Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Dancing Prisoners

Prisoners in an overcrowded cell, La Trinindad Prison, Benguet

I'm usually pretty well insulated from the latest internet sensations, but given my interest in prisons and prisoners in the Philippines, friends have seen fit to alert me to the youtube phenomenon of the dancing inmates of Cebu jail.
[For those even more clueless than I am: a thousand or so elaborately choreographed inmates dancing to an odd assortment of music from the eighties, most notably Michael Jackson's "Thriller."]
And I really can't decide what to think.
Part of me can't help but love it for being so bizarrely, quintessentially Filipino. In a country where daytime television shows open with routines by groups with names like "Viva Hot Babes" and the "Sex Bomb Dancers" and cabbies unwind after their noon to 4 am shifts by tunelessly moaning along to schmaltzy pop songs at sidewalk eateries cum videoke bars, the sight of a thousand orange jump suited inmates dancing in unison to the Village People makes a certain kind of sense that I suspect it probably wouldn't anywhere else in the world. [I miss my hyphen key]
Not to mention that the lead role in some of the ensembles is danced by a bakla [neither transvestite, transgendered or drag queen quite precisely translates, but you get the picture], in prison and surrounded by a thousand or so inmates, and no one seems to find this the least bit odd.
And then, of course, I'm always in favor of dancing, and of things that help to humanize prisoners in the eyes of the public. And just about anything is better than sitting in a cell all day.
And yet, I suspect there's some back story here that we're not getting. I did a somewhat desultory search [hey, i'm also trying to move, write, establish residency, etc.] and really couldn't figure out if participation was voluntary or compulsory, how many hours of practice people were doing a day, how people were chosen for roles, or really any details at all.
More than anything else though, I'm afraid these videos trivialize the problems of prisons in the Philippines and in the third world in general. [the larger problem of the entire concept of prison systems is too big an issue to tackle right here and now]
It's possible, and I sincerely hope, that the prison in Cebu is an exception. But when I visited prisoners in the Philippines, I was confronted with brutalized, hungry, ill inmates kept in conditions so appalling that thinking about it still shakes me up. A few excerpts from a report I wrote last summer:
The prisoners lack even basic necessities. They are not provided with soap, toothpaste, laundry detergent or other toiletries. Each cell is given food rations, which they are responsible for cooking for themselves. The rations are insufficient and sometimes arrive only every other day. Some of the prisoners report that at times they have nothing to eat but rice and salt.... Overcrowding also increases the physical hardship in the prison. The cells do not have enough beds for all of the prisoners, so some double up and the rest ... sleep on the concrete floor. The cells themselves are exposed to the elements. One wall and the ceiling are just bars facing an open corridor. Benguet province is one on the coldest parts of the Philippines, and in the winter months the temperature can be close to freezing. The prisoners are only allowed to leave their cells once a week for a 15-minute sunbath, which is cancelled if it is raining at the scheduled time. Consequently, colds, flu’s, and fevers are rampant in the prison. Medicine to treat these problems is not easily available.

You get the idea.

torture victims [since released] in La Trinidad

18 year old torture victim [since released]

this little corner was the designated "bed" of the prisoner above.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that while I really don't have enough information to know whether these dance routines, and the attention they've gotten, are a good thing for the specific prisoners involved in them, I suspect that it's going to make serious debate about prison reforms in the Philippines even more difficult than it already is.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

I have mostly been doing things that, while important, don't make for very interesting reading.
I got a new [old] bike yesterday, I sign a lease tomorrow, and will start moving to the East Bay after that. I finally made up my mind and made plans to go out to the East Coast for about a week in August.
Otherwise, I've been trying to explore the city, get a feel for the social scene, catch up on correspondence and generally enjoy having time in which I can do such things without feeling stressed or guilty about unfulfilled obligations.
I've been reading a lot as well. On my desk right now: Andrei Makine's Dreams of my Russian Summers, and Miranda July's No one belongs here more than you, very different books, both of which I've been enjoying.
I thought about putting up a picture of my bike, but decided I'm not feeling like that much of a nerd today. Maybe some time in the next few days, I'll try to take a picture of it somewhere more interesting than the hallway.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

At last...

My desk, upon completion of my article on Basilan
Now I just need a place to live...
[Because as nice as this desk is when it's not totally overrun with books and tapes and papers, it's in the wrong city]

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Writer's block. A fancy word for procrastination?
I just know that I'm having to rip every single word of the article I'm working on out of me like I'm pulling a tooth.
I often wonder if everybody sometimes hates doing the things they love quite as much as I do.
I spent some time this afternoon biking around, trying to clear my head. I think it's going to be good for me to live in a place where I have easy access to open water. It always makes me feel less nuts. Even in Manila, I would go down to the bay when I felt like I couldn't handle the city any longer. It's still polluted and congested, but if you close your eyes and listen to the water against the rocks, you can almost forget

This is actually probably the most awkward shot I took of the bridge, but the only one that came out reasonably in focus. I'm excited that I'll have access to fancy professional digital slr cameras once the semester starts!

Transcribing, transcribing, transcribing

"If I look at the provisions of the antiterror law, I would not trust even the most upright government with them, much less a government which has actually a very questionable track record with respecting human rights and the civil liberties of its citizens."
Interview with Atty. Ibarra “Barry” Gutierrez, Director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Human Rights, on the new antiterror law in the Philippines. [modeled after...you guessed it...the USA PATRIOT ACT]

"At the very least, there was a certain measure of shame before....The brazenness now is really something else, and that is actually particularly alarming as far as I’m concerned. ... Before, if you raised concerns, at the very least the government would attempt, even on a very shallow surface level, to make some sort of conciliatory gestures. It would not say, ‘well, sue us,’ which is the attitude right now, by many many officials in government."
Gutierrez on impunity under the current administration

"There were human rights abuses before. Illegal arrests, torture, detention. But what is different now under Arroyo is the extent of killings of political activists. In fact, there’s an ugly joke going around that they don’t anymore have to feed them. Because during the Marcos time, and Ramos and other administrations, they would arrest an activist, or torture him at the most. But at least they were alive, they kept them in detention later to be released. But now, they’re not arresting them anymore. They just kill them."
Prof. Ronald Simbulan, UP Diliman, on the rise of human rights abuses under the Arroyo administration.

Some quotes that may not make it into anything else. Just to give an idea of what I'm doing with my time these days.
One of the lovely things about doing research in the Philippines is how generous people are with their time, once you've gone through the rigmarole of getting in touch and establishing some sort of credentials.
Even busy people with titles will sit and talk to you for hours on end.
The thing is though, you've got to transcribe it all later. And trust me, after hours of listen/stop/type/rewind/double check/repeat, dozens of pages, aching wrists and watering eyes, you start to wish for a few thirty second sound bites.

Friday, July 20, 2007


"My street" in Quezon City

Apparently, I am now a real Californian, having slept through my first earthquake last night. I've been horribly jetlagged, wasn't able to fall asleep until around 4 am, and the quake came through around 4:45, so I must have been completely passed out.
I've generally been feeling a bit disoriented since I got back. Somehow, the disruption to my body flying east in always much worse than flying west. I set an alarm for 11 am, and still didn't manage to get up until after 1 pm when someone called and woke me up. And I could fall asleep right now if I let myself.
I went to the grocery store yesterday and felt like a slack jawed yokel. I had a moment of slight panic faced with the selection of thirty different kinds of olive oil. I was only away for three weeks, there are big modern grocery stores in Philippine cities, and I was in the neighborhood coop here, not some fluorescent lit behemoth chain store, so it shouldn't have been such a shock, but it was. Even the best appointed grocery stores in the Philippines, while they may have a wide variety of products, do not have anywhere near the variety of brands. You can buy vegetable oil in a pouch, a small, medium or large bottle. Perhaps, if you're lucky, you can find a bottle of olive oil. But that's the extent of it.
So there I was, standing in front of an entire shelf full of olive oil, utterly at a loss. In the end, I just grabbed the smallest bottle and called it a day.
Complaining aside though, while I'll never dispute the charms of shuffling through a public market with tarp roof 3 inches shorter than me buying deliciously fresh produce off of blankets and carts, it was certainly nice to be able to push a cart around a bright clean store and pull food I've been fantasizing about for weeks off of the shelf.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Arrived in California earlier tonight.
It was actually supposed to be yesterday, but the flight was overbooked, they were offering a free roundtrip ticket between San Francisco and Manila to anyone who could fy out the next day, and I had an extra day on my visa, so...
Looks like I'm going back next summer, maybe even for some vacation time.
I'm a bit too jetlagged to write much more, and using a borrowed computer in someone else's room, so I'll write more later.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Photos from Zamboanga

Blogging as work avoidance.
In any case, here are some photos in the thirty minutes I was able to spend as a tourist in Zamboanga city. Not the best composed, but I was conspicuous enough without waving a camera around all over the place.
Fort Pilar

Rio Hondo Mosque

The very tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula

Near the Zamboanga City port. If this photo were a bit higher resolution, you could see Basilan in the background. It's the second island away.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Homesick. For any home.

I have just 4 days left in the Philippines now. And I have to say, I’m ready for this trip to be over. At the moment, it’s not even so much that I feel like I want to be out of the Philippines, as that I’m totally sick of not having my own space. I haven’t slept in a bed that I could call my own since May. No matter how genial the hosts, it’s always exhausting being a houseguest. And the few nights I’ve spent in hotels haven’t been much better, especially since going out to eat alone is a particularly excruciating experience here. I just want to cook my own food, eat as much or as little as I feel like, go home or go out when I please, shower or wash clothes without asking permission, sleep late or be antisocial and sit in a room with a closed door without feeling the need to justify myself, and the thousand other small comforts of home. I’m not terribly particular about the material conditions I’m living in (though I will confess to a rather embarrassingly first world loathing for Philippine plumbing] but my need to feel like an autonomous person is really strong. Add to that the fact that I can’t go anywhere, anytime, without being under constant scrutiny from the staring throngs, and yeah, San Francisco sounds pretty good.
I’m so, so glad that I sublet a room for July, even though I’ll have been away for more than half of the month, because the thought of another couple of weeks of being a guest makes me want to cry...

Safe and Sound

I imagine the news about what happened in Basilan over the past few days [attacks by rebel groups on the Philippine marines that left at least 14 dead, including at least 9 beheaded] may be trickling in to the Western media.
In case my last post wasn't clear enough, I'm back in Manila, and fine. I did not, in fact, even know about what happened until today. Which is actually pretty bizarre. I was at the Philippine military base yesterday, speaking with a public affairs officer from the US Joint Task Force, including a fair amount of discussion about Basilan, and didn't know what had happened until it came out in the press.
I still don't really understand. I can only assume that the person I was talking to was also unaware at the time, because he said a few things that, in retrospect, look pretty foolish. i.e.:

"And this is where a big part of our involvement with the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines], and our work with the AFP really began was in Basilan where they had significant successes against the Abu Sayyaf and JI [Jemaah Islamiyah] to the point where the US no longer maintains any sort of presence there. They have for most practical purposes...I won’t say that they have eliminated the threat, but they have certainly taken great strides to counter the threat in Basilan."

So, yeah. I didn't watch the news last night, but usually the grapevine is all you need here, and I was out and about until after 8 last night. Didn't here a murmur. I'm still trying to figure that one out. Basilan is just a few miles from where I was, visible over the water.
But in any case, just wanted to reassure that any pondering I'm doing is being done from a nice long distance.

On a much lighter note, my computer is, as usual having some difficulties with the weather, and thus I've lost the use of certain keys. Most irritatingly the zero, the hyphen and the close parenthesis. Thereby depriving me of some of my favorite punctuation.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Back in Manila. Exhuasted. But happy to be back.

Samal Island, near Davao City, Mindanao

The pictures below are from the 7th anniversary celebration of Davao food not bombs

Mindanaoan Dance
Fire Dancer
Art session for street kids

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Would you believe there's a coffeeshop with wifi here? A good place to kill time during the endless waits to get anything done. I've generally found Zamboanga to be frustrating. As everywhere in the Philippines, doing anything requires going through an excrutiating mix of formal and informal procedures. For example, to speak to the US military, I first had to get clearance from the Philippine Military. Of course, theoretically, one could just send a fax ahead of time. But in order for the fax to get read, I had to have someone here to put in a word. So I couldn't even do that until yesterday. This morning, I found out that I have been given permission by the Filipinos. But still no actual contact. I'm supposed to leave tomorrow morning, because I already have appointments set in Manila tomorrow afternoon. Now it looks like I may have to delay leaving here if I want to get a chance to talk with people. Which means choosing between letting this whole trip to Zamboanga be basically a complete waste of very limited time, or breaking other appointments that were not so easy to make either.
Not to mention the fact that I really, really want to leave Zamboanga. It's hard to get around much by myself, and the communication barrier here is pretty high. Unless people are well eduated, they don't even speak Tagalog here. Mostly Chabacano, which is a mix of broken Spanish and Malay, which I can somewhat understand, but can't speak.
Okay, just now finally heard from the Military people. So I'm going to end this here.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sorry for the communication gap. It's not as easy to stay in touch in Mindanao as it is in Manila.I'm in Zamboanga now, after 5 days in Davao. Everything's been going well so far. I had to wake up kind of distressingly early for my flight, but I'm still mostly functional, was able to pull off an interview with the chief of staff of the local congresswoman. It would have been the congresswoman herself, but she was called away for a meeting with the President. People and their priorities, no?Davao is also a pretty fascinating city. It's basically under a kept under an elightened reign of terror by the Mayor and his death squads. So, it's very safe, very clean, the mayor is open to dialogue or rallies on issues related to the environment or globalization, but one step over the line, and you're likely to end up with a bullet in your head. Especially for drug use, theft, other common crimes -- or criticism of the Mayor,Which most people, naturally are afraid to do. There has been almost no one willing to speak out against him -- one radio host did, survived having his station bombed and his house ambushed, only to die when his long-time card playing buddy was paid to stab him. All rumors of course, because the local press isn't suicidal enough to report on it. (Although the mayor is broadcast every Sunday reading his list of people he's giving a last chance to turn themselves in for rehabilitation, or, basically, be get shot) But everybody knows whats going on, and several people I talked to had witnessed people getting shot or stabbed by the death squads. The going rate, apparently, is a bit less than $100 a head for an assassination, conducted mostly by Rebel returnees or common criminals cut a deal to escape summary execution themselves.
I can write this here, because I know that it's basically just family and friends that read this, but to go into more detail in a more public forum would be a decision never to return to Davao. And I can't document anything, and couldn't without a long time to do slow, deep, careful investigative work.
On the lighter side, I stayed out of trouble, and thus managed to actually have a good time in Davao. It's much less chaotic than Manila -- fewer people over a larger area. Mindanao is one of the few islands in the Philippines that's not highly overpopulated. And has some of the cleanest municipal tap water, which is a nice change. When you get thirsty downtown, instead of having to get bottled, you buy a plastic bag full of water for a peso, rip it open with your teeth, and try to drink it before it spills all over your shirt. I've learned all kinds of new things to do with plastic bags. Eat rice and soup for example. Or, rice and noodles, since you must eat rice with everything here, even if you have another starch.
I was in town for the 7th anniversary of Davao City Food not Bombs, so got to help out with a mass feeding and an art session for street kids. I have a lot of photos, but will probably have to wait until I get back to Manila to post them, as it would take hours with this connection.
Zamboanga City, so far, does not seem as fearsome as its reputation. Part of the problem, I think, is that Zamboanga City is actually quite a bit safer than the surrounding areas, so the media always report from here. Thus, any reports on incidents in Basilan, Maguindanao, Sulu, will be filed with a Zamboanga dateline -- ironically, because it's relatively calm rather than because it's a hotspot of insurgency. In any case, I have hosts here from a local NGO, so nobody's letting me wander off alone into any stupid situations. Now I'm just trying to figure out how to get the US military here to talk to me...

Monday, July 02, 2007

Perhaps...I would be more motivated to post if I was getting a bit more email. Lots of excitement today, but I'm going to make you work for it.