My Pinoy Christmas

Happy Holidays from the Philippines! About 95% of the Philippine population is Christian (86% is Roman Catholic). So, add that to Filipinos’ love of celebrations, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Christmas, like in the US, is a big deal. I can’t say which is better, but I’ll try to compare the two celebrations based on my experiences so far.

The Christmas Season

The Philippines definitely has the US beat in terms of length of celebration. Many Filipinos I have talked to like to brag that they have the longest Christmas celebration in the world. The celebration technically spans all of the ‘Ber’ months (SeptemBER, OctoBER, NovemBER, DecemBER… get it?). That means for almost four months I have been hearing Christmas songs and seeing decorations line the streets.

Christmas Lights and Decorations

Like at home, most people have a Christmas tree inside their homes. However, they are most often smaller and made of plastic. Although, house for house,the Philippines cannot compete with the kinds of displays seen in some US neighborhoods, it’s clear that both countries love their Christmas lights. Lit Christmas displays line the main road of my municipality and light up windows. I visited a neighboring municipality for their particularly impressive church front scene with my host family.

The Food

Food is an important part of any celebration, maybe the most important. Of course, the Christmas spread looks a little different from back home. No Christmas hams, but Filipinos have entire Christmas lechon, pigs. There were four at my Christmas office party!  My Christmas Eve feasting included plenty of Filipino favorites like sweet spaghetti, pancit noodles,  and biko (a sweet coconut sticky rice). On Christmas Day, no turkey and stuffing, but I did have plenty of stuffed bangus, milkfish, and lemongrass-stuffed catfish. Trade your potatoes for a couple mountains of the go-to starch of the Philippines, rice. No green been casserole, but you might find fresh and in-season eggplant, okra, and squash.

Parties

Everyone loves a good Christmas party. A Filipino Christmas party is not complete without dancing, singing (especially by way of videoke), raffles, and parlor games. Coming from a smaller LGU (local government unit), compared to some of my fellow volunteers, my office party was fairly tame, but we had all the necessary elements. Also, it was Hawaiian themed. And my group won best dressed. The prize was gummy worms.

Resorts 

Usually, back in the US, my holiday is spent at my parent’s house: wrapping presents, decorating, preparing for guests. Also, definitely, I’m inside, preferably in front of a warm fire. Given that Christmas is typically 80°F and sunny (as long as there’s no typhoon), going to a resort is a great way to celebrate with family.

On Christmas Eve, I went to two resorts. I woke up at 5:30AM to leave the house at 6. Then, 18 in total, we loaded up into a pickup truck and headed two hours to Waterworld Iloilo, a brand new water park. After lunch, we visited Damires Hills and took a walk around into the forest and over a hanging bridge.

Presents

From my experience, gift giving culture is bigger (and more stressful) in the US. I got some small gifts for my host family and my office and received some small things in return. But, it wasn’t nearly as big of an ordeal. Money is exchanged much more readily, however. I respect the practicality.

Of course, I should add, just like in the US, there is no such things as a typical celebration. Some customs here that I did not experience are midnight mass and/or midnight merienda (snacks, although people take snacking very seriously in the Philippines). I actually did not even attend church service on Christmas day, as my family was busy in preparing food to sell. Still, I got to take a break from the normal day to day and spend time with my host family and co-workers, eat good food, and celebrate.

(And the celebrations are continuing into the new year! I leave for a vacation today where I will meet up with many other Peace Corps Volunteers for the first time since we parted ways in September!)

That’s all for now! Thanks for reading.

 

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Three Months Site: Meeting with Oyster Farmers and Identifying Projects

img_20150101_092535Three months gone. I’ve managed to stay fairly busy. I’ve tagged along to all kinds of events and meetings. I’ve explored my municipality and seen coconut groves, rice fields, mangroves, sea grasses and corals. I’ve been to a wake, a baptism, and a wedding. I’ve celebrated holidays and birthdays. I even judged a high school mascot competition on “World Toilet Day”. They were all winners, some more than others.

Now, it’s time to get a little bit more serious. At the beginning of February, I’ll be back in Manila for initial service training (IST). This is significant because at end of IST we also are trained in grant writing. Meaning, we can start applying for project funding. Right now, I’m a well-intentioned foreigner with a cursory knowledge of my community, the language, and its coastal resource management needs, but no money.

Looking ahead, I’m trying to identify potential projects. One group I’m particularly excited about getting to work with are the manug talaba, or oyster farmers. Oysters are not all the popular in the Philippines. They are more of a cheap protein source than a delicacy, but the market is growing, especially as more tourism moves into the region.

Almost all the oysters harvest in my municipality are farmed, meaning they are not harvested directly from reefs. Oyster farmers put out spat (baby oyster) collectors and wait for oysters to settle and grow to market size. This is mostly done using a process called the “stake-method”.

The stake-method has its benefits. It’s low cost upfront and quite effective. However, space and the growing problem of sedimentation are issues. In the main rivers of my municipality, various stationary fishing gear are taking over. This has obvious impacts on both water flow and navigation. Sedimentation is an greater problem, exacerbated by a host of factors. One direct effect on oyster farmers is that their stakes are getting buried, killing off oysters or minimizing the space they have to grow.

In the past few years, several groups have come into the area to aid oyster farmers in adapting new methods, mainly the hanging and raft-methods. Both use clusters of old oyster shell to collect spat instead of bamboo. When it’s time for harvest, instead of removing a stake, a cluster is removed. Also, both are effect ways to both minimize the space used and keep the growing oysters off the bottom and away from sediments.

Of course there are trade-offs. These methods, particularly the raft, are more expensive and labor-intensive, both up-front and in terms of maintenance. Also, although harvesting is easier, so is theft. Some oyster farmers are interested in making the switch regardless because of the potential increase in profits. But, others are happy with the old way.

I am no expert on oysters or aquaculture. So, if I want to help these people, I have a lot to learn first. In speaking with several groups of oyster farmers, the main problems brought up were: lack of capital, lack of market control, and lack of support in cases of gear loss or redtide (paralytic shellfish poisoning).  Even with no funds (yet), one way I can help is to assist in the formation of people’s organizations.

Peoples organizations (POs) are groups recognized by the local government unit, usually operating on the barangay (smallest unit of government) level. A good PO group would serve both the needs of the people and would create a channel communication between the people and the government. To become an official PO, a group must hold and election, write up and a constitution, and submit it for local government approval.

Ideally, once a group is formed, it will meet regularly discuss problems and work together to come up with solutions. Of course, this is the challenging part. PO groups often die out quietly as members simply stop showing up to meetings. A successful group needs both strong leadership and clear benefits to its membership, making these early steps important.

Some potential projects I hope to work on with oyster farmers include: information sessions on the relevant laws, developing marketing and harvest strategies, formation of savings groups, and development of secondary livelihood activities.  Again, these are areas that I am only just learning about myself. If anyone reading has any suggestions or leads to follow, please let me know!

Peace Corps in the Social Media Age

One of the most characteristic features of Filipino culture is the extreme value placed on relationships and social interactions. This is apparent in the home, the work place, and just walking down the street. A “typical Filipino family” is often characterized by at least 3 generations living together. At work, no day is complete without a morning and afternoon pamahaw (snack) break to catch up on the office/community chika (gossip). Anywhere I walk in my town, I’m greeted warmly, and often by name. Thus, it is no surprise that many Filipinos love the connections made possible by social media.

Back home in the US, a substantial 62% of adults have a social media profile. In the Philippines, the percentage is a bit lower, just below 50%. However, we should keep in mind that the Philippines is a developing country, where 26% of the population lives below the poverty level and 13% of households do not have access to electricity. Still, even with a lower proportion of users, Filipinos rank #2 in terms of hours of internet usage globally, spending 2.2 hours more on average on the internet than Americans (8.4 and 6.2 hours, respectively). Of those 8 hrs, 47% is dedicated to social media sites.

When I was back home, I would shamefully admit to spending too much time on Facebook. Leading up to my Peace Corps service though, I wasn’t worried about it, assuming I would be become all but cutoff from the rest of the world as a volunteer. Of course, I was wrong. As it is, using Facebook is more convenient, even necessary, then ever and for many Filipinos is the primary means of communication. Here, if you have a smart phone, Facebook is actually free. So, even disconnected from WiFi, if I have a 3G signal, I can access the social media site in “free mode” (without pictures/videos) and the messenger service without consuming any data.

I live and work in an urban barangay where 3G access is ubiquitous. This is not the experience of all volunteers in the Philippines, but it seems to apply to most of us. Of course there are many benefits my set up. It’s fairly easy to stay in touch with people at home (except for difficulties due to the 13hr time difference) and other volunteers. So, even being one of 3 Americans (that I know of) in my municipality, I never feel isolated. It’s even useful in making new connections with people I meet here at site. Still, I can help feeling a bit disappointed at times. It’s easy to romanticize joining the Peace Corps and unplugging from the modern world. Turns out, I’m now as plugged in than ever. So it goes.