Global Guy Gone Native: Peace Corps Volunteer Joe Speicher

photo by Tina Cifra

Joe Speicher was born a native of Rockville, Maryland, but thanks to his two-year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer here in the Philippines, has now become an adopted son of Valencia, Negros Oriental. The son of an accountant and a child psychologist, Joe is the eldest of three siblings. His brother is in the US Army, while his sister has recently joined the Peace Corps as well.

After graduating from a small liberal arts college, Joe first donned a suit and tie working as a political fundraiser in Washington DC. He then moved to New York Cityto join the rat race. As an employee of the multinational financial giant Lloyd’s, he found that climbing the corporate ladder in the big city was not all it was cracked up to be. He was dispirited by how the daily grind seemed to be all about money, all about profit margins. Rent was high, and he wasn’t really being paid very well. He sometimes didn’t even have enough money to buy food for himself. One time, he was so hungry he stuffed his bag with the crackers that were left out in the office’s snack area. But he got caught by his boss and was forced to put them back. Joe soon realized how unfulfilled his work environment was making him feel. He wanted something more out of his life. He then started getting involved in volunteer organizations. It was in 2003 when he made the decision that would transform him forever.

logo

logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I applied to the Peace Corps because I wanted to change my life and do something worthwhile,” says Joe. “I didn’t really like what I was doing inNew Yorkand started to look for a change. I was planning to work overseas, and the Peace Corps recruiting office was near my building. I started going to recruiting events and decided that this was for me. After 9/11, I was absolutely certain it was something I wanted to do. I watched those planes hit the twin towers, and I immediately decided that life in a cubicle under the phosphorescent lights slaving away for cash was not for me.”

It was a huge decision and Joe was vacillating up to the last minute. At first, he thought he would be sent to Africa, so his assignment to the Philippines came as a bit of a surprise. His batch of volunteers began their training in Bohol, where Joe first experienced living with a Filipino foster family. From there, Joe then began working in earnest at his assigned site at Negros Oriental.

“The problems in the Philippines are terribly overstated by the Western media,” he asserts. “Once I got here, I felt safer in my barangay than I did in my office building in New York.”

Because of his business background, he was given a position at the Department of Trade and Industry office, where he conducted workshops for farmers to teach them useful livelihood skills, and participated in the writing of a business skills training manual which is now being used in Local Government Units and organizations. He also worked with the local zoo and nature preserve.

Palinpinon Geothermal power plant in Sitio Nas...

Palinpinon Geothermal power plant in Sitio Nasulo, Brgy. Puhagan, Valencia, Negros Oriental, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I lived in a nipa hut, helped out a few local entrepreneurs and taught English at the local elementary school,” Joe recounts. “I lent a hand to USAID and the Peace Corps for a few trainings, wrote for a local newspaper and lead an environmental camp for kids,”

Joe spent most of his time deeply involved with the community in the town of Valencia where he worked at the plant nursery and where his host family lived. Joe was such a cherished member of the community that one of the townspeople even named her baby Josephine after him. It was in Valencia where he was able to develop his amazing mastery of the Visayan language, which he speaks as well as a native.

“Joe’s command of Visayan is what I think really separates him from a lot of other foreigners in the Philippines,” shares Richard Finke, Joe’s friend and Peace Corps batch mate. “He also acquired incredible singing abilities while in the Philippines.” This remains a debatable opinion after experiencing Joe’s videoke stylings, which is apparently a necessary skill to survive the Negros countryside.

Along with many other achievements and adventures, Joe appeared in a Visayan telenovela playing the role of the US Ambassador and participated in a mini-marathon around Dumaguete.

“I got into diving and camping and even won a Peace Corps photography contest. I learned how to climb the coconut trees and wield a bolo. I watched Extra Challenge and Mulawin and listened to F4 and the Eraserheads with my friends,” reveals Joe.

After his stint in the Peace Corps ended in October of 2005, Joe went back to the States where he embarked on a cross-country tour, then worked in a camp supply store for a while to earn some money.

In January of this year, he began studying for a Masters degree in International Studies at Columbia University in New York, where he’ll be graduating in 2007. Even there he tries to hold on to his connections to the Philippines as much as possible. “I organized a trip for my classmates to a local Philippine turo-turo. In the dorm where I live there are two Cebuanas who I tease in Visayan every time I see them,” he relates. “People always ask me to teach them some Filipino, and I tell them the only words they need to know are sige and kwan. It’s true. I’ve seen Filipinos have an entire conversation using only these two words.”

Joe spent his summer vacation this year studying the Chinese language in Beijing from July to August. After his course, he swung by the Philippines to reconnect with his Filipino friends and adopted family, people whose lives he has touched and who have touched his as well.

“In the Philippines I learned how to relax and ride the wave of life without trying to control it. I was sent here to help Filipinos make better lives for themselves, but I’m the one who feels enriched. I learned more in my three years here than I did in high school, college and graduate school combined. The Philippines will always be an essential part of my life.”

-text and photo by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Men’s Health Philippines, 2006

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5 Comments

  1. Excellent post for such a honorable man. My profound respect for him.

    Reply
  2. I taught Joe and Richard the Advanced Diver course in 2005. Great time diving with both.

    Reply
    • Was this in Cebu? I met Richard in Bohol the year before and he introduced me to Joe around then. They’re both great guys. Do you know Mercedes, Richard’s wife as well? She’s working in Cambodia now, so they’re based there with their kids. I’m going to blog about attending their wedding in Madrid here eventually. 🙂

      Reply
      • Yes, we were diving in Mactan. Mercedes was also in the same class. I met them both a year or two before that. Nice couple 🙂

    • Lawrence F. Lihosit

       /  July 17, 2012

      It’s never too early to think about the Third Goal. Check out Peace Corps Experience: Write & Publish Your Memoir. Oh! If you want a good laugh about what PC service was like in a Spanish-speaking country back in the 1970’s, read South of the Frontera: A Peace Corps Memoir.

      Reply

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