Despedida & Bienvenida

My journey to the Philippines has now come full circle as I write this blog post from my family’s house in America.

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The view out my window of Lake Latonka (there is no ocean in Pennsylvania)

My final week in the Philippines was filled with Despedida (Good-bye) parties, tears, delicious food, and of course videoke (karaoke).

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OPAG Office Despedida Party under the Nipa Hut with goat, chicken, pig, cow and turkey plus seaweed noodles (front right), ginataan lanka & corn

First my office had a huge blow out party and killed a goat, pig, chicken, cow and turkey to celebrate. Unfortunately, I am vegetarian, but they also cooked one of my favorite Filipino meals ginataan lanka or jackfruit cooked in coconut milk. We also ate delicious, newly harvested corn, played a series of amusing games and sang, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” In the middle of the party, thick walls of rain forced us all to take shelter under our little Nipa Hut, but the rain helped to mask the tears that came with the numerous good-bye speeches.

Later that evening I had a second good-bye with my Filipino host family. They cooked my favorite foods and even prepared a program of events for the evening including an acrostic poem for me and a personalized song. Then, I surprised them with a final parting activity and prizes for all!

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Good-bye to my bedroom of 2 years in the Philippines

It was very sad to leave as I have truly become a part of the family and the community. But as my host family continues to remind me, “it’s not good-bye, but see you soon.” And I definitely plan to return someday.

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At the airport with volunteers Liz and Nathan

My parents picked me up from the airport when I arrived after over 24hours of travel. As we walked out of the airport I was amazed by the smell – like grass and trees, very different from the tropical climate of the Philippines, whose smell I cannot describe because it is so normal to me now.

Walking through our American neighborhood, I was really caught off guard to see someone roll by on a hoverboard, while searching for Pokemon with an iPhone 6. Apparently, technology has progressed in 2 years time!

Overall suburban America seems so spacious and neatly manicured, but very quiet and devoid of people. I have grown accustomed to the chaotic and noisy, yet colorful and friendly nature of the Philippines, where children, chickens, cows and overloaded motorbikes fill the roads and move around one another like flowing water.

 

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My display of Filipino products, newspapers, photos, fish books, and tarpaulins to share with friends and family in America

And just one week after my Despedida parties, it is a Bienvenida (Welcome) party with friends and family I have not seen in years. They were amazed to hear stories about SCUBA diving the Blue Hole, removing crown-of-thorns seastars, and taking bucket baths. I made sure to buy a “tabo” (water scooper) to bring back with me and I hope to cut down on my water consumption in the future.

When I shared samples of seaweed noodles, pili nuts, candies, and Filipino peanut butter, it was the peanut butter that was the biggest hit (made right in my local town with a generous amount of additional sugar).

These two years have been an incredible experience! I am thankful to live at a time where my journey can be fully documented by blog and my host family is just a text away by viber. See you soon Philippines.

 

 

 

I Said Yes

August 17, 2016 was a special day. It marked my last day as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines and a day of celebration for myself and my 273 batch mates who had successfully completed our 2 years of service.

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Ringing the bell signified the completion of my Peace Corps service during our Close of Service Ceremony at the Peace Corps office in Manila.
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Some of the newly finished volunteers in Batch 273 with the Filipino Peace Corps staff. Next to me in the center of the photo is my best friend and site mate Loren (white jacket, dark hair). She was John’s co-conspirator and photographer for the events to come.

What I didn’t realize was that the day was special for an even greater reason…

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Earlier that morning John had gotten approval from our Country Director to propose at the end of my Close of Service Ceremony. The ring he gave me is made of marble and significant because it was handcrafted in Romblon, the marble capital of the Philippines and where we served together as Peace Corps volunteers.

IMG_1221Our story is a Peace Corps anomaly and a small miracle. John and I met in his hometown of Wilmington, NC as instructors at Surf Camp. We dated in America before I left for the Peace Corps, and I was actually sitting in his living room when I received the email with my country assignment to the Philippines in January 2014. Little did we realize, he too would end up serving in this country.

During my first year as a Peace Corps volunteer John came to visit for two and a half months. He lived with my host family, attended our family reunion, and used his expertise in outdoor recreation management to assist the provincial tourism office.

John’s arrival in Manila after a year apart:

Climbing Mt. Pinatubo:

Activities with the host family: superheroes and eating balut.

Assessing Mt. Guiting Guiting:

At that time the Provincial Tourism Office decided to apply for a Peace Corps Response Volunteer specialized in Eco-Tourism Development. The Peace Corps Response program is a short term (typically a year or less) assignment of an experienced professional to meet a specific need in a developing country. Other Response positions include Disaster Risk Management or Non-Profit Management Specialist.

When I was at Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington D.C. for the Blog-It-Home winner’s tour in October 2015, I got the news that John was accepted for the Eco-Tourism Peace Corps Response position. He would soon be returning to the Philippines this time as a volunteer!

Later during John’s volunteer training one of the Peace Corps staff in Manila saw him with his ukulele and said, “Oh you’ll have to meet this volunteer in Batch 273. She plays the ukulele too.” John laughed as he explained that I was his girlfriend and he had given me that ukulele and had taught me to play.

I sent John the photo above from the airport when I left in July 2014. In February 2016 he sent me his own version while en route for training in the Philippines.

The past 7 months we have both been volunteering in the Philippines, in the same province, and even the very same office building. Work in the Philippines ranges from evaluating submarines for tourism, planning a mountain bike race, leading an environmental kids camp, and conducting coral reef assessments.

Was I surprised when he proposed? Yes! If you watch the video you can see us walk up to the Peace Corps sign. Then, I turn to look at the camera and stand there smiling, waiting for Loren to take the picture. I didn’t realize she was actually taking a video and when I turned John was on one knee.

But in life was I surprised? Nope – he is the greatest!

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Sagada Caving

“Malayo ang hospital, mas malapit ang mga coffins.” The hospital is far, the coffins are closer, our guide joked to us as we entered the Lumiang Cave for our “Cave Connection” tour. The sight of these historic coffins paired with the immense cavern whose floor disappeared mysteriously to some vast depth was enough to convince two of our party to turn back. This 4-hour tour is not for the claustrophobic. It required a significant amount of physical athleticism and finesse to traverse. As we crawled multiple kilometers beneath the Earth’s surface, our guide’s initial joke gained validity: this was not a place to get hurt.

If you search online for caving recommendations, most suggestions emphasize sturdy, heavy boots with solid soles. Exploring Sagada taught me that caves vary based on region and environment thus local knowledge is best. And proper foot ware in Sagada Philippines meant – Surprise: Flip Flops!!! Despite my initial skepticism, I was quickly convinced. Wearing flip flops meant suitable basic traction and protection from sharp rocks, but also flexibility to feel the rocks beneath your feet, to weight your body appropriately based on the surface at hand, and most importantly the ability to bend and adapt to small rocky footholds. Luckily, I had packed a pair of flip flops in my backpack. My Danish friends were not so lucky and opted for bare feet versus their large clunky boots.

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Our guide Jimmy fixing the lantern which proceeded to break several more times throughout our trip. We all forgot to pack matches and our lone lighter was very temperamental. We thought we’d make the trip more exciting with the constant threat of total darkness.
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Note to self: pack a headlamp with fresh batteries when going caving. The one on my forehead was more for show than illumination.

If you travel to Sagada and are looking for an adventure “Cave Connection” was a highlight experience for me. I would return and do it again in a heartbeat!! Php 400 pesos or about $8.80 USD per person bought an extremely essential local guide. Bring a headlamp (and a spare or at least spare batteries), water, a small pack so your hands are free while you walk, flip flops, and your municipal tourism registration card. Trust your guide, the hospital is far, but these people are experts!