Nicole's Adventures in Rice Cleaning, Mountain Hiking and Looking Reality in the Face


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Asia » Philippines » Cordillera
May 14th 2008
Published: May 23rd 2008
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No man is an island. It has become such a cliched phrased. But at the same time it is bang on. After all, we don't tend to make cliches out of things that aren't descriptive of reality. No man is an inland in his life, everyone is part of a community, whether he wants to be or not, a group of human bengs that interacts, works together and effects each other. And no man is an island in his emotions, even the most hardened person feels empathy for another human being at some point in their lives.

Living here, the giant, the white girl, the ma'am in the room, sometimes I feel like an island. I am frequently the outsider, listening and learning but not really being allowed under the surface of the people. But I don't like feeling like an island in my interactions with other people. I am a social creature, I need to talk to people, to tell my stories, to renew my energies through laughter and touch. At home I always took advantage of the recharging power of a hug, using human contact to shake off the tiredness and the stress and to more forward in whatever it is I need to do. Living in a foreign country makes that day to day intimacy difficult. I have to now exist in a world where the jokes are being told in a language I don't understand, and where 80% of the people I meet in communities can't communicate with me beyond “good morning” and “let's eat”. And so, having decided I am unwilling, or maybe unable, to live without that human interaction I have started developing ways to build bridges from my island to those around me. Like a 20 year old boy I have started building a repertoire of lines and tricks, although mine are not for 20 year old girls, but for old men and women, mothers and fathers and adorable Filipino children.

I have been developing my bridge building skills progressively, learning from each community I visit more about the Filipino people, the Igorots and the ways to make them all look past the nationality pasted on my face. While I was in Baay-Licuan for Cordiller Day I insisted on helping the women clean the rice. They were extremely uncomfortable at first, scolding me, telling me to sit down and enjoy my coffee, insisting that I must be tired from the heat and shouldn't ware myself out. It is part of the culture in this area to do everything for guests, especially guests from the national majority or from overseas. But this element of the culture also puts me at a distance from the people I want to get to know, because it doesn't let them feel comfortable with me as a human being. In Baay-Licuan once the women realized that I wasn't going to give up they relaxed and let me help. They laughed at me spilling rice down the from of my pants, they had their pictures taken with me, and when we finished, they sat down and enjoyed their coffee with me and talked to me more candidly then they had before. As the days passed I was allowed to help fix the tarps during the rain storm, because I was the tallest person in the group, even though they would normally have insisted that the foreigner go inside to not get wet; I was able to help with dishes and wood chopping, and I got closer to the people. I refused to be treated formally and soon was being teased about my impending cultural presentation, and encouraged to join all of their community dances. I left the community feeling like I had met my goals because I felt sad leaving the people I had gotten to know. The aim is to leave people you want to hug goodbye, to leave a community where you've remembered peoples names, and where you will get a joyful hug hello when you go back.

And I am starting to get good at building these bridges. So, in the community where we held the FFM I pulled out my tricks without hesitation. I gave the kids little Canadian flag pins helped the women serve coffee during the community meeting, and sang poorly, but enthusiastically, when asked during the solidarity night. And I jumped at the opportunities to form bonds that presented themselves. I scarfed down as many star apples, pine apple bits and local bananas as I could get into my system, because the women always seemed so pleased that I was enjoying their local fare. And when it became evident that we would have to hike 6 kilometers before catching our jeep home, and the locals were all nervous I wouldn't be able to do it, I strapped on my sneakers, determined to prove I could make it to the community on the other side of the mountains. Luckily my longer stride and my years of playing in the woods allowed me to keep up with the community men who were guiding us. The physical effort payed off, impressing the local men. They laughed at me every time we stopped for a rest: amazed that I was keeping up, that I wasn't tired, that I was sure footed and not the least bit phased by the leeches hiding in the mud. They started trying to share things with me about the mountain terrain we were passing, stringing together the little bits of English they each spoke to show me where their tribe's legends took place in the mountains, where people hide during the Japanese invasion and where the best hunting is. We arrived at our destination almost two hours before the rest of our pack, and the men offered me the first cup of coffee, telling the community member who came out to greet us, with pride, how the white girl had kept up with them the whole way. The story reached Baguio before I did. And when the community men came to Baguio this week for a press conference they invited me to sit and have a drink with them so the could tell me their stories, a very unusual opportunity for a women. I enjoy making them look at me like a normal person, and to be truly friendly with me, because I get lonely here, I get lonely feeling like an island in this heavily populated ocean.

Unfortunately, the FFM last week forced me to also allow real emotional bridges to take root on my island, too. Emotional isolation is something I do try to cultivate. I got very good during my degree at reading about human rights abuse without flinching, without getting upset or being sad. I read the articles and books about torture and enforced disappearances and child labor and world hunger counting the numbers and looking for the patterns. I was able to detach myself and think about human rights issues simply as problems that needed plausible solutions. I liked looking at human rights from my emotionally isolated space, because it allowed me to do what I knew was right with my life, without actually having to feel for or with the people I wanted to help. It was easier that way. But in the community I saw a dead body for the first time and I was forced to open up and to feel for the people around me.

As part of the FFM we had to retrieve the remains of a rebel soldier that had been left in the mountains by the military so that his family could give him a proper burial. I stood beside a wonderfully vivacious and normal 20 year old guy form Manila while we watched the examination of his brother's corpse. From the wounds that could be identified from his bones, all that was really left of his body, we could discern that after he has been shot by the armed forces he was also beaten, had his skull crushed, and was partially dismembered after his death. I had to stand beside this young man while the doctor pull and prodded at the gaping hole in his brothers skull. I had to think about how I would react if I was watching someone pull at Laura's skull, if she had been so brutally beaten and then left out in the elements for long enough to have almost her full skull visible. I wondered if I would have been as strong as him, not crying, waiting silently and unflinching to give the positive identification. Absolutely not. I wasn't allowed to make this dead body into just be another number in the death tole of the civil war, or an accumulation of Geneva Convention violations. I, like the all the other people there, had to see him as a man who experienced a violent, frightening and painful death. In that moment he was a man whose name I knew, whose family I knew and whose life I knew.

After watching the examination I had to walk back into the community's plaza to a solidarity dinner I knew was being cooked and to the festivities I knew were being planned. I had to interact with people who had been threated with guns by their own military for a situation they have nothing to do with, play children who were kept in their houses for days on end to keep them away from the soldiers who where shooting mortars over their houses and drinking in their community's sacred places, think about the exhumed dead body, the first dead body I have ever seen, laid out for examination and then being prepared to go home to his family. To think that I knew his name, that I listened to his little brother joke about how short he was, that I had listened to the brutal details of his death knowing that even as I was struggling with hearing it, he had to experience the brutality, the fear and the torture. I searched the community the night before we left trying to find somewhere to cry, somewhere I could go to cry in private. How do you cry in front of the people who had to really experience all of that? But I am human, we are all human, and I had to cry, I had to let go of the sadness and the pain that was sitting in my gut. And after I cried I had to look into all of their faces and deal with the harsh realization that they are not numbers anymore either. Maybe no one will be numbers ever again. My barriers have been broken down, and I have to accept that these things are sad and scary and make you feel hopeless. I don't know if my barriers will ever come back, or if I am going to be forced to now feel everything that I see and do in this job. I guess that makes me more human, I guess that makes me a better person. No man can be an island after all, no matter how hard she tries to be.



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