Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Stache Bash 2008

Peace Corps Philippines has a traditional mustache contest at mid-service training, which was a couple weeks ago in Manila. For over two months, I grew a beard out in preparation for the event. A full beard is a rare thing in the Philippines, so I drew some funny looks and stares (well, I always do, but this time I imagined that the beard had something to do with it), as well as frequent comparisons to Jesus and Santa Claus. In a clean-cut country where I already buck convention by having frequently shaggy hair, I managed to get away with it when I explained that I was preparing for a lantugi sa bungot (mustache/facial hair contest). That always managed to draw a laugh, and I continued on. Near the end, one of my friends took me aside and somberly informed me that I really needed to get a haircut and shave because I looked "like a Bigfoot." I assured him that it would be soon.

The day of the contest finally rolled around on the first night of our mid-service training. I trimmed my beard down to a handlebar stache and some furious sideburns, donned a basketball jersey, borrowed some short-shorts, and played it as an enthusiastic '70s basketball player.. and I won!

For more of the story, I invite you to check the photo album I have compiled on facebook:
THE MUSTACHE CHRONICLES - http://www.new.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2322691&l=1efb8&id=10701003

Also, another volunteer has compiled more photos, and lots of video, here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dcw7649/sets/72157607221317552

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sing us a song, you're the piano man

In a world of security guards, elevators, and No Soliciting signs, the typical American workplace is devoid of the wonderful world of traveling salesmen. Not so in the Philippines. On an almost daily basis, somebody wanders into our office selling towels, socks, foodstuffs, or something of the sort. But today was the best traveling salesman ever: he had keyboards! One out for demonstration, another good to go, still in the box. When his initial pitch wasn’t successful, he busted out some of the synthesizer buttons to show how you could make your own band. I covertly snapped a couple pictures. When he left, I couldn’t stop laughing. My coworkers asked me why I was laughing, and all I could think to say was “that’s something you’d never see in America.” I bet that someday I’ll be at work and suddenly want to buy a synthesizer keyboard on impulse. But that guy (and his 2 or 3 buddies, who were covering the town with him) will be nowhere to be found.

From L-R: Bemused, Piano Slangin', Skeptical

Walay Plastik Amlan

Americans could learn a lot about reducing waste from Filipinos. A lot of the stuff that ends up in landfills in the US is reused or recycled in numerous creative ways here. However, one glaring problem in the Philippines is plastic. While many countries and cities across the world are moving to ban plastic, or at least charge extra for plastic bags, I’ve had a large number of awkward interactions with cashiers here who are trying to put my purchases in plastic, no matter how unnecessary. Our mayor and I talked about ways of reducing plastic use in our town. The last thing I want is another well-written and well-intentioned law that doesn’t get enforced, though. Instead, this great program called Walay Plastik Amlan has been started (meaning “no plastic Amlan”).

It works like this. Many people in our town buy rice subsidized by the National Food Authority (NFA) for P18.25/kilo (as opposed to up to P40/kilo for commercial rice). The rice comes in these giant 50-kilo bags, but families must queue up for the rice, and can only buy 5 kilos every week at the subsidized rate. When the rice sacks are empty, the municipality gives them to a few different groups in town, including the group of fisher folk women that I have been working with on my recycled products. From each sack, two smaller bags with handles, capable of carrying 5 kilos, can be sewn. The municipality pays the women 5 pesos for each bag that’s made. Then municipal employees screenprint the bags with the Walay Plastik Amlan logo.

Now, when people go to buy the NFA rice, it comes in these hand-sewn, reusable bags instead of in plastic bags. Those buying the rice pay 5 pesos for the sack, which they can then bring back every week to purchase rice. Thus, the municipality can recoup the money invested in getting the bags made, and only has to pay for the labor and materials involved in screenprinting, and whatever time the employees spend organizing the program. Rice sacks are reused, many thousands of plastic bags are saved, and many families have a supplemental means of income. We’re hoping to expand it beyond the purchase of rice to fish and vegetables at the market, and eventually everywhere, so that people in the town use as little plastic as possible.

Do you want a bag? Let me know and I’ll try to get you one. Especially if you live in the Philippines!

Daghang Dap-ag (Lots of Crown-of-Thorns Starfish)

Crown-of-Thorns Starfish are a cool looking, but very destructive part of the coral reef ecosystem. In the past few decades, their population has exploded. Reasons are not fully known, but it’s likely that human activity has been a large factor. This is a problem because the starfish eat corals and can destroy entire reefs if they go unchecked – the coral reef being the basis for the entire local marine ecosystem. A couple months ago the population started increasing in our Tandayag Marine Sanctuary, so we recently had a underwater cleanup and dap-ag removal with the Bantay Dagat. We armed ourselves with snorkels and sharpened bamboo sticks and went hunting. You have to be really careful because the dap-ag are poisonous, so you must avoid getting stung. In places with lots of extra money to kick around, like Australia, divers are hired to inject poison into the starfish, which is probably the most effective means of getting rid of them. However, if you’re not poisoning them, you have to remove them entirely from the water, which is what we did. After an hour of so scouring the reef for every last one (we undoubtedly missed some, they like to hide in the nooks and crannies of corals), we had a couple hundred in the boat. To prevent them from going back to the water, we buried them in a mass grave on the beach. And our reef is safe from this particular threat for the time being.

Adam loading up the basin with starfish from the boat (click images to see larger sizes)

Mga dap-ag

The Bantay Dagat crew and the beach burial

2nd Round Knockout

My friend Britt and I headed over to Cebu City to meet up with Jon and attend a boxing match. Boxing is a national sport here. While it’s not the highest in participation (that goes to basketball), it’s the most popular spectator sport, especially when Manny Pacquiao is fighting. Pac-Man wasn’t involved in this fight – he only fights in Las Vegas now (Oscar De La Hoya is next!) – but one of the more popular Pinoy boxers, Rey “Boom Boom” Bautista, was set to defend his WBO crown. I’d never been to a match before and didn’t know if I’d ever have the chance to go to another high profile event again.

The event took place at the super-swanky Waterfront Hotel and Casino, which is actually at least 5 km from the water. We got there about halfway through the undercard bouts and bought tickets in the medium range, for about $12. The ring was set up in a huge ballroom with a balcony, and our seats were on the floor decently close to the canvas. We spent the first couple fights wondering what made the “piff” noise when punches were thrown and enjoying the action. It was all Pinoy-vs-Pinoy until the three biggest fights. First a non-title bout was fought between a Filipino and a Thai, who looked like he was trying to be Tony Jaa. But Ong-Bak doesn’t work when you’re boxing, and he left himself open to numerous head jabs. The Filipino won.

Next, there was a title match between 105-pounders. The Pinoy title holder, Donnie Nietes, took on an overmatched Nicaraguan and knocked him out in the second round. Finally, Boom Boom was up. His opponent was a Mexican, Eden Marquez, who had been talking a good deal of trash before the fight, even “declaring war” on the Philippines. Boom Boom hasn’t been without his struggles – a promising fighter with strong knockout power, he’s compiled a very good record, but had an embarrassing first round knockout against a different Mexican less than a year ago, and has had to redouble his efforts. The first round, he just danced around the ring and only threw a few punches, letting Marquez tire himself out. Then, in the second round, he pounced and knocked him out in less than a minute. A long trip from Mexico for less than 4 minutes of action!


We hollered and jumped and celebrated with the rest of the crowd, proud that Boom Boom had easily disposed of his opponent and represented the Visayas well in retaining his WBO 122-lb crown. The best part was probably the post-fight interview, where a Filipina reporter from Manila was asking questions in Tagalog. Boom Boom understood her questions, but requested to just respond in Cebuano. The crowd loved it! I’ve possibly never felt so culturally integrated and proud to be an adopted Visayan, laughing along with the crowd as we all understood Boom Boom’s responses while the flustered Tagalog-speaking reporter tried her best to figure out what he was saying.

Three happy Visayans.. guess who didn't enter the mustache contest? (Me, Jon, Britt)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

International Coastal Cleanup - Sept. 20

A friendly reminder to all, no matter where you're reading from, that the International Coastal Cleanup will be taking place on (and around) Sept. 20. Especially for all my Washingtonian and Californian readers, I'm sure there are some events going on. Not to mention the Philippines, which will also have a ton.

For more information, please check out The Ocean Conservancy's Website -- you can sign up to join a cleanup, or learn how to host one of your own.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Next High-Profile Visitor: Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter

The high-profile visitors just keep on coming! Last week, the director of the entire Peace Corps, Ron Tschetter, came and visited my site, along with his wife Nancy (they served together in India in the '60s), an assistant, our new Philippines country director, and a few other staff. We followed a similar schedule as the Ambassador’s visit, but in reverse, and more low-key. The party arrived at 5 pm and went directly to the marine sanctuary, where the Mayor and I explained about our CRM program and showed some underwater footage. Then we headed to the municipal hall for some snacks and a further explanation of some of the projects I’m working on. There were some new products to show off from the recycled goods livelihood project, and they went over well. I’d pre-purchased a couple of them to give away as gifts, but they were so enthused that they bought all the rest of them and refused any change in return, donating it to the group.

This provided for a good cultural teaching moment once everybody had left. Some of the municipal staff was a bit aghast that I’d actually accepted their money for the products. (I’m acting as the treasurer for the group right now.) They wouldn’t dream of accepting payment for something like that from visitors. But I explained that, as Americans, I understood that they would want to pay, and would in fact feel better if they had paid, rather than accepted all of them as donations. In this way, we feel like we are helping out and supporting a worthwhile project.

The next day, I went down to Dumaguete and met with the other volunteers from Negros and Siquijor for a lunch with Mr. Tschetter and the whole gang. We feasted on a mixture of Filipino and Western dishes at a nice restaurant and everybody got to hear from him and share some stories. It was a pretty cool deal. Certainly a percentage of PCV’s get to meet the Director while they are serving, but it’s definitely not the majority, and even fewer are lucky enough to have a personal site visit.

My camera was the back-up during the proceedings, so I don’t have the best pictures right now. Hopefully I’ll be getting copies of other pictures soon.

Introduction at the marine sanctuary (L-R: Nancy Tschetter, Ron Tschetter, PC/Phils Country Director Sonia Derenoncourt, PC Staff Kavita Pulapilly, Me, Mayor Bentham De la Cruz)

Breaking down the finer points of marine sanctuaries while showing some underwater footage

A pose with the Bantay Dagat (Coast Guard) members (L-R: Ron Tschetter, Sonia Derenoncourt, me, Joel, Adam, Anton, [forget name!], Rogelio, [forget name!], Oliver, and Mayor)