Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hospitality of Friends on Dinagat Island

Our flight from Silay-Bacolod, Negros Island, was preparing for take off to Saragao City, on northern Mindanao Island, Philippines, when we got the second text on our cell phone, “My cousin Ding-Ding will meet you at the Gateway Hotel.” The first text had been, “a cousin has reserved the Gateway Hotel for you in Saragao City.” We knew we were in for hospitality and would go along for the adventure. Sure enough, the next morning a middle aged woman walked into the Gateway Hotel lobby and swept us away in a motorized tricycle to the Dinagat Island ferry. Shirley, nicknamed Ding-Ding, had caught the ferry from her home town of Loreto, Dinagat Island at 4:30 am that morning and made the four hour crossing to Saragao City just to collect Michael and me. We stopped by a market on the way to the ferry dock to buy fruit--mangoes my favorite!- for the four hour trip back. The ferry boat was a long wooden double outrigger with a diesel engine. Two covered compartments for 180 passengers were lined with wooden slat benches. Open windows providing natural air conditioning on each side of the ferry could be closed against sea spray by sliding wooden boards closed. Cargo of steel rebar, and other construction material was loaded onto the side outside boards. Two massive logs, the length of the ferry, were braced to opposite sides as outriggers to stabilize the boat in rougher water. Our crossing was smooth across passages and along steep rocks that plunged into the sea on the edge of various islands that we passed on the way to Dinagat Island.

Arriving in Loreto, Fely, Shirley’s cousin, met us with a foot pedaled tricycle for our luggage. A short trip into town, we were taken to the Tourist Guest House, next door to Shirley’s mom’s house, where a room had been reserved. All of this generous treatment came about from Nonoy Cacayan, our friend in Davao City who had made the arrangements with his friends Shirley and Fely when he found out by email that before coming to visit him, we wanted to spend some time on Siargao Island. He thought we would like a detour to Dinagat Island and initiated the actions of Shirley and Fely.

For the next four days Shirley and Fely were constant companions, striving to make sure we were comfortable, fed and that we saw different parts of Dinagat Island. One night we stayed in a municipal guest house at Black Beach, 16 kilometers down the rocky coast road from Loreto. The beach is well known on Dinagat for a landing of Mac Arthur’s troops in 1944, before the more famous landing in Leyete, to begin driving the Japanese occupiers from the Philippines. Two habal-habals-motorcycle taxis- took all four of us, plus Charne, a young man motor cycle driver who also stayed with us. Standing on the beach, with a coral reef just off shore for snorkeling fun, I tried to imagine the beach when the troop ships landed and anxious soldiers splashed through the surf to the palm treed shoreline alert for Japanese fire. Although they probably knew from Filipino guerilla fighters that the enemy was down the coastline several kilometers it must have been frightening to land on a strange island. Shirley said that all of Dinagat residents hid in the hills while the Japanese occupied the island and many became guerilla fighters willing to help the Americans when Mac Arthur fulfilled his famous promise of “I shall return,” following the disaster at Corregidor.

Lunch and dinner miraculously arrived on other habal-habals, pre-arranged by Shirley. Fried fish, fired pork bits, lots of plain rice, a vegetable dish of carrots and ube, a purple root and tomatoes. Dinner was augmented by a two foot long dog-so fish that a local fisherman presented for sale to us. Women at the guest house cooked the dense white meat several ways, including a ceviche type of dish made with coconut vinegar and ginger. Delicious.

Some of our meals were taken in the house of Shirley’s mother, Carolina, a feisty widow who went to school for the first time when her children were also in grade school since she had been denied that right by parents who didn’t believe in educating girls. Her husband had constructed their home with beautiful mahogany plank floors. The nipa (palm thatched) roof covered one large room partitioned off into two bedrooms, the rest of the open area a kitchen, work room, washing and toilet area, sala and eating area. The focus of the sala was a constantly on TV that mesmerized various grandchildren and neighborhood children who dropped by. In her younger days, Carolina sewed clothes for income on her old foot pedal sewing machine standing in the work room. A rice farm where they used to live is rented out to another farmer that supplies her with a portion of their crop as payment. One evening she pulled out a small supply of precious “black rice” to treat us at dinner.

Fely wanted to show us her barangy, or neighborhood, of about 1,000 residents, where she is the kapitan. As an elected official, she has a budget of about 700,000 pesos to use for community needs. By habal-habal we traveled over a rocky dirt road up and over steep hills to the other side of Dinagat to Mabini, a barangy of the coastal town of Tubjon. Mabini is a farming community in the hills, surrounded by rice fields. The income of residents is from farming and copra, dried coconut. In addition to being kapitan, Fely is also the head of a peoples’ organization, Alagad kalambuan ug kingaiyahan Inc. or AKKI for short. She and Shirley are organizing 20 other women to hand make paper to sell, starting with stationary then moving into lamp shades. They will take a class this March on how to make paper and market it.

Fely took us first to her house in Mabini. Though simpler than Carolina’s, Fely’s house is also a gathering place for family. Fely’s wheel chair bound mother, an older aunt, nieces and nephews sat around in the sala, with the TV on. We chatted for awhile in broken English and Visayan, with some sentences translated for us. Laughter swelled when auntie’s was translated, “she thinks you have big noses.”

Fely took us to the high school that she started 5 years ago. The yellow concrete block compound sits on a cleared hill top on the outskirts of Mabini. The school site overlooks a hill side that AKKI attempted to replant with native trees sometime ago, but lost all work due to a forest fire. Their small hydro project built with the assistance of Yamog, Nonoy Cacayan’s organization, no longer works either, due to a drying up of the stream by an upstream chromium mine. Dinagat’s landscape is scraped in a large number of places by chromium and nickel mines, a sign of the corruption in the Philippine government with foreign companies extracting resources from outlying islands from Luzon that have little economic or political power. Still, Fely is not deterred in her attempts to make improvements for the people of Mabini. She left for Saragao City a day ahead of us for a class on refrigeration, since she applied for and won a small refrigeration system for Mabini farmers to store fish and vegetable products for sale. Her hope is that they can hold their products for better prices, in the fluctuating market. The refrigeration system was to be delivered to Mabini this week.

On our last day on Dinagat, we took habal-habals to Esperanza Spring, a fresh water swimming park owned by the Loreto Municipality. The water was clear and refreshing. At 3:30 am on the very last day in Loreto, we were outside Shirley’s house with our luggage ready for the ferry to take us back to Saragao City and onto Siarago Island where we plan a two week flop vacation. Shirley insisted on escorting us to Siarago Island. Then to surprise us, Fely, with another cousin met us at the Dinagat ferry for the transfer to the Siaragao Island ferry. Now we know the power of respect that Fely and Shirley have for Nonoy Cacayan, to respond valiantly to his request to take care of his friends Michael and Francie from Green Empowerment. It’s a really nice feeling, even if a little embarrassing for all the trouble that they went to in taking care of us.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hearing the Sound of Clean Water Delivery to Anangue

We climbed into the back of the Suzuki four wheel and opened the windows for air conditioning. Sweat was already dripping down my back after walking out of shade of AIDFI’s workshop and café. Auki and Liloy were taking Michael, my husband and me to the village of Anangue, about 20 kilometers away, towards the center of Negros Island on the shoulder of Mt. Mandalagan. Liloy, our driver and community organizer for the Anangue sitio ram pump project, that we were on our way to visit, picked his way carefully along on a rock rutted road, while we bounced and jarred our teeth. Once the “road” played out, we climbed out and started walking up a narrow rut track to Anangue. We came to a house set on the hill above the rut track and stopped for a chat. One man was chopping a red log with his machete attempting to spit it. I stared aghast thinking he would surely chop off his foot. Several other people stood around offering supervisory suggestions and joking with Auki and Liloy. The four of us moved on up the hill and came to a man loading up vegetables for market on a simple homemade wooden cart pulled by a carabao, the Filipino water buffalo beast of burden. A farm to market truck would be coming tomorrow where the road ended. The cart was made of split wood, long and narrow to fit along the rutted track we walked up. The rims of wood disc wheels were covered in old tire rubber strips. Further up we came upon children who would stick their head up and through the bamboo fencing around house yards, curious of the strangers walking in their village. Auki and Liloy greeted them in Ilocano, the local language.

The first household had complained that the water was not reaching their stand pipe, only a trickle by 9:00 in the morning. Auki and Liloy suspected that someone was diverting water intended for all 45 households, so we walked along looking to see where that might be happening. Liloy was going to need to call a water committee meeting to go over the water policy again, to make sure that all in the village got their share of water. Each household pays 20 pesos a month for a quantity of water.

Sweaty young men stripped to their waists, their shirts tied onto their heads for sun protection, slashed sugar cane for the harvest. One young man stopped to chat, Auki and Liloy joking easily with him. I stared at the young skinny farmer marveling at how strong he must be to slash the cane with his machete and stack the stalks all day.

Small vegetable plots were planted in the cleared side yards of houses, and a few houses had big leafy shady arbors surrounding their houses. Only the pale green squash hanging down gave away that the arbors weren’t grapes. We passed another wooden cart piled high with vegetable for market. The picture was getting clearer of how the water was being used.

At the top of a steep slope, we looked down into a narrow canyon of green and heard the rhythmic metallic clank, clank, clank of the ram pump below. Auki smiled; that sound was music to his ears. I followed the men down the steep hill, slipping occasionally, but catching myself on palm fronds. At the bottom a beautiful stream flowed from an abundant spring down the canyon. The ram pump system diverted some of the flow in a pipe set up for a drop to two blue ram pumps that raised 32,000 liters a day of the precious water up hill 90 meters to a tank for distribution to the community stand pipes. All was functioning well, so Auki and Liloy knew that the supply of water was not the problem down the way. Auki explained that when Green Empowerment staff Jason Selwitz and Northwestern University students arrived next June, they would be helping to install more ram pumps in the same location to serve Tres Hermanos, another village above on the hillside.

As I climbed back up the canyon wall, using my hands to pull me up the next step, I mused how different life in the village for the children and women must be without having to make this climb twice a day for water to drink and bathe.

Later, as we stood and listened to women chatting with Auki and Liloy, then visiting with Roger, the water committee secretary, over instant coffee in his house, we picked up that the greater number of vegetables that the farmers are now growing could be the source of less water making it to the last stand pipe. Roger talked about what was different from before without water, “…being able to raise pigs, and children being able to bathe before school.” The water committee is already talking about using some of their extra funds to buy piglets, rotating a starter stock for households to begin raising pigs, another source of protein and cash.

As we walked back by down the rutted track, we mused out loud about the surprising things we learn from people who tell us what is important about having clean water in their community. When the children had to walk down the canyon hill to collect water, it was too precious a commodity to bathe in before school. Now they can go to school clean, reducing the number of skin ailments. Auki talked about how Liloy would attend a community meeting next Monday so they could talk about scheduling water so all get their share. I am excited about the Northwestern student coming and learning from these hard working farmers and installing more ram pumps to deliver clean water to Tres Hermanos.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentine's Day and the Year of the Tiger in Manila

Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year fall on the same day this year, when we move into the year of the Tiger. Here in Manila, teenaged Philippine Chinese dance teams writhe with rhythm and a dragon’s head around a shopping mall. In the street below our hotel, the drum beat accompaniment for another dragon dance ends in loud explosions of fireworks. In the evening we walk down the street to the posh Makati Shangri-La Manila Hotel to sit in the lobby and watch St. Valentine celebrators decked out in red dresses or red ties, sip drinks and enjoy an orchestra, also dressed in red, play American romantic love songs. Arriving celebrants pose for photos in front of a giant flower sculpture resembling Tony the Tiger in marigolds, before moving past the entry way into the hotel. A number of couples come with children in tow, some with nannies, all celebrating St. Valentine and the Tiger.

Further along Makati Avenue at the Peninsula Manila Hotel, a huge topiary of red roses greets guests in the lobby once a security guard swipes them with a wand and they’re given the once over by armed guards and a sniff by K-9 unit dogs. Guests enter through the same glass doors that the Philippine Army ran a tank through to end a protest by opposition leaders in November 2007. That was the last time I was in the Philippines and I and others stared at TV as a broadcast camera abandoned by smoke bombed and arrested journalists continued to relay the stunning scene to a national audience.

In the days leading up February 14, stores displayed Valentine gifts and banner reminders to buy something for your sweetheart. We could tell it was going to be a big deal. On the following afternoon a dozen red bras and red panties hang out as laundry to dry from a window slit behind a strip club in the alley street down from our hotel.

SIBAT Friends and Their Organic Farm

Landing in Manila on February 11, after a 22 hour trip from Portland, to LA then through Seoul, Korea, we headed to our Quezon City hotel, the Fersal Inn, for a nap. A basket of sweet yellow mangoes, a bunch of bananas, raw sugar and a jar of honey sent by Shen Maglinte of SIBAT, a Green Empowerment partner, surprised us at hotel reception.

The next day we met our friends from SIBAT for lunch at a near-by restaurant, The Tree House. Shen had ordered in advance, so as soon as we sat down, the food started coming. Tilapia, milk fish, sautéed greens in oyster sauce topped with tofu, stuffed lettuce rolls, roasted chicken, hot and sour flavored soup, and on it came. After a filling lunch, we all loaded into tricycles for a short ride to the SIBAT office to meet Ileene the marketing manager of the SIBAT organic foods store and for Michael to begin his interviews with Executive Director Vicki Lopez.

The next afternoon the SIBAT driver picked us up and after collecting Ileene and Vicki, then Vicki’s friends all on slower-than-planned Filipino time, we headed two hours north to TarLac to visit the SIBAT organic farm.

It was past sundown when workers at the farm greeted us with boiled cassava, (filling) and lemon grass tea (refreshing) as we chatted and got to know Vicki’s friends. Back into the van, we headed out to dinner. We were the only customers at The May Farm Restaurant, whose menu heralded organic vegetables and rare meats. Mounted on the wall, heads of small deer looked down on our table and an array of photos showed off the hunting prowess of the owner and his son. One was a photo of a younger man carrying a hoary wild boar on his back with blood dripping down his legs. A brief allusion to the mysterious death of the owner and his son and suggestion of a political murder added to the hunter’s mystic and the weirdness of the restaurant. The soup was tasty, though.

Back at the farm---- Raised beds are planted with a wide variety of rotated crops of leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables. Deep purple egg plants hang from their plants ready to harvest. Farm workers make sure there is enough harvest each week to provision the small organic food store in Quezon City. The farm is a teaching opportunity for surrounding farmers to learn sustainable agriculture. SIBAT’s goal is to teach the teachers to help farmers learn how to farm sustainably, without being dependent on commercial seed and fertilizers.

The main farm building is built of decorative woven palm panels over bamboo poles with a palm thatch roof. We slept soundly on a foam pad laid out under mosquito netting on a split bamboo floor. Roosters all over the country side competing with each other woke us before dawn, early enough to sit outside and watch sunlight creep over the green rice fields of the adjacent farm, shining on the farmer who was already working in his field. A farm worker showed me where hot cups of coffee sat on a counter waiting for takers. The coffee was thick and sweetened with raw sugar. After daylight I found three gently curled, soft downy feathers lying on top of our mosquito netting. Rooster noise woke us but the sparrow flying through our bedroom didn’t.