Island Hopping to Barangay Hopping

After our little mini-vacation, we headed back to Puerto Princesa. We went and got our laundry and our toiletries, all our food. This time spent in Palawan on our own really showed us how we’ve become pretty accustomed to many of the nuances of the Filipino lifestyle/culture. We were always pretty good at figuring things out as we went but now we had experience that allowed an element of smoothness to working out transportation, accommodations and communication.

After we sorted out our errands we met up with Mom C and Ma’am Pia as they had just arrived from Manila that day. We were so excited to see Mom C since we hadn’t been able to really spend time with her since being in Ilocos, and her presence was much like that of a mothers, providing a sense of security and calmness.

The next day we began our barangay hopping. Instead of spending time with each team for a few days as did in Ilocos, we were moving quickly, going to at least 2-3 subteams a day. It was really special to able to meet so many great researchers and see different parts of the city, but it was also very sad that we would meet them, and then leave so abruptly. Taking measurements in the morning and then going house to house in another barangay later that day. The theme of kindess and hospitality continued at each and every barangay. We also got see how difficult living conditions can get for the researchers as many of the more urban barangays are nestled in between other buildings and do not contain enough space to properly house a whole team.

It was starting to come to my realization that this experience was nearing its end. We only had 6 days in PPC and it was slipping away so quickly. The goodbyes at each team were piling up and it hurt my heart every time we would be just getting to know a group and then leaving.

Tuesday we went biking along the Puerto Princesa Port Baywalk, which was so fun. The sunsets here are incomparable to anywhere else I have been in my life.

We continued with work till friday, when we decided to do a tour of the famous Underground River, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. The area is heavily protected and it was so amazing just boating to the cave along the shore. To get to the cave entrance itself we walked through a portion of jungle, where we got to see monkeys!

The cave itself was breathtaking. The collosal caverns were filled with intricate rock formations and teaming with life, from bats to birds and massive groupers. The cave also allows your creativity to run wild, a lot like cloud watching. One person sees stalagtite as an angel, another person sees a dinsosaur.

On the boat ride back from the cave we zilplined over a small bay with a gorgeous view of the mountains and ocean.

The next day we went out for a bittersweet pizza lunch, the fact that we were leaving Mom C and our fieldwork for the last time looming over us. It was sort of the beginning of the end our trip, and it hurt. We got to the airport and shared a tearful goodbye. Heavy hearts weighed down the plane on our return to Manila.

Stats and the Beach

This week began with being in the office, learning many of the statistical methods used to analyze and set up the survey data gathered in the field. It was very interesting to see how it was done, and the methods used to create large figures displaying lots of the quantitative characteristics of the data.

In addition, we got to see the food matching division where researchers have the task of classifying foods that have not been identified before, and matching them to the existing indexes of other countries. If the foods do not show up in other countries’ food catalogs, these researchers have the task of identifying the food’s genus and species. This is a particularly difficult job in the Philippines where the cuisine is so diverse and it is difficult to match dishes and certain niche delicacies to more common foods. There are also so many fruits and vegetables that are not found anywhere else.

After the office, we left early for Palawan to explore the island before getting to work. We took off Thursday and Friday so we could have 4 days. We first flew to Puerto Princesa on Thursday, then stayed the night and woke up at 6 am the next morning to go dive with whale sharks off the Puerto Princesa bay!

Those of you who have looked into whale shark diving before have for sure heard of the popular site in Cebu, Oslob, where you can swim with whale sharks where they feed them just a few hundred meters off the coast. Hundreds of tourists come every day to experience these gentle giants. However, the feeding practices that they partake in to get them to stay in the spot to be observed are not great for them or their ecosystem. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) explains that whale sharks are highly migratory species, and do not often stay resident to one area for very long. Having feeding sites where they dump large amounts of small shrimp into the water for the whale sharks to eat interrupts feeding reproduction patterns. Moreover, these creatures are already endangered, and anything that could decrease their reproductive success is a major issue. However, it must be stated that the tourism Oslob specifically and Cebu generally recieves due to these whale shark trips is huge for the community and generates an immense amount of economic oppertunity for those who reside in these areas. Overall, the availability of the experience should remain, with more sustainable practices.

We headed down to the port early in the morning and went around in a boat with an awesome crew from 7am until about 3pm. In total we saw 4 whale sharks! We were so excited since we were seeing them in the wild, without the practices stated above, people are lucky if they see just one! We also saw giant manta rays, dophins, sea snakes and large tuna.

That afternoon we made the trip up to El Nido, “The Nest”. It is known to be one of the most wonderous natural areas not just in the Philippines, but the world. After the 6 hour trip we up from PP we slept and left for our island tour the next day. I could not help but be absolutely floored by the natural beauty of the islands. The water was crystal clear and there were so many beaches and lagoons nestled between the gorgeous rock formations. The crew for the tour was so fun, laughing and messing around the whole time. One found an octupus and wore it like a backpack, then took it off and bit it, killed it, and then cooked it to have as part of our meal.

I will say that out of all the activities and sights in the Philippines, the one thing that sticks out no matter where you are is how incredibley kind, sweet and smiley the people are no matter what is going on. It is really what makes the experience what it is.

Back at the Office

After an incredible experience in the field we returned to the office to continue our experience as a researcher, seeing the process from start to finish.

Initially we were in the office with the recieving division where we were able to get to see what happens with the data we saw collected out in the field. We realized a lot fo it is simply scanning and proof reading. This part of the process specifically has an extensive presence and requires a lot of manpower. I must say I found this step somewhat tedious, as it is simply checking spreadsheets with original copies of the survey packets. However, the sense of accomplishment as you were able to catch inconsistencies, sign the bottom of the spreadsheets and see the stacks of completed folders was rewarding.

After a couple of days with the statisticians where we introduced to the data alysis software called Strata, where it was somewhat of a combination of excel and Igorpro, which is another, more advanced data analysis software system. AsI don’t find spreadsheets are not exactly the most exciting things to, this part was also a bit tougher to get through than the work in the field. Nonetheless, statistics is one area that is incredibely important and extremely useful in all areas of research and academia. I was able to compare and contrast FNRI’s techniques to that which we use for research at IWU, and gained an appreciation for what goes into interpretting the results of the ENNS (Expanded National Nutrition Survey). Moreover, every person we met who helped us and allowed us to let them see what they do were all, as usual, extremely kind and exuberant.

After these days in the office, we were lucky enough to attend the 48th annual FNRI Seminar Series where researchers discussed their projects, results/findings and plans for solutions to the nutritional issues gripping the Philippines. The first day began with a lot fo welcoming, then there were talks addressing issues ranging from malnutrition to obesity. more specific issues like growth stunting and wasting in children. In addition, FNRI also places a large focus on infant nutrition, which in turn leads to a heavy focus on pregnant and lactating mothers.

In this section, the presenters also spoke about products they had formulated that were quick and easy to cook, had good taste, and were fortified in micronutrients that specific demographics had deficiencies in. Furthermore, there were panels with local entrepeneurs and officials who spoke about how to get these products produced and distributed into the public efficiently and effectively.

We decided to stay the night at the Manila Hotel, where the Function was taking place. Let me say, oh man this place was magnificent. Beautiful cherry wood cauffered cielings, ornate archways and beautiful paintings. Many prominent historical figures and celebrities had stayed there, such as President Howard Taft, President Bill Clinton, The Beatles, and Micheal Jackson. I thought it was pretty neat to be staying in a place where these remarkable people, all remarkable in very different ways.

The second fay consisted of a variety of technical sessions with presenters displaying their research ranging from ENNS statistics to biochemical research. One interesting presentation for me came out of the NuGen lab, where the researchers used Whole Genome Analysis to examine genetic markers for obesity in samples from the Filipino population. The last couple of presenters were graduate students showing off their impressive projects used for their graduate thesis.

Another awesome week in the Philppines ended with our friends, Jake, Mia, and Aileen who work at St. Cabrini as nursing interns coming up from Batangas to hang out for the weekend. We had a great time exploring Manila.

Now we are looking forward to our next field excursion to Palawan, known to be one of the most beautiful spots in the Philippines. I am very excited to get to work once again.

Great Expectations

After Bia-0 we said our goodbyes to that team and went to the city of Santiago, where I was able to go house to house in a different, slightly more urban area. I was able to visit 6 different households, all with very different families. Some had no kids, some had 4 or 5, and one had 7. They also all had very different incomes, eating habits, and houses. One of the families had 5 children, and the oldest boy’s name was Kobe Bryant! That was also his full name, as his name was Kobe Bryant “last name”. One thing I can say for every household is that they were, as usual, always so sweet, offering snacks, soft drinks, and making sure I was doing alright. It still continued to be very interesting to me how so few households refused to be interviewed/measured. I feel in the US the number would be much, much higher. However, it seems it is the case in the Philippines that overall there is more of a sense of civic duty. This can be seen very clearly in their voter turnout. In the last presidential election, nearly 85% of Filipinos voted. In comparison, in the last presidential election in the United States, only 62% of Americans voted, which was also the highest turnout in our nation’s history. The sense of civic duty is also clearly displayed in the way community members look out for one another and share so much – especially food.

In the Philippines, food is a huge part of life. Everyone eats at least three meals a day, and breakfast is not skimpy by any means. There is always rice served with breakfast, and it is a full meal, just like lunch or dinner. We interns often found ourselves eating the hearty breakfast, and then just 3-4 hours later being offered another hefty lunch when we were still completely full from breakfast, making dinner sometimes a challenge to get down. And of course, everyone we are around is constantly offering us snacks in between these meals.

Another interesting aspect of food is that at meal time, everything stops. In the field, everyone sits together and eats in what is normally at least an hour affair. In the office, the government mandates a one-hour lunch period from 12-1pm, which also does not go towards the work day so employees stay at work for 9 hours instead of 8 to make up for that. This is all very different to the US, where at least I and people I know tend to have a small breakfast if any, perhaps coffee and a bagel, and lunch is a quick pickup, sometimes just a snack in between class, meetings, and work. In addition, at any job I have had, practically everyone works through lunch to get paid for that time and maybe leaves early to get their work done. The priority of meals is fantastic to ensure employees are being healthy, and taking their time eating full nutritious meals, and also depicts the nonstop work lifestyle of the US where things like sitting down for a meal aren’t given as much of a priority, and sometimes are viewed as a bit of a hassle.

After Santiago we went to the city of Tagudin, where we stayed in a room in the city. Still no aircon, but we did have a shower! After dropping our things at our place we were off to the first barangay. We drove in a pickup along a bumpy, rocky road and down to a river and stopped. We saw bamboo rafts going across and then realized they were moving motorcycles on these thin, wooden rafts. It was then we realized that the truck was stopping on the side of the river, and we were going to take one to get to the next barangay. It was a smooth ride and again, eveyone was very kind and accomodating. Our supervisor then informed us that the team had used these rafts earlier that day to transport their heavy boxes of survey materials. A very impressive feat that depicts their resiliency and ability to do what needs to be done to get the data for this survey.

This barangay seemed to be much more rural than the ones we witnessed in the past. Most people here were rice farmes, and it was evident in the vast rice fields; pools of water reflecting the mountain range surrounding the villiage had rice plants sticking out. It seems that rice farming is incredibley arduous, as from what I saw it is all done by hand.

We were able to observe initial interviews, and then headed back to tagudin.

The next few dya were spent in another the barangay, Cabugbugan, which was very fun. We were able to help with all the parts of the process. Since this barangay had megaphones connected to all the parts of the entire barangay, we were able to do an assembly in order to limit extensive travel, as some households were more than a one hour walk away from the barangay hall.

During our downtime we played a lot of basketball, and the kids were super fun to play with.

One of the lunches we had in Cabugbugan we did as a Buddhaphile, where the food is piled up on large leaves and everyone eats with their hands. It was so fun and we were able to help chop vegetables to prepare!

After that day we had a rest day, where we relaxed before heading back. In the afternoon, we were told we were to meet the mayor of Tagudin with the rest of the team at the beach. At first, we were a slightly perturbed as it has been a long few days and we really just wanted to lay down in that moment. We hesitantly got on the van and headed down to the beach. When we arrived, we not only saw all our friends from the past subteams, but 2 ATV’s parked up. As we immediately eyed them, they said right away that if we wished, we could take them! It was awesome, riding them up and down the beach with the sun setting over the water. We met the mayor who was kind and funny, and then had a feast at a reuraunt that was right there. We then took a motorboat out over the water and swam in the ocean before heading back to our accomodation. I think this day reflected a lot ahgout this trip – our experiences are quite often outperforming our expectations.


The next destination was the Barangay Bia-o in the city of Santiago. This is where we got our first taste of living with the team in a far less fancy barangay hall. We stayed in a daycare center: one large room with a bathroom. We slept on the floor in our sleeping bags laid upon mats to separate us from the bare ground. On top of that, the one challenge we quickly learned to get used to was the lack of showers. Bucket showers became the norm in many of the barangay halls. Honestly, it was a blast. The only tough part, which seems to be a recurring theme, is the heat. Particularly, the heat when you are staying in a building with no aircon.

Mom C, our chaperone/supervisor went home to Manila for a couple of days for her daughter’s graduation, and we were left with the team leader of subteam 8, Sir Will. We were able to have a fun day with them, first visiting Pinsal falls, a colossal waterfall in the middle of the mountain forests. It was quite a hike to reach the top, and it was like nothing I’d seen before. the clay and rock formations were exquisite, and the large stone face surrounding the water was magnificent. It was a pleasant surprise, as the pictures we saw for some reason gave us the impression that it would be a lot smaller, similar to what we would see at Starved Rock in Illinois. Boy was we wrong, and glad to be so.

The next activity of the day was visiting Susu Beach, which we had not planned for and therefore did not have bathing suits to swim in. Nonetheless, we swam still in the beautiful, clear blue water. The beaches here are especially unique in the fact that you are surrounded by mountain ranges, making the scenery even more breathtaking.

This team quickly developed a special place in our hearts. All lovely people with great personalities. Each subteam is made up of a certain number of individuals. First is the team leader, the head person in charge. Then there are 3 local researchers, who are mostly responsible for the surveying, anthropometric measurements, and 24-hour food recalls. Then there is a medical technician, whose primary responsibility is acquiring blood samples for the biochemical analysis component of the survey. Lastly, each team has a guy they refer to as simply “the Kuya”. Kuya is really a word for older brother, used as a way to address an older male who is not yet an age to be an uncle or Tito. However, in this case, the researchers use this word almost as a title. They do have another official title that I can’t remember, but they are mostly just the muscle of the group, carrying boxes and oftentimes cooking the food. Their primary goal is to help the team with physical tasks. Each person in these groups did their job very well and was unwaveringly accommodating to us.

I learned quickly on this trip that if you are a vegetarian, food options are going to be very limited here in the Philippines. However, each team was able to make sure I had something to eat at nearly every meal. Kuya Ivan and Sir Will took me one of the nights to be with them while they cooked to make sure I was able to eat all the ingredients used. In the process, we had a super fun time chatting and hanging out at one of the barangay official’s homes who lent their kitchen to the team to use during their stay. It was a common theme that the barangay captains and officials were always very helpful and accommodating to the ENNS workers, and tried to make their stay, along with the data collection process go as smoothly as possible. I kept getting the feeling that perhaps this behavior would be pretty different in the US.

I think it is important to mention that Bia-o is a beach town. Thus, a large portion of its residents is fishermen by profession. It came up in many interviews that during a 2-month typhoon last year, many people did not have food to eat due to financial hardship or simply because of the lack of fish for the people to eat. It was said that people were able to go to their barangay captain for assistance during this time and get food when needed. This community mentality, specifically when facing such immense hardship, depicts the compassion and resiliency of the Filipino people.

On the last night in Bia-o, the team organized a bonfire on the beach with us where we swam in the sea, roasted marshmallows, and danced and sang songs together. It was a night I won’t soon forget.

On the Move

Things have picked up fast in the field. Our first 2 nights were spent in a bed and breakfast run by a pretty cool guy who had worked abroad in Greece and had 2 adorable children. The older one, a boy named Franco, was absolutely precious. We played with him every morning at breakfast. The B&B owner explained to us that many Filipinos will travel abroad for a considerable amount of time in order to benefit from substantially higher wages and in many cases, such as his own, they will invest their earnings into a business. He specifically worked in the hotel management industry as well, so he was able to apply what he learned to his business here. I thought that was quite remarkable and depicted a very high level of resiliency and passion.

While we were in Candon we got to meet a fabulous team, all with bubbly personalities and a real fun-loving attitude. On our last day we went to the beach after work, and then to dinner where there was live music, and a couple of us even went up to do some karaoke (which they love here). It was a blast.

We didn’t stay too long, we left after 3 nights to our next location, a barangay called Damuman West located in the municipality of Santa Maria. On our first day, we were set to have a “courtesy call” with the governor of Ilocos Sur in the capital, Vigan City. We learned that a courtesy call is something done often by the researchers when they first visit the area, where they will explain what they are doing in the region and will ask for assistance if it is required.

When we arrived in Vigan we went straight to the capitol building. We waited for a while and then met the governor, a powerful character who was very kind and welcomed us to Ilocos Sur and took a picture with us. After this, an official took us to all the main sights and activities in Vigan. There were streets heavily influenced by Spanish architecture, cobbled roads, and lots of horses and carriages, which added to the Romantic European aesthetic. The quaint streets and old churches were gorgeous. We even got to do guided turntable pottery! It was lovely.

We had lunch with the chief of the local hospital, a powerful woman with a high position who was clearly very no-nonsense and highly competent. She described her travel experiences and international projects. After lunch she allowed us to tour the hospital. Our guide explained the rapid expansion of the hospital from 8 to 200 beds, and then took us through each area. It seemed to be a very high-functioning hospital with many amenities, but very different from those in the US. It was hard to see that the outpatient wing had an indoor airconditioned waiting room completely packed, but it only contained a fraction of the waiting patients, as there were also tents set up outside where there were many more patients waiting.

The next day I woke up to take my bucket shower, in a bathroom approximately 1m x 1m. Someone was currently inside so I sat outside for a minute and I was asked if I enjoyed biking. I said yes and 2 bikes appeared and suddenly we were off. We saw signs for a nearby mangrove forest and just kept going, despite the fact that there was no plan for this and the heavy undulation in the terrain did not make for a particularly easy ride. I kept thinking we had reached the end of the trail, but we continued on whatever signs of a path we could see, and sure enough, we come across a thick, well-maintained mangrove forest with a makeshift bamboo boardwalk. Over the tops of the brush, we saw the mountains in the distance. I was also able to see the Philippine Eagle soaring over the nearby forestry! When I asked one of the team members, they confirmed that was indeed what it was! I had been really looking forward to seeing it after taking Dr. Harper’s Field Ornithology course over the may term and hearing about the magnificent, huge raptor. However, truthfully it probably wasn’t a Philippine eagle, as there are only about 430 known pairs and most are in the southern region of Mindanao. Regardless, I’m going to pretend it was indeed what we thought, and whatever it was, I’m sure Dr, Harper would’ve said that it was pretty spectacular.

First Impressions

Oh, my goodness. It has been quite a journey already during this first week in the Philippines!

We first arrived and went to the SEARCA residence in Los Banos, Laguna, where the University of the Philippines in Los Banos is located. It was beautiful, but after over 32 hours of traveling with little to no sleep along with the intense jet lag, the first few days were brutal. Our orientation on Philippine culture was incredibly intriguing, however by lunch we were falling asleep, whether we were interested or not.

The first dinner as a group was one to remember. The food was delicious (“masarap” in Tagalog) and the company was delightful. It seems everywhere you go live music follows. Oh, boy to Filipinos loves to sing!

The first thing I realized is that everyone we have met has been unwaveringly kind. Every person I encounter has tried to make this visit as enjoyable for us as possible. No one seems to take themselves too seriously for the most part, and it’s all about having a good time.

This theme continues as we split up and head to our respective internships. Our condo has a lovely pool and basketball court, and we were able to talk to the pool attendant about certain Tagalo words we were unsure of, and other questions about the culture in the area. Although he seemed to have a rather stern look in the beginning, in addition to his authoritative position, he was so friendly. He was so happy to help us out and assure us that we were doing great.

The internship first started off somewhat slow. Everyone was wonderful and it was so nice getting into the different parts of FNRI and the good that they do there. Specifically, as a biology major, the NuGen genetic analysis lab was particularly interesting. The high-tech next-gen sequencing machines somewhat caught me off guard, it was so cool! However, I have to say I’ve never been an office person and it was somewhat scary to think that that was what we were going to be doing. However, as soon as we got into the field it thinks picked up quickly.

One huge factor that I think has a huge impact on Filipino culture is that it is always hot. No matter the day or place you are, it is always unrelentingly hot. Because of this, I believe the pace of life and work is much slower, simply because the heat doesn’t allow one to keep up a sustainable, fast-paced lifestyle. As Maddy said, “air conditioning is gold”.

Once we were in the field, this became a lot more apparent. It is incredible the way in which the researchers work in the heat and seem largely unaffected by it and continue to go about their work. What is crazy is how many small children and teenagers meet at the barangays (small municipalities) to play basketball, despite the temperature never dropping below 90 degrees.

Visiting households was particularly eye-opening. I was floored by the way in which many people lived. The first household we visited was a Muslim family, which is somewhat remarkable since almost everyone around is Roman Catholic.

The house itself wasn’t really a house, more of a shack/tent. They ran a sari-sari store out the back side, which is a small store that sells things for very cheap. Many of the children running by were not wearing clothes and under basically zero parental supervision. My god, they sure were cute though.

Welcome to My IWU Freeman Asia 2022 Experience!

Hey, It’s Ankush! Here is my page where I will document my experiences at FNRI’s Nutrition Assessment and Monitoring Division!

I will be posting weekly on Sundays starting on June 10!

I want to thank the IWU Freeman Asia program for allowing me to embark on this incredible adventure!