Category Archives: Daily Life

To Beat the Heat

The month June marks the transition from summer to rainy season in the Philippines. Students return to school after their summer vacation of April and May and slowly water rationing is becoming less imperative. The El Nino phenomenon of this past summer meant it was one of the hottest and driest seasons to date. Many corals have bleached from this thermal stress with long term damage to coral reefs that is still being determined. On the Great Barrier Reef scientists have even explored options of shade coverings to prevent extreme ocean warming on certain key reef locations. (This solution was ultimately rejected from what I heard.)

Filipinos are also fond of the shade covering solution not for the coral reef, but for personal use. In Filipino culture white skin is beautiful and locals will go to great lengths to prevent themselves from “getting dark,” including applying whitening lotions and wearing long sleeves in the blazing heat of summer.

I would have expected to see lightweight, thin, and breathable long sleeve shirts which protect from the sun, but also allow you to keep cool. However a warm, zip-up jacket with a hood on and pulled tight around one’s head is the apparel of choice on my tropical island. (See gentleman in the lower left of the photo below)

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The port of Odiongan where you must pass to enter or leave our island. Notice the typical Filipino dress on the lower left: standard sun protection. It could easily be 100 degrees out (F).

Warm winter hats with the faces of animals and thick straps that hang down over one’s ears are also stylish and can be see year round. Thus clothing is not the best judge of temperature. Filipino bodies are clearly built for hot environments because despite long sleeves and skinny jeans they never seem to sweat as much as me in my tank top and shorts. A sweat bandana and a refillable water bottle are two essential items I carry wherever I travel.

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My nalgene water bottle. When I first arrived everyone thought that my stickers were a unique bottle design. Notice that DAN and WMI are the 2 stickers that have held up of the past 2 years. I would advocate their product for any scuba diver (DAN diver’s and travel insurance with amazing coverage for any emergency) or wilderness enthusiast (Wilderness Medical Institute training courses in first response)

Mysteriously, I rarely see Filipinos drink water. Coffee, a 3-1 coffee, creamer, and sugar instant mix, is the expected drink with breakfast (my morning run is never complete without at least one person offering me coffee as I jog by). Soda products are common at morning and afternoon snack times. (Sometimes soda is cheaper than bottled water and I was shocked once to hear that a store sold only soda, no bottled water. Needless to say dentists would have flocks of patients in the Philippines.) And finally a Filipino might drink a single glass of water after he or she finishes a lunch or dinner meal. So unless Filipinos are secretly guzzling water when I’m not looking, their bodies are just much more efficient in managing heat and water conservation.

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And so we each have our norm in the heat of the summer: They don long-sleeve jackets, hats and pants, and tote umbrellas to avoid the sun. I go running in a tank top and shorts for maximum cooling at the expense of tanning my “beautiful” white skin.

Daily Life in Rural Philippines

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Rice fields

Roosters sound the 4:00-5:00 AM wake up call for farming and fisher folk families in remote regions of the Philippines. Rural families begin preparing breakfast and doing chores such as fetching water, bathing, and getting the children ready for school. Most chores are done by the women with the children helping out. The men tend to have an erratic fishing schedule based upon the season, but will usually go fishing very early in the morning or spend time feeding and tending to their animals.

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Fishing community

The children will usually walk to school, oftentimes a very far distance because their parents cannot afford transportation fare or do not have a motorcycle. Children may miss school if they are sick or need to help out with chores. Missing school is normal. During lunch break, the children will either walk home to eat or a guardian will come to the school to bring them food. Children in the most impoverished regions may be malnourished. It is also normal for rural families to eat some meals consisting of only rice. Depending on the fishing and farming season, an average meal consists of mostly rice and a small portion of vegetables or fish, to only rice, to skipping a meal.

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The women will continue to do chores or part time jobs throughout the day while the children are at school. This includes gathering wood for fuel, fetching water, managing small in-home stores, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, or being hired to do these chores for other families. The children will help with chores when they arrive home from school. The men will fish or farm, upkeep their equipment, or take up odd jobs such as construction. Sometimes the women and children also assist with fishing and farming through gleaning and gathering of mollusks, fruits, and vegetables. At night the families will often watch television, and the men will often drink alcohol and socialize with their friends. Most families sleep by 9:00PM.

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A typical family home

Despite this simple life style and the endless struggle of working to put food on the table. I was walking through a small fishing village with my visiting Canadian friends Nikki and Dave and, without hesitation and with full intention of sharing, a filipino family invited all three of us to join them for lunch. This is the way of the Philippines: sharing what you have with others, even if that means going without tomorrow. Community is strong, even when life is hard.

How to get to Odiongan?

When I travel to Odiongan, Romblon the 2Go boat (see below) is my preferred method of travel (the photo above shows the Montenegro shipping line boat, not quite as nice and comfortable as 2Go but more likely to be on time). The 2Go boat features beds to sleep and store your things, a restaurant, a sitting deck, and even videoke! The trip from Batangas to Odiongan takes 7.5hrs, but I usually find myself waiting at the pier for the boat to leave for several additional hours because of delays, thus embarking to Tablas Island is a full day travel affair.

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The 2Go boat. And if you travel on a holiday the boat and staff will be appropriately decorated!

But perhaps this travel investment is a qualifier for the reward of arrival: Romblon is a small, island province, rated the most peaceful in the Philippines and in my opinion the most beautiful because so much is left still undeveloped and pristine! We have waterfalls, caves, coral reefs, large rice field valleys, mountain climbing and biking, a huge public market, fish ponds, mangrove forests, scuba diving, snorkeling, sea turtles and so much more!

As of last year it is also possible to take a flight to Tablas Island from Manila. If you are short on time or prefer a one hour trip to a 7 hour one the extra expense will save you a lot of hassle, but for those of you elbowing through the nonlinear crowd waiting to board or disembark from 2Go realize that this journey is truly part of the reward, because you now understand what middle class locals must do anytime they wish to leave the island. Poorer locals may never even leave the island at all by boat or plane.

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The crowd waiting to board the Montenegro. Montenegro is the other shipping line in addition to 2Go which offers trips from Batangas to Odiongan.

And somewhere on your boat trip is at least one child who has never ridden on such a large boat before in their life and this ride is actually the greatest source of adventure.

What should I pack?

Thinking about moving to the Philippines?! Here are some more useful items I brought along with me…

1) Umbrella: Filipinos use umbrellas year round! In the rainy season you never know when the sky will open up and dump on you, but in the heat of summer your umbrella is a much needed shelter from the sun. I brought mine from home because umbrellas made here fold up on the outer edge as they collapse, whereas American umbrellas all fold down. Take your pick but there is nothing worse than an inside out umbrella.

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2) Snorkeling gear & dive computer: if you expect to scuba dive it is much easier to rent or borrow gear than to travel with your own, however your own properly fitting mask and a pair of fins are invaluable for spontaneous snorkeling. Also a dive computer allows you to maximize your dive time and increase personal safety. I couldn’t imagine diving without it.

3) Pasalubong: Filipinos have an imperative tradition that after returning from traveling you bring back a small gift characteristic of the place you are coming from. Pasalubong may be small candies or obvious tourist items. Some things you cannot buy in the Philippines include cheeze its, wheat thins, swedishfish, sourpatch kids, any American cereal, uno. A few weeks ago I tried to buy stickers, and surely these must be sold in Manila, but in Odiongan, Romblon they do not sell any of the “Great job!” Or “You’re Awesome” stickers, which American elementary teachers commonly place on excellent assignments.

4) Bike lights: For us Peace Corps volunteers unable to ride a motorcycle, a bicycle may be your primary form of transportation. I packed my helmet and bike lights. Specifically, my front bike light is very bright and easily detachable so it is not stolen. Because I recharge it by usb, I never need batteries and it has saved me in many brownouts I am otherwise unable to navigate the darkness. Thanks Dad for recently mailing me a second light!

5) If you like fish identification as much as I do, the Tropical Pacific Reef Fish Identification and possibly Reef Critter Identification books by Allen, Steene, Humann & DeLoach will be your bible. The Peace Corps also has copies of these books in their library but I prefer to carry my own and ID fish after I dive.

And for future Peace Corps volunteers no need to pack sunscreen, bugspray, or dental floss. This will all be included in your Peace Corps-issued medical kit. Refills can be requested by texting our doctor, who then mails needed items directly to your site!

Empowering Women

Roughly half of the world population is female. Thus women should, merely by their numbers alone, hold up Half the Sky.[i] Yet, a survey of American CEOs or a comparison of men and women’s average salaries would not yield this same gender balance.

I discovered a male-biased stereotype of my own in coming to the Philippines: I consistently expect the Mayor or other government officials of power to be male, yet on many occasions I have been surprised to find myself shaking hands with a female! I am fortunate to work in a country ranked 9th worldwide in terms of gender equality (the US is ranked 20th).[ii] In the Philippines two former Filipino presidents were actually Filipinas. And my greatest role models at my site are high achieving women, starting with my host mom.

My host mom, Irejean Famero or “Mommy Jean,” a retired District Supervisor
My host mom, Irejean Famero or “Mommy Jean,” a retired District Supervisor

Mommy Jean worked first as a schoolteacher, then 15 years as a principal, followed by 4 years as the District Supervisor of 18 elementary schools overseeing 150 teaching personnel and 10 nonteaching staff.

“Here in the Philippines, women are given the same opportunities as men. If men can do, women can do!” said Mommy Jean. This statement is backed up by literacy rates of Filipino males and females, which are virtually indistinguishable at all levels of education. Worldwide, the Philippines ranked #1 in gender equality for both education and health/survival.ii After education, how do job opportunities and career advancement fare for females?

My supervisor Ma’am Rita is an inspiration! Espirita G. Sarmiento or “Nanay Rita,” a Provincial Aquaculturalist
My supervisor Ma’am Rita is an inspiration! Espirita G. Sarmiento or “Nanay Rita,” a Provincial Aquaculturalist

At 62-years-old she is working as an Aquaculturalist in the provincial office. Even when leading a group of all males (fisher folk are generally males) she leads with a well-respected authority, built from her wealth of knowledge, which ranges from Fisheries Law to troubleshooting low seaweed production. Physical labor doesn’t scare Ma’am Rita either and she can frequently be seen pulling large and heavy nets through a muddy fishpond to harvest tilapia. Her energy and dedication is remarkable, and she will leave a large hole to fill when she finally retires.

Our Provincial Chief-of-Staff is a role model for all of Romblon’s aspiring young women: Trina Q. Firmalo or “Trina" on the far right.
Our Provincial Chief-of-Staff is a role model for all of Romblon’s aspiring young women: Trina Q. Firmalo or “Trina” on the far right.

In 2007, Trina received a full scholarship to Princeton University for her Master’s in Public Affairs with a concentration in International Development. Following which, she was offered a job at an NGO in New York City, but turned down this opportunity to return to Romblon, Philippines where she knew she could make a greater impact. Her daily responsibilities as Chief-of-Staff include ensuring that the programs and projects of the Provincial Government are being properly implemented, managing the Provincial budget, and listening to the needs of countless residents from fisher folk to the Chiefs-of-Police. There never seem to be sufficient hours in a day for Trina to accomplish all that she is striving for.

If women do not already hold up Half the Sky in your country, join the ‘Let Girls Learn’[iii] campaign to help adolescent girls complete school. ‘Let Girls Learn’ is the chosen theme for my upcoming Blog It Home Winner’s Tour to Washington D.C. And many thanks to Mommy Jean, Ma’am Rita, and Trina for everything you have taught me so far!!

Want a new perspective on the fundamentals of gender equality?! We were all females first and why men have nipples in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1Kdoja3hl

[i] Read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s best selling book Half the Sky about empowering women.

[ii] Source: Global Gender Gap Report 2014 http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2014/rankings/

[iii] Learn more about the ‘Let Girls Learn’ campaign https://letgirlslearn.peacecorps.gov

Malunggay: Filipino Superfood

Peruse the aisles of your nearest Natural Health Foods shop and see if you can find malunggay pills. If this superfood has not hit the States yet, guaranteed it will make an appearance within the next decade.

Malunggay (Moringa oleifera) is a tree found in the tropics with small green leaves used to combat malnutrition and for various herbal medicines. It has been reported to contain 7xs more vitamin C than an orange, 4xs the calcium of milk and 2xs the protein, 4xs the vitamin A of carrots, 3xs the potassium of a banana as well as a source of iron. Malunggay is also the ultimate ‘anti-‘ drug: antibacterial, antifungal, antimicrobial, anticancer and anti-inflammatory. While malunggay leaves are no quick cure for an unhealthy lifestyle, my hardworking 62-year-old supervisor Ma’am Rita swears that the malunggay tea she drinks every morning is the source of her unyielding strength.

1) Walk outside my front gate and break off a tree branch. 2) Pull the tasty leaves from the dense stem. 3) Cook
1) Walk outside my front gate and break off a tree branch. 2) Pull the tasty leaves from the dense stem. 3) Cook & enjoy.

Here in Odiongan the leaves can be ground up and made into a pill or mixed into soup.

Mongo beans with malunggay...one of my favorite Filipino dishes!
Munggo beans with malunggay…one of my favorite Filipino dishes!

Marine Research and Breeding Center

The newly completed fish tanks at the hatchery, less than one year ago a photo taken in this spot would have shown only coconut trees.
The newly completed fish tanks at the hatchery, less than one year ago a photo taken in this spot would have shown only coconut trees.

Last October 2014, I walked into a field of coconut trees and attended a ground breaking ceremony for Romblon’s soon-to-be Marine Research and Breeding Center. All around were sounds of frantic chopping and sawing. While this ground breaking marked the end of those coconut trees, now almost one year later stands a fish hatchery that is a source of employment in a very rural community and will maintain a provincial breeding stock of milkfish.

The construction is still ongoing but the hatchery is already operating!
The construction is still ongoing but the hatchery is already operating!
Milkfish, known locally as bangus
Milkfish, known locally as bangus

The milkfish is the national fish of the Philippines. Juveniles can be found in brackish estuaries and mangrove coastlines, but adults live and breed in the saltwater of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Milkfish aquaculture in the Philippines dates back roughly 800 years!

These milkfish are 12-years-old. Think back 12 years ago…what were you doing?! This important cargo had a private boat delivery from the larger Philippine island of Mindoro and will now be the breeding stock for our hatchery.
These milkfish are 12-years-old. Think back 12 years ago…what were you doing?! This important cargo had a private boat delivery from the larger Philippine island of Mindoro and will now be the breeding stock for our hatchery.

If you live in Romblon and are interested in starting milkfish aquaculture, you are in luck! Once your home fish pond or cage is approved to raise fish, you can purchase the fingerlings (baby fish) produced from the milkfish in the photo above. If you raise these babies to maturity, not only will you have food for your family (careful, the milkfish is quite bony!) but you can sell the fish at the local market for a profit.

I got to swim in the tank with the breeders!
I got to swim in the tank with the breeders!

Already this hatchery is a success! It has created numerous new jobs, it is a site for fisheries students to complete on-the-job training and skills development, its milkfish production is useful throughout the province, and it will be a site of ongoing research for improving fisheries technology. I visit the hatchery in my free time to help with operations or even to clean the tanks. Once, when we finished work early, I hopped in an empty fish tank with a staff member and taught a swim lesson!

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.”

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!!