I’ve now been here in Southeast Asia for 6 weeks and have yet to write about where I live. Faithful readers of this blog (mainly immediate family – my father comments on each article using a different pseudonym from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged) and others (everyone else) have heard about a range of topics, mainly microfinance, tourism, and my beard (the two-month update is only one short week away). I get a lot of questions, however, about where I actually am living in the Philippines. Beyond the fact that it is an archipelago with some active volcanoes and something dangerous happening in the south (Mindanao), people I talk to do not know much about the country, much less my adopted city of Bacolod. I am far from any active volcanoes, and I am not going to be kidnapped. In fact, more than once Bacolod has been described to me as a town that is too laid back to attract terrorists – they’d just get bored here. These are only a few of the many things I’d like to clear up here. This post is about the town I am calling home for the next few months.
I live in Bacolod, the provincial capitol of Negros Occidental – one half of the island of Negros in a region called the Western Visayas. It is a city of 300,000 people, most of whom speak Illonggo. The native language of the Philippines is actually Tagalog, despite another language – Cebuano – being the most widely spoken in the country. As far as I can tell, the rationale behind this is political in nature: Tagalog is the language of Luzon, home to Manila and most of the politicians. At some point there was a backlash against the Western influence in the Philippines, and the education system was converted from English to Tagolog. I am making a concerted effort to learn Illonggo using an old Peace Corps phrase guide found by one of my coworkers. In fact, my Filipino amigos never miss an opportunity to remind me that the Mormon missionaries in town speak perfect Illonggo. Only about 10% of the population speaks the language, but hopefully by the end, I will be able to successfully order a chicken breast without getting intestines on a stick instead.
Negros is famous for its sugar industry. It has vast tracts of arable land that are ideal for growing sugarcane and, to a lesser extent, rice. During its heyday, Negros supplied 80% of the country’s sugar for export to the world market. Agriculture in the province was controlled by the “hacenderos,” major landowners that employed hundreds of families to work the fields. You could count the number of these hacienderos on a couple of hands, until the late 70’s and early 80’s, when agrarian reform in the Philippines led to the redistribution of land to the workers themselves. Agrarian reform is a controversial topic in the Philippines, and particularly here in Negros, which bore the brunt of the negative repercussions. I will examine this topic in greater detail once I can speak intelligently about it.
In the early 80’s, the sugar industry in Negros collapsed in dramatic fashion. Driven largely by declining prices in the global market for sugar (among other things, including a major drought and political problems), farms reduced their output, causing thousands of workers to suffer starvation. According to a study by the National Secretariat for Social Action, in 1985, 40% of children under the age of 14 in Negros were malnourished. In 1986, that number had climbed to 73%. In fact, the organization for which I currently work has its roots in the Negros sugar crisis. It began with the mission of organizing cooperatives for women impacted by the decline. A chance meeting with Muhammad Yunus led Dr. Cecilia del Castillo, the chairman of the organization, to shift toward microfinance.
Bacolod is known as the “City of Smiles,” a deserved title for a couple of reasons. First, the city is famous for its MassKara Festival. Celebrated over one week every October, it was originally held to lift peoples’ spirits out of the pervasive gloom that had settled over the region as a result of the sugar crisis. Everyone wears a brightly-decorated mask with wide, perennial smile. I’ve been told it’s a little like Mardi Gras, and, unfortunately, I just missed it. The major beer here in the Philippines is San Miguel, based right here in Bacolod. The apocryphal story is that, during the first MassKara, the good citizens of Bacolod drank all the beer in town. San Miguel was so impressed with their ability to throw back their product that they built the town a brewery so that it would never go thirsty again.
Secondly, people here have a generally positive demeanor, from what I can tell. Of course, I might be associating with a self-selecting group of optimistic and generally cheerful people, but nothing has proven me otherwise to date. I’ve been told the Philippines is racked with political violence in the north (it’s an election year too) and ethnic conflicts in the south (see the Maguindinao massacre). Bacolod, however, seems too laid back to care about such things – there isn’t much violence, and things are settled over a few San Miguels.
Contrary to the opinions of many foreigners, the food here is pretty good. People naturally compare Filipino food to its much spicier counterparts in Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. It is true that some dishes are bland in comparison, but you can still find some tasty things to eat. Adobo is perhaps the most famous type of dish. It refers to just about any meat (pork, chicken, seafood) cooked in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, peppercorns, and anything else that the chef desires. Another well-known dish is sisig, served sizzling with some type of meat and vegetables, and also cooked in vinegar. Bacolod is famous for its inasal – barbecued chicken or pork, usually on a stick. Lechon is another popular dish – it is roast suckling pig, and it is delicious. You can get good seafood also – milkfish, or bangus, is the fish of choice here. A few days ago, I spent the afternoon at the farm of one of my coworkers. A couple of us sat out by her fish pond eating freshly caught shrimp, milkfish, steamed oysters, and pork, and drinking San Miguels for the better part of the day. It was as enjoyable as it sounds.
Illonggos are proud of their ability to drink, so keeping up has been a challenge. They are good at it too, which makes it all the more difficult. Performances are a must here – my exploits at the company Christmas party are on display in a previous post. I thought that would be the last of it, until I ended up at a Filipino comedy club where I was the butt of all the jokes. Then I got called up on stage and had to sing a duet of “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi with a midget, who then made fun of me while I sang “Sweet Child of Mine.” When in Rome…