The long awaited, the PCV daydream, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the close of service (COS) trip.
PCVs spend the tougher days of service dreaming about the day PCV turns to RPCV and they finally get a little bit of cash to discover the region they’ve lived in for +2 years. So, upon finishing a scavenger hunt of paperwork to close out my volunteer contract with a few of my batchmates, the daydream was slowly becoming a reality. We got ready to ring the COS bell, a Peace Corps Philippines tradition, but for some reason the excitement of the future was somewhat dulled by the realization that we were all now finding ourselves unemployed and without health insurance…. After the final checks were made, and we all turned into RPCVs we sat in Peace Corps office, wondering what we were supposed to do next.
And after being coxed to leave the IRC by the air con turning off at 5, we wandered back to our hostel and in each other’s company, we pretended we were not freshly unemployed and played volunteer for a while.
But now, almost two weeks since ringing the bell, the dust has settled and I’ve realized that COS trip is a amalgamation of backpacking, job hunting, sightseeing, and attempting to have it all on a shoestring budget (and by have it all, I mean a COS trip, student loan payments, and life starting money for the states). Going from dollars to pesos was exciting! The return is a little nerve-wracking. However, for now I’ve got a few more conversions before I finally find U.S. Dollars in my wallet. My first step, the Indonesian Rupiah.
We had a quick trip in Indonesia, but as with any new place there’s so much to talk about! So, I’ve divided my time in Indonesia into 3 different stories. Island Hopping in Komodo, Diving in Penida, and Temples in Bali, all of which I’ll post through-out the week. Next week I’ll get to this weeks adventures in Malaysia, including diving in Sipadan, renowned as the best dive spot in the world!
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.
For my first story let’s go back to the beginning…
The beginning of service can be A LOT. Every day is a neurological overload because, whether you notice it or not, culture completely saturates every aspect of our lives. I didn’t realize this until long after I went through the overwhelming days of culture shock. But everything we do, from your reaction to someone sneezing, the way you get someone’s attention, to your reflexive action to pick up a certain utensil to eat your breakfast with, it’s all rooted in your cultural background.
I spent every day having my reactive behaviors being picked apart. I spent the other half of the day trying to figure out the inner workings of what would be my home for the next 2+ years. On top of that, I was simultaneously trying to pick out words I recognized from the conversations occurring around me and attempting to participate without completely embarrassing myself. Some of the jokes made in those first couple weeks, I didn’t understand until a full YEAR later. Which brings me to my first story.
When you first arrive at site you have to do a bunch of ‘courtesy calls’. These are basic introductions to the important people in your new community. I did courtesy calls with my counterpart to my mayor, SB (Sangguniang Bayan), Home barangay Capitan and council, among others. During each of these, I used these basic lines of my local language:
Marhay na Aga. [Good Morning]
Ako po si Chelsea [I am Chelsea]
Peace Corps Volunteer ako [I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer]
Nagta-trabaho ako ni coastal resource management [I work in coastal resource management]
Baynte-dos anyos na ako [I’m twenty-two]
Taga-New York ako [I’m from New York]
Nakaistar ako sa Trece Martirez [I live in Trece Martirez]
Then I would be asked a few follow up questions I didn’t understand, would wrap it up with a strong ‘Salamat po’ [Thank you] and head out. My counterpart would talk to my officemates and tease me for my language skills, I couldn’t understand most of it, but she would focus on the way I pronounced ‘ako’. I didn’t really hear the difference but I also wasn’t brave enough to ask. So, I let it go and quietly studied language, tediously watching what I would choose to voice out-loud.
Fast forward a year later, I was a resource volunteer for the new batch of volunteers.
This meant I got to attend their community-based training. This is where new volunteers live in a community with host families and attend daily classes that focus on a range of topics such as language, culture, coastal resource management, safety and security, and medical. During one of the technical coastal resource management sessions we took a trip to a neighboring municipality to visit a fisherfolk organization. At this meeting they got to practice that beloved introduction they would learn to recite on command at their permanent sites.
I had gone through similar training and so I just sat back and watched the new trainees practice their language skills…that was when I heard it.
The harsher longer vowel sounds, where the vowel says its own name, are more common in American dialects. These don’t exist in Filipinos dialects. The letter ‘a’ is more commonly pronounced as ‘ă’ rather than ‘ā’. However, as a fresh little volunteer stubbornly sticking to my American accent, I was still using the harsher longer ‘ā’ sound in my introductions when I first got to site. Which, as a resource volunteer with a year of service under my belt, I will admit sounds very funny.
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!
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.
Picture 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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
My Ate called me from my washing to watch as two men carried a massive pig (soon to become lechon) across coco logs to a house that was nestled between muddy fields of rice. Tied by its legs to a thick piece wood, the pig balanced on the shoulders of two men. Three more pigs would pass by in the same manner, “May Kasal sa aga” (They have a wedding tomorrow) my Ate said.
Over lunch I asked more about the wedding. My Ate explained that traditionally the wedding is held in the bride’s hometown and that it was the groom’s family we had seen earlier bringing the pigs and other food to the house.
She also told me she was the bride’s ‘Ninang’ (Godmother) but she couldn’t go all the way to the Municipyo the next morning for the ceremony.
“Do you want to go?” She asked.
My Peace Corps brain triggered an enthusiastic: “Sure! Why not!”
“Okay, Ninang si Chelsea! You will be the Ninang!” She laughs.
Wait What? I quickly realized my mistake.
“Wait, wait, I just want to go to watch! I can’t be the Ninang!”
I tried to wiggle my way out but my host family was too excited about the idea already.
“No it’s okay! You will be the Ninang! You will wear a dress to work tomorrow!”
While cross cultural interactions are fantastic, they also involve a certain amount of anxiety. Weddings in the United States are generally not open invitation, and the titles like ‘Godmother’ are non-transferrable. So you can imagine my concern when I was told I would be the Godmother at a wedding, the night before.
The next morning, I put on a dress and climbed into the tryke like usual. When I arrived at work EVERYONE made sure I knew I was wearing a dress. ‘Chelsea magayon! You’re wearing a dress!’ I could feel the heat of embarrassment creeping across my face, as a thousand eyes pointed out that I was indeed wearing a dress.
As soon as the family of the bride and groom walked in they scooped me into their little entourage. My blush subsided and I slowly forgot why I was so nervous in the first place.
I was told, and continue to be told, how hospitable Filipinos are. But to me, hospitality is making one comfortable. Filipinos far exceed mere comfort. They incorporate you into their family so immediately, and genuinely, without any degree of hesitation. It’s the feeling I’ve experienced in the US with my best friend’s family. In the United States those ties and emotions take time, but here, time is not a factor.
At the end of the ceremony the Godparents are supposed to give advice to the newlyweds. My Vice-Mayor looked at me: “Ninang Chelsea, you have never been married but what advice do you have for the newlyweds” the room chuckled as he said this “Bicol! Bicol Lang!” He quickly added.
I choppily responded: “Magminuotan kamo hangang saindon pag-gurang”
Translation: You will love each other until you are old (S/O to Kuya Bilyo for that line).
As the ceremony came to a close my nerves settled just in time to be piled onto the family’s tryke. We headed back to our Situ where the loud music could be heard from the highway. Everyone passing would know “May Kasal niyan” (there is a wedding today).
The wedding entourage and I took off our shoes and walked across the balance beams of coco log stuck in the mud of the rice fields to get to the house just on the other side.
The music blasted away, and the tables were filled with all sorts of Filipino pagkaon. As I was sat down and fed immediately, I noticed the familiar faces of my neighborhood and the warm feeling of being a part of it.
Next began the Pantomina de Sorsogon. This is a traditional Bicol dance that is meant to mimic the mating dance of the salampati or the dove. Family and friends join in the dance to pin money to the clothes of the newlyweds.
Family members brought out elaborate shashes of money all pinned together. I watched as the white and black attire of the couple slowly became colorful with Philippine pesos.
As I joined in the dance to pin my pesos to the couple I was cheered and joined by excited neighbors and friendly faces.
As I left the wedding festivities a Kuya came out of his tagay circle to say goodbye to my Ate Helen and I. As I slipped off my shoes to once again cross the muddy rice fields he looked to me and said
“An experience, huh Ate?”
As I tested my balance with my belly full of lechon and rice, and my brow sweaty from dancing Pantomina, I smiled back and agreed; ‘Iyo, quite an experience.’
My Municipality is believed to have gotten it’s name because the townspeople kept their young men and women in hiding to prevent them from being abused by the Spaniards. Therefore, to an outsider, the town appeared to be comprised of only old people. When Americans eventually came to the town they asked for it’s name. The townspeople couldn’t understand what they were saying and assumed they were asking why no young people lived in the town.
The people responded ‘kasi gurang’ (direct translation would be ‘because old’).
The Americans thought they were responding to their question, and left believing the town’s name was Kasi-gurang. Today as the Gymnasium filled with almost every student ages 6-16 in the municipality, I recalled this story and thought how it must look ‘Kasi gurang’ outside.
5,300 students excitedly awaited ‘Pamaskong Handog Para Sa Mga Kaakian 2016’ (Christmas Gifts for the Children) to begin. The Honorable Mayor stood in the center of the gym, as Christmas music poured out of the speakers. The crowd of children jittered in their seats so excitedly, it made even the sizeable speakers sound like a pair of headphones. The air was thick with humidity (of course), but also with that special feeling that only appears this time of year, known to most as Christmas spirit. As I watched the Mayor start ‘the wave’ around the gymnasium several times, and the kids squeal as he began to interact with the crowd, I was in awe of the energy that enveloped the room. It was as if I had stepped off the Polar Express on Christmas Eve and Santa was greeting his crowd of elves. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas here.
For the next 3 hours (yes, you read that right) the Mayor entertained the children by raffling off christmas gifts. As he began to call the lucky numbers, each kid sat clutching their pink raffle ticket until the ink had begun to flake off and the paper was falling apart in their hands. The grand prize was 50,000 pesos, and every kid was eager to bring it home to their families.
To put this in perspective the average salary of the Philippines according to the International Labor Organization, is Php 13,901.18 per month. Meaning this grand prize was over 3 and a half months worth of salary for the average Filipino.
The average monthly salary in the United States is $3,263 (~$40,000/year), so for my american readers, at this pay scale the grand prize is the equivalent to winning just shy of $12,000.
Again this is an average, the Philippines Statistics Authority reported the poverty rate (those whose income falls below the means necessary to provide food, housing, health and education) to be at 21.5% for the year of 2015, meaning that 50,000 pesos goes a lot further than 3.5 months for many of these children’s families.
Upon the arrival of the grand prize announcement I couldn’t hear myself think above the cheering of the crowds. They yelled so loud and stretched their arms up with their colorful signs painted with different phrases wishing the Mayor and his family a Merry Christmas. All of them standing on their tip toes, with their shoulders drawn up to their ears, hoping that maybe if he saw their well wishes, he would somehow purposefully choose their number from the tumbling cage of 5,300 small clips of paper. Upon reading the first number, no one claimed the prize.
‘Wara?’ called the mayor to the crowd.
To which they shouted back ‘Wara!’ and shook their hands in the air which is a common sign for ‘nothing’.
A second number is called….
Finally a third number is called and the lucky winner runs down to the stage. She’s a small girl of 11 years old and she doesn’t quite know what she’s just won. She counts out the bills and is carted home to share her luck with her family.
All in all, between intermission numbers and Apple-Pen-Pineapple-Pen dance breaks, the mayor gives out over 100 gifts including cellphones, rice cookers, and various denominations of money. All of the kids leave with a consolation prize of chichirria, and 20 pesos. As everyone drains out of the gymnasium, some kids are carrying their winnings proudly, some are grumpy having lost, and most are running to spend their 20 pesos on more chichirria from the vendors outside. They pile back onto the jeepneys to return to their perspective barangays and I return to work with my ears still ringing. There is no doubt, the season of giving has arrived here in the Philippines. Pasko na!