Being Sick in the Philippines, Part II

Hello, dear readers! The big news since I last posted is that I’m now officially a Peace Corps Volunteer! For the last three months, I’ve been merely a trainee, but on Friday, I took an oath and swore in as a volunteer. Now I’m at my permanent site in Nueva Vizcaya, ready to start my job.

Almost immediately after I arrived here, I came down with bronchitis again. That was a little discouraging, but it does mean that I’ve had my first experience visiting a doctor here in the Philippines. It was different from a doctor visit in the US in a few interesting ways, so I thought I’d share.

The nearest Peace Corps-approved clinic is about ten minutes away, in the busy commercial district of the neighboring town. It did not look impressive from the outside–a dingy, open-fronted building that my nanay later described to our neighbor as, “medyo maliit at madilim,” fairly small and dark. She had called ahead to let them know that we were coming, although I don’t think appointments are standard here, and they got us in right away.

After they weighed me, I sat in a plastic chair beside the reception desk while they took my blood pressure. (Incidentally, I discovered that I’ve lost a little over six pounds since I came to the Philippines. It’s a trend I wouldn’t mind continuing.) The nurse handed me my paperwork, with a plastic, numbered clip to show when it was our turn. The doctor saw us almost immediately, but I’m not sure if that’s because we called ahead, or because I’m an American, or just because it was our turn.

We met the doctor in his office. I’m fortunate that Peace Corps has had a presence in the area for quite some time, so he knew exactly what was going on, even though I was a bit lost. He asked where I was from, and was excited to hear I was from Colorado, because he’d just gotten back from a conference in Denver. While we talked to him, there were intermittent gunshots outside the window that made me jump, but neither the doctor nor my nanay even seemed to notice them. (I didn’t ask, but I’m assuming it must have been some kind of training.)

He gently reprimanded me for discontinuing the inhaler the PCMO had put me on for maintenance, and told me I really need to use it every day even if I’m breathing fine. Then he listened to my lungs, and ordered a CBC to see whether I had an infection and might need an antibiotic. I got my paperwork back, and my nanay guided me back out of his office to the only other room in the clinic, the lab.

The lab was staffed by one harried nurse, who seemed to be operating about four pieces of equipment at once. I was expected her to draw blood, which I hate, but she just pricked my finger and collected the blood in a little tube. We sat there and waited for a few minutes while she set my blood to analyze, finished a test on someone’s urine, and took blood from another patient. Then she handed us the results, and after a very short wait, we went back into the doctor’s office, where he looked at the results, told me it was probably viral, and prescribed an expectorant to help clear out my lungs.

The facility has an arrangement with the Peace Corps, so we didn’t have to pay–we were done just like that. The whole thing–examination, lab work, results, and interpretation–took maybe half an hour. I don’t know what I expected from the Philippines’ medical system, but I definitely didn’t expect it to be less frustrating than in the US. (Admittedly, with Peace Corps picking up the bill, most of the frustrating parts, like wrangling insurance companies or paying out of pocket, are eliminated automatically.)

Anyway, now I’m dutifully taking my medication–even the stupid inhaler that makes me shake like a drug addict–and drinking lots of hot kalamansi juice. Today was a holiday (there are SO MANY holidays here), so no school, but I should be ready to go back to school tomorrow, no problem.

The Philippines is travel-sized

If you read a guidebook on the Philippines, it will tell you about jeepneys, and trikes, and how nice the people are. But I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t tell you about sachets.

Sachets (they pronounce it like sashay, not like hatchet) are ubiquitous here, and many people buy them in lieu of full bottles of whatever they’re trying to buy. Basically, in the Philippines, everything is travel-sized for your convenience.

Usually you get them from a sari-sari store like this one:

Sari-sari means “variety”. These are little shops usually run out of someone’s house. They sell pretty much everything, from laundry detergent to Coke to cooking oil.

But you can also find sachets in grocery stores and convenience stores. I took all of the following photos in a Mini-stop, which is basically like a gas station without the gas. (Mini-stop is our go-to place for ice cream. We’re all going to miss it so much when we leave the city for our more rural permanent sites.)

Here are some of the things you can buy in sachets. Click to make the images bigger, if you like.

Shampoo and conditioner


Toothpaste (twin pack for DOUBLE freshness!)

Skin whitening cream

Insect repellent

Shoe cream

And finally, proving there’s nothing you can’t buy in a sachet:


This is Peace Corps.

On Friday, our training groups had the opportunity to visit two sites of an alternative education project for the children of the Aetas, a local indigenous tribe. It was an incredible experience.

To get to the second site, we had to cross a suspension bridge hanging high over a river, and walk along a narrow footpath along a cliff, essentially through the jungle. The children were seated in the packed sand of the school yard under the trees, surrounded by palms and vegetable gardens.

We taught them Red Light, Green Light, Simon Says (Sabi ni Simon, in Tagalog), and Duck, Duck, Goose. We brought the kids hamburgers from Jollibee for lunch, and overheard one of the older women from the village examining the buns skeptically, muttering, “Hindi kanin ito,” “This isn’t rice!” This isn’t rice–it isn’t food. I know some Americans who would agree.

Some of us walked back down the footpath, even further through the jungle, to the village. We sat on a bamboo bench and conversed in our halting Tagalog. We saw the nipa huts where the Aetas live. The children poked us curiously, then ran away. We were thoroughly charmed. We thought, “I could live here.” We thought, “This is the Peace Corps.”

Our sites are nothing like this little village. We have power (most of the time) and running water (usually). We will wear uniforms to school, and teach English to classes of sixty adolescent Filipinos, most of them with cell phones in their backpacks and a better working knowledge of American pop music than I could ever hope to have. We will watch bootleg movies on our laptops while lying under our mosquito nets–if we bother with the nets at all.

And you know what? That is also Peace Corps. If your primary reason for joining the Peace Corps is that you wanted to live in a bamboo hut across a river, you joined the Peace Corps for the wrong reason. Where ever Peace Corps goes, it’s because there’s a need. Maybe the need is for clean water and sustainable farming. Maybe the need is for youth trained to use computers. Development is development.

One of the core expectations of Peace Corps volunteers talks about serving “under conditions of hardship if necessary”. I sometimes wonder if it should say, “under the necessary conditions”. The presence or absence of a flushing toilet is not the mark of a post’s importance. We ask: is there a need? Can I help fill it? Then we live however the people in our community live.

I say all this, because sometimes we can feel a little disappointed at the Peace Corps experience we’re having. Is it really Peace Corps if I had McDonald’s for dinner yesterday evening? If I’m posting this from a coffee shop three minutes from my home? Some people call Peace Corps Philippines “Posh Corps”. In some ways, it’s an appropriate nickname.

But I think if we walked away from our visit with the Aetas just thinking that way, we’d fail to be successful volunteers, when the work we will be doing in our various communities is important. Because, yes, sometimes Peace Corps looks like this:

Jane puts her Tagalog to the test

But sometimes it looks like this:

Me with the teachers of Calaogan Dackel National High School

And sometimes it looks like this:

At a field day we held at the local high school