Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Tick Tock, Tick Tock

Well it has finally hit me.  I REALLY am almost done.  The clock is really running out now.  Only eight weeks to go until the big COS--- Close of Service.  It’s time.  Not in a bad way; not like I’m sick of it and want to get out.  Not that at all.  But I’m just in a good place, at peace with everything and ready to move on.  Ready to get to my three months of traveling, and SUPER ready to be home!!!

Today is the Nutrition Month celebration—naturally someone brought in a dessert made of heavy cream.  Hahaha  J  And three of the teachers are sitting behind the school chewing betelnut (similar to chewing tobacco, but it’s a nut which turns your teeth and mouth red--- Google “Ifugao men betelnut” and I’m sure you’ll see some pictures).  Not much research has been done on the long-term effects of chewing betelnut (pronounced beetle-nut, also known as moma, pronounced moh-muh), but some research has shown that it’s a carcinogen.   However, it’s a cultural tradition here in Ifugao, and almost all men chew it.  Women do as well, but not as many.  It makes my top 10 list of most disgusting things I’ve seen in my life.  I don’t like to talk bad about my province, which I love dearly, but I have to say this is something I am SO not proud of.  It’s so gross.  Like chewing tobacco, you also spit it, however betelnut doesn’t wash off of anything.  Therefore almost anywhere you go in Ifugao, the streets are stained bright red from people spitting everywhere.  I’m not painting a pretty picture here, I realize this, but I’m just stating the truth.  I’ve never tried it, but a few of my friends have and they said it actually gives you a “buzz” similar to an alcohol buzz.  What’s really bad is that some parents will even allow their kids to chew it—I’ve seen children as young as 3 with wads of red betelnut in their mouths.  It’s sad.  Nevertheless it’s a cultural thing and for some reason they’re proud of it… so who am I to judge?  But as an outsider, I’m not a fan of it.  And when locals ask me why I haven’t found myself an Ifugao boyfriend… well, just look at those Google images and you’ll see why.

Don’t let my anecdote about betelnut taint your view of Ifugao.  I have MAJOR Ifugao pride!  I feel super lucky to live here, and I honestly wouldn’t want to be anywhere else!  They still value their cultural roots and traditions, they’re always helpful and friendly, and they have completely welcomed me into their lives.  I love Ifugao!  …But not the betelnut ;)

We’re in the middle of rainy season which is both good and bad.  Good because thank GOODness it’s not as hot as rainy season anymore!  I even wear pants instead of shorts for pj’s some nights.  The other day I even put a hoodie on to go to the market!  LOVELY.  And as I sit at my desk at school now, a cool breeze is blowing through the windows.  Fabulous.  However the tricky part is that it rains almost every afternoon.  And not just rain, but torrential rain.  The torrents (is that the noun form?) will only last for about an hour usually, but the rain goes on usually from 4-8 at least.  I don’t mind rain, but honestly my gripe is that my pants get muddy easily, which means I have to wash them more often.  Hahahah gosh that makes me sound gross.  But since laundry has to be handwashed, and is therefore more of a hassle, I prefer getting a few uses out of my pants before they go in the laundry.  However that means when mud gets splattered all over them, I’m out of luck.  Other than my pants, rainy season is kind of nice.  Like I said, it’s a little cooler, plus I like the sound of rain on my tin roof.  It’s peaceful.  And on weekend mornings it’s nice to lie in bed and listen to the rain.  Plus one of my landlady’s dogs always sleeps outside my door because there’s an overhang and he doesn’t get wet.  It’s so cute when I open the door in the morning and see him lying there, my guard dog.  Reminds me of Lucy and Tess.  Hahah it just started to rain outside.  4:30pm, as expected.

The next few weeks will be busy busy, but then I’m done, as far as work projects go.  This weekend I’m facilitating at a stress management seminar at my friend’s site in Cagayan.  Then we’re going on a tour of the Duba Underground River and Blue Water caves!  Cagayan is the hottest province in the Philippines, so I’ll be glad to be spending a lot of the time in caves… hahah J  Right from there I’m headed down to Manila and hopping on a plane to Bohol!  My friend and I (Batch 270 volunteers) were asked to attend the Batch 271 Close of Service conference, as support for the volunteers who are extending for a third year.  We’re going to run a session on expectations vs. realities of the third year, coping strategies, and general Q&A.  I wish we had had a 269 extendee come to our COS conference last year, because it would’ve been great to have someone to talk to and ask questions.  I really had no idea what was ahead of me.  No clue what to expect.  And it was okay, but I would’ve liked a heads up from someone who had experienced the third year.  For me, my third year has been the most difficult of my service.  However, it has also been the most rewarding.  I would never take back my decision to stay; I’m SO happy I did.  I’m really glad that I can be there for the 271s to give them advice or put them at ease.  I think it’ll be really helpful.  And for me, I love doing this sort of thing.  Supporting people, listening to them and talking things through.  I love it.  So I’m super excited.  (Plus it’s at a fancy schmancy hotel in Bohol!  Can’t complain!)

Right after that, my friend and I will go from the conference to the Peace Corps office and close out our grant for the girl’s camp.  I have a bunch of errands and other work I need to do there and around Manila, so we’ll be productive for a day or so, and then head to Batangas for a quick beach weekend.  It’ll be my last trip to the beach in the Philippines.  Hopefully we get some good sun and snorkeling in!  After Batangas I’m traveling right up to site, where I’ll be preparing… for another Girls Leading Our World camp at the local college the 16th-17th!  Our GLOW camps with high schoolers this summer were awesome, so I’m super excited to do it with college girls.  I’m going to have PCVs come up and help again.  Yay!  After that weekend I’ll have a day of school, then take the overnight bus to Manila because my friends and I got tickets to Showtime!  Showtime is a TV show here in the Philippines, and it’s on every single day for what seems like the whole day.  Honestly I don’t exactly know, because I don’t have a TV and I’ve never watched a full episode.  It just seems that when I’m out and about and see TVs on, any time of the day it seems Showtime is on.  It’s an entertainment show where people come and do performances, sometimes there are challenges to win prizes, and lots of people come dressed up in matching clothes or special outfits to get the attention of the hosts.  There’s typically audience participation in every episode, so my friends and I are going to dress up at Uncle Sams and Lady Liberties, in hopes of getting noticed!  (I doubt we’d be missed though, anyways, as the only Americans in the crowd, but whatev).  I’m really excited.  It’s a pretty awesome, unique opportunity to see Showtime.  Yeeeeeah!

Anyways, after Showtime, I’m hopping on the overnight bus again back to site.  I have all day Wednesday to prepare, because Thursday and Saturday I’m doing another GLOW camp for the girls at my school!  One of my friends is coming up to help, but otherwise I’m going to have our students who came to the summer camp be the facilitators!  It’s another opportunity for them to gain some leadership experience.  Love it!  So after that camp, I’m DUNZO!  I’ll of course still be going to work every day, but it’ll be pretty chill.  Nothing major to plan or get ready for, other than saying goodbye L  So it’ll be really nice to have a month to just soak it all in.  Life here.  I know I’m going to miss it a ton, so I’m glad I won’t be spending the last month frantically running around like I often am, with a zillion things on my plate.  It’ll be a good transition to the end.  *Sigh*  The end…

Monday, June 30, 2014


Well, the clock is really starting to tick now… 87 days until my COS (Close of Service)!  It’s such a crazy mix of emotions.  90% of me is totally ready to be done.  However that pesky 10% is really anxious about leaving the Philippines.  It’s not that I’m nervous about being back in the U.S., but I’m more nervous about NOT being here anymore.

Peace Corps is some kind of life “warp.”  It’s difficult to explain exactly what I mean – I don’t think someone could understand unless they’ve experienced this themselves – but a lot happens during these two (or in my case, three) years.  First of all, time goes on in a weird way.  Sometimes it’s flying, the days turn into weeks, into months, and it seems like no time at all.  But there are plenty of other times when it seems everything is draggggggggging.  Recently I’ve been experiencing a mix of both.  Now that I’m nearing the end of service, part of me can’t wait, and therefore it’s going slowly.  But in reality, I know deep down that it’s all going quickly.  So it’s sort of like my mind is playing tricks on me. 

I also think one reason it feels like slo-mo right now is that I’m not super busy with a million things.  I recently finished my remedial reading teacher’s manual, which took 30 months to complete.  It’s more than 200 pages, and with the addition of an “alternative” reading program, it’s over 300.  It was definitely the biggest project of my service.  Also, my last freshman orientation is finished, my library project will be done pretty soon, and I’ve just got a few trainings left.  I think it’s that I’m not used to having a lot of things on my plate all at once.  When I arrived at site, almost three years ago, I hit the ground running.  My counterpart is a super high achiever, so we started working on projects and curriculum right away.  I don’t need to talk much about work here, as if you’ve been following this blog the whole time, I talk about it constantly.  In retrospect, this may have been kind of a boring documentation of my service.  Oh well. 

Anyways now that things are wrapping up and no new projects are on the horizon, it’s a very weird feeling.  On the other hand, more exciting news is that yesterday I booked my tickets for my big post-COS travels!  Almost five years ago, when I studied abroad in London (OMGosh I can’t believe it’s been that long!), I joined a group tour around Europe.  It was an AMAZING 19 days.  I met some of the most fun people from around the world, saw beautiful, incredible places, and have so many fond memories that I’ll cherish forever.  When I think back on my semester in London, I always recall those amazing three weeks.  So when it came time to start planning what I was going to do after Peace Corps, as far as travel is concerned, my first thoughts were to ask other PCVs. 

I began asking around, talking with others who are COSing around the same time.  However, it seems that nobody’s plans are going to synch up with mine, either timing-wise or location-wise.  And I don’t want to travel around by myself (boring), so I started researching group tours again.  Aaaaand there are a lot of options, FYI.  There are even tours now that go to Antarctica!  I’ve got zero interest in that, but I did find two tours that are exactly what I want!  So, from September 26-November 3, I’m going to be making my way around Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia on two different tours!  That’s a solid 39 days!  One reason I’m super psyched is that I don’t have to do any planning.  All I need to arrange is my flight to Bangkok.  Whooo!

Then a few days after I finish up my tours, I head on over to Rishikesh, India (!!!), where I’ll be taking a month-long yoga teacher training.  Get my “OM” on.  I feel like it’s going to be really good to sort of clear my head of everything, after Peace Corps and 6 weeks of crazy traveling.  There’s a big meditation aspect of the training, as well as practicing yoga every day, learning how to teach the mechanics, and fully experience the psychological/ physiological benefits of yoga.  I have a good feeling that having the opportunity to peacefully process these three years while living in an ashram for a month is going to be really good for me.  Some major soul power.  I’m really looking forward to it. 

And finally, once I finish that, it’s time to hop on a plane and get my butt back to Massachusetts!  So excited for the 3 F’s: family, friends, and food!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Three for Three

My 7th grade orientation ended yesterday… and was a huge hit!  In case you’ve forgotten, I started this my first summer here; my friend and I coordinated it together and facilitated the 1.5 day life skills camp for incoming freshmen at my school.  Last year I trained a group of upperclassmen to facilitate the event, and had three of my Peace Corps friends monitor them during the camp, and help when necessary.  This year I did extra trainings, and let the upperclassmen run the show!  All I did was keep track of time, and answer a couple of the facilitators’ questions!  This proved them that they are totally capable of doing this themselves from now on- I’ll be leaving in a few months and won’t be there in the future, so it’s nice to know that they’ll be able to carry it on for years to come J

As I sit here now, in my favorite café in Solano, the air conditioning circulating around the room, I’m feeling pretty good.  Exhausted, but good.  School starts next week, but I’m headed to Baguio soon, and then on to Pagudpud on Saturday.  My friends and I are going to end the summer with a final beach trip.  My summer was actually super busy; I didn’t really vacation at all, besides a few days hiking Mt. Pulag and then to Batad another time.  The rest of the summer was filled with two Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) camps- one at my friend’s site, and one at my site.  84 girls between the ages of 14 and 18 participated in three day camps geared towards girls’ empowerment and leadership.  It’s one of my favorite parts of service now, and I’m going to do more GLOW activities at my site in the next couple months I have left.  Lots of amazing memories, for sure we made a big impact on the campers.  Definitely helped me realize some things about where I want my life to go after Peace Corps… so much to think about.

Anyways, I’m not feeling too loquatious today—I’m exhausted and a little brain dead from everything.  Also I’m pretty sure I’m 90% burned out from service here.  Don’t get me wrong; I love Peace Corps and my service and everything, but as the three year mark approaches (1 month from now), I’m just tiiiiired.  I have a couple other things on my plate for the next 4 months, so at least I’ll be busy with work, per usual.  However once September comes, I’ll be relieved to close my service.  I’m ready to move on to the next chapter of my life.  But for now, I’ll hang on to that last 10% I have, and make the best of it.  I’ll soak up every bit of the Philippines, because I bet I’ll miss it once I’m gone.  Nevertheless it will be great to be home, back with family, back to normalcy.  I miss it.  I need it.  My soul power J

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I think it's fly when girls stop by for the summer... for the summer

...And some of my PCV girls will be stopping by soon!  (But I'll get to that later)

As I sit here in my apartment, I look around the room and it’s a HOT MESS!  My kitchen table is littered with the following:

1.  tomatoes (I’m waiting for them to ripen)
2.  candle (almost fully melted from the brownouts)
3.  food (I haven’t unpacked from my hike up Mt. Pulag)
4.  care package fun (which I haven’t found where to store)
5.  paperwork (which needs to be organized to close my library grant)
6.  variety of knick knacks (I haven’t put away yet from my recent travels)
7.  mish mosh of supplies (for my upcoming girls’ empowerment camp)
8.  a zillion papers (last minute logistics for the camp)

Actually, I’m probably being hard on myself… it’s not that bad.  Just disorganized.  However, behind me, my laundry basket is HEAPING as I haven’t done laundry in weeks.  Also, the floor is unspeakably dirty.  Haven’t mopped in months.  Hashtag Peace Corps problems.  My recycling piles are insane.  Mostly because I can’t bear the thought of NOT recycling paper… but it doesn’t exist here.  I don’t know why I still keep a box of paper recyclables; we simply don’t have a paper recycling program here.  Force of habit, I suppose.  But it’s ridiculous.  I’d post a picture, but I’m kind of ashamed of it.  Hahaha!

Anyways this is my summer vacation.  #1 shocking thing: so far there has only been one day when I thought my skin was going to melt off of my body.  The past two summers, it was basically every day.  Lots of days I would lie on my concrete floor crying because I couldn’t handle it.  Seriously.  I’d take 3-4 baths a day, but the water I pumped from the ground was even hot, so there wasn’t great relief in being drenched.  I’m sort of waiting for this to happen, but so far I’ve been pretty lucky (knock on wood)--- today I’m wearing capris and a t-shirt that’s not very breathable.  And I’m totally comfortable.  Winninggggg!  It makes me think… reports from home are that this winter was the coldest one in YEARS.  So maybe it’s the same here, although winter here was what we in Massachusetts would consider May-June weather.  Climate change is an interesting thing.

This has been a pretty great summer so far; started off with our town fiesta, which I judged the parade and went to the “Battle of the Bands” and beauty pageant.  Then it was my landlady’s daughter’s college graduation, so that was cool.  Then I spent a few days in Manila, finishing my remedial reading manual, which is a project I began in November 2011.  WHOAAAA.  Right?  Well, the main part of the curriculum is done; I just have part of the appendix to finish.  I’ll get a chance to do that in June.  Then… I don’t even know how I’ll celebrate.  If I was a drinker, I’d probably go out and get smashed.  However, I’m guessing , realistically, MY celebration is going to involve sitting in my apartment with a lot of chocolate and diet cokes and watching Modern Family.  So I’m hoarding as much chocolate and candy from my care packages as I can.  My life is sooo exciting.  LOL J

Anyways, after making awesome progress on my reading project, I took a trip down to Benguet to hike Mt. Pulag with a group of my friends.  It’s the highest peak in Luzon, second highest in the country (to Mt. Apo in Mindanao).  You begin the hike in the morning or afternoon, set up camp for the night, then wake up at 3am to begin the final leg of the hike to the summit to see the sunrise.  I did the same hike two years ago, but there’s really nothing like it.  It was just as good the second time around.  You’re above all the clouds, and they look like an ocean.  Some of the smaller mountains surrounding Pulag peek out from the clouds, and they look like islands, surrounded by water.  It’s wild.

From Pulag, my friend and I made our way through Baguio and left at 9:30am Saturday to take a 7 hour bus to Manila… walked right to the next bus station to reserve our seats.  Grabbed a bite to eat and went right back to the station, sat in our seats, and within 20 minutes we departed Manila to begin the 12 (!) hour trek to Legazpi City, Bicol, where she lives.  We arrived at 6:30am on Easter Sunday, traveled back to her apartment, and passed out on the couches for several hours.  No egg hunts or sugar rushes for us.  The 21 hours of travel didn’t really put us in the mood.  Instead we settled for a day of TV and movies.  The following two days were spent preparing for our Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) camp.  We were gathering materials, taking care of final logistics, and making sure everything was ready to go.  Then bright and early on Wednesday we made our way to the venue, a local elementary school.

We began with a half-day training of trainers, in which all of the Peace Corps Volunteers and local facilitators got together to meet and start preparing their sessions.  That evening, the girls arrived.  (I’ll talk more about the camp itself in my next post, as I have MINE coming up next week!)  The next three days were filled with big laughs, new friendships, and lots of learning.  It was SO awesome.  Definitely one of my favorite Peace Corps experiences.  And after almost three years of being here and doing all sorts of amazing things, that’s saying a lot!  It was so cool to see the transformation of the girls in only a few days; definitely something really special.

After the camp ended, my friend and I went and got some celebratory halo-halo (one of my fave desserts in the Philippines), then, exhausted beyond belief, we dragged ourselves back to her place.  I packed up all my stuff, including a massive cardboard box filled with unused materials, a gigantic rice sack filled with t-shirts for the campers, and my two backpacks I brought already.  Thank goodness for helpful Filipinos; before I knew it I was on a bus headed back to Manila, all of my luggage safely stored underneath.  13 (ugh) hours later, I arrived in the city, grabbed a taxi, and headed to the Peace Corps office.  Thank GOODNESS for the PC office.  It’s open 24/7, even on a lot of holidays.  So I just went there and hung out in the library all day.  Ran some errands at the mall and around the city, getting more supplies for my camp (very proud of myself, took jeepneys everywhere, not expensive taxis!), then just soaked up the fast internet at the office.  That night, got on yet ANOTHER bus and finally arrived back at site two days ago.  Since then I’ve been working on finalizing logistics for my camp, which starts a week from today!  Eek!  I still have a lot on my to-do list, but I know it’ll get done.  I always do, somehow.

The camp will be the same one from Legazpi; my friend and I have been organizing it since September, believe it or not.  We wrote a grant and received funding from USAID, which is awesome.  Also we reached out to friends and family back home, who have been SO supportive and wonderful.  We wouldn’t have been able to put these events on without you!  Anyways, I’ll talk more about this next time.  For now, I’m off to meet with several people and put some checks on my to-do list.  Adios, amigos!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Thoughts on Extending... Holla Batch 271!

So all of us extendees were asked to write an email to the PCVs in Batch 271, who will soon have to decide whether they want to extend their service, as we have. Of course, I went to write "a couple paragraphs," and it turned into 7. The email they will get with my pearls of wisdom is going to be edited down, so I figured It might be valuable to post the full version here. Hope it helps!


At the beginning of 2013, talks of COS began to become more frequent among my fellow 270s. Some people couldn't wait to finish their service, others were happy to still be serving but knew that they would be ready to depart in September, and there was a number considering extensions. Honestly I wasn't positive where I stood. I knew it was somewhere between the regular COS date and an extension. Then one day at school one of my favorite students said to me, "Ma'am thank you for being here. I'm so glad you're with us." I hadn't felt very appreciated in a while, and what he said seemed to flip a switch. The work I was doing WAS making a difference to people in my community. Why had I been interpreting a lack of recognition to mean people didn't appreciate me?

Soon after this, I was talking about my thoughts of extending with a certain soon-to-be-PCVL (who shall remain nameless), and he asked: If you went home in September, what would you be doing with your time? I laughed and said that I'd be sitting on the couch at home, unemployed. He asked if I liked what I was doing here, and I admitted that I did love my work and projects. "So wouldn't you rather be having fun doing that while you can?" he said. The next day I began filling out the extension paperwork.

An extension, just as the rest of a Peace Corps service, has its own challenges. For me, as someone who thrives off of personal relationships, being separated from my closest circle of friends has been by far the most difficult part of still being here. For all those times when you step in goat poo or are told "Ma'am you're getting fat!"... and you know JUST who would appreciate that text...when that friend is halfway around the world and you can't get an immediate response, that's hard.

Luckily I have some awesome co-extendees and have made some great friends in your batch and in 272! That has been one of the highlights and benefits of extending for me! I never would have met a lot of you if I hadn't stayed. In addition, during my first two years of

service, I would often feel guilty if I had to leave site to facilitate at a friend's camp or do a project somewhere other than my school. Now my outlook is that this is bonus time for them, and while I am still working on my projects at school, I've taken on outside work in my community and with Peace Corps.

The projects I had already established at my site before extending have continued to flourish since I've still been here. I feel like what I have done is more likely to become sustainable because of the extra time I have had establishing it with my counterparts. I can really see how my hard work is paying off, and I don't think I had seen that as much at this time last year. It's really cool to feel like you've actually accomplished something that will help people once

you're gone. Maybe that's a selfish way to think of it, but isn't our selfless work of volunteering actually self-serving, too? I know that I learn and grow more every day that I'm here. We all have our "aha!" moments in Peace Corps... extending just gives you more of those.

In addition, it seems that I'm getting things done more efficiently now. I know the ropes, I know how to accomplish things in the Philippine work culture, thanks to my first two years of Peace Corps experience. I don't get as confused or struggle as much with work-related things nearly as much anymore. I know what to expect.

Finally, feedback from the already COS-ed 270s... nobody can find jobs, many of them miss the Philippines, and some even wish they extended. Of course there are wonderful things about being home, but I am SO glad that I decided to stay. Feel free to text/call/email me if you want to hear more or bounce your thoughts/ ideas off someone who has been in your shoes before.


Looking forward to 2014! Happy Chinese New Year!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

What Did the Fox Say?

Just like every other uber-pop song, this one has hit the Philippines HARD.  At our Close of Service conference, one of my batchmates put on a playlist of all the top hits during our service… all of the songs that went VIRAL in the Philippines.  It was pretty funny, thinking back to all of the programs and dances we had seen choreographed to these songs.  Among all 43 of us, it had to have been hundreds!

Tangent:  I’m writing this at school, 1pm and my post-lunch crash is hitting hard.  We received a TON of book donations from the US (almost 1,000 books so far!) and today a student found a picture in one of the books.  It’s a middle-aged couple, dressed up all fancy, and on the back it says 1990.  True to form, when I say fancy, I mean this woman is wearing a shapeless green velvet dress with massive shoulder pads.  I put the picture in the recycling bin because, hey, I don’t know them and obviously nobody else does.  However 20 minutes later I found it out on the table again.  Hahahaha!  One of the students had fished it out!  Now everyone is asking me if I know them, and one girl, when she saw the date on the picture she said “Ay!  They are now dead!”   I started laughing and told her it was only 23 years ago and they weren’t that old in the picture… she definitely was still skeptical.  Oh through the eyes of a 13 year-old.

Later she asked if she could see pictures of my family and when she saw my brothers she said “Ay, cuuute!”  Also said my sister and I are “the same,” and my dogs are “fat but cute.”  Not sure what that says about my brothers…  Sorry, guys.  Then I was showing her pictures of my friends from home and I got to my BFF’s wedding pics; right away she coos:  “Oooh napintas nga babae!”   Beautiful girl!  You know who you are J   Oh man.  Despite the fact that the politics at my school drive me NUTS, the kiddos really are the best.

Time has been flying, per usual, and I’m super psyched that I’m going home sooo soon!  My friend and I are on the same flight, too, so I have a kasama (Filipino term for companion or travel buddy) all the way to Minneapolis!  I arrive home two days before Thanksgiving… cannot WAIT for the feast!  This includes COOKING for the feast.  I always love the prep; not that I’m any Martha Stewart in the kitchen, but it’s the whole being-around-family part that gets me. 

The kitchen gets super warm from the stove and oven being on, the counters are covered in flour and batter droppings, ingredients are everywhere, cooling racks are set up in the dining room and will soon be adorned with cooling cookies, pies, and other delicious treats.  Bro #1 is probably walking around, eating peanut butter and oatmeal while fixing something in the basement or garage, bro #2 is probably making fudge and watching a black and white foreign film from 1970 with German subtitles while chatting on facebook and writing a term paper, sis is probably making macaroo and cheese or the famous cranberry mix recipe from the fair years ago, otherwise she’s being super helpful raking outside (I always prefer scrubbing the toilets instead).  Dad is probably carrying cords of wood from the pile out back and stoking the fire while the dogs follow him inside and outside, inside and outside.  Mom is probably multitasking, on the phone with one of her siblings while doing a frantic cleaning of the house before guests arrive.  Me?  I’m probably either watching trashy reality TV and passing out on the couch or making my world-famous cookies.  I think my family forgives my laziness JUST because the cookies are so good.

How’d I do, guys?

The excitement of going home and seeing my friends and family is what has kept me going the past three months.  This has been a really tough time for me, honestly.  I’ve been doing a lot of sweet stuff with Peace Corps, and nothing too bad has happened with my projects at site (just typical frustrations), but being here without the majority of my batch has been hard.  Like, something hysterical will happen that reminds me of someone in particular or a memory I shared with someone, and all I want to do is text them and hear back within minutes… but instead I have to settle for waiting until I get to the internet shop, emailing that person, and waiting for a reply since they’re 12 hours behind me.  Most of the time I forget what happened by the time I can get to working internet.  Meh.  Thankfully I am close with several of my fellow extendees and have been making a lot of new friends during run-ins with the other two batches here.  So it’s not that I’m alone, by any means.  It’s just that things are DIFFERENT.  And change is hard.  And I have to say, experiencing such a drastic change, such as your friends returning home, while you’re still serving in the Peace Corps is VERY hard.  Although we’ve had two years to adjust to the culture and lifestyle, it will never be ours.  And sometimes you just want a flushing toilet, you know?

However, there are some new developments that I have to look forward to in 2014… I don’t want to get into them yet because nothing is set in stone BUT it’s all very exciting.  Lots of potential.  Lots.  I think my time home will re-energize me and give me the inspiration to come back to the Philippines and kick butt for my last 9 and ½ months!  Woo! 

As far as some of the sweet things I’ve been doing with Peace Corps go, here’s the latest:

I’ve found my calling!  Last week was the Padayon Mindanao Youth Leadership Camp!  I’m not going to re-explain Padayon because I think I did that in one of my last posts.  Anyways there were 40 youth leaders, ages 15-24.  20 were from the Bicol region, 20 were from Mindanao.  The 6 and ½ day camp covered topics such as self-awareness, decision making, action planning, teambuilding, communication, risky behavior, leadership, and volunteerism.  We did team-based projects and activities, including a bridge building competition, invention convention, and Padayon Olympics!  We played Pinoy Henyo (kind of like “The $10,000 Pyramid,” for those of you who either watch Game Show Network or are over the age of 40—sorry), had trivia madness (madness, madness, madness), a movie night featuring The Mighty Ducks, and finished off the week with, OBVIOUSLY, a talent show. 

Before the talent show, each team navigated through a labyrinth of chairs, arranged in a way which would encourage everyone to reflect on the week and their experience at the camp.  By the time my team and I emerged from the labyrinth, tears were streaming down the kiddos’ faces.  When I asked, they assured me that they were happy tears.  We went around the circle and each said something about the week or something we were feeling.  It was SUPER emotional and really touching, to hear how much it impacted them.  Then afterwards having kids come up and hug me saying “thank you ma’am, thank you, I will miss you ma’am,” sobbing and holding on for dear life… even two of the boys (which I’ve NEVER experienced or seen happen anywhere).  All of the youth were just SO appreciative to have been there and thankful for the opportunity.  Most have never experienced something like Padayon, and some probably won’t ever again. 

It really made me think.  I feel like extracurricular activities and opportunities for youth outside of school are very common in the States.  Every summer (and winter, I think) our town recreation department sends out a pamphlet of all the activities you can sign your kids up for.  There are pages and pages of various clubs and camps for people of all ages and interests.  And I live in a pretty small town.  Sure, not everyone can afford them, but oftentimes schools or towns have extra funding to support children whose families cannot afford to pay.  Not always, but often.  Sometimes the things offered are one-time events, but typically they are monthly, weekly, or even several times each week.  And you know what?  Americans spend their hard-earned money to sign their kids up for these activities and then skip or miss meetings for one reason or another.  We can’t get a ride, we have too much homework, we have too much else to do, we’re running late, we “don’t feel like it today…”  Now, I’m not trying to shame or berate my fellow Americans for this (I’m guilty of this, for SURE), however when we do miss a meeting or event, it’s often “not a big deal.”  I think we take these opportunities for granted.

Watching how active and engaged the Filipino youth were at the leadership camp was just amazing.  When we were planning the event, we made sure to schedule things from 8am to 11pm, because of course young people have a ton of energy.  But EVERY night, 11:00 came around and they were still bouncing off the walls with excitement and enthusiasm!  Us facilitators PASSED OUT immediately afterwards, but kept hearing the participants up into the wee hours.  There was NO missing anything.  The kids (I should stop calling them kids because some weren’t much younger than me, but oh well) were so participative, I think, because they never get such opportunities or chances to do things like this.  They are either working at school, at home, or at their jobs.  Extracurricular activities do exist, but typically only in schools, and they hardly ever meet because school lets out at 5pm and everyone needs to go right home to do chores and help their families.  Trainings and community events obviously cost money, something which is NOT typically available or budgeted for by any group or organization.  And most families certainly do not have the money to send their kids if there’s a fee to pay.  Therefore if you are invited to something, YOU GO.  You put your heart into it, and you work hard to make the most of your time there. 

Many of the participants will probably never see each other again, but who knows?  Maybe someday they will be government officials or work for a large organization and get the chance to travel around the Philippines or even the world!  They inspired me, and for sure inspired each other.  It was an amazing week.

Something else amazing I experienced this month: All Saint’s Day!  Halloween isn’t typically recognized in the Philippines, but on November 1st, families honor their relatives who have passed away by celebrating!  This year I went with several of my friends to the Manila North Cemetery to see the festivities.  The only thing I can compare it to is Boston on the 4th of July!  People are typically buried above ground in this country, so families are sitting around the tombs, eating food and chatting together.  Vendors were selling everything from snacks to souvenirs and trinkets to cell phone “load”  (similar to pay-as-you-go phones in the US… most people use this system).  Dunkin Donuts even set up a stand! 

The interesting thing about Manila North Cemetery is that not all of its occupants are deceased.  It is estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 people call the cemetery home.  When you look into some of the tombs, there are little beds, dressers, radios, and even TVs set up (working off portable generators).  Families will pay people who live there to keep their relative’s tomb clean and looking nice.  One of our volunteers actually works at the cemetery; he teaches the youth that live there.  He said people pay about 600 pesos (about $15) per year for this service.  However, most residents will care for many tombs at a time- sometimes dozens!  In the Philippines, this amounts to a LOT of money for people who have nowhere else to live.  It’s really quite interesting.  Anyways, that day we were amongst thousands of Filipinos at the cemetery.  The national news covered the event, and some people stayed for several days!  It was by FAR my favorite experience in Manila, and one of the most interesting days of my whole service.  I’ve never seen anything like it, and probably never will again.  This is a pretty remarkable tradition.  I’m really glad I was able to be there!

I’m going to end on a much more serious note.  I realize there is a very significant topic that I haven’t covered in this entry.  In the wake of typhoon Yolanda, the most powerful in recorded history, the Philippines has been struck with destruction and devastation.  The country is in a very vulnerable location, unprotected from the many storms that rage across the Pacific Ocean.  Unfortunately the infrastructure improvements and disaster preparedness in the Philippines is no match for the fury that encompasses these storms.  Often the areas most affected by these storms are Mindanao, the Visayas, and southeastern Luzon.  I’m very lucky that my site is often spared, but I should never take it for granted.  In the past week, Peace Corps has airlifted 37 volunteers via Philippine military cargo aircraft out of their work sites in the Visayas.  Some of the worst affected are the islands of Samar, Leyte, and Negros. 

Last weekend I was traveling back through Manila and ran into a group of those volunteers.  All but one were from the new batch that had arrived (and I met) in July.  I remembered their fresh faces; they were optimistic and excited to begin their Peace Corps journey.  Those same faces were now filled with shock, horror, and confusion.  They seemed so lost and uncertain, and my heart broke for them.  It was really difficult for me to listen to, but I knew they needed someone to talk to.  Most opened up to me about what they saw and experienced.  Peace Corps sent mass texts to all volunteers, and told those in danger areas to consolidate at their emergency locations.  Initially the group consolidating in Tacloban were split into two groups because they couldn’t find a hotel with enough space for all of them to be together before the storm came.  Luckily, once the storm passed they were able to reconnect, and the 12 of them had to walk four hours through the destroyed city, carrying their bags of clothes and emergency supplies to the airport.  One of them was from the previous batch, and had lived there for a year.  The other 11 told me that he saved their lives, because they wouldn’t have known where to go or how to get there without him.  I don’t want to get into graphic details about what they saw, but if you can picture what a demolished city of thousands of people looks like after it is leveled… well that’s it. 

When they arrived at the airport, they found that they were not getting on an airplane.  The airport and landing strips were destroyed and impassible.  However Peace Corps had contacted the Phillipine military and told them to wait, because the volunteers were to be airlifted back to Manila.  The volunteers, soaking wet, packed into the cargo aircraft, and sat on the floor with hundreds of Filipinos, lucky to get off the island.  Some of the volunteers still have not heard from their host families or anyone in their communities.  Others got word that their towns are now “off the map,” whatever that means.  Many aren’t sure if they will ever be able to return to their sites; others are not sure if they ever WANT to.  I’ve never seen a group of people in such a state, and I’m having trouble dealing with it.  Thankfully I’ll soon be home with my family.  Not everyone else is so lucky.

Although I didn’t want to leave you with a horrible story, I wanted to pay respect to the situation and what this country is suffering through right now.  Please say prayers for the Filipino people, who have all been affected by this horrible disaster.  Also send thanks for the rescue of our Peace Corps Volunteers.  If you have the means, please consider making a donation to relief efforts.  $5 can support an entire family for several days.  Please contact me for more information about contributing.

I’ll end with a quote I found on Pinterest.  Not sure who said it, but it made me feel a little better.

“Life is never easy.  So whatever comes to destroy you, stay firm and be as brave as you can be.  You might be upset, but never lose hope, and most especially, never give up.”

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

“I’ve Been Working Like a Dog”

What did the Beatles mean when they sang that phrase?  Our two dogs at home are pretty darn lazy 23 hours out of the day.  Anyways, since the end of June it seems I’ve been working like… some kind of animal that DOES work really hard.  Maybe the dolphins at Sea World?  Although, lucky them, they play in the water all day.  I haven’t been to a beach or pool in almost three months.  Wouldn’t you think that living in a country surrounded by water, my life would be quite different?  Nevertheless I suppose it makes me appreciate the ocean even more when I DO get to go there.  In 3 and ½ weeks I’ll be going back to Palawan!  This time my friends and I will be going to Coron, which is a huge SCUBA site.  I’ll definitely be snorkeling it up once again!

To catch y’all up on life here: the first week of August my batch had our Close-of-Service conference in Bataan.  To describe it in one word: EMOTIONAL.  It reminded me of what the last week of high school was like.  Nervous excitement and enthusiasm, as well as some apprehension for what was coming next.  Of course, for a handful of us, Peace Corps deemed it our “Continuation of Service” conference.  The very last night of the conference, everyone went to the beach together, there was a bonfire, music, and videoke (of course).  It was sooo awesome.  My heart felt so full.  I was kind of a mess, knowing that this marked the end of an “era,” of sorts.  And that our batch family was splitting up and going our separate ways.  It’s really intense, how close PCVs get to each other.  One of my friends announced to the group at one point, “You talk to your friends about your relationships.  You talk to your BEST friends about your poop.”  We all had a good laugh at that, because I’m pretty sure all of us know some pretty graphic details about others’ bowel movements and bizarre gastrointestinal experiences.  That’s what happens when you adjust to the local water, food, and weather.  During training, one of my fellow volunteers was constipated for 16 days and every morning we greeted this person with “Good morning!  Poop yet?”  My apologies for sharing this with you all; I’m just making a point  J

So that was tough… I got back to site and tried catching up on work… then I left the FOLLOWING week to facilitate at the Padayon Mindanao Literacy Summit in Legazpi, Bicol.  It was super awesome.  I had a fantastic time.  Four of us PCVs facilitated the sessions with Filipino counterparts; my sessions were about remedial reading.  The other sessions focused on English skills and how to apply them in different situations.  One group talked about history and civic engagement, another focused on environmental awareness, and another was everyday math skills.  There were 40 participants: 20 from the Bicol region, and 20 from Mindanao.  It was a really awesome cultural exchange; not just between Americans and Filipinos, but also the Bicolanos and Mindanaoans.  There is a very negative stigma surrounding Mindanao and its people.  It is assumed to be a very violent place, and the people to be violent as well.  Mindanao has the largest population of Muslims in the Philippines, which I think also contributes to many Filipinos’ prejudices against them.  However I truly believe that these prejudices stem from basic ignorance of what Islam is.  Yes, there is more violent conflict in Mindanao.  However it doesn’t reflect the religion.  Unfortunately I think many Filipinos see these two aspects: Islam and terrorism existing in Mindanao, and they immediately correlate the two.  It was so great to see the participants meet each other and build an understanding of their ways of life.

One really moving moment was when a teacher from Mindanao spoke of how she was not able to return to school one day because the building had been blown up the day before.  The first reaction was mumbled laughter in the crowd.  Our Peace Corps program specialist, who coordinates and runs this whole project, immediately stepped in and adamantly explained that the speaker was not exaggerating; this was a serious issue and was not to be joked about or looked down upon.  Right away you could see a change in the facial expressions of the people who had laughed.  They hadn’t understood the true severity of the issues teachers face in Mindanao.  By the end of the literacy summit, those same participants were asking what they could do to HELP.  It was so awesome.

After the literacy summit ended, I made my way back to Manila, where I stayed for a few days because my PCBFF (Peace Corps Best Friend Forever) was COS-ing.  Closing her service.  We did some fun stuff those days, and I had a complete mental breakdown the night she left.  That was no fun.  However she gave me a bunch of stuff she didn’t need, so I added it to my collection of STUFF in my apartment!  Nice inheritance!  Once I got back to site, I settled in for a week and then left AGAIN to facilitate at a teacher training at my friend’s site.  It was really interesting, actually.  There were 100 teachers from the district there, and the content was surprisingly a bit different from what I’ve done here.  So that was cool.  Once the two-day training ended, I hopped on a bus and went back down to Manila.  Arrived at 3am, passed out at the hotel for a few hours, then got on a plane to Bacolod, Negros Occidental to be “peer support” at the second Padayon literacy summit there.  It was the same event that I facilitated at in Bicol, but this time around I was helping out with logistics and providing feedback and assistance to the volunteers and staff.  It was really cool to see the event from a different perspective.  I got to sit in on all the sessions too, which was cool.  Learned some fun activities I can use in the future, too!

That was a full week, and afterwards I returned to site, where I stayed for a full two weeks (WHOA).  Then, back to Manila to plan for the Padayon Youth Summit.  This is going to be super awesome.  It’s a 6-day camp in which we teach Filipino youth (age 16-24) to become leaders and facilitate events.  The first day we work with 40 of these youth on leadership skills; the second day we focus on facilitation skills; the third day we prepare for the next two days.  Day four and five will be a youth camp for 200 (!) kids, led by those 40 youth leaders we trained!  Day six will be a processing and concluding day, with reflection and training on how to plan these types of events in the future.  I think this is going to be sooo awesome.  It’ll be in early November, so you’ll be hearing about it from me soon.

My whole life I’ve always felt that my passion and calling is teaching in a school setting.  However one thing I’ve realized just recently is that my perspective has changed, after a lot of the work and events I’ve facilitated at here.  I do think teaching will always be a big part of my life, but I feel like I’ve been happier and enjoyed teaching more in an out-of-class setting.  Like with my freshman orientation?  Amazing.  My friends’ youth camps?  Sooo bomb.  My HIV/AIDS training was super inspiring as well.  I think I’m more about teaching life skills and youth empowerment, as opposed to academic material.  For sure I’ve enjoyed creating and implementing my remedial reading program; however I’m even more passionate about my library because I see how using a library is a transferrable skill in everyday life.  Not to say that reading isn’t a life skill, because it obviously IS… I’m not sure how to really explain how I’m feeling.  But what I know is that this is my THING.  Which brings me to my next topic!

A friend of mine who is also doing the Padayon program was recently telling me about an awesome event she had at her school.  It’s called “GLOW” (Girls Leading Our World) and it’s a camp that teaches young girls (high school age, typically) about leadership, gender stereotypes, body image/self-esteem, healthy relationships, and adolescent health.  My friend went on and on about how amazing it was, and I was sooo inspired.  So I texted a friend of mine, who is also extending her service for a year, and we decided we are going to do GLOW camps at our sites!  One will be at her site in April, and the other will be at my site in May!  We are going to apply for a Peace Corps grant, round up volunteers and local counterparts, and do the whole thing together.  She is an AWESOME volunteer and one of my closest friends here, so I’m suuuuper pumped for this whole project!

I’m at site for three weeks now, and I’m currently coordinating an English Language Camp for college students October 17th-19th.  Four volunteers are coming up to help out, and it should be really fun!  We’re going to do basic “macro skills:” reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  It ends the afternoon of the 19th, and that night I’ll travel to Manila to work with Peace Corps staff to plan the current batch’s Mid-Service Training.  They have been at their sites for just over a year now, and the conference is mostly used to support volunteers and provide them with help, ideas, or inspiration.  The one-year mark is a slump for many volunteers (including myself, at this point last year).  After planning, I’ll go to MST to be “peer support,” especially for the education volunteers.  This week our sector manager left Peace Corps for a higher position at a different organization.  While PC is looking for her replacement, the education volunteers (especially the new batch) will be without a sector manager.  Luckily all of staff is super supportive and will help PCVs with anything, but if the volunteer has job-specific questions, the sector manager is the one who really specializes in those issues.  Therefore, Peace Corps asked if I’d come to the conference to help out.

Right after MST, I’m taking my first break in a looooong time and going to Palawan (like I mentioned earlier) for a few days with a couple friends.  It’s going to be so nice to just relax for once.  I haven’t fully kicked up my heels since April.  Eek!  Working too hard.  Ha.  Anyways right after that mini-break, I’ll be heading back to Bicol for the Padayon Youth Camp!  Finally I return back to my site, where I’ll be for 12 days.  Then…. Da da da daaaaaa!!!  I head to Manila and then HOME!  And that’s HOME home.  As in, USA!  So I put my hands up, they’re playin my song, the butterflies fly away… party in the USA!   (Yup just quoted Miley Cyrus.  Whatchu gonna do about it?)  November 26.  Logan Airport.  Be there or be square J

P.S. Just realized this entire thing was about work.  Here’s a good anecdote for y’all…

Let’s backtrack.  One of the first nights at my host family’s house during training, I sat down to dinner and a (deep fried) chicken head was staring me in the face.  My eyes bugged out and my stomach flip flopped.  In the bowl were ALL of the parts of that chicken.  Now, to someone who had never eaten any animal that could be identified by its parts (okay I guess we do cook turkeys and chicken from the grocery store… but not with the head or claws), this was a shock, to say the least.  I stared down at my plate for the rest of the meal and couldn’t look up, especially when my little host brother took the head and happily knawed away.  That’s one memory that remains so vivid in my mind.

So last month our congressman came to our school.  When we have special guests we always have a big feast for lunch and everything; of course it’s a big deal.  Anyways I’m sitting at the table with everyone, and we’re all serving ourselves.  I put my rice and vegetables on my plate, and there’s a soup with chicken in front of me.  The soup itself was translucent, so I couldn’t see into it, but part of the meat was sticking out of the broth so I could identify what it was.  Okay, let’s get some chicken.  I stab it with my fork and as I slowly pull it out of the water I realize it’s a leg.  Okay, normal.  As it fully emerges, the leg is followed by massive talons.  For a split second my eyes did an instinctual pop, and I quickly caught myself.  Placed it on my plate; no big deal.  Obviously I had to act like everything was fine, and after a few minutes I realized… it wasn’t bothering me at all.  Then I realized I had made a major cultural adjustment.  This was totally normal, having the foot on my plate next to the rest of my food.  I can’t say that I ate the foot; that bad boy remained untouched.  However I enjoyed the rest of the meal, not grossed out by the “adidas” (which Filipinos jokingly call chicken feet—get it?).

It was actually a nice moment that I enjoyed to myself.  Integrating into the culture is one of the big things Peace Corps is about.  It’s one of the reasons why we get such a small living allowance each month.  We don’t experience our host country as tourists do; we are not “rich Americans” here.  It’s actually a really valuable lesson, and I’ve learned a lot from it.  Plus, now I’m pretty sure I could go on Fear Factor and eating nasty things would be no big thing.  Joe Rogan, eat your heart out.