March 2008


Christmas Parties
Miscellaneous Fun
Bicol Peninsula– Southeast Luzon- Volcanoes and Leeches
Ilocos Province– Northern Luzon
Puerto Galera– SCUBA diving
Kanawan #5 and #6– Bataan Ayta Community

I’d like to just share a few anecdotes in this post about some of the interesting people I’ve met here in the Philippines.

Toward the end of January, I met up with a guy named Ryan who is absolutely a fanatic about SCUBA diving. He graduated with a BS in Biology (like me) but was always doodling in his lab book, so he got a job as a shoe designer for Adidas. He spent his first paycheck on SCUBA diving, and has been diving ever since. Now he is even doing commercial dives to help inspect ships in Manila Bay, and organizing trips to famous coral reefs like Anilao, Batangas, and Puerto Galera, Mindoro. I was lucky enough to visit the latter. While I had been SCUBA certified in Costa Rica, I had almost no experience so I was very nervous. But, everything went smoothly, and it was exhilarating to swim around with giant “batfish” and see giant clams, huge corals, and sunken wrecks. Also in the group was a British guy named John who is teaching English in Yunan Province in SW China. He was on vacation, and he had a lot of hilarious stories about his life in China (he had already been there two years). I think he was also glad to be able to speak in English again! The whole group stayed up late into the night telling jokes that mixed Tagalog, Chinese, English, and even some Thai and Spanish.

Then, on the ferry ride back to Luzon, I ran into some exchange students from Japan, Spain, and France who I had already met a week before in Manila. After talking for a while, they introduced me to a man who was originally from Georgia! He was involved in a kind of export business, where he manufactured flip-flops and other items in the Philippines and then shipped them to the US. Despite the fact he had never been to college, and was a “straight C” student in high school, he was doing quite well financially due to his entrepreneurial spirit. He told me about how proud he is of his business, that he has almost 200 employees, many of whom are only able to put food on the table for their families due to their jobs. Even though the wages are far below US minimum wage, they are much higher than the prevailing wage in the Philippines. While I am no expert on international business or labor, it was quite interesting to hear his perspective, rather than to merely read about it in a book or newspaper. I also got to chat with some of the Filipino-Chinese in our group, who all had their own small businesses importing or even stitching clothing in Manila. I realized from this that I would probably make a lousy entrepreneur; I’m motivated more by a sense of curiosity and to do what I think is best for the common good than by the profit motive. That said, I really admire these small business owners. They have a sense of independence and creativity, and work very hard to support their families. In fact, one of the richest men in the Philippines, Henry Sy (also Filipino-Chinese), got his start as a simple shoe vender in the fiercely overcrowded Divisoria Market near Quiapo. Now he is a billionaire, and owns almost all of the largest malls in Manila. The SM Department Stores (his company) are so dominant here that I have never seen a single Walmart!

Back in Manila, I ran into a bunch of oceanographers from a research ship, the R/V Melville that had just docked in the harbor. They had been out cruising the Sulu Sea for almost a month. Most of the scientists were from Columbia’s Earth Institute in New York City. One of them, an Italian-Argentinian woman, told me about her research, which had involved going to Antarctica. However, now that she had an infant son, she had to settle for only going away for a month at a time on expeditions! Her companion, a Jewish Ph.D. student, was complaining about how they had to write down all the data about the ocean currents, the chemical composition of the water, etc. every five minutes for hours and hours when their automatic computer system broke down! It made me glad my research didn’t require me to lose sight of land.

Well, there are a lot of other cool people I have met that I haven’t even mentioned, but I better save those stories for later. Just as a sampling, they include, a half Tunisian half Finnish diplomat, a microbiologist who is a follower of the Opus Dei branch of Catholicism (made famous by The Da Vinci Code), a born-again preacher who quotes Karl Marx and dislikes Rick Warren (author of The Purpose Driven Life), and eating everything from grilled pig intestines (“isaw na babuy”) to chicken tail pulutan. Manila is a colorful place, and just as you can buy anything from fake Harvard diplomas to machine gun ammo belts in the streets of Quiapo (sometimes at the same vendor!) there is no telling what kind of interesting characters one is likely to encounter.

After the New Year in Manila, I almost immediately met up with Iris Buhay, a friend from W&L who is now working for the UN in New York, and her parents to accompany them on a visit to their home province of Ilocos Norte. While there we visited the historic town of Vigan, one of the best preserved (because it was not affected by the WW II Japanese/American bombings that destroyed Manila). We also visited a beautiful lighthouse at Cape Bojeador, a massive baroque looking church called Paoay (built in 1704!), and the famous beaches of Pagudpud, which were filled with tourists from nearby Taiwan. My favorite part, though, was talking to Iris’s grandmother about what life was like for her in the “good ol’ days”. She told us about how her husband used to be friends with Imelda Marcos (the wife of Ferdinand Marcos, who was the former dictator of the Philippines before he was deposed in the first EDSA “People’s Power” revolution in 1986). Marcos was originally from Ilocos Norte, and many Ilocanos still hold a relatively positive view of his legacy (in stark contrast to the rest of the country). His body (or possibly a wax replica) is even on display in a memorial chapel near Iris’s birthplace!

Back in Manila again, I joined a group of bird enthusiasts as well as Ms. Lala Espanola (my professor at UP and one of the top experts on Philippine birds) to participate in the Asian Waterbird Census in the Candaba Swamp near Pampanga (north of Manila). This is an attempt to count how many of each different species can be found in a single day in all the different Asian countries. It was really exciting to be around so many bird enthusiasts, who would almost jump out of their skin if they saw a Cinnamon Bittern! Among biologists, it is well known that ornithologists are a “different breed” in that they have an extreme dedication to their subject matter, and even speak their own language, using words like “lifer” (first time to see a particular rare species), “rufous” (a colour) and “sallying” (a method of eating insects). I also met a cool British guy who spent many years in rural Japan teaching English. He was a humanities major in college, but after so much time in the Nipponese countryside he became fascinated with birds, even publishing his observations in scholarly journals. Now he’s a Ph.D. student again in the UK, studying the migration patterns of birds that move between Africa and Europe.

I also finished up most of my fieldwork in Bataan during January. This mostly centered on my goal of growing some small Leea sprouts from seeds I collected from the adult plants. While I was hoping to collect more data, unfortunately the Leea plants and birds themselves did not cooperate; the birds ate up all of the Leea fruits! This is a recurring difficulty for many field studies, since the thing you are studying is a living system, it rarely behaves in a manner convenient to your personal time-table. While ecologists try to isolate and control for all the variables such as temperature, humidity, time of day, etc. they ultimately are watching something unfold that will never be repeated exactly. The best one can do at this point is to attempt to discover patterns in the midst of all the myriad interactions that go on in the natural world. Despite the best efforts of many brilliant scientists though, our understanding of ecological interactions even in simple systems remains very weak. That is the difference between the field biologist and the laboratory experimenter. While laboratory conditions are precisely regulated and can be repeated many times, the field biologist must wait until next year before he can return to see if the same species of bird will again eat Leea fruits. It is frustrating, but on the other hand, it’s exciting because everyday there is something new to learn. Of course, the fact that ecosystems are very complicated and not easy to predict the behavior of (not unlike the economic and climate systems that are frequently in the news) suggests we should be cautious in interfering with its functioning. A great deal more research needs to be done, especially in places like the Philippines, before the human race will even know what’s in its own “back-yard”.