Distances

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.

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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.