Thursday, December 14, 2006

Aids Workshop: the First Surprise

(from right to left: Wes, Me, and Kelly standing awkwardly around)

After 2 days visiting Sean’s site near Kalibo I was ready to head for the aids workshop. For those of you who can do math and have been paying attention, you’re correct: that makes a total of 3 days layover between thanksgiving and the workshop; I had only anticipated 2. But as I was soon to find out, the workshop was neither what I had anticipated, nor as organized as I expected. (Alice, no doubt saying something witty to Erin)

I met up with Alice, another nearby volunteer, for lunch in Kalibo, where I again dined at the excellent manokan (or chicken house) in good company. After almost 9 months, I must sadly admit that I still am not a fan of most Filipino cuisine, but there are exceptions, and the grilled chicken of the manokan is definitely one of them. This particular place easily beats out most of the low-cost grilled chicken in the states, and the garlic rice doesn’t hurt their case either.

Alice, in her 60’s, is one of the older volunteers in the batch, but I do believe she may be one of the friendliest, and certainly she has more energy than most of us. Peace Corps volunteers seem to fall into 3 basic categories: A) Those fresh out of college who haven’t started down their career path yet (insert Allan). B) Those in their late 20’s or early 30’s who decided they didn’t like the path they were going down, and decided to seek change, or C) people who joined the Peace Corps late in life because they were finally free enough of obligation to do so, and perhaps because they didn’t want to sit around and be treated like all the exciting and important things in their life were behind them. I have a great deal of respect for the elders of our batch, to a degree I am not certain I could ever fully express, and hope that I am able to emulate their attitude as the years pass me by.

But I digress.

After the chicken shack, we paid a visit to the internet, followed by virgin mudslides at Gaisano’s, tiny local mall. The mall in Kalibo is very small, but the mudslides there could rival any from home. Alice and I ordered one, drank coffee to warm us up, and eventually made the hard decision to order another. It may just be the best decision I made that week. Glory be to a good mudslide.

Only after we were fully sated (and had met up with Ward and Pete, who were also participating in the workshop) did we proceed to the location of our training, the Bakhawan Inn.

“Bakhaw”, translated from Kinuraya (the language spoken in Kalibo) means “a mangrove”, and a Bakhawan is the name for a mangrove forest. Our inn was located thusly, being very near a beautiful mangrove forest. This isn’t important now, but it will come up later.

Volunteers began arriving as the sun went down, fewer than I might have expected, but enough. The 11 of us were served a well-prepared meal, and in the late hour of 7 or 8, given our orientation. Here is where some of my surprises begin materializing. From the very beginning I had been somewhat confused as to the nature of this aids program. I heard about it through the grapevine of mass e-mail, but the location, the dates, and the sponsors had all been things that I only discovered gradually and with contrasting accounts. I think it more than likely that I missed a follow up e-mail or two somewhere along the line. In any case, it was at this point that more specifics were revealed.
This event was organized by the Butterfly Brigade, a group of mostly, but not entirely, transvestite men who are indisputably at the forefront of aids awareness and prevention in the Philippines.

Aklan, the region of which Kalibo is a part, is currently leading the nation on this issue. Compared to what it ought to be, their operation is quite small. Shockingly so, I would say, for the largest in the country. In the hour or so following dinner, they helped enlighten us as to some of their difficulties.
Telling Filipinos about the aids problem might be likened to the following situation: Sitting on your neighbors’ porch late one night, you feel the house quake somewhat, you smell the mingled scent of dung and peanuts. You hear the sound of what just might be a large mammal chewing on straw, followed up by a loud, irritating noise of what could only be plausibly deemed the call of an elephant.

You turn to your neighbor and politely suggest that there just might be an elephant in his living room, to which he politely responds that this is just absurd. He’s never seen an elephant in his living room, and he will certainly not waste the energy to go check on your strange theory.

You see, there might not be an aids problem here. It’s possible. There are very few recorded cases, and very few people have appeared in the hospital claiming that they have aids. Virtually the only people tested for aids are foreign workers, who are required to do so. Otherwise, because aids lets down your immune system rather than killing you directly, people are only tested when and if they repeatedly return to the hospital for the same illness, and only then when the doctor recognizes that this might be a pattern that merits an aids test.

Because there has been little in the way of testing, the aids rate here could be miraculously low, obscenely high or anything in between. No one has any real idea. This matter couldn’t have been left uninvestigated for so long if there wasn’t the prevalent belief here that aids is almost nonexistent in the Philippines. There is even widespread belief that Filipinos are simply unable to contract the virus.

To make matters worse, the extremely low number of people who are known to have the virus means that anyone who has a confirmed diagnosis is given a severe stigma. Augmented by the fact that this is a very collectivist society we are speaking of, in which social stigma is that more much unbearable, this all serves as a strong deterrent for people who might otherwise get tested or come forward with their condition.

(Caca, Leader of the Butterfly Brigade)

That, in short, is the state of the current aids battle in the Philippines. We were briefed on this matter by a transvestite named Caca, the leader of the Butterfly Brigade. To go on yet another tangent, this meeting marked the first time I have worked in any professional, or even semi-professional setting, with a transvestite, and it was an odd experience for me.

I hold nothing against homosexuals or transvestites, I don’t find any true value in traditional gender roles, so however people wish to dress or act is their own business. But in the past, my limited interaction with homosexuals dressed and acting as women has been in social settings and even then it has seemed to me that the behavior was aimed to shock and / or entertain; rather than being a casual detail about the person, I had the impression that it was meant to be the focus.

So to have a man in a dress walk in and begin directing everyone and explaining the events of the next few days as if he were any other professional was a little bit startling, but not as jarring as I might have expected. Caca is, indisputably, a professional. He was well organized, his English is excellent, he is clearly experienced and very intelligent. I even understand that he has been invited to other countries seeking to expand their aids programs, but from talking to him I got the impression that he wanted to stay focused on the much needed programs in his own country.

But again, I digress.

After explaining the aids situation in the Philippines to us, he also explained that the nature of this program was not a workshop so much as involvement in the promotional events surrounding World Aids Day. I had an idea that the focus of this workshop would be to teach us to host our own aids programs at our own sites, and to an extent this proved true, but I had no idea what I was in for.

It was late in the evening, our bellies full and our mouths sipping lightly on some drinks, when we were informed that the very next morning we would all be going to high schools to give a presentation for aids day. Not in large groups, either. For the smaller classes between one and two hundred, we could afford only a single volunteer. For the larger classes, approaching the size of 400, we might work in groups of 2 or 3. This 3-hour debriefing that we had just received on aids in the Philippines would serve as all the preparation we would receive in order to give our 2-hour presentations the following day.

As assignments were handed out, I learned that I would be among the 3 to face a class of 400.
Grabe!* I have never been a heavy drinker, nor one who uses alcohol to deal with anxiety, but I must admit that upon learning that I would, in a matter of hours, be facing 400 children likely to understand roughly 1/3 of the words out of my mouth, and that I would be expected to communicate with them on topics such as safe sex and to use key words such as ‘vaginal secretions’… it was all very nerve wracking, and I helped myself to a generous serving of brandy.

I would have two companions to do this with, which in a way might have made it easier to deal with than if I had been on my own facing a much smaller class (a tiny class of, say, 150 students I mean). Neither Niki nor Sean (my partners in crime) wanted to try and plan things out this late in the game. We knew too little about what we were going into, and we had too little time to plan. Instead, we elected to play it by ear, and I’m not sure about them, but I went to bed slightly nervous.

*(holy sh*t!)

(Niki and Sean, my partners in crime)


George said...

Boy you certainly are not leading a boring life there in the tropics. You like to leave us in a cliff hanging position. Cruel man.
~love. Mom

Allan in the Visayas said...

No, I had one rollercoaster of an 18-day journey, no question about it. Forgiving the cliffhanger, I just wanted to express some taste of the feeling I had going to sleep that night. ;-)

jennifer said...

Glad to see the change of blog -- makes it mjuch easier to see the photos, and I didn't have to ask you to add me to your "friends" for the other photos. But you have left us hanging!

Check out my blog (mostly knitting) --I'm gonna add a link to yours!

love "Aunt" Jennifer

Allan in the Visayas said...

I know, I'm a cruel author. Thanks for providing a link for me :-) send everyone my love for a merry christmas