Hello dear friends and family!

Here is my much belated first email update from the Philippines. I hope I remembered to add everyone to the list. If you think someone else would like to read the emails, just let me know so I can add them.

In case I didn’t fill you in on WHY I’m here in the Philippines, the basic story is, I wanted to study tropical ecology in Southeast Asia, I applied for a Fulbright grant, received it, graduated June 11 from Washington and Lee, hopped on a plane June 23, and have been here ever since!

I am living in Quezon City right now, which is as close to metro Manila as Chapel Hill is to Durham. My apartment is quite nice. It has wood floor and some furniture. I have running water and even a shower. I always take cold showers, because it is always hot. The tap water is actually potable. Needless to say, my living situation is extremely unusual for the Philippines, even though it is normal for the US; most people here can’t afford these kinds of amenities (over half the population lives on less than $2 per day).

When I walk out of my apt. building each morning I am immediately surrounded by a big crowd of people, cars, tricycles, and concomitant noise, exhaust, and confusion. I walk across a bridge which is always inhabited by a few adolescent beggar children, and hail a Jeepney (look it up on google…this is a very common sight in the Phils.). LOTS of people cram into the Jeep (the saying goes that the capacity of a Jeep is “always one more person”), then we are puttering and swerving down the road toward nearby University of the Philippines- Diliman. The Jeep fare is 7 Pesos (=15 cents) I get off, walk past the library, and enter the Biology building. It is dusty and rather dark. However, despite the run-down infrastructure, my day is always brightened by the friendly faces I see there. I sit in on Plant Taxonomy and Ecology classes, and have made friends with both teachers and students. Although I am supposed to know about Biology now that I have graduated from W&L, the more time I spend here the more I realize how limited by knowledge is. The plant families I learned to ID in Virginia and North Carolina are rarely found here, and the sheer number of species is overwhelming at times (200 plant families, 2000 genera, and almost 6,000 species, many of them found nowhere else in the world). Nevertheless I try to jot down as many notes as possible and practice keying out the trees I find around campus. Another problem is that there are very few “green spaces” in Manila. Almost everything is either office buildings or houses. UP is one of the best places to go for a jog, since there are a few trees still there. So, it is hard to learn the forest species when most of what is around are cultivated shrubs, which are not found in the forest.

To remedy this conundrum, I have taken every opportunity to get out of the crowded city and explore the nearby mountains. The Philippines has a very complex geological history, containing nearly 7,000 islands. Some are volcanic, while others are slivers of continents that were scraped off of New Guinea or the Asian mainland. Near Manila there are several very interesting mountains. One is called Taal Volcano, which is near the town of Tagaytay. You can actually drive to the bottom of the crater, and take a boat across the crater lake. In the middle of the lake is a small island, which is the new crater in the process of being formed. Taal Volcano is one of the world’s largest lakes-within-island-within-lake-within-island!  

While there are some small patches of primary rainforest remaining in the Philippines, they are constantly under attack from illegal loggers (some of whom are motivated by poverty, others by greed). Most of the natural areas are in hard-to reach or steep mountainous areas, but even these are largely agro-forestry projects like mango or chocolate plantations with little biodiversity or wildlife. An aggressive grass that grows very tall and has sharp edges has taken over many of the formerly forested areas as well.

My mentor here is named Leonardo Co. He is considered the best botanist in the country, and I can honestly say he is the best botanist I have ever met (no offense, Dr. Knox!). Not only does he know how to identify almost any plant in the field, but he can ID them from dried, stale herbarium specimens as well, even without flowers or fruits (which are the most useful characters in the use of dichotomous keys). Furthermore, he can tell you the exact location where a particular species was first discovered, the name of the scientist who described it, and their dates of birth and death. He also speaks Chinese, Ilocano (a dialect in N. Luzon), Tagalog, English, and a little of Spanish and German! This guy is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to plants. I am incredibly lucky to be learning from him.

Since my independent research is focused on ecology, however, I can’t spend all my time learning to ID plants; I also need to study their relationship with the animals. To do this, I am going to do an experiment in the forest of the Bataan Peninsula (W. of Manila) on some land that is controlled by an group of indigenous people known as the Ayta. They are considered “negritos” by the lighter skinned “tagalog Filipinos”. The Aytas are basically the Filipino equivalent of our Native Americans in the USA. And, sadly, they have also been exploited by their more aggressive neighbors. This is because their attitude when it comes to conflict or dispute is to totally nonviolent. They simply retreat into the forest when threatened by aggressive neighbors. However, they are now using their legal rights to ancestral domain to try to preserve their way of life. I am very lucky that they have given me permission to work in their forest, and I am looking forward to learning more from them, since they are the real experts on their local ecosystem! Most likely I will be moving to Bataan in about a month and staying until late November. My experiment will use fluorescent dye and seed traps to measure how far birds and bats move the seeds and fruits of a particular plant species away from the parent plant. The plant I am studying is a shrub called Leea and is closely related to our grape vine.

In my free time, I have been hanging out with a group called the U.P. Lakay Kalikasan Mountaineers. That means something like “old man of nature”. It is essentially the U.P. equivalent of the Outing Club or Hiking Club. We have weekly training runs (a great way to stay in shape) and monthly backpacking trips. One of my friends from the org. is actually on his way to Burma right now to write about the situation there for a month or so. One of our upcoming climbs is going to be Mt. Pulag in the Cordillera mountain range of N. Luzon, and we have already visited a mountain in Batangas (S. of Manila). I really enjoy all the folks I have met through this org!

Other places I have visited include: Baguio (in the mountains), La Union (on the NW Coast of Luzon), Rizal Province, Los Banos (where the national Forestry school is located, near a good forest!), and recently the coral reef area of Lian, Batangas Province. I am planning to take a week long trip to Sagada in the North part of the Cordillera Mountain Range in a few months, and maybe even down to Borneo at some point before I return to the States (the plane ticket to Sabah is only $20!, and Kuala Lumpur not much more than that!).

Another fascinating aspect of life here is religion. When I met my landlady, the second question she asked me after what is my name was, “what’s your religion?” I was of course taken aback, since few people would ask that of a stranger in the US. While the Philippines is largely a Catholic country, there is a remarkable amount of open-mindedness about other religions. For example, when I asked her if she thought non-Christians like Gandhi or Spinoza went to Hell, she said, “of course not- even the Muslims have their place in Heaven.” (side note: Muslims are sometimes discriminated against because of the violent separatist movements in the South).   This is very different than the doctrine I am used to hearing! Furthermore, there are a number of “unorthodox” groups like the Iglesia ni Cristo, that are essentially Catholic, but with unusual variations on the theme. Technically these groups are probably heretical, yet everyone seems comfortable with their alternative views (maybe analogous to the Church of the Latter Day Saints in the US).  Homosexuality is also widely accepted. In fact, “gay talk” is sometimes considered “hip”.  While people here in the city are very tolerant of different expressions of faith or lifestyles, there is a higher level of superstition and fundamentalism in the rural Provinces. Many of the folks who live outside of the greater Manila area are rice farmers or fisherfolk, and they are poor. I have a friend from Duke who is studying environmental policies and coastal communities here, and he has plans to make a documentary about this subject, so I will let you know about that later.

Well, time to get back to work. I hope everyone’s doing well back home (or wherever you are!).  I will be staying here until April 22, 2008 (with a possible short return for Christmas…), so I will try to continue keeping you updated about how things go here!

Ingat mga kaibigan ko! (take care, my friends!)

Will Townes