Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

July 30, 2010

Philippines surprising

Debbie Blank
The Herald-Tribune

--- — Talk about culture shock. Bart and Jeannie Pfautz, who met while attending Warren Wilson College, Asheville, N.C., are serving as Peace Corps volunteers for two years in the Philippines. Bart Pfautz, a 2001 Batesville High School graduate, is working as a coastal resource management volunteer with the local Leyte government. His wife is a high school English teacher and trainer there. When their laptop was stolen in a restaurant, it was unsettling. “It’s difficult to adjust to a foreign culture, and with all of these changes in our lives, there’s nothing like having a computer taken from under our feet to knock us flat on our backs and make us think, ‘Really? So why are we here again?’” she wrote in a Nov. 18, 2009, blog entry. Jeannie answers her own question. “We’re here in a country that needs some help in order to become empowered and help itself. And we’re here donating our time, our expertise, committed to making this world a better place in our own small way. It’s lofty and dreamy, but it’s what we believe we should do.” During three months of Peace Corps training, emphasis was placed on figuring out what community members feel they need, as opposed to Peace Corps volunteers deciding, he explained by e-mail. “Here in our community, a fisherfolk organization had already proposed that a fish sanctuary be created ... The project had gone nowhere beyond that. So that is what my counterparts and I are working on right now.” Understanding the work culture and Filipino language are his most important accomplishments so far. One highlight was teaching high school students about the importance of mangroves (tropical trees) and other coastal habitats nine months ago. They participated in a handful of related activities. Pfautz recalls, “Then it started to rain, and during rainy season here, it really rains! Fortunately, it cleared up in time” for volunteers and students to plant 1,000 mangrove seeds along a river. Filipino children take English classes starting in elementary school. Three of their high school subjects – math, science and English – are taught in the language as well. Jeannie Pfautz, a Charlottesville, Va., native, reports, “I see a wide range of ability ... We have students who can speak nearly fluently, but then we also have students that have difficulty creating a sentence in English.” She and a native co-teacher instruct students who range in age from 15-25. Class sizes range from 47-59. She is leaving her mark by establishing a remedial reading program with her co-teacher. After seventh-graders were tested, the educators found their levels ranged from grades 1-10. Those assessed between grades 1-3 take special reading classes. The women also are collecting donated books that will interest the youth and hope to open a literacy center containing the books and computers for listening and speaking practice. The Pfautzes realize they stick out. He observes, “It is impossible for us to be anonymous here because we are the only pale people around. I’m sure I’m the only redhead for hundreds of miles.” They are amazed at the contrasts between modern advancements and old-time practices. Bart, 27, a Del Rio, Texas, native, gives examples. “There is a mall that rivals those in Cincinnati a half hour away from places where there are no toilet facilities so people use the beach and ocean. We can walk to an Internet café and on the way pass the place where pigs are being killed and butchered in a shack and their waste and blood is going into the street gutter.” Fiestas dedicated to patron saints abound. “In fact, every little township (there are 52 in our municipality) has one,” he says. Most households prepare food “and visitors just show up, sit down and dig in. In our experience, Filipinos are so generous, almost too much so .... The Philippines were a colony of Spain ... and I’ve been told that’s where their tradition of the fiesta comes from.” Around 90 percent are Catholic, also introduced by Spaniards. Pfautz adds, “The most rewarding times for me are when I’m sitting around with a group of people, drinking coconut wine and eating adobo or kinilaw (raw fish in coconut milk or vinegar) ... and talking about their lives here and my life in America. It’s really fun when I get to debunk some crazy belief about Americans like we are only allowed to have two kids.” For fun, the duo read, ride bikes and run at 5:30 before the heat gets stifling. He plays on a local basketball team and uses free weights and improvised, welded-together machines in a nearby gym. During travels in the “incredibly beautiful country,” they went scuba diving, “which by far is one of the most amazing experiences we have had here,” she notes. Jeannie, 28, also enjoys yoga, and “any craft I can get my hands on. Right now I am working on a quilt for our newest niece or nephew that we're expecting in August.” In late March, parents Bart and Andy Pfautz, Batesville, and Bart’s brother Bob arrived with much-coveted Girl Scout cookies and Skyline chili. “We thanked them by making them ride jeepneys, meet our entire town and hike around our site in extremely hot weather. The mayor even took them out to lunch!” In their blog, Jeannie Pfautz reflected, “Maybe the Peace Corps should advertise its marriage-strengthening attributes when recruiting couples. It’s true, we’re frustrated here, trying to find ways to do work and help the community. But the process of being here together, working through these difficulties, well, it makes me think we can do just about anything together. And that’s a good feeling.”