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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Staying in the moment

Wrapping up service causes volunteers to think about what life will be like back home, what questions we will be asked, how things have changed (both internally and externally) over 2 years, how people have changed, etc. Emotional for sure and difficult to put into words. Two years is long no matter where you are, and so much happens within that time. I do not expect each person to express interest in every detail of my service, just as I probably won't want to hear every bit about their past two years, because everyone is different. That isn't meant to project negativity but reality. So in writing this post, I want to share some of my most important observations because I believe they correspond to more than just my experience, but transcend life in general.

Stay in the moment. If there is one thing I have learned throughout my Peace Corps service, this would be it. I have said it time and time again throughout this blog, but it has become even more noticeable for me as my service comes to a close. There is so much to look forward to in the next few months: travel plans, my ongoing reunion with family and friends, home cooked meals, Chipotle burritos, craft beers, falling leaves, snow, holidays, the smell of a bonfire or Christmas tree. I could go on and on. As I think of these things combined with the emotions that seem to be inescapable upon return, I try and remind myself that I am still here in the Philippines. That I still have 3 weeks left before my COS. If we are in a rush to move on to future activities, we will never be able to appreciate those in front of us. Enjoy the moments, or as I recently heard "let the moments seize you."

Observing changes through a screen. Though I haven't had a face-to-face connection with friends and family (aside from my parents) in over 2 years, it has been amazing to see their changes through a computer screen. Whether it's a Facebook message, pictures, employment updates, or a Skype call, I've been able to be a part of a life-changing event (i.e. wedding announcement), vacation, new job, or just personal maturation. These moments have allowed me to stay connected while observing from a far. A truly unique and invaluable perspective.

Planning isn't everywhere. The Philippines has forced me to live and plan on a day-to-day basis (outside of my personal travel). Filipinos think on a daily or monthly basis, not annually. When asking someone how much they make, a response might be "10,000 pesos/month," not "120,000 pesos/year." This principal carries over into all facets of living and stands in stark contrast to how we operate in America. The concept of planning ahead isn't seen as important because in many cases, people are trying to make ends meet daily.

Stay open minded. Part of being a Peace Corps volunteer is sharing American culture with locals, while also learning about theirs and sharing it with the world (what I hope I have done through this blog). As someone who has had the opportunity to travel, interact with locals and form relationships, and see some incredible sights, it's extremely difficult not to generalize. It's natural to gauge an outsider's perceptions of your country by asking "what do you think of (i.e. the Philippines, America)?" On the flip side, sharing your own perceptions of your country with an outsider is just as hard because of the diversity that exists in our world. I can share my thoughts and experiences of America with Filipinos, but they are commonly understood as "this is what Americans are like," not "this is what (i.e. Rochester, New York, South Carolina) is like." The same applies to the Philippines. I have spent the majority of my time here in the Bicol region, so naturally, most of my observations are related to the people/my experiences there, not the country as a whole. Being able to hold back judgement while continuing to observe and engage is key, especially when finding yourself in a foreign environment.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Whirlwind...literally!

My time grows thin here in the Philippines. Close of Service (COS) is upon us, with our wrap-up conference next week in Bohol and my COS date set for September 12. And as of yesterday, my stateside arrival is set for September 29! Apologizes for not writing these past few months. My free time/internet availability has been limited, and my mind has been preoccupied elsewhere. But after a wonderful trip up to Northern Luzon, a Special Olympics event...cut short by...Typhoon Glenda, COS Medical, and a bro trip to Ilocos, I find myself in the friendly, air-conditioned confines of the Peace Corps office with ample electricity and internet at my disposal.

To bring you up to speed, June once again marked the start of the rainy season, and in Tabaco, it also marks fiesta season. This year I was a bit more involved as my office invited me to partake in the cultural night, where each LGU office presents a dance number. I was more than happy to join, knowing of course that this meant daily dance practice. As a seasoned veteran, I knew very well that fiesta season means limited trabaho ("work"), so at least I had something else to occupy my time at the office.

A few of my coworkers and I before our dance routine

This is not to say my June was a vacation (just wait til I get to July...). Our Save the Rivers, Save the Sea Program was in full swing and we managed to fine tune our needs assessment questionnaire and organize a pre-test before the students surveyed almost 300 participants in 3 barangays. The data encoding process is currently taking place.

The commencement of fiesta coincided with the conclusion of my online economics course. So naturally, relaxation set in...up north :) My new favorite spot in the Philippines, the mountainous provinces of Ifagao, Mountain Province, and Benguet offer a reprieve from the hot and muggy lowlands. Pine trees and rice terraces dot the landscape, and beef and organic produce abound. It was a magical week, even despite the spontaneous rain showers and treacherous bus rides through the mountains.

Jackie and I at the famous rice terraces of Batad

Myself, Jackie, and our tour guide

Jackie and I inside the "Big Cave" in Sagada. The sandstone formations, shown, allowed us to walk barefoot for part of the time

Surrounded by the lush green of the rice paddies

Just last week, I was able to conclude my travel around the Philippines with a mancation to the far north and the province of Ilocos Norte. Russ, Zac, and Josh brought the laughs, and the 4 of us had a great time celebrating the Camel's 26th birthday while reminiscing about our experiences and making new ones. Highlights included an organic dragonfruit farm, beach lounging and paddle-boarding, and off-road sand duning.

Myself, Russ, Zac, and Josh at the La Paz Sand Dunes

July also brought about the biggest PC event I have ever been a part of. 3 PCVs in Legazpi organized a Special Olympics event for the province featuring close to 300 athletes and over 150 volunteers, including over 40 PCVs! It was a two-day event held at Bicol University, which attracted so much attention that even the U.S. Ambassador made an appearance. For more info and pictures, check out the Facebook page at the link below: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Special-Olympics-Albay/256499864559786.

Sadly, the event was cut short by yet another natural disaster (it seems like they've been never ending since I arrived!). Typhoon Glenda struck around 5 P.M. Tuesday night, bringing heavy rain and strong winds. All volunteers were consolidated once again to hotels in Legazpi. Unfortunately for the Bicol Region, we weren't so fortunate this year. The next day, as we ventured out of the hotel to assess the damage, we were greeted by hundreds of uprooted trees, toppled power lines, and flattened homes. I was fortunate to receive minimal damage to my home, but many others weren't as fortunate. Luckily, few casualties occurred. At this time, we remain without power in Tabaco and current timetables for return vary (lots of tsika-tsika, or "gossip"). The streets are pitch black at night, while the steady hum of a few generators can be heard in the distance. During these times, Filipinos resort to candles, prayer, and  for some, a good ol' tagay ("drinking circle"). Even in the darkness, sleep is limited as I can feel the sweat slowly trickle down my spine.

Still playing 'ball



It is in these times that I have learned to temper my expectations. My service might conclude in September without power. Some of my projects may be incomplete. That's only reality, and in the developing world, it is important to take everything with a grain of salt and roll with the punches. Situations I previously would have called chaotic or unique now seem normal.

I was reminded last night that my Peace Corps placement here in the Philippines highlighted my strengths and catered to my lifestyle. I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve in a singing, dancing, scuba diving, basketball-loving country whose people welcome you with a smile (and maybe a "Hey Joe..."), a plate full of food, and a conversation in their best English (even though you insist you know Tagalog). Even the day after a typhoon.

With a smile :)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The road ahead

I've been quite reflective these past few weeks as I begin to plan ahead a bit and realistically think about my future post-Peace Corps, and I have begun to reflect back on how I got to this point in the first place. Of course, circumstances and situations have arisen that have given me certain direction (i.e. the email my mother sent me back in the Fall of 2010 which prompted me to research Peace Corps). But digging a bit deeper, it seems to be our innate qualities that cause us to behave in a particular manner, i.e. choose a salad over that ever-tempting cheesecake, or direct us whether or not to pack that umbrella on the slight chance that the cloudy day turns rainy. These qualities help us make decisions, which in turn shape our path in life. How we move forward. And how we utilize our past and present to mold our future.

ANONYMOUS: So why are you thinking about the future when there is so much going on in the present? You're always talking about staying in and embracing the moment, Andrew. Have you given up on your philosophy?
ME: Quite the opposite. I am firmly entrenched where I am right now. But there will always be situations lying ahead that, if unaddressed, will add more stress and chaos to our lives. My reflective state has given me the chance to see things come full circle. Knowing that time is finite, I'm trying to strike a balance and allocate my time in ways that provide me happiness now and put me in a better position to be content down the line. That and a few other reasons:
  1. "Senioritis" - 3-4 months left in my Peace Corps service. Summer in the Philippines (cue brownouts and the monotony/boredom that accompany them). And projects winding down (ironically, I'm busier than ever between the Save the Rivers, Save the Sea Program, an online grad school class, and multiple side projects).
  2. "The Planner" - Despite my heavy procrastination skills, I'm always planning ahead. This allows me to prepare for the unexpected, which usually occurs a few months down the line (waiting for it...).
  3. "Within uncertainty lies a degree of certainty" - I feel like someone has said that before, hence the quotes. Although I'm not entirely sure where my life is headed, I know that come January 2015, I will be moving back to Charleston to finish my Master's.
I have always tried to take the "road less travelled" approach (hence the title of this blog) ever since my father walked his "Camino" 13 years ago. From Rochester to Scranton. Scranton to Charleston. Charleston to Tabaco City. What lies ahead remains a mystery post-Grad School. The fact that there is uncertainty ahead keeps things interesting ;)

On an unrelated note, please check out the following link for a project I have coming up with other PCVs this August - Camp BRO: https://fundly.com/leadership-camp-for-young-men-in-the-philippines

Monday, May 26, 2014

Connecting to the world



Many of you may have already seen this video. I get choked up a bit each time I watch it. A strong statement is made about our growing love for technology and social media, but I believe the stronger one lies in the need for and benefit of communication. This means face-to-face, with words spelling out from the mouth, not through a keypad. If this video doesn't make it clear, communication with others forms the backbone of our relationships, whether it be with a friend, a partner, a co-worker, or a teammate. Concealing behind a screen or glued to a TV disconnects us from others, and minimizes our opportunity to discover ourselves. Witnessing and reflecting on both good and bad communicative experiences throughout my Peace Corps service has enabled me to see its importance. Communication entails the sharing of thoughts, feelings, and opinions. It involves speaking our mind freely and clearly. And through it, others see who we truly are. The possibilities from there make life so invigorating.

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: https://www.facebook.com/savetheriverssavethesea.

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)

Pros
- 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.

Cons
- 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...

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