Dali lang, pero dugay pa (So close, but so far)

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Exhausted. Nervous. Hopeful. Proud. Grateful. Stressed out. Emotionally drained. These words can’t begin to summarize how I felt after arriving back at site from the 5th and final Peace Corps conference of my service. In 3 short days, we reflected, processed, and discussed planning for the future. We were warned how difficult it’s likely going to be returning to the States after service and given a hodgepodge of advice on topics from handling mental breakdowns in grocery stores to appropriate networking strategies.

The Close of Service Conference means that service is almost over—but not quite. It’s a reminder that with the end of Peace Corps, comes the end of my catch-all health care, monthly allowance, and visa. It’s a gentle kick in the pants to tell volunteers that now is a good time to think about jobs or school or whatever’s next, but also stay focused and finish strong at site. Some volunteers will wrap up in less than two months and are in a greater hurry than others. Meanwhile, because I chose to extend my service, I’ve still got 5 more months to go.

However, I will not get the chance to see most of my batchmates before their services come to a close and they start their next chapters. It’s unlikely we’ll all be neatly collected in one place again. But, to be fair, that’s been true of every training. Of the 73 of us that started together in the country just about two years ago, only 35 remain. The rest, willingly or unwillingly, had to end their Peace Corps service early.

That’s a strange aspect of Peace Corps service—it’s hard to know when the final goodbyes to batchmates are actually happening. I hate double goodbyes (and single goodbyes in general), so I find this situation frustrating. When leaving the COS conference I opted for an abrupt, awkward group, “Bye everyone! Good Luck! See ya!” Maybe not the most tactful. It does nothing to communicate the extreme gratitude I have for the 72 Americans that signed up for this crazy experience with me, especially the 34 others still hanging in. It doesn’t indicate my willingness to stay in touch or to provide support however possible. It doesn’t touch on the sadness creeping in on having to close out this part of my life.

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In addition to goodbyes, I also don’t like having to state the obvious. But, I’m learning some things are important enough to be said, no matter how obvious they seem. I should say clearly how extremely grateful I am to my batchmates. Even just knowing that others were dealing with the same struggles, work and personal, made the difficult parts of service better. We all leaned on each other when needed– exchanged ideas, vented, and entertained one another. We took ridiculous vacations together, visited each other’s sites and helped on projects. I’m sad to see the end of my service coming up, and I’m especially sad to be losing this network of like-minds, connected to each other through parallel experiences (and facebook chat) but spread across more than 10 different islands.

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That’s all for now. Now, back to work. Maybe I’ll share an update how that’s all been going soon.

Cara

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Mt. Linguhob Climb for Women

climb logo.jpgHappy Women’s Month! March is officially acknowledged in over 100 countries around the globe as a time to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, while also promoting the goals of unity, equality and advocacy. I was extremely lucky this year as I got the opportunity to participate in Women’s month by joining Iloilo Mountaineering Club‘s event, Climb for Women!

The Philippines is a great country to celebrate women as one of the world’s leading counties in gender equality.  According to the World Economic Forum the Philippines ranks No. 10 and falls 39 spots ahead of the United States! This is a finding I would have been surprised to hear early in my service. Compared the US, traditional gender roles are more clearly defined and socially enforced. (Example: I am not allowed to carry anything remotely heavy at work because I am female.) However, women often hold positions of power and influence, both in the work force and in the community. (More on gender roles and equality in the Philippines)

Like most of my favorite experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I fell into this event without really knowing what I was getting into and with less preparation than it deserved. Fortunately, I was surrounded by some incredible and capable people who more than made up for my cluelessness.

Friday Night: 

I arrived in Iloilo City after a busy day of work and a few delays later than I was hoping. After a 2.5 hr bus, 30 minute jeepney, and 30 minute walk, I met up with two friends who would be joining the climb at a Jollibee for a late dinner. We were intending to pick up some food for the next two days at a supermarket, but being after 9pm, we had to made due with what we could find at a 24hr convenience shop: instant noodles, instant coffee, canned tuna, and bread. Next, we made our way to Iloilo Mountaineering Club’s headquarters/indoor climbing wall, Adventure Central, where we were able to get a few hours of sleep.

Saturday: 

At 4:45am, we were woken up to the skreaching groans of Adventure Central’s garage door as participants and organizers began arriving for the event. As more people arrived decked out in professional hiking gear, I began to realize I maybe could have prepared better than stuffing a change of clothes into my middle school LL Bean bookbag with a travel pillow and sleeping bag (sign #1 I had underestimated the intensity of the hike).

 

With a promptness I have become completely unaccustomed to (sign #2 I had underestimated the intensity of the hike), all 135 participants and organizers were there and ready to go on schedule and we left for the municipality of Tubungan by 6am split up into our hiking teams of 10-15.

 

Once in Tubungan, we headed to Igtuble Barangay Hall to sign in for the hike, just in case we go missing (sign #3 I had underestimated the intensity of the hike). From there, we all regathered at the elementary school by the start of the hike. Official starting time- 9:04am.

20180317_092659.jpgPassing by a few houses and corn fields, we started a 30 minute descent to two narrow bamboo bridges. At this point, I was still somehow under the impression that we were embarking on a two-hour hike and would be comfortably setting up our tents at the campsite by lunch. So, spending 30 minutes going down and not up seemed odd (sign #4 I had underestimated the intensity of the hike).

After the bridges, we started steadily working our way up through winding mountain paths, over fallen trees, and by livestock and fields of crops that seemed to appear from nowhere. Around 10:30 someone told me we were maybe a third of the way there (sign #5 I had underestimated the intensity of the hike). I thought they were joking.

At 11, we stopped for a quick lunch  and, in chatting with one of the organizers, found out that we were aiming to get to the camp sometime before 3pm. Fortunately, there was plenty of spring water to fill my water bottle along the way.

 

Shortly after lunch, we were out of the shade and working our way through mountain fields on our way to the ridge. The ridge itself went on a good ways with rolling mountain views on both sides.

By 2pm, we arrived at the camp and could relax and nap in the shade before setting up our tent. The view from the base camp was spectacular, rolling green mountain hills to the misty sea in the distance. Everyone made sure to get plenty of pictures.

 

Once the sun began to slip behind the ridge, my two friends and I realized another way we were under prepared- we thought dinner was included and had nothing but a few cans of tuna. Of course, in a camp of 100+ Filipinos, there was plenty of food to go around and we were quickly gifted more than enough rice and barbecue.

At 7PM, the official program began. The hikers gathered in a circle, decked out in thick wool socks, knit hats, and wind breakers (except for me– barefoot with just a thin hoodie- brr). Like most all Filipino programs, we started with a prayer. However, this prayer was a bit different than what I’ve gotten used to. In succession, we turned to each of the cardinal directions and said a prayer to the god of the North, East, South, and West, asking to embody their various characteristics. The rest of the program included lessons on inclusivity in feminism, a short history on Women’s Month, poetry in Tagalog, Ilonggo, and English, and, of course, raffles! (No prize for me.)

 

By 9PM, I was exhausted after an unexpected 5 hour hike after just 4 hours of sleep the previous night. However, maybe people seemed to have plenty of energy left, as evident from the music and laughter that went on for a few more hours. Still, despite the noise and cold (for the tropics) temperatures, I was quickly out. That is, until the wind picked up and tried to rip our tent from the mountain. Again, fellow campers came by and helped my friend secure our near collapsed shelter well enough to make it through the night. Shamefully, all I offered my tentmates was the advice: “If the tent blows away, at least we’re inside it.” Big help.

Sunday:

I’m not much of a morning person under any circumstance, but I had to be practically dragged out the tent before 6AM to witness the sunrise. It was nice, but retreating to the relative warmth of the tent was better.

 

Slowly and groggily, I made my way back out, welcomed by the sunshine and offering of brewed coffee from new friends. At 6:30, after a little bit of of stretching, I was asked if I would join on the morning hike to the summit. I figured, why not? I’d come this far and I was told it would only take about 45 minutes. (He lied.) So, at 6:45, I was off again up a steep, narrow path more often used by wild horses and carabao than casual hikers.

 

About an hour up the mountain, the camp site was just a few colorful specks in the in distance and the trail was practically vibrating with the hissing sounds of cicadas. The final stretch to the peak had me climbing on all fours with my knees up to my chest through thick grass. But once at the top, I could see the island of Guimaras to the South, as well as the mountains of Antique in he neighboring province to the West. The wind felt as strong at the top as it did blustering against our tent the previous night.

 

I sat down to take in the view (and hide from the wind) when I realized some sort of a ceremony was beginning. I thought it was maybe a group prayer. It wasn’t. It was an initiation to a university chapter of the mountaineering club. Becoming an member of the Iloilo Mountaineering Club, isn’t an easy process. It can take people several years and many treks to prove themselves to the club leaders. I was told it’s more about attitude than skill. Still, I think a bit of skill is required. So this was an exciting moment.

 

Looking down over the fields where we started, it was clear that getting to the summit was the easy part. Now we had to get back down. I did this 60% sliding on the seat of my pants, praying the seams held. Sliding still counts as hiking, yeah?

 

At 9:45AM, 3 hours (not 45 minutes) later, I was back at the camp site and back with my team who was awaiting my return from the top. They graciously saved me a plate of food and gave me a whole 15 minutes to eat it before we headed back to the elementary school where we started.

 

We followed a similar path down as we took up- over the ridge, around some farm land, down through some shaded trails, then back over the bamboo bridges and up again. This time it took only 3 and half hours with only quick stops for freshly-picked star apples, coconuts, and spring water. (And candy– this is the Philippines. There’s always candy.)

Before 2PM, we made it back to the covered gym where organizers were waiting with cold water and hot lunch. Covered in dirt and sweat from 7 hours of hiking, I was even shown into someone’s home where I could wash up and change into fresh clothes. Not everyone was offered this privilege. I’m not sure if it was because of my connections, being an American, or that I was somehow much dirtier than other hikers.  (Most likely the latter.) I’m also not sure who’s house I went into.

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Once we all signed out of the logbook (we don’t want them having to send up a search party) and squared up fees with our local guides, that was it, and we were on our way back to Iloilo City.

Two days later, my legs are still aching and my sunburn hasn’t completely faded. But, I’m extremely grateful for this experience. Not only did I climb a mountain, I got to do it with an awesome group of talented and kind women (and supports of women). Special thanks to the organizers from the Iloilo Mountaineering Club for putting together such a great weekend of hiking, camping, laughing, and learning! (It wasn’t their fault I didn’t more carefully read the event itinerary or attend the pre-meeting.)

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Why I’ve been MIA

It’s been awhile, a pretty long while, since I’ve posted any updates. But as they say, no news is good news, yeah? In this case, that’s accurate.

When I was first accepted to the Peace Corps, I went a little overboard preparing my blog. I was excited. It was a way for me to get mentally prepared for this little adventure without the labor of cleaning, packing, sorting, etc.

During my first three months of training, blogging was a fun way to reflect on all the new sounds and sites in the Philippines. Once I swore in as a volunteer and got to my permanent site, I didn’t have a whole lot of work up front and posting on the blog made me feel productive. (I made posts about walking to work and snacks.) Then, work picked up a little and I had some new things to talk about. (FARMCs and Oyster Farmers) From there, the posts slowed down and I eventually stopped updating all together.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have news to share. Since my last update (8 months ago), there were quite a few times where I thought of ideas for blog posts. I’ve gone on some pretty amazing vacations in this beautiful country.  My mom and best friend from home visited. I’ve lectured on proper solid waste management and overfishing.  I planned and implanted a two-day training on environmental education for high school teachers. I facilitated camp sessions and helped teach college students about HIV/AIDS.  I spent my Christmas back in the US. A whole new batch of Peace Corps volunteers arrived in country and are now 6 months at their sites. I accidentally adopted a kitten.

More than all that though, I’ve really settled in. Life has happened, and I stopped counting how long I’ve been in the country and how much time I have left. I have made friends and feel like a part of the community. I have regular tasks at work and hobbies outside of work. I don’t get stressed about having to communicate in the local language and transportation is rarely an issue. Wi-Fi and general internet activity has continued to be a problem, however.

As all this has been happening, sharing blog posts has fallen down on my list of priorities. But, in my weekly phone calls from my parents back home, my dad keeps reminding me to get back to it. (Hi Dad.) So this post is part explanation for my absence, part resolution to myself to keep updating, if not for my dad, than for myself and anyone else who randomly comes across this page. I’m still here, and I promise I’ll be back with something to share soon.

In the mean time, here’s just one picture from each month I’ve been away:

July MFARMC meeting in Balaring
July: MFARMC meeting in a coastal barangay
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August: Lauren gets to experience the random selfie requests from strangers
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September: My mom visits and spends time in my community with my counterpart
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October: Some stylish SCUBA diving in Puerto Galera
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November: Talented students from Capiz State University perform during the diversity-themed talent show
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December: Learning about mangrove seedling bagging with the Zoological Society of London in Iloilo
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January: Roxie- the cat I took home with me from the trike terminal in Roxas City
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February: About to enjoy some mango halo-halo with friends in Boracay on Chinese New Year

Halong (take care)!

Cara

 

Some Lessons Learned From 1 Year in the Philippines

I left the USA for the Peace Corps 1 year ago today! Yesterday, my site mate and I splurged on wine and cheese in celebration. Today, I’m attempting to reflect a bit on some of things I’ve learned since arriving. In no particular order, here goes:

  • Roosters do not just crow at sunrise- Actually, they crow at anytime, for any reason… including at sunrise. Science agrees.

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  • Specialized kitchen tools like can openers and bottle openers are extravagant and unnecessary– No can opener? A knife will work, but I’ve learned  you can make do with a spoon and some willpower. Got a bottle needs opening? Use another bottle. Only have one bottle? Get back out the spoon or find any small, strong object with a good corner.
    • So are refrigerators– Turns out a lot of things don’t need refrigeration if they were never cold to begin with. I’ve found most produce and eggs are fine in my 90 °F apartment for about a week.
    • Also washing machines and driers– Hand washing isn’t so bad as long as I don’t get behind on my laundry. Also, I’m using a lot less water/energy and my cloths seem to be getting just as clean.
    • And toilet paper– It just really doesn’t seem all that sanitary any more.
  • Small fish often are just as tasty as big fish, just require more effort– I’ve found people are usually pretty impressed when I willingly eat small fish like sardines (manamsi), anchovies (dilis) and pony fish (sapsap). Turns out, foreigners have a bit of a reputation for refusing to pick or chomp through the bones. bulinao.jpg
  • Ants are very impressive, and the worst– I can deal with the spiders, flies, mosquitoes, roaches (could they always fly?), mini beetles that move into my monggo beans, geckos, and most of my other uninvited roommates… but THE ANTS. They are relentless and organized. If there’s food, they’ll find it. If it’s in an air-tight bag, they’ll get in. If I somehow secure everything I can think of, they’ll start a party over a crumb in a pocket or a dead spider in the corner. They’ve formed colonies in my back pack, my pencil case, and on my shelf. Slowly, I’m accepting that they’re just a part of my life now.
  • There’s more than just one kind of banana– At any given day, there are at least 3 varieties available at our local market, often more. Señorita are small and sweet. Española are red. Saba are starchy and great boiled or fried. Then there’s lakatan, latundan, and a few others. I’ve also had 3 different types of mangoes. market2
  • Early morning might actually be the best time of day– I’m still not a morning person. But, on days I can get myself our of bed early, I mostly don’t regret it. The streets are busy and people are out and about before the work day begins and the heat sets in.
  • Waiting doesn’t have to be a miserable experience– Americans are notoriously impatient. But, if you have a room of people waiting for something to start in the Philippines, no one looks stressed. However, organized lines are a rarity.
  • Conforming isn’t always a bad thing– Peace Corps prefers to use the term ‘integration’, but really it’s the same thing. I’ve conformed to local norms in all kinds of little ways, from how I respond to questions with my eyebrows, wear jeans in 90°F, and eat with a spoon and fork (or just my hands).
  • Coconuts are not brown and hairy on the tree- ever– I knew that coconuts were green sometimes but I did not realize pictures like this one were just lies:coconut-1293036_960_720
  • You don’t need to be a good singer to enjoy videoke– However, I am glad that my videoke-loving neighbors happen to be quite talented.
  • Cheese-flavored ice cream is pretty good and beans and corn are legitimate ice cream toppings– Cheese + Ube is even better, and jackfruit and leche flan are the ultimate toppings for a good halo-halo.
  • Just enjoy!– Probably the No. 1 piece of advice I receive from Filipinos. Whether I’m stressed about work, preparing for travel, or being brought around to weddings, christenings, and even funerals… so long as I relax and enjoy, at least something good will come of things.

Here’s to a full year of service behind me! I’m looking forward to my next big milestone: 1 year at my permanent site on September 15!

The Market: It’s not just fish but that’s mostly what I’m going to talk about

When I first arrived in my municipality, the market terrified me. It’s big, loud, confusing, and all around assaulting to all of your senses. The perimeter is lined with small groceries, carinderias, bakeries, and other assorted shops. The inside is dimly lit, cram-packed with tables and booths that change locations at irregular intervals. However, after being here for 9 months, I’ve come around. It’s basically like Wal-Mart, but even crazier.

The first section is mostly household goods, selling everything from pots and hangers, to rat poison, clothing, machetes, and Korean DVDs. Moving back, the stalls transition to produce, to snacks, to grains, and finally to meat and fish. There are alcoves and carts for cell phone repair, coconut shredding, and haircuts. The narrow walkways overflow with smaller sellers setting up there goods on tarps or banana leaves.

And all of the above, is just a regular day, not an official market day. On market days (Tuesday and Friday), no floor space is left unclaimed by sellers and the market expands itself outside of its normal bounds and fills the basketball court with more goods and ukay-ukay.

Ukay-ukay (literally meaning dig-dig as clothes and accessories are often displayed in piles) is the Filipino version of a flea market, where most of the clothes come from other countries.

But, most my market time is spent at the back, in the:fish section.jpg

Twice a week, I accompany my coworker as she conducts the price monitoring interviews with the roughly 50-80 fish sellers. We do this in order to keep track of both what species are available and how the price fluctuates over time. (She does most of the work. I mostly point, ask questions, and sample snacks.) Fish sold come not only from our municipality, but all over the island. Many sellers commute to larger ports in order to get access to more rare or prized deep sea fish. Most of he fluctuations have to do with the weather (stormy days means less fishers go out), but there appear to be all kinds of factors. No two market days are the same.

One fish is always there, Bangrus, or milkfish. These fish are grown in the ponds that dominate the landscape of Capiz.

There are typically a variety of shells– oysters, mussels, snails, scallops and clams:

Some cephalopods:

Tiny shrimp, fermented and sold as a paste to giant prawns and mantis shrimp:

Eels, sharks, and rays:

Crabs:

And all kids of other fish, small, big, weird and everything in between!

It might seem that with a fish market like this, productive and diverse, things are going pretty well for the fisherfolk and the fisheries of Capiz. But, I should add, that while many fisherfolk agree that although enforcement, management, and community involvement and organization are improving, overall fishing is getting harder. Fishers observe less fish today than there were 10 years ago. The fish they catch are smaller. And, several high valued species have seemingly disappeared from the local fishing grounds. 

Why is happening? Most fishers would first tell you the reason we are seeing declining fish stocks is because of overfishing and destructive fishing. Fortunately, these are two areas we can actively work to combat. Through education and strict enforcement, the Philippines has already seen great reductions in destructive fishing methods such as dynamite fishing. But, it’s still an ongoing battle.

However, we can not ignore that climate change has had a particularly strong effect on the countries like the Philippines. It is hard to find a fisherfolk, no matter their political leanings or level of education, that does not believe climate change is a major problem for their livelihood. In Capiz, storms have intensified and seasonal patterns have been affected. Coral bleaching is rampant and sea grass areas have shrunken down to patches, leading to less suitable fish habitat. These issues will only intensify in the future and makes it all the more important that fisherfolk are supported and have access to the tools they need.

Anyway, I hope you liked the pictures of the market.

Pamahaw Anay!

I haven’t posted in a long time, but that’s only because I’ve been very busy ‘preparing’ for this post. And when I say preparing, I mean enjoying tasty Filipino pamahaw (snacks).

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about how Food is Love in the Philippines. Also, it’s unlikely to be the last time. Because it’s a big deal.

 

In the US, as snack is usually something simple- a bag of chips, a piece of fruit, etc. In the Philippines a snack, though it can be simple, encompasses a much more broad range. The typical rule of thumb is, if it’s not served with a side of rice, it’s a snack.

 

Most days in my office things slow down around 10am as vendors arrive in the municipal hall with a selection of native sweet treats. Some are baked, like puto, a sweet rice flour muffin, often with a small slice of cheese baked into the center. Many, like Ibos, make use of glutenous (sticky) rice and some combination of coconut and brown sugar. Others, have a similar flavor, but use cassava (extra sticky) instead of rice.

Last weekend, at a Filipino heritage event, I even got to try making some native snacks myself! Below you can see part of the process of making Nilopak nga Saging. Cooked banana, young coconut, and brown sugar are added to the giant wooden mortar and pestle and mashed into a paste, then formed into balls. Nilopak nga Cassava and Baibai are made in a similar way, swapping out the banana for cassava or rice flour.

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Of course, fruit is a popular snack item as well, changing with the seasons. Right now, it’s mango time, with both the extra sweet Carabao mango, and the tougher more citrus-y Indian variety. Both are eaten ripe, or unripe with either salt of fermented shrimp paste (it’s grown on me). But, in 9 months I’ve gotten to try all kinds of fruits, many I’ve never heard of like rambutan, marang, lanzones, chico, and pamelo.

The second snack rush of the day starts around 3pm. A dependable go-to is some pancit noodles with bread. At first, I questioned the noodle sandwich, but I’ve been converted. Pizza and/or sweet spaghetti works too.

On an especially hot day, or one without a functioning AC, cold treats are the way to go. For 15 pesos (30 cents), you can get a shake in your choice of mango, coconut, or avocado. Some days, someone may spring for a 3-in-1 carton of ice cream. But, there’s no Neapolitan here. It’s chocolate, ube, and either cheese, mango, or pandan. Finally there is the Filipino king of frozen desserts, Halo-Halo (mean mix-mix), shaved ice with condensed milk, ice cream, sweet beans, fruit, leche flan, coconut jelly, and often more.

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A relatively simple halo-halo

Of course there are plenty more snacks worth discussing (the famous balut, malunggay pan de sal, fish crackers, deep-friend quail eggs, boiled/roasted peanuts, corn-on-the-cob, etc) but I’d like to end this post with my #1: BananaQ. It’s maybe the best food ever made. Best made with saba (a firm, but still sweet variety of banana), it’s coated in brown sugar, fried, and served warm on the stick. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to photograph well.

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I have eaten a shocking number of these in a single single sitting ❤

 

 

 

Hiligaynon WOD: Tandotando

Seven months at site, I’m still working steadily to learn the local language. I’m doing well. I can now communicate at maybe the level of a talkative 4-year-old. Learning Hiligaynon can be deceptively difficult because similar to Tagalog there are a lot of Spanish sounding words and phrases. However, the roots of the language are very different from English’s Latin and Germanic bases. There are a lot of words that just don’t translate well into english and vice-versa. But, this morning I stumbled across a fun one: tandotando. 

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n. a) a larvae which keeps bobbing its head when pressed out of its cocoon b) a yes-person; toady; sycophant

So, don’t be a tandotando!