the best of words, the worst of words: Philippines edition

Ruth in front of her village welcome sign

Two of the people I got to know on my Philippines trip were Ruth, with whom we filmed, and Juan, with whom we worked. They come from two different islands (Iloilo and Cebu) with two different dialects (Ilonggo and Cebuano). I thought it would be interesting to learn their favorite and least favorite words in their native tongues. And it was:

Ruth Celestial Cachuela is the captain (sort of like mayor) of her barangay (village), a community of 200-something households that sits on the northeastern shores of Iloilo. She has six children and six grandchildren, and she cares deeply about them and the wellbeing of her community. A very good person with whom to share a name! Her favorite word in Ilonggo: ruth's favorite word

Palanga means love, and Ruth chose it because, “I was loved by my parents, I was loved by my friends, I was loved by my husband, I was loved by the community, and even people who do not know me love me, because of what I have done. I also love them.” Her least favorite word:

Ruth's least favorite word

Baghak is an insult that means, according to Ruth, “You are downward, you don’t have knowledge for everything, like a monkey.” Ruth finds the word disrespectful and doesn’t like when people use it. She is a sower of love, not hate!

Juan Yao is a soft-spoken forester with an easy smile, born and raised in Cebu City. He is the kind of person whose presence makes you feel quiet and peaceful, which is why I was amused by his choice of favorite word:Juan's favorite word

Payter is the Filipino-ization of the English word “fighter,” and it is used as an exclamation when something is cool. I guess “baller” would be our closest approximation. As for his most hated word: Juan's least favorite word

Burikat is a crude word for “prostitute.” Juan doesn’t mind other words for prostitute, but this one he finds ugly.

So there you have it: Ruth and Juan, upstanding ambassadors of the Filipino lexicon. I now intend to integrate “fighter” into my everyday usage. As in, “I got to go to the Philippines. Fighter!”

11 things there are a lot of in the Philippines

So much to say about the Philippines but I will start with this thought: I love staying in a place long enough not only to observe the little things that are culturally different but also to discern which of those things are ubiquitous and truly significant. When you spend enough time to notice something over and over again, it makes you feel you are getting to know the culture on more than just a surface level.

For example, one day we drove past kids playing basketball on a roadside court surrounded by wilderness. I wasn’t sure if it was an anomaly or a thing. Within a few days I realized the courts are everywhere (everywhere in the middle of nowhere). Apparently Filipinos love basketball and they also love putting their courts in the most random places (including on an actual road, so that we had to drive through the court to get where we were going).

In no particular order, here are 11 things I saw everywhere during my 11 days in the Philippines:


The boys all walk home with their arms around each other’s shoulders and the girls hold hands or link elbows.

affectionate schoolgirls

affectionate schoolboys


There are so many scooters in the Philippines, and most seem like they are being used as taxis. They load them up with a death-defying number of people til they look like clown cars, with multiple people riding on the seat behind the driver, multiple people in the sidecar, and multiple people on the roof of the sidecar holding on to one measly handlebar.

tricyclestricycles loaded up with people


I kept seeing tires on the roadside advertising these shops. I realized I have no idea what vulcanizing means. Apparently it is what you do to patch holes in tires.

vulcanizing shops


I first assumed they filled Coke bottles with a homemade punch-like brew but later learned it is actually gas for all the scooters.

gas in coke bottles


I found it hilarious that most stores took a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach to their names: the first word was the person’s given name, the second word was the type of store. Everywhere I looked it was Louisa’s Bakeshop or Fernanda’s Store or even just Mary Store, no apostrophe needed.

stores named after people another store named after people


These mini-busses are franchises, so the driver can decorate the vehicle to his liking. The results are amazing. (Also amazing: riders climb in the back wherever they happen to be when the bus passes by.)




jeepnie KTV BARS

KTV = karaoke

ktv bars


(Not to mention freely roaming water buffalo, and hogs, and goats, and ducks, and chickens…)

another roaming dog roaming dog


Traditional breakfast porridge that was a gluten-free god-send. Not pictured because I liked mine no frills: the tiny limes (called calamansi), fried garlic, and green onions usually sprinkled on top.

chicken porridge


basketball court

basketball court


baby bananas

baby bananas

And one more for good measure:


I noticed just a few Spanish words and culinary influences, but the most visible evidence of the former Spanish presence were the grand old cathedrals cutting a strange and imposing figure in the midst of hut villages.

remnants of spanish colonialization

A few other things I didn’t get photos of: 

A million Jollibees, the McDonalds of the Philippines (and to my chagrin, the welcome signs to villages were often printed on signs featuring the bee)

Garlic rice – i.e. rice with fried garlic chips in it – served with everything

Freestanding shrines with statues of Mary in them

Frogs hopping along the roads at night

Laundry drying on lines and over fences

Rice paddies

Rain, rain and more rain (it was rainy season)

And the more abstract things you can’t really capture on camera: 

A predilection for sweet-tasting everything

Lots of religious faith

Air fresheners that smelled like chemical lemongrass and made me nauseous

Some of the warmest people I have ever met

back, with an ironic souvenir

sick in bed

Here is a list of all the medicine and supplies I brought with me on my trip, in anticipation of any and all illness or need (or so I thought):

Pepto Bismol

Prescription Ciprofloxacin pills in case of food poisoning / bacterial infection

Imodium AD

Aleve for headaches

Dramamine regular formula

Dramamine non-drowsy formula

Claritin for allergies

“Gluten Defense” pills for accidental gluten ingestion

Antibacterial hand gel

Antibacterial hand wipes


97% Deet

50 SPF sunblock



Enough tampons to last me ’til menopause

Travel size contact solution

Check-in size contact solution

Two extra pairs of contacts

Glasses, just in case

Halfway through my trip I came down with a terrible sore throat and nasty cough, and by the last day I had full-on laryngitis. The one thing I didn’t have on-hand? Cold medicine. Thankfully one of my colleagues had brought Tylenol PM. It was the only medicine I took.

More than a week later, I’m still fighting the cold and now also a deadline. I’ll be back with highlights from the world’s most emotional country (supposedly, though not in my actual experience) once I’ve beaten both into submission.

(Photo: Jenny)

on the road again

Cristóbal Toral - Colorful Suitcases

It’s the eve of my departure for a far-off land. Half of my suitcase is a medicine cabinet and the other half is a gluten-free snack bar. I’m not quite sure of the degree to which I’ll be roughing it, but I have packed for every eventuality.

Tonight I’m reminding myself that I’m always more resilient in the moment than I think I am beforehand. My anxiousness is, I think, just a side product of “fear of happiness.”

Fingers crossed I am jumping headlong into a life-changing adventure that doesn’t include mosquito-borne illnesses, seasickness, typhoons, or travelers’ diarrhea. (But if it does, I have things packed for that.)

Have a lovely two weeks and enjoy your tap water!

(Photo of everything I’m bringing to the airport: Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology)

on sufferfest-ing

Sarah Marquis

The story in The New York Times Magazine about Sarah Marquis, a 42 year-old Swiss woman who walked 10,000 miles of wilderness in 3 years, alone, and endured all sorts of crazy natural and man-made calamities along the way, was excellent food for thought. Her need to test herself in isolation, to persevere over seemingly arbitrary challenges that she fashions for herself, to travel and experience huge swaths of the earth on rather trying terms – all in search of an “inchoate feeling” that gives her life substance – seems bonkers and maladjusted, yes, but somehow also completely self-actualized and inspiring.

This line especially spoke to me: But perhaps the reason to court a sufferfest – to explore or adventure, or whatever you want to call it – is that it makes a person feel alive.

I’m no Sarah Marquis by any stretch of the imagination. My personal extremes are about eight thousand times less extreme than hers. But the compulsion to go to them is familiar to me.

In fact, I seem to be courting sufferfests right and left these days. Learning French and (pretending to learn) Spanish are the ones I talk about here – but there are many more. Sometimes there is no reward, only suffering. But sometimes it all pays off and there is a feeling of extreme exhilaration and purpose. I am in the midst of a work-related sufferfest right now that I’m hoping will come out on the side of the latter. Only time will tell…

(Photo: Joel Marquis)

(Get over the) hump day inspiration: fun French music

Indochine in concertA compendium of the French music that has been introduced to me over the course of my twenty years (on and off) of studying the language:


My first year of French, in eighth grade, the teacher would start each class with a few songs from one of her French albums. She played them on an actual record player, which is how I know it really was a long time ago. Indochine is the only music I still remember from that year. I loved it because it took me on a nostalgic trip back to the new wave of my 80’s childhood, but at the same time it was completely new and catchy to me. Call me crazy / 47 years old, but I do really think Indochine makes good music.

Here’s the album my teacher would play for us. My favorite song was and still is “Tes Yeux Noir (scroll forward to 35:47):

Diam and Koxie 

In grad school I took a French class after ten years without formal – or really, any – study. For one looong and humbling semester I endured the snarky looks of barely-adult undergrads who had no patience for my halting mangled French. I made friends instead with the one other grad student (who also spoke much better French than I did – I was the worst in the class by a long shot). The one favor those haughty undergrads did for me was to introduce me to Diam and Koxie, both woman rappers of immigrant ancestry. At a recent Meetup I learned from the Togolese guy that Diam wears the hijab now and has stopped making music. Perhaps the two things are related, perhaps not – I leave that to you to Google if the spirit moves you.



At another recent Meetup, Kery James was another French rapper recommended to me:

And at yet another one, I was told to listen to MC Solaar:

And just for fun, since this has become a list dominated by French rappers, here’s a song from the (highly derivative) Busta Flex album I bought pretty much at random the year I studied abroad in Ireland and spent a day in Paris on spring break:

For good measure, a beautiful / spunky / easy-to-follow-even-if-you-speak-terrible-French song that Emmanuel sent to me, by Françoiz Breut:

What do you think?

(Photo of Indochine doing the we-can-still-rock-in-middle-age thing: Laurent Breillat)