One of the few things I knew about the Philippines before I left the U.S. was that it is located in the “Ring of Fire” – however it wasn’t until I arrived that I began to understand the implications of the term, and what it means to millions of Filipinos living in a place of flux and chaos. According to most rankings, the Philippines is one of the world leaders in natural disasters. The over 7,000 islands are interspersed with volcanoes, many of them still active – currently the 100 year eruption clock is ticking for Mount Mayon, it is currently sitting at alert level 2 and the Peace Corps security chief forwarded an notice to all intrepid volunteers to remain at least 6 kilometers from the volcano. The Philippines is tectonically active as well, with more earthquakes than California.
Our Peace Corps training on national disaster safety started off by listing the over 10 types of natural and man-made disasters found in the Philippines, and there were several recent examples: Just days after I arrived to Manila an electrical fire – caused by too many people illegally tapping into the electricity grid – burned down 30 houses in Quezon City, about an hour from where I was lodged. A train derailed a few days after and injured several dozens of people. There is a local dialect word for a nine-day rain that they count as a separate type of natural disaster.
But last November an earthquake, then one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded hit the southeastern Philippine islands. The majority of the Peace Corps Response Volunteers that I arrived with specialize in disaster relief and are here to help communities recover, rebuild, and become more resilient to the inevitable future disasters.
We were told that the Philippines receive about 20 typhoons on average per year, and so far this year 10 typhoons have already landed within the Philippines national boundaries (many typhoons however pass over ocean and sparsely populated areas). The one that devastated the Philippines was Yolanda, meaning that according to the alphabetical naming system it was the 25th typhoon of the year.
Even before I set foot in the Philippines I had already met my first typhoon, as shortly after lifting off from Tokyo en route to Manila our captain announced that due to a typhoon hitting southeastern Japan our plane would have to deviate from its programmed route and head north to avoid the storm.
“I think this is maybe why our Filipino culture is so friendly and happy,” one of our Filipino trainers told us, laughing rather hard. “Because we receive so many disasters it’s best to just laugh and be happy”. The phrase encapsulating this fatalistic, que sera sera mentality in Tagalog is “bahala na”.
As I stepped off the plane in Manila and looked for the other Peace Corps Response Volunteers – a group of 8 others whom I didn’t know at all but whom I would be getting to know very well by the end of our training – I had a much different feeling than I did 9 years ago when I stepped off the plane in Peru to begin my first Peace Corps stint.
But unfortunately much of the training approach was the same. While the local training staff was excellent, our eight days of training passed by in a jet-lagged and powerpoint-induced haze. The increasingly insipid and banal Peace Corps training sessions spent more time covering security and medical (albeit in their government-induced fear of liability – perhaps for good reason – instead of informing us about language and cultural customs that would help us get our work done. For example we incredibly had only about 3 hours of language and culture training before being shipped out to our sites to begin working with our counterparts to achieve our assigned project objectives. And we learned more about the Peace Corps approach to monitoring and tracking volunteers than we did about our actual projects and sites.
But all you can do is make the best of it. Halfway through our training we piled into vans at 8:30 am to drive to a beach 2 hours south of Manila in order to spend five minutes showing the Peace Corps that we could indeed get back into a boat with a life jacket if need be. However our program manager prepared and cooked an incredible meal for us of tender barbequed pork, fish, pancit (a rice noodle dish common in the Philippines), and fresh mangoes; and we were able to enjoy a blissful hour away from Manila and presentations.
Over the eight days of training undoubtedly the best part was getting to know the eight other Peace Corps Response volunteers; who all were smart, well-traveled, savvy individuals who had experienced quite a bit in their lives before coming to the Philippines. The one thing that training does right – albeit unintentionally – is build a support network between the volunteers. Simply spending nearly 24 hours together is enough to create a team bonding dynamic, and our group of nine veteran volunteers commiserated through boring training sessions and over beers outside of the office. Our self-created after-hour informal sessions consisting of trading war stories and experiences, discussing international aid theory and approach, allaying each others’ fears and concerns, and learning and taking heart from each other may be worth more than all of the Peace Corps training sessions alone. Because when you struggle in your site, get disheartened, feel isolated and misunderstood, it is not the Peace Corps training manual that you turn to. It is your friends, family and support network.