Here I will be documenting my experiences throughout my 8-week internship in the Philippines at the International Rice Research Institute, as well as plenty of exploration and activities outside of work.
I do not have much editing capability in terms of formatting a homepage, so here is what I recommend to best navigate the site and my content.
This current page will hold every single one of my posts in backward chronological order. Visit my “Blog” page to read individual posts documenting both my work and life experiences, respectively, each week. While my posts do include plenty of pictures, I’ve been snapping shots nonstop throughout my travels and my camera roll is overflowing! Visit my “Gallery” page for even more pictures of my daily life and adventures with friends.
Feel free to leave plenty of comments on my posts, and thank you so much for visiting my blog!
June 12 is Philippine Independence Day and IRRI was given the day off to celebrate. We decided a good way to do so was by admiring the natural beauty of the Philippines and visiting the Makiling Botanical Garden. The five of us started our outing thinking that we would be taking an easy stroll through some native plants, but we were in for an unexpected surprise. The Ecotrail Path that we were following turned into more of a challenge than any of us were expecting. The long winding road through the trees soon became steep steps that led us to a worn-down, natural path weaving through the forest. With the slippery mud coating the “steps” formed by the roots of the trees and the intense buzzing of insects that seemed to fill the entire forest, our leisurely walk was anything but. The scenery was beautiful, but it was hard not to want anything more than to be clean, showered, and relaxing in air conditioning. We eventually made our way out of there, appreciative of the Filipino nature, but also of the fans that greeted us in the Garden’s Welcome Center, where we rested and examined an intricate diorama of the wildlife before making our way home.
Since it was a holiday, the IRRI shuttle was on a different schedule and there weren’t many jeepneys out, so we walked home, taking what we were told was a shortcut through the mountains. After a nice long shower and a full meal at the canteen, I fell asleep and rested.
Unfortunately, when I woke up I realized that I was sick. I had been feeling a little off but had chalked it up to our fun weekend out and spontaneous hike, but it turns out I had been sick when we went on that hike. I immediately took my temperature and was relieved when there was no fever, but still took some of the medicine I had brought with me from home. I went to work with my mask on and immediately came home, took more medicine, and rested. Thankfully, it wasn’t anything more than a rough cold, but together with the homesickness that was finally hitting me and the lack of things that are usually readily available when I’m sick at home (like a mug to make tea), I felt a lot worse.
On Wednesday, it was almost as if my coworkers knew exactly what I needed, as they took me to the canteen for our meryenda and had me try one of the best things I have tasted in the Philippines yet: turon. It’s basically a banana that has been wrapped with lumpia paper, fried, and coated in brown sugar and sometimes caramel, and that warm sweetness was just what I needed to brighten my spirits. I was still settling into my new environment and getting used to miscommunications at work, not understanding the language, new foods, and generally being in a completely new place, but something as small as a fried banana helped to snap me out of some of that and feel a bit better.
Thursday was another typical day at work as I focused on getting into a groove with my research and was starting to feel like I was recovering from my cold. Dr. Jongsoo brought us back some sweets from Vietnam and everyone had thought that they were coffee grounds, but it was actually a mung bean cake! It was sweet, and very loose and crumbly, tasting a bit like vanilla. At lunch, everyone tends to share their food and there’s a pile of collected pasalubong from the office’s work travels that sits at the center of the table. My coworkers told me that if a Filipino doesn’t share their food with you, they don’t love you, so it’s nice that they consistently offer me some of their meals. They have also told me that, unlike in some other Southeastern Asian countries, Filipinos don’t really go out to eat very frequently. This is because some of the best meals are cooked in their homes, and the food and recipes are just different when they are homecooked. As much as I love the food at the IRRI canteen and am grateful for the easy accessibility, I could definitely taste the difference between my coworkers’ meals and my own, as theirs had that homecooked feel that buffet style can’t quite capture. I was able to try some meat that had been wrapped and cooked in leaves, a refreshing papaya salad, and a Philly cheesesteak that reminded me of home.
On Friday, we had another IRRI orientation, but this time it was with more student interns. Most are completing their master’s degrees and are writing their theses here while doing research, and it was really interesting to meet all these new people. The sit-down orientation mainly talked about ASFRI, an organization at IRRI that is focused on the involvement and engagement of visiting scholars and interns. They organize group field days, shopping trips to Manila, sports leagues, and social hours where we can get to know one another better.
After another short orientation on internet safety and library services in the IRRI conference room, we had a quick coffee break at the Beanhub, IRRI’s coffee shop, and were able to finally socialize with the other interns. I finally met other social science people! Lu and Stefano, both completing their master’s at Columbia University in New York, are studying more of the social sciences and it was so cool to talk to them, hear what they are working on, and actually understand, which does not always happen or come as easy with my hard science IWU friends here with me at IRRI. Stefano actually also studied literature in college and almost had a concentration in Modernist Literature, my favorite genre, so we had a great conversation about our favorite works and authors, such as Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Wallace Stevens, and Djuna Barnes. Both Lu and Stefano are working more on policy development and marketing, and they are in offices similar to mine. This was also my first time at the Beanhub, and the cozy atmosphere, delicious treats, and great espresso made for the perfect environment to get to know new friends.
The rest of the day was the grand tour of the IRRI property, starting with their pride and joy, the Gene Bank. IRRI’s Gene Bank holds thousands of samples of rice, preserving them for research and conservation. There are two sections, the active storage that stays at a crisp 2 to 4 degrees Celcius and holds rice for a shorter period of time, typically samples that will be taken out again. The next section is the base storage, and much, much colder at -18 to -20 degrees Celcius. Some of the rice inside has been there since the 1960s! There is also a Gene Bank in the Arctic, and the last time anything was placed inside was in February 2020. There are various reasons why strains of rice are kept in the Bank, the main one being preservation. Due to invasive species, evolution, climate change, and other factors, certain varieties of rice may be dying out or no longer able to grow on their own in the wild. Therefore, IRRI holds on to some of them for research, innovation, and any possible need for the future. A researcher can request a sample of some of the rice specimens in the Gene Bank for their research, and throughout the day we would witness the process of how the rice moves from the Bank to them.
Next door the Gene Bank, we shed our coats and huddled around the table to see a sample of rice that had been pressed and preserved all the way from 1960. It’s interesting to think about how long some of this rice, or the rice recently being put in, will be preserved in the Gene Bank…
The tour kept moving right along to other labs where we were able to see how the rice seeds get processed, packaged, and ready to be sent to researchers who requested them.
We got to see some of the high-tech chambers and glasshouses where IRRI is conducting its own research. There are different kinds and sizes for all different types of studies. One of the glasshouses is even able to adjust the pressure inside when it senses that there is change, therefore keeping a stable environment for the rice.
We had a quick lunch break and played some ping pong in the gym before getting back on the shuttle and heading out towards the fields. IRRI is developing and testing many new strains of rice, most of which grow right across from my dorm. However, the entire property of IRRI, which is nestled inside the campus of the University of the Philippines Los Banos, is roughly 256 hectares, and there is much more rice that we can’t always see. We drove around with one of the IRRI scientists who described the fields that we were passing, some of which are used to simulate floods or constant rain to test rice that may withstand those conditions. There are greenhouses that simulate drought to test drought-resistant strains, and fields with extreme salinity levels to test the strength and adaptability of these new stains.
Much of this rice is developed and distributed in response to climate change. Certain existing or wild strains of rice already have the genetic capability to withstand these conditions, and when genetically engineered with rice native to the target area, for example, Kenyan farmers experiencing extreme and unpredictable droughts after being forced to move from their familiar rainfed farming systems, IRRI can help farmers be able to produce sustainable crop yields, improving food security and decreasing poverty levels.
We made one last stop at another lab where a scientist explained how she actually goes about doing the genetic science with rice samples collected from the IRRI fields we just drove through. Lu, Stefano, and I dutifully nodded along and had a general understanding of what she was saying, but the larger group seemed to hang onto every word she said and grasped it to a greater extent. Either way, it was extremely interesting and informative; I felt smarter just being there!
That concluded our tour and we walked back to Harrar Hall, our dorm, to get ready to go out to LB. We went shopping at the mall and popped into a bookstore to browse and get some tape. This was my first time in the retail section of a Filipino mall, and everyone is very attentive. It caught me slightly off guard when the employees were always looking at us or hovering near, but once you understand they’re only doing their job the discomfort lessens a bit.
We walked out with our purchases and headed to a restaurant called Spice Jar, a self-proclaimed Tex-Mex joint that had lots of burgers, tacos, and quesadillas. They had birria tacos that I had been wanting to try, but it felt somewhat blasphemous to get them for the first time in the Philippines, so I opted for the chicken tacos. I did not know that Mexican food would be so comforting at this moment, but it was exactly what I needed. After a filling meal, we made our way back to IRRI to rest up for our big day out tomorrow at Villa Escudero.
Seeing the sunrise made me feel slightly better about my decision to go to Villa Escudero at 6 am. Half asleep, but filled with excitement, we boarded the IRRI bus with some of our fellow interns and scholars and started driving to Quezon. Along the way we passed through a town that appeared to be having a pineapple festival, as the streets were flooded with the fruit, vendors jammed onto the sidewalks, and a giant pineapple hoisted in the center of the square.
I almost wanted to stop and buy some (there were deals as low as 3 pineapples for 70 pesos!) but we kept on driving and soon arrived.
For context, Villa Escudero is a coconut plantation that was founded in the late 1800s, but now boasts many attractions such as a museum, cultural show, and lunch at the foot of a waterfall.
The entrance opens up to a grove of coconut trees, with grazing caribou scattered throughout, until you round a bend and arrive at the welcome center. We were greeted with some refreshing juice with jelly slices in it and checked ourselves in. The price was not bad for all that it included, as we were guaranteed entrance to the museum, a caribou ride, a waterfall lunch, and access to the rec center which included the pool, rafting in the river, the cultural show, and much more.
Our first stop was the museum, which, like many of the buildings, stands out with its bright pink coloring. Everything inside is a part of the Escudero family’s own private collection from their travels and no photos are allowed. From the outside, it looks almost religious, and that is reaffirmed by the first exhibit, life-size displays and floats of Catholic religious scenes. There was a Last Supper display where everyone was wearing traditional Filipino formal wear and an altar that was entirely made of silver. The floats seemed to be from a parade or procession that would take place near Easter, as they were large depictions of the Stations of the Cross.
The upstairs moved in sections, with preserved bugs, butterflies, underwater creatures, and animal skulls dating back to the early 1800s. Set in little dioramas, many of the specimens were frail and some crumbling, but it was incredible to think that they had been on this earth for as long as they have.
We moved along and saw painted portraits of Indigenous Filipinos from all different parts of the archipelago as well as original tools, jewelry, and artifacts from their respective nations. Once again, I was struck by how old some of these pieces were and wondered about the lives of the people whose portraits were displayed in front of me. The next diorama was back to animals, and while I am not an avid fan of taxidermy, I am glad that it has progressed, because most of these were terrifying to look at. The worst was definitely a small leopard whose placard described how they were once in the circus but had to be put down after killing someone, as the eyes were popping out of the head and the skin on the face was pulled in a way that looked unnatural. Once again, this leopard had been around since the 1800s.
I probably could have spent all day in this museum, as it was full of knickknacks, treasures, and plenty of historical descriptions. There was pottery and china that had been discovered on shipwrecks in the 1800s, small housewares that had been brought over by Chinese merchants, and handcrafted and painted jewelry. There were dioramas depicting a burial method that had been adopted in coastal areas once there started to be a lot of traffic, where people would place the remains in extremely large jars of stone or clay, and would then put them to rest in caves so as to protect them from pillaging from outsiders.
The next historical section focused on the fight for Filipino independence from Spain and contained extensive records of executions and prosecutions. There were garments worn during massacres, pictures taken at mass executions, and huge books filled with letters and declarations. It was
The display that followed was Filipino fashion trends throughout the ages and historical outfits of government officials, and while the garments were beautiful, the lifesize, realistic mannequins they were worn on were unsettling. I walked a bit faster through this section but was greeted with more of the same in the next, only this time it was military dress from centuries ago up until the mid-1900s, followed by a massive display of weapons. I quickly exited the museum and met up with the group outside.
We continued to walk through the grounds and admire the statues and sculptures littered throughout until we found another bright pink building and what appeared to be a center square with an old Filipino national anthem. It wasn’t long, though, until our next ticket item would arrive: the caribou ride! Our group piled into the massive trolley and our caribou, Madonna, took us away. There were also two Villa Escudero employees with us who strummed and sang a song with a ukelele, serenading us on our peaceful ride through nature.
Madonna dropped us off in front of a gift shop with an ice cream stand out front, so, to honor her, we got a scoop of ice cream and cooled down. I’m not 100% certain, but I’m pretty sure that it was cheese flavored, as a lot of Filipino desserts tend to contain cheese. As began to look around, we noticed signs directing us towards waterfalls, so, directly disobeying TLC, we chased them and found where we would be eating our lunch later. We also found the rest of the rec center, and although the volleyball section we were looking for was not really functional, there was still plenty to do.
First on the agenda was to simply admire the view because it was truly spectacular. The morning sun bounced perfectly off of the river that led straight to a nearby mountain. Once we saw the river we noticed the bamboo rafting and immediately got in line. Hannah and I paired up, as her sailing instructor skills and my past kayaking experience made us a pretty good team on the water, and we successfully boarded the raft without falling. While there wasn’t much to go or really anywhere to go because the river is sectioned off, it was still an amazing experience. We found some floating coconuts while floating in the shade, bumped into the Jessicas, and raced Sam and his partner back to the dock.
After sitting in the sun for so long we all needed to cool off, so we headed over to the 18+ pool, which was thankfully a lot quieter than the kiddie section. It had been so long since I was in a pool and it was exactly what I needed, as I was still adjusting the heat of the Philippines. The jacuzzi Jessica Issac and I attempted to sit in was broken, and some older women invited us to join them in theirs once they noticed us struggling. The water was cool, but the conversation was warm and friendly. The five of them had been friends since high school and were meeting up with their families for a nice day out. They were very interested in our internships and also, like most people we would meet, offered plenty of suggestions for things to do during our stay in the Philippines. Since their scheduled lunch time was before ours they left and we got back into the pool and got some sun, found some flowers, and played a game of Marco Polo before heading down for lunch.
While the pool was refreshing, lunch at the waterfall was an entirely new sense of refreshment. The shade from the trees, combined with the cool water covering your feet, and a delicious meal, was absolutely perfect. The five of us sat and ate with Lu and Stefano before taking some pictures and exploring the waterfall area.
At that point, we were all pretty tired after swimming and being out in the sun, so we decided to get some coffee at the cafe and head back to IRRI. However, on our way to get our drinks, we stumbled upon a cultural show! There was a dance troupe performing various styles of Filipino dance, some more traditional and others with Spanish influence. Two of the dance involved balancing things throughout, one was glasses of water and the other was lit candles. There was also a live band and the dance troupe brought out instruments at the end too. Everyone was so graceful and extremely talented. We stayed for the show and sat in the shade with our drinks after.
Some of the other members of our group wanted to swim again, and as nice as the first swim was, we were all pretty tired, so we found a table nearby and talked while they went back to the pool. It was nice to talk more, just the five of us, as we still didn’t really know each other very well. We all work separately during our internships and hadn’t spent much time together just sitting around and talking. Time passed quickly, as it tends to do with good conversation, and we were soon heading back and boarding our shuttle to IRRI.
The drive home was peaceful and there was a beautiful sunset and the sunburn started to settle on my skin. We arrived just in time for dinner and got some food before deciding to go out again later and explore Los Banos at night.
After being dropped off by Tito Mon, one of my office managers, Gerran, showed me around the Portfolio Development and Management Office, or the PDMO. Although most of my team wasn’t there in person because they were either traveling for work or conducting business from home, I was introduced to members of the two other divisions within our office.
In the conference room, Gerran sat me down for an orientation about what they do in the PDMO, their place in the interworkings of IRRI, and what I could expect to be doing during my time here. As he explained it to me, the PDMO is broken up into 3 parts: Business Development (where I will be working!), Portfolio Development, and Portfolio Management. The work that the office does as a collective begins in the BDO and travels through to the PDO, eventually landing at the PMO.
Although they seem like cut-and-dry hand-offs, there is constant collaboration and oversight as things flow throughout the office. Generally, the PDMO secures funding, contracts, and the necessary paperwork for the projects and research being conducted at and through IRRI’s many international offices. They are in communication with various government offices and organizations and work to maintain those relationships after IRRI projects have been completed. Even though we’re stationed at the headquarters, we do work and have responsibilities for IRRI locations abroad.
The BDO researches projects relating to agriculture, food security and nutrition, and climate change worldwide to identify potential funding opportunities for IRRI. They look at government-funded projects, especially in the 17 countries where we have offices, projects funded by multilateral donors (international banks or development funds), and projects funded by bilateral donors (countries providing funding for developing countries). The projects that the BDO seeks out and tracks can be active projects that are currently being implemented, or pipeline projects that are still in the works or being developed. Many of these can take several years to even begin being put into action, so the work that the BDO does is often very long-term. They also look to see what sector the project is focused on, the amount of funding, the strategies for implementation, and the desired impact of the project. They research the strategies and goals of the multilateral and bilateral donors, ensuring that they are in line with IRRI’s mission. The members of my team in the BDO are constantly thinking about a million different things before they happen, as they’re happening, and after they have already passed through our unit.
To do this effectively and efficiently, they must have up-to-date and accurate information about their various donors and the countries that they work in. This is where the central task of my internship comes into play. My job is to conduct market research on each of the countries partnered with IRRI and centralize the information into an accessible brief. Each research brief includes the specific country’s background in agriculture, agricultural challenges they are currently facing, their individual agricultural strategy, how much money is allocated from their budget to the agriculture and development sectors, and what active agricultural projects the government is currently conducting. This beginning overview of the country itself can highlight potential opportunities for IRRI and clarify if what our scientists are working on applies to the country’s challenges and is feasible with its budget. I then tackle both the multilateral and bilateral donors operating in the country, noting the total amount of funding they provide, their partnership strategy with the country’s government, any pipeline projects, and then a breakdown of each individual active project, including its funding, duration, and general objective and implementation techniques. IRRI has longstanding relationships with many multilateral donors, and having information on what type of projects they are currently supporting can let the BDO have an idea of if they would be interested in any of IRRI’s current projects. Finally, I address the bilateral donors, listing the amount of aid the top 10 countries have provided over the last five years, and then following up with specifics for the top 5 countries’ average project size and the number of projects, which government agency is in charge of handling this agricultural funding, and what areas of agriculture and development they typically support. And while I am taking down all of this information, I am also tasked with identifying potential opportunities for IRRI and personal recommendations.
On Thursday I was given my first assignment, along with a projected schedule of those that would follow. I was to begin my research with our countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, starting with Burundi. One of the poorest and yet most densely populated countries in the world, Burundi’s agricultural challenges generally surround their rapidly increasing population that surpasses their rates of agricultural production. With just that information about the country, one could easily come to that conclusion, but after diving into my research, examining through the lens of agriculture and climate change, I learned of the extreme impact of soil erosion in this already small country and how it is tearing away at the arable land. I also learned that while farming is a primary source of the Burundi food supply, as opposed to pastoralism or fisheries, the specific types of crops that they grow are not sufficiently nutritious, leading to dangerously high rates of malnutrition and stunted growth amongst children.
On Friday I met with my supervisor, Melinda, and we discussed some of why I decided to apply to this internship and what I wanted to get out of it. I will tell you all what I told her: Ultimately, I would like to work in the international sphere, although the specifics are still flexible as I learn more about what options are out there. I am currently interested in international law, though environmental law and human rights law both pique my interest. I have also looked into political analysis, most likely with the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer, as I enjoy analyzing current events and developing policies and then making connections to their possible outcomes or effects. And the more time I spend at IRRI, the more interested I am becoming in working for an NGO, as they often deal with many country’s governments and other international organizations, and the impact that they have with their respective projects can really have such an impact on populations all over the world. Each of these possibilities requires international collaboration, and that is what I specified to Melinda that I was most curious to see up close at IRRI.
Without skipping a beat, Melinda tasked me with transcribing minutes for a Zoom meeting for a technical development team she is on that is a collaboration with ASEAN and CGIAR. ASEAN, an association of Southeast Asian countries, and CGIAR, a research partnership that IRRI is a part of that works on projects generally focused on food security, work together in this team on food-related projects in Southeast Asia. With 10 members tuning each, each got to talking about what they have been doing, such as attending workshops on biodiversity and the implementation of sustainable agriculture roadmaps, as well as the development of each of their own intervention packages, or project groups they are working on. It was so insightful to see all of the behind-the-scenes work, such as the politics of getting approval from institutions to put projects into action. The members went down the line and gave an update on where they are in their respective operations.
A common issue that a few members raised was in regards to budgetary concerns. Since CGIAR institutions are non-profits, quite a lot of work goes into securing funding to implement the many projects they are working on. I got to witness some of the research I had just started in action once they started discussing bilateral funds. The information these donors put on their websites is often brief and straightforward, but the process of securing that funding is hard work and often involves many stipulations, as I came to learn. And although they sometimes provide millions of dollars for certain projects, that is not always enough for these large, international operations. It was really interesting to see the bending, stretching, and compromising these non-profits do to make it work. I also learned of another funding mechanism and the different requirements to be eligible, highlighting some of the exclusivity that is present in these large-scale operations with generous sums of money being passed around. There was also more general talk about business activities and program launches, though I was still taken aback when they casually discussed coordinating with a large country’s Ministry of Agriculture. I am still settling into being at such a large international institution and coming to terms with the magnitude of some of the work done here, but for the others, meeting with government agencies is just another Tuesday.
The day flew by as this meeting kept me fully engaged as I was given the inside look I had been searching for. Getting to take these minutes gave me a greater insight into the work that NGOs do and the efforts that often go unseen.
After completing the minutes of the meeting, I resumed my research on Burundi, tackling its multilateral donors. Many developing countries have projects funded by World Bank, as they are a global institution, but there are also funds that come from regional operations. In Africa, that is typically the African Development Bank, which provides funding for various projects geared toward the development of African nations with a focus on poverty reduction and improving overall quality of life. The work that they do spans across sectors, addressing issues of climate change, economic inclusion and opportunities, electricity and industrialization, gender equality, and, what IRRI is most interested in, agriculture and rural development. Another donor that reappears quite frequently throughout my research due to IRRI’s specific focus is the International Fund for Agricultural Development, which is both a financial institution and agency of the United Nations that supports rural people all over the globe. Agriculture often provides their primary source of both food and employment, so IFAD looks to improve and strengthen the security of both to address the challenges that these people are facing, such as extreme poverty, hunger, and malnutrition.
When learning more about the projects these multilateral donors are putting tens of millions of dollars into, I noticed a trend of working to make these rural populations more “climate-resilient.” Many of the difficulties that these people are facing stem from changes to our climate; it was very eye-opening to read more about the effects of climate change in a small country, far from where I live, that I honestly did not know much about. People in the West tend to characterize climate change as something far in the future that will affect us all at once, but that is because Westerners do not experience it the way that others have been for decades. Due to the change in climate, the weather in Burundi has become unpredictable and unstable, drying out some areas and flooding others. This, coupled with the country’s soil erosion problem, has put many rural farmers out of work because they either cannot protect their farms from weather shocks, or they have lost their farms completely. This is catastrophic, as Burundi is already one of the poorest countries in the world, is almost completely reliant on its farmers, and suffers from chronic food insecurity. Most of the projects being implemented in Burundi are introducing things such as climate-resilient technology to better train and support farmers, ensuring that they will have a consistent and sustainable crop yield. As a result of this training and technology, new jobs and income-generating opportunities arise and entrepreneurialism is promoted, all of which contribute to the reduction of both rural poverty and food insecurity.
Although the process of locating all of these projects and their specific details was very tedious, it was never not insightful, and I would frequently get lost in learning and all of the new information.
The final element to be completed of my first research brief was the bilateral donors, and this may have been my most time-consuming task yet. This was largely because I was still unfamiliar with many of the terms and details that I was working with. There were moments when I didn’t fully understand the concept or meaning behind what I was looking for and therefore had trouble finding it; even though the internet is full of information and resources, it’s difficult to find what you are looking for if you don’t know how to look for it!
After a few trips down some rabbit holes and eventually some help, I began to find some of the information that I needed. I found the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s statistics database to be quite helpful once I determined how to narrow down their massive amount of information to what I was actually looking for. This, however, gave me a false sense of security as, once I established the top 5 donors, the research process became murky once more. It was tricky to navigate more of the government sites, as they don’t always make it easy to find information about their funding habits or, once the agricultural sector is specified, what exact areas of agriculture their projects fall under. I was also unfamiliar with many of the governments I was researching, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway, and not knowing the names of their government agencies or departments, again, made them difficult to find.
Slowly but surely, I completed my research and my first market research brief was done. I don’t have an agricultural background, so it was very interesting to learn more about what is being done to assist farmers, especially in another country with a different diet and climate than my own. From a political science standpoint, it was intriguing to see some of the influence of colonialism in the projects and funding today. Burundi had, for decades, been a German and then Belgian colony conjoined with Rwanda, its neighbor to the North. After gaining independence in 1962 and then splitting into respective states, Burundi underwent multiple genocides and over a decade-long civil war. Similar to Rwanda, much of the conflict stemmed from tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi groups present in both countries. Burundi is still feeling the effects of the violence today and it has certainly contributed to the country’s low economic standing. When researching the bilateral donors, it was interesting to learn that the top two largest contributing donors are Belgium and Germany, the former colonizers of this state, and the projects that they are funding to promote more financial inclusion for those excluded from income-generating opportunities are generally in response to the tensions between the Hutu and Tutsis that they themselves exacerbated during their respective imperialist reigns. Perhaps this is typical of former colonialist powers and I was simply unaware, but I still found it notable that the two European countries still have their hand in Burundian life nearly six decades after the country of Burundi gained its independence.
I slept in long enough on Tuesday to wake up with the distinctive feeling of “Where am I?” washing over me, as I was still getting used to my new surroundings. The five of us IWU interns at IRRI, which included Sam, Hannah, Jessica, Jessica, and I, would be picked up later to meet the other IWU students at their hotel for an introductory orientation on the Philippines, Filipino culture, and a crash course in Tagalog.
Soon enough, Tito Mon arrived to take us to the next step of our journey. On the drive over, he told us about his own years working at IRRI and the many great experiences and opportunities he had. It was nice to hear a personal account of what it is like from someone who had extensive experience there.
We arrived, slapped on our name tags, and got settled in, quickly meeting Kuya Gillian, who would be conducting a portion of our orientation. When the other interns got there, Tito Mon began. He told us a lot about Filipino culture, social practices and relationships, staple pastimes like basketball and karaoke, as well as the importance and length of the Christmas season here, which, as he put it, lasts through all of the “-ber” months (September-December). Then, he moved on to food, showing us examples of traditional Filipino foods, as well as the specific words used to describe them and their flavors. And after making our mouths water, we were rewarded with a break and some buko pie. Buko is a pie made with coconut meat and milk, and it is absolutely delicious, or as Tito Mon taught us to say, masarap! He also explained that it is quite common to eat a lot throughout the day here in the Philipines, with a diet not unlike Tolkien’s beloved hobbits. After my time here so far, I can attest that there regularly is breakfast, a midmorning snack around 10:30 am, lunch an hour and a half later, a midafternoon snack at 3 pm, dinner, and the occasional late-night sweet.
The orientation soon resumed with Kuya Gillian and we dove headfirst into the language of Tagalog. There were charts of the numbers and body parts, as well as several fun activities and games to test our knowledge. After receiving and reviewing four packets full of vocabulary, we broke off into groups to create our own unique skits using our new language skills. My group, Abi, Jessica, Jessica, and I, developed a story of a foreigner arriving in the Philippines and meeting two strangers on a jeepney who help her go to the market to do some bargaining. Each group performed in front of the room, with less than flawless execution, but everyone had a good time learning and practicing this new language.
The orientation was over before we knew it, and we graduated from sitting in pretend jeepneys in our skits to riding in a real one to the restaurant for dinner. It was definitely a unique experience unlike anything I had tried before and a nice bonding activity on our last night as a group of 13.
The restaurant was the most beautiful place I had ever seen (though many sights began to compete for this spot the longer I have been here!), with floating dining structures scattered on the water, all lit up with lights.
We made our way to the center pavilion where we would be having a feast of traditional Filipino cuisine, much of what Tito Mon had described to us in our orientation. We ate with our hands on plates of banana leaves, eager to try all of the new food in front of us. There was fish broiled in coconut milk, pancit, barbecued meats, fruit, and lots of rice.
I tried a little bit of everything, and thoroughly enjoyed it all! For dessert, we had halo-halo, a popular treat that makes it easy to cool down in the summer heat. We talked and laughed and shared stories and expectations for our time here as a group before we eventually had to go our separate ways. We said our goodbyes and good lucks before the 5 of us piled back into Tito Mon’s car to return to IRRI.
On Wednesday, the 5 of us had another orientation, this one focused specifically on IRRI. We met with Mr. Frolian Fule at IRRI Education whom we had been in contact with while preparing to apply for our internships. After a Safety and Security briefing, and some information about potential outings or places to visit, we were on the move once more. We boarded one of the IRRI shuttle buses to take a short driving tour of Los Baños. The streets were narrow and packed with traffic and people navigating the thin sidewalks. Frolian pointed out some notable spots for us and then we soon arrived at the lake. From there, there was a much better view of Mount Makiling, the larger mountain in our area, and the shimmering water looked like a refreshing escape from the heat and humidity. We snapped a picture with the “I ♡ LB” letters and resumed our journey. Frolian stopped to pick us up a much-needed buko pie for later, this time from the Original Buko Pie shop. We continued through to the mountains, where there is a shortcut to get back to the IRRI facilities. On our drive, we encountered a locally famous road where, even though it angles downward, when you put the vehicle in neutral it drives backward, as well as a fruit stand run by local female farmers, where we each bought some fruit.
The shortcut was indeed short and we quickly arrived back at IRRI to get our ID cards and meet our respective internship workspaces and supervisors. ID around my neck, Frolian dropped me off at the Portfolio Development and Management Office and I met one of my managers, Mr. Gerran, who would be introducing me to the Business Development Office where I would be working for the next 2 months.
After another orientation, I retired to my room to rest up for the first official day of my internship.
I woke up nice and early, had a full breakfast, and walked to my building, conveniently located right across from my dorm. This building hosts many important offices for IRRI, such as the Director General’s, finance and legal counsel, and my own, just to name a few. There was another round of introductions, as the office schedule often rotates as to when people come in person or work from home. I met another one of my managers, Ms. Rhodora, who would help me throughout the day, and two other interns near my age, Aine and Rylla, who invited me to go out after work. It was Aine’s last day, so we had a celebratory lunch together as an office in the conference room with lots of Vietnamese food and what everyone proclaimed to me was the best chocolate cake in Laguna.
After work, the three of us interns boarded an IRRI shuttle to take us to the gates at the entrance of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, or the UP Gate, which opens up to the main street of Los Baños, Lopez Avenue. We walked to a bakery for some cream puffs and eclairs, and then back to the UPLB campus to get drinks and a spot to sit in Freedom Park. We sat and chatted for hours, talking about our internships, our schooling, plans for the future, and our various interests. I felt so nice to have made friends, and both girls were so welcoming and easy to talk to. So far, I hadn’t had the chance to talk to many people my age, outside of the IWU students I came with, and it was comforting to be able to exchange perspectives, get advice, and swap stories. Even though were from different places, we had many things in common and weren’t really as different as we previously thought we’d be. After exchanging socials, the girls walked me to the shuttle stop and waited with me before saying goodbye as I boarded my ride back to IRRI.
I was able to work from home on Friday, and even though my 2-month temporary home is only a short walk from my office, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and work from the comfort of my room. I briefly went into the office to meet my head supervisor, Melinda, before resuming work from my room.
Later that night, the 5 of us IWU interns decided to venture out and explore a bit of Los Baños. We boarded our faithful shuttle and took it past the UP Gate to the smaller, quieter, Raymundo Gate. With much less traffic, both auto and foot, the walk was very enjoyable and allowed us to admire our new surroundings. We found what we looking for, a Korean restaurant called Seoul Kitchen, and patiently waited for an available table.
Once inside, we settled in, ordered, and began talking and getting to know one another better. We planned some ideas of what we would like to do together during our time here and were all very excited to explore. Our food arrived, and the table became quiet as we got straight to eating. The only Korean meal I had tried before was tteok-bokki, so this time I ordered the dolsot bibimbap, and it was absolutely delicious. Although the food in the IRRI cafeteria was tasty, it felt amazing to have a fresh, hot meal made especially for me. Ice cream was debated, but we chose against it in favor of wandering Los Baños.
We stayed out for a little while longer before heading back to our shuttle stop, only to find out that Raymundo Gate gets locked after a certain hour. A blessing in disguise, this closed gate opened up a window, allowing us to see more of the city and test our navigation skills. We rallied back down Lopez Avenue and briskly walked towards UPLB, turned right, and it was a straight shot to our stop.
While the directions are all very straightforward, the humidity hanging over you makes the journey slightly more uncomfortable. After my time here so far, it doesn’t bother me as much as it did this night, but I am certainly still getting used to being coated in a thick layer of sweat after a day outside.
Plans were made for Saturday morning, and Hannah, Jessica 1, Jessica 2, and I walked over to Baker Street, which runs parallel to Freedom Park, for the Saturday morning market. Every Saturday morning from 6:30 am to 11 am, vendors line the street with food, drinks, clothes, and handmade goods. We made our way up and down each stall, carefully sizing up each to see what we wanted to spend our precious pesos on. With the mid-morning heat and humidity, it’s no surprise we unanimously landed on some freshly made boba milk tea. I decided to try the melon flavor, which the vendor said was her personal favorite. Not only was the cool drink nice and refreshing, but the conversation made with vendors was equally as pleasant. We tend to stick out as foreigners and so many will ask us what brings us to the Philippines, then sharing their own recommendations as to where to visit or what food to try. I also purchased a sandwich for later that was grilled cheese and pesto with pili nuts, local nuts that grow all the way down the road we walk to get to town, Pili Drive.
We waited for Jessica’s drink to be made, overheard a mother correcting her daughter’s mix-up of “beach” and its not-so-child-friendly homophone, and then began trekking through the UPLB campus to get to our favorite street, Lopez Ave. Jessica needed a sim card for her phone, so we were all on the lookout for pharmacies and 7-11’s, although that mission didn’t stop us from mentally bookmarking places we found interesting for later. We took refuge from the heat, as many Filipinos do, in one of the local malls, and although Jessica had yet to find a sim card, we found plenty of other useful purchases, most notably face masks for an imminent girl’s night.
We wandered the streets some more for the sought-after sim card, and finally found one in one of the several 7-11’s we had checked. To reward ourselves, we stopped at a small cafe for some pizza and cold drinks before walking back to IRRI. I was really grateful for the shopping trip, not just for the laundry detergent, but for the opportunity it provided for us girls to get to know each other. We weren’t really that close at IWU and honestly didn’t know much about one another, but this little trip opened the door for wonderful friendships.
Since it was Hannah’s birthday that day, we knew we wanted to go out and celebrate, so obviously we needed to find a place with karaoke. Everyone we had talked to recommended the same place, but when the directions lead you down a dark alley, it’s best not to go down the alley. Instead, we found a nearby restaurant that was probably too fancy for some college kids abroad, ate some delicious food, and tried once more to find a place where it would be acceptable to sing both loudly and terribly.
We ducked down the street of the Raymundo Gate and found a little place tucked away on the third floor of a dorm and restaurant building.
As we walked up the stairs, it sounded as though there was a professional performer present, her heavenly voice drawing us into the establishment. When we walked in we saw a man and a woman sitting down, casually belting out a ballad in the most angelic voice I had ever heard. The place was quite cozy, with only the two singers and a table of maybe four people present. We got ourselves a table and listened to the performers, patiently waiting our turn. After they were done, the couple left, followed by the other diners not long after.
Mostly free from potential embarrassment in front of other patrons, we flipped through the songbook and debated back on forth on who should have the honor of going first, with Jessica, the youngest, as the frontrunner. Jessica was a little hesitant and since it had been quiet for far too long, I volunteered to fill the silence and got the ball rolling on our noisy night. While I wouldn’t really say I’m a karaoke person, it was a lot of fun to let loose and have fun with new friends.
When we decided Los Baños had been sufficiently graced with our voices, we headed out to continue the birthday celebrations before making our way back to IRRI and the comfort of our beds, closing out the first week of our travels with a night of good fun.
Waking up on June 3rd, bags all packed, I had one final morning coffee outside with my parents before getting ready to head to O’Hare International Airport. Before I knew it, we had arrived at Terminal 5, my bags were checked, I said my final goodbyes, and was on my way.
All 11 of us IWU interns leaving from Chicago quickly found each other prepared to board. The plane was packed full, everyone gearing up for the 13-hour flight to Abu Dhabi, UAE. 3 delicious meals, 2 Ocean’s movies, and a cup of coffee later, we were landing! The views from the plane were absolutely stunning and like nowhere I had ever seen before.
The moment we began to deboard I could feel the 102 degrees Middle Eastern heat beating down on me, heavy and dry, nothing like the humid Chicago temperatures I was used to. Luckily, the airport was nice and cool, but once we were through security and exchanged some currency, we faced the heat once more, trying to find transportation to our hotel. The drive was beautiful and all of the buildings had such captivating architecture; from the museums and aquariums to the amusement park, and even the mosque, everything was so unique and beautiful.
Our group met up at the hotel, checked in, and quickly decided to go exploring. We started at the hotel’s lounge which had a pool, the NBA finals, and yet another gorgeous view. We moved on to the streets of Abu Dhabi, however, that didn’t last long, as the 102 degrees and 12 UV index quickly forced us back inside. After a shower, a nap, and a quick call home, it was soon time to head back to the airport, but not before a latte and some pizza on the roof.
We managed to find a taxi and went in small groups to the airport. After checking in, we found our gate which turned out to not be our gate at all, leading to a cross-airport adventure and a shuttle bus to get us safely onboard our next flight. Another 9 hours and we were finally able to see land peaking out from the sea of blue: the Philippines!
Touching down safely in Manila, we made it through security and customs and the daunting luggage retrieval carriage before finally meeting Dr. Amoloza’s brother, Tito Mon, and his son who were waiting to pick us up holding up a sign with “IWU INTERNS” in big, bold letters. Although we had arrived, there were still 2 more students we needed to wait for before leaving for our destinations, which gave us some time to kill around the airport.
After an hour at the currency exchange booth with long deliberations on what size bills to request, there was finally financial freedom to make some purchases, the first and most important obviously being mango milk tea. With a cold drink in hand and some sugar in our blood, Semaj, Jessica, Crishana, Jessica, and I went on exploring what the airport had to offer. We finally settled in at Jollibee’s, a fast food chain everyone I knew who had been to the Philippines had recommended to me before going. Since being in the Philippines for a little while now, many people I have met like to say that where there is a McDonald’s, there’s Jollibee. I tried their combo meal of fried chicken and spaghetti and was pleasantly surprised. The spaghetti was very sweet and rich, and the meat of the chicken fell right off the bone! The five of us enjoyed our meals and talked about our experiences, as well as how we were feeling about our internships and being in the Philippines. We wandered some more, finally found drinking water, and before we knew it our other 2 companions had arrived.
The 13 of us all piled into our respective vans and began our journey out of Manila. The drive was supposedly long but flew by quickly thanks to the exciting new scenery outside my window. We soon arrived at the International Rice Research Institute, where we would be living and conducting our internships for the next 8 weeks. Greeted with IRRI bags filled with supplies and snacks, we were given our room keys and hauled our luggage up the 3 flights of stairs before finally settling into our new homes.
Welcome to my blog! My name is Julia McMahon and I am a Political Science and English Literature major at Illinois Wesleyan University. This summer, I will be traveling to Los Baños, Philippines for an internship at the International Rice Research Institute. I am looking forward to learning lots of new things, immersing myself in Filipino culture, and sharing my experiences with you!