Oh, the places you will go, and more importantly the lessons you will learn once you get there

Oh, the places you will go, and more importantly the lessons you will learn once you get there

by Melissa Gutierrez

“Just because it’s not what you were expecting, doesn’t mean it’s not everything you’ve been waiting for.”- Unknown.

This is the most accurate description of my entire experience in Peace Corps Philippines.  Joining the Peace Corps was a dream that I talked about for many years before I finally took the plunge and applied my last year of University.  Whenever I imagined what my experience would be like, I always imagined that I would be cut off from the modern world, living without many of the comforts I was used to (running water, electricity, cell phones, etc.).  I honestly believed that I would be sent to Latin America or Africa where I would be speaking Spanish or French, and I thought I would be working with health programs. SURPRISE……..NONE of this described what my actual Peace Corps service was like.

When I first received my invitation to serve in Peace Corps Philippines, I was shocked to find out that I would be living in Asia.  I had no idea what to expect, but on my invitation, it said that while the Philippines is home to some of the most beautiful sites in the world, I should not expect to be serving in any of these areas. Now, fast forward six months and you would find me living in one of the top tourist islands in the Philippines, and easily one of the most beautiful places in the world, an island named Bohol.

My island was stunningly beautiful, easy to travel around on local transportation, and offered a wide range of activities and scenery.  On my island alone, I had access to white sand beaches, waterfalls, a beautiful river, the Chocolate Hills, caves, dolphin watching, and adventure parks.  Bohol happens to be one of the only places in the world where you can find tarsiers, the smallest monkeys in the world!  I lived in the capital city, Tagbilaran, so this meant that I had easy transportation and access to all of these areas at any time. It also meant that I had access to several malls, phones, computers, and running water (most of the time).

One of my fist challenges upon arriving in Bohol was finding a place to live after leaving my host family.  Once again, I was lucky to find a place that was nothing like I expected I would live in.  I was able to find a home in the middle of the city on the second floor of an old wooden house.  I shared the space with two other girls my age, and both were Philippians, so I had lots of practice learning the local language.  The house had big sliding windows, wood floors, and wood carvings around my window and door, and was much larger and nicer than the places I lived in during University.  The only downfall to the home was the mice and rats that also happened to make it their home.

Now, many of you may be thinking that this sounds like a vacation, or as some people like to call Peace Corps Philippines “Posh Corps.”  But there was another side to the city.  Yes, I lived in a top tourist place and in a capital city but with that come high prices, constant harassment, and the evils that you can find in all large cities.   Tagbilaran, like most cities, is a mix.  You find beautiful ocean views with ugly trash lined streets, new malls, and old Catholic churches, Nice sit-down places to eat (usually for the tourists) and street food on every corner, very rich and very poor.

Imagine with me.  You’re standing on a street, a smelly crowded street that is the DEFINITION of ugly, with people overflowing from the sidewalks.  Trikes and Multi-cabs (the local versions of cars) are going every direction, and you have to weave in and out of them trying not to get hit. On the sidewalks of almost every block are lines and lines of women sitting on the pavement selling fresh fish (most still alive), vegetables, watches, jewelry, and woven baskets of all sizes and shapes. Also covering the streets are food vendors selling fried bananas, chicken, buko juice (coconut), and peanuts.  The air is filled with a mix of smoke from burning trash, car fumes, and the cooking food while your ears are bombarded with music and yelling from all sides.  Then, you feel a tap on your leg, and you look down to see a young girl, maybe 12, and she is holding a small baby.  Both the girl and the baby are covered in dirt, dressed in brightly miss-matched rags, and without shoes.  She stands there asking for money, food, water, anything you will give her.  The day is hot, and you can barely stand to be outside for even ten minutes let alone all day.  It is far too hot for such a small baby to be out in the sun, and you’re sure the pavement is burning the young girl’s feet.  What do you do?  Do you ignore her like every other person on the street is doing?  Do you shake your head and say no?  How do you tell a small child I’m sorry I don’t have any money when you know, in your backpack, you do.  This is one of the difficult situations I faced every day, and one of the hardest parts of my service.  I am sad to say that while at first I was shocked to see all of these sites, I soon became accustomed to seeing poverty every day.

Several months into my service, I had a visit from a woman who had served in Peace Corps West Africa and had what I would consider a “typical” Peace Corps experience. While she was with me, we discussed the differences between our experiences, and I realized that while I may have more material comforts (a cell phone, access to the internet, a nice place to live), Peace Corps Philippines is difficult in its own way.  I dealt with more inner city issues, and my service consisted of helping my community face the many difficult problems that come along with tourism and city development.  Issues such as drug addiction, prostitution, loss of land for agriculture, people living in squatter areas, and increasing populations with a lack of resources and space.  During the two years, I lived in Tagbilaran City, I focused my work in a safe house for young girls who had survived incestuous rape.  This is far from the work I had imagined I would be doing but helped me to discover my passion for education and crisis intervention.  The young girls that I worked with showed me courage and strength that I had never seen before, and from them, I learned lessons I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

While none of this is what I had expected for my Peace Corps service, I have now realized that this is exactly the experience that I needed.  The Philippines taught me many lessons, and I know I would not be the person I am today without those experiences. So, I encourage each of you to look back to when something didn’t turn out how you expected and try to see how it may have changed you for the better.  You may be surprised at the lessons you learned.

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