Thursday, May 31, 2007

Final thoughts . . .

Today is the very last day of my service. June 1, 2007. My official Close of Service date. And in a few hours I will be boarding a plane and flying off into the wild blue. But before I go, I feel a need to post one final reflection.

This experience really has lived up to the old Peace Corps motto of "the toughest job you'll ever love". The toughest part wasn't the work, however, it was learning how to live and work in a completely unknown culture. One major difficulty for me here was that on the surface, it doesn't look so different. People dress in western styles, often speak English, go to McDonalds and Starbucks, and sport snazzy cell phones. Appearances, however, can deceive.

Just beneath the western veneer is a unique blend of distinct cultural differences. These show up in the expectations, values, time management, languages, worldviews, behaviors, and general attitudes of the people here. Sometimes the differences are overt . . sometimes covert. The covert ones are the toughest. It's tough to discern what the truth is sometimes, because people never want to "offend". What sometimes goes unrealized here, though, is that agreeing to do something simply not to "offend" . . . and then not following through . . . can even feel MORE offensive. Alas, just an example of a cultural difference that can generate frustration.

On the other hand, some of the cultural differences here have been a true source of comfort. Like the willingness to help someone with whatever - whenever they possibly can. For example, last year when I was going home to visit the U.S. I left my site in the afternoon and went to Baguio for the afternoon. I planned to take the midnite bus to Manila and then board my flight the next morning. At around 8pm in the evening my host sister texted. She had gone in my room to shut the windows and noticed my passport on my table. Fortunately, she realized I would need it and texted me.

At that time of day there are no rides going to my site, which is two hours away from Baguio. I was visiting with a teacher friend when I got the text. She didn't have a car either, but she automatically took it upon herself to help. She went next door and got her neighbor to get his jeep out of the garage and take me to get my passport. I texted my host sister and asked if my host brother, who has a vehicle, could meet us halfway. She didn't tell me at the time, but he was at a party, so she went to the party and pulled him away and told him he needed to do this thing for me. In the end, with the help of my friends along with someone who didn't know me at all . . I got my passport just in time to make it to Manila in time for my flight. This is just one example of the way the people here are always willing to accomodate and help.

Many times throughout my service, I had heavy loads to carry (books, bags, boxes, etc.) Never did I have to carry a load if there was a man or boy or girlfriend (who would find a boy) to help me. I have to say, here in the Philippines, chivalry is definitely not dead. . . and neither is good, old fashioned assistance. It's been nice.

So there were good times and tough times . . . highs and lows. But never have I regretted this choice. It has been a two-year lesson in life, death, love, indifference, togetherness, solitude, friendship, loneliness, and oh-so-much more.

In fact, I suspect I will be recognizing and realizing lessons I learned here for the rest of my life. I'm so glad I came. I'm so glad stayed. And I'm very glad that I will be home soon.

I have one last thing to do while I'm on this side of the world. I need to see more of Southeast Asia and some of China. So, I will be back in the states in five short weeks . . . and I look forward to seeing all of my family and friends.

And for all of you who have kept me in your thoughts, prayers, and emails . . . THANK YOU. I have felt and appreciated all your love. Thanks for supporting me as I discovered "how far I would go" to do "the toughest job I ever loved".

Okay . . love you all and see you soon!

Friday, May 04, 2007

Life goes on . . .

It's true. Life really does go on. No matter how many tragedies happen around us, the world continues to survive and even thrive. And so it is. We are survivors.

I have been in Cebu City for the past two weeks being a facilitator at an English Language Camp for 137 teachers from Mindanao. The experience has been really wonderful, despite the difficulties. I came here wondering if I would be able to focus on the tasks at hand, given all that had been happening prior to the camp.

However, coming here turned out to be a great decision. The participants were so enthusiastic and involved in our classes that I really fed off their energy. An additional perk was that two weeks was long enough to really get to know a lot of them and learn about their lives in Mindanao. We all had a great time.

Unfortunately, we did experience a great loss during the course of the camp. One of the participants, a 41 year old woman, died. She started coughing one night and couldn't breathe. She went to the hospital about 3 am. They discovered that she had fluid in her lungs but were unable to remove it because her heart was too weak. She died of heart failure. So sad. She was a beautiful Muslim woman with five children. She and her family lived in Tawi Tawi, Mindanao. The participants from her region organized a memorial service; so yesterday we had a tribute ceremony for her after the closing ceremony for the camp.

Today, we are trickling out. Some of the participants left Cebu last night, some this morning. I will fly out around 4 this afternoon. Some will leave tomorrow. We all have places to go and things to do.

I will be flying back to Manila where I will spend the next week. I have medical and dental exams to undergo before I am free to leave the country. Also, I will be seeing and saying farewell to several of my batchmates.

So many goodbyes. So many "last times". Emotionally, it's tough. Even though I know that with every goodbye there is a new beginning. . . the goodbyes still sting. As well they should. If it didn't hurt to leave my fellow pcvs, then it would probably be because we never bonded. But that's certainly not the case. I think we have all been each other's 'life support' at one time or another during the past two years. And we all know that we will never pass this way . . in this way . . again. And so it stings for a short time.

And then we move on to the next stage of our lives. We come home. We reunite. We readjust. We reintegrate. And we begin again. We begin anew . . .

It goes on.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Goodbye dear friend

I have tried to write this blog a number of times and failed because words seem so insufficient to express all that I feel.

How do you say goodbye forever to a friend who was so dear? I don't know.

By now most of you probably know that our deepest fears came true for our dear friend, Julia. She is no longer with us in this life. I won't go into detail because it's just too painful, but it appears that at least she passed quickly and her attacker has surrendered and been apprehended.

Dear Julia,
We all miss you here. We had a wonderful memorial celebration of you at the US Embassy on April 21. We laughed, we cried, we sang, we viewed a great slide show of you living life here in the Philippines, and we told funny stories and bragged on all your many accomplishments. I must say . . . we did you proud, girl. It was Julia-worthy. You would have loved it. And maybe you were even there. I like to think you were.

It's really hard to think about you being gone for good. REALLY hard. Even though we only knew each other for two years, these have been two really significant years. Two years that in many ways feel like they contain a lifetime worth of lessons and memories.

I remember our first conversation. It was in the Detroit Airport on March 30, 2005. Our flight to the Philippines was delayed for several hours, so to pass the time we went and ate sushi at a Japanese restaurant there. I was enchanted by you. You were the first person I ever knew who actually lived in New York City, was an editor for a newspaper and had written articles published in the New York Times. But to hear you talk, it was no big deal. You were so modest when it came to your accomplishements.

And I remember our last conversation. Fortunately, it lasted for six hours. On April 5, 2007 we rode the bus together from Baguio to Sagada. We talked and laughed all the way. We talked about guys and Peace Corps and our trip around Southeast Asia and we even made plans for me to come visit you in New York next October. You said you would cook for me. You loved to cook.

It's just so hard to believe that you are gone. I know that your spirit will live on within each of us who knew and love you, though. Forever.

Kelly and I have decided to go ahead with our trip. . . the trip that the three of us were planning to take together. You spent so much time researching and planning . . . it's suppose to be all three of us together. We made plans. But plans sometimes change. Nothing is for certain. Not even best-laid plans. Kelly and I both know that you would want us to go ahead with the trip. It won't be the same without you, but we will carry you with us in our hearts and on our lips.

I love you, girl. I miss you. And I will never forget you and all the good times we had together.

In loving memory of Julia Campbell
January 1967 - April 2007

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Missing PCV

Hello everyone. You may have read in the news that a volunteer is missing in the Philippines. It is true and we are all very concerned and upset. Please pray for Julia and her family. She is my friend. In fact, we have been planning a trip together around SE Asia after our service ends June 1.

I believe that Peace Corps Philippines, Washington, the US Embassy, and the local authorities are all working together to do a thorough search. It's just really frightening and worrisome. I just ask all of you who believe in the power of prayer to pray . . and those who have other means of sending positive power this way . . please do.

Just know that I'm alright physically. Just really disheartened and concerned about my friend.

Take care and stay safe.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

My Post PC Plan

Since my time here is rapidly drawing to a close, naturally I have been giving thought to what's next. I admit this daunting question has haunted the back of my mind for two years now. It's only recently that I have recognized what career I'm most interested in pursuing.

After pondering and ruminating my future, I finally asked myself what part of my Peace Corps service have I enjoyed the most. The answer rang out loud and clear in my heart and head. Teaching! I love the interaction with the students. I love watching the light bulbs turn on. I love watching them grow. I love seeing them come out of their shells. It's joy to me. And I love the age I've been teaching here . . the equivalent of middle schoolers, although here, because there are only ten years of school, they are first year high school.

So, I started researching what would be the best path for me to pursue making this desire a reality. I located a program in New Mexico that offers its students teaching certification and a MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching) while they teach at a school fulltime. Peace Corps also has a fellowship program (which reduces tuition significantly) at this school that returned volunteers can apply for. So, as of right now, I'm planning to apply to that school and for that fellowship and, hopefully, get accepted.

But what about before that? What about my short term plans? Well, my service ends the first of June. I'm planning to travel with a couple other girls around SE Asia for a month or two and then head back to the US. I am committed to being home in time to celebrate my Abram's 3rd birthday with him on August 5. Although, I may get back earlier than that . . it won't be any later, that's a promise!

So, today as I sat in my room pondering, I came up with some short range, mid range, and long range goals. What the heck . . I'll share. And remember . . I absolutely ALWAYS reserve the right to change my mind!

Short range:
complete PC service, travel around SE Asia, be home by Aug 1, 2007

Mid range:
September: Submit applications to WNMU and PC Fellowship
January: Get accepted into above mentioned programs
June: Move to New Mexico and get hired at a high school
August: Begin teaching. Continue learning. Begin MAT classes.
August (or before): Pass exams and acquire teaching certification
May: Complete MAT - Consider relocating

Long range - 2015 - 2025:
Living and teaching somewhere beautiful
Serving people
Surrounded with a circle of close friends - and hopefully family
Traveling to see kids and grandkids regularly
Life filled with all the love and comforts I need

2025: Consider retiring

And beyond:
20+ years of travel, love, laughter, witnessing and sharing my kids and grandkids lives

In addition to reserving the right to change my mind . . . I also reserve the right to be an idealist.

Why not?

This world is full of enough fear, depression, regret, negativity . . . I want to be one who generates a positive balance to some of the negativity.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Class Completion Ceremony

Today was the Extra Challenge English Class 2006-2007 Completion Ceremony at my school and I just want to say . . . my students are AWESOME! I am so proud of them. They showed up and gave 100%. They memorized parts, faced the audience, spoke loudly . . . basically everything I asked them to do that they weren't doing during practice yesterday!

This is a brief synopsis of our simple program . . .

Two students (a boy-R, and a girl-H) were our emcees. They opened the program by welcoming the parents and guests and announcing that a fellow student, B, would lead us in the opening prayer. B led the group in saying "Our Father". Following the prayer, H introduced the school principal, Sir C, who gave a formal welcome and opening remarks.

Following the principal's (snoozer of a) speech, R announced that the class would present an "intermission" (the term used here for the entertainment numbers in programs). For their first intermission the students adpated a story they had read in class into a short play . . "The Giving Tree". We made props (tree trunk, branches, and apples) and hung a curtain creating a makeshift stage in the science lab where we held our classes and our program. In between each of the five story "events", they closed the curtain and switched out characters so that all of the students would have speaking parts. They did a great job.

Next, H announced that Ma'am Tracy would introduce our guest speaker. I had invited my PC supervisor to attend the program. Since she agreed to come, I asked her to give a few words of encouragement to the students (which was billed as "Inspirational Talk" in our Program). I introduced Mrs. B and she did not disappoint. She encouraged and inspired the students and parents alike. Thanks Nellie!

R then announced that the next intermission would be a poem, "One Red Apple", performed by the class. Those who were not characters in the poem stood behind the actors and spoke several intermittent lines in unison. There were 4 characters in the poem: Red Apple, Green Apple, Yellow Apple, and Johnny. The gist of the poem is: Red apple looks around and finds a "green thing" who claims to be an apple. Red apple informs "green" that he can't be an apple because he's GREEN - not red. Green apple cries. Same thing happens with yellow apple. Then Johnny comes along and sets them all straight. He tells them they are all apples no matter what color their skin, because they all have a "star within".

The "apples" wore large colored apples pinned on their front - at the end they all opened the apples and showed their stars inside . . they were all special - and they were all alike. It was sweet and they did a great job.

After this presentation, H announced that we would have the Certificate Distribution. And so we announced each student's name and they came to the front, accompanied by their parents, and received their certificate and grade card and shook hands with the principal, guest speaker, and teachers.

The final intermission was a song. They sang "I Have a Dream". The words were appropriate and heart-warming and the parents really enjoyed hearing them sing. It was nice.

Following the last intermission, R announced that the closing remarks would be given by (yours truly) Ma'am Tracy Henning. And so I did. I thanked principal and guest speaker, congratulated parents, and then addressed each of the students individually. I told them which adjectives I thought of first whenever I thought of them. By the smiles on their faces, I could tell that they enjoyed hearing how special they are to me. I didn't break down and boohoo, but my voice did crack a couple times and I got teary-eyed. But I recovered (it's not culturally acceptable to cry in public here, but what the heck . . I'm American!)

After my closing remarks, H announced that another student, N, would say the closing prayer. She came to the front of the class and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the class, parents, and teachers. I felt the love.

And so it went.

As I see it, the class and the program were both a success. It was nice to honor the students and let them see just how special they are to me and many others. They have all made permanent imprints on my heart . . . and for this, I am very thankful.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Some good advice . . .

Recently I discovered that all of my US cash stash had been stolen from its hiding place in my room. Oct 1 was the last time I counted the money and tucked it away. Needless to say I was bummed . . . especially in light of my upcoming trip.

I told my host sister as soon as she got home. She said there was no way of knowing who took it. Many people have access to this house and my room wasn’t always locked. She told me, though, that there is a lady who “sees” things and who may be able to give us some clues as to who took it. She said she would check with the teachers at her school and find out if the lady, who lives in another baranguay, still sees people. I told her I’m open to all available help.

Two days later when I got home from school around 5:30, my host sister told me that her husband came home early to drive us to Taba-ao to see the woman. She said, “Take your coffee first while I’m cooking the rice. Then we will go.” So I fixed my coffee and took about three sips. “Time to go.” So we went.

My host brother drove his new used jeepney. In the back were my host sister and her 3 yr-old daughter, my host sister’s twin sister and her 5 yr-old son and 9 year-old daughter, and me. We also picked up and gave a ride to a couple of the teacher’s who had attended my class earlier and were walking home.

The road to the lady’s place is a long winding rocky dirt road that leads away from Baguio. We drove about 30 minutes before we reached her place. It was dark when we arrived and we parked on a bridge. Our crew climbed out the back of the jeepney and my host sister pointed to the light at the top of the hill, which was the school where the woman teaches and lives in the cottage. We would be climbing up dark stairs. I pulled out my cell phone and once again thanked the gods for its trusty built-in flashlight –which has truly been a godsend in this country!

As promised, the woman and her co-teacher housemate were at home. They occupy the little three-room wood and tin guesthouse, since they both live in Baguio and commute home on the weekends. Maam “see-er” directed us where to sit. I sat across from her and recounted to her the facts of the case as I know them. She listened and then she spoke in a broken mixture of Ilokano and English. She showed no signs of doubt or hesitation when she announced that a young man in his 20s took the money. He’s not a criminal or a regular thief. He was tempted because he “knew” that the American had money. Since he was able to get into my room, he searched until he found my cash. However, now he feels guilty and no longer looks me in the eye.

Then she told me what to do, which made perfect sense and was exactly what I needed to hear. She said, “Forgive him and lock your door”. OK. Yes. That’s it.
Simple wisdom.
Sound advice.