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.
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.
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.
THE BEST PART:
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.
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.