Archive for April, 2011

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It’s safe to say that my anticipation for Easter has never been greater than it was this year.  Not even a 3:30 a.m. wakeup from the yappy dog next door or a 4:30 a.m. sunrise Easter service could dampen my spirits.

It was dark out when we ate mangoes and croissants before church; they were divine, and prompted numerous Josh Eichorn-style grunts of satisfaction as we devoured them. (I couldn’t help noticing that we paid a little less for them than what we’d spent for an entire day’s food the day before.)  We were so excited about eating a non-egg breakfast that we did it two more times, cereal at 6:30 a.m. and French Toast at 10.

After third breakfast, we went to work cooking.  We made Thai chicken curry from scratch (even pounding our own curry paste), had a large salad with fresh vegetables, ordered a giant (36″ inch) pizza, and even prepared mangoes and sticky rice for dessert.  Every bite of it was delicious–and in one meal we spent more than we have in the entire last week.

But the highlight of the day wasn’t all of the good food we ate, or going for our first run in a week this evening, or even the wonderful feeling of being full.  The best part of this Easter came in the form of little kids who couldn’t resist looking in our refrigerator, opening our drawers, and exploring every inch of our apartment while their young mothers tried to keep up.  By the time the sun went down, there were candy wrappers everywhere, the white tile bathroom floor was a splotchy gray, and one of the kids had diarrhea twice on the kitchen floor.  There were large piles of dirty dishes in the sink, the food was gone, and our wallets were empty.  We were delighted.

Our guests were about a dozen of the Samaritana women and their children, all of whom couldn’t afford to go back to the provinces for Holy Week.  After the past week’s peso-pinching, shopping for this meal felt  painfully indulgent, but we didn’t regret it.  We realized last week that if you’re living in poverty, there’s no such thing as holiday feasts or special treats like pizza.  We wanted to celebrate not just Christ’s resurrection, but the women who have become so dear to us and taught us so much.  We wanted to make this Easter special for them, for them to know just how precious they are to us.  We hope that in some small way this helped them know how precious they are to God.

For five hours, our apartment was filled with happy chaos.  There was a candy hunt that the adults were just as excited about as the kids.  There were giddy cries of disbelief when the three-foot-wide pizza had to be tilted to fit through the door–and then the wolf pack descended.  When it was time to go, 4-year old Penelope* (who a few months ago was afraid of strangers, but now has taken to calling us Uncle Nate and Aunt Laura) gave us hugs and said she wanted to come back to our house tomorrow.

After the crowd had gone and the hostess adrenaline faded, I was tired, but happy.  I thought about the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume that cost a year’s wages; his disciples were indignant at the waste, but he said that what she’d done was a beautiful thing.  The Global Hunger Fast made me conscious of every peso we spend, but it also challenged me to find the right reasons for spending money at all.  Compared to how we’ve been living this past week, our Easter feast was extravagant.  But we hope that for the Samaritana women and for God, it was a beautiful thing.

We mentioned at the beginning of last week that we’d be donating what we saved last week to Samaritana.  If any of you would like to do the same, we’re providing the information you’ll need below.  With six women on the waiting list and recent news that Samaritana’s largest source of funding will be cut in half next year, there is a great need.  $100/month will support a new woman at Samaritana, but as we’ve mentioned before, every little bit goes a long way here.

Thanks to all of you who have done this Global Hunger Fast with us, either by participating or by following our daily reports and encouraging us along the way.  We hope our experience blessed you.

Happy Easter!

-Laura

Here’s how you can donate to Samaritana:

Supporters in the United States may donate through our US partner Mission East Asia National Support (MEANS), and receive a tax-deductible receipt. Make checks payable to MEANS, and designate Samaritana in the memo. Mail to: P.O. Box 8434, Bartlett, IL 60103.

*Not her real name.

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There’s a girl here that I have a soft spot for. Jessamae is 15, the oldest daughter of one of the Samaritana women (who’s 34, like me). Jessamae caught my attention because she’s good at drawing, and Old American Me, who worked as an ad copywriter, used to partner with art directors to make ads.

But Jessamae, gifted though she is, is a long way from portfolio school. Global Hunger Fast Me knows this because a ballpoint pen (to practice drawing) costs P19–an egg apiece for each of her three siblings, plus a roll from the bakery. A pad of paper, P100–that is, enough rice to feed her whole family for three days. So where does that leave our budding artist? In the squatter community.

Now Missionary Me–with a fraction the money of Old American Me, but quite comfortable by local standards–was going to commission some drawings from Jessamae. But can Global Hunger Fast Me afford to be a patron of the arts? That P20 means the difference between me going to bed hungry or not. Global Hunger Fast Me hates to think that poverty will change his values, but this question makes him stare really hard at his empty dinner plate. But if it comes down to his stomach versus his blank living room wall . . . that’s wall’s probably going to stay blank.

What Jessamae’s case brings up though, in light of this past week for us, is the bigger questions of What place does art have in the lives of people who are just getting by? And if a girl like her does have an interest in art, how does she develop creatively when she can’t afford materials, and all she’s surrounded by is clutter, ugliness, and advertising? I think about my own middle-class American upbringing, and on top of being free to try my hand at art (just like sports and music–two equally troublesome topics in this context), I had the privilege of going to museums, concerts, plays, movies, and seeing the ultimate artwork–nature–camping. But what if, because being physically full was the paramount concern, I’d had to go aesthetically hungry as well? Would I be where I am today? I think not.
My fellow Americans, I imagine that you too are deeply bothered by the idea of someone not getting a fair shot, of not having the same opportunities you had, right? And I think that many of us–myself included, at times–are conceptually in favor of the arts (like soccer, diversity, and NPR). But when the annual pledge drive comes around, we all change the channel. Too often, our support of the arts is limited to buying the occasional movie ticket. However, there’s a comforting reassurance knowing it’s all out there, right? That we could go to a play if we wanted to?

But what if you couldn’t? What if the arts disappeared from your life? Or more accurately, were something you only heard about secondhand? Jessamae’s mother is already working hard enough to put rice on the table for four children, which is why I turn these questions to society: life and liberty might be the easier parts, but what about the pursuit of beauty? If the people can’t afford to go see the art, how do we bring the art to them?
Until we can answer these questions, my walls–and a lot of unpainted cinderblock ones–are going to stay blank.
–Nate
* * * * *
Daily Tab: 

Breakfast
2 rolls–16
(3 eggs left over from yesterday)
oil–15
mangoes–27
Snack
2 bananas–10
Lunch/Dinner
peanuts–33
beans–10
garlic–5
onion–4
potato–16
4 eggs–24
(rice–left over!)Miscellaneous
internet–20

Total: 180

* * * * *

If you’re Lester Nelson, you start a non-profit portfolio school for Filipino kids like Jessamae. If that’s part of the world you want to live in, please donate easily online through the Paypal link on their site, and sign up for their newsletter!

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We enjoyed some tolerable weather this April, the kind that cools off enough (at night) so that you can walk around comfortably without sweating–until this week.  As if on cue, knowing that we’d be living without our nightly bedroom air conditioning, summer descended, smothering plants, animals and people into stultifying submission.

Sleep comes slowly and leaves quickly.  Without the double-strength white noise of the aircon and the fan, we hear every dog’s yap, cat’s yowl, and neighbor’s cackle–and rooster’s crow from the dozen next door, especially from 3-6 a.m.  We knew this week would be a sacrifice of food, but didn’t realize it would be a sacrifice of sleep, too.  Some nights we can’t wait until morning . . . but the day only brings a longer, hotter version of the night.  Before this week, I longed for even one day to do nothing but rest; now I find myself wondering where all this time came from.

Nate noted this morning that we probably go more places in a normal week (Samaritana, church, IJM, various grocery stores, the mall, a restaurant or two, perhaps even a weekend trip) than most of the $2/day crowd would in an entire year.  Sure, we could’ve spent 64 pesos (1/3 our budget) to go to the mall and escape the heat, but why bother?  We’ll be less hungry if we stay home and do . . . nothing.

One of our remaining pastimes is figuring out our next meal, a topic that occupies at least a half hour each night while we wait to fall asleep.  We discuss the merits of lumpia (greasier) vs. peanuts (more protein), other possible protein sources besides eggs, which cheap foods have the most calories per peso, and whether the pleasure of bread for breakfast outweighs the savings from eating rice.  We speculate about store closures Easter weekend; as of yesterday, all of our regular street vendors have disappeared, the bakeries are closed, and Quezon City feels like a ghost town (which is rather shocking for a place that normally makes New York look sleepy).  So today we bought half our groceries–but no vegetables–at 7-11.

But that still leaves at least 16 hours to fill. We hand wash laundry.  We wash the rice cooker again.  We pick up the house.  We debate whether or not it’s okay to read books since books are expensive here, and eventually decide to read. Purchasing, cooking, and eating food turn out to be the main events of the day.  If we feel full when our plates are empty, we’ve succeeded.  If the food actually tasted good? Double happiness! All the while, the sun bakes our concrete building, and we feel less and less able to do anything.

At some point every afternoon, I find myself on the couch, dozing off until laughter from a neighbor’s gathering wakes me.  Two thoughts cross my mind: 1) here we are, in this country where relationships are king, and we are alone, and 2) I now  understand a little better why there are so many sleeping men all over this city (though you almost never see a napping woman).

The latter is something I’ve taken a bit personally.  Almost every one of the women at Samaritana has a story about an un- or under-employed dad/husband/boyfriend who drinks away the family’s much-needed income (often earned by a woman).  Every day when I look out the window at Samaritana into a neighbor’s yard I see one of these types snoozing in the yard; he never even seems to feed the roosters.  I’ll confess I’ve I felt unsympathetic to these men; their wives are industrious, self-sacrificing mothers, and yet all they do is roll over and take another sip of booze.

But lying on our couch today feeling hungry, sweaty, and brain-dead, I wasn’t even motivated enough to get up and walk across the room to get a glass of water–let alone face anything as daunting as looking for a job.  Suddenly it made sense: it won’t feed your kids or get your wife to stop nagging you, but for only P40 you can get yourself a bottle of Ginebra to take the edge off for most of the day.  And when you’re this hot, hungry, and bored, you’ll do anything to quicken the slow drip of time.  (This may also help explain the Philippines’ exploding population; birth control is all but outlawed, but sex is one of the few free ways to have fun and not pay for it–yet.) These men aren’t justified in their irresponsibility (their women endure!), but today, for the first time ever, I could relate.

The neighbors’ karaoke rouses me, and the thought floats into my sluggish brain that our impoverished Filipino friends have something we Westerners don’t: community. It’s a rare Sunday when our next door neighbors don’t have a dozen or so family members in their home sharing food, conversation, and their TV.  Walk down the street to the line of tricycle drivers waiting for customers, and even they are sitting around watching a game show on the tiny TV at the trike stand, or playing checkers with bottle caps on a board scratched into the sidewalk.  In the street or at home, Filipinos share life together: if you don’t own a TV, you go to a neighbor’s house; rather than eat alone, you pool resources and gather with family and friends.  They don’t always have enough, but what they do have is someone to share it with.

-Laura

Daily Tab:

Breakfast
3 eggs-16 pesos
rice (leftover from yesterday)

Lunch & dinner
1/2 kilo of rice-15 pesos
3 eggs-16 pesos
1 head of garlic and 1 small onion-15 pesos
1 can of tuna-37 pesos
1 bag of peanuts-26 pesos
2 small packages of ramen-14.50 pesos
Tax from 7-11-8 pesos

1 small mango-9.50 pesos

Miscellaneous
internet–20 pesos

Free:
2 green mangos from the tree in front of our apartment, which Nate climbed
a handful of grape-like mystery fruits that a guy on the street gave us when we saw him gathering them from the ground

Total: 177 pesos


These are my running shoes. They’re last year’s model, bought on closeout from runningwarehouse.com for $60. Plus they had free shipping! Pretty thrifty of me, right? What a great sport running is: all you need is a pair of shoes! Everyone should get into it.

Global Hunger Fast Me reads that paragraph, and he wants to hit Old American Me over the head, steal Old American Me’s shoes, and then sell them so he can feed himself and his wife. (Maybe even eat meat a couple times!)  Because those $60 shoes–that’s a month’s earnings right there! There’s no way Global Hunger Fast Me, wearing his one pair of $2.50 flip-flops, could ever afford Nikes. There’s a reason Global Hunger Fast Me doesn’t see any joggers in the squatter community around the corner: as uncomfortable as it is for Old American Me to hear, running is a sport for the comparatively rich. If Global Hunger Fast Me wants some exercise, he’ll do what the millions of other urban poor around the world do, activities you can do in flip-flops or barefoot: walking, basketball, or soccer. (Or, since activity just makes you hungrier, probably not.)

Over the past nine months living in metro Manila and working at Samaritana, we’d already come to appreciate another of the reasons poor people don’t exercise: they don’t have access to the knowledge, the facilities, that we do as rich people. (For example, some of the women’s kids go to Batasan Hills High School. How many students do they have there? 40,000. (in morning and evening shifts). One of our friends teaches the morning shift, and has five classes of 65 kids each. Does it sound like there’s space for a gym? If they’re in school, the $2/day kids may well be in one like this, or–if they’re like a lot of the women we work with, had to drop out of one like it.

Thanks to this brutally peso-pinching week, it’s unforgettably clear to us why most of the Samaritana women (on top of lack of knowledge or facilities) had never exercised. There’s just no way for them to afford the gear–which puts in even richer perspective the donation that enabled us to start the Super Babae fitness program at Samaritana. Thanks to our Patron Saint of Exercise, Krista Ford at Nike, we were able to help these women do something they never otherwise would’ve been able to: jog around the block.

So since the true purpose of this week for us isn’t only self-denial, but gut-level lifestyle understanding, we haven’t run at all this week. We haven’t even exercised beyond walking to buy food–which brings me the third uncomfortable conclusion about why really poor people don’t exercise as much: it just makes you hungrier (and rice doesn’t grow on trees). Earlier this week I noted that for Global Hunger Fast Me, every decision comes down to money, but perhaps what would be more accurate is to say that every decision comes down to hunger. So exercise? Sorry. I’ll be sitting on the curb.

–Nate

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* * * * *
Daily Tab:

Breakfast
2 whole-wheat buns–16
1 mango–16
oil–10
3 eggs–15

Lunch + Dinner
bag of mung beans–33
2 hamburgers–22
2 tofu blocks–8
1/2 kilo rice–15
garlic–5
onion–7
1 egg–6

Sundries
internet–20
shampoo sachet–6

Daily Total: 179

We cheated today.  Sort of.

Samaritana, like everyone in the Philippines, is off work for Holy Week.  While this means vacations or trips back to the provinces for some, it means no income for the Samaritana women.  So when two of them asked us with all of the hope of little kids begging for ice cream if they could clean our apartment, we decided it was worth bending the rules a bit and paying them a fair wage, even though it meant going way over our daily P180 ($2 apiece).

When they showed up at 8:30 a.m. this morning, a half hour early, we were just about to eat our breakfast of 3 eggs and two small rolls.  When we discovered that neither one of them had eaten, there was nothing else to do but split the meal meant for two into four, and sit down with them and enjoy sharing.

Lunch was a similar math problem–division, really–and I walked to half a dozen street vendors, a grocery store, and the palengke to solve the equation.  After about an hour, I came back with 4 small fried rolls (lumpia, a popular street food that is like an egg-free egg roll), a half-deck-of-cards-sized portion of pork, some green beans, 3 more eggs, peanuts, a head of garlic, one onion, and a single potato.  We still had rice leftover from Sunday, and a small portion of oil from breakfast.  Nate and one of the women spotted some common leafy greens on the neighbor’s tree, and were rewarded when they politely asked for some.  I felt pretty great about what looked like an abundance of food to my hungry eyes . . . until I realized that it would not just be lunch for four, but also dinner for two.

It hurt to know that we’d spend the day mostly hungry again–but what hurt more was not being able to be as fully hospitable to our friends as we wanted to.  We were amazed by their willingness–no, excitement–to clean for us, and wanted to bless them in whatever way we could.  We wanted to give them a great meal, to send them home full, but instead we worried that the meal of mostly vegetables and a too-small portion of rice might’ve left them as hungry as it did us.  It occurred to us that this is the twofold pain that millions of Filipinos experience all the time.  Filipinos are famous for their hospitality, and we’ve experienced this first-hand whenever we’ve dined in any Filipino home.  The pain of hunger is compounded by that of not being sure that your guests will walk away satisfied.

Hospitality has always been important to Nate and me; we’ve always taken great joy in sharing home, food, and drink with family and friends. But now, once again, this Global Hunger fast is teaching us a hard lesson: how much hospitality can really cost.

-Laura

It’s only Day Three of the Global Hunger Fast, and already a generalization is starting to form: I’m almost always hungry now. Have we simply not been creative or industrious enough with our shopping, or is it just not possible for a person with my metabolism to be full on $2 a day? Sure, there are countries in the world where food would be even cheaper than here in the Philippines–but not many (rank by “grocery” column). Perhaps there’s some combination of beans, rice, and fish that would be both substantial and available for the pittance we’re working with, but we haven’t found it yet (beans don’t seem to be as cheap or easy to come by here as in other parts of the world).
And yet even if we did find it, this elusive goulash of sustenance, what then? We’d still be lacking what turns out to be another luxury, something that (as an American) I would’ve considered not a luxury, but an inalienable right: variety. Who cares if there are 30,000 products in the grocery store when the only ones you can afford are the ones on the bottom shelf? Oh wait, never mind: you’re not shopping at the grocery store anyway: you’re shopping at the palengke, the open-air wet/dry market where the lady may or may not be bothered to swish the flies off that fish that might be your dinner.

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For the Old American Me, eating was often an exciting venture into a carnival of carne, a midway of tastes and smells with an overwhelming number of fun rides to go on. But not for Global Hunger Fast Me. Oh no. Eating for Global Hunger Fast Me (to use a rich-person analogy) is like being forced to refuel your car at the gunpoint of your hunger–and wincing at the price of gas every time. As a poor person, chances are your food will be brown and white, and that it will either be the same thing you had for your previous meal, or the same thing you’ll have for your next one. To illustrate, though you’ve seen some pictures, here are our meals for the last three days:Sunday
breakfast: a few tiny oranges, eggs, toast
lunch: stir-fried vegetables and egg on rice
dinner: stir-fried vegetables and egg on riceMonday
breakfast: splitting a mango, an egg, rolls, and three small bananas (But hungry by 10:30 am).
lunch: sinigang–sour soup with a boiled fish head, and rice
dinner: fried fish tail, lentils (yes!), and rice

Tuesday
breakfast: eggs, 1 small dried fish, garlic rice (how they use the leftovers from the night before)
lunch: sour soup with a boiled fish head and rice
dinner: rice porridge with small bits of chicken

Notice a few recurring themes here? And the absence of meat, dairy, and produce? For Americans accustomed to a life of plenty, of having the world’s bounty at the swipe of a credit card, eating repetitive fare like this gives one pause. And yet, as Laura commented before, the Samaritana women–some of the most joyful, life-giving people we know–have been eating like this their whole lives. Looks like Global Hunger Fast Me, like them, needs to look for happiness somewhere beyond the dinner plate.
-Nate* * * * *Daily Tab (for Monday and Tuesday):

30 pesos per meal at Samaritana–ridiculously cheap for Old American Me, and quite cheap for New Missionary Me. But for Global Hunger Fast Me? If it hadn’t been for our friends giving us a ride, we’d still be walking home.
P30x6 meals = P180 (not including internet use on Samaritana’s computer)


I woke up this morning knowing that today’s post would be about vanity, and wondering how I’d ever be able to write about something that  I felt embarrassed to admit.  Here in Manila, where the heat and humidity mean that my hair is always awry and my skin always sweaty (and where I wear only simple, modest clothes), a little mascara and lipstick go a long way to making me feel okay.  This Global Hunger Fast has called forth all of my petty insecurities: I wonder if people notice my unstyled hair, colorless face, and squinting eyes—or if I smell (since deodorant, at $2 or more, is out of the question).

But vanity is a luxury.  I realized this one day when one of the Samaritana women asked me how much I paid for a tube of lipstick that I got back in the States.  I told her I’d paid $3 for a cheapo grocery store brand.  Her response was, “mahal!”  Expensive.  On a training day, the Samaritana women earn a daily allowance of 190 pesos—about $4.  That’s better than the $2/day that many of them had before they came to Samaritana—but not much, especially when you consider that most of them have children, and some of them have jobless partners. So I get it now: that $3 purchase suddenly feels frivolous.

I’ve been thinking about all of the things we women do to try to make ourselves feel beautiful.  At one time in my life, it wouldn’t have been unheard of for me to pay somewhere in the range of $100-150 for a haircut and highlights at a salon.  A handful of department store makeup? $100 or more.  Here in Manila, I’ve occasionally indulged in a manicure or pedicure, which is cheap here (100 pesos).  But the new Global Hunger Fast Me who lives on 90 pesos a day (per person) could hardly imagine trading food for nail polish.

The truth is that for most of my life I’ve suffered from comparison.  Sure, I know that God loves me and that I’m worth something because He says I am . . . but that’s not how I live.  I’ve spent years comparing myself—to friends, to movie stars, to women in magazines—and always came up short.  I’ve spent hundreds of dollars trying to satisfy my vanity—in vain.

Today was the first of a two-day Lenten retreat for Samaritana staff and volunteers.  We spent much of the day in silent contemplation, and I asked God to help me with my lifelong obsession with vanity.  Meditating on the days leading up to Jesus’ death, I closed my eyes, saw myself there among the crowd, and was horrified to realize that I was joining in the cries to crucify him.  He looked at me with pure love, longing, and forgiveness, and I saw that the more he suffered, the more beautiful I became.

All at once I was reminded of my name: Laura.  Crown of beauty.  When I was young, I hoped that this meant I was beautiful, but today I felt God say to me that I was his crown.  How could I have missed this all of these years?  While I was trying to live up to the world’s impossible standards, all along God was asking me to be his crown, telling me that my beauty was there to glorify him, to point people to him.  I started to cry.  I was touched and humbled that God should choose me as his crown, and for the first time in my life, I felt beautiful.

Daily Tab:

Breakfast (split between the two of us)
10 pesos for 1 mango
10 pesos for 3 small bananas
5 pesos for 1 egg
12 pesos for 4 small rolls

26 pesos for bus to Samaritana (13 per person)

Lunch at Samaritana (30 pesos/person)
A simple meal of rice and soup with fish
1 banana

Dinner at Samaritana (30 pesos/person)
A simple meal of fried fish, rice, and lentel soup
1 mango

Daily Total: 183 pesos (realized too late that we were 3 pesos over—not including using the internet at Samaritana to post this)