Close of Service Conference and My Little Peace Corps Life REBOOT

I just glanced at my last blog post and it was nearly 5 months ago! I lost my momentum there for a while.  Hopefully my plan for the next two months will make up for leaving you all in the dark for so long! Check it out…

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Nearly two years ago, we were given this neat little piece of paper that enumerated each part of service.  Each one of our conferences was on there with however many months at site sat between them.  But no matter how close it drew, Close of Service Conference always seemed like a distant event.  The last Peace Corps Philippines Conference I would attend in my service.  Even as we pulled up to the same hotel for the last time.   The one we were at for our Work Partners Conference in September 2016 and our Mid-Service Training in October 2017, all I could think was ‘there’s no way it’s almost been two whole years!’

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Of course, it absolutely has.  So, we walked into the same hall for our ‘Welcome Dinner’ and as we looked at the chairs and tables arranged in the center of the room, we noticed how our group had shrunk over the past two years.  We went from a group of +70 individuals at our Staging Event in Los Angeles to now just 35 tough cookies** at our last Peace Corps Philippines Conference.

**We had a few interrupted service cookies who had to end their service early for a variety of reasons but would have made it to COS Conference had Peace Corps allowed them to!

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While we waited for our Training Director to make his opening remarks, we all peeked over at the dinner buffet.  Sir Boni always tries to treat us to some western style food at these gatherings, to give us a little taste of home.  Let me tell you we were NOT disappointed by a pizza pie the size of a small child AND a burrito/taco bar.

The next three days were spent eating cheese, discussing the end of service, talking about what life might be like when we return to America, and of course, celebrating having made it to the final countdown.  On the last day staff surprised us with confetti cannons and balloons.  COS Conference in it’s entirety made me realize this two-year adventure is quickly drawing to a close.

good version COS June 2018Picture Credit: Jessica Schulte

I’ve spent roughly 700 days in the Philippines up to this point.  THE longest amount of time I’ve spent outside the United States in my entire life.  When I signed up for this trip just about 2 and a half years ago, that was all I knew I was bound to achieve when it was all over.  I had absolutely no idea what to expect, or how to even begin to imagine what I would be like at the end of this experience.

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It’s been a long bumpy road getting here and looking back at the stories I’ve chosen to share here with you all, I’ve realized there are plenty of stories I haven’t told.  Either due to their passing too quickly, or just accepting them as a part of daily life.  So, in my last two months of service, I’d like to retell those stories I’ve omitted.  The stories that have slipped through the cracks but are no less important to the wholeness of my time here in the Philippines.  Some will be short, and some will be lengthier, but I hope to post about one a week up until my COS date in August.

T-minus 55 days…

 

 

 

2018: The Year of Ignoring COS and Getting Back To Work

Wow, 2018 already?!  This year has been on my mind since I received my invitation to join Peace Corps nearly two years ago.

The year my time in the Philippines would come to close.

What would I learn by then?

How would this experience have changed me?

What would I do next?

I somewhat expected an all-knowing wave of enlightenment to wash over me as the clock struck midnight on January 1 and my COS year finally arrived.  That of course couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’ve learned a lot these past 19 months, and continue to learn more every day, but I’m still not sure what’s up next.  When I began this journey I had a neat little 5 year plan.  Now I’m lucky if 5 days go as expected!  The Philippines has taught me to focus on each day instead of the months, and years.  So, albeit wildly out of character, I’m going to put off thinking about post-COS life for just a bit longer and talk about what I’m doing here and now.

PCRAs: Participatory Coastal Resource Assessments

Participatory Coastal Resource Assessments (PCRA).  I’ve been working on this project for almost a year now, and I have mentioned it in my previous blog articles.

As a reminder a PCRA is an assessment of the barangay, municipality, or province’s coastal resources from various sources.  The more sources I gather from, the more accurate and helpful my report will be.  PCRA data is used to make a Coastal Environmental Profile for the entire municipality, and this document is used to create a Coastal Resource Management Plan.  This plan is then used to determine what projects should be started, and what the LGU and other government agencies can do to best help the community and the resources.  This collection of data should be done every 5 years in order to properly update the CRM Plan.

As part of this process we interview fisherfolk, hold focus group discussions, and conduct habitat assessments.  Right now, we’re holding focus group discussions and conducting habitat assessments in every one of our ten coastal barangays.

A PCRA can be done a number of different ways, but since my Municipality doesn’t have that many Coastal Barangays, my counterpart and I decided to do focus group discussions in every barangay.  We thought this would be the best way to get good information that would address the different needs of each barangay community.

Focus group discussions

So my counterpart and I have been chugging along on these focus group discussions, just the two of us.  We visit barangays almost every week, and we never really know what to expect.

Sometimes the barangay hall is full of people, sometimes my counterpart goes house to house yelling ‘Hain an parasira?! May meeting kita!’ (Translation: Where are the fisherfolk?! We have a meeting!), and perhaps my least favorite of all, showing up and hearing ‘Nalingawan ko!  Sa dagat sila, mamaya na lang.’ (Translation: I forgot! They [the fisherfolk] are at the sea, we’ll do it later).

When we eventually get the timing right, or my counterpart has successfully pulled the fisherfolk out of their homes, we get to discuss coastal resource management with the people directly interacting with the resources.

Discussions with fisherfolk about the timing and availability of the fish and other marine resources.

We use various activities to facilitate this conversation.  Activities that identify things like what resources are present, how people are using them, when people are using them, what time of year is most bountiful for fishing, what problems the fisherfolk of this barangay are experiencing, and what opportunities exist for alternative livelihoods?  Sometimes, if people aren’t too antsy to leave, we play a fishing game to exemplify why we need to properly manage our fisheries.

An easy fishing game to depict the need for proper fisheries management.

The game uses fish pieces of different sizes and different sized scoopers to act out what happens when people use destructive or otherwise illegal fishing methods.  It’s a competition of who can catch the most and let me tell you it can get pretty competitive, elbows fly.

Focus group discussions are just one piece of the data puzzle I’ve been putting together.  The other rather large piece would be the habitat assessments.

The Mangroves of Sorsogon Bay

There are 3 different types of habitat we’ve been trained to do assessments on; mangroves, seagrasses, and corals.  In my Municipality we only have mangroves.  I’m sure you’re thinking ‘oh Chelsea, ONLY mangroves! Only one of three habitats!  Assessments will be a breeze!’ Well YOU, have obviously never done a mangrove assessment.

Mangroves are known for living in both sandy and muddy areas.  They stand in-between the land, and the sea.  These sediments can be extremely fine making them like quicksand.

Imagine trying to measure the height and crown diameter of a tree while also being ‘Indiana Jones’ style sucked into the swamp.  It’s like the movie Toy Story when Buzz and Woody end up in ‘The Claw’ machine and all the little aliens grab on to them as they try to escape.  You can almost hear the trees chanting ‘one of us, one of us’ as you lose your tisnelas in the muck!

So long story short, these assessments are tough.

‘Then just don’t do them!  Who needs a MANGROVE anyway! Do we even have those in the United States?!’

…this guy

We DO have mangroves in The United States.

The United States has a mere 3 species out of the world’s 70+ discovered species of mangroves.

The Philippines has 46 (DENR.gov.ph).

In the United States these areas are drained for beach front property. In the Philippines they are drained and converted into fish ponds, or rice fields.  Whatever the reason for their removal, cutting down mangroves is bad news.

Another picture of the mangrove forests during mangrove forest assessments.

Mangroves are the coastal community’s first line of defense against typhoons, or even just flooding and rough seas.  I’ve seen communities where the mangroves have been cut down in order to make room for settlements and the roads in and out of the community become impassable during high tide every day.  Without the mangroves as protection they’ve also had to build a sea wall in front of their homes.  A sea wall isn’t as effective as a mangrove forest. A sea wall can only fulfill one of the many services a mangrove forest provides.

These forests act as a nursery for small fish, crustaceans, and gastropods, to grow up protected from the larger predators of the ocean.  Their tangled root systems act like a sieve, and catch large pieces of garbage before they end up in the ocean.  The roots hold the sediments in place and decrease the rate of erosion on the coastline, subsequently they also slow the rate of sedimentation into the body of water they border.  Mangroves are important!

A few of my trusty volunteers helping me to assess the mangrove habitats in our Municipality.

We need to assess these habitats in order to determine how well they can do their many jobs, and to evaluate how the people are treating them.  If there is one catch phrase I will never forget from my work here it’s that ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure’.  In order to determine what steps need to be taken in management, we need to establish a baseline.  Then we can measure how the status of the forest changes from that baseline.  Then we adapt our management plan, to address the needs of the resources and the community.

My municipality has extensive mangrove forests in the rural barangays, far too many for my counterpart and I to tackle assessing alone.

Luckily, back in November my office got about 30 on the job trainees (OJTs) from the local high school.  After seeing them sit around for a day or two it occurred to me that I had PLENTY of work for them to do!  So, I trained them on how to do mangrove assessments and the next day we were shin-deep in mangrove mud! Unfortunately, I only got this masipag (hardworking) group of students for two weeks and due to the impending rainy season, we weren’t able to get all of the assessments done.  But we’ve got some more OJTs from a nearby university coming next month so the assessments shall go on.

OJTs helping out with mangrove assessments

I’m really enjoying the PCRA process. We spend days going into these coastal communities, where I get to see things for myself.  I get to listen to fisherfolk, help them understand trends they may be observing, and brainstorm solutions.  Above all I love to listen, I love hearing passionate people talk about their livelihood.

So maybe, despite my efforts to stay present, I have identified an after Peace Corps direction…Perhaps I can find a way to do more environmental community organizing in my future. But of course as my close family and friends know, my plans for the future change almost daily. There’s so much to be done I just can’t make up my mind!

Either way, I’m soaking up each and every day as that looming figure of ’27 months’ boils down to fewer and fewer months, weeks, and days. Happy 2018 everyone, thanks for continuing to keep up with my Peace Corps journey.

-Chels

My Little Peace Corps Life: April 2017

Slightly late, but take a look at my top 10 pictures for April. This month was filled with adventures! In the beginning of the month I traveled to Japan with a few of my batchmates, then to Malapascua for Holy Week where I went SCUBA diving, and finally a weekend trip to a nearby cold spring to beat the summer heat.

10. Sunset ‘lakaw lakaw’ 

This is a picture of my little municipality as seen on one of my evening walks. The only times appropriate for ‘lakaw lakaw’ (walking) is early in the morning, or after the sun has begun to set. When I get home from work it’s too hot to stay in my apartment, so I wander down to the pier, and watch the sunset.

9. ‘Sarap an Tubig! 

The only reasonable thing to do on the weekends this summer is swimming in the cold springs! ‘Sarap an tubig’ directly translates to ‘the water is delicious’ but is commonly used as an expression to say the water is refreshing. These day trips always include a large picnic spread of Filipino foods, and plenty of ‘karigos’ (bathing/swimming).

8. Holy Week in Malapascua

This little island took a jeepney, van, plane, taxi, bus, AND ferry to get to! Malapascua is world renowned for its thresher shark sitings!  100 feet underwater I stared into the murky seascape. My eyes were drawn to every shadow just trying to catch a glimpse of this deep sea shark’s distinct elongated caudal fin used for stunning prey.  Unfortunately with the terrible visibility we were unable to see any threshers.  Sayang, I still got to spend a nice holiday with my batchmates on this gorgeous island eating good food and sharing in fun times.

7. THE LUMINEERS IN TOKYO

The whole reason I ended up on this trip to Japan was to see this band play in Tokyo. A really amazing performance by one of my favorite bands.

6. Japan is old

We found a small Sake Brewery in Kawiguchiko that was being run by the same family for 21 generations. In addition to a fun brewery tour, the owners also gave us a tour of their house and pointed out these trees in their garden.  Some of the trees were nearly 400 years old!

5. RAMEN! 

Hands down the best ramen I’ve ever had in my life. This restaurant was the epitome of Japan’s introverted culture.  You could eat an entire meal here without ever speaking or seeing someone’s face. A vending machine outside took your money, you sat in a single booth with a small window in front of you, filled out a form to specify how you wanted your ramen, there was a tap for water in your booth, and a person would push your ramen through the window when it was ready.

4. Who needs a new piranha?

We spent one afternoon wandering around a shopping center near our hostel. The array of items you could happen upon in these stores was astounding. Of all of them, this was my favorite find. Just a piranha in a fish tank….

3. Tourists kami

My travel buddies ☺️ we thoroughly enjoyed being tourists, freezing our butts off, drinking lots of sake, eating lots of sushi, and taking thousands of pictures of the cherry blossoms beginning to bloom in Tokyo.

3. CHERRY BLOSSOMS

Since we planned our Japan trip around The Lumineers concert, it was a serendipitous discovery that our stay would align with cherry blossom season!  Bright pink trees lined the streets even in busy Tokyo.

1. Japanese Culture  

During the Meiji period Japan began to feel the pressure to industrialize.  Emperor Meiji highlighted the importance of retaining the Japanese culture as they transitioned from an isolated feudal country to an industrialized imperial world power.  Although this modernization resulted in drastic changes to Japan’s social, political, and industrial, constructs; the culture was retained.   105 years after the Meiji period the uniqueness of Japanese culture is still intact.

Tapos Na.

The month of May has now begun and summer is in full swing! I expect to be visiting the cold springs around my area quite often just to get some degree of relief from the summer ‘init’.

My Little Peace Corps Life: March 2017

A lot can happen in a month and my blog posts don’t cover everything! So here’s a segment called ‘My Little Peace Corps Life’. Each month I’ll post my 10 best pictures from the month with a little information. Enjoy:

1. Sunsets in the Situ

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I can almost guarantee there will always be a sunset picture in these segments!  Sunsets in the Philippines are gorgeous and always a little bit different.  This one is taken from my Host Situ.  After work, now that days are getting longer, I have time to walk to watch the sunset.  This picture was taken at the end of the sea wall.  The sea wall leads to a pasture with a few cows and the sea.  Around 6pm I’m the only person there besides the occasional fisherman or farmer passing through.  It’s peaceful and quiet and just what I need to close my day.

 Sunset Watching Pro Tip: Cloudy skies make more interesting sunsets than clear skies.

2. Rice Fields of the Provinces

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When riding the jeep through the provinces this is a common sight on either side of the highway.  I’m sure I absentmindedly took this picture while I was waiting for the jeep to go into the city.  The fields of green, and gold when the rice is about ready to harvest, are always looking so picturesque.

3. Recycled Crafts and Creativity

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While waiting for our fisherfolk to show up to a meeting in one of the Coastal Barangays we came upon these little critters.  A local creative soul created these little characters out of paper. 

4. Yuri’s Cross Cultural Street Performance

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My Sitemate had a JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) Volunteer at her site who had been there for a year and a half when we arrived in September.  March seemed so far away back then, it was all too soon when her two years came to a close this past month!  Prior to her Dispidita, Yuri had to fulfill a life long dream: To give a street performance.  Since it’s far too embarrassing to do this in your home country, why not in a country you’re about to leave!?  So Yuri got to fulfill her dream in the little Municipality she called home for two years before returning to Japan.  The performance included a Japanese song, a Filipino song, and an English song, and a lot of laughter and pictures.

5. CHEL ~goes gardening~ under the SEA

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Coral gardening at a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer’s site was definitely a highlight this month!  My sitemate and I traveled an entire day to help out with this project.  We went snorkeling first to find pieces of branching coral that had broken off a gigantic reef.  This reef just below the surface of the water, looked like rolling hills of branching coral.  Then we SCUBA dove to transplant them to a reef in need of some sprucing up.  Hopefully the little corals will thrive there and help rejuvenate the reef.

6. My Big Chicken Coop

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In March I decided to move closer to work into my own apartment.  When I was getting ready to move stuff out my officemate asked my Host Kuya why I was moving out.  He responded that ‘Chelsea is like the chicken.  She was small, but now that she is grown, she can go around.  Of course she’ll come back to visit, but she can go around on her own now.”  Later he told me the word for grown chicken in Bicol is ‘Taree”.  So Taree Chelsea, moved into her own apartment. 

7. Working Overtime

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Moving out means I can work overtime!  My officemates and I accompanied some farmers bringing their harvest from the fields to a nearby Municipality’s saod.  Of course we had to take pictures for those pesky documentation reports.

8. A New Sunset Vantage Point

img_9574Turns out Volcanoes at sunset can be just as breathtaking as the sea!  Just as the sun sets it casts a golden hue over everything, and the topography of the volcano’s peak is illuminated by the unique angle of the sun.  A fun new sunset to add to my professional sunset watcher’s portfolio.

9. Tita Chelsea! Tita Chelsea!

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I of course returned back to my home Situ, like a good taree, and visited with my host family for a host cousin’s graduation.  Immediately I was welcomed and fed.  As I sat eating pansit, lumpia, ‘dirty ice cream’ and binuton my name ‘Tita Chelsea’ was sang from the stairs, from the street, from the floor and from the couches!  These three, along with the rest of my host family, made it feel good to be home!

10. Helping out and Doing Zumba

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I’ve started helping out in the barangays my new home is surrounded by.  This weekend, after some 5:30am Zumba, we cleaned up the garden and potted some new plants to decorate the little coastal barangay streets!

That’s it for now!  Look out for this month’s segment of ‘My Little Peace Corps Life’.  With two trips planned for April I’m sure to have a hard time limiting my picks to just 10!