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 ❤

 

 

 

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!

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

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.

 

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.