Monday, May 22, 2017

The worst and the best

This weekend, I able to hangout and catch up with my volunteer friends that live in my area. I’ve been traveling for about the past 6 weeks for various work events and our last YAV retreat (what!!!!) so it was nice to have some down time in Baguio this week to relax and spend time with fellow volunteers before I hit the road again in just a few days for the North Luzon Jurisdiction youth camp. During dinner, we decided to go around and share our best and worst experiences here, and it turned out to be a great conversation of solidarity and sharing of the many extreme experiences that make up our journey. So, I thought I would share my own answers here.

I’ve written about this before, but one of the hardest things I find about relaying my experiences here is that for every good day, there is an equally bad day. For each sweet release of joy I feel, I also feel the pain that makes the joy so sweet. It’s the reality of my, and many other volunteers, life here: a life that is experienced in the extremes. In my last post I wrote that I am happy, and I am happy, just not a kind of happiness I had normally associate with the word and feeling. It’s more of a happiness that comes with peace and contempt, built from the struggles and witness of life’s extremes. With that frame of mind, I’ll also say that it’s impossible just to pick one moment that was the best or worst, there have been so many, and for that I am grateful. But for this post I’ll write about the two I shared at dinner, which are also two experiences I have yet to write about.

Let’s start with the bad. My worst experience came in February, and was a culmination of events that all happened within 6 days so I’ve come to refer to it as my hell week. February, in general, was a slow month for me. I didn’t do much traveling so I was in the office most days. I’m not really an office girl, I go stir crazy with boredom, so too much consecutive time in the office really isn’t good for me. On top of that, my fellow volunteer who I worked with had just finished her term and had recently gone back home to Australia in late January, so I was adjusting to being the only foreigner in my office and home community. Needless to say it was already not a good time. But one Sunday morning, I walked out of my house to go to town and one of the many dogs in my home area was on my front porch. And, as what seemed to be a retelling of this past October, the dog bit me. He got a finger on my left hand and it broke the skin. I should also say that I live alone and my neighbor and boss was away for a meeting, along with everyone else in my office, so I had to tackle this adventure on my own. I took a taxi to the hospital downtown where it turned out the bite was worse than it looked, and I had to get a five series rabies shot (which spanned over about a month) and an additional shot to prevent infection.This shot had to be administered as about 10 tiny shots all around the bite, which was again on my finger right below my fingernail, a very sensitive area. The poor nurse was so nervous to give me the shot, because she told me it was the most painful shot and many people cried getting it. OH GREAT (as if I wasn’t already over this whole getting attacked by dogs thing). But after already going through the dog bite and rabies shot ordeal in October, and as a person who has always handled shots well and recently got a decently large tattoo above my ankle which hurt like hell, I assured her I was more than equipped to handle the pain. Welp, she wasn’t kidding. It has like smashing a huge amount of medicine ten times over in area that barely had room for the skin to cover it. I thought my finger was going to burst open. But, I got through it and held my integrity together enough to not cry and ignore the constant questions of “You got bit AGAIN?!” YES OKAY IT’S NOT LIKE I WANTED IT TO HAPPEN IT JUST MUST BE KARMA FOR SOMETHING TERRIBLE I DID IN A PAST LIFE.

The day was long, but I’m a tough cookie and I got through it. That was Sunday. On that Wednesday, I went into town to run some errands and get some money from the ATM for rent. To get to my office from town, I have to go through the big Baguio City Public Market, a huge market selling pretty much all you could think of in an appropriate Filipino-esk slightly sketch setting. I normally love the markets, I still do, but that day it was extra crowded and as I exited and thought I was in the clear, a woman stopped me and told me my backpack was open. Yup, I got robbed. The reality of life here is that Filipinos can often be expert pick pocketers and I usually am on my guard to avoid them but today was an off day, and my wallet got pick pocketed. Fortunately, my passport was safely at home, but they got my Filipino ID, my credit cards, and my cash for rent. I had enough stray pesos in my bag to catch the jeepney to my office, where my kind coworkers lent me some money, told me it would all be okay, gave me some much needed ice cream, and took me to the police station to file a police report. I then got in touch with my mom, who cancelled my cards, and the crisis was momentarily over. In reality, it could have been much worse, but it was still a frightening experience and another knock down on an already terrible week.

But wait, it isn’t over! That was Wednesday, fast forward to Friday, where I was at the office, like any other day, and my head was itching like crazy. It had been for a couple days and I finally let myself face the reality that I might have lice. I got my coworker Mishelle to check, and sure enough, I had lice. I was done. Completely. With everything. It took all my will power not to call the YAV office and demand to be sent home. But I didn’t, I left work to go to the pharmacy to get lice shampoo, went home, and began my month plus long battle with lice. And as I spent my Friday night washing and spending hours combing lice out of my hair, I couldn’t help but feel my own loneliness weigh down on me, like a thick, wet wool sweater I couldn’t get out of. I didn’t have any tears, just exhaustion and defeat. I was tired of fighting so hard to make this life work, tired of facing it all alone.

I don’t really know how I found the will to keep going just that I took it one day at a time. I didn’t let myself think of the bigger struggle or entertain the idea of going home, I just did my best to focus on making it through each day, and sure enough, the days got easier. Soon the extreme terrible experiences of that week were balanced out with equally happy and fulfilling ones, and I was thankful to have just taken those bad times day by day.

But enough of the bad. Time to let some light shine in. My most recent favorite experience happened just a few weeks ago, when I spent two weeks traveling with my coworkers all around Northern Luzon. During the month of April, my office travels to different church conferences for their annual sessions. It’s a fun, but long experience. We got to experience the diversity of Luzon but with long days filled with meeting after meeting. But to break it up, we worked out the timing so we could go the annual Cordillera Day. Cordillera day is a yearly celebration of the diverse indigenous culture in the Cordillera Mountains and their struggle to maintain their ancestral lands and culture. Representatives from all the different tribes attend, as well as Indigenous peoples from Cambodia, Thailand, and Taiwan. Most of my work this year has been with my office’s Indigenous Peoples Program so I have come to love and deeply respect indigenous culture. Cordillera day this year was celebrated in small village in Kalinga. We were in Kalinga for an annual session right before Cordillera Day so were able to easily tag along and go to the event.

As always is the case with traveling here, just to get to the venue was an adventure. My coworker, Mishell, and I had to get up at around 5am to meet up with other attendees to catch the jeepneys going to venue. Of course, we were on Filipino time, which means we got to the jeepneys at around 5:30am but didn’t leave until 8am. Three hours later on a crowded jeepney traveling rural back roads going up the mountain, we reached our venue, or so I thought. Turns out we then had another hour hike down the valley to get to the remote village. But upon seeing the view, I wasn’t complaining.

The village was located deep in valley with mountains covered in ancient rice terraces. The only way to get to the village is to drive up the mountain and then hike down through the terraces. This was in April, when the rice terraces are in their peak in terms of beauty. They are tall, full, and gloriously bright green. As we started our hike down, and got our first full look at the picture we were hiking in to, I was blown away. It was truly one of the most magical moments of my life. There were hundreds of us hiking through these ancient terraces. The air was crystal clear, it was sunset, and the mountains were alive. As I walked in the line of pilgrims hiking through the rice, I saw mountain after mountain after mountain, each covered with different levels of vibrant green, each with a tiny line of people wading through, and at the bottom of the valley, a tiny little village awaiting the arrival of hundreds. As we got closer and closer to the village, the sound of ingenious chants and hymns started singing through the air and I took a step back and stood in awe that moments like this were real. The next two days were long but filled with solidarity and celebration and gongs and dancing and pigs. I continued to be floored with the beauty of the culture and the talent in dancing and singing and music. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the young woman from Cambodia who sang in her native tongue a prayer call, her voice was almost unreal. Or, on the hike back up the mountain on the last day, the elderly woman hiking up the steep terraces in flip flops while balancing their backpacks on their heads.

But the icing on the cake was on the last day, when they closed the event by having a rally/protest to fight for control of their ancestral lands. After getting over my fear that I might get arrested and spend the rest of my days in Filipino prison when the police showed up (turns out it’s just mandatory for the police to be there and they just watched quietly from a distance) I just happened to see an Indigenous woman covered in the traditional Kalinga tattoos. Many of the tribes in the Philippines used to decorate their bodies in traditional tattooing, but since colonization, only one tribe in Kalinga still carries on the tradition. I love traditional tattoos and have been itching to get to that tribe since arriving in the Philippines, so I was on cloud nine when I saw her.I went to talk to her, but she only spoke her local dialect, not the regional one which I can mostly stumble through, so communication was minimal between us but she was absolutely beautiful. Her body reflected her culture and her struggle and her tattoos still held strong despite being decades old. She graciously let me take her picture with her and I nearly died of happiness.

The cycle of life here is often hard to hold on to, but I’m grateful I have. Finding the balance is tough, but filled with growth and fulfillment and joy. After all, it’s more fun in the Philippines ;)


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

This Year I Have...

This year I have… killed a chicken with a bolo knife, watched children beat a chicken with a stick as a way to prepare to eat the chicken, see many many traditional pig butchering, preached my first sermon, got bitten by a dog on two separate occasions and had to get multiple rabies and disinfectant shots both times, gotten robbed, battled lice for over a month, survived my first typhoon, survived another typhoon, cut off my hair, cut off my dreads, continued to cut off my hair, got a little more ink, danced many Igorot dances, performed the energizer/dance Instanbul to churches all over northern Luzon, hiked through many ancient rice terraces, visited many indigenous communities, snorkeled with lots of marine animals, scuba dived for the first time, lived on my own since December in a developing country, learned about indigenous spirituality by balancing a giant squash on my head while hiking up rice terraces for hours, became a true vidioke queen, made my first music video, learned the art of waiting and patience, witnessed child laborer, witnessed the corruption of politicians, the police, and the government, learned to live in ”poverty,” traveled all around the Philippines, climbed many mountains, eaten my body weight in rice 10 times over, eaten literally every part of a pig and chicken multiple times, eaten with my hands more than with utensils, learned how to master using a bucket to flush, learned how to not rely on toilet paper, tried to learn 3 languages, gotten my heart broken many times by corruption and the world, yelled at God more than I have prayed, learned the true meaning of loneliness, of community, and of selfless love, and learned the spiritual and healing power of laughter. And I could keep going for pages.

I know that is a lot to take in at once (try living it ;) ), but this craziness, this adventure, this incredible journey, has been my life for over nine months. And it will continue to my life for three more.

My year is almost over. My year is almost over. Even as a type it, I have trouble believing it. I don’t think about it too much because it’s too confusing, too sad, too exciting, and just too much to process. What will I do when I can no longer just jump on the back of crowded jeepney to get anywhere? What will I do when I go home and massages are $100, not $6? What will I do when I ask personal, invasive questions when I first meet someone and they look at me like I’m crazy? But what would I do if I stayed, giving up Princeton, giving up family and friends, giving up a world where I can actually speak the language well and fluently?

I love the Philippines, and I hate the Philippines too. It seems like I have felt every intense emotional possible here, the good and the bad, and through feeling everything I could feel, this place has worked its way deep inside me, to the core of who I am. Leaving it will inevitably be leaving a piece of me behind, one I have grown to love and uplift and fight for.

People casually ask me how I am and how’s the Philippines all the time over online messaging apps. I know they mean well, and are interested in my well being and life here, but I tend to get angry (admittedly probably a bit too irrationally angry) over the idea of trying to communicate the deep diversity of my experiences and life here over a causal online conversation. My journey, these people, this place, deserve so much more than I can articulate. I fear I will I write and write and speak and give presentation after presentation and still not feel like I have done the justice of telling the beauty and reality of this truly wonderful place.

All I can say now, is that the Philippines has changed me in every way. Last August my world was turned upside down and started spinning, and it has not stopped since. But instead of fighting for it to slow and flip back around (as I did in the beginning), I grew to love the constant rotation of life, the ever moving pace, the things you lose because they cannot keep up with the orbit, and the things you find to help stabilize the rotation. It’s a speed that forces to let go: of control, of expectations, of standards, and of the idea that the purpose of your life relies only in your hands. I gave up control and found freedom and laughter, speed and adventure, and clarity and simplicity.

These days I really only focus on the present. On the people who currently bring me joy and love, the places I can explore right at my fingertips, and the home I continue to build within myself and the one I have built here in the Philippines. Right here and now, the Philippines is my home, my life is an adventure, and I am happy.