Peace Corps service is not without risk: I’ve been hearing and saying those words plenty the past few weeks as I’ve experienced my first (and hopefully only) consolidation. On Tuesday, April 11th a clash between the Abu Sayaf extremist group and the Philippines National Police and military on my island resulted in the evacuation of all Bohol volunteers. First things first: we are all safe and in relatively good spirits. Peace Corps has been extremely kind and concerned for us as they are taking the time to assess the situation and the safety of our sites on the island. For volunteers in almost any country, political unrest, rebel groups, and an array of natural disasters are a part of service. Depending on the severity of the situation, an incident could result in complete removal from country, a site transfer within country, or the ability to return back to site. For over one month, we Boholanos have been sitting ducks in Manila, waiting for our Safety & Security team, PC Philippines and HQ in Washington to give us news of our site. It’s been four weeks of limbo and what if’s and emotionally exhausting conversations about the future of our service here in the Philippines. But today is the day we hear the verdict and we can begin to move forward, at last! In the meantime, I’ve utilized my time in Manila to, well, get out of Manila. My sector manager has been wonderfully supportive in sending me to visit other volunteers and give them a helping hand and I’ve spent my free weekends traveling the North. It’s been a mini emotional roller coaster but despite the woes and worries of consolidation, there have been some wonderful silver linings, some little (or big, really) drops of happiness, so here are the highlights:
1 – Diving with sharks and secret grassroots movements! I went to Malapscua, Cebu for vacation during Holy Week. If I had a bucket list of Philippines must-sees, this little island would be high of my list. Malapascua is famous for its dependable population of thresher sharks – a uniquely adapted shark with an unusually long tail fin that makes it a wonderfully, fast swimmer. Divers from around the world come to Malapascua to take a peek of the thresher sharks as they visiting cleaning stations on an underwater shoal off the island. And although my fellow volunteers and I had pretty poor luck with visibility and dive conditions, it was an incredible experience. I managed to see two thresher sharks, but just the tails; they fly by so fast and quiet in the deep, dark blue… so another trip is in definitely in order. After the thresher shark dive, we dove Gato Island where we saw white tip reef sharks as we dove through a 30m tunnel under the island (one of my favorite dives of all time) and that made up for the lack of threshers on the first dive. But aside from the diving, the little island of ~5,000 people made for a great vacation: I ate plenty of delicious vegetarian food, met an array of interesting backpackers and was introduced to a little, local grassroots movements called TEDH Compass (Travel-Enjoy-Dive-Help) that carries out small green initiatives around the island. With its relaxed backpacker vibe and watercolor blues this dive-oriented island certainly made an impression on my heart. Next time, hopefully, I’ll see an entire shark!
2 – Watching a COS ceremony! My arrival to Manila for consolidation pleasantly overlapped with the COS (Close of Service) ceremony of one of my best friend’s in Peace Corps. At the end of two years, volunteers finish service with a simple ceremony in the Peace Corps Office: a guard rings a huge bell along the halls and the staff assemble before the Peace Corps sign and the Filipino and American flags. The Country Director, Regional and Sector Managers and the COS-ing volunteer say a few words and then its photo time! After two long, hard years, the volunteers finally get their hands on the COS Bell and then just like that they are an RPCV – Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I was thrilled to witness the COS ceremony of a friend and enjoyed the warm, fuzzy feeling of excitement that came with thoughts that one day it’ll be me and my batch mates ringing that bell.
3 – Visiting my first host family from pre-service training! During a free weekend in Manila, I made a quick trip to see my host family from Bataan, a few hours bus ride from the city. It was so lovely to see the Domingo family, to eat familiar, scrumptious foods, and talk chicka with my first Filipino family. It’s been six months since we’ve seen each other, but it felt like no time had passed at all!
4 – Island hopping! The PC office has been wonderful at keeping us Boholanos occupied and are sending us to different volunteers’ sites to take part in trainings or camps. One week, I got sent to a Giant Clam Management Training on the beautiful island of Leyte in the Eastern Visayas. From Bohol, the trip would have taken one ferry and a few vans, but from Manila it was a flight and then a van; a quicker ride despite the large increase in distance—travelling around the Philippines is always an adventure. It was nice to see fellow volunteers, take part in a new training (clams are fascinating!) and explore a different island. In beautiful untouched Southern Leyte, we swam in marine sanctuaries of two offshore islands, visited a whale skeleton, and lounged around on a black, sandy beach. It made for a great weekend escape from the hustle and bustle of Manila.
5 – Surfing, swimming, and schooling (oh my)! Soon after my Leyte visit, I was sent to the Bicol region to help a fellow volunteer with a sea turtle stranding training and some Solid Waste Management educational initiatives. Perri was one of the volunteers in my group during training so it was GREAT to see a close friend and how they are doing at site. The day after I arrived there was an all-day, province-wide brown out, so her office sent us packing and we spent the wee hours of the morning taking surf lessons and the unbearably hot hours of the afternoon at a cold spring. But the next day it was back to work and Perri and I tag-teamed talks on pollution in a multitude of languages – Tagalog, Visayan, Bicol, English, Gubat and Spanish (whoops) – at two education events. At the second talk, technology was working against us and we improvised by giving our talk in the middle of the street, with no powerpoint, computer or visual aids. Perri did an amazing job of getting the audience involved and keeping them attentive—a true reminder of how much us volunteers have to learn from each other! That weekend we skipped over to Donsol to snorkel with whale sharks – the largest fish IN THE WORLD. We sat on the edges of a bangka with our fins and masks on, ready to jump into the water whenever our guide spotted one of these incredible, gentle giants. It started off as a hectic whale shark spotting rodeo but we got to swim with 4 different sharks six times over the 3 hour trip and it was INCREDIBLE. There is something so unspeakably majestic about these ancient creatures gliding quietly, effortlessly through the sea. And in case you’re worried about the idea of swimming with a shark and the biggest fish in the sea (yes, I’m looking at you, moms of the world), whale sharks are known as gentle giants; they only eat the smallest of plankton and have no desire or interest in bigger creatures in their vicinity, humans included. Just come visit and I’ll prove it to you!
6 – Seeing old family friends! Before my grandfather passed away he had a Filipino carer for a few years; a lovely, young woman named Jeanette. Although, Jeanette eventually left Israel to work in Canada, she has remained a family friend throughout the years, keeping in touch over Facebook! As her son and family still live in the Philippines, she comes to visit every couple of years. Our Manila visits happened to overlap and we got to meet for breakfast and catch up on family life; a reminder of just how small the world really is – full circle, from Israel to the Philippines!
So this whirlwind consolidation is about to come to an end. I’ve just had a meeting with the Country Director who is giving us the all clear to return to our sites. As I have a committee meeting starting next Tuesday, my return will not be for another eleven days, but at least I am out of limbo. As much as being away from site is hard – not being able to do what you came here to do – I am also grateful for this period of travel, exploration and spending time with friends. These things are truly perks of being in the Peace Corps. For it is not the experience at site alone that will make up the 27 months of service, but the people you meet and the places you go and the things you do that will vaulted into our memory folders for life.
I want to thank everyone who has expressed concern and comfort during this period and I look forward to keeping you better up-to-date with the continuation of my journey through PC service in the Philippines.
As always, thank you for reading,