Signing off… for now, anyway!

Well, I have finally arrived back in North Carolina. It was quite the journey traveling from Manila to Hawaii to LA to NC! But I have made it back in one piece with minimal jet-lag, and an appetite that only biscuits and gravy have quenched, along with home-baked (and store bought!) vegan chocolate chip cookies (something I dearly missed this summer!).

But it is a bitter-sweet end to my Summer adventures. I am glad to be home, of that there can be NO question, but the friends and family I made in the PI linger with me, tugging at the corners of my heart and urging me further along my path of life. I am indebted to all that have made my trip possible, from the Burch Fellowship staff and Mr. Burch himself, to my family, friends, mentors, people who let me work on their houses to help fund my trip (you know who you are!) and professors here in the States, and to my gracious and kind hosts, and family and friends in the PI. Thank you, thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart… thank you… er, salamat po!

It is one thing to be given the opportunity to make a difference in the world,which is, in part, what the Burch Fellowship has offered me and others, however, it is quite another to be given the chance to re-discover the history of your existence (the culture, food, decisions, and moments in time that were steps toward this life, this existence, in the US), while working toward environmentally sustainable, global solutions. For this I will be forever grateful.

I know that I will return. The PI is now a part of me, calling me back home, and I can’t wait to continue this journey.

It has only just begun!

Ipinagmamalaki ko ang aking lahing Pilipino.

BambooPhil Despidida!

(I am proud of my Filipino heritage)  **Thanks Cha for the translation help!




I have had a bit of a hectic schedule ever since I left Los Banos last Saturday! I left for Dumaguete (a town located on the coast of Negros Oriental, and part of the Visayan island chain) on Sunday afternoon and, after a whirlwind tour of the Buglas Bamboo Institute (BBI) and some of the local hot-spots, I am back again in Manila at the gracious accommodations of the Chairman of BambooPhil, Mr. Conrad Perreras.

I should probably begin by describing what BBI is and that will explain why I wanted to visit them 🙂 They are an NGO that was founded 10 years ago by a Dutchman by the name of Mr. Frans Koerkamp. It’s purpose is to provide a sustainable and profitable livelihood to local people through the production of high quality bamboo furniture and houses. I should also admit that their products are far superior to many of the other bamboo products I have seen being sold in the markets here! They have won awards for their designs and also receive aid in the form of student volunteers from European countries (namely Dutch and German). I would like to include a website here, but since they are currently in the process of creating one, this is an article I found that gives more in-depth details:

When I arrived in Dumaguette I noticed right away that it was a beach town with clear water and dusty roads. At first I was a bit nervous because, true to Vanessa-fashion, I didn’t have any contact information for Frans! So you can imagine my elation when he finally showed up 45 minutes later 🙂 After settling into the old, beat-up SUV he picked me up in, he took one look at me and laughed, here I was- this younger person  with a sleeping mat attached to my large backpack (it was actually my yoga mat, but I didn’t correct him!) and here he was- thinking I was some middle-aged woman coming to look at his bamboo products. So we decided that instead of keeping the hotel accommodations he had arranged for me, I would instead go to the bamboo house and stay in the bamboo forest. I’m sorry, did you say “bamboo forest”?! Um, yeah, I said yes right away! Which meant that I would catch a ride with one of the volunteers, Philip, on his way up there.

We then rendezvoused with Philip, who turned out to be a 20 year-old German volunteer, at Shakey’s (where else?) and that was when I noticed the helmet he plopped down on the table. Hm, that’s odd…there’s only one. So twenty minutes later I was sans helmet, flying through the gravel roads, past the Sari-Sari stores (where you can stop and get a quick meal or soda), the waves and waves of corn (I was just as surprised), trying to keep my mouth closed and holding on to a tanned and t-shirted German boy, with my over-sized backpack and yoga mat reminding me that indeed, for once, I wish I looked as old as I am. And as we turned onto the un-paved road that led up the mountain, I wondered how I would make it, or rather, how would my rear-end survive, but Philip was quite adept at maneuvering around the larger rocks and finding the smoother path. Then we turned into the bamboo forest, and all of my doubts about having made the right decision subsided as we pulled into the bamboo house. It rose two-stories into the air and while the foundation was made out of concrete, the rest was pure bamboo: the floor, the doors, the walls, the ceiling, the windows, even the roof! We arrived just before dusk, so the sky was a deep smear of purples, reds and oranges glinting off the top of the bamboo trees, which surrounded most of the house, except for the garden that spanned most of the back of the house (I would say ‘back yard’ but I don’t think that would be accurate. It would be like calling a stream ‘hose run-off’). Frans had mentioned that they had received another German volunteer just the night before, she was brand new to the Philippines and contracted to stay for the next 3 months. Her name is Linda and we met over her cutting eggplant for dinner when I arrived with Philip. We were both pleased to discover our common plant-based diet (for her, since birth), and I commented on her good fortune in having such easy access to fresh vegetables and fruits! I also met Archie who is the son of the current office manager and who lives and works with them in the bamboo forest. The land is owned by Buglas and it is where a percentage of their bamboo poles come from, although, it’s not their main source because it is too small- only 2 and half hectares, which is roughly 5 and half acres. We spent the rest of the night getting acquainted with one another and headed to bed under mosquito nights and a slight thunderstorm.

The next day was spent touring Buglas’ processing facility and conducting more interviews for my thesis (always an interesting process, you learn so much about people!). While I am unable to disclose specific details due to a contract signed between Buglas and one of their export companies, it is with sadness in my heart that I grew to understand the financial strain this wonderful NGO is under due to shady business deals and exploitative business practices that they have recently had to endure. I only hope they will be able to keep their doors open, not only for the people who badly need the livelihood to support their families, but for the much needed spotlight that Buglas has shed onto bamboo and it’s diverse uses. Frans is a jovial gentleman, always quick to smile with a light in his eyes, and while he looks all of his 74 years of age, his step is quick and his mind is sharp (I was actually trailing behind him up 2 flights of stairs!). I have every confidence that Buglas will survive and prosper, even if only for his steadfastness and unwillingness to succumb to such mountainous adversities.

Towards the end of the day we decided to head back to Dumaguette and the three of us (me,Philip, and Linda) would play a few hours of badminton and then rent a hotel room for the night in town since I was leaving the next day, and we wanted to go around the town a bit at night. I should probably note that the entire time I have been in the PI I have not exercised, I have done yoga almost everyday, however, I have not jogged or worked-out in traditional standards for almost 2 months. Now this is not to say that before my trip I did any of those things, but I could at least go for a bike ride or had the option to jog around the block dragging Harvey behind me! Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that the air pollution here is unbearable. I can barely walk down the street without covering my mouth and nose, nonetheless rationalize putting on sneakers and running alongside exhaust-spewing jeepneys and sputtering tricycles. So, when we played badminton for 2 hours in a gym that had no fans or ventilation, I should have played for fun, you know, win a few lose a few, have some water, eat some french fries, but no. Here I was atleast 10 to 12 years older than anyone I was playing with, chasing the birdie around sliding on one knee to reach the one that almost got away by the net, only to bolt to the back of the court, slamming it up and over to the other side. By the end of 2 hours it looked as though I had jumped in the ocean and then tried to suffocate myself with a plastic baggy over my head, my face red and my eyes bulging. But, I was glad to have the exercise and thought nothing of it, only to wake up the next day, after spending the night in a room the size of a walk-in closet (not a Carrie-Sex-in-the-City size one either!), with 2 other people and no air-conditioning- only a fan that bore down on us from above, swirling around the musty, post-badminton playing funk all night– and I was sick. Not the usual throat-sore kind of sick, but more the heat-exhaustion type of sick, the one that comes with fever blisters, nausea, chills and a slight fever.  I made it through most of the day, conducting more interviews, and having lunch with Frans, his wife, and Linda, but the flight really did me in, and on the way back home to Conrad’s I kept a plastic bag in my hand just in case, the waves of nausea becoming uncontrollable. Luckily, one of the maid’s (Jesselyn) checked in on me later and when I communicated to her that I thought I might have a fever she called Conrad in and he took my temperature, gave me some medicine and turned off the light. I will be forever grateful to him, I know he came in and checked on me and realized the next day (today) that he had told Jesselyn to check on me every hour, which I vaguely remember although it seemed more like a feverish dream to me. And today I am feeling much better, I canceled some plans in order to stay home and get some rest, which is exactly what I plan on doing. I guess I should have known that my only bout of sickness would be my doing 🙂

Only a few days left, and then it is the long and much anticipated journey home…


The bamboo house!

lions and tigers and bamboo oh my!

Just in case you didn't believe me--cornfields!!From mountains... oceans, they have it all!

These last 2 were taken from the same location!


Haha, okay okay! You’re right, I should have included a photo! After searching Facebook, I think I have found the best cropped photo 🙂 Ah, fashion…

what I was going for...

It's kind of hard to tell, but it's pretty close...

What I didn’t include in the blog post was that I had to returned the next day to get the dye job (didn’t bring enough money with me) and I had lost the photo, so the cut is very similar, but the red streak turned out to be be less pronounced. Which was somewhat disappointing, but maybe for the best. Since then I have had to meet with professors and scientists to conduct interviews for my thesis, so it was better to look a bit more professional!

I hope that helps, of course, watch out for the real deal dye job, because once I go back to being a student, all bets are off and the Asian-male-high-fashion is on!


Haircuts and massages…

While abroad, there are few enterprises that are socially risky but have great potential. Naturally, I am speaking of the two mentioned in the title– haircuts and massages.

My first few days here I walked around with fascination at the casual, yet fierce fashion sense I encountered. I’ll never forget the first shirt that caught my attention, it was yell0w with large black letters and it read “Yellow, the new black”– which might not sound that fashionable, but when you have an androgynous Asian male sporting it with colorful high-tops and tight jeans it is! Some of the male hairstyles are just like you see them in fashion shows, shaved-spiked-dyed-or-emo, they are ridiculously high fashion. And I thought to myself, well, you are in Asia, you could try and rock something and if it was horrible no one would have to know (well, at least not anyone outside of this blog anyway!). So after consulting my favorite partner in crime (read- Natalie), who assured me that my fear of looking like the-Mom-who-tries-to-wear-her-daughter’s-fashion was unsubstantiated. I mean, I’m not exactly in my twenties anymore and, of course, the only people sporting these dynamic do’s were teenage men, so there’s that whole thing. But in the end I decided it was now or never and if I brought a picture with me at least I would have a fighting chance.

As if going to a new hair salon isn’t stressful enough, going to one in a foreign country where you can’t exactly communicate is a whole different type of anxiety.  I asked around and had a salon recommended to me, in fact it was a specific hairdresser, so that made me feel slightly more comfortable. But there are a few main differences between hair salons here and back home. First off, they work until there are no more customers (there is really no such thing as closing hours), and appointments don’t really mean anything, they’re like stop signs- merely place holders that are suggestions of a possible system, but nothing to take seriously. I learned this when I tried to make an appointment, and as I stood in the middle of the half-filled room with a spotlight of eyes pointed at me and suggested a time I could return the next day, he nodded and everyone resumed their previous actions- no book, no writing, no nothing. So I wasn’t that surprised when I showed up the next day and had to wait 45 minutes for the person in front of me to be finished. Secondly, and more importantly (for me anyway), they sweep up the hair at random times (not in between cuts) and pile it up in a corner…and this one happened to be right next to my feet! Some of you may not know this about me, but here’s my confession– un-attached hair totally freaks me out, I don’t like it on my skin, or in my food, or piled up into a hairy volcano right next to my sandaled feet. The whole time I had a difficult time concentrating on what he was doing because I was trying to focus on anything else but the ever-growing sea of other people’s hair mixing together and staring at me with a mustached grin. And while the haircut itself turned out to be pretty awesome (red streak and all), the key was having the picture in hand and a certain desperate flair for non-verbal communication!

Other than the haircut, I haven’t really indulged in any extravagant luxuries (I would settle for air conditioning), so the other day I decided to make an appointment for a massage at a salon that was also recommended to me. I  settled on a Thai Yoga massage because it has always been something I have been interested in and people always tell me they come out refreshed and  limber, no real pain from fingers jabbed into pressure points or soreness from excessive hand-focus on tender joints, it’s more like being stretched further into yoga poses. As someone who has a regular yoga practice, I thought this would be the ticket for me! So, I go into the room and change into the pajama suit they provide, and as soon as the masseuse walks in to the room she turns to me and asks “Do you have any problems with your bones?” Hm. Problems with my bones? This question slightly threw me off, I mean my bones are pretty good, it’s more my joints that I was worried about. In fact, I had recently tweaked my neck a bit earlier last week and was finally starting to feel back to my old self. However, when I tried to relay this information to her she just looked at me and said “Do you have any problems with your bones.” At this point I was feeling like if I said yes, then the whole deal would be off, it was not the typical pre-massage discussion of agreed upon injured areas to be avoided. So I shrugged and hoped for the best.

As I sat cross-legged she placed my hands behind my head and then grabbed one of my elbows, stretching me up and back (this is the yoga part) and I started to feel like, hey this isn’t so bad, it actually feels amazing! That’s when she somehow ended up wrestling me to the floor. I think it was supposed to be a more fluid motion, but when the only thing she is telling me is “Relax, mam, relax”, it’s not exactly the clearest of instructions, so as she tried to fold me and roll me I resisted, I naturally tensed up feeling uncertain as to what was going on. I’m not saying anybody ended up in a half-nelson or anything, but I’m pretty sure she was just as surprised as I was when we landed side by side, ankle to hand, mutually entangled. However, she recovered quicker than I and was able to finesse her body into a position that made it look like she meant to do it, that it was some sort of Thai yoga technique, but I’m still not convinced. Then, sometime later in the massage, I was lying on my stomach, a rolled pillow supporting my throat, when she grabbed my left ankle and right wrist, flinging them high into the air and as my head rose off the mat I felt like we were enacting an interpretive segment of the Flight of Icarus, me- winged and falling, my wax wings melting from the intense sun, leaving only one foot and one arm left able to rise, while she was Zeus-  the true reason for my decent and ultimate controller of my life! Even my struggle for breathe due to the position of the rolled mat would have been included in our dramatic adaptation! And at this point I’m feeling apprehensive but fairly safe, like maybe the worst is over and my fears were necessary but over-zealous, after all, I’m just an American, and things here are not so scary. That’s when she wrestles me, er flips me, over and as she grabs both my wrists from behind me, places here feet in the middle of my back, and says “Relax, mam, relax”, I think to myself “This is probably going to be bad”. I breathe in and as I exhale she pulls my arms back and pushes into my back with her feet, lifting my butt off the floor. And as she began to work her feet up and down, I realized that I had become the toothpaste tube and she was the index finger and thumb- squeezing out my spine from my opened mouth! Luckily, I was only subjected to this ‘pose’ for a short amount of time and was able to recover as she laid me down to massage my arms and hands. I think this was her peace offering, some hush-hush ‘money’ that would lull me to sleep and help me forget the gut-squishing pain I had just  survived. It worked. I was soon fast asleep, my fingers and hands purring by my side.

Surprisingly, I did feeling more refreshed afterward, but it might have been  more of an appreciative outlook on life, like survivors after an accident- safe and grateful. I’m not saying people shouldn’t do it, I know several folks who love intense Swedish massages and hot rocks placed on their skin, so maybe this would be for you, but I think next time I might just try a body wrap or a foot scrub 🙂

Hanggang sa muli!


The long goodbye?

It has been an interesting week, if it were possible to feel as though the days are in the eye of a storm, I guess that would be the closest way to describe it; calm and static-y. I leave Los Banos on Saturday and will then head off in other directions, a few other places to visit and soak in the PI. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that a part of me doesn’t want to go back. Of course I miss my family and friends, there’s no question about that, but I’m not so sure about America. It’s like I’ve stripped away the everyday comforts and luxuries (read: air conditioning and lack of mosquitoes in my cold shower), and have found something more meaningful, raw even. And I’m not sure if it’s my re-discovery of my heritage and culture, or if it’s the way people exist here– close and connected.

It’s not even something that can be translated to my life back in the States. The two don’t fit together. Whether it’s the physical distance from family members or the emotional distance of lifetime’s spent driving ourselves to independent destinies; the Philippines will stay here and I will return to America. It’s not all sadness though, I have made many friends here and can now see that this place is home too, I will (we will!) somehow make a life that can include my Homeland, and that makes it a bit easier to leave. It’s not really goodbye at all, more like “Hanggang sa muli!” (till next time)




I had a profound moment the other day with my friend Cha. We were

Pagsanjan Falls

traveling back from Pagsanjan Falls (an amazing trip upriver through rain-forested cliffs and free-flowing falls), packed in a jeepney and I was explaining how it was starting to wear on my nerves a bit how most people react when I tell them I’m half-Filipino: “Oh really, you don’t look Filipino”, then later on ” I mean, where did you say your Mom was from?”. As if it’s not hard enough coming from the “melting pot” of America where your family shed it’s heritage to embrace the ability to work three jobs including the night shift to make sure your three kids can go to American schools and eat American food, buying American dreams with no money down and a cemetery in your backyard. That’s what my grandma did (the cemetery always creeped me out as a kid!). And now that I’ve come here, worked so hard to come here, to learn about my heritage, to listen to the stories, and I get slapped in the face with a ‘ you don’t look like us’ comment. And yes, I am a foreigner, I do come with a LOT of privileges, I’m not trying to deny that, but what I am trying to do is reconnect with something larger than myself that is inextricably a part of me, it runs in my blood and turned my hair black, my eyes dark brown and my skin somewhere in between my white father and brown mother.

And that’s when I told Cha that when I visited the village where my family is from on my first trip to the PI five years ago, they showed me a picture of my grandmother’s father, and we look very similar, the lighter skin, smaller face, sloping nose. And in a very excited response I could see the light in her eyes go off as she exploded that of course, I am a Spanish Filipina! She has cousins who look similarly and they are of Spanish-Filipino decent. Now, this was not news to me, I mean the PI was colonized and ruled by the Spanish for hundreds of years, so of course Spanish blood ran through my lineage, but to hear that she had cousins that had similar features as me made it all the more real. And it was what she said next that stunned me, two things really: the first was that she could now see me as Filipino, I felt like a ghost stepping into the light, the sun turning my skin browner, my rightful place with my people being resumed; the second was what stopped my heart ” You are the product of colonization. You have Spanish blood and American citizenship.” The sounds of the now full jeepney, once dull and useless chatter, now came into sharp focus– the woman sitting next to me texting on her phone, the loud, choking exhaust of the motor, the baby staring at me and drooling on the lap of the elderly woman, the smell of steamy rain colliding with asphalt as we raced through it, soaking the metal floor and the backs of our seat. I couldn’t breathe and yet I felt like I was breath, air- particles of oxygen that had once been in the lungs of my ancestors, long since dead and silent, and here I am- the end product generation. I am war and occupation, treaties and religious dogma, love and suffering, fear of death and immigrant dreams, re-written histories and crossed boundaries. All of a sudden, I was now a dot on a map speeding through time, something I had never been before.

When I was younger I used to ask my grandma to teach me Tagalog, and she would to tell me that someday she was going to give me book, but that book never came. Now I have history books written in a language I cannot read, and a sense of belonging that burns with a purpose. I try and tell myself that this was not what I was looking for, that this claim to my lineage is an unexpected bonus to this trip, but in reality I have been looking for this all of my life.


“Oh language, my language…”

Okay, so the scene from “Dead Poet’s Society” might be a bit dramatic, but I do feel a fierce gratitude for the folks that run and participate at the E3 language studio! Generally speaking, I am surrounded by men over the age of 50, which is totally great and I learn a lot and they are a hilarious crew, but

Yay for E3!!

it’s hard to meet people my age  in a new city, not to mention a new country! That’s where E3 comes in. During my first week of classes they were celebrating their 3 year anniversary  and since they were going to be having a little party, they invited me– this was after meeting them for the first time the previous day. And they welcomed my vegetarian self with open arms, and since every Filipino gathering centers around food that is no small feat! At first I was nervous because I obviously didn’t know any of the students or teachers, but they sat me down and tried to feed me, and when that proved to be slightly impossible (I couldn’t even eat the cake!), they asked me about myself and my interests, and explained a bit about their business, and all in all it was a great time and I met a bunch of people. Little did I know that was only the beginning!

Everyday I have class I walk into the office looking forward to seeing them. Usually they greet me in English and then in Tagalog, making sure to speak slowly, and then teacher Malou will ask if I want coffee or tea, maybe they have a snack to share (if I’m lucky it’s warm pan de sal, my favorite little Filipino roll!), if she’s not too busy, teacher Joanne will ask me about my day or weekend, and then teacher JP will pop up from behind the divider and comment on how I’m 10-15 minutes early so we can hang out for a bit…and then we go into the next room and start a lesson that usually requires a lot of vocabulary, repeating phrases and possibly a slight headache, but always with a lighthearted sense of humor! And while it’s possible that I will forget a good portion of the lesson (only to study later of course!), I will always remember these times spent torturing me with short ‘o’s at the end of sentences and round ‘a’s in the middle of words 🙂

The students are no exception to my gratitude. We have gone out to dinner together, had coffee, mused over the differences and similarities in our cultures (whether that’s Vietnamese, American, Filipino, or Colombian), and most recently several of us went on a field trip put together and paid for by E3. It was a fun-filled day of traveling in a van together seeing the sights of Laguna de Bay, eating and sharing our food (pretty much the moment we shut the doors, because that’s the Filipino way!), then buying more food on the side of the road, and laughing, always lots of laughing. That is one thing that I have really noticed, and I am going to just go ahead and attribute it to Filipinos as a people: they are some fun-loving folks, young or old it doesn’t seem to matter! It’s like how we have a term for “British humor”, well I think there is a “Filipino humor” and it is one that borders on silly and ridiculous but always seems to crack everybody up, and at the same time laughs at life’s hardships. It actually helps me understand my Grandma (or Lola) better, I remember one time after she was recovering from major surgery she was lying in the hospital bed while one of my cousins was watching her, and as my Lola slowly came into consciousness, she slightly opened one eye and in a low, thick, Filipino accent said “I’m not dead yet.”  and cracked a smile. And that folks, is a perfect example of Filipino humor, taking the tragic and making it ridiculous! 🙂

And my friends at E3 really know how to laugh and make an foreigner feel like this place could really be a home away from home. To all the teachers and students, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart… you’ve helped me ‘maging Pilipino’ (to become a Filipino).

Maraming salamat po (thank you very much),