Colorfully painted, these can be seen all over the city. Rather than two seats, jeepneys have two long benches along the sides. During peak hours, they can get quite crowded as the driver will continue picking up passengers until it is physically impossible to squeeze anyone else in. Photo credit and caption: Katie Olson-Kenny

By Katie Olson-Kenny, MURP candidate ’15, who is in the Philippines

I struggled deciding on a topic for this first entry.  It has been one week into my stay in the Philippines, and already so much has happened.  My first jeepney ride certainly counted as a “new experience.”  After all, weaving through traffic, while sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and knee-to-knee in a mid-sized, 20+ person packed vehicle, dramatically distinguished the public transit experience in Manila from Los Angeles.  Or, perhaps I could describe the stark contrast in socio-economics witnessed thus far.  The shanty make-shift housing and the young boy sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes seemed worlds away from the extravagant, high-end retail establishment in Makati City; the Greenbelt/Glorietta shopping center (or Ayala Center) consists of over 300 stores clustered together into one massive complex (the entirety of which, is owned by a single family – the Ayalas.  Go ahead, Google it).

After deeper consideration, however, I have decided to write about my new Filipina friend.  Precious will forever be part of my experience here.  She embodies the positive qualities that Filipino people are known for; indeed, she is warm, hospitable, kind.  But she is also so much more.

Precious is one of the trainers at the gym in my building, and we got to know each other last week while she led me through a standard circuit routine.  We were having a good time laughing at my fumbling attempts to mimic her swift and effortless movements (Precious is a true athlete.  She received a full-ride scholarship to the University of the Philippines – the country’s top university – for being such a strong competitor in track and field).  After not-so-subtly hinting that I was interested in exploring more of the area, she invited me to dinner with her friend that evening.  I eagerly accepted and the three of us took a jeepney to a nearby restaurant.

Sisig is a Filipino dish made traditionally from pork.

I have eaten dinner with Precious now on a couple of occasions, both of which she has shared her food, and both of which she has tried to treat me to something.  Just last night, after learning that I had not tried “sisig” yet, a pork and onion based Filipino dish, she told me that she would order it and I could taste hers.  She did, and I did, only to find her separating out the diced onions minutes later.  When she realized I was watching her, she explained that she doesn’t like raw onions, and quickly added that, despite this, she enjoys the restaurant’s dish.

Precious has happily introduced me to Filipino culture and cuisine, and is always trying to make me as comfortable as possible – even if it means pretending to enjoy an onion-infiltrated meal. While I appreciate these gestures, and while I think in many ways they are reflective of Filipino people, this is not why I admire her.

Precious holds several jobs, and commutes over an hour, each way, to get into Quezon City; yesterday she started her day at 4am.  We have casually talked about our dreams and, without over-sharing, she is following hers.  Currently, she is frustrated with the manager of our gym for underpaying the 19-year old janitorial staff member; the young man works 6 days a week, and makes less than USD$500/month – a salary fiercely inadequate to support his 1-year old child.   Since he did not finish high school, he is pigeon-holed into low-wage jobs, and does not hold much (any) negotiating power, so to speak. Precious has petitioned her boss to raise her co-worker’s wages, knowing that it is well within his financial capacity.  She is waiting to hear back.

Just one more thing: Precious is only 22.  Three years my junior, and she has more substance than most.  The other day she consolingly offered that life’s struggles make us who we are.  I do not know her story, but it must be a remarkable one.

Although there are people like Precious in all parts of the world (including back at home), I have only encountered a handful.  It just so happens that we crossed paths over here, and for that I am thankful.  She is a great friend and we have a lot of fun together – I have never laughed so hard or often in a gym.  But she has also moved me.  She has caused me to reflect on what we are capable of, and lately, I find myself reexamining the expectations I have for myself, and for others.

This week’s culmination of experiences has reinvigorated my desire to find meaning and purpose in my work.  I look forward to delving into local disaster management planning, and discovering what more surprises this summer will bring.

Katie (right) with Precious.

Katie (right) with Precious.

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