Friday, May 18, 2012

brave, stupid and well fed

I do not fear food beyond my native shores. I'm comparatively nimble when it comes to the gastronomic dance that nearly partners bravery and stupidity. What goes in my mouth is a way to become familiar with people and their place, and so I've learned the two-step. But oh golly did I bring two left feet to the table last night. We organized a gathering of Filipino mayors (peers of the mayor from Abra de Ilog studying at the University) and participants in the rice course. The local restaurant couldn't keep up with the conversation.

A menu for an impromptu gathering of Filipino government officials and foreign rice studiers
Filipino beer - San Miguel and Red Horse 
White pizza - featuring local water buffalo (carabao) cheese
Crispy pata - deep fried pork thigh

The Carabao - draft animal and milk source.
A face that screams "I'll make your pizza taste better," and do
they deliver!
Crispy fried pork thigh - Pata

Pork sisig - minced pork, traditionally made with meat from the head. It's been reinvented as simple grilled pork accompanied with a fried egg, onions, chili, liver, the local citrus fruit "calamansi" and vinegar.
Mangos and bagoon - green picked mangos dipped in a shrimp paste mixed with chilli, soy sauce 

Sisig traditionally used everything, now just a bit of things

Confession: best part of this dish are the mangos

And then brave and stupid didn't look too different. "Balut" is a common Filipino street snack found in food stands that provide income to women who cook from their homes. The Filipino people are proud of their Balut. I'm avoiding telling you what Balut is. Balut is a fertilized duck embryo that is boiled and eaten from the shell. Yep. And the Abra mayor materialized a HUGE bag of Balut just as the pork and beer and cheese were settling; the ultimate cultural exchange. I exchanged, but not with eyes open. This morning I instituted a lemon lime soda cleanse and food fast just to give the insides a rest. To be fair, the taste wasn't bad and I really challenged my vegetarian stomach before the Balut. I will not recommend not Baluting, but dang, bring your dance moves.

Moreover, I don't want the Balut to speak for the night. 20 of us from very different places sat for hours using food as a bridge to discuss Jefferey Sachs, local rice markets, President Obama, boxing, Filipino politics etc. The generosity of our Filipino hosts cannot be overstated. They fed us so well, and asked superb questions about our interests and encouraged our curiosity. Despite the fact that I'll never Balut, ever again (ever), there is great joy in acknowledging that it's important to dance.

Friday, May 11, 2012

which of our visions will claim us

Manila is not good for my sleep cycle. On the ferry back to Luzon from Abra de Ilog I sat next to the municipal mayor after hitching a ride. The conversation on the swaying boat stayed mostly with development (Marx, Engels, Jefferey Sachs), using good governance as protection for IPs (his language, indigenous peoples) and the role of his Catholic faith in confronting misery and poverty (alleviating suffering while looking to Jesus as the long-term solution). He also said I looked tired, the only deviation from said conversation.

I spent the early morning this time in Manila studying hybrid rice. In a few hours I'll travel to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to begin a course entitled "Rice research to production" sponsored by a National Science Foundation grant, overseen by Cornell with IRRI. We will be 30 students from Brunei Darussalam, East Timor,  India, Myanmar, Philippines, France, Suriname, Sudan, Taiwan, Thailand, Germany the U.S. We come to IRRI to be instructed on how biotechnology is feeding the world.

Biotechnology: the science that manipulates living organisms to create biproducts. Biotechnology and food merge at the very beginning of life: seeds. A more detailed description of hybridized seeds, the Green Revolution and biotechnology's role in the lives of small farmers can be found here. Suffice to say I'm entering the belly of the beast. I asked for an invitation, even spent Christmas break writing the application to study at IRRI, whose fundamental premise and existence gives me a life's worth of resistance. I come to this course believing that the technology used to create higher yielding crops transmutes growing food for people into generating profits for corporations. Hybrid seeds cannot be saved because they do not produce the same plant the second season, they are designed to be used with chemicals to protect against pests and diseases, the germplasm is owned by private companies, and biodiversity tanks when one variety is deemed superior to all others.

But there are scientists, politicians, economists, farmers, social scientists, who believe that growing more food using biotechnology will save the world from hunger and poverty. And so I'm off to IRRI to understand how this works. How preventing farmers from saving seeds provides them the power to determine what they grow and how much. How encouraging the production of more chemicals to be applied on marginal soils ensures long-term health of natural resources. How selling corporations the rights to life forms assigns equal access to food, a livelihood, a future for farm communities and eaters. 

Recognize that I'm being confrontational, preparing to meet Goliath by drawing Goliath in black and white. How does one manage an open mind and stand firm, receptive but not wavering? I take my cue from Adrienne Rich as dawn spreads over Manila:

“and I ask myself and you, which of our visions will claim us
which will we claim
how will we go on living
how will we touch, what will we know
what will we say to each other.”
Adrienne Rich

For more on hybrid seeds and seed sovereignty:

La Via Campesina:
In the U.S. OSGATA:
First the Seed (Kloppenburg)

shall I float

I throw up my hands.
In pure joy, not allowing even armpits to contain my happiness.
In total anxiety, not sure what else to do when I forget how to read/write/be happy.
In surrender, not doubting that clenched fists compel a small life.

Books anchor what I carry from Pennsylvania to the Philippines, a travel guide not included. The woman from the credit card company who I call to report my impending travels to Manila, lives in Manila. She recommends visiting a beach described in travel guides (that I google at 3am in a dingy hotel in Manila) as a hideout for drunken, elderly expats who put themselves to bed before nine. But sleepless, overly air-conditioned, honk-littered, early morning hours solidify that my body is on an archipelago of 7,107 islands which requires I do something to find water, sand, trees. So I put myself on a bus pointed toward the expats. I have no plan, hands straight up in the air.

There are four of us on the bus, three who know where they are going. One of these three has a given name from Dennis the Menace and her common name, April, conferred by a sister who loved the ninja turtles. She helps operate an adventure tour company and is off to scout a new route, and I’m off with her.

We miss the first ferry and wait in an air-conditioned 7-11 for hours, less the 30 minutes in the Port superintendent’s office who has a map and a little more air conditioning. He assures us that if we ever have a cargo container that he’ll discount the shipping price. I wonder how many mangos fit in such a container? The ferry unloads in Abra de Ilog, Mindoro, miles from expats and infrastructure that would make an intrusion comfortable. I intrude regardless. A banka, small canoe with a motor and wings, skips over the water to a white beach buttressed by mountains. We mistakenly hike with our bags until reaching the comfortable Resort Tuko which is feet from the beach. Sleep is chaperoned by noisy lizards calling to the new moon.

I know now that Mindoro has seven indigenous tribes called the Mangyans who live in the interior of the island. Mundo is roped into guiding us into the highlands with a bag of canned food and corn-derived snacks on his shoulders. 6 kilometers of single-track trails that wind through mountains and valleys lead to a small tribal village with rice terraces that are likened to the famed terraces I’ll visit in several weeks. The community grows heirloom varieties without chemical inputs or foreign markets. The sprigs of grass heavy with seeds waver stiffly under heat fenced by green coconut and palm trees. A new harvest is spread on the basketball court. The long, off-white grains are raked in straight patterns across half-court. I tentatively scatter rice with a young woman and in exchange she takes pictures, panning over the fields and homes that constitute a world, changed perhaps by the electronic screen. Rice is cooked over an open flame and served with tuna and wild onions; all settles well with fresh coconut. My steps down the mountain accentuated by blisters and the surprise to find I am in this world. Hands straight up in the air, arm pits fully exposed, heart too.

Intrepid Adventure(rer) April
Drying rice, Mindoro
Self portraits
Drying heirloom rice, Mindoro

Rice terraces, Mindoro

a little girl makes us wonder-filled

My sister is a mother.
My brother-in-law is a father.
My mother is a grandmother.
My father is a grandfather.
I am an aunt.
She is loved.

Welcome Bailey Fay Dvorak to this world: to the meeting of beings!