By Tarra Quismundo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines—When Peace Corps volunteer Shashank Iyer turned 22 in September, a Zambales family he knew for barely two weeks got a videoke machine going and prepared a special vegetarian feast: Bicol express with tofu, ginataang puso ng saging and vegetable curry.
In a place without First World conveniences, Iyer had the best birthday celebration he could have wished for.
“I could not really believe how generous my host family was in celebrating that. I celebrated my birthday most excitedly than I’ve ever had in my life. And it was with a group of people I’ve been with for barely two weeks,” said Iyer, a California native.
He said it was quite an awesome experience. “It really gave me a glimpse of how Filipinos just like to have fun. There might be problems around the corner but it’s something you can deal with when you get to that corner. But let’s have fun for now. Let’s live in the present,” he said of his two-month stay with a Filipino family during his pre-service training.
Such spirit of celebration welcomed 137 fresh Peace Corps volunteers from the United States to their two-year tour of service in the Philippines—a record number of new volunteers joining some 79 others still completing their service in villages around the country.
The 269th batch of volunteers, inducted in simultaneous ceremonies in the cities of Pasig and Bacolod in November, are an addition to some 8,000 volunteers who have served in the Philippines since 1961, making for the largest participation in any Peace Corps program worldwide, the US embassy said.
“It’s a combination of good events. We have more resources available for the Peace Corps. The Philippines is such a great partner and we were able to identify good places for them to work relatively quickly. Washington agreed to send more volunteers here because the partnership has been so good,” said US embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Leslie Bassett.
After training in host communities for more than two months, the new batch embarked on their respective volunteer services in November in various locations across Luzon and the Visayas, staying with a new set of host families and immersing in new communities.
Volunteers are carrying out projects in education, coastal-resource management and child, youth and family programs in villages around the country, from Bulacan and the Bicol region to Cebu, Negros Occidental and Oriental, Capiz, and Southern Leyte, among others.
Amid terror threats the US warned about in the last quarter of the year, the American volunteers traveled to Philippine villages unfazed, encouraged by the hospitality and generosity they have seen all around.
“I’ve also been to other countries before coming here and found it really difficult sometimes to get through the cultural barriers,” said 23-year-old Morgan Chow, also from California.
“But here, it’s been like so effortless. Just walking down the streets, people smile at you. It’s been so great and welcoming and I didn’t expect that,” she said.
Jennifer Rambach, a 23-year-old American of Korean descent, was with her host family in Manggahan, Subic, when Typhoon “Juan” ripped through northern Luzon in October. But for the volunteer, what became more memorable than the brownouts were the times she played in the rain with local children.
“You really learn to be patient, like we had brownouts, no running water. But the fun part was learning how to take a bath with rainwater, building little toys with children, playing in the rain and having a good time,” Rambach said.
“It’s an amazing country that has everything. I think the greatest resource that the Philippines has is its people,” she said.
Coming to the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer is a dream come true for 59-year-old Debra Pritchard of San Francisco. She was 10 when the volunteer group was inaugurated in 1961 and had always wanted to take part in the service.
Long exposed to the Filipino way through friends in her hometown, Pritchard said in half-jest: “I can’t wait to go back there and speak Tagalog.”
Iyer held in awe how Filipinos “can make a party out of anything.”
“All you really need is a pair of hands to start clapping, you get a song going, somebody will bring merienda over, somebody will bring drinks over, then that’s it. I’ve never really had as much spontaneous fun than in this country so far, and I’ve been here for two and a half months,” he said.
Preparing no-meat meals for her American son was a challenge for Iyer’s host “mama,” Cherry Daniel. But the mother of five, whose eldest son was the same age as Iyer, was only too glad to stretch her kitchen skills with the help of a friend she liked to call a “peace cook” (a play on Peace Corps).
“It was hard at first but I learned... I asked a friend to teach me,” said the market vendor, who admitted getting teary-eyed when it was time to say goodbye to Iyer.
As a going-away gift, Daniel gave Iyer a Pilipinas basketball jersey bearing the Philippine colors.
“I always hear Filipinos saying that they have a lot to learn from America, that America’s such a model. But in reality, I think we have a lot more to learn from Filipinos,” said Iyer.
“There’s so many problems in this country, with the typhoon for example. But the way Filipinos deal with it, the way they adapt to the problem, the way they almost make it a celebration is something that’s unbelievable and I don’t think it’s really seen anywhere else in the world,” he added.
Tuesday, 4 January 2011
By Tarra Quismundo