On to Training!

So, on Thursday, we finally found out where we would be going for our training, and what languages we would be learning. Then we said goodbye to each other and the next morning, took off for Parts Known.

I was lucky, because I’m staying here on Luzon, so I didn’t have to fly to my site. Instead, we took a bus ride through the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen.

Blurry photo, I’m afraid, and doesn’t nearly capture how stunning the landscape is, but it’s the best I’ve got.

So, I arrived at my host family’s home yesterday. It’s in a beautiful neighborhood pretty much right in the city, but very clean and relatively quiet (for the Philippines). The home is just lovely, and my room is very comfortable, with a nice, large bed and a sturdy door.

And my host mother is fantastic!

(Note my frizzy tropics hair. It’s been a mess since I landed–I can see why so many people here chemically straighten their hair. That’s not something I’d ever do, though. Too hard on the hair.)

I’m really happy with the training site, actually. In addition to being lovely, I’m really close to a lot of other volunteers (as in, we’re neighbors), and there’s a coffee shop with free, fairly sturdy wifi (which is where I am at the moment). On Monday, my training really begins, language and technical–I’ll be learning Tagalog, which is excellent. I’ve learned a little already, almost all of it related to food somehow.

I mean, it’s not all perfect–my intestines are really unhappy today, either from the water or the food, and the heat makes me really tired. And I’m sure it won’t all be smooth sailing with the host family and the cultural adjustment. But I feel like I’m in a really good situation to deal with the difficulties that will crop up. (If nothing else, having easy Internet access and a bunch of friends right around me will help. Support system, whoo!) I’ll keep you all updated!

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Welcome to the Philippines!

So, I’m in the Philippines.

Yeah.

Actually, I am, and I’m not–we landed on Saturday evening, late, and since then we’ve been doing Initial Orientation (IO) at a resort. There are lot of us in the training batch (142, I believe), so we haven’t really been able to go anywhere, which means that I haven’t really had to deal with anything yet.

So . . . it’s really weird, and it’s actually a lot like being back in college, right down to the communal meals and long meetings. But I’m meeting a lot of cool people, and now that we’ve been here a few days, we’re starting to have great conversations.

On Friday, we’ll all disperse to our training sites in small clusters, to live separately with our host families (something which carries with it a whole set of separate anxieties), but we’ve been provided with cell phones, and texting is incredibly inexpensive and pervasive, so hopefully keeping in touch with the friends I’m making will be fairly easy.

(Sadly, texting the US is NOT cheap, but I can receive texts and calls for free. So, if any of you want my cell number, drop me an e-mail. You can call me, if you want to pay the international rates, and it won’t cost me a dime. Or peso, as the case may be. Also sadly, Twitter does NOT have a Philippine number I can send texts to. Alas–I’d love to be able to tweet.)

Officially, these few days are for long sessions introducing us to our project sectors (exciting), policy (boring), and other information about what to expect (useful). We’re also taking care of medical stuff–vaccinations (both my arms are sore!), malaria meds (which have made my stomach rather upset), and other things. I finally weighed myself for the first time since graduating college–I’ve lost 16 pounds, about half of what I gained in college.

That’s actually kind of annoying, because I realized literally the night before I left that NONE OF MY PANTS FIT. So, I basically don’t have any nice pants to wear to work once that starts, and sadly, even though I have dropped a pant size (whoo!), I still can’t find pants here in the Philippines. (I knew these hips would be a problem!) I’m going to write home and beg them to send me pants.

Otherwise, I’m just kind of waiting. Before long, my training will start in earnest–I’ll keep you posted!

Freedom from Prime Numbers

I’ve always been a fan of even numbers, especially numbers that are easily divided (my favorite numbers are 4, 12, and 24). Conversely, ever since I was a kid, odd numbers have made me uncomfortable, and prime numbers even more so. I guess I have a deep suspicion of numbers that you can’t divide.

I’ve been 23 for the past year, and while I’m not blaming the prime number for the terrible year I had, all I’m saying is, maybe it didn’t help. (Looking back, I’ve never had luck with prime numbered years. When I was 11, I got sent back to one last hellish year of church school, a nightmare after the freedom of homeschooling; when I was 17, I had to endure my parents’ long, painful, and messy divorce. 19 was okay, but challenging: I started college that year.)

Today is my 24th birthday, and I couldn’t be happier. My birthday tends to be a pretty convenient point for demarcating new “years”–it’s right before the beginning of the school year, and until recently, the rhythms of academia ruled my life.

And to be frank, 23 sucked. It involved dealing with an alcoholic stepfather, terrible jobs, and a forced move across the state to sleep on someone’s couch for four months (which, tellingly, was an improvement over my prior situation). It was characterized by uncertainty, instability, doubt, boredom, and frustration. Oh, also poverty. (I lost weight because I couldn’t afford anything but beans and rice.)

At the same time, though, all of that is finally paying off. It was a low year, but I successfully pushed through the Peace Corps application process. And best of all, I can finally call it over. I’m ending the year spending time with the people I love, and in less than a week (!) I blast off on my next adventure.

I have high hopes for 24–I’m allowing myself to be optimistic, for once. Finally, after all this waiting, I get to go out and do something that matters to me, something I expect to be fulfilling and rewarding.

Tonight, I’m heading up to spend the weekend with my dad and his wife at their little mountain home. That should be lovely and relaxing. After that, my last two days in Colorado will be spent with my mom (and hopefully my brother), sightseeing around Colorado Springs and running through my last minute errands, paperwork, and shopping.

Food and Me–there goes THAT identity!

I am an inveterate fretter. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell me that worrying doesn’t do any good, and there might not be any thing to worry about, and even if there is, there won’t be anything to do about it until it happens–it doesn’t matter. I’ll still worry about it. (Incidentally, I also pick at scabs.)

But blogging helps, so here are a few of the mental scabs I’ve been picking, with regards to my fast-approaching departure for the Philippines.

I’m worried about the food. I’m not exactly worried about liking it–I tend to be an adventurous eater, and I feel like a month in Vietnam with a friend who makes a game of feeding me bizarre things was probably a good warm up. I’m worried about the food because somehow, in the past few months, my shifting identity has become inextricably tied up with food.

For one thing, I’m worried about gaining weight. I put on a load of weight while I was in college (eating poorly and not moving will do that), and it wasn’t until a few months ago, when I started working a job that required physical activity and eliminated meat and processed foods from my diet that I even began to shed some of that weight. I was only just starting to feel good about my body, and it was a GREAT feeling. I don’t want to lose that.

I mean, I know that my confidence in myself shouldn’t be so reliant upon my appearance, but, c’mon guys, I’m American. Plus, I’ve been to Southeast Asia–I know firsthand what a beating self-esteem can take in the face of heat, humidity, and crowds of people half my size. (It’s hard to feel beautiful when you’re beet-red, sweating like a pig, and standing next to a perfectly made-up woman who would wear your shirt like a dress.)

And that’s actually the LESS important of my food issues–that’s just the physical side. The problem is, my eating habits arise out of a desire to eat ethically–local food, no factory-farmed meat, etc. I honestly believe it’s better for EVERYONE (me, the farmers, the planet, everyone).

I guess I should probably wait until I get there to worry about this–I have a hunch local food will be easy to come by, even if meat will be hard to avoid. But I’m still worried about giving up control over where my food comes from.

Maybe I’m feeling a little down over the whole issue because I’ve been traveling, and at times it’s been almost impossible to eat ethically. The last place I stayed, with my Vietnamese family, I just threw in the towel entirely. I ate meat AND processed crap, and I felt disgusting. I still do feel disgusting, actually. (I didn’t feel like I had a choice; I couldn’t really ask them to buy a whole new set of groceries for me. And they really didn’t make much of an effort to compromise.)

I guess what it comes down to is this: while I was in the application process, I would think, from time to time, how not having a religion would make things simpler for me abroad–you know, no worrying about finding a place to worship, or trying to find a compromise between my beliefs and my environment.

Heh. So much for that.

Basically, what I’m worried about is kind of the flip side of what was concerning me a few months ago. I finally happened upon an identity that really suits me, that makes me feel good about myself–this sort of conscientious hippie persona. And I only just got to try that persona on and discover that I like it before it was time to assume my new identity: Peace Corps Volunteer.

But I have reached one very important conclusion: I’m not going to be able to succeed at this unless I purge myself as much as possible of self-righteousness and judgment. So, it’s possible that this is exactly what a brand-new hippie and baby vegetarian needs–a healthy dose of humility.

Anyway, unless the rest of you succeed at massively overhauling the food industry while I’m gone, the food issue will still be here when I get back. Right?

Why I’m Joining the Peace Corps (and a FAQ)

One of the good things about all the visiting I’m doing right now (I’m on Week Three of my Great East Coast Tour, staying with my Vietnamese family) is that it keeps my mind off of the fact that in scarcely two weeks, I’ll be getting on a plane and not coming back for over two years. Every time my mind strays that connection, I get vaguely woozy (like pausing at the top of a rollercoaster), so I don’t think about it.

What I have been thinking about, though, is why I’m doing this. It’s been a goal for so long that sometimes I lose track. I decided to join the Peace Corps my sophomore year of college, so it’s been on my horizon for years–long enough to begin to seem unattainable. Really, the weirdest thing right now is that it’s actually, finally, happening.

When people ask why I’m doing it, I tell them I’ve always had a heart for international aid. I think at first it was motivated by guilt–the knowledge that, though no merit of my own, I had been born to privilege (as a white girl in America). But as reasons for service go, that one isn’t the greatest. It’s condescending: “Yes, I’m so sorry your life in your primitive little world sucks, so let me step down from my throne for a while and help you.”

But, I’ve been working hard on my guilt complex (which is multifaceted and extends far beyond just this one issue). And I think it’s safe to say that I’ve gotten past guilt as a motivation.

In college, I devoted myself to the study of other cultures. I learned to start thinking about them as legitimate and beautiful in their own right. (The Religion minor helped enormously; I highly recommend it.) And I traveled–to Rome, to the Southern U.S., to Vietnam–and I began to understand, in a more practical way, how very different life could be than the life I had lived–that my experience was not universal.

Traveling also made me understand how small my world had been. I grew up in a small town in rural Colorado. I studied at a small college in rural Virginia. Everywhere I’d been cloistered and protected. Travel was great, but I wanted to live abroad, to make my home for a while in another country, to learn another language. And if I could help people while I was at it, all the better.

I haven’t been without my doubts. Sometimes, people would raise objections, or ask questions that have led me to examine my motivations. Sometimes, the objections are my own. A few of the most important:

“Why would you volunteer in another country when so many people need help here at home?”

Well, there are the reasons I stated above, about broadening my horizons and wanting to live abroad. Also, going abroad for two years doesn’t mean I’ll never be able to do good here at home. If anything, my Peace Corps experience will make me more useful here at home–providing me with skills and honing my ethic of volunteerism.

On top of that, if you take the section of society that’s actively involved in volunteering, the subsection of those people who are game for international volunteering, especially in the long term, is bound to be considerably smaller. So, if that’s something I’m willing and able to do, I’m going to do it–someone should.

“Why the Peace Corps? Why not a nonprofit, or an English-teaching program?”

Mostly for the benefits. Since the Peace Corps is a government agency, it can afford to support me while I’m in country and after I return–with most nonprofits, I would have to pay them to volunteer. Believe me, I did look into alternatives. The only thing I found that even comes close to the benefits the Peace Corps offers was the Jesuit Corps, and I’d rather work for Uncle Sam than the Pope.

I also think there’s a certain degree of security in being involved with an organization that’s so well-established. Admittedly, the government connection can make for maddening bureaucracy and paperwork, but it also means I’ll be taken care of.

“Isn’t the Peace Corps kind of imperialistic?”

No one has actually asked me this one, but it’s something I’ve asked myself, a lot, especially since I’ll be teaching English. But not once in any of the material that I’ve seen from the Peace Corps have I gotten any uncomfortable whiffs of imperialism. In fact, the emphasis is on respect and cultural sensitivity.

Actually, I think the Peace Corps’ three stated goals speak for themselves:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

What other questions do you guys have about my decision to serve with the Peace Corps? I’d be happy to answer them!

In which they turn me loose on Washington D.C.

From Sweet Briar, I landed at Jessica’s apartment in Northern Virginia. For a country girl like me, few places are as horrifying as Northern Virginia. If Hell was established on Earth, it would not be very different from Northern Virginia. However, Jess is one of my favorite people, and is also adorable.

She had to work (she works for the Maunter Project, which is awesome), so I pretty much had the run of the city. I had a Metro pass, so getting around was very easy. I went all over.

I saw the U.S. Capitol, but didn’t attempt to find a tour or anything.

It was impressive!

Then I wandered around the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, none of my photos were very good. I was trying very hard to pass as a D.C. native, instead of a hated tourist, and for the most part I was pretty good at it, but the camera is kind of a giveaway.

Still, I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of this sign. I ❤ the United Methodist church!

It’s just a nice counterpoint to people like Westboro Baptist Church–it’s nice to see that some Christians are still advocating love.

I also saw the Postal Museum, and got an H1N1 shot for the Peace Corps, and bought cupcakes from Hello Cupcake, and returned to the Renwick Gallery (which I’d visited earlier in the week), where there is currently a moving exhibit of art from Japanese internment camps during WWII. However, I didn’t photograph any of these activities. OH WELL!

I expect the rest of my vacation to be fairly uneventful, so this will probably be the end of my vacation series. Soon, though, you can look for posts about the Philippines–my departure date is August 19!

In which we remain geeks

Of course, as part of my visit, I had to trek down to Sweet Briar College, my alma mater, and along with my home town in Colorado, one of the places dearest to my heart.

Julia and I walked all around campus and revisited all our old haunts (and ran into some favorite professors). I didn’t take photos of that, though; I have plenty of Sweet Briar photos.

We ended by visiting the Honors Center, where we admired our Honors Theses on the shelf.

I found a fantastic hat.

And we reflected on what geeks we were that hanging out in the Honors Center post-graduation was a delightful good time for us.

After Sweet Briar, we went to dinner with two of our favorite professors, Cathy Gutierrez, and Eric Casey (who is sadly blogless), and fellow alumna Ashley. Cathy is an incredible cook, and prepared a to-die-for Ethiopian spread. Sadly, I did not take photographs, because I have a policy of actually experiencing my life, instead of watching it on an LCD screen.

Cathy and Casey (as they will forever be known to me; somehow I cannot bring myself to say “Eric”) allowed us to sleep there instead of driving back up to D.C. that night. (We were full of food and wine, and it was late.) It was incredibly pleasant; I was provided with perhaps the softest sheets I have ever experienced. A beautiful thing.

After Sweet Briar, Julia handed me over to Jessica, which is where I am staying now. Tomorrow, you get to hear about my D.C. adventures.