The Real Killer: Sharks or Selfies

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Beware: Within the past year more people died while taking selfies than from shark attacks.

A few months ago, while climbing the tallest mountain on my island, a group of Filipinos stood on a large rock near the summit to take a group selfie. When this large rock broke loose several of the group were injured and one climber was crushed by the large boulder. Evacuation meant carrying this individual in an improvised stretcher down the mountain and transporting them to a hospital in Manila where they spent several days in critical condition.

I have not yet seen a shark in my Philippine province. But I have dove with thresher sharks, hammerheads, nurse sharks, white tip and black tip reef sharks, and a potential bull shark that was hard to identify from far away both in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and have never felt threatened much less attacked. My closest encounter was diving at the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium where the Big Ocean Exhibit sharks like to brush up against you like a dog or cat as you scrub the aquarium glass.

Humans kill approximately 100 million sharks each year (2013). Help protect sharks from human predators. Help protect yourself by using your senses while taking selfies.

To see beneath the sea…

Scanning the ocean waters surrounding Tablas Island where I live, you might see a scattering of small one-person bankas (boats). At first glance these bankas appear empty, like tiny ghost boats floating in the waves. They have not been abandoned. Instead, the occupant is below the waves rather than above them. Perhaps spearfishing for dinner and income, the Filipino fisherman spends his day diving below the water before returning to his banka.

The tanned skin and thin, muscular body of a Filipino fisherman is easy to imagine, but how does this predator of the seas see to find its prey? Speedo goggles and ScubaPro dive fins are not included in the fixed costs of a fisherman’s budget. Instead, most locals wear handcrafted, wooden goggles with glass lenses and strap large, round, wooden fins to their feet.

Trying on my new pair of wooden Filipino swimming goggles!
Trying on my new pair of wooden Filipino swimming goggles!

Did you know that the first known swim goggles were used by 14th century Persian pearl divers and fashioned out of a polished layer of tortoise shell. By contrast Polynesian skin divers would trap a bubble of air to their eyes with a wooden frame until European explorers introduced glass!

I haven’t tried the air bubble method, but my wooden goggles work great. No leaks at all!
I haven’t tried the air bubble method, but my wooden goggles work great. No leaks at all!

If only the fisherman knew that his pair of handcrafted goggles was worth US $40 when sold online (http://woodengoggles.com) Luckily, I bought mine for Php 100 or about US $2.20. If anyone wants to trade their SCUBA diving mask or pair of fins for the handcrafted Filipino version I bet I could find a fisherman or two willing to make you a pair!

Empowering Women

Roughly half of the world population is female. Thus women should, merely by their numbers alone, hold up Half the Sky.[i] Yet, a survey of American CEOs or a comparison of men and women’s average salaries would not yield this same gender balance.

I discovered a male-biased stereotype of my own in coming to the Philippines: I consistently expect the Mayor or other government officials of power to be male, yet on many occasions I have been surprised to find myself shaking hands with a female! I am fortunate to work in a country ranked 9th worldwide in terms of gender equality (the US is ranked 20th).[ii] In the Philippines two former Filipino presidents were actually Filipinas. And my greatest role models at my site are high achieving women, starting with my host mom.

My host mom, Irejean Famero or “Mommy Jean,” a retired District Supervisor
My host mom, Irejean Famero or “Mommy Jean,” a retired District Supervisor

Mommy Jean worked first as a schoolteacher, then 15 years as a principal, followed by 4 years as the District Supervisor of 18 elementary schools overseeing 150 teaching personnel and 10 nonteaching staff.

“Here in the Philippines, women are given the same opportunities as men. If men can do, women can do!” said Mommy Jean. This statement is backed up by literacy rates of Filipino males and females, which are virtually indistinguishable at all levels of education. Worldwide, the Philippines ranked #1 in gender equality for both education and health/survival.ii After education, how do job opportunities and career advancement fare for females?

My supervisor Ma’am Rita is an inspiration! Espirita G. Sarmiento or “Nanay Rita,” a Provincial Aquaculturalist
My supervisor Ma’am Rita is an inspiration! Espirita G. Sarmiento or “Nanay Rita,” a Provincial Aquaculturalist

At 62-years-old she is working as an Aquaculturalist in the provincial office. Even when leading a group of all males (fisher folk are generally males) she leads with a well-respected authority, built from her wealth of knowledge, which ranges from Fisheries Law to troubleshooting low seaweed production. Physical labor doesn’t scare Ma’am Rita either and she can frequently be seen pulling large and heavy nets through a muddy fishpond to harvest tilapia. Her energy and dedication is remarkable, and she will leave a large hole to fill when she finally retires.

Our Provincial Chief-of-Staff is a role model for all of Romblon’s aspiring young women: Trina Q. Firmalo or “Trina" on the far right.
Our Provincial Chief-of-Staff is a role model for all of Romblon’s aspiring young women: Trina Q. Firmalo or “Trina” on the far right.

In 2007, Trina received a full scholarship to Princeton University for her Master’s in Public Affairs with a concentration in International Development. Following which, she was offered a job at an NGO in New York City, but turned down this opportunity to return to Romblon, Philippines where she knew she could make a greater impact. Her daily responsibilities as Chief-of-Staff include ensuring that the programs and projects of the Provincial Government are being properly implemented, managing the Provincial budget, and listening to the needs of countless residents from fisher folk to the Chiefs-of-Police. There never seem to be sufficient hours in a day for Trina to accomplish all that she is striving for.

If women do not already hold up Half the Sky in your country, join the ‘Let Girls Learn’[iii] campaign to help adolescent girls complete school. ‘Let Girls Learn’ is the chosen theme for my upcoming Blog It Home Winner’s Tour to Washington D.C. And many thanks to Mommy Jean, Ma’am Rita, and Trina for everything you have taught me so far!!

Want a new perspective on the fundamentals of gender equality?! We were all females first and why men have nipples in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1Kdoja3hl

[i] Read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s best selling book Half the Sky about empowering women.

[ii] Source: Global Gender Gap Report 2014 http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2014/rankings/

[iii] Learn more about the ‘Let Girls Learn’ campaign https://letgirlslearn.peacecorps.gov

iMovie Videos

The kids in my host family are all future movie stars, directors, and producers! Below are links to four videos they made entirely on their own through iMovie software. Be prepared to laugh, dance, and travel to mystical lands as you meet the talented Maxine, Andrea, Coco, Miel, Zyrex, and baby Barry Lee in the following four films:

  1. Fun Never Ends

2. The 5-year-Old Agent

3. The Royal Cousins

4. The 1 Year Old Baby

All films were shot in the Famero house in Odiongan, Romblon, Philippines, where I live!

Malunggay: Filipino Superfood

Peruse the aisles of your nearest Natural Health Foods shop and see if you can find malunggay pills. If this superfood has not hit the States yet, guaranteed it will make an appearance within the next decade.

Malunggay (Moringa oleifera) is a tree found in the tropics with small green leaves used to combat malnutrition and for various herbal medicines. It has been reported to contain 7xs more vitamin C than an orange, 4xs the calcium of milk and 2xs the protein, 4xs the vitamin A of carrots, 3xs the potassium of a banana as well as a source of iron. Malunggay is also the ultimate ‘anti-‘ drug: antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, anticancer and anti-inflammatory. While malunggay leaves are no quick cure for an unhealthy lifestyle, my hardworking 62-year-old supervisor Ma’am Rita swears that the malunggay tea she drinks every morning is the source of her unyielding strength.

1) Walk outside my front gate and break off a tree branch. 2) Pull the tasty leaves from the dense stem. 3) Cook
1) Walk outside my front gate and break off a tree branch. 2) Pull the tasty leaves from the dense stem. 3) Cook & enjoy.

Here in Odiongan the leaves can be ground up and made into a pill or mixed into soup.

Mongo beans with malunggay...one of my favorite Filipino dishes!
Munggo beans with malunggay…one of my favorite Filipino dishes!