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

Crash Chords: D’ Hebigats

Heady, heavy assignment, figure out the TEN most influential Pinoy albums EVER in less than a week. In the end, I could only come up with nine, and a few days late too. But, tough noogies. During crunches like these it turns out that everyone’s an expert, everyone’s a critic, and everyone interprets the word “influential” in a different way.

Ultraelectromagneticjam!: The Music Of The Era...

Ultraelectromagneticjam!: The Music Of The Eraserheads (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everybody agrees on one album though – the Eraserheads’ “Ultraelectromagneticpop”. I can still remember watching their first TV performance on Dawn Zulueta’s late night show RSVP, and foreseeing that they were going to be big. Released in 1993 by BMG Records, the album’s commercial success rejiggered the sound of the decade, reintroducing band-based music into the pop mainstream, leading the way for rivals Rivermaya, Yano, and arguably every Pinoy pop-rock band created since then.

Filipino musician Pepe Smith, Philippine Rock ...

Filipino musician Pepe Smith, Philippine Rock n Roll Legend (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Going back to the era when Pinoy rock first exploded, the Golden Age is tied irrevocably to the rise of The Juan Dela Cruz Band, founded by legends Edmund and Mike Hanopol. The band was named after the common man and played rock for the common man. Although the band debuted with “Up in Arms,” in 1971, it is “Himig Natin“, released in 1974 and featuring the too-cool trifecta of Mike, Wally Gonzales, and the notorious Joey “Pepe” Smith on the cover that will always resonate for a generation of teenagers that lived through the “maximum tolerance” of martial rule, a time when sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll raged under the cloak of curfew.

Hotdog’s Unang Kagat” combined big band music with droll Taglish lyrics resulting in their patented “Manila Sound”. Hitting it big with the theme song to the 1974 Ms. Universe Pageant held here in Manila, “Ikaw ang Miss Universe ng Buhay Ko” could have cemented Hotdog’s immortality all on its own, if it hadn’t been followed by the just-as-memorable smashes “Pers Lab”, “Annie Batungbakal”, “Bongga Ka ‘Day”, “Beh Buti Nga”, and eventually “Manila”. The 1970s saw Hotdog, together with VST and Company and the Boyfriends, pushing Filipino pop music to innovate, adopting foreign trends such as disco to serve local tastes.

The culturati may beg to differ, but novelty songs are as important a subgenre in Pinoy music as jazz and classical. Although its roots can be traced as far back as vaudeville and even bugtungan, and its fruits continue to haunt us in the musical stylings of the Sexbomb girls and the Masculados, only one man can stake a claim as conquistador of this turf, and that’s “Magellan”, Yoyoy Villame’s first recording in 1972. As an artist, Yoyoy has had his ups and downs, but he’s never worn a frown.

Freddie Aguilar is a very popular folk musicia...

Freddie Aguilar is a very popular folk musician from the Philippines who is best known for the hit – Bayan Ko-, which became the anthem for the opposition to the Marcos regime during the 1986 EDSA Revolution. Photo taken in Tondo, National Capitol Region, The Phillipines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the late 1970s Filipino rock musicians started infusing folk influences into their sound, leading to the 1978 breakthrough success of Freddie Aguilar‘s debut recording “Anak”. This album was the most commercially successful Filipino recording in history, even crossing over to the rest of Asia and Europe. Master Freddie went on to record other powerful (and revolutionary, in a literal sense) anthems such as “Bayan Ko“, and he also paved the way for later Filipino folk stars such as Joey Ayala and Grace Nono.

Rey Valera

Rey Valera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Few could have predicted that a fresh young 12 year-old mayor’s daughter would eventually spawn a veritable industry unto herself after first listening to the sweet, inoffensive, obviously-sucking-up-to-the-radio-stations ditty “Mr. DJ”. But the hits and record albums kept coming and a Megastar was born. To her credit, Ate Shawie has managed to use her considerable popularity to boost the careers of talented composers such as George Canseco and Rey Valera, and even other singers like Raymond Lauchengco…

…who, as we of a certain age all know, shot to stardom with his songs for the soundtrack to the mother of all 1980s barkada flicks – Bagets (and its sequel). Not only did this flick define teen fashion, trends and morès for the pre-Edsa era, but its accompanying songs burrowed into the collective consciousness, prompting laughter and tears for many proms, graduations, homecomings, reunions, and nostalgia sessions to come. “Growing Up”, anyone?

Francis Magalona

Francis Magalona (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Francis M’s “Yo!” exploded in 1990, the first rap album by a Filipino to be commercially released in the Philippines, giving birth to Filipino hip hop (for good and ill). Francis M always seemed to take rapping seriously, unlike some of the subsequent pretenders (like the Es, Vs, and “Amirs”) to his throne as “King of Pinoy Rap”, thus earning the respect of even the folksters and rockers, and bridging a customarily unbridgeable divide.

A couple of years ago, thanks to an inundation of Chi-novela-induced pop and other Pan-Asian pap, it was a real slog wading through the sickly-sweet waters for something less cloying. But something was there all right, and ‘twas Sugarfree no less. Drowning in obscurity for months, their album “Sa Wakas!” was finally rescued from the depths and heralded the resurgence of the real Pinoy music scene. Record labels started taking chances on local talent again, and the rest, as they say, is the present.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published under music column Crash Chords in Manual magazine, 2005

%d bloggers like this: