First Week of Work

13 03 2010

Hello once again from San Fernando!

Its Saturday here now and it feels like I’ve been away for months now, even though its been only 1 week! Probably because I’ve done more this week than I did in a month back when I was unemployed in Vancouver! 😛

Firth and I arrived to work on Monday (by Jeepney, of course) decidedly uncertain of what to expect. It became clear soon though that serious work was not to begin for awhile yet, as, after we met our boss – Valmar (the city’s head environment officer) – we were given what was essentially a 2-day long tour of the city.

Monday’s tour showed us the city’s market and its new USAID-funded waste-water treatment plant, the “Fisherman’s Village” (a relocation project for residents who lived in flood zones) to show off their self-sufficient “EcoSan” toilet technology (composting toilets, essentially), and the city’s new sanitary landfill – complete with impermeable liners, leachate collection and treatment, and organics composting. We also learned from Valmar that the city recently became ISO 14000 certified and has many other ongoing environmental projects, including sustainable agriculture, reforestation, the creation of a marine protected area, conversion of all city tricycle taxis from 2-stroke to 4-stroke engines, and a mangrove recovery program, amongst others! I also found out that San Fernando’s sister city is the Township of Langley and that they’ve sent delegates there in the past, which is pretty neat (it’s not quite North Van, but pretty close!).

Also on Monday, we got our first taste of the Filipino’s love of food (which we’ve already experienced many times since), with a huge lunch get-together thrown for us at a local Chinese-type restaurant. Filipinos seem to have 2 things on the mind – food and sex. For the former, they eat huge meals and snack constantly (and keep offering us more!). It’s a wonder that more of them aren’t hugely overweight, considering that much of their cuisine is fatty/meat-based and exercise does not seem to be prevalent (we have yet to do any either – its too sketchy to jog along the streets, the gyms aren’t air-conditioned, and the badminton club is too expensive!). The latter – sex – is also pretty humorous. Every new person we meet asks if we are single, and when we say yes, usually respond with an encouragement to get ‘many’ Filipina girlfriends. Typical meal conversation also often focuses on jokes about how many girlfriends one has (even if they only have 1 in reality), the red-light district, or how beautiful/easy Filipina women are. This is even true for our 80+ year old landlords! (The old lady made a joke about “69” last night!!) Its pretty bizarre considering that like 95% of the population is Catholic!

Tuesday’s tour began with our meeting the Mayor of the city, Pablo Ortega. A little background is needed here. The Ortega family is a real dynasty in the Philippines – having been in control of the San Fernando area for over 100 years. The national congressman is an Ortega, the Governor is an Ortega, city councilors are Ortegas, etc. etc. etc. So it was no surprise to walk into an office filled with antiques from around the world and meet a man whose cellphone ringtone was the theme from “The Godfather”! They’re in control and they’re loving it. But he was nice regardless and presented us with token gifts (a hand-loomed local towel, a Botanical Garden key chain, a mug with his face on it, etc.). After meeting him, we toured to a local “Barangay’s” (a government distinction in the Philippines smaller than that of municipality/city) recycling facility, as well as the shoreline of their marine protected area, their famous Botanical Garden (a huge and beautiful peace of land far off in the countryside), their “Science Centrum” (a mini Science World, essentially), and their slaughterhouse (which was decidedly uncomfortable, although no killing was going on at the time – we were there to see their waster-water treatment pond).

Tuesday night was a show of force, you could say, of who’s who in San Fernando. We were invited to tag along to the mayor and councillor’s monthly social dinner at the city’s new 5-star resort. We met about 10 of the councilors, 4 or 5 Ortegas, a prominent businessman, and a couple other high-ranking technical staff. Needless to say, the food and alcohol (Hennessey Cognac, anyone?) were flowing freely. We’re not sure who picked up the tab, but an Ortega helps manage the resort, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was free.

Wednesday and Thursday were more serious days, as we were suddenly thrust into work on a sanitation conference the city is holding next Tuesday and Wednesday. We will be in charge of facilitating (and were in charge of designing) a 2-ish hour long workshop on sanitation action planning. With both of us knowing barely anything about the topic, it should be interesting to present it to a room full of sanitation experts!!

On Thursday we also met Dave Robbins, an American from USAID who comes up from Manila every month or so to lead the city’s sanitation project – which we will be working on (along with their landfill project). It was refreshing to be able to discuss the project without a language barrier, and he seems to know a tonne of what’s going on.

Even with this conference looming over us though, a city-tour was organized for us yesterday to Vigan City, a beautiful, UNESCO heritage site about 3 hours north of San Fernando that is also apparently even greener than San Fernando. The 10 of us that went had a fun drive up (stopping for a ridiculously large breakfast {larger than most North American dinners}) along a very scenic roadway, and then spent several hours touring the heritage parts of the city, viewing their neat bioreactor for organic waste and super neat machine that melts Styrofoam and uses it to make tables, as well as touring a local pottery plant and the super rich governor’s zoo (which surprisingly has free admission for all). After a great day up there, we came back down and attended a concert at the San Fernando city plaza (we had VIP tickets given to us from the Mayor) by the apparently huge Filipino rock band named “Parokya ni Edgar”. I had actually heard one of their songs before on YouTube and they were pretty decent, although the concert was only an hour long (apparently because they were too expensive for the city to afford a longer show!). The other interesting part about that was that midway through the show, Governor Ortega got up on stage and started politicizing about how if you re-elected him in the May elections (all but certain, I’m sure), there will be many more concerts like this. It seems, in all likelihood, that the entire show was probably planned for that sole electoral plug purpose. The Ortegas know how to get it done!

So that was week one! I’m sure the rest of the weeks won’t be nearly as exciting, as we’ve got actual work to do now, but we’ve been promised other expeditions, including to Hundred Islands in the south, so I’m sure there are lots of surprises yet to come!

Until next time!

(P.S. Sorry to anyone from ICSC who’s reading this blog – the posts have so far been pretty much identical to what I’m posting on the Google Group as I haven’t had the time or motivation to do two completely separate types of post, hopefully that’ll change at some point!)

Here’s a few photos! There’s tonnes more to come, including older stuff and stuff from San Fernando, but this is a start!!:

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