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.