Sunday, November 29, 2009


I finally had a chance to pull some of my pictures together in video format...

Sunday, November 15, 2009


This morning I looked outside and saw about six inches of fresh snow on the ground.  I put on my coat and gloves to shovel the driveway and couldn't help but reflect on what a different world I lived in last month.  Gone is the heat that brought beautiful palm trees but also a constantly sweaty brow. I'll miss the delicious seafood but I'm glad to be able to drink from a water fountain again without worrying about getting sick.  My office desk now has a model Jeepney that my friends from La Salle gave me: they knew how I loved their unique modes of transportation. However, it's nice to be back in traffic where I am comfortable driving--where busy intersections are always regulated by traffic lights.

The five weeks I spent in this Service Corps provided an interesting vantage point on the Filipino culture.  We spent the majority of our time living in a working city, observing normal life around us and making friends with our clients and colleagues.  It's a different view than you normally get while traveling around as a tourist (though we got that as well with our weekend excursions).

The aspect of the trip that impacted me the most was the level of poverty that was visible throughout our visit.  We stayed in a very comfortable hotel that had nice amenities but within the block were shanty homes and little shops that didn't look like they'd survive a strong wind storm.  This was the view throughout the city of Bacolod: some nice buildings scattered among crude structures.  As we drove further from the city, life became simpler and in some ways more primitive: you'd see people gathered around the common water pump doing their laundry and bathing outside.  Most jobs revolved around the sugar cane and rice fields: some men out manually stacking sugar cane in trucks to amazing heights while others were plowing rice fields with their water buffaloes.  In most cases it was obvious that people worked hard to provide the basic necessities of life.

However, in most cases people generally appeared happy: they were quick to wave or offer a smile.  They were kind and eager to talk.  I loved the greetings of "hey Joe" they often gave me when I wandered into less visited areas: it was in surprisingly friendly terms (especially considering the view many people throughout the world have of Americans).  My view on the level of contentment generally aligned with studies I've seen that show that money and happiness generally have no correlation.

The one exception to that rule is when the basic necessities of life are not met.  Certainly, there were some people that have that problem.  We saw some people with clothes that were little more than shredded rags.  I also was impacted with Kooks' statement on the lack of medical care: for many people formal medical treatment is just not an option.  It's hard to ignore the need for improved medial options when you're taking daily malaria pills.  Undoubtedly, there is a need to improve the overall economic environment in the country.

The answer to moving up the economic ladder is no secret: education.  The more I thought about their future, the more I became glad I was working with St. La Salle University.  Much of our time was focused on addressing the Computer Science and Information Technology curriculum.  Their focus was where it should be: understanding and aligning with current market trends to help make their students more marketable.  They understand they are competing in a global market and have some catching up to do in order to compete with the US, India, China, etc.  The only way to really drive economic progress in Negros and other areas of the Philippines is to follow the same model as India and invest in human capital--moving from their agriculture dependencies and towards services.  I was glad to provide some market insight and get my friends at the university connected with IBM's academic resources, even though I know many of my colleagues in the US have lost jobs to students like these in developing countries.  This experience provides a new perspective on the global market for me.

We're coming up on the Thanksgiving holiday in the US and I'm already feeling more gratitude for the blessings I have.  I've enjoyed sharing some of my experiences with my family members: I'm married and have three girls and a boy.  One thing I'm grateful for is the images of the Philippines that are etched in my mind.  One vivid image that I'll keep is that of three beautiful young girls scavenging an empty lot looking for pieces of wood: likely helping with the preparation of an evening meal.  I only got a quick look at them as I drove by, but they appeared to be at ease and happy to provide assistance to their family.  This was normal life for them and they seemed quite content.  Of course, I couldn't help but think of what a different life my three girls live.  I'm thankful for a new level of understanding of the differences that exist in a corner of the world that now holds a special place in my heart.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


We were so glad that my parents offered to fly out and watch our children so that Maralee could join me in the Philippines.  Her ten day trip evaporates quite quickly when you calculate three days of travel time: with the three days she spent in Bacolod, we are left with only four real days to see some sights.  We considered traveling south in Negros to Apo Island, a world class diving site, but felt it would be interesting to see some other islands.  Many people suggested we go to Boracay, a small island where the premiere beach resorts are located; however, we wanted something less commercialized—I was intrigued by the island of Palawan.

To get to Palawan we needed to fly through either Manila or Cebu, so I booked a flight to Cebu and we decided since we were there we’d spent a day on Mactan Island—where they have beach resorts and nearby islands you can explore.   We arrived in the morning and spent the afternoon island hopping: one of the locations we went snorkeling had fantastic blue coral and a great selection of fish.  We had lunch at a “floating restaurant” just off the coast of one island—sounded like a cool option but we found it to be an overpriced tourist trap.  We really enjoyed our stay at the Maribago Bluewater Resort that evening but were a bit surprised to see poverty levels similar to that in Bacolod in areas surrounding the luxury resorts: I guess I was hoping that higher rent areas would translate to better opportunities for the local work force.

For dinner we headed to the Magellan and Lapu Lapu monuments.  Then northern tip of Mactan Island was where Magellan was killed by Lapu Lapu in his famous trip around the world.  One of the monuments takes a politically correct approach of having one side honor Lapu Lapu’s victory while the other hail Magellan’s voyage.  Near the monuments are markets where you pick fresh seafood and have it cooked for you: we had the best crab!

The next morning we headed off to Palawan which is often referenced as the last frontier of the Philippines.  Of course, with only three days on the Island we only had time to stay on the beaten path.  We arrived Sunday and enjoyed attending the local LDS church services and having a tri-cyle rider take us around the city of Puerto Princessa.  The town is advertised as the “cleanest and greenest” city of the Philippines—they have a zero tolerance for littering with jail time on the third offense.  The policy certainly was working—the town was significantly clearer than any I saw previously.  The views of the mountains and coast provided the tropical view you would see in a postcard.

Monday morning we headed off to Honda Bay for more island hopping.  We had a great day jumping between pandan, snake and starfish islands.  We enjoyed the beautiful beaches and snorkeling.  That evening we enjoyed a meal at the popular Ka Lui’s—both the ambience and food were fantastic.

Tuesday was our big day on the island: we took a tour of the famous Subterranean River—an 8 kilometer cave right off the ocean.  It’s a World Heritage Site and a finalist in the New7Wonders of the World survey.  The drive to the cave took us through lush hills, by gorgeous coastal views and along interesting rock formations.  As usual, the tour driver took the windy road like he was in the grand prix: not a good combination if you tend to get car sick. 

When we got out of the van we were at a beautiful white sand beach and boarded a pump boat to get to the cave; cruising along the coastal cliffs felt like we were in another world.  When we arrived at the mouth of the cave we were greeted by the local monkeys: one mother was looking after her baby.

The tour of the cave takes you into the first 1.5 kilometers of the cave via a boat paddled by your guide.  There are no lights so one of the riders has a spotlight that is used to show off the various formations and bats in the cave.  The largest room we entered was around 90 feet high.  On our way back to the pump boat we saw several more monkeys and a large monitor lizard (I’d guess around five feet long).

The last thing on our tour was a guided river tour through a mangrove forest.  As we went through the forest we saw poisonous snakes sleeping in the trees, more monitor lizards and some cool birds.  Maralee and I both agreed our day was the most exotic travel we’ve ever had. 

That evening we flew back to Manila and wandered around the Mall of Asia: the forth largest mall in the world.  I was amazed that a mall of that scale would be so close to the poverty I saw when driving through Manila five weeks ago.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


It’s Sunday night and I’m now already two Islands removed from Negros.  The past week has been a bit of a blur.  Tuesday evening the goodbyes started: Charles was kind enough to host all of us and several clients in his home for our farewell dinner.  He promised an evening with Lechon, the traditional roasted pig, the last time he hosted us and sure enough he delivered a wonderful meal which included the crispy-skinned delicacy.  The evening finished with karaoke: the Filipino’s love to sing.  Before we left, we were told to get ready to sing but luckily for us our one and only request came just a few days before leaving—only a few of our team members sang.

We didn’t get back from the party until close to midnight and I had a few things to take care of before heading to bed.  So when the alarm went off at 4:30AM to pick up Maralee from the airport, I was tired but excited to have her join me.  This is the longest I’ve been away from home since I’ve been married and I’ve certainly missed my family.  It’s been fun showing her around over the past five days.

Wednesday we starting wrapping things up with La Salle University: we shared information on IBM’s academic initiative to help provide a long-term link with the campus and IBM.  Jaydip and I also gave a summary presentation reviewing our deliverables over the past four weeks and suggesting some next steps for moving forward.  At the close of the meetings they surprised with a delicious chocolate cake and presented us with La Salle University jackets: so we are now officially “La Salle-ians”.  It’s been a real pleasure to work with the team.

Thursday was a local holiday: to celebrate Negros’ independence from Spain.  The history behind the holiday is great: the locals on the island were short on artillery but strong on whit.  They painted rolled-up palm leaves and bamboo sticks to look like guns and cannons.  Then, they marched their large number of “armed” troops to the Spanish headquarters and firmed the real arms they had.  After a few people died, the Spanish decided it would be better to surrender than face a large number of casualties.  

With the day off, Maralee and I had fun visiting the local sites: back to Mumbukal (the mountain resort) and the old sugar cane plantation homes (including the Ruins).  Friday morning I introduced Maralee to my friends at the school and had our final goodbyes-- I’ll certainly miss working with these guys.

Early Monday morning, there was a terrible fire not far from our hotel: in fact it was in the Baranguay where I played basketball.  A candle started the fire and the adjacent shanty homes all were burned.  It was the largest fire they’ve had and, tragically, sixteen people were killed.  Friday afternoon, Maralee and I visited some families that were relocated to live in a nearby elementary school.  In talking to one of the ladies, they felt lucky to be alive—a neighbor saved their life by knocking on their door.  It was yet another reminder of how different our lives are from so many people in the world; we were glad to be able to provide some assistance to the families.

That evening, we fittingly had our last meal together at Imays restaurant.  We ordered quite a feast, so much that no one had room for our customary dessert—halo halo (coconut filled with fruit, jello, ice, etc.).  When we got back to the hotel no one was quite ready to end the adventure.  We sat in the lobby and talked for a while, having trouble admitting that it was over.  Finally, we gave our goodbyes, hugs and bissous—this life experience had come to a close.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Danjugan Island

Just got back from a wonderful weekend. Waya from ABV made all the arrangements for the team to travel to Danjugan Island: a small island run by a conservation foundation.  The group took over running the island nine years ago in an effort to restore the damaged coral and protect the marine life.

The first thing I did after arriving was snorkeling in the clear, turquoise-colored water.  You could see that the efforts to conserve the island have had some success: areas that had been clearly damaged were starting to come to life. In some places you could see chunks of coral gone--dynamite fishing has been a big problem in the Philippines.

In addition to the wide varitey of coral, some of the highlights of things I saw were jumbo clams, tiger fish, trumpet fish, flying fish, and puffer fish.  I also saw a huge fish, about 5 ft in length, with a large mouth and giant lips.  He seemed interested in me--staring with his mouth open for a while: maybe he was trying to figure if I would fit in his mouth.

The island is an eco-tourism location: the rooms we slept in were open-air rooms with bug nets around our beds.  Luckily there weren't too many bugs.  The site had beds for 16 people and we filled up every one.  Our room of five beds was filled with each of the IBM men.  The first night I had trouble sleeping: we had a chorus of snorers--each time one would stop another would begin.  Also, there were very large geckos that made an incredibly large noise; we thought for sure they were a bird until we got the details.  On the island was also a bat cave with thousands of bats flying around.  We understand there is a good-sized python as well that likes to fill up on bats every four days: luckily he didn't join us in our room.

Yesterday evening we went out in the owners yacht to visit the neighboring island.  The small island is owned by a friend of ours, Maggie, in Bacolod--so we call it Maggie's Island.  It has a beautiful beach for swimming that we enjoyed along with drinks and snacks--we were constantly eating.  Just before sunset we cruised off to the backside of Danjugan to enjoy the sun going down and jump off of the boat.

As always, I enjoyed the ride to and from the location.  It was about a four hour drive filled with lush hills, sugar cane and rice fields, villages and towns.  I took some picture out the window and often got the attention of the locals--they loved to wave and yell out "hey Joe"--I love seeing their smiles.  So many people live with so little, but most seem to be happy with life.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Health Report

It's early Thursday morning and though it's hazy outside it looks like we should have decent weather.  So far, we haven't had too much rain since arriving in Bacolod even though we're still in the midst of the rainy season.  However, I just noticed in my in-box there is another Typhoon warning for Central Luzon--which may hit Manila; hopefully, they won't see too much damage.  Back in Loveland, my family has been busy collecting school supplies for children those impacted by the storms.  They have pulled together lots of supplies and Maralee is now working on the shipping details.  Thanks to anyone who has been able to contribute! 

In my last post I mentioned that I've been limping around on a bad knee: luckily it started to feel better yesterday.  I'm pretty sure I have a tear in my meniscus, and Brett (my physical therapist brother-in-law) gave the same prognosis over the phone.  I'll get it checked out when I return home.

Speaking of medical care, last week I was talking to Kooks about health care in the Philippines.  He said that the majority of people here are unable to afford medical services due to poverty.  They have traditional herbs that they use to rely on for remedies.  I asked what happens if that doesn't work; he said "they pray hard".  If they have some money, a doctor would be the last option.

Today we plan on wrapping up our work with the IT Center at the school.  Things have been going pretty well--yesterday we worked with them to install some software in their test lab to help improve their IT monitoring and management: we installed Nagios for monitoring and CVS for their development version control.  Today we'll continue some of that work and try to get a wiki installed to help them with documentation.  The IT guys seemed excited about the new tools and are eager to learn.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Prior to heading off to the Philippines, I had the chance to talk to several IBMers who were in the Corporate Service Corps program. They shared their experiences and some advice: I remember one saying that you need to be "flexible".  This has proved to be the case this week for me.  The plans to head back to Manila were very slow in materializing.  When the IBM team finally gave confirmation late Friday that the trip was still on, it became difficult to get the travel arrangements sorted out.  I was supposed to fly out Monday but that spilled into Tuesday and this afternoon I learned that the agreement with the NDCC needed some more work and the project had been delayed.  So, bottom line, I will now be in Bacolod for the rest of the trip.

I had mixed emotions because the Disaster Relief effort sounded like a nice project to be a part of; however, it's also nice working with the La Salle University and the rest of the IBM team.  I need to rethink what I can do some of the additional time I have available.  Tomorrow, I'll join Guillermo to help with the IT assessment we have planned at the school.

Today I spent the day at a seminar our team put on in conjunction with BNEFIT; of course, I was only a listener this time since I hadn't expected to be in town.  One interesting thing about meetings here in the Philippines is they often begin with a prayer.  I wasn't too surprised that was the case at the University, since it is a Catholic school, but it has been a pleasant surprise in other meetings.  The link to religion here is much stronger than in the US.  Approximately 80% of Filipinos are Catholic, and from what I have seen, Mass is well attended.  The strong Christian influence makes the Philippines very unique in Asia.

On the first two Sunday's of my stay I was able to attend my church's services: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  It was nice to be able to get to meet the local congregation--it didn't appear that they were very accustomed to having visitors from out of the country.  I've been quite impressed by the volume of LDS churches in the Philippines: it seems that most every town has a well maintained chapel.  In Bacolod alone there are 15 wards.  When I talk to others about they church they are all very familiar with the church and have positive things to say.

Yesterday during lunch Guillermo and I went to the local "wet" market to see what it was like.  The best time to go would have been in the morning when there is more fish.  But we got a good feel for what it was like (along with the strong smell of fish parts baking in the heat)--quite a difference then the European markets I'm accustom to.  We also explored a local alley way and ran into a basketball court that had a large pickup game going on.  We created quite a stir: all of the guys stopped the game and started yelling "hey Joe" (the name they give to all Americans).  I couldn't resist and joined them for a brief game in my flip flops--which is the standard basketball footwear here.  It was fun but I severely aggravated my knee--I've had pain and been limping ever since.  Hopefully, this is a temporary problem but I may need to get a first-hand experience in local medical care.