Sunday, September 21, 2008

Apo Analysis

Today, most of the trainees in Dumaguete went to Apo Island on a snorkeling trip.

It was not an ideal day; tendrils of a passing typhoon made the sky and the seas ominous, and our boat ride over was choppy and wet. I had wanted to bring my digital SLR camera, but as I was leaving the house, Keith told me the ride over would be too wet, and he was right. I had a strange experience on those cresting waves though, while my companions battled seasickness and epic splashes. My mind was completely still, unaffected by the crash and slam of our roughshod journey, and I thought: I have had an amazing life. I have made the most of my opportunities, succeeded, done well, thrived. When I reach my mid-twenties, I will have lived most of my twenties outside of the United States and liked it that way. I have written fiction and published it, I have won awards and accolades for it, I have a future in the craft of writing. I even have friends who send me certificates of excellence for being awesome. I was sent to the Philippines, and though some days I have to force myself to make it through the next five minutes, I don’t regret joining Peace Corps and I don’t regret that I was sent here. How could I possibly regret that, when I get to do things like see a volcano in the backdrop of my city every day, go to a waterfall on a whim, island-hop and eat mangoes? Yesterday, I seriously, without doubt, knew that I was going to be here for the next two years, and today my sense of my permanency here only grew stronger. Nothing big, no change or event, just the silent knowledge that I am ready.

Snorkeling was also an incredible experience. I saw beautiful things, and because I’m legally blind without my glasses on, I saw them from a fuzzy distance, bursts of color, light and movement. I imagine I saw the underwater world as a newborn sees the open air one: all things are new, unknowable wonders, impressions, immediate and emotional rather than concrete. For me, there were no hard lines between one coral, one fish, one color and the next. I felt a great sense of peace though I could not make out the beauty of what I was seeing with any precision. All I could hear was the sound of my breath through the snorkel: inhaling from undearneath water, traveling through the tube, filling my mouth, my throat, my lungs, exhaling - the sound of it sharp in my ears. It seemed life-giving in a way I’d only thought of in terms of my heart before. It was elemental to be there, mostly blind, floating above a previously-inconceivable environment, listening to the rhythm by which I lead my life, this life. My own existence suddenly seemed both profound and utterly simple.

My day at Apo ended up not particularly being about the snorkeling. After lunch and an epic battle with coral, I was exhausted and didn’t go on a second snorkeling trip further out, where I knew I would be able to see even less. I managed to sleep sitting up, lying down and even upright and clutching hands with Megan on the rather terrifying boat ride home during which I thought we were definitely going to capsize. I have a hard week ahead of me; I can only describe my feelings on teaching in an analogy in which I am a bad comedian and my students are an unlaughing audience. It’s almost 6pm and I have dinner ahead of me, a community project for which I am absolutely out of my depths to plan and a skit with Sheryll to plan rather independently, both for tomorrow. And, if I knew what was good for me, I’d do my work on Cebuano. I am getting through this week with the knowledge that maybe this time next week I’ll know the location of my permanent site.

Mga girls: Heather, Beth, Megan and Connie

Syd and me

Coasting into harbor

Apo rockface


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Trudging on

The days are long and pass slowly. In general I have nothing to update: I get up at 5.30, get to language class with my cluster at 8, go home for lunch around 11.30, then either have tech training, practicum or medical briefings in the afternoons, then I eat dinner about 7 and go to bed between the awesome hours of 9 and 10. Weekends are short and we still have long tech sessions on Saturday mornings. We are approaching week 5 of training, and the next event to look forward to is at the end of week 6, which is when we learn where we’ll be for our permanent sites. After that, we’re having a conference in Bacolad and then visiting our permanent sites, and after that, it’s a few more weeks of training.

I’ve been here a month now. I’ve been having trouble with being gluten-free, which I think we’ve ironed out, but when I initially went gluten-free I did not become truly well for several months, and now that I’m back to where I was before being diagnosed, I can’t tell if there has been progress or if I’m still ill. I don’t want to spend the next few months getting better from something I should have already defeated, especially when so many other diseases could befall me.

Two friends of mine are in the hospital. That’s where most of us spent the majority of Friday and Saturday, keeping them company. One girl, after a week of travails, has found out she has an amoeba and is doing much better with treatment. The other girl is keeping in good spirits now that she’s in the hospital, but the prognosis is murky. I haven’t been updated today and didn’t visit them because of my own poopy issues, so I don’t know if there has been progress. Last I heard, she would be released tomorrow on the approval of a specialist.

Before we got the call on Friday that both of them were in the hospital, we had a cookout in language class to practice Cebuano and then had our site placement interviews. The former was a lot of fun at the market and at Dan’s house, and the latter was at first nerve-wracking but then fairly heartening. Sometimes, with the ear infections and the amoebas and the gluten and the technical sessions and the language barrier and the people insisting you’re not an American, it’s difficult to remember the reasons you’ve chosen to follow this path. But then, you end up having to justify this choice to someone who is giving you this chance, and you suddenly remember how much you wanted this and everything that comes with it. Fiona, one of my flatmates from my now-golden Scotland days, reminded me that the tough days are the ones we learn from most, and they make the experience whole. I had a lot of tough days in Scotland, especially the entire first semester, but now all I do is plan for my triumphant return. Someday, some months from now, I will forget the struggles of these early weeks.

I have some trouble with the idea that I’m coming to another country to teach English like an imperial force, but I remember that the countries to which Peace Corps volunteers are invited have requested us and they control which programs are implemented. I also see the unique position of the Philippines as a country which has based its entire education system in an understanding of the English language; if students are not proficient in English, they will not be educated because all classes are taught in English. Teaching is going to be a difficult job with many expectations on me, most importantly my own. It is easy to favor the students who are already fluent, who are succeeding so well; it’s harder and more crucial to reach those who need it most. With co-teaching, there can be more individual attention apportioned to students, and though I find it draining work, I know it’s important work. Currently jealous of the apparent leisure of the Coastal Resource Management volunteers, wink wink.

We recently met some more volunteers from last year’s batch. I really like them and hope that I can succeed as well as they have.

Because I know you clamor for picspam, here are some from recent weeks. I know, I have none of the beach or other great scenery, but when I’m in that scenery I’m in it, not trying to capture it. Also, it takes ~50 years to upload just one.

Sean with some new Filipina friends (he wishes)

The art of making pansit

At Dan's with our feast

This one is called Sheryll in Junob with mountain

At a parade


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Day of Exposure

So, today was one of my more bizarre days here. We are obligated to take a malaria prophylactic every Monday, and on Tuesday nights and Wednesdays during the day I feel the side effects, which are insane dreams and minor diarrhea, the latter of which is not what this story is about. I dreamed that my clustermate Dan’s family all got stuck in a Mayan temple which was for some reason in Zoar Valley and helicopters had to rescue them. The disturbing part was that I seemed to get a very vivid, long parade of his family members, whom I’ve never met therefore were just made-up white people, coming out of this temple haggard, naked and clutching their severed limbs. So that’s how I started my day.

In the morning at 7.30 I walk from my house about ten minutes to my teacher May’s house, traversing my barangay Piapi to Syd and Sally’s barangay Bantayan and ending up in this sort of Bantayan/Piapi no-man’s-land. Today, I had my first real day at my practicum site, Negros Oriental National High School, so I had to go to May’s in my nice clothes, which include unforunate pants because I left all my skirts and dresses in a suckpack behind my bed in the burg. As I popped an Immodium to stave off my malaria poops, I noticed that two of the buttons on my exorbitantly expensive Banana Republic shirt had come undone and I was flashing all of Bantayan. I have no idea for how long I was treating the world to a peepshow, but I’ve decided to put it behind me and stop feeling embarassed about things that happened in the past. I need to exercise this resolution about other things that have happened, but I have a hard time.

As I further made my way towards May’s, gathering to myself my tattered dignity, I saw a man wearing a shirt but no pants and no underwear. I walked past with purpose and managed to embarrass neither of us, but it was still a curious occurance. Men, while willing to expose their rounded beer bellies as their version of a come-hither look, are not as prepared to bare the full story, so to speak. I’m sure there’s a tale to tell there.

The weirdness of the day ended there, but I still had some tough stuff to deal with. It was my first real day at the school, and we couldn’t find my co-teacher and Sean and Sheryll’s were absent, so Sean had to teach for the first time by himself without a plan or even warning, and so did Sheryll. For the first hour, I was with her scrambling to find something productive to do, but we just ended up fielding questions about ourselves and playing hangman, a game during which these second year students read our minds and made short work of us. After that period, my co-teacher was located, and it turns out she doesn’t have class before 2pm anyway, and we Peace Corps Trainees leave the school at 4, but her classes go on until 5, so there is no time for us to plan together, which was frustrating and troubling.

I am trying to do my best in something with which I have no experience, for people who are depending on me to help, and I feel bad that I cannot provide the resource they thought they were being given in hosting a Peace Corps Trainee. It is my hope that despite the rather arbitrary schedule (One day this week! Two the next! Sometimes three! Sometimes none for weeks at a time!) and instability, I can gain a lot from this experience and it will be in some way mutually beneficial. My main personal goal is to (attempt to) reach out to the students who are overlooked, marginalized, left behind or ignored. If I can help them in some small way, even if I never know about it, my Peace Corps experience can mean more than all the benefits I will get out of it.

Now, for your personal enjoyment, some pictures courtesy of Sheryll because I’m too lazy to take pictures myself.

This is my cluster, minus Syd who was being studious and Sheryll, who was taking the picture, obviously. Here we were visiting South Seas, a gorgeous resort that’s just hiding in some nook in Piapi, totally blowing your mind and taking you by surprise when you stumble upon it. The best thing? 1000 pesos a night, which ends up being little over $20. From the left are Dan, Sean, me and Sally.

And here’s a dog on a motorcycle. I have two of these exact same ones at home, except they don’t ride motorcycles. Unless they are leading secret lives.