Small Town, Big Feelings

After two months of consolidation, committees, and medical check-ups combined, I finally returned back to my little island town. I can’t deny I was nervous. What had changed? Was my office still the same? What would I find when opening my bedroom door? Did my community miss me? Upon arrival, I treated myself to a day at the tourist beach on the other side of the island – a detox from the murkiness of Manila and a reintroduction to island life… It felt good to be back. The clichéd healing of salt, sand, and sea water—but I needed that after two months of city life (and a crash course back into the world of dairy).

Finally arriving back to site I caught up with my host family who had kindly kept my room swept and clean, who had covered my bed to keep animal droppings off, and who (most importantly) had missed me. I started the first working Monday I’d had in a long time with my 4.30am sunrise run and laughed aloud as I breathed in the cool, clean country air. I arrived at work with warm greetings from my co-workers and a handful of projects and activities to dive right into—oh, to be back to work and doing something! And that night after a delicious veggie dinner with my family, I laid down in my bed and thought to myself ‘this feels good’. After a couple more days, it was like I hadn’t left at all.

But things did change while I was gone. Little things. Big things. In between-sized things. The sink in my office bathroom is missing. We’re now using a faucet that juts out of the middle of the wall—honestly, not too unusual in the Philippines but still amusing to me. At home, the young housekeeper has moved on, and I find myself missing the presence of her warm smiles. The neighbor’s young daughter who always greets me with a big toothy grin and an enthusiastic waving of hands has gotten taller and bolder—we’re actually exchanging small sentences now. Meanwhile, at the Fish Warden’s hut, I find my favorite dog, Bul-ki, pregnant at just 11 months.  Also impossible to miss, is the Jollybee—the McDonald’s of the Philippines—food truck near the bus station; a precursor to a permanent store that will be built in the near future. My heart sank a little at that one, for although a big fast food chain will provide a handful of jobs, how many will it take away? How many independent street vendors and kalderas will lose business to the shiny, appeal of a Jollybee? It’s amazing to see even in my nine months at site just how much things can change.

And then how much they stay the same. At some point in a new place, there is a moments that truly make you feel at home. In the Philippines, there are moments that highlight the kindness and good nature of Filipinos, moments that make your heartache from swelling of love. On my way to the store a couple days ago, I passed my favorite banana vendor: a friendly middle-aged lady with a smile that could brighten any cloudy day. There were three bananas sitting loose to the side of her table and I told her I would take those, thinking I was sparing her the trouble of cutting the other bundles apart. I ended up being short of change and she couldn’t take a bigger bill, but insisted I take the bananas and pay her next time. A small gesture, perhaps, but filled with the biggest of compliments—trust. Even after being gone for over two months, she knew me enough to know I would come back and pay her. Upon her insistence I took the bananas and ambled off to my next errand. Walking back home, I stopped at the stall again and paid her for the bananas. We chatted briefly and I inquired about the lack of her sidekick dog to be told that he died of a heart attack the week before. I was deeply saddened and wished her my condolences before wandering home and wondering if maybe, just maybe, she would be ready for a puppy in a few months’ time.

I think about my vendor friend and how much my interactions with her this evening sum up my feelings upon returning to site. It’s such an incredible thing to come back and be welcomed by my community, to feel missed and needed and yet still a part of it. To have felt like you disappeared for a long time, to see the changes—good and bad—among your town that feel big and simultaneously small. When in Manila, I wondered what my role has been in people’s lives her thus far, and I wondered how much more I can do, who else I can help, and how big of a mark I’ll leave among my community. I think about the challenges I’ve faced so far and I imagine the many challenges I still have yet to face and I think about coming back to my community after two months, and I think… I can do it; little by little, step by step, to make the changes that count.

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks back at site in my office, I handed in my first proposal—a training for the Fish Wardens (illegal fishing law enforcement)—, conducted habitat assessments with university students, and narrowed down my projects for the next few months. In just a few weeks, I’ll hit my ONE YEAR mark in the Philippines (can you believe it?!) and after a few months of “forced vacation” I’m ready to hit the ground running, to finally give back to these community that has welcomed me with their arms wide open.

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My island off my island

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