Peace Corps: A job, a lifestyle, a journey growing in unexpected directions

Taking a glance back at my blog posts I’ve come to realize I don’t talk much about my actual job.  I do in fact, have a job here!

My Job Description:

I’m a CRM PCV in the MAO of an LGU.  I work on PCRAs, CRMPs, IECs, and sometimes SWM, with MFARMCs, BFARMCs, POs, 4Ps, BFAR, DENR, DSWD and MENRO.

Makes sense right?

Your face right now.

The Philippines, and Peace Corps both LOVE acronyms.

In plain english.  I’m a Coastal Resource Management Volunteer, and I work in a Municipal Agriculture Office in a Local Government Unit of a Municipality.  I work specifically with the Fisheries Unit.  Agriculture is a way bigger deal here- which if you think about it is kind of odd considering they probably have more water than land, right?-  Anyways, Fisheries/Coastal Resource Management work is often split between different departments.  My counterpart is the Fisheries Unit, but offices like the Municipality Environmental and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) also work on Coastal Resource Management.

Okay, but what do you DO?

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The Bay

I live on an estuarine bay that is known for kasag (blue swimmer crabs), tahong (asian green mussels), and silag (anchovy), among others.  Our fisherfolk use a plethora of different fishing gears to raise or catch these different organisms.  As a major source of employment, as well as a major threat to the well-being of the bay, fishing must be appropriately regulated.  Fisherfolk also must be appropriately organized so they can make the most out of their fish catch, and protect their livelihood.  I try to help make this happen.

So many smiles!

BUT as a Peace Corps Volunteer my work isn’t just limited to the time I spend at a desk, in the mangroves, or under the sea.  As my sector manager reiterates, two of the three goals we have as Peace Corps Volunteers have absolutely nothing to do with my 9 to 5.  Peace Corps is also about being a point of cultural exchange for both Filipinos and Americans; and thanks to the internet and the growing presence of a global community I would say that my sharing of Filipino culture doesn’t stop at just Americans.

So here is what I do, as told through one of my more successful weeks at site.

Monday: I wrote communications to two of our coastal barangays about household interviews.  This is one of the first step in developing a Coastal Resource Management Plan for the Municipality.  

Our Coastal Resource Management Plan will outline problems identified by the community, a socio-economic profile of the coastal barangays, the status of our natural resources, and finally a plan to address problems and resource management for the next 5 years.  Putting together this document is a huge on-taking and has been one of my primary projects for the past couple months.  After these interviews we will conduct habitat assessments on our mangrove forests and seagrasses.  Then we’ll conduct participatory coastal resource assessments and we’ll hear from fisherfolk and community members where their resources are, and what they need.  All of those activities are just the data collection portion of this process.  

Tuesday: My Host Kuya explained to my officemates that I was ‘like the chicken’ as he helped me move to my new grown up chicken apartment closer to work.  He explained that I was moving because I’m ‘taree’ (a grown up chicken) now and I can roam around, but of course I’ll come back to visit the coop.

Wednesday: We conducted our household interviews.  There was such a great turn out that we ran out of response forms!

Thursday: I entered some of the data I collected from household interviews, but spent the better part of the day talking to my coworkers about Filipino and American culture.

Meeting with our Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council (MFARMC)

During these conversations I not only learn more about Filipino culture, but I also learn about American culture as it’s perceived and questioned by my Filipino friends.  It’s interesting to hear what pieces of information spark curiosity in a brain that is culturally wired so differently from my own.

I’ve gotten expected questions about American weather patterns, American holidays, and food preferences (“wait, walang rice?!”).  But I’ve also gotten unexpected questions like why Americans are so independent and do things like move away from home at 18, how is our police system organized (There’s only the Philippine National Police, no smaller departments like NYPD), how accurately American movies depict certain aspects of American culture, and what sort of crops we harvest.  

I have to admit some of these questions sent me running to Google!  The United States is a massive country it’s not easy to summarize our customs.  Crop harvest varies depending on the region.  What would you say the ‘american staple food’?  The common guess here is bread. 

So no matter what I’m doing whether I’m at my office or roaming around my Municipality, I’m constantly sharing my world, and the world is constantly sharing in return.  

Peace Corps tagline is ‘the toughest job you’ll ever love’ and it is such an accurate description of the job I have here.  Getting technical things done is tough when you don’t speak the language.  Working in a new environment takes adaptation.  Trying to understand an unfamiliar culture, demands acceptance that some things aren’t meant to be understood.  I spend many days having my views and personal opinions stretched and skewed by words, and actions.  This forces me to look at something I thought I knew, in an entirely different way.  It’s exhausting, and exhilarating.  

Sunset watching is definitely a part of my job description

Peace Corps is not what I thought it would be, nonetheless, I love my job more and more everyday.  It’s a tough journey I am proud to be on.  It’s an experience I know will leave me changed in ways I never imagined, and I look forward to every day as I grow in unexpected directions.

Learning the Way

I’ve been in Casiguran for almost two months now but when my counterpart told me to finish up the tour of Casiguran’s Livelihood projects with our BFAR representative, while she attended to other business, my stomach dropped a little.

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Casiguran has a number of Alternative Livelihood Projects that have been funded by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.  These projects are incredibly important in improving the quality of life for our fisherfolk, and helping them maintain financial security.  Alternative Livelihood opportunities allow people to learn new skills and diversify their income.  

Why must the fisheries sector diversify their income?

The Fishing industry is an extremely insecure industry.  Factors like climate change, population increase, and overfishing, among others, have caused a decrease in fish catch.  

Why don’t they just fish less?

Sounds easy right, just fish less.  This is much easier said than done.  Asking the fisherfolk to fish less is asking them to deprive their families of dinner and income.  But, when fishing grounds run dry, families also go hungry.

The beacon of light! Alternative livelihood projects!  These help reduce pressure on fish stocks and maintain financial security for the fisherfolk.  Our projects here include: a Municipal Tilapia Hatchery, a Post Harvest Facility enhancement project, and a Fisheries Products Value Adding Center.  These are all funded by BFAR and must be documented appropriately.  We had finished showing our BFAR representative, Gloria, the Municipal Hatchery when it was my turn to direct the tryke driver to our next destination, The Cawit Livelihood Center.

‘Cawit Barangay Hall po’ I say to the tryke driver.

We start down the road and I assume I’ve done enough.  Tryke drivers know Casiguran like the back of their hand, there’s no doubt he knows where a landmark like the Barangay Hall of Cawit is.

He passes the turn.  

‘Wait, wait!’ I raise my voice over the tryke’s motor, in english.  My Bicol proficiency is in no way reactive (yet) and it completely escapes me in times of urgency, ‘Cawit Barangay Hall!’

He stops the tryke and asks someone nearby ‘Hain an Cawit Barangay Hall?’

I think that I’m hearing him incorrectly; he doesn’t know where the Barangay Hall is?  Based on body language, and limited language skills, I piece together that he is definitely asking people for directions.  He doesn’t know where the Barangay Hall is, but I DO!  

‘I know, I know- er, aram ko, aram ko!’ He looks down at me like I’m a little bit crazy.  Granted, I probably look crazy, there are two Filipinos on the tryke but I’M the one trying to give directions.  I point behind me, ‘back that way.’ He turns around and heads towards the turn.

‘Tuo!’ I tell him to turn right.  He slowly takes the turn and slows again to ask someone.

‘It’s okay, aram ko, direcho!’ the woman from BFAR riding behind the driver is laughing now as I’m still trying to get the tryke driver to listen to me.  

‘Chelsea knows how to get there but the tryke driver does not!’ She is thoroughly entertained by the entire situation.

We continue, slowly, down the road and as we come up to another turn, still laughing Gloria asks ‘Which way Chelsea!’

‘Wala!’

For the first time in four months of living in the Philippines, I don’t feel like the visitor.  We turn left and pull in front of our destination. ‘Para, para po, right in here’

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These are the little moments we were told about during training.  Realizing you actually aren’t a giant stumbling two year old, and CAN manage basic life-sustaining transactions!  It’s so exciting!  Before Peace Corps, if you told me that knowing how to give directions in a small town would make me feel so accomplished I would have laughed.  I still laugh, it’s hysterical that this makes me feel so great but hey, I’ll take it.

The Cawit Livelihood Center is a small house that serves as a Value-Adding Facility.  The women who work here are Cawit Fisherfolk.  They have been trained on different ways of preparing fish in order to help fisherfolk make more money off of their catch.  They can also debone Silag (anchovy) faster than anyone I’ve ever met.

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A few weeks ago, the center was in full action during our Fish Conservation Week.  There was a fish deboning competition where the winner deboned 175 silag in 15 minutes.  After that there was a cooking contest.  My Grandpa would be pretty happy to hear that I ate an absurd amount of anchovies that day. Fried silag, silag lumpia, silag curry, these women know how to cook fish!  

I recognized the women as they showed Gloria around their little facility and I felt comfortable in the familiarity of it all.  I’m a homebody, but I love the challenge of finding that comfort while traveling.  Building that settledness is rewarding, and perpetuates my love of travel and living abroad.  Come visit, I know the way! 😉  

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Day one of Life on the Farm

 

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Mt. Bulusan in the daylight

I moved to site only a week ago but with each day I begin to settle into my new home. Every morning I wake up at 4:30am, I come out of my room to the kitchen and my Ate and I drink coffee before we start our day. Once the coffee is all finished we grab our flashlights and start our morning walk. We walk out to the rice fields where our goat, named Pangit, is excited to see us. I pet Pangit for a while and give the dog, Beethoven, enough time to catch up and accompany us on our walk. The three of us climb up the sea wall and walk. We pass trees that are still full of fireflies and enjoy the dark as it provides air that is cool and fresh. Once we arrive at the Bay I jog through the mangroves and the sun begins to slowly bake the air into a cloud of humidity. On the walk back home the sun rises over the rice fields turning the sky pink and orange. The face of Mount Bulusan comes to life and slowly but surely the Philippines starts to wake up.

 

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Mount Bulusan in the morning light

 

Once we arrive back at the house everyone is awake. And by everyone I mean the chickens, the turkeys, the sheep and the cat (and soon piglets too, stay tuned). My Kuya arrives home from the fish pond at around 6:30am and the sheep begin to ‘baa’ demanding to be fed. After we all have eaten breakfast we get ready to leave for work. As we leave, my Ate begins her busy day. People arrive at the house to sell her ‘kasag’ (crabs) which she cooks in huge metal pots and re-sells through-out the day. My Kuya, who also works at the LGU, pulls out the tryke and drives us both to work. I very much enjoy my morning commute with the wind in my hair and the beautiful scenery on either side of the highway. We work at the Municipal Hall. My Kuya works in their engineering department. I work in the Agriculture Office in the Fisheries unit. Right now ‘work’ is mostly just observing, learning the language, and most importantly, eating.

 

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I am a giant

I had mentioned the word ‘Merienda’ in my first blog post but my new LGU family takes it to a whole new level: As a reminder, merienda is a widely practiced Filipino snack time and it occurs between two and four times during the day. Merienda can range from different types of pandesal (bread), to pansit (noodles with veggies) to pinkakrow (starchy veggie in coconut milk) to tseron (like a banana spring roll) to various rice and rice flour snacks that I can’t remember the name of.

As the shiny new American, everyone is very concerned with making sure I have plenty of merienda (hence why I wake up at 4:30am to go running). In fact just now after being fed a plate of pasta, someone just came a placed an entire kamote (starchy vegetable, kind of like a potato) on my desk. I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do with it… I’m just going to leave it there, maybe she’ll come back for it, I’ll keep you updated.

At 5pm I’ll meet my Kuya downstairs and sometimes we’ll go to the plaza to pick up some fruits or to the bakery for pandesal (for at home merienda, of course). When we get home Ate is still busy selling the crabs and running her sari-sari store. After dinner (the last meal of the day, thankfully) when work finally ends for my Ate, we go out to the bunag pavement (pavement where they lay out newly harvested rice to dry in the sun). It’s dark after dinner and if the sky is clear of clouds we can see the stars. We sit for a while and appreciate the stars. We talk about our days, one night I showed her what a cartwheel was, one night she taught me ‘bulalakaw’ means shooting star in bicol. But mostly we just stare up at the stars, I haven’t seen stars as good as these in a while. I love the stars and I am happy to have found that we share the same affinity and curiosity for the night sky.

Perhaps my favorite part of sitting and stargazing with my Ate is having something that is the same across our cultures. It’s simple mutual understanding. But it requires no translating, which is something to be appreciated when you are somewhere new and sometimes feel like home, and familiarity, is as far away as the stars. We walk back and I go to bed exhausted from a day of excitement, misunderstanding, translating, laughing, learning, and of course, eating. It has been quite the adventure so far and each day continues to bring new experiences. Stay tuned!

-Chels

P.S. The Kamote is still on my desk…

Batchmates, Site Placement, and Spiders: PST comes to a close

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With Community Based Training coming to a close I have to take a second to appreciate my fellow batchmates. The crazy, kooky, and entertaining, bunch of Bath 275. Thank you for making CBT truly unforgettable and for helping me navigate this unique and challenging experience. There are not many people who are willing to wait almost a month and a half into a two-year commitment to find out exactly where they are going and what they are doing. You all are insane and I’m glad we’re friends. Thank you for laughing with me, laughing at me, keeping me entertained on long jeepney rides and providing perfectly timed moments of comic relief. I picked out one story to share about our entertaining adventures I hope you’ll enjoy:

Our first unsupervised jeepney ride:

The ride to the mall was uneventful. The ride back began uneventfully enough; we packed in like sardines to this tiny jeep, a little kid threw up on the jeepney floor and no one way phased. As we pulled off I imagined what it would be like to bring my friends and family from home on a jeepney. I imagine my sister throwing her elbows out left and right and snapping loudly that strangers were touching her. I imagine my best friend laughing as the Jeepney stops for everyone and we slowly become more and more compacted together. I started to wonder how I’ll feel when I’m to the point of inviting my friends and family to come visit me. How I will have grown and what my life will be like. Then Matt taps me, back to reality:

‘Something just crawled over my foot.’ He said.

I didn’t think much of it because there was a large box sitting in front of us and the plastic hanging off of it had tickled my feet a few times. A few minutes pass by and Nicole jumps and says much more animatedly:

‘Something just crawled over my foot!’

Dani starts to get nervous because she thinks it’s a cockroach or a mouse, I’m not too bothered by cockroaches or mice but for a second I entertain the idea of it being my mother sitting next to me instead of a stranger. I laugh a little imagining the chaotic encounter that would be- my mom hates mice. Then Andrew says ‘I think it’s a spider’ and I feel a wave of instant karma settling in. I HATE spiders. All of a sudden Dani says ‘oh I think it’s a spider too’ and suddenly the jeepney is beginning to feel very very small. I begin to get nervous imagining the giant beasts of spiders that live in the Filipino jungles and I decide to confide in my friends that they should kill it, sacrifice themselves, or otherwise deter the spider from getting to me. I turn to Matt, he wouldn’t let it get me right? Not my buddy, not my GOOD FRIEND MATT.

Me: ‘It can’t be a spider, I hate spiders.’

**Matt laughs unsupportively and is ready to feed me to the spider**

My heart rate increases. There is no easy way to ditch this jeepney. It is now filled with close to 30 people. Some of the passengers are clinging to the metal bars outside the elongated cab. If that spider comes my way, I am stuck. There is no escaping it. I remember the large blue box in front of us.

Me: ‘It won’t come over here with this box in the way’

Matt: ‘I don’t think that is how that works.’

THANKS MATT THANKS

By now my friends are realizing I’m getting a little nervous. They finally find it on someone’s bag…

Dani: ‘oh man it’s huge’

GREAT. I’m starting to panic a little and my friends are laughing. The lady across from Dani is watching the American get skiddish about a spider and says: ‘Maliit, maliit.’ She laughs and holds up her pinky. I begin to breathe again and Dani and Andrew laugh their faces off. They think they’re funny. I calm down, the spider is tiny, we’re safe.

Then Nicole starts shimmying and jumping out of her seat-henceforth known as the spider dance. The women across from us cover their faces trying not to obviously laugh at the ridiculous scene unfolding in front of them. We aren’t as polite and we laugh hysterically at Nicole’s dance moves. Now, this spider has got to be dead. No one could survive a spider dance like that.

Nicole: ‘Oh my god Matt it’s on your back’

Remember, Matt is sitting right next to me. I turn to my left and see a spindly black spider with a large black abdomen staring up at me from the collar of Matt’s shirt. I quickly flick it at Nicole- survival of the most reactive- and for a second we have lost the spider. All of a sudden Nicole looks down and says ‘it’s on me!’ She stretches out her shirt and takes a second to make sure her swat will be deadly enough to kill it once and for all. She smashes the spider and flicks it towards our audience who do not even flinch at the idea of this very scary spider coming their way. At this point, the front of the jeepney has all tuned into the reality show unfolding in front of them and they are roaring; we laugh along at our ridiculous looking behavior. Just as things calm down we pull up to our stop and jump off the jeepney. We recount the event as we walk back to our host families and we ascertain that our audience members retold our story to their families over a dinner of rice and adobo manok.

Now we are all off to go our separate ways! We will see each other periodically throughout service, on vacations, and of course, we’ll all be textmates. But I am headed to Sorsogon, Bikol with two other awesome CRM volunteers and an amazing bunch of volunteers from other sectors as well. I’ll be working in my Municipality’s Municipal Agriculture Office under their Fisheries Unit. I’m living with a host family on a rice farm.  They have several sheep, chickens, goats, and dogs. DID I MENTION THEY HAVE GOATS!? Sorsogon is known for its surfing, great hiking and spicy food (that last one I’m going to have to get used to but I’m about it!). So if you’re looking for a great vacation spot and you love goats as much as I do, let me know.

Balay ko an balay mo! (Did I mention I have to learn a second language?)

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Peace Corps Philippines: New Beginnings and Songs About Pizza

The moment I received the email inviting me to join the Peace Corps as a Coastal Resource Management Volunteer I knew I was going to say yes. But replying to an email is easy, just a few keystrokes and clicks. There was no way of truly envisioning what I was signing myself up for. All I knew was that I had to find out.  Finally, 4 months later, I am beginning to do just that.

Arriving at IO

I’m finding out that it’s waking up at 6am to enjoy the crisp fresh air before the heat of morning kicks in. It’s embracing that sweaty is no longer something that happens on hot summer days or after a tough work-out, it’s a chronic condition. It’s having merienda at mid-morning and mid-afternoon. And it’s tiny red ants marching in and out of everything you own. It’s videoke, it’s Jolibees, and it’s only just beginning.

Peace Corps Philippines has three different sectors: CYF (Children, Youth and Family), Education, and CRM (Coastal Resource Management). Right now we are all together at initial orientation getting acquainted with each other and the Philippines. This includes dancing at Disco Disco night, and learning Pinoy games and pastimes, including videoke.

Pinoy game night

Of all the Pinoy games and pastimes, videoke has to be my favorite (so far). Videoke is very different from its American counterpart, karaoke. Videoke actually has absolutely nothing to do with being a good singer, or knowing the lyrics, or even knowing the tune! It is all about your ability to put on a show with confidence. There are thousands of songs to be performed in English, Tag-lish, and Tagalog. We learned a song called Picha Pie (here is the link for your videoke-ing enjoyment). Picha is not a tagalog word, the –za sound in pizza is just difficult for Filipinos to pronounce.  So Picha Pie is a song about Pizza and it is sung to the tune of ‘I will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor. I’m not quite sure why this didn’t make it back in America but it is truly a work of art (see full translation here). Also quite different from American karaoke, videoke is not something you just do at parties, or bars. Videoke is a part of the Filipino way of life and almost every household comes equipped with its very own! Family gatherings, office parties, solo, even in department stores, videoke is EVERYWHERE.  So I’m looking forward to all of the videoke-ing I will get to partake in over these next 27 months.

Merienda: mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks

Aside from videoke we have started our Tagalog studies, begun learning about the Philippine environment, and internalizing what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.   On top of the formal seminars and meetings, every day in this beautiful country is full of learning and full of surprise. I am never quite sure what Filipino habit or daily ritual will emerge in my routine and force me to experience the world in a new way. Whether it is greeting strangers on the sidewalk with ‘Maganadang umaga po’ or growing antsy for mid-morning merienda at 9:45am. My world is changing and it’s only the beginning.

Stay tuned!