Sunday, January 20, 2008

Philippine Ergonomics (human scale)

When I first landed in the Philippines, my first experience with not quite fitting was walking down the sidewalk in Cebu City. There are many small stores with awnings and canopies. These often are no more than 5’ off the ground. If you are a 6’ tourist you have to watch your head, often these overhangs are made of sheet metal with sharp edges. It can be almost guaranteed, you will bang your head a few times before getting wise to the Lilliputian scale of the Philippines. Good advice is to wear a hat which will soften the first few blows to the forehead.

Filipinos have an average height of 5’ for women and 5’4” for men. In the provincial towns like Dumaguete, almost everything is influenced by this fact. When you hire a tricycle pedicab, the first thing you will realize is that there is not enough head room to sit straight, nor enough room for your legs. It is very much like getting on a kiddy ride at a carnival with your small children. Even the Ceres liners, which are large commercial busses, are cramped for the tall foreigner. The seats are close together with very little leg room for a tourist. Seats are three abreast on one side and two on the other. That’s one more person than on a western style bus. It’s a very good idea to get the aisle seat if you want to stretch your legs from time to time.

In some of the local Dumaguete malls even the stairs are downsized. It takes a little getting used to when you’re used to stepping on stairs with a larger spacing. The other contributing factor is that there is no standardization here. Handle heights, door openings, and stair spacing vary from building to building. The upshot is that one must always pay attention to the little things that are taken for granted in the west.

Another related phenomenon in Dumaguete is the sidewalks are not consistent in width or height. Often there are as much as a 12” drop off as you walk down the street! The widths can vary from 3’ to 1’, often with two levels side by side, very strange and haphazard for one used to consistency. There is no liability here, if you get hurt, it is your fault for not looking. No lawyers ready to take your case, you need to be responsible for your own safety.

The land of Liliput does indeed exist, while not as disparate an example as in the Jonathan Swift novel, there is a real difference in the overall scale of things in Dumaguete. Watch your head!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

H² OH! Drinking Water in Dumaguete

It is often expressed that the ground water in the Philippines is not potable. If you read various travel sites and embassy fact sheets you will no doubt read their cautions to this effect.. Having lived in Dumaguete for a few years I can amend those general blanket statements with some local factual information.

Yes most of the city or municipal water is probably unsafe for foreign tourists. That said some well water in the outlying areas is quite good and safe to drink. Some foreigners have tested local well water and found it safe to consume. This does not take into account the local strains of bacteria in small amounts that may cause gastrointestinal distress. There are local testing facilities in Dumaguete that can test the water for you if you have a desire to drink local well water.

The pathogens that can be present are e-coli, various flukes, harmful bacteria, fungi, and heavy metals. It is prudent if you’re here for a short stay to avoid all tap water and ice in mixed drinks. This is advisable to ensure you have a pleasant visit and can enjoy your stay with out contracting Lapu Lapu’s revenge!

Most of the ice in the better restaurants here use treated water for their ice, but unless you know or want to play detective, just avoid it. (treated water ice usually has dimples from machine processing) When you live here you become a little more aware of what’s safe and what’s not.

What is “treated” water in Dumaguete? There are literally dozens of small water companies selling so called Spring water, Purified water, or the most common local generic name, mineral water. Most of these firms simply take the municipal water and run it through a series of filters to strain out the impurities. The equipment observed by me is state of the art commercial equipment, some of it imported from the U.S. or Europe.

I visited one such facility near our home to find out what they did to render the water safe to drink. “Real Spring mineral water” is the company name. Somewhat misrepresenting the actual product, it is no different from U.S. or European companies making similar claims in their Logos or names.

In this case the facility is very clean and modern inside. They use WaterCare equipment imported from the U.S. This system is made up of various carbon filters and polishers, ending up being processed through a 1 micron synthetic filter. After this the water is irradiated with ultra violet light to kill any residual bacteria. It is an impressive set up. We have in fact been using this water for well over one year and have had absolutely no problems. Safe bottled water is also sold in all the local grocery and convenient stores.

A developing country, the Philippines is rapidly becoming up to date with some basic infrastructure and modern services. The water treatment here is one example that may bring comfort to those wishing to visit and stay safe.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Philippine Ingenuity

There is little capital in the Philippines. Money is scarce or non existent for the vast majority of the population. Especially true in the provinces, people have by necessity become very inventive in order to keep vehicles and other everyday devices going.
I am endlessly amazed at Filipinos ability to repair anything with virtually nothing.

Coming from a so called first world country, it is easy to look down on this type of obsessive frugality as backward or somehow less worthy. However, having lived in Dumaguete for a few years, I have come to admire the inherent intelligence and ingenuity of Filipinos. Comparing to the western world of our ancestors when life was hard, there are a lot of parallels. Have we in the West gone soft, and become lazy? Why make a tool from a discarded pc of re-bar when we can go to a discount store and buy one? Our great grandfathers would burn an old house to retrieve the nails before moving west to greater opportunities. Maybe we just forgot how to be frugal. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating going back to the 19th century, but perhaps we have lost some of our inventiveness and "common sense" over the years.

Filipinos waste nothing. Little is thrown away. I watch my wife cut up cigarette cartons from her Sari-Sari so the pieces can be used to write down songs from the Karaoke. I had my cars steering repaired and instead of buying a plastic bushing the mechanic made one on his lathe from a better material for less money than the commercially available part. When I asked him to fix a rough running engine, he cleaned the carburetor, the spark plugs, and the air cleaner. It ran great after that “tune-up”. Any first world shop would simply start replacing parts and charge accordingly. I paid roughly 300 Pesos for this service.

We had our store remodeled last year and I had a first hand opportunity to see Local carpenters work. A master carpenter here does not have a pick up truck full of tools. He does not even have a truck. A small bag carried in one hand has all the tools he needs.

  • A hammer with a steel pipe for a handle
  • A hand saw
  • A stone chisel fashioned from a masonry nail stuck through a pc. Of rubber hose
  • Hack saw made from a bent pc. of steel re-bar
  • A bubble level made from a length of clear plastic hose
  • One wood chisel
  • Tape measure
  • Hand carved chalk line box with coconut charcoal chalk
  • Wood plane self made from local hardwood (they buy steel blades for 30 Pesos)

True to the ancient journeyman tradition of Europe, these itinerant craftsmen keep their most important tools in their head, fashioning work benches on site as needed, and improvising other tools on the fly. It is a lost art in the Western world, but very alive here in the Philippines.

The working style is different here in the Philippines. Workers tend to cluster together and use a cooperative style. In the west we are used to dividing tasks and working individually. It is amazing to watch, Filipinos seem to communicate with out much talking and everyone seems to find a spot to fit in.
The Banana leaf is an integral part of Filipino life. Used for everything from food wrappers to concrete barriers. It is one of the materials of choice no matter what task is at hand.
Some city workers were digging new storm sewers near our place a few months ago. Artfully hand dug trenches lined with rocks and capped with concrete. Wood was used to make forms for the top of the hollow sewers. large cracks remained between the wood caps. I wondered what they were going to use to cover the cracks so concrete would not leak through. Enter the Banana leaf! The workers just ambled across the street to the nearest Banana grove and ripped off a few leaves and placed them in the trench!

Bud Bud is a delicacy made from rice and coconut milk. Carefully pre cooked in a large pot, the sticky concoction is then wrapped in Banana leaves, rolled between the palms and steamed. The Banana leaves act as a sort of burrito shell, except that it is not consumed. When finished you unwrap the rice and eat it like a candy bar. The Banana leaf does impart a flavor to the rice which is very nice.

I have come to appreciate the simple solutions that Filipinos bring to everyday tasks and problems. Truly, everyone can learn something from this more with less philosophy. In this world of diminishing resources, it has relevance for all of us.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Getting around Dumaguete

Public transport in the Philippines is is a uniquely different experience. While there are in fact a few Taxi cabs in Dumaguete, you won’t see them driving around looking to pick up passengers. They are usually a private hire by pre arrangement. The substitute for cabs is the Tricycle or “pedi-cab” as it is known locally.

These cumbersome conveyances are a study in Filipino culture. They exemplify the way people think and regard as practical. Generally built around a 150cc motorcycle, these elaborate side cars can carry anything. If you think I exaggerate, I have seen these carrying the following
* Room full of household furniture.
* 15 people
* 5 people and two pigs
* 250 kilos of 20’ long rebar (steel rod)
* 15 30’ long bamboo poles
* one cow and one pig
* 5 sheets of 4x8 plywood and 5 bags cement
* any combination of the above
* anything else you can imagine

The streets of Dumaguete are literally choked with these “taxis”. There are over 2000 of these registered in the city. They ride like a truck, and if you are a 6’ tall foreigner, the seating is cramped. Everything here is built to accommodate 5’ tall people. That said, it is a great experience if you are here on a visit, and in fact the only way to traverse the city unless you walk.
The fare for in the city destinations is 7 Pesos, if you want to go a little further often you will have to pay double fare. Drivers will sometimes try to charge an obvious tourist 20 Pesos or more. It’s up to you to decide if you want to pay the “tourist” rate or negotiate the real price. Pedi cabs can be hired for long distances as well, for example to outlying towns. These fares are totally negotiated and it is up to you to find the price you can live with.
Locals just seem to know what distances command what price, and will not pay more. As a tourist there is no clue as to the actual fare. There are no meters and no published prices. When I first came to Dumaguete I often would simply ask the passenger next to me, or the person waiting with me along the road. The local folk are often very helpful and will even negotiate the price for you on occasion. Be aware that many drivers do not have a good command of English. Speak slowly and to the point. Others want to chat with you the whole trip, just be careful what information you divulge.

If you want to go to a neighboring town or travel to a distant part of the province there are Easyrides and Jeepneys.

Easy rides are basically a micro bus built on a Japanese Suzuki Chassis customized in the Philippines for carrying passengers. They cary 20 or more people crammed into a very small space, again long legs are a hindrance. Easyrides are a better choice than a Pedicab for long distances. To get an easyride there are specific “terminals” scattered around the city. Most are near the public market for obvious reasons. The word terminal is misleading, often no more than a spot on the street to park 4-5 little buses, you just have to ask someone where to get the easyride for a specific town. To a large extent the micro buses are color coded and have the destinations they serve painted on the side.

Jeepneys are the most recognizable Philippine vehicle. No matter where you go, these elaborate garish bus like vehicles are everywhere. Based loosely on the left over WW2 jeeps left by the U.S. Armed forces, they have blossomed into an art form. In Dumaguete they are lesser versions of what you can find in Manila. Over used and under maintained they make trips to towns near and far. Primarily used by the local population, they allow you to take anything you can pile on top. Smoke belching, noisy, and diesel powered they offer an economical alternative to the Ceres Liners.

V-hires are large 15-20 passenger vans converted to carry people from one city to the next. These are generally express runs, for example, going from Dumaguete to Bayawan which is a 100 plus kilometer drive. These vans drive extremely fast and sometimes dangerously, not for the faint of heart. Get the front seat if possible, there is more leg room.

Ceres Liners ply the National highway north and south. This is a very easy and economical way to travel up and down the province. They stop almost anywhewre to pick up passengers and the fares are regulated. There is a Ceres Terminal in Dumaguete south on Perdices Street. From there you can get a bus to anywhere in Negros and even a bus to Cebu City. This bus boards a ferry at Amlan and crosses to Cebu.

Habal Habal means literally sex-sex. It is said that people riding one look like they are having sex with one another. What is this conveyance? The most unbelievable way to get up to the mountain regions of Negros, Habal Habals are 150cc motorcycles with seating for up to 6 or 7 passengers! Often there is a metal grill over the gas tank for extra seating, and then the rear seat is extended to double the normal length. I have seen these guys carrying 6 people plus bags of rice, chickens, and baskets of produce, all at once. The kicker is that these intrepid drivers travel up steep mountain trails with washouts, large boulders and dangerous drop offs. It defies logic and sense, but in the Philippines it is a necessity because of the local economics. It is the only choice for many.

These are your basic choices for public transport in Dumaguete. Have fun, and enjoy the unique flavor and Philippine style of public transportation.