One of my favorite aspects of doing fieldwork in the Philippines is learning about the local folklore and beliefs. The Philippines actually has a strong history of believing in spirits and forest-dwelling creatures, and adhering to superstitious beliefs. They even have an island in the central Philippines (Siquijor Island), which is famous for its sorcerers and witchcraft. The island celebrates an annual witch festival where you can buy all sorts of potions. I am sure that at one point in time, many of these creatures were made up to keep children (and possibly husbands) from wondering from home at night. Regardless of how they originated, they are all part of the local folklore here, and so we might as well bring you up to speed on a few of the common creatures you hear about. The White Lady—She is often seen late at night roaming dark hallways in buildings. I have heard from some that she dances around in the darkness, and from others that she simply floats across the floor.
Aswang—This is one of the many mythical forest creatures. I guess that it is similar to a vampire, with some stories describing the creature as half vampire, half beautiful woman. Often I have heard that she attracts men into the forest with her beauty only to prey. Duende—Little dwarfs. I actually don’t know much about these fantastic little creatures, but what a cool name. I do know that they are sometimes blamed for small problems that arise around the home or at work. Sigbin—I am not sure if I am even spelling this correctly, but this creature is commonly heard of in the central Philippine islands. It resides deep in the forest, and feeds on humans, leaving only a pile of coal as evidence. There have been multiple instances where I have had difficultly hiring local guides to assist me in the forest surveys because of fear of becoming a pile of coal. They have what doctors diagnose as creaturecolificationobia. If you are interested in reading more about some of the many mystical creatures of the Philippines, there is a great Wikipedia entry covering many of them.
I finally moved into my apartment in Manila. It only took four weeks to find and fill with enough furniture to make it livable. It is such a relief to be able to unpack and organize all of my supplies and comic books. The apartment is in Quezon City, which is just north of Metro Manila. To give you some reference, I was staying with my friend and collaborator, Arvin Diesmos, at his house in Las Piñas (just south of Metro Manila). The distance from my apartment to his house without traffic should take about 15–20 minutes. With traffic in Manila, meaning 24 hours a day, it takes us 3–4 hours to get across town. So we have decided to boycott leaving the apartment until our next field trip. In a few days we leave for a four-week trip of seven different islands in the central Philippines. I should have plenty more to write about soon.
There must be lists. Somewhere on the internet, you must be able to find out what countries rank among the scariest places to take a taxi ride. With confidence, I would bet that Manila is in the top 3. My first month here has included several short trips to local islands, presentations to universities and protected areas management boards, and of course, numerous taxi rides around the city of Manila. I honestly do not know why Philippine taxi driving is not an event at the X-Games.
All I can advise is don’t get in the cab at all if you get squeamish while traveling at mach 3. Once you close that door you are at the mercy of the cab driver, or as I have come to call them, death chasers. After a few trips though you begin to realize the simplicity of the taxi driver’s rules of engagement: 1. Honk as often as possible, in fact, tape the horn down so it permanently goes off. 2. Ignore all posted lane markings. This rule is actually very efficient at creating a 5-lane highway on a one-lane road. 3. Go as fast as you can and drive as close as you can to get around whoever is in your way. a. As part of rule 3 it is important to swerve towards pedestrians. I repeat, towards. 4. The louder you blare a station full of commercials the more “street cred.” you can secure. That will just about cover it. You are now ready to drive one yourself.
One of the first sites I had on my schedule while in the Philippines was an island called Marinduque. It is actually just south of mainland Luzon Island (not that this description is helping for the 99% of you that don’t study in the Philippines). All you have to realize is that it is one of the closer islands to Manila. So as you guessed, it only took about 12 hours to reach our destination. Unlike our Aurora bus trip though, the Marinduque voyage was broken up nicely into four, three-hour segments—Bus, Boat, Bus, Jeepney...and water buffalo. Maybe the water buffalo didn’t actually carry us the last leg, but the place we stayed at had one roaming the grounds. The island’s habitat has been nearly completely disturbed by heavy mining over the years. There still is some habitat remaining, however, and we were hoping to scout future sites while making courtesy calls to the mayor. Unfortunately for us, we arrived late Friday night, which meant the offices were closed until Monday.
We headed to the only pension house in town—The Buenavista Hot Springs Resort. I know, doesn’t that sound just delightful. A resort, hot springs; I could see the room service serving up some amazing Italian food and pastries. Even the prices were hinting at something amazing. At 1,000 pesos a night, roughly 20 US dollars, this resort was as expensive as staying in moderately scary places in Manila. Everything felt right…and then we got into the room. If you know the feeling of sleeping in a place that wasn’t cleaned since it was built, you were secretly right there with us. The air conditioning didn’t work, cockroaches scuttled across the floor, there was no door to the restroom, and the toilet didn’t flush.
Actually, I might as well just point out that the only running water came from a dripping pipe out of the wall (but the water was warm, probably from their hot springs). Yeah, this was definitely a “shoes while showering, sleep with your clothes on, wear a mask and rubber gloves 24/7, kind of place.” Finally, Monday arrives and we head to the Mayors office to seek a local site permit. Just for your own knowledge, Monday, the 23rd of February is a Buenavista holiday. We found ourselves in quite a predicament having to be heading back to Manila Monday night. Fortunately, the town was small enough that we were able to simply visit the Mayor at her home and she was happy to collaborate on our project.
It is not clear to me what point in time I became incapable of comfortably traveling long distances by bus, boat, and small, motorized jeeps. However, last week I was quickly reminded of just how old my overweight body feels at the ripe age of 28 (I really need to lay off the queso). I traveled with my friend and collaborator Dr. Arvin Diesmos to Aurora Province on Luzon Island. We are setting up our next site for the large KU biodiversity expedition planned for May and June of this year. Aurora Province is only about eight hours away by bus. Unfortunately, you need to leave on the 4 a.m. bus, which in turn means you leave the house at 3 a.m. to make that same bus. One thing you should note about busses overseas is that the rows of seats do not always provide the same amount of leg room some people might be accustomed to experiencing. In the Philippines, I would describe the legroom as negative space. Somehow the row in front of me continually gets smaller as the trip goes on.
The good news is once my knees have become numb, and my back spasms have subsided, I am quite comfortable. The trip was a great first step to setting up our site though. We presented our research proposal at the Aurora State College of Technology (ASCOT), which is a beautiful campus buried in the foothills of the southern Sierra Madres Mountain Range. The buildings are surrounded by forest and it was much cooler than we were used to in Manila. I was there for a few days with Arvin, and then I returned to Manila to prepare for my next adventure to Marinduque Island, which would take place the following morning.
If you were to take a little drive around a city in the Philippines, several things might strike you as creative ways of taunting death. First, it appears to be a challenge to see who can fit the most people on their little motorized scooters. I mean, it’s unbelievable. I have seen as many as six people on one scooter bike. Of course this usually entails two of the kids to be sitting on the parent’s lap, a baby in one parent’s arm and the other child delicately balancing on the rear seat while juggling three oranges. Here's an example(http://bp3.blogger.com/_PsuSutj5h-k/R4ONL8QvIbI/AAAAAAAAAjk/v1cHvJmCrlQ/...), courtesy of this blog (http://isaaccurrey.blogspot.com). If that isn’t too safe for you, lets talk about “trick” number two. Driving techniques are not what I would call standardized. Often scooter drivers enjoy making sudden U-turns in the middle of the road without checking to see if any traffic is around. Now you might view this as suicidal; I simply view it as courageous. Who else in the world except movie heroes would have the guts to play Russian Scooterette with oncoming traffic? Is there a bus about to hit me, or is the road clear? I don’t know, maybe I’ll just — SCREECH! BANG! — Darn, it was a bus. The third common death-defying act here is cell phone abuse – on scooters. Yes, it happens all the time. Before going on, for those of you that may be unaware of how a motorized scooter works, the clutch and brakes are instruments controlled by both hands. Unlike a car where the steering wheel could potentially be operated by a single hand, scooters require much more concentration and control. Which is why talking on a phone while driving a scooter should be a challenge on Fear Factor.
I thought that I should at least give you some background in the amazing world of tropical diseases, from my own experiences of course. It never ceases to amaze me how many stomach problems I develop on any typical trip to the Philippines. For instance, it took me all of 4 days here on this trip to be back on antibiotics. Four days! I mean, come on, that is ridiculous. For the most part I try to stick to bottled water as much as possible. When we are surveying mountain sites, the pristine river water is just fine, and it is usually the city water that gives me problems. Stomach problems aside, you have the constant worry of infections as well. Numerous scratches, mild wounds, and rashes are just a few of the wonderful side effects of field biology. As long as you can keep the wounds clean and dry they will heal quickly. Of course, in an environment of 2 million percent humidity, and heat that can only be matched by actually standing on the sun, it is often difficult to do this. We do the best we can though. Prior to my first expedition in 2004, I was aware of all of the possible diseases I could catch and be vaccinated for. The vaccination process took several months and was incredibly expensive. I had to receive vaccines for typhoid fever, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, tetanus, flu, hepatitis – the list went on and on. In addition to the shots you can get ahead of time, there are areas where the most dangerous viruses and diseases are mosquito born. Everyone has heard of Malaria, and luckily, you can protect yourself while traveling by taking one of several anti-malarial medications. However, what I was never aware of prior to my first expedition was Dengue Fever, and I bet you can’t guess what the first illness I encountered in the Philippines. It was 2004 and I had been in the Philippines for my first month of Asian fieldwork…ever. It started in Bohol Island. Fever. Chills. I didn’t know it at the time but I had caught Dengue Fever five days earlier on a small island elsewhere in the archipelago (Dengue has an incubation period). The “fever” is actually a mosquito born virus that comes in four strains (flavors, if you will) here in the Philippines. The mosquito is larger than most people are used to, has white stripes, and occurs more often than not in cities and towns rather than in the forest. Oh yeah, it is diurnal, meaning it attacks its victims during the day. Now, I am not saying these harbingers of doom are the size of cars; they are noticeably bigger.
The way it works is a lamok (that’s Tagalog for mosquito) bites an individual already infected with the early stages of the virus. Then it finds someone else to bite. So not only was I unlucky enough to get bitten in broad daylight, probably while walking down the street in my town, but the insect had been one of the infected. I spent the next eight days in a hospital bed, on an IV, and close to needing a blood transfusion. The blood’s platelet count usually drops significantly with the virus, sometimes to a point that a person will actually experience internal bleeding. Just so you know, a normal platelet count is between 150,000-400,000. My count had gone from 155,000 on day three to 115,000 that evening, and by day six was down to 58,000. The fever is a continual 103 degrees for the duration of the virus. It is not all bad; the hallucinations can at least be an adventure. One night in particular I remember having to capture the dragon each time I wanted to fall asleep. Finally on day 8 my fever broke. My body slowly stopped aching and my platelet count started to rise again. Now I find that when I see a mosquito I jump back and start swatting at the air. What a wimp, huh?
Touchdown. I finally made it to the Philippines. Actually, I made it a few days ago after having spent a night in Hawaii. I highly recommend the Best Western at the Honolulu airport as a nice place to stay if you are only in town for 12 hours. They have waffles for breakfast! Once I reached the Manila airport I had to wait for quite a while for my three large duffel bags to arrive at baggage claim. Once the entire 170-pound shipment arrived, I was picked up by our close friend and collaborator, Dr. Arvin Diesmos. Over the last two days we have set up several meetings for early next week to begin working on site permits for upcoming expeditions. I have also showered twice and plan on brushing my teeth later tonight. Jet lag has to be the worst part of traveling to and from Southeast Asia.
My mother has worked for years at Frontier Airlines and I therefore grew up hearing about jet lag and methods for keeping the effects at bay. Some of these methods are effective, like drinking water throughout the flight, not overeating, setting your sleep schedule to match the country of destination, and of course wearing one pink sock and one purple sock. I have found other methods less effective, like sleeping with your eyes open while holding your breath.
To some extent a few days of jet lag are unavoidable, and to prepare you, let me paint a brief picture of what the average global traveler experiences. For the first few days you are living in one day/night schedule while your mind and body are still back home. The Philippine time zone is 14 hours ahead of Kansas, and while it is daytime here, it is the night before back home. Your body will tolerate things fine throughout the morning, given you wake up at 4 a.m. and can’t fall back asleep. Then there is what I like to call the 2 p.m. drug induced day walking. You know you need to stay awake, but your body and mind have decided to go out clubbing for the last 12 hours and are shutting down regardless of what you tell yourself. All I can recommend is being close to a bed, couch, or small hammock for a quick (6 hour) nap. Things have already started to improve. This morning I slept until 5:21 a.m. before the roosters and barking dogs decided it was time for the morning symphony of nature’s sounds.
There is leaving for an expedition, and then there is leaving for a nine-month expedition. Where to begin packing is a question I am always asking myself. The airlines have not made it any easier. While we used to be able to check-in two enormous 70-pound bags, we are now only allowed two 50-pound bags. This means I will be leaving my car at home this year. I would say that I get a little too meticulous about packing. Everything has to be placed out on the floor organized by size, and then by color. Lists have to be checked off, and then the list listing the original lists also has to be reviewed. Don’t get me started on making sure you have duplicates of everything in preparation for the day a thief targets my Britney Spears music collection and 15 containers of dental floss.
In the end, I have packed and repacked. Each time a bag gets full, I have to hold it standing on a scale to make sure it will make the weight. The process is tedious, but if you can pack 90% of the field supplies you intended to, you are a rockstar. Important equipment always comes on the plane with me. This means I have a daypack filled with camera equipment, my computer, important documents, and of course, my passport. With all of this equipment, my carry-on bags get pretty heavy. By the end of a long trip overseas I have the most beautiful red rashes on my shoulders and a back that has aged 10 years. Finally, you arrive to check in at the airport and you do what every field biologist does while checking in. You hold your breath. Are the bags underweight? Will I be charged one million extra dollars for my luggage? Can this Northwest Airlines agent smell my fear? Unfortunately, I am convinced that the scales at the airport make everything heavier, and what weighed 48 pounds at home will weigh 53 pounds at the airport. The lesson I have learned over the years is to pack with 5 pounds to spare. And so I depart for the Philippines, by way of four cities, and 48 hours of fun travel time. At least I have two copies of Britney’s recent hit.
Right now I'm at an Internet cafe in downtown Manila. Last night we arrived in Manila at 11:15 p.m. New Year's Eve. The city was lit up and fireworks were going off non-stop. It was quite a sight to look down at the city to see all the fireworks from the plane. We celebrated the New Year right outside the immigration office, en route to baggage claim. Today we walked around Manila. Many of the businesses are closed due to it being New Year's Day. All the people are out on the streets and in the parks celebrating and everyone seems to be in a fun, holiday mood. Later we're going the National Museum. And tomorrow, hopefully, we head out to Mt. Palai.