Monday, August 8, 2011

Thank you Philippines

Well two days left until I'm finally picking up my bags to make a week long backpacking trip that will take me through Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, and I just want to say thank you to everyone here in the Philippines for treating me like family.

I'll try to update on the road throughout the next week (absolutely horrible at this blog thing I admit) and I'll still have to update throughout my trip here in the Philippines too.

I want to say thanks to Jeleen and the Manansalas for being as close of a family as I could ever ask for, Tita Vilma and the rest of the teachers at CTNHS for being excellent educators and even better friends, and most of all my students, who inspire me everyday to work harder at being the best person I can.

Thank you

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Clover Patch Fields

“Clover Patch Fields” by Erik Thurman

The heat from the late afternoon blows right through the open window of my Dodge as I'm driving down the country fields of Shoemake Avenue. I lean forward to free my back from the damp sweat that has fused me with the seat and drenched my body. The blinking gas pump light on my dashboard has discouraged me from running the air conditioning until I can find a place to fill up, though even if I was stranded out here it's not like I'd be too uncomfortable. The only unpleasant thing I can think of is the smell of manure and springtime allergens drifting in the lazy wind with its familiar and timeless aroma. Encompassing me is an ever expanding field of chlorophyll that transforms the bowl of the Central Valley into a beautiful Viridian tapestry gently stitched with irrigation ditches and imperfect almond trees. And while I've claimed San Jose as my hometown for quite some time, for better or for worse, Modesto is my home.

This bedrock community of 211,156 was one of the hardest places hit in America during the Great Recession of 2008, where workers suddenly found themselves with no way to pay their mortgages and consequentially lost everything. Old abandoned houses dot themselves along the road every quarter mile, signposts pointing to nowhere, as I make my way further into the country towards my destination. Hidden within some of these dimly lit houses lay older folks that never had the opportunity to leave the fields. Who find themselves counting the days till either their savings or their health run up dry, whichever comes first. Above these splinters of former residencies climb rusted steel girders of hay barns that stand erect like tombstones, remnants from the mid-90s when the dairy industry thrived in the area, flourished with bouquets of weeds around them. A defeated sun has slunk lazily behind the cemetery flat hills as I turn off the ignition at one of the tiny little houses in the middle of nowhere.

It was a good place to grow up during the first twelve years of my life.

The worn lettering of “Thurman Dairy” on the silo greets me as I step out onto the gravel and into a childhood long forgotten. The crunching of the road beneath my feet hasn't changed a bit from when I used to play out here in the evenings with my younger sister and dog Bruiser. I waste no time running off to the rusted gates where fields of clovers sprout from one length of the fence to the other. It’s hard to imagine that these same corrals held hundreds of cows back when the family was still in the milking business. A business that was passed down through the families for over a century before it finally tanked and went bankrupt a few years back.

I walk back towards the driveway to get away from potential wild snakes hungry for ankles in the grass and continue across the gravel to the barn. The window from where a break in took place several years back is still semi-shattered along the center and moss has overtaken the cracks of the stone walls.

Vapors of shit still linger as I make my way around the bend of the barn, acting almost as a guide to the larger corrals in the back and the stained wood pens that used to house the smaller calves. The floor of the big tin structure is still covered in dirty patches of old straw scattered about on the concrete, a detail that probably saved my life when I fell from a 30 foot haystack when I was a child. I can still remember the cuts from dragging myself across this gravel back to the house where I passed out for hours. It's still amazing that nothing was broken from the fall and that my body recovered on its own, but it took days before I could actually manage to get myself up and out of bed. When I walk closer to the site, the toads that were loudly proclaiming their presence shrink within their burrows to hide from the new stranger invading their territory.

I'm about to turn around and start heading back over towards the direction of my car when I notice a couple bright eyes staring in my direction, apparently a white Manx cat makes her home in the barn. She begins to howl loudly, slithering her way over to me in order to try to get a better glimpse at this human in her territory. The Manx cat can't make up her mind if she wants to be pet or to run away. When I move down to touch her, she scurries to shelter.

I end up walking back around to the small little house on the plot of land, my old house that had burnt to the ground when a water heater exploded a few years ago. The insurance money for the place kicked in and it's since been somewhat renovated into a more modern home, but it really lost something in the makeover, a bit of its soul I guess? My new friend, the damn cat, ends up following me up the trail to the house and won't stop with her whining till I finally bend over to pet her.

I press my shoulder into the front door of the home to jar it open and I'm instantly stunned at the refurbished living room. The newspapers and gun magazines that used to litter the floor, the Spider-man and Barbie sleeping bags sprawled out as a “rug”, the tiny model of the Christian manger that was missing one of the three wise men, they're all gone! Instead I'm faced with newly painted white walls and clean unstained furniture placed gracefully throughout the domain. The only bit of history left here is the streaks of soot and tar from the stone fireplace, one of the few things that wasn't actually replaced from the fire that brought the house down to its foundation.

My reminiscing is suddenly shaken when my dad noisily enters the room to welcome me to the new den and lets me know I should make be making myself comfortable. A small tour of the whole place ensues as he shows me across the grandeur of the new house. New furniture replaces the old smelly water bed and off-white shelves string along the perspective of my old bedroom. I still remember this window here where I would sneak through when my dad locked me out of the house when I was a kid, well before I got fat when I was a teenager and could no longer fit through it. It's unsettling being here being in this room; this couldn't be my same bedroom that felt so much bigger from my memories.

Our journey takes us through the back porch where I'm introduced to the damages that were done from a recent robbery of the house. The door frame leading outside sits splintered to its hinges from a forceful kick about three months ago, when thieves managed to steal a shotgun under the bed and some beer from the fridge during the latest intrusion. In the past three years the house has been robbed a total of five times, a testament to how unsafe the area has grown in the past decade. And a testiment on how active the police here pursue home invasions. Because of this, my dad keeps a rifle with him in his truck whenever he's out there, “just in case.”

The tour of the house stops in the kitchen, with its new slick black marble counter tops, modest tiled flooring, and porcelain white sink. Back when I was a kid I can still remember taking baths with my sister on opposite sides of the sink and looking out of the window at the fog covered fields of an early winter morning. Even the fridge is mostly empty aside from the few microwaveable goods that my dad keeps around, and the oven looks like it’s never been used. The thing that saddens me most about the kitchen is seeing that the doorway where my mom used to measure me and my sister was replaced after the fire. Before we end up leaving the house we go to the back room and turn up the radio and let “Free Bird” gently rock the walls.

By the time we make it outside and lock up the door darkness has spread across the valley floor obstructing vision of anything save for a red blinking light at the end of the road about a mile away. The cat is still running around the front yard like a white banshee howling for us to feed her, but aside from that the rest of the dairy, even the wind, is still. It feels like an eerie frozen snapshot that you would rather toss away and remember the good old times when the whole world seemed to have gleamed in sepia tones. A past that you'll never get back no matter how hard you wish it to be. For now, this is Modesto's new reality.

Tonight will be the last time I see this place for years as my future plans will take me halfway across the world and away from this lonely little spot in the fields that time has forgotten. As my dad gets in my car, I look back towards the back room with its dimly lit light and barely audible music illuminating into the otherwise silent night. The tires hum across the broken asphalt of Dunn Road as we leave behind the countryside and into town, a place that is just as much in shambles as the countryside here. A place that I would also like to leave behind now.

Toilet Paper Nation

Toilet Paper Nation

I kick my feet against the base of the ceramic bowl that I'm sitting on, contemplating my current predicament. I'm not seeing any sign of a niche for where a roll of toilet paper would go, and I'm not liking the look of this slightly rusted hose mounted to the toilet. Or the beat-up old rag in the small pail of dirty water next to me. Or the fact that this is the first time in my life where I'm actually going to have to wash myself rather than use the comfortable soft paper I've been using for the past twenty-three years of my life.

But that's what you get when you're way out in the provinces. When you're over 7,000 miles away from home in a flooded third-world land, and your worldly comforts are stripped right out from underneath you. I breathe in the stagnant aromas of the overflowing river in the backyard as I try to swat the mosquitoes that are having the time of their lives gorging on my foreign blood. They leave behind delectable bright red tattoos across the lengths of my hairy legs—fat old welts that are destined to itch for weeks upon weeks. I find it fascinating watching a trail of ants, capillaries seeping through the cracks of the flooded house, as they feast upon the bacteria left behind on my toothbrush. It's as if the entire room was moving, crawling, alive. “Welcome to the Philippines,” I joke to myself, imagining all of those postcards of crystal clear beaches with sunburnt Americans and Europeans vacationing and wondering what country they were in. Certainly they aren't where I'm at.

The silence is interrupted with a rude knock on the door accompanied with a bit of Tagalog, Kapampangan, or whatever is being slung my way (they all sound the same: loud and choppy river dialects). I'm assuming along the lines of “Are you OK in there?!” Too embarrassed and proud to admit my defeat to these children I frantically look for something, anything, other than that hose and rag. My bag and sketchbook seem like they are miles away from me at the moment, along with it any hope to desperately tear out some empty pages to wipe with. I hear more knocking and giggling on the other side of the door. I finally cave into the dire hopes for the soft smooth paper I desire and reach for the hose attached to the toilet.

I wince as I squeeze the handle.

A couple more minutes later and I'm walking out of the bathroom with my head hung low and red, with an indiscreet wet blotch on my bottom. I may as well have produced a flag and shoved it into my shorts marking my surrender as I made my way into the bedroom to shove my face into the hard pillow to hide the redness of embarrassment. My girlfriend Jeleen follows me into the room while trying to coax me into telling her what's wrong, deeply concerned on why I would just take off so quickly from the household. I roll onto my back to hide the wet spot and face the ceiling of the stiflingly hot room, as I'm confessing my humiliation from moments ago. I don't even get through half of my actual conversation before she's on the ground rolling from laughter.

“Why do American's use toilet paper anyways? Thats disgusting,” the Filipina native tells me. “It's not like it cleans everything completely.” I'm sitting there nodding my head at her lengthy detailed explanation on how it always leaves traces of something on you, even after you wipe completely, and why soap and water is the best way to go. I sit there impatiently ready to pounce on her with the biggest smart-ass reply I can think of and show her how much of an idiot she is—that washing yourself completely with water is...well...clean?

“Well have you ever tried using the stuff?” I say to her, “How would you know it doesn't get rid of everything?” Trying to defend my argument without much success, I'm stumbling over my own words even as it's apparent who's winning this conversation.

Jeleen really gets me thinking about how our ethnocentric view on culture dilutes our perceived vision of what is right and what is wrong; all those sort of things that you learn in your cultural anthropology class in college. I realize I've been a proprietor of cultural ethnocentrism, nice going Erik. It's almost comical when you think about it, we pay money just so that we can wipe ourselves with wasteful paper and not even become completely clean? Maybe this entire time we've been brainwashed by these invisible toilet paper mega-conglomerates, devising ways to trick the American public in order to push their products onto shelves and into the bathrooms of every household in the nation. My entire childhood TV past has been destroyed in an instant with all that remains are these blatant lies of bastard teddy bears who slide fine heavenly clouds across their derrière and toss it off to the environment to rot.

Over the course of a few weeks that I’m in the Philippines, I become somewhat of a self-proclaimed “expert” in the art of washing. I'm walking into bathrooms of other homes that are more decrepit than the last and winning matches like a graceful bullfighter. There is no toilet I can't conquer in any part of the world. My tossing away the chains of proliferated paper feels like I'm tossing away my matador red cape and grabbing the bull by the horns, a euphoria of empowerment. Best part of all, I'm no longer walking around with the large soaked stain in my shorts.

Eventually I find myself back in the States in one of our “modern” bathrooms doing my business on the pot again. The bathroom itself, save for some trimmings of mold on the shower door, is everything that you'd expect out of a middle-class American home. Shiny tile floor, brightly strung lights over the bathroom mirror, no ants or any other critters roaming around the cracks, and especially hot water. It's like that same feeling that Tom Hanks must have felt when he experienced ice for the first time in so many years after coming back to civilization in the movie “Castaway.” Where you suddenly are shocked to have all the luxuries that you left behind. Culture shock aside, you tend to fall back into the American lifestyle and get comfortable with it surprisingly quick. There's only one matter of business left to attend to—the one only thing that has been disturbing me ever since I have gotten back to the States—and its rolled up right in front of me.

How the hell am I going to clean myself now that I'm back here since I don't have any access to a pail and rag near me? I'm trying to think of creative ways of maybe using the bathtub or the sink to maybe rinse myself off, but then trying to climb up on the counter would just be too awkward. The idea of my landlord coming in on me with my pants to my ankles up on the sink is almost as terrifying as my first experience with the hose. All I have in front of me is this disgusting paper I'm supposed to wipe myself with and how these fine heavenly clouds are to erode all traces of feces. I stare at it like its some contract with the devil, doubtful of its use and knowing full well of its empty promises towards cleanliness. Almost as if I am willingly condemning myself to an eternity of buying high-priced toilet paper when I know there are better options.

My Vietnamese landlord ends up interrupting my interlude through the door, “Are you done in there?!” he shouts. He's most likely been squeezing his legs outside for quite some time and is just trying to be kind to the stranger he's renting to. But at the same time, he's blocking my only path to make it to my room to grab a rag that I can wash later. I have everything else that I could ever need in this bathroom; toothpaste, actually sharp razors, a mop, plenty of soap to go around, but not a rag in sight. I kick the porcelain-colored bowl and stare at the roll of toilet paper right in front of me like if I was some kid staring down a nagging parent for being told to do something that they really didn't want to do. Welcome back to America, where the resources are overpriced and plentiful and everyone has the opportunity for success, to achieve anything they want. Yet it's a complete surprise that anything happens to get done around here because of how everything is completely backwards and inefficient.

I wince as I unravel the cheap dollar store roll and succumb to my conflicted reality back here in America, waiting for the day which I own property so I can install a better toilet.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Greg Mortenson

Speedpaint of the author "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones into Schools."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Visa Requirements and the Art of Traveling

Lately I've received multiple inquiries on how I'm actually traveling through Asia in the next couple of weeks and about basic visa requirements from country to country. Border immigration seems like its main purpose of being built is to keep you out of the country you are trying to visit. Regulations can range from paying a small toll fee to enter a country for a short period of time to having to prove financial assets and property back home to get that little stamp in your passport. And if you're anything like me, the latter is near impossible to accomplish for the person on a budget. While visa requirements can differ greatly from the country you are coming from to your port of destination, there are a few general tips that will save you lots of pain and exhaustion later on.

Most countries throughout the world allow travelers to enter their country on a "tourist visa" usually for around 90 days upon each entry. These visas are stamped as you leave your port of entry (ie. the airport). There are some places that are an exception: for Americans traveling to the Philippines an American can get a tourist visa for 21 days max. If you plan on overstaying your initial visa, speak with the nearest immigration office and alert them to your situation, but be prepared to pay a small fee to extend your visa. Another option is to take a short trip out of the country you are in and return the next day. A friend of mine teaching English in Chile did this for years, where he would cross the border into Argentina and then come back into Chile and bypass this rule.

For American/Canadian and most other European travelers, I recommend exchanging currency in the country you are going to for better rates instead of your own country. American airports are notorious for scamming upwheres to 25% extra on the exchange rate. Packing light has its benefits too particularly when it comes to clothes in the subtropics. A decent wardrobe in some locations in the world may cost you $20 USD, well offsetting the costs of that extra piece of luggage you would have brought onto your plane.

Though there is a lot of arguments of carrying your passport on you vs. keeping it in a safe place, use your best judgement. If you don't put yourself out there as an easy target for theft, then keeping your passport is highly advised because if you are caught without it, you may not have the opportunity to grab it from your hotel room if you're stuck in a cell.

One thing to note that on a tourist visa, you are not typically allowed to do business in the country you are inside. That's not to say that you can't do work under the table, but for the most part you'll need a "business visa" and a sponsor if you plan on working legitimately. Many people find working abroad as they travel to be very satisfying and there are a select few that choose to make an entire life out of it.

To apply for a visa before you visit a country, you will have to visit the Embassy or Consulate nearest to you and present lengthy documentation for that stamp. This can include (but not limited to) medical records, financial assets and accounts, contact information of people you may be staying with abroad, multiple 2x2 inch photographs of yourself, and of course your passport.

Other places have special rules, such as several Central Asian countries will not let you enter if you have a visa stamped from Israel. In cases like this, you can usually request a second passport from your country's immigration office to bypass such rules.

Breaking immigration and visa rules should not be taken lightly, as you may quickly find yourself in a prison cell in a foreign country and/or deported. ALWAYS adhere to local customs and laws--what may be legal in your country may not be elsewhere. Another thing that I feel must be noted is that drug possession and trafficking does NOT pay off in a foreign country, heed my advice and just don't do it.

If you have concerns about your trip to a foreign land feel free to comment and write back to me, even if it seems like a simple question. Thank you for your time.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Blog is open for business

Whew I'm finally getting this thing up and running, and it only took me three months to get everything moderately uploaded? May as well then get on with a short introduction about myself...

My name is Erik Thurman, and I am a soon to be a 25 year old graduate of San Jose State University in California, USA. My area of emphasis is in Illustration, Anthropology, Creative Writing, Linguistics, and Journalism; essentially everything under the sun. I'm preparing now for the next body of work that I'll be conducting within the next couple of years, "The American Immigrant". The story is essentially about my experiences traveling through the Philippines and South Korea working as an Art and English instructor to pay off surmounting debts from college, all put together in a larger graphic novel. I hope to share these experiences with my viewers throughout my trip while occasionally uploading some of the art and interviews that I have overseas. My aim is to show the repercussions of a slowly unaffordable and unobtainable education system within the USA and what it means for our society within the near future.

Hope you all enjoy the ride...