The Steelers lost the Super Bowl yesterday and I don’t feel empty inside. This is strange.
Used to be, they lost a regular season game and I was pissed off the rest of the day. Lose a playoff game and I’m out for a week. I’m still pissed off – you’ve gotta make that throw to an open Wallace in stride, Ben – but I’d say my day was only really dark for about 15 minutes yesterday. Then I moved on.
What the hell happened to me?
I’ve always liked the communal aspect of sports. The ritual of Sundays spent with friends and football, the chaos of a Friday night in a sports bar, the obsession with trivial statistics and facts (Quick, where’d Phil Simms go to college? Morehead State.). Even using ‘we’ when talking about your favorite team. There’s a fair amount of literature comparing the ritual of sports to that of religion, and I’ve tend to agree with it. Hail Marys, Immaculate Receptions, The Church of Football and all that shit. Does that mean Franco Harris is as important to me as Moses? Maybe.
The Steelers always took it to a different level. I passionately cared about whether the guys in black and gold won or lost. The result was the important part. That, apparently, isn’t the case anymore. Watching the game was important to me because I know that simultaneously, my sister and her husband were eating nachos in Pennsylvania, my parents were at a sports bar in South Carolina, my grandpa was shaking his head and muttering “Jesus Christ” in his basement in Pittsburgh, my best friends were disgusted by the mistakes of both teams. I’ve been in the Philippines for a year and a half and stayed in minimal contact with most people from home, yet I can probably accurately guess what almost everyone I know was doing during the Super Bowl yesterday. There’s no other time I can say that.
Ultimately, whether the Steelers won or lost wasn’t the important part. I would’ve been a hell of a lot happier had they won. But for a few hours, I experienced the highs and lows of a close game with everyone I know, remembered all the other close games we watched together (here’s looking at your performance in the last Pats Super Bowl, Josh), and I could almost taste the Yuengling and chicken wings.
I pray because the connection to other Jews who utter the same words is important to me, not because I think everything hinges on the words. I guess I follow the Steelers so closely for the same reason. Regardless of where I am, I’ve got Steelers Nation and Hebrew Nation(al) and, strange as this may sound to non-sports fans, they’re both damn important parts of my identity.
Now, a side note to a certain demographic of older, white American males traveling abroad:
I understand that you’re trying to reclaim your youth. You want to stay out at bars all night and pick up girls and indulge in the hedonism that you’ve somehow come to associate with youth. I get it, I do. That’s probably why you deigned to visit a third world country in the first place. But your constant attempts at jokes about blowjobs and ‘coconut cracking legs’ are unbecoming. As are the sweeping comments on race you seem to find so insightful. Filipino waiters are not nine-years-old. Stop patting them on the head and talking to them as though they are. These things make me angry. Please, desist. Go home to your families.
As I walked away from the game yesterday, angry at the Ugly Americans and the game itself, I remembered a line from the new Tron and it made me smile. That’s when I realized that we would all, indeed, survive a Steelers defeat. You’re really killing my Zen, man.
I owe you an apology. We’ve spent a lot of time together lately, you and I. There were your usual signs of affection – char marks on every napkin I wipe my nose with, money that mysteriously disappears, street kids that simultaneously break and uplift my heart with their smiles – but something else has developed between us. Something a little more serious, a little more sincere.
I judged you quickly when I got to the Philippines. You were big and crowded and scary and dirty – Jesus, your filth – and it seemed like every part of you was broken. The breeze from your bay carries a stench unlike anything I’ve come across before. Your sidewalks were crowded with poverty and depression. Your malls harbored prostitutes and an affluence (or illusion thereof) that still makes me uncomfortable. Your taxi drivers seemed like they always wanted to rip me off. Jeepney drivers yelled at me. It seemed like the city was always yelling at me.
So I hid myself from you. I hid in the Pension, venturing out only for beer and food, which I promptly brought back to its comforting warmth. We went on this way for a year. Co-existing, sort of, during my intermittent trips south. You kept shouting, trying to get my attention, and I kept blocking out the noise. Even when I visited you, it was as though I wasn’t really there. We’d awkwardly bump into each other, briefly, at a bar or a hooka joint, but then I’d go back to ignoring you as best I could. You intimidated me, Manila.
But things have changed, recently. I started paying attention to the pieces that create the cacophony that is you, feeling out your rhythm, and I discovered something. You’re just as confused and alive and effervescent as I am. You have taxi drivers who genuinely light up when talking about how they’re putting their kids through college. Jeepney drivers who drive with one arm over their sons as they describe the map of the city. You have treasures of restaurants hidden behind gas stations and in alleys and in plain sight at malls, and it’s good to just sit in them and watch the eclectic visitors you attract. You have bakla bars and dance clubs and cramped little places where you’re forced to meet new people and end up sharing drinks and stories with them. You have cupcake shops and dirty ice cream and fruit sold on street corners that somehow tastes more refreshing than anywhere else. And that’s all beautiful, but hardly unique to you. It’s when you put it all together, when you pay attention to what happens as you travel from point A to point B, that your essence starts to come through. And that heart, Manila, is what makes you unique.
During the twilight hours, the in-between time that could be either late at night or early in the morning, you bare yourself. You’re all billboards plastered with the images of white people and casinos that belong in Vegas and opulent malls that seemingly have no right to belong in a third world country. You’re worn, shirtless men carrying crates of vegetables and fish to the nearby market. Socialites collapsing at a booth in McDonalds after a night of clubbing. Hustlers going through the motions, because their hearts aren’t in it anymore. Hustlers working double time because they’re just getting started. Shacks along the Pasig overflowing with people gambling and drinking and singing and praying because even in poverty – perhaps especially in poverty – communities support one another during wakes. Families clinging together as they claim their section of sidewalk through the night. Couples holding one another as they try to stay awake waiting for buses to the provinces that may or may not come on time. Messy, beautiful lives that are just as confusing and complicated as the streets they take place on.
You’re not as tough as you look, Manila. You’re raw and ragged and more than a little bedraggled. You’re also sweet and perseverant and, in your own weird way, full of light.
So thanks, Manila, for finally opening up to me. I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely comfortable with you, but that, too, is part of your charm.
My parents visited recently. It was an amazing, refreshing trip. I was able to see Sagada and the Philippines through their eyes, they were able to step into my shoes for a bit, and we got a bit drunk on bad wine at a beautiful beach resort. A good trip.
It got me thinking a lot about relationships and family and how I’ve changed since being here. All three – relationships, family, myself – are both stronger and less tangible than I once thought. I’m still not really sure what that means.
I tried on about four separate occasions to write about their trip, about how much it meant to me and how the little, comfortable things – watching bad movies with my dad, listening attentively and then completely forgetting all the biological information my mom shares when we come across a new ecosystem – are what I missed without even realizing it. Every time I tried to write, it ended up coming out flat or off somehow. Then I came across this passage in To The End of the Land by David Grossman, and I think it captures what I ran up against perfectly:
“It’s a bit like describing how a river flows, she realizes. Like painting a whirlwind, or flames. It’s an occurrence, she thinks, happily recalling one of his old words: A family is a perpetual occurrence.”
I’m sorry, mom and dad, that I can’t seem to put together something comprehensive about your trip here. Just know, I’m glad you were able to share a little bit of the love I feel for this country and its people, and I miss our perpetual occurrence.
I was peed on recently. Then I saw two dogs stuck together and realized that things weren’t quite so bad.
I also spent the last few weeks traveling around Luzon facilitating and organizing several enjoyable trainings, experienced the beautiful old-Spanish styles of Vigan, partied with the newly official Peace Corps Volunteers (congrats, y’all), and returned to site just in time for two (count ‘em!) Thanksgiving dinners this upcoming week, before I head off to work in Calauan again next Monday.
Also, while staying in a dorm I strange man fell beside and partially on my bed. I instinctively bashed him with my cell phone, which I keep beside my pillow. I woke up the next morning to find my cell phone gone. This was an unfortunate series of events.
But first, the urine.
I was on the bus from Manila to Vigan. I was drifting into sleep peacefully, lulled by the sounds of The National drifting in and out, as my iPod struggled to decide whether it wanted to work or not, and I noticed my leg getting wet. Funny, I thought, it must be raining. In hindsight, I realize that makes no sense. What the hell, I was tired. Then I thought it was probably a spilled water bottle. But the stream kept on coming and it was kind of, well, warm. So I opened my eyes. Sitting across the aisle from me were a mother and a baby. The baby had alternated between crying and breast feeding most of the ride. Then, for some unknown reason, the mother took his pants off and pointed him in my direction. Which led us to our current situation. Baby and I made eye contact. We admired the trajectory of his flow. Mother and I made eye contact. She kinda-sorta smiled at me. I kinda-sorta smiled back. I looked to my left, where the sixteen-year-old boy sitting beside me had fallen asleep with his head on my shoulder. I saw the dogs. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep. Because, honestly, what else can you do?
I don’t know what, if anything, this says about me as a person and as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Is this cultural integration? Would I have acquiesced so easily to being peed on by strange babies in America? My train-of-thought often moves in weird ways, and this experience led me down a path of self-reflection, where I really tried to figure out how I’ve changed (grown, maybe, possibly?) since being here. I probably spent a couple hours dwelling on the topic. Then I realized that my parents will be here in a month and will probably act as good mirrors. So, after finding an excuse to drop that dangerous path toward self-realization, I began thinking about thinking.
As I mentioned, all this began because I’ve been on the road a lot lately. Too much, actually. I miss just working at my school and interacting with my kids, developing relationships with them and seeing how they develop. Teacher trainings and system development are important, and they’re how I spend much of my energies, but they’re transient and the results are abstract. And transience can be fucking exhausting. Anyway:
All that travel means a lot of long bus rides, and a lot of long bus rides, and a lot of long bus rides mean a hell of a lot of time to do nothing but think and absorb the body odor of the other 40 people on the bus. So what do I think about all that time? Food, mostly. Then: What’s happening outside my window; then: Sheer randomness.
Let us explore a standard train of thought through some pseudo-stream-of-consciousness.
First, the food: I recently had a talk with a friend about how smells trigger memories – i.e. fresh cut grass sooo reminds me of that one time that one summer . . .only smells don’t trigger memories for me. Food does. I had lemonade last week, which naturally got me thinking of the fresh lemonade cart at the souk near by grandma’s apartment in Israel, which led down a whole other path of memories. Two hours, gone. Thanks, Minute Maid.
What’s happened outside my window recently: Dogs, copulating. Woman, crying. Child, falling. Houses, crumbling. Rain, falling.
Riding the highway into Manila at night I often experience a feeling of complete disconnect. I could be on any number of roads in any number of countries. Semis and buses for companions, generic billboards and Golden Arches for roadside company. There is no sense of place.
But early morning rides from Manila into the provinces are the precise reverse. You are intimately, maybe uncomfortably, connected to the rhythms and place of life in the Philippines. At sunrise, you have to acknowledge the shacks sprawling around the billboards, the drunks stumbling under the arches, the men who have already been working in their fields for an hour, the women who were up before them to prepare breakfast. And as you speed, skid and stutter by them, if you pay the right kind of attention, the country opens up. There’s Araneta Coliseum, there’s a group of shirtless men huddled around a glowing TV on the fringe of a rice field, watching the game, and there’s a bottling plant for the beer they’re drinking in both places. City, fields, town and fields again. They all have their own rhythms, but they blend into one another sometimes imperceptibly, creating the dissonant melody that is the Philippines.
Spend a year in a place and it becomes easy to take its idiosyncrasies for granted. To generalize and make grandiose statements beginning with “Well, see, the problem with the Philippines is. .”
Sometimes it takes getting peed on by a baby to make you look out the window and remember that countries and their attendant issues are not abstractions and that individual moments, individual lives, are where the truth and beauty’s hiding.
I warned you that my thought process is convoluted.
I didn’t do much praying this Yom Kippur. I didn’t do a hell of a lot of reflection, either. I fasted, for what that’s worth. And the day, I think, worked for me.
4:30 P.M. I spent the day on a bus to Baguio, since I felt vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of spending Yom Kippur on a bus. Why? I don’t know. I stocked up my iPod with Jewish-themed Podcasts, and other than one disappointingly dull hour I spent with Eli Wiesel, they served me well. One interview with a rabbi was interspersed with snippets of songs and prayers – Kol Nidre, Aleinu, and the like – and I found myself hitting pause each time, thinking about my dying synagogue in Oil City, the time I danced the horah at a coastal town in Australia, and how strange it was that 30 seconds of a centuries-old prayer that I’ve heard hundreds of time could arrest me, choke me, hound me, like it was the most beautiful thing I’d never heard before. Then I thought about the fried pork I had for dinner the night before and reflected, once again, on the strange relationship I’m forming with my religion.
Anyway, 4:30. Giant tofu tacos. They were fucking delicious.
6:30. The fast officially starts. The volunteer stationed in Baguio happened to be starting up a youth advocacy theater group the evening I arrived. So I tagged along for their first outing – A bizarre, campy, hilarious play in Taglish at St. Louis University about a transvestite superhero, her three gay dads and a passionate love affair with peanut brrrtle. Yes, it did end with a dance off, and it was spectacular.
After the play, before we took two of the girls back to her center, we took them to McDonalds. It was their first MacDo experience, and it’s sad that I think that means something.
6:30 A.M. Like I said, I didn’t pray, I didn’t spend the day in contemplation. I worked. Or, rather, I spent the day with children. This was the first official meeting of the theater group, and we ended up working with them for about 10 hours. The group consists of about 30 kids, a mix of boys in conflict with the law, girls who’ve suffered abuse, and student leaders from some of the schools around Baguio. The boys outnumber the girls, so there was the usual unease and bossiness there, but overall I was amazed at how well everyone got along, at how excited they all were to be there.
I was excited too. We spent the first part of the day leading them through icebreakers, energizers and basic acting exercises (What do I know about acting? More than 13-year-olds who’ve never done it before. That, plus a willingness to look foolish, was good enough to skate by.). Then I lead a session on script-writing and brainstorming and had the kids come up with and present ideas for the theme of the play they’re going to be writing, directing and performing.
It was a long day, and by the time things were ready to wrap up with the creation of a mission statement, everyone was pretty much beat. But I think it sneaked up on us. At least, it sneaked up on me. I’d been so caught up in the moment for pretty much the whole day that, other than a mild headache and occasional loopiness, I never gave much thought to being hungry. Everything seemed good.
And, if nothing else, they won me over for one simple reason: They listened.
Eating is important here. No training is acceptable without several snack breaks and people tend to get very confused if you don’t join in. So, when I introduced myself at the beginning of the morning, I briefly explained the importance of the day to me, and why I wouldn’t be eating with them. Throughout the day, a couple kids asked me if I was hungry, and as I sat outside during lunch, one of the first kids to finish eating came over and kept me company. And that was that.
I can’t explain why it was so touching, so take my word for it. It was.
6:20 Sundown was officially at 6:27. More than feeling hungry, I was excited for the impending pizza and beer, so as I walked down the crowded city streets, I wasn’t paying as much attention to my bags as I usually do. I was kinda giddy with pre-pizza anticipation. So, of course, I was pick-pocketed. Someone opened the side-pocket on my bag and took the little pouch containing my iPod and notebooks, things that are rather important to me. I didn’t notice any of this happening.
But I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I looked back, still thinking about pizza and expecting it to be someone asking for money or just an accidental run-in. Instead a man simply said, “Sir, here,” handed me my bag and quickly turned around and melted back into the crowd. He didn’t give me time to say thank you — hell, he didn’t even give me time to process what had happened.
I was careless, so I got pick-pocketed. I was lucky, so a stranger saw this happen, confronted the thief, took my stuff back, returned it to me and disappeared. That’s not supposed to happen, but it did. And it happened just as the holiest day of the year was ending, just as I was coming down from a day spent with a group of amazing kids, and the one probably had nothing to do with the other, but they happened together and everything about it just felt right. Plus, the pizza was really good.
This is from editorial in this week’s issue of the local paper:
“New York Jews are famous for being shrewd businessmen, and if there is anything that Jews love only a little less than their beloved Israel, it is profit.”
I’ve been in the Philippines for about one year now, and I suppose I should be getting sentimental and insightful, but I’m no more or less sentimental than usual. I don’t have any grand epiphanies or sweeping statements to make about my first year here. It’s just a feeling, really. A gentle resignation. Shit, I’m about to miss another season of football.
Not once since getting here have I regretted my decision. There’ve been some low moments – early July was definitely the worst. I carried around a lot of anger for a couple weeks. But something always flashes, however briefly, to remind me why I’m here and how good I really have things here.
I get pissed off about something involving my school almost every day, but the school is also the most frequent source of these beautiful moments. Like my first day back after being gone for 2 and a half weeks, when I heard the whispers spreading that I was back and the laughs and smiles when I walked back in the classroom. Or when we got a box of dictionaries from the Rotary Club in Manila and, as the kids hunt through them in class the next morning, I realized how important 18 outdated dictionaries can be.
Or last night, when I sat outside my apartment with my dog, sipping a cup of local coffee and nibbling on a loaf of fresh bread and watching the light on the garden turn from gray to gold to a pink that eventually gave way to rain.
Maybe it’s a journalist’s weakness for anecdotes, but those moments mean everything. We’re defined by the stories we absorb, willfully or not, and the frequently slow-paced, frustrating and upsetting nature of life and work (there’s rarely a difference) as a Peace Corps Volunteer makes it very easy to have a rather unpleasant view on things.
We need the little moments to refresh our perspective.
I haven’t blogged in months, so I’m not going to attempt to recap everything that’s happened to me. I’m writing a couple articles about the project I just returned from and I’ll refrain from writing about that until I see where they go.
In the meantime, some vignettes:
- I ate goat bile last week. The dish is called, if I remember correctly, pinapiatan. It’s a soupy mix of goat bile and goat meat cooked and prepared a certain way. Complex flavor, and I actually really dug it.
- Last month I had roasted pig’s balls. I was out hiking with some local friends, and when we stopped for the night, everyone took out the food they’d carried with them all day and got to preparing. I had brandy and the rice for the next day’s lunch, which meant I just sat back and observed as one guy took our a plastic bag containing some type of meat that’d been marinating in a variety of spices all day. They didn’t tell me what it was until I’d eaten a few bites. I kept eating. It was some of the best palutan I’ve had in a while
- I went to a PBA playoff game last Sunday. The PBA is the Philippine Basketball Association, the pro league here. The games are sort of like watching Holy Cross play St. Boneventure. There were two dunks the whole game and the crowd went wild for all of them. It was the first sporting event I’ve attended since getting here, and actually reminded me why I love sports so much. The arena was sold out and, while not as loud and raucous as a game in the Dome (Though this arena is also nicknamed the Dome, since it is, after all, a dome.), the crowd was into it. I got swept along, shouting when my friend’s team (the underdog, Derby Ace), which I quickly adopted, roared back from a double-digit deficit and cursing when they fell apart in the final few minutes and gave the game back. It was fun.
- Hiking with some friends and being reminded of how lucky I am to be in Sagada. I can head out my backyard and over the next day or two climb four different mountains, reach a village with no road or electricity, stumble on an abandoned landing strip built during World War Two, see the pass where a Philippine legend was cornered and killed and hear a story about almost every mountain we see. Maybe it’s because my companions were all guys, but damn near every story had something to do with boobs.
- Before I left, I gave some vocabulary-building exercises for my students to do. I’ve overheard them using some of the words in conversation. They didn’t use them correctly, but they used them. That’s gratifying.
In the long run, after I leave the Philippines there won’t be a strong trace left behind. Sagada will not be much changed for me having been here. My school and faculty will continue as always. But there will be small pockets of moments and memories scattered around, and as long as they contain some light, I can be happy with that.
Shit, I got all sentimental. I need to watch football.
Let me tell you a story:
Once, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, a farmer lost his pigs. He’d been working in his rice field all day and came back to discover that the piglets – six in all – had run away. He tracked them through the forest, eventually finding them laying on a small rock formation. The rock had six smooth grooves, and in each groove lay one of his piglets, basking in the sun. As the farmer gathered his piglets, he sat in one of the grooves and looked over the valley and heard the birds dancing in the air above him. Te-te te-te te-te they sang. The farmer smiled and, realizing that this was a good place, decided to build a new home near the rock, below the birds that sing te-te, and he called the place Tetepan.
I was told this story as I sat in one of the stone’s grooves, perhaps the same groove the original farmer sat in. I didn’t hear any birds, but it was a beautiful day and, looking around, at the valley below and the mountains all around, I understood how someone would want to start a village there.
A friend of mine grew up in Tetepan and we spent yesterday afternoon wandering the mountainside the small village as he told me local legends and stories about what it was like growing up there. It was a day of small, unexpected adventures and, two days before school resumes and I step back into the often-frustrating world of Filipino education, served as a reminder for why I love this place so much.
After sitting at the rock for a few moments, we went down to the rice terraces – first built in 1100 AD, according to carbon dating – and then followed a trail straight back up the mountain. As we climbed, we took numerous detours off the trail to pick any mushrooms we saw peaking out of the undergrowth (Don’t worry, mom, I made sure to ask if they were poisonous before putting any in my bag). Palutan for later.
He also told me another story, about how the founding of the village of Antadao – the place we were headed next, and the barrio I spend the most time at – is tied in with a dog and how the spirit of this dog lives on in the people and is why they repeatedly beat their neighbors in combat.
And this reminded me of something I’d learned when we stopped at a dap-ay on the outskirts of Tetepan. A dap-ay is a circle of stone seats surrounded a fire pit where the men of a village traditionally held council and told stories. It’s also where boys used to live in order to learn the harsh truths of life and, apparently, massage the feet of their elders. My friend, who’s 45, was part of the last generation to grow up in the dap-ay. Nowadays dap-ays are still used for ceremonies and councils, but more often they’re where men get together to drink.
Anyway, as we sat and my friend told me what it was like living there, he pointed to several stones and large pieces of wood that jutted out of the ground. Apparently, each time someone from the village returned with the head of an enemy, a tall stone or piece of timber was placed at the dap-ay to commemorate it. The wood had mostly petrified, and one was broken off at its base, but I counted six in all. And I’m sure the old men knew the stories behind most, if not all, of the markers.
I’d be reminded of the story yet again once we reached Antadao. A friend there has a store on the side of the main road, which is where we went. When we got there some of the men, already quite drunk, showed me the entrances into the village. At each of them were branches, forming a sort of X. They meant that a cultural event was taking place in the village, and outsiders should stay the hell away. There was actually some controversy about my being at the store but it was decided that, as long as I didn’t enter any other buildings and stayed at the road, I’d be okay. If I broke the rules I had two options: Purchase a pig that would be slaughtered for the whole village, or be killed. I think the days of killing are pretty much over but, really, why risk it?
Besides, an ‘enforcer’ was brought up to look after me and make sure I didn’t violate the rules. At one point a guy I’d meant before (also quite drunk) told me it didn’t matter, his house was close by, we should all go there. Enforcer Danny took him outside, smacked the back of his head and gave him a stern talking-to. I stayed where I was.
I actually had a great time. For whatever reason, I’m at my most relaxed and contented when I spend a day out in the barrios. I’d been to the store before and already met the guys, so was pretty comfortable hanging out for a couple hours. We had fascinating conversations about the importance of tradition, the self-contained village economy and, in slightly more heated language, about the misconceptions most Filipinos have about Igorots (they have tails, are savages, etc.).
After a while, my friend who’d gone down to the village to visit his grandmother returned and we headed up the road to visit another friend. It turned out that he’d made pinikpikan the day before and had a lot left over. So we cooked up the mushrooms, added them to the mix, and spent the evening sitting on his porch, watching a storm ride in over the valley and snacking on pinikpikan, fresh-cooked mushrooms (delicious with a bit of soy and pepper), and mixing fresh honey and gin for a tasty albeit, we all decided, girly, drink.
At least we didn’t use drink umbrellas.