Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What I Did on My Christmas Vacation

Last Christmas, I was in New York with very close friends, a surrogate family. We had the kind of holiday of which songs are written about – the Rockefeller Centre tree, a fireplace in the Hamptons and mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

This year’s Christmas couldn’t be any more different. I've tried, as much as I can, to summon a festive mood. I've been incessantly playing the two Christmas albums in my iPod (Ella Fitz and Frank S). I've even been going around with my very own portable, collapsible Christmas tree from home.

I haven’t gotten much support. No decorations have been put up. No parties are being held. I have given a few simple gifts but I’m not expecting any in return. There aren’t even gift wrappers being sold in the stores.

On Christmas Eve, I heard mass in a small church lit only by candles. I watched a group of small children in makeshift costumes re-enact the story of the Nativity. I couldn’t understand the words and although the story was familiar, it seemed like it was being told to me the first time. At that point, I realized that the simple setting was more similar to the first Christmas than any elaborate store display could ever hope to be. As the evening’s Responsorial Psalm reminded us – “ A Savior has been born to us, He is Jesus Christ, our Lord”

Seeing the faces of the people in church , I saw such JOY at the telling of the story – untainted by the stress of traffic or shopping or the slight avarice that comes over all of us with the feeding and buying frenzy that the holiday season brings. That night, in church, I felt something familiar start to come over me in this most unfamiliar of places. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, my Christmas spirit is alive and well in Zambia.

Christmas Day found me traveling by rickety minibus (summon your memory of any movie set in Africa, with a character riding a local bus and you get the picture) to a neighboring town to visit my volunteer friends, Kristen and Jacinta. The couple help the local Anglican Church run several programs aimed at assisting disadvantaged children in the area. On the day that I visited, I helped them out in one of their projects - a feeding program for kids up to 15 years old. Most of the kids are orphans, a number have been passed on the HIV virus from their parents, many – even the kids as young as four – already work with the rest of their families in the fields or in stone quarries around the area. This is the one day in the month where they can be kids again and – for most of them – the only opportunity to have a decent, balanced meal .

In the afternoon, we toured Victoria Falls, a National Heritage site and one of the natural wonders of the world before ending the day with dinner and drinks over-looking yet another fantastic Zambian sunset. In spite of a few challenges and frustrations, I know how lucky I am to be here.

I only wish you could be here to share the experience with me but you never know what’s going to happen next so who knows where we might be together Christmas next year, yes?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I am almost halfway thru my volunteer assignment in Zambia. I have learned that it Is best to take it one day at a time. Some days though are a bit tougher than the others.

The bad days aren’t so much because of the adjustment in lifestyle and living conditions. I’ve found out that there are many things I can live without. I guess I just had too much stuff before that I didn’t really actually need.

I come across the rough spots when I begin to doubt my ability to accomplish anything while I’m here. Take last Friday – a project prioritization workshop which I had carefully planned was cancelled for the second time.

In both cases, the cancellations came about because of sudden deaths in our small town. As senior council officials, my workshop attendees had to drop everything to sit with the bereaved families because of tradition and social obligation.

If it’s not a death, then it’s something else that causes a break in my work plan – somebody has malaria, there is no money for fuel, there is no electricity and so on. In the meantime, the clock is ticking and I don’t want to find myself at the end of this assignment without having anything to show for it.

Throwing a fit is a tempting option. I could make a big thing out of time being wasted and people not taking the work seriously.

And then again (several deep breaths later ), maybe not.

After some thought – this is what I have: What to me are inconveniences and annoying disruptions are just part of daily life here in this remote rural town of Zambia. These conditions were here before I arrived and will still be here after I’m long gone.

In a country with one of the highest mortality rates in the world and where the extended family is the main support system, it’s not unusual for a co-worker to have to attend four funerals in a day. In an environment of unstable cash flows, It is my co-workers who take a bigger brunt of the lack of resources – they can go on for months without being paid. In a district where the number one cause of death its malaria and there are rumors of another outbreak, It’s not irresponsible for somebody to take time off from work to make sure that he or she is tested and treated properly .

So, who am I to complain about unused presentation materials? And what are my timelines and work-plans but merely means to an end – not the goals by themselves? If they can’t serve the needs of the people then they have to be modified accordingly. I will Zen this out, I will reschedule the workshop and make use of the additional time to improve my hand-outs. In the meantime, I will see where else I can help.

Sometimes I surprise myself with how mature and rational I can be (a bit of irony there, in case you didn’t get it. Ugh, now I’m patronizing you. Sorry. Going on…)

The district council where I work has as its mandate the provision of basic social services to a population of about 200,000 people. My visual for the resident who needs the council’s help the most is this unsmiling little girl I see sometimes on my morning walk to work . She must be – oh, maybe 10 or 11. She has a baby slung on her back and a hoe in her hands as she tends the small field in front of her family’s mud-house. I ask myself – Why isn’t she in school? Why does she look so sad? Where are her parents? Does she and the baby get medical attention? Are they AIDS orphans?

In spite of its gargantuan responsibilities, the council does its work with very limited resources. Its’ annual budget for its social programs is about equal to the sales target of a junior IT sales executive in the Philippines

My main task for the time I’m here is to identify alternative sources of funding and introduce a system and structure in place to make sure that when the funds do come, they are utilized properly. That means literally anything. So, my typical day can be spent meeting with our program beneficiaries, running computer tutorials, communicating with potential donors , running capacity-building workshops or riding on a truck distributing flyers for the hygienic use of toilets.

You know that eager-beaver guy in the office who volunteers for everything and offers a lot of unsolicited advice ? I’m that guy over here. “What’s the problem? Where do you need help? Why don’t you do it this way?” I know, I knooooow. We hate that guy but I can’t help it.

So, (more deep breaths later) do I have any good days at all?

Yes, I do. Thank you, God. One of the guys from work came up to me after church last Sunday and said – “I wish you could stay with us longer” . I was having a classic Debbie Downer moment so I, of course, had to say- “But sometimes I wonder if I’m really helping out. All I seem to do is ask a lot of questions”. And then, this guy replied – “But your questions make us think of how we could do things differently and that’s always a good start.”

That exchange kind of put what I’m trying to do here in perspective. I have to remind myself that, sometimes, trying, by itself, is already the victory . I need to stop equating accomplishment with tasks done and targets and timelines met , like I normally would.

Several recent instances make me start to think that maybe - maybe - I am able to help in some small way, after all. I was very happy last week when one of my co-workers bought himself a corporate strategy book out of his own money (costing about 5% of what I estimate his monthly salary must be). I’m taking that to mean he realizes that he has to do his part in closing in on the knowledge gap I felt like a proud parent on his kid’s first day at school when I saw him bring home that thick book.

One other co-worker made a case to the bosses to adopt a management report that we had been working on together. I take that to mean that he’s taking ownership of the project and will stay on top of it. And earlier today, I was approached to see how we could create simple Excel databases to replace the books that have been kept manually for years and years. I take that to mean, they’re realizing that there could be a better way of doing things and that they might now be ready to try them out.

In the world I want to live in, this is what is going to happen: Even after I’m gone, the people I’m working with , will build on whatever skills and knowledge I am able to share. This will help them generate more resources and then run their programs more efficiently and professionally.

At the end of the day, the beneficiaries of those programs – especially women , children and people living with HIV/AIDS, VSO’s target beneficiaries , and that little girl with the baby on her back – will benefit by having a chance at a better life.

It’s not exactly digging trenches or constructing a school but I guess we all have to start somewhere. And that’s how I’d like to think of my experience here - it’s a start.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


I had a farm in Africa .

Haha! Unfortunately, not. And, sorry, Isak Dinesen.

What I do have are vivid and lurid thoughts of all the food I want to eat but can’t just yet.

As I lie in bed at night, I reconstruct all the minute details of meals enjoyed in the past. And then, I conjure not only the flavors and tastes of meals yet to come but also the atmosphere and environment in which they are to be eaten (“May ambience ba ang bahay ninyo?”, as I famously asked a good friend 25 years ago )

I’ve compiled a shortlist of everything I want to sink my teeth into RIGHT NOW. Very careful consideration went into this list . In other words, cinaneer ko ’to. Entries were written in and then taken out (in some cases, written back in again) . After all, much as I’d like to, I can’t eat everything (darn).

I don’t have a particularly sophisticated palate (veal, veal ka dyan). None of these are fancy stuff (well, maybe except for the Shang and Philippine Plaza buffets, but only because they’re relatively pricey) . However, these are all food I like , made even more special since they’ve been shared at one time or another with family and good friends.

Let me know if you think I missed anything or if there’s something new I should try.

From my Kitchen (must all be eaten in one meal to experience the full extent of my culinary genius)

a) One-Taste-of- This-and-You’ll-Love-Me -Forever Lasagna - which I make with ground sirloin generously seasoned with pepper, garlic salt and random spices; I sauté this in butter with even more garlic, mushrooms, onions, carrots, bell peppers and a bit of sugar then add real tomatoes and heaps of tomato sauce. I throw in generous slices of chopped chorizo to the mix then layer with al-dente lasagna sheets, basil pesto spread, at least 2 different kinds of runny cheeses and a buttery , creamy béchamel sauce that I make from scratch. As you bite into the finished product, each layer reveals a different flavor - – tangy, nutty, gooey, creamy, meaty, cheesy.

b) Copied-from-Yummy-Magazine-and-Then-Made-So-Much-Better Sinigang na Lechon - This is hard-core sinigang, not for the faint-hearted. I put in 1 ½ the recommended souring agent to balance the richness of the lechon. After trimming off some of the excess fat, I slow-cook the main ingredients until the broth is thickened by the mashed gabi (like yam, a Philippine root crop); and the meat shreds easily when poked with a fork. While simmering, the lechon skin separates from the flesh, curls up a bit and gets a silky consistency that yields to the bite yet retains just a little bit of fight as you chew on it - a reminder of its previous crunchy glory . I add a couple of crushed chili peppers for an extra kick and throw in more vegetables (eggplants, string beans, green leafies) during the last 5 minutes of simmering. These are to give the sinigang some crunch. And because, really, I’m conscious about my diet, haha. Something is wrong with the dish if you’re not experiencing all of the following at the same time – lips puckering, forehead sweating, body tingling, face smiling .

c) I’ve-Died-and-Gone-to-Pork-Heaven Adobo . This is “dry” adobo. You simmer all the ingredients (soy, vinegar, water, sugar, pork pieces coated in garlic paste , lots of extra garlic) in a large work until most of the liquid has evaporated then you fry the pieces in their own fat (or in butter, if you want to live dangerously). You get an adobo that’s dark and sticky on the outside yet white, juicy and tender on the inside. You HAVE to pour some of the remaining adobo oil with bits of caramelized garlic residue over the accompanying steaming rice. I serve this with a side salad of tomatoes and feta cheese.

d) PASTuBaLIGUE , my own concoction of angel hair PASta tossed with spicy TUyo flakes ( salted dried fish marinated in olive oil and chili) with a dash of BAgoong (sautéed fish paste) and aLIGUE (crab fat). Italian-Ilocano-Bisaya fusion cuisine at its best. How much of a dash separates the culinary artist from the poseur.

e) Award-Winning Fried Rice (third prize last year in a prestigious New York competition with three contestants) –rice slowly simmered in chicken broth with tomato sauce, different kinds of deli sausages (or canned meat, if that’s what’s available, we’re not picky. SPAM works really well ), left-over chicken, peas, bell peppers, carrots, mushrooms, generous sprinklings of Tabasco and random spices and whatever else is in the pantry that’s no longer moving. This is a cross between paella, risotto, gumbo and Chinese fried rice. The dish becomes even better when re-heated for breakfast the following morning.

f) In lieu of dessert, fruit-flavored antacids will be served.

g) Click this link for an earlier blog entry on my attempts at cooking.

From my Family’s Kitchen

a) The Concepcion Family’s super special fruit salad (OMG, the sensuous, decadent combination of fruit in syrup with heavy cream, cheese cubes and sweet corn kernels – no one else does this like the Concepcions). You savor this treat slowly, letting each spoonful linger in your mouth for a few seconds , teasing your tongue with hints of all the goodness about to explode in your mouth , then you chew ever so slowly, not wanting to miss out on any of the flavor notes. You may have to hold on to your seat as you savor each mouthful . You’ll need to steady yourself as your body goes into throes of spasmic pleasure.

b) My Manang Juliet’s:

**Chicken Afritada - chicken stewed in tomato sauce until the meat falls off the bones and the cubed carrots and potato wedges become soft but not mushy – you eat all the meat and veggies THEN you suck all the sauce and juice that have seeped into the bones. Ending: a clean plate and a pile of dried-out, masticated chicken bones, Yum.

****Pochero with beef still attached to the bones, green leafies, saba (plantains ) and gabi (again) to thicken the broth – whats the English word na nga for gabi? Best when each bite contains a little bit of everything. So, you dip a chunk of the tender beef in a sauce made of patis (fish sauce) and calamansi. Then you add that to a spoonful of the mashed saba and gabi and rice that’s wet with the hot broth. If you’re able to add some marrow from inside the beef bones –ay, syet, ‘tangina. For some reason, this dish is best served for Sunday family lunches. After finishing two bowlfuls (sometime around 2 pm), you look for a sofa and rub your belly until you fall asleep.

**Home-Made Chicharon - pork skin with plenty of pork flesh still attached, kept it in the freezer till it’s ready for deep- frying – this makes it extra crunchy; served with Manang’s ampalaya (bitter melon) salad (crunchy, sweetish, sourish with just a little bit of the bitterness left to balance the porky goodness - always copied, never equaled). Her trick, I think, is to slice the ampalaya thinly while its submerged in cold water (she puts in ice cubes pa). The vinaigrette she pours on it is just vinegar, salt, sugar and a bit of pepper.

** Sugpo sa Gata (big prawns cooked in coconut milk and chili), you pour a bit of the hot gata on a plate of rice then you deconstruct the prawns, first taking off the head from which you flick off all the prawn fat with your forefinger for licking; then, you take the shell off the body so you can reveal the succulent, pink flesh inside which you dip in vinegar (with garlic bits) and eat with rice using your hands. I’m trembling as I write this

**Chicken Arroz Caldo , cooked with plenty of ginger and until the meat is super tender (with patis and calamansi on the side, MUST be eaten only on Christmas and New Year’s Eves; not as good on any other days)

c) The Palentinos Family’s Menudo and Embutido (like meatloaf but 1000X better, the liver spread makes all the difference)

d) Auntie Puring’s Lanie’s kinilaw (ceviche, sabi ng mga sosyal), Lola Mang’s carne frita (Montana family version), Manang Alma’s fried lechon

e) Dessert from my cousin, Mickey – whatever it is, it’ll be good cause it will be made with love :-)

From other People’s Kitchens

a) TOP of the LIST. Carla O’s Papa’s laing with extra chili. Carla’s Papa – a retired military man - painstakingly personally makes this only upon special request (Mr. P, may I make a request, hehe) , eaten with plenty of rice and several pieces of tuyo (dried, salted fish) – best eaten at home using your hands and with one foot up on your chair.

Everything else that follows is in random order.

b) Stephen B’s adobo with hardboiled eggs - when you’ve driven for hours and you’re tired and hungry and masungit– this is the dish you want to be waiting for you so you can be human again. This adobo version is “wet”, i.e. more saucy that my adobo (I suspect this is what makes Bisaya adobo different, Manang makes a similar version) but still cooked with a lot of garlic, just the way I like it.

c) Leah O’s twice-cooked adobo (must be with my version of scrambled eggs – about which, if I may so myself, wow) – best eaten for breakfast on a lazy, rainy Sunday, Disclosure: my adobo evolved from Leah O’s adobo.

d) Mimi D’s T-bone steak (and yes, Mimi, I really wanted the larger piece that time but I was too shy to ask)

e) Pearl A’s pochero with tomato sauce and pork and beans

f) Mike L’s wife’s fruitcake – very good even while standing in your kitchen feeding a 3 am snack-attack, WONDERFUL with cold milk.

g) Beng S’ Mom’s apple pie (ABSOLUTELY MUST be eaten with Arce’s Vanilla Ice Cream)

h) Renmin V’s bread pudding – made from something about to go stale, bubbling and caramel-y on the outside, soft and custard-y on the inside. Reminds me of myself, haha.

i) Erlene’s Mom’s inihaw na bangus

j) Juan C’s Mom’s pancit. I love, love, LOVE pancit. This is very good pancit.

k) Lanie L’s lamayo ( dried fish from Palawan, not as salty as its counterparts from Southern Philippines) with crushed tomatoes

From Various Purveyors’ Kitchens (all served with cold DIET COKE and plenty of ice, unless otherwise specified)

a) Kippers in Capers from Coney’s kitchen (with steamed white rice or buttered bread)

b) Sardines in Tomato Sauce from Zaragosa’s (MUST be eaten on top of steamed rice and sprinkled with parmesan cheese)

c) Chicken thighs, chicken liver, chicken butt and batchoy at Chicken Bacolod (planned to be my very first meal after getting off the Manila International Airport this April)

d) Tapsilog , king size at Tapa King (with vinegar for the tapa and ketchup for the eggs) – best eaten at 3 am before going home after a night of drinking

e) The flat pizza that you roll with arugula at Focaccia in A-Venue along Makati Avenue

f) Pinapaitan and buko juice at Chrisguard Carinderia in Pasig

g) Sausage McMuffin with egg and a large orange juice

h) Bola bola siopao with red egg from HenLin

i) Sukiyaki at that small place in Little Tokyo at the side of Makati Cinema Square that Mimi and Charlotte took me to

j) Steamed shrimps, crabs in chili sauce, inihaw na liempo, clam soup (halaan?) in any of the Dampas, but preferably the one in Metrowalk cause its near my house

k) Crispy pata, day-old lechon, stuffed chicken and pinakbet at Abe’s in Serendra

l) Radish cake, salt and pepper spareribs and salted fish fried rice at any Maan Hann or North Park branch – soy sauce and calamansi on the side

m) Lemon chicken, chop suey with quail eggs and yangchao fried rice in Emer’s in Makati Cinema Square

n) Greek-style lemon chicken adobo at Cyma’s

o) Four Seasons pizza at Yellow Cab

p) The kebab platter at Aria in Podium with the side salad in yoghurt dressing

q) The buffets at any of the Shangs or at the Philippine Plaza

r) The buffets at Dad’s and Tong Yang, this other place in SM (that’s like shabu-shabu and Korean barbecue together, same level as Dad’s, cheap-o but always hits the spot)

s) Sinampalukang Manok at O Kitchen in Libis

t) Jurassic Park and Dragon Roll sushi at Omakase in Libis

u) Chicken teriyaki, spicy tuna salad and tofu with ground pork at any Teriyaki Boy

v) Fried oysters, tonkatsu and fried rice at Sugi

w) Tomato soup and the grilled pork chops at the Dome branch behind Makati Med

x) Garlic chicken or Lechon Kawali (in fact - why not, both) at Big Brother in Legaspi Village (with Elvie at the counter, smiling)

That’s all, Thank you,

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Journalizing the Journal

Steve Mollman, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, introduced himself by email just before I left the Philippines. He wanted to ask questions for a piece on “executives on sabbatical” (which for some reason reminds me very much of bananas-in-pajamas).

He and I exchanged emails over several weeks and his article appeared in the November 26 edition of the paper - click here for an online version.

Steve asked some interesting questions which made me look again at my motivations and expectations about this volunteer experience I gave him long, detailed, flow- of -mind answers as if he were my new best friend . This was during my first few weeks here. I didn’t have much to do.

I am posting some of those questions along with my answers - .edited for brevity and updated with some new insights since my last exchange with Steve . If I look back at this experience several years from now, this entry would be a good counterpoint to this post.

** Are you mortified by what you're finding there? You've seen poverty before, but Africa is another level for you I'm guessing.

It is true that I have seen more poverty and sickness here than what I am used to (but that is a function of both my limited exposure back in the Philippines and the situation in Zambia). How it affects the children is especially disturbing. I am saddened, more than anything else , that there are countries like Zambia and mine which have so much natural resources yet so many of its people s are suffering .

** I see you have a lot friends on Facebook who admire what you're doing and show it through comments. Does that kind of feedback boost your spirits?

Yes. Encouragement is always welcome (sometimes, even deliberately sought) especially when you’re about to undertake something with a lot of uncertainty. But I have a confession – a few of the comments make me a little sheepish. Some friends give me more credit than I actually deserve I ‘ve been fortunate in life and I do want to do my bit but I really didn’t have to go to Africa to do that. Part of my motivation is selfish – I wanted to have an experience - to get as far away from my comfort zone as possible, free-fall and see how well I could survive. I hope I don’t look back a year from now and tell myself – I should just have taken those sky-diving lessons.

** Do you sense possible danger to yourself or others around you?

Kalomo , where I am based, is a small rural town with almost no crime rate. I’ve had to walk home alone thru deserted, unlighted streets at night with no incidents (although I always keep my pepper spray handy). I had a few small things that were stolen in a midnight burglary a few weeks ago – but the same thing - or even worse - could also have happened even back in the Philippines. The most dire warnings during our first week of training were for killer mosquitoes and attacking rabid dogs. I tell myself that New Yorkers would be happy if those were the only things they would have to worry about while walking home at night.

** Did you get negative reactions from managers or other coworkers in the office when you announced your intentions?

No, everyone’s been really supportive. As far as work is concerned, there was enough time to plan this, communicate it properly, transition and tie up loose ends. The most common reaction I’ve received – and this is true not only for co-workers but also for family and /friends - is “I wish I could do that too”. So, I suppose offering assistance or support - all of which I appreciate very much - is one way of being part of this experience

I think that, given the chance, a good number from among my circle of family and friends would have done this too. – it just so happens that my present circumstances (no family to support, some savings, supportive company) have allowed me to do this now.

** Have you met kindred-spirit executives who are taking a sabbatical in the same spirit you are?

I’ve gotten along very well with the other volunteers I ‘ve met. For one to even be willing to do this , some general character trait must be common– idealism, curiosity, a spirit of adventure maybe, some bit of foolishness definitely – and that makes the interpersonal connection very much easier.

** What exactly is your "assignment" or "work description" while there? Did you choose that role or was it chosen for you?

I am working with District Council of Kalomo, which is Zambia’s equivalent of a local government body. I am assigned to the Planning Department, which is the unit responsible for formulating the programs for poverty reduction, social services (clean water, waste management, etc) while addressing cross-cutting issues such as HIV/AIDS, gender equality and so on. The residents of the district are among the poorest in Zambia. My main task while I'm here is to help the Council identify alternative sources of funds for their programs and to introduce a system and structure in place so that when those funds come, they are used properly. I don't know how much I can accomplish in 6 months but there are other volunteers coming after me to continue the work. So, at best, I hope I can make the work easier for them by laying the correct foundations in place.

I’m currently more involved at the policy level but I’m increasingly doing more field work that involves going out and directly interacting with the beneficiaries of our programs – people living with HIV and AIDS, subsistence farmers, women leaders, etc.

** Are you having doubts about how effective you can be in helping?

Yes. I have no experience working with a local government unit or with the issues that need to be addressed by the Council . However, they specifically asked for a volunteer with a business background. And I know that, in that area, I can contribute. The challenge for me right now is to be able to contextualize my business skills/knowledge against the realities of life here so that any advice/contribution I offer is relevant.

Volunteering here also requires constant ego checks for anyone who’s used to a position of some authority. I’ve had to make a conscious effort to stop myself from just taking over some of the projects to get them to the speed and quality that I am used to The people with whom you work need to own the process and learn the skills to ensure sustainability when you leave.

** Did you do anything special financially to prepare for your period of volunteering?

For a few years, I ‘ve had vague plans about retiring early and then having the freedom to engage in some kind of NGO work (in the “someday, I will….” sense with which I think most people are familiar) so I tried to evolve my savings strategy around that. When my portfolio took a hit from the market dip last year , that extended my idea of a time frame for early retirement., I realized that I may never be able to do this. That was the point when I basically told myself - Fuck it, why wait ? I should do this now while I can.

** What were you prepared to give up financially to do this?

Am I willing to forsake everything and live simply but honorably for the rest of my life? I’m not quite there. I can’t yet afford to quit work completely so I have to go back to gainful employment after this .

My major cost while doing volunteer work is opportunity-based – in terms of lost earnings and work advancement but it really wasn’t a difficult choice giving that up for a few months. I’m looking forward to gaining in opportunities of a different kind where the marginal returns may be higher as well as gaining in experience that I can apply back home.

Fortunately, VSO has taken care of airfare to/from Zambia, provides medical insurance, accommodations and a modest stipend . However, any “extras” (i.e.-feeding my internet habit, travel around Zambia or Africa on holiday ) will have to be covered by personal funds.



Steve’s article mentions several options for those of you thinking about doing short-term volunteering. I encourage you to visit the VSO websites, here and here. I’d also be happy to guide you through the process – just send me a message . Thanks

Friday, November 20, 2009

Flotsam from the Debris of my Mind

1) Once upon a time, there lived a couple in a small village. Let’s call them Jerry and Ana (as usual, not their real names). Jerry’s job took him to far-away places. Ana stayed at home. Thru hard-work and perseverance they were able to build a house. Unfortunately, whenever Jerry was away, he was not faithful to Ana. Unknown to him, he had become HIV+. He came home and infected Ana. Ana become pregnant. The baby was born infected , as well. By the time, their disease had escalated to AIDS, the entire village knew.

The villagers were scared. They wanted this family out. Jerry and Ana knew no other home. They couldn’t leave. The villagers took matters in their own hands. One night, they came and torched the house that Jerry and Ana built. The couple escaped with their baby. They never came back to the village. This is not one of my stories from Zambia. This actually happened in a small village in Southern Philippines, a few years ago, as recounted to me by a fellow Filipino volunteer when we met for training last September.

Cruelty borne out of ignorance happens anywhere. It should stop.

2) The power outages are happening more frequently here in Kalomo. Last night, the lights went out at 7 pm and didn’t come back until the morning. There’s not much to do here even when the power is on, much less when it’s pitch darkness. At around 8 pm, I was sitting by my window staring at the moon. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I found myself singing….”Somewhere out there, beneath the pale moonlight, someone’s waiting for you…” in a trembling voice. I would have finished the song too if the dogs didn’t start barking.

3) The rains have come. Unfortunately, the downpours usually happen in the morning and early evening. It becomes really cold. I brought only one jacket so there are days when I wear it at night and then to work in the morning. I also brought one suit for just-in-case occasions so I’ve taken to wearing the suit jacket with my denims and rubber shoes on some days. What’s difficult is walking through the mud to/from work. One of these days, I’m going to fall flat on my butt (law of karma: there was this girl in the office back in the Philippines who used that excuse one day to explain why she had to go back home and couldn’t report back to work and I didn’t believe her).

4) And oh let me tell you about the locusts (I think that’s what they’re called. The lady who cleans tells me they come out during rainy weather and they can be made into some kind of local dish, I wonder if this is similar to the camaru we have back home. As I write, they’re swarming around the room . But they seem to have a pretty short life-span because I have dead ones all over my floor. I can also hear rats scurrying on the ceiling right now. From the sound, I'm guessing they're as big as toddlers. God bless all the little critters. But I still want to poison all of them with the strongest insecticide or repellants available and kick their furry filthy little carcasses as far away from me as possible.

5) I continue to be an object of fascination for the children here. When I walk to and from work, they run towards me shouting, “Hello. How are you”. I think it’s sweet so I don’t mind. What’s mildly disconcerting is that they gather outside the gate of the Drive Inn Guest House every Saturday morning to watch me do my laundry. It’s difficult to be friendly when your knuckles are red from scrubbing dried mud from your pants. If I charge money to let people watch me shower, maybe I can afford to spend more time on Internet surfing.

6) After 20+ years in the IT Industry, I can finally call myself an IT Specialist. I’ve been running computer tutorials, creating databases and doing minor hardware troubleshooting. Who knew?

7) In my 5 weeks here in Kalomo, these are among the things I’ve accomplished so far: a) revised the District Strategic Plan ; stakeholder consultations are now ongoing; b) helped draft the District Workplace Policy on HIV, AIDS and other Life-Threatening Diseases – I’m really proud of this, I think it’s a really good document; c) participated in workshops for gender-equality in the workplace, the output of which will eventually be used for another workplace policy; d) participated in monitoring meetings for the Constituency Development Funds where we spent a good amount of time talking about the health of the goats that were purchased in one village; and e) celebrated World Toilet Day today, November 19. We had a parade, a program and everything. World Toilet Day promotes proper hygiene and sanitation, especially in the rural villages.

8) This Monday, I’m conducting a workshop on resource mobilization, the first of a series, where I did the lesson plan and training materials all by myself about a subject I had previously no knowledge about. On Friday , we’re visiting Lusaka, the big city, to meet with some people whom the Council hopes to convince to invest in Kalomo so that new jobs can be created, etc. I will look for opportunities to apply what I’m learning here back home in da Pilipins

9) The big challenge has been trying to adjust to the way that things are done here and my role as a volunteer. Sometimes, things are just soooooo slow, that I just want to take over and do everything myself. But I keep reminding myself that this would defeat the purpose of my being here. At the end of the day, you want the people with whom you work to own the process and develop the skills to be able to sustain the projects on their own. It should do me good to learn to be less of a control freak.

10) The period from late November to the approach of Christmas usually is a bad time for me – too many death anniversaries and all the baggage that goes with the upcoming holidays. The rainy season and all the excess time for introspection isn’t going to help me here. On the other hand, I’m keeping busy and doing new things so – let’s see.

11) The week-end after next, I’m planning a big trip to the other end of Zambia (14 hours travel time) to meet up with some volunteer friends . And there’s the trip to Livingstone (home of Victoria Falls, supposedly one of the wonders of the natural world) which is only two hours away from Kalomo

12) Zambia being a predominantly Christian nation, I think I've found an effective way to bargain when I suspect I'm not being given the local rate. I look the vendor in the eye and say - "Are you sure you're giving me the right price? Are you sure?? God is watching us. If you're cheating me, he will punish you!" Works all the time.

13) November 17 marks Wyatt Ammon’s 4th death anniversary. His story was among those that inspired me when I was considering volunteering. May his soul rest in peace and may God continue to give comfort to his family, Amen.

There. Those are thirttene items that could have been full-blown blog entries. If you don’t hear from me for awhile, its because I’ve run out of ideas. Or maybe the locusts flew me away cause I’m so thin already (haha, not really, not yet anyway).

P.S. The section on Italy in Eat, Pray, Love is so the wrong thing to read when you have limited food options.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Tale of Two Nations

I am so not going to be the guy who sits at the bar buying rounds of drinks for people.

I said this to myself as soon as I saw the open-spaced Drive-Inn Outdoor Bar. It is attached to the Drive-Inn Guest House where I am currently staying. I imagined having to go through the opening scene of Miss Saigon every time I went home after work or waking up to some drunken argument outside my window in the middle of the night.

As it turns out, the Drive Inn Outdoor Bar is pretty lame. And the customers? A wild bunch. They don’t stop partying until 8 pm. Woo-hoo, fun times in Kalomo.!

This bar has no music, no bright lights, no mirror ball, no dancing, no displays of flesh. From what I’ve seen, the soft-drinks (Fanta Orange is big in this part of the world) seem to go as fast as the beers (Mosi and Castle – South African brands, which are pretty good ).

Getting in and out of here is an event by itself. As it is way off the town center, it involves driving thru rough roads for those who have motorcycles or cars and for those who don’t - walking thru unlighted, unmarked roads after sundown.

The thing is: the Drive-Inn Outdoor Bar attracts a steady clientele. I suspect that its most attractive quality is simply this: in a town with limited entertainment options, it is a place to go. For the price of a drink or two, one can have some private time, take a break from his or her daily toil and dream or talk about better things, better times.

And so, people come. Alone, in pairs or in small mixed groups. They stay for a couple of drinks but keep to themselves or their small groups Everyone is gone by 8 pm and the Drive-Inn closes shop.

As for me – I get home from work at around 5:30 pm (or 1730 hours as they say around here). I dump my stuff in my room, take out a bottle of water and a couple of sticks from my precious (and dwindling!) supply of Marlboro Lights and then I stake out my space at the far end of the bar. I come for the nightly show. From where I choose to sit, I have a great view of the setting Kalomo sun. Unmarred by pollution or the obstruction of tall buildings, it is always magnificent.

The strange thing is while the other patrons don’t socialize with each other, they don’t seem to have any qualms about approaching me to start a conversation. I am , after all, one of the town curiosities. Everyone knows English since it is the official language although, much like the Philippines, everyone also knows at least one local dialect.

I’ve met some interesting people in this way. Let me tell you about one of them.

Aaron (not his real name) works for a freight forwarding company (not his real job, you know the drill, haha).

I don’t ask people for their ages but I’m guessing he is in his early 20’s. He was born in the northern region of Zambia. His father died when he was 1 and as is the local custom, he was taken away from his mother by his father’s relatives. He never saw her again.

When he was 11, he heard that she died. At 14, he decided to quit school, leave his relatives and fend for himself. He has been taking odd jobs since then. The last one has taken him to Kalomo, which is in the far southern part of the country. He has been here for three years. He doesn’t want to stay for a fourth. He is saving up to go to carpentry school. He wants to have a trade so he can set himself up and go on business on his own.

He was curious about the Philippines. What kind of lives we have. What kind of government leads us. Although he struggled a bit with the English, it was obvious that he is pretty smart. His questions and line of thinking reminded me of my friends back in my University days.

Seeing an opportunity to share something about my country, I told him that the Philippines also has its share of problems but Filipinos , in general, are smart, resourceful and hard-working. We would always find a way to survive and help each other along the way. Like any other country, I told him, we had good leaders and bad leaders but we held the bad ones accountable and we were free to express our opinions against them.

He wanted to know if we had poor people too. I said yes.

He told me about life in Zambia. According to him, an average worker earns about 500 thousand Zambian Kwacha a month (about 5 thousand pesos or 100 US dollars). With expenses for rent and food, that is hardly enough for a single person to survive , let alone a family. But, the workers are still the lucky ones. At least, they get steady income. Most of the people fall below the poverty line, relying on subsistence agriculture to survive, with a good number classified as critically poor (note: I am providing the link to substantiate the info that Aaron shared) .

In the meantime, Aaron continued, the politicians who are supposed to help the people, have no idea what it is to be poor. They live in their big houses, drive their fancy cars and sit down to lavish dinners while the rest of the country struggles.

This was getting too familiar to me. Since I wanted to keep the conversation on an upbeat note, I reminded him that everyone has a choice. Quickly doing a mental inventory of my arsenal of feel-good stories, I chose to tell him about the People Power Revolution.

I said, “Look at the Philippines. We had a president who was not serving the interest of the people. We took to the streets. Without any blood being shed, we were able to get him out and replace him with a new President”.

Just to drive home the point, I added, “And we did this not once but twice”.

It took a while for Aaron to digest this story. In the meantime, “‘Your Man in Zambia is in da haus” went like a banner ad thru my head.

I was too early with my self-congratulations.

Aaron spoke up again. He said he was amazed that something like that could happen. But he said he was almost certain that this was not possible in his country “Why not?", I asked almost peevishly. I always hate it when people don’t get the point of my feel-good stories.

Even in the fading afternoon light, I could see the effort in his face and expression to articulate his thoughts clearly to me. He said – the politicians would mess it all up. Even if the people currently running the government would be booted out, there would be too much in-fighting and self-interests from among those wanting to replace them. They will all make similar promises and then the leaders might change but the problems of the country would remain the same. He ended by saying that someday, he hopes that politics and government in Zambia could be like what it is in the Philippines

He looked at me as if to check whether I could understand this – I, who in his thoughts, come from a country so much more advanced and ahead In progress and good governance.

I could have continued the conversation. I could have told him how far-off from reality his ideal was. I could have…

But when all a man has is a dream, why take that away from him? So, I kept my mouth shut, took a deep breath and recalled this line from A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite stories: “It is a far better thing that I will do than I have ever done; it t is a far better place where I will go than I have ever been”

And that, my friends is, how I decided to break the promise I made to myself on my first day here at the Drive-Inn Guest House.

I bought us a couple of beers.

And then, I changed the subject to something much more undeniably ideal than politics and governance in my country,

“How about that sunset, huh?”.


a) I may be staying at the Guest House for a few more weeks. The house where I am supposed to be transferring still has a huge hole in the ground where the septic tank is supposed to be. They brought me around to inspect it last week. It’s a concrete structure with a big backyard and a mango tree surrounded by a grass fence. When I move-in, I’ll be living by myself until the additional expected volunteers come in next year. The house is kinda isolated so I’m a bit concerned about security. There was a break-in at the Guest House last night. A few of my things were stolen, including my BP monitor. While I was sleeping , the the thief reached thru the open window and grabbed what he could. I have to say though that until last night, I’ve never felt threatened or unsafe since arriving. Even then, I want to think of the break-in as an isolated incident. I'm not taking any changes though. I slept with my pepper spray on the bed side last night.

b) What I am paranoid about is malaria. There was another volunteer who just left, pre-terminating her placement. In the two months that she was in the area, she got malaria twice . Having brought only one set of sheets and one towel, I’m now using the stuff she left behind – and yes I checked, you only get malaria by being bitten. Anyway, I SLATHER myself with insect repellant at night then I put on my socks, jogging pants and hoodie then I make sure the treated mosquito net is tucked-in tightly to keep the critters away. If I could take my daily phrophy-whatever (medicine against malaria) twice for good measure, I would. I don't want to go home early because I got sick. Anyway, when my tummy aches, the first thought that comes to mind is – is this the first sign of malaria? Haha, I’ll get over it and I'll probably be sleeping naked by next month (maybe not, the nights are chilly, but you know what I mean).

c) The views reflected in this blog are entirely my own and do not necessarily reflect VSO’s position on any subject. Heck, they might not even reflect my position 5 minutes after posting the entry. So, chill.

Monday, November 2, 2009

While You Were Sleeping, I Became Big and White

I grew up in a small, quite town in the Northern part of the Philippines. As with many other small Filipino towns at the time, we had our share of white do-gooders - missionaries and Peace Corp Volunteers (and maybe a few CIA agents but we'll never know, will we?) . They had names like Bill, George, or Carol. .

They certainly stood out, these tall pale people. The men wore their crew cuts and short sleeved white shirts like a uniform. The women had short hair, unvarnished nails and faces devoid of cosmetics.

But, whatever they may have lacked in vanity, they certainly made up in zeal. They weren’t shy, that’s for sure. God or Uncle Sam (or maybe even both, you never k now with those Two) had brought them to the Philippine to save the Filipinos from themselves and by God (or by Uncle Sam), they would!

They approached people on the street asking for directions using the local dialect. They knocked on doors to sell bibles. They cried out to God with a megaphone in the middle of the town plaza. They spoke up in town hall meetings to share their expert opinion

When they walked by, a few kids would come up to them and greet them with “Hi Joe!” eager to practice their English or bask in the reflected glory of the local celebrities.

I would run away. It’s not that I was shy or scared. Okay, maybe I may have been a little of both. But we did speak English at home and my parents brought foreign visitors to the house every so often. Looking back now , I realize that – even at that age – it was more about my natural aversion towards people with loud voices who want to tell me what to do (to this day, I have the same reaction towards pushy tele-marketers, aggressive sales men and campaigning politicians ).

Cu to: several years after, a few days ago here in Zambia. The lady who cleans the guest house, where I am staying, was telling me about some Chinese people who had just come to town (a Chinese company had just won the contract to complete the national highway that was going to pass thru our small town of Kalomo).

She said to me, “But they’re not real muzungus, like you”. Taken aback, I asked, “Why, what am I?”. She said, “You’re white”.

I’ve been mulling over the implications of her observation. I already knew that they ‘ve been referring to me as the “Big Man” . Last week, somebody from work was telling me that there were plans to bring the “Big Man” to a field trip to the bush sometime soon. I asked who the Big Man was. It turned out he was talking about me. At the time, I assumed it was in reference to my size (I am taller than most of the Zambian men I’ve met, although – I hasten to add - not necessarily heftier).

My initial reaction was: I don’t want to be “white”. I don’t want to be the “Big Man”. I don’t want to be an object of curiosity. I’ll learn the language. I’ll eat the food. Just let me live quietly amongst you and give me the opportunity to do good work while I’m here.

And while all this whining was going on in my mind, I remembered the pale-faced strangers of my youth. While many will argue about the negative effects of what can be seen as an extended form of colonialism - we also cannot deny that a lot of good work was done. There are dams and bridges and schools and churches that exist to this day because of the efforts and smarts and sacrifices of these missionaries and volunteers. And, surely, their attempts to cross the cultural divide have helped this generation (and the next ones) of Filipinos in having a relatively balanced world-view and in being open to all sorts of new learnings and experiences.

I would like to think that majority of them had come to my country with the best of intentions. They too must have thought that by trying to learn the language and chatting up the locals, they could fit in and make the work they had come to do easier.

But, who were they kidding? They did not fit in. They could not. They were just too different. In trying to belong, they just called more attention to how different they were. We knew they were from far-away places to which they would eventually return

In the same manner, I accept – that my good intentions and best efforts notwithstanding – I will never totally fit in here either. It’s funny -coming here, I told myself I would play it down and be as inconspicuous as possible. But, I realize now that my idea of “inconspicuous” was just so totally wrong, haha. My tattoos and torn jeans and black tee-shirts (with everything from “Pilyo” to “Gurango Software” printed on them) aren’t exactly the norm here.

But, then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing either . I hope that by getting to know me, people can come to realize that do-gooders come in various forms and sizes and colors. And while my contributions may be limited, I do hope that I am able to start something that can be continued even after I’ve finished my volunteer placement.

People will read or put meaning to what they see, depending on their own particular needs and points-of-view. Some people will see me as a representative of a big international NGO and would ask up-front for a water pump to be brought to their village (within 5 minutes of being introduced) or drop hints about getting a school sponsorship (in the course of what was supposed to be a social conversation).But that’s fine, because other people will see me as a friend or as a co-worker who may have something valuable to contribute.

Like everything else in life, it all balances out. There are opportunities to give and opportunities to receive; opportunities to teach and opportunities to learn.

All is well. And yes, I think I can live with “Big Man”. Maybe I’ll even have it printed on a tee-shirt. But, just because I can’t dance doesn’t mean I’m white. Hmm, that’ll look good on a tee-shirt too, no?.



I spent the night at my friend Ros’ house, another VSO volunteer, who works as a town planner in the next town. She’s from the UK and is retired. She came to Zambia 6 months ahead of me,. She also happens to be my first Quaker friend – so I’m sure we’ll be having a lot of discussions on spirituality and religion over the next months .

We attended the send-off party for Rosanna and Luke, also from the UK, who had just finished their 1 year placement as VSO volunteers for a youth organization focused on HIV/AIDS awareness. Luke and Rosanna are a couple. They both have longish hair and like walking around barefoot in their house and backyard. They’ve taking three months off to travel around Africa before going back home. From the testimonials during the party, both of them obviously did a lot of good for the organization they worked for. I want to be just like them when I grow up.

Anyway, it was a great party. I spied some boys spiking the drinks and there were party games with questions like “Where did you have your first kiss?”. It could have been a party anywhere in the world except for the Zambian hip-hop music and oh boy, those kids sure know how to dance.

Anyhow, the party ended close to midnight and Ros and I decided to walk back to her place, about 1 hour away. It was one of those clear, starry African nights. The temperature had dropped so it was a bit chilly. We didn’t talk much so there was just the sound of our feet touching the soft, sandy ground and crickets doing cricket sounds and dogs barking in the distance (far distance, I don’t like barking dogs). There were no streetlights, but there was the full moon to show the way. There were no street signs either but there were the big, tall trees to serve as our markers. It was great, one of my perfect memories of Africa