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AFS 2014 Field Notes: “Yeah, this is how we do it”

September 3, 2014

Field work in CDO: A quick read

afs_fn4Alas, my first time in this much-heard land of Mindanao. While we were still on the plane, I was just looking past the clouds and blue seas wondering what this land might look like, what this land might feel like. Being a Manilenya all my life – with parents willing to travel everywhere in the country but this “dangerous, and troubled” Mindanao we usually see on the television, I admit there was this tingle of anxiety creeping up my back. Even if I have long doubted the integrity of the media, I still wasn’t sure of what to expect. I just muttered to myself, “chill, you got this girl whatever this is.”

Driving through the highways from Laguindingan Airport to Cagayan de Oro –  the provincial capital, I felt that immediate tap of relief I needed. The streets were clear, the people even waving at us while we were on the express ride. Children grouped together playing under the sun, and busy shop workers making a living. I did not see a “deranged and war-filled” Mindanao, but a land of its own people, of its own nature. In the Cagayan de Oro city proper were tall buildings, shopping malls on the rise, small stores and boutiques striving for a better local economy. Well, it is indeed a city, and a city not entirely different from what I have long known – the everyday traffic, the smoke, the smog, the on-the-go nature of the people walking down the streets. Ah, the streets. Urban anthropology, hello hello CDO.

Winonna Ysabel Fernando


“Asa ka ma’am?”, asked the taxi driver after closing the door beside me, helping me with my 20kg backpack. This is it. It’s timeafs_fn4 to practice my Bisaya, I thought to myself. “Didto ra ko sa… Dolores Pabayo street po. Kabalo ka asa na?” I told the driver, trying my best to work out my accent. The man looked at his overhead mirror, stared at me with lips pressed and eyebrows furrowed. “Taga Maynila po kayo ma’am?”, he said as we drove away from Agora terminal to where we will be staying for a month.

I just sat there the whole trip; wondering what gave me out as I listened to the lady on the radio and keeping in mind key Bisayan phrases or relevant news that might help me get into the “field work mode on”. She spoke in a high-pitched voice and not-to-mention fast that made me go through my bag to look for my Tagalog-English-Bisaya Dictionary. She laughed from time to time as she gave love advices to this girl whose best friend recently got her “tagipusuon” (heart) broken. Without a hint of sarcasm I told myself, this is perfect.

Aliette Alyssa Mesa


Ah, the streets, our second home. Since we were assigned to learn about the chemical life of young street vendors, sikad and motorela drivers, it is in the streets of Cagayan de Oro where we spent hours lurking around. We would just stand at that one corner where we would observe that way of life that is unfolding right before our eyes – ongoing construction, vehicles passing by the dormitory, that community of street vendors selling quick and on-the-go meals everybody loves, that smell of oil and dust, that rush at eight in the evening, screams of drunk people leaving the bars at three in the morning, and oh that continuously growing urbanity. It was overwhelming. It seemed like we were just standing there, not saying anything, absorbing and living in the streets.

Fast glimpses: on our field life

Randomly, we would just walk, still trying to know more about this street life. While trying to familiarize ourselves with the nearbyafs_fn4 streets and public transport, we would try to polish our Cebuano by conversing with street vendors starting with the most basic “how much is this?” with the phrases “Tagpila man ni?” Of course, being total strangers, some would raise their eyebrows and then completely ignore us. During our first few tries at trying to get someone to interview, we would often look at each other as if signaling a Help me, partner! We would stutter as we were just so wary of making mistakes. Being in a place with a language that is different from that which we speak made us fearful that we might say something offending. In the field, you cannot be insensitive and careless; that is why it is highly encouraged to learn the language of the people.

Our data gathering method was mostly personal interviews with the people in our subgroup. Of course there were many drivers, and l huge groups of street vendors. It would be easy. Ha!  It’s just about approaching people. Rejection was an everyday thing. A motorela driver drove fast past us even before we were finished introducing ourselves. We would often get stares and bad comments whenever we try to approach a probable respondent at the back of a sikad line. Yes, we were strangers. We were not part of their regular everyday lives. We tried to be all pleasant  and sunshine but still, rejection sent us to our dormitory rooms succumbing to the fact that maybe, we are not really meant to be anthropologists. With deadlines to meet and interviews to finish, the pressure just got  more difficult to handle.  ‘Something’ has to change, and to find that ‘something’ out, we decided to get up and try once more.

afs_fn4 We would go out more frequently –  from early morning market visits to initiating informal “hi, hello” conversations with vendors of chicken proven before the 9pm curfew, not at all to fill in our sheets with data (yet), but to grasp and understand what it is they are doing and how do they go about their everyday lives doing it.  We would go buy dinner from neighboring vendors across the street and share jokes with them. Rapport building was one of the toughest parts. While others were easy to approach, others would have their guards up and would not pay attention to what we are saying. However, by constantly showing them our interest and reflecting on their words and stories, we somehow began to understand them more. We were able to see that this whole study of humanity goes beyond what is written in the researchers’ interview guidelines and questionnaires.


So what now: assessing the self in the field

afs_fn4In the classroom, we were taught how to polish and work out our methods, and in the field it was one of the most crucial parts for there is no turning back; to go forward is the only way. Every single day, we would plan our agenda and set our goals for the day. We would assess our previous attempts and think of possible reasons why we were not successful. We would view ourselves and our previous methods from a respondent’s point of view. How did we approach him? How did we ask her about that sensitive topic? Are we being too forward? Being aware of our actions and through constant feedback from each other, we were able to strategize more effective ways of doing ethnography. IDs make us look intimidating. We should practice saying “Ayo” always, a greeting that meant you meant well. The chicken proven vendors across the dorm like to hear jokes. Through this, we learned how to stretch – doing everything with persistence, being as charming and not creepy as possible, and not giving up no matter what the situation is.


‘Cos it’s fun in the field!

After the day’s work, we would always do something nice for ourselves. May it be a pat on each other’s backs, fancy cake nights – we would always rejoice with whatever we have accomplished or tried to accomplish. Being in the field can not only be physically and mentally tiresome; but emotionally as well. There were times when things do not go as planned and being away from your loved ones does not help either. But by staying in one place with eighteen other people for six weeks we learned to watch out for each other and to always try to keep the atmosphere light and positive. Living together can be challenging and maintaining a good relationship with everyone is crucial. Batch lunches and night outs helped us cope with stress and catch up with deadlines — nobody wanted to miss a night out! We would always finish early, and then go out right after submission. “Tara, tapusin na natin para makalabas tayo,” would be our battle cry! And then our co-field schoolers would wonder why we finish early. Haha.

Of course, night outs with batchmates could only be so fun! Having some alone time was also a necessity. There would be times when you just want to put on your earphones and turn up the volume, melt with the music and escape for a while. Sometimes, you just have to let yourself feel overwhelmed with all the things going on around you. Paper deadlines, noisy batchmates, clattered dormitory, cancelled interviews, and daily brownouts are just some of the things that made us want to take a break and go to Limketkai. Keeping yourself together was primary. You have to be whole, you are a warrior in the field.


afs_fn4The ways in which we understand our fellow human and how we see the very humanity in us all can go beyond what has been said, heard, smelt, seen, and written. Being in the field and talking to people gave us the opportunity to hear stories and thus, in a way, experience the realities of our fellows. These stories are not only relevant to our field of inquiry but are also a reflection of how the world, as a living space for humans, has come to be. These are stories of migration, familial relationships, economic struggle, dreams, and hope.

It was a different experience for all of us. As other were assigned a different subgroup (e.g. pregnant women, mall workers, DJ’s, river rafters, policemen, etc.), each learned different things – both academically and socially, felt a variety of emotions, met new people, and went through different challenges that got us when we least expected it, all of this adding to what we call the Social Anthropology part of our field school. In doing this we hope to be able to better balance ourselves and the field; a place filled with diverse cultures and people who are simply living.

As for the popular idea of what anthropologists study people might ask, “Where are the indigenous peoples, and tribes?” Well this field school is one of the perfect examples that show how holistic and how the discipline is still growing – how we attempt to broaden our mindsets, our being students of humanity in exploring this boundless “field” outside the four corners of the classroom may it be the misty mountains or the darkest city alleys. We have come to internalize that this discipline can be wherever it needs to be. And knowing this, as majors, make us really proud to be “practicing” anthropologists.