Monday, July 23, 2007

Scuba Diver Ko!

I didn't learn to swim until 5th grade, and had snorkeled exactly one time, in 9th grade, prior to coming to the Philippines. So I never really thought that I'd be a certified PADI Open Water Scuba Diver a mere two months after arriving at my training site. But I am! 6 PCTs in my training batch finished a quick but intense training course over the last 3 Sundays. Yesterday we made two dives at Apo Island to finish it up, which is one of the top dive sites in one of the top dive countries in the world. Which means that while a lot of people have to dive to the bottom of a lake and look for a toilet or fishing lures while they're getting certified, I was trying to get my buoyancy correct while looking at sea turtles, large amounts of tropical fish, and a giant wall of coral going 40 meters straight down. It's like diving in a tropical aquarium but so much better. Hopefully this is a skill I'll be able to use at my site, since one of the marine reserves is very deep and it's hard to get any good data or monitoring via snorkeling. I'll surely be doing it for fun, but the costs add up, even in the Philippines. Now the objective is to get NGOs to pay me to dive. One of my friends took a lot of underwater pictures yesterday, so hopefully I can get some up. New on my wish list: underwater casing for my camera.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


In addition to updates on what I'm generally doing, I will be writing a few short little essays on what life is like in the Philippines. I've got some ideas bouncing around in my head, never take the time to write them down, and never feel like writing them when I'm at the internet cafe. Except today!

When most people think of Peace Corps volunteers, especially males, they would likely think of bearded, long-haired hippies who emitted an untraceable but distinctly bad odor. I didn't really plan on smelling bad, but I definitely thought I'd probably experiment with beards and so on while in the Peace Corps. Long hair I've tried and liked - although never to pony-tail length, which is another Peace Corps image. But I can't imagine that for myself in the coolest of climates and the thought of essentially wearing a long woolen hat here sounds very unenticing. There are a couple PCVs here who have the long hair, and some with beards, and some who smell. But as with many other things, Peace Corps Philippines is a little different.

Filipinos value personal appearance to a very high degree. It's much more acceptable to be late for a meeting with neatly styled hair, clean shaven, and wearing pressed pants than it is to be on time and look like a scrub. Even families who live in small nipa huts with no running water climb on to jeepneys smelling fresh and clean. This can be a bit of a challenge for me, since I don't really like shaving very often. But I'm doing it anyway since I want everybody to think I'm gwapo. The more gwapo you are, the easier time you'll have getting things done here. Short hair isn't a problem for now, because it's already hot enough as it is. But I've let my hair grow since I've got here and now it's (gasp!) touching the tops of my ears. My host mother asks "You will not get your hair cut?" in the way that just melts my heart. I say, soon, but not yet. Maybe just a trim. It's consensus that my GI-style haircut right before I left did not look very good (but boy was it handy first adjusting to the heat). I get similar questions if my shorts are too wrinkled or I'm just wearing my swimsuit for the third day in a row (I might as well, I'm probably going to be swimming anyway) - "You will not change your pants?". I think she thinks I'm stinky because she's taken to going into my room when I'm gone and washing all of the clothes that aren't neatly folded and put into my closet. Not that I'm complaining. My friend Jon is also often hassled about his hair (slightly longer than mine) and his host family insisted on re-washing clothes that were freshly cleaned, pressed, and packaged at a local resort because they were "soiled".

Beyond these issues, though, there's the other major issue when it comes to hygiene - the Comfort Room, or CR, as it's known. In Europe you might call it the WC, or in the US, perhaps the bathroom. This was one of my major fears about the Peace Corps - the potential that I'd be joining a "don't eat with your left hand" society. But millions of people across the world do it every day, you say. But look at the disease rates and life expectancies in those countries, I say. Luckily, the Philippines falls somewhere in between. To take a shower, there is typically a large garbage can in the bathroom and a "dipper", which is a medium-sized plastic cup with a handle on it if properly manufactured, or the bottom half of a large Drano-style bottle if you're going on the cheap. You simply pour water over yourself with the dipper, wash up, and rinse. It's really quite easy and I'm sure it saves water. I even enjoyed the relative coldness of the water at first, since I was sweating from the moment I woke up. But now that the rains have come and the weather is cooler, that first splash doesn't feel nearly as nice.

The dipper has other major significance for toilet flushing, and in many cases, cleaning yourself up. American-style sit down flush toilets are rare here in households, although my upcoming host family at site actually has one. Mostly they're at nicer restaurants in the city - McDonald's definitely counts as a nicer restaurant. (It brings a whole new appreciation to the term American Standard. That old joke about how the American Standard is a toilet - guys, you don't understand that that's actually quite a good thing.) Most Filipino toilets are about a foot off the ground and lacking a seat. You could call it a squat toilet, although it's rather difficult to do that and I think most people just sit down, except in public. To flush, you have to pour a few rapid dipper-fulls down. It's definitely preferable to have a bucket handy for your larger-volume needs. My family is blessed with toilet paper (which you don't flush down the toilet, because it would clog the pipes) but a lot of the other PCVs have to just use the dipper. The 45-degree back bend angle is key, because you don't have the accuracy of a bidet. So far, I haven't had to use this method, although I'm sure there will be a point in the next 2 years that I do. I don't see any reason to rush ahead with it, even though others swear that it's a refreshing mini-shower in the middle of the day.

I'd hoped to include some pictures, not only of the subjects discussed above, but also of my Apo Island trip, dolphin watching, and more. But this internet isn't going too fast, so I'll do it another time. Only a week and a half more of training, then we're headed off to Manila for a conference with our counterparts. Swearing in is on August 3, then it's back to Negros Oriental for 2 years to begin life as a legitimate Peace Corps Volunteer.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Independence Day

I definitely didn't intend for there to be a month-long gap on this blog. It's not that nothing interesting has been happening. On the contrary, too many interesting things have been happening and my internet access has been limited. I just sent out a huge email regarding my site placement and recent activities, but I don't have the energy right now to go through and edit it so the US Government doesn't think I'm giving away any dangerous information. If you are reading this blog, but did not receive that email and wish to, send me a message at and I'll add you to my distribution list.

I hope everybody has a great 4th of July. The Philippines is great, but man could I go for some fireworks, hot dogs, baseball, and apple pie right now. I almost bought some American flag flip flops today to try and compensate, but they only had up to size 9.