Tuesday, June 30, 2009

One for the Road

At the end of next week, when I end my service as a US Peace Corps volunteer, I will have been in the Philippines for 1204 days. Three years ago, I got off a plane in sweaty, gritty Manila carrying on my back everything I thought the Philippines was lacking (a backpack full of tools to save the world). Several active volunteers and some well-seasoned staff met my group at Ninoy Aquino International Airport and herded us like jetlagged, gawking cattle with no idea where they were or how they might leave into buses and off to the nicest hotel I would stay at for my entire time here.

For 2 months, I was trained in the Bikol language and cultural appropriateness of eating, drinking and pooping (always take a bite, take a shot if you are offered and NO ONE USES TOILET PAPER). I studied hard and, with the help of my unforgettable group of fellow trainees, managed to spend the better part of every day laughing until my sides hurt.

Picture 258
In June 2006, I was sworn-in to serve in the 265th batch of the more than 8000 Peace Corps volunteers to serve in the Philippines since 1961 (this picture is just of the people I trained with in Bikol, there were 75 of us in my batch of volunteers).

August 2006 brought a volcanic eruption

September 2006 brought the strongest typhoon seen in storm-smashed Bikol in 20 years.

Legaspi Typhoon Pics 015
November 2006 one-upped September with the strongest typhoon in the living memory of Bikol. More than a thousand people were killed in the ensuing landslides and another 40,000+ people were left homeless. I saw millions of dollars in relief money thrown around with little thought or accountability; ever wonder where your "help-the-poor" donations go?

In April 2007 my fellow volunteer, and friend, Julia Campbell, was murdered on a vacation in her last few months before leaving the country.

In May 2007 I decided that massive natural disasters weren't a good reason not to not do my job, so I helped set up a manufacturing center for household water filters. Since it started, the production center has made more than 350 filters and installed them in schools and homes around the region.

I spent the rest of my service designing and constructing multiple piped water supply pipelines to communities who previously had to walk more than a half mile to the nearest source of water (of questionable quality). I have greased political palms to do this.

I have used engineering equipment from world war II.

I have seen necessity be the mother of invention (this guy is using a hacksaw blade with his bare hands).

I have eaten rice for almost every meal

I have slaughtered, cleaned, cooked and eaten pigs, chickens, turkeys and goats.

I have crawled through caves, lept from waterfalls, slept on white sand beaches and swam through beautiful forests of coral.

I have survived lava flows, knee-deep mud, plants whose leaves will burn your skin, foot-long centipedes, hand-sized spiders and hot-dog-flavored-mayonnaise sandwiches on wonderbread.

I was paid by the US Government to do this.

Careful: Peace Corps is not the protected bubble of happiness and fulfillment that its colorful pamphlets make it out to be. I went through a daily roller-coaster ride of emotions. Moment-to-moment things like being yelled and giggled at by every person I pass on the street were just as taxing as the bureaucracy and corruption that are ways of life in the Philippines. Almost nothing works the way it should and I expect all restaurants to have less than half of their menus available at any given time. These frustrations could bring laughter or anger depending on the hour of the day and the day of the week. On the other hand, the few (less than 10) moments of pure success I had made every other second worth it.

To anyone stuck in a rut/office without any kind of meaning in your life: JOIN. Peace Corps is a leap of faith, so I really can't tell you why except that I have not met a single volunteer who regretted the decision to join. You will gain so much more from the "sacrifice" of your two years helping those in need than the dollars you don't earn. Every hour of every day is different and exciting in ways you can't comprehend. You will be a celebrity. Any ideas you might have of "how the world works" will be smashed and reshaped into something incomprehensible to the current "you". You will see how families and communities of people can come together and collectively survive while under threat from global forces well beyond their mental grasp.

If you don't think you could join for whatever reason or you don't think they want you, at least take 5 minutes and Email a Peace Corps Recruiter and ask them what they are looking for. Or go to a Peace Corps Event near you. What you learn might surprise you.

Basketball tourney 1

If you have kept in touch over the last 3 years, thank you. The isolation of being one of 10 native english speakers in a city of 150,000 is powerful and it helps to have support from home.

Peace Corps has told me numerous times not to underestimate the mind-warp of coming home from the developing world the the USA. I want to give myself about 6 weeks before I am ready to start saving the people of America, but other than that my plans are no more detailed than eating a sandwich and maybe getting some sleep.




Anonymous said...

Page - As the Grateful Dead would sing 'What a long, strange trip it's been'. Your 'excellent adventure' has made everyone quite proud (of you, your friends, and the Peace Corps program).


Anonymous said...

That about sums it up!
Beautifully written & illustrated, Page.
Love, Mom

Anonymous said...

Welcome home, Page. What an adventure! It will be good to see you again.

Pat Slater
Takoma Park
(from Troop 33)

Tara Lynn Smith said...


I am a fellow RPCV from Cameroon, West Africa, as of not even yet two weeks. I first want to say that your blog is great! I related to every word of what you had to say about your experience, and you did a wonderful job of portraying what we live through. It's completely true about being re-shaped. I still feel somewhere in between and am doubtful that I will ever really "re-adjust" back to the USA 100%!

BUT I came across your blog bewcause I am looking for some PCVs to visit when I go to the Philippines- I leave July 13th and will be discovering the country through August 10th. I definitely don't want to stay in Manila, and while I am going with some Filipino friends and will visit their family members, I would love to see the PCV Philippines experience as well. Can you suggest some cool PCVs that would like visitors from a fellow (R)PCV?Are there any PCVs in the Palawan?

Thanks, and hope COS is going well-I came back with a protozoa! Good luck!

Tara Smith
Bare, Cameroon 2007-2009

Louis said...

i am working on my powers of synopsis so that i can unload my phenomenal rome experience to others in an understandable and classy manner. this wrap-up entry is a definite inspiration - a reminder to focus on everything influential, amazing, nerve-wracking. i am totally stoked for your return, as well as a sandwich.

Ian said...

well said kano...I'm forwarding your last blog entry to a few people considering PC...safe travels

Richest when I'm poor said...

Ian sent me a link to your blog. I am currently nominated for a position in Asia leaving in January 2010. It was so great to read through your blog. It really means alot to see someone on the other end that was able to appreciate and recognize every roadblock and hardship as beneficial in one way or another to the overall experience. Congratualtions on a job well done, and good luck in the future!

Fred said...

Enjoy Southeast Asia; safe travels home. A cold homebrew awaits you in NC.

Stefanie said...

Congratulations on completing your service Page! Among the "few" successes you count, I'm sure there are innumerable others if you were to ask the people and communities where you worked. On HODR projects, I think I get a compressed, fleeting slice of what you must go through, so I have much respect and appreciation for your commitment. I'll miss these blog updates too. I don't get dyed chick fixes anywhere else.

I'm also curious. Did that giant plastic bag that you kept your laptop in hold out for all 3 years? If so I will be mondo impressed.

Anonymous said...

Maraming salamat sa pagtulong mo sa mga tao sa inyong lugar. Sana ay hinde mo makalimutan ang Pilipinas. Mabuhay ka.

Alastair said...

What struck me about your message was encouraging those who are stuck in a rut/office without any kind of meaning in your life to just JOIN.
I really believe that sometimes in life you need a push from behind to take the difficult step. It is easiest not to bother beginning, but you rarely regret it once you begin...
Well done!
Alastair Humphreys

Inday said...

Page - I just found your blog from a link on Peace Corps Journals - Philippines Facebook page. I too was one of those 8000 PCV's who have served in the RP since 1961. My husband and I were in group 39 - and served 1970 to 74 in Davao and Bohol. We are members of RPCV's of CO (also on Facebook) and of the FACC (Filipino American Community of Colorado) where we go to talk Cebuano and eat pancit and lumpia (even occasionally lechon!) I really enjoyed your summary of your experiences. I hope that you can come to a meeting of one or the other of the two groups and we can meet. When we left in 74, we traveled on our way home, the 1st main stop was Mt. Kinabalu because David wanted to climb it. I loved the description of your "extreme ironing" on Long's Peak. Salamat