Two weeks of Initial Orientation (IO) will be over in a few hours and tomorrow morning I will be moving to my training neighborhood, or barangay, to meet (and move in with) my first host family! It’s a very exciting transition period as a trainee. We are finally leaving the beautiful bubble that is IO and the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) behind to immerse ourselves into a community; language, culture, family, and all. I will be exchanging my roommate and dorm life for a private room and a whole array of new noises: roosters, dogs, jeepneys, motorcycles, music, and more. My host family is a surprise for me, as I am a surprise for them, but after two weeks of being observed and questioned the Peace Corps has matched me with the family they think is best suited for me… ambiguous, sure, but I’m excited nonetheless, it’s all part of the experience and the adventure!
In my last post, almost one week ago, I discussed a detailed daily schedule of a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee). I’ve learned a lot since then about Filipino culture, the government structure, and the many potential situations I’ll experience as a woman, a Jew, and an American working with fisherfolk in the Philippines. There will be several challenging moments or perhaps, long periods, but I am ready to embrace them, work through them, and use them to better myself and the livelihood of the people I have the pleasure of working with. But I’m getting ahead of myself… let’s do a recap of the past few days? Surely, you want some highlights, because it was a lot of fun!
Last Saturday, I ventured out of the IIRR for the first time since my arrival to go to… *drumroll* ….. the mall! Malls are a big thing in the Philippines. The one we went to was part of the Super Mall chain that boasts 57 malls in country… it was three stories tall and easy enough to get lost in several times over! It was my first time out and about, interacting with Filipinos, and practicing my very amateur Tagalog; it was rather fun, if not slightly overwhelming due to the sheer size of the place. I got my watch battery replaced, bought a yoga mat, and treated myself to a deep dish mushroom pizza from Pizza Hut (oh, how I miss cheese)! Also, I rode in a jeepney for the first time (transport made of repurposed Jeeps left behind by the USA after World War II) where about 16+ people cram into the back of an open, extra-long Jeep and sit on benches facing each other. We ended the trip with an 18 peso chocolate-dipped, soft-serve ice cream, that’s a whopping 0.39$ in the USA!
In regards to training, my favorite session involved a race to complete a mock government petition. We were divided into groups of 5 and given a cause to advocate for and gain support of by locals, government units, peoples’ organizations, and eventually the mayor. It was a race, but everything was on Filipino time! The roles of the signees were played out by our different trainers and we had to run around the complex trying to find their “offices” and in a certain order. It sounds complicated, and it was a little bit… for instance, the neighborhood captain and the local government unit wouldn’t sign the petition until we spoke with the fisherfolk (just as likely in real life) and the mayor refused to meet with us for hours on end, so we had to schmooze with his secretary until we could get an appointment. Even though it was a mock situation, our group of trainees loved pretending we were actually fighting for a cause and practicing to talk with “fishermen”, “community organizations”, and “the mayor” was an invaluable lesson to our future work as Coastal Resource Management Volunteers.
One of the other most exciting events of our week happened just yesterday when our group went on a field trip to Mabini, a Marine Protected Area (no fishing allowed!) just a couple hours from Manila. It was a twelve hour day of driving, socializing, and snorkeling our way around. For the first time we met the Bantay Dagat, literally the ‘guardians of the sea’ (I love this name so much!), of a small community. The Bantay Dagat patrol marine protected areas for illegal fishing practices such as, cyanide fishing, dynamite fishing, and the use of air compressors… all three of which still happen in the Philippines! Most likely I will be interacting and working with Bantay Dagat at my permanent site as they are the voice of the fisherfolk and an integral part into improving the livelihoods of the community. After we spent a couple hours talking to the fisherfolk and eating a merienda (snack) with them we headed out to meet the mayor, a jolly man, excited about more Peace Corps Volunteers coming to the Philippines. And after the mayor’s visit, we had the BEST part of the day, snorkeling in the Marine Protected Area! It was my first time exploring the Pacific Ocean in over 16 years and it was incredible; I could recognize clownfish, damselfish, species of coral, and parrotfish, some the same and some different than the Caribbean. The Philippines is part of the coral triangle, the most biologically diverse area ON THE PLANET. More than 1400 species of corals alone are found in the Coral Triangle, about 500 of which are found in the Philippines. And that doesn’t even cover the thousands of fish species and other organisms that we find here. I also got to see my first Filipino sea turtle, a beautiful hawksbill that was relaxed enough for me to swim around for a few minutes, making the day all the more special.
Finally, we ended Initial Orientation with a bonfire, s’mores, and a dance party on the grass next to the training center. People laughed, cried, and danced the night away, sad to be saying goodbye to the other two sections that we have been training with but excited to be meeting our host families at last! I’m finally in bed after a great night of dancing and celebrating my roommate’s 22 birthday, there were some emotional goodbyes, but mostly a lot of joy and anticipation. We have 27 months to rock this world, and I think we’re pretty ready!