Archive for October, 2010

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With the enervating smog and climate in Manila, exercise is far from the mind of the average Filipino.  In fact, one native trait we’ve adopted is doing almost anything to avoid walking; Filipinos will stay on a bus those extra ten feet, take a tricycle to avoid a plodding two blocks, and of course stand on the escalator rather than step up it as impatient Westerners do.  Let me be clear that we’re not talking about laziness here—we’re talking about self-preservation, which is what’s required if you don’t want to always carry a backup shirt (see our earlier post, Sweaty State of Mind).

Despite all of this, as a former coach, one of my goals at Samaritana was to start a fitness group for the women.  My hope was to help them reclaim their bodies through exercise, live healthier lives, and learn important life skills like goal-setting and working through stress, grief, and frustration. Giving this fitness group a big step toward reality was a generous donation of $1,000 in workout clothes and running shoes from Nike, which we boxed up, shipped to Manila, and hoped we’d find there on the other side.

Our first sign that we weren’t in the U.S. any more was a notice from the Quezon City post office telling us that we’d have to pay $375 to have the packages released.  It seemed like a blatant attempt to extort from the Americans; we’d already paid $300 to ship the packages from the US, so this additional fee would almost cancel out the value of the donation! We solicited help from Samaritana, Nike, the Fulbright office, the University of the Philippines, and practically everyone we knew here, but the message was the same: pay or say goodbye to your packages. Our resources exhausted, we made our way to the post office, praying for a miracle to the only One we knew who was bigger than corrupt government officials.

We walked up to the window with a Filipino friend, listened as a woman behind the counter rattled off a conversation in Tagalog, watched as she flipped through a packet of documents we mostly couldn’t read, and then . . . smiled at us, gave us the packages, and we walked away without paying a peso! We got our miracle, and our befuddled Filipino friend said that perhaps there was a new customs official who changed the rules, but that he didn’t really know what had just happened.

Back at Samaritana, I wasn’t sure how the women would respond, but I need not have worried.  During our first meeting, before there was any mention of the Nike donation, the women talked about how they wanted to get stronger so they could pick up their kids without straining their backs, how they hoped exercise would make them feel more awake and alive, and how they wanted to improve their health.

After spending the last four years handing out equipment to my Mills College cross country and track & field teams, I’m used to the usual cheer that accompanies getting a new uniform, feeling like you’re part of the team.  But for the Samaritana women (many of whom have never worn any such affluent exercise wear) the reaction was better described as pure joy.  They walked taller, smiled bigger, and giggled endlessly when they saw each other in Dri-Fit outfits, ready to work out.

Over the past two months, Super Babae (babae, “women” in Tagalog, is pronounced buh-bah-eh) has grown and taken shape, and now includes three morning meetings per week where the women do yoga, strength training, and jogging.  My short-term goal is to teach them these exercises well enough that they can do them without me, and to empower the women to lead each other so the group can continue beyond the immediate future.  In the months to come, I hope that the morning routines will not be mere exercise, but a means to healing a broken past and a distorted view of their bodies.  We’ll work on goal-setting, reframing our perceptions, and learning how to conquer our fears—all through moving our limbs and sweating a lot.

Every morning before we begin, I ask the women to close their eyes, breathe, and acknowledge whatever it is they’re carrying on that particular day—sorrow, anger, fatigue, fear—and to ask God to help them let those negative feelings fall to the floor as they move their bodies.  It’s a small thing, these mornings of teaching them to be aware of their bodies and to push themselves.  But so much of what we’ve learned here is that healing happens not in big, dramatic moments, but in learning to sit with life as it is, flex your muscles against the things that restrict you, and break free when the time is right.


Thank you to Nike for the donation that made Freedom Fitness possible, and thank you to everyone who has supported our work with these incredible women both financially and through your prayers!

*** Warning: the following post may reduce your guilt-free consumption of internet porn ***

Fun-loving web surfers, have you ever paused on your merry way to ask yourselves the question “Boy, where does all that porn come from?” Perhaps not. It’s a question we’d probably rather avoid, right? We just want to complete our transaction, if you will, and move on. (Like eating fast food: don’t ask what’s in it–just fill your appetite.)

In the course of our research leading up to this year abroad, and also in the first three months of our stay in the Philippines, however, we’ve been confronted (to continue the analogy) with the ingredients and the supply chain of this sector of the economy that makes the fast food business look wholesome. Now I believe that there are some women who subsist by selling their bodies who are self-actualized and emancipated, catered nutritious foods, treated respectfully, never been abused, enjoy good health, are paid a dignified salary and 401(k), and go home to loving partners, families, and proud communities. I also believe that it’s possible to be attacked at random by a Great Northwestern Spotted Ferret Bat.

What this video dramatizes in four arresting minutes is a story that is all too common, a story that plays out in apartments, condos, and motel rooms everywhere from California to Calcutta, Miami to Manila. It’s not graphic, but it may be disturbing; don’t watch if you don’t want to see what goes inside this proverbial can of Spam.


“We made connections between men’s demand for and socialization through pornography and the rape, woman battering, and sexual harassment we had a decade earlier begun to mobilized against . . . . although many of us believed that we were protesting images of violence, in reality we were protesting violence documented. The rape was not only on paper. The images were mostly photographs of actual women, with histories of horrific abuse, whose bodies were bought, sold and violated for the benefit of sex industry profiteers . . . it was a sobering revelation: the sex industry defenders we were pitted against on TV talk shows were the most brutalized sex industry victims.”*

Dorchen A. Leidholdt, Co-Executive Director
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women


* For more on the link between pornography and prostitution (and for an excellent history of the fight against sex trafficking), read CATW Dorchen Leidholdt’s complete speech here.  It’s long, but well worth the complete read.

No matter where you go, you can't escape the music. (Bonus points if you can ID all seven recording "artists.")

There are two things you can’t escape in Manila: heat and pop music. Like the heat, pop is the Snuggie you can’t take off, the constant, stultifying presence defeating any attempts at resistance or cogitation. Malls, restaurants, hotel patios, jeepneys, even trikes–anywhere it’s possible to pipe a radio signal, mp3, or CD (and with Filipino ingenuity, that really does mean anywhere). The chorus to this ditty is that if you are in public, you will be hearing pop music. And probably 80’s. (As a sort of sidenote [if you will], what’s also interesting here are the typical volumes that all and sundry are subjected to: we’re not talking about background music, but foreground music–which is odd because in conversation, Filipinos are generally much more soft-spoken than Westerners.)

Of course while (as noted previously) the 80’s are a dominant presence, a cultural touchstone (or cultural cheeseblock, depending on your proclivities), current top-40 hits stretch their tendrils of inanity throughout life here as well. I’ve had Justin Bieber serenade me while buying mangoes on the street, tried to keep a Poker Face while inhaling diesel exhaust on a jeepney, TIK TOKed with cab drivers, and of course partied in the U.S.A. . . . in Manila.

Now don’t get me wrong: I like lip-syncing to Mariah Carey as much as the next guy. I forget the verses and belt out the chorus to “Don’t Stop Believing” just like you do. But with the constant hum in a city that is already noisy, I sometimes yearn for silence, the impossible dream. Even in our relatively quiet apartment, there are still the backup vocals of the neighbor’s  roosters, the heartfelt yearnings from a nearby karaoke bar, and random firecrackers from festive Filipinos. So every now and then I put on my own Clair de Lune, Kind of Blue, or Bach Prelude and add our songs to the Manila mix tape.


Are you laughing at my parasol, fellas? If you lived here, you'd carry one too.

How do you know you live in the tropics? When you haven’t taken a hot shower in nine weeks–and there’s no problem with that.

To call the heat here a “climate” is almost an insult to the towering, malevolent presence that lurks inside every day, waiting to waylay any careless biped who makes the mistake of inadvertent sun exposure, quick movement, or excess clothing. As with its counterpart the rain (the only time when it’s not hot), the heat is respected and accounted for by all but the foolhardy, the ignorant, and the dying.

How to put it in context? Here’s a brief bulleted list for the businesslike or attention-deprived.

Possible non-sweat-inducing activities:

  • standing or sitting in the shade
  • sleeping in a basement
  • being in a coma

Sweat-inducing activities:

  • washing dishes
  • walking sans umbrella
  • toweling off too briskly after a cold shower
  • thinking too hard

To illustrate, early in our stay here, I made the mistake of being the fastest-walking person on the street (hurrying to work)–but by the time I realized my mistake, I had sweat dripping down into the waistband of my pants after five minutes. It was more sweat than I excrete during a ten-mile trail run back home. And if you forget deodorant, woe to your co-workers and neighboring riders on public transportation! At first I puzzled over the women and men walking under umbrellas on sunny days, but it soon became clear to us that portable shade for that 100 yards between jeepney and trike can be the difference between spritzing and soaking your shirt.

What astounds us is how Manileños seem to be acclimated.  I’ll be panting, doglike, in dri-fit t-shirt, shorts, and tsinelas (Tagalog for flip-flops), while all around on the jeepney are locals rocking dress pants, jeans, and sometimes (cerebellum-smasher) long-sleeved shirts!

Oh, and apparently we missed the really hot time of year. Great.

* So where does everyone hang out in metro Manila, where people don’t want to be tan and there are few parks anyway? Malls. Why? They’re the only free public spaces with air conditioning.  Before we came to Manila, we did our best to stay away from shopping malls, and could never imagine why Filipinos would hang out there; now we understand.

*As a footnote for those of you who have lived in or traveled to some toasty places, according to BBC World Weather, Manila has a more uncomfortable climate than Houston, New Orleans, or Phoenix in the US, or than Cairo, Mexico City, or Mumbai. After a pretty thorough search of said BBC site (why is quantifying suffering satisfying?), I found only 7 major cities wordlwide (out of hundreds listed) with more months ranked “extreme” discomfort: Bangkok, Thailand; Calcutta, India; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Karachi, Pakistan; Kuwait City; Muscat, Oman, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia–although only Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh have every other month ranked “high” discomfort like Manila.