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.”


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