Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Competitions and Special School Events

I have been at my permanent site now for almost 3 months and I have experienced many of the Dep. Ed. School based competitions and special events. At first I was concerned that the pupils would miss a lot of school by attending these events, but they are voluntary and actually very educational. The last one I visited was called a Science Camp, I was thinking like a 2 day “day camp” with science related activities, but oh no, we are in the Philippines and a Science Camp means a camp out! The “encampment” lasts Sun. – Thursday, pupil, parents and teachers attend and spend the night. It is about an hour from our town and people from all over the province attend. It was like an elaborate mini-village of tents, complete with mini-fences and decorations to partition off each designated towns spot, very creative and beautiful decorations. The toilet facilities had a real ceramic toilet placed over a hole in the ground and the tables and sink area of our encampment area was created on the spot out of bamboo. Pupils engaged in using a large variety of recyclable materials to make various things. I was really impressed.
I also recently attended the Special Education Olympics. I am glad to see special education in the public school system here, albeit not widespread. The competition for Mr. and Miss Special Education was a joy to watch, the ladies showed such pride and self esteem. Last Friday was declared National Reading Day by a Dep. Ed. Memo, these memos appear to carry a great amount of weight and dictate what is and is not to be done at each school. The memo said we were to have several school wide competitions and a program. We did all of that and it was actually very interesting to promote the value of reading in elementary school. In addition to girl scouts, boy scouts, oratory competitions, journalism camps, sports competitions, there will be an art camp perhaps in the spring. Again, I am thinking day camp but here it is a major production hauling tents, canopies, cooking materials, bamboo flooring for the tents, etc.
Hand made entrance with creative use of coconuts

Our area is famous for making mosquito nets, little pink and yellow mosquito net decorations

Bottle cap wind chimes

Grandmother, grand daughter and great grandson from Christening

We all got mini cupcakes to take home

Notice the hog head in tray of pork

Miss Special Education competiton

Local parish priest's pet turkey

Night procession of Christ the King

Celebrations, Filipino style

There is one thing I have learned in my 5 short months in the Philippines, the Filipino people really know how to put on a celebration! I have been to so many parties and celebratory events; I can hardly remember them all. This past Sunday I went to a Christening celebration, a prayer event for a deceased loved one and then to a 30th wedding anniversary. Food galore at every celebration of course!! Birthday’s are very important here, especially when you turn age 1, age 7, age 18 for girls and 21 for boys. There is a huge party, tents, videoke, games, clowns, tons of food, presents – depending upon the financial situation of the family, I even heard of a 7 year old girl having “attendants” almost like a debut! My birthday is coming up and thankfully everyone is making a big deal about it, it will make me feel less homesick and know that I am appreciated.
One of the first birthday parties I went to was very interesting, there were colored marshmallows and pieces of hotdog arranged alternately on skewers as a sort of arrangement for the table, included of course, was the entire hog’s head. You must eat spaghetti and/or pancit on your birthday for long life. I can’t quite get used to the sweet spaghetti sauce and bits of hot dog in there…..miss my old fashioned Italian version. Children’s games include breaking a ceramic pot of sorts filled with candy, sort of like a Mexican piƱata. There is another gadget that hangs from the ceiling with little bags of candy and money that is raised and lowered over the children’s heads for them to grab at.
Filipino’s celebrate life and death. I went to a 4 day after the death celebration complete with open casket in the living room with lively conversation around as we all ate, we returned for the 9th day celebration, sans casket. I met a very interesting woman who has worked for a middle eastern prince for 10 years and has traveled the world as she takes care of the children.
Apparently the 30th wedding anniversary is a big one here and again, catering, huge tents, food, live music, tons of people, a program complete with the couple dancing 30 dances with guests, a slide show of their lives…it was very touching. Passing a board examination and graduating from college is also very important, customized special large canvas banners are created with the person’s name and accomplishment and then strategically displayed for the community to view. The family I visited the other evening was so proud of their son’s accomplishment and it seemed like the entire town gathered to join in the celebration.
If you are asked to “sponsor” someone in their confirmation it is a big deal, also with a baptism, there is the spiritual commitment to the child as well as a financial commitment, you are part of the family forever and can be called a “compare” – accent on the last e. Sponsoring a wedding is an even bigger deal, more expensive too, here the groom’s family shoulders the expense of the wedding! I am not entirely sure what the sponsor obligation is for a wedding but I do know that it is a huge honor, and therefore responsibility, to be one.
Fiestas are another fantastic celebration, our local one is coming the end of December. Don’t forget the Christ the King celebration where we processed through the town holding candles with the large statue of Christ the King, Immaculate Conception is next.
We have been celebrating Christmas, no joke, since Sept. 1st, decorations have been up and music has been playing. We had our own version of Thanksgiving here with a lovely Filipino family and another PCV, mashed potatoes for everyone! Christmas is next and then New Year’s Eve! Like I said, the Filipino’s really know how to put on a party and celebrate!
Enjoy the photos!
Even Priests have big parties


Marshmallows and hotdogs left of cake



Puto, lumpia, spaghetti, pancit, pundok

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

More All Saint's Day and preview of upcoming posts

I found more photos of All Saint's Day and wanted to share them. Hopefully you get a feel for how massive this celebration is, how many people are involved from vendors to candle and flower merchants. Traffic near the cemeteries is very congested, most folks walk. Look carefully at the photos and contemplate what you see, how you feel. The Filipino's are a very religious people, most Roman Catholic. Whereas in many parts of Europe and America, church attendance is dwindling - not here! Churches are packed every Sunday. There are about 6 or 7 masses each Sunday and the very large church here in my town is packed to overflowing.
Traffic jam, mountain to Lobo in the distance

Father of my host family, 10 children, he died when the youngest was a baby

Mourning the loss of a young motorcycle racer

Wonder who he is calling?

Some have roof top verandas and air conditioning

Camping in the cemetery
Preview of upcoming blogs - I have been very busy!! Gone to the historic town of Taal famous for Barongs and Balisongs (look them up on the internet), mountainous Tagatay overlooking the Taal Volcano, circled massive Taal Lake, gone up and down the huge mountain I see everyday to Lobo to go swimming in the Pacific, gazed at Verde Island and Mindoro in the distance, visited historic churches in Taal, San Juan, Rosario, Batangas, San Jose and Padre Garcia, shrines in Taal, planted trees in a far barangay with a community group, attended numerous school related competitions and events (sports, girl and boy scouts, Jose Rizal local and regional event, home economics, journalism, principal farewell), seen amazing Filipino folk dance presentations, presented my first teacher training session, shopped at local big malls, made a quick day trip to Manila for a birthday, attended several birthday parties for young and old, began looking for apartments and houses, purchased some authentic Filipino crafts and gifts for my family in America for Christmas, learning how to cook new Filipino foods, making great Filipino friends, found a tutor and resuming my Tagalog studies, got a bike! and falling in love with my little first graders who are just as busy and talkative as they are in America.....just to name a few things! I actually gave an oral quiz to the grade 1 pupils in their Filipino class. They laughed at how I pronounced the Tagalog words but they were very quiet!
Think about visiting a loved ones grave site and remembering what they meant to you.

All Saint's Day Philippines

Nov. 1st approached with much anticipation, I had heard many stories about how Filipinos celebrate All Saint's Day. Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming emotions I experienced on this day. So much love, so much devotion to family. Rich, poor, old, young - the entire town flocked to the cemetery, people drove for hours to visit their departed friends and family. The wealthy have mini-houses where their loved ones are buried above ground with elaborate roofs with gutters, statues, plaques - I even saw one with a spiral staircase to an upper deck. The less wealthy are stacked above ground in what is referred to as "apartments". The "park" has most buried in the ground with flush plaques marking the grave.
Families visit the graves of their departed loved ones, say prayers, light candles, talk, eat, sit quietly, reminisce, visit with friends, some even spend the night in the cemetery - it is a very happy and sad occasion at the same time. When I saw the photographs displayed of those who had died, I got tears in my eyes, the departed became real to me, they were and are still loved. A man who had died over 35 years ago had a graveside visit from an old friend, I imagine this friend has been visiting yearly for the past 35 years. Who will visit my grave?

What began as an awkward occasion for me as a new comer to this culture, ended up as a tremendous blessing and privilege to have experienced this outpouring of love and family. I envisioned my own family sitting by my grandparents grave sites, looking at old photos, remembering the times we all had together, creating new memories. November 1st will never be the same for me. These photos say more than I ever could.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Permanent Site for the next two years!

This is my new home town! Every morning I "talk" to that mountain in the distance, it is what stands between me and the ocean! I want to go to the top and see the Pacific!
I arrived at my permanent post on Sept. 17, 2011 in Ibaan, Batangas to the sound of a mini-marching band at Ibaan Central Elementary School. They were very good and so very cute to welcome me with song and dance. Many teachers and parents were also there to greet me with a large welcome banner and of course, no celebration in the Philippines would be complete without food! We had a wonderful merienda of pancit noodles and I was introduced to the staff and the education councilor. A tired and very sweaty Amy then went to meet her new host family for the next three months. A lovely home and large welcoming family. Food again and then a bit of rest and unpacking in my new room. I had to write down everyone’s name that I met because there were so many and I was afraid I would forget who belonged to whom.
   Sunday was morning attendance at St. James Catholic church, lovely Spanish elegant architecture, lots of statues and gold, beautiful paintings. While I have not been to Europe, the large Catholic churches here remind me of photos of historic European churches. I was tired and a little spacey from travel, new surroundings and I knew I was not focusing 100%, but during the mass I saw something jump from the gold ornate altar from about 10 feet high to the ground, it was beside a statue of Mary. It was a calico cat, the mass continued as this was a usual occurrence and I had to blink twice to make sure I was not hallucinating, not something I was expecting! The mass is in Tagalog and I heard the words “US Peace Corps Volunteer Amie” and I realized the priest was introducing me! I sheepishly stood up and waved, not sure if this was culturally appropriate or not….(They call me Amie, short ”a” sound, rhymes with Tammy).
The Lola of my new host family is one of 10 children, she had a stroke about 7 years ago and is in a wheelchair. She also had 10 children of her own, one lives in the compound and many live near by or visit for the weekend. One of those ten had 10 children herself (the one in the compound), so need I say more? There is a lot of family here!! It is hard to keep track of who is coming and going but now after three weeks, I am getting much better. There are two “helpers” at the house, one is the cook, and caretaker of Lola, the other is called a “yaw yaw” or nanny, to the 2 year old. His mom works in Manila and comes here on weekends, the dad works about 8 hours away and visits when he can. Many Filipino’s have family working abroad, called Filipino Overseas Workers, or OFW, it is very common for the men to go to Saudi Arabia or Qatar or somewhere and the women to be domestic help in Singapore, Italy or England. Nurses want to go to the US or Canada for big salaries, they have to pass an International Board Exam to even begin the lengthy process of applying. So many people have said to me that they want to go to the US for a better job and cannot believe that I would voluntarily quit a high paying position in the US to come to a foreign country and work as a volunteer. They see that I am happy, I try to briefly explain that being accepted into the US Peace Corps is a privilege and very competitive. This is something I have wanted to do for a long time and I do believe that God wants me here or else he would have closed all of the doors for me to come. I explain that I sold my car, gave away almost all of my personal belongings and furniture, quit my job to come here, I say that not to brag or make myself seem so “holy” or something, I say it just to explain that I did sacrifice a lot to come here, but I did it so very willingly and I felt very at peace about the whole thing. At the end of the church service when the priest says, “May the peace that passes all understanding guard your heart and minds with the love of Jesus” – I have that peace that even I cannot understand.
My school has about 1500 pupils (they are called pupils grade kinder – grade 6), kinder is half day, first grade has an a.m. and p.m. session to accommodate smaller class sizes and many pupils. Most classes have about 50 pupils, wooden old fashioned desks, fans, blackboards with chalk, many have ceilings that are badly stained and/or sagging from decay and the hot humid climate, windows open and no screens. Teachers wear mandatory uniforms, heavy polyester fabric, different colors for different days; pupils wear uniforms as well.  I am assigned to work closely with one teacher, my “counterpart” who teaches English in two sections of Grade 5, he also works with the school journalism group. I have been visiting and observing many classes to get a feel for the whole school and Filipino education system. Like in the US, there are differences among teaching styles, but my counterpart is excellent! Many teachers did not want me to “observe” at first for fear I was like a supervisor and they were a little shy about their English skills. I have worked hard to try and say that I am here to help the pupils and learn about the education system and slowly they are more accepting. When a Filipino has difficulty speaking English they are very shy, cover their face and say they are having a “nosebleed.” I have tried to also say that when I speak Tagalog, I have a “nosebleed” and so we are the same!

Mini band performing for me as I arrive!

Yes, I am all sweaty and surprised!

Exercises every morning for the whole school under the covered court.

My wonderful Principal!
Every morning the pupils clean the school grounds and classrooms, I really don’t think this would take place in the US! We have a flag ceremony with pledge, national anthem, local anthems and exercises in the morning. The pupils are for the most part very well behaved. Some have excellent English skills, others not so much. Same goes for the teachers, and that is why I am here. No computer lab, no library, no lunch room, no gym, no a/c, no flush toilets. There is a canteen that serves snacks and just recently lunches for purchase, I eat there every day for free as part of what the school can provide for me and I am very grateful. Everyone takes a merienda break around 9:30 or 10 am. There are a very very few computers for teachers, most bring their own laptop if they need one, all  have to bring their own broadband jump drive and of course, pay for that. Teachers seem to be involved in so many extracurricular activities, from scouting to home economics competitions to sports to oratory competitions. They are out of the classroom a lot supervising these activities and many are away on weekends. I have been fortunate to attend several area and district wide events that have really helped me get a feel for the overall education system. There was a very unique home economics-like competition that included painting, cooking, woodworking, plant grafting, flower arranging and circuit board creation. Another was all about journalism and even included the creative usage of newspaper for making costumes. Girl scouts went on a province wide camp out and this week I attended an area sports competition, very similar to a mini-olympics with the torch and everything. The Filipino are so talented, the children do sports, recite memorized speeches, can really really sing and dance, I am enjoying them! More to come later, churches, pigs, fiestas and more.

Parade in town for World Teachers' Day

New teacher friends

Filipino national game is Sipa Takraw, he is holding the ball, I have not seen it played yet.

Cub Scouts doing a sack race, they were great!

Winners of the best costume award for the Press Conference

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Goodbye Training, Hello Service

Counterparts Conference and Swearing In
Peace Corps loves to have conferences, so we attended our last one before actually taking our oath and becoming official United States Peace Corps Volunteers Sept. 11-15. This conference was for us to wrap up the very end of our training (since we arrived in L.A. 10 long weeks ago) and to meet our “counterparts” – the Filipino teacher, for education volunteers, we would be working with for the next two years. Many of us were really really ready for training to be over. The actual language classes had been great, I could have easily continued those. The technical part, working in our training school, had been completed and we had said a tearful goodbye to the teachers and our host families. There is a very interesting video online showing us trainees playing musical chairs at our goodbye party and two trainees broke a chair fighting for a spot, one of them is me J. I saw my very first lechon at the party, a whole pig roasted on the table. Anytime a group of people are put together for 24/7 under a bit of stress, cliques and poor personality clashes are bound to occur. I was tired of the petty and flirty games that certain trainees were playing, many people were extremely immature despite being over 30, sometimes I felt like I was chaperoning a youth group trip – I will give all the benefit of the doubt and believe that stress sometimes does not bring out the best in people. Never the less, I am proud of my behavior and can say that I did my best under the circumstances. There is a litany of items written about the PC training experience and I won’t bore you with more details. I made some life long friends who have sustained me during the lonely and culturally crazy times.

     The counterparts conference was very rewarding, I have to say that PC staff read our evaluations of the previous conference we attended and made some welcomed and beneficial changes to this one. My counterpart is a very dedicated male teacher who loves young children, works very hard and is respected by the community. We got to know each other over the few days and had to practice teaching together.

Eric and I demo teaching

I also got to know other counterparts in Batangas Province and they were all so welcoming and nice. My supervisor, the principal of our school, was so considerate that she hired a private van to come and pick us up and take us back to Batangas, she did not want me taking public transportation the first time with all of my luggage.

    The day for Swearing In arrived and my friend Ali and I decided to be brave and take public transportation for the first time in Manila and go to the Peace Corps office that morning. There is a wonderful resource center there and we wanted to see it before leaving for our post. It was a little scary venturing out by ourselves, we managed two buses and a few jeeps, a very long walk and finally found it. Everyone at the office kept saying, why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be swearing in today? We selected some resource books that Peace Corps kindly will send to us to use and then found a quicker bus back to our Swearing In location in plenty of time. The hotel ballroom was nicely decorated and each of four training groups provided entertainment. Our group from Dinalupihan, Bataan sang a medley of Filipino folk songs. 
The Honorable Leslie Bassett, U.S. Deputy Chief of Missions, administered our oath, the same oath taken by ambassadors and I think even congressmen/senators, to uphold the constitution etc……

My life long dream has finally arrived, I am a Peace Corps Volunteer!
We got our official Peace Corps Philippines pin, a much coveted item. They shot off cannons of confetti, it was very exciting, a nice reception to follow. 
My great teacher and friend!

The best was that many of our host families from Dinalupihan hired a private van and drove almost 4 hours one way to come and see us!! Wow, I felt so loved and appreciated; it was so great because none of us had our real US families in attendance. 
Wonderful Filipino family
So we are official United States Peace Corps Volunteers, a very special group of people, a kindred family of thousands since 1961, whom you bond with and you never leave. Even after service, you are forever a Peace Corps Volunteer, although you are called a RPCV, returned PCV and can communicate and join with other groups around the U.S.
    So let the real adventure begin, no more hand holding by the Peace Corps staff, we are set off on our own now (still with many safety and security measures in place) to our permanent posts for the next two years.
P.S. If a 55 year old single mom of three wonderful grown sons can achieve her dreams, then you can too! Dare to dream big and watch what God can do!