Friday, April 18, 2014

A walk to remember

Being a predominantly Catholic country, the Philippines' Holy Week is one of the busiest times of year. Thousands of people head home to their families, making travel around this time a nightmare. Buses usually sell out a month before, and plane tickets are costly. So instead of throwing myself into the chaos, I decided to reinvest my time, save a few pesos, and stick around Tabaco for the holiday this year.

A local ritual here is a Stations of the Cross walk up the Mayon volcano on Holy Thursday evening/Good Friday morning, starting in the foothills and finishing 12 kilometers later at the Mayon Rest House and Planetarium.  In addition to the walk thousands do on their own, there is also a 2 A.M. reenactment of Good Friday (a seemingly more pious tradition), with one person playing the role of Jesus Christ and carrying a wooden cross the whole way up. A few of my close Filipino friends partake in the former every year, and since I was around town, I thought I'd join them. It had always been on my bucket list, and I missed it last year being out of town.

We immediately started out after reaching barangay Buang, much to my confusion since I thought we were going to camp/eat and walk in the early morning. No problem though. To the top we go! Sari-saris dotted the road, selling food, drinks, and for some reason sunglasses (??). People were everywhere. And once again, I was the center of attention. I tried to blend in by sticking with Robert, Mark, and Jhunz, and by listening to music. At the second station, the rains started and the temperature cooled. Rain jacket...check! Ha Ha... Like that was really going to help... We were just getting started.

Flashlights lit the damp and crowded road as we forged ahead, stopping at each station along the way. Even in moments of prayer and solidarity, I found myself being stared (with laughter), gestured, and yelled at. I asked my friends about this later, wondering why I was the object of focus when clearly there was another reason for this journey. But I already knew the answer: "you are a tall, white man, quite possibly the only white person on the walk this year, and many of these people have never seen you before." Still, the blending of social and religious spheres amazed me.

As we made our way closer and closer to our destination, the rain continued intermittently, the air thinned, and a heavy fog set in on our route. Only shadows were visible in the distance. Bird chipping could be heard in the trees, and the coconut fronds swayed and bristled in the wind. The atmosphere made me think of the Garden of Gethsemane, or at least the one I envision. The fog was so thick that only the faint light up ahead indicated we were close. And suddenly, I was stopped dead in my tracks, surrounded my thousands of people. We had made it.

Mass was going on in front of the planetarium, but we made our way around back and up a dirt path to a grassy tract of land where a few of our other friends were already camped. Or so we thought. The rain continued to come down, saturating my already saturated clothes. Let's get in the tent! Slight problem: no tarp for the ground. We did our best to remove the water from the tent floor, and then proceeded to pile 10 of us in the claustrophobic 5x5 space. Quite a bonding experience. Dinner (by flashlight) was served. Drinks were flowing soon after. And the rain continued outside (and inside). Soon, everything was soaked. Thank god for the alcohol. With no real room to sleep, the conversation and laughter continued into the wee hours of the morning. The normally wonderful cool breeze was extra chilly today as I stepped outside to urinate. Shivering and shaking, I made my way back inside the "cozy" tent for a few more hours. Thankfully the rain did manage to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

Light broke around 5:30 and shortly after we began packing up our gear. I was looking forward to the sunrise from the mountain, looking down upon Tabaco, but the cloud cover prevented a breathtaking view this day. Our timing was perfect as we wandered down from our perch, catching the 2 A.M. reenactment as they reached the top. I was too cold to take my camera out for pictures. Only a handful of followers accompanied, I'm sure in large part due to the weather. We paused and silently reflected as they passed before heading home.

Robert asked me on our way back if this was one of the craziest things I'd ever done. Too cold, tired, and possibly still a bit inebriated to muster an emphatic response, I simply nodded. Yes indeed. Crazy and at times miserable. But well worth it  :)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Save the Rivers, Save the Sea

Conceptualized last summer by myself and my counterpart Dr. Nieves (Dean of Bicol University Tabaco Campus), the Save the Rivers, Save the Sea Program is now in full swing. Former challenges at site (counterpart struggles, election changes, bureaucratic red tape) swayed me to "take my talents to"....Bicol University Tabaco Campus (BUTC), where the program was born. And after months of proposal writing, project approval, budget approval, etc., we were finally cleared for takeoff this past January.

A three-year pilot program of BUTC, Save the Rivers, Save the Sea seeks to address river and habitat sustainability through participatory methods. The first year focuses on the Bombon River, one of the 6 major rivers in Tabaco City which stretches through barangays Tayhi, Pawa, and Bombon. Local youth are our target audience because they hold the cards for our future and we believe it is through them that we will see change and sustainability in local waterways. Aside from myself and 6 BUTC faculty acting as program coordinators, we have assembled a Core Team of committed BUTC students to assist and serve as community leaders/facilitators. Our goal is for the Core Team to take ownership of the program through community organizing, conducting needs assessments, assisting with water quality testing, conducting IEC campaigns, etc.

Last week, we held our first Core Team Orientation Workshop where we gave our team of students briefings on topics such as CRM, Solid Waste Management, Community Health, and Community Organizing. They will be using the information gained to create their own presentations for our future barangay IEC campaigns. The students also participated in a river walk, where we briefly surveyed the Bombon River and its neighboring activities. The workshop brought together local stakeholders and allowed us to further organize our Core Team and plan out future activities. Up next...barangay courtesy calls (April 5) and our official program launching (April 11).

 Participants observing a lecture on CRM during our Core Team Orientation Workshop

BUTC students and faculty during our Bombon River walk

I have been extremely excited about this program for a while (on top of it being one of my larger PC projects, it will also be the focus of my Master's internship; killing two birds with one stone!) so to see it coming together is incredibly rewarding. Staying grounded is key though, particularly due to the constant changes in our program structure. With every project here, sustainability is on my mind. Will this last after I'm gone? So far, there has been a lot of enthusiasm and support from both BUTC and the LGU for Save the Rivers, Save the Sea, and my fellow counterparts seem dedicated to continue the program after I leave. Knowing this eases my mind a bit. But that doesn't allow me to "sit the next few plays out." Instead, it motivates me to continue to help put the pieces in place and give them the tools for lasting success. I have high hopes for this program. Stay tuned.

For more information and project updates, please check out and "like" our Facebook page:

Thursday, March 6, 2014

More people more happiness

Or so said my new found Chinese friend as I enjoyed a hot cup of oolong tea in the friendly confines of a Chinese teahouse, so eloquently placed down the side corridor in one of Shanghai's bustling malls. Was this one of these scams we kept hearing about? Too curious to say no 10 minutes prior, this was the scene Russ and I found ourselves in on our third day in China.

Having a very gracious cousin on this side of the world afforded me the opportunity to skip over to Shanghai for Chinese New Year (CNY) last month. Completely unaware of what to expect, I was both pleasantly surprised and rudely awakened by Chinese history, culture, and customs. Let me explain.

**It should be noted that 9 days in China is nothing. Barely scratching the surface. The entirety of my time was spent in Shanghai (and the water village Zhujiajiao for a day) and my opinions reflect that. It is not fair of me to generalize the country as a whole because Shanghai is not representative of everything that is China.

Shanghai skyline (Financial district on the L, the Bund on the R)

- Food: Holy momma! The Chinese do it up right. Sure, you have to be careful what and where you are eating (don't want no rat meat in your soup), but most of the time I found the street vendors to be legit, serving up steaming hot dumplings and noodles. Russ and I took down almost 150 dumplings combined. Funny piece of trivia: Chinese people have no clue what "American chinese food" is. There is one restaurant in Shanghai that serves "ACF" called Fortune Cookie and the majority of its customers (I was told) are expats.

Russ scarfing down a dumpling

- Transportation: The subway system in Shanghai is incredibly clean and efficient. Everything is written in Chinese characters as well as English. The trains are affordable. And they connect you to virtually every part of the city. Having spent my last year and a half riding around on buses, tricycles, and jeepneys, this was a real treat!

- Buddhism: We were really hoping to get more acquainted with Buddhist teachings and customs while in China. Our new local friend Kangming showed us around for two days and provided some great insight as we wander through the Yu Yuan Gardens Buddhist temple.

Big Buddha statue in Yu Yuan Gardens temple

- Chinese history and propaganda: For me, this was the best part of the trip. Russ' friend Cadence had mentioned that we check out the propaganda museum in the French Concession, noting that it is "a little hard to find." After initially walking past it, we walked up to a series of 1980s apartment buildings where the security guard promptly handed us a business card with directions on it. Directions to the museum. 3rd building, take the elevator to the basement. Sketchy? Awaiting for us was a collection of propaganda posters from 1949-1990s. It was incredible to view these pieces of history, particularly those with anti-American sentiments. And once again, having Kangming there allowed us to connect the historical pieces into one timeline.
- Craft beer: This one appropriately goes out to Tracy and Chris. Without them, we would never have found Boxing Cat Brewery, where we indulged on some fine craft brews with dinner. Been too long. Far too many Red Horses have come between me and a delectable Pale Ale.

- Hospitality: Apart from Kangming and Cadence, our teahouse companions and our entertaining foot masseuses, I was very turned off by the locals we encountered as we toured the city. Everyone seemed in a rush. Pushing and shoving people out of the way. In the streets, in the restaurant, on the subway. And few were inclined to assist us in our travels.
- Language: Both a pro and a con, this one closely coincides with hospitality. My Mandarin from college slowly came back to me throughout the trip, but my pronunciation was still rusty. Despite my best efforts, many people were reluctant to assist/correct us, often leading to mix-ups. It was surprising and at times agitating to know that such little English was spoken. But at the same time, it was great to see Chinese people completely comfortable and independent linguistically from the Western world. Russ and I were put in some very uncomfortable, yet humorous situations. Spending time in a country with little to no English tests your own comfortability and forces you to let go, trust yourself, and dive into different customs in order to get by.

China was a great reprieve at a great time. Great food. Wonderful lodging and accommodations (thank you Tracy and Chris!). Cold weather (I know I know, but for me, 40 degrees F is cold). But most importantly, it brought me back to the reasons why I love the Philippines. And with 7 months left, it's nice to take the time to reflect back on the countless life changes and experiences I've had. Here's to the home stretch!

Work updates to come soon...

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Journal entry

Along with this blog, I started a journal for myself when I began my Peace Corps journey last July. It started off as a daily monitoring of my happenings, before going on hiatus when dengue hit me (knock on wood; don't want round two to strike) last August. But I picked it back up again after arriving in Tabaco. The journal is a bit more raw now; a way for me to jot down something important or a thought that visits my brain. No longer an everyday occurrence. It presently sits at a whopping 49 pages (with 9 more months to go!). 

I normally like to keep journal entry's to myself, using this blog as a way to expand and share various topics. But I feel compelled to share a recent entry. Background: this entry was drafted up after a previous conversation with a few other PC volunteers the night before Typhoon Haiyan struck. 

November 26, 2013 - One thought that I just remember I stated a few weeks back the night of the typhoon (not at all related but nonetheless important): “eras” or “ages” come and go without us even realizing it. Looking back on history, how many people actually realized what was happening when it was happening? Like the environmental movement in the 60s. Or even previous World Wars. Or a presidential assassination. We never know exactly how our lives are going to pan out and how the little things we see on the news or throughout our day could end up impacting our world much farther down the line. Even something like music. How much it has changed since I was a teenager. And how my tastes and preferences have changed with what happens around me. So how do we attribute the world around us to our likes and dislikes? Our passions and desires? Are we wearing masks all the time? Are we just going with the trends, afraid to partake in a paradigm shift? Or are we contributing to that change and are the trendsetters ourselves? Bottomline, there are so many external influences that subconsciously influence who we are and who we become. But staying true to your personal attributes and really knowing yourself is the most important thing you can do to differentiate and blaze new trails in a world driven by a competitive lust.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lost in translation

I have been blessed with the ability to pick up foreign languages quickly. But to be fair, I'm not the greatest at staying motivated for retention purposes. I guess I'd like to think of myself as more of an experiential learner these days. Learning on the fly, out in the world, instead of hunched over a textbook or dictionary. And language is one of the best areas of study for this. I can walk around my city and have constant interaction. There is always someone new around, either a group of young kids walking to school or an elderly woman washing clothes. They are always mesmerized by the fact that I can converse with them in their own language (I'm fairly adept in Tagalog and have picked up a bit of the regional dialect Bicol-Albay from locals). The problem I have is that despite my persistence with Tagalog, a majority of these conversations always resort back to English.

I have asked myself over and over again, "why is this?" American influence back in the early 20th Century? English taught in schools? Their perceptions of me as an English-speaking westerner? Translation problems? Sure, all of these play a role. But when it comes down to it, English is commonly seen as a universal language in our world today (although not by all countries). It's also a way for them to practice their skills, and for many, as a means to a better life.

And we help facilitate this. Through media. Through everyday interactions. And through acknowledging that everyone we meet probably knows at least a few basic words. This is generally true in the US, but when I joined Peace Corps, I anticipated that adopting a new language would be a top priority. However, the Philippines has a rich Americanized past, one which has integrated the English language firmly into its society. Sure, many of the people I work with, mainly impoverish fisherfolk, don't speak a lick. But others, including many of my coworkers, are very skilled. So much so that when I can't think of a word in Tagalog, I use the English equivalent and assume that my counterparts or community members understand me. Hell, half the time I hope that someone else will speak to me in English so my brain can take a rest.

My mental struggle is over the sense of pride identified with language. I have come to appreciate a part of this as many Filipinos have exclaimed to me, "it brings me so much joy to here you speak our language." They genuinely care when foreigners take the time to immerse themselves in their culture, in their life. Even when I was in Bali, the warm look on people's faces when you said "suksma" ("thank you") shared so much of their internal gratitude.

Whether its me sharing a bit of English vocab with my host family or an exuberant friend enjoying a playful conversation with me in Tagalog, the satisfaction I can see on their faces is something I will always hold dear. And it certainly helps keep my experiential studies going ;) Language is quite a powerful tool.

Monday, November 11, 2013


I struggled to find the words for this post as there have been so many emotions running through my head the past few days. Helplessness. Frustration. Sadness. Anxiety. Determination. Hope. Courage. Love.

As I stumbled out of my comfortable consolidation hotel Saturday morning, the Legazpi City landscape appeared unchanged. Minor agricultural damage. Trikes and jeepneys whizzing by. No sign of a catastrophic typhoon. I was thankful...and lucky. But as I began the hour trek north back home to Tabaco, I slowly began to feel the after effects of yet another natural disaster for this resilient country...

The top placemark indicates the location of my site. The bottom the location of Tacloban City, Leyte, one of the hardest hit areas. Although the typhoon stretched across 2/3 of the country, it was fairly centralized as the most severe damage was confined to those central islands.

The path of  typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan and the wind speeds experienced throughout the Philippines. Sources: Joint Typhoon Warning Center; National Centers for Environmental Prediction; National Statistical Coordination Board, Philippines; General Statistics Office Of Vietnam.

THE REALITY: the Philippines is a third world country with a predominantly coastal population and a diverse natural landscape. It acts as the first major land mass to receive tropical storms originating in the Pacific, one of the reasons why it commonly sees upwards of 20 storms/typhoons per year. These are only getting worse with climate change (i.e. typhoon haiyan this year and typhoon bopha last year). Additionally, the country's location in the Pacific ring of fire leaves it vulnerable to earthquakes (seen last month) and volcanic eruptions (seen earlier this year). The poverty distribution is extreme, not to mention the lack of resources available. And despite the resourcefulness of Filipinos, many are unable to afford quality housing and supplies, leading to the poor infrastructure we see. All of this contributes to the devastation seen last weekend, particularly in the Eastern Visayan islands of Samar and Leyte, two of the country's poorest islands.

A typical nipa hut made out of bamboo and nipa fronds. Many houses, particularly those in rural, coastal areas, are made of these materials. While beautiful, they are extremely vulnerable, especially when up against hurricane force winds.

The grim reality of this monster is unfolding as I type. The worst is over, but Yolanda/Haiyan unleashed an assault on the Central Visayan islands of Leyte, Samar, Cebu, Negros, and Panay. I'm thankful that all PC volunteers are now safe and accounted for. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for some of the communities they left behind. Homes are destroyed. Thousands are dead. And survivors are wandering the streets in search of food, water, clothing, and shelter. And we call them crazy for looting? They're just trying to survive.

Natural disasters are common occurrences worldwide, and they seem almost inescapable since I've been living here in the Philippines. I understand the position of many of you, trying to grasp the severity of this from overseas. I was in the same predicament last year, witnessing the destruction of Hurricane Sandy and the Midwestern tornadoes. Sadly, much is still unknown about this calamity since internal communication networks have been damaged, thereby slowing information dissemination and relief efforts.

As much as I have come to understand the importance of religion in the Philippines, prayers are no longer enough. Action must be taken. Relief organizations have been extremely active thus far, preparing supplies and personnel to send to affected regions. Small donations can go along way here, so please take the time to support this amazing country and its beautiful, strong-willed people.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Break muna

Destination: Bali, Indonesia. 

It's always nice to have a trip lined up as a Peace Corps volunteer. Something to look forward to on those dog days at site. I had been looking forward to this trip since a group of us started planning it in June, and on October 12, it finally arrived. 

7 days. 8 Peace Corps volunteers. 2 hospitable parents. 1 villa. 

2 days scuba diving. 3 days surfing. 1 day of art and culture. 1 candy land power hour. 

PHEnommmenal food. Shark, turtle, and cuttlefish spottings. A WWI wreck dive. An epic wave (to which I got destroyed). 

Balinese pants. A camel strip tease. A waterslide beer bong. And NO RAIN (I say this with enthusiasm since coming from the Philippines, this was truly a blessing). 

I was originally searching for a laid back, chill vacation. Something different from what we experienced last New Years. As our numbers increased, the more I thought this idea was a mere fantasy. But this trip wouldn't have been the same without our cohesive group. It offered everyone something different and in the end, everyone got out of it exactly what they needed. For me, it was that timeout from my "routine." A break muna as we say in the Philippines. A chance to remove myself from the life I had been accustomed to for the past year. 

As I sat around the dinner table my last night in Bali with my two friends Josh and Dan, we discussed this break muna and how this trip became more than we had ever anticipated. And at the perfect time. The following week was our MST conference, where our entire batch gathered to reflect and share on the past year and look ahead to our next one. 

For me, Bali set the tone for my MST and for my year ahead. My last one as a Peace Corps volunteer. Sure I wanted the time away to escape and in a way, to be reacquainted with western life. But it ultimately ended up being the opposite. Bali became more than a break muna, and reminded me that there is still so much more out there. More people to meet. More places to explore. More culture to soak up. In the Philippines and beyond.

 Our home for the week. Not too shabby thanks to Tito and Tita Crow

 The civet; its poop makes the world's most expensive coffee

 Jeff and our tour guide Wayan enjoying the civet coffee. Wayan wasn't a big fan

 Rachael, Russ, and Melissa (L-R) enjoying a nice stroll through the rice fields to our lunch spot, Sari Organic

 Waiting for the smoke to clear??

 A Balinese temple in Ubud

The Monkey Forest in Ubud. How many can you spot?

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