woke up naturally after a 7-hour slumber. I headed down to the coffee shop for breakfast and to type away my blog post. Unfortunately, my hour-long typing escapade was all for naught as I lost it completely due to the mishaps I mentioned at the outset. :( I hope my efforts are much appreciated. Let’s see what Tuesday has in sore for me.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Today was an eventful day filled with many new sights and sounds. In the morning, Dr. Russell and I departed for Zamboanga City, the sight of the Youth Program. The plane ride was short and sweet as I spent most if not all of it submerged in the pages of Harry Potter and his adventures. As we were descending, the land came into view–a marvelous sight it was! The Philippines is a collection of many Islands, some big and some small. The region where we landed is known as Mindanao (the Southern Island amongst the large trio) and it is surrounded by a lot of small islands as well. So, from the plane, I saw this dazzling display of islands inking the landscape of the vast sea that stretched far beyond what the eye could see. Once I landed, I got off via the portable stairs and erupted into a photo-snapping mania. The airport was firmly entrenched with mountains in the background and the sea on the other side. I couldn’t help but snap away. Can you blame me?! As I finally walked away from my amazement, I was greeted by a sign: “Welcome to Zamboanga City: Asia’s latin city”. It’s quite interesting that even though that the Spanish had ruled over most of the Islands, this place retained more of the cultural influence than anywhere else, which is distinctly reflected in the local language, Chavokan. It’s an amalgamation of Spanish and a few local languages and it sounds very similar to Spanish too. Dr. Russell believes that this place retains the Spanish influence more than any other place largely because the Spanish brought over locals from other Islands and nations to work in Zamboanga. Well, as we know from history, “work” is a generous term at best. Those “workers” couldn’t speak to Zamboangans because they spoke different languages. After learning to communicate with the Spanish masters in Spanish and the locals in their local dialects, naturally it all got interfused and wound up producing a new language altogether. Quite fascinating! A linguist friend of mine would have a field day in this place! Dr. Russell is pretty awesome as she drops nuggets of knowledge at every turn and chance she gets, of which I am extremely appreciative.
We were picked up at the airport by Naga (Anthropology Professor and the Philippines director of the PYLP) and his wife Anisa. Naga is a very exuberant and energetic 67 year old man (although you couldn’t tell he was 67 by looking at him) who brings a lot of joy to every conversation. In just one day, I’ve come to appreciate his stories already! I will write more about him in due time. His approach to Islam and youth work is particularly interesting to me and as such it has given life to new ideas and goals for our own program for MYLS moving ahead. We arrived in grand style at our hotel on the beach front. Our hotel is literally overlooking the Sulu Sea with our room windows glaring out at the wondrous excitement that only a never ending gaze against flowing waters can provide. I feel very fortunate to be here and soaking all of this in. I must admit, this has been a much deserved break for me especially considering the circumstances and the difficulties I’ve had to deal with during the past few months. It’s always a good idea to be grateful for things that make you happy because they are as fleeting as time itself. In any case, back to the story…we ended up dining for lunch at the hotel’s restaurant and I had a delicious Tanguigui steak. My friend Zeshan would’ve loved this Zamboangan delicacy! There is just so much seafood here that it’s hard to choose what to eat when you sit down. After lunch, we explored our lovely beach front and took a few pictures against the scenic backdrop while Naga showered stories of Zamboangan history and culture on me.
Later in the day, we went to Silsila, the inter-faith community center that is erected by Italian Catholic priests. Actually, that is where the program is being held over the next few days. The road to Silsila from the hotel is placed amidst a flowing sea to the left, green lush on the right, and people in cars, rickshaw-like rides, wagons, and on foot sprawled in between. Our driver was quite adept at avoiding the slow moving vehicles in the way and also skillful when he had to maneuver through people crossing the street without notice. I couldn’t drive here even if my life depended on it. We are too accustomed to rules and regulations so I can’t ever see myself or anyone for that matter surviving on the road here. Miraculously, I believe that there are fewer accidents in this “lawlessness on the road” than there are in our well-policed roadways in the States. Don’t ask me why!
Once we reached the Silsila, I was amazed to see that all of the kids had remembered me from the workshop that I had done at Northern-Illinois University while they were on their one-month training tour in the States. I know that I promised to tell more about the program but I think I will wait for tomorrow since it would be appropriate considering it’s the first official day for it. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten such a loud ovation or as cheery of a welcome before! I mingled with the students (High School Seniors and College Freshmen) and we chatted about their time since the US trip and what they are up to now. I don’t know what it is about me but the girls are the only ones I can seem to get through to. Speaking of which, apparently some of the girls had a crush one me and the other girls were teasing them throughout the entire trip and now it started again since I was here. Funny stuff! Oh boy, do I remember the times I used to crush on my teachers and mentors back in the day. :) Kids can be quite cute with their emotions. After a snack session (which I am told to expect a lot since people eat like 5x a day here but never get fat. We need their secret!), I got a personal tour of the Silsila (means chain in Arabic) from Naga and Dr. Russell. It’s an expansive compound that is built in the forest so it has a lot of vegetation with creeks running through and buildings of bamboo and stone revealing themselves in the vacated spots where trees once reigned. From what I am told, this place was founded to encourage inter-faith dialogue and promote peace in the region through the efforts of two Italian pastors. Sadly, one of them was murdered due to initial resistance and feud over land. Fortunately, the other Father still remained here and has done good work to the point that this place has become a safe haven for the community. On a side note, I can’t wait to go running on the many windy and hilly paths that the place has. It should be a lot of fun! Tomorrow, I am scheduled to lead a workshop that I designed entitled, “Spiritually-based Activism: Fueling Inspiration and Overcoming Challenges”. I am excited to work with the youth and have some fun doing so. I will let you all know how it goes tomorrow. After my tour at the community-center, Dr. Russell and I were accompanied by an Anthropology Graduate student, Alfred, to the Zamboanga mall where we bought a few toiletries and such. I also spotted a Doner Kebap! My partners in crime on my recent Africa adventure know what I am talking about. The food at this Kebap wasn’t as good as the one in Madrid. But hey, it brought back some happy memories of my two treasured companions. In the end, it’s the memories that keep our spirits up. I’m lucky to have been blessed with awesome people that have been able to give me so many to treasure.
After grabbing my dinner at the mall, we headed back home to the hotel where I took a quick shower after unexpectedly dozing off when trying to rest my eyes. Then, I sat in the coffee shop looking out at the beautiful night lights of the hotel simmering on the calm but ever-flowing waters of Sulu Sea. I hope tomorrow brings its own excitement. Oh man, I miss my complimentary mango…
Saturday, July 25th, 2009
A few things I learned in Manila today:
Despite a few awkward moments with the shady characters that wander the streets much like every other mega city-center in the world, I had a very relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable day. A tip off the bat, dispose of your electronic shackles as often as humanly possible in this “progress” driven age. I did not have my cell-phone (so, no Google maps, Gmail, phone, etc…) and no watch. And—that was perfect! Now, I am not advocating complete severance from time-conscious devices but I am simply relaying the serendipitous potential of being free from the penciled-in appointments, programmed routines, and constant electronic-connectedness. Anyways, I got my day started with a comprehensive and well-adorned continental breakfast in one of the many restaurants in our hotel lobby. I must say, this was the first time I was actually impressed with a complimentary continental breakfast. Just after I swallowed eggshell pieces, I joined Dr. Russell at her table for a quick chat. Needless to say, I had to kindly excuse myself in order to free my poor throat of the pain that stupidity wrought. I know I will mention this countless times again, so get used to reading this: Dr. Russell is awesome!
We chatted away about the plans for the day. Since, she had to rendezvous with another project, which is focusing on mobilizing and connecting community workers and non-profits across the country, (More about these projects later!) so she was giving me some advice about what to see and what to do on my own. Amidst our conversation, as I was telling her a little bit more about my interests and my activities, Dr. Russell proclaimed that I was more of an Anthropologist than a traditional aspiring Physician. As most of my friends know that that is a huge compliment to me since the man I admire in Medicine is none other than Dr. Paul Farmer, a Physician Anthropologist (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_farmer). So naturally, I was elated to hear that. Once I got her helpful tips down on paper, I set off to explore Manila. I took a metered taxi to the Intramuros (http://wikitravel.org/en/Manila/Intramuros), which is the much older Spanish part of Manila.
For those who don’t know, something I got a crash course in compliments of Dr. Russell, the Philippines were a collection of independent sultanates and territories until the Spanish took control and colonized its peoples. After Spain ceded the Islands to the United States of America following the Spanish American War, the Philippines remained under US control until the Japanese invaded prior to WWII. After the US defeated Japan, the Philippines were under US mandate until the latter part of the 20th century and full independence. And now, there is a bitter battle waged by some Muslim separatist groups and the government which still assures that violence and unrest stay a part of the Filipino life. Therefore, much of Filipino history is rifed with oppression and struggle. This is greatly reflected in the many monuments, memorials, museums, and parks in Manila. Also, you’ll see quite the admiration and respect that Filipinos have for their national heroes, Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio to name a couple, a far cry from the corrupt and spoiled politicians they rightfully complain about today.
With the history lesson out of the way, I can safely proceed. My taxi driver was quite a guy or maybe I am just very generous in offering favorable opinions when people act like decent human beings. Either way, it puts him in a positive light and deservingly so. Amidst spinning tales of my beauty and potential for playboy success in the Philippines, he was extremely forthcoming about offering me advice to stay away from corrupt cabbies, pickpockets and such. He taught me a few phrases in Filipino and God bless the man’s soul for trying his best to talk to me in English. Even though English is compulsory in school, unless you’ve completed your schooling or you are in a position to use it, it’s hard for most people to remain fluent and comfortable with the language—especially with a foreigner. Nonetheless, he was quite effective in relaying his thoughts and feelings to me. Among many things, he told me about how he has a lot of family all over the US but that family hasn’t done much to uplift his own out of poverty. In a culture where familial responsibility is more sacred than individual happiness, this sad reality can be quite an affront. As cultures become more homogenized or rather absorbed by the prevailing dominance of a powerful one, some of the older values and traditions just don’t carry as much weight anymore. I still wonder, are we increasingly defining success in a manner that rips humanity from the stitching of our nature? Are we just becoming as assembly produced and as cold as the very machines and advancements that we owe our present progress to? Though these questions may be naïve to some or just pedantic to others, I firmly believe that self-reflection can never do any harm but is an ever-bright guiding force.
After wishing my new friend a warm good bye, I successfully haggled with a Calesa, a traditional miniature horse drawn carriage to show me around the famed walled-city. I was not to be disappointed although the sun almost had his way if it weren’t for my cowboy hat. I had a chance to go to the Manila Cathedral, which is famous for its age and artful construction. Actually, there was a wedding going on and yet they still let visitors go and check it out. Weird. There were many Churches and Cathedrals along the way but I feel a bit uneasy at treating places of worship as visiting centers and tour stops. I would gladly step into one with an open heart if I am entering for the purpose of spiritual cleansing but otherwise, I’ll stay away as much as I can. It’s quite hard to do that when there is so much to venerate from the history to the beautifully constructed altars and halls. My Calesa took me everywhere: Fort Santiago, all around Intramuros, China town, downtown Manila, McArthur bridge (yes, Genera McArthur), Rizal park, Pasig River, Maniala Bay and much more…. The driver seemed nice enough except the part when he offered to get me a “girl” and target practice at a range before I concluded the tour. More about this shortly. My little horse drawn carriage seemed to have elevated me to Cinderella-like stature. I know she had her glass shoes but I think my magic rested in my cowboy hat and dark sunglasses. So, as one can imagine, riding through jam-packed Manila traffic (it’s worse than NYC), I was quite a sight for the locals. All I could do was accept my newfound celebrity and wave back with my winning smile. Ha!
After my tour, I decided to have lunch at one of the many seafood restaurants overlooking Manila Bay. The place was quite expensive! In any case, there is nothing like letting the breeze swirling the waves and waters of the Bay wisp you away into another place altogether; no annoyances, no worries, no past, and no future. The sounds of the people eating and the waves rocking back and forth against the dock were strikingly in tune to perpetuate the placidity of the moment. Oh yeah, the food! Well, I ordered fish and chips because I wanted to try Lapu Lapu, a locally preferred fish. Good thing I went for the timeless and dependable fish and chips because my overpriced Sweet and Sour Lapu Lapu wasn’t as delicious as advertised. It barely had any meat on it! In the end it was just a fish body swimming in sweet and sour sauce. Although, the few morsels that I did pry away from the bones were delicious. After an enjoyable lunch, I walked around to find myself at the Manila Oceanarium, which adjoined an in-door strip mall. The mall had all sorts of stores, mainly it featured edible creations. Too bad I had already eaten! The Oceanarium was just like any other aquarium except that it featured more fish from the Americas than the Philippines. For some reason, all these fish were huge and I mean huge! At the same time, I don’t know how I feel about aquariums and zoos in the way the animals are kept there but that’s another conversation for another time.
After roaming around in the Oceanarium, I headed back to the hotel for a quick nap, which guaranteed that I would miss going to the Ayala Museum but I am hoping to catch that on my way back to the US as my last day will be in Manila. After my nap, I had a fancy Thai dinner at the hotel and then ventured out for a walk into the Makati night, region in Manila where the hotel is located. I didn’t go too far since I just wanted to stop by the bookstore and see some of the happenings in town. As I was walking, the bell boy (definitely not a boy, was at least 40) from the hotel recognized me in the street and stopped me and started talking to me. As the conversation took its natural course to what I was doing here and where I was wandering about, he offered to bring a Filipina back to my hotel room. Was there something in “I am here for business and pleasure and now I am going to the bookstore” that screamed my desire to be dissolute tonight? I mean, I wasn’t mad or angered at the suggestion, just disappointed. Disappointed because obviously it’s a service that is sought frequently by many who come and visit that he felt comfortable enough to offer it to me. Mind you, he only suggested this after I told him I was American not Saudi. What does this say about how we Americans conduct ourselves abroad? Prostitution is a wretched industry that preys on the weak and vulnerable for the physical pleasure of the weak-willed. Trust me, that is the kindest way I can frame that! I am not the paragon of moral excellence either but something about exploitation on this level wreaks of utter wretchedness. It strips the humanity off of these individuals and clothes them in sheer disrespect and humiliation. I know that the problem is not as simple as hedging demand but each of us should really evaluate our actions in the context of ourselves, our families, our communities, and our countries when we perpetuate abuses as visitors in foreign countries. Society has many demons to struggle against and I do hope that we can appropriately recognize these sources of exploitation and oppression before we truly lose ourselves.
After that shock, I needed to take my mind off the matter so I found myself purchasing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. Yes, Samia, you’ve won! Sorry Khaled! Then, as I was exiting the bookstore, I found myself in another mall! Too many malls here… but this time I found an arcade, well it was really a collection of closely spaced video game machines in the mall lobby. I had some fun playing a few games, something that I never get a chance to do during the school year. Then, I cam back to the hotel to sip on a $3-sprite while I gobbled down a hundred pages of Mr. Potter in the comforts of the soft couch and the soothing voice of the nightly singer accompanied by her pianist in the hotel lobby. After which, I returned to my room to call Dr. Russell to see how her day was and find out the plan for tomorrow. I told her about my day and we discussed a few things that I discussed above including the limits of cultural relativity. She really is an amazing woman and I am excited to learn more from our enriching conversations. Now, off to bed for my morning flight to Mindanao, the Muslim-dominated southern Island. But…I must have my complimentary sumptuous mango first….life is sweet provided you choose to eat the right things.
Palum Kabee Gun= Goodbye Friends (I told you that I would learn!)
Friday, July 24th, 2009
Peace be upon you all,
Thanks to a gracious and extremely generous invite from the Philippines Youth Leadership Program (http://www.cseas.niu.edu/PhilAccess/default.htm), I’ve finally made it to Manila! Dr. Susan Russell, the program director (http://www.seasite.niu.edu/russell/), and I departed from Chicago on July 23, 2009 in the afternoon and by way of Detroit, Nagoya, Japan, and 18 hours of flying, we are here at last. Despite the long journey, I feel energetic and well rested. On that note, I will offer this helpful piece of advice to my fellow globe-trekkers: don’t sleep the night before your flight. Now, that seems outrageous but trust me it’s much better to be tossing and turning in your cramped economy class 9 square inches than it is to be wide awake for 18 hours without a TV monitor to distract you. Believe me, not even Harry Potter will last you that long. Aside from waking to change planes or eating my sqaure-shaped meals, I haven’t done much here.
We arrived in Manila on Friday evening at 11:00 PM. Going through security was a breeze especially for an innocent 21-year old who knows the TSA personnel far too well for his liking. As I stepped out of the airport, I couldn’t help but feel at home. The warm and humid air that strikes you across the face leaves you with a sense of serenity. Weird, but true. There is a palpable calmness over the people and surroundings, something which is sorely absent in the fast-paced and hectic American cities and way of life. Manila feels strangely similar to Sri Lanka and Pakistan. I don’t know if the comparison starts and ends with the climate but remarkably, the panic that we are taught to fear just isn’t as alarming as the whistle-blowers and nay-sayers make it seem. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to deny that a place like the Philippines has its fair share of frustrations and dangers that accompany political and ethnic unrest but I think that, we Americans, can learn a lot from peoples beyond our own majestic borders.
As we were driving to our hotel from the airport, the juxtaposition of a prominent and bright neon glowing KFC sign overseeing the highway with a small reserved 8-year old boy knocking on the car window for a foreigner’s charity got me thinking. This is neither the first nor the worst contrast I’ve seen but the helplessness and the guilt I feel doesn’t go away. We speak so reverently of globalization but it’s hard to see its advantages for the already marginalized and vulnerable peoples. In any case, I will stop my social commentary right there—it’s 4 AM! I need to wrap this up if I have any shot of exploring Manila tomorrow.
Once I got to the hotel, thanks to my helpful traveling tip, I had to annoy management to open the gym exclusively for me so I can expend the energy I had stored up. I love running outside but I settled for a state-of-the-art treadmill in the hotel. The run was great except that it was a bit creepy to be watched by the security guy while I worked out. After a while, he started doing his own thing–seemed like he was doing yoga. Is that even popular here? Oh well, after feasting on a sumptuous mango in my room and getting e-mails out of the way, I am off to bed for a few hours. Dr. Russell has already started filling me in on the regional politics and cultural relations, all of which I will relay to you all in due time. Oops, I didn’t even talk about the program and why I am here. Well, there is always next time. Stay tuned…..Good bye for now! (I promise I will learn to say that in Filipino by the end)