Monday, October 29, 2012

Computer woes

What is your computer to you?

  • A source of amusement and distraction?
  • A repository of photos and videos?
  • A means to keep in touch with family and friends via email, Skype, Facebook, Twitter and other social media?
  • A connection to the wider world through news websites?
  • A reminder of home and familiar things?
  • A music, movie, games and podcast player?
  • A work or research tool for storing precious data?
  • An extension of your brain and a requirement to get work done?
What would you do if it died unexpectedly?

The hard drive on our two-and-a-half month old laptop is broken. It happened Friday morning, for no apparent reason.

I'd woken up early to finish the questionnaire for my interviews and the guidelines for the participatory video component of my field research. I'd spent several hours working and reworking them on Thursday. I wanted to bring polished copies to my colleagues at the Third World Studies Center at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, where I am a visiting research fellow.

The laptop turns on, but won't go past the initial black screen with the white writing in the font all computers seemed to use in the 1980s.

F, infinitely more tech-savvy than me, patiently tried every trick he knows to fix the problem. No dice. He's heavily invested in the functioning of the laptop too. To him, it's a connection to home and Canadian life: months worth of video games to play while I'm off conducting interviews, internet-based "geek news" to read, Quirks and Quarks podcasts to listen to while cooking supper, ... In other words, it's a tool for dealing with homesickness, and a means for mitigating culture shock.

F spends Friday traipsing around Quezon City seeking a computer fix. At Philcoa, he alights a jeepney headed for the SM North mall. It has a specialty MSI store (our laptop brand). A traffic cop stops the jeepney. The stop is long enough for F to look back and notice a computer repair shop on the second floor of Philcoa. He disembarks and walks back. He drops the laptop off at the computer repair shop, leaving specific instructions to not format it. Three hours later, he receives a text message asking if the laptop is under warranty. F returns to Philcoa, and declines the offer to physically open the laptop, extract data from the hard drive, thereby voiding the warranty. F hops on another jeepney heading for SM North. The MSI store staff can't do anything except direct him to the MSI service center, which, being October 26th and a holiday, is closed.

On Monday, F continues on his quest. It starts with a chaotic and crushing trip on the MRT (Manila's equivalent of the metro/subway system). The service center consists of three desks. The only staff present tells F that it'll take at least 30 to 45 business days for them to do anything because it's an international warranty, because parts need to be shipped in from Taiwan ... the list goes on. 

*       *       *       *       *

Luckily, we backed up our photos and my research material a few days before "the crash". All F's games and our music and podcasts are gone, as are all of the programs installed on the laptop. 

It is proving to be a frustrating experience, and also one that forces us to think about the central role our computer plays in our lives. It changes the way we think, keep informed and connected, interact with others, keep in touch from afar, and be entertained. The experience is also forcing me to plan out my research with pen and paper - a practice that seems so foreign to me. Depending on how the repairs unfold (or not) will change - to an extent - what I'd planned to do (or how much I planned to spend on replacement equipment).  

Flexibility and a sense of humour... two of the greatest assets a field researcher can possess.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A photo shoot in San Vincente

San Vincente is the second slum F has ever set foot in. The first was a short walk away from his resort in Venezuela. In the market there, you could score a bargain on a Poly Station. Not sure if it was compatible with Play Station games though. On one of his first days in the Philippines, F took photographs San Vincente.
The entrance gate to San Vincente
In politically correct terms, San Vincente is an "informal urban settlement". It's a lively hub of activity a block and a half from our current home in UP Village. Vendors hawk their wares and street food. Small sari-sari shops line the main road selling everything from rice, sachets of Datu vinegar, fresh fish and buko (fresh coconut) to hair clips, cell phone covers and secondhand clothes. Haircuts at the barber are a mere 50 pesos (PhP); pedicures will cost you slightly more. There's a laundry shop where the women will wash, dry and fold your clothes for 25 PhP a kilo.
Sari-sari shop

Just outside the gate separating San Vincente from UP Village, tricycle drivers sneak in catnaps between ferrying customers along Maginhawa Street to Philcoa. The drivers are mostly young men and very friendly. Some blare music from old radios, probably scrounged from recycled parts. The stench of dirty diesel 2-stroke engines wafts through the air.

Tricycle drivers
On the side of the street that receives the most shade are two wire mesh cages. Tethered to each is a handsome rooster. The black and white one is scrawny and shy. His counterpart is much more regal looking with his rich brown, black and green plumes and his slow and deliberate strutting. Both are being groomed as cock fighters.
Rooster on the bridge

The "residential area" is located adjacent to University Avenue. Houses are constructed out of corrugated tin, old pieces of plywood, tarpaulins, and other makeshift building material. There's electricity; some houses have lights, televisions, or even an imitation Play Station. It's cramped. Clothes lines stretch between roofs and trees, connecting neighbours in the daily airing of (previously) dirty laundry.
Laundry hanging out to dry

Everywhere there are children. Running. Skipping. Playing marbles. Laughing. Yelling. Shooting baskets. Carrying school books. Carrying younger children. Fetching this or that for an adult. Drinking soda from a plastic bag. Calling out to the "Americanos". Sneaking looks at the baby "doll".

Children walking to school
A small stream runs through San Vincente. It reeks of urine, garbage and rotting leaves. The stream forks somewhere between the footbridge and the shanties. Right now, there's a mere trickle of water, but whenever a typhoon rolls into Manila the trickle swells and swells and swells. It rises above all the houses, forcing residents into the safety of the second floor of the barangay hall.

San Vincente is a part of our daily lives. We hear the sounds of roosters at dawn (and every other time of day). I buy fresh buko on my way back from morning runs at UP. We stop and chat with the vendors on our way to and from the university. We bring our laundry to the laundry shop.* Someday (I hope), F or I will join the boys in a game of basketball. I chat with other young moms about their babies.

*        *         *        *

The cost of these pictures is 1,000 PhP - not because San Vincente residents demanded money in exchange for being photographed. In fact, many people excitedly asked him to take their picture. No, the fee was an unfortunate accident for F, and a lucky find for the person who found the crisp, bank-machine-ironed bill. From now on, cameras and loose bills will not share the same pocket.

* Well, everything but A's diapers, but more about our daily routine in another post.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The fourth “M”

This blog chronicles the journey (and tangents) of my PhD.

It begins in Montreal, where I am a student in the Université de Montréal’s geography department. Almost immediately it jumps to a tiny street in Quezon City called Mayumi. Mayumi was my home base for my three month exploratory field season in the Philippines in 2010. Then, it returns to Montreal for coursework and comprehensive assessments (neither of which receive much space on these pages). The third “M” refers to an intensive two-month Tagalog (Filipino) language course in Madison, Wisconsin.

Thus we arrive at the fourth “M”: motherhood.

On many occasions, I have been told that there is never a “good time” to have kids. This is particularly true for academics – not as an undergraduate or graduate student (time and financial constraints), not as a post-doc (similar constraints as students), not as a young prof trying to balance a research programme, teaching requirements and administrative duties. The gap in publications that often accompanies parental leave isn’t always looked upon favourably in tenure applications.

And so, for someone (hopefully) headed on a professorial track, the question is not when to have a family but rather how to make it work.

*             *             *             *

Four months ago my husband and I became parents. Thus far, it has been an exhilarating experience.

Motherhood is also changing various dimensions of my PhD, in particular the dynamics of my field research. In this field season, for example, I’m joined by my husband and daughter. While they won’t accompany me to every meeting, interview and event, they will be integral parts of the research process. I anticipate that I will be treated differently, and perhaps privy to different kinds of insights, when people see me as a mother, in addition to being a western woman researcher. Caring for an infant also means that the pace of research is slowed. Plus, it's more challenging to act spontaneously and chase down leads at a moment's notice. 

On a personal level, I'm thrilled to share the highs and lows of new experiences with loved ones in person, and not just via Skype, email and blogs. 

*             *             *             *

And so I enter my main field season with fresh eyes and ears, attuned not only to things relevant to my research project, but also to things relevant to family life.

I invite you to follow along, and to comment on things that intrigue, surprise or provoke you.