I met Noel at his home just after lunch, he is the host father of Geoff (a Peace Corps Volunteer also assigned on Guimaras) and like many Filipino men, Noel raises roosters to participate in one of the most popular national pastimes, cock fighting. He invited Geoff and I to attend today’s fight and we eagerly agreed, not to support animal cruelty, but to witness a cultural event.  As Noel diligently reviewed his stock, selecting which of his roosters to send into battle, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the movie Gladiator, these roosters were warriors and today one would enter the thunder dome.

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In the Philippines, cock fights can range from small-scale sparing sessions in a neighbor’s backyard, to large tournaments in mega arenas with tens-of thousands of pesos on the line. Today’s fight was what Filipinos referred to as a ‘boxing match’, meaning that the roosters would not be wearing razor-blades on their legs; which lends to quicker, more gruesome fights.  Noel selected a lean rooster, put him in a woven grass bag and we were off to the fight. We traveled to a neighboring barangay, and as we approached the rink I noticed the other men and their roosters, admittedly Noel’s bird looked a little out of its league.

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Once all the contestants arrived, fights were negotiated by sizing up potential opponents and gauging which roosters seemed to have the most animosity towards one another.

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The first fight was arranged and the owners began the ritualistic process of bathing their roosters, which I was told is vital to keeping their body temperature down during the fights, which typically last over an hour.  Part of the bathing process involves spitting water on the rooster and in its mouth. Meanwhile, the crowd gathered and bets were placed.

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The cocks were brought to the rink, introduced in dramatic fashion, and the fights began. Similar to a boxing match between people, the cocks seemed to rotate between quick jabs and long periods of locking heads.  A fight is only declared over when one of the roosters admits defeat, either laying down in submission or running away.

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The crowds cheered as the roosters danced around each other, rearing up and striking. They fought with such tactfulness and method, it evoked the feeling that these cocks had been in training and that you were witnessing a grudge match between long time rivals, one of the fights was ‘Pacquiao’ vs. ‘Sugar Ray’.

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After several hours of fights and several glasses of coconut wine (Tuba) I called it a day and hiked home. And, while I don’t support cock fighting, I recognize its relevance in Filipino culture as a pastime activity, similar to Bull Fighting in Spain or to Dog Racing in Florida.

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Weekend on Guimaras

This past weekend some fellow volunteers and visitors from the states joined me on Guimaras for some island hopping and fresh coconut.

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2015- Year of the Wood Goat

It is now 2015, which the Chinese have declared as the year of the Wood Goat (or sheep), a year that promises to be a time of increased peace and prosperity.  And it seems that 2015 could indeed be a prosperous year for the Philippines: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2015-01-07/oil-at-40-means-boon-for-some-no-ice-cream-for-others.html

After a 46+ hour journey home for Christmas and two weeks of friends, family, and craft beer, I find myself back in the Philippines with mixed emotions. Leaving for the Philippines was easy the first time, it was setting out on a journey into the unknown. Leaving for the Philippines this past time was unexpectedly hard, possibly one of the hardest things I have ever done.

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Among the loved ones I had to leave behind was Carter, my new nephew, he is now 4 months old.  I am finding it all to easy to slip into my inevitable roll as ‘the crazy uncle’, showering him with odd Filipino trinkets, including a bamboo rain stick and a bracelet given to Filipino babies to ward off witch attacks.

As I now embark on the final 9 month stretch of my Peace Corps service, I resolve to focus my remaining time in the Philippines. To quote a fellow volunteer, “two years is a long time until it is over”, a feeling that summarizes how many of us are feeling at the moment. What at once seemed like a lifetime of service has now been reduced to a mere gestational period (to quote another volunteer), and with the rapid passage of time comes the need to focus. I will try to focus on the sound of the roosters that wake me up at 4:30 in the morning, obviously misinformed of when morning occurs. I will focus on the taste of fresh fish, not getting hung-up on the fact that I am eating juvenile reef fish that are 50% bone and 50% meat. I will focus on spending time with Filipinos, regardless of how I’d much rather watch ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ alone on my computer then sing karaoke.  One thought that causes me both extreme anxiety and joy is the thought of closing my Peace Corps service.  Because once its over, its over, and I am just not sure how life will be without Guimaras mangoes and the kindness of Filipinos.

Resolutions for 2015:
1) Savor my remaining time in the Philippines
2) Avoid stomach amoebas
3) Drink more smoothies
4) Complete my thesis research

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Its nearly the end of November and as I try to ‘live in the moment’ I find myself simultaneously counting down the days until I visit home for Christmas and reflecting on my last visit home, one year ago, following the upheaval of Typhoon Yolanda.  Peace Corps does in fact lend to many long periods of reflection, a fellow volunteer and I laughed about our new-found ability to stare at walls; we certainly have many opportunities to escape into thought- power outages, riding public transit, waiting out Filipino-time.  I wonder if I could somehow market this as a resume-able skill: ‘can sit and wait for long periods’…

November though has been a very action-packed month, here are some highlights.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnders and I en-route to one of the more difficult coral surveys of my life.  Along with the help of another Peace Corps Volunteer- Theresa, we collected substrate data inside Tumalintinan Point Fish Sanctuary in the municipality of San Lorenzo.


My office recently sent me to investigate a future dredging site between Guimaras and Panay Islands to assess for potential environmental harm.  A private shipping company plans to dredge a 25+ hectare area to allow for larger container vessels to reach the port in Iloilo city. The currents in the strait are rapid and the visibility poor, making for two semi-terrifying dives. We descended 60 feet along the anchor line reaching the bottom in nearly pitch black conditions.



In the past month, with the assistance of Peace Corps Volunteers from Panay Island (Jess, Anders, and Theresa), my office and I were able to conduct coastal habitat surveys in two Marine Protected Areas (Tumalintinan and Sibunag) on the remote, eastern coast of Guimaras.


The students at Guimaras State College recently finished their 8th and final mangrove survey in the municipality of Buenavista.  Thanks to their effort we have now completed the first ever municipal-wide mangrove survey on Guimaras Island.

The theme of the camp was “Raise Your Voice Not The Sea Level” referring to the threats of climate change, particularly sea level rise, and how it may affect the Philippines.  My lecture focused on lowering the emission of greenhouse gasses, advocating for recycling / composting, and against the burning garbage, which was ironically followed by a drill from the local fire department that involved lighting and extinguishing a giant gass fire.

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Jack and I at our Mid-Service training event, marking the half-way point in our Peace Corps service.  PC Philippines refers to Mid-Service Training as "stash bash" as the training culminates with an epic mustache contest.

Jack and I at our Mid-Service training event, marking the half-way point in our Peace Corps service. PC Philippines refers to Mid-Service Training as “stash bash” as the training culminates with an epic mustache contest.

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During the month of October I was able to participate in three environmental outreach programs with youth on the island.  It seems that Peace Corps Volunteers universally love working with kids, most likely because they are the only ones who actually think we are cool.  But kids also offer something else, instant acceptance.  Integrating into a community can be very difficult and requires breaking down (many) cultural and linguistic barriers. As volunteers we spend the bulk of our time just trying to belong, and we do this by building relationships, learning the local language, and participating in cultural events.  Integration is undoubtedly critical to our success and yet can be the most stressful (and exhausting) aspect of service. Kids erase all of that stress.  Everyday, as I enter the small dirt road that leads to my house, I am greeted by a mob of smiling kids who run up screaming my name, seeking a high-five from the giant American.  Truthfully, I do not know any of there names but rather refer to them as ‘dude’ or ‘man’.  High-fiving the kids is strangely the most therapeutic part of my day, it instantly reminds me that I belong here and that my presence is enjoyed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Coastal clean-up in Nueva Valencia – the best way to recruit help is to offer snacks (marienda) to all participants,  I don’t think this counts as child labor…


I was invited to Hoskyn Elementary School to do some recycling activities with the kids.

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A Labor of Love

2014101200468_ABW1322When I first became a Peace Corps Volunteer (in September 2013) I was living and working in the remote, coastal municipality of Carles, Iloilo. Geographically, Carles is an archipelago, a string of small islands extending off the northeastern tip of Panay Island. Carles has 38 coastal Barangays (13 of which are island Barangays); and surrounded by the ocean, most residents of Carles rely on fishing as a primary source of income. One such Barangay is Barosbos, a small coastal community of fisher-folk. In 2011 Christian Aid donated a small fund to help empower the fisher-folk of Barosbos to take ownership over their marine resources, forming Barangay Barosbos Mananagat (fisherman) Association (BBMA).  BBMA oversees a 13 hectare marine protected area that is off limits to destructive fishing practices, illegal fishing gears, and to commercial fisherman. Through the efforts of BBMA, fisherman in Barosbos have now taken active rolls in protecting their coastal ecosystems and securing their livelihoods. Members of the organization volunteer to patrol the marine protected area, apprehending poachers- usually in the form of commercial fisherman, whom illegally enter the municipal waters at night. The damaging effects of commercial fishing are two fold, harming both the coastal marine ecosystem and local economies. Ultimately, fish caught by the commercial fishing operations will be sold to large markets in Manila, exporting all fish and all income from Carles. BBMA combats this resource abuse, proudly apprehending a commercial fisherman last month who was trawling with a fine mesh net, damaging the corals and extracting juvenile fish. Over the past three years fisherman in Barosbos have seen increased fish catch including larger fish and species that have not been in their coastal waters for decades.

One of BBMA's two  guardboats

One of BBMA’s two guard-boats

Typhoon Yolanda tested the resiliency of BBMA, destroying their marine protected area guardhouse and patrol boats. Thankfully, again through the help of international NGOs, BBMA has been able to recover and grow, and in late September (2014) swore in 30 new members.  Peace Corps and US AID allotted typhoon relief funds to be access by volunteers from affected areas. After a trying process of grant editing and approval I received funding this past July to help BBMA rebuild their marine protected area guardhouse. The project was a collaborative effort with two other volunteers, Lauren and Alan Willis, and BBMA’s president Romel Marcelino. Constructing the guardhouse was a community wide effort and was one of the most inspiring events I have witnessed during my time in the Philippines. In just one week the guardhouse was erected, an intricate process of weaving together bamboo and nipa (native frond) using Nylon binder / rope. The guardhouse now floats several kilometers off shore, in the center of the protected waters. BBMA members take turns in the guardhouse, diligently watching. In addition to providing a means of guarding the protected area, BBMA hopes to rent the floating guardhouse on weekends to generate a small income for the organization which can be reinvested into future protective efforts.


Markers that were built to mark the corners of BBMA's marine protected area

Markers that were built to mark the corners of BBMA’s marine protected area

Romel BBMA's President (far left), Jolly the Municipal Agriculture Officer and my former supervisor (second to the left) standing with Lauren and I in-front of the finished guardhouse

Romel BBMA’s President (far left), Jolly the Municipal Agriculture Officer and my former supervisor (second to the left) standing with Lauren and I in-front of the finished guardhouse

One of my favorite parts of working on the project was interacting with the kids of Barosbos.  At any given time the kids outnumbered adults two to one, and at the end I realized that not only did we build a new floating guardhouse but quite possibly the coolest fort ever built.  Late one afternoon as I watched the kids climb and crawl over the half constructed guardhouse Romel said something that I will never forget- he said, “it is for them that we do this”.  And in that moment I realized, possibly for the first time, that everything we do here as Peace Corps Volunteers is not for this generation but for the next.

2014101300477_ABW12942014101300485_ABW13362014101200472_ABW1332Alan was the primary photographer for the project, beautifully capturing the many memorable moments. For more pics by Alan visit alanwillis.blogspot.com



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27 Anyos Ako!

Well its official, I am on the downward slope to 30. With the onset of old age, I am finding myself searching for chairs with more lumbar support and assume that I will soon be switching my multi-vitamin to the ‘silver’ edition. Truthfully, it is hard for me believe that I am celebrating my second birthday in the Philippines, and even harder to believe that I will be celebrating one more before my Peace Corps service ends.

Custom in the Philippines dictates that on your birthday you must provide food for your friends and family. In the past year I have enjoyed many delicious Filipino meals cooked by my friends and co-workers on their birthdays, and I promised my office that this year, on my 27th birthday, I would make a regional dish of the south for them to enjoy. After much deliberation, I decided to cook Gumbo- mostly because all of the ingredients could be easily found in our local market, but also because it is eaten with rice, something I new my co-workers would enjoy. The day before my birthday I downloaded a You-Tube video of Paula Dean cooking gumbo, just to be sure that I had the process / recipe down. My co-workers thoroughly enjoyed watching Paula lumber around the kitchen, although it was difficult for them to understand her version of the English language. On my birthday morning, Jevie helped me whip up a delicious cauldron of Gumbo, and my office enjoyed a nice southern style lunch that would have made Paula proud.




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Adventure Time

In the Spring of 2012, while working at Marine Lab in Key Largo, Florida, I applied to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Submitting the application was both daunting and rigorous; I had no idea if I would be accepted into the program or to what corner of the earth I might be sent. A supportive friend (and co-worker) made a promise to me then, she vowed to visit me no matter where I ended up.  So in the winter of 2013, when I got my official invitation to join Peace Corps Philippines, I immediately picked up the phone and called Sarah.  After several years of saving money and a two day flight (that included a 19 hour lay-over in Qatar) Sarah and I found ourselves on the adventure of a life-time.

Our goal for the 2 week journey across the Philippines was simple- maximum extreme adventure. We began on Guimaras with a three day excursion to some of the island’s most remote and beautiful places.  Next, an over-night boat brought us to the island of Bohol where we dove the reefs and dramatic walls (named The Cathedral) off Balicasag Island. We spent a few days relaxing and exploring the natural wonders outside the small town of Anda. Then, a ferry brought us to the nearby city of Dumagete, on Negro Island, to meet up with some other Peace Corps Volunteers and celebrate my friend Rocky’s birthday. From Dumagete, Sarah and I dove the reefs around Apo Island, the oldest Marine Protected Area in the Philippines and the most spectacular corals we had ever seen. Finally, our two week trek ended at an island named Siquijor, the famed “center of sorcery and witchcraft” in the Philippines. Spanish colonists called Siquijor ‘Isla de Fuego’ (which in Spanish means Island of Fire) because in the 1800s there were so many fireflies on the island that it appeared to be on fire. We toured around the island visiting waterfalls, beaches, and an ancient tree that had fish who enjoyed eating the dead skin off your feet. (See pictures)

Sarah and I made great traveling companions and we couldn’t help but realize our true destiny- to be contestants on The Amazing Race.


Sarah Climbing out of the Cave Pools in Anda Bohol

Sarah climbing the bamboo latter out of the Cave Pools in Anda Bohol

Rope-swing at the Falls

Me on the rope-swing at the waterfalls on Siquijor

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Me sitting at 'On The Road' a street-side bar that was started by a French Ex-Pat.

Me sitting at ‘On The Road’ a street-side bar in Anda- Bohol that was started by a French Ex-Pat.

Our Guide (named Boy) who lead us through the forest to the cave pools

Our Guide (named Boy) who lead us through the forest to the cave pools

Cave Pool in Anda, Bohol

Cave Pool in Anda, Bohol

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If you got it, flaunt it

Island Hopping on Guimaras, note our boat driver who photo=bombed the pic

Island Hopping on Guimaras, note our boat driver who totally photo-bombed the pic (he’s the ancient looking bearded man)

Sarah holding the baby goat!

Sarah holding a baby goat we found / stole from its mother

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We reluctantly returned the goat

1800's Spanish Church on Siquijor

1800’s Spanish Church on Siquijor


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Sarah climbing on the mystical tree

Sarah climbing on the mystical tree

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Fish feeding on my feet

Fish feeding on my feet

Beautiful rock formation off Apo Island, the oldest Marine Protected Area in the Philippines and home to the most beautiful coral that I have ever seen!

Beautiful rock formation off Apo Island

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The Tree of Life

Few things are as culturally symbolic and as central to life in the Philippines as the coconut. Filipinos refer to the coconut tree as the ‘tree of life’, and in my time here I have learned to appreciate and respect what has become my new favorite nut. The young coconut (typically around 5-7 months old) is called Buko. Buko water is consumed for its many health benefits, and its tender meat (which you can easily scoop out with a spoon) is incorporated into some of my favorite desserts. Typically, the Buko meat is shredded with a fork to make Buko salad- a delicious dessert in the Philippines (albeit not remotely similar to a salad), or it is blended with ice, coconut water and milk to make Buko Shake.


Once the coconut becomes older (turns brown) the husk is removed and the hardened meat (what we typically think of being inside a coconut) is shaved and toasted to be used in desserts or pressed to make coconut milk. Coconut milk is used as a common cooking base / sauce in many Filipino dishes or it can be turned into Tuba- an alcoholic coconut wine (which is delicious but can be potent). In addition to all of these wonderful foods and drinks that are provided by the ‘Tree of Life’, there are also a variety of building materials derived from the coconut tree. The trunk of the tree is used as a less expensive and more sustainable lumber, an alternative option to hardwoods that have mostly vanished from the Philippines. In addition, the fronds of the tree are used as a roofing material, and the husk of the nut can be converted into charcoal for cooking. Craftsman in the Philippines even turn the husk fibers into a textile type material to make things such as mats and shoes.  

Thank-you Alan for capturing this manly moment

This is me hacking at a coconut to drink its water. Rarely do I get a chance to look this cool, thank-you Alan for capturing the moment.

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