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It's just like home, except with coconut trees

Sunset at the school campus

When I boarded a plane in Wisconsin, on my way to serve with Peace Corps Response in the Philippines, I had no idea I would fly to a place that would remind me so much of home.

I admit to being homesick during my first weeks on site, but I began to notice the similarities between my site and home. There were local shops where the shopkeepers know your favorite snacks. There was an occasional need to move over on the road to let some cattle pass. There were rolling hills that seemed familiar, and, most of all, there were wonderful, friendly people. I originally signed up for an eight-month stay, but after about three months, I knew I wanted to extend my service to a full year. I couldn’t imagine leaving a place that felt so right.

Cow standing on grass
Seeing cattle grazing near campus was a familiar sight.

I grew up in a rural community where the main industry is farming. Everyone knew each other and knew all about one another’s lives. If they don’t know some details about you, they will ask you — or at least ask around to find out. This was an unanticipated advantage I had going into my service because I was used living in a small community where everyone knows what's going on. One of the cultural elements of the Philippines is chika. It is hard to define, but means people talking about what other people are up to. Basically, the hometown grapevine.

Building friendships through chika

My Peace Corps Response site was Bohol Island State University (BISU), a rural campus situated on a main highway. The university focuses on agricultural studies. Being located on a main road, it was common to see tourists on their way to the famous Chocolate Hills, a unique geological formation of more than 1,200 grass-covered hills that turn brown during the dry season.

However, foreign-born people living in the community were rare, so through chika, I quickly became known in the area. After a few weeks of biking to the next municipality, I would often hear cheers of “Go Ma’am BISU!” despite never meeting the people shouting or telling them I was with BISU. When my language tutor took me around town to boost my Bisaya skills, she asked shopkeepers to help me practice. Word spread like wildfire, and suddenly language lessons happened everywhere. Once at the market, one of the shopkeepers scolded another for speaking to me in English. My community still loves it when I respond in Bisaya on Facebook.

Chika helped me build friendships in the community. Word got around that I enjoyed gatherings and going on adventures, so I was invited to weddings, birthday parties, and fiestas. Often, I didn’t know what was happening, but I enjoyed the new experiences.

When I first reached my Peace Corps site, I pledged to try at least one new food a month. My friends loved watching me try chicken feet, squid balls, and tuba (local coconut wine). I returned the favor when I hosted American dinners and served green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, and whichever traditional American foods I could whip up.

Volunteer rice planting
Mary Beth Sarnowski working in the rice fields with her community members.

Discovering new 'facts'

I also learned interesting “facts” about myself through chika. For example, someone mentioned they’d heard I had a black belt in martial arts (I don’t). I also heard through the grapevine that I would not yet make a suitable wife because I did not know how to plant sweet potatoes or rice (I did learn how to plant rice before I left). Someone else told me they’d heard that I like cucumber on everything. That wasn’t true at first, but after being served cucumber on just about everything by well-meaning people, it did become something I loved.

Back in Wisconsin, I was the topic of chika at the community knitting circle, which my mom attends, and those chats about me probably spread to many other locales around town. Thankfully blogs and Facebook updates helped keep the chika from wandering too far.

Volunteer with chicken
Mary Beth Sarnowski watches the sunset with a chicken by her side.

Seeing the familiar in the unknown

My assignment was to serve as a biological science research specialist. I worked with a biodiversity project surveying the plants and animals of three regional Key Protected Biodiversity Areas (similar to a national park) and monitoring changing populations to detect sensitive and endangered species like the tarsier, a small, nocturnal primate. When not in the field, the project focused on data analysis and distribution. I also worked with the local community to lead workshops on technical writing and computer basics.

Extending my service not only helped me feel more settled at BISU, but also showed the biodiversity team that I was committed to the project. I was committed to helping the community bring about more sustainable practices. The last four months of my service were a blur filled with new connections, mierenda (snack breaks), working with students, and seeing the initial results of the biodiversity project come together.

I worked with my counterparts to train youth in the community on data-collection methods, sustainable travel, and conservation and biodiversity efforts. Seeing both the data and the staff develop was satisfying for me.

Towards the end of my service, the response program coordinator visited my site. When talking about my work and why I extended my service, I told him how much BISU had become my home, and I mentioned that it was so similar to where I grew up. I listed the similarities and, at the top of the list was the universal, small-town quality of chika.

He responded, “Yes, but we have coconut trees.”

That perfectly summed up my experience. I believe you find home when you see the familiar in the unknown, when you find reminders of what brings you comfort. Even if the place is thousands of miles away and has coconut trees.