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. 

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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.

Two Months at Site

One year ago today, I accepted my invitation to join the Peace Corps. Now, I’ve been in the Philippines for over four months and at my permanent site, here in Capiz, for just over two. These past months have gone by so quickly, and without a great deal of tangible results, that I sometimes catch myself worrying about not having enough time here to accomplish what I hope.

But, that’s the American in me; time is different in the Philippines and not having enough time isn’t really a concern. This can be frustrating as a volunteer– Filipinos are notoriously late, for everything. And not just a little late. Yesterday, I was told to arrive at the municipal building at 6am. Feeling savvy, I got there at 6:45. By 7:30, everyone else had trickled in.

If you’re reading from the US, you might imagine that the more punctual of the group would be annoyed or even angry waiting for the stragglers. But, that wasn’t the case. Instead, people were catching up, exchanging stories and genuinely enjoying their time.

In fact, that’s exactly what I was told during my training that I only partially understood at then– Filipinos enjoy time.

This makes me think back to a quote I read once, superimposed over some serine natural scene, incorrectly credited to Buddha: “The trouble is, you think you have time.” The quote stuck with me because I liked it, but didn’t totally sink in. I couldn’t really imagine an alternative to possessing time, until now.

So, in the spirit of enjoying time and not possessing it– I’d like to share a few highlights from my last few weeks.

I experienced my first major holiday I traveled with my work partner to her home town for All Saints Day. Part of this experience included attending an outdoor mass in a cemetery.

I went on a pilgrimage- Well, I visited a Pilgrimage Resort*. Without knowing what I was getting myself into. When I was invited, they left out the “pilgrimage” part. We walked up ~500 steps, stopping along the way at scenes representing the stations of the cross to arrive in Heaven.

Also, it was a farm. (*In the US, the word “resort” carries a different meaning than in the Philippines. Here, they can range from modest beach spots with a few cabanas for rent to very upscale vacation spots.)

I became a Maninay– or a wedding sponsor/godmother. During the wedding ceremony, I stood behind the bride and groom. It was pointed out that at 25, I’m very young for the role. And, although I’m not completely sure what it entails, it’s an honor none the less!

I’ve explored the coastal waters– My municipality has a beautiful 13 km of coastline and several small islands. We have corals, white sand beaches, tidal pools, mangroves and seagrass. Getting there is a bit of hike from my house, but this just got easier BECAUSE…

I got a bike! So far, I’ve only taken it out twice. And, heading out to the coastal barangays isn’t exactly a leisurely ride, up and down some hilly and not always smooth terrain. But, the freedom is exciting! I’m also realizing I have a lot to learn in the ways of bike maintenance.

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I rode a jeepney… alone-This might not seem like a big deal. But, the fact that it took 4 months to happen should say something. Part of the reason it took so long is cultural. My hosts here are extremely hospitable (like above and beyond) and always make sure I have a companion. But also, traveling around as a foreigner is not exactly easy.

Also, I have been fairly busy with “work”. Most of this involves just going places, shaking hands, and posing for pictures. I have met with all kinds of government leaders from the barangay officals to the governor. I’ve begun getting involved with local groups and attending events with co-workers. There are a lot of people to meet and get to know. Still in my first couple months at site, I have a lot to familiarize myself with. Slowly, I am seeing relationships develop and am finding different ways to get involved (even with my very limited language skills).

More to come!

My Daily Commute

Despite various warnings about my Peace Corps service, I imagined waking up a stone’s through from the beach. This the Philippines! And, I’m a Coastal Resource volunteer. I thought my walk to work would be a lazy stroll down a sandy path to a rustic office in a coconut grove. This might be the experience of some volunteers, but not mine.

I live in an “urban barangay”- the poblacion along with a few thousand others. Also in the poblacion are the main elementary and high schools, each with more than 1,500 students, the office of the mayor, the police department, the market, and the fire dept.

I tend to not take a whole lot of pictures during my walk. (I attract more than enough attention as is.) But, I tried to sneakily snap a few pictures to share here. Check it out.

Cats, dogs, and chickens– Many people here in the poblacion own animals. Here, dogs are less “man’s best friend” and more security systems. Cats are a great investment to reduce household pests (mice and lizards). A lot of households also raise poultry, primarily for food. Although roosters are kept tied up or in cages, cats, dogs, and chickens are often wondering the streets.

Bikes, trikes, and jeepneys- We have all forms of transportation passing through the poblacion, from massive trucks to bicycles. The preferred mode is motorbike- but some travel by car. There are three options in public transportation. Within the poblacion, for 6 pesos you can grab a pedicab to peddle you to you destination. For trips within the municipality, it’s best to travel by trike- a motorbike with a side carriage. Creative trike drivers/riders can easily carry more than 10 passengers- the more passengers, the lower the price!  Then, of course there are jeepney for travel both within and out of the municipality.

A lot of green– It may be an urban barangay, but there’s still plenty of vegetation. The streets are lined with fruit trees (papaya, coconut, banana, guava, starfruit, and mango to name a few), flowers, and sections of jungle-esque overgrowth.

Sari-saris– These little shops, called sari-saris or literally “variety”, are common throughout the Philippines, especially in more rural barangays. But, here in the poblaction, I still pass a several on my short walk to work. These shops can sell everything from chips and candy to brandy, laundry detergent, and cellphone credit.

Rice– Rice is a pretty big deal here in the Philippines, where most people eat rice (and a lot of it) three meals a day. In my municipality, rice is the second most important crops after coconuts. Although, of course there are no rice paddies in the poblaction, on a hot day during harvest season- tarps of unhulled rice grains line the streets to dry.

Also, there’s a large catholic Church across from the plaza with a statue honoring the national hero- Jose Rizal.

It might not be the beach, but my daily commute is rarely uneventful. After 5 weeks, people are getting used to me. I get less confused stares (still plenty) and more warm greetings. This place is slowly becoming my home away from home.

Fish Cage Stocking

I’ve never put too much thought into aquaculture. Most of my interest in fish and fisheries has been centered around the natural environment and wild caught fisheries. However, now I am working in the Municipal Agriculture Office of a town with a massive aquaculture industry. Fish, crabs, prawns, oysters, and mussels are all raised and harvested here through a variety of methods. I have a lot to learn.

One popular method of fish aquaculture is by floating fish cages. Yesterday, I got to go out and observe the stocking (or introduction of young fish) to one of these floating structures. BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) provided almost 2,000 young snapper to be stocked into ponds in the coastal bay by the Bantay Dagat (literally “sea guard” in Filipino). Here are some pictures of the process:

BFAR employees dropped off two coolers filled with young fish. These fish were then transported by boat to the fish cage, maybe 100 meters from shore.

After pulling up to the cages, held in place by 8 long bamboo beams, the Bantay Dagat team got to work, adding additional nets and letting the bags of fish acclimate to their new environment (just like when you get a new goldfish!).

Once everything was secure and net were weighted down using liter bottles filled with sand and water, it was time to release the fish!

 

Before heading back, mesh covers were added over the cages and one Bantay Dagat member hopped in to do some last minute repairs.

Now, everyday, twice a day, these fish will need to be fed. As they grow, they will be spread out into different cages and separated by size. It will be 6 months before they are ready for harvest. Pretty neat.