Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Up to my neck in owls

For the next three weeks, my life will no longer be my own. My life will belong to Kyoto University.

I am attempting to enter the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies as a master's student on a full scholarship. The entrance exam is on February 12. That gives me exactly three weeks to learn as much as I possibly can about global environmental issues.

My days will be spent in the library, studying, reading and making notes. My nights will be spent in my apartment, drinking wine and wasting time on the internet. (What? You thought I was going to devote all of my free time to academia? A girl's got to give her brain a break some time!)

The exam itself is broken down into two parts. The first part tests your general knowledge about environmental issues. The second part tests your specific knowledge about your chosen field (my chosen field is environmental communication studies). Both exams are comprised of essay questions. Both exams are in English. I think I'll be okay on the specific knowledge exam. It's the general exam that scares me.

There’s just no way I'll ever be prepared enough to answer general questions about the environment. Not in three weeks. Not in three months. Maybe not even in three years. There's just too much to know.

Climate change, acid rain, hazardous waste, endangered species, biological diversity, sustainable development, protection of transboundary watercourses, desertification, the Kyoto Protocol, whaling, pesticides, renewable energy, ionizing radiation, persistent organic pollutants, habitat destruction, ozone depletion, urban sprawl, smog, deforestation, disaster mitigation, genetic pollution, overpopulation, collapsing fish stocks, chemical contamination, ocean acidification, invasive species.

The list goes on and on and on.

I may have worked at the David Suzuki Foundation for seven years but I'm no lab-coat-wearing scientist. I'm a writer, which means I know a little bit about a lot of things. My knowledge of environmental issues is a mile wide and an inch deep.

My job was not about delving into the technical details of an issue (that was for the guys with the letters "P, h and D" behind their names). My job was about communicating those issues in a way that was clear, concise and compelling. That meant stripping out the scientific jargon and simplifying the technical details to make it palatable to the widest possible audience.

I may know how to write about environmental issues but I don't know all that much about them. This is something I have to rectify during the next three weeks.

An impossible task maybe but I can't let this opportunity pass me by. At stake is a full scholarship, a master's degree from one of the top universities in Japan and the chance to do exciting and interesting research in a field that I am passionate about.

If I fail the exam, I will be returning to Canada at the end of March. (Homeless, jobless and broke. Sexy!)

If I pass the exam, I will be returning to Canada in 2012. (Homeless, jobless, broke and two years older. Even sexier!)

Anyway, I'd better get back to the books. Blogging will be light to non-existent during the next three weeks. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

One week in the Philippines

I want to write about my week-long vacation on a tropical island in the Philippines. But I don't know what to say because nothing much happened.

Each day was a carbon copy of the one that went before it. Sun, sand, surf. Repeat.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. Doing nothing at all was all I wanted to do. I was quite happy to pass the days swimming in the sea, going for long walks on the beach and taking photos.

I went to the Philippines with a group of friends who, like me, live and study in Japan (with the exception of Nicole, who lives and works in Europe). All of my friends in Japan are from all over the world and whenever we hang out, it always feels like a veritable gathering of the United Nations.

Our group consisted of four Romanians, two Jamaicans, one Filipino, one Japanese and me, the lone Canadian. English was the default language. But sometimes we spoke Japanese and sometimes we spoke Jamaican (or maybe that was just me, mon).

We spent the week on Boracay Island, which is about 315 kilometres south of Manila. My friends arrived a few days before I did. They wanted to travel around Manila before island hopping in the south. I wanted to skip the urban part of the trip and head straight to the beach. So I met them there. From Kyoto to Boracay by plane, bus, boat and motorcycle. It made for a very long day.

But the effort matched the reward -- powder-fine white sand, turquoise water, green palms and cotton-candy-coloured sunsets. Beat-you-down heat and nothing to shade you from the sun. Summer in winter. (A bit of a mind fuck for an ice-skating, snow-loving Canadian girl like me.)

Although it was beautiful, Boracay was far from remote. The main beach (a four-kilometre stretch of white sand) was lined with shops and restaurants and bars catering to the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to the Island each year.

Still, I never found it that crowded or commercialized. There were no obscenely huge resorts. No buildings over three stories high. No asshole tourists puking their guts out on the beach.

Sure it was touristy. But it wasn't overly touristy. There were lots of rough, unpolished places to explore. The air was heavy with that distinctively tropical smell (a mixture of diesel exhaust, ripe fruit and rotting leaves). The beaches were big enough that you never felt hemmed in by the masses. And if you wanted privacy and solitude, the beaches in the northern part of the Island were practically deserted.

Away from the main beach, the rest of Boracay looked the way it must have looked before this once secret place was discovered by tourists. The streets were filled with dilapidated vehicles packed with people whose limbs stuck out of open windows.

Roosters, pigs and goats wandered around the yards of houses where laundry was hung out to dry and garbage was left out to rot. Skinny-looking dogs and happy-looking children had free range of the roads. There was not a single stoplight (or stop sign for that matter) on the Island.

My only complaint about the place is that all of the locals insisted on calling me ma'am. It made me feel old until I realized that they called everyone ma'am. Even teenagers.

You couldn't walk two steps on the main beach without being ma'amed by vendors.

"Sailing, ma'am?"

"Snorkeling, ma'am?"

"Massage, ma'am?"

"Pearl necklace, ma'am?"

(The vendors always insisted that these pearls were "real" despite their $1 price tag, which could easily be bargained down to 50 cents. Why the facade? We know they're fake. They know they're fake. They know we know they're fake. Drop the pearl ruse and just call a bead a bead.)

"Sunglasses, ma'am?"

(The vendors selling sunglasses also confused me. They always seemed to approach people already wearing sunglasses. Why not target the people not wearing sunglasses?)

New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve was a low-key affair. We had a late dinner on the beach at 11 p.m. and then ran out of the restaurant just before midnight to join the countdown (we promised the waiter we would come back and settle the bill after the fireworks were over).

I secretly wanted to avoid the crowded bars on the beach because I was paranoid about a potential terrorist attack. It didn't help that I watched a documentary about hostage takings in the Philippines back at the hotel earlier that afternoon. It also didn't help that some underwear bomber tried to blow up a plane over Detroit just before I flew to Boracay.

It's not so much being killed that bothers me. It's being horribly burned and blinded by shrapnel and losing limbs and surviving that scares me. But nothing got blown up and no one was kidnapped by Islamic militants. So it was a good start to the year.

I also managed to avoid being injured by exploding firecrackers and stray bullets on New Year's Eve. Setting off firecrackers and firing guns into the air is how people traditionally ring in the new year in the Philippines. The noise is meant to drive away evil spirits and bring good luck in the coming year. Which is crazy because they only thing it actually does is cause people to lose hands and fingers and get hit by stray bullets. (The Philippine Daily Inquirer reports that three people were killed by firecrackers, 40 people were hit by stray bullets and more than 800 others were seriously injured by firecrackers this New Year's.)

Into the bat cave

A highlight of the trip was visiting the Island's famed bat cave. We walked down several dirt roads for nearly two hours to get there (with the locals shouting out "Happy New Year!" the whole way).

Just before the main turnoff to the cave, two guys stopped us and asked if we were going to the bat cave. We told them we were. They offered to be our guides. We told them we didn't need guides but they started walking with us anyway. We told them they were free to follow us but we'd decide if we were going to hire them or not when we reached the cave. They shrugged and smiled, secure in the knowledge that there was no way we'd be able to enter the cave without them.

The guides took us on a short hike through the forest to the mouth of the cave, at which point we were grateful they insisted on following us. The cave dropped down at a very steep angle. The mouth of the cave was littered with large boulders and it was extremely dangerous to enter and walk down. There was no path, no handrail and the stones were slippery with slime and bat shit. We needed the guides -- and their flashlights -- to safely make our way down to the bottom of the cave.

It was hot, humid and dark inside the cave. We could hear the bats circling overhead. They made a high-pitched squeaking noise that echoed off the cave walls so that it sounded like there were millions of them. I felt a few warm, wet drops of bat shit land on my arm.

As we walked deeper into the cave, one of the guides stopped us and said, "I have a surprise for you." He told us to follow the beam of his flashlight with our eyes.

My heart started pounding. I know for a fact that cockroaches feed on bat shit and there are few things in this world that terrify me more than cockroaches. I had about 15 seconds to mentally steel myself for the sight of thousands of huge squirming cockroaches scuttling across the cave floor.

We followed the beam of light as it tracked left and landed on . . . a couple of poisonous sea snakes. I sighed with relief. Nicole screamed with fear.

And that was about as exciting as the trip got. That was the only deviation from the daily dose of sun, sand and surf. Not that I'm complaining. Doing nothing at all was all I wanted to do.

As always, the rest of my photos are on flickr.