Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Work, 'Nam, parents vacation to the Philippines

Picking out some wood
The start of construction

Fishermen & carpenters 

Guradhouse, 80% completed

Let me preface this by saying this is an extremely long blog post that I wrote over the course of three days.  With that said, I did not proof read this for grammatical or spelling errors mainly due to laziness.  Yikes!  I cannot believe it’s already been about two months since I last wrote an update on here.  Time has started to really fly by since the New Year has come.  I am writing this on March 12, 2012 meaning I have about 7.5 months left in my PeaceCorp service.   I have a lot to catch everyone up on, or the few who are still checking my blog on a semi regularly basis.  We finally finished our guardhouse for our marine sanctuary in late February, I left the Philippines for 9 days to go to Vietnam, and my parents just came to visit me. 

After numerous months of preparation and building we finally finished our first major step towards our sanctuary implementation, our guardhouse.  We had a budget of roughly 40,000 pesos ($930) for materials and 15,000 pesos ($350) for labour to adhere to.  I had multiple bumps along the way which included: the LGU not stepping up and “counterparting” the funds that they said they were going to originally when I wrote the grant, scheduling LGU vehicles to take the materials from the hardware store here in city proper to the construction site in Avila (8 kms), coordinating a work schedule with carpenters, fishermen, and barangay officials, improvising for unavailable or materials that were too expensive, etc.  While I did run similar projects for a little while back at home working in commercial real estate this was far more complicated and extensive.
*Disclaimer I do not have any photos of the finished guardhouse to post because my camera broke, but here are some of the process.  

Nonetheless, we were very proud to finish the guardhouse.  I could not have done it out without the help of my counterpart and Restie (head of fisherfolks and environment in Avila).  It was great that we were able to use all local labour and materials for the project.  We provided business and employment to over 3 local businesses and 8 local fisherfolk that assisted in building the guardhouse.  This was something I stressed to my counterpart, so that the community could gain a sense of ownership of the guardhouse and sanctuary. 
We are currently making improvised buoys to delineate the outline of our sanctuary.  We could not find regular buoys when we went canvassing in Iloilo a few weeks ago.  As a result, we are using 20 liter water containers that are being reinforced with rope (tying rope around the jugs) to extend their lifespan.  I am hoping we can install the buoys sometime in March and then the last step in the process is to hold a bantay dagat (volunteer coast guard) training.  Stefanie and I are trying to get the trainers to have our municipalities; trainings together to save time and money.  We will have about 8-10 volunteer fishermen from each municipality go through a 1-2 day training.  The trainers will teach attendees the proper protocol for arresting, filling out the proper paperwork, assigning fines, etc on illegal fishermen.  The bantay dagat will use the newly constructed guardhouse 24/7 to monitor the sanctuary for illegal fishermen.

I also have two on-going projects that have arisen since I last wrote my last post.  All the Guimaras PCV’s are going to set up a PeaceCorp booth during Manngahan (our provincial weeklong fiesta in mid-April).  We will be giving out hand-outs, answering questions, conducting interactive activities and games to spread awareness of our projects/presence on Guimaras.  We have had a few meetings with the governor and he has shown his support by giving us 10,000 pesos for the week.  It is going to be a great medium to get PeaceCorps’ name out and to spread awareness of the projects we all are working on.  Manngahan attracts tens of thousands of people from all over the Philippines during the 7 day festival.  Finally, we are all (Guimaras PCV’s) planning two separate three day environmental style camps during the last two weeks of May.  We will invite high school students from all five municipalities on Guimaras, the vast majority that live in a barangay where a marine sanctuary is located.  We will be teaching them about the importance of sanctuaries, solid waste management, teaching the youth to be stewards of their environment, ecosystems, taking them snorkelling at a sanctuary, etc.  Our goal is to have approximately 200 kids attend one or the other three day camp with help from all the marine sanctuary boards in each of the municipalities.  This will be the first time that any camp has been put on in Guimaras.  We are hopeful it will be successful so it can be replicated annually by local Filipinos.

Morgan and I went to Vietnam for 9 days in mid-February .  It was the first time that either of us have left the country since we arrived in August 2010.   It was definitely a culture shock in many ways: the food, the language (NOBODY speaks English), the attitude of the Vietnamese, scams against tourists, transportation, and general sanitation.  We started off flying from beautiful Manila (ahhhheemmm) to Saigon (Ho Chi Mein City) on an overnight flight that arrived at 3:00 A.M.  Jaunted through customs rather easily and took a taxi (one of the two that consciously ripped us off) to a hotel.  I was feeling pretty sick the whole day prior to the flight and was not able to unclog by ears until the next morning.   But, that did not stop us from exploring a little bit when we arrived in the middle of the night.  Our hotel was located in an alley and in the alley was this little hole in the wall Vietnamese “restaurant.”  People were sitting outside in the alley on tiny chairs, which are ubiquitous in Vietnam, and tables drinking and eating all kinds of food.  The waitress did not speak English and the menu was mostly in Vietnamese, so we just kind of pointed to what other people were eating that looked delicious.  It was called a hot pot, which is a soup that they put under a fire tableside.  You can add you own veggies, noodles, spices to the hot pot depending on how you like it.

We left relatively early the next morning and found the office where we could buy our bus/van ticket to Can Tho (our first destination).  We were reluctant to run into a Vietnamese man who helped us buy our tickets and told us what shuttle to get on to take us to the bus station.  We arrived at the bus station and were pointed into the direction of a van which we got on and took the 3 hour trip south to Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta.  We had reservations at a hostel and were dropped off where the address had read.   Here, we encountered our first problem of the trip, there was a giant steel sliding garage door looking thing that had been closed on the hotel’s entrance.  We asked around to see if this was the right place and you can guess the theme…. Nobody spoke any English.  They just made a knocking motion with their hand, so we pounded on the door for 5 minutes and gave up.  We went 15 yards down the street and checked into another hostel.  We decided to take a nap and we were woken up by a phone call and the lady at the front desk said there was a women looking for us.  We went downstairs and it was the owner of the hotel that we originally had reservations with!  She adamant with her apologies and said she paid for the hostel we were currently staying in for the night.  We took a tour of her hostel which was 10 times nicer than the place were staying at; brand new, great view, and rooftop terrace.  She also spoke great English because she husband is German and gave us all these great suggestions for tours and what to see.  We ended up booking a tour of the river through her for early the next day and moving to her hostel the next night.   We had an elderly lady take us around the river to a floating market where we got Vietnamese coffee and some awesome tasting soup.  We didn’t really know what we were eating ½ the time because of the language barrier.  There had to been over 100 boats buying and selling various types of fruit and produce, quite a unique market.  After the river tour we walked around Can Tho eating more street food and exploring the city.  We ended up getting lost for about 2 hours and finally made our way back to the hostel and passed out for a few hours.   We were advised by our hostel to go to this Western style café for drinks, but before we made it we ran into a street side café/ restaurant that was absolutely overflowing with people.  As status quo, we didn’t know what type of food they served, but it smelled good and was not empty.  We got relegated to the back corner of the place and it had to be at least 95 degrees inside.  We tried to ask for a menu, but the waiter didn’t understand what we were saying.  We finally got the hint that everyone was eating the same thing, a hot pot (different version than the one in Saigon).  As a result, the waiter brought us a hot pot with even more veggies than the first one we had, an interesting looking egg, and noodles.  I figured we try and open the egg and see what was inside, it was somewhat similar to balut (fertilized duck egg) and I dropped it into the soup.  The pot was very good, I think our consensus opinion was that it was goat… and goat parts along with some of our sweat that might have dropped into our bowls.  After dinner we had a few beers at the Western style café.  It was a coffee place that served alcohol and the owner (English major in college) knew the women who worked at our hostel.  The place holds English practice classes a few times a week for people who are interested in learning.  We took off and had a few Vietnamese pastries and the sweet/spicy corn on the street and went back.

We took an early morning bus back to Saigon and then to the train station to our next destination, Da Nang, Hoi An.  The express train was already booked so we were stuck with the “slow” one, instead of 16 hours to Da Nang from Saigon it was going to take us 23.  I didn’t really seem to mind spending that long on the train because we had an air conditioned sleeper compartment.  It was still a long ride and we were anxious to get off and get to Da Nang(on the central coast of Vietnam).  Once we stepped into the train station in Da Nang I asked some Western looking people how to get the bus to Hoi An while Morgan bought train tickets back south to Nha Trang two days later.  We found the bus with no problems and took the 45 min ride to Hoi An.  After we checked into our hotel we rented bikes ($1 per day) and rode to the beach for the rest of the afternoon and hung at the beach.  After nightfall, we walked into town and had dinner along a river that split the city centre in two.  The French influence is still heavily felt in Hoi An, it’s most prevalent in the architecture.  The next day we went to the My Son Ruins which were temples from 200-1700 AD built by the Champas who ruled Vietnam until the 19th century until they were overtaken by the Vietnamese.  Many of the temples have been destroyed or severely damaged because they were used as bases by the Viet Cong.  It was still amazing to see the structures that are still standing even after 1,500 years and the constant bombing by the U.S military.  After the ruins we went back into Hoi An and we visited the countless fabric stores around the city.  I got a custom made jacket and shorts for about 40 dollars. 

We headed back to train station to catch our train to Nha Trang (10-12 hours south of Da Nang) the next day.  Our train from Saigon to Da Nang was 30-40% full and we spent the majority of our time playing cards on the “hard seats” (which are wooden benches that face each other , good for 4 people) that have windows you can open.  It is the cheapest option when riding the train and we expected our train to be similar in capacity as it was before…..WRONG!  We walked on and our car was swarming with elderly, middle age, moms, dads, youth, and babies.  There was three people where two were supposed to sit, across from Morgan and I.  One of them just laid under the benches and slept on the floor for 8 hours.  It was certainly the most miserable 10 hours we had in Vietnam and an experience that reminded us of traveling in the Philippines, which wouldn’t be complete without somebody vomiting.  This courtesy was brought to us by a small child who was sitting next to us and threw up her lunch all over herself and ½ her family.  We mercifully made it to Nha Trang and found a place to get some coffee and use the internet to book a hotel room.  This city sort of reminded me of Honolulu with lots of tall buildings right on the beach with lots of tourists and beach activities.  We found a place for about 10 dollars per night and went out to explore Nha Trang.  There was a market across from our hotel where we had some interesting food (not sure what it was) then found a restaurant.  I believe Morgan ordered a Vietnamese pancake and I had some really tasty Pho.  We woke up the next morning and went for our first run along the boardwalk on the beach; it was nice to get some exercise to thwart the copious amounts of calories we were consuming.  Later that afternoon we got picked up by a van to take us to these mud baths.  We sat in giant tubs filled with mud, took hot showers, lounged in a entity resembling a Jacuzzi with some Russian people, then went swimming in a pool that had warm water.  It vaguely resembled an all day spa without the massage and cliché soothing music.  Fed up with trains, we opted to take the overnight bus (9 hours) from Nha Trang to Saigon where we would had to fly out of to get back to Manila.  It was a rainy evening when we got dropped off at the bus station in Nha Trang (almost all bus companies will pick you up at your hotel).  We had to take our shoes/sandals off and put them in a plastic bag to prevent customers from tracking mud in this SPOTLESS bus.  It was unlike any bus I have ever seen, it was a sleeper bus which meant we were able to have our own bed with clean blankets and pillows provided by the bus company.  I was fortunate to get a window seat so I didn’t have any random Vietnamese people next to me kicking me in the middle of the night (Morgan did).  I think I woke up one time during the 9 hour ride to Saigon, which is unheard of on overnight buses in the Philippines. 

We arrived in Saigon around 6:30 in the morning and were not able to check into our hotel until noon.  Since we weren’t too tired from the delightful experience we just had on our sleeper bus we opted to do the ½ day Co Chi tunnel tour.  We were picked up in a large tour bus and our group consisted of around 50-60 people.  We made the 2.5 hour trip to the tunnels with our awesome tour guide explaining to us in his hysterical accent what we expected to see.  The tour itself was informative and our guide knew every trivial fact one could know about the war.  He showed us the different levels of the tunnel (which got smaller the deeper they got), the traps the Viet Cong set for American soldiers, and strategic advantage the V.C held throughout the entire war.  It became sort of bizarre for Morgan and I (the only Americans on our tour) on the last stop of the tour. A video was shown glorifying the young (12 and 13 year old) girls and boys for killing X amount of Americans.  We kind of looked at one another with confused looks on our faces, but it really was a fun and educational experience.  We finally checked into our hotel and took naps for a few hours, exhausted from crawling through tunnels and all the traveling.  That evening we went to the Saigon night market where we had dinner, I bought a Saigon tank top, then we went out in search of a live band.  After a long night we had to wake up rather early to get to a ½ day cooking class we had signed up for.  She picked us up from the hotel and took us to a market in Saigon where we wondered around for about an hour.  She was explaining what all the food we came across was and what dishes it was traditionally used in.    The class was held at the women’s restaurant where she gave us a menu of what we’d be cooking: tomato soup, spring rolls, and fish cooked in a clay pot.  I really started to enjoy myself once my hangover lifted a quarter of the way through the class.  It was my first cooking class and would highly recommend it!  After the class we went to the Ho Chi Mien museum which was a giant three story building on the Saigon River.  There were statues all over the country of HCM.  He is the Vietnamese equivalent of George Washington or one of the founding fathers.  Our last stop was a famous water puppet show that was won numerous awards worldwide.  We had trouble finding the theatre and once we finally found it I pulled out my ATM card to pay and I couldn’t find it.  I think I must have left in one of the ATM machines earlier that day.  Luckily Morgan is rich, so she just paid for my ticket and we were able to check out the show.  There was a small body of water that split the band in two.  The puppeteers were manoeuvring the puppets under the way for astonishing amounts of time without coming up for air.  After the show we headed back to our hotel and packed up our things and headed to the airport for our flight back to Manila.  

Street Food
Hot Pot in Can Tho, you can see that egg I cracked into the soup in the middle..

Mekong River

Our Pho lady on the Mekong

On the train from Saigon to Da Nang

One of my favorite pictures between (Saigon and Da Nang)

River at night in Hoi An

Hammer and Sickel

Morgan at My Son Ruins

The infamous hard seats from Da Nang to Nha Trang

In Nha Trang

Ban Mi Sandwich!

Happy in the sleeper bus

The tunnels

In the tunnel

Awesome markets


I was really glad that we got to experience so many different areas of Vietnam.  It is a really beautiful country with great food.  It was a great place to escape the Philippines for a week to see a different culture.            
My parents arrived in the Philippines the day after my birthday to visit me.  It was the first time seeing them since I left to join the PeaceCorps.  We did lots of fun and exciting things: they spent 2 days and 1 allegedly rough night on my island of Guimaras, took a van ride through Panay to Boracay, went to an island resort north of Busuanga Island in Palawan, and finished in Manila.

The first day my parents were on Guimaras I had a late birthday party.  I invited a handful of Filipino friends, PCV’s, and guys from Avila who have helped me build and implement our marine sanctuary.  To placate my dad’s Midwestern American biased pallet I had basic Filipino food which consisted of: rice, chicken, grilled fish, and mangoes.  Additionally, there was a brownout that lasted from around 11 AM until 6 PM.  We couldn’t ’utilize the one thing in the room that unites people of all races, creeds, and languages…the videoke machine.  Once everyone arrived and the electricity came back on everyone had a great time eating, singing, and drinking in true Filipino style.  All my friends were delighted to meet my parents and most of them could not get over how big my dad was either.  The next day I had them take a jeepey (with the help of Stef and Stacey who are two other PCV’s) back to my office.  We handed out gifts from the US to my co-workers and neighbours; they also had to privilege of meeting our honourable Mayor Sam.  I also gave them a tour of my office, city proper, and of course my nipa hut (which was spotless).  We then took off for the beach in a municipal truck and spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out there.  My parents informed me that they did not want to spend another night in Guimaras, so we rented a multi cab to pick up their luggage.  They spent the night in Iloilo and I meet them the next morning to grab our van to Boracay. 

Kikong (my Filipino friend from Buenavista) came to Boracay with us and also arranged a van to take us up to Caticlan from Iloilo.  The van ride is quite beautiful; passing through mountains, through bright green rice fields, and along the coast.  We arrived in Boracay in the late afternoon just in time to catch a great sunset.  My dad, mom, and myself went on a dive the next morning on a shallow reef.  Later on in the afternoon my mom and I went on a deep dive at another dive site off Boracay.  The diving there is still pretty good considering the massive amounts of boat traffic off the coast.  We saw some good healthy soft and hard corals along with many different species of fish.  My parents went on a walk the next morning while Kikong and I went parasailing.  The wind was very gusty and it was a little nerve-racking being 60 feet over the ocean getting tossed around by gusts.  We had lots of good meals during our two day stay there, our favourite being Lemon Tree Café (I think that was the name).  I could tell my parents were happy to be in more of a tourist destination with air conditioning, western food choices,  etc. 

We had to get up before dawn to catch our flight from Catlican to Manila to meet Morgan then from Manila to Busuanga, Palawan.  However, as we were all checking in for our second flight in Manila the attendant at the counter informed us that they had overbooked our 9 30 AM flight.  Morgan and I talked to the women and had her give us each a free round trip ticket and free baggage to and from Palawan.  We were about 15 kilos over the baggage limit which we would have had to pay out of pocket for.  We ended up going to eat breakfast across the street from the airport and grabbing the 1 PM flight.  The view out of the window of the airplane was stunning.  There were clusters to tiny islands that surrounded the biggest island of Busuanga.  We could see the blue water and coral reefs that surrounded each island.  Our approach to land was very aggressive to say the least.  We were flying in a valley between two mountains while seeming to nose dive to decrease altitude.   There was an enormous man made fire that seemed to engulf acres upon acres of farm land that we passed through.  We finally landed with a giant THUD, it was so loud I thought the wheels were going to snap off the airplane.  We collected our bags and boarded the resorts van and made the 30 minute trek (all on unpaved roads) to the wharf.  We were then picked up by a boat and shuttled from Busuanga (main island) to Dimayka (island our resort was on).  Upon arriving on the island we were welcomed by a band, drinks, cold towels, and given a brief lecture on the amenities the resort possessed.  While drinking some beers and watching the sunset we saw around 100 bats migrate from our island to the next one.  They all sleep in the trees at our resort during the day and fly to the next island during dusk to presumably feed, quite a sight.   The following day we all went on a dive on the reef right outside the resort, Morgan, my mom, and I did an afternoon dive, then Morgan and I did a night dive.  It was both our first times to a night dive which was pretty daunting in the beginning.  We saw all kinds of marine life that comes out at night, such as: squid, lobsters, bioluminescent in the water, and sleeping turtles.  All the meals were buffet style with both great Western and Filipino food.  I had put on around 8 lbs in the 7 days we were in Boracay and Coron.  The next day my dad went out to do his final dive for his certification and my mom, Morgan, I did a wreck dive.  The wreck was an old Japanese ship from World War 2 that was sunk in 1943 about a 40 minute boat ride from our resort.   Our max depth was about 30 meters (100 feet) and we swam around where the machine gun was planted, the mast, and cargo holds.   The entire ship was covered in corals and the fish had turned it into an artificial home for protection.  Later on that afternoon we went on an island hoping tour to three neighbouring islands to snorkel and explore. 

The wharf at my site

Baboy ulo (pigs head) at my birthday party

Parents, PCV's and Filipino friends

Me with some of my co-workers

Sunset in Boracay
On the way to Dimakya island

Chillin !!


Every dot represents a different dialect spoken..

We departed for Manila the next morning and it was quite the shock to go from a secluded island to the urban jungle that is Manila.  We had dinner at an all you can eat meat restaurant that night.  After dinner, my parents went to visit a customer, with like 10 dozen Krispie Kreme doughnuts.  The last day in the Philippines I took them to Rizal Park which is a big green space in Manila.  We also went to a Filipino museum and took a walk by the U.S embassy.  I think my parents were a little shocked to see the conditions people were living in around Manila.  Overall, it was a good mix of rural, touristy, and urban realities that gave my parents a fair impression of the Philippines.                
Dason lang

1 comment:

  1. Bert - those tunnels sound gnarly. happy belated birthday by the way! Miss you buddy.