Mountain Province

During the process of ‘closing’ our Peace Corps services two friends and I decided to escape Manila for a week and head north to the famed Mountain Province.  An overnight bus brought us to the town of Banaue and the rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras mountain range, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and living cultural landscape of the Ifugao ethnic group.

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We traversed century old rice terraces in the town of Batad where heirloom strands of rice are still grown using heritage farming practices. Our hike culminated at the base of Tappiyah falls- the headwaters of which is located atop Mt. Pulang (the highest mountain in Luzon at an elevation of  9,600 ft).

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The following day we continued our trip north to Sagada, a small mountain town surrounded by mossy pine forests with giant ferns and limestone boulders.  Spanish missionaries didn’t reach remote, high elevation towns like Sagada until much later, preserving some indigenous cultural practices including the 2000 year old tradition of hanging wooden coffins inside burial caves. One of the highlights of our time in Sagada was exploring an intricate network of tunnels connecting Sumaguing and Lumiang caves. Equip with a gas lantern, our spelunking guide led us through the elaborate series of narrow passageways and vast caverns, wading through underground rivers and past skeletons (shaken loose from their coffins during an earthquake in 1990).

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After several days of exploring the mountains of Sagada, we headed west to Baguio city. Fortunately, the road to Baguio had just reopened after a series of landslides blocked the passage last month. Baguio was created under William Taft during the American occupation of the Philippines (in the early 1900s) and was originally regarded as the ‘summer capital’ of the Philippines, used as the nation’s capital when the lowland heat of Manila became unbearable.  The city was designed by Daniel Burnham- an architect and city planner who also designed Chicago, Washington D.C. and Manila.

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Creating a Coral Garden

In December 2014, two of my coworkers and I attended a Peace Corps sponsored seminar led by Dr. Filipina Sotto at the University of San Carlos- Mactan Island, Cebu.  Dr. Sotto shared her methods for low-cost, low-risk coral gardening to assist in the natural recovery of damaged reefs.  Coral gardening utilizes coral’s ability to reproduce a-sexually through a process called fragmentation.  The gardening process involves collecting fragments of coral (typically broken by waves or destructive fishing practices) attaching them to a Coral Nursery Unit (CNU), and ultimately transplanting the healthy fragments to degraded sections of reef.

After the seminar we decided to pilot our own garden in Tan-Luc Marine Protected Area, on the southern tip of Guimaras- a region that was devastated by a massive oil spill in 2006. This past week we completed the first phase of the project, filling four CNUs with over 400 fragments!

    
  

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Duha ka tuig- 2 years

I first arrived in the Philippines two years ago, on July 7th, 2013.  If my Peace Corps service were a bottle of wine (or perhaps a box) it would now officially be considered ‘vintage’ or ‘fancy’, dare I say it- over ten dollars fancy. And, just like that fine bottle of wine I have aged (a lot), but hopefully in the good way- becoming a bit more mature, complex, and definitely darker. Ironically, since joining the Peace Corps I have also become much more tech savvy, now having multiple types of ‘social-media’, effortlessly downloading things off the internet (when I have signal), and even owning my first ever smart-phone (thank you Heather). My China-phone (as my Filipino coworkers call it) now allows me to capture snap shots of day-to-day life, which depending on the day can fluctuate between weird and extremely weird, though recently I have come to realize that I am the weird element; below is a collage of June life.
photo 3 photo 5 photo 4 (2) photo 4 photo 1 (3)photo 2 (3) photo 5 (3)photo 2 (4) photo 3 (4) photo 5 (2)photo 3 (2) photo 1 (4) This past week I joined a group of fellow volunteers on Boracay to celebrate both the 4th of July and our two year anniversary of arriving in the Philippines! On my way to Boracay I visited Jack’s site (Tangalan, Aklan), Jack is helping to establish a community managed eco-park in Tangalan’s old-growth mangrove forests. See picture collage below.photo 3 photo 1 (3) photo 4 (2) photo 2 photo 1photo 4 (4) photo 5 (2)
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Hello June

Reeling off the excitement of Manggahan Festival, June has started strong with an eventful first two weeks. June has also brought daily afternoon rains, providing much welcomed relief from the oppressive heat of the dry season. With three months of service left it is officially crunch time.

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The two largest American groups in the Philippines are Peace Corps Volunteers and missionaries from the Mormon church, we often exist in the same spaces, yet tend to each keep to our own mission.  A sister and elder of the church visited my environmental booth during the Manggahan Festival and invited me to join them at their church, not to learn about the Mormon religion but to teach the missionaries who live on Guimaras.  That next week I visited the church and taught all 14 missionaries about the coastal and marine ecosystems, also showing them how to facilitate some environmental games with kids. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the missionaries, forming an unlikely friendship for the sake of mother earth.

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My office led a mangrove planting in Avila Marine Sanctuary to celebrate the 2015 Earth Day (over a month late, we were on ‘filipino time’), and with the assistance of other government agencies and the local community we planted over 3,000 seedlings! The following day my coworkers and I surveyed the mature mangrove trees in barangay Avila, and I conducted the second round of coral surveys for my thesis project.

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Finishing the coral surveys ahead of schedule I begged my coworkers to let me use the remaining tank to dive Guisi point (see pictures below).  Guisi is home to an 18 century Spanish lighthouse and some of the best corals I have ever seen! Unfortunately I had to dive the site alone due to rumors (island folk lore) of the area being ‘shark infested’. While I did not see any sharks my coworkers did insist that I take a knife along in case I had to stab my way out.  After declaring to my office that Guisi is a ‘world class reef’ (I tend to over-exaggerate), I will now be leading a group of Koreans divers (from the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology) to Guisi point on the 25th of June.

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Following the amazing dive at Guisi point I was invited to assist a fellow volunteer in conducting coral surveys at her site- Dao, Antique. For the moment, waters around Dao are unbelievably clear making for two excellent dives. However, as the dry season comes to an end the winds are beginning to shift (now blowing from the south west), what Filipinos refer to as ‘Habagat’, a season of humid air and unpredictable monsoon rains.photo 3 (4)  photo 4 (4)photo 2 (4)  photo 5 (3)

During Manggahan Festival I met an American business professor who teaches at The University of Hong Kong. He recently brought his class of 14 students to Guimaras for a month of experiential education.  The students are using their entrepreneurial minds to help revive several small businesses on the island, and fortunately they have also offered to lend me a hand. Together we are developing a plan for instating an environmental tourism fee on Guimaras, a practice that is being employed at ecotourism destinations throughout the Philippines.  The goal is to reinvest profits from the fee back into the maintenance and conservation of our natural resources.  Currently we are formulating a plan to pilot the fee in Alubihod (the top tourism destination on the island) with funds being reinvested into the Jordan Marine Turtle Sanctuary- where tourism is directly responsible for a 40% decline in coral cover over the past decade. Phase two (to take place some time in the future) involves expanding the fee to cover the entire island and linking with government certified ecotourism destinations.

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The photos below are a telling example of the state of Guimaras fisheries. Everyday on my walk home I pass by several fish vendors, and without fail they are chopping up / selling some type of sea create which should not have left the ocean. Sometimes vendors are selling exotic things like this moray eel, stingray, or the occasional shark, but more commonly it is a species of juvenile reef fish (more fit for an aquarium then dinner plate). Admittedly, the marine biologist in me is sad for the eel, but what makes me more sad is what that eel represents. Over half of the population of the Philippines relies on fish as their primary source of protein; the combined effects of over-fishing, population growth, habitat destruction, and pollution have pushed fisheries to the brink of collapse.  And while I wish this eel had stayed on the reef I am not about to complain to this vendor- maybe he actually was the one to pluck it from the coral, but even if he did, it was just to feed his family.  People often accuse someone of being ‘ignorant’ or ‘needing to be educated’, and while I do believe that education is the answer, it is important to look at the bigger issues behind people’s decisions. Of course fishermen understand that catching juvenile fish hurts the next generation and they understand that healthy coral reefs are vital fish habitats, the fishermen are simply victims of larger circumstances, most of which are out of their control. Put yourself in this man’s shoes and tell me you wouldn’t be chopping up that eel too.

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Mango Fest 2015

Once again its that time of the year, time to celebrate all that is mango. On Guimaras the mango is not just a fruit, its a way of life.  Known (among Filipinos) as having the worlds sweetest mango, Guimaras takes immense pride in hosting the annual Manggahan Festival, coinciding with the plentiful mango harvest (April-May).  Manggahan Festival has everything from all you can eat mango contests (I ate 6, the winner ate 40), to mango art, mango themed songs, and countless mango food goods.

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Similar to last year, I hosted an environmental education booth, providing information on the coastal ecosystems, marine protected areas, and on proper waste disposal. Perhaps the most impactful display was one that showed the top ten countries for mismanaged plastic waste, ranking the Philippines 3rd in amount of plastic waste disposed directly into the ocean, an estimated 1.88 million metric tons annually. The booth also had games for kids and adults, the most popular of which asked participants to match trash with how long it takes to decompose. Did you know that disposable diapers take around 450 years to decompose?

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Volunteers traveled from across the Philippines to join in the festivities.

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Children of all ages performed traditional dances, most of which originated from the Spanish colonial period or from Filipino folklore.

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Final Four

27  has dwindled down to 4.  In just 4 months I will be ‘closing’ my Peace Corps service. With America on the horizon I find myself scrambling to leave my mark on Guimaras. Ideally I would like to be immortalized in the form of a natural landmark, something majestic- perhaps a waterfall or mountain, or maybe even an annual island-wide holiday that celebrates the work of Tyler.  At the end of the day Peace Corps volunteers want to feel as if our service has been productive, that we have made a positive impact on our communities, and we will be remembered.  Reality eventually sets in and I know that my projects will unravel, data I have collected will get buried in a dusty cabinet, and I will likely be remembered more for my coffee addiction or how far I could swim rather then my work with Marine Protected Areas. My true impact here will only exist in the relationships I have made with Filipinos: with my host families, my friends, my coworkers, with the students I have taught, the fishermen I have worked with, and the communities that I interact with daily.  And while relationships are not as visible or permanent as a mountain, I am realizing that they are just as monumental and what Peace Corps is really all about.

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My host mom (Nanay Norma) and I in Carles two weekends ago, she made my favorite- Lukos Adobo, squid cooked in ink.  Also in Carles I had a chance to see my god son, John Lee (pic below), who is now one and a half years old!

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Last week I conducted the first round of coral surveys for my thesis project, assessing coral cover inside vs. outside the Tan Luc Marine Protected Area to determine the impacts of illegal fishing. Unfortunately, while surveying I spotted several fishermen illegally entering the sanctuary.  Meanwhile my coworkers assessed the sea grasses in the neighboring barangay, catching the largest mantis shrimp I have ever seen! (see picture below).

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Several weeks ago, I traveled to Pandan Antique, the northwestern side of Panay island, to help a fellow volunteer conduct coral assessments on the Sebaste Shoal. While beautiful and diverse, the shoal is threatened from extremely destructive and illegal dynamite fishing. Surveying the reef was heartbreaking at times, transitioning from beautiful corals (some hundreds of years old) to barren craters, the product of dynamite explosions. I did enjoy seeing the new CRM volunteers (Lindsay and Ashley), whom I helped train almost one year ago, now thriving in their host communities.

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I met up with some fellow volunteers in Binate this past Sunday to watch the Paquiao- Mayweather fight. We joined a small street-side viewing party, despite Pacquiao’s loss and the oppressive 100+ degree heat, it was a very memorable and fun experience.

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Paradise Found

They say its not where you are but who you are with that is important. Of all the things I have learned during my two years in the Philippines this by far has carried the most weight.  My favorite memories here have been the times I’ve shared with others, and this past week I was lucky enough to share El Nido with Heather.

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A 36 hour voyage aboard the (not so seaworthy) vessel ‘J-Cinco’, including a 7 hour stop-over on the remote Cuyo Island, brought me to the shores of Palawan.

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Palawan is known as one of the most pristine islands in the Philippines and the eco-tourism capital of the country.  I met Heather in Puerto Princesa where we continued our journey together, taking a rugged 6-hour drive north to the famed town of El Nido.  Known as the jumping-off point to the Bacuit Archipelago, El Nido town is perched between limestone cliffs, lush with vegetation and crystal-clear turquoise water.  To put it simply El Nido is paradise.

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We spent our first four days in a small, bead and breakfast called Treetops, located 5 minutes outside of El Nido town on Corong-Corong beach.  Some of my favorite memories from Palawan were eating long breakfasts at Treetops, I doubt the owner knew that humans could consume so much coffee. We stayed at Golden Monkey cottages for our last two days, soaking up the view from our porch.

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Work Happenings

Last week my coworkers and I facilitated a community meeting in Barangay Tando (at the southern tip of Guimaras island) on establishing a coral garden in their Tan-Luc Marine Protected Area. Over the next several months, with the assistance of the community, we will be installing 4 Coral Nursery Units (CNU) inside the protected waters. Our goal is to transplant between 400- 700 corals to sections of the reef that were damaged from past destructive / illegal fishing practices and in the devastating 2006 oil spill. Techniques we will be using were developed by Dr. Filipina Sotto at the University of San Carlos (Mactan Island, Cebu), and are now being employed throughout the Philippines as a low cost method of ‘assisted natural recovery’ for coral reef ecosystems. Gardening corals is a slow and fickle process but serves as a better alternative to artificial reefs blocks which usually only offer a temporary boost in fish catch, acting as a ‘band-aid’ to the larger problem of degraded fish habitat. By involving fisher-folk in the gardening process we hope to foster a sense of community pride in the project as well increase their incentive for respecting and enforcing the laws of Tan-Luc MPA.

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In other news- Guimaras recently received a large sum of money from a Korean Aid organization to help revive and strengthen two currently inactive Marine Protected Areas on the island. Project funding will go towards creating new MPA management plans, building guardhouses, and buying patrol boats for their Bantay Dagat (volunteer  patrol team).

During a meeting with representatives of the Korean NGO and the Guimaras provincial office, our vice governor (while giving an appreciative speech), went on a long and awkward tangent about how the US doesn’t want North and South Korea to be united, and as the only American in the room everyone started looking at me for a reaction. The mood quickly turned into ‘why doesn’t Tyler want North and South Korea to be united?” and once again I found myself in a situation where I am the face and voice for all of America…..

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My coworkers and I recently conducted 150 Community Perception Surveys in three coastal Barangays on Guimaras. The surveys are one facet of my thesis research, intended to gauge community support / opinion of their Marine Protected Areas- asking (among things) if respondents have experienced an increase in livelihood (e.g. fish-catch) post- MPA establishment and if they believe the MPA is functional / sustainable. We hope to eventually use the findings to suggest adaptive management plans for each MPA. Surveys would not have been possible without my amazing coworkers.

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Most recently coworkers (Jane, Jogie, Johnathan) and I conducted a habitat assessment of Lawi Marine Turtle Sanctuary, surveying the corals and sea-grasses inside the MPA.  Lawi Bay is the most popular ‘tourist’ destination on Guimaras and my office and I are currently working to draft an improved management plan for the area. Unfortunately in the Philippines tourism is often synonymous with environmental destruction, and while tourism does offer an alternative livelihood practice to fishing, if not done properly it can also lead to long term negative impacts (social and environmental).

My coworkers cooked food for our lunch after the surveys- grilled fish, chicken adobo, and rice. We ate, discussed the surveys / how we can help the Lawi community and went for a long swim; moments like these are the reason I joined the Peace Corps.

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Down the Rabbit Hole

It has taken over a year, but I have finally tamed ‘the beasts of the Philippine wild’ that lurk outside of my front door.  And by ‘beasts’ I am referring to the ever-changing pack of ascals, or street dogs, that seems to have recently accepted me into their pack.

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Generally speaking, dogs in the Philippines are not viewed as pets; they are not invited into the house, not bathed, not touched, and the notion of buying them special food, walking them, or letting them sleep in your bed is laughably insane. Dogs serve one purpose here, they are alarm systems.

For months after moving to Guimaras, I was greeted by numerous loud, barking dogs whenever I approached my apartment.  Over time the dogs slowly stopped barking, recognizing me as a resident of the area, yet still watching me uneasily from a safe distance. Occasionally, if I had food scraps, I would leave them outside my door for the dogs, and eventually both my door and I became associated with food.  Months later, the dogs started reluctantly eating out of my hand, and months after that I was finally able to pet them.  Now, when I enter the gate to my house, the dogs run up to be pet and scratched- which always makes my neighbors stare in disbelief, shocked that I would touch the dogs deemed dirty and dangerous, but to me the animal companionship is invaluable.

Recently one morning I opened the door to my apartment to find a distinctive pee marking, which I took to mean that I have now been claimed as property of the resident ascal pack. When visitors come over, the pee marking is an essential stop on the tour of my home, one that I show with pride.  As odd as it is, the pee symbolizes something to me, maybe its progress or acceptance, sometimes I wonder if the other Filipinos are jealous of my pee spot or (more likely) if I have officially gone too far down the Peace Corps rabbit hole, cherishing and now blogging about dog urine.

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In other, slightly less insane news, I recently had the opportunity to host some fellow volunteers and their friends who were visiting from the states. We had two action packed days, exploring the western coast of Guimaras and beach camping on Tak-Long island.

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On Tak-long Island we decided to sleep over the water in a floating nipa-hut, attempting to avoid the ants, mosquitoes, and sand flees.

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We purchased some fresh fish and vegetables to prepare for our dinner on the island. Unfortunately we forgot cooking oil, forcing us to steam our veggies in beer, college style.

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Of course, on our island hopping adventure we met some friendly and hospitable Filipinos who invited us to tagi (drink) with them.  They shared some grilled fish as our paluton (the food you eat while drinking) so we offered them our left-over beer vegetables, which they thought were ridiculous / hilarious (and yet obviously delicious since they were quickly devoured).

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Meeting the US Ambassador to the Philippines

Last week I had the good fortune of meeting US Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg, who joined a group of 8 Peace Corps Volunteers and I for a ‘happy hour’ in Iloilo city, an event that coincided with the 2015 Dinagyang Festival.  We were told the dress code for the event would be ‘smart casual’, and after surveying my limited wardrobe I decided my quick dry pants that zip into shorts best fit that description.  But, acting on the advice of my regional manager, I wore regular pants (although they did not seem very smart nor casual) and cleared the (many) spider webs off my one pair of close-toed shoes- which I hadn’t worn in over a year of living on my island. My Filipino coworkers were a bit concerned with my beard, which was longer then normal, informing me that I should trim it to avoid looking like a terrorist and potentially causing a security threat- I agreed.

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Photo courtesy of Alan Willis

At first it was mildly intimidating talking to Ambassador Goldberg, a very accomplished diplomat appointed by the president, serving as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research and formerly as the Ambassador to Bolivia.  Despite this, he was a very laid back guy and seemed to enjoy hearing about our projects and experiences in the Philippines.  I had promised my office that I would inquire about the mangoes served to President Obama, which we believe to come from Guimaras, a bit of local folklore arising from the fact that one of the president’s head chefs is a Filipina from our region- who would surely only serve Obama the world’s sweetest mango (aka the Guimaras mango).

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The following day Ambassador Goldberg proceeded to Guimaras to visit the three Peace Corps Volunteers on our island.  My site was honored to host the Ambassador for lunch which was a feast of fresh lobster, mango, roasted duck, fish, shrimp, and of course plenty of rice. When President Obama visited the Philippines he too was served lobster from Guimaras (another point of pride for our island).  A string quartet serenaded us as we ate to ‘aid in digestion’, needless to say- this was not a typical day in my life as a Peace Corps volunteer.  I enjoyed the face time with Ambassador Goldberg, and he jokingly agreed to accept my supervisor’s request to sign over my citizenship to the Philippines.

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