Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gusto kong tumakbo (I like to run)

There's a shoe-box sized running store a few blocks from my place. I discovered it a few nights after moving in and spent an hour talking shop with the sole employee there. Apparently running is the latest fitness craze in the Philippines, which would partially explain the popularity of the new two kilometer fitness oval at the UP campus. (Another explanation is that it's one of the few places with shade and limited vehicle traffic.) The sport is still in its infancy and not especially competitive.

An early morning run is part of my daily routine (as is the washing of my running shorts, sports bra, singlet and socks in the shower afterwards).  For me, running also a way of staying grounded and physically and mentally healthy. As I visit different parts of the country, my running shoes have and will continue to come with me. Running is such a wonderful way to meet new people and to explore new places (so long as you're carrying money, ID and a mobile phone when venturing out in new locales).

*    *    *

I ran a 10km fundraiser race for UP varsity athletes on Sunday morning. Races here start very early; start time was scheduled for 6:00am sharp (which turned out to be 6:30am). Even at this early hour, it's hot and humid. The race atmosphere was familiar: pop music blaring, inflatable start and finish line, vendor tents, race volunteers sporting bright t-shirts, nervous runners milling about and stretching. The enthusiasm was contagious. It was great to talk with other runners about upcoming races and places to train.

As the only non-Filipino, I stuck out like a sore thumb. As one of the few experienced runners, I stuck out even more. Curious, excited onlookers cheered us on all along the 5km loop. There were lots of "go ma'am" shouts of support. I ran a decent but not especially fast race (40:52ish) to finish second overall and first female. Instead of medals or ribbons we were given gift certificates for foot massages and fast food!

*    *    *

There's a marathon in Quezon City on December 5th, the day before I return to Canada. I'm tempted to run it.

For more info about running in the Philippines, visit:

The Gravol Road to Quezon

Never underestimate the importance of good roads.

In developed countries, it's easy to take for granted our (relatively) direct and well-maintained roads and transportation infrastructure. We fume about seemingly endless road maintenance projects, complain when the car in front of us is driving the speed limit (or slower) and groan about the circuitous routes we take to get from point A to point B.

In developing countries, roads are a whole other story. The major roads are often financed and designed by a colonizing country, whose main interests are to ship primary resources out of the country, and to acquire new markets for its finished products. Such interests don't lend themselves to transportation infrastructure that connects communities or routes critical to the local inhabitants. Even after the former colonies gained independence, road construction favouring the flow of internationally marketable goods has continued to be a popular "development project" (or as one Filipina called it in her activist days "development aggression").

So it was not unexpected that a 140km journey from Manila to Quezon province Monday afternoon took over six hours.

This week, my quest to visit many communities impacted by environmental crises took me to Infanta, Quezon. At the invitation of a geography professor, I was to observe a technical meeting on forest land use planning and visit some resettlement communities in the area. Quezon province is located on the eastern coast of Luzon, and home to many farmers and fishers. The climate is rainier and slightly cooler than Metro Manila. Quezon's coastal areas are hit by about about half the typhoons that reach land in the Philippines. On 29 November 2004, three municipalities - Infanta, General Nakar and Real - were devastated by flash flooding and landslides brought about by a super typhoon. (More about the people and the disaster in a later post).

Sitting next to a geographer is an excellent way to learn about the landscape and the history of an area. After emerging from stop-and-go Manila traffic, the bus travels though Marikini, a part of Metro Manila hit hard by Typhoon Ondoy. At this time last year, one-story homes and businesses were completely submerged. Now, the area is completely rebuilt with attractive multi-story buildings advertising "flood-free apartments".

Antipolo City is the next major site. It's a city of rolling hills and religious retreats (much of the land was once owned by the Jesuits). It's a popular destination for Manila-based cycling enthusiasts. The view from the city overlooks Laguna Lake. It's beautiful. The sun is setting as we make our way around the lake. Lights dotting the mountains at the far shore look oddly like lights on a ski hill. The background makes me think I'm driving back from the Laurentians; the bamboo and palm trees in the foreground seem out-of-place.

Over the next few hours, our route snakes up, down and around mountains. We stop at many of the small villages lining the road. Passengers dismount. Many of them have brought large packages of goods purchased in Manila to sell at their Sari-Sari shops. Bus tickets are much cheaper than renting a car, and much more reliable than sending things by mail. Short concrete barriers hug the road, protecting vehicles from falling down into steep ravines. Every tenth barrier is inscribed with the initials of the former governor, a not-so-subtle reminder that regional development is linked with election results.

While my eyes drink up the view, my stomach is barely hanging on. The winding road, the constant up and down, the sporadic weaving to avoid police checkpoints and chickens, and the lurching and sudden breaking for speed bumps and random patches of gravel are not particularly friendly to one prone to motion sickness. It's eerily reminiscent of my vain attempts to gain sea legs aboard the Concordia. I can taste ginger candies, 7-Up and soda crackers. Even with a Gravol, the remaining hours pass slowly and painfully.

* * *

In anticipation of a rough return trip back to Manila Wednesday night, I start the trip with a Gravol. The smaller vehicle (a van), however, is not kind and I join the leagues of travelers who swear off long-distance travel in public vehicles. I know already that this is one promise I won't keep.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A 'new' pair of pink capris

This evening, I set out with the intention of buying some steamed "sweet Japanese corn" (similar to Canadian corn on the cob) and some greens to round out a planned omelette dinner. During daylight hours the nearby streets teem with nomadic vendors and sari sari stores (small kiosks). Unfortunately, the vendors had packed away their wares by the time I managed to slip outside, around 7pm. Apart from small roadside restaurants, the only store still open was a secondhand clothing store.

Knowing that I would be toting my possessions around with me (at least initially), I had brought a minimal amount of clothing with me. Some of the clothing I brought isn't particularly useful; the two pairs of pants (light jeans) I brought are too heavy and hot to wear, except in Air Con buses (that are so cold the locals wear toques). So I figured a shopping spree was in order.

There are two main options for buying clothes here in the Philippines. Option 1: shop at one of the infamous gigantic malls (more about Filipino mall culture in a later post). Option 2: visit a sari sari store selling secondhand clothing. Option 2 beckoned.

In developing countries the resale of used clothing is a big business, often to the detriment of local tailors and the supporting cottage industries. The secondhand clothing that doesn't sell in friperies and other secondhand shops in Canada, the US, Europe and other Northern countries is shipped to developing countries, where it is either given or sold for a pittance to aspiring entrepreneurs (or the recipients of a livelihoods aid project). In Kenya, I saw a man wearing a "Jeux de Québec" hoodie identical to the one I got back in the mid 1990s. In Ghana, teens sported soccer jerseys emblazoned with "Lac St Louis" and "Oakville".

The shop is the size of an economy double dorm room. Western-style jeans, t-shirts, shorts, skirts and dresses fill every nook and cranny. A colourful mix of shift dresses, frilly skirts and tank tops lie in two bins marked "Sale P35". (P40 is roughly Can$1.) A young girl and four women chatted in Tagalog while trying on tops and skirts over their clothes.

Shopping at a secondhand clothing store in UP Village
I found myself in an unusual situation (for me). Given that I'm most comfortable clad in running attire, I was taken aback when a forty-something Filipina woman ask for fashion advice. After discussing at length where a dress seam should fall, I steered the conversation to more serious matters. She offered some ideas on possible case studies for my research, and suggested some agencies that might keep relevant statistics on migrants.

It's amazing where one can find leads. One of the most fruitful research techniques is to ask for help, and to tell people what you intend to do (in accessible language). It sounds so simple and amateurish, but it's very effective at opening doors.

I never did get the corn and greens. Instead, I became the proud owner of a pair of pale pink capris.

* * *

Post-script. If you feel so inclined, please share your thoughts on buying secondhand clothing in developing countries. I'm curious to hear what environmental, social, economic, cultural and other arguments you put forth.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Home sweet home

It's been nearly two weeks since I arrived in the Philippines. Adjusting to life away from home, as I've found in my earlier travels, takes time and can be an emotional roller coaster. Allow me to explain.

The first days away from home are always tough. It's not the jet lag, the oppressive heat, new food or strange bed. It's nothing physical that I can control, although I experience the effects physically. It's a malaise, an unsettled feeling, a pit in the stomach, a loneliness that comes out at night - like the monsters living under your childhood bed. It usually stays around until I've found a "home", or at least a place where I'm not living out of a suitcase. It's not the same as a backpacking trip or a vacation where you're expecting uncertainty. Knowing that my Mastercard can bail me out at any time doesn't help. The hostel where you spend the first night or two just doesn't cut it. Although I've come to expect this malaise, it always hits me like a ton of bricks.

So the first order of business was finding a home.

Luckily, there are a number of students and professors at the University of Montreal, where I doing doctoral studies, who were/are doing work in the Philippines. One of my classmates was absolutely wonderful - meeting me at the airport, helping to navigate buses, jeepneys and tricycles (more about transport in a later post), sharing his extensive list of contacts, introducing me to great venues for food, and most importantly at the time, helping me house-hunt. Another prof from the political science department is here with his family for a year as a visiting fellow at the Third World Studies Centre at UP (University of the Philippines). They also sent a shout-out to their contacts, and have been very welcoming and helpful in getting me started.

Within two days, I had signed a lease as a "lady bedspacer" on Mayumi Street in Quezon City. The women's boarding house is pretty basic - shared rooms with bunk beds, tiny kitchen with a 2-burner gas stove, small fridge, shared toilets and showers. There's no air conditioning (or Air Con as it is called here), so the place gets very hot during the day. The eight other women who live here are young college students or recent graduates. The UP campus is nearby, which has several advantages (the top two being that there is a 2km shaded running loop - pretty much the only place to escape the pollution in the city, and that many of the people with whom I'll be working are based there). The street names in the neighbourhood are Tagalog (Filipino) adjectives. "Mayumi" means "modest". Other streets have racier names - "maalindog", for instance, means "sex appeal".
As my life here slips into a (somewhat irregular) routine, I'll continue to think about the malaise of not having a home and what it means. The subjects of my proposed research - environmental refugees - may live with such malaise, amplified many times over. Leaving their land, their livelihood and possibly family members. And they probably don't have a credit card to bail them out.