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!

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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!

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.