There are certain experiences we’ve all had as Peace Corps Volunteers serving in the Philippines.
As I celebrate with my batch mates the closing of our two years of service, I wonder what sort of things we will forget about as we move on to the next chapter of our lives. What are those little things we’ve gotten so used to these past two years? What habits will we find hard to leave behind as we return home?
So here it is, my best approximation of what experiences we’ve all had through-out our time in the Philippines. This isn’t a static list so comment below and tell me what’s one thing you think all volunteers have experienced!
Happy early COS Batch Family!
10. You know FAR too much about your fellow batchmates’ bodily functions.
I don’t think this one qualifies as ‘something you didn’t notice you did here’ because it’s very obvious that we know way too much about each other’s medical history. At home you don’t really know about someone’s medical ailments unless it’s a cold or a flu you’re worried about catching. No one makes casual water cooler talk about the tapeworm they just passed, or the dengue fever they just got over. But here, sitting around a table at Pension, talking about the last time you pooped your pants or passed a parasite is pretty basic conversation, it practically comes right after asking how site is.
PCV 1: How’s site?
PCV 2: Good, did you pass that worm yet?
PCV 1: Yeah! Wanna see a picture?!
PCV 2: YES
9. You can identify a fellow PCV based solely on their water bottle.
PCV1: Did the guys from Leyte arrive yet?
PCV2: yeah I saw their water bottles in the lobby.
8. The couch in the Information Resources Center at the Peace Corps Office is the comfiest couch you’ve ever touched.
I don’t know where this couch came from, it’s probably so comfortable thanks to the generations of Peace Corps Volunteers who have napped on it before us. But it is so very comfortable and you can’t help but fall asleep a little whenever you sink back into it’s soft lumpy cushions.
7. You’re never further than an hour from a jaw-dropping gorgeous once in a lifetime paradise getaway spot…
…but because you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer and you live here, you’ve used the word ‘okay’ to describe this location.
Tourist: The sunsets here are AMAZING!
Jaded PCV: Yeah, tonight’s is okay.
6. You haven’t completely realized how much tagalog has infiltrated your regular speech until you have your first non-PCV visitor.
You: It’s bawal
5. The amount of acronyms you passively understand is a little disturbing.
4. Your proudest Peace Corps accomplishment is your impeccable budots form
Budots is a Filipino dance craze and as a Philippines PCV it is your duty to master the art of budots before you close your service.
3. You’ll never get sick of the double take tryke drivers do when you’re vacationing and you hit them with the local language.
PCV: Magkano ang pamasahe, Kuya?
Them: MAROON ANG (insert local language here)?!
2. The kindness of the Filipino people is some of the most generous kindness you’ve ever experienced.
Whether it’s your host mom sending you with 2 bushels of bananas and 5 avocados for baon, or a stranger offering you their umbrella to shade you from the sun, the generosity here is overflowing and genuine.
1. Whether it’s a tryke, jeepney, or a PCV vacation…
“Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.”
– Flora Lewis
After my most recent Language Proficiency Interview, I started thinking about words in Bicol and Tagalog I’ve come to love. I like these words for a variety of reasons, I like how they relate to Filipino culture, I like that some of them have no direct English translation, and others have become such a part of my vocabulary I use them with Filipinos and Peace Corps Volunteers alike.
This means expensive and it’s probably the tagalog word most commonly used between Peace Corps Volunteers. No one knows when it started, but now it has become synonymous with expensive.
Example: I looked into that hostel but it’s mahal so I need to find a different option.
Lang means only or just but it’s used after the subject. So if something is only 20 pesos, it would be ‘20 pesos lang’. It’s a super easy word to just tack on to every day speech and it’s an easy way to ask for clarification.
You: Tag-pira ang pamasahae? (how much is the fare)
Me: 30 pesos
You: 30 pesos lang?
Me: Oo (yes)
This word doesn’t directly translate in English. It’s used to describe the light in your stomach, racing heart feeling. Most people have explained it to me as the way you feel when you see your crush, and I think the closest English translation would be what we call ‘having butterflies in your stomach’. Learning a new language, I’ve realized how much a language says about it’s associated culture and I believe this word is a perfect example. The Philippines loves love, and they have a lot of words to describe feelings of love that we don’t have in English.
Pronounced Ma-si-ram / Ma-sa-ra-p
The first (masiram) is Bicol and the second (masarap) is Tagalog, they both directly translate to delicious. While these words are directly used to describe the taste of food, I love these words because they’re often used to describe things other than food. They’re also used to describe when something is particularly refreshing. When a strong, cool breeze blows through on a hot day, it can be described as masarap or ‘sarap.
“‘sarap ang hangin”
Or when jumping into a cold pool on a hot day, the water can also be described as ‘masarap’
“Masarap ang tubig”
5. Ate, Kuya, Nanay
Pronounced: Ah-tay, Koo-yah, and Nah-n-aye
These words mean older sister, older brother, and mother respectively, but they’re not reserved only for those people. Ate and Kuya apply to everyone and anyone. The kids in my community call me Ate Chelsea, I call tryke drivers and jeep conductors ‘kuya’. It’s used a term to get someone’s attention but it’s more informal than ‘ma’am’. I would say the term ‘nanay’ is used more as a term of endearment. When an elder woman is getting off a jeep and has to walk crouched over to the exit, the jeep conductor might tell her ‘luway luway nanay’ (slowly, slowly, nanay). I like the use of these words because it reflects the closeness of community here. I know I will miss being called Ate Chelsea.
6. Salamat sa Dios
Pronounced: Sa-la-ma-t sah Di-o-s
The first time I heard the direct translation of this phrase was after I first met my counterpart. We took a taxi from our hotel to the bus station to go to my site for the first time. When we arrived safely at the bus station, she turned to me and said ‘Thanks God’. Since then, I’ve heard the tagalog phrase used whenever something favorable happens. For example, when the fans have been off all day because of a power outage and everyone is sweaty and uncomfortable. When the power suddenly flips back on and the fans come to life, people will sigh and say ‘Salamat sa Dios’
This is a small house lizard that I can say with confidence inhabits every home of the Philippines. They skitter across the walls chasing one another and the bugs. They are welcome house guests keeping away the mosquitos and cockroaches. Sometimes they fight with one another and make loud territorial clicking noises. When I still lived at my host family’s house, our cat had a bunch of kittens and when they were big enough they started pouncing on the butiki that skittered across the floor. One time, one of the kittens caught one by the tail and the lizard quickly detached it’s tail and took off. The tail kept wriggling and kept the kitten entertained while the butiki was able to escape! Evolution, one point; Kitten, zero.
I once accidentally confused binuton (a glutinous rice snack) with butiki and my host family still won’t let me live it down because it sounded like I said I wanted to eat lizards.
8. Palay, Bigas, Kanin, Tipo
Prounounced: Pal-aye, Bee-gas, Ka-nin, Tee-po
The Philippines has a bunch of different words for different types and conditions for rice! I like these words because it’s a reflection of how important rice is here. Are there any English words that behave this way? Something Americans use different words to describe different details or conditions of one subject that other languages would just use one word to describe? If you think of one, leave it in the comments!
Palay is unmilled rice
Bigas is milled rice
Kain is cooked rice
Tipo is burnt rice
9. Niyog, Buko, Copra, Nata de coco, Gata, Lambanog
Pronounced: Nee-y-og, Boo-ko, Ko-pra, Na-ta de ko-ko, Gaa-ta, Lam-ba-nog
What do all these words have in common? They’re all words for coconut!
Niyog is a mature coconut.
Buko is green coconut that is not yet fully ripened. At this stage the coconut contains coconut water, or buko juice. Sometimes entire coconuts are sold on the side of the road. A kuya will cut off the top so you can drink all of the buko juice. When you’re finished with the juice, they’ll cut it in half for you and fashion a spoon out of the piece they cut off the top earlier. Then you use the coconut spoon to scrape the sides of the middle for the buko meat. Buko and buko juice is one of the food items I will absolutely miss the most. The coconut water in the USA just CANNOT compare with juice from a fresh coconut!
Copra is dried coconut. Whenever things need drying they’re laid out on the sides of the road in the Philippine sun. So, it’s not uncommon to pass sections of the street covered in copra (usually there is still a narrow lane for vehicles) drying out. You can usually smell these areas before you see them because they have a pungent, somewhat sour, smell. When the copra is done drying the meat is used for coconut oil.
Nata de coco- fermented coconut water (Wikipedia) the coconut water gels together when fermented and creates a jelly that is used in buko salad, a filipino dessert.
Gata is coconut milk which you can get fresh at any filipino market, however it may not come how you expect it to. The inside of the ripe coconut is shredded and put into a bag. You use this to make coconut milk by pouring hot water over it and squeezing the pulp with your hands. Then you drain the milk from the pulp, and viola you have gata!
Lambanog has been explained to me as coconut wine, but I believe it’s closer to a spirit than a wine (EDIT: Lambanog is a distilled coconut spirit, Thanks Kenny!). It’s made of fermented sap from coconut flowers or palms and it is a strong but cheap alcohol, commonly drank in tagay circles on the beach.
This is a style of drinking where people sit in a circle with a bottle of alcohol, wine, or beer, in the middle. They then pass around one cup. The person who has the cup pours a little into the cup, finishes it, and passes it to the next person who repeats the process. In the Philippines this is primarily used to describe this method of drinking, but between my batchmates and I we use it to describe consuming almost anything in this, one serving-pass it on, fashion.
Example: Wanna tagay the last slice of pizza?
What’s your favorite word (in any language!) and why? Post it in the comments below!
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.
Too 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.