Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Like the snowflakes currently gracing the Montreal skyline, no two marathons are exactly the same. The Second Quezon City International Marathon (QCIM) was my third marathon (the first two were Road2Hope (Hamilton, ON 2007) and Boston (2009)). It wasn't a PB (personal best), but I'm happy with my race.

Here are some thoughts on what made this latest marathon experience unique.
*     *     *
Wake up in the threes. The alarm clock is set for 3:15am. My internal alarm goes off a few minutes before. It must be nerves. I'm glad everything was laid out the night before: number pinned onto my shirt, timing chip secured in my left shoelace, semi-clean shorts, sports bra and socks (the pair the RnJ Laundry staff managed to find after they found out how much running socks cost) neatly folded in a pile at the foot of the bed near the gels and a small water bottle.

I stumble downstairs in the dark. Flip the switch to open the gas line on the stove. Boil water for the breakfast of champions: porridge and half a mango. It sticks to my stomach. Feels heavy, too heavy for a 3:20am meal.  But not eating would feel worse ... in the race.

By 3:45, I'm out of the house. The gate key is tied to my right shoelace. The rest of my keys are hooked on the clothesline. I jog slowly to Quezon Memorial Circle, following the "open gate" route I'd scouted out earlier. (My place is in a semi-gated community. The gates are locked from 10pm to 5am. Had I taken my usual route that passes through locked gates I would miss the start of the race.)

Quezon Memorial Circle is aglow with Christmas lights. It's beautiful.

Hundreds of runners have already gathered at the designated muster point. Some stretch or jog in place. Others fiddle with race numbers, iPods and shoelaces. The queue for the port-o-potties grows by the minute.

A taho vendor walks through the crowd, hoping for some sales of this favourite Filipino snack. There aren't many takers.

It's still dark as the runners shuffle to the start line. It's on Commonwealth Avenue, right before the Philcoa overpass. When I first arrived in the Philippines, a good friend told me that the Philippine Coconut Authority (more commonly known as Philcoa) was the centre of the universe. In a sense, he's right. Informal vendors hawk wares of all shapes and sizes on the sidewalk. There are medical facilities, internet cafés, fast food joints, cell phone repair shops and banks. There are jeepneys, buses, taxis and tricycles available for hire. It's the Quezon City gateway to the rest of the world.

The race begins in the usual Filipino fashion. Local media personalities pump up the crowd. A municipal official delivers a speech. Someone prays, asking God to bless the runners, the race organizers, the fans, etc. A fitness club rep leads some warm-up stretches.

After much hoopla, the start gun is fired.

The beginning of the route is familiar, snaking along the roads I frequent on foot and by jeepney. It feels odd to run along Commonwealth Avenue, a heavily trafficked area nearly 24/7. One side of the divided highway is closed to traffic (well, mostly). Traffic on the other side is gridlocked. Drivers and passengers shoot dirty looks at us runners, silently cursing us for causing more traffic than usual.
The gazelles passed me at kilometer 16. Well, the ones running the half marathon. The gazelles in the 42.195 km race were ahead of me even before the starting gun went off.

I run the first half in the company of two Filipino men I nicknamed "Red shirt" and "Black shirt." We push each other, alternately taking the lead and draughting in each other's slipstream. We attract a lot of cheers from onlookers. The cheering is in English.

Black shirt and I pull away from Red shirt shortly before Marlboro Street. We run the first half in 1:35:00. (I don't have a watch and only found out the splits after the race.) It feels good, but I'm not sure I can sustain the pace for the full race. 

Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at night" is stuck on repeat in my head. I'd decided to wear a cap and sunglasses for the race. The sun is up when I reach the halfway point. My internal music player finally moves to another song. 

The kilometers through the Mesa Dam are the most scenic parts of the course. My legs feel lighter and turn over quickly. I take big gulps of soot-free air. My internal camera snaps pictures of the lake, the trees, the winding road, the gardens. While the hills are a welcome break from the otherwise flat course, my legs quickly grow tired. The near-absence of hill training is showing.  

Black shirt starts to tire at the turnaround point. I start the second half alone, then play cat and mouse with some runners in front of me. Runners en-route to the mid-way point offer encouraging words as our paths cross.

Back on Commonwealth Avenue, the crowd has grown. More spectators, more vendors, more jeepneys, more taxis, more tricycles. By kilometer 25, the crowd of runners swells. The marathon runners are joined runners in the shorter distances. Navigating through runner-traffic is not unlike weaving in and out of vehicle traffic.

I'm slowing down, but I don't have any kick left in me. I've had both my gels. I'm counting down the remaining distance in "UP laps." My head and legs know what they feel with five, four, three, two, one more lap to go.  The actual lap around the academic oval feels great. As I exit the campus, I tell myself that I'm starting the penultimate lap. It's a comforting thought.

On Garcia, I hear a familiar voice. "Go Chris!" It's the laundry lady from RnJ Laundry. I'm delighted she's come out to watch the race.

With a kilometer left to go, onlookers are cheering wildly. Everyone seems to be yelling "only 200 meters left" - it's a looooong 200m. It's a relief to finally cross the finish line.
QCIM 2010 Medal
Finisher's medal
*     *     *
Some finishing thoughts

The race wasn't particularly fast, at least by international standards. 
It could be because of the heat, the pollution, the humidity, the hills or any combination of these factors.The first male and female finishers run the race in 2:22:48 and 2:54:00, respectively. (The world records for the marathon are 2:03:59 - Haile Gebrselassie and 2:15:25 - Paula Radcliffe.) 

Post-race people-watching is a snapshot of life in Quezon City. ~ Sandwiched between the post-race water kiosk and the Powerade kiosk is a vendor. He's selling cigarettes. In fifteen minutes, he makes a grand total of zero sales. ~ 
Street children mill around the finishing line. They collect empty plastic bottles. I give my unopened bottle of Powerade to a young girl. ~ Random runners approach me, inquiring if I am "the woman who runs at UP." They ask to have their picture taken with me. I happily oblige, and wonder what they will do with a photo of them with a sweat-drenched foreigner.  

Zorro is at the awards ceremony, decked out in full Zorro regalia. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to make it out to the UP campus for the race. He cheers loudly as the winners are announced, making up for his earlier absence. I say my good-byes.

*     *     *
My race by the numbers

  • 3:22:13 (gun time); 3:22:01 (chip time)
  • 31st overall (out of 526)
  • 9th female (out of 48) or 3rd, excluding the Kenyans (aka gazelles) 

*     *     *
QCIM links

Race photos
Race results
Kenyans run show in Quezon City International Marathon (Philippine Star)

Kenyans dominate QC International Marathon (GMANews.tv)

♪♫♪ It's a small world after all ♫♪♫

Have you ever traveled, told someone you were from Canada and had them respond: 

"Oh, I met [insert random first name] from Canada. I think (s)he lives in [insert Canadian city]. Do you know him/her?

You smile, then shake your head with regret. You explain that there are 33 million people in Canada and that your home city is actually several hundred kilometers away from their friend's city. 

On rare occasions, however, you discover a connection.

It's thrilling. It's satisfying. It rekindles memories. It takes you back in time to another part of your life.

*     *     *  

In 2004-2005 I was an intern with Honey Care Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. One of the highlights was "running with the Kenyans" (or more precisely, running in their dust). 

For several months, I trained with Sam. On weekdays, we'd meet at 6:00am in the Nairobi Arboretum. The Arboretum was a short mile or so from Kat and my apartment in Westlands; Sam's place was 10km away. We'd run a workout together. He'd pace me through intervals, fartleks, easy runs, hill runs, etc. On the occasional weekend we'd do a long run, a special hill workout or a training session at the airport. He'd give me running tips about clothing (the Kenyans have known about the benefits of compression workout and recovery attire long before compression gear surfaced in North American running stores), nutrition, sleep, etc.

My workouts with Sam were the "easy" part of his training regime. I think he enjoyed the challenge of teaching a "mzungu" (white person) how to run. After our morning sessions, he would run home (another 10km), rest a few hours, then do his "real" workout. 

Sam can run a sub-60 half-marathon. That's fast. Really fast. The world record is 58:23.

*     *     *  

After finishing the marathon I wander around Quezon Memorial Circle, sample running nutrition products, enjoy a short post-race massage. Near the stage, a live band entertains a large crowd of families. It's only 8:30am. 

A group of African runners sits at the base of a small monument. They look cool and refreshed, having already changed out of their racing singlets and shorts. They don't look tired. I'm in awe. African runners are to me what Maurice Richard, Wayne Gretzy and Sidney Crosby are to Canadian boys.

Like at every race, I scan the faces, hoping for a familiar one. No luck.

I approach the group. After exchanging pleasantries and politely asking about their races, I inquire if any of them are Kenyans. Everyone nods.  

Then I pop the question.

"Do you know Sam from Nanyuki? He trains at the airport in Nairobi and does workouts at the big hill. The one where you can see zebras and giraffes - it's about a 45 minute matatu ride from the Nairobi Arboretum."

It's a long shot. There are 39+ million Kenyans. Still, the circle of elite runners can't be that big. 

There's a pause, then a young man nods. 

"Yes, I know Sammy."

We swap stories. He tells me that he's from Nanyuki. He trains both in Nanyuki (to reap the benefits of high altitude training) and in Nairobi. He does workouts at the airport and the hill outside Nairobi. He runs with Sam.

Before parting ways, he takes my hastily scribbled note and agrees to deliver it to Sam.

On the walk home, I marvel at how small the world is. 

*     *     *

I'm looking forward to trying the workouts my new friend promises to send. And I'm especially looking forward to testing them with my running partner back in Montreal.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Three sleeps

Only three short nights left until the big day. The butterflies are already fluttering about in my stomach.

My training has shifted into taper mode, the pre-race period one to two weeks before a major competition in which you lay off the hard training so that your body is well-rested.  With the reduced mileage comes (slightly) more time for writing.

*      *      *
As many a long distance runner will attest, training has its ups and downs (figuratively, and in ideal training conditions, literally too). Training in a tropical country while doing fieldwork poses its own suite of challenges. Here are some training highlights and hiccups.

*      *      *
Training for a marathon often entails following a plan with a variety of workouts – tempo runs, hills, intervals, recovery runs, LSDs, cross-training and rest. Some runners (present company included) are neurotic about designing the ideal program, calculating target pacing, completing all workouts and meticulously recording everything in a training log.

My current training regime, however, is very unstructured. The terrain, the climate, the research, the pollution, the travel and the availability of cross-training activities all affect what I can and cannot do.

LSD Runs
Long slow distance runs are a key component of any training program, especially for the marathon. I usually look forward to them as they offer opportunities for exploring new places or long chats with running partners. In Quezon City, there’s really only one place to escape pollution and traffic for effective LSDs: UP Diliman.

The academic oval at UP Diliman campus

I run laps around the academic oval. Running laps makes it easy to track mileage and avoid carrying fuel. Running laps can also be repetitive and boring. I change direction every couple of laps to ‘spice things up.’ I change my stride to match the song playing on my iPod. There are ~1000 songs on the iPod but I usually listen to the same playlist on LSDs. Here’s a sample of the songs and their elicited response.

ABBA (various) … warm-up
Avril Lavigne (various) … picking-up-the-pace … flashback to counting bird blood parasites in my undergrad
The Buggles (Video killed the radio star) … head bobbing … flashback to recovery runs with the Queen’s x-country team  
Paul Simon (various) … lip sync
Moby (Bodyrock) … flashback to surfing (à la kayak) on Big Joe … press repeat 2-3 times to extend the exhilaration
Shakira (various) … dancing on the run
The White Stripes (My doorbell)… light steps

The penultimate long run (in training) was last Tuesday.

Eighteen laps.
Eighteen long laps.
Made especially long because my iPod batteries died.

It was only when I was leafing through my housemate’s copy of “Runner’s World Philippines” that I learned that the academic oval is 2.2km and not 2km. So with the warm up, I had run a marathon.

Only two LSDs were done somewhere other than the academic oval. One in Nagoya, Japan. One in Legaspi, Philippines. While the weather was cooler in the former and made for better running, I preferred running in the latter. Picture running next to the sea in the wee hours of the morning. In the distance is Mount Mayon, a near-perfect conical active volcano and the pride and joy of Legaspi.

*      *      *
My preferred food during LSDs is dried mango. Dried mango is cheap (especially compared to gels which are twice the price as those sold in Canada). It is readily available at grocery stores. It is easy to stash in the bushes (so that I don't have to carry it on me throughout the run). I keep a few bags of dried mango in the freezer - away from the mice and geckos that manage to chew their way through just about all food packages.

Staying hydrated is critical for training in the heat. Most sports drinks make me gag; they are either too sweet or taste articificial. My first race here was sponsored by Pocari Sweat, which turns out to be palatable and effective. Since then, the drink has been my liquid fuel of choice.

I've discovered that fresh buko juice after a long run does wonders for speeding up recovery. It's cool, refreshing, filled with nutrients, and somehow reduces soreness the following day. It has become part of my routine to stop in the barangay of San Vincente on the jog back home. The young buko seller carefully splits open a young coconut, drains the juice into a plastic bag and finally scoops out the flesh. If it’s not too hot outside I save it for after my shower. If it’s unbearably hot, I drink up immediately.

*      *      *
The Ananda Márga Yoga Centre in Sikatuna Village is a 25 minute walk or a 25 peso tricycle ride from my place. When in Metro Manila, I do an hour and a half yoga session once or twice a week. The classes are probably the reason why I have, knock on wood, remained relatively healthy and injury-free these past few months. I’m counting on the yoga sessions this week to help my legs recover from last weekend’s spelunking expedition. (It wasn’t such a great idea training-wise but exploring the Calbiga Caves in Samar was too good an opportunity to pass up.)

*      *      *
Runners don’t make for good foot models. Their heels and toes are calloused and blistered. Their toenails are either missing or purple.

The right pair of running socks can make a big difference in minimizing the damage. Knowing my feet, I brought two pairs of running socks with me from Canada. As of this morning, one half of each pair of socks has disappeared at the laundry. Unfortunately my two pairs of socks are different thicknesses so they can’t be used as a pair. And so, tomorrow I must venture into the malls in search of a new pair of running socks.

*      *      *
Zorro is a fixture on UP Diliman campus. No one knows his real name or story. I am told that once upon a time he was a brilliant student studying physics and mathematics at the university. Then something happened. He dropped out of school. He began sporting his now-famous costume - a Zorro mask and cape - and spending his days encouraging joggers exercising around the UP academic oval. Every lap Zorro flashes a giant grin and high fives me. He usually says something along the lines of "you run fast beautiful lady." My face is already flushed from the heat and the exercise, and hides my embarrassment. Zorro told me he’ll be there for the marathon and will for cheer me.

*      *      *
The countdown to the Second Quezon City International Marathon has begun. Three sleeps, two easy runs, one jaunt to a running store ‘til the start gun fires at 4:30am on Sunday.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Chocolate hills, butterflies and rainbows

The title sounds like a Lucky Charms cereal knock-off, doesn't it? This post, however, is not about a sugar-overload cereal, but rather about a day spent playing tourist in Bohol. Bohol, according to the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia, is the place where even the carabao (water buffalo) chew slowly.

The day begins at the Tagbilaran airport, a small one-room (+ comfort rooms) airport in Bohol's capital city. The young woman at the tourist desk offers a binder listing accommodation options. She suggests a one-day tour package that includes all the major land-based tourist sites. I accept.

First stop is at the "blood compact" monument where Miguel Lopez de Legazpi of Spain and Rajah Sikatuna of Bohol signed what is considered the first treaty of friendship between different ethnicities, religions, cultures and civilizations on 16 March 1565. The blood compact part entails mixing a few drops of each man's blood in a cup of wine and drunk by both men.The visit should be a somber experience, but the hot sun, warm sea breeze and vendors hawking overpriced souvenirs is jarringly incongruous.
Blood compact site
A short drive away is the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Baclayon. It is one of the oldest stone churches in the Philippines. It was built of coral stone shortly after the arrival of the Spanish missionaries. The workers used bamboo poles to position the stones and egg whites to cement the stones together.

Bell tower of the historical Baclayon Catholic Church
The old man's face and bushy beard on the left-hand side only appears through the camera's lens (not with the naked eye)
The usual lunch spot is aboard a boat on the Loboc River. I opt to delay lunch and walk around the town instead.
Floating restaurant on the Loboc River
One of Bohol's main attractions are its tarsiers, the world's smallest monkeys. Very few of them are left in the wild so a tourist's best chance of seeing them is at the Tarsier Centre. While the tarsiers are considered adorable must-sees, you can't help but feel an uncomfortable and guilty pleasure in your visit. Tarsiers are nocturnal (active at night). Tourist centres are diurnal (active during the day). Tourist wishes (and dollars, pesos, euros and yen) trump animal behaviour. I know that zoos can play a key role in teaching people about biodiversity issues and in instilling an "ohhhhh, we must protect [insert charismatic species name]" commitment in people, but the whole experience at the Tarsier Centre is too Barnum and Bailey sideshow-ish for me.
Lizard eying tourists at the Tarsier Centre
Sleep-deprived tarsiers subjected to yet another camera-happy tourist (including yours truly)
The next stop on the tour is the Butterfly Centre. After touring the Tarsier Centre I'm not too keen on visiting another tourist spot that objectifies wildlife. My misgivings quickly disappear. I am like a little kid in a candy store. The young guide cheerfully answers all sorts of questions about butterflies in the Philippines - their life cycle, migratory routes, preferred foods, toxins, predators, etc. Many of the exhibits are hands-on and under the supervision of trained staff: giant caterpillars crawling along your hands, walking through a covered butterfly garden, gently poking live pupae. Perhaps it is the educational focus that made the experience so much richer and enjoyable than the tarsier experience.
A caterpillar crawls along my bracelet

Pulsing chrysalis in the garden (when you touch it, it wiggles) 

Butterfly pupae at various stages of development (collected from the butterfly garden)

Butterfly feeding on nectar in the butterfly garden 
The drive to Carmen is broken up with a short stop at the "man-made mahogany forest." (Many of the Filipina women I've encountered have been involved in environmental and tree-planting activities so I imagine the forest is also "women-made" and the frequently used moniker is a misnomer.) 

Between the towns of Loboc and Bilar lies a two kilometer stretch of densely planted mahogany trees whose long limbs arch gracefully over the highway. The trees were planted to stem erosion of the steep hills lining the road. Every year groups plant more mahogany trees (no other species of vegetation). The forest a popular site for roadside picnics and movie backdrops. The atmosphere is remarkably similar to that of Vancouver Island's Cathedral Grove. 

Admiring the "man-made forest"
The penultimate stop is at the Chocolate Hills, the fabled Hershey Kiss lookalikes of Bohol. They consist of 1268 treeless similar-sized hills in an area of about 50 square kilometers. To determine the exact number of hills, the barangays located within the Chocolate Hills' area were tasked with counting the hills within their jurisdiction (sans-aide of satellite imagery). The site was nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Chocolate Hills (during the summer they're brown like Hershey Kisses)
Timing is key to visiting these gems. During the rainy season the hills turn a splendid green colour. In the dry summer months (March to May), they become milk chocolate mounds. At dawn and dusk it's easy to understand why the hills inspire storytellers. (In one story the giant Arogo fell in love with a mortal named Aloya. When Aloya died, Arogo could not stop crying; his tears dried into the Chocolate Hills. Another legend purports the mounds are the poisoned dung of a mischievous carabao that ate all the crops of the townspeople.) Light carves around the hills. Shadows dance. Morning mist glistens. I happened to visit mid afternoon in the middle of a gentle rain. A full double rainbow materializes after the rain ends.

A rainbow arches over the Chocolate Hills after a light afternoon rain
The last mandatory stop of the tour is a souvenir shop en route back to Tagbilaran. I hadn't planned on spending any money there. (I prefer to buy souvenirs from the artisans themselves after a lengthy conversation about their art, how they acquired their skills, etc.) But funky jewelry is my Achilles' heel, and the store has it in spades.

With a lighter wallet and a heavier backpack, my tour of Bohol ends.  

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bicycle benefits in Tacloban

Tied to the fence outside Tacloban's City Hall is a sign. It captures the small town, laid-back, joie-de-vivre atmosphere of Leyte's capital city. It made me stop, grin, take out my notebook and jot down some notes. My camera batteries had died and so, unfortunately, there's no picture to accompany this post.

*     *     *
Picture a one square meter sign. White background. Logos of the City of Tacoblan and the One Way Bike Club up top. A goofy-looking cartoon cyclist sporting lycra shorts, a striped tee and helmet sits atop a bicycle. Text written in black comic sans ms font surrounds the picture, labeling the various parts like an anatomy diagram. The text reads (copied verbatim from the sign):

  • Gives you legs of steel 
  • Zero emissions
  • Slows down global warming
  • Whizzes past traffic jam
  • No need to pay for gas, parking fees or auto insurance ... hurray 
  • Quiet as a mouse
  • Faster and easier than walking
  • It feels like flying
  • It carries your goodies home [pointing to the basket]
  • Put a big fat smile on your face
  • Shapes up that bootie
  • The Earth sends a lil extra luv to those on bicycles (this is scientifically documented)
*     *     *
I hope this short description evokes a smile from all cycling enthusiasts reading this post, and perhaps a small twinge of excitement for next spring's biking season.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Petals of Power

I've thought a lot about power and privilege these past two months. Actually, I've struggled with the concepts of power and privilege since 2003, when I first read Peggy McIntosh's 1988 essay "White privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack". It's a landmark piece of anti-racism literature.Instead of discussing racism and social hierarchies in terms of the disadvantages suffered by marginalized individuals or groups, she focuses on the oft-unacknowledged and protected advantages enjoyed by the dominant group. She argues that this latter group carries "an invisible package of unearned assets which they can count on cashing in each day." While McIntosh's arguments have since been criticized as outdated apologetic white guilt, her call to examine power and privilege remains pertinent.  

I'm a white, educated, English-speaking, middle-class, straight young woman from the global North
. Thus, by virtue of where, when and to whom I was born, I came to embody just about all of the "dominant " or "majority" traits that are synonymous with power and privilege. I carry an invisible knapsack of privilege.  

McIntosh made me squirm
. I became the rhinoceros who stole the Parsee's cake, writhing with discomfort in my own skin. I was disgusted, repulsed, frustrated at my undeserved privilege. What if ...  no, when, would the veil be lifted? Who would call my bluff? When would I be exposed as a fraud? What would happen if others realized discovered my achievements resulted from nothing more than lucky circumstances? And, most troubling, what about the real majority pushed to the margins?  

During my first experience in the global South (aka developing country, third world country, underdeveloped country, 
...), McIntosh's words sprang off the page. It was like the start of a Disney movie in which the opening frame is of a thick weathered leather tome. Inside, the opening lines read "Once upon a time in a faraway land, ...". The words then morph into animated princesses, dragons and other creatures. You are swept away and enraptured by the shift from symbols to images. Except for one key difference. Disney movies make you feel good. Being put on a pedestal because of your skin colour has the opposite effect.

My most visceral reactions to white privilege and power have taken place on jail premises
. In Kenya, cops rounded up a dozen street boys and had them stand shirtless, shoulder to shoulder so the thief could be identified, then punished for assault with a weapon and robbery. In a Ghanaian holding cell, a young teenager pleaded that I not press charges against him for stealing my bicycle and soccer cleats. And now in the Philippines, a visit to the Morong 43 elicited hopeful comments from the imprisoned men and women health workers that, with the support of the international community, they would soon be freed. White skin can open doors that are usually locked for locals. Sometimes, as in the former two cases, they are doors you never want to have opened, not because of the initial crime, but because being asked to decide the fate of another human being is a horrible experience.

*     *     *

Some brief reflections on my research, power and privilege

I plan to use "participant videography" or "participant authored audiovisual stories"
 as a research method. In other words, it will be the vulnerable groups of people who will hold the camera. They will choose what to include in the frame, which stories to tell. If all goes as planned, their films will be used to share their experiences - ones that are often ignored and/or untold - with government officials and policy-makers at various levels, with the aim of informing critical, relevant and thoughtful policies and programs

Participant videography and other participatory methods are part of my attempt to shift the balance of power so that it is more equally shared among the research participants and
 myself as the primary researcher. (As an aside, Naila Kabeer has done some very interesting work on sharing power.)  

Indeed, it is ironic that it is a white girl from afar who claims to struggle with undeserved power and privilege is trying to "give a voice to the voiceless"
. And yes, parallels can be drawn between the proposed research and well-meaning NGOs, development agencies and missionaries who can cause more problems than they fix, and ultimately create dependencies. But it is a calculated risk, and one I think is worth taking ... so long as I never forget my invisible knapsack.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A rainy day in pictures

My second purchase after arriving in the Philippines was a bright yellow umbrella. Like many Filipina women, most of the time I use it as a parasol to shade myself from the hot hot sun.

Today, the umbrella was put to its intended use. As you'll see from the pictures below, trying to stay dry with nothing but an umbrella in such rains is akin to plugging a crack in a dam with a pebble. These pictures were taken in the higher parts of Quezon City and don't quite capture the intensity of the rains.

Young boys embrace the rain at Philcoa (the Philippines Coconut Authority, aka the centre of the universe)
Engine-powered tricycle drivers waiting for customers

Human-powered tricycle drivers wait for passengers
Motorcycle drivers cheerfully wait out the downpour under the overpass
Business is brisk for this umbrella vendor
Jeepneys and buses are reluctant amphibious vehicles

A crowd gathers at the mall entrance waiting for the rains to let up

* * *
My first purchase was a mobile phone.

Human rights on a rainy day

Yesterday I returned to home sweet home (in Quezon City) from a whirlwind UN mission in Nagoya, Japan. I attended part of the Tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 10) to launch some of the youth biodiversity educational materials I've been developing over the past year. While there is much I could write about, there are two key areas that are currently occupying my thoughts.

*     *      *

Once again, I find myself extremely frustrated and at odds with Canada's official position in international negotiations. Briefly, Canada is obstructing the passage of an internationally binding access and benefit-sharing regime at COP 10. Canada refuses to include the text "respect the right rights of indigenous peoples" in an agreement that spells out how genetic material from plants and animals is obtained (e.g. for use in food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, etc.) and how the benefits are shared. Much of information about the uses of biodiversity is based on the traditional knowledge (aka local knowledge or indigenous knowledge) of indigenous people, so recognizing them should be a no-brainer

Canada's position reeks of hypocrisy, given Stephen Harper's June 11, 2008 apology to Canada's Aboriginal Peoples and his pledge to prevent a recurrence of the attitudes that allowed Indian residential schools. At times like this, I am embarrassed to be Canadian.

COP 10 ends Friday. There are two short days for Canadians to write their Members of Parliament, expressing their concern for the future of life on Earth and their support to recognize the value of knowledge created, tested, revised and transmitted over generations.

*     *      *

Tomorrow I visit the Morong 43It's a day I've been alternately looking forward to and dreading for weeks. It's going to be an emotional roller coaster. How do you prepare yourself for the stories of health workers arrested during a health skills training and detained for the past eight months on the grounds they are members of the New People's Army and in possession of illegal weapons and explosives?

A young man from Selda, an organization for former political prisoners, will take me to visit the women in the morning, including two women who gave birth during their imprisonment. At one pm we'll visit the men. A cautionary email sent from the head of Bayan this afternoon reads "BTW, you will be strip searched before you visit with them because it is in the male section where drug violators, the principal suspect for the Maguindanao massacre, SUSPECT and many innocent Muslims accused of being Abu Sayaff." 

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And that, in a nutshell, are two key issues swirling around in my head this rainy day in Quezon City.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dishing on Food Sovereignty for World Food Day

This post is a modified version of a communiqué I co-wrote. If the story gets picked up by the local press, I will add the links.

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International workshop explores food sovereignty issues for World Food Day

16 October, 2010 (Quezon City)

Food is a subject very near and dear to most Filipinos. On 14 and 15 October, it was the focus of a lively and thought-provoking international workshop entitled “Southeast Asian Perspectives on Food Sovereignty,” hosted by the Third World Studies Centre (TWSC) at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

Food sovereignty is a critical economic, cultural, biological and political issue, at both the national and international levels. It is, as defined in the landmark 2007 Declaration of Nyeleni, “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers.”

Thirty participants from the academe, civil society, social and farmers’ movements and local governments examined and debated pressing issues spanning agrarian reform policies, the right to food, land grabbing, biofuels and land conversion, public-private partnership, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and biotechnology, nutrition, farmer’s rights, seed savings and intellectual property rights (IPR), organic production and marketing, global food crisis and economic policies, gender and food sovereignty, and the effects of climate change on food production.

The participants explained the complex and sometimes difficult relationship of government and non-government actors in ensuring a country’s food sovereignty. They also emphasized the need for Southeast Asian countries to be self-sufficient in food production. Organic food production was also pushed for, as such will benefit farmers’ ability to independently produce and will result in healthful food. Violence against farmers and cultures by landlords and transnational companies was also highlighted. International trends and regional initiatives for food sovereignty were critiqued.

The workshop was TWSC’s contribution to the celebration of World Food Day. Each year on 16 October, people around the world observe World Food Day to highlight issues behind poverty and hunger. This year’s theme – United against hunger – recognizes the efforts made in the fight against world hunger at the national, regional and international levels. World hunger is a growing phenomenon; soaring food prices and the global financial crisis contributed to record numbers of hungry people in 2009, when the number surpassed one billion hungry people for the first time.

The event was co-organized by the TWSC, Southeast Asian Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE) and Transnational Dynamics and Collective Action Research Network (REDTAC) of the University of Montreal, and funded by the University of Montreal and the International Development Research Center Canada.

The full workshop proceedings will be published as part of a special issue of Kasarinlan, the official journal of the TWSC.

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SEARICE is a regional NGO working on community-based conservation development and sustainable utilization of plant genetic resources and upholding of farmers’ rights.

The Third World Studies Center (TWSC) of the University of the Philippines is an academic research institute based at the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy (CSSP), committed to analyze and develop alternative perspectives on Philippine, regional and global issues. TWSC focuses on globalization, social movements, democratic governance, peace and human security, and culture and identity.

REDTAC is a research network based at the University of Montreal (Canada) that brings together scholars and civil society advocates interested in analyzing cross-border flows and dynamics (such as food sovereignty, migration, extractive industries, etc.) and how collective action is increasingly organized transnationally. For those of you who read French and are interested in the food crisis, food sovereignty in Quebec (and elsewhere), and related issues I recommend reading the summer 2010 edition of Possibles (REDTAC's blog).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The sounds of Quezon City

Not understanding a language has its advantages. When the content and meaning of conversations are beyond comprehension, other aspects of the soundscape come into focus -  the tone of human voices, the natural sounds, the human-induced sounds, the everyday sounds that meld into the background over time. 

My daily soundscape in Quezon City

Soft beep-beep-beep of a travel alarm clock
Whirring, cooling, mosquito-repelling fan
Soft beep-beep-beep of a travel alarm clock
Soft beep-beep-beep of a travel alarm clock
Soft beep-beep-beep of a travel alarm clock
Cheery "good morning ma'am" en route to UP 

A thousand different ringtones interrupting meetings, conferences, presentations
Speakers blaring sappy love songs and dance music in grocery stores
Christmas carols
Clapping and singing of store staff ... always on cue

Bounce, bounce, bounce of aspiring basketball stars on barangay courts
Children's laughter from behind school gates and on city streets

Whimsical melody of the ice cream pedal-bikes
Slow deep shouts of mobile food vendors
Sizzling oil frying fish balls, quail eggs, bananas, sweet potatoes ...

Tap, tap, tap of the keyboard
"You are listening to a CBC podcast"
[musical interlude]

Constant drone of traffic
Shrill whistle blows from grocery store security men, directing traffic
Tricycle engines coughing, sputtering, revving
Gentle horns of considerate drivers alerting others of their presence
Hammer-on-the-horn-as-hard-as-you-can beeping of jeepney and taxi drivers

Inhale, exhale
Inhale ... upward-facing dog
Exhale ... downward-facing dog
Two breaths, relax 

Lively voices animate Filipino talk radio programmes
Videoke versions of American, Korean and Filipino pop music
Survivor Philippines, Taglish news, celebrity tv banter
Hair ads promising luscious, silky, straight, dandruff-free manes

Bounce, bounce, bounce of the aspiring basketball star next door, practicing his shot for the zillionth time
Pop, bang, pop POP of fireworks in the night sky

Faint pitter-patter, pitter-patter of mouse footfalls
Silent night

Sunday, October 10, 2010


The inevitable happened.

Friday morning in a crowded MRT (light rail transit). Commuters packed into transit cars like sardines. Bodies pressing up against each other, moulding into each other, squirming to create space. Hands everywhere. Some protectively covering valuables and body parts, others wandering and made invisible, masked by the mass of bodies.

Such opportunistic theft is not uncommon. While lamenting the loss over coffee at the conference, another man piped up. He'd had the same experience on his commute that same morning. These items are very rarely retrieved. It won't be another case of "kobra" (go-and-come-back) like my orange bicycle in Ghana.

It was only a phone, the cheapest, simplest, most generic Nokia available on the market. For the pick-pocket, gleefully anticipating an expensive iPhone, Blackberry or other smartphone, the prize was a disappointment. For the pick-pocketed, the event was a reminder to remain ever alert and a lucky break that it was only a phone.