Amat-Amat: Baby Steps and Continuing Work with FARMCs

Woah, I’ve been in the Philippines for 9 months today! (That was true when I started this post a few days ago at least.) That means, as a fellow volunteer pointed out, that my 27 month service is 1/3 over. It also follows that I have a year and a half left. Depending on the day, that seems either really near or really far away.

I’m happy to share, I’ve been fairly busy lately. Not everything is going smoothly, but things are certainly going. The main activity on my plate right now is a massive re-organization of both the Barangay and Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Councils (BFARMC and MFARMCs, respectively).

Over six months ago, I wrote a post about FARMCs. As a quick review, they’re basically organizations of fisherfolk for every level of government, from the smallest (barangay) to the largest (national). In my last post, I talked about how in a perfect world these organizations would create local fisheries management, created by fisherfolk, for fisherfolk (with a little help from local government, NGOs and national agencies).

My municipality and our FARMCs are not there yet. And we have a ways to go. But, now we’re working in the right direction. To get things started, we enlisted the help of the provincial BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) director. He agreed to join in a meeting with all of the barangay captains (local leaders) to and share our plans to organize the fisherfolk in their barangays.

Next, my filipino work partners and I visited all 10 barangay and held information sessions and elections. Basically, we’re now the proud parents of 10 newly-born fisherfolk organizations. Some of these infant organizations are better off than others with strong leadership, vocal members, and supportive barangay officials. The rest might take some extra TLC…

Now, with most of these new groups deciding to have monthly meetings, my schedule is filling up. The goal is for each group to be self sufficient where they are able to set their own agendas and goals, have their own funds and budget. However, right now, I’ll be happy if the meetings simply happen.

So far, the regular meetings are off to a bumpy start. Of the four originally scheduled for the first week of April, all but one was postponed. The one that went on as scheduled started almost 2 hours late and had 15 participants out of about 140 potential fishfolk members…

But as they say in Hiligaynon, amat-amat… or as I’d say, baby steps. It isn’t easy to get busy fisherfolk and fishworks to come together in an organized way once a month. On top of having hectic work schedules, many have second sources of incomes and families to take care of. Further, most organizational efforts have proved ineffective and teetered out in the past for all sorts of reasons. And, starting from scratch, we have very few resources (or pesos for snacks) to work with. This is likely to be an up hill battle.

Over the next 18 months, I’ll continue to attend meetings. I hope to help these organizations gain recognition and find support in their communities. This month, I also plan to have an orientation meeting for a the municipal level FARMC and get that up and running as well. I’ll be sure to post another update down the road.

Wish me luck!

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Let’s Talk Trash

We have a trash problem in my municipality. In fact, the Philippines has a trash problem in general, as 3rd highest global producer of plastic waste into the world’s oceans (behind China and Indonesia). Like most problems of this scale, there is not an easy solution or group of people to blame. It’s a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle.

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First, there’s a huge production of residual waste- waste that can be neither recycled nor composted- things like plastic shopping bags, candy wrappers, styrofoam containers, and single-use sachets. The single-use sachets are everywhere! Everything from laundry detergent, to shampoo, coffee, and MSG seasoning packets comes from these evil little guys. They are often preferred to buying in larger quantities because they’re cheap (trash is often the worst in the most impoverished areas). But, bahala na! Sachets and other residual waste wouldn’t be such a problem but…

Waste disposal is difficult. According RA 9003, the republic act of the Philippines dealing with solid waste management, it is the responsibility of the municipality to deal with their residual trash. However, dealing with anything biodegradable or recyclable falls on the shoulders of the barangays (the smallest unit of government).

In a perfect world, individual households would segregate their trash into recyclable, biodegradable and residual. Then, the barangay would collect the segregated waste- processing the biodegradable waste into fertilizer and selling the recyclables to junk shops. Next, the municipal (next level of government) would coordinate the pick up of the left over residuals and send it to a dumpsite.

There are a few problems with this. People don’t often segregate. (We’ll get back to this). But, even if they did, municipalities and especially barangays rarely have the necessary equipment to pick up trash, or, if they did, they wouldn’t be able to make it down the narrow paths to densely populated housing common in rural areas. Then, if somehow all of the trash could be collected, it’s rare they have the capacity to store and process it properly.

So, without a mechanism to pick up trash, people don’t bother to segregate. And, why should they? But, they have to do something. So, they bury, burn and dump. Trash dusts the streets like tumbleweed then makes its way to the streams and ocean. Now, with all the trash ever present, people adjust; they get used to it. So, what’s another piece of litter on top?

Burning is an issue of its own. Technically, again according to RA 9003, it’s illegal. Still, it’s rampant, over 80 percent of households in my town admitted to burning their garbage regularly. And again, it’s tough to blame many of them with so much trash and nowhere to put it. Also, are mosquitoes a problem? (Hint: Always.) Burn some plastic! They’ll be gone in a heartbeat!  However, the practice is extremely harmful, not only to the environment but to people’s health.

I have always had an environmental soft spot. Overuse of plastic has been a concern of mine since childhood. Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! and all that. But, I wasn’t an extremist. I didn’t stress about candy wrappers and double bagging groceries (even if I did have a set of reusable bags I perpetually forgot in my trunk).

Now, I see my privilege, one I shared most all Americans. Here in the Philippines, the waste produced doesn’t just disappear. But, it doesn’t actually disappear in the US either. A candy wrapper takes hundreds of years to break down no matter where its goodness was consumed.

Although the problem of trash that doesn’t go away is mostly accompanied by environmental, health, and economic problems- it also comes with awareness and creative solutions. Many people have built their livelihoods literally out of trash and many more will continue to do so as the country continues on this uphill battle.

So, what does all this have to do with my service? I’m a coastal resource management volunteer. I should be snorkeling in our coral reefs, hanging out with fisherman! Solid waste management isn’t even an issue covered by office.

Obviously, it still has everything to do with my service. Improper solid waste management, even far from the coast, has an effect on our shorelines and fisherfolk. However, since it isn’t part of the duties of the office of municipal agriculture, I’ve had to venture a bit further away from the comfort of my desk.

Recently, I’ve been working more with our recently-appointed MENRO (Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Officer). She has stepped into a huge job, tasked with a lot more than just dealing with solid waste management, and she’s asked my help.

In the past week, I’ve met with barangay captains (like small-town mayors), teachers, students, parents, and participants of government programs to talk trash. As you might expect, sometimes the conversations are bleak and difficult. (What is a busy mother supposed to do with diapers piling up and no one to collect them? How can you stop a neighbor whose garbage spills into your yard?) And there are some blame games. (It’s the students littering!  It’s the fault of the government for not collecting! The trash on the beach comes from boats and other municipalities…) Fortunately, there’s also a lot good from these talks. People want a solution. They show they’re willing to work, make sacrifices, and pass along knowledge to their communities.

And though change is slow, I’m already seeing progress!  Last month, I bought two extra buckets for my office so we could practice proper segregation. Since then, I’ve seen our carefully sorted trash, remixed again and again upon collection. But, not today! For the first day the trash outside of my municipal building was properly segregated!

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Next week, I’ll be heading back to the high school where I met with 30+ awesome high school students who are willing to work with me to re-form an environmental club on campus. Teachers have agreed to assist in the construction of an MRF (material recovery facility, used to larger scale trash segregation). And, we’re looking into applying for grants to assist in future projects.

Also, working within the local government unit I have the opportunity to work on this issue at multiple levels, even the legal level in helping to update the municipality’s solid waste management ordinance.

That’s enough for now. As always, feel free to comment with questions and thanks for reading!

Cara

Sloppy Six Week Catch-Up Post

Woops. It’s been awhile. Good news, I have a lot to talk about. Bad news, this post is likely to be a bit scattered.

Last I posted,  I had just returned to my site after what felt like a very long week a way. I felt like I was in a daze after barely having left the community for 3 months.

Now, I’m writing this after returning from a much longer 2 and half weeks away. And I’m relieved to say, the daze did not come back. Instead, I’m feeling roughly equal parts overwhelmed and excited, with a good dose of the general day-to-day confusion of being a foreigner in a place practically void of foreigners.

I’ll walk you through some highlights from my last 6 weeks. Although some fairly major things have been going on back home in the US during this period of time, I won’t be discussing them here. Most of my time my here, I get the luxury of forgetting about all of that anyways.

My very first weekend back at site, I left again. I visited Boracay, one of the world’s and the Philippines’ most famous beaches. I can say it absolutely lives up to it’s reputation. The views are pretty incredible.

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I took this picture from the second floor of an Indian restaurant where another volunteer and I could only afford to split a vegetarian entree.

There’s plenty to see and do in Boracay- including SCUBA, freediving, sailing, paddle boarding, and beach-side massage. But it comes at a price- and not just monetary. Boracay island is the ancestral home of the indigenous Ati people- many of which were displaced as the area was developed. Although Ati people were traditionally nomadic, now most live in settlements throughout Panay and Negros islands.

My visit to Boracay was made especially interesting because that weekend was the pre-kickoff of the Atiatihan (meaning: “to be like Atis”) Festival which would take place in Kalibo the following week. So, on top of the regular madness of the tourist town, there was also a seemingly endless procession of drums along the beach.

Although it is lumped in with two other catholic Santo Niño (infant Jesus) festivals in the Visayas region, the origins of the festival have animist roots, pre-spanish colonialism. The story goes that a group of Malay chieftains (Datus) came into the region occupied by the Ati people. The Datus traded with the Atis for land and formed a settlement. However, not long after, the Atis suffered a great famine and came to the Datus to ask for food. The Datus obliged and the Atis danced and rejoiced and the festival was born. There are a few other origin stories I’ve heard, with increasing Spanish and Catholic influence.

So, of course, the next weekend, I left site again to attend the main Atiatihan event in Kalibo. The celebration itself was a blast. Parade processions went through the city three times a day with full costumes, dancing and drums. And, unlike most parades in the US, they want you to join in. Onlookers weave between the dancers to who readily pose for pictures, even loaning pieces of their costumes for the photo.

Still, as an American, it’s strange and fairly alarming to see brightly-costumed people, covered in black paint (some with afro wigs to simulate the dark curly hair of the Atis), dancing with small pale-faced baby Jesus dolls. But, as one of a very small collection of non-Filipinos there, it seemed like the only thing to do was to just partake in the festivities and enjoy.

Again, Monday I was back at the office. And I actually stayed at site for a whole, and moderately busy, two weeks. I met with the local elementary school to coordinate their participation in the Peace Corps-sponsored Write On! creative writing competition. I accompanied a co-work to the fish market to survey the selling price of the various seafood. I visited the community’s “EcoPark” or fancy garden-landfill combo. I attended meetings with the provencial BFAR (bureau of fisheries and aquatic resources) and the local fisher and farmer folk organisation.

Also, I managed to attend a wedding, a christening, the kickoff ceremony for the islands first triathlon, 2 barangay fiestas, and watched the most ridiculous fireworks display I’ve ever seen up-close in celebration of the Chinese New Year. And, I moved out of my host family into an apartment on my own. NBD.

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This one plate of sashimi in Manila cost the same as a week’s worth of meals at site – and this wasn’t even in fancy Manila.

Next, I spent two  exhausting weeks of training in Cavite for our cross-sectoral IST (In-Service Training) plus a couple days extension in Manila. It was the first time all of us were back together since we parted ways after swearing-in at the Embassy in September. We talked about Peace Corps policies, met with our managers, and had a good number of training seminars. Then, Peace Corps flew (or bused/ferried) all of our counter parts out to meet us for a 3 day project development and grant writing workshop. In Manila, I was mostly in and out of the Peace Corps office for meetings, but got to explore some of the nicer (and not so nice) parts of Manila during my stay.

In just a couple days back, I’ve been settling into my new apartment. I hosted a training on creative writing for 3rd-6th graders, facilitated a writing contest with 6th graders, taught 1st and 2nd graders about overfishing, and have been going about my other everyday tasks and things– like cooking for myself and arguing with trike drivers over fairs.

Tomorrow, I’m meeting with the Barangay Captains to discuss solid waste management and then with the high school to try to help them re-establish their environmental club. Then, Thursday I’ll be back in Manila for a seminar on bivalves with some co-workers. It’s good to be busy.

I’m going to try to make posting a more regular, thought-out thing instead of the word vomit this turned into. We’ll see how that goes. Anyways, thanks for reading!

Temporary Tourist: The Posh Side of Peace Corps

I spend a lot of time at site trying to convince people I am not a tourist. Inde ako tourista! Gaistar ako diri! (I’m not a tourist! I live here!)

Welp. I finally got to be a tourist, and it was pretty great. Everybody, come tour the Philippines! Last week, I traveled to Panglao, Bohol by way of Cebu City, Cebu to meet to with 50 or so other Peace Corps Volunteers, then traveled back by way way of Moalboal, Cebu, with a smaller group. Warning: this post isn’t going to focus on the hard work and sacrifice involved in volunteerism. It was just a fun trip and demonstrates why sometimes the Peace Corps gets referred to as the Posh Corps.

There’s no way of saying this that doesn’t sound cheesy. But, everything at site seems different now. I’ve really gotten to experience life in the Philippines in a whole new way, and, through talking with other volunteers who shared my vacation with me, learned a lot about how incredibly diverse this country is.

I was a little worried about returning to work after a whole week vacation with other volunteers. Maybe I’d feel lonely or bored. Instead, I feel recharged, excited and ready to take on the coming year.

Now, for some pictures.

On New Year’s Eve, I woke up early in the morning with 14 or so dive-ready volunteers. Although many Coastal Resource Management Volunteers get opportunities to dive at site, I’ll likely have a few myself come dry season, it’s unlikely they could be anything like this. We did two dives as a group, and it was breathtaking. Both were drift dives along a reef wall. We saw all kinds of sea life characteristic of the diversity the coral triangle is known for. Highlight: a massive cuttlefish. I do not have a scuba-safe camera, but I’m very excited to see pictures from others.

Through the hostel where many of us stayed, we booked a day tour of Bohol. This included a trip out to the Chocolate hills, an incredible lunch cruise, a trip to a butterfly sanctuary, a tarsier sanctuary, and a quick stop to check out some pythons. I usually wouldn’t sign up for a tour like this, but it was absolutely worth it.

The tarsier sanctuary was small and home to just 6 adults. These little guys are very sensitive, nocturnal, and endangered. They are so sensitive that it can make you feel pretty bad stomping through their homes while they’re sleeping. But, we were told this was one of the more ethical ways to visit the cute little creatures.

Bohol was filled with lots of great signage.

On the third, I left Bohol by ferry and then took a bus out to Moalboal, Cebu. It was a tough trip and there were a few difficulties that lead to not be able to make it out to the Kawasan Falls (here’s a blog post from someone who did make it– it looks incredible). However, the snorkeling just off shore made it all worth it. Moalboal is known for the sardines that school extremely close to shore.

The pictures do it no justice. Also, I saw maybe 4 sea turtles, a sea snake, pipefish, clownfish, and some freedivers disappearing down a coral wall.

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Moalboal Sunset

After dark, we returned to back to water to see it lit up with luminescent plankton underneath a perfectly clear night sky.  Again, cheezing it up, but it doesn’t really get more magical.

The next morning, I headed out of Moalboal on my own to meet my sitemate (her site is one municipality over) at the airport. And the trip was over.

In my disorganization, I’ve left a lot out. I also went bowling and saw Rogue One in 3D-IMAX, did a firefly night kayak tour, ate amazing foods, and rang in the New Year with beach fireworks.  I feel absolutely grateful for this experience, and that I was able to spend it with so many incredible, ridiculous people. 

Now back to work. I have a few projects up in the air that I’d like to get rolling before I head out to Manila for my Initial Service Training at the end of the month. Tourist no more. For now. 

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.

 

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.