Category Archives: Culture

The Journey is the Reward: Ifugao Rice Terraces

The northern regions of the Philippines are home to the nation’s only “cool” weather, where winding roads bring views of endless mountain ridges and the ocean is no where to be seen. Banaue is a popular tourist destination and backpacker haven in the Philippines. It is one of 5 sites included in the UNESCO World Heritage designation for its Ifugao Rice Terraces.

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And the rice terraces of the Philippines will take your breath away! This spectacle includes thousands of miles of small rice ponds, carved into the steep mountainside in a cascading fashion (imagine a topographical map come to life!).

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Members of the Ifugao indigenous tribe built the terraces roughly 2,000 years ago and they are still farmed today, producing the major dietary component of all locals. However population loss, as members of younger generations opt to move to urban areas like Manila versus continuing their ancestral traditions, threaten its future existence.

For the time being income generated from tourism helps to keep the rice terraces alive and running. And as a recent Banaue tourist, I’d consider this trip is the World’s 8th Wonder. My room Banaue Homestay looked out over the heart of the terraces, but what really made the experience for me was not just the view, but trekking within the terraces themselves.

Viewpoint
Viewpoint
Picture taking at the top of Viewpoint with Ifugao indigenous women in full attire.
Picture taking at the top of Viewpoint with Ifugao indigenous women in full attire.

Leaving from “Viewpoint,” I took a small trail with steep narrow stairs down to the valley below and crossed a small bridge. From there myself and my 3 new French friends climbed up another steep set of stairs to a new vantage point with beauty comparable to the renowned “Viewpoint.” Only now we were a part of the terraces themselves, including their sounds and movements as gusts of wind swept over the bright green field of rice stalks bowing in response.

From there our trek wrapped around an unseen side of the terraces revealing a 3-stage waterfall. A former landslide rendered our trail to loose dirt where there were once concrete stairs as we bear crawled our way up another mountain. After this climb we were rewarded with a shaded, flat trail, however it demanded acrobatic balance because portions were not a trail at all but the 4in wide wall of the rice terrace itself. A fall from here poses minimal physical threat, but your choice is either mud-sopped feet from the rice pond or water-saturated feet from the water channel on the opposite side. I was lucky that my acrobatic skills rose to the challenge, however my French friends were not so lucky. One chose the water channel and the other two opted for the hobble split technique whereby you place one foot on the 4in wall and the other on the neighboring vertical wall of the next terrace level. Unfortunately this hobble split technique tended to yield mud-sopped feet if you can’t regain your balance at the end of the wall. (Might want to take up slacklining before your next rice terrace trek my friends.)

Balancing on cemented rice terrace walls along our trek
Balancing on cemented rice terrace walls along our trek. This section was slightly wider than the earlier bit that took some casualties.
Notice the purple umbrella of the local leading us along the way. She was merely walking to visit her sister's house with her young niece, which for us foreigners seemed like an epic adventure!
Notice the purple umbrella of the local leading us along the way. She was merely walking to visit her sister’s house with her young niece, which for us foreigners seemed like an epic adventure!
That's me in the pink.
That’s me in the pink.

Rounding the next mountain pass we could now look down on the town center from a vantage point directly opposite that of my homestay room. We took turns guessing which tiny building was the one we had woken up in just earlier that morning.

Our Banaue Homestay hostel is one of those houses in the distance
Our Banaue Homestay hostel is one of those houses in the distance

When we finally completed our loop and finished back in town, we gained a better understanding for life in this place of mountain rice farming. Along the way we passed local homes with children playing and chickens squawking. Our “trail” was really the standard walking path for locals traveling from the mountains to the town. This entire experience of finding our way, asking directions, following strangers, balancing on small walls, and skirting the remains of landslides is an amazing reward for those willing to venture out of the comfort of the all too numerous tourist vans and get your feet dirty along the terraces themselves. And if you don’t want the challenge of finding our way, there are plenty of local guides looking to make some extra income by giving you a personal tour.

Summertime

Think back to your favorite parts of summer from your childhood…perhaps a summer cookout, ice cream shops, family trip to the beach, watermelon, swimming pools.

It’s summertime in the Philippines! For the months of April and May school is out and children enjoy playing in the ocean and eating halo-halo (this dessert translates to mean mix-mix and contains a wide variety of ingredients including but not limited to shaved ice, sweet milk, jello, bananas, corn, fruit, ube jam, peanut butter, beans, sweet potato).

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Carabao Island is named after the Philippine water buffalo used in rice fields. Notice the animal’s head drawn on the sign above.

San Jose Island, better known as Carabao Island, launches the summer season with its annual fiesta!

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Parades with street dancers and elaborate costumes are a characteristic part of fiesta.

As an unbiased foreigner, I was asked to serve as a judge for the fiesta competition. We thought we were judging the numerous groups of costume-clad dance teams…really they wanted us to judge the carabao!!

The carabao on the left was my favorite! I also participated in their annual fiesta mountain bike race. Don’t left the beautiful scenary fool you, a beach start over loose sand gave way to mountains so steep all contestants had to get off and walk. And the race started at 2pm in the afternoon (you don’t truly understand the meaning of the phrase ‘heat of the day’ until you have experienced summer in the Philippines and then try to do a bike race in it).

As we raced through each village on Carabao Island all the children came out to cheer us on, particularly me, the only female contestant!

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

There is no Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and if not for the small meal prepared with a few other Peace Corps volunteers my Thanksgiving might have passed by unnoticed. Stories of pilgrims and Indians and the combination of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy are completely unheard of here in the Philippines.

But the lack of large Snoopy balloons is easily made up for in the excitement of traditional Filipino fiestas. I recently attended the MIMAROPA festival which is a regional event (one step below the Super Bowl for fiestas comparatively). The displays of costumes and dancing could rival cirque du soleil!!!

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I never thought “Corn” would be a good Halloween costume but this guy could take 1st place in any school costume competition!
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Notice the blue fisherman in the background. Their dance with nets to catch the female fish was amazing!
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This tribe represented Romblon! Clearly we had the best, most intricate costumes.
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This colorful fan could also be twirled downward into a skirt.

After watching this parade through the streets we filled into an outdoor stadium and watched each team’s elaborate dance routine. Romblon’s presentation began with a marble quarrying enactment to the intimating booms of traditional drum accompaniment. Other provinces showed history of Spanish arrival or daily practices like catching fish or growing corn.

Best of all, I didn’t even realize the festival was happening or was such a big deal until the day of (I had traveled to Calapan City for a work conference). Not Macy’s or football but definitely an incredible display of talent – costumes, dance, and drums!

Saan ka papunta?

In America our standard greeting is “How are you?” or “What’s up?” Although some people may occasionally take the time to craft a genuine response, more typically the answer is unimportant, “Good. Howboutchu?” or “Nothing.”

In the Philippines if you see someone in passing you can expect them to ask where you are going first and foremost, “Saan ka papunta?” (Saan=where; ka=you; papunta=going) or even “Saan ka?” (Where you?) for short.

At first I would blunder through a response, my mind searching desperately for the proper Tagalog words to explain my destination and objective. However just as we may barely listen as a friend mutters “I’m fine” and then moves on to say something more important, Filipinos often respond “Dyan lang” or “Just there.” However the easiest and most classic response uses no words at all…

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There! (straight head)
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There! (To the left)
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There! (To the right)

I have now come to expect this common response. However when I am looking for a place to buy a new cell phone charger in town and directions are given by puckered lips, navigating becomes a game much like Hot and Cold until I finally reach my destination.

This blog entry was inspired by Andrew, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua, who is collecting common sayings from several different countries for his own blog http://www.maywesuggest.org.

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!

You Know You’re in the Philippines If…. Tales of an Ocean Mural

During my Peace Corps training I read a book entitled, You Know You’re a Filipino If by Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz. For example “You know you’re a Filipino if you give directions with your lips.” Or “You know you’re a Filipino if you eat rice with every meal.” Or “You know you’re a Filipino if you have 30+ godchildren.” I shared this book with my host family and they were laughing hysterically with each turn of the page.

Now one year later I still cannot help noticing several ‘You know you’re a Filipino if’s’ in my own daily life. For instance, I have been collaborating with another Peace Corps Volunteer to share ecological principles and marine science lessons with his community in conjunction with an ocean mural painting. Check out our progress and take note of the Philippine cultural idiosyncrasies…

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First, I taught the kids a lesson on fish anatomy. How are the fish in Finding Nemo able to give Marlin directions and swim in tightly packed schools? Fish have a lateral line of sensory hair cells that runs down their backs allowing them to sense micro-changes in water movement patterns and thereby swim together in unison.

You must be in the Philippines if the town museum, the site of our fish lesson, features an “Under the Sea” photo booth.

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You know you are in the Philippines if each mural painter has a designated umbrella holder to provide shade from the hot sun.

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The talented blue marlin artist is the president of the local High School Art Club.

You know you’re a Filipino if your mid-painting snack is fresh coconut juice and jack fruit (a sweet, yellow fruit that reminds me of cotton candy flavor).

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You must be in the Philippines if you can see the ocean down the road from where you are painting!

The mural is nearly finished now! Notice the Ocean Creed in the center:
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Balut

Featured on the TV show Fear Factor, balut, or a fertilized chicken egg, boiled and served to eat is the Popeye’s spinach of the Philippines, said to make you grow strong. If balut came with a nutritious facts label it would boast high quantities of protein, alongside a warning: may contain beak or small bits of feathers, hence the tendency for foreign visitors to squirm a little at the thought of consuming an embryonic chicken.

For John’s Despedida, or going away party, eating balut was a rite of passage.

John was really excited about this idea!
John was really excited about this idea!

Step 1: Crack the egg and peel away a bit of the shell so you can suck all of the warm juices out. Arguably the most delicious part!!

Notice Miel in the foreground enthusiastically sucking her balut juice. She was genuinely excited for the snack and hers disappeared before John had even removed the shell.
Notice Miel in the foreground enthusiastically sucking her balut juice. She was genuinely excited for the snack and hers disappeared before John had even removed his shell.

Step 2: Remove the rest of the eggshell and sprinkle salt.

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Step 3: Bon appétit! Eat the white and yellow parts avoid black or any feathered bits.

Delicious!
Delicious! I ate half of it too.

The white tastes similar to a hard-boiled egg but is more dense and tough. For all the apprehension prior to eating, fertilized chicken eggs are a challenge I would gladly accept if I ever find myself on Fear Factor. It was actually pretty tasty!

The remains
The remains

Mountain Biking in Odiongan

“Will you bring your bike to the Philippines?” many of my friends from the Coastal Cyclists in Charleston, SC asked as I prepared to leave last July 2014. No, my Specialized road bike with centimeter wide tires, clip in shoes, and no shock absorption would not have gotten me very far on the roads of Romblon.

My roadbike in the US after I rode to the top of Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina in Spring 2014
My roadbike in the US after I rode to the top of Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina in Spring 2014

While the national road is paved for nearly the entire circumference Tablas Island, each day I must also navigate the rocky, dirt roads common to small neighborhoods. Roads, whose large rocks and gravel in the dry season and muddy potholes in the wet season would have eaten the tires of my Specialized roadbike while easily tossing me from my seat and into the rice fields lining their borders.

The motorbike is the most common form of transportation here. When I first arrived, I had to stop myself from pointing and laughing every time I saw an elderly Filipino grandmother whizz past me with no helmet operating a motorcycle. (While motorcycle grandmas would be out of place in America, apparently the sight of a blonde white American girl jogging through the neighborhood is also equally worthy of a point and laugh in this part of the world.)

The epitome of motorbike's in the Philippines: room for the whole family. That is Kuya Nono and Ate LingLing plus their 3 kids, Maxine, Coco and baby Barry Lee
The epitome of motorbikes in the Philippines: room for the whole family. That is Kuya Nono and Ate LingLing plus their 3 kids, Maxine, Coco and baby Barry Lee

A consequence of abundant motorbikes and rough, unpaved roads is AMAZING mountain bike trails! The best way to spend a free afternoon is biking a mountain ridge on a dirt, packed single track overlooking the ocean.

Mountain biking on a sweet single track overlooking the ocean!!
Mountain biking on a sweet single track overlooking the ocean!!

For Odiongan fiesta this past April I helped to plan a 28km Mountain Bike Race. Expecting maybe 30 participants if we were lucky, our registration booth was initially overwhelmed by over 70 riders including school kids, seniors and out-of-town professional riders!

The poster advertising the Odiongan Bike Race that I helped to plan this past April. More photos from the race to come!

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The participants gearing up...
The participants gearing up…
Me just before the race. Notice the difference in this mountain bike and my US roadbike shown earlier.
Me just before the race. Notice the difference in this mountain bike and my US roadbike shown earlier.
And we're off!!!
And we’re off!!!

Check out the video John made with GoPro footage of the bike race mixed in with clips of my other favorite pastime: snorkeling. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYhgRYDOeec

Our Peace Corps Bike Gang after the race with Sir Bilshan who helped me to plan the event.
Our Peace Corps Bike Gang after the race with Sir Bilshan who helped me to plan the event. Success!!

Another Day in the Philippines

The boat captain, on my hour-long boat ride leaving the capital, preferred to sit on the banka's roof and steer with his feet.
The boat captain, on my hour-long boat ride leaving the capital, preferred to sit on the banka’s roof and steer with his feet.

The Famero Clan along with their imported American children during the summer family reunion, including Mommy Jean and Daddy Bar, six children and many grandchildren
The Famero Clan along with their imported American children during the summer family reunion, including Mommy Jean and Daddy Bar, six children and many grandchildren

Sunset yoga on the beach near my house.
Sunset yoga on the beach near my house.

Ornate Ghost Pipefish, yes it is a fish and really great at camouflage!
Ornate Ghost Pipefish, yes it is a fish and really great at camouflage!

Cane toad, I see these everywhere here! Especially as roadkill
Cane toad, I see these everywhere here! Especially as roadkill

Isabel, the granddaughter of Ate Lorie who runs this daycare and also coordinates a scholarship program for children in need.
Isabel, the granddaughter of Ate Lorie who runs this daycare and also coordinates a scholarship program for children in need.

A school of cardinal fish on a small wreck
A school of cardinal fish on a small wreck

Which way to the Fish Sanctuary?

As an American traveling in the States, the decision of whether or not to ask for directions may be a point of contention. Here in the Philippines the difficult part is not deciding whether to ask, it is following the directions once you receive them.

To ask a Filipino for directions typically yields a hand wave or even lips puckered (Filipinos tend to give directions with their lips) in a particular direction. When I needed to purchase a waterbottle, this response was particularly frustrating because I was entirely confused as to where this store could possibly be and found myself wandering seemingly aimlessly.

Now I have realized that protocol for asking and receiving directions is entirely different in this culture. Instead, it is assumed that you ask multiple people. The hand wave means walk that way and ask someone else when you get there. Almost like the childhood game of warmer versus colder when searching for an item. While this method seemed highly taxing, the alternative is not substantially easier. Clearly limited by the lack of roads and street names here is a set of directions another Peace Corps Volunteer texted me yesterday, while I was trying to find my way to a fish sanctuary:

“When you get to the mayor’s farm make a right, go past the b-ball court and past a nice road with a gate to the white house. Then go down that hill and make a left til you reach shipping containers, a cement bank, and a cow pasture. Make a left and follow that trail through the cow pasture and up the hill towards the antennae and guardhouse.”

Below are some of the sights along the way. Although I referenced the text several times on my bike ride there, we made it successfully to our snorkel site. Thanks Ata!!

The nice road, versus the rough road we were traveling on.
The nice road landmark, versus the rough road we were traveling on
The shipping containers
The shipping containers, not sure of their purpose there
Riding through the cow pasture
Riding through the cow pasture
The antennae in the distance, almost there
The antennae in the distance, almost there
The guard house marking the fish sanctuary…success!
The guard house marking the fish sanctuary…success!

When I finally arrived, our Filipino supervisor looked up to the sky and spotting the moon, still visible in the daytime, joked, “It’s easy to find, the fish sanctuary is just under the moon.”