Sunday, June 28, 2009

Volunteering Before I Volunteer

Sometimes things seem harder than they should be and therefore just aren’t meant to be. And other times, things just fall into your lap. After searching and emailing and calling various organizations in New Orleans as well as Habitat for Humanity branches in the tri-state area, I concluded that it wasn’t meant to be – I can go to New Orleans next winter, and maybe volunteer locally with Habitat sometime when I return.

And then a service opportunity came my way. When my sister comes out here, she walks on the beach, and last year she started collecting trash on her walks. Last weekend she said she wanted to start a blog about the trash, and I set it up for her. Check it out at She’s in New York City during the week and this weekend, so I have been collecting and photographing the trash in her stead. I do feel as though this is my service project – for the community here, and also for my sister! When we were setting up the blogs we googled variations of “trash on the beach” and one of the first pictures that came up was of Manila Bay! Coincidence?

This coming week, if I am here (which is still to be determined), I’m going to participate in a more formal beach cleanup out in Quogue, with Peconic Baykeeper. This warms my heart not only because I can do it for (and with!) my sister, but also because a friend of mine is the Executive Director of Save the Bay in San Francisco and another friend was Executive Director of what is now called Milwaukee Riverkeeper. Our water is a precious resource!

The beach I’ve been cleaning is on the ocean, and the bay I’d be cleaning is brackish; all too soon, I’ll have to stay out of fresh water – in the Philippines there’s schistosomiasis, which wikipedia calls “the second most socioeconomically devastating parasitic disease after malaria.” Go to wikipedia to learn more – warning though, it’s not mealtime or bedtime reading! To leave on a positive note, I’ll mention International Coastal Cleanup Day, September 19, 2009 – even though it’s sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy, you can also clean up lakes and rivers! Let’s all do it!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Other PCRVs

I thought it would be interesting to learn what the other PCRVs who will be arriving when I do will be doing. Peace Corps can’t tell me their names until they are medically cleared (I’m glad that I am already medically cleared!) but these are their position descriptions:

Community Infrastructure/Building Designer
Gawad Kalinga Community Development Foundation, Inc. (GK) is requesting four Peace Corps Response volunteers to create site development plans and community infrastructure designs to rehabilitate existing informal settler communities within Metro Manila. The purpose of the project is to transform settler communities into safer and more secure environments for residents and visitors alike, and to transform existing slum communities into decent communities. In close collaboration with the partnering organization, the PCRVs will be responsible for reviewing previous and current project implementation; designing site-specific infrastructure and a site development plan; presenting designs for approval of all stakeholders; providing technical assistance; and supervising project implementation to ensure that designs are strictly followed to maintain proper safety standards.

Architect and Landscape Planner, Construction Supervisor
Stairway Foundation, Inc. (SFI) is a resource center for the protection and promotion of children’s rights. Stairway is in the process of renovating and expanding its residential and training facilities and is requesting a Peace Corps Response volunteer to develop an overall plan and design a complex that is functional and conducive for therapy, education, training and physical as well as mental development. The PCRV will be responsible for developing an overall plan and design for the Resource Center complex to include topography, sewage, plumbing and electrical plans. In addition, the PCRV will be asked to map out topography and vegetation on Stairways mountain property (10 hectares), and give suggestions for the development of a future school for the indigenous people on the site.

Special Education (SPED) Teacher/Expert
Taw-Kabui for a Child, Incorporated is a non-governmental, faith-based and community-based center for special children in Puerto Princesa City. The organization is requesting a Peace Corps Response volunteer to develop the capacity of teachers at the Center to effectively use accepted SPED methods, strategies and techniques to support the educational development of children with learning disabilities. The PCRV will work daily at the Center to provide technical assistance on the knowledge, attitude and skills required to teach special children to co-teachers through demonstrations and focus group discussions. The PCRV will also be responsible for preparing and developing program materials and a teaching guide with the teachers; reviewing and enhancing Individual Educational Plans for teachers; and enhancing assessment and evaluation materials for the children and their parents.

Note - Puerto Princesa City is the capital of Palawan, south of Luzon (where Manila is) and west of the Western Visayas, where most of the well-known tourist beaches are. I was writing in my other blog about UNESCO World Heritage Sites and I looked up the ones in the Philippines – Puerto Princesa is the home of one, a subterranean river, so maybe I will visit that PRCV!

And this is the position description for the PCRV who will be starting with Habitat for Humanity Philippines in September (at least it was planned for September when I was leaving in June; I wonder if that has changed…):

Impact Assessment Officer
The Habitat for Humanity Foundation, Inc. (HFHP) is requesting one Peace Corps Response volunteer to conduct impact assessments of HFHP’s community development project. The PCRV will be responsible for measuring the effectiveness of the project on the target communities; developing recommendations on how to approach and improve community-relations and key relationships that will impact future operations of the project; organizing and participating in stakeholder consultations and meetings; ensuring the timely delivery of required outputs (i.e. progress reports); and conducting a presentation of the results or findings, as well as recommendations from the impact assessment for key HFHP staff.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Suggested Packing List

This is what the Philippines Welcome Book recommends packing – for the people who are going to spend two years in a rural site, that is. The list contains so many comments that I’ll refrain from making my own for now (I’ll also leave out the suggested clothing for men and the suggested additional items to have ready in a box to be sent to those people who end up in cold mountain areas). As it gets closer, I’ll talk about my own packing. I did bring a lot of what the Morocco Welcome Book recommended!
For women:
- 5 casual pants and/or capris or skirts for work
- 2 pairs of jeans (no rips or shredding)
- 4 pairs of shorts that extend to mid-thigh or knee
- 6 work shirts/tops (like polos)
- 4 casual cotton t-shirts (nothing with a deep “v”) for non-work days
- one nice dress or skirt and top for official, more formal occasions such as swearing-in and courtesy calls to government officials
- 2 modest one-piece bathing suits (if one gets ruined it is hard to find a replacement locally), board shorts and a two-piece for vacation
- 20 pairs of underwear (anything larger than a size 8 is hard to find locally)
- 5 bras (anything larger than a size 36B is hard to find locally)
- 6 pairs of socks
- comfortable work shoes – flats or nice sandals
- flip flops
- Teva or Keen work sandals
- sneakers or running shoes
- cheap “don’t care if you lose them” earrings
Miscellaneous items:
- headlamp
- ipod with speakers or CDs and CD player
- 2 lightweight,, super-absorbent quick dry body towels
- USB/flash drive
- rechargeable batteries and charger (AA and AAA batteries)
- tampons (very hard to find locally)
- Swiss Army knife or Leatherman
- Ziploc bags in different sizes
- Durable backpack enough for a 5-day trip
- Recreational equipment – hacky sack, Frisbee, snorkel and mask
- Photos of your family, friends, pets to show your community
- Digital camera with airtight container to protect it when not in use
- Sunglasses
- 2 cotton sheets – flat sheet only, queen size with pillowcases
- money belt
- Nalgene water container with replacement lid as they tend to break
- small gifts for host families

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Apple, Habitat, Peace Corps and Travel Warnings

I had just posted about computer stress on when more computer stress came my way. Coincidence? My power cord frayed; the exposed wires were a little unnerving, to say the least – and then the power cord gave up entirely. Also my battery may not be holding its charge, and my fan has been on more than usual. I’m going into Manhattan tomorrow and will bring my computer in for a checkup – all I can say is that I’m glad this happened now and not a month from now.

This week I am doing anyway some of what I had planned to do when I thought I would be leaving this coming weekend. First, I read the Habitat for Humanity Philippines web site and Annual Report – I had skimmed them and printed them out for my non-profit class but hadn’t really read them yet. I ended up not using them for the class, but reading them makes me again wonder – what can I do? They seem to have a lot of partners already and a solid marketing plan. Of course, I am sure I will bring a fresh perspective and lots of expertise. I don’t want to think of too many ideas until I see things for myself – I have to do what they want to do, not impose my own thoughts of what I think they should do! See how well I learned that from Peace Corps Morocco?

Reading the Annual Report caused the proverbial light bulb to go off above my head – since I am here for an extra few weeks, maybe I can volunteer with a Habitat for Humanity group nearby to get in some volunteering before I volunteer! I was looking for a place to go on July 4th weekend (I won’t see how they celebrate July 4th in the Philippines after all). First I thought I would go to New Orleans – I have wanted to help out there since Katrina. Then I thought I would go to a Habitat site nearby. Then I went to and to find anything for July 4th – turns out it is just not a volunteer holiday. So I’m making other plans – but also thinking about going to a Habitat site nearby during the week for a day or two in the next couple of weeks.

I also read the Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook – I had read it back in 2006, of course, but they sent me a new one for a refresher. Reading it, I remember how overwhelming it seemed back then – I never questioned my decision once I decided to go, but reading about the potential hardships and all of the policies, I realize I took quite a leap of faith. I’m also reading the Peace Corps Philippines Welcome Book one more time before I leave; I read that back in April.

And I’m in the middle of reading all the Travax printouts that the travel medicine clinics gave me – not only for the Philippines but also for other countries in Southeast Asia to which I could potentially travel. So many diseases and other warnings – crime, dangers for women traveling alone, civil unrest, natural disasters. Another leap of faith required! Either that or I should stop reading the warnings and be content with my vaccinations.

And my new ski lock. Recently I read a column in the Times by Nicholas Kristof ( on safety precautions to take when traveling in developing countries. One I decided to implement was buying a ski lock so I can lock my bag when on a train or in a budget hotel. Had I known, I’d have gotten one before Morocco! In truth, I really decided to get it after reading about some of the volunteer accommodations in New Orleans. But it can’t hurt to have one with me now.

Monday, June 15, 2009

And Now, a New End Date

When I learned of my new confirmed departure date, I asked whether the end date had changed and when it would be – it’s January 9, 2010 (1/9/10 is a pretty cool date). So that means that I’ll experience the holiday season there, as well as another birthday overseas. I had some ideas about post-COS travel – I figured I’d at least travel through the holidays, but now I’ll be working through the holidays – so now I’ll think about it some more. Maybe not too much more (after all, plan-as-I-go worked well this past winter!) but maybe at least enough to buy a travel book or two. I do think that wherever I go, I’ll stop in Los Angeles on the way back and take Amtrak across the country; that seems romantic.

Over this past weekend I started buying toiletries – I am trying to strike a balance between assuming I can get everything I need and buying starter supplies of things I can’t live without; then if I can’t find more, I can have them sent. Things I can’t live without – well, on the way to Morocco it was Colgate Great Regular Flavor, but due to sugary-tea-overbrushing I am now a Sensodyne user (so I can live without Colgate after all). As time wore on, it was Q-Tips (no other swab will do) and Secret Unscented. I bought those this weekend, along with some Hefty zipper bags. I may buy eye drops and eyelid scrubs (recommended by the eye doctor who I saw in New York when I got here) – in a six-(or more?) month supply. Those shouldn’t take up much room (inshallah). When I thought I was leaving in a week I’d planned on a trial packing this weekend (to see if, for example, I would have to send the travel book or two rather than pack them, or if there was room for running shoes) but now I’ll wait until it gets closer. I still know my suitcase pretty well.

Also over the weekend, there was a big More Peace Corps rally in Washington. The National Peace Corps Association was looking for testimony and I wrote about my status, saying that Peace Corps Response could be a bigger program with a bigger budget. They said they might read my testimony at the rally. I also made up some business cards and change-of-address labels. Contact me if you'd like my mailing address if you don’t get a postcard from me by mid-July.

And I just heard that I am medically cleared! Hoorah! That’s a big hurdle over! I also heard that I will be flying from JFK to Tokyo and then on to Manila. Two other PRCVs will have the same itinerary.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Visa - Can't Leave Home Without It

Along with yesterday’s email was an attachment explaining the visa process. At least four Philippine government organizations are involved in the process:
- The Philippine National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency (visa process)
- The National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (security clearance)
- The Department of Foreign Affairs (sends cable to Philippine embassy in Washington)
- Philippine Embassy Washington
And at least two American government organizations:
- Peace Corps Washington
- Peace Corps Philippines
Much coordination and collaboration involved. The agencies are particular and changes are not always communicated. Two years ago, the visas for the incoming volunteers weren’t ready until the day before departure – someone had to pick them up at the embassy and fly them to Los Angeles for the last day of staging – and this is only because it went to a higher level up the chain of command. Changes had to be made in the clearances of 46 of 66 invitees because they pulled info from biodata or resumes, and the names were not exact matches for the passports. So now they use only the passport or passport application and they are considering adding time between close of invitations and staging, though this could affect getting a full stage; they are looking for other ways to improve the process. Additional issues for PCRVs in the past were that Post (i.e. Peace Corps Philippines) received official info only after medical clearance and not simultaneously and that Peace Corps Response and Post did not know that the visa applications had to be notarized.

There was a long timeline at the end of the attachment, detailing the process for the last batch of volunteers. Their staging was last August; assuming they have one training group per year, that means I’ll get to the country about a month ahead of the next group of two-year volunteers. Again, I wonder how much contact I will have with them. I was told there would be another PRCV at Habitat for Humanity Philippines starting in September – I wonder if his or her departure date has changed as well. No answer yet as to whether I have a new end date and what that might be.

Some good news though – my dental records were mailed back to Peace Corps. Part of me wants to know where Peace Corps had mailed them to, but I think it’s better not to ask….

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A New Confirmed Departure Date (Later Than the Old Confirmed Departure Date)

On Sunday night I reorganized most of my stuff. A box of winter clothes (and one interview outfit) to be sent to Martha – I’ll stop and get them on my return, and give her any non-jettisoned summer clothes. A box of winter clothes and interview clothes for here, where (inshallah) I’ll base myself again. A box of things that I won’t really need until I get to my next apartment. A few things to use before I leave (such as my running clothes for a 5K this weekend – I am leaning towards not taking them), and the rest to be packed in my suitcase.

Yesterday I was in Philadelphia, where I had my final shots (third shot in both the rabies series and in the Japanese encephalitis series), and I heard from my doctor that that last sample I dropped off was normal. So with that last hurdle conquered, there should be nothing holding up my medical clearance. On the way back from Philadelphia I thought of all the things I wanted to do between now and my confirmed departure date of June 21 or 22 (that did give me pause – I think it was the 21st over the phone and the 22nd in an email) and I thought I would call on Friday just to make sure all systems were go for leaving next week.

And then I looked at my email this morning – now I have a confirmed departure date of July 12. Given the extensive visa process (maybe I’ll devote an entry to that) this should allow time for all visas to be processed and for all seven PCRVs (who knew?) to have the same arrival date. This correspondence seemed pretty official so maybe this really is the date.

In the email we were all thanked for our flexibility and patience – which was a reminder of how often I said that being in the Peace Corps, and being in Morocco, made me more flexible and patient!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Case of the Missing Dental Records

I mentioned to someone that Peace Corps sends everything Fed Ex – it seems somewhat extravagant but I read somewhere that too much got lost in the mail. And now it seems that my dental records are lost in the mail – so now that doesn’t seem so extravagant! All right, the blog post title might not be the most compelling if it were the title of a book, but it is worth noting that I’ve been reading quite a few fun mysteries lately (and it’s a tip of the hat to Nancy Drew – my sister told me that the two female Supreme Court justices and new female nominee have a love of Nancy Drew in common).

On May 18, the dental records were sent – against procedure for Peace Corps Response – regular mail, also against procedure. I was in Chicago at the time, and when they didn’t arrive at my forwarding address there, we assumed they went to the Southampton address I had given them. But now I’m back in Southampton and they’re not here either. Could they have gone to my power of attorney in California, where my cash-in-lieu and readjustment checks went? Sure, but my friend there would tell me. Could they have gone to my 2006 pre-Peace Corps Chicago address? That’s the address on my dental records, but I would have thought the postal service would return them to sender, since I haven’t lived there for over two years.

Anyway, I did get the bitewings while I was in Chicago, and I Fed Exed them back along with the visa application last week. And today the screening nurse told me that – records or no records – the dentist will clear me. Good news! Though it would be even better if the records turn up, since, after all, they are my records! My dentist in Chicago has records pre-2006 and again for 2009, but the only Morocco records may be in that envelope somewhere.

In the meantime, under the category of Things Under My Control, I made an appointment for my last shots. I’ll get them in a travel clinic in Philadelphia when I go next week to take the Foreign Service written test. For Chicago I needed a prescription but not a consultation – for Philadelphia I have a mandatory $100 consultation even though the shots I need are the third in a series and it must be obvious that I had a consultation or prescription or both to get the first two. I assume I’ll be reimbursed but even so, I don’t have an option. I must have those shots on that day or the next day – not a day earlier and not more than a day later!

And as for the fun mysteries – I had some energy work done on Monday and the therapist told me that I need to have more fun. It made me realize that, mysteries aside, I haven’t been having all that much fun lately – working on schoolwork, thinking about things that I feel have to get done before I leave. If I’m not having enough fun now, what will it be like when I start to work again?