My Little Peace Corps Life: The Sea Wall

This is one of those stories I wrote about a while back but never ended up publishing.  This one is from around early to mid-October 2016, right at the start of my life at site in the Philippines.


When I lived with my host family, I discovered a spot that still remains my favorite spot in my entire municipality.  The end of the sea wall in my home situ Storom.  The situ is named ‘Storom’ because it started out, quite literally as a storage room when the national highway was being built.  But now, it’s a cute little concrete and dirt pathway snugly tucked between houses of all different sizes, materials, and colors.  My host family lived almost at the very end of this little pathway.

My occasional walk home, when Kuya Bilyo didn’t take me home in his tryke, was down the sharp downhill turn from the highway, around the a few bends waving to my friends posted on their porches, working at the sari-saris, and in the woodworking shop.  I’d walk past a few small rice fields, across the basketball court (even the tiniest of situs has a basketball court!) and down the straight path filled with friendly faces and tiny kids yelling ‘hello! I love you!’.  When I arrived home, I would quickly throw my things down, change out of my work clothes, grab my tsinelas, and walk to the seawall.


The sea wall bordered the entire situ, keeping the river from putting the whole place underwater during the rainy season.  I’d walk down towards the only house further than my host family’s and climb up the concrete stairs to the sea wall.  The sea wall was flat on top with a raised portion in the middle making it so 3 people could walk side by side.  Usually Bochoy, the family dog, would jump up onto the highest tier and accompany me on my walks.  I’d walk down the meandering sea wall, the river on one side, and a sea of rice fields on the other.  My favorite part of the sea wall was, aside from Bochoy and I, there were barely any people on it.  Just he occasional fisherfolk returning from the sea.  Here, my neurons could take a break.

At the point where the river opened up to the sea, the sea wall ended.  I would sit and hang my legs off the end, and process what was almost always a hectic day.  On the days when the tide was low, I could walk out through the grazing cattle and carabao, to a few mangroves and a sandy tidal flat.  I would wander around that area, try to get some steps in from my mostly sedentary days, and watch the beautiful sunsets.


One day I was wandering close to the few mangroves that were growing on the riverbed, the ground was sandy so I thought nothing of it.  My feet sank slightly into the sand and I stepped a bit quicker to prevent myself from sinking deeper.  Big mistake.  Instead of landing on firmer ground, I continued on to spots that were sinking faster and faster.  All of sudden one of my legs was sucked up by the earth to above my knee.  I tried to use my other leg to leverage myself out of the mud, but it too was sucked up!

I did a quick survey of the area, the LAST thing I wanted was for some horrified Ate or Kuya to find me stuck in the mud in my favorite wandering spot!  My host family would never let me come back! There was no one, only the carabao who lazily looked at me.  The carabao, if they were thinking about my situation at all, were probably jealous that I found such a good mud hole, not the slightest bit concerned that I was Indiana Jones style stuck in the mud.  I struggled a little and began to sink deeper.  I sat for a moment and laughed at the situation I appeared to be in.  Sucked up in the mud, on an abandoned beach, in the middle of the provincial Philippines, what a sight, what an experience, what a life.

img_1308Too cozy to come to your rescue

Composed once again, I surrendered my tsinela and used my arms to pull hard on the left leg, my right one sank deeper, but my left leg began to pull free!  Once at the surface I found a stable spot to pull my right leg out.  With my legs no longer holding the mud apart, it sank into the holes I had created beginning to take my tsinelas with them!  I quickly reached in and pulled them free as well.  I looked around again, legs covered in mud, still no audience, thank goodness.  I quickly darted out of the quicksand area, and to the sea to wash my legs, arms, and hands.  I sat back on the beach and laughed.  I think back to all my past selves.  The one who applied for Peace Corps, the anxious high schooler who packed her bags for university, the little 5th grader who dreamed of being a marine biologist, the kindergartener who wanted to be an astronaut.  I think of them, and I think of what they would think if they saw me now.  Muddy, wet, laughing, by myself, on a beach in the Philippines.  As an avid overthinker I really love the moments I can’t predict, the ones that really surprise me, the ones that I sit back and think about, and say ‘wow, I really didn’t see that coming’.  Probably my favorite part of living in the Philippines is saying those words so very often.

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…




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!’


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!

COS Conference June 2018 01

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.


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 (

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.