Dali lang, pero dugay pa (So close, but so far)


Exhausted. Nervous. Hopeful. Proud. Grateful. Stressed out. Emotionally drained. These words can’t begin to summarize how I felt after arriving back at site from the 5th and final Peace Corps conference of my service. In 3 short days, we reflected, processed, and discussed planning for the future. We were warned how difficult it’s likely going to be returning to the States after service and given a hodgepodge of advice on topics from handling mental breakdowns in grocery stores to appropriate networking strategies.

The Close of Service Conference means that service is almost over—but not quite. It’s a reminder that with the end of Peace Corps, comes the end of my catch-all health care, monthly allowance, and visa. It’s a gentle kick in the pants to tell volunteers that now is a good time to think about jobs or school or whatever’s next, but also stay focused and finish strong at site. Some volunteers will wrap up in less than two months and are in a greater hurry than others. Meanwhile, because I chose to extend my service, I’ve still got 5 more months to go.

However, I will not get the chance to see most of my batchmates before their services come to a close and they start their next chapters. It’s unlikely we’ll all be neatly collected in one place again. But, to be fair, that’s been true of every training. Of the 73 of us that started together in the country just about two years ago, only 35 remain. The rest, willingly or unwillingly, had to end their Peace Corps service early.

That’s a strange aspect of Peace Corps service—it’s hard to know when the final goodbyes to batchmates are actually happening. I hate double goodbyes (and single goodbyes in general), so I find this situation frustrating. When leaving the COS conference I opted for an abrupt, awkward group, “Bye everyone! Good Luck! See ya!” Maybe not the most tactful. It does nothing to communicate the extreme gratitude I have for the 72 Americans that signed up for this crazy experience with me, especially the 34 others still hanging in. It doesn’t indicate my willingness to stay in touch or to provide support however possible. It doesn’t touch on the sadness creeping in on having to close out this part of my life.


In addition to goodbyes, I also don’t like having to state the obvious. But, I’m learning some things are important enough to be said, no matter how obvious they seem. I should say clearly how extremely grateful I am to my batchmates. Even just knowing that others were dealing with the same struggles, work and personal, made the difficult parts of service better. We all leaned on each other when needed– exchanged ideas, vented, and entertained one another. We took ridiculous vacations together, visited each other’s sites and helped on projects. I’m sad to see the end of my service coming up, and I’m especially sad to be losing this network of like-minds, connected to each other through parallel experiences (and facebook chat) but spread across more than 10 different islands.


That’s all for now. Now, back to work. Maybe I’ll share an update how that’s all been going soon.



Why I’ve been MIA

It’s been awhile, a pretty long while, since I’ve posted any updates. But as they say, no news is good news, yeah? In this case, that’s accurate.

When I was first accepted to the Peace Corps, I went a little overboard preparing my blog. I was excited. It was a way for me to get mentally prepared for this little adventure without the labor of cleaning, packing, sorting, etc.

During my first three months of training, blogging was a fun way to reflect on all the new sounds and sites in the Philippines. Once I swore in as a volunteer and got to my permanent site, I didn’t have a whole lot of work up front and posting on the blog made me feel productive. (I made posts about walking to work and snacks.) Then, work picked up a little and I had some new things to talk about. (FARMCs and Oyster Farmers) From there, the posts slowed down and I eventually stopped updating all together.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have news to share. Since my last update (8 months ago), there were quite a few times where I thought of ideas for blog posts. I’ve gone on some pretty amazing vacations in this beautiful country.  My mom and best friend from home visited. I’ve lectured on proper solid waste management and overfishing.  I planned and implanted a two-day training on environmental education for high school teachers. I facilitated camp sessions and helped teach college students about HIV/AIDS.  I spent my Christmas back in the US. A whole new batch of Peace Corps volunteers arrived in country and are now 6 months at their sites. I accidentally adopted a kitten.

More than all that though, I’ve really settled in. Life has happened, and I stopped counting how long I’ve been in the country and how much time I have left. I have made friends and feel like a part of the community. I have regular tasks at work and hobbies outside of work. I don’t get stressed about having to communicate in the local language and transportation is rarely an issue. Wi-Fi and general internet activity has continued to be a problem, however.

As all this has been happening, sharing blog posts has fallen down on my list of priorities. But, in my weekly phone calls from my parents back home, my dad keeps reminding me to get back to it. (Hi Dad.) So this post is part explanation for my absence, part resolution to myself to keep updating, if not for my dad, than for myself and anyone else who randomly comes across this page. I’m still here, and I promise I’ll be back with something to share soon.

In the mean time, here’s just one picture from each month I’ve been away:

July MFARMC meeting in Balaring
July: MFARMC meeting in a coastal barangay
August: Lauren gets to experience the random selfie requests from strangers
September: My mom visits and spends time in my community with my counterpart
October: Some stylish SCUBA diving in Puerto Galera
November: Talented students from Capiz State University perform during the diversity-themed talent show
December: Learning about mangrove seedling bagging with the Zoological Society of London in Iloilo
January: Roxie- the cat I took home with me from the trike terminal in Roxas City
February: About to enjoy some mango halo-halo with friends in Boracay on Chinese New Year

Halong (take care)!



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.


  • 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:


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.

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!

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.


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!