You Know You’re in the Philippines If…. Tales of an Ocean Mural

During my Peace Corps training I read a book entitled, You Know You’re a Filipino If by Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz. For example “You know you’re a Filipino if you give directions with your lips.” Or “You know you’re a Filipino if you eat rice with every meal.” Or “You know you’re a Filipino if you have 30+ godchildren.” I shared this book with my host family and they were laughing hysterically with each turn of the page.

Now one year later I still cannot help noticing several ‘You know you’re a Filipino if’s’ in my own daily life. For instance, I have been collaborating with another Peace Corps Volunteer to share ecological principles and marine science lessons with his community in conjunction with an ocean mural painting. Check out our progress and take note of the Philippine cultural idiosyncrasies…

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First, I taught the kids a lesson on fish anatomy. How are the fish in Finding Nemo able to give Marlin directions and swim in tightly packed schools? Fish have a lateral line of sensory hair cells that runs down their backs allowing them to sense micro-changes in water movement patterns and thereby swim together in unison.

You must be in the Philippines if the town museum, the site of our fish lesson, features an “Under the Sea” photo booth.

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You know you are in the Philippines if each mural painter has a designated umbrella holder to provide shade from the hot sun.

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The talented blue marlin artist is the president of the local High School Art Club.

You know you’re a Filipino if your mid-painting snack is fresh coconut juice and jack fruit (a sweet, yellow fruit that reminds me of cotton candy flavor).

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You must be in the Philippines if you can see the ocean down the road from where you are painting!

The mural is nearly finished now! Notice the Ocean Creed in the center:
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Story time with kids and sea turtles!!!

“Hi I’m Xyrex. I’m 4 years old and I am learning to speak and read in English by pointing to photos and asking for a translation. My favorite English word is ‘Elephant,’ just like ‘Elephante’ in Tagalog!”

Several months ago a huge box (large enough to fit me instead!) arrived at the Libertad Daycare in Odiongan, Romblon Philippines. It felt like Christmas as 400 storybooks including Dr. Suess, Goodnight Moon and Itsy Bitsy Spider were unpacked and placed on the brand new book shelf installed in the new reading corner of the day care.

The Daycare Reading Corner!!
The Daycare Reading Corner!! And there are even more books not shown in this photo!!!

Our Santa Claus was Pinoy Reading Buddies or PRB, an initiative that promotes engaged reading and  spreading literacy through a buddy mentoring system. They generously mailed us a shipment of storybooks for beginning readers. Check out there website and get involved!!

This past Friday, I visited the daycare for a read-a-loud storytelling. The 15 preschoolers, who made it to class despite the heavy rain and soggy roads of the rainy season, learned about the life cycle of a sea turtle in One Tiny Turtle by Nicole Davies.

Story time with sea turtles
Story time with sea turtles

I even brought a pretend baby turtle to demonstrate what it is like inside a sea turtle egg!

Inside a sea turtle egg for the visual learner
Inside a turtle’s egg for the visual learner.

Now I am hoping to make story time a regular activity with a different theme each week!

Love the Ocean Creed

I believe that the ocean harbors life – life that I must protect.
I believe that the ocean is mankind’s greatest common heritage.
I believe that the diversity of the ocean is important to sustaining human life.
I believe that I am part of but one ocean, and that everything I do affects the delicate balance of life on Earth.
I believe that it is my duty to protect the ocean.
I believe that by protecting the ocean I help to protect the future.
Therefore, I pledge to always live in harmony with the ocean.

Scuba diving with sea turtles off Apo Island protected area established 1982
Scuba diving with sea turtles off Apo Island protected area established 1982

Notice the amazing coral coverage on this pristine reef! Can you find the turtle?
Notice the amazing coral coverage on this pristine reef! Can you find the turtle?

"I'm ready for my photo shoot!" This turtle loved the spotlight and permitted us to swim close for a multi-angle shot.
“I’m ready for my photo shoot!” This turtle loved the spotlight and permitted us to swim close for a multi-angle shot.

Ants

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Working at the Student Garden at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of ants. These ferocious red pests could build huge colonies where you least expected it and all too frequently I would unknowingly step on a mound. In a matter of seconds I would be jumping around, smacking off ants, and cursing their tiny bites. If I was feeling particularly retaliatory I would grab the water hose and wreck havoc through the many layers of their elaborate home as they desperately sought safety for their precious larvae trapped in the flooded wreckage. Even better was the lawnmower method whereby ants, sand, larvae and grass are sprayed in all directions leaving behind a bomb-like demolition zone.

Since moving to the Philippines, ants have become an entirely different beast. The tiny brown ones smaller than a grain of rice are capable of creating monumental trails running along doorframes and down the sides of chairs or tables with the congestion of Manila rush hour traffic, yet the fluidity of water to find the one piece of cracker that has fallen from your plate. These minuscule monsters can invade sealed containers or magically appear crawling along your arm with no explanation as to their means of arrival. After living here for a year the sight of fifty ants crawling along the pan-de-sal (bread roll) is no longer a cause for alarm, just calmly brush them off and consume as usual. For lunch today I salvaged delicious mangos from the ants that appeared on the plate shortly after it was sliced.

Red ants can also be found here in the Philippines. They crawled along mangrove roots while we completed our assessments and walked across the tree trunks I grabbed while climbing up Mt. Guiting Guiting. When it rains, they appear in abundance and when they bite you must pull them off. In parts of Ecuador, large biting ants about an inch in length are used as stitches for wounds. Locals would position each ant to bite the breast of the cut and then squeeze off the body leaving a row of ant heads clamping their skin together.

Ants may be more intelligent than we give them credit for. TED Talk, “The emergent genius of ant colonies” by Deborah Gordon discusses ability of ant colonies to react as a unit to respond to threats such as a stick placed at the site of the anthill, whereby individual ants leave their assigned tasks to solve the more immediate problem. http://www.ted.com/talks/deborah_gordon_digs_ants?language=en#

Ants, a nuisance but a need, a terrestrial detritivore. Maybe peanut butter jars in the Philippines should come with a label: contains ant-enriched protein.

What is the Peace Corps?

“Our mission is to share knowledge and culture with people in other countries, and to bring their cultures back to the U.S. to share with Americans. Fundamentally, we work to build capacity of other peoples to foster sustainable peace.”                                                                                –Sarah Blazucki, Editor of the Peace Corps Time Magazine

Sharing a bit of coke and mentos culture...
Sharing a bit of coke and mentos culture…
Coco launching coke from a tower overlooking our island during a family activity event I coordinated.
Coco launching coke from a tower overlooking our island during a family activity event I coordinated.

I am a Peace Corps*. The official Peace Corps Office in Washington D.C. would call me a “Peace Corps Volunteer” or “PCV” for short. But here at my site in Odiongan, Romblon, Philippines, locals refer to me as their “Peace Corps.” My title is associated with characteristics of diligence, knowledge, and foreign appearance, though I have heard the title mistakenly applied to individuals of several different nationalities including, “She is their Australian Peace Corps” or “We had a Korean Peace Corps.” Others ask how they themselves can become a “Peace Corps.”

I do my best to explain that the official program is the United States Peace Corps and therefore you must be a U.S. citizen to be a “Peace Corps.” Other foreign governments, like Australia, offer different international volunteering programs distinct from the Peace Corps.

Possibly because the term “volunteer” is often omitted from my title, the idea that I have no salary and receive only a living allowance from the U.S. government to cover basic food, housing and transportation expenses is groundbreaking. My host family did not even realize until two weeks ago, when it came up at the dinner table.

My house is just down the block. Walking with fellow volunteers Loren and Drew.
Walking down the national road with fellow volunteers Loren and Drew. My house is just down the block.

Today is my one-year anniversary of becoming a “Peace Corps.” Last year, I was sitting in an airport wearing a bicycle helmet and strumming my ukulele, on my way to begin training, and today I am calmly listening to the sounds of typhoon rains outside my window while I prepare to lead training for the newest batch of Peace Corps Volunteers currently en route to the Philippines.

View from my front door this morning amidst typhoon rains
View from my front door this morning amidst typhoon rains

* “Corps” is properly pronounced like “core” but just as frequently I hear it improperly pronounced by Americans and Filipinos alike as “corpse.”

Balut

Featured on the TV show Fear Factor, balut, or a fertilized chicken egg, boiled and served to eat is the Popeye’s spinach of the Philippines, said to make you grow strong. If balut came with a nutritious facts label it would boast high quantities of protein, alongside a warning: may contain beak or small bits of feathers, hence the tendency for foreign visitors to squirm a little at the thought of consuming an embryonic chicken.

For John’s Despedida, or going away party, eating balut was a rite of passage.

John was really excited about this idea!
John was really excited about this idea!

Step 1: Crack the egg and peel away a bit of the shell so you can suck all of the warm juices out. Arguably the most delicious part!!

Notice Miel in the foreground enthusiastically sucking her balut juice. She was genuinely excited for the snack and hers disappeared before John had even removed the shell.
Notice Miel in the foreground enthusiastically sucking her balut juice. She was genuinely excited for the snack and hers disappeared before John had even removed his shell.

Step 2: Remove the rest of the eggshell and sprinkle salt.

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Step 3: Bon appétit! Eat the white and yellow parts avoid black or any feathered bits.

Delicious!
Delicious! I ate half of it too.

The white tastes similar to a hard-boiled egg but is more dense and tough. For all the apprehension prior to eating, fertilized chicken eggs are a challenge I would gladly accept if I ever find myself on Fear Factor. It was actually pretty tasty!

The remains
The remains

Mountain Biking in Odiongan

“Will you bring your bike to the Philippines?” many of my friends from the Coastal Cyclists in Charleston, SC asked as I prepared to leave last July 2014. No, my Specialized road bike with centimeter wide tires, clip in shoes, and no shock absorption would not have gotten me very far on the roads of Romblon.

My roadbike in the US after I rode to the top of Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina in Spring 2014
My roadbike in the US after I rode to the top of Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina in Spring 2014

While the national road is paved for nearly the entire circumference Tablas Island, each day I must also navigate the rocky, dirt roads common to small neighborhoods. Roads, whose large rocks and gravel in the dry season and muddy potholes in the wet season would have eaten the tires of my Specialized roadbike while easily tossing me from my seat and into the rice fields lining their borders.

The motorbike is the most common form of transportation here. When I first arrived, I had to stop myself from pointing and laughing every time I saw an elderly Filipino grandmother whizz past me with no helmet operating a motorcycle. (While motorcycle grandmas would be out of place in America, apparently the sight of a blonde white American girl jogging through the neighborhood is also equally worthy of a point and laugh in this part of the world.)

The epitome of motorbike's in the Philippines: room for the whole family. That is Kuya Nono and Ate LingLing plus their 3 kids, Maxine, Coco and baby Barry Lee
The epitome of motorbikes in the Philippines: room for the whole family. That is Kuya Nono and Ate LingLing plus their 3 kids, Maxine, Coco and baby Barry Lee

A consequence of abundant motorbikes and rough, unpaved roads is AMAZING mountain bike trails! The best way to spend a free afternoon is biking a mountain ridge on a dirt, packed single track overlooking the ocean.

Mountain biking on a sweet single track overlooking the ocean!!
Mountain biking on a sweet single track overlooking the ocean!!

For Odiongan fiesta this past April I helped to plan a 28km Mountain Bike Race. Expecting maybe 30 participants if we were lucky, our registration booth was initially overwhelmed by over 70 riders including school kids, seniors and out-of-town professional riders!

The poster advertising the Odiongan Bike Race that I helped to plan this past April. More photos from the race to come!

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The participants gearing up...
The participants gearing up…
Me just before the race. Notice the difference in this mountain bike and my US roadbike shown earlier.
Me just before the race. Notice the difference in this mountain bike and my US roadbike shown earlier.
And we're off!!!
And we’re off!!!

Check out the video John made with GoPro footage of the bike race mixed in with clips of my other favorite pastime: snorkeling. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYhgRYDOeec

Our Peace Corps Bike Gang after the race with Sir Bilshan who helped me to plan the event.
Our Peace Corps Bike Gang after the race with Sir Bilshan who helped me to plan the event. Success!!