A Transpo Nightmare

Yesterday, Saturday, September 23, I was invited to help out at a YDS Intensive in Bilar, Bohol. While the event was an amazing and awarding experience, my travel there and back was peppered with various misfortunes.

I began my day at 5:00am with a bike ride from my University to the center of town. Less than half a kilometer in to my 6km bike ride, I picked up a thumb tack in my front tire and had to turn back and find a vulcanizing shop to fix my tire. As it was only a little after five in the morning, the shop was not open. I spent at least ten minutes calling from the door before someone inside answered my pleas. I explained my situation and, after a few more minutes, a man emerged from the house and set about the task of fixing my tire. I got back on the road around 6:15, only to have my chain fall of twice – both times in the middle of big hills. I arrived in Poblacion slightly annoyed, dripping sweat, and incredibly late. I had hoped to catch the six o’clock van, but it was already 7:00.

I dropped off Cooper, took a very quick shower, and changed in to cleaner clothes as fast as I could, but still didn’t get to the terminal until just after 7:30. I then sat for almost half an hour. A van pulled up just before 8:00 — the same time the event in Bilar was supposed to start. I was already late and I was still 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) from my destination.

An hour and a half later, I got out of the van at a crucial intersection to yet again play the waiting game. The first bus heading the way I needed to go was full to the brim — doors open with people hanging out. In the Philippines they say, “There’s always room for one more.” but not one of the Filipinos waiting with me moved to get on this bus. The next bus was also incredibly crowded, but I managed to summon my inner sardine and board the bus. Imagine an old bus with the front three rows removed and replaced with bench seating. Now imagine that bus packed to the brim with about 100 people (and at least a dozen children) speeding up a winding mountain road with steep drop offs. I stood in the aisle near the door holding tightly to the bar on the ceiling. I couldn’t move an inch without hitting someone or loosening my grip, so, with backpack balanced between my head and my shoulder, my butt pressed firmly against a seated stranger’s shoulder, and with a young man’s arm pressed against my chest, I did my best not to bump into anyone too forcefully as we sped around sharp curves in the road. The bus was so full that the ticket master could not pass through the isle — instead, in order to get from the front of the bus to the back, he went out of the front door and climbed along the side of the side of the moving bus, using the open windows as footholds for his flip-flop clad feet and the railing along the top of the bus for his hands. After another 45 minutes, I finally arrived in Bilar with a significantly diminished personal space bubble, but I still had to make my way to the school.

As I crossed the road to the market to find a tryke that could take me to the school, another woman who had just gotten off the bus called out to me. Pointing to my DSWD polo, she asked if I was heading to the high school. I told her I was, and she suggested that we share a tryke, but first she needed to by some things in the market. We found a driver, and I waited near the tryke in the hot sun (for what felt like half an hour) until she returned with her purchases. A short ride later, I arrived at the school just before 10:30 – two and a half late.

The next seven hours were wonderful. I worked with 7th, 8th, and 9th graders, talking with them about “Discovering Their Destinies”, goal setting, and planning for the future. In total I had sessions with about 150 youth. The youth were great, and these hours were pleasant, in sharp contrast to my trips to and home from Bilar.

My trip home began with a walk from the school back to the market. I then sat waiting for a bus. I didn’t wait very long — a bus pulled up within ten minutes, and I began my trip back down the mountain. The squealing of the brakes, as the driver made sudden stops to let people off, made me wonder how often the brakes of the buses that travel this route need to be replaced (and question how recently these brakes had been installed). However, I was not questioning for long, as about halfway down the mountain the engine suddenly cut out, and would not restart. The driver said something about the sharp turns in the road having an effect on the engine, but I suspect it may have something to do with overuse of the engine brake.

I filed out of the bus with all of the other passengers and lined up on the side of the road, searching for my ticket stub in my bag so I could prove to the next bus going by that I had already paid for my journey. Luckily we were in the middle of a relatively flat and straight section of the road and the sun was still above the edge of the horizon. A new bus came down the mountain within fifteen minutes, and everybody rushed towards it before it had even stopped moving. I held back, avoiding the rush, as I don’t really mind standing and “there’s always room for one more”, so I figured we would all get on the bus. I stood in the aisle, but had a bit more room this time — I could sway without bumping into anyone. My new bus got be back to the intersection, where I got off, crossed the road, and did a bit more waiting.

My last bus of the day was also crowded, but emptied out a bit as we got closer to my destination, so I got a seat after thirty minutes or so. I arrived in my town around 8:00, grabbed my food for the week, packed some clothes, picked up Cooper and we made our way back to the University for the night. The batteries in my bike light need replacing, so I could only see about seven feet in front of me, which gives enough warning to stay on the road, but not enough to avoid pot holes and rocks. We arrived at the campus with sore butts, having been chased by three packs of street dogs at different points on our journey, but at least we only lost the chain once. Glad that my journeying for the weekend was done, I took a quick shower and collapsed in to bed where I was joined by pup for some nighttime snuggles.


Getting $#!t Done

Around the end of their first year of service, most Volunteers experience what is known as a “Mid-Service Crisis”. Anniversaries are time for reflecting and, upon reflection, many Volunteers realize that they have not accomplished quite as much as they had hoped. Throughout my service, I have experienced many triumphs and disappointments, and just as I was beginning to settle into my Mid-Service Crisis, I was wrenched out of my foul mood by the sudden approval of a number of my previously-submitted project proposals.

In the matter of a couple of hours, I went from having very little to do at the University, to being swamped with regular sessions and event planning. I’ve got weekly life skills sessions with the ESGP-PA grantees and, with the help of my co-facilitators and a hardworking guidance counselor, we’ve almost completed the entire YDS program at one of the high schools in my town.

Here are some pics of my sessions with the ESGPPA grantees:

Here are some pics from the most recent Youth Development Sessions:

We have a big three-day training in the works to help us expand the YDS program to include the other high schools in my Municipality. The first weekend in September, we will be training the grantees to facilitate the sessions with help from the DSWD. With a big event comes a lot of planning: I’ve had countless meetings with the Mayor, the Campus Director at the University, and a number of written communications with the Regional DSWD office. With the help of my counterparts, I’ve secured funds for materials, a venue, lodging for the facilitators, lunch and snacks, and certificates for the participants- it’s been a busy month, but even with all of those tasks, it’s hard to evaluate what I’ve actually accomplished in a year at site. Most of the impact of any work I do at site with my main project won’t be seen for years or even decades. Luckily, we’ve also got a number of side projects in the works, including a volunteer environmental program with the scholarship students at the University.

Early one sunny Saturday morning, I met about 30 of my ESGP-PA grantees (and some of their friends) in front of the University gates, and together we walked to a neighboring barangay. We met some of the barangay officails at the Barangay Hall, and they led us to a nursery, where they had been raising hundreds of mohagany seedlings with the help of the DENR.


We took as many seedlings as we could carry and climbed a near-by hill, our designated planting spot. With a single shovel, two machetes and a a lot of sweat, we dug many holes in the mountainside and, in a matter of a couple of hours, we planted 102 seedlings. The students had a blast, and the DENR and Barangay Council teamed up to buy them all merienda when the work was done.

As a CYF Volunteer, when leading life skills sessions and trainings , sometimes it’s hard to see the impact of any of my work, so it felt really great to do a little manual labor for a change, and see all of the seedlings we had planted when we were done.


Community Based Training: Take two

The last week of July, I had the privilege of assisting the incoming Volunteers as a Resource Volunteer for one week of their training.

Unfortunately, just before I left there was an outbreak of Parvovirus on my island, and Cooper stopped eating two days before I was scheduled to leave. I had already watched my family’s two puppies die from Parvo, and I was not going to loose Cooper so, the next day, I brought him to the city with me and left him with a vet. Most Parvo deaths can be attributed to dehydration, so Cooper got an IV drip to keep him hydrated and a bunch of shots to keep him from throwing up (he had already thrown up three times that morning). That night I slept in the city to make it easier to catch my morning flight.

One sick pup

Saturday, I traveled back to the training site in Bataan, to join the Training Team and Trainees for a week of life skills demonstrations and camp preparation. Saturday afternoon I received my first Cooper update. He was doing well, though was not yet eating. It took almost 12 hours to travel from Bohol to Bataan, riding a series of planes buses and automobiles, and I was so tired when I arrived at the staff house on Saturday night that I went straight to bed.

Sunday, I got to tag along to Water Safety Training in Morong. I helped introduce different water-based rescues and escapes, then went out with small groups in a boat to demonstrate how to safely get in and out of a boat in deep water. The vet texted in the evening and said that Cooper was eating and would be ready to go home Monday afternoon if he had a ride.

Monday, I told the Trainees about my site, my work, and lead a life skills session. It was really strange to facilitate with an American audience again, but it was nice to have an entire group of willing and active participants for a change.

Tuesday, the Trainees chose their own life skills topics, and planned a half hour session. I traveled between the different staff houses to help with their preparation and answer any questions that they might have had. My Ate and Kuya had to go to the city anyway, so they picked up Cooper and brought him back home in the afternoon. I was so relieved that he made it through such a tough virus, and would be there to greet me when I got back to the island. He is one of two puppies in my neighborhood that survived the outbreak.

Wednesday and Thursday, the Trainees facilitated their life skills sessions and received feedback on their performance. It was great to see all of their different strengths and styles in facilitation, and I picked up a few new ideas and activities to use in my sessions back at site.

Friday and Saturday morning it was time to prepare for their up-coming youth camp. I shared my experience with camps and planning activities in the Philippines. Unfortunately, because I was busy filling out evaluations, being a participant, and keeping track of time, I didn’t get a chance to take any pictures on their life skills demos.

Saturday afternoon, I rented a videoke machine and invited all the trainees to come give it a try. We sang the afternoon away (between brownouts) then went to the plaza for a BBQ dinner. I had a blast, and it was fun to get to know them outside of an official training event.

Sunday morning I began my long trek back to Bohol. I had a stopover in Manila, and then flew back to Bohol on Monday. After a three hour bus ride, a healthy Cooper met me at the door and was super excited to see me.


Getting Back into the Swing

It’s been a month since I got back to Bohol, a year since I arrived in the Philippines, and it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Things are really heating up at both of my jobs, so I’ve been doing a lot of facilitating. I recently had my first meeting of the semester with the ESGP-PA students at the University. I will begin leading evening sessions with them every-other week (starting this coming Thursday) on topics ranging from “Goal Setting and Planning for the Future” to “Leadership Skills”. We also had a brainstorming session for other activities, and they came up with a number of ideas including; mangrove planting, a youth facilitator training, and tutoring elementary students. All of the grantees are beginning their final year of college, so this will be a busy year if we manage to do half of the things they have in mind.

Last weekend I met some fellow Volunteers in the city for lunch at the Buzzz Cafe and decided to spend the night because it was a three day weekend. I went out to a videoke bar with my counterpart, Jovie, and we sang the night away (see Facebook for an example of Jovie’s amazing voice).

Monday evening I made my way back to site and played with Cooper and the puppies (“Blacky” and “Whitey”).

Wednesday through Friday I returned to the high school to conduct Youth Development Sessions. Over three days I lead about 400 students in various activities, including pictionary, skits, and a body scan. We explored emotions, how they change in adolescence, and practiced controlling our emotions when they get out of hand.

July brings more ESGP-PA sessions and YDS, so I’ve got a lot of planning to do. I also get to help train the new batch of Volunteers in the last week of July, so I look forward to traveling back to Bataan in a few short weeks.

Visiting a Real-Life “Witch Doctor”

Last night, at dinner, my Ate told me that they were going to see a quack doctor. When I asked her, “What do you mean by quack doctor?”, she said, “An albularyo.” (pronounced al-boo-lar-ee-o), which is a sort of spiritual healer. Else, the student who lives with us, had been having some troubles with her eyes for about a week, so they needed to see the “quack doctor” for help.

After a ten minute car ride, we pulled up to the outside of a nice house with a large, red gate. My Ate shouted “Ayo”, the Philippine-equivalent to “Anybody home?”, and we were called inside. An older white-haired man wearing a large white t-shirt and green and black shorts printed with Heiniken bottles asked us why we were there, and then disappeared through a curtain into the back room. It turns out that this was our albularyo. While we waited, my Ate discussed the wallpaper and where it had come from with two women who were eating supper.

When the albularyo came back, he sat down, told Elsie to sit in a chair perpendicular to his, and asked what the problem was. She told him about the sty-like bump that had appeared in the corner of her left eye at the beginning of the week, and then pointed to the one that could be seen in the corner of her right eye. If these were styes, it’s pretty unusual to have two form in different eyes in the same week. The albularyo grabbed a bit of cotton, dipped it into a dark brown bottle, and then dabbed it on to both of Elsie’s eyelids. He then told her to stand up, turned the chair so that it sat in front of his, and instructed her to sit back down. He stood up behind her, asked for her name, and began to say what sounded like a prayer, while placing both his hands upon her head.

The albularyo’s prayer lasted several minutes. When it was done, he instructed her to stand up again, and rotated the chair back to a perpendicular position in front of his own. Elsie sat back down, closed her eyes, and then the albularyo blew three strong bursts of air on to each of her closed eyelids, ending the session. He told Elsie not to wash her face until Sunday. We then said our ‘goodbyes’ and ‘thank yous’, and drove off into the night.

Building a Seat for Cooper

My pup, Cooper, almost doubled in size while I was gone, and now seems even more determined to accompany me wherever I go. The other day when I had to leave him at home, he made a hole and crawled under the fence, then ran down the road to catch up to me. This means that I when I go somewhere, I either have to lock him in my room until I’m out of sight, or take him with me. Before I left for consolidation, Cooper rode everywhere with me on my bike in a little pink basket but, unfortunately, he no longer safely fits in the basket. I can easily walk to one of my offices, but my other office is about six kilometers away, meaning that I needed to solve this issue before the school year started next week, and my office at the college opened up again.

Cooper in his basket before I left for Manila

I decided that I should try to make Cooper a larger seat on my recently-acquired second bike, but that is easier said than done. I figured wood would be the easiest material, and made the trip to the local hardware store, only to find that they only had large sheets of plywood, no lumber or boards. This lack of material stumped me for a day or so until I brought up the issue to my host family, who promptly led me outside to the pig house and gave me a board of just the right width.

I began by sawing off a piece about half a meter in length, then cut a small groove in one side so that it would fit securely around the frame of the bicycle. I then rode the bike around block a few times, marking where my legs would rub against the board, so that I could remove those sections. After hand-sawing off those sections, I handed to rough seat over to my Kuya, who quickly use his machete to smooth out the rougher sections (it’s really hard to cut a curved line with a hand saw). I then sanded down the board a bit more so that no rough edges would rub on my legs while biking.

The newly sanded seat

Now I had to figure out how to attach Cooper’s newly formed seat to my bike. You can get tie-wire at a number of nearby stores so I decided I should drill some holes in the seat and wire it to the frame of the bicycle. Unfortunately, drills for wood are a bit tricky to come by so, with my limited tool set, I had to use a hammer and nails to create holes for the wire to go through.

I then wired the seat to the bike, and took Cooper for a test ride.

We’ve been riding for a week now, but only over short distances, we’ll get a real road test when I commute to the University next week.

Me and Cooper on the road

Back to Bohol

After almost seven sleepless, draining, seemingly-endless weeks in Manila, I was able to return to Bohol this past weekend. While Manila is a wonderful place to visit, it is a very hard place to call home if you are used to mountains, trees, and elbow room. The heat, grime, and crowds of the city were a hard adjustment for me, and I also struggled with the lack of purpose and the uncertainty of the situation. It didn’t help that the entire time I was there, a short flight and bus ride were all that separated me from my second home. It was almost maddening. Luckily, I was consolidated with a number of amazing volunteers and supported by the staff at the Peace Corps office in Manila. I was even sent out to visit the sites of other Volunteers and help with camps and other special programs (see my blogs on Pampanga and Negros).

After an hour-long flight, and a couple of hours on the bus, I got down in my town and walked home. I was greeted at the door by my pup, Cooper, who whined and licked a every available inch of my skin for about an hour (this made it a bit tricky to unpack). Later that evening, my host family, who had been out for the day, arrived and I was given a nice welcome-home/belated-birthday-party.

Anyway, I’ve only been home for about two days now, so there isn’t much to write about, but hopefully I’ll have more to recount in the coming weeks, now that I’m back to site and back to work. I’ve got to make up for the lost time.