This past Sunday I turned twenty-seven and celebrated the first of two birthdays that will occur during my Peace Corps service. Twenty-seven. Twenty-seven. Man, do I feel old! I’m almost thirty. Ouch. It actually hurt to type that a little bit. Twenty-seven… Twenty-seven actually became a significant number in my life almost a year ago. No, it wasn’t because I had just turned twenty-six, but rather because last December was when I started thinking about joining the Peace Corps: a twenty-seven month commitment of voluntary service abroad. A year later here I am: twenty-seven years old and writing this blog from my site in the Philippines, officially a Peace Corps Volunteer! Time is a wonderfully, peculiar thing, isn’t it?
Anyway, enough philosophizing and on to the celebrations! I started my birthday like any other day of the week, with a sunrise run to the pier. I followed this with market shopping so I could make lunch for my family. I heard many times before I arrived at site how it is birthday tradition to provide a meal for your friends and family, so I was excited to finally have a go at sharing one of my favorite foods: tacos! I spent the morning hand rolling tacos, sautéing veggies and chopping salad while watching old episodes of Friends; just as I would prepare a meal back at home in the States (it’s amazing the little parallels between life here and there). My host family contributed a spicy rotisserie chicken and a beautiful chocolate cake from my favorite local bakery (sorry, it was devoured too fast for good photos to be taken)! It was also one of my host brother’s birthdays, so he came over with his wife and kids and giant platters of Filipino foods: tuna Alfredo and sweet & sour fish filet. We crowded around the table, piling high plates of food, and discussing the proper technique to filling a taco. Many happy birthday wishes were said and I blew out the candle on the cake with my two-year-old nephew. I also discovered two new, fantastic ice cream flavors… mango with cashew and caramel with cookies. It was an excellent birthday lunch to say the least! In poor Filipino fashion, I forgot to get photos, except for these blurry ones of a half-eaten meal… enjoy:
The end of the meal concluded celebrations with my host family and I packed my bags and headed to a 4-day language camp a few towns over, provided by the Peace Corps. The dates of the language camp (Dec 5-8) meant I got to spend the rest of my birthday with my batch/island mates: Mel, Carrie, and Neill. I was extremely spoiled for my birthday as this meant double celebrations and a volunteer sleepover! When I arrived at Neill’s there was a whole table set up with fun drinks, real chips & salsa and even party hats (I think I teared up a little here)! I was especially touched by the giant Cadbury’s chocolate bar from Neill and the beautifully adorned blender (appropriately named Blend-a) from Mel—in just a few months, they know me so well! We pigged out on snacks and played game after game of cards until we needed to go out for even more food. Neill’s town had a new Buzz Café open just a week ago and I got to devour my favorite coconut ice cream for my birthday dinner (being an adult is awesome)! After parting ways with Neill, the girls and I headed to our Pension House: a giant, pink mansion on the outskirts at town. I was ecstatic to find not only air-conditioning and a working shower head in our room, but toilet paper! It’s been months since I’ve seen any of these things… and they completed the best birthday I could’ve asked for in the Philippines.
It was a phenomenal day made special by my three loves: food, friends, and family. Despite being 3,000 miles away from my family, my heart was heavy with the love that they were sending me from afar. I received so many messages of kindness and well wishes from friends old and new; as I write this, I find my heart aching with joy and my face flushed from appreciation. It was everyone who reached out to me who made this day so special, who prevented it from being lonely and full of homesickness and I am eternally grateful. Sending someone well wishes no matter where they are in the world is important, but as a Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s as if our senses are heightened, or perhaps our sensitivities… either way, every word from home seems to carry with it all the more meaning from over here. (The holidays are coming up, whether you celebrate them or not, if you know other volunteers or have lost touch with friends or family afar, reach out to them: it can make a world of difference in their eyes and in their hearts.)
Anyway, the rest of the week was spent in a four-day language camp, where I had lessons in my local language: Bisayan aka Cebuano aka Boholano aka Binisayan (confused already, huh?). I learned an amazing array of grammatical rules and vocabulary words but the most important and interesting thing I learned had more to do with Filipino culture than language. In the USA (and in other English-speaking nations), we speak primarily in an ‘active voice’ with the focus of our sentences formulated around the doer. For instance, we would say “I wrote a book” as opposed to “the book was written by me”. I being the ‘actor’ in this sentence and therefore the focal point – It appears that I’m talking about a book, but really I’m talking about myself and what I’ve done. In Filipino culture, the active voice exists, but the passive voice is more common. Instead of “I bought food at the market” here we would say “the food was bought at the market by me”. Struggling to see how the ‘object focus’ or ‘passive voice’ made sense as the go-to form of speech, I asked why this was so. It was a fellow volunteer who explained to me how it all trickled down to culture. In the USA, we’re more focused on ourselves as actors, as the doers of an action, as the core of our stories and therefore, our words take on an ‘active form’. In the Philippines, culture is much more based around the community as a whole, not on the individuals: the individual who bought the food is not as important as the fact that food is available, so the ‘passive form’ is more commonly used. Whereas the ‘passive form’ of a sentence might sound funny to an American, the ‘active form’ of a sentence in Bisayan might sound bizarre to a Filipino. As someone trying to bridge a gap of understanding between two cultures, I found these lessons fascinating. It’s amazing how after five months, there is still so much to learn about a place, its people, and it’s past.
When I was on the way home after the language camp (my first multi-night stay away from site) I had a minor epiphany: I was beginning to think of this place as home. Spending a few days in a hotel with fellow volunteers, cooking American dishes, playing games, and watching favorite TV shows was a much needed and appreciated break from my day-to-day volunteer life, but there were some things I knew I missed from my site. I missed running in the morning (I thought I’d spare my roommates my 4.30am alarm) and cooking in my outdoor kitchen alongside the family. I missed spending lunch lying on the cool tiles of my room, either meditating or micro-napping. I knew I missed my places of quiet and escape; the comfort of my room being my room. And then there were things I missed that I didn’t quite realize I missed: passing my Ate’s snack shop on the way home and her invitation to sit, snack and chat; the little girl who spends the day in her dad’s mechanic shop next door and who never misses a chance to wave and smile at me (of course, I do it back); our family dog, Dawn, who acts like a puppy when she hasn’t seen me after a while (she’s 5); and my host family. I, honestly, hadn’t consciously missed my host family. When I got home and sat down to tell Nanay about my week she said “I missed you” and I responded “I missed you too”; realizing I truly had.
There are waves of ups and waves of downs while volunteering abroad, far from the comforts of home. This week was an upward wave, supported by friends and family, near and far. I received a wave of compassion, of love, and of positivity so powerful I plan on riding it into the New Year and remember it throughout my 27th year and 27 months of service. Ah, that number again… Twenty-seven. How appropriate is it that the one complete year of my life I’ll spend in the Peace Corps, will be my 27th? I guess, the number is growing on me… Perhaps, twenty-seven will be a year to make things happen.
I’m home while writing this: it’s Thursday night and I’m typing from my cool, tiled floor. I’m looking forward to going to the office tomorrow—for the first time this week—and getting some work done. I’m excited for my run in the morning and to practice new language skills with my host family in the days to come. It’s been a wonderful week, my mind and my heart are full. I have known for some time that everywhere I go in the world, I will always be missing something. Whether it is a person, or a feeling in the air, or the sound of the waves turning in the night, or a taste that reminds me of a home I can’t have, something will always be missed. Right now, back in the comfort of my room, those things are the toilet paper and shower head provided by the pension house (family is always missed). But after this week, I have gained a little nugget of wisdom that had nothing to do with age: that I can be happy here.
As always, thanks for reading. And thank you for the many birthday wishes,