September 7, 2003 - Personal Web Page: Journal entries of Elaine Needleman who is currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines.

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Journal entries of Elaine Needleman who is currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines.

Journal entries of Elaine Needleman who is currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines.

Saturday, August 30, 2003
A really disturbing event took place here last weekend involving a female Canadian volunteer. She was at a festival in a neighboring town, and was asked to dance by a guy who was drunk. She declined and proceeded later on to dance with some other people. The drunk guy then attacked and beat her with a club. We, in the West, are of course horrified by this story. My Filipino hosts, on the other hand, had a very clear explanation for the incident. She had caused him to loose face, plain and simple. And loosing face is the worst thing that can happen to an Asian.

Filipinos don’t condone this sort of barbaric behavior, and my colleagues in the Governor’s office would like to press criminal charges against the guy. However, it’s not considered an unprovoked act of violence. My language instructor explained it like this, “She should not have gone and danced with someone else, especially since the first guy that asked her was drunk. This is sure to provoke him to attack her or the guy she’s dancing with.”

Wow, what a lesson in cultural sensitivity. We discussed this sort of thing during our training, and were told not to decline to dance with one person and then dance with another. I could see how this would be considered rude especially in a small barangay, but they never explained the drunken scenario to us. I think most women would steer clear of a drunken guy, but what we don’t instinctively understand as Western women is that we are now off limits to anyone else, and all our fun at the party has to cease.

I can see how my girlfriends back in the States might think that my life here is really restricted as a female. And honestly, come to think of it, it really is. I never travel alone at night, and when I do go out it’s always with a group of friends to a place we know, and we take care to get each other home safely. In fact, I only go out at night about once or twice a month. I am careful not to give too much information out to men I don’t know, and am extremely conservative in their presence. If a man asks if I have a boyfriend (a very common question here), I tell him I am married and that my husband is here in Kalibo.

There are a lot of guys that hang out at the tennis court in front of my house. They are all safe, and my host family knows them very well. They often sit around and drink a few beers after a match, and always ask me to join. I never sit and have a beer with them unless my friend Alexandra, the German volunteer, or Karla, my PCV site mate, is there. It just isn’t considered proper for a woman to be drinking with a bunch of guys, even if they are her host family and their close friends.

I am also very careful when I do go out not to drink more than one or two beers over the course of a night. I am constantly on my guard, and want to be able to handle any situation that arises, especially in a bar or at a festival. Truthfully, I pretty much always feel like a potential target. And it’s really not because I am a foreigner. It’s primarily because I’m a female in a country that does not afford the same cultural (not civil) rights to women.

I don’t get angry about it though. I just accept that that’s the way things are here. If I feel the need to say something, it’s usually to a female peer in the context of a conversation about women’s issues in general. I am careful not to attack the cultural norms here, rather I just explain that things are different where I am from.

posted by Elaine at 3:56 PM

Monday, August 11, 2003
I am working with a fantastic group of high school students on an environmental club at the Regional Science High School. These kids are very bright and motivated. They have to test into their school. Most will go on to study chemistry, biology, medicine, mathematics, engineering, etc in college, and will probably wind up working abroad.

I have taken over the project from a past PCV. The club does environmental camps, nature walks, beach clean-ups, etc. We just recruited and interviewed our new members, and will hold nomination meetings for officers tomorrow.

There are two teacher advisors for the program, but in the past most of the program work has fallen to the PCV. It was the sole project of the former volunteer, but only one of mine, so I will really need the teachers’ support and involvement in activities. At the first meeting with the students, one of the teacher advisors mentioned that she wanted the students to hold elections for officer positions, but the president from last year would automatically be reinstated because she had done a great job. That didn’t sit well with me, but I choose not to challenge her directly in front of the students. The girl, Marga, is fantastic, and I would love to see her re-elected, but I thought we were sending a horrible message to the kids about ditching democratic principles when they didn’t suit our needs. I asked for a meeting with the teacher today, and we discussed the issue. She said there was precedent in the school for doing such appointments. The teachers had a right to make sure that the clubs were led by responsible and committed individuals. I shared her concern, but tactfully insisted that if Marga was the best candidate for the position, she should have no trouble being re-elected. We agreed to lie out the responsibilities of each position so as to try to weed out those students who didn’t have a serious commitment, and would require each of the candidates to make a speech before the election.

I would normally know my place as a foreigner, and not interfere with the way things are done here, but The Philippines is a democracy. Probably the greatest gift the United States has given to the world is democracy, and as an American, I felt it my responsibility to uphold its principles, especially in front of young people.

posted by Elaine at 12:33 PM

Thursday, August 07, 2003
I recently had my first overnight experience in a Philippine hospital. Not nearly as bad as it might sound, but a few of the details are worth sharing. I had spent the better part of the last Sunday in the CR (comfort room) with LBM problems. I must have eaten something or drank some water that didn’t agree with me. Till now I have been drinking the filtered water from my host family’s kitchen. Unfortunately, they don’t boil their water. It’s rainy season and the water gets contaminated much easier (typhoid is a big problem – I’ve had 3 vaccinations but volunteers still seem to get it). I think I’m going to have to switch to the expensive route and buy bottled water. I say it’s expensive, but I can get a 20L water cooler set-up for $1.10 a container. I think it’s worth it.

Anyway, I got really dehydrated after my day in the CR, and felt faint and was running a slight fever. My nanay (host mom) told my host sister to take me to the hospital. I tested negative for anything scary, but spent a day and a half on an IV to replenish the lost fluid.

When I checked in, the nurse led me into a room with a curtain and took my vitals, gave me a dressing gown, etc. Then she took down my personal info. She never asked for my insurance. Luckily I am totally covered by Peace Corps, and the billing goes straight to them. After asking my name, she asked for my religion. I was at Saint Gabriel hospital after all. Was I Catholic? No. Protestant? No. Episcopalian? No. “No religion” was my final answer. “Is that possible?” was the glance from her eyes.

I landed a private room with aircon and t.v. which were a huge treat, and my own CR. Yippee. Thought I was in a hotel. That’s about were the amenities stop though. When the nurse brought me lunch the first day (porridge, macaroni soup, and a boiled fish – head, tail and scales in tack), she asked me if I had a spoon. No, I don’t normally carry one around. She left the room for about 10 minutes and finally came back with one. I don’t know where she got it from, and didn’t really want to ask. When my boss came to visit me, she brought the following with her – a plate, bowl, teacup, glass, fork, spoon, knife, toilet paper, hand soap, and lots of food – fruit, crackers, bottled water, and tea. Thank goodness. She explained that Filipinos bring all these things from home when they go to the hospital. Maybe I could understand not providing the others, but hand soap and toilet paper? Seems like elementary hygiene to me. My boss also had to go to the hospital pharmacy and pick up all my meds and IV packs, and gave them to the nurses.

Every patient needs a “kasama” (companion) in the hospital. My fellow PCV Karla took care of me and spent the night in my room on the couch. Karla had to go out of the town the second day though and by then I was feeling much better, so sent her on her way in the morning. Every nurse that came into my room that day asked me where she was and why she left. It’s unthinkable for them that I would be left alone.

I’ll try not to be too graphic, but the story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the gathering of the dreaded “stool” sample. The gave me the smallest jar known to man, about the size of a thimble, to do my business in. Most westerners are bigger than Filipinos, but this was going a little too far. My dominant hand, my right, was incapacitated due to the IV, so I tried to collect it with my left. Thankfully, the toilet paper and hand soap had arrived by then.

posted by Elaine at 9:44 AM

Saturday, July 19, 2003
Today, I was an observer at a Disabled Persons celebration in Kalibo. There were two groups of elementary schoolchildren participating – those that are mentally retarded, and those that are speech impaired. There were also quite a few adults with deformed limbs on crutches. I have yet to see a wheelchair on my island. One man was particularly impressionable. All four of his limbs were cut off below the elbow/knee. I am not sure how one person winds up with enough misfortune to lose both hands and feet, but there he was walking up to the event on kneepads that acted as his shoes. He climbed the stairs, and just plopped down in a low chair. Some people just aren’t prepared to let anything stand in their way I guess.

I was busy listening to the guest speakers, particularly the governor, when I looked over and noticed a bunch of the speech-impaired students trying desperately to get my attention. When I finally noticed them, they started jumping up and down and waving and smiling. I waved and smiled back, and then tried to continue watching the program so as not to disturb the governor who was in the middle of his speech. Next thing I know, 20 kids are swarming around me trying to get my autograph. I was really afraid the hosts of the event would find this very disruptive, but I looked over and all the adults seemed to think it was great and encouraged me to interact with the kids. I wrote down my name, that I was with the Peace Corps, and that I hailed from the United States. Some kids even had me sign their hats. They were signing franticly at me with their hands, but I am having enough trouble just trying to understand Aklanon, and was pretty clueless as to most of their questions/comments. Finally, they started to write them down. They all wanted to know how old I was, and if I was married or had a boyfriend. When I told them no, they couldn’t understand why I was 32, not married, and didn’t have children. I just smiled. Then they started asking me if I was Julianne Moore or Ashley Judd. I pointed to my signature on their pieces of paper, and shook my head no. Then they asked me if I was in the movie GHOSTSHIP. Nope. Then they asked me if I was afraid of ghosts. I shook my head yes.

After the formal program, they held a Special Olympics for the kids. It was raining pretty hard, so they weren’t able to do anything too complex. They held a few fun games for the kids to participate in. I noticed that they were intermixing the retarded children with the speech impaired ones on the same teams. At first, I thought this kind of concerning. There is a really big difference between being mentally impaired and speech impaired. But then I realized, they are all just children, and have learned to accept one another as such.

posted by Elaine at 3:41 PM

Tuesday, July 15, 2003
Bangko – Bank or chair (depending on the intonation)

Anyone who has experienced the joys of banking in the Third World will likely appreciate this entry. Actually to be fair, Peace Corps has gone to great lengths to make banking as easy as possible for us. Now I understand why. They probably were afraid we’d quit if were forced to deal with the banks on a regular basis. Every month, Peace Corps direct deposits my monthly allowance into a savings account. No need to have a checking account here. Cash is king. I have a local ATM card, and am able to get money out of the machine most of the time. They are “off line” an awful lot lately though.

So until today, I had managed to steer clear of the inside of the dreaded bangko. I’d seen the outside from a safe distance – lines of a hundred or more people waiting to transact a few pesos, and that was more than enough to keep me away for as long as possible. Over the last month though, I’ve accumulated a few reimbursement checks for official travel from the provincial government. It was a substantial enough amount of money to force me to face my fears head on, and step directly into the twilight zone of the PNB (Philippine National Bank).

I got a lot of advice from colleagues on the “best” time to go to the bangko. Definitely not on Monday or Friday, or in the beginning of the month. For some reason, I can’t remember why, but Wednesday wasn’t advisable either. So I decided to try Thursday. I also asked what time of day was best. “After 1 pm” was a popular reply, and others advised that lunchtime was also a decent bet. Anyone who knows me well, knows I don’t skip a meal, so it was going to have to be after 1 pm.

I decided to make the most of my afternoon at the bangko, and in addition to the government checks I needed to deposit, I brought along a couple of USD travelers checks to cash. (I paid part of my new bicycle out of my own pocket.) I walked into the bank lobby, and was immediately confronted by about 75 chairs filled with eager customers. (I think it’s more than a coincidence that bangko also means chair). The security guard handed me a number, and offered me a seat. I was #353 and they were only on #260. For a moment, I thought maybe I’d mistakenly stepped into the Department of Motor Vehicles instead of a bank.

Thankfully, one of my fellow PCVs had given me some valuable advice on how to make the process as tolerable as possible. She said, “Take a number, then come back in an hour or so. Do some shopping or go to the Internet Café while you are waiting.” Great advice. So I asked the security guard how long it would be before my number was called, and he said about an hour. So I went off to the Internet Café, and timed my return perfectly, only having to wait another 5-10 minutes for my number to be called. When it was called, it sounded like this, “Numbers 350 –360 please go to teller #3”. There was a mad dash to the counter and nine people threw their blue savings passbook with their deposit slip and checks at the teller, and then returned to their seats. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t have a blue passbook, and I still had a lot of burning questions on how to fill out the damn deposit slip. The teller motioned for me to throw down my stuff, confusing my blue U.S. passport (I needed to show ID for my travelers checks) with the savings passbook. I was so confused I didn’t even know where to begin. She finally took pity on me, and asked me to hand her my papers.

First off, she advised me that they didn’t deposit checks after 2 pm (it was now 2:30pm). Was I understanding her correctly? The bank didn’t want me to put my pesos into its hands? I have never heard of a bank refusing a deposit. Don’t they understand that this is how they make money? Guess not. All my trusty bank advisors had failed to mention the 2pm cut-off for deposits. The teller was very sympathetic though, and said I could come back in the morning and go directly to her counter to deposit my checks. She wasn’t going to make me wait in line again. Great, but not so fast. I still had something to transact; I had my travelers checks. “Oh that’s done way over there at the other side of the bank.” Great, “Do I need another number?” “No, there’s usually not a line there.” So I headed over, and actually had to wait behind a guy that had a wad of about 100 USD$100 bills that the manager was individually checking the authenticity of. I can’t even fathom walking around the streets of Kalibo with that kind of dough. I am afraid to carry more than the equivalent of $10 at a time.

So finally, after an hour and forty-five minutes on the clock, I was ready to try transacting again. The manager asked me if I had a copy of my receipt for the travelers checks. Da, you are supposed to keep that separate from your checks in case they get lost or stolen. No was my official reply. She repeated the question about 5 more times, and each time I gave her the same, single syllable answer. I actually had the receipt in my room, but she wasn’t about to make me go home and get it after all I’d already been through. She looked at my passport, and asked me if I was a tourist. I told her no, that I was a Peace Corps volunteer and lived here. She made me show her my Peace Corps ID and also my ID from the National Volunteer Association of the Philippines. She now had 3 valid forms of ID with my picture and signature in front of her. She then said, “Okay, we’ll need to make a photocopy of your passport, volunteer IDs and the travelers checks”. It’s not supposed to be this difficult, but okay, whatever you need to do. “That’ll be five pesos for the photocopy, please.” Was she serious? Yes. She called a guy over, handed him all my paperwork and the five pesos, and told him to go make a photocopy. He started to head to the exit of the bank. “Where’s he going? “ I quickly inquired. “Oh, there’s no photocopier here, he needs to go down the street to the copy shop.” I nearly had a coronary. There was no way in Hades this guy was taking my passport, travelers checks, and all my valid forms of ID into the chaotic streets of Kalibo by himself. I bolted up, ran over to him, and we walked to the copy shop together. He probably thought I was nuts venturing out of the air-conditioned bangko to walk the hot and polluted streets of Kalibo with him. When we got to the copy shop they had difficulty aligning all my forms of ID and the checks onto the glass in order to get all of it onto one copy. I tried to help them; damned if I was going to shell out another 5 pesos for this fiasco.

We went back to the bangko, and gave all the important paperwork back to the manager. She asked me for my passport again, and copied down all the necessary information onto the travelers checks. What the hell was the photocopy for then? Anyway, she finished her part of the deal, and then sent me over to the other side of the bank again to have more paperwork completed. I had to take another seat. Finally, I was called up to the desk to sign some more important paperwork. There were three customers already seated at the desk, and none of them made room for me to sit and sign the papers, so I literally had to lay them down on the desk in front of them and bend over their shoulder to sign my name. I thought I was finally at the end of bangko torture, but no, I had to head back to the very first teller I’d met that day to actually receive my pesos. Ah, right back to the line where I started. Can barely wait to go again tomorrow morning to deposit my checks.

posted by Elaine at 3:58 PM

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