Sunday, December 30, 2012

Liquid gold

After Typhoon Pablo, there's an outpouring of support to the affected areas. Donations range from noodles, water and canned sardines to blankets, clothes, cash and medicines. And chain saws - to cut all the felled trees so that the lumber can be sold or used for rebuilding.

A young twenty-something mother and a few of her friends opt to collect another sort of relief good. These first-time mothers created an awareness and advocacy group in November to educate themselves and others about baby-wearing, cloth diapers (the enthusiasm for porte-bébés and couches lavables in la belle province has not yet spread throughout the Philippines), breast feeding and related baby matters. A natural extension of their education project is a milk letting drive.

At a milk letting drive, nursing mothers pump and donate breast milk. The set-up is similar to a blood drive:  preliminary medical screening, semi-private areas for mothers to pump milk, medical professionals who seal the collected milk in sterile milk bags, post-donation water or juice for donors. The intended recipients for this particular milk letting drive are the orphans of Typhoon Pablo in the eastern parts of Mindanao.
The organizers with their babies

The group's founder is Nadine. She's a confident, poised and educated woman. When she talks about breastfeeding, her face lights up and her voice becomes animated, drawing in the listener. She wants to pursue her passion as a professional and become a certified lactation consultant. Unfortunately, there are no such certification options available locally in CDO.

Three days after Pablo struck the Philippines, Nadine contacted the management at the Ayala Centrio Mall, the newest and trendiest of CDO's malls. They were receptive to the idea of allocating some space for the collection of this 'liquid gold for Typhoon Pablo orphans' and agreed to waive the usual exhibitor rental fee. The group is still responsible for paying for security and janitorial services.
Pay it forward CDO
Liquid gold for Typhoon Pablo orphans
(A milk letting drive)
Convincing middle class mothers at the mall to pump and donate a few ounces of breast milk is an arduous task. Nadine explains that breastfeeding is not strongly encouraged at the hospitals. Moreover, the prevalent attitude is that, for those families who can afford it, commercial formula is a desirable and maybe even preferable baby food choice. Of the nursing mothers she encounters at the mall, many decline to donate for fear they won't have enough milk for their babies. A possible, but unlikely situation.

It's a different story among women whom Nadine refers to as "marginalized". These women breastfeed. They don't need to be convinced of the benefits of nursing for mother and child. They nurse out of necessity. They nurse at home, at work, on jeepneys and non-air con buses, in churches, in carinderias (small cafeteria style eateries), in covered courts, in barangay halls, in wet and dry markets, outside roadside shops. But these women aren't at the mall.

At the end of the three day milk letting drive, Pay it forward CDO has netted just over three litres of milk and has raised an immeasurable amount of awareness. Given the limited number of eligible donors, the mall crowd's reticence to nurse and donate milk, and the minimal amount of event promotion, this is a remarkable achievement.

A laudable goal and effort by a caring group of young middle class mothers. Still, I can't help but wonder what results would a milk letting drive located outside of the mall, in a locale frequented by marginalized women, in a sitio devastated by last year's Typhoon Sendong, have yielded?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Super Typhoon Pablo/Bopha

I have a confession to make: when I decided to study environmental migration for my PhD, I only wanted to study other people's experiences, and not to experience it myself. Perhaps this desire, this sentiment makes me culpable of academic voyeurism, a fascinating subject in its own right, but not the one I want to elaborate in this post.

Here, I want to share some excerpts from my field notebook. This notebook (series of notebooks, actually) goes with me everywhere. It's where I jot down the unusual and mundane things I see, hear, taste and smell, the thoughts that run through my head, and occasionally the emotions I experience over the course of an interview, tour or other experience. The jottings are mainly descriptive. They jump around from one idea to another, often without proper segues or grammar. The field notebook is an essential research tool. It's also one of the first items that was packed in my emergency evacuation bag. 

*        *        *         *
December 4. 2012
12:35 pm 
I am lying on a dorm bed in the Marigold Hotel - ironically the very same hotel I visited last week asking to speak with management about their Typhoon Sendong experiences.

Ada is finally napping. Jacob, after a very long bout of crying, is also asleep. April is calling her husband to check if he's left their home for the safety of the Nestlé compound located on the other side of the national highway on higher ground away from the seashore. The Ates (literally 'older sisters' but used here as a term of respect for the hired help who care for April and Ejay's boys) and baby Elmer are sleeping on two single beds pushed together in the corner of the room. The three older boys are tearing up and down the halls, into and out of the room. Tito Frank is out on the balcony watching the storm.

Frank and I talked a lot about what to do yesterday. Looked up every weather website we could find. Diligently read up on typhoons. Calculated contact time with Mindanao and with CDO. Discussed the hazards most likely to affect us: typhoon, storm surge, flooding. Debated which details to divulge to our families and when to share them.

Frank cooked dinner while I packed our evacuation bags.
  •          All our medications, vitamins and first aid kit
  •           Important papers
  •           Camera and charger
  •           Field notebooks
  •           External hard drive, laptops, voltage regulator
  •           Diaper bag and toiletries
  •           Infant life jacket
  •           Baby carrier
  •           A change of clothes
  •           Some food and water

Most of the remaining non-essentials are stowed at Uncle’s two-story house next door. The stroller, shoes and car seat are placed on high shelves. Unopened cans of San Mig and Red Horse are moved to the top of the wardrobe – the last place to be flooded, should flooding occur.

He made pad thai with lemon grass and okra. It felt like our final supper. Before putting Ada to bed, I played with her, read Eric Carle stories, sang songs and cuddled. It felt like some cheesy disaster movie: young foreign couple with a baby travels to an exotic tropical country where they succumb to some inevitable misfortune. The penultimate scene before the calamity strikes captures a slice of a happy family routine.

The main event should hit around 2 pm. It's raining harder now. There are big gusts of wind. The girls I saw playing baseball on a first floor porch earlier this morning have left. The occasional cab, motorella and motorcycle drive by. Otherwise, the streets are eerily deserted. Corrugated sheet iron roofs threaten to cave in or fly off. Papaya trees bend in the wind.

We wait.

There's nothing we can do at this point. Except pray. And write. And wait. The knot in my stomach is gone. It was there yesterday afternoon and evening and night. Maybe it's time, or maybe it's the fact that we're on the fifth floor or a solidly constructed building. Or because there's nothing we can do at this point.

The boys are back in the room. They jump into and out of the wardrobe, whispering just loud enough for everyone to hear, but quiet enough for them to pretend they're quiet.
"Shhhh, they can hear you." the oldest cautions his younger brothers.
"Do you want to play outside?" asks an authoritative adult voice.

Last night was long. We drove from hotel to hotel to hotel. First, we tried the hotels on high ground near the airport: Prycegas, Korseca and Condotel. Booked solid. Then, we tried the clubhouse at Xavier Estates. It's not exactly a hotel, but it has a roof and it's located on high ground. The next option was to go downtown - lower ground but multistory buildings. Hotels were full, full, full. Finally, one with an empty dorm room.

In the room are eight single beds. Each is covered with starched white linens, not the mismatched assortment of bargain sheets that cover typical dorm beds at budget hostels. Air con. Cable t.v. Two enormous wooden wardrobes. It’s the swankiest dorm room I’ve ever entered.

It was after midnight when we finally checked in. Ada was wired. I was exhausted. Frank paced the halls with her. Brought her outside to the fire escape, but the city lights only revved her up more.

Not much sleep was had by anyone that night. The babies took turns crying. Babies sense trouble. April was constantly on her mobile, checking in with her husband, father and hired help who stayed at the compound.

I had wild dreams.

The rat. Ada wakes up crying. I reach my hand over to comfort her. A large dark rat scuttles along the bed frame in the space between Frank's mattress and mine. It dives down as I pull Ada in close. She screams. Loud. I shift again and the rat resurfaces a little farther down the bed. I silently curse dirty, grungy hotels. I pat Ada down, like in a first aid secondary survey, trying to identify where the rat has bitten her. I don’t find any blood or tender spots. She feeds then snuggles into the crook of my neck. Frank pushes our beds even closer together.

Several hours later I shift positions. Shadows dance. My hands are a puppeteer. The rat was me; my hand motions its scurrying. Daylight, even with an imminent storm, brings calm.

3:00 pm 
It's still raining - a constant, steady downpour. The eye of the storm has passed us, along with the strong winds. It's not the super-typhoon that has April on edge; it's the rain in the mountains of neighbouring Bukidnon province.  The mountains are the water catchment area for the rivers and creeks of Tablon, where we live, as well as the tributaries feeding into the Cagayan River.

An ambulance topped with a rubber boat (the white water raft kind) drives by. Sirens blare. Though huge puddles cover the roads they are still passable. Cars, vans, motorellas and taxis drive by. The visibility of the distant mountains waxes and wanes.

I am crouched in the doorway looking out onto the road, enjoying a rare cool breeze, listening to the rain. Two children dash across the street. Two people drive by on a red motorbike. The passenger holds up a purple umbrella to shelter them from the rain. Off in the distance at the unfinished Paseo Del Rio hotel is a white crane. The rain begins to let up. People begin milling around near the wall of the Capitol.

6:20 pm
Normalcy returns with surprising speed. The brown out ends. Street lights switch on. Street vendors bring out their stalls. Stores and eateries re-open. Karaoke microphones crackle.

*        *        *         *
Super-typhoon Pablo (international designation Bopha) has largely spared Cagayan de Oro City. A lucky break for one of the cities hard hit by last year’s Tropical Storm Sendong. Unfortunately, news is emerging about the devastation of Pablo on parts of Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Prycegas Marathon

'Tis December in the Philippines. A month for Christmas decorating, Christmas parties, church services, and ... running races (or at least that's what I wind up doing early December in the Philippines).
*      *        *
On December 2, 2012, Cagayan De Oro City hosted the Prycegas International Marathon - Unleash the Inner Flame. According to the race announcer, it is the "biggest race this side of the Philippines". Here's a short recap of my race.

Running in the Philippines is a challenge. It's a tropical country, so it's too hot to run anytime except dawn or dusk. In many urban areas, the pollution and traffic congestion pose additional challenges. Plus, being situated near the equator means that the sun sets by about 6pm, which makes it difficult to get home from interviews or field visits in time to run before dark.

It's the heat that determines race start time. Assembly time for the marathon was 3:30 am so that runners are ready for the 4:00 am start. I opted to run the half marathon, which had a slightly more bearable assembly time of 4:30 am. (The real reason for running the half instead of the full was the absence of any kind of structured training and the fact that the longest distance I'd run in the past year was about 15km.)

The race started and finished at the Pryce Gardens, a lovely cemetery near the airport. It's on a ridge overlooking lush green farms and forests. Beyond the winding river are plateaus with what looks like agricultural plantations. The Gardens are on the other side of town from where I live, so getting to the race on time required a 2:45 am wake-up.

Barangay Tablon, where I stay, is much, much quieter than Quezon City. The taxi drivers who eagerly offer their services to Americanos during the day are fast asleep in the city's outlying barangays at 3:15 am. I wanted to avoid paying an astronomical taxi fare, and so had asked a friend to recommend a driver. Even still, I was a tad nervous about hopping into a cab with a stranger when everyone else around me was tucked into bed. As a safety precaution, I've gotten into the habit of sending a text of the licence plate to Frank or to a friend whenever I take a taxi. Instead of the usual ok reply, I received this one:

k good luck. Ada is lying here saying mama pretty clearly, i think it's her way of wishing you luck

A good omen. I knew, despite my lack of training, that it was going to be a good run.

When the taxi pulled into the Gardens, it was still dark. The sky was clear and starry. The constellations are not the same ones that decorate the night sky in the northern hemisphere. (A star map for the Philippines is on our to-purchase list.) It was bit cool; in a singlet and shorts I was under-dressed for the pre-dawn hours. Though the air was still, I could feel the excitement.

I reached the baggage drop station a few minutes before the start of the marathon. The marathon began with the most incredible show I've seen at a race start (well, a flyby of F-16 fighter jets at the Boston marathon was pretty impressive too). Instead of a gun start, there as a fireworks show. Not just Roman candles or piddly fireworks either, but a beautiful display of lights and sounds. Set against the starry night sky, surrounded by runners and the electricity that courses through the re-race air, the show was magical.

Many road races have an official warm-up led by a dance or aerobics instructor. It's a chance to remind runners to loosen up their muscles, hydrate and listen to their bodies. The Prycegas marathon followed this tradition. Instead of hiring a deejay to spin the warm-up tracks, there was a live band playing mainly American pop songs. The band took a short break for a lively warm-up to Gangnam Style, complete with a stage full of dancers, a film crew surveying the runners and music blaring loud enough to drown out the sounds of incoming aircraft.

The 21km course starts off with a gentle downhill along the airport road, winding past expensive gated communities (advertised as "flood-proof" of real estate listings), the SM mall, the agricultural college of Xavier University, a BMW car dealership and giant tarpaulins advertising a zip-lining and white water rafting adventure company. The descent continues for several kilometers; there's a gradual shift from upscale businesses to more affordable Christian print and copy shops, sari-sari shops and fruit stalls. The route flattens out in the barangay of Carmen, one of the areas hardest hit by Typhoon Sendong (international designation Washi) last December. The course then takes runners along the national highway, past the new Centrio (Ayala) mall, the bargain Guisano mall to the turnaround point at the Limketkai mall. The return route  takes a slightly different route past the Provincial Capitol, a small tent city of Sendong survivors awaiting permanent relocation housing, regional government offices and the Paseo del Rio de Cagayan. The climb back up to Pryce Gardens felt a lot longer than it did on the way down. Maybe it's because the sun has risen...

The woman wearing the pink shirt who had been playing leapfrop with me for the past ten kilometers or so pulled away at 18km. There's no juice left in my tank to catch her, just enough to pick up the pace for a respectable 300m "sprint" to the finish line.

Back at the Gardens, c'est une véritable fête. Lots of picture-taking (including with the Americano). A photo booth with props. Sponsors displaying their products. Loud music. Very loud music.
Tasting the finisher and 10th place female medals

All in all, it was a good run. Especially because I knew my two biggest fans were cheering me on (from the comfort of their beds), and one of them saying her first word.