Thursday, June 10, 2010

Balay Tubay

Out of all the great new experiences I had during this field school in the Philippines, I would have to say that just being able to immerse myself into the filipino culture and appreciate the new things from an outsider's perspective was the best part for me personally. My time in El Nido was particularly memorable, more specifically during the arts festival that took place during our last week in the Philippines. Art was and still is a very big passion for me, so when I found out that there was going to be an arts festival in El Nido through one of the students, I was beyond ecstatic to go support the local artists, attend the workshops, listen to the live music, and meet more people. The arts festival took place in one of the local bars called Balay Tubay, one of the places that many of us students went to after lecture for drinks, a place rich with history and raw talent, along with being unique in that it had a gallery attached to it. This bar had live music every night, the band playing songs from the Beatles to the Eagles along with filipino songs, and although we couldn't understand the words, the soul and passion that was in every song spoke for itself.

I had the opportunity to go to the gallery opening night at Balay Tubay along with some of the other students. The night started off with a presentation that one of our very talented students gave, Ian Ostericher, on photography. He had put together a slide show of his portfolio, explaining the meaning behind each photo and just about the art of photography. Afterwards we had our very own Professor Victor Paz give a lecture on what we had been doing on our archaeological field school and what we had found so far. As I walked around the gallery and marveled at each beautifully crafted piece, one of our students who was asked to help out at the arts festival, being a remarkable artist himself, was kind enough to introduce me to the local artists. Meeting them was just so incredible, matching the art pieces to the artist, asking them any and all of the questions that I had, and again just sharing one of my life passions with people who felt the same was all exhilarating. I think that the whole experience was so significant to me because I didn't come to the field school with any expectations of meeting artists or being able to experience the Philippines art scene. Art is universal, no matter where you go. Even the styles of art that I saw in the gallery that night were pretty similar to the urban art scene that I'm most familiar with back in Seattle, Washington. It was refreshing to see that no matter where you are in the world, art translates in the same way everywhere.

El Nido Nights

El Nido was our reintroduction to civilization after our first two weeks of field work. I have to say the anticipation was building early on. I had been fantasizing about the use of the internet, a bed, and the comforts of civilization for at least a week and half prior. Just outside of town it was a welcoming site to see the towering limestone cliffs that characterized El Nido Bay. Upon arrival we worked quickly to unload the jeepney and find our rooms at the cozy Lally and Abbott resort. My room featured A/C, cable, Emperor Ming and Rachna. Being the first in the room I snagged the single bed. Rachna and Ming were forced to share the double which proved to be a troublesome parring. By the second night Rachna preferred the floor to Ming's trespassing. Even with the bed situation we managed to have some very lively discussions. Next it was the buffet three maybe four trips, I had a ravenous appetite. Afterwards a nice lecture and a few beers, not bad.
One of our nights out on the town Bethany, Sarah, Rachna, and I attempted to meet two of the staff from our resort at the "New Zone". This club was a rectangular shaped, very loud, and unwelcoming lazer-den. We got our drinks and took a seat alongside the wall. After a very-brief scan (for fear of provoking a knife attack) I failed to locate our girls among the scattered flocks of zipper-dress clad women. We decided it was best to suck our drinks down and move on. From the "New Zone" we happened to run into our girls on the street. Attempting to improve on our first experience together we decided to go to the "Bom Disco", a cozy little firetrap and sweatbox that featured chicken-wire over all the escapable windows. The highlights were, failing to break the ice with the girls, and after it became evident that the bartender had no idea how to make the drinks we ordered (from the menu) one of the girls in our group just went behind the bar and made them herself. EL Nido.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


All good things must come to an end. In archeology this is expressed when the digging stops and the backfilling begins. As dirt falls from the buckets and shovels days, months, even years worth of meticulous digging can be wiped away in a matter of minutes. So, I suppose it was fitting that the last day of my archeological work was spent backfilling.

This trench was nothing special. In fact it may have been the most uneventful trench of the entire trip. In the five days that the team excavated the two by two by one and half meter trench they discovered three context layers and zero artifacts; that is equivalent to reading a two-thousand page book without a plot or ending. By the time we backfilled it the crew was more than delighted to put the trench behind us.

Backfilling couldn’t have been easier. The amount of dirt was minimal, and the pile was as close as it could have been without gravity pushing the sediment over the edge. Besides the blazing sun and dust particles clogging my nostrils the experience was rather enjoyable. It was easy to savor work that had such obvious results – the shovel went in, removed the pile, carried dirt to the hole, and filled the hole. It was brilliant.

As our pile decreased and the hole disappeared there was little discussion. Some of us were distracted by a toad attempting to escape the pit; it must have hitched a ride with the dirt on one our shovels. My time in the Philippines was coming to an end, so I was lost in thoughts about the trip. I thought about the new friends that I had made, the amazing adventures I had experienced, and the beautiful places that I had witnessed for the first, and hopefully not the last, time.

Before I knew it, we were done. Our pile was gone and the trench was no more. I assumed that putting all of the sediment back would have appeared level, but as I took in the results of our labor I realized that there was dirt overfilling the trench. What a beautiful sight. My thoughts went to the sacrifices that were made to take the trip – job loss, time away from those I loved, the anxiety of leaving familiarity.

The cup that was empty when I arrived was now overflowing. Every sacrifice was worth only a small fraction of the life that came from my time during the previous six weeks. The stories, experience, and learning that I hoped to extract were more vibrant than I could have ever hoped for.

As I soaked up the image of the small mound that now existed where the trench once was, a member of our crew tied two large pieces of bamboo together to make a cross. I’m not sure if it was a joke, but he planted it firmly in the center of our mound. If that isn’t closure than I don’t know what is.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Pot Sherds and Palaweños

I could have never expected my experience on Palawan, as clichéd as it sounds. Leaving Seattle, I knew I would meet some great people and have a blast but there’s always that unexpected element to any new adventure. Tropical beaches, cave exploration, and jungles complete with monkeys, snakes, and the occasional scorpion. Besides finding myself in a brilliant location, the people weren’t half bad either.
We had some good times together: swimming in the Soule Sea, with a bottle of Tanduay; becoming extremely burnt from swimming in the Soule Sea; playing the beloved game of “Avoid the Branches” while riding on top of jeepneys; hanging out on deserted islands; swimming in the South China Sea, at sunset, drinking some San Miguel; exploring caves; intense games of charades; the list goes on and on. There were times I could have gone without, such as stepping on a rusty nail the first week we were onsite or being stung by a jellyfish (which I still have the mark from, over a month later now) or ever so gracefully stepping on a deadly snake in the jungle.
As bad as these were, or could have been, I found myself not just surrounded by people on my program but people who had come to be my friends and who would help me out whenever I needed it, whether it be bandaging my foot (while trying not to freak out) or graciously offering to pee on my jellyfish sting. Aside from all the action, adventure, and danger that accompanied our field school, the best times I had were sitting around the bamboo table, drinking some San Miguel or our invented Palaweño’s , talking and laughing and sharing stories (the best ones of course coming from Greg). Here it was evident that you were surrounded by a great group of people.
My 55 day expedition to the Philippines was the best field school I could have imagined. It was the perfect mix of academic learning and social down time, sometimes mixing the two, either over theoretical discussions complimented by a bottle of Tanduay or nightly lectures accompanied by San Miguel, the unofficial sponsor of our field school. I loved the adventure, discovery, and people on this field school. One thing I won’t miss however: checking the showers for cobras.

55 Day Expedition: Palawan Field School

One of my favorite aspects of the field school was the diversity of the students. There were those, myself included, who had no experience whatsoever, mixed with students who participated in numerous archaeological sites across all of Southeast Asia. As a group we excavated three separate areas on the island of Palawan and numerous sites and trenches within those areas. We worked in any given trench at most a few days, giving us the chance to see the entire site and work with everyone in the group in different locations.

At first I did not think I would like moving around so much and barely becoming familiar with the different contexts in any given trench but the more I experienced moving around I saw that this was so extremely helpful, especially to someone who had never excavated before. I was able to apply the basic techniques of identifying contexts and comparing sediments through color, compactness, particle size, and inclusions to all the trenches I worked in. Even coming across trenches that were archaeologically sterile proved useful as we were able to practice the methods of excavation and recording.

Cave archaeology was something that I had never really considered before this field school. Two out of the three sites we excavated however had some sort of cave environment. In El Nido we worked in a cave called Pasimbahan, a cave known to have local religious connections but had never before our team been studied by the academic world. We opened up two trenches in the cave mouth where the majority of our team worked while a few of us explored the rest of the cave, in search of any anthropological activity. In the Dewil Valley, the third location our team excavated, caves were in abundant supply. Members of our team explored caves rich with archaeological material. Collecting vast numbers of pot sherds during the day turned into complex puzzles in the evening. Especially evident in the third area we worked, we saw how archaeology saturated the land.

I noticed over the course of the field school there was a strong curiosity and overall support that the local community extended towards us. In every location we excavated, visitors came to observe, ask questions, and just hang out. Kids as young as toddlers followed their older comrades to watch us working. Some spectators would come to help and others just to watch. The support we saw in the communities where we worked was easily seen in the highly successful exhibition we put on in Sibaltan. The exhibit featured a general history of the area and town, as well as what archaeology was and who we were. As a first glance at archaeological field work, I must say I was pretty spoiled to be a part of such a wonderful group of people in such an archaeologically rich region.

I was lucky enough to spend two extra weeks with students from University of the Philippines at the very end of the field school, participating in more field work. The difference in these two weeks from the field school meant smaller teams at each of the sites and an overall theme of areas that needed further excavation in the future. As part of the field school, especially to those of us who were learning for the first time, there was a general awareness that once the field school had a definitive end. By staying a couple weeks longer I felt I was part of a larger, longer project which extended into the years to come. Overall, this experience proved to be a great starting off point for my future in archaeology which this field school verified my deep love for.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Being connected to others

On my Philippines field school there were people from all over in our group. I met and made friends with people from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines and the U.S. This made my experience abroad even richer and I am so glad that we had the people that we had in our group. I think partnerships with a variety of different people is a smart way to collaborate and build on ideas of Archaeology. Different view points are what makes us keep asking new questions that can lead us to new methods and ways of thinking.

My first ever jeepney ride was exhilarating, sitting on top holding on to the sides as we ducked for branches going down the dirt road. Island hopping all day, having a BBQ on the beach and burying friends in the sand was a highlight for me. The way we kept living from "riches to rags", as Victor would say,was a brilliant idea. The first week we were in the Philippines was like a vacation as we stayed in hotels and resorts on the beach, following that we went to camping in tents at the Elementary school in Sibaltan. The camping was fine, I've done camping before, what I had to get used to was no in-door plumbing. The toilet situation took me a little bit to adjust to as far as going number 2. There was just a rim bowl that you had to squat over to go in and I always made sure to get toilet paper before I got in there.

The showering outside and dumping buckets of cold water on your head was actually really nice after a hot sweaty day of working. We had local people cook us food and I have never had so much rice and fish in my life, good food though and it was appreciated how much they cooked for us and did our laundry. After Sibaltan we headed to El Nido where we stayed in a resort for a week, amazing view and right on the beach. This is where we did our first cave excavation and it was a nice change because there was always a cool breeze in the cave. For our last week we moved back out to our tents by Ille Cave where we spent the last week of our field school, by now we were pros at digging and had made lasting friendships. This was also the saddest week saying goodbye to people as they headed off back home, being some of the last people to leave you could tell the mood had changed.

We exchanged gifts, emails and later photos, looking back now as people post more photos I realize more and more about this extraordinary opportunity that i had and I'm so glad I took advantage of it. This was by far the best learning experience and life experience that I have ever received and probably ever will for quite some time. I would recommend anyone to a field school like this, it will change your life.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The First of Many (hopefully)

photo credit: Ian Ostericher

It has been exactly a month since I had left the Philippines, saying one last goodbye in the Manila airport to a place I will now always remember. It seems like just the other day when the whole team would just hang out after a hard day's work, drink beer and play games like charades, poke fun and get on each other's nerves. As people are starting to slowly put up their Palawan pictures online, I can't help but to feel a little nostalgic as I flip through them. I didn't just grow to love archaeology, but I fell in love with the land of Palawan, the people, the culture, and the group of strangers that had become my family for the past month and a half.

I remember being nervous a few days before leaving for the Philippines. Nervous about living with a group of people I had just met, adjusting to a completely different lifestyle, actually doing archaeology every day, and just not knowing what to expect from a field school. However, by the time I landed in Manila and stepped out of the airport, I was so excited that I felt like I could just take on the world of archaeology; I was ready to dig, trowel in hand, eager to take on directions and find artifacts. Although we didn't get into digging right away, once we did, it was just an eye-opening experience all together. From using surveying techniques such as the total station, and seeing how one could build a model of how the land used to look like centuries ago just by mapping out points and taking elevations was incredible to me. Even the digging techniques that Helen Lewis took the time to show us was a memorable experience because before that, I thought archaeologists just dug until they came upon something, using no special technique, just piercing the ground with a trowel. I learned that every detail was important, even the type of sediment we were digging in, making sure we recorded all the different contexts, describing the soil by the color, texture, and hue. I learned what a cut was compared to a fill, and how we can either dig in spits or just follow the natural contours of the land. Even making the trenches turned out to be a lot more technical than just measuring out a square and putting boundaries on it to start digging. Each trench had to be facing North, and by using basic pre-calc math, we had to make sure we were precise in making a close-to-perfect square before even thinking about lifting our trowels. The labor was hard at times, but the artifacts that we found were definitely worth any and all of the physical strains. One of the most memorable experiences for me personally was when Reed found a full adult skeleton and I was able to help excavate it out in trench one at the Sibaltan Elementary School site. Although I learned a lot about the art of archaeology including the digging, sieving, sketching, note-taking, surveying, etc, I think I would have to agree with Greg and say that it was really impressive how much the community was involved with our excavations. It was encouraging to see how interested the people were and even by just showing up at our trench rounds, it made me feel like I was doing something, even if it was a small thing, to help the community be aware and learn more about their history.

Apart from doing archaeology, learning new techniques and information, and exploring the land of Palawan, I would have to say that the people I met made the whole experience. Each person played a role and made a contribution in the small community that we built. If it wasn't for the people, I don't think I would have had the same wonderful experience that I had at this field school. I would definitely recommend going on a field school if this is something that anyone is interested in trying out. There are some things that you can only learn by putting yourself out there and being open-minded. I also hope that there will be other excavations and opportunities for me in the near future because I haven't had my fill quite yet :)