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Harrison Ellis - Blog 2: This Took Me Over a Month to Post

Harrison Ellis - Blog 2: This Took Me Over a Month to Post

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Please enjoy my attempt at coherently articulating my initial impressions on Manila, evolving perspectives on privilege, and scattered ramblings on my first month and a half as a CAPI intern in the Philippines. 

The First Morning

I awoke at six am after sleeping for maybe four hours. The inescapable sounds of traffic, dogs barking, roosters crowing, and the crosscutting tricycle engines were an exceptional wakeup call. Resting would have been a safe decision but it was my first morning in the Philippines and exploration was a more pressing matter.  

Slightly sticky yet not so slightly warm, I immediately stumbled into the shower – cold water only. I wasn’t overly concerned. The window, rusting and covered in cobwebs, had not been closed for a while. I peered outside and was greeted by a mosaic of stained concrete, white stucco, and tin roofs inconsistently painted rosewood and hunter-green. The banana and coconut trees added a nice touch.  

After gathering my wits and confirming that I had sunscreen, mosquito repellent, a map, wallet and keys with me numerous times, I stepped outside. Despite the higher standard of living in my new neighbourhood, there were still characteristics indicative of the global south: stray dogs and cats missing a tail or an eye; roosters wandering freely; crumbling sidewalks; tangled, torn and out of place electric cables; ad hoc piles of scrap metal and garbage; and children playing barefoot.

I greeted the guards and turned right onto a busier street. In a daze, I walked into the first restaurant I saw. I had my first of many meals consisting of a fried egg, pork, and rice. Being a hilariously foreign 6’3 white dude hunching over my miniature plastic table like Paul Bunyan, I reflected on the previous night.

Flashback

I arrived at Ninoy Aquino International Airport on 8 January 2013 at 11:05 pm, Manila time. My jeans dampened immediately as I stepped off of the plane and onto the jetway. This twenty-seven hour airport crawl had finally come to an end and my Philippine adventure was about to begin. I felt like a zombie standing in the customs lineup but an adrenaline rush sustained a vague sense of awareness.

The sensory overload upon leaving the airport and the initially suffocating people-to-space ratio plunged me into disarray. The odors of exhaust, roasting salted meat and sewage formed the empirical basis for my first conclusion on Manila: there is always a smell. Timidly, I hobbled through the crowd tugging my suitcases while their wheels kept catching on the cracks within the sidewalk. I craned my neck in search of the MFA staff member I was supposed to meet. I had never felt more isolated despite being surrounded by people. Though amidst the chaos and unfamiliarity, knowing that a staff member from my organization was greeting me at the airport provided some comfort.

Spotting that white piece of paper with “Harrison” written on it in permanent marker provided an immediate sense of relief and connection. During the ride from the airport however, I couldn’t help but be mindful of the first impressions I was making. I vaguely remember discussing MFA’s approach to policy advocacy and something related to migrants’ rights. I tried my best to appear knowledgeable and confident while my sleep-deprived brain was trying to process the fact that I was about as far away from home as I could possibly be while resisting the urge to fall asleep.

Reflection… And Food

I am continually floored by hospitality of those working in civil society. My first weekend here, the staff of the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA) invited my roommate Cassana (the current CMA intern) and I to Lucena, a smaller coastal city five hours south of Manila by bus. They took us into a family home for the weekend, graciously sharing with us their lives, and culture. We spent the weekend touring around the area, catching a glimpse into Filipino culture outside Manila. We were fed traditional meals like sweet rice cakes, seared fish, green mango, boiled bananas, and squid adobo served with rice. Consisting of meat, seafood, or vegetables marinated in a sauce of mainly oil, coconut milk, and vinegar; adobo is considered by many as the unofficial national dish of the Philippines.

While on the dangerous topic of food, the street venders in Manila sell an array of irresistible goods. Some that I have particular trouble staying away from are the mangos, refreshing buko (coconut) juice, and the rings of white coconut jelly. Ever weekday, a thin older lady stops by the office between four and five pm. My coworkers refer to her as Ate, a word used to address an older sister as a sign of respect. We hear the doorbell ring and one of us utters, “Ate is here.” We open the door to see her kneeling and looking up at us. She immediately turns her attention towards her basket full of goods, rummaging through it and murmuring her selection. Among her inventory are homemade banana fritters and fried banana skewered on a bamboo stick coated in caramelized brown sugar.

Privilege

Keep in mind that my experience here hasn’t been a Contiki Tours advertisement. The last thing I want to do is appropriate Manila as an “exotic” destination to be objectified by the Global North. One of the biggest challenges for would be the burning sensation in the back of your throat when spending a bit too much time near traffic. It shakes you to the core, especially growing up in both the interior of British Columbia and on Vancouver Island where it’s difficult to truly grasp the privilege of clean air if you’ve never experienced anything different.

I spent the better part of my first month in Manila feeling guilty for my privileged position. I obsessively questioned why I was entitled to breathe clean air, drink clean water, or have access to education by virtue of where I was born. In order to contribute to social change, one must simply get over the guilt stage as it is not healthy nor is it a productive state of mind. I must focus on harnessing my privilege and use it to empower others, channeling it towards advancing the rights, awareness, and opportunities of the community. This a key reason for why I am here.

A New Culture, Practice, and Perspective

We learn a script from a very early age that we let dictate our lives and define what ‘type of person’ we are. In doing so we categorize ourselves, constructing a barrier that prevents us from experiencing anything that doesn’t fit the persona we’ve created. Manila has both active formal and informal economies; western and non-western activities; and the option to remain in your comfort zone or step outside of it. If I am to understand and learn from the layered intricacies of Filipino culture, I need to transcend my comfort zone. I won’t gain from this experience if I do not stray from the conventional path I’ve unwittingly laid out for myself.

I started going to yoga this week and plan on doing so throughout the remainder of my placement. Today I tried Jivamukti for the first time. Jivamukti combines philosophy with a vinyasa-based physical style of yoga. Being fidgety and hopelessly inflexible, I’ve been traditionally drawn cardio-based activities and never consider of myself the ‘type of person’ to do yoga.

Jivamukti philosophy holds that every action should serve a collective purpose and ultimately better society in some way. You can learn more about the teachings of Jivamukti here.  This is why feelings of “first world guilt” have no rightful place here. This thought does not stray far from what the staff at MFA told me during my first week: that I should be always be mindful that even the smallest tasks I complete during my placement are instrumental parts of the organization’s larger purpose. With that, I challenge both you and I to break barriers (both within and outside of ourselves), be mindful of ways our privilege can be put to productive use, and consider whether our individual actions work towards a greater collective purpose.

Thank you for reading.