Being Sick in the Philippines

No pictures with this post, I’m afraid. I took a lot of really lovely photos while I was on my site visit, but because of the health issues I’m about to describe, I won’t be able to return to the site. It was a really great site, and I really enjoyed the people there. So, the photos are a little bit heartbreaking for me right now. Maybe later, after I see how awesome my new site is.

Peace Corps Philippines encourages host families to treat the trainees or volunteers they host as a member of the family, and that’s certainly what my host family has done. They do treat me like an (admittedly very spoiled) daughter. I came home from my site visit with bronchitis; my family was distraught. (Also, I suspect, a little relieved that I didn’t contract it under their watch; they take good care of me.)

It’s been quite a production. My host mother hovers off to the side when the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) comes to check up on me, and reminds me to take my antibiotics and use the nebulizer. My host brother–who studies culinary arts–puts a mug of hot kalamansi juice in my hands before bed. (Kalamansi is a local citrus that looks like a tiny lime, has orange flesh, and tastes a bit like a lemon.) They make me stay upstairs and shut my door when they’re frying fish, “in case you smell the smoke.” (The bronchitis was triggered by smoke at my site.) And the afternoons that I’ve been home resting, they hand-deliver my afternoon snacks to my bed.

Aside: In addition to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Filipinos also have snacks, meryenda in the morning and the afternoon. To an American eye, it’s hard to distinguish between these “snacks” and a meal–a full plate of spaghetti or pancit, the local variation on stir-fried noodles, makes a typical meryenda.

Here is the difference: meals have rice, meryenda doesn’t. It doesn’t matter how much food is on your plate, if there’s no rice, it isn’t a meal. At my recent site visit, the principal of the school took us out for lunch. I attempted to order a chicken sandwich with fries, but my companions simply wouldn’t allow it–I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and I was there to eat lunch, and lunch had to contain rice.

This point is essentially non-negotiable. The only exception I’ve observed is that occasionally, when the family is too busy or tired to cook a full meal, they’ll obtain a big batch of pancit, and eat it with slices of white bread. I once distressed my host family by eating the pancit before the bread was purchased–they never were convinced that I’d eaten dinner that evening.

I think most people think “hardship” when they think “Peace Corps”. But I have to say, given a choice between getting bronchitis as a private citizen in America, or getting bronchitis as a Peace Corps trainee in the Philippines, I’d choose the latter any day. They aren’t joking when they talk about Philippine hospitality.

(Incidentally, I’d also like to add that Peace Corps medical care is top-notch. I’m on an intense regimen of asthma medications, and I’m recovering much faster than I do in the US, where my strategy for dealing with bronchitis is to stay in bed and drink a lot of peppermint tea. And the PCMO has come to my house twice, and texts me at least once a day asking about my breathing. Bronchitis is fairly routine for me, so this would all feel very silly, except for the fact that it’s actually working. What do you know, when you take medicine, you feel better!)