Friday, 4 April 2014

Meeting the Walians

Visiting Wales has been an absolutely incredible experience – although we were only there for a short time in sad circumstances it was great to meet the Welsh part of the family. I've become ‘Ach Sam-antaah bach!’ (a name that I don’t usually like, but as the Welsh can beautify any word instantly with their gorgeous accents I didn't mind being called it in the slightest).

Destination: Tumble
Of all the countries I’ve visited in the last two years, I have to say that Welsh hospitality is incredible – on a level with Thailand - if slightly more aggressive! Be prepared, on entering Wales, to be more or less force-fed until you can’t eat a single bite more – then fed again! Submission is the only option. If you refuse another cake, the poor host is mortally offended – but if you accept, ‘just a small one’, they’ll ply you with at least two. If you give a compliment to the cook, they’ll add another to your plate ‘because you like them!’ so really it’s a no-win situation for the waistline. An extended stay in Wales would have been very damaging to my wardrobe.  

My favourite: delicious welshcakes
The language is so exotic compared to English, truly it was like listening to the beauty of Thai for the first time, all over again. There were certain aspects of Welsh which reminded me, rather peculiarly of Spanish, (probably all the rolled ‘r’s) – even when a Walian is speaking in English. My brother (the Welsh Dodgeball player) confidently tells me that the Welsh for ‘speed bump’ is ‘bumpity bump’, although I’m not sure I believe him, as Google translate does not confirm this.

Although Welsh is no longer widely spoken (wiki informs me that only 19% of the Welsh population said they could speak Welsh in the 2011 census) it would seem that the entire population of Tumble, my maternal grandmother’s ancestral home are part of that figure.
The town used to be a mining one – with many fascinating concepts to me. When young boys finished their education (in those days around 14, although sometimes much earlier) they were sent down into the mines to work. You can imagine what a horrible job this was; in the winter they would be waking up in darkness, walking or cycling to the mine in darkness, working for 12 hours in lamplight and returning home after dark. Many miners developed medical issues as a result of the conditions below ground. On the plus side, a worker is given free coal for life. As a result, on entering the home of an ex-miner you had to be pretty quick to get your cold weather gear off before you began to sweat. Houses are kept at around 25°c although sometimes as hot as 28°C with the use of Agas which are constantly on!

Also similar to travelling in Asia – the personal questions which were fairly quick to arrive:
‘Sam-antaah! Now then, how old arrre ye?’
‘And arrre ye marrrid?
‘Erm, not just yet…’
Unlike Asian people who seem to think that being unmarried at 24 is a crime, my grandmothers’ relation responded with:
‘Well, good forrr ye, Sam-antaah!’

To give you an idea of what a small community it is: we went to visit the graveyard where most of my grandmother’s family are buried. My Grandma began chatting to a random man that was walking amongst the graves. He seemed to know most of her family tree – after asking her if she was from the area, they swapped known acquaintances.

‘I used to work with Ieuan and Handel – oh they were your neighbours?’

He showed her graves of more of her family members and then introduced her to an old lady who had just arrived. They swapped life stories. The lady said that she’d done the milk run along my grandmothers’ road since she was seven years old.

‘Ah, Pegs, did you know Moll?’
‘Moll P? Yes, she was my cousin.’
‘Ah, well then, we’re rrrelatives! She was marrrid to ma cousin Vernon!’

What a crazy small world, eh?

Although the town has changed somewhat since my Nan’s days there (she reminisced about running along the lanes with endless fields on either side, dotted with the odd farmhouse, now all converted into fast motorways and new-build bungalows) the fact that nearly everyone you meet in the street is known to you is amazing. It must bolster a sense of camaraderie – or at least mutual trust in the people around you. For example, whilst in a local pub I went into the ladies toilets. I was standing at the sink as a woman came in. She put her handbag on the side of the sink counter and went into the cubicle. Can you imagine that ever happening in a big city? If you were crazy enough to try that, you’d surely not make the same mistake again! As a kid in the village you’d never misbehave around other people because you could be sure that it would get back to your parents.

I must admit that small town rural life does have its charms. I’m not sure I could do it for long, but imagine knowing all of the people around you well. Here, in this day and age in the suburbs, we tend to stick to people we know, our friends and family and avoid everyone else. We barely know our own neighbours! The old man we were chatting to had a friend with him. Although he was fluent in Welsh, and had lived in the area for 26 years, he was still considered to be ‘from Essex’ as that’s where he’d come from originally! Imagine still being an outsider after all that time!

Part of my grandmother's grandparents farmhouse wall

Friday, 14 March 2014

Living on WWII rations

My failed experiment – living on rations in London. 

For the last week I have been attempting to live on WWII rations – given my recent interest in the era, it seemed like a good way to gain further understanding of life at home during the war.

You could quite easily finish off your weekly rations in a single meal – let alone one day (the British breakfast, for example). Churchill famously approved the ration sizes after misunderstanding that they were weekly rations. It’s an easy mistake to make. The rations were small. One of the advantages of rationing was that many people actually became much healthier whilst living on the rations.

This is an idea of what you’d get: 
3 pints of milk
100g bacon/ham
100g margarine
50g butter
100g cheese
225g sugar
50g tea (approx 15 teabags although they weren't widely used.)
50g cooking fat
1 egg
Meat (to the value of £1.20 in today’s money)
55g preserves (jam, honey, marmalade etc)
85g of sweets

In addition to this, you would have 16 points per month, which could go towards tins of meat or fish, dried fruit, split peas, imported goods or other items which could be difficult to obtain. You would be able to bulk out the rations with potatoes, bread (not rationed until after the war), other vegetables you could get (particularly those grown in your ‘victory garden’) and offal and sausages which weren't rationed for most of the war. Whether the sausages would be good or not was another question - the Ministry of Food announced that sausages had to contain at least 10% meat! 

People could also trade their egg rations for chicken feed, if they had the space to keep chickens themselves. Although they were allowed to keep their own chickens and slaughter them for meat as required, it was a different story with pigs. Pigs had to be registered (the government would take 50% of the meat upon slaughter) which meant that of course some people kept pigs without informing anyone.  

There was also a black market, although public opinion seems to have discouraged the use of illegally gaining extra rations or supplies, as there was a belief that you were being unpatriotic if you did so. You were also likely to end up with horse meat (never rationed and legally available to buy) if you tried to buy beef. 

The wealthy were also at an advantage during the rationing – although you had strict stamps in your book for acquiring your allowance, you did not have to show this at restaurants or canteens. Many factory workers also benefited as they could have a meal at their place of work which wouldn't count as part of their rations (although they weren't allowed more than one item which was under rationing). Restaurants were also limited in how much food they were able to serve - diners were restricted to three courses. 

So my challenge was set – at home I was strictly limited to only eating within the rations. However outside I was able to eat whatever I wanted in restaurants etc. Apparently my experiment has failed, simply because I eat out too often. Of the 21 ‘rationed’ meals I should have eaten this week, ten of them have been in restaurants, or someone else’s house. Also as the most common meal I seem to eat at home (breakfast) is literally what I would normally eat (cereal with milk or toast with jam) I haven’t really experienced much in the way of a different diet, although of course I've been using less milk with my cereal than I would have before. Eating snacks at home became really hard - I basically figured that all biscuits, crisps and chocolates were out of bounds. Even harder to work around (because you can always make biscuits or scones that are within the rations) was the fruit: oranges were reserved for kids, bananas and kiwis were unheard of during war years and everything else is seasonal. Likewise orange juice was only available to children and pregnant women. 

My victory garden has not done well...I've yet to find someone who wants me to dig up their lawn so I can plant vegetable seeds. Although normally I would make my own jam from the cherry and plum trees we have in the back garden. 

In doing this research I am starting to feel guilty about food waste - even though in this household we are fairly good at not wasting food, compared to wartime conditions, we are terrible! For example, housewives never peeled carrots or potatoes, seeing that as a waste of food. Instead they would scrub them clean before cooking them. Wasting food became a criminal offence in 1940 and fines were handed out to those who did so. 

I used my experiment into life at home in the war as an excellent excuse to visit Chislehurst Caves - the largest wartime air raid shelter. At most, it housed some 15,000 people nightly! It was a fascinating trip to see some very local culture which I previously knew nothing about. For example, there are actually no natural caves in Chislehurst. The caves are simply a very lengthy (22 miles in total) network of tunnels, carved as a result of the chalk and flint mining. Interestingly, it was also later used as a location for gigs - the small stage in the caves has featured artists like: The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and David Bowie! You can't imagine what an awesome venue it must have been! 

I've thoroughly enjoyed my adventure into WWII London, although I know I have barely scratched the surface of everything that happened in this period. 

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Grandma's Project

Not only is this visit home turning into a trip down memory lane*, it has also become a bit of a history project. Since I extended my stay here my Grandma asked me to help empty out her shed. Yesterday the two of us spent hours clambering over piles of precariously balanced junk, brushing off cobwebs to open dusty boxes which haven’t seen daylight for at least twenty years and rearranging gardening tools to access musty, damp filing cabinets. I loved every second of it. Partly because I got to spend some quality time with my Nan, but also this is one of my absolute favourite activites to do. A history lesson that you’re part of - you can see, feel and smell the results of an art project (a vase?) that your mother did when she as six. Or coursework your grandfather completed some 50 years ago. 

Whilst digging through this absolute treasure trove of debris, collected from at least three generations we came across several cool things (or at least I think they're awesome). My new favourite pair of sunglasses - Willson round eye protectors, complete with leather sides to stop dust/sunlight, pre-1920s. This brought back some lovely memories for my Gran - she suspects they belonged to 'Uncle Ernie' who was apparently 'a right character'. He used to be very into cycling - hence the glasses. She told me that on a weekend he would cycle from his house in Essex all the way to a family house in Knutsford on a tandem bike, with his daughter - some 200+ miles!! 

I think my Grandma enjoys reliving these memories - I certainly love hearing them, especially when they're told with an artefact that you can handle. I've never seen a picture of Uncle Ernie, but I know from the glasses that he must have had a slim face and been fairly eccentric to wear them. 

What else was in there? My favourite stash - in an old leather travelling case there was a huge stack of magazines, dating from 1937 to 1961. I briefly skimmed through them - it's so interesting to see the development of ideas through the pages, for example the front cover illustrations and adverts. Even the stories told within are a fantastic glimpse into life in London during the WWII era. 

And the most interesting part? My Grandma had an old friend, Rose, who used to go to dancing with her. Sadly Rose passed away many years ago. On her death, my grandmother was given a stack of letters written between Rose and her husband, while he was away fighting in WWII. As Rose had no surviving family, my Grandmother was given the letters as they were close friends. I have been reliving one of the saddest, most endearing love stories I've ever heard. This will be a long project - there are over 100 letters written in a fantastic cursive which we no longer learn. Many of the individual letters are long - amazing considering the censorship and the little amount of information a soldier was allowed to share. The longest letters I have found in the collection go up to twenty pages! It’s such an exciting find, I can’t wait to understand Rose and her husband – the problems they must have had with such a long distance relationship over a long period of time – Rose had to manage at home with air raids, rationing and working while Bill was sent away for training in 1940 and doesn’t seem to have been given any home leave until -

Who wants more? Well I won’t spoil anything. If anyone’s interested in hearing more about Rose and Bill I am planning to start a separate blog to record their story for future generations.

Talking with my Grandma about history and her family has made me realise how little I actually know about her past. This has prompted me to start another project – our family tree! It’s been very interesting so far, learning about my ancestors. For example, discovering that there are two capped rugby players in our family. So far, anyway – I haven’t gone back very far!

To conclude then - everyone should always write in fountain pen, for the historians of the future it is much more romantic and secondly everyone should write. A letter, a postcard or even a poem. That is your homework, until next time! 

*sometimes I seem to have a worrying lack of memories, considering I've only been away for two years. I've started to feel like an amnesia patient - people remembering things that I used to which I have no recollection of ever doing! Of course, I was expected to not remember where things are, like kitchen utensils because I was always fairly rubbish at that. I was trying to get somewhere, in the car a few days ago. It is, at most, two miles from my house and I couldn't remember how to get there!! I drove around in circles a few times then gave up. 

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Home vs home Home

Home vs Home Home

Just before I return to the flooded valleys of England, I re-visit my Thai family, which makes me wonder about the differences between my two ‘homes’. Although I’ve stayed with and met other local families along the road, my Thai family tolerated me for the best part of a year, ensuring that I know them better than anyone else I’ve met on my travels.

The main difference between this home and home home (to the same people that use ‘out out’) is the fact that I chose my Thai home. More or less. Obviously I had no idea they would take me in – and the family would be so lovely, but I did get to choose the country, climate and general geography of the local area. Whereas my home home was somewhere that I always took for granted – it’s always been there and felt like it would always be the same.

After not visiting Thailand for a year, it felt like coming home as soon as I stepped out of the airport into the heavy and humid Bangkok night air. Which was incredibly welcome after the frigid dryness of the aeroplane cabin. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Bangkok, but just the smell of all that delicious street food mixed with the burning incense in the temples and shrines plus the fumes of the chaotic traffic is unique. Bangkok was the first city of my trip, so it was a fitting place to return to the UK from.

The familiar sounds of the Thai language welcomed me – along with the functioning Bangkok transport system! It’s a refreshing change after the mayhem of trying to get around Manila. Everything is noisy, dusty and crowded but somehow it all works.

One of the great things I noticed about being back in Bangkok is the security checkpoints at the entrance to each of the MRT/skytrain stations. After walking through a metal detector a guard casually motions you to drop your bag on the table and open it for a search. I have no complaint with the security – I think it’s great that they do it. But it used to annoy me no end when you’re carrying a heavy backpack with whatever other baggage and they only want to see inside the smallest top zip. What would I put in there? At least if you’re going to search my stuff, do it properly! Going through at least three of these checkpoints with an extremely full back pack plus wheelie suitcase and two ‘hand luggage’ bags I was hoping that the guards wouldn't want me to unload everything. Amazingly, all of them seemed content with a brief look inside my hand luggage bag. I know this doesn't sound very interesting, but actually it’s a huge relief when you’re travelling in rush hour in one of the busiest cities on the planet.

Meeting my family again was great. As expected, I had an unpredictable but fantastic time with them. As far as I can tell, it’s useless trying to have any input into activities whilst out with Asian friends. You’ll never know the full plan, so you might as well sit back and enjoy the ride! And so it was that myself and Harpa (Miss Iceland, from the boat) got taken to picnics by waterfalls, met the kids at school again (a spontaneous hug from 30 kids is probably one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me), being taken to a factory for last minute super discount present shopping NOT TO MENTION all the delicious eats which were involved. We also had to go on an emergency airport run to take Kung to catch his first commercial flight. It was hilariously good fun.

After taking Harpa to the bus station the next day I accompanied Kru Goy to go and meet her mother, in a nearby field. We took a large, empty plastic bag with us. On reaching her, we found she had a basket full of molluscs which she’d spent hours digging from the mud in an empty shrimp pond. We tipped the basket into the bag – leaving her an empty basket to carry on with. After lugging the bag back to the motorbike, I went back into the field to catch up with Goy. She introduced me to her elderly auntie, who saw my hands full of the molluscs Goy had just given me. Motioning me to drop the snails, we squatted down in the muddy field under the baking sun while she read my palms.

Through Goy, I was able to understand various facts about myself – although I’d been born and raised in London, Auntie determined that I’d spend my life travelling and working in other places. It will be a long time before I get married, although right now I have two secret admirers (although disappointingly this didn’t equate to any surprises on Valentine’s Day). 

I went back to Bangkok by coach the next day, of course for a last whisky/beer street party before my early morning flight to LONDON TOWN!!

Arriving back it was great to see some friendly faces at the airport – MASSIVE THANKS to Lauren and Megan for meeting me. I definitely would have been in trouble negotiating my way home with all that baggage AND a tube strike to work around! Seeing my family was slightly surreal, as my youngest brother appears to have grown two feet since the last time I saw him, but nobody looks too different other than that.

Something I was thinking about before my return – the smell of home. I remember being on Spanish exchange way back in school and realising that the Spanish kids smelt differently to us (not in a bad way, they just smelt like Spain). I wondered if I would smell different on my return (not that I’d be able to notice) or if anyone’s scent would be more noticeable as I’ve been smelling Asians for the last two years. Although this sounds like a crazy train of thought, it does makes sense. Whilst unpacking I realised that a scarf which had been given to me in Thailand now had a much stronger exotic scent which I hadn’t noticed whilst in Thailand! Also there are some smells that just don't equate in other countries. Like fresh rain in the UK is not the same as the smell as rain elsewhere. But then again, maybe I just got to smell more rain in the UK. :-P

Unfortunately my time at home has already flown by – meet ups in pubs with friends, a wonderfully relaxing spa day (shame my manicure was totally wasted on the slopes), dinner out, a day trip to Dover with a surprise visitor (Vtec I really appreciate you making the effort to come down to visit and I'm super glad you made me play tourist at home! Thanks) and lots of quality down time with family and friends.

I’m surprised at how expensive everything is here – I’d forgotten just how much things cost. Just travel is crazy: a one way ticket to Tunbridge Wells is OVER £10! That’s insane. In Thailand, you can basically travel on a sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for that much (ok slightly more, but you get a bed and everything!).

So what else have I missed about being home?

Obviously, not the weather. It goes without saying that people – friends and family – are right at the top of the list. Unfortunately three weeks in Europe haven’t really been enough to catch up and spend enough time with everyone that I wanted to. And so I’m expecting to see a bunch of people in Asia/Australia in the next year, ok na?

Matilda came out with a great suggestion of things that will be nice about home – dogs. Dogs at home are (with one or two child-mauling exceptions) lovely here. In Muslim countries dogs are considered to be very dirty animals so they are not really kept. Everywhere else a dog is a functional animal – used for guarding the property and not considered a friendly pet. Whilst at anchorage in Coron, we met Skip and Tally, two lovely cruisers who charter their boat around the Philippines. Skip had an incident with one such dog – he bent down to stroke the dog which had appeared to be friendly. The dog changed its mind and jumped up and bit Skip on the face, losing one of his front teeth! Which just sums up my attitude to dogs in Asia; be very careful! 

It's also weird being home - in Asia I never had an accent but apparently here I do! Please feel free to laugh if you notice it. 

Something that’s slightly sad about the nature of travel – I was thinking to myself ‘I can’t wait to go home and see everyone’, but actually I don’t mean everyone. I mean everyone at home, yes. But so many of the amazing people and families I’ve met along my travels I’m not likely to see again. Thousands of miles will always separate us – we live on different corners of the globe or we’re both travelling in opposite directions. You make such quick friendships on the road – bonding instantly with the fellow traveller who’s also stranded in a remote paradise, waiting for that next boat which isn't coming. That’s what the magic of going home is. I know that even if the next time I go back is in five, ten or fifteen years’ time there will always be so many people I love that I can see again and again. Thanks for being there, people! 

Also incredibly grateful to my totally awesome parents for making it possible for me to see everyone (not to mention the beautiful skiing we've been enjoying for the last week!!) 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Twerking, derps and neknominations

 – Coming home

After two years away from home, there are a few things that I’ve fallen behind on. Talking with my family and peers I realise there is a lot that I don’t know about modern ‘culture’ since I’ve left.

Like, for example, Miley Cyrus going all crazy on us and twerking in her underwear at every opportunity.

‘What a shame! She was such a sweet girl!’ As my Grandmother said (or would have if she’d ever watched Hannah Montana.) Ah, the sad predictability of a child stars’ downfall.

To be fair, I probably could have kept up with stuff like this. If I really, really cared.

Interneting abroad is pretty difficult – in the Philippines, the connection was at best, incredibly bad. Most of the time it wasn’t strong enough to upload a single picture. Even sending/receiving emails could be sketchy. Bizarrely (there’s probably a scientific reason for this, science geeks?) I’ve heard the signal was much stronger early in the morning, which basically meant I wasn’t going to achieve anything online until I left the country.

What else have I missed? Little things, like queues. Going into the post office I was slightly overwhelmed by the organised barriers which feed people through a short, winding tour of the room until finally they are called forward by a number flashing on a big screen. In South East Asia, this would more or less have been an invitation to a scrum.

Scones, tea and cream? Yes please! Afternoon tea has become more or less a daily ritual since being back. Before I left it was a very occasional treat - never mind the calories, I’ve practically not stopped shivering since I arrived back anyway. How do you people survive in this coldness?

Do I feel like I’ve been left behind while everyone I left here has moved on?

Yes. So many of my friends seem to be doing something serious – babies, houses, marriage, careers. Although I’ve pretty much already rejected this lifestyle, sometimes a pang of regret at the studied stability of their lives hits me. A boring but dependable job? Same faces day in, day out? I must admit I found myself wanting this after listening to one of my friends talk about their job. Having said that, I can’t imagine lasting long in any type of atmosphere where working in flip flops/barefoot is not possible.

Will I get over this as soon as I have my next cocktail whilst gently swinging in a hammock on a tropical beach? Most probably. 

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Holidays in the Philippines

Ok, so I know I am on some kind of super-extended holiday. But the 'holiday season' was extra awesome as I spent it with my boat family in the Philippines, which is actually a great place to be for Christmas in particular. Petrina and Madara are the two fantastic crew who often get mistaken for real sisters and of course Brian, who is commonly referred to as 'Grandad' when I speak to strangers.  

We started off the season with the boat's very first Christmas tree (well it wouldn't be Christmas without a tree!), complete with a roaring log fire (on DVD at least), mince pies and air con.

 Brian spent Christmas eve afternoon visiting the local hot springs before getting a new tattoo ("Make your dream your story" in ancient Philippino script around his ankle). We attended Church on Christmas Eve - Brian took his 'girlfriend' and sat at the front to repent for all of his sins in the last year. Petrina had fun singing along to the evangelical tunes which didn't really mention Christmas whilst Madara and I played outside with the kids (we got kicked out for talking by Petrina). 

Christmas morning started with a group activity (my present to everyone) which involved a tricycle ride to a remote barangay to rebuild a families' home after it was detroyed by typhoon Haiyan. I was even luckier that they agreed to my harebrained scheme - of allocating money for presents to a much more worthwhile cause: the Glorio family, residents of barangay Balolo - a 20 minute ride from Coron town.

Typhoon Yolanda devastated the area in which they live. Trees are down everywhere - it's incredible to look at the size of them and wonder at the forces required to flatten them. Unfortunately, the Glorio house itself was another victim of the disaster - completely leveled by the winds. They were in a neighbor's house when it happened, around 10pm on the 8th November 2013. I'm glad they had the foresight to stay with the neighbour - not knowing whether their basic shack was strong enough to withstand the gusts of winds that went up to 200mph. 

Petrina was lucky enough to find snow!

With Tomas working every day (and earning a pittance) the family were forced to continue living in their neighbors' house, whilst weeds and insects adopted the remains of their own building. On Christmas we arrived with supplies and spent the day carting usable materials like pieces of wood from the old house to the new frame that Tomas had built in his free time. He'd been unable to progress further on the build because of a lack of materials - especially nails. The frame which he'd already built was held together with twine. Brian proved his worth by instantly getting busy with the hammer and helping to match the vertical support beams and put them in their places. The girls and I learnt how to make traditional thatched roofing from leaves and bamboo canes - although this was a pointless gesture, as Brian kindly paid for the roofing materials to be delivered the next day. We played with the kids and did all we could to help them for the day.
Christmas lunch was very simple  - although I'd stayed up late the night before making sure I cooked enough for everyone to eat, most of the pasta remained uneaten as the kids (we had a head count of 20 at lunch) didn't like it! (It was the first time most of them had eaten pasta - the sweetcorn in it was also something they were unsure about!). Although we were tired, hot, sunburnt and sweaty, this was one of the most satisfying Christmas lunches I've ever eaten. 

On the way back to Coron we stopped at a waterfall and enjoyed splashing around in the freezing waters, which was a perfect way to cool off after the build. 

Being in a Christian country for Christmas is pretty nice...last year the only stranger who wished me 'Merry Christmas' was a call centre worker - the 25th December is a normal day of business. I actually heard it on the radio too - 'Happy Merry Christmas!' which was pretty funny. This is unlike the Philippines, where if you walk down the street and meet anyone they will immediately say, 'Merry Christmas!'. Although they tend to celebrate more on the 24th rather than the 25th - everyone goes to Church (and there are many to chose from), has a late dinner with their family, stays up until after midnight and opens their presents then. 

For new years I left the boat to travel to Boracay and meet up with Petrina and Madara since they'd already left the boat. The travel in itself was pretty awesome. It started with a 4.30am blind underwear kayak ride (the boat was at Busuanga Bay, and I had to catch a ferry at 7am). I've never seen it so dark out - the electricity must have been off in the area as all three resorts were in total darkness. There was no moon and clouds covering what little light the stars would have given me. I met a prearranged motorbike taxi (after getting dressed) which got me to Coron in an hour! Waiting for the ferry, I met Luz, a beautiful spirited Filipino lady. She had a contagious laugh and energy - after offering me a cracker, by way of introduction, she told me that I was never going to be able to forget her. I think this is true: the first hour ride of the long ferry journey she gave me an amazing massage! Unfortunately the rough waves got to her (along with everyone else on the boat) and she spent the next 8 hours lying on her belly and puking her guts out. 

Mary-Jane's emergency, travel-friendly charger.
I think I must exude the right combination of stupidity and vulnerability which gives strangers the idea that unless they take care of me, I'll walk abruptly off the edge of the nearest cliff as soon as they lose sight of me. My new found ferry friends, Luz, Ninia and Mary-Jane ushered me into a tricycle as soon as we docked and took me to several bus stations until I got three seats on a minivan heading to Roxas. The van waited for Petrina and Madara to arrive, and got us all safely and speedily to the port town, just before the 10pm ferry. 

Which we missed.


As we'd all done some serious travelling that day, we'd decided to get a real meal, and a couple of hours sleep in a hotel as the ticket office PROMISED us there was a ferry leaving at 4am. Apparently having a ferry schedule is too much like organisation in the Philippines - the ferry left at 2am while we were sleeping soundly in our beds.

The whole of the next day (new year's eve) was spent hanging around waiting for news on when the next ferry would go. Finally, we boarded at around 6pm. The travel gods must have been with us because it was the best disaster that's ever happened. For a start, we met the twins Paul and Andy who hung out with us for the next 3/4 days, but way cooler than that (sorry guys) there was some music playing on speakers on the ferry:

 A couple of Pinoy guys were walking by, looking like they knew what was going on so I asked them: 'Where's the party at?'

 And it just so happened that they were having a NYE party on the boat! The top deck was cordoned off to passengers for the staff party. They had a massive sound system, disco lights, whisky, beer and food...and all they needed was a couple of whities to get things going! Of course, we were only too happy to oblige...

I think this may actually have been the best (and most unexpected) part of my NYE night. I danced for literally the entire ferry ride (around five hours). The best thing about the dancing was the waves were pretty rough - as the boat swayed with the motion the whole party slid a couple of metres to one side. Everyone would carry on, and slide back a couple of beats later. There was also an incident with setting off fireworks (on a moving boat, off course it was bound to be a disaster!) where it exploded on the deck (next to the lifeboats) but luckily no one was injured. The captain made a few appearances with an airhorn to compete with the music and to have his share of whisky...

When we arrived at Caticlan (not even our final destination!) the Captain tried to convince us to stay and party the rest of the night away with them, but we knew our next stop already. 
6 adults + baggage basically in the sidecar of a motorbike
ANOTHER boat ride got us to Boracay, where it was...raining. Fortunately the rain stopped some time after midnight (we watched the fireworks through the rain and joined with a street parade en route to our accommodation) and were ready to go out by around 2am.

Boracay is a great party place. With one of the most perfect white sand beaches I've ever seen (and I've seen a few!) it's also an incredibly beautiful place, if overrun with tourists. We stayed out every night until at least 7am. I am slightly ashamed that the only times I went swimming in the admittedly dirty water (lots of boats running around everywhere) was at the end of a night out. Likewise, the beach was most enjoyed during the night while we were dancing with sand between our toes. 

My break was over too quickly, but of course the way back was full of excitement too! Luckily the helpful friends I'd made kept me posted on the ferry delays (back to Coron from San Jose). Which meant I got to spend a whole extra bonus hours in Boracay. I made the most of them. 

Back on the boat I met Harpa, our first Icelandic crew member and Matilda, from Sweden. Both of them are fun and awesome girls who are more creative than me - arts and crafts until 2am quickly became an established tradition. Matilda is a gifted napper who has an uncanny ability to wake up as soon as the arts and crafts come out! As I'm writing a bit behind the times, Harpa has already left us (although I'm excited to meet with her again very soon in Thailand).

 I have so much to be grateful for this past year. The last ten months on the boat have been fantastic with adventures and explorations in five different countries with 30 crew members on the boat who have all become good friends. I can also report that I have done my 100th dive...naked*!

As the song goes, it truly has been 'the most magical time of the year'. I hope that you have had a similarly excellent holiday season and wishing you all the best for a fantastic 2014! 

If I were to have a new years' resolution, it would be this:

To make sure that I am always at the secret party on the top of the boat enjoying my last moments while the Captain-less ship steers into rocks and crashes.  

*although some very rare photos exist, none of them will ever be on this blog. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The cost of creating a home

After supertyphoon Haiyan devastated much of the Philippines, many areas were inaccessible to the support which tried to reach them. Trees were down everywhere, blocking the roads which hadn't been completely washed away by the tidal surge. The basic Filippino house was destroyed. Made of wood, bamboo and leaves the traditional design is practical for the everyday wear and tear of sunshine and monsoon rain, but completely unable to deal with winds of nearly 200mph. Aid poured into the country from many different areas to help out the Pinoy people. Relief seems to have focused on the Tacloban area, where thousands of people died. The remainder lost their possessions, homes, and everything they knew and loved in their area. 

Damage and death reduced to post-it notes
Other areas were also severely affected, although they haven't received as much international or even national coverage due to a lower mortality rate. We went to an aid distribution centre in Coron town, where the workers explained that they had three days warning and they evacuated the majority of shore settlements to higher ground. This simple fact prevented the death toll from being much higher. One official theorized that they had the same warning in the Tacloban area, but devastatingly, many of the evacuation centers in Tacloban were at or only slightly above sea level themselves. Another fact that helped to save the residents of Coron is the high mountain range which protects the town from the sea  - the waves couldn't build up as high as there was only a mile or two of open sea in front of the town. Most of this is shallow reef, so together these facts made a big difference in keeping the destruction to a minimum. Despite these facts, the officials in the distribution center still estimated that 10,000 families on this part of Busuanga Island have been badly affected by Haiyan, or Yolanda, as it's known to the locals. All of these families have suffered either partial or total demolition of their houses.

The Glorio's house was completely flattened by Haiyan
 Heading inland, we visited the Glorio family, who have suffered a horrible loss - the destruction of their home and the loss of all their belongings. The Glorio family has worked hard to survive since the disaster; Tomas works usually six or seven days a week (as a laborer earning 225 pesos/day) so he has little time and even less money to spend on rebuilding. Lucita is a very busy housewife - with 7 children to look after, her days are filled with cooking, cleaning and washing, as well as the care of the youngest three who do not yet attend school. To make her life even busier, she is expecting her 8th child at the end of March. 

 Finding this family and knowing that we couldn't have found a more destitute, yet deserving family to help out was a stroke of luck. Their house is a ten minute walk from the paved road. The residents of the barangay believe that they haven't received government aid as their houses are not obvious from the road - nobody drives by and sees the destruction. If that's true, it's sad. However the signs of Haiyan devastation are everywhere. Massive trees have been levelled - on the 20 minute ride from Coron to the village there are two bridges we bypass as they were weakened/destroyed in the winds. 

The frame held together with twine due to lack of nails

Building the house has provided it's own challenges - although 10,000 pesos (approx 227USD)  is around the total amount we've spent, the challenge here is working out some way for them to sustain themselves after we've gone. Although we can buy kids clothes, school books and necessary building tools/materials at the moment, how can they afford these items in the future? We wanted them to have some way to make money - 200 pesos bought a lot of seeds which they can plant in their land (luckily they have unlimited water from a spring in the hills above the valley). This will hopefully give them access to cheaper food and a supplementary income. 

Over the weeks since Christmas I've visited the project a couple more times, checking up with the family and seeing the improvements they continue to make on their house. Sometimes it can be a frustrating process - we bought them a tap and connector to help reduce the water they get from the spring. Although they don't have to pay for the water, it's important to us that the water isn't being wasted - pouring down the mountainside without being used as it is in most of their neighbors' houses. Unfortunately the next time we visited, the tap was nowhere to be seen. Tita translated Lucita's response on the whereabouts of the tap; she still had it, nice and safe...inside the house. Apparently the kids had taken it off to play with and she'd collected it for safe keeping. I can kind of understand this - to a kid that's never seen a tap before it must be pretty exciting with all its moving parts, plus the fact that they all fit together like Lego pieces. 

Hard at work in the garden...or not
 Other times things have gone exceptionally well - Tomas was very quick to fit the roof on the frame after we sent the aluminum sheets to him. Lucita also demonstrated a certain shrewdness - after realising there was a limited amount we could spend on the project, she requested that we buy her a couple of bags of cement and a toilet instead of the sawali, as she knew her husband could make that when he has free time. In the meantime, they have used old boards and mismatched wood peices plus tarpaulin to make a rudimentary wall around the house. Lucita is now the proud owner of a bathroom (cement costs 280 pesos a bag and the toilet itself was 550 which was completely unaffordable to the family).

How to find a project of your own:

I met the Glorio family through asking a total stranger (Minda) if she knew of any families that might need help repairing their house from Haiyan damage. This was originally intended as a Christmas gift to my boat family - the money to buy each other presents would go towards the family's house and we'd dedicate at least one day (Christmas day!) to hard manual labour in helping the rebuild. Minda told me to meet her the next day, meanwhile she spoke with her sister, Tita, who lives in the same barangay as the Glorio family. They took me to visit four houses whose occupants desperately needed help. Although all 32 families in the area are poor, Lucita and Tomas seemed to be the most hard up - with nearly 8 children to support and little income to do it they had a heartrendingly desperate need for aid.
Of course, this was only successful because Minda and her family are very honest people - they all came together to help us with the project. The three sisters (Minda, Tita and Aida) all spent Christmas day with us helping , as well as several of the other days since. They all work for the local government in some capacity, as health workers, aid distributors and Aida is actually the Coron town court judge! 

How you can help:

Find out how PJ is working with locals to help them create a livelihood project for their futures.

Also consider the use of financial support programs, such as Kiva loans, which help manage microcredit to small businesses or individuals in areas where they might have difficulty in getting a traditional loan.  

Have a look at this facebook page which is about sustainable tourism in Coron.They have promised us to start a project in Balolo to help the general population of the barangay.

Lucita (38) with three of her children (2, 3 and 5 years) plus an older niece visits for the day
 Although the literal cost of this building is minimal, to the family it is priceless. They were so desperate to be living under their own roof again that they moved into the new house on Christmas day (before the roof was up). Although we can't help all the displaced people in the Philippines (or even come close, as it amounts to some 4.4million people) it feels good knowing that at least 10 of them have a home once again, as well as a stronger roof, more likely to withstand the next typhoon.  

Many many heartfelt thanks to everyone that has had a helping hand with this project;
the beautiful and genuine sisters Minda,Tita and Aida, for all their time and hard work. We really appreciate your involvement with this project, as it would never have been so successful without good translation. And of course, the fact that you brought us there! Thanks to all the boat family that have helped with different stages of this project: Petrina, Madara, Brian, Harpa and Matilda, especially giving up Christmas gifts in exchange for a day of hard work. Thanks to the unknown generous backpackers who gave us a donation for the project. Also a shout out to the inspirational Filipinos PJ and L. Alinsangan, who have already done so much to help their communities and will probably do much more.