Signing off for a while

I’ve recently returned to the Philippines for a new, nine-month assignment helping in LGU Canaman’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office.

Its been good to spend the past two months in Australia, spending time with loved ones, travelling to some beautiful places and just living in my hometown where I don’t always stand out like I do in the Philippines.

But this time also made me realise how much of an impact the Philippines and its people has had upon me.  I missed the Philippines and the work I was doing while back in Australia.  I’m hopeful that the learning and two-way exchange that happened last time will continue. And more than anything, I hope that I can become a part of the team, rather than an outsider looking in from a distance.

This is why I’ve decided that I don’t intend to blog for the next little while.  Although it has been an important way to share stories and reflect on experiences, it also forces me to reflect on things as an outsider looking in.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but something I dont think I want to do in the months ahead. I want to live in the moment a little bit more, and enjoy living and working in the Philippines without always thinking about what might make a good blog post.

I intend on leaving the blog live for a little while yet, but may put it to bed as well. Thanks to everyone who has shown an interest in my life and work in the Philippines – I have certainly appreciated the comments and encouragement.

Pre-departure thoughts

In a few hours, I will fly back to Australia. As I think about the year that has been, the weeks ahead in Australia and the prospect of returning to the Philippines for an additional nine months, many thoughts and feelings come to mind.

1. Satisfaction

Reflection on my year’s work at an exit interview earlier in the week made me realise how satisfied I am about how I’ve spent the past twelve months.  I applied to come to the Philippines hoping that my few years of professional experience, combined with enthusiasm and a wiliness to learn would somehow ‘make a difference’.  As I learnt more about the volunteer program and heard horror stories of how well-meaning westerners have done real damage to developing countries, I tried to lower my expectations to “do no harm”.

And while the full benefit (or otherwise) of my presence will not be known for some time, inside myself, I feel reasonably confident that I haven’t done major harm and that it has been a useful experience for me and the people I have been working with.

It has been a learning experience for all involved; I am the first foreign volunteer to come and work with the municipality, and it was my first experience of working in a developing country.  We regularly talked about the two way learning that was taking place – just as I was being asked to adjust my expectations to suit the local context, my workmates and others in the municipality were also, in effect, being asked to adjust their expectations of  foreigners. 

And because it was a learning experience for us all, we didn’t always get it right and had our share of awkward moments.  There were times when I pushed too hard with my own ideas and didn’t really listen to those around me, and other time when I was expected to do, say or accept things that were very difficult for me.  But like any healthy relationship, these things are okay if we see them in the context of learning.

I guess I derive satisfaction from this not because it has always been easy or comfortable, but rather because I feel that my efforts to understand the local context have been matched by efforts of those around me to include me, accept me and understand the world I came from.

 2. Thankfulness

I really am thankful to God/ the universe/something for many things about the past year.

As I explained to my manager in the exit interview, many factors combined to make it a positive experience, including:

  • A well defined project, with an identified ‘gap’ that I could fill
  • A very hard working, positive and eager direct supervisor/counterpart, with whom I shared a similar worldview and commitment to our project
  • A  technical working group at the municipality with sustained enthusiasm for our project and an openness to try new techniques
  • Being placed in a small municipality that was open to my presence, and invited me to contribute to many projects beyond my actual assignment
  • Working alongside people who regularly thanked me for my contributions – and threw a surprise farewell party earlier this week
  • Local political support for our project
  • Living and working in a place that doesn’t have ‘baggage’ about the presence of foreigners
  • Welcoming workmates and neighbours who invited me to fiestas, drinking sessions, weddings, christenings etc
  • High levels of English proficiency and familiarity with ‘western values’ – despite my height and skin colour, I didn’t feel I ‘stood out’ as much as I have when travelling elsewhere in south east Asia
  • The presence  of other Australian volunteers in the area, some of whom became close friends
  • The ability to make some friends outside of work
  • 3 sets of visitors from Australia and regular contact and support from home
  • Living and working in a really beautiful place without too many annoyances
  • No major sickness or injury.

Many of the above factors were outside my control, so all I can do is acknowledge them and be thankful for them.

Below: Photos from the surprise farewell party, a symbol of the generous, thoughtful and thankful people I have been working with.

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 3. Optimism about the future

I guess its because of the first two points that I’m optimistic about the year ahead. I’m pretty excited about going home and returning to the familiar, but am glad that I’m coming back.  I’m optimistic that the way we have worked this past year has set the tone well for the next assignment.

And at that deeper ‘existential meaning’ level, I feel more optimistic life and the future now than I did a year ago.  In recent years, personal challenges for me have been managing stress and the need to be liked by those around me.  Experiences that occurred as a result of living and working in such a different country, both positive and negative, have helped me start to work through these issues, and as a result, I feel that I’m a more grounded and balanced individual that I was a year ago .  This gives me hope for the future.

4. Uncertainty

Finally, though, it is also true that this experience has made me less certain about where I will live and work in the years ahead.  I sometimes wonder if spending more time overseas is somehow delaying ‘the inevitable’ of settling down with a steady job, mortgage and family – because I’ve wet the appetite for a very different career and life.  I wonder if these experiences have or will change me in ways that will make it harder for me to return to life and work in Australia. I also wonder if I have changed in ways that put a strain on old friendships.  I guess the next few weeks will be a good litmus test about whether this uncertainty is well founded.

So, in short,I can honestly say that I’m satisfied with how I’ve spent the past twelve months, thankful for many things that swung in my favour, optimistic about the year ahead and increasingly uncertain about the rest of my life!

A Second Year in the Philippines

I’m excited to say that I’ve just accepted a new assignment that we see me spend a further 9 months in the Philippines.

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As of May, I will work as a Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Officer at the Municipal Government of Canaman, which is the organisation I have been working with for the past year.

I will be working in the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office, currently staffed by one person, to help prepare the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan.  We will be using a community-based risk assessment methodology which was piloted last year by the CARE-funded NGO, ACCORD.  I’ve included extracts of the assignment description at the bottom of this blog post.

I will return to Australia on March 14, as originally planned, meaning I’ll have two months to re-connect with Australian family, friends and life.

I’m really looking forward to spending more time here – I hope to build on the positive momentum and collaboration that we have developed over the last year, improve my Bicol language skills and get better at de-boning meat and fish with fork and spoon.  

And since I’m enjoying living the Philippines and the adventures it provides outside of work, I’m pretty stoked to know it will be home until next February.

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Extract from Assignment Description:

The AVID volunteer will assist, support and increase the capacity of the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office to formalise, develop and implement a comprehensive Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan.

The volunteer will work to co-ordinate the undertaking of community based risk assessments in all 24 barangays (villages), help to integrate technical (e.g. hazard mapping) and qualitative (e.g. outcomes from community risk assessments and barangay consultation) information to help prepare the plan, develop the skills of the office staff, to work across a range of municipal government offices.

Expected Outputs of the Assignment:

1. Conduct and documentation of community based risk assessments in all 24 barangays in Canaman.

2. Documentation of Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan

3. Documentation of strategies and processes to support implementation of Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan.

4. Improved capacity of Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction Office to fulfill its functions, along with improved capacity of the Local Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council and other municipality offices to address Disaster Risk Reduction and Management in their activities.

Zoning Ordinance, Building in the Flood Zone and a Public Hearing

Its been nearly two months since I last penned my thoughts on this blog.  In this time, I celebrated Christmas here in the Philippines, hosted a party for the Australian volunteers living in the Bicol region, celebrated the new year in Palawan, and enjoyed visits from my sister and her partner, and more recently, a close friend from Adelaide.

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This period has been just as busy at work as outside it.  The past month has seen our office complete drafts of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan and Zoning Ordinance.  Our office also (at very short notice) prepared for, facilitated and documented the outcomes of a two-day workshop with local government officials and civil society organisations as part of the National Government’s Grassroots Budgeting program.

And earlier this week, we hosted the Public Hearing for the Comprehensive Land Use Plan and Zoning Ordinance – the main projects I have been working on this year.    

In the midst of all this, I am continuing to  reflect on how planning and Government in general is done in the Philippines – and what I’m learning in this process.  Here are a few things I’ve been thinking about…

Achieving the prized flexibility in Zoning Regulation 

As we prepared the draft Zoning Ordinance, the regular cry from some elected officials and municipality staff was flexibility – the idea that zoning regulation should not “get in the way” of development. Such notions are not unique to the Philippines and characterise many development and planning debates in Australia.

As we discussed these ideas , I found myself thinking about my university courses about the history of town planning and the changes to planning under different political ideologies.  I guess the big question we have pondered is why bother plan and regulate land use and intervene in people’s freedom.

I tend to think that while zoning regulation should not create regulation for “regulations sake”, some form of land use regulation is needed to achieve basic environmental, safety, and health goals.

The question, then, is how much regulation is needed to achieve these “greater good” goals.  Here in the Philippines, there are many cases where zoning regulations could be less rigid, such as with respect to non-residential development in a residential zone.  In this case, we have introduced parameters to allow such uses to be assessed on their merits, in recognition that hard-and-fast regulation does not lead to good development approval processes or outcomes (or worse, is completely ignored)

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Building in the Flood Hazard – Balancing DRR with the right to build indigenous housing

As I have previously blogged, disaster risk reduction (DRR) is an under-pinning philosophy for our project, in that we want to use long term plans and zoning regulation to lessen the vulnerability of people and places to known disaster risks.

This becomes tricky as we take these ideas into the detail of zoning regulation.  While we know that all parts of the municipality are at risk of flooding in an extreme storm event, there are some places in the municipality that are more likely to be flooded regularly, and/or in a way that threatens life and property. This includes both downstream flooding, as well as ‘upstream’ storm surge.

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The updated Zoning Ordinance includes a Flood Hazard Area, the spatial coverage of which is based upon different studies and mapping undertaken by national government agencies, and verified locally by the municipality (since no single study is considered accurate enough to be relied upon in full).

Below is an excerpt from an information sheet (which will be translated in Bicol) which explains our approach for managing development in this area:

The Flood Hazard Area contains many existing buildings, as well as un-developed land zoned for residential and commercial development.

New buildings will continue to be constructed in the Flood Hazard Area, although all new development is required to take measures to mitigate the flood hazard risk. 

The Municipality’s updated Zoning Ordinance states that all new development in the Flood Hazard area “will incorporate/demonstrate appropriate flood mitigation techniques”. Development that does not satisfy that regulation may not be issued Locational Clearance or Development Approval.

The regulation is flexible to recognize that there are many different ways that flood risk can be mitigated.  That being said, it is important that some efforts are taken to ensure we reduce the vulnerability of people and property to a known flood hazard.

The information sheet goes on to provide pictorial and text-based examples of adequately addressing the flood risk.  This includes homes on stilts, building different rooms of homes to different levels, and options for indigenous housing made from palm fonds and similar materials. The key message is that there is no “one size fits all” approach to mitigating flood risk.

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Getting to this point has been difficult.  On one hand, the ability to construct indigenous housing (simple housing made from native construction materials) is close to a right in any zone in the municipality.  Such homes do not generally need approval due to their small size and construction materials, and this is important in allowing all people to construct simple shelter.  At the same time, we must respond to known information about disaster risks, and do all we can to ensure most people are living in sturdy homes in places that are less vulnerable to disasters.

At the heart of the new approach is a commitment from the municipality to provide better information to people about the risks that exist in different locations – and a willingness to discuss options to mitigate these risks for the very different construction types that are used.  Time will tell how easy it is to follow through with this commitment in municipality communications and front-line services.

Learning from the Public Hearing 

The municipality held its Public Hearing about the Comprehensive Land Use Plan and Zoning Ordinance earlier this week. Its an important consultation process at the detailed end of the project, and for us, is a milestone as our role diminishes while the review-and-adoption role of the local elected council (Sangunnian Bayan) grows.

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To start with, the level of participation was impressive, with 118 participants and good age and gender break down.  I expected less than half of that. 

In terms of the contributions, the forum was remarkably similar to meetings in Australia – there were a few people who tried to dominate the microphone, but in general, everyone who wanted to could speak for as long as they wanted.

The comments provided were generally useful – a mixture of suggestions that can be directly taken on board, as well as clarifications that (hopefully) helped people understand the municipality’s plans and zoning/development assessment system.

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For me, it was good to just sit and listen, and try to understand the proceedings in Bicol.  Although I did not understand every word, I like the way the municipal planner, engineer and agriculturist shared the facilitation, and never rushed people making their comments.

The municipality’s website contains a number of information sheets and draft reports prepared in advance of the Public Hearing, along with other reports and plans – see http://www.canaman.gov.ph/

Has super-typhoon Haiyan changed how we view our work?

I recently penned some thoughts about super-typhoon Haiyan, and how it relates to my work, for the Australian Volunteers for International Development UNPACKED Digital Magazine.

Here’s a snippet of the article:

…Although our area was spared from major devastation, Haiyan has caused my colleagues and I to reflect on whether we would be ready. The municipality, with the help of a European Commission-sponsored NGO, recently evacuated over 300 people from an island village – 70% of the total population – as a demonstration of disaster preparedness. While a great success as a text-book activity, we wonder if it could be replicated across all 24 villages to evacuate 32,000 people if and when a super typhoon comes our way.

We have been developing a new zoning ordinance and development approval process that is responsive to known information about flood and sea-level rise hazards. Again, we are now asking ourselves if this is enough. Everyone agrees that measures need to be taken to ensure people are not living in areas known to be flood-prone, and in homes strong enough to withstand storm events – but doing so can come at a real cost, especially to landless people who are trying to establish basic shelter using indigenous construction materials.

The big unknown in all this important work is climate change. There has been widespread reporting of the impassioned comments made by the Philippines’ lead climate negotiator at the UN Climate talks, linking climate change with the increasing frequency and intensity of storm events like Haiyan.

Although we cannot attribute individual events to climate change, the latest research is drawing links between a warmer Pacific and the intensity and frequency of super-storm events in the Philippines, along with changing rainfall and temperature patterns and a changed geography of disasters. This means that local governments like Canaman must live with the tension that the climate science is imprecise, yet the risk reduction and preparedness actions must be concrete.

To read the full article, go to http://redcross.org.au/unpacked/3/  and click the link to the article “Foreseeing the unforeseeable”.  

Some of my comments also feature in the article “Prepared to make a difference” which discusses the work of three Australian volunteers working in disaster-related assignments in the Philippines.

Anecdotes from a great weekend

Its been a bit of a sad period here thinking, reading and talking about the supertyphoon – it is providing a slightly uncomfortable reference point for our disaster risk reduction work in the municipality – so I really enjoyed a busy, distracted weekend.

Tree Planting during a “Fun Bike”

Community bike rides, called Fun Bikes (taken from Fun Run) are common here in the Philippines.  On Friday night, myself and another volunteer traveled to Legaspi City, where the Department of Environment  was hosting a free Fun Bike event as part of clean air month.

Although the connection between bike riding and clean air didn’t seem to be discussed during the event promotions/introductory speeches, I was impressed with how the organizers made all the riders stop at one point to pot soil for seedlings, and participate in a environmental quiz.   Riders had to correctly answer a general environmental question before being allowed back on the bike… I’m guessing that originally the questions were meant to be about pollution or clean air month, but something got lost along the way as I answered a question about trees vs shrubs vs flowers, while my friend was asked a question about the definition of a parasite.

Later in the ride, we stopped at a revegetation site where all riders planted a tree.  All in all, it was a great way to see the sights of a different city in the area, and the potting, planting and quiz were all good additions to a community bike ride.

Warming up with the Rice Dance 

On Sunday, I again woke at 4.30am, this time for a Fun Run.  This was back in Naga City, the city near where I live.  The event was called “Run For Rice” and was one of many Year of the Rice events happening around the Philippines this year.

The highlight of this event was the “Bayle Bagas” – Rice Dance – which was the warm up and warm down activity.  No joke, the Bayle Bagas is a dance whereby the entire rice production process, including scattering seed, plant growth, watching for pests, harvest, milling and eating, was put to dance moves, and set to the tune of the “Chicken Dance” (a popular kids song/dance in Australia).

I was also impressed with the presentations after the fun run, with the organisers talking about the importance of rice production to the Bicol region (currently at 130% rice sufficiency, making the region a net rice exporter), the importance of organics and applying new ideas to rice produciton, and the need to produce and promote brown, black, red and unpolished rice varieties for nutritional purposes.

Understanding the local anarchy scene

Later that day, I was invited to drinks with a mixture of expats and Filipinos – including one guys who labels himself as an anarchist.  I know plenty of left leaning people back in Australia, with whom I enjoying discussing the best response to the social and ecological crises of our times.  We normally talk about whether its best to work for change within “the system” or try to change the system from the outside.  I tend to think we need both – those outside the system often provide the momentum and “skweaky wheels” needed for changes to take place within the system.

I enjoyed hearing the anarchist perspective on all of this, as this guy’s view was that there should be no system at all.  I haven’t met many “activist” type people in the Philippines- and I was particularly interested in how far left views intersect with views on development, and poverty alleviation in the Philippines. I cant say that I’m now an anarchist, but these sorts of conversations help me clarify what it is that I think I believe.

The weekend also involved having people over for lunch at my apartment, attending the first birthday party of a friend’s child and a Bicol language lesson.  Although weekends with so much stimulation and activity cannot be sustained every weekend, I’ve certainly entered the new week refreshed and reminded how much fun everyday life in this country can be. 

Weeks turning into months

Weeks are quickly flowing into months – here’s a long-overdue update of my life and work here in the Philippines

1. Super typhoon Yolanda

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Super typhoon Yolanda has, of course, been making headlines all around the world.  Thankfully the Bicol region where I work was largely spared the brunt of its force – all we felt were strong wind and rain, and lost power for a day. Other parts of the Philippines were not so lucky.

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Like always happens following these events, the heart wrenching stories in the media have been interspersed with criticism about disaster preparedness before the event and the immediate response afterwards.

While I don’t pretend to be across the detail of either the preparations and response, I feel that some of this criticism, especially levelled within a week of the event, is a little unfair considering it was the most powerful storm to ever hit land. A disaster of this scale would confound the best disaster preparedness and response systems – and at this time, criticisms about what “should have happened” aren’t going to get food and water to those in need.

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 2. Working together to prepare the Executive and Legislative Agenda

Our work in land use and disaster risk reduction planning has been sidelined these past few months as we have focused on the Executive and Legislative Agenda (ELA).

ELA is a short term action plan for the municipality that elected officials were required to prepare following the May elections.   As a short term plan, it is more action-oriented than other strategic plans and in an ideal world, would allow long term strategies to merge with the short term election promises.

I was invited to work with the Planning and Development Coordinator, and the local representative of the Department of Interior and Local Government (national government department) to help scope and implement a process to prepare the ELA.  This took shape in two full-day workshops with elected officials and department heads, followed by a collaborative effort to actually write the plan.

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The later is among my work highlights to date because we were able to involve a group of five (ELA Technical Working Group) in documenting the ELA.  Capacity building is a big focus of these volunteer assignments, but day-to-day pressures to get work done, busy staff and other barriers often make capacity development difficult.  This means that many volunteers, including myself from time to time, find themselves “doing” more than they would like, and left wondering what will happen once they are removed from the organisation.

Not so this time – following the workshops, I prepared a simple workshop summary, which formed the basis of discussions with the Technical Working Group about the content, as well as structure of the ELA.  We then talked about how we would convert the workshop outputs into a plan, and divided different sections between the group.  After a week, we reconvened to share our draft outputs, which were then massaged by the Planning and Development Coordinator, and myself, to ensure consistent expression in the final plan.

I found the entire experience enjoyable and rewarding on a number of fronts – firstly, being involved in municipal-wide action planning provided an opportunity to see which aspects of long term plans (such as climate change related actions) are infiltrating to short term action planning; secondly, on a personal level, it provided a great opportunity to facilitate workshops with a large number of participants- something I have assisted in but never done alone; finally and most importantly, we were able to develop a process with multiple people actually writing the plan, which I think resulted in a higher quality output while also developing skills and confidence in plan writing.

3. Budget Blues

This optimism and positivity surrounding the process of developing the ELA has been, however, somewhat dampened by the process surrounding the 2014 budget. The ELA outlined indicative costings of all actions, along with an implementation schedule for 2014, 2015 and 2016.  Although this is not the forum to explore these issues in detail, it seems that the 2014 budget will not contain specific “line budgeting” for the various projects and activities and instead contain a lump sum allocations for “Projects, Programs and Activities”.  This, in turn, means that it is less likely that all the identified priority projects for 2014 will actually be implemented, because the lump sum can be used to fund just about anything.

4.  Getting into the detail of the “Zoning Ordinance”

These past few weeks, my colleagues and I have been getting into the detail of the zoning ordinance.  For me, this is among the more interesting aspects of our work here as we reflect on all the technical data, flooding and sea level rise mapping, comments from consultations and think about how we should change the development approval process in response.

We were pleased that six of our elected officials chose to attend a two day training around the preparation of a zoning ordinance, which followed a full day workshop that I ran with all elected officials.  A highlight of the training was the exercise dances every morning!!

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After the three days, the municipal planner commented that its rare to have such interest and engagement in the detail of a project like this.  I couldn’t agree more – generating interest in the detail of zoning/development assessment policy is not an easy task anywhere in the world.

We’re hopeful that this early engagement in the detail of the zoning ordinance – and – of course, the complexity and ‘trade offs’ that are always made when developing hard and fast development approval guidelines – will help the elected officials later in the year when they must digest, consider, modify and (hopefully) approve the updated zoning ordinance.

5.  Christmas is coming

Christmas is a big deal in the Philippines – the season officially starts on September 1 – and office decorations went up soon after. The shops are playing carols and everywhere you go there are little stores on the side of the roads selling tacky decorations and lights.  Our workplace is considering directing some/most/all of the funds set aside for the Christmas party to the typhoon recovery which seems most appropriate – although I still hope we can find a way to celebrate.

Normally, I’m not into Christmas decorations and all that guff – but being in the Philippines, for some reason, I don’t find it at all offensive and am, in fact, embracing it!  Below are a few pictures from our very Christmassy office, and home.

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6. Saying goodbye to “Tiyo”

Last week we said goodbye to our co-volunteer David Hatherly who is affectionately known as “Tiyo” (uncle).  David started his eight month assignment as the same time as myself and two others, and, with a love of bike riding and working in a nearby municipality, we developed a close friendship.

Highlights of our time together were numerous bike rides exploring this beautiful part of the world (most of the time not knowing where we were), hanging out with his fun loving and karaoke singing work-colleagues, and the odd late night red-wine induced discussions about development in the Philippines, the meaning of life and politics with other Australian volunteers.

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We were all sad to see David go – but I guess this is all part of living in another part of world… meeting great people, enjoying some time together, and letting them go.

7. Terrific Tagaytay

Finally, earlier in the month, I enjoyed a few days’ break in Tagaytay, famous for its cool temperatures and spectacular scenery.  The main attraction is Lake Taal, where there is a volcano inside a lake, which itself is inside a volcano.  The town of tagaytay is set up on the ridge of the bigger volcano.  Anyway, I’ll let a few pictures do the talking.

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