Tuesday, June 30, 2009


The mango is the national fruit of the Philippines. And not for nothing. I've had more mangoes since I've arrived in Salay than I've had in the last five years combined. And let me tell you something: I'm in LOVE. I may NEVER come back, because you can't get mangoes at home like the ones that grow in Loreta's backyard.

Paul and I were lucky enough to come to Salay (it's a tiny town, on the southern most island in the Philippines) in the middle of prime mango season. They ripen April through September, and the Rafisura's (who we're both documenting, and living with) have a bunch growing in their backyard. They pick them and let them ripen naturally, instead of using chemicals like lots of other people do.

I've been told the variety of mango we're enjoying is called the Caribou mango, the Tarabow mango, the Salay mango and the Manila mango, so take your pick. Whatever the official name, they're a little slice of heaven. Best enjoyed cold from the fridge, but almost as delicious warm, they not only taste like the most mango-y mango you've ever eaten, but the texture is almost like eating really thick pudding. In a good way. THEY ARE SO FUTZING GOOD.

So far today I've had 4, while Paul clocked in at 3 because he has the ridiculous notion that the sugar in them are keeping him up at night. Think he's going to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat craving the mango that's waiting for him in the fridge.

That's how good they are. I think about them at night, when I'm eating one all I can think about is if I can have another one immediately after. They're ridiculously addicting. When you see someone else eating one, with the orange juice dripping down their chin, spoon easily cutting through the bright orange supple flesh, you want one immediately in your mouth. Immediately.

Loreta and her husband thinks it's hilarious that we've gone mango-crazy and are constantly goading us into eating more and more (granted, it's not the hardest task). They've taken pictures of us in the middle of mango feeding frenzies and when Paul refused a mango at dinner tonight, Dr. Rene took one out of the fridge and placed it directly in front of him, daring him not to eat it.

I wiki'd them and they're good for you. Classified a "superfruit", high in fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants. So not only are they tasty (wow, what an understatement, they should create a new word), but they're also guilt-free!

If you ever find yourself contemplating a trip to the Philippines, make sure you go April - September. It may be hot, it may storm on you a bit, but you will get to experience one of the most sublime eating experiences of a lifetime. I am not exaggerating.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Filipino History-Lite

Wow. So. Paul and I are in the Philippines now! I know, totally crazy. From Africa to Southeast Asia. I don't know what I was thinking when I booked this trip. To say that things are different here doesn't even begin to cover it.

It smells different. It looks different. The people behave differently. Poverty looks different. Affluence looks different. The food is different. The legacy of colonialism is different. And that's just the beginning.

To make a long story shorter: Magellan "discovered" the Philippines in 1521, got hacked to death by natives, Spain persisted, named the islands after the soon to be crowned Prince Philip, stuck around for a long, long time and converted most everyone to Catholicism (only majority Christian nation in Asia, though Muslim's represent in the south); the Filipino people (weird spelling I know, but some how correct) kept trying to get the imperialists off their back while other nations tried to jump on, mostly unsuccesfully (although I think the British suceeded for like a month or something like that); during this time the Chinese kept coming in (I say 'kept' because they'd been doing it for thousands of years before Magellan's little discovery, in addition to Malays from Indonesia); in 1897 after lots of blood lost (mostly Filipino), both sides signed an armistice to try to hold things together; the US had a beef with Spain over Cuba the next year and thought it was as good a time as any to make a play for the Philippines, who's people fought on their side, hoping for independence, which they didn't get until after the Filipino-American War which has been compared to another war in south east asia, as it used similar nasty tactics; anyway, Filipino Independence was sort of achieved on July 4, 1902 (I know I don't have to point out the irony, but I just did), but wasn't officially achieved until 1935.

So. I guess that wasn't the short version, but I did my best. What all this means is that Tagalog has a ton of Spanish words in it and there are American brands and chains EVERYWHERE. 7-11's on every corner, I kid you not. It's been called the most American country outside of America, and Filipino's sometimes call themselves brown American's. Which is weird. But I think it's maybe a good place for people to travel who haven't been to Asia before. Sort of like, Asia with training wheels. Signs are in English, and you can get a Big Mac. And chorizo.

I have more to say about differences with Africa, and Uganda in particular in relation to our documentary, but I think maybe this is enough for one post. I hope you enjoyed my (hopefully completely accurate) history lesson!

I can't believe we have less than a month before we come home! I have to get to work!

xoxo Erin

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Erin versus the Sharks

I'm afraid of lots of things. The death of loved ones. Dark allies. Being murdered, etc. But, most of my fears are (at least fairly) grounded in reality. I'm not scared of spiders, or heights, or the dark (when not pertaining to allies).

I am, however, scared witless of most ocean critters. Fish, crabs, jellyfish, dolphins, whales... and the worst of them all: sharks. I've gone a long way in conquering those fears on this trip. Snorkeling in Kenya and Tanzania (with real fish. and coral.), swimming (if briefly) with dolphins in Zanzibar, but it’s all been building up to the ultimate confrontation: shark cage diving in South Africa.

Usually great whites prefer to eat the multitude of fish that roam around the harbor of Cape Town, but those are scarce in the winter months here (that’s now), so they head to an area known as Shark Ally where 65,000 seals that make their residence there year round are systematically hunted down and eaten alive. It's the perfect time of year to use fish heads and chum to lure the sharks up to the surface and directly into your face. For fun!

Even before booking our plane tickets, I was sending YouTube links to Lisa and Paul insisting that they save the 100 odd bucks needed to come to face to face with my greatest irrational. I'd managed to avoid thinking about being caged underwater with hungry sharks for the majority of the trip, but was forced to deal with the idiocy of my spontaneous and rash decision. Unfortunately, Lisa and Paul had to deal with the consequences too. I guess it's the price to pay for my amazing company and lifelong friendship.

Which is how we found ourselves, this morning, facing giant swells and giant sharks on a relatively tiny boat with 20 other morons. After a two our van ride, a one hour boat ride that reminded both Lisa and I of the movie “A Perfect Storm” (How did no one puke in that movie? They just ran around acting heroic and coming to terms with their inevitable demise. Unlikely.), and a suspiciously short and confusing “safety talk” our guides began hurling our woozy fellow shark cage divers into a “cage” that was little more than a wire box with foam duct-taped (seriously) to the edges and tossing a disgusting fish slurry into the water around them.

Then came the sharks. Big ones and “small” ones (1.5 m – 5 m in all). Ones that had ragged fins, and ones that looked like they could swallow our boat whole. Lisa and I stood on the top deck snapping pictures while others suited up and were hurled (6 at a time) into the cage as others were dragged out proclaiming the “AWESOME” nature of their dives (which often included close calls involving fingers and elbows and entrances and exits).

Well, I hate to disappoint, but neither Lisa nor I ever made it into the cage. In fact, we didn’t even make it in to the wet suits. I could blame it on nausea or cold water or freezing weather, but that would only be a half truth. The whole truth is: I was scared completely shitless, and I had reached the limits of my bravery. I’m totally scared of sharks. And you know what? I have good reason to be. They’re crazy strong, huge, can turn on a dime, have two rows of razor sharp teeth, and while they don’t like to “eat” humans, it’s not entirely unfeasible that they wouldn’t try – especially if they came across a band of human idiots careening in and out of the water in to a shoddy, duct taped, wire cage surrounded by fish heads and guts.

So I failed, I guess. Paul went in after he puked and said it was “pretty cool”, and I was really proud of him for doing something that scary. So tease at will, but it took a lot for me to step on to a boat that was essentially shark bait. I guess that’s as fearless as I’m made.

Next stop, Manila.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Cape Town Rocks.

We left Kampala very early in the morning last Monday before the sun came up. The night before our host Betty threw a party in our honor at her house. That's another blog post all together. There was matooke, dancing, strange games and lots of Nile Special. In short: it was super rad.

We all left kind of sad to say goodbye to our friends, and a place that had grown very familiar to us. We were all pretty comfortable on the back of an erratic motorbike. We knew how to do the ubiquitious Ugandan handshake (I'll show you when I get back) and how to sit on the ground properly (on your knees).

We arrived to Cape Town after a short, hectic stop over in J'burg airport (suffice to say they better get their shit together before they're hit with the World Cup clusterfuck that's headed at them next year).

After our first week here draws to a close, my first impressions have turned out to be pretty accurate:

Wow. Is it ever different here.

I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting... cooler weather... better food... wider offerings at the movie theater... But it goes so far beyond that, I find myself forgetting I'm in Africa at all.

An example of things that are different here: meters in cabs, salads you can eat without thinking twice, potable water, pedicures, sodas in plastic bottles and metal cans, vineyards, museums, fantastic thai food, hipsters, a wide variety of people who come in all different colors, dentyne ice: arctic chill, lack of need for mosquito nets, pharmacies in which a prescription is required, lack of haggling for every single thing you might want to purchase, large number of fellow travellers, autumnul colors and weather, a large middle class... you get the idea. It goes on. And on and on and on.

It's hard to describe how shocking and overwhelming it was the first few days here. Especially for Lisa and I, who have spent the past three months gradually getting used to avoiding uncooked vegetables and arguing over every monetary transaction. I think it's the sudden familiarity with how things work and what things are that's so surreal.

What's even more shocking to think about is how a country like Zimbabwe could share a border with a country like this. Granted, there are very evil things bubbling under the surface here that I have only the most casual knowledge of, and I'll probably leave here without ever coming into contact with the way life is for the cogs in the wheels that live in slums and keep to themselves.

But the sheer functionality of South Africa is truly astounding. The stability of it. Wow.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

stills from our still untitled documentary!

Lisa, the best footage down-loader EVER. With the basket weaving artisans.

This guy climbed up a giant tree to collect the rafia used for basket weaving. Paul looked on.

We have been eating really well during all of our visits to artisan's home. They cook us these really elaborate meals. There is ALWAYS matoke, which is the yellow stuff on the right. They make it by steaming bananas in banana leaves all morning. It's good, but SUPER filling.

Here is us with Mary, one of the main characters in our film! She's so nice and cooked us the best meal of our trip so far. She also taught me how to "dig" like her, which is how she earns most of her money, especially since the economic crisis. It's really hitting people hard here, especially the people who were struggling to begin with...

The artisans taught us to weave last week. We made key chains, which are basically the equivilant of 1/16th of a basket. Then we were judged on our skills. Paul was on the top of all three of our judge's lists. I was on the bottom. I think they didn't like my pink color scheme. UNFAIR.

Here's Millie, one of the artisans, starting a basket. It starts so tiny! After our little jaunt into weaving, I can say it's hard work.

Our second interview with Betty this Saturday. Paul's shirt was dirty so Betty made him take it off to wash it. So he worked topless.

Our production office. CLASSY.

Here's Paul filming Betty getting her grandkids ready for school this morning. We had to wake up at 5AM to get there by 6AM. It was a really great scene though.

xoxo erin.

in which I totally lose it.

Growing up with a mom like mine, I've spent lots of time in the company of mentally and physically handicapped children. She's a pediatric physical therapist who's owned her own practice since before I was born. She's really good at it, and almost always positive about her patients and their futures.

I've always known that handicapped children were special, brave, hardworking little people and I've rarely seen them as very limited in any way. With the right amount of coaxing and determination they could (if not easily) lead happy, healthy, productive lives. And they manage to do it all facing more challenges than the average "abled" person will ever have to deal with in the entirety of their lives.

Yesterday, Betty (who is disabled herself after a childhood illness left her walking on crutches) took us to visit a mother of two twins, one of whom is handicapped. They're both 13, and while there is no Lugandan word for her disability, I can pretty decisively diagnose her with cerebral palsy.

I have known so many children affected with CP. Several of them 1/2 of a set of twins. Many of them are no longer children, but rather adults with jobs and responsibilities. College students cramming for exams and partying with their friends. Spoiled teenagers who are the apple of their daddy's eyes. In short: just like me. Just like you. "Regular", whatever that connotes. Average.

I say all this to try to convey what an utter shock it was for me to enter the courtyard of several mud huts, and be face to face with a 13 year old girl, in a red wheelchair, suffering (a very deliberately chosen word) from cerebral palsy. Immediately, my heart started to race and I could feel a very unfamiliar wetness creep into my eyes.

I am not a crier. The closest I get to tears back at home is when I've had too much to drink and I initiate a pity party in my honor. On this trip, I have stood witness to so many forms of utter poverty, desperate people, struggling mothers and disease ridden bodies that I've become pretty numbed to feeling anything more than compassion and anger.

As Betty introduced me to the girls' mother and described what she was trying to do to help the family, I could feel my composure slipping. By the time we made it into their shabby one room mud hut, I had completely lost it. I had to excuse myself and squat around the corner, weeping into my hands.

It wasn’t that she was so thin. And it wasn’t that she looked like she was maybe 7, instead of 13. It wasn’t her bald head or the flies that congregated by her eyes and nose. It was that in her moans and squeals, I couldn’t decipher anything human. And I knew it wasn’t because she was inhuman, I knew a desire to communicate, to ask for what she wanted, to laugh with her friends and talk back to her mom was contained inside the fragile, bald little girl in the red wheel chair. I knew that inside of her was an adult with responsibilities, and a college student and a spoiled teenager. But I also knew that she had no hope of ever getting to lead a life that was any different from the one she was currently leading. All of the different possibilities and hopes that are contained in a little girl of 13, even the most destitute, were completely, 100% absent in this girl.

Betty confirmed this, when she told me that for kids this disabled in Uganda, their parents –at best – are just trying to keep them alive until they die. Betty gave this little girl less than a year.

Her mom couldn’t afford to buy the protein her daughter needed to stay alive. Which was bad enough, and a familiar enough tale at this point in our trip. But what seemed almost worse to me, was that Betty (a very educated, in the know, advocate for the disabled) didn’t really understand me, when later in the car I tried to describe what services my mom provided for disabled children. Physical therapy? Speech therapy? Cognitive therapy? Therapy? All of these were foreign terms to her, and required lots of explanation to convey their meanings. Parents don’t even talk to these children. They never learn to speak, or communicate. They’re lucky to even see the light of day, as most parents have to lock their children inside while they go to work. This girl, Betty described as “lucky”. Lucky because she has a donated wheelchair and is able to sit outside.

The best these kids can hope for is to get born into enough money so that their parents can afford to put them in an institution. Otherwise, “life” is a word that’s completely off base in describing the future that’s in store for them. They will not lead productive lives. They will not laugh with their friends. They will not go to college. They will not raise families. And they will never have adult responsibilities.

It’s the most upsetting, harrowing and depressing situation I’ve seen here in Africa. And on the rest of our silent car trip down to the Equator, I tearfully pondered possible solutions and came up with nothing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Africa and the quest for gold.

I am a pretty adaptable person, and I've gotten used to tons of local customs that the average bear might not have been down with. I am now a world class heckler, despite loathing the custom with every inch of my being. I chewed chat with the locals in Ethiopia, despite the bitter taste and long duration of the "ritual". I ate cow stomach in Palissa, despite it's wet laundry smell and texture. I ride boda bodas hands-free, despite visions of flying off at ever pothole.

However, there is one custom that I will never get used to. It grosses me out in such a basic, fundamental way that despite the regularity of it's appearance, I can't help but cringe each time I'm confronted with it. Yell at me for being culturally tone deaf, but if I never see another Ugandan pick their nose it will be too soon.

I'm not talking, a casual wipe here, or a flick there, or even a kid exploring his nasal cavity. I mean, grown adults, shoving half of their finger up their noses, prying out disgusting gobs of phlegm and then flicking that phlegm in any odd direction.

They don't just do it when they think no one is looking. You could find yourself in the middle of talking with someone (say the dean of a university, or a member of parliament) when, without dropping the conversational thread, they push their finger up their nose and wiggle it around. With authority.

Even worse, some of our interview subjects go at it while we're in the middle of an interview. As casual as you or I would run our hands through our hair. It's really unnerving and nearly pushes me into uncontrollable giggles every time. Which can be inconvenient when discussing abject poverty with someone who is living in abject poverty. Not exactly the time for a chuckle.

I guess you never see anyone here rearranging their crotch, as is the fashion in the United States. But I wish the good old American value of using tissues and privacy to extract clingy boogers would cross the Atlantic already.

Not to mention, it makes me very wary of shaking peoples hands.