Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Rules of the Road: Jeepneys

This will be the first in a series of posts regarding the transportation system in the Philippines. Today we talk about Jeepneys! (Etymology: Jeep + using it so your knees are usually uncomfortable = jeepney)

Jeepneys are one of the main symbols of the Philippines. Many(/most?) are surplus US Army troop carriers that have been converted to passenger use. They are diesel, and they will probably run forever. Long before MTV debuted “Pimp My Ride”, Filipinos were upgrading jeepneys in all sorts of creative ways. Some in Manila are a dull metal gray, but many feature lavish paint jobs and all kinds of accessories, sometimes with fixed up interiors. Consider the most flamboyant jeepney in my area:

Jeepneys run on a fixed route, picking up and dropping off passengers anywhere along it. The fare varies by how far you’re going – there’s usually a minimum charge of 5 pesos, and you can roughly add a peso for every 2 kilometers traveled. The larger ones usually have a younger male hanging off the back who yells to the driver when to stop to pick somebody up, and collects the fares. To get on the jeepney, you must flag it down from the side of the road, either by raising your arm, or doing the Filipino motion for “come here”, which looks like “get away, shoo, shoo!” to Americans. To stop the jeepney so you can get off, you usually rap a coin on the overhead bar, or yell “Lugar lang!” (Roughly “Just here!”). Once the passenger is off, the money collector makes a sound that I had to think about a while in order to describe. It’s like you say “Yeah” slowly, as unenthusiastically as possible, but also loudly and while throwing your voice a couple octaves lower, and not really pronouncing the Y. It’s not really a word. I believe they’re just trying to sound cool.

The seating arrangement in a jeepney is two long benches facing each other, with an aisle down the middle. All entering and exiting is done from the rear. There are bars from the roof running parallel to the benches to hold on to when the ride gets bumpy, or when braking and acceleration are erratic (so, always). Open windows run parallel to the benches, and only have tarps put down if it is raining hard. True jeepneys are actually usually quite comfortable on the Filipino transportation scale, because the dimensions are built for American soldiers. There is typically enough leg and head room, and getting out of them requires nothing more than walking while bent at the waist. Of course, there’s always room for one more, even when all the seats are filled (I would estimate that the typical Jeepney can hold 20-24 passengers sitting comfortably inside). If you’re a female, a child, or an older man, small 2-person wooden benches are brought out and put into the aisle, and passengers sit facing perpendicular to those on the main benches. This makes getting in and out much more complicated. Males from the age of 15-40 tend to hang off the back (there are platforms for standing), or even sit on top. It’s not uncommon to see a jeepney cruising down the highway at a busy time with 12 or 15 people riding.. on the outside. I can vouch for the fun of hanging off the back – provided you have adequate foot-anchoring space. It’s much fresher than inside, and you have a better view of the surroundings. I’m not crazy enough to have ridden on the top yet.
Here’s what can happen when things get tight:

My friend Matt Kucharski(about 6'5") gettin' down in Manila

My other friend Matt McCleary (also about 6'3"?)demonstrating the proper back-ride technique
It’s all a part of getting close with your neighbors. "Community integration" if you will.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Comments of an Enthusiastic Human about Confessions of an Economic Hitman

Recently, I read Confessions of an Economic Hitman, by John Perkins, after having it on my radar for quite a while, and the entire time I was reading it I was excited and kept wondering if this was indeed the best book I’d ever read. Not just because it was well-written, or interesting, or informative – it was all of those things – but because I read it at the right time.

Economic Hit Men (EHM for short), in Perkins’ words, are “highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortions, sex, and murder. They play a game as old as Empire but one that has taken on a terrifying dimensions during this time of globalization”. What is so interesting to me is that Perkins started off as a young Peace Corps Volunteer. Smart, capable, interested in the world around him. Patriotic to the ideals of his country but opposed to its current direction. Eager to travel, experience a different culture, and challenge his notions of civilization. In other words, he started out as me.

Perkins spends little of the book discussing his Peace Corps experience, in fact, it is mainly brought up to introduce how he met the man who would eventually hire him and take him into the EHM fold. He spends much time explaining his rise as an international economic player and the incredible deals he made as such. The latter part of the book is an often gut-wrenching struggle with his own conscience, which parallels to the reader’s own soul-searching about his or her place in the ‘corporatocracy’, and my ongoing pondering of what, where, and how on Earth I will direct my energies when I finish my Peace Corps service. My mind currently swirls with possibilities and this book serves as both a cautionary and inspirational tale.

Sample quotes:

“People throughout the land understand that the real problem is a corporatocracy that has grown so selfish and greedy and so entrenched that it threatens the security of the United States and indeed the very survival of our species and many other life-forms.”

“I am certain that when enough of us become aware of how we are being exploited by the economic engine that creates an insatiable appetite for the world’s resources, and results in systems that foster slavery, we will no longer tolerate it. We will reassess our role in a world where a few swim in riches and the majority drown in poverty, pollution, and violence. We will commit ourselves to navigating a course toward compassion, democracy, and social justice for all.”

I highly, highly recommend this book, moreso than any book I have come across in a long time. It is at once a history lesson about the last 50 years, a whirlwind tour of the globe, a fascinating story, and a call to action. Read it.
And if you want to take it a little farther, read Ishmael, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Confessions of an Economic Hitman all in a row. Trust me, you’ll be in for an adventure, going through many fields of study, places on Earth, writing styles, topics, and things to think about, and when you come out of it you’ll have a much better understanding of the world around you and how it came to be this way – and hopefully a new motivation for making it better.
Links to amazon.com do not constitute encouragement to buy your books from there, of course – you should always buy your books at Pilchuck Books in Everett, Washington, if at all possible =)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Just Watch.


This blog is about my experience in the Peace Corps, but from time to time I will use it for other purposes as well. Right now, I’m sick of watching from thousands of miles away while Clay Bennett and his horde of Oklahoma Robbers turns a major part of my childhood into a pathetic spectacle on the court and off.

Who are these Seattle SuperSonics? To a casual observer, it’s a cast of nobodies, plus some rookie kid, who can’t win a game. To the fan, it’s a disappointing collective of role players that lost their two superstars with not much in return. To me, it’s a living, breathing entity that connects Seattle’s past, and my past, to the present. I recently read an article in the Seattle Times – could the Portland Trailblazers ever replace the Sonics for local fans, since they have so many Seattle connections? The answer was an unequivocal no, and except for my unconditional support of Brandon Roy, I wholeheartedly agree.

The article speaks of a time when a Gary Payton jersey was the perfect gift, when thunderous Shawn Kemp dunks were imitated on every lowered hoop in the area, and when going to a game made you the coolest kid on the block. That line gave me goosebumps, as I realized how important the Sonics were to me. To those memories, add standing in line for hours at Everett Chevrolet, hoping to get an autograph from my idol Gary Payton, but falling short because the line was so long. Meeting Nate McMillan at the JC Penny in Alderwood Mall, and being so excited that I couldn’t even spell my own name right (I still have a card, signed to “Criag”). Attending (free) SeaFirst Jammin’ Hoops Camps, where role-playing, but still admired Sonics like Vincent Askew would attend and help out the kids. Letting Gary Payton’s brother Terry wear my Payton jersey during the counselor’s game at a Skyhawks Hoops camp. Falling on the floor and crying when the Sonics lost in the first round to the Nuggets in 1994. Driving all around with my mother, forcing her to listen over and over to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Not in Our House” during the playoffs. Big Smooth, Kendall Gill, Hersey Hawkins, Detlef Schrempf. Those years we played at the Tacoma Dome, while KeyArena was being renovated. Chanting for Steve Scheffler to enter the game during a big blowout. Watching Larry Bird and Michael Jordan play in the KingDome, in seats so far away I could hardly see the court. Getting tickets each year for my birthday to see some opposing player I really admired, but mostly to have the thrill of going to a Sonics game. The years when my Dad and I had multi-game packs and sat in the second-to last row. Walking through a crisp winter night among the Christmas lights at the Seattle Center, listening to the sounds of the Tuba Man, on the way to get some Dick’s hamburgers. My friend Finn and I sneaking onto the floor as college students to participate in a free-throw contest that was designed for people under 16. Attending the jersey retirement ceremonies of Spencer Haywood and Gus Williams, who I never even saw play a game, but swelling with pride because they played in the early glory days, which brought Seattle our only major professional championship. Riding in the 74 Metro Bus, packed with UW students, heading to a game to sit in the cheap seats with my buddies.

The absolutely excruciatingly frustrating thing about this whole situation is that it’s all about money, it’s all about greed. It’s owners treating sports teams like a hedge fund instead of a civic good. It’s managers making terrible decisions about personnel because of money. It’s liars and would-be public extortionists. It’s people who value the “luxury” experience at a basketball game more than the game itself, to see and be seen, to have an “entertainment experience”. It’s pretentious people who dress up in business clothes to go to the game. I’ve said this before, and I will say it again. There is nothing wrong with KeyArena. Maybe the financing deal is messed up, but I believe that can be worked out. As a place to watch basketball games, KeyArena is one of the best arenas I have ever been to. The sightlines are excellent and all seats are close to the action. It’s certainly a more pleasant place to watch a game than Madison Square Garden, which pioneered the whole “entertainment” concept. Even if the Sonics are able to stay in Washington, but have to move to some far-flung suburb, the idea that this recently renovated arena in the heart of the city is not good enough is ridiculous to me. Of course, I’m not rich, and I don’t go to the games for the complete entertainment experience. I go to watch basketball, so I don’t count.

Mostly, I’m upset because I remember how important the Sonics have been to me in my life. I just can’t imagine the city without them. Even though my current interest waxes and wanes, and it’s true, I profess more loyalty to the Huskies than the Sonics, I always want them to be there. Nothing can bring a city together like professional sports. I want my children to experience the magic that I did growing up. I want to share my memories with them at a game, not while watching the Oklahoma City Idiots playing on television. And so I’m frustrated with our dollars-only previous owners, our pretentious city council members who act like the Sonics add nothing to our city, our greedy, lying ownership group, Clay Bennett, David Stern, and everybody else who is so motivated by the dollar that they can’t see that KeyArena would be packed, and the city swathed in Green and Gold, if only they put a quality product on the court instead of looking at everything through their wallets. I can’t believe I am excited that the Sonics are being sued by the city. I can’t believe that it’s come to this.

I doubt this will make any sort of difference, but I wanted to say it for the record, as a lifelong fan who may not have his team anymore when he returns home. Full license of my Clay Bennett image is granted, and in fact I would be thrilled if it ended up on some t-shirts, at games, on signs, and bumper stickers. It won’t make him detest Seattleites any extra – he already shows no respect whatsoever to us. But it may help rile up some public sentiment and increase the citizen push to keep an important part of our city, in our city.

If you’re not from Seattle, don’t like sports, or don’t understand the numerous unexplained references in this post, sorry. I suggest checking the Seattle Times archives about the Sonics. We will return to our regularly scheduled save the world programming shortly. Go Sonics.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Sayaw Darling, Sayaw Darling!

A few days after getting to my training site back in May, I noticed a show on television that immediately captivated me with its overwhelming mixture of singing, dancing, karaoke, and quiz show. I couldn’t really understand what it was all about, it being mostly in Tagalog, but the show is more or less unavoidable in this country, so over the weeks and months I began to understand it well. In short, Wowowee is a variety show watched in millions of households in the Philippines six days a week. To learn more than I could tell you, or wish to type, click here [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wowowee]. I decided early on that I would like to make an appearance on the show at some point in my tenure here.

In October, as I was making preparations to go to Manila for a meeting, I mentioned to some friends in the Municipal Hall that I hoped to attend Wowowee while there. One girl said that her uncle worked for the Movie and Television Review and Control Board, which apparently has connections to get in to any TV show or movie, so a process of text messages between many involved parties was set in motion, culminating with an appointment for me to meet her uncle at the ABS-CBN studio in Quezon City on the morning of the show. So on Friday, October 12, my friend David and I took the light rail out to studio and met the family. I texted everybody in my phone book to watch us on the show, because I was fairly certain we would get some camera time – whenever any non-Filipino person is in the crowd, they are constantly panned to. Numerous viewing parties were apparently hastily arranged in my town.

When we got into the studio, it was smaller than it looks on TV, as studios always are, but I was amazed by the camera tricks that are played. It was really small! We had seats in the The Filipino Channel (TFC) subscribers section, which is populated by OFW’s (Overseas Foreign Workers) and other Filipinos living abroad, most of whom hold up signs representing where they’re from. So all around us were Filipinos holding signs like “Riyadh”, “New York”, and “Seattle, Washington” (she had relatives in Everett!) – and in the middle, the only two white guys in the audience, one of them holding a sign saying “Amlan, Negros Oriental.” That was my key to getting a lot of screen time, I knew it. But I told everybody that I didn’t want to be a contestant, participant, or anything like that. I just wanted to watch in person.

The show always starts off with a sort of singalong, which then turns into a dance contest to select the “Bigat10”, who later compete in the quiz show portion for cash. Bigaten, I was later told, means something like “big shot” in Tagalog. So before taping started, the staff taught everybody the new dance, which is called Sayaw Darling (sayaw meaning dance). It was a very simple dance, and they really emphasized puckering your lips while doing it.

Taping started with the Wowowee dancers running out and performing a dance routine, with so much going on, so many flashing lights, and general pandemonium that I didn’t know where to look. Staff went around the TFC section with microphones so people could give shout-outs to their family and friends. I managed to get off a “Hello to everybody in Amlan, Negros Oriental!” before the microphone was whipped away. Then Sayaw Darling started, with the host Willie going around to each section and selecting the Bigaten. Eventually they got to the TFC section. I was just sort of dancing along happily, holding my sign – you know me, I like to ham it up – and then I realized that all the staff on the floor was encouraging us to pucker our lips, so I went along with it. As Mike D of the Beastie Boys once put it, “I’m the one that won that dance contest, ‘cause you know I dance the best.” All of a sudden Willie screamed “Bigaten!” and pointed at me, and confetti and fog filled the air. Oh, crap.

I was quickly pulled down out of the crowd and onto the stage, given four bags with promotional items, and danced in a line with the other Bigaten. One of the hosts of the show, Pokwang, who looks like a drag queen but is apparently actually a woman, came up and hugged me while dancing and puckering her lips. Imagine the situation: on Tuesday, you’re sitting in an office with your coworkers debating whether Pokwang is a girl or a boy trying to look like a girl, and on Friday, you’re on national television in front of probably 30 million people with Pokwang’s arms wrapped around you, dancing.

The initial segment ended and all the Bigaten were taken backstage to have the rules of the game we would participate in explained. You have to stand at a microphone with the back of your hand held under your chin, and when the signal is given, hit the buzzer with your hand and give the answer. If you are right, you win 10,000 pesos (about $230) – which goes a very far way here. I was a little unsure about all this – as Peace Corps Volunteers we’re not allowed to win money, I’m pretty sure. And it would be pretty hard to hide money won on national television. After the explanation, we spent most of the show waiting from the sidelines, as they ran through singing and dancing, and “name that tune” by parents and children who shared the same birthday.

Finally, it was Bigaten time. We were all lined up to face the winner of the previous segment in a 1-on-1-on-1 tournament – two Bigaten at a time versus the one earlier winner. The first pair went up, and then it was my turn. My opponent was a half-Filipina girl from Switzerland, so for our benefit, they switched to English. Our question was: Complete the line from a song – “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, love was such an easy ____ to play.” I knew the answer! It’s “Game”! Easy question. However, I was completely distracted by everything that was going on, was unsure about winning the money, and, in all honesty, was slow on the draw even if I had tried really hard. My Swiss opponent was on the ball and got her hand down immediately and went away with the P10,000.

All in all, my winnings were as follows:
· Samples of Pau liniment, Liveraide capsules, Taheebo capsules, and Fitrum capsules (all Filipino products for muscle pain, liver problems, general herbal supplements, and weight loss, respectively)
· Three low-quality water bottles with Liveraide, Taheebo, and Fitrum logos, respectively
· A Pau hat with small Wowowee logos on the side
· Fleeting fame in Manila (a few random people coming up to me and dancing out on the street, some glances on the light rail train)
· Celebrity status in my town

Hopefully we’ll be able to get a recording of the show and put some highlights on YouTube. I’ll keep you posted.

Here are some pics from the show:

Backstage, waiting for the Bigat10 game to start

The game show set-up: Hosts Mariel, Pokwang, and Valerie, the podium, and my competitors

Pre-show, hanging out on the set

David and I with one of the Wowowee dancers

Friday, November 2, 2007


The Re-launch
It's no secret that this blog has been updated very infrequently. There's a lot of reasons for that, the main one being that I hate trying to compose thoughtful posts while sitting at an internet cafe, after spending a while emailing and checking news. But, over the past two days, my friend Matt visited me on a brief side-journey from his Habitat for Humanity project in Manila, and with him came my new laptop! So now I can compose things at night, get pictures ready for uploading, and streamline the process immensely. Expect to see a lot more going up here. I've got plans for a series on transportation, a good story about my appearance on national television, and so much more. You can also expect a lot more pictures going up on Flickr. Hope you enjoy. Also, if anybody sees Clay Bennett walking around Seattle, please punch him in the face for me.
Photo: Sunset over Bio-os River