Archive for the ‘Life in the Philippines’ Category

Most of my calories this week have come from these exciting sources

Traveling in the Philippines with one of our Samaritana coworkers, we were returning from deep in the province. Ravenous after a six-hour bus ride, we turned to Ate Becky to ask what she wanted to eat. Her response? “Something to fill the hole.”

This struck me as funny, because mere sustenance is not how I think about eating: eating is pleasure! In America, meals mean choices, a flood of dopamine, an adventure of nourishment, novelty, and now. To merely fill the hole? What a letdown. In fact, mere hole-filling, mere placeholding in any area of life–partner, job, school, house–is countercultural in a land where anything is possible, and most of it’s affordable.

Then I started the Global Hunger Fast.

Giving up great food I was somewhat prepared for, since we did that last year. Ditto for giving up exercise. But giving up sleep and sex as well? Now we’re talking about the four chief sources of pleasure in my adult life; as one might expect, I’ve been pretty flatlined this week–but for one thing: Gabriel.

Our three-week-old son is the reason for the subtraction of sleep and sex, yet he’s sweet and soul-stirring and unquestionably worth it. In the Bible he’s a messenger from God, and our Gabriel brought a message for me this week: “Without your usual sources of fulfillment and fun, what will you use to fill the hole?”

One answer, of course, is people: Gabe and Laura; our generous and loving parents; the friends and relatives who have showered us with affection. I see better now why older, wiser cultures place such emphasis on relationships, because even when you’re unshaven, unemployed, under-slept, and undernourished, the right people still care for you. But people aren’t everything, and often it’s those closest to you who can hurt you the most. So under the gifts, the hugs, and the new life, the question remains.

Christians may be familiar with the idea of the God-shaped hole in humanity, and this week has reminded me of what I’m using to fill my holes, pie and otherwise. I’d hoped to glimpse God through this spiritual discipline, have my time atop the mountain, but I haven’t yet–or was snoozing on the bus (dreaming of steak and produce) when the divine light shone down. I’m still awaiting a moment of illumination, but I’m getting a new angle on my faith without these other things in the way.

-Nate

A little over eight months ago, Nate and I returned home after a year in Manila. In those early weeks of re-entry, there were long lists of old pleasures that were suddenly new again: real Mexican food, redwood-shaded trails, our own car, clean air. Months later, most of these have become routine, and we have to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have them. But there is one thing that hasn’t stopped feeling like a treat: hot showers.

It’s been a subject of much discussion, something we’ve commented on to each other daily. We marvel that it still feels like heaven every time, even on the warm days. We joke about getting “stuck” in the shower. I once asked Nate to come in and turn the water off because I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Since becoming a mom, hot showers have gone from being a luxury to a sanctuary. Thanks to family, I’ve been able to take a shower every day since I came home from the hospital. After spending most of my waking hours caring for Gabriel, it feels sneaky to have those minutes to myself. It isn’t just the act of getting clean (although I do appreciate cleansing the sticky smell of milk); I’m always getting cold too, so the shower is the place that restores my temperature–and my sanity. It’s alone time, me time, proof that though Asia has influence me, I’m a still a Westerner at heart. So showers are glorious: the sweet release of knowing that no one will bother me.

It was during my daily hot shower yesterday that I was struck once again by the contrast between my own life and the one I’d be living in the developing world. I remember vividly the showers I took when we stayed with some of the women we knew. There was a communal slab of cement outdoors, enclosed on the sides by plastic tarps–which might also be used for urinating. We’d carry in a large bucket of water, and a small dipper to pour the water over us. Even in the heat, the cold water was bracing, functional only, something you tried to get over with as quickly as possible. There was no spacing out, since if you used up the water before you’d rinsed off soap or shampoo, you were out of luck. There was no solitude, since you were always aware that someone else might be waiting. All of the smells and sounds of life outside surrounded you.

Just like that, I knew what I had to do. Since I’m not fasting from food this week, I’ve been trying to think of other ways to fast and live in solidarity with those in the developing world. What better way to do it than to take my greatest daily pleasure–my greatest daily luxury–and give it up?

I turned the dial to cold, shivered, and got out of there as fast as I could.

-Laura

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When this year’s Global Hunger Fast fell on the third week of my son’s life, I reluctantly agreed with my husband and family to sit out this time around. But as I think about my Filipina sisters at Samaritana (and women in developing countries worldwide), I’m acutely aware of how privileged I am for this to be a choice. While I don’t believe in punishing my son for the sake of making a point, I don’t take this contrast lightly.

Early in our time in Manila, I read that Filipinos are among the shortest people in the world, largely because of malnutrition. While I’m eating my affluent diet loaded with produce and protein, new mothers around the world are eating whatever they can get–which is to say, not what they need for themselves, let alone a baby. While I have the luxury of breastfeeding and pumping out plenty of milk to be frozen for future months, the mothers I knew at Samaritana had to make do with what their bodies would produce (or whatever they could afford), and they certainly didn’t have breast pumps or even refrigerators (or freezers) to store food or milk.

As every new mother knows, these first weeks are a haze of chaos and fatigue. But when I think about my first seventeen days of motherhood compared to those of the Samaritana women, my version of motherhood looks a piece of cake.

Even before Gabriel was born, my experience of labor and delivery was, by the world’s standards, pretty cushy: Nate and our doulas rubbed my back; I snacked when hungry, took a hot shower and hot bath to relax, all the while listening to the soothing sounds of Miles Davis. After contractions picked up, we drove ten minutes in our own car to the hospital, where for the next five hours, a flock of medical staff monitored Gabriel’s heartbeat and kept Nate and me informed. When his heartbeat kept dropping, yet I wasn’t dilating despite ever-stronger contractions (Gabe had his head turned sideways), the possibility of a C section first came up.

Ninety minutes later I was in the operating room; a half hour after that I heard Nate say “it’s a boy,” and then Gabriel Sagada Davis was in my arms and my husband was sobbing tears of joy beside me. While it didn’t happen quite as planned, and there were many painful hours, the whole experience was remarkably calm–pleasant, even. I had only a flicker of a thought that my baby and I might be in danger, and then it was gone with a simple prayer and the knowledge that I was about to go through a procedure that, while major, was also somewhat routine. The first four days of Gabe’s life were spent in the hospital, and Nate and I were continually impressed by how excellent the doctors and nurses were, how our every need was met, and what a gift it was to be in a setting with so many people who clearly love what they do.

I recap the birth because while I never set foot in a Manila hospital, I heard enough about them to make me glad I had no reason to. One Filipino friend told me that people avoid going to the hospital because once you’re there, you’re much more likely to die. And while good medical care is available in Manila (for the rich), as a new mom I also can’t ignore the world infant mortality rankings, which suggest that Gabriel would’ve been three times as likely to die had he been born a Filipino baby–or twenty times more likely as an Afghani.

It’s easy to walk away from these sobering contrasts feeling guilty for having so much, but I think I’m missing the point of the Global Hunger Fast if guilt is all I feel. I can’t change the world’s infant mortality rates or improve nutrition by feeling bad. But my awareness of the disparities between my life and the lives of women around the world can make me softer and more compassionate. It can open my wallet a little wider. It can keep me praying and looking for ways to love and serve, one woman at a time.

-Laura

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Growing up, I never thought I was that fortunate. I was short, skinny, and had glasses: shrimp, four-eyes, not exactly precocious with the ladies. That was me. And since my mom sacrificed her life to home-school me and my siblings, we had one income for a family of seven, so I couldn’t always sport Z. Cavaricci and Hypercolor like the cool kids.

I saw more of what I didn’t have than what I did. I read National Geographic, but for a kid, is the exotic much different than the make-believe? Even living abroad, I picked up on details–why can’t they get good orange juice in the UK? Why are the Palestinians always angry?–but missed the part about how traveling is a privilege.

Then Laura and I moved to Manila. As we noted on several occasions on our blog, it was the biggest, sweatiest, loudest, dirtiest, most crowded place we’ve ever been. But as hard as life is there in a city of twenty million, it’s often even harder elsewhere. So people keep coming.

We had gone there to volunteer for a year, to donate our valuable time and skills: Laura coaching and writing her novel on trafficking and prostitution, and me with communications. Yet amidst the dripping-wet waistbands, the pre-dawn roosters, and the smoggy hours on buses, life got stripped down to the essentials. We got to know a wonderful country. We received more than we gave. And at Samaritana, we not only found beauty, but also saw God.

After some reflection, “quiet miracles” is the phrase I’ve arrived at to describe what goes on there. How else to explain the reclamation of society’s refuse, of women considered worthless, of human beings robbed of humanity? It’s a slow process, of course, often painful, frustrating, and heart-wrenching for the marvelous staff and volunteers. There are tears, harsh words, sullen looks, and defiant walks out the door. But they come back, and when they do, with counseling, prayer, hugs, singing, cleaning, cooking, and crafts, the lacerated lives get stitched up, day by day.

Artists say that the plain human form is the most beautiful subject; in the same way, there are few more beautiful events to witness than a simple smile emerging at last from a person whom life has taught to despair. This was the beauty we saw at Samaritana–and was a new side of the God I’d read about in a book all my life, yet just came to understand this year.

Now we’re back. We returned to zero jobs and one big mortgage, yet the freelance work for me has come in, Laura’s gotten to stay home and write, we’re healthy, and little Kierkegaard Umlaut Davis is supposed to arrive in March. Plus we have hot showers, our own car, potable tap water, and now two lives’ worth of friends. A year ago we thought we were giving up so much, and yet we’ve been given it all back, and more.

After 35 years, it’s finally seeping into my dome how fortunate I am. If you’re thinking “Wow, finding beauty and seeing God? Sign me up for a sabbatical year,” then nothing could make us happier. (Note: we saved for four years leading up to this; it’s all gone.) But for a year like this? Such a deal.

-Nate

We’ve only been gone a year, but my friend says I look older. At age 34, that’s the first time anyone’s ever said that to me. I’ve always had a baby face: on my 15th birthday my friends suggested I ask for the 12-and-under price at the county fair; in my passport photo (age 27), I look like a college freshman. But it seems that this year has left its mark.

So what have I seen that’s made me age? Life how most of the world lives it: orphaned siblings sleeping in subway stations. Squatter families living in cement-block shacks the size of an American suburbanite’s walk-in closet. Street women selling themselves for a few dollars or less. Sights that would change anyone with eyes to see. But my eyes have widened joyfully as well: gawking at Avatar-inspiring marine life, eating heartstoppingly-good native mangoes, high-fiving women (who’d never before exercised) as they finished their first race.

But next month, I’m returning our old fantasy life, the Bay Area. Land of data plan complaints, hybrid hypermiling, and wine even in gas stations. Beloved Bay Area folks fret about real estate values or finding organic baby food at Whole Paycheck; Filipinos we have come to love worry about buying food for six on four dollars a day, or having to return to prostitution to pay their dying baby’s medical bills. Our old friends may see the change in my face, but can they feel it in their hearts? Will they even try? After a year of being a foreigner, an outsider, and a target, I fear being an alien in my native land.

When my wife and I quit our jobs last summer and moved to Manila for a year of volunteer work, I naïvely assumed it’d be similar to family trips as a kid: live overseas, see some old stuff, then pick up where I left off. But as a young but astute friend observed, the Philippines has “ruined me for the better.” So now my face tells a more serious story; my eyes focus on things besides literature, nature, and wine. Question is, will others want to see through them?

Yesterday, May 23, was a momentous occasion–and not just because the unicameral Parliament of Finland gathered for its first plenary session on that date in 1907. For Laura and me, it meant only two months left in the Philippines! So often here on sweaty afternoons the time seems to move no more quickly than a stray dog lying in a patch of shade, and yet here we are, 83.3% done with this time that has changed us forever. Return tickets are bought, furniture is going to be sold, and on July 23, all we’ll be left with is an empty tile-floored apartment, six obese suitcases, and a raft of memories.

As any of you who have traveled much can relate, for even the minimally perceptive hominid, foreign countries prompt continual cultural comparison. On sabbaticals with my family as a kid, I’d noticed a few things; for example in Israel: “Wow, this random family’s doorstop is older and has more significance than anything in the entire US!” Or England: “This is the coldest I’ve ever been without snow, and they have black currant-flavored everything.” Figuring out life with a spouse, however (instead of depending on parents), and working with natives multiplied this process. As chronicled here, the observations piled up as we adjusted to a new culture, but with our departure looming, we finally wrote them all down. See if you notice an over-arching theme:

Won’t Miss

Will Miss

pollution Bae (the women at Samaritana)
lack of nature nearby stunning scuba diving
tiny biting ants and giant cockroaches everywhere $7 massages
roosters mangoes
distance from friends and family having lots of time together
“not available” at stores & restaurants Tagalog moments (i.e. when we get it)
Manila’s constant noise and crowds Manila’s energy
permanent daytime sweatiness warm nights
bad hair for Laura’s curls great pinoy hair
double ATM fees & budgeting with cash fewer worries about money in a simpler life
being a target preferential treatment because we’re white
being stared at Laura being told she’s beautiful frequently
few fresh vegetables in Filipino cuisine awesome & only-in-the-tropics fruits
bad “bahala na”–resignation about problems good “bahala na”–life’s too short to be anxious
sex tourists physical affection, especially between women
filtering water street food
deadlines not being very deadly not stressing about time
opening bags for security guards shockingly cute kids
rampant corruption emphasis on relationships
Filipino food Neighborhood balut guy (although not the balut)
running circles at UP, our only option for exercise feeling fast compared to local joggers
expensive local calls prepaid (cheap) cell phones
lack of independence no gas & car insurance payments
not being rooted at a church Samaritana community
dirty rainwater splashing on legs Epic thunderstorms
Absence of food & wine connections Fulbright connections
hitting my head on things feeling tall
tripping on uneven floors & sidewalks the way Life happens on the streets
everything being such a production having time be our own
dressing shabby $2 pedicures
concrete back “yard” not paying for home repairs
obnoxious DJ’s & sound effects everyone singing along
ubiquitous, competing pop music Joniver Robles playing the blues
no legal DVD’s or streaming tv shows cheap movies at the theater
books being expensive & plastic-wrapped being respected because we’re writers
dirty feet wearing flip-flops all the time
tough local meat & expensive, imported dairy the palengke’s scruffy charm
Rarely having hymns at church Paula & Brian, prayer partners & friends
deafening bus horns roller-coaster-esque “ordinary fare” buses
difficulty planning travel beauty of the provinces
benighted attitudes about birth control Four months of Christmas season
hanging out at malls Sebastian’s ice cream sandwiches
not being able to flush toilet paper living someplace tough and non-touristy
Pinoys’ obsession with being maputi (pale) beautiful kayumanggi (Filipino brown) skin
not having appliances having house helpers
neighbor’s yappy dog, who wakes us up nightly kasama (companion) culture
worrying about getting ripped off in cabs riding on the outside of jeeps and trikes
eternal traffic pinoys’ instinctive driving
difficulty communicating stretching our brains
feeling like we have little control enforced dependence on God

As the picture may have given away, what we gradually came to appreciate is that even in a crowded, dirty, noisy place like Manila, it is possible to be charmed. Would we want to stay here for the rest of our lives? We’re not sure–but as the list shows, it’s not as simple a question as one might think. Likewise, is our life “better” in the United States? Yes and no. But wherever we happen to be, I hope we can be a little more content–and a heartfelt thanks and borderline-alarming bearhug to all of you who made this possible.

— Nate

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The week before Easter, we participated in the Global Hunger Fast, an experiment in poverty where we attempted to live on $2 per day, as much of the world’s population does. It was eye-opening, challenging and unexpectedly rewarding (see this recent series starting here). As with the rest of our time here, we were honored by responses from friends and family back home about how great this was, how much people respect what we’re doing, how people can’t imagine doing it themselves, and so forth.

It’s true that life in Manila isn’t easy. But last week, we had the mental ibuprofen of an imminent return to our relatively comfy missionary lives, where we can buy vegetables, exercise, check Facebook at home, and even occasionally go out to eat or watch a movie. In the same way, our Manila grind has always had the soothing “just for a year” refrain in the background. But what if it didn’t?

Dave and Maria Cross are part of Servants, an international NGO whose mission is living with, befriending, and helping poor urban people around the world. It’s a fascinating approach to volunteerism and service that inverts the typical Western missionary souls-and-tasks-first, culture-second paradigm, and for us, and anyone considering such work, prompts serious reflection.

Hailing from oft-idyllic New Zealand, Dave and Maria were living and working with tenement dwellers in a city there, but then felt called to something even less comfortable. So they moved to the Philippines, and now live in a squatter community down the road from us in Quezon City. Since the Servants model is cultural immersion and relationship-building first, projects second, Dave and Maria are spending their first year here studying intensive Tagalog in language school, and getting to know their thousands of neighbors.

In addition to knowing the language, Dave and Maria are also living just like those around them. Their home is about 250 square feet, consisting of a kitchen/dining area and bathroom downstairs, and prayer nook and bedroom upstairs. They do all their cooking over a 2-burner propane range; there is no microwave, toaster,  blender, oven, dishwasher, or even refrigerator. There is no glass on the windows, and no air conditioning; to battle the heat they splurged on two fans, one per floor. They don’t have a TV, and to use the computer they take public transportation to the Servants office 15 minutes away.

When we first met Dave and Maria at language school, we were immediately curious about the life they’d chosen. When we visited Samaritana women in their squatter communities, we thought of Dave and Maria, and were impressed. But when they invited us over for lunch, and told us that the minimum commitment with Servants is three years, we were inspired, humbled, and challenged.

Dave met us at the entrance to the squatter area, and walked us through narrow alleyways, around goats and chickens, past men lounging with potbellies out and women cooking lunch in communal woks.  Everyone seemed to know Dave, and he introduced us to a dozen curious onlookers on the short walk.  When we sat down to lunch, little kids peered in their window to check out the newcomers, and didn’t go away even after Dave and Maria had chatted with them and had turned back to us.  We asked them about all of the things that we knew would be tough for us in their situation.  How did they deal with the lack of privacy?  Were they worried about their health?  Did they constantly feel compelled to give away their own modest dinner? What do they do for fun?

We left with more questions: Could we do it ourselves? Is it the right thing for us? We’re not sure yet. It would’ve been tough, if not impossible, to offer our skills in writing and communications to IJM and Samaritana (and for Laura to write her novel) if we’d lived in a squatter community without a computer. We also have a millstone of a mortgage tying us down, necessitating a return to paid work. And yet Dave and Maria’s commendable lifestyle brings a number of worthwhile points to mind:

  • Wherever we live, we could make do with less.
  • While people with specific backgrounds have their valued place in volunteer work (lawyers and social workers, for example, at IJM), an organization like Servants challenges us to remember how important relationships are in any kind of ministry.
  • Dave and Maria didn’t just up and move to a squatter community the day after their wedding; it was a gradual process that started in their home town. So for the rest of us, maybe it’s time to just donate an hour or two around the corner, and keep an open mind.

— Nate