Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fruit, flora, rainforest: nature in the Philippines (e.g. re-living Ecuador)


One of the reasons why I opted to run away to Ecuador during my sophomore year summer was because I needed, like many before me, to fulfill that silly 10-year-old ambition of living in the rain forest. (You remember Zoboomafoo, right?) I envisioned lush, dense, sweaty undergrowth; impossibly high canopies teeming with monkeys; waterfalls and dangerous animals that would form the backdrop for my wooden tree-house home.

When I arrived at the Bilsa Biological Station, my imagination, surprisingly, ceded nothing to reality. I spent two months chopping down banana trees and gathering cacao, climbing waterfalls and photographing lizards, laying in a hammock and listening to capuchins gather uvas de oriente. I'm not going to say it was the best time in my life, but it was certainly the most vivid. When you're in the rainforest, the colors pierce your eyes, the sounds attack your ears, and the smells waft up to your brain. I remember chasing wild boar through thick mud and collecting a turtle and a poison dart frog on the way; wading upstream through a river at midnight to spot sleeping birds and silent green snakes; and spending three hours inching up to a blue footed booby on a rusted, abandoned pier in the Galapagos.

When I decided to become a Project Associate for Innovations in Poverty Action, I chose to work in the Philippines because of its innovative and intriguing projects, spanning micro-finance, micro-insurance, small business enterprise, and business school consulting. I thought about my next year in terms of Excel spreadsheets, philanthropy, and economic research. I just realized today that I'll also be in a tropical paradise while I'm working.

My aha! moment came in the Abrams library. There's a copy of every book ever published by the company here, and, as I was leaving, I spotted a gargantuan book -- 13' by 18' at least -- called, aptly, Philippines. 75% of the content are full-page spreads, some of cultural sites like the great church at Paoay, or man-made wonders, like the rice terraces of the Ifugao. The vast majority, though, is of natural beauty: not only in Luzon, the main island, but the bordering islands as well -- Visayas, Mindanao, Palawan and the Sulu Archipelago.

I usually hate coffee table book introductions. They're too long, too dense, too boring in comparison to the actual pictures. But this book's author, Richard Z. Chesnoff, is the bee's knees. He hooked me even though I started out just scanning the text. After an hour reading the entire book, I think I finally feel truly excited to be going there.

Here are some basic facts he recounts for the less-traveled: the Philippines has over 7,100 islands, some of which disappear during high tide. (Only 462 are more than 1 square mile wide.) There are at least 10,000 varieties of flowering plants and ferns, 700 rainbow varieties of butterflies, 200 kinds of fish, and at least 739 birds, from "fierce monkey-eating eagles" to "raucous green plumed parrots." Around it, there are four different seas -- the Pacific, China, Sulu, and Celebes -- that wash onto "a land of mist-covered peaks and great green plains, of lush rain forests, waterfalls, and rivers, of emerald gulfs and coral bays, all tied in an everlasting cycle of life to the great seas themselves."

When I think of a tropical climate, my mind naturally drifts to tropical fruit. I can't wait to eat sugar-apples, coconuts, bananas of all shapes and colors, rambutan, durian, papaya, jackfruit, pineapple, guava, mangoes, mangosteen, santol, starfruit, and rose-apples. Of course, there's no salak, which, in Ecuador, was literally the best fruit I've ever had in my life (everyone thought so too -- at the reserve, there was a big problem with volunteers sneaking around during breaks to the salak plants and furtively eating the fruit), but the Philippines should make up for it in variety.

(Shoot. I haven't eaten dinner yet, and I'm salivating writing this.)

Unfortunately, I'm going to be working in a city, probably in an office building. I'll visit different sites to check up on projects, but from what I hear, there's not much time for leisure travel. It won't be like Ecuador, where my jobs for the day consisted tasks like (not necessarily in this order) hiking 8 kilometers, aerating compost, planting saplings, measuring fruit sizes, climbing trees, reattaching orchids, and machete deforestation (in the good sense, for invasive species). I'll have weekends off though. And you can bet that after I finish exploring the city, I'll find out the quickest way to get to all the natural beauty surrounding me.

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