Whenever I spend New Year’s Eve in my family’s hometown of Monterey, California I tend to end up at Point Lobos State Park on the first day of the year. I’m back here now in Monterey in between stretches of field research at in my new home base of Tacloban, Philippines. As I look out across the Pacific ocean today, I imagine that I am looking in the direction of Tacloban, but it seems like everything earthly drops out of view after several miles or so. So, I imagine reaching the end of that point on the horizon only to look out again and again and again until I finally see land. I imagine what it would be like to arrive at Tacloban after a thousand turns over the horizon.  

Somehow, over the years, I have lost my sense of distance in the places I am traveling in the world. Distance for me, is on the Priceline screen and an accounting of hours spent inside the cabin of an airplane. Looking at the ocean today, I wonder if a thousand turns over the horizon would even get me to the Philippines. It is a distance that I can hardly fit into what I know. I would have to chase the curve of the earth until I reached night. And not that night fell upon me, but that it was I who arrived upon a foreign day there in another spot in the Pacific, and entered it against the current of expected arrangements.

Second Time Around

It’s my second trip to the Philippines after living here for 9 months in 2012-2013.  I always think it’s so interesting how a travel experience changes when you visit a place for the second time.  All the magic wrapped up in stepping foot onto a foreign place is gone the second time around.  It’s been replaced instead with a measure of comfort and strange sense of foreign home.  For me, several emotions defined my initial trip to this country.  First of all, I am half-Filipino and half-American, so this first trip was something of right of passage I’d been waiting to take for a decade.  I was in anticipation for all sorts of questions about myself and my heritage to be answered.  Second, the fear of the unknown on my first visit became a major contribution to my experience at the time.  I spent so much time scrutinizing maps, yet getting lost anyway.  Every attempt to speak Tagalog was riddled with fear of ridicule.  And then there was the unknown of how to simply exist in a major metropolitan landscape that was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  I could not “google map” jeepney routes to get places.  I had to operate the old fashioned way: ask someone for directions, then ask again at the next block, and ask again until you get there.  I did not know my place in relation to neighborhoods I should or shouldn’t be in, or people I should be especially polite to.IMG_8774 (2) IMG_8792 (2) IMG_8772 (2)

This time, I notice that I have carved out paths of familiarity from my first trips, and I generally don’t stray from them.  I can glide through certain train and jeepney routes without hesitation.  I know exactly where I want to have my Indian food, or which café has the best internet connection.  I had carved out a way of life for myself.  I do allow for little explorations here or there.  But, I definitely have a way of life here now–a way to live in the Philippines, a way to be part of the Philippines.

Eating Mangoes in Guimaras and the Simplicity of Cultural Transmission

Since meeting my family in Ilo-Ilo City and Guimaras Island, I have been expecting to integrate my brief experiences into some new definition of self.  But recognizing the extent to which I have or have not found meaning by meeting Lola Doty or Lolo Nando, etc has been the cardinal question of the past few months.  These faces still exist for me in oscillation somewhere between “stranger” and “everything.”

My weekend visit may have been too short to establish a real emotional connection beyond our immediate and warm acceptance of each other as family, but it was just long enough to alter my behavior.  This is a post about the social significance of the people we call family and the surprisingly simple process of cultural transmission.

“Do you know how to eat buko?”an Ate (term for addressing an older female family member) asked me as a Kuya (term for addressing an older male family member) shimmied up a nearby palm tree to hack off a few young, green coconuts.  I did know.  With friends in Puerto Galera, I had learned to sip the water from the bowl and to use the top coconut shell piece as a spoon to scrape out and eat the soft white insides after.

With our 10-pound bukos in hand, we sat down to lunch at a picnic table.  A Lola handed me a Guimaras mango (infamous for being the sweetest mangoes in the Philippines.)  “Now, I’ll show you to do it our way,” Lola coyly suggested, feeling that she faced certain ridicule for her provincial ways.  She dug into the side of the yellow skin and proceeded to circumvent the fruit, finishing with one long curly mango peel.  I peeled my own in this way, leaving a stub of peel at the bottom to grip while I bit into the fruit.  Lola was visibly pleased that I embraced this technique, and I was equally gratified to participate.  It was a simple, almost forgettable moment, but I have since returned over and over to this memory nearly every time I buy a whole mango–because now I have to decide whether I want to use a knife or peel it.

I learned to eat local fruits by local practice in two ways–buko by friends and mango by family.  For the life of me, I can’t enunciate what the difference is.  While learning from my friends was just as practical and permanent, there was something sacred in learning from my Lola.  It was almost as if I was learning from all her bygone generations as well.  I believe this is something that is presumed or inherent in generational learning: we imagine these lessons to be timeless and intensely personal possessions passed through family.

Homeland Intruder: hopes and fears before arriving in the Philippines

Time draws nearer to take off for the Philippines, and pre-departure preparations have precipitated into a frenzy.  I am less timid now about my impending new life as a foreigner, and instead welcome my landing in Manila as a vacation from the bureaucracies of being a traveler!

Some thoughts in recent weeks have revolved around my impressions of  “the motherland.”  I never once, until ten years ago, even thought of the Philippines as more than that terra incognita my grandma and her accent are from.  Family and school didn’t do much to alter this position.  During my first year in college, I finally got the opportunity to consider the Philippines as a historically significant country and culture.  And since then, the Philppines and its people, in my mind, have morphed from bland obscurity to improbable myth.  This is a bit of my piecemeal construction of the land I often envision a version of myself living a possible, synchronous life, and of the people I imagine myself to belong to.  I have quotes from my friends, family, and acquaintances, scenes from Filipino literature and film, and academic script of theoretical Filipino culture to go on:

I won’t walk the streets of Manila so much as shove my way through masses of people, and dodge reckless vehicles, but the heat will wither away my will to even leave whatever cool indoors I can find.  I’ll be greeted in Tagalog, but will have to answer guiltily in English.  People will be in general, very friendly toward me.  Each person might remind me of a family member or friend back home.  Some people will be overly helpful; that’s probably when I’ll draw my belongings closer and start looking for a way to excuse myself.  In one block I’ll find comfort in the familiar yet somehow estranged environment of a Filipino super mall.  In the next block I’ll find myself inconsolable in the foreign terrain of one of the Philippines’ garbage mountains.  I’ll go out to a bar.  Locals will draw near enough to satisfy their curiosity, yet even after months of friendship, they will keep me at a distance.  I’ll find ex-pats to commiserate with.  Every night I’ll blow black soot from my nose, and attempt to drift off to sleep in the suffocating humidity.

I want to be able to reflect on what I imagined the Philippines to be when I believed it would always be a place only in my imagination.  The people I know here, my family and friends, other Filipinos I’ve met, and the years of Filipino culture, history, and language classes have been my only personal link to the Philippines.  Having a physical racial stamp does not prepare you for the cultural implications of being that race.  I couldn’t tell you the first qualification for being Filipino, or Filipino-American, or “only part Filipino.”  But I’ll still tell you I’m Filipino.

In the Philippines, I always imagined I would be approached with curiosity and skepticism, since I am an American biracial Filipino.  But I find comfort in the the fact that friends of mine who look undeniably Filipino, still “act” American.  My deepest fear is that after calling myself Filipino all these years, I’ll realize I am the furthest thing from a Filipino, and in fact, I don’t really know what I am.

The Globals Generation

I ran across this NPR piece about the many transient 20/30-year-old Americans bustling around the world today.  According to John Zogby, author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream, not only do we have access to a completely different lifestyle from our parents, but we seem to have created a disparate American Dream for ourselves, too.

The New American Dream:

  • Accumulating experiences rather than things
  • Public service based on the idea of a shared fate

Looking back, I’ve met so many people in college and on the road who perfectly fit this profile, and it’s strange for me to conceptualize us all as this mass movement toward a new American Dream.  Sometimes I feel more like we’re a lost, disillusioned generation–possibly, cornered into fleeing the country and wanting to change the world because we don’t have the most inspirational alternative options.  Zogby makes a good point though that, with the efflorescence of social technology, our perception of near time and space has led to our more global mentality.  However, I’m not sure how much the globals generation can be reduced to these elements: access and technology.  Personally, my inspiration for travel has relied more on a learned need for cultural understanding that started in interaction with my immigrant friends and their parents (including my own family.)

It’s interesting to me that the culture of the globals generation depends a great chunk on travel, and probably very often solo travel.  I’m curious about how members of this generation learn to conceptualize travel as idealistic, even romantic and adventurous, etc.  I’m curious about how they learn to travel period, because I’m confident most of us didn’t learn it from our parents.  My parents are only just now beginning to travel outside the country, and they have traditionally spoken of foreign travel only as vacationing.  My grandma travels only to visit relatives in the Philippines.  I’ve always been attracted to the idea of traveling with a feeling of semi-permanence.  I guess you could say it was a sort of search for global belonging, if not just a desire to gain belonging in the most impossible of circumstances…foreignness.



San Pascual Bailon and the Animal Market- Olintepeque, Guatemala

“Want to take a little trip on thursday?”

Thursday, by no coincidence, was the day our school’s director would be away on personal business.  I had chosen to remain with Juliza as my final Spanish teacher after filtering through a sort of foster care within the school.  As a student, I am the sort of frustrating person who can’t be told what to do, and has to be tricked into a lesson.  My first day with Juliza, I was too busy extending my vacation at Lake Atitlan to show up at class.  Our second day, just after meeting, Juliza checked a text message, turned on a charmful smile and asked, “Want to take a little trip?”  We spent the rest of the lesson gossiping while running errands at her son’s school.  I like to think of our relationship as soul mates of indolence.  We loved learning, we loved language, but we didn’t have patience for all the formality.

Our Thursday trip turned out to be our most excellently squandered lesson of all.  Olintepeque, a village just outside the city of Xela, holds an exhaustive livestock market which was one of my most outlandish observances in Guatemala.  As our chicken bus pulled up to Olintepeque–our companionable teacher-student truant pair in tow–I heard what sounded like children screaming just outside the window.  We deboarded amidst a parade of marketeers taking their bounty home.  An old woman walked near, her arm immobile with the weight of a bundle of feathers.  At closer glance, I saw the bundle blink, and then cluck.  She had about four live chickens by the talons, as calmly as if she were pulling along a bundle of carrots.  Even more disturbing, the chickens were also as casual as carrots.  The four of us entered the market, passing a few stalls of attractive fabrics, and readying our wallets.  However, past the inviting display, we walked right into a wall of animal frenzy encapsuled by manure stench.   Tightening our ensemble, we nervously packed our wallets back into our bags.  A pair of young girls marched from the assemblage, pulling along a resistant pack of piglets down the dirt road.  I recognized the pigs’ squeals as the ‘children’s screams’ I had heard minutes earlier.  The pigs didn’t walk a step; they locked their little legs into the dust, and the girls dragged them away, leaving panicked piglet dust trails behind.  The four of us held our breath and entered further into the fray.  Goats, sheep, horses, donkeys were all being led somewhere or other.  Vendors called out their products to us as we passed.  A small cow stepped in front of me and mooed.  “These animals have already been bought,” explained my teacher, as she pointed out a barn shelter.  Behind the barn, was an indoor market brimming with what was probably the entire town and all other surrounding villages.  Nearly all vendors inside were women wearing traditional woven blouse and skirt; and this gave the indoor market a disparate aura from the outside lots.  Swarms of color from the women’s clothes erased memories of muddy animals casting forlorn faces.  Female chatter replaced mournful moos and piglet screams.  Women and girls squatted over cardboard boxes filled with small grey bunnies, or chirping chicks in a netted sack.


The market wasn’t our final destination that day.  Our featured stop was a visit to the temple of San Pascual Bailon, which we were told held the skeleton of San Bailon himself.  In Guatemala, San Bailon stands as one of many Catholic saints hybridized with Mayan beliefs.  Not limited only to be an ephemeral guide, San Bailon materialized to this part of the earth in the form of a miniature human-like skeleton that was discovered buried in the surrounding hills during Spanish colonial rule.  I never completely grasped what sect of human misery San Bailon protected against or had special powers over, but I did understand that whatever a person might ask for, it was best accompanied by festive decorum and dancing (“bailon.”)  Inside the temple, patrons stashed their live chicken bundles from the market to the sides, and found spaces on the center floor to place prayer candles—a different color for specific needs (money, love, children, health, etc.)  One teenager in a backpack and hoodie approached the Mayan priest stationed at San Bailon’s altar with an armload of candles, one of each color.  The priest blessed her with a smoking incense bundle, and then she walked back to light each candle on the floor, placing her prayers with concentration in the process.  Other patrons were now approaching the Mayan priest and priestess, and speaking to the altar of San Bailon.  The other student and I decided to check out this San Bailon for ourselves.  We peaked at the glass case behind bountiful flower arrangements to see a tiny skull—no more than 2 inches wide—adorned with a tiny crown.  What was likely the rest of the skeleton was dressed in regal clothes, and donned a cape.  As sure as Juliza had promised, there stood the miniscule human-like skeleton representing San Pascual Bailon.  We stood there, bemused and unsure of our reactions, caught between our skeptical sensibilities and the droll supernaturalism of the situation.  Comparing my experience with San Simon (Maximon) in Zunil, I began to see a pattern of spirituality centered on, not the religious lore, nor the space of the temple, but rather on the humanesque representation of the spirit.  Maximon, a life-size flamboyant store dummy, and San Bailon, a 12 inch carcass of God knows what.  There is a tradition of tactility; face-to-face conversation with the saints on which these Guatemalans place their lives’ hopes.  I know from personal contact, the shock of these off-set images of humanity–images that represent us, yet in aberration, stand for something more ethereal–was enough to fill me with some unearthly reverence.

When we all finally had our fill of the cluttered, eclectic crossing of life desires, livelihood, and livestock, we jumped on the bus back home.  A woman next to me cradled a squirmy burlap sack, as blandly as if she were holding a baby.  I knew it was best for me not to ask, and even better not to imagine.

Dogs in Guatemala

In Guatemala, when you see a dog on the street, it is most likely eating from a shredded garbage bag, or cowering from a threatening resident. Most are only harnessed by their own bare ribs. Females carry long teats that sway heavily as they trot through cobblestone roads. Sometimes, on the corner stoop beneath my Spanish school, a borracho–drunkard–would be nestled in a group of three stray dogs who ran this territory. One white, one patched, and one sandy. The three would always lay across the sidewalk, side by side, in the morning sun, and would always be warned away by merchants of Mercado Las Flores with upraised hand in the afternoons during lunch. In less aesthetic areas of Xela, the dogs would less trot the cobblestone roads than race panicked along the edges of walls. At Terminal Minerva, chicken buses collected down one alley to deposit trash into the gutter, and sweep out dirty water from the between the seats. I once saw a thin dog picking at the black bags underneath one bus’ tire. He turned to expose a dramatic pink infection down the side of his body. I never recovered from the image. So, when one cold morning during rainy season I stepped out of my apartment and saw this fluffy, well-fed pup wrapped warmly in a sweater, I snapped a picture.  I might have been overwriting my memory of the less fortunate by convincing myself (in a desperately touristic move) that I was surrounded by comedy and beauty.  Instead though, I think I might remember this strange moment as a representation of Xela, a city that teeters between episodes of the abysmal and the endearing.

The Appealing and the Peculiar – Zunil and Almolonga, Guatemala

I usually pride myself on my independence, especially during travel, but my time in Guatemala has made me the most fearful, boring and unadventurous traveler I’ve ever been.  All the obvious drawbacks aside, my sheepish ways on this trip have actually resulted some more fruitful travel experiences.  Typically, I never spend money on tour guides if I can do it myself.  However, what I gain in free exploration, I lose in well-researched information.  My Spanish school offered this trip to the neighboring volcanic valleys of Zunil and Almolonga as a group excursion, and hired a government-approved tour guide to fill our experience with lively facts and insider history.

The town center of Zunil was our first stop, just a 20 minute drive outside Xela.  The village lays comfortably inside a steep valley.  Lush patch gardens lead the way toward the town center.    We arrived here for three attractions, two of which were as normal as could be expected in this seemingly typical small town in Guatemala.  The third was a whole different story.

Zunil Cathedral

Because the indigenous Mayans were accustomed to worshiping outside their temples, Spanish conquistadors had troublebringing the new and potential converts indoors for mass.  The conquistadors resorted then to creating elaborate decorations on the face of the cathedrals throughout Guatemala.  This particular cathedral was built in the 16th century.

Indigenous Women’s Weaving Cooperative, Zunil

Just a minute from the cathedral, we visited a women’s weaving cooperative.  Centers like these host products crafted by various local women, giving indigenous women a simplified forum for making traditional weaving viable.

Altar of San Simon, also “Maximon, Zunil

Locals share a drink and a prayer with San Simon.

Maximon, once a rebellious Mayan leader, evolved into sainthood after suffering defeat at the hand of the Spanish.  He now takes the form of a life-size manequin dressed as a cowboy ganster.  Bandana, cowboy hat, shades, alligator boots–the works.  Locals come to share a smoke and a drink (poured down the doll’s throat) with the idol.  There is a small altar of flowers and prayer candles in the center of the room, and a place out back for frying chicken–in a more sacrificial than KFC manner.

Almolonga Baths

Just 10 minutes outside Zunil, the village of Almolonga sits on land thriving with natural “cumbras” (saunas) and “aguas calientes” (hot springs.)  We found a privately owned bath house offering private rooms.  Beside privacy, the benefit of one of these houses is the ability to personalize your bath temperature.

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