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…
Living near volcanoes is not something I had ever experienced before living in the Philippines. When I arrived at my site, I found my Municipality snugly tucked between two sleeping giants; Mount Mayon and Mount Bulusan. Both of these volcanoes have been active during my service. Mount Bulusan was raised to Alert level 2 when I first arrived and I could see smoke pouring from the crater from my house. Mount Mayon has only just recently calmed down from her activity earlier this year. Mount Mayon was raised all the way to Alert Level 4 and I could see the crater glowing from the Casiguran pier.
But with both the giants subdued, I can sit peacefully on the pier in the early morning and gaze at the volcanoes on either side of me. I can only see Mount Mayon on clear days. The iconic cone peaks above the Sorsogon Mountains from across the Sorsogon Bay. Mount Bulusan is hard to miss. Directly opposite of Mount Mayon, inland, Mount Bulusan towers over my little Municipality. Unlike Mayon’s perfect cone, Bulusan is far from perfect with it’s flat, slightly lopsided, top.
In Bicol, Bulusan means the place where the river flows (Gintong Aral). This name couldn’t be more accurate. Mount Bulusan feeds a number of freshwater springs, lakes, and waterfalls, that run into 4 different municipalities. If there’s one thing I’ll miss, it’s an impromptu day of discovering the hidden uniqueness to each spring and waterfall running down the sides of Mount Bulusan.
Coincidentally, most of these spring hopping adventures have the same beginning. Me and my sitemate, sitting drinking coffee or tea with our friend Kenny. During a lull in conversation, he would ask:
‘Have you ever been to Masacrot Springs?’
or Bayugin Falls, or Nagsipit Falls, or Buklad River, all places that would one day take the place of Masacrot.
Most times Perri and I would reply ‘not yet!’
‘Well,’ Kenny would start,
‘We should go there! Let’s go there now!’
And just like that we would be in a jeepney, tryke, or car, off to see some part of Mount Bulusan we had never seen before. Although they all have the same source, each spring and waterfall in Sorsogon is unique in some way.
Masacrot Spring is shaded by giant crawling jungle trees, the water is a deep blue-green that compliments the sandy colored stones that line the pool. The name Masacrot Spring is after the water found there. The water is ‘masacrot’ which means acrid. The water tastes as if it’s been carbonated. I asked Kenny why it was like this and he said “it’s because of the mineral content of the water. It’s a soda spring, so the dissolved solids make the water taste that way.”
At Nagsipit falls, just above Urok cold spring, the green layers of moss, leaves, and vines crawl forward as the falls erode backwards sinking further into the forest. It makes the place look like the perfect watering hole to spot water sprites taking in the dewy breeze rushing out of the narrow cove.
San Mateo Hot Spring has water so hot you can’t help but respect the sleeping giant looming above you as your muscles melt to mush. Kenny told us his favorite time to visit the hot spring is when it’s raining. It happened to be raining when we visited, and I realized exactly what he meant. As the pool elevates your body temperature, you can feel the refreshing but sharp contrast of each individual rain drop hitting your face.
Bayugin Falls is back in the middle of the jungle. Before arriving at the waterfall, there is a long metal bridge that passes over a canyon that has grown deep into the earth. The canyon meanders through the forest and leads to a waterfall. The water of this waterfall doesn’t all fall down, it seems to spray in all different directions. The jagged boulders at the bottom of the falls have not yet smoothed. So the water falls downward, but is then launched into the air by the jagged rock. The water flows down to a pool that is bordered by a tall wall of green. At the top of the wall giant trees appear to float on air as their branches grow away from the crowded jungle out over the edge of the wall.
Buklad River, the perfect spot for an early morning walk, the sunlight streams into the crystal clear water and the rocks that peak out of the water just a bit are the perfect height for sitting and combing your mermaid hair.
These are only the few falls, rivers, and springs , I’ve been able to visit while here. There are so many others I won’t get to explore, this time around. I’ve always been a salt water girl, but fresh water is alright…as long as it’s in Sorsogon, of course.
“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.