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.

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.

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


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.
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
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.

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.

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.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Stories and Translation

Had a bit of a lull at the end of March. It was a good reminder that even when things are moving forward, sometimes all one can do is wait. Gave me a chance to catch up on the world news. Got back on a solid workout routine. Finally discovered a place to do pull ups (you’d be surprised how difficult it was to find a random horizontal bar I could use).

Have a few fun tales to share, and some more thoughts on service.

Adventure 2.0
Going to Bulala (a far off part of my municipality) is always a blast. I described my last time going there as going through the gauntlet, three epic trials. This last time proved no less interesting.

Once again, I had trouble getting one of the municipal vehicles, so I turned to the trusty dependable tricycle. This time the driver was a younger man, and we took a different turnoff. I had thought “oh, this must be an alternate route”, which in hindsight was kind of silly of me. Out in the rural areas they don’t have the luxury of alternate routes, there’s one road and one road only. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me, but the path we turned off on was quite steep, and riddled with rocks and crevices. We were off-roading.

It was about ten or fifteen minutes going down that I finally asked the driver if he had been to Bulala before, and he said he hadn’t. So we stopped, and I took a look around, and said we’d better turn back. Only… we had a spot of trouble actually getting back. The trike didn’t want to go uphill, it kept getting stuck. What followed was forty minutes of pushing the trike up the hill, and jogging after it when it got ahead of me. The young man was pretty embarrassed about it, and kept apologizing, but I waved it off as good exercise.

Truth be told I wasn’t actually too concerned. We eventually got back up the hill, and though I was a good hour late to Bulala, I’m in a country that lateness is fairly common. I apologized and explained why I was late, and it wasn’t an issue after that. I talked about the out-of-school youth organization, gave the forms that needed to be filled out, and got the papers back two days later.

When I first came to the Philippines I would have been seriously stressed, checking my cellphone every couple minutes as I was more and more late. This time though, I just went with the flow. I did what I could, I learned a valuable lesson (speak up if we take a wrong turn!), and it turned out all right in the end.

Progress on my Project
Currently five barangays (barangay is an area of about 2,000 people) have supposedly gotten a list of interested out-of-school youth who want to be a part of the youth group. Three of the five have turned in an actual listing. I’ve gotten in touch with a microfinance group based in a city about four hours south of me (Cabanatuan), which hopefully I’ll be visiting in the near future. I read a book on microfinance during my stay here, but I don’t have any practical experience, so it’ll be a chance to learn from them, and see what we have to do to provide loans for our youth.

I may also finally be able to get to the two furthest barangays, two places I haven’t made it to after over a year-and-a-half at site. Barangays Yabbi and New Gumiad have their own unique situations, compounded by their distance. However, I may be able to visit them through the Department of Agriculture at my LGU at the end of May. It’ll be a chance to assess their own situation, and see how we can best include them in the project.

Speaking Out
One of the problems in the Philippines is the prostitution. It’s a cause of the spread of HIV in the Philippines. It’s a cause of human trafficking. There’s a growing sex tourism industry. When I’m in the provinces most people think I’m a missionary before talking to me. When I’m in Manila, the assumption is I’m there for sex. As someone who’s been trying to create opportunities to the disadvantage youth, many of whom resort to selling their bodies, it’s not a good feeling when people assume I’m part of the problem.

I was talking to another volunteer when he showed me a blog that an American expat had about living in the Philippines. The particular post the volunteer showed me was of several pictures of American men, with younger Filipina wives, and their respective ages, the largest age gap I believe was 35 years. I further looked at the blog and in his general “about the blog” section he said the Philippines was a good place to go, with the strong implication that it was also a good place for people to come to for sex. I thought about it, and decided to post. I brought up that maybe encouraging sex tourism wasn’t a good thing, and brought up a few of the reasons.

The man replied defending his position, but also removing the offending piece as a compromise. We went back and forth a couple times and then he suggested maybe that I, or someone I knew could write an article for his blog about an alternative view to his own. I’ve been asking around for a few volunteers who know more about it than me to perhaps help.

The main point I want to impart is that when I challenged the man’s viewpoint, I did so respectfully. I didn’t attack his character, I didn’t push him into a corner asking him “how could he possibly think that?!” It was tempting, but it wouldn’t have done any good. Instead I kept my criticism objective, and because of that started a conversation, and it’s maybe led to an opportunity. It’s something that I encourage other people to do, to challenge the accepted norm, but to do so in a way that engages, not alienates, the opposing side. Although I certainly didn’t convince the gentleman to turn a 180 on his views, I did make him more open to mine, and I may have made him question what’s happening, which is a good start. It’s exactly the kind of work I’ve been doing in my community, only I’ve applied it to another American in this case.

Going back to my project with the youth, when I visited Bulala, and another barangay that day, the main topic of conversation was communication. One of the encouraging things of my service has been going from being on a whole different page than my community, to working towards the problems that exist, before they tell me. It’s because I’ve been experiencing the same obstacles and challenges they have in the past, and my community and I have reached the same conclusions of what we need to do because of that similar experience. Here’s a diagram of what I’m trying to accomplish with communication.

The PYAP is the youth group, and the groups of the left are the different agencies and organizations I want to aid the youth.  The most important aspect of my job is to make the arrows a reality. For example, if the MHO (Municipal Health Office) wants to promote family planning for disadvantaged youth, I want them to have an easy connection to the municipal youth group, who in turn will have an easy way of informing the youth group in all fifteen barangays about the program, who in turn can reach out to the rest of the out of school youth. Poverty, distance, lack of electronic communication (phones, email), and a lack of this kind of organized communication system already existing are just some of the complication we’ll have to confront. More updates as we attempt to tackle them.

As part of my growing fanaticism over communication, I’ve been thinking of ways to better describe the Peace Corps experience to people who haven’t been a part of it. Like so many other things, common phrases are “you have to experience it to understand it” and “every service is different”. Yes, to a degree actually experiencing it will give the clearest picture, and my service is vastly different from other volunteers both in the Philippines, and I can only imagine in other countries as well. Still, I’d like to make an attempt to help people picture Peace Corps better.

The video I’ve linked is about a young Korean man who grew up homeless, inspiring the judges and the audience with his incredible voice. It’s clear by the end of the video that the young man has a good future ahead of him. I enjoyed watching it.

Not every disadvantaged youth has exceptional talent, not every youth can get the opportunity that he did. Part of what makes his story touching is that he was the exception, not the norm. One of the strongest revelations in the Peace Corps is coming to understand that we are working with people, wonderful people, who are bright, caring, hardworking, but who don’t have the same opportunities. I don’t possess the power to turn people into stars. I’ve talked at length about humility before, and this is really where it comes into play. Because Western society shows us these exceptional stories, we want to duplicate it, but the reality is when we come across a community member who touches us, who makes us care, the help we try to provide is done with the limited resources available.

I’ve seen stories of people who feel guilty over this. They see the absolute poverty that exists in the world, and seeing their limited ability, feel immense guilt. In my opinion, feeling guilty doesn’t help, and I think it’s missing the point of the Peace Corps. Being a part of the Peace Corps is supposed to inspire people, to give them hands on experience, and if they want to continue to work in development, they can do so. Even if they choose another career path, they have lessons learned they can take with them. We do our best, and feeling guilty isn’t going to bring the best out of us. My community doesn’t feel guilty I’m here, they’re happy I’m here, and in turn I’ll be happy I’m a part of the community as well.

The other thing I’d like to translate this blog post is how you can be “right” but actually be very, very wrong when in another culture.

Every so often I have other volunteers asking me for advice for a problem they’re having with their coworkers. I’m known for having a good relationship with my own office, and am generally a positive person. When a volunteer tells me what happened, as often as not my response is, “you’re right, that was a problem, but you should go back and make things up yourself”. For example, a long time ago another volunteer had mentioned a case where their coworker was upset with them. The Filipino coworker was supposed to help with an activity with the youth, but kept holding back. In the end the volunteer went ahead without the coworker.

It makes logical sense, the coworker wasn’t helping out, so the volunteer just moved on and made the best of things. However, it was a loss of face for the coworker. It made her look bad to her peers, and although she may have considered taking a break from her paperwork and helped with the activity, pushing off the optional activity with the youth to do mandatory paperwork is more acceptable here, it’s what is expected of her. So although the volunteer didn’t do anything wrong by American standards, they still needed to be the one to say “hey, sorry about that, we’re still cool, right?” It’s what the volunteer did, and it worked out.

Another example is the acceptance of stress. For Americans, it’s okay to show it if you’re stressed. A heavy sigh, rubbing your temples, being unhappy, etc. As long as the American does their job, that’s what matters most (though in the service industry I suppose a chipper demeanor is part of the job). My experience in the Philippines has shown me that that behavior is taboo. It’s hard to describe it exactly, but it’s kind of rude here to be sullen. Whereas an American might shrug it off and say “Oh, they’re just stressed”, a Filipino might say instead “That person is moody”. Whereas acting stressed is considered a temporary condition in America, it’s seen as a characteristic of who a person is here.

In that way, much of the Peace Corps experience is having your own culture challenged. Talking to other volunteers, we’ve seen that the best thing we can do when we make these mistakes is to laugh it off, say that we’re being a crazy American, and to try to do better next time. The thing I wanted to get across is that cultural differences aren’t always so clear cut as food preferences or language. Sometimes the differences are very subtle, and we do have to be constantly mindful of that. Even if we feel we are in the right, part of our job is to be the one to relent, because as volunteers in a foreign country, it’s up to us to change, not our hosts. After our, our goal is to work with the community, not against it.

Coming Up
Should find out if I get my extension May 1st, or maybe a few days after. Have my second Youth Leadership Summit. Trying to learn Tagalog, the main Filipino dialect. I’ll post again in a month or two, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Questions and Answers

But First: Got my results from the FSOT. Didn’t pass this time around. I was close, but just a little below the cut off. Got some good tips from people who did better than me on what I can improve for next year, and I have a much more solid grasp on what I need to do to pass.

However, with that out of the way, I’m fully committed to extending my service now. Because my service at my site may now only be about half way over as opposed to ¾, I thought now would be a good time to do some question and answer, particularly the harder questions I’ve come across.

Why would you extend for another year? Are you crazy? Aren’t you just putting off real life for another year?

To be clear, I still need to get approval for my extension. Not guaranteed until then. Above is actually a few different questions, and I’ll try to address each (out of order).

Are you crazy?: Probably. It has nothing to do from Peace Corps. I’ve always been the kind of person to stick with something. I skipped a semester of college to keep working on the Obama Campaign, which I had only originally signed up to work for the summer of 2008. It’s actually a pretty similar situation now.

Aren’t you just putting off real life for another year?: Real life is what you make it to be. I have a job, responsibilities, friends, and plans. I guess my student loans are deferred for now, and I’ll eventually have to get a job that can pay those off. So in that regards yes, I’m putting off student loans another year, but real life? It’s a bit dramatic.

Why extend?: Several reasons. The most important is that I have a lot of good work I can do with another year. I’ve written a lot about my out of school youth project. It’s still gradually progressing, and I want to see it reach a point where I can pass it off to my host country partners, something I’m doubtful I can do in the next six months, but I think 18 months is more than reasonable. If I extend, I may also get the opportunity to be a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL). It’s a chance to work closely with our staff in Manila and work to improve the overall program. Not only is it a chance to do a lot of management-level work (and maybe convince employers back in America that I AM qualified), but more importantly I do feel confident I can add a lot to the program, taking in all the things other volunteers have told me. I’m happy here in the Philippines, and though I don’t intend to live here the rest of my life, I can spend some more time here. I love the work I’m doing, which isn’t a guarantee in life, so I’ll keep doing what I love while I can. 

Why does it take two or more years to get something accomplished?

Ooh, good question. I ask myself that one often. When I first applied to Peace Corps I balked at the two years. Clearly my perception’s changed a bit. First, you don’t need two years to get something accomplished. Sometimes you just need one moment to inspire a child, to turn a community’s opinion of Americans into a positive one, to learn a valuable life lesson you’ll take with you for the rest of your life. However, when people ask me that question, and when I ask it of myself, usually we’re referring to more of the “glamorous” projects, the one’s you can find in the newspaper, or on the Peace Corps website. When we talk about accomplishments, we aim high. So here’s a rough timelines for my experience here in regards to my projects.

July 2011-September: Pre-Service Training. I learned Ilocano, got adjusted to the culture, learned different tips and tools from Peace Corps.
September-December: Got settled into my community. Had one good leadership camp. One month in there was spent sitting around due to a couple large typhoons that hit us.
January 2012-July: I had a number of small projects. About a half dozen projects that didn’t go anywhere. Got to know more and more people in my community. Helped with a couple camps at other volunteer’s sites.
August -November: Finally hit gold with a project. I wanted to work at helping the out of school youth, it really clicked with my community. Still, took a few months to meet as many people as I could, haggled my way into getting to the far flung areas, had to reschedule a few meetings. Also compiled all the feedback they gave me.
December: Not a whole lot. Holidays kind of slows things down here. Also took a two week vacation back to America.
January 2013-Now: Designed a framework for a much more comprehensive project than I planned. Slowly but surely getting all the community partners I need on board, getting things prepared, trouble shooting, etc.

You just don’t get off the plane, put on a smile, and suddenly start building wells, and doubling the farm crop. If that was the case, there really wouldn’t be a need for Peace Corps. We learn, we do some trial and error, and hopefully it pays off.

Why does the Philippines still need the Peace Corps after over 50 years?

Another good question. Answer one: It’s not the job of the Peace Corps to “save” countries worldwide. We work mostly on a micro-level, doing good works for specific communities, we don’t have the resources or manpower to tackle country-wide poverty. However, just because something’s on the micro-level, doesn’t mean it’s not important. A thousand people better won’t change the entire country, but nothing to scoff at. Even a hundred. Even ten youth in need.

Answer two: Even America still has a strong need for NGOs and community service. I don’t think there’s a single country worldwide that has ever been so perfect as to not benefit from aid in one form or another.  

I heard the Peace Corps isn’t a very good organization because of X, Y, and Z.

Pessimism is how people without ideas or solutions attempt to sound smart.

That being said, the Peace Corps is over 50 years old, it has had over 200,000 volunteers, it currently has about 8,000 volunteers in over 70 countries. Mistakes do happen, and just like any organization or agency, it has its strengths and weaknesses, and just like anything else people disagree on what those strengths and weaknesses are. My best advice is if you’re trying to get a feel of the Peace Corps as a whole, look at as many experiences and sources as you can, and put them all together. After all, I’m hardly in any position to judge the experience of my friend teaching English in Sierra Leone, or of a volunteer doing healthcare in Latin America, or comment on how our headquarters in D.C. is doing things. Most of us only ever get a limited perspective.

If I am selected as a PCVL, hopefully I can help make Peace Corps Philippines (even) better. 

I feel like I’m not getting a lot done right now. What should I do?

This is a question I get from other volunteers. It’s been easier to answer this one with newer volunteers, as they’ve yet to reach the point where I personally found a more long term project. It’s more difficult to answer with volunteers who came into country the same time as I did. One thing I wish Peace Corps did was to be more candid about how we’re not guaranteed some sort of community changing project when we sign up. Just like in any job you apply for, there’s no guarantee it’ll match all of your expectations. However, for most volunteers I’ve talked to, it’s not that there hasn’t been some good. They were able to accomplish things here and there, they just wanted more. I can’t blame them, it’s the main reason why I’m extending.

If all else fails, it’s still a learning experience. It’s not all the time you get to live and work in another culture. It’s a unique experience.

Why aren’t you dating a Filipina? Do you not like Filipinas?

Now this question has come from my own community. It still irks me that even should the out of school youth get the services and assistance to really improve things, there will still be a lot more people who care more about whether I’m dating. My personal favorite is when they ask “How many chicks” followed by a kissing sound. I normally just joke out of it, say I’m in love with my older, married coworkers, and make claims that I’ve tried, but no one wants to date the young, white guy they think is rich. However, I do have a few legitimate reasons.

The biggest thing is if I’m going to date, I’d like it to be with someone I have a lot in common with. My interests are in global affairs, international development, and it’s difficult to find that in a young woman in rural Philippines, and I don’t spend the same kind of time in the larger cities to get so acquainted as to find people with those interests like me. I’m told often how “pretty and nice” a girI is, which isn’t a bad start, but I’m really more interested in shared interests.

Also there is the trust issue. I’m hot stuff mostly because they do think I’m rich. To be fair, I probably will be rich by comparison to most my community whenever I get my loans paid. Living in America does have more amenities even if I don’t have the mansion they think I have. However, I’m not going to date someone because they’re looking for a green card. Although it might not be everyone, it’s hard to tell the difference.

The final reason is that I have a good thing going in my community and with the Peace Corps. Dating sounds like a solid way to add a lot of drama that could undo a lot of what I’ve been building up. Not worth it.

What have you learned in the Peace Corps?

Too much. This question’s tricky cause I don’t know where to start, and because I don’t want to go so long as to lose your attention. So let’s stick to a few of the highlights.

-Expectations!: A hamburger tastes so much better if you’ve been without for six months. An hour’s delay if nothing if you’re used to things getting delayed far longer. Whether a Peace Corps experience is positive or negative is sometimes determined more on the volunteer’s expectations than what’s actually happening. Getting a community behind a project is about shifting their own expectations, making them expect more from themselves.

-Development: Development needs more doers than thinkers. I love to think. I love to plan and brainstorm and think I’m brilliant, but my success in the Peace Corps has come from finding the ideas that already exist in the community. To all the aspiring undergraduates and graduates looking into development, all your years of studying is helpful, but it’s not going to make you understand more about an impoverished people than they understand about themselves. You’ll find that successful development projects worldwide almost all stem from local ideas, inspired by the people themselves.

-Myself: I think I’m doing a few things right with my life. Always room for improvement.

Would you recommend the Peace Corps to me?

Hm… that depends on who you are. That depends what you’re looking for.  It doesn’t hurt to start the application process, it took me about eight months from typing the first letter on the online application to stepping on the plane, that’s a good deal of time to consider if it’s right for you. The other thing I’d suggest is to ask yourself what you’ll do instead if not doing the Peace Corps? My first paying job after getting my undergraduate was being a cashier at the Home Depot. I have two years “relevant work experience” under my belt to finally be qualified for those jobs I tried to get two years ago, but now I might have the chance to do some really great things in a third year that none of those jobs offered. However, that was just me. Other people probably have more tempting alternatives.