Monday, August 11, 2014

Catching Up (Part 2 of 3)


Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, a Wealth of Experiences
Peace Corps in generally is a time we get a heavy dose of life, seeing an entirely new perspective and way to live. How much more so this third year has been now that I’m in a position to support other Volunteers, hearing more of the good, the bad, and in the in between than my first two years combined. I’ve moved from one conversation where someone has shared their excitement with how everything’s fallen into place, to immediately after sympathizing with someone whose work fell through, and then right after that trying to explain to a third Volunteer how the issues they’ve experienced at site are actually a normal part of the culture. It’s kept me on my toes.

Working with our support staff in Manila has taught me a great deal about management and the challenges any organization faces. Unlike newer Peace Corps posts, we have a pretty veteran staff in the Philippines who can recall back to Volunteers from ten years ago or more. I had first thought I might be there to really seal in a gap somewhere in our office, I’ve ended up more of the cherry on top, the office can function without a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, but I have been one more pair of eyes, another set of hands to help out and ease the workload from others. I’ve had countless rich conversations, especially with our Filipino staff about American culture from our drive to have extracurricular activities and how that makes Volunteers so competitive in getting into one our committees, to the preconceptions of culture having to do with festivals and food but not considering values and behavior. I’ve tried to pick up on some of the good practices I’ve seen from holding back, to the art of asking questions, to figuring out when to let go and when to hold firm.

I’ve said before that Peace Corps has been a chance for me to have more responsibility and leadership than I’d probably get in a job back in America, and a feel it’s been doubly so for this third year. However, just like my service in Dupax, being PCVL hasn’t had its own trials and tribulations.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Although I’ve kept my dry, satirical sense of humor off the blog for the most part, people who know me have had the pleasure (or pain), of listening to me make absurdity out of the serious. Claims of divine right to rule the islands, a desire to replace to Coastal Resource Management training materials with “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” by Dr. Seuss, saying “all the perks and none of the works!”, are all just a few examples. I amuse myself. However, although for the most part it’s been fine, my humor’s been misunderstood a few times, one case being when I made a crack that an upcoming two week conference would have zero alcohol was taken seriously, and led to some annoyed Volunteers. It was a good lesson for me to be more careful of what I say. Even as I reflect back on my humor that didn’t backfire on me, it wasn’t necessarily the best way to present myself as a leader. We’re taught from a young age to just be ourselves, but I think that although we shouldn’t be someone we’re not, it’s important to emphasize certain qualities over others at times. In this case, I would have been best served showing my serious, deeper side more often.

The other trip up that comes to mind was my strong need to add my voice. I joined in discussions and debates feeling that I needed to contribute at least a little bit to it, but soon enough some of the staff let me know not to worry so much about saying something all the time. Think about it, filter through ideas first, and if there were meetings when I was silent, it wasn’t a problem at all.

They’ve both been good things to learn about myself, and about working in a management position, but luckily I’ve also found some strengths as well. It has been a great experiencing working with two cultures and bringing a better understanding between both. Working with new and old staff and Volunteers about a variety of issues, most of them having at least a little to do with cultural differences has gone pretty well. One of those times was recently working with our Diversity Committee. Diversity is very, very difficult subject as even the most conscious of us aren’t on the same page sometimes. Do we say black or African American? Do we say LGBT, LGBTIQA, or should we not lump those all together? Is it the third world, a developing nation, a poor nation, etc? That’s just the definitions (which I’ve heard contradicting beliefs on all those and more), let alone once we dig into the heart of these issues and how they pertain to service. What I did though was to ask our committee to really focus on how we can come up with solutions to the challenges Volunteers face, not venting, and to not get constrained too much by fearing to offend anyone, but to be mindful and ready to adapt if toes do get stepped on.

The year has also been a great time to test my self-discipline. At times when I’ve struggled, whether from having a cold, bad news from home, stress at sight, etc, and I’ve found myself in a position to support someone else, I put my own issues to one side to do what I had to. When I was a Volunteer support was often a teeter totter, going back and forth, but being PCVL the support is a lot more one sided, and pushing through any current struggles to be on top of my game has made me feel a lot more confident as a professional.

I think one last thing that comes to mind as a strength is that I do care. Even when someone disregards my advice and gets mad, or when I know someone’s been dancing around the rules, I’ve still rooted for them to have a successful service. When people succeed I do feel happy for them, just as I really do feel for it when people struggle with their service. As I said above, it’s a bit of a roller coaster going from highs to lows listening to Volunteers, but I believe I’ve been successful at it because it matters to me, and I don’t have to worry about pretending.

Jerome
During one of the conferences, I was attending an optional evening session when I received a text. I took a look at it in case it was important, in case I was needed elsewhere. It was from my host sister during my training. My host father Jerome had passed away. I quickly collected my things, and silently left so I could find a place alone to grieve, and find out the details and when the funeral would be. Half an hour later I informed the staff I’d be skipping out on the weekend field trip to head up to La Trinidad to pay my respects.

Getting there wasn’t as easy as it should’ve been. The annual Flower Festival up north was happening and I had to wait an extra day to get up there. I arrived at night on Saturday believe the service was Sunday morning. The burial was, but the service had been going on for three days straight, and when I arrived at the house I stayed at while learning Ilokano and the do’s and don’ts in the Philippines, I found the front yard packed with people. I waited for a few minutes until I received another text from my host sister beckoning me to come inside.

What I found inside was a score of elderly women who had come down from the Mountain Province where my host family was originally from, rocking back and forth and chanting, some of who could barely see, some of who had the traditional bands of tattoos that have fallen out of use in the country. Like so often in my time here, I was the only foreigner, and much the topic of curiosity.

It was a night where cultures and eras clashed and mixed together, Christian songs were sung outside while traditional music was spoken within. We watched a PowerPoint slide of his final years, and I discovered my family had a lot more pictures of me wearing the loincloth I used for our Swearing In cultural performance than I remembered. They asked me to speak, and I did, in the language Jerome helped teach me. I shared my tears with them showing a bit of the Western culture of sadness at funerals. I came to find out that the women weren’t chanting, but that they were making up the song and steps as they went along, making jokes and celebrating his life and so I cheered up and accepted their happiness in return. The next morning he was buried about a five minute walk away from the house.

I remember my first time meeting Jerome. We drove from Manila to La Trinidad and were introduced to our host families. Jerome seemed shy, and a little overwhelmed by the crowd, making me worried that for two months I’d be with a man too timid to speak. However, when we departed for the house he relaxed and after I put my things inside I sat out on the porch with him. At first I pointed to objects and asked for the Ilokano word and he replied. Soon enough we both fell silent, and after half an hour of quiet I realized that everything was going to be all right, not just with him, but with my service.

To date, I feel my greatest success as a Volunteer was being a part of his life, and being there at the end.

Sunrise
I’ve missed out on a lot of vacations that my friends have taken in the Philippines. Sometimes I had work, other times I didn’t have the money for it. I have tried to go on more trips my final year though, I have plenty of vacation days (honestly, with two vacation days a month, plus holidays… a lot more than I need), and it’s been good with the added responsibility to force myself to have more fun now and then. Perhaps the most memorable trip I’ve taken was to Mount Pulag, the tallest mountain one the main island of Luzon, and the second biggest in the Philippines (the tallest is in a restricted area). With only a couple of days forewarning, another Volunteer asked if I was interested, and feeling spontaneous, I said why not? After all, it was Holy Week and everyone was off work.

A group of eight of us Volunteers, plus one Filipino friend of some of the group, all met in Baguio city. We took a bus to the base camp, hired a guide, and took about a four hour hike up to the campsite. It was cold, even by American standards, and none of us were really equipped for it used to a lot warmer weather. We rented a small tent that we had to jam pack in, and I think we averaged about two hours of sleep that night. As I’ve continuously said, service gets you used to challenges, make you more patient, and it shined that night as though we were all tired, cold, and annoyed, we laughed it off knowing we’d all have a good story to tell. We woke up around three in the morning, to make the final hour worth of hiking, and made it with about twenty minutes to spare before I was treated with the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen in my life.

Coming from Colorado with the Rocky Mountains, that was no small feat, but we were above the clouds that made an ocean of white below the green hills that led up to the summit. It was like watching two sunrises at once, the first once which lit up the clouds, the second making a contrasting color once the sun peaked over the cloud line. Having a great conversation with a pretty girl to boot, it was a trip well worth it, and these excursions have added a lot of great memories. I made it back to my own site by the end of the day, and I slept and slept and slept.

One more to go…
The Peace Corps has been a time to really learn more about myself, to figure out what I’m doing well at, and what I need improvement on, and that’s really helped me figure out what to do next in my life. The memories have been both brilliant and bittersweet.

For my final post recapping the lost time, I’ll talk about my plans after service, and working with the new batch that came in this July.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Catching Up (Part 1 of 3)



It’s been a long time since I updated my blog. It was for a few reasons. The leading candidates were 1) I don’t want to talk about specific cases of Volunteer support even if I don’t include the names 2) there’s been less to say about what’s been going on in Dupax and 3) procrastination.

However, I’m getting around to catching up. Hopefully in the next couple weeks I’ll make up for my long, eight month absence from the blog.

Dupax del Norte and my Pride
One of the things I learned very quickly in Peace Corps was that I needed to keep my wild expectations in check. Although I had a pretty good idea I wouldn’t be starting any massive chain reaction of development and success that would affect thousands, I did have that vain hope, testing the waters to see if I wasn’t the chosen one to save the day, not surprised when the answer was a clear “no sir, you are not.” However, even with over two years of checking myself, being realistic and mindful, I found myself unprepared to watch the projects and work I had dry up.

The Third Annual Leadership Summit was postponed from December to April, and then was postponed yet again when April rolled around. The last barangay I had hopes for to get an out of school youth organization for fell apart in part because it was too far away to easily access, in part because too many parts were stalling, but also in part because I lost my own steam. It’s that last part that really struck home, that despite all my experience, despite being given the position of the “leader”, I was still just as prone to make mistakes. As my Sector Manager put it, I had a lot of reasons for why things weren’t going smoothly, but not enough to account for how much I had stalled. The irony of offering advice to Volunteers who were struggling with some of the same problems I had wasn’t lost on me, but then again at least it gave me a lot of perspective when I spoke to them, and through it gave myself some good pointers at the same time.

Ultimately, the Pagasa Youth Association, my number one reason for extending a third year, will not be a reality when I leave. I’ll be compiling as much information as I can on it for someone else, whether another Volunteer, or more likely my office, to try to tackle on later, but at this time it’s something that requires more people power than is there at the moment. The youth summit looks like it’s still a go for before I leave, most likely late August, and I may have a few smaller things to do between now and when I leave in October, but that big, shining bar that I was trying to jump over turned out to be a little too high, and though it’s taken some months for my pride to fully accept it, I can say with certainty that my success in my third year doesn’t hinge on that project alone.

One thing I do appreciate about Peace Corps, are the lessons in failure. I know, it sounds pretty pessimistic, but I don’t really mean it in that way. We all make mistakes, no one’s perfect, and accepting the losses that have come has been a pretty liberating experience coming from a country that always like to be number one. Although my primary project didn’t work out, the world is still spinning, I can still walk with my head held high, and Dupax is still my home away from home. Next big thing I undertake (and I’m sure they’ll be plenty) I’ll be wiser.

The Annual Report
One little gem I got to work on as PCVL was our 2013 Annual Report, which serves as a brochure primarily used for our in-country partners and potential sites for Volunteers. I never really had any experience in marketing, and only a few school projects here and there for making promotional materials, so it was a chance for me to work on something I wasn’t very familiar with.

I had always put down that I was proficient with Microsoft Word on my resume before, but playing around with it trying to put picture in the right place, get text to slide over, made me realize I didn’t know as much about it as I thought I did. With a little help, and some patience, I worked out the kinks though, and was able to pull it off. Although it’s still not my expertise, I think it’ll be a lot easier next time I have something similar to work on.

Manila
One of the changes we undergo in the Peace Corps is getting used to what is the extraordinary back in America. Live chickens on a bus? Exotic foods? A vastly different language? Different cultural norms? At first we trip over the roots and rocks thrown in our way as we try to get our feet accustomed to the new ground, and in time we do. A lot less phases me now whether it’s typhoon winds and rain, street animals, or treacherous roads. However, Manila is a slightly different animal than the rest of the Philippines, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and where I’ve been spending about half my time this last year.

The Peace Corps gave me an apartment in Manila, a place they intend to use for future PCVLs (and two Volunteers have now been selected and will officially be taking over for me mid-September), and although our pension house had a lot of good memories, having a place to myself was really nice. I didn’t refuse the opportunity to cook my own food, have my own bed. On a major street that doesn’t get too many foreigners, the kids around figured out in just a few days that I was a regular and stopped asking for money. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not really in a position to help an entire family on the streets, and when I mention in Tagalog that I work with the Social Welfare and Development Office, they walk away. I’ve found a few places in the area that have been great, a large grocery store where I can go hog wild and get a lot of what I missing back in America, and a hot wing joint where I can spend way too much money on. With all these things, this big city hasn’t been as bad as I had feared, however there is one thing that has been a pretty big lesson for me.

There have been days where going home from the Peace Corps office I’ve been tired, annoyed, even upset, and I’ve seen the families on the street smiling, laughing, despite having nothing but a box over their heads, and some of the children not even having clothes. My favorite teacher in high school once quoted a friend of his saying that being rich didn’t make one happy, for they had seen many unhappy rich people, but it was better to be unhappy with money than unhappy without it. Sitting back in my place, with a hot meal on the table, a warm drink in my hands after those tougher days, I can’t say I always managed to make myself smile again, but I certainly appreciated and felt blessed for what I did have, no matter the problems the morning and afternoon had brought. As to how I feel about the large gap in wealth? Well, that’s something I’m still thinking about, and an exception to the things I’ve become accustomed to. Perhaps more thoughts on it another day.

Changes to the Peace Corps
Recently the Peace Corps has made some changes. You can now ask for a specific country and program rather than request a general preference. Same sex couples are now being allowed, and as an extension unmarried couples (since not all states allow same sex marriage, thus making it impossible for some same sex couples to sign up otherwise, but if they’ll allow some non-married couples, they need to open it for all). The process is also supposed to be faster now.

Early in the year I was part of a training for same sex couples as the Philippines was considered a country where they might send one of the first same sex couples. The point of the training was to make sure there weren’t any preparations of extra considerations we had to make if we did receive a couple. The general consensus was not really, that it wouldn’t take that much extra work. We did not get a same sex couple this year though, however the training was still interesting, and at least it’s taken care of for when such a couple eventually does serve in the Philippines.

Summary of Part I, and Coming Up Next…
Mistakes, hard lessons, and more challenges, it’s the bread and butter of service. Although I’m still waiting for the day when I look back on something I’ve undertaken and say, “That went absolutely perfect, wouldn't change a thing!” I realize that is the day I stop learning.

I’ll be talking more about what being the PCVL has meant to me, a few notable experiences, and plans for after Peace Corps now that I’m pretty set on what’s coming next. Hopefully the next part will be up in a week or so while I still have a little free time.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Home from Home

Last year I went to America over the holidays, for two weeks, and it put a lot of my service in perspective. It reminded me what I had left behind, what I had gained, and it pushed me over the tipping point when I decided to extend my service for a third year. As part of my third year extension I had a required one month special leave to America, and chose November as September, October, and December were all looking busy for me when I made the decision.

Like last time, my month in America offered a lot of perspective, but this time the experience was far more testing, the lessons more humbling.

No Shortcut to the Top
My generation is getting infamous for expecting an above average intelligence, and clever ideas will get us to the top of our careers before we’re thirty. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want it as well, but as I looked at potential work or grad school for after my service, I was reminded again that my time in the Peace Corps is what will get me to the next step in life, it isn’t a magic ladder to the top of the mountain.

Luckily I’m now qualified for much of the work I had looked at after I got my undergraduate before I settled on the Peace Corps, even some jobs I hadn’t looked at before The public sector looks particularly appealing with the non-eligibility status I can get, decent pay, good benefits. The non-profit however is a mixed bag, with some opportunities out there, but many large groups such as the Red Cross, UNICEF, and USAID, still looking for a Master’s degree, even more work experience, and/or specialized technical skills for even a starting job. There’s also the private sector, but that’ll take a lot more research, as there aren’t really any databases on what private companies do public outreach, and what careers there are in that.

It’s definitely a better picture than before I signed up, but it’s still competitive, unemployment is still high, and as much as I’d like to think I’m the greatest thing since before and after sliced bread, I still have a long way to go, just like everyone else.

There are certain arguments I’ve come to loathe when it comes to education. “We’re giving you the skills that employers are looking for”, “We have an extensive alumni network”, “Prestige”, these lines are full of crap. They offer an illusion of big things to come without actually promising anything. I looked at several schools at a grad fair which was conveniently nearby, and honestly most the schools did not instill in me a lot of confidence. I’m looking for a Public Administration or similar degree, something to round off my skills with some management, analysis, and a better understanding of economics, and though I believe these schools can teach me those things and more, the cost is absurd. At this point in my life I feel like I don’t want to burden myself with debt the same way I did with my undergraduate degree.

With a Peace Corps scholarship, I can go to a state school with the reputed 29th best Public Admin program (don’t ask me who determined that or how, I don’t know) for a total of about 12k (with potential for even more scholarships) over two years, a program that is accommodating to people with a full-time job. Most of the “top” schools will cost me eight to ten times that much, and though there may be prestige, alumni, and a higher quality (though I question how much gap there really is), I’m not convinced that it’s worth that much more. There are still a few schools who may be able to promise more for its cost, which I’ll be following up on, and we’ll see what pans out if I end up pursuing grad school.

Accepting my Blessings
One of the challenges in Peace Corps is being faced with poverty, sometimes crippling poverty, and coming to terms with how well we’ve had it in our own life. We live pretty humbly in Peace Corps making a comparable wage to our coworkers, but we still make more than many people in the community, and many of our coworkers with similar pay have to support a family, and have to live and save on that salary for a lifetime, not just a couple or a few years. We have a job, we’re getting experience, we get medical covered, we have a lot of freedom in our work, it’s a pretty darn decent job to have. Many of us (like me) came into service expecting to live with “the people”, and though we do to a large extent, we discover how blessed we truly are, and how many don’t get that chance.

However, the exact same thing exists in America. We may have more wealth as a country, more infrastructure, a safety net, but more than one member of my family and friends too are struggling with a job they don’t like, unemployment, debt, or all of life’s other problems. Yes, America also has “first world problems”, people complaining because they have to wait five minutes in line, or their multi-hundred dollar smartphone is already a year old, but it made me take a step back and see that in many ways my life in a developing country is richer, and better off than some people I know back home.

It’s a double edged sword. Though I wouldn’t trade what I have away, when I see people kinder, more talented, or just someone I love in a tough spot, it makes me question my own deserving. The best I can do for now is make the most of all my luck, and to do what I can when it comes to others.

Haiyan
Typhoon Yolanda, more commonly known as Haiyan in the international community, devastated the central region of the Philippines. My site, Dupax, in far, far north of where the storm hit, and  Manila where the Peace Corps office was also spared, but many volunteers were in the affected areas. All the volunteers were accounted for, and evacuated after the storm, some from sites torn apart, others from towns that though mostly spared, suffered its regional effects such as losing power, potentially for months. I chose November as my time away during the summer, the irony that I was away when this happened isn’t lost on me.

As the Volunteer Leader, I wanted to be there in Manila to help support the dozens who were struggling by the traumatic experience, by the uncertainty of what would happen next, and the frustration that there was little they could do to help. I also wanted to support our staff, some of whom had family where the typhoon hit, and who worked overtime ensuring everyone’s safety, security, and well being, but the most I could do was log onto facebook and chat with volunteers, and send out emails.

Volunteers often have to deal with tragedies of varying levels, a child who drops out of school, a girl sent to a center because she was abused, and occasionally even someone in the community dying. Since I’ve been in Dupax we lost two LGU workers, one a man in his early thirties with heart complications, and a daycare worker, a man younger than me, lost to a fatal motorcycle accident. What set Haiyan apart though from the experiences I’ve had, as well as other volunteers I’ve known the past two-and-half-years, was the sheer magnitude of it. How many volunteers it affected all at once, and how much damage it did the communities that had become their home.

The Peace Corps Philippines is not a massive disaster relief organization, in spite of how much we wished it was in the aftermath of the storm. We send one, or a few, volunteers to communities to work alongside existing organizations with limited resources. Our niche is that you’d be hard pressed to find an organization that grows deeper and more personal relationships to a community, but one of our disadvantages is our limited resources and budget. With something that has displaced over a million people, there’s a reason it was the US military that came with a carrier and helicopters, and not our organization leading the charge. 

There’s a lot to do still, though. We have to find new sites for those volunteers who can’t return, to support all the volunteers directly or indirectly affected, and to look forward into the next year of volunteers coming next July, so there is a lot for me to do when I get back, but it would have been nice to be there this past month. Another humble sandwich to chew on.

All the Beautiful Things
Despite all these sobering, annoying, and even terrible things going on, as I look back on these past few weeks, I’m glad I’ve been here, and I do feel better off than when I came. If nothing else, all the foods I’ve missed, a comfortable bed, and a cup of protein powder after every workout has physically made me feel great. Even mentally, I find myself more determined in part due to the new and old realizations I’ve faced, but also from all the beautiful moments.

My parents’ border collie is one the most ridiculous, needy, envious animals I’ve met, a dog who will put her paw on your hand if you sit next to her, just to have some contact, a dog that will lean her head on your shoulder in an act of empathy, only to tilt it up suddenly and try to give you a lick on the lips. We’ve wrestled, chased, played soccer, and just sat with each other.

At my grandparents I spent a morning out on their back deck doing some yoga stretches, as a few score hummingbirds floated about me, drinking from all the feeders in their backyard. It was a moment so relaxing, that my worries had faded away.

I visited a few friends who live in Santa Monica, and we walked around Venice Beach, stopping by a bar on top of a hotel, overlooking the beach, and the Pacific. We sat up their drinking red wine as the sun was high in sky, and I felt at peace, soaking in all those great things at once.

I got last in my family game of Trivial Pursuit on Thanksgiving, but I did better than usual. I even lived up to my usual antics at family gaming, laughing so hard that I had to excuse myself from the room so I could breathe again.

 

The lessons were hard, but the moments have been wonderful. Although I can’t say I feel completely refreshed, I do feel eager to get back and into the swing of things.

I’ll hopefully have my next post up late December/early January. ‘Til then.     

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dog

Another couple months have passed, more life lessons, more challenges, more rewards. Interestingly enough, I can’t actually talk about some of them. Part of my responsibilities as the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader is volunteer support, listening to other volunteers talk about what’s happening at their site, and offering an ear, and sometimes advice. However, I’m also obliged to keep peoples’ trust, and to not share that kind of information. So one thing you can assume is that it’s part of what I’ll be doing over the next year, but I’ll leaving it out of this blog, and keeping it close to the chest.

Besides that I’ve went to a USAID event with several of the more prominent environmental groups in the Philippines. I helped facilitate the Mid-Service Training of Batch 271, the group of volunteers that started a year after me. I’ve been learning a few more of the ins and outs, and what decisions are made in-country, and which ones come from Washington D.C. and why.

As for site, nothing new to report really. Only being in Dupax half my time has been a challenge to get things done. The biggest thing is still to find a person or persons to pass on leadership to. Since the youth government, the SK, is being discontinued in the entire country due to reports of corruption and ineffectiveness, it actually opens up more possibilities for me since there will no longer be the organization people normally passed all youth-related responsibility to.

A Tale about a Dog
On October 28th, one of the longest days of my life, both figuratively and literally, I attempted to take a dog I had never met before from Manila to the U.S.

During service, many volunteers decide to get a pet. Luckily for me, my neighbors have a dog and cat I can play with, so I never felt the need. My friend Austin however did, saving one kitten off the streets of Cabanatuan City, and a street dog when she was a puppy, from a family who was giving them away. He finished his service last August, but only the cat came with him. During the summer months it costs several times more to travel with a dog because the plane has to control the temperature in the cargo, so trying to save between $500-$700, Austin left his dog with another volunteer named Christina, and convinced me to me the one to travel with her in October when I left for my trip to America. Everything was organized and planned out, I’d stop in Portland on the way to Denver and drop her off, but I wouldn’t be writing about this if everything had gone smoothly.

The first issue was that the airline didn’t want to release an animal unless a layover was at least 24 hours. So talking to Lani, our brilliant logistical goddess of the Peace Corps office in Manila, plus a fee for changing the flight, and we were set again. I’d just stay overnight, and make the rest of the trip in the morning. Then the next issue came, when I tried to call ahead for the dog, I was informed that they couldn’t take her because the airplane couldn’t control the temperature in the cargo. Phooey. Turning to Lani again, she tried a more roundabout approach and after a week of waiting anxiously, she got the approval just days before the flight.

So October 28th rolled around, and I woke up at 3:20AM, grabbed my suitcase, messenger bag, small backpack full of the dog’s stuff, and a large carrier case with wheels, and walked outside the pension where I caught a taxi in short time (Manila’s awake all hours of the day). The taxi driver and I stopped by the animal care place that Christina had dropped the dog off. I was hit by a thick wave of animal smells, the likes of which I haven’t felt in a long, long time. Trying not to gag, it took a couple minutes to explain to the lady what I was trying to do, she seemed pretty tired, then I had to wait until 15-20 minutes as first we waited for the “assistant” to come, and then for this assistant to find the dog, come back for her leash, and then get her. She managed to slip out once from the carrier as we were trying to get her in, but luckily she wasn’t the fastest or strongest dog. We were on the road again, headed for the airport.

Suffice to say, she wasn’t happy, and was whining and barking most of the way. I put my hand against the holes of the carrier case, and it seemed to calm her down a bit as she licked my fingers. It was good she was such a trusting dog, and though the drive felt long despite no traffic, she was calmed down before we got there.

I took the dog to check in, my heart a knot wondering if everything would be okay. The lady at the desk seemed to know what she was doing, and we got through the steps, showing her the paperwork, paying the cost of the dog’s transportation ($200), and getting all the right stickers put on the carrier. I had to set up her food, water, and remove the wheels, which were simple enough. The one hiccup came when the internet went down just as they were checking the last thing, to make sure the weather was fine. Two years of living in the Philippines has conditioned me to see it as a normal occurrence, and so I waited patiently, with this stranger of a dog, in the middle of the airport. I didn’t dare ask what would happen if the weather was bad, and after another twenty minutes waiting the wifi was fixed, the weather was smooth, and I left for security, and the dog headed to the plane with the rest of the luggage.

The flight went well, and I arrived at the Tokyo-Narita Airport. The pilot announced for me to meet with an agent out at the terminal. I was met by a very rushed and flustered Japanese man looking for the dog’s documents, which I showed him. He took one copy and was off, leaving me to hang out in the airport for a few hours. I tried to take in the fanciness of the place, with a place to get massages (no, I didn’t get one), had some sushi from the convenience store, and got online to post that I was one leg away from getting to Portland. Then they called me up to the desk in front of the gate.

The lady told me that unfortunately the couldn’t take the dog, that the cargo hold didn’t have a temperature control. It was then that the universe came together and made crystal clear, heart pounding sense. That was why they originally rejected the dog when I called ahead. Some planes can’t accept pets for safety reasons and Tokyo to Portland was one of them. I had enough in my wallet for one more meal, I had no card to draw money from an ATM, the dog only had enough food and water for the rest of the trip, I didn’t even have a phone that could call anyone. In a world that’s relying more on more with communication technologies, I was finding myself without.

The lady told me they could get me to Detroit or Minneapolis, and that’s when I explained that I had to get to Portland, that it wasn’t my dog but my friend’s and I was dropped her off. She had an “Oh sh-“ look on her face, but only for a moment, and some quick thinking she offered a plane ride to Seattle, the nearest airport that could take the dog, and a flight she said was usually close to the airport. I accepted the changes, went to the gate… to see about twenty people were left in line boarding. Hopping on my computer and thanking the stars the airport had wifi, I sent Austin a very rushed message telling him plans had changed, I was going to Seattle, gave him the flight number, and arrival time.

I got on board and they gave me this nice sticker with a dog, cat, and bird, telling me that take care of my animal. Sometimes it’s the little things.

Luckily from Austin’s end he figured out that I’d be stopping in Seattle as opposed to his first guess that I was having a second layover. I had though he lived about halfway between the airport, but turned out it was a two-and-a-half hour drive for him. Regardless, I arrived in Seattle, got through immigration (and a random check on me), and headed to the information desk of Delta where I’d get the dog. I only had to wait for a few minutes for the dog to come out. Austin however, wasn’t there. Once again I thank the universe for wifi, I hopped on my laptop and checked to see if he had gotten the message, or if he was in Portland. Luckily he was on his way and had his smart phone on him. We talked back and forth, and he showed up in half an hour.

We arrived at his house about noon… October 28th. The International Dateline is an interesting thing.

Although I had to return to the Seattle airport early the next day, the rest of my trip to Denver was thankfully uneventful. It was an enlightening experience and really I feel that I did the least of everyone involved from Austin who took care of the dog and organized everything, to Christina who took care of the dog for two months, to Lani who worked her logistical magic, to the Delta people who had to mve the dog from flight to flight, as well as make last minute changes. My job? I felt my job was not panicking when each hurdle came, a task I think I did well.

The dog’s name is Jezebel.
 
 Here's me with a very happy Jezebel now that she's no longer in her carrier, and a very happy me that it all worked out.

 
Not quite as happy at this guy now that he has his dog though.
 
 
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Next time I'll be talking a bit about my special month leave, part of the package of extending a year.

 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Not Just Forward

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted a blog. Mostly it was because just as I figured out how to say one new change, another one would come. The past months have been some of the most defining of my service, and I hope I can do them justice.

Slowing until Static
I’ve been continually saying that things were moving along, slowly but surely. Eventually they did grind to a halt, and it took me awhile to realize it. The person who I was working with fell off the radar, I found I was waiting with no actually dates or plans set up. Not only was trying to push forward myself not a smart move if I wanted to be successful, but I wasn’t actually sure how to do it. I didn’t know what was holding things back.

The main reason I extended was for this project, trying to get the out of school youth organized, and seeing signs of it falling apart even before my third year begins is tough. Although I do fully realize I’ve gambled on this third year, seeing the odds against me before I roll the dice is disheartening. Compound this with the local elections, making a lot of people preoccupied and busy, left me with a lot of free tiem at site to myself.

It didn’t last, as July came around, and with it a couple major events.

Full Circles
The first event was the newest group, Batch 272, arriving in the Philippines. A week prior I showed up in Manila to work with some of the Filipino trainers that have been hired to assist the new volunteers with language, technical, and cultural training, and then for two weeks I helped facilitate and support our opening conference, giving our newcomers the basics, and preparing them for their training.

Overall it was a great experience. It was good to meet new people, and it was a definite ego boost having dozens of Americans deeply interested in what I had to say, asking questions aobut my work, asking questions about service that I could answer. I remember thinking the resource volunteers when I first came to the Philippines seemed so grounded and wise, and it seems to have been the way some of them saw me. That being said, there were plenty of challenges.

First, I had a case of food poisoning the night before they arrived. They put me on some drowsiness-inducing medication for a few days to get over it. Trying to be a role model when your body is shutting down and trying to sleep by the early afternoon isn’t the easiest the trick to pull off, but I kept my poker face, and crashed after hours.

It was also the busiest I’ve been since I’ve been to the Philippines. The Philippines as a whole just works at a much more relaxed pace. Deadlines are less tangible, and there’s always tomorrow, or the next week. Going back to two weeks of work (plus overtime) was hard to get back into. Really glad I’m going to have the next year working half time in our central office to get me used to an American work pace again.

It was a time of a lot of full circles for me, seeing people whose shoes I was in two years ago, to be in the same spot people I looked up to were in, plus several small, but significant moments and events which brought me to the past, it was really rewarding.

The Resource Volunteers, currently serving volunteers who act as "resources" to the new group. Yes, I know I need to start considering a wardrobe change.

Watch me new batch, this is how you become a successful volunteer. 

The resource volunteer Talent Show entry, showing why cultural performances should be left to those who know what they're doing.
 

Stepping off the Pillar
Then after three weeks of feeling on top of things I returned to my site with a newfound eagerness and confidence to get the ball rolling again, and didn’t pull it off in the least. I forgot about what I’ve elarned these past two years and tried to push too hard, getting zero results. I found myself outside on the corner of the street, waiting for a trike to pick me up and take me to the laundry shop, entertaining the local kids just by standing there and looking different. Suffice to say it was a let down, getting pulled from so high back to reality, but it was also important.
I only had one week back in Dupax before once again I headed out, this time for my own batch’s Closing of Service (COS) Conference.
Saying Goodbye
Most of my group is now in the process of leaving, some as early as last week, the rest of them leaving over the next few weeks. They’ve completed their service, and at the end of July and early August we held our last conference together.
The Peace Corps isn’t the easiest experience. Not only do we work in an unfamiliar environment, but we’re forced to change and adapt to it. It’s a life changing period, and it’s not easy to let go. I should know, I haven’t yet. Still, people who had grown close to each other through the good and bad times were saying goodbye, we were trying to express the last two years, to put into words all the victories and hardships. Many of us were trying to cope with leaving the friends they’ve made in their communities, and return to America after being gone so long either to work their old jobs, go to grad school, or were uncertain about what they wanted to do.
Seeing everyone in a different place in their lives as they ready themselves to leave, some good, some bad, many in between, it made me questions where I was standing, both excited about the work I’ll be doing as PCVL, and with serious doubts about how things in Dupax had been going recently. Seeing everyone else recounting their own experiences, made my own come rushing back to me.
I think I left on a good note with everyone, and though I can’t say I know who I will and will not stay in touch with, I hope things go well for them. I put together a video of former returned volunteers talking about what it’s like to come home, and they all agreed it’s challenging. Just as we struggled to get used to life in the Philippines, so too will it be a challenge to go back and adjust to the way things were, and the things that have changed since we’ve been gone.
 
On my birthday. Chilling at the embassy grounds before the conference after my epic win in our swim race. 

 
Peace Corps Philippines Batch 270
 
Steps
So during my hiatus from blogging I’ve been down, then high, then down, then somewhere around limbo. In many ways I felt as if I was starting over in Dupax as when I got back I finally sat down and talked with our new Mayor. Introduced who I was, and what I’m doing. I’m trying to set up a time to talk to our SB (Sanguniang Bayan [the lawmaker of our municipality]) to get them onboard. The success of what I’m doing will come down to one thing, if I’m able to find community leaders who are active and interested in taking things over for me. Being gone half the time now, I don’t the flexibility in time, or the amount of presence in the town I need to lead it myself, and in the long term passing it on is something that needs to be done anyways. Once again I’m at a place of moving forward slowly, but at least moving.

It’s just an example that it’s not just moving forward. I’ve been standing still, steeping back, going side to side. It would be nice to always see progress every month, every day, but it’s been some good lessons learned, and I wouldn’t trade those away.

I official become the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader in September, and I’ll be hitting the ground running. Get as much as I can done before I head back to America for one month this November.

I’ll try to post more regularly (no promises). Talk a bit about the new responsibilities I’ll have, and thoughts on Peace Corps and development as a whole.  





 


Saturday, May 25, 2013

New Responsibilities and Old Questions

This blog post is long overdue. At the end of April I found out that my year extension was approved, and I was selected to become the new Peace Corps Volunteer Leader. Because there was no PCVL from the previous batch, I’m starting to take on the responsibilities early on. We’re still working out where I’m needed most, but starting in June, I’ll be away from my site roughly half of my time to assist our staff in Manila, or elsewhere in the country.

For those at home, I will have a required month leave in America sometime this Fall TBD, and then it’s a third year. My new closing of service date is October 22, 2014.

New Responsibilities
Although a lot of what I’ll do is still up the air, there’s a few ideas that have been passed around, plus a few things which are a given. First and foremost, I’m supposed to be a resource to both other volunteers and our staff. For the volunteers that’s mostly being a good role model, and being there for questions and concerns they have. I can also inform volunteers of staff’s perspective. Since I’ll be working closely with our staff, it gives me a chance to see firsthand why things are the way they are.

Batch 272’s pre-service training is coming up in July, which I’ll be a part of. Try to help them get a good set of expectations as they go into their service. Challenge them to learn the language not to pass the assessment, but to be able to work that much better with their communities. Emphasize that they are there to assess what the community wants, not push their own agenda. Understand that though not a lot of work will get done at the beginning of service, the relationships they build in the community is what will make the later part of their service exceptional. And so on.

Other potential jobs will be to do different assessments such as looking at potential sites for volunteers, seeing our success in different areas of the Philippines, seeing how well certain programs and committees work. There may be some tedious tasks such as database entries, but we all do our share with that kind of work. I’m also hoping to make sure we’re messaging as well as we can to our current national partners, and to find new ones as well. Perhaps network more with other foreign volunteer agencies.

Of course, this needs to be balanced with the work I’m already doing at site. Though I feel pretty confident I can get my work done at site only half the time there, the challenge will be schedule things. Postponement, rescheduling, lateness are common in the Philippines, and whereas before I’ve had a very flexible schedule, that won’t be the case anymore.

Foreigners!
I had the chance to go to a “Volunteer Sharing Session”. We had volunteers from Australia, Germany, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and America. It was a lot fun getting to see other foreign volunteers and what problems were unique, and which ones affected us all. Know more people who work in Manila now which will be good since I’ll be in the city a lot more, and after the conference a pretty mixed group went to the volcano in Tagaytay. It wasn’t as if we could see lava, but there were spots where sulfur was coming out. At the top was the most serene and most quiet place I’ve been to in the Philippines.

Being around them made me want to learn more languages, and I think that it’s something I’ll be pursuing for the rest of my life. I’m lucky enough to be a native English speaker, but there were still a few moments here and there where I wasn’t able to connect with people as well as I wanted because of the language gap. I doubt I’ll ever be fluent in several languages, but at least enough to have some competency in everyday life. At least enough to show I’m putting forth the effort.

There were plenty of differences amongst us, but having the same kind of work, and most of us (even some of the Filipinos) dealing with a culture we don’t fully understand did make a clear connection to begin with.

Questions
As I take on my new role, I’ve been reassessing a lot of how I feel about my service, the Philippines, and life in general. After all, since very soon I’ll be in a position to influence over seventy incoming volunteers, I’d best have a good handle over my own beliefs as to what I’ve been doing. I’ve also been thinking about how I can convey those feelings onto other people in a way they can understand even though they haven’t lived through it yet. “You’ll have to see it for yourself” is the easy answer, and wouldn’t be in my character to take the easy answer out.

Manila in particular is a very hard city. I spoke of it a long time ago at the beginning of my service, where extreme wealth, and extreme poverty walk hand in hand. I see a mother spending the equivalent of my monthly allowance on a Barbie doll and shoes for her daughter in a department store, and scores of homeless people. I see men handing out fliers for prostitutes at the same corner of a mall with American amenities and fast food chains. The traditional Filipino hospitality mixes with a much more crowded, frustrated edge. Whereas in my own community I’ve developed a lot of relationships, and I can see potential for change, however humble, Manila is a strong reminder that I’m chipping pebbles away from a mountain.

What I have to tell myself though is that I’m not Atlas, that I would be if I could be, but I’m not. Hopefully I’m learning more and more, and setting myself up to do bigger and greater things as time goes on, even after the Peace Corps, and I’ll be able to influence others to do more themselves. The world’s always been full of problems, and although we can pick out everything that may not be as good as yesterday, the same can be said the other way around.

So as the new volunteers ready to come here, and as I prioritize what I want to communicate to them, I know I need to take the things that trouble me, that make me restless, that make me sad, and to use that to drive me, not to wear me down. Rather than throw my heart at every small (or big) problem I see, to take it in, and to let it inspire me for the work I can do, and will do. It’s easier said than done, but I’ll keep saying it in my head to help keep me on track.