Lessons from Baldness: My 2016 story

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Life was never easy for me this year. December 2015, my Alopecia recurred again few days after the 2nd phase of our project in PaWeCan Do It—a marine turtle conservation education project funded by the US Embassy in Manila. I was scared because I knew then how difficult life would be in 2016 carrying the shame of being bald at an early age. I’ve been carrying this disease since it occurred in 2009, I was still in secondary education, and it recurred again in 2013 when I’m on my third year in the University. The disease is chronic and science hasn’t found a cure yet for this disease. Knowing the facts, I have accepted already that this remains with me forever.

I decided to shave off my hair in January 2016 because my hairs started to fall excessively. It was such a smart decision I made yet a tough one. It’s a challenge I saw at first since I have my organizational & professional responsibilities in which confidence is my capital. A big part of my work as an environmental educator and a research assistant in an anthropology project is facing the public, yet the thing that gives me confidence was lost already. It was a motivation for me to see the baldness as an opportunity rather a challenge and a weakness. I went on with our project swallowing my pride for not having my crowning glory, toughening myself as I witnessed people laughing at me or making fun of my baldness.

One of the motivations I’ve thought of that time was developing myself professionally so I could convince myself that at least with my current condition, I could still achieve greater things. So I applied to YSEALI Generations: Oceans workshop in February 2016 and was fortunately accepted. I traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia from March 16 to 20 to attend the workshop and met different marine conservationists coming from different ASEAN countries. It was at that time I felt my self-worth. With my regained confidence, I came back to the Philippines knowing that I won’t feel being a social misfit again.

We’re down with the last phase of our project and I felt more empowered in finishing it. My passion for marine turtle conservation was immense that people’s dejected actions weren’t enough to undermine it. In May 2016, I was given the chance to be a research scholar of the Large Marine Vertebrates (LAMAVE) Research Institute in their Marine Turtle Interaction Study in Apo Island. I stayed on the island for a month and did an in-water research observing the behavioral ecology of the Pawikans. It was an addition to my list of achievements that I’m proud to show to those people who laughed at me.

It boosted not just my professional career but my life’s aspects as well. Confident with what I’ve achieved, I applied to the YSEALI Academic Fellowship on Environmental Issues. It’s an environmental leadership training in the USA together with other ASEAN youths. At a certain point, I gave up hoping since I didn’t receive any call from the embassy in the first week of June 2016 for the interview round. I thought that time, “it could’ve been a great platform for my development”. But to my surprise, I received an e-mail on 11 July 2016 congratulating me for being selected for the fellowship.

Two out-of-the-country trips in just a year were more than I’ve ever wanted, and they’re both free! I didn’t’ even think of the challenge that my baldness posed at this point since I’m overwhelmed with opportunities. With a successful culmination of our project on 26 June 2016, I embarked on a new journey for self-actualization. What I carried that time with me, and until now, are my experiences, ardor, drive, and determination to survive the battle. I am not sure if, as a bald person, I already mastered the art of facing people because it still pains me to see people looking at me like I’m a freak.

Before my USA trip, I received good news from the US Embassy. I was invited to attend the YSEALI SEA Camp Summit in Manila! Another unexpected opportunity to finally meet one of my inspirations in conservation, Tita Anna Oposa! Just a few months back, I was only a fanboy sending her messages on Facebook and tweeting to her, but the moment came when I actually got to talk to her personally. Too bad that I faced her bald but it turned out to be a great send-off gift from the embassy.

The time finally came and I visited the United States of America. I asked myself: if I gave up and let the disease stop me from doing the things that I’m passionate about, will I achieve this? The fellowship was my most significant milestone in 2016. It was a culmination of all my hard work and efforts. If I faltered, stopped, and gave up, I wouldn’t be able to visit the Pearl Harbor, see the most photographed bridge in the world (Golden Gate Bridge), and visit the Yosemite National Park. They’re my rewards, I convinced myself, my rewards for my discipline and determination.

You see? I used my baldness as an opportunity to broadcast my ardor for conservation. I’ve tried convincing myself that the only way to regain my confidence is to develop professionally. So I did not stop trying and pursued greater goals. Though it was a difficult year, I managed to survive because in every step of the way there were milestones that contributed to my confidence. 

I just want to add what Tita A said, “if that’s the chip on your shoulder to motivate you, then so be it”. Shameful I’ve been feeling maybe, but my baldness brought me to places, widened my social network, and granted some far-fetched wishes. The key takeaway of my story is that life’s challenges come in many ways, but the way to overcome these challenges is to view them as opportunities, not weaknesses nor threats.  

More challenges await me in 2017,  but this disease can not stop me from doing the things I love. Because just like Pia, I’m confidently beautiful with a heart. ❤

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Thank you letter for my Ohana

Ohana means family and family means no one gets left behind. —Lilo

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To my YSEALI Academic Fellow siblings:

Being accepted in the YSEALI Academic Fellowship is one thing, and meeting all of you is another.

Time flew so fast that today, I wrote this letter in the same exact place where I first read my congratulatory e-mail—it was so nostalgic! My five-week trip to the United States of America offered me a lot of firsts and surprises, not to mention you, my co-fellows turned family, who I lived with throughout the program.

Without your humor, wit, craziness, or should I say ‘cray-crayness’, the fellowship would have been just another leadership program! So I want to formally thank each of you, my YSEALI siblings for making the fellowship one of the bests that ever happened in my life!

To Johnben, you’re the silent guy in the group, but your curiosity was so loud! Maybe you didn’t know this, but I greatly appreciated your support during our ropes course activity; I felt secured that time! Buena suerte en tu carrera, nos vemos pronto!

To Aya, thank you for being a good and patient listener, I remembered our conversation back in Yosemite, it was a relief that somehow I shared out my frustrations. Just to let you know, it helped a lot. And thank you also for always sharing your chicken curry with me! I’ll always remember what you shared with Natalie, and please know that I’m always here to support you!

To Big, I really appreciated you when we were roommates! I felt like a little brother to you that time. I really admire you for critically thinking things and for politicizing the cohort, which helped us view issues in a wider perspective.

To Prim, my partner in the craziness and extra rice! When I’m with you I felt so 18, haha! Thank you for laughing with me, Prim! Maybe you didn’t know, but it helped increase my self-esteem. Always remember the answer when you’re asked of what you learned in Hawai’i, HAHA! I’m looking forward to eating the best Thai foods with you soon! *singing in my high-pitch voice*

To Tri, we didn’t talk that much. I felt bad because I haven’t bid goodbye to you back in Washington, D.C., but at least we had a chance to meet again in Japan, even for few minutes only. Just so you know, I felt so important during your last hug in Narita Airport, and I want to thank you for that! *Hugs!*

To Pony, my other partner, this time, in singing! HAHA. We both believed that we have good voices and that being single is a strength, not weakness! Thank you for being a therapy. Because of you and Prim, I got to show again the characters I lost— outgoing, happy, and loud—in the process of dealing with my illness.

To Quyen, my big brother who bullied me often, I can’t thank you enough for sharing personal matters with me! It made me feel like a true family. It’s so fun to remember those nights when we fell asleep in the laundry room while waiting for our clothes to dry. And I’ll always keep in mind and treasure the note you left on my bed back in Yosemite with your jacket that says: take my jacket if you need. I tried it but it’s so HOT!. Your simple gestures of care, such as this, were greatly appreciated! I’ll miss you so badly brother!

To Migel, thank you for looking after us! You’re a caring and supportive sister to everyone, no wonder your sister Kristine loves you so much. Your laughter, together with Darren, painted colors that brightened our gray days! Your voice, when it reached two octaves higher than normal, served as chimes of happiness and craziness! Thank you for making the fellowship extraordinary!

To Paul, the unusually reticent turned outspoken guy! Everyone would miss the fun you brought to the fellowship. Thank you for being a harbinger of cray-crayness in the family! Personally, I think you’re a multihyphenated type of guy, and that makes you more than just an Agricultural Engineer!

To Khalish, the person who first offered us doughnuts on our first night; I really appreciated you for that! You know, I felt so open when I’m with you because I got to share my aspirations, goals, and even personal matters. You’re my big and not-so-strict sister during the program. I thank you for lending your ears to me when I talk about my advocacies! JSYK, It’s the best reward you can give to a person who is very passionate about what they do.

To Han, I thank you for saying that I have a well-built body, haha (in case you forgot, you said that in the first week)! Anyway, your passion for forest conservation really amazes me. Knowing that there are people like you, gives me hope for the future! Myanmar needs you!

To Su, your ‘Hi Baby Kier!’ always echoes in my mind, and it makes me miss you so much! Thank you for sharing your foods with me, and for being my mutual partner in photography. We have same childhood family story, and I think that made us relate to each other very well. At least before the U.S. program ended, I showed you that I’m not serious and strict as you thought I am.

To Gugu, thank you for your energizers! You developed that niche that no one can do in the group. I remembered you saying that English is a language, not knowledge, and I look up to you for that! You’re an inspiration to many, so continue being so genuine!

To Caroline, the second person I got to know in the program! When I first learned that we’re working on the same story, I felt very excited! Thank you for your ideas and understanding. Your brilliance and eloquence coupled with your passion is your trademark! And because of that perfect mix, I know someday you can be the Jane Goodall of Indonesia, or even of ASEAN!

To Rini, I see you as the outgoing lady with a teacher-like attitude in the group! I already said this but thank you for reminding us the moral values that we overlooked throughout the program. Remember that there is someone in your friends’ lives who will remind them of the wrongs and rights and that someone is YOU. ☺

To Niomi, thank you for your patience in dealing with my dramas! I know that back in Yosemite, you’re afraid of the dark, but you still chose to stay and listened that night. We have the same work, though a different wildlife, that’s why we got along together so much! And that created passionate discourse about the things we do. Thank you for being a listener, sister, and a confidant to me! I’ll never forget that you have more fillings (feelings) than a Kualoa burger!

To Fariz, I felt weird that we didn’t converse that much in the first week even though we met in the Oceans workshop before, that’s why I took an effort in reaching you out! I didn’t actually know if you really chose to be silent, but every time you conversed with me, I felt so acknowledge, just so you know, haha! When you asked me to wake you up before we left for the Philippines, it felt so emotionally elating. Thank you for the friendship my noodle partner!

To Pokkee, my Lao sister, Sabaidee? I remembered our serious conversation on the bus back in Hawai’i about my aspirations. I thank you for taking the time to listen! And I want you to know that you have a comforting aura. You became both a little and an elder sister to me. As petite as you are, you have an immense dedication to your goals, and people see that.

To Darren, I felt bad because I didn’t notice you on that day in Walmart. But anyway, at least, I had the chance to laugh with you in the later part of the program. Your laughter, together with Migel, really turned the gloomiest days into sunshine. Thank you for bringing fun in the group. You’ve contributed a lot in making our fellowship a not-just-an-ordinary leadership program.

The space is so little to cater everything that I owe you guys! You provided a platform where I confidently showed who I am, especially the things that I couldn’t do at home and at work. I hope that the bond we created would last long enough to witness Big’s Premiership in Thailand or Pony’s marriage with his ideal boyfriend.

And this sound so cliché, but I left pieces of my heart with you guys, so please take care of it. Until next time! I love you all guys!

Daghang salamat kaninyong tanan!

Love,

Kier Mitchel E. Pitogo

LAMAVE Adventures: A Turtley Awesome Trip to Apo Island (Part 1)

I woke up very early hoping to have a quick bus ride from Cebu City to Dumaguete since I was told that the travel would last more than 6 hours. As I hopped in a cab, I left an anxious smile to my classmate Krai, who housed me for a night, since it was my first time to journey alone over Visayan Islands. I brought with me four luggages—vexing for a long travel I reckon—and rode one vehicle to another, which was a discomfort at that time. I arrived at 8:30 a.m. at the South Bus Station and needed to wait for the bus that would go straight to Dumaguete. I took my breakfast in the terminal and after an hour and a half of waiting, I finally managed to get a comfortable seat on the bus.

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Me and Krai

The travel lasted for six hours and I finally arrived in Malatapay waiting for upcoming passengers who would ride with me across the sea. As I stand on its shores, I gazed upon one of the Philippines’ well-known community-managed marine reserves, a microcosm of the rich Philippine seas—the Apo Island. It is known for its diverse marine ecosystems, which are favorite sites for divers, and recently became a must-see tourist attraction because of its marine turtles. Yes, marine turtles or locally known as Pawikans are a guaranteed sighting in the area and they were the reason why I am headed to the island.

In April 2016, I happened to read an opportunity posted by Dr. Alessandro Ponzo, the Director of the Large Marine Vertebrates (LAMAVE) Project Philippines on Facebook. It was a month-long scholarship for their Marine Turtle Tourism Interaction Study in Apo Island, Dauin, Negros Oriental in May 2016. Confident with my concurring experiences in research and advocacy works, I boldly applied and was fortunately got accepted. It was a momentous time for me knowing that LAMAVE was not a dream anymore. I’ve always wanted to be a part of their team; in fact, when I was still a Marine Biology student, I liked reading the works of LAMAVE, especially about whale sharks. It fascinated me a lot and would want to work with them someday. And that someday finally came. Never did I imagine that I’d be visiting Apo Island, not for a vacation but to work as a researcher of LAMAVE.

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The first photo I took when I was leaving for Apo Island

I boarded the boat with a French-Arab family and a few locals from the island. Since it was late afternoon, I expected to have a rougher ride, but it didn’t worry me for I have done oceanographic surveys during the Southwest Monsoon in Sarangani Bay. As we navigated forward, the shores of Malatapay faded while on the other side, Apo Island welcomed me with its limestone formations and contiguous stretch of white shores. The dark blue waters became shades of turquoise as we approached the shallows. While they were docking the boat, I took a quick glance of the circumambient people hoping that I would find someone wearing a LAMAVE shirt. Dashed, I jumped out of the boat and the boatman handed me my belongings. When I turned around, I saw a tall, slit-eyed man approaching and eventually reached out his hand and uttered Ethan. I knew then that he was a colleague.

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The sea turtle team: (from left) Ethan, Ivan, Monty, and me

Ethan, a BS Aquatic Biology student from Western Philippines University, introduced me to our two other teammates: Ivan, a BS Marine Biology graduate from Visayas State University and was an instructor of the same school, and Monty, an English MS Astrophysics graduate from the University of Sheffield and also our team leader. Ivan was a flamboyant lad and I knew then that we’d go along with each other because of our common interests as both Marine Biology graduates. On the contrary, Ethan was a serious-type, brother-figure, who talked few words yet enough to make me feel welcome. The coyness of Monty caught my attention, and if I would best describe him, he was reticent. He was selective of his words yet spoke like a learned man as he is. It’s like anytime he would speak about the physical nature of the cosmos and other celestial bodies. Although I kind of struggled following his northern English accent, it gave me the challenge to converse with him more often.

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A typical sunset in the island

As we all walked to our quarter, I noticed the picturesque scenery of the sun kissing the horizon—the clouds stretched long across the sky and were embellished with hues of orange and shades of blue. Ivan and Monty hurriedly spotted a perfect position, and from their vantage point, they both captured the spectacle of sunset on their cameras. Tourists walked along the shore as they enjoyed the breaking of astronomical twilight, the cold touch of wind was ironic to the fiery skies up above us. We’ve reached our two-storey quarter, which was being renovated at that time, and settled for a bit before we did the hours of works and acquaintances until the electricity went off at 9:00 p.m.

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Photo was taken by another team member, Simon Hilbourne

It was a very tiring day and we all went to our respective place to sleep. I was offered to sleep on an airbed—the best thing I’ve had on that day. I positioned the bed in the balcony so that the fresh cold breeze from the sea would complement its comfiness. I was about to drift off, but the vast stillness of impenetrable umbra and its astral display of diverse constellations were too sublime not to be gazed upon. For a moment, I realized that tomorrow is the beginning of a month-long island adventure with LAMAVE. And as I closed my eyes, the breaking of waves became a soothing lullaby to that peaceful darkness.

To be continued …

Earth is Everything’s Home

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It is true that the earth is what we all have in common–spoken once by Wendell Berry, a novelist and an environmental activist. The earth is what makes everything alive and through her services, human civilizations were able to flourish and thrive. But since the advent of industrialization in 1670s, humans seem to forget the role they play and services they have to render in return for the hospitality of our mother nature. According to the concept of Planetary Boundaries, we are now entering the stage of Anthropocene, a new geological epoch wherein humans became the main driver of environmental conditions. In this epoch, efforts to develop sustainably and massive information drive is needed to pose awareness especially to the young people, who are perceived as more proactive over the issues in environmental status quo.

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Industrialization undermines the homeostatic ability of our Mother Earth (source: google images)

Young people seem to be the change-makers of old people’s miscalculation of their footprints. And speaking of footprints, humans have reached to a point where the carbon emitted exceeds the CO2 sequestration that our world can do in a year. These have caused anomalous climate patterns around the world, acidifying of oceans, the much publicized global warming, and many more. In the Living Planet Report 2014 of the WWF, it stated that our demand for renewable ecological resources, the goods and services they provide, is now equivalent to more than 1.5 earths. Not to mention, that lots of countries today whose footprint exceeds their biocapacity is steadily increasing causing competition that affect people and the system significantly. These are only parts of a bigger picture that young people will be looking at as they face the detriments of today’s social-ecological system.

This year is a ’now or never’ opportunity for global action. The limit of time is knocking on our doors waiting for our swift action. Young people need to be sparks that needs no ignition to inspire other people to do things with passion and determination as they battle human arrogance. As youths, we should be proactive in addressing local environmental issues for global cause. The community around is where we start to spark ideas and diversify the solutions, which could be voiced out for greater collective action. This is what ‘integrate knowing with doing’ should be defined – young people thinking globally and acting locally. The bottom-up approach could lead to increased social spheres and networks that strengthen the leadership of young people in making better choices and reduce footprints with environmental and socio-economic benefits in national level. We can be everything for the humanity, for the animals, and for our home. In our own community, we start to spark and this creates chains of reaction with other places to engender a current of change to divert humanity’s course. It can’t be easy, but it can be done.

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These are the United Nation’s new set of Sustainable Development Goals. For the goals to be reached, everyone needs to do their part: governments, the private sector, civil society, and people like you (source: un.org)

Accepting that we are all connected, as what Barry Commoner emphasized in his book Closing Circle, helps us to better understand the needs of protecting both the people and our home, the planet. It is inherent for humanity to have the right to development and to natural resources, but we should also acknowledge the rights of our Mother Nature – to life and to exist, to be respected, and right to integral health. Social system was never possible without nature, in the same way natural system can’t exist without society.Borrowing the words of Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, he said:

Things look so worrying that it may seem difficult to feel positive about the future. Difficult, certainly, but not impossible – because it is in ourselves, who have caused the problem, that we can find the solution. And it is by acknowledging the problem and understanding the drivers of decline that we can find the insights and, more importantly, the determination to put things right.

In order for us young people to effectively address the problem, we must learn to acknowledge it. Anyway at the end, we will all reap the benefits of our actions despite of what race we came from, country we belong in, and social strata we go along with. Our love for Mother Nature binds us all in attaining an epoch-making goal and that is true to what Wendell Berry have said, that the earth needs the utmost protection in today’s environmental crises, as she is everything’s home.