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!

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.

 

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.

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.