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Market Find 3: Barbecue Skewers

Largely a meat-loving society, it is common for Filipinos to have meat viands and snacks paired up with steamed rice and sawsawan (dips).

Visitors to the Philippines may find it surprising to see barbecue skewers being sold in markets both in large and small markets. The fare is sold so casually that even kids are asked to fan out the skewers as they are being roasted with locally sourced charcoal and a makeshift rack.

At around PHP 10 (0.2 USD) per stick, it is not bad when you’re craving for a rich protein fix. As for health concerns, I think this issue has more to do with how soon and how much you want to adapt. We all can’t go on eating off a pack, don’t we?

Barbecue skewers at PHP 10 per stick!

Get lost and find yourself. Happy travels! 🙂

P.S. The keys to sustainable travels are universal: take public transportation | stay in accommodations where cooking is allowed (private or shared, it doesn’t matter) | walk as much as you can | wake up early | stay away from guidebooks | immerse yourself in local language, culture and history | visit local cafés | know that the possibilities are endless | listen to your gut ❤

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Market Find 1: Ar-arosep/ Seaweed/ Sea Grape/ Green Caviar

The Philippines has one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world and its marine life is no exception.

One interesting find in Philippine markets in the Ilocos region is “Ar-arosep,” a local term for seaweed, sea grape, and green caviar.

Only seasonally available in high-end restaurants overseas, the Philippines is lucky yet again to be gifted with Ar-arosep that is best known to treat thyroid disorders. That is an advice taken from local elders who have precious wisdom passed down from generations.

Water pollution is the major threat to the increasing fall of Ar-arosep.

If you pass by Ilokano markets, be sure to look for this navy green, bush-like presence. It’s best enjoyed fresh with sliced Ilokano tomatoes (tiny but very sweet).

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Ar-arosep: one of the many overlooked Philippine market finds

Get lost and find yourself. Happy travels! 🙂

P.S. The keys to sustainable travels are universal: take public transportation | stay in accommodations where cooking is allowed (private or shared, it doesn’t matter) | walk as much as you can | wake up early | stay away from guidebooks | immerse yourself in local language, culture and history | visit local cafés | know that the possibilities are endless | listen to your gut ❤

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Expensive, but Not Always Worth Much: Higher Education in the Philippines

via Expensive, but not always worth much: higher education in the Philippines | D+C – Development + Cooperation | Alan C. Robles

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Higher education in the Philippines. Image Credit: Ron Giling/ Linear

It is a cruel paradox that a college education helps to escape ­poverty, but Filipinos have to be rich to afford one. Furthermore, those who do manage to go to college run the risk that the education they pay for may turn out to be sub-standard or defective. By Alan C. Robles

Critics say the root of the problem is that Philippines’ system of higher education follows the American model. Most universities and colleges are private and profit-driven. JC Tejano, the national spokesperson of the Student Council Alliance of the Philippines (SCAP), says: “All schools want to do is earn money.” In the SCAP’s view, they do far too little to ensure quality.

According to government data, there are 2,247 Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the Philippines, and 88 % of them are private colleges and universities. Of the country’s 2.9 million higher education students, 1.74 million (60 %) are enrolled in private schools. Though they are smaller in number, public HEIs tend to be crowded, underfunded and overstretched.

Cost issues

The government’s Council on Higher Education (CHED) currently estimates that, on the average, a student in a private school will pay 237,600 pesos (€ 4,200) for a four year course. On average, however, public schools, are not much cheaper. The CHED reckons that tuition for a complete four-year course will cost 233,600 pesos.

At a top tier university, however, the costs will amount to 400,000 pesos. The best and most expensive schools are in the private sector – but that is equally true for the worst and cheapest ones.

Compared with what a typical Filipino household earns, the costs of higher education are stiff. According to the official Philippines’ 2009 Family Income and Expenditure Survey, the average family’s annual income is a mere 206,000 pesos. The survey notes that for the families in the bottom 30 % the average is only 62,000 pesos.

HEIs tend to increase tuition every year. In the Philippines, college subjects are taught in small “units”. In 2005, according to the online magazine Bulatlat, the average cost per unit was more than 330 pesos. By 2011, the average tuition per unit had risen to more than 500 pesos.

Tuition isn’t the only financial worry of college students of course. The CHED figures do not include board, lodging, transportation and other expenses. These are not trifling outlays. For example, professors tell stories of students skipping classes because they cannot pay for transportation to go to school; there have also been reports of students who can’t focus because they’re weak from not having eaten properly.

Aggravating matters, HEIs are creative in devising ways of padding their bills. Among other things, they levy fees for “laboratories”, “energy” and “development”. Last year, Antonio Pascua Jr., an official of the youth group Anakbayan, claimed one school was charging a “restricted fee”, the purpose of which was not clear to students. He says this is “completely baffling”.

Patricia Licuanan, the CHED chairperson, wants “all HEIs to carefully study their tuition and fee increases each year”. On behalf of the government, she insists that every HEI should “spend wisely and judiciously in order to lessen the costs to its most important stakeholders – its students”.

The sad truth, however, is that many students discover at some point or another that they are no longer able to afford tuition and drop out of the HEI they have been attending. They either stop studying altogether or transfer to a cheaper HEI. The new schools are worse, of course, but they are also in the habit of increasing fees.

In 2005, the Bulatlat report stated the dropout rate was as high as 73 %. Today, student leader Tejano demands a freeze on tuition and other fees. His organisation wants the burden on ordinary people to decrease. It also wants to ensure that more youngsters get a good education.

Private HEIs respond by saying they have to raise tuition fees or go bankrupt. CHED’s Licuana agrees and says that “quality education has a price”. She points out costs for faculty salaries, laboratories, equipment et cetera. Therefore, she argues, tuition hikes are “necessary”. At the same time she wants them to be “justified, reasonable and transparent”.

Quality concerns

Apart from the cost of education there is also the matter of quality. Among the private HEIs, there is a handful of top tier universities. Their graduates can probably compete with those of other elite schools around the world. Most other private-sector HEIs, however, basically seem to seek profits at the expense of substance.

A university faculty member, who asks not to be identified, says: “Some of them shouldn’t even be schools at all – there’s a proliferation of HEIs which are not qualified.” This educator speaks of fly-by-night operations” and “diploma mills”. While some do not charge high tuition, their quality is below standard.

Other teachers, who decline to be identified, tell disturbing stories too. One school, for instance, does not stock books in its library because its president argues that books are obsolete and everything can be downloaded from the Internet. A few semesters ago, another HEI was still using a textbook on international studies dated 1976. The world has changed since. 1976 was one year after the Vietnam War, 13 years before the fall of the Berlin wall and 25 years before September 11.

Another professor tells of a school that refuses to give faculty members money for photocopying exam papers. They either have to pay for copying themselves or write everything out on a blackboard.

The government of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III is not blind to the problem of low standards in higher education. In fact, it has ambitious reform plans for the education sector. They include adding extra years to primary and secondary schooling.

There is indeed room for improvement, as CHED Chairperson Licuanan says: “The Aquino administration inherited a chaotic higher education system.” In her view it is marked by too many higher-education institutions and programmes, a job-skills mismatch, oversubscribed and undersubscribed programmes, deteriorating quality and limited access to quality higher education.

For these reasons, the CHED is pursuing a Higher Education Reform Agenda. Among other things, it aims to improve standards and expand access.

At the same time, the commission’s political clout is being tested at the ground level. For some time, it has been trying to close down a Manila school called the International Academy of Management and Economics. This school uses the acronym IAME, which sounds a bit like the vastly more prestigious Asian Institute of Management (AIM). The CHED accuses the IAME of “gross and serious violations, continued defiance and failure to comply with existing laws, rules and regulations”. Nonetheless, IAME is still in business. It claims to have close ties to President Aquino himself.

Shady schools, however, are not the only challenge. Because secondary education tends to be poor in the Philippines, HEIs take off from a rather low level. The writer and scholar Isagani Cruz, who is a visiting fellow at Oxford University and has taught at various top-tier HEIs in the Philippines, asserts that first year college in the Philippines is really only equivalent to high school in other countries in academic terms.

All these issues prevent education from effectively contributing to economic growth and national development. The issue is well understood. Bill Luz of the National Competitiveness Council states: “Many in the business community have complained about our state of education. Indeed in global competitive indices, we have been rated poorly in terms of quality of basic education, quality of science and math education.” He points out that cooperation between industry and academia must improve.

Indeed, many graduates lack the kind of skills and knowledge that employers expect of professionals. “A large number of college graduates are taking low productivity jobs,” was the assessment of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in a country study of the Philippines in 2007. In the same document, the ADB bemoaned a “scarcity of skilled workers in industries such as information technology and business process outsourcing”.

Earlier this year, the World Bank made basically the same point about the Philippines in a report on higher education in Asia. It argued that there was a disconnect between the education system, government programmes and private sector needs. Unsurprisingly, the report recommended improving the quality of higher education in order to boost the professional competence of graduates.

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I’m sure I’m not the only one frustrated by this. What are your suggestions in addressing this statewide problem? Contact me and let’s try to be part of the solution!

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Note: Since I am reposting this article, I used rel=”canonical” to properly attribute the work. This means, blog traffic goes to the original source and not to Anthroonfoot. I encourage you to use this when reposting someone else’s online work.

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Why I’m Proud of My Parents: Part 3

(If you haven’t read Part 1, you’ll find it here; and Part 2, here.)

So the question remains, Why am I proud of my parents? 

First off, my parents taught me that life should be dealt with head on with an open mind. They taught me that life has its ups and downs, and so I should develop the resilience to deal with it. An open mind, coupled with an open heart.

My parents taught me that in life, there are absolutely no double standards. Principles remain and so if these are challenged, I should be ready to speak up for what I believe in.

My parents taught me that hard work is key to success. Despite their well-off backgrounds, they chose to build their own lives together even if this meant having to live together secretly for a year until I was born. They lived in a small rented apartment, then when I was born moved to a house which was eventually paid off on my 25th birthday.

My parents taught me that there is nothing wrong with saying “No,” and that the key to failure is to try to please everybody. I am free to strive for things that I want to achieve even if that meant they couldn’t guide me professionally because the path is very different from theirs. But knowing that I’ve got their back 100% all through the journey is all I ever need.

My parents taught me that when people say not to do things because of what other people will think, I should put the comment in one ear and push straight to the other ear. This is the best advice I’ve ever received in life, and I’m glad they led by example.

My parents taught me that it’s okay to feel ugly, fat, and a failure. It’s not a mental issue. It’s these feelings that make us human.

My parents taught me, most of all, that life is indeed simple to live in. It is not as stressful, mean, or f****d as it is deemed to be. But if I put into the equation the want for fame, power and prestige, then I cannot expect my parents to wave their magic wands to make my life better. It’s a choice to make and many people are drawn to them. At 27, I should know by now life is a waste to be leading down that path.

… And these are the reasons why I’m proud of my parents. They taught me valuable lessons that I would never have learnt in school, read in books, or watched in documentaries. I may not have the best-paid job in the world, but I know I am complete. I am fulfilled. I am content. And that’s because of a grounded, liberating and nourishing life I was brought up in. Thanks to my parents. I’ll forever be grateful.

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32 years and 30 pounds later.

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Why I’m Proud of My Parents: Part 2

(If you haven’t read Part 1, you’ll find it here.)

When I tried to make sense of my life, I thought of my parents when they were growing up.

My parents are not from sugar baron, oil refinery or steel milling families who had extraordinarily deep pockets that can sustain even their 100th generation. But I’d say they were well off.

My dad is from a family who made their wealth through land properties and lending. His maternal grandfather, an Italian who joined the Spanish government, was eventually elected as the first mayor of their hometown. I acknowledge that it was a very difficult time for many Filipinos throughout the Spanish colonial period, and I am not proud of that history. However I also acknowledge that we are given the gift of life to make things better moving forward.

Growing up we would have family reunions in my grandparents’ farm during the harvest season. My favorite was for watermelons. One time I asked my grandmother where exactly her farm land is as I found no difference among the greeneries. She said, “As far as your eyes can see.” I thought for sure she was kidding. As a kid I thought there was no way that can happen.

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When I was younger I once asked my grandma where her farm land exactly is. She told me, “As far as your eyes can see.” I didn’t fully understand what she meant back then.

As for my mom, she is part of a family who made their fortune through trade. Her dad is an only child of a family that owned the first hotel, first ice plant, and first ice cream factory in the city. Her mom, on the other hand, is from a family of mango plantation owners who had their own tennis court in the backyard. Things turned sour when my mom’s maternal great grandmother died and the new stepmother rewrote her aging husband’s will and put everything under her name. My mom grew up in the penthouse of their hotel, and she would spend her weekends in her maternal grandparents’ flower farm a few kilometers away.

Both of my parents got to choose the major they like, got the chance to travel before university, and had the opportunity to study full time with generous support from their parents.

But with all these privileges, why didn’t my parents choose to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their foreparents’ labor? They were both given the opportunity to join in and continue with the family trade, but why did they choose to dip their hands voluntarily, without compensation, and start a career of their own?

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Check out Why I’m Proud of My Parents: Part 3, the last of this series, which shall answer the question.

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Why I’m Proud of My Parents: Part 1

Growing up I thought traveling overseas every year for summer vacation, buying a new car when an upgrade comes in, having a brand new set of school clothes and supplies for every quarter, traveling to Manila on weekends for when we want to watch movies, and having a personal hairdresser, masseuse, gardener, cook, laundry staff, cleaning staff, drivers, and personal assistants were all normal. I thought they were all part of growing up.

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On one of our annual summer family trips. It was something we all looked forward to growing up.

My classmates back in elementary and high school used to tell me that I was lucky. I had very supportive parents and a comfortable life, they said. Raised with the idea that I should be earning for what I deserve, I never thought I could have everything. And I was content just eating foods I like, reading books I love, studying, and playing with my friends. So I always brushed the statements aside because after all, it didn’t matter to me.

I never realized how privileged I was growing up until I went to a public university.

I could still remember my first day. As usual the first hour was for getting to know my classmates. When it was my turn, my classmates asked me how I am adapting to Manila knowing I lived in the province all my life. How do I get by going to school, and where did I find a place to live? It felt awkward for me when there was a momentous silence, and gawking, when I told them I have a personal driver and that my mom bought me a condo unit just 10 minutes away from school. I didn’t know how to feel but I knew something wasn’t right with the truth that I just said.

I think that was the beginning of me being “shy” of where I come from. From being oblivious of the life I was in, it appeared to me head on with the truth that indeed, the life I grew up in wasn’t normal at all for many Filipinos.

The public university environment exposed me to the struggles of many Filipinos. With the national average wage of PHP 15,000 (300 USD) a month, it was almost impossible to be paying for food, water and rent, more so for a child’s education and the family’s health, even for a family of three. I had classmates who struggled to pay our PHP 5,000 (150 USD) a semester tuition fee, which at that time I thought was ridiculously cheap. I didn’t realize that while it was the cheapest tuition fee in the Philippines being government subsidized, it didn’t erase the fact that living in Manila, especially for those who had to relocate, was ridiculously expensive. Across the school is the country’s biggest public hospital and every day when I get dropped of, I see jeepney after jeepney loaded with so many stick-thin patients who then fall in line to be checked for free by the country’s best doctors. It was a desolate sight, but I took in the consolation that they were being seen by the country’s best. It was a bit odd though, that for a hospital needing so much staff, their College of Medicine has the stringiest and most competitive of all admissions with less than 100 students admitted every year.

From then on, I refused to share much about my life except to a select few who knew me growing up, or who understood from what situation I was coming from. When I’m asked of my weekend plans, I downplay them saying I’ll just be spending time at home when in reality my cousins and I booked for a members’ only resort getaway. When I’m asked how I get to school, I say I’m dropped off by a family friend when in reality, I had a driver waiting for me no matter how late my classes end. Not wanting to have an 18th birthday debut party, I was asked what my parents gave me instead for my birthday. We had a get together at home, which was true, but my parents also bought concert tickets for me to see my favorite singer in the world, Josh Groban, and they had to switch network companies, and sign up for a 5-year platinum account, because it was the only way to purchase a 700 USD front seat ticket for a show that went for 1.5 hours.

While in university I refused to dip into this reality, and applied for a part-time job at the College of Arts and Letters library. I thoroughly enjoyed my job there, shelving books, helping students find books they need, and having access to books that are rarely available because they are always borrowed. I had the chance to read them during quiet hours. I earned PHP 80 (1.65 USD) an hour, which I never really used for anything else except for buying my favorite desserts after shift. It was far off from the generous allowance I was receiving from my parents, who also paid for all my living expenses. I was replaced, and basically fired, in summer because I filed for a one-month leave for my family’s annual summer vacation. The chief librarian said, “We’ll never hire a rich student ever again.” Those were her last words, and they still make me cringe in a fairly uncomfortable way up until today.

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Check out Why I’m Proud of My Parents: Part 2, which shall answer the question.

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Why Is It Hard to Find Good Coffee in the Philippines?

As a big coffee fan—proud to say I’m not a snob— it’s a bit wearying to think that it’s so difficult to find good coffee in Philippines when it has all these in its hands:

  • One of the best Arabica beans in the world: that goes from Northern Cordillera to Southern Mindanao
  • One of the best Robusta beans in the world: the largest chunk found in Central and Southern Luzon
  • The perfect weather to enjoy coffee: with a half-and-half monsoon and dry season in the entire Philippines
  • Affordable access to sugar: which goes with the Filipinos’ love for things sweet (unfortunately, usually not translated to everyday life)
  • Love of good conversations—and gossip (although I think this is universal): with coffee as the perfect company to have you talk and stay sober

… And the list goes on and on.

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A bad cup of espresso. Image Credit: Canterbury Coffee

So the question is, why?

  • First off, it’s not unusual for kids to be taught that “caffeine is bad for you” because, 1) it will make you short for the rest of your life; 2) it will make you lose brain cells; and, 3) basically, it will make you dumb. I never had the chance to try this as a kid but I was given all the freedom to munch on chocolate bars and indulge in chocolate drinks. Looking back, I’m not even sure what adults meant when they said “caffeine is bad for you.”
  • Also, as raw producers it is also not unusual for most people to never see where their produce goes and how inflated it gets. One kilo of Arabica beans costs PHP 270 (5.73 USD) in a commercial market (this is not even directly bought from the farmers), and when it gets to somewhere around the world, it gets reflavored and repackaged into 5 USD per cup lattes, or 30 USD per kilo packages. This may be one of the reasons why the Philippines, in general, is not fully aware of the coffee-making standards in the world—and this is not entirely the people’s fault, because as you will see…
  • Let’s be honest: it’s a sad truth but in the Philippines, the difference between the rich and the poor is so stark that Poor Guy has to settle with flour-and-preservative-rich burger patties; and Rich Guy can just call the phone and have a thick pure beef patty delivered to his door. As a Filipino I feel embarrassed that I cannot do anything grand to make a difference on this one; but going back to coffee, this reality presents itself very well. When workers in the Philippines are not protected by law when they are paid below standards, it’s difficult to make coffee when you yourself cannot purchase the best on your own. And stingy people as the owners are, workers are expected to apply for the job having a training certificate in tow. When barista training is done just for the heck of it, and owners aren’t willing to train, there goes the cycle of bad coffee being the standard because there’s no use beating around it.

The day that we have better coffee in the Philippines is the day that we have addressed these societal differences. Bad coffee, just like any nuisance—poverty, discrimination, slow internet, traffic—is a symptom of a disease. While these things bother us we cannot just sulk in the corner and get mad at the bigger forces that made the world as depressing as it is. But being alive, being here every day, is a gift. To say “Thank you” to your local barista for his hard work, to say “Thank you” to the janitor who cleans your favorite coffee shop’s toilets, are little things we can do to be one step closer to finding the “how” to our “why.”

The “why” in bad coffee, therefore, does not stop here.