Saturday, January 23, 2010

Month Six in Haiku

Really just three weeks
It’s exactly twenty-six
And it went by fast

Birthday tradition
You buy food for the office
Pepperoni ‘za

Hot water heater
Not too late to enjoy it
I like hot showers!

Under the weather
Cold, achey, coughing and such
Really, first time here

Final status rep
Marketing strategy too
Tying up loose ends

Visiting Bajaus
Small business consultation
Displaced sea gypsies

Said they’d donate – that’s good news
Packing my big box

Mindoro weekend
Stairway stage, waterfall hike
Nice Mangyan baskets

Talk with founder Lars
There’s consulting potential
Princeton interviews

COS process
Paperwork, reports
Still other work too

Final report, PN-VS-CA
DOS, more forms

Making the food rounds
Pizza, sushi, other faves
Miss most? Mango shakes!

Last Habitat build
We moved dirt and had fun
Oh – Jackie Chan too!

Tayabas Ayta
After a fast 5K run
Interesting culture

Exit conferences
Tony/Milo, PN-VS-CA
New Habitat pres

Country Director
Milo again, dental, med
Lots of signatures

Goodbyes and farewells
Hard to believe it’s over
Mt. Pinatubo

Glad that I’ll come back
Before I take off for good
Will it hit me then?

I’ve had a great time
Loved the work and the country
And the friends I’ve made

Some Pictures from Week Twenty-Six

The box:

Me, Mary, Mercedes:

The gang at the pension:

I'm a Returned Peace Corps Response Volunteer:

Capas (Tarlac) Shrine:

From the 4x4:

Pinatubo hike:

Pinatubo crater:


Back in August in the middle of the rainy season, some foreign tourists on Mt. Pinatubo were caught in a landslide and killed, and the Safety and Security Director put trekking there off-limits to Peace Corps volunteers. I had seen Kate’s pictures and really wanted to go; he told me I could go when I was no longer a PCRV. So I saved January 23 for it. But I still didn’t want to go if it wasn’t safe! So I kept calling him; after all, it hasn’t rained for a while (flash floods are the danger there). This week, he called to tell me it was okay to go, and as of yesterday, the restriction was lifted.

Mt. Pinatubo was quiet for centuries until a violent eruption in 1991. The volcano lost 300 meters in height, the ash and rock column went 40 meters into the air, ash and rock covered Angeles, Clark and Subic Bay. At the time a typhoon raged, turning the ash into volcanic mud, which rerouted rivers and buries villages. If I recall, world-wide temperatures were cooler that summer because fine ash particles blew all the way across the Pacific

It meant getting up early again – lots of staying up late and getting up early these past couple of weeks; I can rest when I get back (maybe?). But I didn’t (and couldn’t) get there early enough; I had to wait for a few hours until the first 4X4s returned so I could be in the second wave. I shared the trip with two pairs of Germans, all of whom walked at a brisk pace! The 4X4 drive was along a riverbed (I could see the flash flood potential) lined with eroded lahar (volcanic mudflow). Some vegetation is coming back, and we passed some grazing carabao and cows and a couple of small Aeta settlements. From the end of the 4X4 ride there was a 45-minute hike to the crater, first passing some dramatic formations and then narrowing to a forested path that crossed the stream several times. I didn’t realize how big or how beautiful the crater and its lake would be; it was definitely worth it!

On the way to Pinatubo, I stopped at a shrine that marked the final point of the Bataan death march, on the site of the concentration camp where so many died. I had heard about this monument and thought it would be a nice way to cap off my WWII visits, but I didn’t realize that it was right on the way to Pinatubo until my (ex!) supervisor mentioned it earlier this week – I’m glad I went! There’s a big obelisk – its three parts represent the Philippines, the U.S. and Japan – and then a wall of names.

Would I have gone to Pinatubo anyway when no longer a PCV? Probably; that’s why I had the date in my head. That’s not to say I didn’t break any rules during my service. Last year when after I COSed I confessed to some of my violations – so I guess in keeping with this tradition, let me say that I may have ridden on the back of a motorcycle in Siquijor (honestly, I think I had a memory lapse and I thought only driving one was a violation; I got back and realized that merely being on one is – oops!). I may have ridden on the top of a full jeepney between Bontoc and Banaue, twisting through the mountains (line of the year – Me: Are we about to do something illegal? Bill: I think we’re doing something fun!) and I may have ridden on the top of a full bus in Bohol (and then on another motorcycle when even the top of the bus back was too full). I may have returned my life vest early and then taken boat rides without it (including one to the Caramoan peninsula when the boat also didn’t have any life vests – all the time watching the shoreline and reassuring myself that I could swim that far). But then again, I may not have done any of those things. Hey, I’m glad the Pinatubo restriction was lifted! A number of people suggested that I go to Mindanao (which has safe, beautiful parts) when no longer a PCV and subject to those restrictions – instead, it will go on the list of possible places to visit in a return to the Philippines.

Now it’s off to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – which will be chronicled in travelsinthe (eventually). In two and a half weeks, I come back here for a few more days – an overnight at the Farm and a last surfing weekend. I’ll be staying at the pension every other night while in Manila. They need my room here in Pasig! I’d gladly have stayed, but part of me likes the closure of staying in the pension where it all began. I’m glad I’m not saying goodbye to the Philippines just yet.

Side Notes

With the holiday billboards and ads over, now political ads are popping up everywhere. The elections this spring are going to be very interesting; I’ll have to follow from afar. Some of the volunteers, who are in spots where there could be some unrest, are going to be evacuated from their sites for about two weeks; I think there may be travel restrictions on everyone. This country has a lot going for it but it also has so many issues….

As does Haiti – several people at work thought I would go there next. Peace Corps was in Haiti but has not been there for years; there are about 500 RPCVs from Haiti. The Peace Corps networks are abuzz with ideas though, and it seems likely that there will be some Peace Corps Response effort there – after all, that’s what Peace Corps Response is all about. I don’t know when they’d need someone of my background – but maybe by the time they figure out a role, it might be more along the lines of what I can offer than of immediate relief; many agencies do that well already. I would guess that French and/or Creole might be required, so I am not packing my bags (that is, I am not keeping my bags packed!), but if I could help, I would go!

The Country Director is of Haitian descent and her husband is Haitian. He’s a doctor who works for a big international agency, so after the earthquake he offered to help, and he was on a plane the next day. That also enabled him to look for loved ones. The more I read and hear, the more overwhelming it sounds. Poor Haiti.

Beryl, the PCRV who started the week after we did, is COSing next week, and Michael, the last PCRV to arrive, is med-sepping next week. It would have been nice to see them; if there is a celebration I will be there in spirit!

Friday, January 22, 2010

My Last Week as a PCRV - Part Two

On Wednesday morning I had a last coffee with the Wharton alum I’ve had a few coffees with – he added a dimension to my time here. And then Charlie and I took the MRT to PNVSCA, the Philippines National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency, for an exit interview. When we had gone there during orientation the van ride took forever in the traffic; it was an easy MRT ride! Manila seemed so big and overwhelming then – it still is, but we know it now. The exit interview was good – the concept behind PNVSCA, coordinating the efforts of all of the international volunteers here (as well as those of Filipino volunteers who serve abroad), is good. It seems bureaucratic to us, but the exit interview made me feel that there are people who are genuinely concerned.

Charlie and I had sushi lunch at the mall (and I had a mango shake) and then I went back to Habitat. I know, I had said my farewells, but the new president (he started at the beginning of the month) wanted to have an exit interview as well. My supervisor had given him a copy of my final status report and my final report to Peace Corps and he had gone through them line by line and had questions. Then he asked my opinion of things in general and what I would do if I were he; he also told me some of the immediate things he is dealing with (the Philippines is the only Habitat country that does the medium-rises, and International brought in a team to make sure the design was earthquake-resistant – turns out it may not be. And Manila had an earthquake, magnitude 4.0, just the other week (I didn’t feel it)). I didn’t realize how good it would feel to have someone go through my report in detail and ask for my thoughts and observations. And this from the new president of the organization, no less. I’ll have to keep in touch to see what new directions Habitat for Humanity Philippines takes!

Yesterday, I brought my big box to the Peace Corps office for mailing. How nice that they help you get your things home! My box was overweight (no surprise) so I had to split it into two boxes. This was fine, actually – I had only gotten the big box because that’s what the store had. Inside the big box was a smaller box, all taped up and ready to go, of things that can wait until I get to the imaginary studio apartment. Everything else, I just put back in the big box; the mailroom man will cut it to size and air-mail it, while the things that can wait will go by boat! I’m not going to say how much it cost to mail everything back. At least it was only one big box’s worth of stuff.

I had my exit interview with the Country Director that afternoon. She’s very low-key and the interview wasn’t structured, so I felt I rambled. I didn’t have an agenda per se, but I think I managed to tell her everything I meant to tell her. I felt good afterwards. Then Mary and I met at Starbucks and after coffee we went over to the pension; I’d had dinner there last week with Lynn, one of the PCVs I met at the build. The food is good and it’s nice to sit at one of the outdoor tables, so I proposed an all-PCRV dinner there. For a while it was just Mary, Mercedes and me, and eventually everyone came. Really nice to sit and talk and relax. Usually Peace Corps Response volunteers come and go one at a time, but it’s been nice to have this group, this community. I came up with a fun idea – the DOS (Description of Service) document is a template where you fill in the blanks with the particulars of your service; I proposed DOS Mad Libs, and everyone at dinner contributed a sentence.

This morning I took my big suitcase to the pension, where they’ll store it while I am inVietnam. That will probably be overweight too, but I am getting rid of some clothes, and I did budget my toiletries well. Then I had an exit interview with Milo. I had a chance to tell him about some of the dynamics at Habitat that I have only hinted at in my monthly reports and haven’t said much about here either – overall I am very pleased with the organization, with the independence I had, and with what I accomplished and what I leave them with, but, as one of the people I worked with said, maybe they could have used me better; I thought Milo should know.

Milo then took the group out for lunch (a Peace Corps Philippines tradition – not so in Morocco – but Morocco had the “stamping out” that was a sweet little ceremony, providing some closure). I got all of my signatures but I’m not technically done – the Description of Service and Certificate of Health weren’t signed by the Country Director, so they’ll be waiting for me at the pension when I come back here. It was good to say goodbye and thank you but not farewell. Tonight there’s a party at the guys’ house – the PRCVs and some of the current PCVs, who are in town for a meeting, will be there. Maybe the finality will sink in and I’ll feel more of an impact when I leave the Philippines in February – or maybe I’m just living in the moment and going with the flow.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

My Last Week as a PCRV - Part One

I knew that even with only a few appointments on the schedule that it would be a whirlwind week, and I was right! The whole six months has gone by fast, but this week more than most.

Monday was my last day in the office, and it was a busy one. I sent out thank-you notes for and pictures from the build, followed up on things from the exit conference, wrote to my World-Wise Schools class, dotted the is and crossed the t’s, wrote a nice farewell note to everyone at Habitat, and at the end of the day I walked around and said goodbye and hugged people. That’s it, no fanfare, no cake, no speeches. It’s a quiet office and I didn’t want a big deal and I didn’t get one.

It rained on Monday – after saying that it wasn’t going to rain anymore. And the electricity went out at home – I had given my candles away but at least I kept my flashlight handy. It did come back on at a reasonable hour, but I thought that wasn’t going to happen anymore either. I taped up my huge box and took the maps off the wall.

And then Tuesday the medical began. Dental first – no cavities. I walked to the Peace Corps office – nice along Manila Bay but then long and desolate after that. Got some of the administrative signatures and had a pretty thorough physical. Samples and tests of all sorts – they have an in-house lab and analysis, so no rushing samples to the lab as we did in Morocco. Totals for the week: no TB, no parasites, no extra pounds (but none lost, either). H1N1 shot, seasonal flu shot, voucher for a mammogram when I get back, malarial pills for my trip and then fourteen days of post-malaria pills to take when I get back to the states. With all the vaccinations in the past three years, I’m on a second WHO card.

Mary came back to the ‘hood with me. She experienced the MRT and then the walk over to my home – I had told her that I was walking while she was swimming every day, and she had a chance to experience my world. We walked back and ate at Shangri-La mall – a delightful dinner! I had debated moving to the pension to spend more time with Mary and Mercedes vs. staying in my own place until it was time to go. When we arrived we had an air-conditioned room to ourselves; at COS they put you in the fan-cooled dorm. I did not sleep well there during consolidation – and I decided I wouldn’t see much of Mary and Mercedes while we were sleeping anyway – so I decided to stay put.

Charlie is COSing this week too, so the four of us have been crossing paths. Drew left early, last month, and Jonathan is balancing him out by staying another month. Mary’s going to Vietnam for a week and a half (we’ll overlap for a day in Hanoi and maybe see each other). Charlie is traveling in the Philippines for a few weeks and leaves February 16 (I told him if he left on the 15th we could have quality time together on the way to Tokyo, but he was not swayed). Mercedes is the only person who didn’t change the flight Peace Corps gave us all – she’s leaving Saturday morning and going straight home.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Some Pictures from Week Twenty-Five

Jackie Chan:

The first building is move-in ready:

Ready to dish some dirt:

The build PCVs:

The Stock Exchange bell:

After the run:

Bridge to the Ayta village:

Ayta house:

Rice fields - and the ever-present basketball court:

Ayta members:

A nice outing with Tony and his family:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Tayabas Ayta

My supervisor’s wife is a doctor; she works with another doctor who is in charge of a study that documents the medicinal practices of indigenous tribes. As part of the study he also does a needs assessment and tries to help the people get what they need. He wrote a proposal about the Aytas near his hometown of Tayabas. My supervisor passed it along to me to send to the people with whom I’ve established relationships, to see if there was anything any of them could do (and a couple said they would consider it or pass it along further, so it was worth it). My supervisor thought it would be helpful to actually see the community, so on Sunday he, his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, his grandson, the new French intern, the doctor and I piled into a van and went to Tayabas, in Quezon province.

When I went to Subic I met Aetas – I think Ayta is just a variation; that’s how the people here spell it. They have some appearance attributes in common (smaller stature, darker skin, kinky hair) but different languages and stories and different cultural practices; there are actually 33 different Ayta (or Aeta, or Negrito) communities in this country. The Tayabas Ayta have an extinct language – two elders know it but are reluctant to share it with outsiders because people have come and gone without leaving anything sustainable. They were traditionally hunter-gatherers so didn’t have a concept of land ownership, and when the land was divided up they didn’t get any. They have been informal settlers in their current location for 25 years, but can get evicted at any time. So land is a priority.

There are 60 families in this spot and another 19 nearby. They used to inhabit the land from the mountain to the sea but as Tagalog people moved in, they were pushed into (of course) the land that nobody else wanted. The men still do some hunting – turtles, monitor lizards, wildcats – but not enough to sustain them. They do some seasonal work, planting and harvesting and construction. They do some woodcarving too (Christian symbols, because there is a market for them, but not at a fair price). They would like some livelihood for the men. At present, the women sustain the tribe, gathering plants on Good Friday and turning them into medicinal herbs (one day of gathering sustains them for the year!). So they can’t just relocate anywhere – they want to be on land near their gathering spots. They don’t have the money to buy the land they are on, but that would be ideal.

The adults are uneducated and the children usually drop out of school because they have to work and also because they are harassed by the other kids, so a segregated school (where they can also preserve their culture – now I understand why the Mangyan have a segregated school) is another priority, as is adult education. They have had some help from outside – a basketball court, a tribal hall with a toilet, and cementing of the hilly pathway – but nothing long-term. They also want a culture-sensitive health program.

It took about three hours to get there (and the day was made longer by stopping for breakfast, merienda and dinner, which made for a nice family outing but a long day – so we left at 8:30 am and got back at 10:00 – and remember, I had woken up at 5:00 for the run). It rained for most of the day; it hasn’t rained in Manila in what seems like months, but there is a different weather pattern here. We crossed a rickety bamboo bridge and climbed a steep hill. All of the houses are made of wood – nothing out of concrete, in case they have to relocate. We sat and talked with the tribal council for a couple of hours – that is, my supervisor talked with the chieftain, with occasional comments from others. His wife and the doctor quietly translated for me. My supervisor may be in a position to get them land and maybe meet some of their needs; nothing was expected of me, but I think the thinking was that if I saw for myself, I could describe it better if I find someone who is in a position to help. It was an interesting day and another aspect of the Philippines - and once I realized I had seen Bajaus, Mangyans and Aytas three weeks in a row, I wrote about all of those visits to my World-Wise Schools class!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Habitat Build and the Run for the Economy

I had wanted to do one more build before I left. Three reasons - to see the progress on Pasig from the beginning to the middle to the end, to give people who couldn’t make it in November a chance to come (especially Hanna), and maybe to see homepartner Grace, who was so friendly to me that first time (and who was still my best tutor!).

Seven of us in all went to the build site. The first building is now complete – painted, with doors and windows. The units are unfinished – that’s for the homepartners to do when they move in – but they’re ready. I think three families live there now, with more moving in next month. The skilled labor doesn’t work on Saturday so there was no real construction going on. We were the only volunteers, and there were lots of homepartners. Grace was one of them! It was nice to see her – and some of the others that we met were sweet as well. Our task was to clean up the site in back of the finished building – there was a big pile of dirt and garbage, which had to be shoveled into sacks and moved to the front. With so many people, we had an efficient “bucket brigade” line – not too much foot movement, but enough heavy bags moving down the line to make our arms and backs sore. It was a good group. We shifted around so that those who wanted to dig had a chance to do that, and switched up who was next to whom so everyone had a chance to talk. Fun! And exhausting. I skipped going out with them afterwards and went to bed at 9:30 – and I don’t know how I stayed awake that long!

And then it was rise and shine at 5:00 am Sunday to do another 5K. I didn’t know when we would be leaving for the Ayta village until Friday afternoon, so I missed my chance to register. I have never run as a non-registered runner (I don’t even remember the term for it) and I felt a little bad about that (especially when I saw the cool shirts the runners were wearing!). The sponsor was the Philippine Stock Exchange and the race was called the Bull Run Para Sa Ekonomiya. Does that mean the Philippine economy is a charity? If so, I have done my part for the Philippine economy in other ways. And then I realized that this is a brilliant idea – maybe Obama can help the American economy by staging a series of 5K runs!

Instead of a starter’s gun, the race started with the ringing of the stock exchange bell – cool! And then – thanks to Julie running just ahead of me (until I told her to go on ahead when maybe a K was left), I ran if not a personal best, a personal best since 1997 – 33:24! That was fast for me. I was glad to have the chance to do another 5K before I left, but all the more glad because I did so well! All that training of walking to and from the mall and moving heavy sacks the day before paid off!

Friday, January 15, 2010

No Coasting to the Finish

This has turned out to be a busy week! I did get all of my Peace Corps paperwork done – one big report per day – but I also had a lot of Habitat work to do! I somehow knew not to count the USAID chickens before they were hatched, and (at the risk of mixing my metaphors) that’s still up in the air. I had sent them the first disaster response proposal and by the time they said they would fund it, it was not only funded but completed. The latest proposal wasn’t going to be funded unless they said yes, but now that a month has gone by, Habitat has other priorities, and we’re going back to them to see if we can change the terms and still get the funds. In the meantime, they have a LOT of forms for us to fill out. And I might want to work for USAID? Well, yes, I might.

As long as I am on the subject of disaster, I should mention the Haiti earthquake. Habitat for Humanity is getting more and more involved in disaster relief, so a contribution there would be a good way to help! In addition to the immediate needs for relief, Habitat will help with transitional shelter and then, when the news cycle has moved on to other, more immediate disasters, Habitat will still be there, moving people into permanent housing years from now.

Which is why I am glad to be organizing that March build in New Orleans! I have a few takers so far – almost as many friends of friends as friends of my own, but at the end of the build I am sure we will all be one happy group! I read all the information on the web sites last month before setting everything up, and then the first people started to register, and I had to change the process. I think I have it ironed out now, but I will be spending more time on it next week to make sure. USAID and Habitat for Humanity New Orleans – lots of back and forth and forms and emails. So when I wasn’t working on Peace Corps paperwork I had more than my share of other bureaucracy!

I picked up the eyeglasses with my new prescription this week. Drum roll please – oh, no, nothing I was in love with, so no new frames. I also had my hair done – a trim, but it was all I could do for the past couple of weeks’ worth of posts not to write, “I have Peace Corps hair!” Thankfully, I will look more presentable from here until I get to my hairdresser in Chicago than I did last year.

I decided to stay in my digs until COS. I felt I had promised Mary and Mercedes that we’d all be together in the pension at the end, as we were at the beginning, and deciding that it would be easier for me logistically to stay here was tough. Of course, they understand and are completely fine with it – I just spent quality time with both of them and I’ll see them for dinners and at the Peace Corps office next week – but it was a reminder that when I get back all sorts of choices and obligations and commitments and demands and conflicts await, and that I still want to simplify my life. I wish I could stay here until I leave the country – leave my big suitcase here while I travel on the mainland, and go surfing with Julie from here that last weekend – but Tony has plans for my room. Oh well – I’ll probably stay in the pension, where it all began, which is fitting too!

I’m having my last rounds of favorite foods. The mango shakes, of course. The sushi place (not that sushi will be hard to find at home, but I feel it’s among the healthier things I eat here). Fresh-cut pineapple from the fruit guy. And a quick scan of this document indicates that I have been remiss in discussing one of my favorites – Shakey’s pepperoni crrunch pizza. The crrunch (yes, two r’s) is provided by potato sticks, an underrated snack food. Pepperoni and potato sticks – maybe I need to bring that back and share Filipino culture with Americans! Last night I had Inasal (grilled, Visayas style) chicken and that kangkong tempura I loved so much early on; hadn’t had it in a while. Julie, Charlie and Bill came too, and it seemed like old times at the Shangri-La food court! Tonight, it was fitting to go to Chow King for fried rice and lumpia – Julie and I went to the theatre for opening night of the new Jackie Chan movie! He has become our shared thing. The big screen! I can’t give it four stars, but she pointed out that it’s opening in the U.S. today too, so we saw it while people back at home were only dreaming about seeing it later in the day!

I’ll close by saying that the size of the regular Peace Corps program is going to double next year. This year, 70 trainees arrived in August – next year, it’ll be 140! That’s the impact of the new budget. The Peace Corps Response program here will be 50 percent larger next year as well, but of course on a much smaller base. This afternoon I had an exit conference with Milo, the Peace Corps Response Coordinator, and Tony, my supervisor. Three-way mutual admiration society for Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity Philippines, and me! I really think things have going excellently here, and so did everyone else. It’s nice to be leaving on such a good note!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Some Pictures from Week Twenty-Four

Bajau houses on stilts:

Living under the bridge:

Bajau kids:

The old theatre, taken in August:

Mary and the new theatre:

The seating section:

Close-up of the roof, from inside:

Solartube, paid for with a Peace Corps grant, with one of the contributors:

Mangyan baskets (note, I bought flat ones):

Hiking up the creekbed:

The waterfall:

Another Mindoro sunset:

Farewell to the beach:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Last Weekend in Mindoro

We’re not supposed to take vacation in the first 30 or last 30 days of our assignment, but I asked for and received permission to take my last day this past Monday, so that I could have a long weekend in Mindoro. It was great to see Mary, to be back at Stairway Foundation, to see the theatre that Mary designed, to be back on the beach, and to do all of that without feeling rushed!

I left Saturday morning with a stop for my new go-to travel food, the Goldilocks butter slice. They would never call it this in the United States! It’s pound cake. But few people know that pound cake is called that because it used to be made with a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, and a pound of eggs! Let’s not think about that too much; I’ll just say that I discovered the butter slice recently and it’s very tasty.

There was a lot of traffic on the way down there, and the ferry seemed to take a while, as did lunch on White Beach when I got there – the Universe knew that last time we had only one night there so it facilitated speedy travel, and it knew that I had two nights this time so everything seemed to take a little longer. But that’s okay! I walked over the hill and got to Stairway around 2:00 pm, put my things in the Yellow House, and had a detailed tour of the theatre from Mary. It’s quite a building, and both she and Stairway have reason to be proud. Then we went to the beach for a swim and for sunset – what a site she has!

For dinner, we went to a place called the Pie Shack. Run by a Brit, its wares are pretty authentic - taste sensations I hadn’t had in a while. We had cottage pie (and I learned that shepherd’s pie is made with lamb and cottage pie is the same thing, with beef) and apple crumble. The next morning was leisurely – a long walk on the beach, breakfast in Mary’s hut (homemade granola that someone had sent her - I remarked that my support team seemed spent after sending me things in Morocco; she said that her Macedonia support team was spent as well but that she had a whole new support team this time around!).

Then we walked to the waterfall. Same hike as back in August, but very different in the dry season! With the water so low, we hiked up the creekbed for much of it. When we got to the falls, there wasn’t enough water for swimming, but it was a nice place to sit and talk. We went through the Mangyan village on the way back and I bought more baskets; I had promised myself that I would return back in August. It turned out to be an emotional moment – something about the plight of indigenous peoples tugs at my heart, and maybe more so after visiting the Bajaus. Mary pointed out that the Mangyans here, though segregated, have a lot of support and a lot of visitors coming through and buying things, but I still needed to compose myself. I’m going to an Aeta village on Sunday – that should be enlightening too (though I hope not too emotional – I’m going with my supervisor and his family). We then had a relaxing beachfront dinner; no Milky Way but still stars in the sky and the sound of the surf.

On Monday, Mary had to work. I took a beach walk and had an American breakfast (also a taste sensation I hadn’t had in a while) at the hotel next door. Then I had a chance to talk to Lars, one of Stairway’s founders – in August I casually asked him if he needed marketing and he said yes and this was our first opportunity to speak. Upshot is that I may consult remotely when I get home while I am looking for the next thing; it could be very interesting.

And then I had a last – though I didn’t dwell on that aspect of it – long swim in Philippine waters. I borrowed Mary’s snorkel and mask and did my first snorkeling here (I could have done it much more and probably should have, but this opportunity was the only one literally handed to me) – there’s a whole new world under the sea! Farewell to Mary and to the people I’ve met at Stairway - including the boys, who have blossomed since I first saw them - and then the ferry and the bus and back to reality, refreshed and ready for what is turning out to be an even busier week than I thought it would be!

Monday, January 11, 2010

On to the Home Stretch

I spent the first part of last week updating my status report and finishing up the marketing strategy document that I’m leaving behind; I’ll continue to fine-tune those until my last day (I wrote my monthly report for Peace Corps before I went to Palawan – after writing every other monthly report at the beginning of the following month – so it was a “blue moon” monthly report – in the same month as a celestial blue moon; I thought that was kind of cool when I realized it!). And I found out when my last day is! January 18. On Thursday I received an email with all of my COS information. I already knew about some of the required documents – a Description of Service (the formal document that eventually is the only record kept at the Peace Corps office in Washington), a final report (same format as the monthly report – so maybe I can cut and paste from those), a PNVSCA form (Philippines National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency) – there was one of those at the beginning and one in the middle so this is the one at the end, and a final evaluation for Peace Corps. I could have gotten started on those earlier but I liked the idea of starting them after the holidays – I think I can churn them all out this week.

I had forgotten about all of the other forms – something saying I leave no debts, closing my bank account, a thank-you note to my agency (actually, I don’t think Morocco had this one), a privacy waiver, a home-of-record form, my post-service travel itinerary, an authorization for use of personal material, a final site form, a Corps Care (like COBRA) signup form, my WHO card. And then there’s a checklist – I need signatures attesting that I’ve returned any books I borrowed, my life vest and my medical kit, and then there are other signatures for other things. None of those is especially time-consuming, but taken together, they somehow fill the time between COS appointments.

It’ll take longer to exit than it did for orientation! Next Tuesday I have a dentist appointment and a physical. On Wednesday I have an appointment at the PNVSCA office. On Thursday I have an exit interview with the Country Director, and on Friday an interview with the Peace Corps Response Coordinator. That’s next Friday – first, this Friday there’s an exit conference with him, my supervisor and my counterpart. I’m not going to do any formal presentation of my plan or my status report; we’ll just meet. I’m not printing anything out; just emailing everything. That’s good! If I have time after doing all of the paperwork, I want to work on my Third Goal presentation (already tentatively scheduled for Peace Corps Week, the week of March 1, to the Princeton Club of Chicago, and my World-Wise Schools class is interested too) and a Philippines photo slide show to show to friends that I see along the way home.

And I have one last – big – accomplishment. At the end of the day on Friday, I got a call from USAID. They’re going to fund a big portion of the latest relief effort (the first relief effort was funded before they had gotten back to us, but they said to submit other proposals, and I did). There are still people living in tents and evacuation centers up north, and now they will have USAID-funded Habitat-built toilets! I feel especially good about this because at the Housing Forum back in September, the president (may he rest in peace) said that his one hope for me was that I would bring in USAID money. Now I have!

It’s hard to believe that next Monday is my last day at Habitat. I will miss people, and I’ve enjoyed the work, but I don’t feel sad, really – certainly not as anguished as I felt when I was leaving Morocco last year. At the same time, I don’t feel I’ve emotionally checked out. I’m finishing up, but I’m still engaged in what I’m doing. I’ll continue to follow up on things, and if there are small projects that I can work on while getting everything else done, I’ll work on them. I’m looking forward to my post-COS travel – last year I couldn’t plan anything beyond buying the one-way ticket to Bangkok. This year I have an itinerary (after looking at the distances I decided that short flights would be better than long - longer than overnight, that is - train or bus rides, so it forced me to plan) and even some hotel reservations, but I’m going to figure out what to do in each place as I go.

I’m sending a box home – one big box. It has craft items I’ve picked up, gifts for people I see as I travel home, and some clothes, just to lighten the suitcase load. Almost all of the clothes I brought to Morocco is staying behind here (maybe going to the Bajau community). They’ve had just about three years of wear and tear, and they are worn and torn. But I’m glad I had them to wear here!

I felt some sense of finality when I changed my Northwest reservation (a difference between Peace Corps and Peace Corps Response is that for the latter, when you depart, they also give you the return ticket – mine was for my COS date, January 23) – I’m leaving Manila for good on February 15 and will land in Los Angeles, also on February 15 – but that sense has since turned into mild annoyance that I don’t yet have the email confirmation. I have the rough timing of my Amtrak trip across the country (glad I will be seeing some friends along the way!) and now I have the known of what life will be like when I base myself in Southampton again. I’ll get settled and then go to New Orleans for the Habitat for Humanity build that I’m organizing. I don’t feel anxious about what’s next after that, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to it either. It just is. So maybe I’m manifesting my (so far, one – and it might stay that way) goal for the year – to live more in the moment!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Bits and Pieces

I’ve been pretty healthy here so far; one morning a couple of months ago I felt a little icky but that’s about it. Until this week. I’ve been seeing a lot of ads for cold remedies and thinking, “why would this be a time of year for people to get colds?” And then I got a cold. Not a bad one – it’s just unfortunate that I didn’t feel all that well on my birthday. I would have had to be much sicker to miss work that day though – after all, the tradition is to treat the office. Someone had a January 1 birthday and he bought lunch, so my pizza was moved to merienda time. I was a little worried that with so much food at lunch, people wouldn’t be able to eat two huge pizzas in mid-afternoon, but my worries were for naught. It was like lowering a chicken into a pool of starved piranhas. Those pizzas were gone quickly. And much appreciated! I made it through the day, went to bed at 8:30 at night, sneezed most of the next day and coughed most of the day after that, but now I’m fine.

The big news is that we now have a hot water heater! A new intern has come to live in our building – she’s working for our supervisor on his other businesses, not for Habitat – and since the water has been colder (and since she’s French? No, just kidding) I guess he decided to spring for it. Fine with me! Especially with feeling a little under the weather it was nice to take a hot (well, warm) shower (the hot water didn’t work on Tuesday night, and there was no water at all on Wednesday morning and a trickle on Wednesday night, but since then it has been pretty nice). I’m not sure we need it anymore – an RPCV emailed that he looked at the weather forecast and it appears the cool season may be over already (which would be early). But I’m happy to have it and will enjoy it for my remaining time!

And I should mention a new recipe – I had this at New Year’s dinner at the center where Mercedes works. It’s called Refrigerator Cake. Ingredients – graham crackers, cream, condensed milk. You layer the graham crackers (maybe 24 layers) and between each layer you pour some of the mixed liquid. Put it in the refrigerator overnight and the graham crackers soak up the liquid. Serve it cold the next day and it’s quite tasty. Another no-bake recipe!

I was reminded that I’ve been meaning to talk about the synchronized “Thriller” dance of the prisoners in Cebu (you can find it on youtube). If I were here for two years and not just six months, I’d make my way to see it. The jury is out (pun intended) as to whether this is cruel and unusual punishment, according to Lonely Planet. But now that I have been through the holiday season I think it isn’t – most holiday parties include some synchronized dancing, and on my daily walks for December I often spied groups practicing! It’s part of the culture, like videoke. I also read more about the fireworks – some Filipinos believe that the noise and explosions will drive away evil spirits and misfortunes.

A recent (for me) New Yorker contained a story by Paul Theroux about an older gentleman who goes back to the African village where he once was a volunteer. Paul Theroux was once a PCV! As was Chris Dodd; it was sad to read about his decision not to run for reelection – he was a big advocate for the Peace Corps. I also read about a play called, “Imelda, a new Musical.” Its run is over in New York but maybe it will be staged again somewhere; the review sounded good! More Peace Corps news – I was asked to do a writeup of the Habitat build for the Country Director’s quarterly report that goes to Washington. She texted me for my birthday! The CD in Morocco never did that.

I did an alumni interview this week (too bad it was the day I kept coughing…). It was good to put on my Princeton hat. I have another one next week as well. And while I am discussing alma maters I should mention a Wharton classmate who found me; we’ve been having occasional coffees. He’s the one who gave me the Asian Development Bank contact and he’s been giving me other tips about working in the region. You never know.

Now it’s on to Mindoro for a last weekend on the beach and quality time with Mary. The first time I visited I came back depressed about living in Manila while she’s in paradise. The second time I fantasized about what I would to if her foundation wanted a PCRV to do marketing. As I get ready to leave now, I’m grateful for my life in Manila. It was an adjustment, but I think it’s worked well for me. Working in an office has been a good transition to what is a likely next career move for me (i.e., working in an office). Working five minutes from the beach would probably have led to more culture shock upon my return (as it is, I am not looking forward to winter). I like going home to my own space at the end of the day – it’s been great for Mary to be immersed, but seeing Mercedes’s situation reinforced for me that I like separation. From Manila I have had easy access to other parts of the country – Mary’s left her island only for the two spa days. She may not have needed to travel as much living in paradise, and while she was supervising the construction it was hard for her to leave, and she’s had other reasons, but one of them is that she would have had to travel for several hours just to get here as a jumping-off point for anywhere else. Finally, I’ve grown to like Manila. It may still be the hardest place I’ve ever lived, but I’m glad I’ve had the chance to live here.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Sea Gypsies Under the Bridge

At International Volunteer Day, I met Phil, a newly-minted PCV who is working with indigenous Bajau people. They’re sea gypsies who used to live in the Sulu Islands off of Mindanao, fishing and pearl-diving, but with the unrest there (and, ironically, tourism, which brought development to their traditional spots), many have relocated to Central Luzon. Phil works with a small NGO (it’s the pastor and pastora and him) called God’s Love for the Indigents Ministry (GLIM). There’s a lot he can do with them in terms of teaching basic life skills – sanitation and hygiene, importance of education and the like. The people support themselves in two ways – begging, and/or selling pearls. Phil invited me up to his site for some Small Business Development consulting.

Just getting there was interesting – I took all three train lines (with three pat-downs!) to get to the bus station, and then a crowded, non-air-conditioned bus. Some people have commutes like that every day. Phil said he’d meet me at the bridge – as we crossed, he talked with many of the men who were fishing from it. The Bajaus don’t fish from it though, because they were used to fishing in the sea, and fishing in a river is too different for them.

I’ve seen people living under bridges already, but I’m still not used to it. The Bajau houses are built like the ones they had down south (that is, those who didn’t live on boats) – woven (and/or made of scrounged materials) and on tall bamboo platforms. The height worked to the advantage of 22 of the 27 homes when the river flooded in October – five homes were swept away (and have since been rebuilt) and the GLIM center was flooded to its roof.

The Bajaus had originally been displaced to parts of Metro Manila, but development forced them to move to ever more undesirable lands. Paraphrased from the GLIM profile: They were moved under the bridge with the consent of the department of Public Works and Highways; the bridge served as a remote area away from local residents and therefore allowed the Bajaus to live peacefully as an isolated yet organized community. But without any programs and projects to empower them, just relocating them wasn’t enough. The pastor and pastora, who had served as missionaries with other Bajau populations and who were therefore familiar with the culture, set up the ministry in their hometown to help them assimilate into the community, advocate for their rights (since they traditionally did not own land, they are not recognized as an indigenous group) and give them opportunities.

Some of the realities they are dealing with – they had a CR for the community, but someone got sick and the people thought it was due to the CR, so they destroyed it. They go in the river instead. They don’t have electricity or running water. They speak a different language. The adults can’t read or write and they don’t see the value in sending the children to school when they can send them out begging. Other Filipinos marginalize them and have negative perceptions and attitudes about them.

I spent most of the day at the center. First we had lunch – I never ate couscous with my hands in 27 months in Morocco, but here I ate chicken and rice with my hands. You kind of ball up the rice the same way Moroccans ball up the couscous; I can’t say I did it well but I managed to eat and not make too much of a mess. Then we talked about the pearl business. They already had some posters and brochures that tell the story of the tribe and they have some fancy boxes for packaging. They design and assemble their own pieces and already have a reputation for quality. So there’s some competitive advantage already. We suggested that they include a card with the story in or on every box. We talked about market segmentation (locals, who know the Bajaus, think they get a deal if the pearls are in an envelope; tourists like the pretty boxes), selling locations (they do some fairs and in the summer migrate to tourist spots for weeks at a time to sell on the beaches, but the rest of the year go into local neighborhoods – and maybe sell one set of pearls a week if they are lucky. Are there places where they could be more successful, for example near shopping areas or bus stations, where people either come thinking about spending money or have time to spend?), occasions (Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day), sales techniques and holding a workshop to discuss them (who are the most successful among them, and why?), pricing strategy (everything’s negotiable – if they can overcharge someone and get away with it they will, which might be all right for one sale, but then someone feeling taken advantage of could tell his neighbor… so would you rather sell one at a high price or more at lower prices and maybe even get repeat business?), and other ideas.

I felt in my element until we went out to tour the community. And then I remembered that I’m shy. Much as I would love to play with the kids, I have a hard time when they look dirty and need their noses wiped. More than in other places, I was quite a curiosity – the girls touched my hair and clothes and jewelry and bag, and I’m not comfortable with that either. At least I took pictures of and with the kids, which is a winning strategy here. And I didn’t have to regret my lack of Tagalog, since they didn’t speak it either. And the adults were nice (shy also!) and I enjoyed meeting them. I was glad to see it for myself, but I’ll admit I was relieved to get back to the center, where despite being full from lunch, I mustered up the appetite for merienda, and even more relieved when I got back to my home turf. I felt a little bad about being hands-off, but once again I reminded myself that some people have the skill set for interaction with the poor, and mine is in the brainstorming. I hope I gave them some ideas that will help them with their business, which in turn can help them with getting their many needs met. Overall, I’m really glad I had the opportunity to visit, and I will keep in touch with Phil to see what happens in his two years here!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Month Five in Haiku

Reviewing status
Everything I’ve done so far
Proposed next steps too

Water proposal
A charity found my blog
And they’re funding it

Tying up loose ends
Starting strategy memo
Two monthly reports

Embracing the malls
My world – Shangri-La, Mega
Greenhills for more pearls

Holiday parties
It’s a festive time of year
In the Philippines

Nutcracker ballet
Int-l Volunteer Day clean
Third Goal Power Point

Bicol Express (bus)
Caramoan island hop
Carried off the boat

Making future plans
COS trip and beyond
March New Orleans build

Let’s go surf again!
Afternoon and morning waves
Bus films – Jackie Chan

Detour on return
For dark, bittersweet chocolate
Yes, it is that good

New eye prescription
So much cheaper than at home
Might yet get new frames

To Bohol Bee Farm
Relaxing in a hammock
Organic salads

Tarsiers, Chocolate Hills
Tourist highlights of Bohol
For me, it’s Nuts Huts

Walking up river
Swimming to the waterfall
Mountains surrounding

On to Palawan
They call it the Last Frontier
It’s off on its own

Underground River
UNESCO Heritage Site
Natural beauty

Hiking to and from
Monkey Trail and Jungle Trail
Plus I took a boat

Puerto Princesa
Center where Mercedes works
Quiet New Year’s Eve

Honda Bay islands
Firefly mangrove paddle
And a city tour

Two thousand nine ends
My time here will end soon too
I have loved it here!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Some Pictures from Week Twenty-Three

Flag ceremony:

The beach at Sabang:

Underground river:


Monitor lizard:

Jungle trail:

Snake Island:

Pandan Island:

A maximum-security prisoner:

Ready to roll on the river:

Iwahig River mangrove paddle:

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


December 30 was Rizal Day – with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day off as well (not sure if they are holidays every year or just this year to make a five-day weekend) I made my way to Palawan, the island nicknamed “The Last Frontier.” The most beautiful parts, El Nido and Coron, with their limestone outcroppings, were not on my itinerary (I have to leave some things for another visit!). What was – the underground river and a visit to fellow PCRV Mercedes.

I landed at 9:30, and not wanting to wait for a noon jeepney, I took a two-and-a-half hour tricycle ride to Sabang. Found a cottage at the end of the long white-sand beach and got my park permit. I had heard that the best thing about the underground river was hiking the rugged trails there and back and I found that to be the case – though due to the timing, I walked out along the Monkey Trail in the afternoon and took a boat back, and then took a boat out in the morning and walked the Jungle Trail back. I’m glad it worked out that way; hiking both ways in one day would have been a lot. The paths take you through several ecosystems – coastal forest, karst forest and swamp to name a few – and I did see monkeys, though I saw them by the restrooms and not in the forest. Monitor lizards, too!

The underground river itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It may be the longest navigable underground river in the world. We took a paddleboat inside the cave, with dripping water, hanging bats, flying swiftlets. I had planned to stay in Sabang for two nights, but when Mercedes said that she was coming back from Manila and that we should spend New Year’s Eve together, I tore myself away from the beach.

First we went to the center where Mercedes works – she is training the teachers, who work with autistic and Down’s syndrome children. The center is in need of just about everything, and her living situation is rustic (no mattress and no privacy, for example!). I don’t know if I could have done it. She said that she missed having other PCVs nearby, so I am glad I at least visited. The people who run the center are one big extended family (with its own soap opera), and they invited us to New Year’s Eve dinner. I learned that another tradition is to bring something round, for prosperity in the new year, and we brought some pastries. We stayed for a while and then went back to our hotel, where we played the Filipino version of mancala, called sunka; I haven’t played it enough to be good at it, so tips on strategy would be welcome! We also played a version of Syzygy/Bananagrams with Scrabble tiles, and I played some solitaire – the first games I have played since I got to the Philippines! We didn’t go downtown for the big fireworks, but our hotel had some firecrackers.

The next day, we went island-hopping in Honda Bay, on the Sulu Sea. When I was in Indonesia last year I learned about the Wallace line, which separates more Asiatic flora and fauna from more Australian ones, and Palawan is on the other side of the line from the rest of the Philippines. Sure enough, I did see things I hadn’t seen elsewhere – colorful fish, starfish, sand dollars and sea urchins, to name a few. I’d say the flora looked different too, but that might be only because I knew I was on the other side of the line. The islands differed from those in the Caramoan peninsula – for one thing, I didn’t have them all to myself! Long beaches – on Snake Island I took a long walk (collected trash and now I am retired – I gave the rubber gloves to Mercedes for her center) and on Pandan Island I walked all the way around. On those and Cowrie island, I also took long swims in the beautiful turquoise water. That night, we took a firefly cruise – paddling under the full moon, with fireflies flashing like holiday lights in the trees.

The next day we took a city tour. First, we went to Iwahig prison, known for having inmates roaming freely (they wear shirts labeled with the severity of their crimes), and then we went back to the river where we had the firefly cruise, this time doing a mangrove paddle in the light of day. There are so many species of mangroves! Hard to believe the Pasig River might have looked like this before the Spanish came! We went to a WWII memorial (Americans were in the tunnels – the Japanese poured gasoline in them and killed the people who didn’t just burn to death), the cathedral and the Baywalk. With that we saw the highlights of Puerto Princesa!

The next day, we went to a small and faded resort on the other side of the city – with a mangrove shoreline and a tiny swimming pool, it was a place to relax and read. We also went to a western-style cafĂ© for lattes and a Mexican restaurant for dinner. This wasn’t the perfect trip – I was overcharged for transport several times (failure to negotiate well?) and one of the hotels had lost our reservation – but it made me appreciate all the more the mostly-smooth travels I have had on other trips here. I got more bites (sandfly, I think) than I got on all other trips combined – or maybe it just seems that way. Palawan is the one place in the Philippines with chloroquine-resistant malaria, but since the PCMO ran out of chloroquine a while ago, I have been taking the other medication (it wasn’t prescribed for me in Manila, but since I have been traveling so much they put me on it). I don’t think I got any mosquito bites there, but I got several on Sunday night when I came back and went out for a drink with Julie, Jonathan and Charlie! I might otherwise have gone straight to bed, but it was a chance to see Julie before she left for a two-week vacation with her sister, and it was nice to see the others too and compare New Year’s stories. Happy 2010!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Some Pictures from Week Twenty-Two

Bohol Bee Farm cottage:

Bohol Bee Farm salad:

View from the hammock:

View from the deck:


Chocolate Hills, looking brown:

Peace Pole at the Chocolate Hills:

Loboc Church:

My Nuts Hut:

The coco massage reflexology walk:

View from the hut:

Loboc River waterfall:

Loboc River swim: